Louis Theroux and John Dower on Scientology, religion, absurdity, skepticism and belief

1 March 2017 - 10:03am
Face2FaceMarch 1, 2017face2faceArts & Culture

Louis, John and Face2Face host David Peck talk about their recent film, My Scientology Movie, a satirical film -- quite the absurd study in religion, Scientology, the human condition, skepticism and belief.




It’s an absurd truth about the Church of Scientology that one of the world’s most secretive organizations will step angrily out into public view when provoked.

This reactiveness is at the core of My Scientology Movie, the cheeky, acclaimed "reverse-investigative" documentary starring British broadcaster/journalist Louis Theroux and directed by John Dower.

With the world awash in "exposes" of the neo-religion created by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard -- and total denials by the Church itself -- My Scientology Movie uses reverse psychology to create a picture of the organization inadvertently painted by its own followers.

It starts with a not-unexpected refusal by the Church to cooperate with a documentary. It continues from there with a very public casting exercise by the filmmakers and former Scientology Marty Rathbun, for actors to play real-life figures like church leader David Miscavige and the church’s most famous follower Tom Cruise.

They then let gossip and paranoia do the rest, attracting the attention of Scientology’s lawyers, threats from church officials, harassment from "squirrel-busters" meeting them at random locations (at least one such incident went viral online) and phony "documentary crews" that followed Theroux, Dower and Rathbun around.

The result is a documentary that doubles down on the story of Scientology. It provides details of its dark side -- including the infamous California "Gold Base" facility for wayward Church officials (visited in the movie) and a punishment area called The Hole. And it renders those revelations more plausible by the actual strange and aberrant behaviour of followers.

"They behaved in ways that were so clearly pathological," Theroux says of the counter-tactics he recorded. "You would expect them to understand that other people would see this behaviour and conclude that this is a religion of lunatics."

"This has always been a Holy Grail project to me," he says. "I'm attracted to stories of people doing profoundly unusual things for explainable human reasons. Normally, I am invited into the worlds I visit. I had to make the decision to make this one anyway, and to lure them out."

"At the heart of it, this is a story about religious fundamentalism, which is a phenomenon that is front and centre in our time."


Louis Theroux is a British-American documentary filmmaker, and broadcaster. He is best known for his documentary series, including Louis Theroux's Weird WeekendsWhen Louis Met..., and his BBC Two specials. His career started in journalism and bears influences of notable writers in his family, such as his father Paul Theroux and brother Marcel. He works with the BBC producing his documentaries and television series. He has received two British Academy Television Awards and a Royal Television Society Television Award for his work.

John Dower is one of the Britain's leading documentary directors. His featureThriller in Manila was in competition at Sundance, BAFTA and EMMY nominated, and won a Grierson and a Peabody Award. Bradley Wiggins – A Year In Yellow was also BAFTA nominated in the best director category. As well as his sporting films he has a keen eye for comedy. His music documentary Live Forever was described by The Guardian as, "Sublime … finds that the truth is stranger and funnier than the myths" and his latest theatrical feature My Scientology Movie praised by The Telegraph as "a giddy, Pythonesque delight," with Variety calling it "riotously funny."

For more information about my podcasting, writing and public speaking please visit my site here.

With thanks to producer Josh Snethlage and Mixed Media Sound.

Image: Louis Theroux/BBC Films

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Facebook's track record makes its starry-eyed manifesto hard to swallow

1 March 2017 - 9:50am
Civil Liberties WatchMedia MattersTechnology

In a recent 7,500-word manifesto called "Building Global Community," Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, argued that his social network needs to put on its big boy pants and adult up. Well, those aren't his exact words, but that's how I read them. He conceded that Facebook has been a social platform for staying in touch with friends and family, sharing inspirational posters and pet pics -- or inspirational posters featuring pet pics, and hanging out with other folks around the world who enjoy collecting vintage milk bottles as much as you do. Oh, and for spreading a clusterhump of the fake news that tossed a sack of wacky wrenches into a recent election.

Again, not his exact words.

But, he continued, it is time for Facebook to eschew the current zeitgeist of nationalism, and become a tool for uniting global communities in order to provide humane responses to terrorism, climate change and pandemics. And, spread prosperity, freedom, peace and understanding. It's a vision of Facebook that is half David Suzuki, half Coke commercial.

Zuckerberg's solution is to turn Facebook into a "social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for us all." In order to do that, he argues, his social network needs to support safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive communities.

It would be easy to dismiss Zuckerberg's missive as a privileged Silcon Valley billionaire's kumbaya moment, which is exactly what I'm going to do.

Facebook's relationship with its audience, and that audience's privacy, has been both complicated and straightforward. Complicated for users who want to guard that privacy as wave after wave of buried and default privacy settings have thwarted them. Straightforward for Facebook which garners massive revenues from selling users' personal details and browsing behaviours to the highest bidders.

So, for Zuckerberg to now state that Facebook should become an open, accessible and robust online chassis on which to build a global Peace Corps is a little rich. Part of the problem with Zuckerberg's view is that we already have an open, accessible and robust online chassis for social change. It's called the World Wide Web.

Facebook has already tried this "open infrastructure" play in India. There is trumpeted Free Basics, an Internet service it would roll out at no cost to rural labourers. Of course the limited web access of the service was dominated by Facebook and the offering not only flew in the face of the web's open nature, it was soundly rejected by its presumed audience and shut down by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

So far Facebook has shown itself to be cavalier with privacy and disingenuous about the offerings it wants to make free to an audience that, this time to use Zuckerberg's words, needed something that was "safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive."

Finally, Facebook's Janus-like relationship with its audience is nothing compared to the two-faced partnership it has with the media. I counted 73 words in the whole piece that touch on the role of traditional media. And, most of that is about how Facebook needs to help out journalism:

"There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable -- from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organizations rely on."

One can only assume that the "formats" are ones that work on Facebook. And, while it is true that Facebook has launched The Facebook Journalism Project, there is no real mention of what resources the social network will throw at the initiative and how much it will benefit Facebook rather than news outlets.

And, let's be clear: so far the news media has gotten the short end of the stick when it's gotten in bed with Facebook. In a desperate attempt to garner audience, many newspapers have ceded their platforms to the social network. As Steven Waldman points out in his recent New York Times opinion piece, the news has been all good for Facebook. In 2015, $36 billion of $59 billion digital ad dollars spent went to Facebook and Google.

And, as Waldman suggests, if Facebook really wanted to help out journalism, it could, along with Google, Apple and Verison, cough up some serious billions to fund local and investigative journalism.

Instead, Zuckerberg argues that AI and Facebook users themselves can work to winnow news and fine-tune what they as individuals or members of a community want to see.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Listen to an audio version of this column, delivered by the author, here.

Image: Esther Vargas/flickr

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facebookMark Zuckerbergonline privacyOpen InternetFake Newsonline journalismWayne MacPhailMarch 1, 2017Facebook and the news publishers who flirt with heartbreak We've come to a pretty pass when publishers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are thinking about getting hitched to that lyin', cheatin', two-timing heart, Facebook.Fake news is foolish but the consequences are realWhen people of any political stripe let dogma defeat data and outrage quell common sense, there are consequences.We still need journalism to make sense of our worldAs a recent CBC Nova Scotia news investigation on campaign financing shows, we still need journalism -- especially publicly funded, public interest journalism.

Is your Internet data ending up in the NSA's hands?

1 March 2017 - 9:12am
Civil Liberties WatchTechnology

How many websites have you visited today? What about over the past week? How many emails have you sent? How many times have you logged onto Facebook? How often have you used Slack, Skype, or other instant messaging services?

If you're anything like me, you probably won't be able to answer these questions. Even as I write this piece, I have 16 tabs open in my browser, I'm logged into Facebook, and my office's instant messaging service is chirping away at me.

Fact is, the Internet has become such an interwoven part of my daily routine that it's impossible for me to keep track of how many websites I visit or emails I send in any given day. One of the best things about the Internet is that "it just works" -- that's why so few of us give any thought to what's actually happening to our data when we hit "send" on an email, click on a link, or tap "reply" to an instant message.

Unfortunately, what's actually happening to our data on its journey around the Internet has deeply concerning privacy implications for all of us. Over the years, spy agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) have built incredibly powerful surveillance systems capable of collecting unimaginable quantities of our private communications data -- including emails, video and voice chats, photos, videos, stored data, and social networking details -- and analyzing it for anything supposedly "suspicious."

Although we like to think of the Internet as a "cloud," most of it relies on Internet Exchanges -- buildings that connect the most important Internet cables together. Although these Internet Exchanges ensure that our data reliably makes it from point A to point B, their physical nature makes us far more vulnerable to surveillance.

