Essential as election campaigns are, I’m not a fan. They always seem to bring out the worst in us: too much lazy punditry on the latest polls, too many analysts droning on and on as masters of the bleeding obvious, and leadership tours reduced to little more than orchestrated photo-ops and tightly controlled rallies. When was the last time anyone did some real reporting from the campaign trail? I’m not blaming the journalists. Everything is so packaged nowadays, what is there to report? Comment on the electoral horse race, focus on the occasional gaffe or two and that’s about it.

Meanwhile, partisanship and emotions run high, leaving little room for anything approaching illuminating debate. Not to mention the wealth of misleading attack ads and nastiness on the hustings, this time, mostly from the party of you know who. Is this what democracy has become? An appeal to the lowest common denominator? Demonizing your opponent as if he or she were running to deliberately ruin and bankrupt Canada, just because they have different views than you do? I’m so old I can remember when politics was a relatively honourable pursuit.

This dispiriting campaign is the worst in memory. Although the three major parties have platforms sufficiently varied to give voters a decent range of options, manipulation of the democratic process and the relentless, divisive drive of the Conservatives to nudge their support up to the 39 or so per cent that produced a majority last time is enough to drive one to pee in a cup….or call up Rob Ford….or both…. It is to despair.

Thank goodness for that seventh inning and José Bautista!

Just to further jolly myself, herewith my Top Ten list of deliberate electoral shenanigans by the Conservatives that, taken together, illustrate just how much this country needs a breath of fresh air on Monday. Cast a happy vote!

(This just in: none of it worked……hehe)

  1. The three-month campaign. Shades of Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, this is by far the longest, most expensive campaign in Canada’s modern political history. It’s a marathon no one wanted but the Conservatives. It was a calculated decision they believed would be to their advantage: more total money to spend, lots of time to overcome any gaffes or bumps on the road (Duffy, anyone?), and difficult for the opposition parties to maintain momentum. Plus, perhaps reducing the turnout by boring people to death. As for me, I’d rather be on Pluto, where campaigns last only three weeks.
  1. As Joel Gray sang in Cabaret: “Money makes ze world go round.” Not only do the Tories have a political war chest absolutely stuffed with cash, they took advantage of being in power by spending oodles of taxpayers’ money to flood us with pro-government ads in the months leading up to the campaign.
  1. Dividing Canadians. As we have learned over the years, Stephen Harper could care less about the 60 per cent of Canadians opposed to the direction he is taking the country. As long as the anti-Harper vote is split between the NDP and the Liberals, he can claim victory with less than 40% of the popular vote. He’s not the first political leader to exploit that, of course, but it’s never good for the country. We are better together, than divided.
  1. Never has a major political party been less willing to debate the issues. First, the Conservatives kiboshed the heavily-watched, English-language TV debates that have long been part of the political process. (Harper did debate on Radio-Canada — twice!–  but that was in Quebec, where les Conservateurs had nowhere to go but up.) And at the same time, Tory candidates across the land have been missing in action at most all-candidate meetings. Sure, these grassroots gatherings rarely change anyone’s views, and they can sometimes turn into partisan gong shows but they are part of the process. Turning one’s back on the public in this small way shows contempt for democracy. debate
  1. There has rarely, if ever, been a government so obsessed with controlling its message. This has carried on into the campaign, where all reporters have experienced difficulty getting access to the Prime Minister for even a brief question, along with the inevitable, brusque control of political events by security.
  1. Yes, the date of the talks were set, but did the Conservatives, representing Canada, even consider asking them to be postponed for a month or so? Maybe a naive suggestion, but negotiating a major trade deal, with profound implications for the country, in the midst of an election campaign that, conceivably, you might lose, verges on the surreal. All behind closed doors, all without involving the Canadian people, and still without disclosure of more than a few meagre details. The rest is silence. How are voters supposed to make a decision on the merits or otherwise of Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest free trade deal ever negotiated?
  1. Like Republicans to the south of us, the Conservatives seem to believe it’s better for their chances to make voting a bit more onerous. Hence, extra ID requirements for some, and unprecedented legislative proposals to restrict the independence of Elections Canada Some of this was withdrawn after a huge public outcry. But it showed where their hearts lay: the weaker Elections Canada and the lower the turnout, the better for the Conservatives, since a greater percentage of their supporters vote than all those young people. In the meantime, past budget cuts have surely contributed to the many well-pulicized, voter list fiascos and the schmozzola at many advance polling stations. It all smacks of a two-bit democracy.


