Saturday, June 28, 2008

 

AUREVOIR GENERAL HILLIER

I am finding this rather bizarre. This weekend pretty much every major news daily is filled with complimentary stories about the departure of the Chief Of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier. No one is asking the obvious: Why is he leaving?

General Hillier has been at this job just three years. he is credited with rebuilding the savaged morale of the Canadian Military, rallying the troops, and instilling pride in the Canadian public for the defence forces. The job of the army in Afghanistan is nowhere near finished. He may have kicked-off rebuilding and reorganizing the military, but neither is completed.

The answer to my puzzled question is: He wasn't asked to stay! Wait....that raises the next obvious query. Why not? Well, normally the term of the Chief of Defence Staff is three years, the position rotates amongst the three military services. Ray Henault from the Air Force last time; General Hillier from the Army this time; the Naval Command starting July 1st....er...well, No! Another Army guy: General Walter Natynczyk (I had to check the spelling twice). You see the War in Afghanistan isn't over, it's an Army War...Blah, blah, blah. My point exactly!

Me thinks that General Hillier was dealt a couple of Jokers to his Ace because he was appointed by the Liberal Government of Paul Martin, and much too outspoken and charismatic for the real General in Charge of all of Canada. That would be the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

In spite of the criticism; including John Manley's, Mr. Harper's hawkish friend on Afghanistan, if it was hard getting the truth about the war before: I fear we ain't seen nothing yet. This may be one of those rare moments when we can be thankful to our allies south of the border.

Just this weekend a new Pentagon Report offers a pretty dim view of any progress in the seven year old Afghan war. In fact the report states clearly that "The Taliban has regrouped after its initial fall from power...and the pace of attacks is likely to increase this year." Gee, that doesn't quite sound like the pablum we're being spoon fed in the frozen north about the mounting success of Canada's involvement.

Refreshingly clear, yet sad for Canada's involvement, the Pentagon's assessment is bluntly pessimistic in describing efforts by Canada and others to train the Afghan army and a national police force: "Development of the Afghan police is taking longer and has been hindered by corruption, insufficient...trainers and advisers, and a lack of unity of effort within the international community," the U.S. report says.

As of Friday, 837 coalition force members have died in the Afghanistan debacle. More than 10 percent (85) are Canadian soldiers in addition to one of our diplomats. On this Canada Day weekend, I grieve for their families.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

 

Canuck runs amuck?

Way down south in Polk County, Florida leaders of the "Assemblies of God" have raised the alarm about a faith healing revival now about to enter into its fourth month.

While Democratic candidate Barrack Obama has repudiated his own controversial Illinois pastor, and his opponent John McCain has been criticized for being too cozy with the fundamentalist right, At the centre of this controversy is 32 year-old, Todd Bentley of Abbotsford, B.C.

The "Assemblies of God" is the largest predominantly white Pentecostal fellowship in the United States. Its general superintendent, Reverend George Wood, has expressed concern about claims Todd Bentley has made about encounters with angels named Emma and Wind of Change.

Bentley runs Fresh Fire Ministries in British-Columbia. He is flamboyant and controversial. He presents an unusual figure covered in tattoos and jewelled lip studs. He's an unabashed fan of professional wrestling. Since last April 2nd his giant tent revival which draws more than 30,000 people per week has been pitched next to Lakeland's Sun'n Fun Air Museum, thirty or so miles west of Disney World.

Across North and South America, in fact reaching all the way into Europe, the Lakeland revival has become an international internet phenomenon. Faith healing is a part of the Pentecostal tradition, and a major focus of Todd Bentley's evening services. What has church officials alarmed are the claims that because of prayers offered on their behalf; at least 25 people have been raised from the dead! The alleged resurrections haven't only raised the dead, but many sceptical eyebrows as well.

Mr. Bentley is non-plussed by the criticism he says he's just...."preaching and teaching the gospel and praying and healing the sick." In Florida, the Superintendent of the Peninsular Florida District of the Assemblies of God, Reverend Terry Rayburn, sounds a note of caution: "In a spiritually charged atmosphere, there is the possibility of excesses - astral travel, out-of-body experiences, healings that can't be verified." He told the Lakeland Ledger..."half the people calling our office want me to shut it down, which I would not be inclined to do even if I could. I have no authority over (Bentley)."

On the other hand those who participate in the meetings are convinced the revival is genuine. Last week a couple who travelled from Sheffield, England to attend affirmed the claims that people are saved, people are healed and Jesus is being glorified.

Beware; the signs and the warnings are posted. But if Reverend Bentley is as good as his claims maybe the healing is just what America needs.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

 

HAVE NOT PROVINCE?

It is said that Ontario is poised to become a "Have Not" province as it struggles against the collapse of the North American automobile sector. My native province of New Brunswick has so burdened the economy since the invention of the steam engine destroyed the bustling sailing ship building industry in the 19th century.

