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JOHNSTON: Suicide should never be politicized, but nor should its root causes be ignored

This is not a political statement on the tragic event Monday afternoon in Edmonton. It’s the hard and honest truth about at-risk Albertans struggling to adjust to the changing economic situation in the province.

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I spent a week once with Alfred Alvarez. I learned of his friendship with poet Sylvia Plath which lasted until her now-famous suicide in February of 1963. I also learned of his own personal, lifelong struggle with melancholy and his failed attempt at suicide in 1960. Alvarez’s knowledge of literature, poetry, and philosophy was outstanding even when considered against other leading academics and public intellectuals – and his mastery of language as close to perfect as I have ever read. Why would a man like this be preoccupied with suicide?

I’ve never actually met Alvarez, though. I merely accepted an invitation to peek into his life when I randomly purchased a dog-eared copy of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide on sale in a perfectly shabby used bookstore for $1.75 – less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Alfred Alvarez (5 August 1929 – 23 September 2019) was an English poet, novelist, essayist and critic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tragic news Monday of a suicide in front of the Alberta Legislature made me think of this book and the time I spent reading its dense pages.

Most of us don’t know how to react to this news and instead wait for instructions from people who claim a superior understanding as to what an appropriate response should look like. We react to social media posts about the story with the “crying face” emoji and try hard not to comment in a way that might be deemed in bad taste before all the news is out – and, even then, we will thread lightly. Our caution is not out of respect for the family of the suicide – although that’s what we’ll say – but out of fear of saying something that treats the topic of suicide incorrectly or insensitively.

In The Savage God, Alvarez writes that most attempts to understand suicide are informed by two prejudices: “the first is that high religious tone which dismisses suicide in horror as a moral crime or sickness beyond discussion” and “the second is the current scientific fashion, which, in the very process of treating suicide as a topic for serious research, manages to deny it all serious meaning by reducing despair to the boniest statistics.”

The Savage God is not your typical study of suicide. The book focuses primarily on the treatment of suicide in literature and its prevalence among the literati. “If art has no power to do evil, then it has no power to do good either,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her review of the book.

I don’t know if Alvarez’s general treatment of suicide holds up well against current research and theory, but he wrote this book in 1971 and was witness to the transition in public thinking about suicide from religious concern with sin and salvation to a clinical treatment of the matter that deprives both the casual reader and scholar of any real insight into the human and social conditions that can influence self-murder.

Suicide is, of course, complex. That’s not only true but also something we must say before offering an opinion on the matter to signal our willingness to be corrected and scolded. For the family and friends the suicide left behind Monday, there may never be answers — but this does not mean we should not look for answers as to the general causes of suicide or attempt to understand the normative or sociological theories underpinning the topic. And in looking for answers, my instincts are almost always to look backward at the intellectual literature and not forward, as I see little evidence of serious thinking among intellectuals today – as evidenced by modern attempts to dismiss suicide as merely an expression of personal autonomy.

Emile Durkheim, the 19th century founder of social science as an academic discipline, believed there are three major categories of suicide: egoistic, altruistic and anomic.

Loosely explained, an egoistic suicide is one in which the suicide has little attachment to society and feels alone and abandoned. The altruistic suicide is one in which the suicide has too much attachment to society or, more specifically, to the frustrated ambitions of his or her in-group within society. And, the anomic suicide, of primary interest here, is one in which suicide is “the result of a change in a man’s social position so sudden that he is unable to cope with his new situation,” according to Alvarez’s reading of Durkheim’s seminal work Suicide.

I know nothing of the reasons the man who committed suicide in front of the Alberta legislature might have had for taking his own life – but if we take Durkheim’s theory of anomic suicide seriously, we can understand why too many Albertans have one foot on the terra firma and another in the firmament.

In September of this year, a research report by University of Calgary professor Ron Kneebone makes the connection between Alberta’s economic hardships and rising suicides rates in the province. A grim calculation in the report Suicide and the Economy shows that a “one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increases the suicide rate by a statistically significant 2.8 percent.” This translates into approximately 17 additional suicides in Alberta each year for every one percent increase in the unemployment rate.