The NSA has taken advantage of this by installing listening posts -- or "splitter rooms" -- in key U.S. cities where Internet Exchanges are located. When your data travels through one of these Internet Exchanges it is almost certainly subject to being intercepted by the NSA, and stored at the main NSA Data Center in Utah. Once outside Canada, your data is treated by the NSA as foreign and loses Canadian legal and constitutional protections -- representing a major loss of privacy.

This threat has existed for years, but is even more concerning under the Trump administration, given his public statements about expanding surveillance, meaning the range of potential targets and "suspicious" behaviours is likely to be even greater than before.

What's even more worrying is that this surveillance is not restricted to when you visit a U.S. website, or send an email to someone south of the border. Led by Professor Andrew Clement, a team of experts at the University of Toronto and York University have been researching this extensively as part of the IXmaps project. They have concluded that significant amounts -- at least 25 per cent -- of domestic Canada-to-Canada data travels via the United States where it is subject to NSA surveillance.

This phenomenon is known as "boomerang routing": for example, an email sent from Vancouver to Toronto may "boomerang" via Chicago. Even an email sent from one part of Vancouver to another may travel via the U.S. -- largely as a result of years of monopolistic practices by major Canadian telecoms, poor regulatory oversight, and underinvestment in Canada's domestic Internet infrastructure and long-haul backbone capacity.

At OpenMedia, we've worked with IXmaps researchers on a new educational platform to raise awareness of these issues, in a project made possible by the financial support of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Our platform includes an informational video, a series of infographics, and a detailed FAQ to ensure you can learn more about where your data travels, and what happens to it on its journey. We even include some pointers to tools that anyone can use to better safeguard their privacy online. Check it out at OpenMedia.org/en/IXmaps

David Christopher is the communications manager for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr

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online privacyinternet surveillanceNational Surveillance Agencyinternet rightsDigital Freedom UpdateDavid ChristopherDigital Freedom UpdateMarch 1, 2017Trump's election should prompt Canada to rethink its complicity with U.S. mass surveillanceWith Donald Trump's ascension to power imminent, Canada cannot afford to continue allowing government agencies to routinely hand over our private information to the U.S. government.China's dystopian 'social credit' surveillance system could move to CanadaChina's "Social Credit System" pilot project aggregates a wide variety of data to rate citizens as desirable or undesirable. Canada is not exempt from this dystopian future.Bill C-51: Canadians won't accept tinkering at the marginsOur own Victoria Henry argues that Canadians deserve better than Bill C-51 -- we deserve our privacy back.

How effective are Sanctuary City motions?

1 March 2017 - 8:52am
March 1, 2017Re-evaluating Sanctuary CitiesInterviews with Jaggi Singh and Nigel Bariffe take a deeper look at the effectiveness of Sanctuary City motions and how they can be fixed.

Alberta's NDP tends not to make a game of thrones, so tomorrow's speech may actually give us useful information!

1 March 2017 - 12:54am
David J. ClimenhagaMarch 1, 2017ElectionsPolitics in Canada

I don't know what will be in tomorrow's throne speech, a document that's supposed to set out a parliamentary government’s agenda for the next session of the Legislature, but I imagine it will contain a hint or two about the NDP's likely strategy for re-election in 2019, or whenever the next provincial general election takes place.

When Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell takes her modestly throne-like seat in the Legislature and reads the speech, will the government of Premier Rachel Notley opt for Door No. 1 and settle into a cautious reflection of Tory governments past? Such an approach would harken back to the days of Peter Lougheed and perhaps even those of Ed Stelmach, when Alberta's Progressive Conservatives truly were themselves the pragmatic, big-tent party Notley's NDP now evidently aspires to be.

To do this could risk alienating some of the NDP's core supporters, whose enthusiasm will certainly be needed if the government is to be re-elected.

Will they open Door No. 2 and continue with the modest but still significant agenda they brought from their unexpectedly successful platform for the 2015 general election, significant parts of which have already been implemented -- for example, campaign finance reform and a streamlining of the expensive and bloated Agencies, Boards and Commissions Sector left after nearly 44 years of dynastic PC rule?

This risks raising the already nearly hysterical pitch of Alberta right's attacks on Notley's government, perhaps a serious consideration if the opposition's claims are gaining traction with voters.

Or will they say to heck with it, kick open Door No. 3 and try to fix what they can while they can and the devil take the hindmost?

A signal, I think, will be what the government of Premier Notley does with Alberta's antiquated, unfair and in places still unconstitutional labour laws. If labour law reform is on the agenda, but the reforms are modest and cautious, it is likely the government has opted for Door No. 2, which is not a guarantee of re-election, but probably the best way for them to balance the political needs of their committed base and the conservative nature, in the proper sense of that phrase, of Alberta's electorate.

The NDP's first two throne speeches, in 2015 and 2016, have been worthwhile documents, phrased as if they were written by and for grownups. They actually showed the direction in which the government proposed to move.

They were written, in other words, by people with real respect for the traditions of parliamentary democracy, whether or not you agree with the actual policy direction taken to cope with a difficult economy in a resource-dependent jurisdiction.

Alberta throne speeches in the final years of the Tory Dynasty often didn't discuss actual PC legislative agendas because they were part of a policy continuum formulated behind closed doors, far from the prying eyes of annoying members of the public and media. Another reason for this failure was because they were mainly drafted to counter the increasingly radical and highly ideological agenda of the Wildrose Party by appearing to advocate the same ideas.

So PC throne speeches tended to be driven by talking points drafted mainly to cancel positions and strategies that had proved effective for the Wildrosers. This was a strategic mistake, as it turned out, when combined with the only partly successful effort to absorb the Wildrose caucus into the PCs in late 2014 and the foolish decision by then premier Jim Prentice early the next year to call an election before the electorate desired.

A strong case can be made that the 2015 election result showed the genuinely conservative nature of Alberta voters -- who opted to choose the political course most likely to conserve the best things built in Alberta over the years since Lougheed's first PC government was elected in 1971.

Unlike the two NDP throne speeches, those of the PCs in recent years were less likely to deliver on their key promises.

In bad times (which always seemed to come as a complete surprise to the government) they promised no new taxes and fiscal responsibility. In all times, they promised to get Alberta off the resource price rollercoaster and start putting money in the bank -- without offering many thoughts about how this was going to be achieved. Accordingly, it never was when the budget speech rolled around.

The balanced budgets they promised turned out always to be just over the horizon. The stable, predictable funding they promised for health care, education and municipalities never seemed to be possible just then.

Casting our minds farther back, throne speeches and budget speeches alike in the era of premier Ralph Klein always sounded as if they had been written by a clever eight-year-old for a class project at a private school of middling quality. In them, the very best province in the whole wide world usually seemed to require a dose of painful austerity.

Getting Alberta off the resource roller coaster is no easy thing to do, but at least the NDP has tried to implement real policies directed toward that goal. Whether that is a good thing, or, as the opposition asserts, a betrayal bordering on insanity, will be up to voters to decide.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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Alberta politicsthrone speechAlberta NDPRachel NotleyParliamentary TraditionRalph KleinEd StelmachPeter LougheedWildrose PartyProgressive Conservative Partylabour lawAgencies Boards and Commissions SectorAB

What does the NDP have to offer Canadians?

28 February 2017 - 9:50am
NDPPolitics in Canada

In 1991, Michael Oliver, the first New Democratic Party president, wrote an essay with McGill philosopher Charles Taylor that began: "How do you mix two nations and democratic socialism in a federal state?"

For Oliver and Taylor, the need to supplant the Liberal and Conservative approaches to Canadian politics was what gave rise to the party. Unhappily, ensuring the autonomy of Quebec and remaking the economy were questions left unanswered 30 years after its creation, along with questions about the place of Indigenous peoples and the significance of multiculturalism.

As the curtain goes up for the 2017 NDP leadership contest, the party needs to bring a distinct approach to what matters to Canadians. It would do well to draw on the traditions of social democracy and democratic socialism mentioned in the preamble to the party constitution, and take inspiration from the ideas of Oliver and Taylor.

Today many Canadians are hurting. Years of full-bore capitalism since the adoption of the free trade agreement with the U.S. have produced growing inequalities.

A generation of debt-burdened young Canadians are mired in precarious work, unable to think of buying a house, founding a family, or enjoying a quality of life that was supposed to be accessible to all.

Continental integration with the United States was never a good idea.

Why would the Canadian Parliament limit its own power and place the destiny of the country it was elected to serve into the hands of a foreign government?

With an unspeakable political disaster occurring south of the border, the idea of relying on the U.S. government to provide a stable environment for Canadian prosperity looks even worse than in the mid-1980s when Brian Mulroney divided Canadians over the issue.

Yet, preserving a free trade environment with the United States remains Canada's economic strategy.

Surely NDP leadership candidates can come up with something better, more confidence-building, more worthy of attention and government action than continental monopoly capitalism.

Michael Oliver was the president of Carleton University when in 1980 he founded and became the first president of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (disclosure: I became the third, in 1987).