  1. The politics of fear and division. Ethnic Chinese and Punjabi voters have been targeted with specific ads in Chinese and Punjabi, making absurd claims that Justin Trudeau supports making pot accessible to kids and setting up neighbourhood brothels? Why are they the only groups targeted? Then, there are those election pamphlets suggesting ISIS would be attacking people in their bedrooms, if the Conservatives were not bombing ISIS. Tory candidate Dianne Watts, once a sensible mayor of Surrey, originally distanced herself from the messaging. She told reporters she had her own style. A day later, presumably after receiving a phone call from election headquarters, she embraced the fear-mongering.
  1. A blanketing of the airwaves with attack ads on Justin Trudeau’s economic policies during the campaign’s final few days that are even more misleading than usual. Observed Globe and Mail economics reporter David Parkinson: “They paint pictures of their opponents’ economic platforms that are about as close to reality as a Dali canvas.“
  1. The niqab. Hammering away on such an inflammatory topic in the heat of an election campaign to win votes is reprehensible. This issue brought me down more than any other. Speaking of José Batista, also thank whoever’s up there for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. He says it beautifully.


(Cartoon by Steve Nease)


E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

As regular readers know by now, I remain a big fan of newspapers, despite their ever-diminishing state. Why, just this weekend, I found all sorts of goodies distributed among their varied pages. The treasures are still there. You just have to look a bit harder and be a bit more patient these days. This being both the end of B.C. Day and the end of the full moons, I thought I would share a few. rnewspapersok1. I hadn’t quite realized before that the state most affected by climate change is not media-saturated, rain-starved California, but, of course, Alaska. So far, this summer, wildfires have burned through more than 20,000 square kilometres of Alaskan forestry, a swath larger than all of Connecticut. Other bad stuff, too. An excellent story from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, written by the Washington Post’s environment reporter, Chris Mooney. 2. The legendary Mark Starowicz, former editor of the McGill Daily and part of so many great things at CBC (As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal, Canada: A People’s History) reflects on the Mother Corp’s decision to kill its in-house documentary unit: “There’s a sadness that comes form the realization that the institution has been totally starved. Starved. The price is extraordinary in what’s not being produced.” 3. In his newly-published autobiography, NDP leader Tom Mulcair says it took him a while to learn that “not every shot has to be a hardball to the head.” 4. North Korea has hopes of becoming an international surfing destination. 5. It’s possible to write about Nantucket without a rhyming couplet in sight. 6. Photography doesn’t get any better or more imaginative than this. Amazing series of photos by the Globe and Mail’s John Lehmann, featuring artists from B.C. Ballet in locations and poses you won’t believe. 7. The per-night price of a room at the storied Hotel Vancouver this weekend was $849. 280715-MATT-WEB_3389347b 8. Lord Sewel’s favourite bra is orange. 9. Stephen Harper once wondered out loud: “Why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?” 10. In the week before Sunday’s election call, the Conservative government announced nearly $4 billion worth of government projects across the country. 11. PostMedia columnist Stephen Maher reminded us that when Stephen Harper was head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, he challenged election spending limits imposed on so-called third parties all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, that same Steve guy is justifying his early election call to give his party the chance to drown the country in their own ads, over fears of alleged big bucks being spent by those once-lauded third parties that might sway voters, too. images-2 copy 4Only these third parties are “big unions and corporations…staffed by former Liberal and NDP operations,” the Conservative Party warned its members last week. 12. It has taken Russell Brown less than three years to rise from law school professor to a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada. Apparently it didn’t hurt to have blogged in 2008 that he hopes Stephen Harper wins a majority, and that the Liberals “just fade away” by electing a leader who is “unspeakably awful”. 13. The word “terrorism” is now being used openly by Israeli authorities, including Benjamin Netanyahu, to describe recent attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on unarmed Palestinians. 14. The Bay Area (San Francisco et al) has two dozen transit agencies, each with its own system, funding sources and fare structure. And we complain about TransLink…. 15. Surrey’s Adam Lowen is close to a first in baseball history: going from pitcher to hitter and back to a pitcher, all in the major leagues. Story here: 16. On Aug. 1, 1959, Premier W.A.C. Bennett fired a flaming arrow at a raft piled high with voided government bonds from a distance of five feet. He missed. Luckily, a well-prepared Mountie, hidden at the back of the raft, managed to light the paper bonfire, and lo, one of the province’s most outlandish political stunts, dubbed by Paul St. Pierre “the biggest thing” since the cremation of Sam McGee, became part of B.C. lore. (Thanks to John Mackie.) 17. Premier Christy Clark orders a crackdown on gun violence in B.C. That should be easy….