This is not a political statement on the tragic event Monday afternoon in Edmonton — or at least it’s not intended to be one. It’s the hard and honest truth about at-risk Albertans struggling to adjust to the changing economic situation in the province, whether they are unemployed oil patch workers or public sector employees uncertain about the future.

And if you think I’m incorrect in any of this or that I’m being insensitive, my response is this: It’s complex, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for answers. The very public suicide Monday should not be exploited now, or even later as facts unfold, to advance a particular political narrative — but it should provoke a more serious discussion of a taboo subject.

If you are feeling suicidal contact Crisis Services Canada (tel: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645), Centre for Suicide Prevention (tel: 1-833-456-4566) or Kids Help Phone (tel: 1-800-668-6868.)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

Opinion

WAGNER: Don’t make the tent too big – the independence movement must be conservative

Michael Wagner writes that there is little point in pursuing Western independence if the new country looks like the old.

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In recent years some people have argued that the Western independence movement should encompass people from the entire political spectrum. Support for independence, they argue, is not a specifically conservative or right-wing phenomenon. To generate enough political support to achieve Alberta’s independence, people of all sorts of ideological positions will be needed.

For example, early in 2018, one well-meaning independence activist posted a message on Facebook stating, “We all need to remember that you don’t have to be a conservative to be a separatist. We will need people from all sides in this.”

Similarly, in a conversation at a meeting, one person seriously suggested to me that independence supporters could bring Millennials on board by telling them that the money Alberta saved from cancelling transfer payments to Canada would be used to offer free university tuition and free dental care for all Albertans. This is essentially the Bernie Sanders appeal – support Alberta independence so that you will get “free” stuff from the government. 

If that’s the direction the independence movement were to take, it would become empty and meaningless. Proposing an even greater role for government – that is, even more socialism – as the antidote to Eastern Canadian “progressive” liberalism, entirely defeats the purpose of a free West. If socialistic policies are acceptable, then Canada is already suitable and getting better every year. An Alberta version of Bernie Sanders is not an improvement on Justin Trudeau. In attempting to widen their appeal to the left, support for independence would likely shed far more fertile and dedicated support on the right.

Instead of offering socialistic goodies or opting for flimsy policies in an appeal to people from across the political spectrum, the independence movement should be clearly grounded in small-c conservative thinking that values free enterprise, private property, the family, respect for first peoples, and the historic virtues of Western civilization. That is, after all, Alberta’s heritage.

An independent Western Canada must protect property rights, and the protection of property rights will not appeal broadly to the left. An independent Western Canada must allow for the genuine freedoms that modern “progressives” too often to despise. Progressives often view conservative viewpoints and traditional Christian perspectives as “hate” that should be banned. An independent West that embraced such progressivism would be no better than the existing Canadian federation, and might even become worse.

When the Alberta independence movement first appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no doubt that it was a right-of-centre phenomenon. In the early 1980s, the Western Canada Concept Party of Alberta – the Alberta WCC – produced a four-page document entitled, “Our Statement of Principles.” It contained 24 points. The first point was, “We believe in responsibility and self-reliance.” The second was, “We believe in private enterprise.” Thirdly, it declared, “We believe in smaller government.” 

The fifth point stated, “We believe in the right to own property.” The explanatory paragraph for this point was as follows: “The power of the state to occupy, seize or expropriate private property is a violation of personal freedom. Any limitation of the freedom of the individual to own what he or she acquires, reduces the freedom and prosperity of the whole society.”

Many of the initial points in the statement focus on individual freedom and entrepreneurship, whereas the subsequent points tend to focus more on the specific role of government.

The twelfth point is noteworthy: “The strength of the family is the strength of the nation.” The explanatory paragraph for this point states: “Healthy, close-nit, nurturing families assure the future of a society by molding responsible, self-reliant, hard-working citizens. Healthy families transmit healthy values – which strengthen the community and the nation.”

The Alberta WCC Statement of Principles cannot be understood as anything other than a small-c conservative document, and it provides a shining example of the kinds of principles any future independence organization or party should embrace. The pioneers of the Western independence movement had this right.