Somewhat like General Motors in Oshawa and Windsor; shipbuilding never regained momentum after Admiral Nelson's New Brunswick pine masted warships won at Trafalgar. For good measure the development of aluminium confirmed the 'kibosh' to the pine plywood industry which flourished when airplanes were built of wood during the two great wars of the 20th century. Thus, in New Brunswick, "Have Not" is not status: It's a birthright!

In New Brunswick unless your name is Irving, McCain, Oland or Ganong: expect to be relegated to "Have Not" status. Lest I digress. McCain is not the Senator from Arizona, but the world's largest supplier of french fried potatoes. Oland's is Moosehead Breweries, a premium brew shipped world-wide. Ganong's is candy (more in a second) and Irving is pretty much everything else a multi-billion dollar family empire can own.

Ganong Brothers of St. Stephen, New Brunswick is credited with inventing the chocolate bar near the turn of the 20th century (That's right - Not Hershey's). As a student in the late 1920's my mother worked there one summer as a maraschino cherry chocolate hand-dipper. Yum!

One wonders why when New Brunswick's lumber and paper making industry is on its knees. Almost a dozen sawmills and three paper mills closed just in the last year, Ganong's can't find factory workers to fill its jobs? Just last week, after struggling for months to find local workers, Ganong Brothers brought in 23 families from Romania to fill its vacancies. It still has at least 15 jobs waiting.

Ontario's lesson is the same faced by Malcolm Bricklin about 35 years ago when he tried to build the SV-1 sports car at factories in Saint John and Minto. The story of the collapse of the Bricklin automobile is the stuff of legend and a black mark in New Brunswick's history. Malcolm Bricklin has said frequently since that he couldn't keep the factories staffed. That New Brunswick's boom and bust cycles, and Canada's generous human resource safety nets, had conditioned the workforce to put-in only the number of weeks required to qualify for Employment Insurance (E.I.) and then quit to collect weekly payments from the government.

The conditioning of 150 years of "Have Not" status has lingering and nefarious effects which Ontario should note lest it be too late.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

 

ON BENDED KNEES

Next winter in Nova Scotia, Canada will mark its centenary of aviation. One hundred years since the historic flight of the "Silver Dart". Our rugged and expansive country owes much of its development to aviation. The bush pilots who explored the northwest, through to the military flight schools of World War II. The technological advancement of the Avro Arrow; and our airline pioneers, Grant McConachie, Max Ward and Gordon McGregor.

The busy summer travel season begins in earnest: Welcome to your worst nightmare! Unlike climate change...experts agree! The airline industry is facing its greatest crisis. At Air Canada which announced cuts to about 8% of its staff earlier in the week, it is estimated that every time oil increases $1.00 / barrel, it costs the company an additional $26 million / year. Air Canada employees put their hearts and souls into saving their company from bankruptcy less than 4 years ago.

Air Canada and its rival WestJet are not hardly as badly off as in the United States where higher fuels, plus extra fees equal: unfriendly skies. South of the border they predict that at least one of the five remaining national airlines will shutdown by year's end. Just since last November eight U.S. carriers have stopped operations or filed for protection from creditors.

America's list of failed carriers in eight months rivals Canada's failure rate from the past nine years: Canadian Airlines, CanJet, Canada 3000, JetsGo, Greyhound Air, City Express, Roots Air, Royal Airlines and Harmony Airways. In the wake of Air Canada's retrenchment this week, a family of four travelling on Aeroplan points from Toronto to Calgary was paying $700 in surcharges and fees unrelated to their "free" flight tickets.

There are fuel fees, baggage fees, security fees, fees for meals, snacks, soft drinks, headsets and seat assignment fees. Perhaps next a fee for collecting the fees! Beware, advertised discounted air fares pretty much amount to only a percentage of the total cost of the flight. Where will it end? I am not quite sure. However, American columnist Michael Mayo has a few more ideas about fees we should try to keep hidden from Air Canada: a) An Empty Seat fee. (If you're lucky enough that the seat next to you is empty, you pay $10. or get moved) b) Ice cube fees
c) Movie Ending Fee. (Flight Attendants pause the movie 10 minutes before it ends and charge $5 to show the ending). d) Lavatory Fee. ($10 to use the facilities)...and, a Landing Equipment Fee. As the plane is on final approach the pilot passes the hat because the flight is running a deficit and he's not allowed to deploy the landing gear until the flight breaks even.

That may be where it all ends.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

 

RAISING THE ALARM

Unfortunately this isn't the first time...unlikely to be the last. It seems so long ago, and I probably wasn't the first, but on October 26, 2007, quoting the former United-Nations' High Commissioner to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lord Ashdown, I lamented: "Afghanistan is lost!".