The NDP needs to take seriously the perspectives developed by the CCPA on trade, investment, federal fiscal policy and taxation.

The incredible NDP "balance-the-budget" gaffe of the 2015 election (the moment I knew we would win, said Trudeau adviser G.M. Butts) would never have occurred if the campaign team had briefed themselves on federal budget basics.

Provincial governments or cities do not have currency-issuing central banks and (exclusive of needed public investment) pay attention to maintaining balanced operating budgets.

Following a budget deficit, when the federal government borrows and adds to the national debt, it adds to the stock of marketable securities, creating wealth for pension funds and other investors. The central bank holds these securities at no cost to the government.

Federal government debt is an asset for those who hold it. Reach into your purse or billfold and pull out a $5 bill. What you have in your hand is government debt. When federal debt is reduced, money and wealth disappear.

Private debt creators, a.k.a. banks, do not want government debt displacing their money-making machines so they oppose deficit spending. Those machines are now stripping students of their capacity to determine their future.

The NDP leadership candidates need to be on the side of the students not of the bankers.

The kind of income redistribution needed to reduce fundamental inequalities in Canada requires progressive income taxation. Canada had a system with 10 tax thresholds until the Mulroney Conservatives reduced it to three, under the erroneous guise of tax "simplification."

Canada's employment insurance scheme needs to become a comprehensive minimum income scheme, financed by progressive corporate and personal taxes. As it now exists, EI is mainly a regressive tax. Precarious workers draw no benefits yet must pay into the scheme anyway.

Three times a federal NDP candidate, Charles Taylor, a highly decorated philosopher has written eloquently on the issues that animate Quebec politics.

In the 2015 election, despite having a Quebec-based leader, the party lost its Quebec compass. It went from 59 seats to 16, when the Conservatives made wearing the niqab in citizenship ceremonies an issue. As a result, the Liberals (39 seats) the Bloc (10 seats) and the Conservatives (12 seats) rebounded.

In the 2017 leadership contest, the winner must be someone at ease with the changing terrain of Quebec politics. Being bilingual is necessary -- but not sufficient. The NDP leader needs to be bicultural as well.

Justin Trudeau has been the main focus by the NDP in Parliament. The partisan preoccupations with Trudeau taking a private helicopter ride or spending excessively on PMO expenses has not diminished his appeal.

Despite questionable leadership, the prime minister is still running 10 points ahead of his party in public opinion polls.

Signs do point to a slide in Liberal fortunes, even with Trudeau as leader. A minority government is a likely outcome in 2019.

Should the next NDP leader capture the public imagination, there is no reason why, at a minimum, the party could not hold the balance of power and bring needed changes to Canadians. The upcoming leadership race matters.

Duncan Cameron is former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: steve/flickr

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NDP leadership2017 ndp leadershipeconomic inequalitysocial democracydemocratic socialismbudget deficitDuncan CameronFebruary 28, 2017Spring political follies: Three Canadian leadership races In Canadian politics a winning candidate is currently defined as one that can take on Justin Trudeau and make him look weak. Runners in three leadership races will have to measure up.NDP leadership candidates will face big challenges in 2017Soon a number of aspirants will officially announce their candidacies for the NDP leadership. They will face an uphill battle to garner public attention and render their party a viable alternative.As burned bridges pile up, Trudeau's re-election may already be out of reachTrudeau's about-face on electoral reform and massive deficits will likely cost him the soft conservative and left vote that delivered a majority in 2015.

'We have never ceded our lands': B.C.'s interior First Nations and Kinder Morgan

27 February 2017 - 11:29pm
February 28, 2017'We have never ceded our lands': First Nations in B.C.'s interior weigh impacts of Kinder Morgan pipelineAcross B.C.'s interior, First Nations communities are deciding whether or not they will support Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project through mutual benefits agreements.

Asylum seekers in Canada hounded by politics from all sides

26 February 2017 - 10:18pm
February 26, 2017Asylum seekers at Canada's border, the push and the pull As asylum seekers from Somalia and elsewhere cross the Manitoba and Quebec borders this winter, their fates are dictated by U.S. and Canadian policy alike.

Opposition parties strangely quiet as Alberta Finance Minister stops the ABC Sector gravy train

26 February 2017 - 1:42am
David J. ClimenhagaFebruary 26, 2017Politics in Canada

Being a conservative in opposition apparently turns what your Mama taught you on its head: If you can't say anything bad, don't say anything at all!

That would be one explanation for the spooky silence from Alberta's Wildrose Opposition and the usual suspects on the right about Finance Minister Joe Ceci's announcement Friday he was pulling the plug on millions in pay and perks for executives at 23 Alberta agencies, boards and commissions -- part of the so-called ABC Sector.

You'd think this would have pleased the opposition. After all, just three weeks ago they were screaming that the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley must freeze the pay of front-line nurses, health care workers, teachers and civil servants who will be negotiating new collective agreements this year.

Back then, in an official statement, the Wildrose Party called a mediator's recommendation of raises ranging for 29 cents to 88 cents an hour for 14,000 health care aides and licensed practical nurses represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees "a slap in the face to struggling Albertans."

Some of those health care workers are currently being paid less than $20 an hour. Freezing their salaries for 2016 as the Wildrosers demanded would have saved the provincial treasury about $8 million.

By contrast, on Friday, the cuts made to the sometimes outrageous pay and perks of only about 270 ABC Sector executives -- a hangover from the days when the ABCs served in part as a lush pasture for old Tory warhorses -- will save taxpayers roughly double that.

Now, it would be entirely consistent for the Opposition to say, "good step, but not far enough." Or even, "it was about time they stopped the gravy train!" Instead? Pretty much crickets.

There was nary a quote from the PCs (who are responsible for most of the executive pay rates to which Ceci took his axe), the Wildrosers (who are after all the Official Opposition) or the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (Canada's self-described and routinely quoted tax watchdog) in any mainstream media report I noticed.

In fact, the only mention of the Progressive Conservatives in any of the media coverage seemed to be Ceci’s mild comment that "for far too long, the previous government allowed CEO salaries to balloon beyond reasonable levels at our agencies, boards and commissions despite recommendations by the Auditor General to rein them in."

"Instead, they sat by while some executives got big raises," Ceci observed during his news conference. "I’m here to say that those days of standing by are over."

As for the Opposition, "Wildrose voiced no objections," was all an official of that party told me, a kind of backhanded approval in itself. The PCs appear to have been completely silent.

The CTF did better. "This is a good baby step," CTF Alberta spokesperson Paige MacPherson responded to my query. "If the government is willing to address compensation to reduce spending, it makes sense to start at the top. … At the same time, Minister Ceci would not commit to pushing for wage freezes in labour negotiations." That said, it sure didn't sound like they were working the phones to the media, which will always take a call from the CTF.

Regardless, although MacPherson is right when she says the sum is small in the great scheme of things, the symbolism is powerful -- and related, it is said here, to the mysterious unwillingness of the so-called conservative Opposition to give the NDP credit for doing something right.

Indeed, I imagine there are some in the Opposition who would have liked things left just as they were in the hope conservatives some day return to government and Alberta can get back to being run the way the PCs did for nearly 44 years.

For his part, Ceci subtly demonstrated that taxpayers get value for the money they spend on the civil service compared to the private sector and corporatized groups like some Tory-built ABCs.

By bringing ABC executive salaries into line with much lower paid top civil servants with similar responsibilities, the NDP has also struck a blow against the old Tory spoils system in which ordinary taxpayers footed the bill for a comfortable semi-retirement for superannuated Conservative loyalists.

This is not to say, of course, that all ABC executives were Tory hacks, or didn't do important work. But even where their work was important, and they did it well, Ceci has struck a blow against the pervasive and self-serving myth on the right that huge, anti-social salaries must be paid to executives in public service in order to get the best people.

"We're not concerned about that," Ceci said in response to a predictable question from a reporter during Friday's news conference. Salaries have been benchmarked with those of people holding similar jobs in other governments and organizations, he noted, and "the benchmarks show they’re being fairly compensated relative to people in similar positions."

Certainly, about half the impacted ABC executives will see cuts to their base pay -- although only after a two-year transition period -- and a few will lose literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual pay if they stick around.

Alberta Workers Compensation Board CEO Guy Kerr will see his pay shrink from almost $900,000 a year to just under $400,000. Alberta Energy Regulator CEO Jim Ellis's pay will fall from more than $720,000 a year to about $400,000.

As for the taxpayer bankrolled golf club memberships, housing allowances, "retention bonuses," "market modifiers" and "performance bonuses" -- they'll all be gone. Severance pay will be capped at one year.

Ceci was excruciatingly polite about this. He effusively praised the work done by the impacted executives. He said their reaction to his news was "respectful, understanding, appreciative.”