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

18. Get this. According to an independent review: When a large, toxic fuel spill began fouling English Bay last April, Canadian Coast Guard staff were unsure of their roles. What????? Then, when Port of Vancouver said they couldn’t see the spill and were taking water samples, the private sector response team thought the Port meant they were “standing down”, passed that on to the Coast Guard, who then de-escalated their alert. Further delay resulted from cellphone and computer problems. Oh yes, and once they finally did figure out what to do, there were not enough Coast Guard staff around, since a bunch of them had been busy doing something else in “Granville Channel”, wherever that is. As a result of this Comedy of Errors, which would have done Shakespeare proud, review author John Butler concluded: “The response was delayed by one hour and 49 minutes due to confusion of roles and responsibilities, miscommunications and technology issues.” This is what federal cabinet minister James Moore at the time called a “world class” response. 19. Sally Forth continues to be unfunny, and Rex Morgan, alas, unreadable. 20. Baseball in Toronto is fun again. Oh, and i’m still working my way through the Sunday New York Times. j-seward-johnsons-statue-of-newspaper-reader-at-princeton-uni-garden



Happy New Year, Premier Clark, wherever you are!

On such a bright, sunny, wintry morning, it’s hard to cast ill-will towards anyone. So, in the spirit of rare, Mickle positive thinking, here is my Top Ten list of good things done by the provincial government since May, when 44 per cent of the voters decided they should rule over us for the next four years. I’m sure I will recover soon and produce a more customary list of Top Ten baddies by the same Gang of Forty.

Anyway, here goes. Peace.

  1. After cynically accusing Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson of “playing politics” over the very real mental health crisis in the city, Health Minster Terry Lake came to his senses and announced some worthy, initial steps towards making a difference. These included a new psychiatric assessment and stabilization unit at St. Paul’s, plus funding for more, badly-needed outreach workers in the troubled Downtown Eastside. The Health Minister must know, however, that this “action plan” is hardly enough, so it’s also welcome news that a multi-pronged committee has been struck to map out more long-term solutions.

2. Kudos again to the ex-vet from Kamloops for standing up to Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose, after her ideologically-driven, mean-spirited decision to cut off access to heroin for fragile patients enrolled in a special, harm reduction study. “We have to think outside the box sometimes,” Lake observed. “I know the thought of using heroin as a treatment is scary for people, but I think we have to take the emotions out of it and let science inform the discussion.” Well said.

3.  The recent five-year, exceedingly-modest, tentative agreements covering about 25 per cent of the provincial government’s public sector work force are astounding, and the first of their kind in B.C., a province once renowned for labour militancy. Union leaders decided the tiny wage increases were a worthwhile trade-off for the security of no reductions in pension and benefits until at least 2019. Whatever one thinks of the contracts, no one forced the unions to sign them, so it’s a big win for a government obsessed with its bottom line. And they weren’t even mean about it.

4. Okay, obviously no one knows how long the Clark government will continue to oppose the Enbridge pipeline. But, as of this moment, a bitumen conduit through B.C. and thence by super tanker through B.C. coastal waters to Asia is a non-starter for a premier who opens and closes cabinet meetings with incense and soothing chants of the mystical word ‘El-En-Gee’. Quoth Environment Minister Mary Polak, after the National Energy Board’s non-surprising “green” light for the proposed pipeline: “We are not yet in in the position to consider support for any heavy oil pipeline in B.C.” You hear that, Mr. Harper? No amount of googly eyes at Christy Clark is going to change that.


5. Social housing remains a plus for the Liberals, with Mr. Mover and Shaker, Rich Coleman, seemingly still fired by determination to fund living space for “the poor”. As such, he has one of the strangest cabinet portfolios in the history of Canadian politics: Natural Gas Development and Housing. Thousands of new units of subsidized housing have been financed and built under Mr. Coleman’s caring watch, many in the Downtown Eastside and vicinity. Here’s a recap of what was done on the file in 2013. Of course, it’s never enough, but there is no sign of the pace slowing down in the year ahead.