So long ago... Before Maxime Bernier, Before David Emerson. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay was preparing to attend the NATO Summit in the Dutch town of Noordwijk.

Canadian Foreign Ministers virtually "ad nauseaum" have come and gone. Former Deputy PM, John Manley's panel of distinguished Canadians has reported. Our Afghan Mission has been extended to 2011. Successive foreign military officers have said NATO's Afghanistan mission is underfunded, under equipped and undermanned.

It seems really that we Canadians are the only ones being told by the Government that this Afghan adventure is a success of untold proportions. Well...give me a break!

It doesn't quite take a university degree in history to know that the British could not bring peace to Afghanistan in the 1950's and 60's...and that the mighty Soviet Union was brought to its knees in a similar vain attempt in the 1970's and 80's. What the Hell are we doing there?

After last Friday's massive security failure by Canadians and the Afghans which allowed more than one thousand Taliban detainees to flee Kandahar's prison, our General "charisma", the Chief of Defence, Rick Hillier, seemed un-perplexed by developments. A hiccup on the road to success. Now it seems that everyone, Hillier included, may be singing from a different hymnal.

There is apparently ample evidence that the hundreds of escaped Taliban fighters who have since taken over several villages in southern Afghanistan may be targeting a massive attack on the provincial capital...Kandahar. Just who is in charge there? Why...it is us! By the by, those villages now under Taliban control are the same ones delivered of the Taliban less than a year ago in a massive war effort. At the time, our Canadian military leaders described it a "decisive victory". Yes indeed: War is stupid!

Perhaps none more stupid than we who are caught-up in the midst of this massive failure.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

 

BEWARE OF ADVICE IGNORED

I have lamented before that as a result of having sat in Opposition far too long, the learning curve of the Harper Conservative government has been fraught with pitfalls and dangers.

How else to explain those decidedly un-Canadian attack advertising campaigns aimed primarily at the already hapless Stephane Dion. Lest I digress further: More to my point is the revolving door of successive Ministers at Foreign Affairs in Mr. Harper's two and a half year old government. McKay, Bernier, Emerson...the list may grow longer once the reality of a summer Cabinet shuffle is contemplated.

I am a devoted fan of Canada's Foreign Service. I think the father of our modern diplomacy, Lester Pearson, was our greatest Prime-Minister. I am appalled by the shameful state of his Chelsea, Quebec grave site...Oops! I digress again.

Ours is a diplomatic embarrassment of untold proportions in the government's maladroit handling of the Maxime Bernier / Julie Couillard fiasco. We are now into a fourth week of constant revelations about the affairs of the "Mata Hari of the 450 area code", as Ms Couillard is being described. Talk about a news story with legs..and boobs!

Conservatives by nature have a certain weariness of the public service. Mr. Harper is either not an admirer of government professionals, or he prefers to make changes in public policy without much advice and input from anyone else. In this week's "Hill Times", Sharon Sutherland of Queen's University's School of Policy Studies describes the Harper approach in these words: "Here we've just been elected and what we have to deal with is a public service that has a long habit of thinking in an [Liberal] expansive way, in an interventionist way."

The same article also quotes pollster Allan Gregg more succinctly. He says the government has "pushed the bureaucracy out of the decision making loop and the bureaucracy is not coming forward unprompted with new ideas." Oh please..allow me to digress just once more: It is not just new ideas the bureaucrats aren't coming up with. It's been suggested that Foreign Affairs insiders may have "hung" Maxime Bernier "out to dry" by not reporting the five week long disappearance of those secret NATO briefing books left on Julie Couillard's Montreal coffee table.

Regardless...paraphrasing the song: Fools rush in where wise men never tread. When governments stick too close to ideological convictions against the better judgement and advice of a professional bureaucracy, they generally risk repeating and compounding their own mistakes. That may be how others get into wars in Iraq. Beware then of sound advice which is ignored.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

 

A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED

It has been an interesting study in human dynamics and politics in the past few weeks watching development of the new relationship between Jean Charest, of Quebec and Ontario's, Dalton McGuinty.

The issue has left many pundits wondering if the big loser in this cosy relationship is the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. The Federal Conservatives need Quebec "on-side" at the next election, otherwise pretty much everyone knows that they can't cop a majority.

The interesting sidebar to the pundits' debate is whether there is any behind the scenes role being played in the affair by he, who some have called Quebec's "Grey Eminence", the former Prime-Minister, Brian Mulroney. Let's first recall that Mr. Mulroney was eminently successful in his bid for Prime-Minister in the late 1980's early 1990's by forging an alliance with a number of Quebec's malcontent and disgruntled politicians, including Lucien Bouchard. Mr. Charest was a member of the Mulroney cabinet and succeeded Kim Campbell as Progressive-Conservative leader in the party's turbulent mid-nineties.