The goals of the independence movement are self-determination and greater freedom for the West, and these goals only make sense from a conservative or libertarian perspective. Therefore, watering down principles in order to appeal for wider support from the political centre or left would ultimately defeat the purpose of the independence movement. Achieving an independent West that favoured political preferences resembling Toronto and Montreal would be an empty victory not worth the fight.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

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Opinion

GRAFTON: Canada’s corruption rating falling under Trudeau Liberals

Guest columnist Ken Grafton writes that under Trudeau, Canada’s high rating on corruption is falling fast.

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Notwithstanding five investigations by the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, and the potential of an RCMP investigation into possible criminal activity in connection with the Lavalin-Gate scandal, the ethically-challenged Trudeau government was re-elected last October. Despite holding the distinction of being the first prime minister to be found guilty of violating federal conflict of interest rules and then doubling-down with a second violation, a surprising 5,911,588 Canadian voters felt that Justin Trudeau should continue as the head of government for another four years.

In addition to the two key centres of Toronto and Montreal, large swaths of the Maritimes, Yukon and Northwest Territories cast their votes for a government wreaking of corruption. Astounding to many – especially in view of the fact that SNC-Lavalin had a history of bribery, was again up on bribery charges following an RCMP investigation into its actions in Libya with terrorist sponsor Muammar Gaddafi, and had been found guilty of illegal campaign contributions to the Liberal Party in 2016 – Lavalin-Gate didn’t appear to be an issue for Liberal voters at the polls.

Now the prime minister is being investigated yet again by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion in connection with the WE Charity scandal. Conservative Shadow Minister for Ethics MP Michael Barret addressed an open letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on July 10th, calling for a criminal investigation into the matter. 

While the Trudeau government may be awash in corruption, it doesn’t appear to be a concern to most Canadians. A July 27th poll by Angus Reid showed that only 16 per cent of Canadians choose ethics and corruption as one of their top three issues facing the country, and 56 per cent believe that WE-Gate will have little impact on Trudeau’s government.  

Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) is a non-governmental organization that monitors government corruption globally. It publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), rating 180 countries by perceived levels of public sector corruption, and defines government corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” The CPI is the leading global indicator of public sector corruption, rating countries on a scale of 100 (very clean) to 0 (bring cash). The 2018 CPI rates Denmark at the top of the list, with a score of 88; and the lawless war-torn state of Somalia at the bottom, with a score of 10. The US falls in 22nd place, with a score of 71 (down from a pre-Trump placing in 2015 at 16th, with a CPI of 76). Canada scored high in 2018 with a CPI of 81, placing a very respectable 9th out of 180. 

That number fell to 77 in 2019, moving Canada off the Top 10 List to number 12. As Transparency Canada explains, “Last year, issues surrounding corruption came to the forefront in Canada and grabbed international headlines that let the world know that our modest, polite country had nefarious dealings.” Lavalin-Gate was a major factor in the downgrade, raising concern from the OECD Working Group on Bribery in a March 2019 warning statement.

In addition to providing data to corporate compliance officers, TI is a reference point for leaders and journalists around the world. The Economist has stated “No country can ignore its reputation for corruption. That means that no country can ignore Transparency International.” 

It’s no surprise perhaps that Denmark and Germany enjoy the highest credit ratings possible, while lawless Somalia is at the bottom with a CPI of 180th. Although there are other considerations involved, many of the factors that determine a country’s CPI also affect credit ratings. The same factors can determine where a corporation chooses to locate or otherwise invest, contribute to wealth inequality (OECD), affect immigration patterns (with the least corrupt countries generally offering the best prospects for new immigrants), and impact tourism (as corruption and public safety are often linked). 

There are many arguments against corruption, and many reasons to embrace ethics and transparency. The UN has stated “Corruption undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability.” A 2016 OECD report “Putting An End To Corruption” sums up the threat to democracy. 

“Corruption undermines sustainable economic, political and social development, for developing, emerging and developed economies alike. Corruption endangers private sector productivity…hinders public sector productivity…and is a threat to inclusive growth by undermining the opportunities to participate equally in social, economic and political life and impacting the distribution of income and well-being. Corruption also erodes trust in government and public institutions, rendering reform more difficult.” 

This should be required reading on Parliament Hill.