The government's extensive review of the ABC Sector continues. In the first phase last year, 26 agencies were amalgamated or eliminated. There are more than 300 ABCs in all.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Alberta politicsRachel NotleyWildrose PartyAlberta NDPProgressive Conservative PartyCanadian Taxpayers FederationAlberta Workers Compensation BoardJim EllisAlberta Energy RegulatorAlberta Union of Provincial Employees

Asylum seekers at Canada's border, the push and the pull

25 February 2017 - 6:41pm
Dennis GruendingFebruary 25, 2017

Television news has recently provided images of asylum seekers walking across frigid Canadian border crossings in Manitoba and Quebec. Incredibly, many of the people trudging through the snow are from African countries, such as Somalia and Sudan. Their journey most likely began with a flight from Africa to Brazil, followed by a dangerous ground passage through several South and Central American countries, as well as Mexico and -- finally -- the U.S. And they had to have been desperate for safety to risk their lives on such a perilous voyage.

Trump closes the border 

Most of the newcomers planned to claim asylum in the U.S. But U.S. President Donald Trump issued an order in late January, closing the border to anyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He also placed all refugee admissions on hold until at least the end of May. As a result, he has been challenged in American courts -- the outcome of which remains unclear. More recently, the U.S. administration instructed police officers, along with immigration and customs officers, to round up people who Trump calls "illegals" and deport them. The order allows this to be done without hearings or due process.

Push and pull

That’s the push for desperate people who are arriving in Canada. The pull is our emerging reputation as a country friendly to asylum seekers. After the U.S. refugee ban was announced in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.” After all, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was born in Somalia and was once a refugee himselfm, a fact that isn't lost on asylum seekers.

Canada welcomed 46,000 refugees in 2015. The U.S., with a population 10 times as large, accepted 85,000. For the year 2017, Ottawa has lowered its target to 25,000 and Minister Hussen says that number remains, at least for now. That comes as a disappointment to many, community-based groups who want to help with refugee sponsorship.

To provide some perspective, the United Nations says there are 65 million displaced people in the world.  About 40 million who have been forced to flee their homes remain internally displaced within their own countries. Another 21 million have been designated by the UN as refugees and await resettlement or a chance to go home. A final three million are asylum seekers around the world. Given those numbers, Canada’s promise to resettle 25,000 refugees, while commendable, is decidedly modest given the need.

The kindness of strangers

I’ve been struck by the civility with which the newcomers have been treated by police officers and border officials. Take, for example, a guard on Manitoba’s Canadian-American border, who helped asylum seekers through the deep snow. "They are human beings too," he told a television reporter. People in the small border towns of Emerson, Man. and Hemmingford, Que. have been friendly, too, although a local official in Emerson warned that the town isn’t equipped to handle hundreds of new arrivals. In contrast, another television interviewee said that while he’s in favour of "legal immigration," he has no sympathy for the people arriving at remote border crossings. "Too bad, so sad," he said, cynically.

Nevertheless, people in danger of persecution in their home countries are not illegals. They deserve a hearing, and if they’re indeed refugees, international law says that they must be protected.

Compassionate politics

We must begin to think in different ways about people forced from their homes by wars, violence and  -- increasingly -- climate change. If we cannot build more compassionate politics and populations, then we’re in for a Hobbesian scenario: increasingly authoritarian governments claiming to protect us from what they see as "the hordes at the gate."

This piece appeared with the United Church Observer on February 23, 2017.  

Asylum seekers CanadaRefugees CanadaAhmed Hussen

In a time of xenophobia, we should heed the words of Anne Frank

25 February 2017 - 5:11pm
Anti-RacismUS PoliticsWorld

Anne Frank would be 87 years old had she not perished in Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. What words of wisdom might she offer the Trump administration as it crafts its latest iteration of its Muslim and refugee ban? Anne Frank is known for her famous diary, written while she and her family hid from the Gestapo in a "secret annex" of a house in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944. Long before the family went into hiding, Anne's father, Otto Frank, desperately sought visas to bring his family to the United States. Like tens of thousands of other European Jews at the time, they were repeatedly denied.

Anne Frank and her family were betrayed and sent to the concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived. He went on to publish her writing as The Diary of a Young Girl, which has entered the canon of resistance literature. It should be required reading as Donald Trump and his coterie of xenophobes attempt to ban Muslims and refugees from gaining the same safe haven that the Frank family was denied 75 years ago.

"Anne Frank was denied immigration at least twice. Otto Frank, her father, appealed to the Franklin Roosevelt administration, roughly between the periods of 1939 to 1941," Stephen Goldstein told us on the Democracy Now! news hour. He is the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. "Otto Frank ... was able to get communications very high up in the Roosevelt administration, saying, 'Please, save my family. Save the Frank family.' It didn't work. FDR refused refugee Anne Frank."

This aspect of Anne Frank's story was unknown until papers were discovered decades later and made public in 2007. The 81 pages document Otto Frank's attempts to gain visas for his family for travel to the United States. Fanning flames of fear that Nazi Germany would be sending agents and saboteurs amidst the potential flood of refugees, anti-Semites in the State Department blocked as many refugees as they could, condemning tens of thousands to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. "Whether this kind of evil prejudice against refugees was perpetrated by a Democrat like Franklin Roosevelt or a Republican like Donald Trump, it is an unconscionable blot on the American national conscience," Goldstein added. "That's why, in the name of Anne Frank, we have an obligation to stand with Muslim refugees and to stand with all refugees to help them come into this nation."

Since President Trump took office, there has been a surge in threats and attacks against both Jews and Muslims. At least 69 bomb threats have been directed at 54 Jewish Community Centers across the United States since the inauguration. On Wednesday morning, the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks these threats, received a bomb threat at its New York City offices. In University Hills, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, more than 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery were overturned.

As images of the anti-Semitic vandalism emerged, two Muslim activists -- Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the Women's March on Washington, and Tarek El-Messidi -- launched a crowdsourced campaign to raise funds to repair the damage. They hoped to raise $20,000. Within 24 hours, they had raised more than $90,000. "Any remaining funds after the cemetery is restored," they wrote, "will be allocated to repair any other vandalized Jewish centres." Two weeks earlier, on Saturday, Jan. 28, the Islamic Center in Victoria, Texas, was burnt to the ground. The local Jewish community gave the Muslim worshippers the keys to their synagogue, saying there was room for them all to pray there. An online campaign was launched to rebuild the mosque. Within weeks, more than $1.1 million was raised. Construction is already underway.

Jan. 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. President Trump issued a statement that was widely criticized for failing to mention Jews at all. Then, at a press conference held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when asked by an Israeli reporter about the rise of anti-Semitism since his election, Trump responded by gloating about his election victory. When questioned several days later by a Hasidic Jewish reporter, again about the rise of anti-Semitism, Trump scolded the reporter, telling him to sit down, saying, "Quiet, quiet, quiet."

After widespread criticism over his failure to condemn the waves of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, President Trump finally called anti-Semitism "horrible" and "painful." Then Vice President Mike Pence visited the Missouri cemetery that had been vandalized.

We all would benefit in these times of resurgent right-wing nationalism and xenophobia to heed the words of Anne Frank, "What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again."

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,400 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan and David Goodman, of the newly published New York Times bestseller Democracy Now!: 20 Years Covering the Movements Changing America.

This column was first published on Democracy Now!

Photo: bert knottenbeld/flickr

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Muslim banimmigration and refugeestrump administrationtravel bananne frankAmy GoodmanDenis MoynihanFebruary 25, 2017Silenced twice by U.S. Senate, Coretta Scott King's words live onSen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was interrupted while reading the words of Coretta Scott King on the U.S. Senate floor this week.Canada had better plan for an unprecedented refugee crisis as U.S. lurches toward 'ethnic cleansing'Canadians should be deeply concerned about stated plans by the Trump Regime in the United States to expel literally millions of U.S. residents from their country.'They're People Not Terrorists' photo campaign challenges prejudices behind U.S. travel banToronto photographer Adam Zivo is launching a new project to counter hate and prejudice in the wake of the U.S. travel ban that targets people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Trump is lowering the bar for Canada's health-care system too

25 February 2017 - 4:40pm
Food & HealthPolitics in CanadaUS Politics

It's easy to laugh off  the absurdity of Trump and his supporters' sentiments about the Canadian health-care system. But their ridiculousness doesn't make their impact any less dangerous. Canada is internationally viewed as a model of socialized medicine. So on October 9, 2016, when U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump mentioned Canada in the debate with Hillary Clinton, it was unsurprisingly in reference to the health-care system. He claimed, "the Canadians, when they need a big operation, they come into the United States in many cases, because their system is so slow."