Over a period of several years Stephen Harper, the Reformer, and Mr. Mulroney developed a relationship of kindred souls over issues of Quebec policies and particularities about which Mr. Harper, the westerner, knew very little. It isn't clear what role Mr. Mulroney and his supporters played in the Tory ascendancy to governing party in January 2006 but it didn't hurt. Somewhat more obvious was the advisory role Mr. Mulroney may have played in Mr.Charest's re-election as Quebec Premier in the spring of 2007. It was not by accident that Mr. Harper gave Mr. Charest a pre-election gift in the form of a new Federal transfer of $700-million, which the Quebec Liberals used to cut taxes for Quebec voters, and get re-elected.

The Harper and Mulroney relationship unravelled after the German ex-pat Karl Heinz Schreiber in his own battle with Murloney, revealed that he'd given a letter to the former Prime-Minister pleading for Mr. Mulroney to raise Schreiber's deportation problems with Harper. That issue was to be discussed at a private family gathering of Mulroneys' and Harpers' at the Prime-Minister's summer residence in 2006. Both Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Harper have since denied the discussion took place. Nonetheless, Mr. Harper was outraged by the revelations of the sordid Mulroney-Schreiber Affair and broke-off his relationship with the former Prime-Minister.

Lest I digress: How sour is the relationship between the old friends you may ask? "La Presse", Montreal's Demarais family owned influential daily, reported last weekend that Luc Lavoie, Mr. Mulroney's former Press Aide and Spokesperson, now a Quebecor Vice-President, was present in the studio when the now famous interview with Julie Couillard was taped on Sunday, May 25. Broadcast of Couillard's confessions the next day led to Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's firing. It's been revealed since that Ms Couillard carried with her into the studio interview the now infamous NATO secret documents and, that it was TVA Network lawyers who arranged to return the secret briefing books to the Feds, "toute suite!"
Last weekend's "La Presse" revelations prompted at least one Quebec pundit to wonder out loud if : "Mulroney was out to get Harper?"....Je ne sais pas!

There's now a chill between Mr. Harper and Mr. Charest as well. There's ample proof that Mr. Charest and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty are now soul mates. Polls show Mr. McGuinty has pretty much rebuffed Ottawa's relentless attacks on Ontario led by the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. Now teamed-up with sidekick Jean Charest after an historic meeting of their Cabinets in Quebec City last week, the two leaders signed a high-profile accord on climate change that appears fundamentally divergent from the Federal plan. At their mandatory follow-up News conference, Mr. Charest and Mr. McGuinty pointed-out that they..."won't pass up the opportunity to talk about our differences with Ottawa." The Quebec Premier subsequently pointing-out that together Quebec and Ontario have two-thirds of Canada's population - and its voters. I might add 60% of the country's economic activity as well.

Fair weather friendships are the stock and trade of politics it seems.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

 

WE CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH...I GUESS

Former Deputy Prime-Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Manley, expressed concern recently in a published article that he felt the Government wasn't quite living-up to his keystone recommendation to be more open about the Afghan War.

You'll recall that at Prime Minister Harper's request, Mr. Manley chaired a panel of distinguished Canadians which reported last February on the future of Canada's commitments in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. The report's 3 main recommendations were: More transparency about the mission; additional troop commitments from NATO; and better equipment for the Canadian contingent.

Despite mounting evidence that we've just about failed on each expectation: Based on that report, in March the House of Commons extended our military efforts in Afghanistan until February of 2011.

In addition to the almost 100 personnel dead, Canada's other cost of this war is the mounting number of the injured casualties coming home with missing limbs, disfigurements and psychological scars. I found it telling that in the media's coverage of the 1000 strong convoy of supporters along the "Highway of Heroes" last weekend from CFB Trenton to Toronto, the veterans in wheel-chairs and the others who bear the "scars of war" appeared well sheltered from public view. Shame!

Although couched in diplomatic language, the reality of the Afghan War is that it is being lost. That doesn't appear to be our government's view...at least officially. But yesterday in the hand-over of Command for the international force in Afghanistan, the man in charge for more than a year, General Dan McNeill, made it crystal clear. His words, no doubt chosen with great care, were that the war against the Taliban is "under-resourced". By how much? Well, when General McNeil took over command in February 2007, there were 33,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. There are now 53,000 and he says that is insufficient. In fact, General McNeill told the BBC that if counter-insurgency guidelines were being followed, 400,000 troops would be needed in Afghanistan. Pity!

After 15 months, General McNeill takes his leave from Afghanistan by handing-over command of the NATO International Security Assistance Force to American General David McKiernan....name sound familiar? General McKiernan was in charge of the ground attack that toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Lord knows how well that went!

To quote Jack Nicholson in the 1992 blockbuster movie, A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.".....pass the ammunition!

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