According to TI, the Corruption Perceptions Index is a composite index, a combination of different international surveys and assessments of corruption, collected by a variety of reputable institutions. The index draws on 13 surveys from independent institutions specialising in governance and business climate analysis covering expert assessments and views of businesspeople.

How will WE-Gate impact upon Canada’s international standing as a relatively corruption-free market environment? 

A glimmer of hope perhaps from Angus Reid. Trudeau’s approval rating has dropped to 44 per cent. Troublingly for Trudeau, this lost approval comes primarily from those who voted Liberal in the last election. Although four-in-five Liberal voters still approve of the prime minister, there has been a drop of nine points in two weeks.

Since the CPI – by definition – is a measurement of perceptions, it follows that the ethics violations by Prime Minister Trudeau must result in damage to Canada’s good standing. 

Look for a further downgrade in Canada’s CPI. Corruption is a slippery slope.

Ken Grafton is a freelance columnist

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Opinion

GEROW: Western Canada needs its own currency

Darcy Gerow writes that currency manipulation from Ottawa is a hidden tax on all Canadians, but robs the West more than others.

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With a united Wildrose Independence Party in Alberta and Jay Hill at the helm of Wexit Canada, the independence conversation has gotten serious. A May 2020 poll conducted for the Western Standard found that 45 to 48 per cent of Albertans supported independence. That’s real close to a 51 per cent tipping point. Though, for a lot of Albertans, independence is only an opportunity to lean into Ottawa for a fair deal on equalization and the constitution.

There is enough support for a fair deal to build a solid footing for Western independence, but that foundation will be useless if this house is framed using the Canadian dollar.

The Canadian dollar is consistently hitting new lows every year when measured against indicators like the consumer price index, which measures the price impacts of inflation caused by the Canadian government’s manipulation of the money supply. 

An independent West (or just Alberta) should reject a foreign government (in this case Ottawa) devaluing its currency. Unlike Quebec sovereigntists – who want to continue using the Canadian dollar – Westerners would be better off with their own currency, a Western dollar which is free of manipulation.

Junior high civics classes have conditioned Canadians to trust the government with the money supply as a noble endeavor, that the marketplace can’t provide a product sound enough to be used as a medium of exchange or a store of value. The federal government took that trust and printed up a trillion dollars in debt for all kinds of corporate welfare programs. Most recently, to give to their buddies in the mainstream media and WE charities, or to conduct the massive Covid-19 vote-buying welfare scheme, and they’ve done it at the expense of impoverishing those who trusted them with what little wealth they had. All while the marketplace has given us a product that is sound enough to be a medium of exchange and a far superior store of value – gold. 

The Canadian Dollar was backed by gold until 1914 when the Finance Act was passed. This allowed the dollar to be artificially devalued to fund the First World War. The dollar reached a new all-time low measured in gold at the end of 2019 from which it will never recover.

A fair deal on equalization, or better yet, the end of equalization is a great thing, but if the West keeps the Canadian dollar, the door to unfair treatment by Ottawa will always be open. The ability to manipulate the money supply is akin to a tax. Instead of confiscating the actual dollars – like they do with equalization – they are confiscating the value of a dollar. They are stealing purchasing power. As Western provinces have historically out-performed Eastern ones when it comes to productivity, a tax on purchasing power disproportionately affects the West.

If Albertans or the entire West succeed in achieving independence, it would be foolish to continue paying the inflation tax to Ottawa. 

While the West does not have the gold to completely back a currency yet, it isn’t necessary to get the ball rolling. The Western dollar can be pegged to the price of gold at a rate similar to the Canadian dollar and legislation will be required to restrict devaluation by Western governments. As Canada continues to devalue the loonie, our share of the Canadian debt – which would presumably follow us into independence – will be wiped out by inflation.

Here in the West, people are dumping dollars and turning to gold. Remember that Western Standard poll? Having a gold backed Western dollar on the table is enough to tip the scales towards independence.

Even for those not convinced that independence is the right course, Westerners should be demanding sound money as part of a fair deal with Ottawa. What’s the point of keeping those equalization dollars if the money itself is worthless?

Darcy Gerow is a columnist for the Western Standard

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