And then more recently, on Tuesday February 7, CNN hosted a debate between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz about the future of the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare). As usual, Bernie mentioned Canada among countries that have universal health care and as usual, the right-wing politician, this time in the form of Ted Cruz, responded with the same misinformed claims Trump made months earlier. There is so much wrong with Cruz's comments that I felt the need to transcribe them all for you:

"Now Bernie mentions Canada quite a bit I know quite a bit about Canadian health care I was born there… But you know people vote with their feet. In 2014 over 52 000 Canadians left Canada to get health care in the United States and other countries. I'm reminded of a comment Ronald Reagan used to say about East Berlin, about the Berlin Wall. He said, 'The funny thing the leftists never seem to notice is the machine guns all point one direction. Everyone was fleeing Communism and coming to freedom. If you look at socialized medicine, people leave there, tens, hundreds of thousands, leave their socialized medicine country every year because they want to get a hip replacement, a knee replacement, you know, the governor of one of the Canadian provinces came to America to get heart surgery and he was a governor in Canada. And by the way the hospitals in your home state of Vermont advertise with Canadian flags come to American hospitals you'll get better health care. I don't want to mess up our health care, I want patients, all of us, to be in charge of our health care."

Canadians rightly pointed out repeatedly and vehemently that the "persistent myth" of Canadians fleeing to the U.S. for health care simply has no basis in fact. Also that Canada doesn't have governors and Danny Williams was in fact a premier. And as far as I can tell, no one knew what he was saying about Vermont. Ted Cruz is so confused about his birth country, if I had any nationalist spirit whatsoever it would be consumed in embarrassment about him. He treats Canada with the same hollow opportunism he demonstrated for patients and their questions during the debate.

But whether the Canadian health-care system is inspiring nationalistic pride in Canada, being used in debates to provoke fear by people like Trump and Cruz, or envy by international proponents of public medicine like Sanders, this is not the whole picture. Compared to the United States, it is true that Canadians are less likely to go bankrupt after a cancer diagnosis or stay in a job we hate just so we can access basic health care. But leaving the discussion here puts the bar for discussions about health depressingly low.

The note Cruz finished on, that he wants patients to be in charge of our own health care, is especially misleading given the fact that insurance companies have been shown time and time again to be more interventionist about what coverage patients are entitled to for medications, procedures and providers than publicly provided care. A common and topical example is the current battle between public and private long-term care facilities. At a Vancouver "Defending Public Seniors' care" forum on January 28, panelists correctly pointed out that for residents to experience high-quality care they need to have relationships with the people who intimately provide that care. As soon as for-profit entities take over care they take cost-cutting measures which reduce one-on-one time between staff and residents. This idea that private industry gives us more choice or control through fictional promises of improved "access" is utter nonsense.

As Sanders said in his most memorable quote from the healthcare debate, "Access isn't worth a damn!" if it's contingent on having the money to pay for a service.  But the frightening fact that is notably absent from all these comparative arguments is that Canadians' access to quality and timely care is intimately tied to that of our US neighbours. The current state of the Canadian healthcare system has left gaping holes that US-based corporate healthcare providers are jockeying to fill. This article from 2009 documents decades of Canadian governments delisting services from public provision and massively  boosting insurance company profits as a result.

Sanders correctly argued that the single-payer system guaranteeing health care for all is the only reasonable and fair solution. But this style of health-care provision is deteriorating in Canada. In the most heavily populated province, Ontario, we have private MRI and colonoscopy clinics. In addition, we rely on private insurers to pay for things as essential as life-saving medications, ambulances and dental care.

On February 16 Globe and Mail health reporter André Picard addressed a new report on increased health-care wait times in Canada. He correctly points out that better coordinated systems of care in Nordic countries use nurse practitioners and other providers like occupational therapists to greater effect, reducing wait times. And perhaps most significantly, "In the Nordic countries…there is a particular emphasis on the socio-economic determinants of health, in tackling inequality, but spending more on education and social welfare, and less on health, with impressive results."

It seems clear to me that our problem is not too much socialized health care, but too little. From income levels that determine health before people even arrive in the doctor's office or hospital waiting room; to for-profit corporations encroaching on health-care provision across the country, Canada should not be satisfied with saying we are better than Trump says we are.

Julie Devaney is a health, patient and disability activist based in Toronto. Her rabble column, "Health Breakdown," is an accessible, jargon-free take on the politics behind current health-care stories. You can find her on Twitter: @juliedevaney

Photo: Michael Vadon/flickr

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public health careCanadian health care systemDonald TrumpU.S. Health CareObamacareHealth BreakdownJulie DevaneyFebruary 27, 2017Private clinics are not the solution to health-care cutsPeople concerned with the state of health care in Ontario are asking: how did we get into this situation? And how do we stop the off-loading of hospital services onto privately run clinics?Trump smears Canadian health care. Here are some facts.Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of favouring a Canadian-style health system, which would be 'terrible,' 'horrible.' Or would it?Can Ontario's patient ombudsperson cure what ails health care?The job of Ontario's first Patient Ombudsman will be to hear patient complaints and make recommendations to facilities and the ministry to improve care. Is that enough to help a strained system?

What are the February 25th 'We're Watching You' actions about?

25 February 2017 - 7:32am
Maya BhullarFebruary 25, 2017Media Matters

On February 25th, 2017, activists gathering in communities across Canada to let Prime Minister Justin Trudeau know that the public is closely watching forthcoming reforms to national security laws like Bill C-51.  Click here to find an event near you.

rabble.ca's Activist Toolkit interviewed the executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Tom Henheffer, one or the main organizers of this event, to find out more about the fight for civil liberties and this event.  Join the day of action and keep paying attention because, now more than ever, we need to protect and expand our civil liberties in Canada.

Activist Toolkit: Why are you organizing Febuary 25th day of action?

Tom Henheffer: We're organizing the event for a number of reasons. Bill C-51 is still on the books, nearly a dozen reporters in various provinces have
been spied on by the government and police agencies, Canada is still the
only industrialized nation without meaningful oversight of its spy
agencies, and Vice reporter Ben Makuch is facing jail time simply for
doing his job.

Press freedom in Canada has eroded terribly over the past fifteen years, and we're holding this rally to change that. It's a crucial time in Canada, as there's a number of pieces of legislation (Senator Claude Carignan's Bill S-231 also known as the Press Shield Law, potential amendments to
our national security framework, a promise to reform the Access to Information Act in 2018) coming down the pipe that could fix many of the problems in our democracy. But there are many elements within government fighting against these changes, and we want them to know Canadians won't stand for the continued erosion of their rights.

We're also calling for action on mass surveillance and asking the government to pass a specific shield law which would protect whistleblowers and journalists. In recent Quebec cases we learned that journalists were routinely surveilled.

Activist Toolkit:  Could you delve into the erosion of civil liberties under the past 15 years a little more?

Tom Henheffer: Bill C-51, the cyberbully bill and bill C-44 did a number of things to curtail press freedom. They massively expanded the powers of our spy agencies to violate the constitution and spy on Canadians. They made constitutionally protected speech that is crucial for informed public debate illegal. They destroyed jurisprudence by reversing the purpose of the courts—instead of their first job being to uphold the constitution.  Bill C-51 allowed them to preauthorize, in secret, violations of Canadians rights. They also made it a potential terrorism offence to protest in certain instances. Finally, the Harper government allowed the further erosion of both whistleblower protection and the public's right to know (by refusing to fix our crumbling access to information system), problems that the current federal government has yet to address.

Activist Toolkit:  So again, what are the asks?  What should the Liberal government be doing to restore and enhance press freedom?

Tom Henheffer: They must repeal bill C-51, pass a meaningful press shield law, reform our access to information system according to the information commissioner's recommendations, and adopt effective protection for whistleblowers in both the public and private sectors. These are all simple, legislative fixes that can be adopted quickly and will massively decrease Canada's democratic deficit.

Now that consultations are over the government simply needs to introduce legislation. Our sources say this is coming in the next few months, but there's no guaruntee it will lead to meaningful change. If it doesn't, Canadians will once again have to take to the street, write their representatives, and support organizations like CJFE and the CCLA as we still have a charter challenge filed against bill C-51 and will fight it at the supreme court if necessary.

Activist Toolkit: Who are some of the allies you are working with to organize against Bill-C-51?

Almost every civil liberties group in Canada is working with us,
including Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Citizens for Public Justice, OpenMedia, Democracy Watch, National Council of Canadian Muslims, The Centre for Free Expression, BC Civil Liberties Association, Amnesty International Canada, Reporters Without Borders, Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, Association des Journalistes Indépendants du Québec, rabble.ca, Vice and a wealth of others.


To get involved in the We're Watching you protests, see the map and list below to find a community action near you or send an email to arrange to host one.

Create a large eye shape between two large banners which say "Trudeau: We're Watching You".   Take a picture, post it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with the #ProtectPressFreedom.  Your message will be clearly delivered to Canadian politicians through this action. Also join CPJE's  lobbying initiative and online action.