6. Thank you, Christy Clark government, for finally agreeing to cough up the dough for a seismic upgrade of Vancouver’s historic Strathcona elementary school, more than 80 years after my mother dodged death by attending the earthquake-prone house of learning.


8. Er…..

9. Let me see….Anyone?

10. Oh well, there’s always next year….

(Suggestions welcomed to aid my trouble-ing mind.)



I realize this is a bit shameless, but heck, you write a book, you want people to read it. So it is with The Art of the Impossible, the rollicking saga of B.C.’s first ‘socialist’ government (NDP-ers used the word proudly in them there days…), under the sometimes wild, sometimes wonderful and always larger-than-life leadership of Dave Barrett. Today, we have a government that can’t even bother holding a fall session of the legislature, the only province in Canada with that dubious distinction. At least there’s no need for a Christmas break, since the legislature has been mothballed since the spring. (“Passing laws is so hard…”). I mention this only because it is such a contrast to the frenzied, non-stop activity of the Barrett government.

In just 39 short months, the NDP passed an astonishing 367 bills, an unprecedented pace of more than two a week. And much of the legislation was transformative, radically changing British Columbia from the bizarre backwater it was under W.A.C. Bennett, despite all those roads, dams and bridges, to a modern, progressive province. Many of the legacies of the Barrett government are with us still.

Of course, Barrett was far from perfect. He made mistakes that hurt him and his government. The Art of the Impossible doesn’t shy from detailing them. It’s a warts-and-all tale. What I and my old journalist buddy, co-author Geoff Meggs, set out to do was to bring that exciting, colourful era to life, and give substance to a chapter of B.C. history that most previous chroniclers had dismissed as some sort of disastrous blip. It was far from that. There’s never been a government like it.

Anyway, it’s Christmas, folks. So, if you’re short a last-minute gift for someone who hasn’t yet read it, who has any interest at all in politics or B.C. history or just a good read, full of unforgettable characters and events, why not pick up a copy of The Art of the Impossible?

Our yarn won the Hubert Evans Prize at the B.C. Book Awards earlier this year for the province’s top non-fiction book in 2012. I would also add that this book, now in its second printing,  has been enjoyed by readers of all political stripes. Here are some reviews.

By the end of the book, see if you agree with me that there is an eerie similarity between the so-called Chicken and Egg War that heavily damaged Dave Barrett’s credibility and the current Senate scandal that has embroiled Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

photo copy



It’s one of the delights of this funny old world when people show a side of themselves you least expect. A good example took place during Saturday’s closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s unforgettable four days in Vancouver. The man who surprised was none other than Chuck Strahl.

Yes, that Chuck Strahl, long-time MP for the right-wing Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party of Canada.

The same Chuck Strahl who supported his government’s killing of the Kelowna Accord that had promised billions of dollars in aid to the country’s aboriginal population.

IMG_0571And, during his three years as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, while treaty negotiations in B.C. ground to a virtual standstill.

On the plus side, the government’s profound apology to residential school survivors and settlement of their class-action lawsuit occurred while Mr. Strahl was still at the helm of Indian Affairs, but few would suggest the Harper government he served was in any way a beacon of empathy for native rights. Quite the contrary.

So, when he was sworn in as an Honorary Witness to the intensely painful and emotional testimony of the scarred survivors of native residential schools, there must have been more than a few raised eyebrows.

What would he say at the end of it all? The usual political patter that what went on was wrong and must never happen again? Sure, but would he say more?

You bet.

Freed from the restraints of toeing the party line, now that he is no longer an MP, Mr. Strahl rose to the occasion.

Ignoring a scattering of boos as he approached the podium, he talked about the difference between aboriginal people and government.

“Aboriginal people talk about honour, prayer, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and respect. Governments talk about regulations, legislation, enforcement, bylaws,” Mr. Strahl said. “Aboriginal people talk about values. Governments talk about interests.”

It was clear which approach he thought superior.

He told survivors and the native community: “I hope you continue to talk about things of the heart, things that matter, when so many of us have stopped talking about that. It’s a mighty powerful thing.”

Finally, Mr. Strahl disclosed that he had picked up a lot of material on what took place at residential schools, as he went through the many powerful displays on the PNE grounds.

He said he would be giving the material to his grand-daughters, who are being home-schooled. “I did that so they can understand what happened. That should happen for all school age children in Canada,” he said.

There were no boos when Mr. Strahl sat down.