We're Watching YouBen MakuchViceCanadian Journalists for Free ExpressionTrudeauBill C-51civil liberties

Not Rex: Trump's fake news originated with the big lie

24 February 2017 - 1:56pm
YouTubeHumberto DaSilvaAnti-RacismMedia MattersUS PoliticsFebruary 24, 2017Not Rex

Trump calls it fake news. Hitler, the founding father of fake news, called it the big lie.

Fake NewsDonald Trumpimmigration and refugeestravel banislamophobiaMuslim ban

Labour movement shaped Bob White's leadership and humanity

24 February 2017 - 9:22am

I saw a kind of apparition as I drove along the lakefront Tuesday: pickets with signs, on a strike or lockout. A sales promo? Film shoot? In the recent past you'd just think: Workers fighting back. Back in the day, all newspapers used to have a full-time labour reporter. It didn't mean they were pro-labour any more than having a Moscow correspondent meant they were communists. They just went where the news was -- emphasis on "was."

Bob White's death at 81 last Sunday was like that. It got noted in the mainstream media, but flashed by. As if they knew guys like him mattered but couldn't recall why. It would be like reporting who won the Stanley Cup but not knowing what sport it was awarded for.

It's ironic that White died the same week a judge ordered the transit union in Toronto to reinstate their elected leader, who had been deposed by its U.S. union headquarters. Someone even suggested that was a tribute to White -- because he led Canadian autoworkers out of their U.S. union to independence in the 1980s. It was a resounding call for national dignity and it wasn't easy for White, who came of age in that union. But he wouldn't let them dictate settlements to Canadians and said he'd wrap himself in the f-----g Canadian flag if he had to. He was as fearless taking on his own side as against the Big Three automakers.

(We know all this because he let an NFB crew film his 1984 negotiations with GM and, when it turned into a death struggle with U.S union HQ, he let them stay. When I agree to something, I'm all in, he said.)

It's especially hard to lose him at a time when leadership in most of the world is so conspicuously puny. The worst have always risen to the top easily but the best, not so much. He had a genuine charisma, in Max Weber's original sense: leaders who inspire loyalty in others through something inexpressible yet recognizably trustworthy. He was that kind of natural. When he squatted down to talk to a kid, you knew he knew a camera was there, but you also knew he knew that's how to treat kids, workers, or anyone, with respect.

Like all great labour leaders (a category that used to be as obvious as great hockey players), he felt it wasn't just about getting more stuff for his members; it was about addressing the social roots of inequality and ugliness. It would have made perfect sense for him to move on and lead the NDP. But NDP elders, such as Ed Broadbent and Stephen Lewis, declined to encourage him, maybe because he wasn't of their professorial ilk and hailed from the workers themselves.

He'd come from Ireland at age 12 and left high school to work in a factory. He swore a lot (he said he never got credit for 10 years of Sunday school). Instead, they chose Audrey McLaughlin, who's faded from history much as she used to fade right in front of you.

So he became head of the Canadian Labour Congress, to pursue those larger matters, but it was harder there. Probably because he missed the direct contact with working people that had always nourished him. Ottawa kills.

Speaking personally, it was White who made me feel welcome, versus a pariah, in the "House of Labour." Previously, I'd been anathematized for working with a renegade group of independent unions. I'm not whining, I'm kind of proud of it, but it was a delight collaborating with him and sometimes bargaining hard over material I wrote for occasions like elections. (Always voluntary, not paid.) If he saw other unionists getting edgy about some of my views, he'd bark, "Go write your f-----g ad!" and deal with the tetchy brothers and sisters himself.

Final thought? Leadership -- the ability to bring out the best in others -- is among the rarest social resources, and White's would've been squandered had there been no labour movement in which to emerge. It gave him a chance to be who he was, and I think that's how he understood its importance for others. Before he went onstage to debate free trade before a national TV audience during the election of 1988, he mused, "Not bad for a guy with Grade 10."

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Phil Roeder/flickr

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obituarylabour movementBob WhiteCanadian unionslabour leaderscanadian labour congressRick SalutinFebruary 24, 2017On strike! Breathing new life into established labour modelsIs there any reason to think strikes and the unions which call them will ever reacquire the aura of romance and moral legitimacy they once had? Yes, there is.Defeats of Andrew Puzder and Michael Flynn reveal power of grassroots movementsThe engine driving both the ouster of Andrew Puzder and Michael Flynn are movements of thousands upon thousands of people across the U.S., saying "no" to hate, bigotry and injustice.Decent work and dignity can counter the rise of radical right-wing populismThe world won't change just with positive emotions. We need a comprehensive plan to address these troubling times.

Trudeau's torture policies no different than Trump's

24 February 2017 - 8:31am
February 24, 2017Trudeau's torture policies no different than Trump's The Trudeau government suffers from an acute case of cognitive dissonance, either failing to see (or cynically not caring about) the yawning gap between its lofty rhetoric and its actual policies.

Trudeau's torture policies no different than Trump's

24 February 2017 - 7:49am
Anti-RacismCivil Liberties WatchPolitics in Canada

The Trudeau government suffers from an acute case of cognitive dissonance, either failing to see (or cynically not caring about) the yawning gap between its lofty rhetoric and its actual policies. While a case can be made that this dissonance is apparent on many issues -- Indigenous rights, climate change, women's rights, poverty, racism, refugees and immigrants, electoral reform -- too many Canadians overlook the broken promises and embrace Trudeau simply because he is not Stephen Harper and, more recently, Donald Trump.

This allows folks like Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to get away with remarkable statements like his recent pronouncement that:

"Torture is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it's contrary to the Canadian Constitution, it's a violation of the Criminal Code, it's inconsistent with virtually every international treaty Canada has ever signed, including the Geneva Convention(s), and most importantly, Canadians find it abhorrent and will never condone it. Period."

Goodale's remarks followed Trump's ABC News interview in which the U.S. president said torture "absolutely" works and that his country's state security agencies need to "fight fire with fire."

While Canadians may indeed find torture abhorrent, that fact alone does not prevent the Canadian government from being up to its neck in torture complicity. Indeed, for decades, Canada's state security agencies have behaved exactly as if Donald Trump were their boss, playing fast and loose with the binding prohibitions against involvement in torture. Canadian officials can trumpet their opposition to torture all they like, but their policies reveal a different reality of, at best, turning a blind eye to the thumbscrews and electric shocks being employed by some of their closest allies.

Canada backs Ukraine's torture-tainted regime

For example, this week, the Canadian government confirmed it will extend its costly military "training mission" in support of a Ukrainian regime that Human Rights Watch implicates in arbitrary detention, torture, suppression of media, violence against women, a refusal to provide workplace protections for LGBT folks, and other "shared values."

At the same time, Trudeau has continued the Harper regime's policies of prioritizing economic interests ahead of human rights across the globe. One of the first overseas meetings War Minister Harjit Sajjan held was with his counterpart under the Egyptian regime, one brought to power by a coup that overthrew a democratically elected government. While Canada and Egypt cozy up on military matters (with the potential for increased weapons sales), neither Goodale nor Sajjan is stepping up to condemn the widespread torture and arbitrary arrest and detention of upwards of 40,000 people.

Sajjan himself knows a thing or two about torture. He is potentially implicated in acts of torture in Afghanistan, given his close working relationship with Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid (who was known to personally torture detainees in the dungeon underneath his guest house). Sajjan's "intelligence" is credited with the "kill or capture" of some 1,500 individuals. Given the rampant use of torture by the National Directorate of Security and other arms of the Afghan regime, it is highly unlikely that Sajjan did not know the bleak fate of those turned over by Canadian soldiers.

When the Harper regime shut down an investigation of Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees, then opposition MP Stéphane Dion told the CBC "the likelihood is very high" that Afghan detainees were abused in custody, adding, "I don't think Canadians will accept that it's over." But once the Liberals took power, they shifted gears. Given the opportunity to clear the air about Canadian complicity as well as his own role in Afghanistan, Sajjan -- despite the clear conflict of interest -- saw no problem in deciding whether a public inquiry should be held. Predictably, he refused to open one.  

Peggy Mason (a former Canadian Disarmament Ambassador to the United Nations and now head of the Rideau Institute) declared that the transfer to torture issue is "unfinished business of the most serious kind -- accountability of Canadian officials for alleged serious breaches of international and national law -- the only appropriate remedy for which is a public inquiry. What better way is there for this government to demonstrate its commitment to transparency and accountability than to call such an inquiry?"

Goodale refuses to rescind torture memos

Ralph Goodale, meanwhile, has refused to act on a Liberal promise to rescind the Harper-era torture memos, which granted CSIS, the RCMP, the Canadian Border Services Agency, the Communications Security Establishment, and the War Dept. a free pass to trade information with torturers. The widely respected International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) notes that the practice of trading in torture-tainted information:

"[u]ndermines the absolute prohibition on torture which entails a continuum of obligations -- not to torture, not to acquiesce in torture, and not to validate the results of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

In 2009, the ICJ condemned such policies in a report that declared:

"States have publicly claimed that they are entitled to rely on information that has been derived from the illegal practices of others; in so doing they become 'consumers' of torture and implicitly legitimize, and indeed encourage, such practices by creating a 'market' for the resultant intelligence. In the language of criminal law, States are 'aiding and abetting' serious human rights violations by others."

Of course, agencies of the Canadian government have long been consumers of torture, including the torture-by-proxy cases of numerous Canadian citizens. Two judicial inquiries -- one held completely in secret, and the other mostly behind closed doors -- nonetheless found that the Canadian government was complicit in the torture of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin. The torture occurred under previous Liberal governments in the years after 9/11.

All were wrongly labelled security threats, and subjected to torture-by-proxy in Syria and Egypt, whose torturers were provided questions by Canadian officials, with the complicity of the RCMP, CSIS, Global Affairs, the Department of Justice, and other agencies. While Mr. Arar received an apology of sorts from the Canadian government as well as compensation, the other three cases remain unresolved to this date. Mssrs Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin, and their families, have been forced by the Canadian government to endure a 12-year legal struggle as they seek an apology, systemic changes and accountability, and compensation.

While the Harper government predictably fought the men and their families in court, the Trudeau government, elected on the wings of change, saw no reason to change course. Indeed, Goodale may condemn torture when it comes to the Trump administration, but he refuses to do so when it comes to the practices of agencies for which he is responsible. 

Goodale and Trudeau ignore the fact that on December 3, 2009, a majority of the House of Commons, including the Liberals and NDP, called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take specific steps to achieve justice in these cases. Harper refused to act, and eight years later, the Trudeau government continues to defend the torturers.

The text of that 2009 motion is worth remembering:

 "In consideration of the harm done to Mr. Almalki, Mr. Abou-Elmaati and Mr. Nureddin, the Committee recommends:

• That the Government of Canada apologize officially to Mr. Abdullah Almalki, Mr. Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Mr. Muayyed Nureddin.

• That the Government of Canada allow for compensation to be paid to Mr. Almalki, Mr. Abou-Elmaati and Mr. Nureddin as reparation for the suffering they endured and the difficulties they encountered.

• That the Government of Canada do everything necessary to correct misinformation that may exist in records administered by national security agencies in Canada or abroad with respect to Mr. Almalki, Mr. Abou-Elmaati and Mr. Nureddin and members of their families.

The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada issue a clear ministerial directive against torture and the use of information obtained from torture for all departments and agencies responsible for national security. The ministerial directive must clearly state that the exchange of information with countries is prohibited when there is a credible risk that it could lead, or contribute, to the use of torture."

Needless to say, Liberals in opposition are not the same as Liberals in power. Mr. Goodale speaks a good line on international law, but refuses to recognize that as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, Canada is required to "ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible."

A lengthy history of racism

The cases of Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin present a face of Canada most refuse to recognize. That failure to see allows amnesia to cloud the still-unresolved cases of Omar Khadr and Abousfian Abdelrazik, also Canadians tortured with the complicity of their government. Equally concerning are the cases of security certificate detainees Mohamed Harkat and Mohammad Mahjoub, who are fighting deportation to torture in Algeria and Egypt, respectively, based on secret allegations from torture-tainted spy agency CSIS. All of them symbolize a long, ugly history of racism and human rights abuses that we tend to sweep under the rug.

Indeed, as the Truth and Reconciliation report revealed, the residential school system imposed on Indigenous children was, in certain respects, this nation's first venture into the world of rendition to torture. The kidnapping and secreting away of children from their loved ones, and the abusive treatment many were subjected to while under government and church control, rivals the 21st-century horror stories that have emerged from such scandalous places as Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, and Guantanamo Bay. The fact that the sexual assaults, cigarette burnings, and broken bones inflicted on Indigenous children took place in a democratic country does not in any way differentiate their suffering from those Arab Muslims who have endured years of similar agonies under torture states abroad.

The Trudeau government's approach of defending those agencies and individuals responsible for torture complicity is -- like Obama's abysmal forgive-and-forget free pass to those Bush administration officials complicit in torture -- a grant of impunity that leaves in place a torture-enabling mindset. With no sign that anyone will be held accountable, such nefarious practices will continue. The practices of both Liberal and Conservative federal governments since 9/11 reveal how complicity in torture has had a corrosive effect on democratic institutions and decision-making.  The proof is in the actions of a prime minister who will shut down Parliament to avoid questions (as Harper did while under fire for Afghani torture), the refusal to initiate criminal proceedings against those found to have contributed to torture, or the insistence of state security agencies like CSIS and RCMP on absolute secrecy and zero oversight of their netherworld activities.

Torture and the Anti-Terrorism Act

The latest manifestation is one section of the Anti-Terrorism Act (a.k.a. C-51) that recalls the bone-chilling justification of torture by former White House counsel John Yoo (who advised "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment is not torture, and the threshold for something to be deemed torture must be "serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death"). Under C-51, CSIS is advised that in the process of terror plot disruption, they cannot intentionally or through negligence cause "death or bodily harm to an individual," a vague statement considering the elastic definition of intentionality. (Bodily harm is defined as "any hurt or injury to a person that interferes with the health or comfort of the person and that is more than merely transient or trifling in nature.") It would seem that CSIS cannot be held responsible, therefore, if someone in their custody "accidentally" falls out of a helicopter or six-floor window.

As discussed in previous columns, Trudeau and his colleagues appear to take a perverse delight in a Trump administration that sets the bar so low that anything which is not Trump -- or which does not appear to be Trump -- is deemed praiseworthy and acceptable. Indeed, while Trudeau continues to endanger the lives of desperate refugees who risk freezing to death to reach Canada (through his refusal to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement), Trump-despising editorialists at the Washington Post and New York Times position Trudeau as a man of light and hope in a time of bleak prospects. Given the Trudeau brand, all it takes is a smiling tweet for the U.S. media to swoon and the Canadian media to give him a pass. While the Toronto Star tallies Trump lies and deceits, this leading Canadian newspaper dedicates no similar space to the dishonesty emanating from Ottawa. Cognitive dissonance is contagious.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

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Trudeau governmentBill C-51Torturesafe countrysecurity agenciesLiberal Hypocrisytrump administrationMatthew BehrensFebruary 24, 2017Canada's torture consumers and the faux national security consultationAnyone following discussions on the ultimate disposition of the Harper regime's C-51 "anti-terror" legislation will soon be hearing a lot about "SIRC" -- the Security Intelligence Review Committee.Trudeau fears Trump's ire if he were to label the U.S. unsafeCanada and the U.S. have an agreement which states both countries are safe for refugees. If that was once true, it is not today. But Canada fears retaliation if it were to call a spade a spade.Populism and faux feminism: Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Justin TrudeauJustin Trudeau arrived in Washington on Monday with a plan to help Trump polish his image with women, even though Canadian women are still waiting for action on public child care from our feminist PM.

How inclusionary zoning stands to grow affordable housing in Ontario

23 February 2017 - 1:03pm
Politics in Canada

On December 6, 2016, the Ontario legislature passed the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, 2016, expanding the powers of Ontario municipalities to implement "inclusionary zoning," a requirement for developers to build affordable units when constructing new market‑rate housing. The Act changes the provincial Planning Act, RSO 1990, c.P.13, by obliging some municipalities, while making it optional for others, to adopt inclusionary zoning policies. A discussion on the adoption of the Act and debates surrounding its inclusionary zoning provisions can be found on our firm's blog.

These legislative changes come years after rising housing prices, lagging income levels and dwindling federal and provincial funding have created an increasing need for new affordable housing in Ontario. Significantly, according to the 2017 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, over the past 13 years Toronto's house prices have nearly doubled compared to household incomes, thus making market-rate housing unaffordable for an increasingly larger portion of the population. The same study also notes that nearby areas such as Hamilton and Oshawa are becoming unaffordable for middle‑income residents.

What inclusionary zoning will look like on the ground remains unanswered. By extension, it is difficult to predict whether the changes will have a significant impact on the need for affordable housing in Ontario. For example, it is unclear what an "affordable unit" means under the new changes and how affordable units will have to be priced. However, the province is slated to release regulations in early 2017 that will hopefully give some meat to its approach and allow municipalities to develop their policies and bylaws.

What is inclusionary zoning?

Inclusionary zoning is an umbrella term for a range of policy options for creating affordable housing units (both rental and owned units) in residential developments over a certain size. In some cities inclusionary zoning takes the form of mandatory requirements to include a fixed percentage of affordable units in new developments while other areas have voluntary programs. Developers are usually offered a package of incentives to offset the cost of providing affordable units.

Inclusionary zoning policies can result in mixed-income residential buildings that contain both market‑rate and affordable units, which can be helpful for municipalities seeking more economic integration of residents.

This tool is generally aimed at providing affordable housing for moderate-income or middle-income households who are priced out of rapidly rising real estate markets. It is not meant to create new social housing or provide housing for very low-income households, and is therefore seen as part of a broader toolbox for addressing affordable housing shortages.

What to expect for Ontario

Based on the changes to the Planning Act that were passed in December 2016, some municipalities will be required to authorize inclusionary zoning through zoning bylaws and official plan policies, while other municipalities will have the option of doing so. The province hasn't yet released details of which municipalities fall under either group, nor what exactly municipalities will have to include in the policies and bylaws they adopt. For example, it's not clear how much leeway municipalities will be given to determine the number of affordable units or the standards for those units. Although this signals the province's concern with increasing affordable housing stock, municipalities will likely have a significant role in determining how strongly inclusionary zoning is implemented.

When a municipality does adopt inclusionary zoning, it will have to create an "assessment report" that outlines local housing needs and how inclusionary zoning can help address them.

The changes also prohibit developers from providing cash substitutes to municipalities in lieu of building affordable units. This will ensure that affordable units are actually built, which the cash-in-lieu option doesn't guarantee. The province made this cash substitute prohibition despite the City of Toronto's official request for this option to be available to developers.

Developers will have the option to build off‑site affordable units in certain circumstances. This could defeat the goal of creating more mixed-income communities and off‑site options could reinforce the socio‑economic divide within communities if a developer building market-rate units is permitted to build affordable units across the city in a lower‑income neighbourhood. However, the Co‑operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHFC) supports the off‑site option for expensive new developments that would make the cost of providing affordable housing prohibitive. CHFC suggests that in such situations, allowing developers to build affordable units off‑site the market‑rate development could help non‑profits and co‑operatives build larger communities. 

Below is a summary of some of the questions that will hopefully be answered when the regulations are released:

1. Which municipalities must authorize inclusionary zoning and for whom will it be optional?

2. How will sale or rental price be set? For example, will the standard for determining affordability take into account median incomes of a particular neighbourhood?

3. What will be the threshold size of developments for triggering the inclusionary zoning requirement? The City of Toronto recommended that the requirement only apply to buildings of 20 units or more.

4. What will be the percentage of affordable units that must be built in a new development? Lower percentages will likely be more attractive to developers while higher percentages will increase affordable housing stock at a higher rate.

5. How long will units remain affordable? A limit such as 20 years, as suggested by the City of Toronto, would not provide long‑term security for residents of affordable units, especially in cities where housing prices continue to rise and incomes continue to stagnate.

6. Will municipalities have flexibility to allow adjustments for the size and quality of affordable housing units?

7. Lastly, what kind of incentives will municipalities offer developers to offset the cost of building affordable units? Some of the incentives offered in other areas include density bonuses (where developers are allowed to build higher, buildings with more units than municipal bylaws normally allow), fee reductions, tax incentives, and fast‑track approvals.

The attractiveness of incentives will influence the willingness of developers to build residential buildings that require affordable units. Hopefully the "assessment reports" that municipalities will prepare when implementing inclusionary zoning policies will address the community-level costs of incentives such as density bonuses. For example, allowing too many residential units in one area can overload community services such as schools, which don't have the capacity to accommodate the number of residents.

A successful inclusionary zoning program that grows Ontario's affordable housing stock will ultimately need to balance the needs of local communities while offering sufficient incentives to developers. Although it will not assist very low‑income households nor help address homelessness, inclusionary zoning should be effective in making it possible for moderate or middle‑income people to live in Ontario.

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to probono@rabble.ca. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

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Trudeau fears Trump's ire if he were to label the U.S. unsafe

23 February 2017 - 8:47am
February 23, 2017Trudeau fears Trump's ire if he were to label the U.S. unsafe Canada and the U.S. have an agreement which states both countries are safe for refugees. If that was once true, it is not today. But Canada fears economic retaliation if it called a spade a spade

Two polls and three byelections signal an interesting spell in Alberta politics ahead

23 February 2017 - 12:41am
David J. ClimenhagaFebruary 23, 2017ElectionsPolitics in Canada

Two polls were published this week by Mainstreet Research -- one on the state of Alberta politics, the other about British Columbia, where an election is scheduled to take place on May 9 -- and both could have significant implications for Alberta's New Democratic Party government.

On the face of it, Mainstreet's Alberta data looks bleak for the NDP and Premier Rachel Notley -- insofar as it shows the Wildrose Party in the lead among decided and leaning voters province-wide with 38 per cent of the decided vote, trailed by the Progressive Conservative Party with 29 per cent and then the NDP with 23 per cent. The Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party registered, but barely, at 5 per cent each.

A superficial assessment of the numbers certainly goes strongly to the narrative of the unite-the-right crowd behind former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney's bid to lead the PCs, then roll them up and merge them with the Wildrose, that an election with a united party would be a slam dunk for the right. That's certainly how mainstream media played the results, and will continue to play them.

But as Mainstream President Quito Maggi conceded, if you consider the province's evolving electoral map, things may not be so simple. "It would be difficult to anticipate exactly what kind of government would form with these results without knowing the new riding configurations that are expected as a result of redistribution," he observed in the commentary accompanying the poll's results.

The demon-dialler telephone survey of 2,589 Albertans on Feb. 9 and 10 indicates support for Premier Rachel Notley's NDP is very strong in Edmonton -- 43 per cent -- and that's unlikely to change if Kenney keeps making noises on social media suggesting he supports massive cuts to the provincial budget. In Calgary, the PCs lead at 38 per cent with the NDP second. In rural areas, the Wildrose dominates. And we do have a first-past-the-post electoral system here in Alberta.

"The poll results support my argument that rural-based Wildrose has limited appeal big urban cities like Calgary, where the PCs still hold a considerable amount of support," political blogger Dave Cournoyer remarked yesterday. "As provincial electoral districts are redrawn to reflect population growth in urban areas, the Wildrose might need the PC merger more than PCs need Wildrose."

Cournoyer noted on his Daveberta.ca blog that if it's true the NDP has managed to hang onto 26-per-cent support in Calgary, that "leaves room for very guarded optimism for the governing party." Especially if the economy continues to pick up.

I agree, although I would suggest that for the NDP to succeed, the party's strategists would need to run a "Christy Clark campaign" that goes into the corners with elbows up and fully exploits the manifest weaknesses of Alberta's right-wing parties, even if that seems unrefined. The right will certainly be playing the same kind of game.

Speaking of B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Alberta's New Democrats would be just as happy with a victory in B.C. by Clark's cautiously pro-pipeline Liberals as with the much more skeptical B.C. NDP.

But Mainstreet's B.C. poll, released the same day as its Alberta results, suggests the universe may not be unfolding as the Alberta NDP would prefer on the British Columbia front. Indeed, according to Mainstreet, the results the company got from its 2,188 respondents on Feb. 18 and 19 indicate "deadlock and uncertainty" in Canada's westernmost province, which is now entering the pre-election hot zone.

OK, it too was a robo-call poll, and on a weekend to boot, but the results are still interesting, indicating that, province-wide, B.C.'s Liberals are in a dead heat with the B.C. NDP -- 37 per cent to 37 per cent.

The shocker, though, was how well the B.C. Greens appeared to be doing -- 17 per cent province-wide, but 22 per cent on Vancouver Island, traditionally NDP territory, and in rural areas.

So not only does this suggest "an incredibly close race," as Maggi put it, but it would be a tight race with characteristics that are bound to push the already skeptical NDP toward a harder anti-pipeline position that is not likely to do much to help Alberta New Democrats.

At the least, if such support for the Greens holds in future polls, it is bound to encourage the B.C. NDP to move toward the green side of the political spectrum.

Moreover, I suppose you can't rule out the possibility of a post-election NDP-Green coalition in the Legislature, which is probably the worst possible outcome from the Alberta NDP's perspective, or even a Green government.

On the other hand, these results leave the door open to a split vote between New Democrats and Greens, which could translate into a reprieve for the long-ruling Liberals.

Count on it regardless that all parties in Alberta, for once, will be watching the results next door on May 9 with intense interest.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday called byelections in five federal electoral districts -- including former PM Stephen Harper's Calgary Heritage riding and Kenney's former Calgary Midnapore riding. The other three are in Ontario.

Calgary Heritage and Calgary Midnapore are about the safest Conservative seats in Canada, and if that pattern holds true it will support the narrative just the same that Alberta is a conservative place bound to return to political equilibrium soon.

If something unexpected were to happen -- say, a Liberal victory in one of those two places -- it would certainly give the blogosphere and professional political spinners something to make a yarn out of!

It's a lovely thought. But don't hold your breath.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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Alberta politicsB.C. politicsJustin Trudeauchristy clarkRachel NotleyJason KenneyMainstreet ResearchpollingCalgary Heritage RidingCalgary Midnapore RidingB.C. NDPAlberta NDPWildrose PartyB.C. GreensAlberta LiberalsAlberta PartyABBC