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QUESNEL: A Reformed Senate is Needed to Keep Alberta in Canada

There is no silver bullet to repairing the fabric of Canada’s union, but creating a democratic and regionally representative Senate is a critical ingredient if it is to be saved.

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John Hamilton Gray was a Father of Confederation from Prince Edward Island.  He served as chairman of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, which laid the groundwork for the British North America Act. In supporting federal union and opposing its critics, Gray asked: 

“Is it necessary that we should go into this Confederation with our hearts and minds filled with suspicions? Is it a foregone conclusion with us that all the other provinces will unite to do injustice to one particular section of our common country?” 

Gray went on to declare that these suspicions could not be held by “liberal and enlightened men.”

But with all due respect to Gray, he was not living in Canada in 2020 under the present Liberal government. He did not know Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet who don’t care about jobs in the West, or the long-term health of its energy sector. Gray was speaking from his time and place where good was more plentiful than it is now. 

Canada is in trouble when one region seeks to undermine another region. 

People from the Prairie provinces have reasonable reasons to harbor suspicions. The Liberal government is funding a B.C. group opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion project. An Ontario Liberal MP is using his office to promote an electronic petition aiming to stop the Teck oilsands mine. Finally, the Bloc Quebecois has tabled a motion to kill the Teck mine

If Gray was alive today, he would see how one region of this country is seeking to do clear harm to another one. 

During the confederation negotiations, many framers saw an appointed Senate as a check against such action. The Senate was designed to assure regional equality, especially for regions prejudiced by the rep-by-pop formula of the House of Commons. 

The original distribution of Senate seats involved the four colonies that joined confederation at the outset, and obviously did not include later B.C. and the Prairie provinces. Thus, the four Atlantic provinces, with seven per cent of Canada’s population, have 30 senators. The four Western provinces, with more than 30 per cent of the population, have 24 senators. Alberta alone has twice the population of the four Atlantic provinces, but barely more than half the senators of New Brunswick. 

Sir John A. Macdonald spoke of an active Senate possessing independent power and ability to affect legislation. He argued: 

“There would be no use of an upper house if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the lower house.” 

“It must be an independent house, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch and preventing any hasty or ill-considered legislation.”

Bills C-69, C-48 and C-242 could easily be added to the list of “hasty or ill-considered legislation.” 

Individual senators played a prominent role in speaking out against legislation counter to the West’s economic interests. 

Independent (and elected) Alberta Senator Doug Black introduced S-245, a bill declaring the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project in the national interest. The Senate – through Western members – played a significant role in introducing amendments to Bill C-69, a bill seen by the energy sector as introducing onerous requirements to major projects by adding nebulous criteria to approve future projects. Western Senators – including independent ones – were very vocal in opposing Bill C-48, the oil tanker moratorium bill. Although the Senate committee studying the bill came out opposing the bill – calling it discriminatory – the full Senate voted to pass it, albeit narrowly. Still, many Liberal-aligned Senators (including nominal “independents”) toed the government line.

The only bill that senators were also able to successfully kill was Bill C-242, legislation designed to harmonize laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (U.N.D.R.I.P.). Significant concern was raised over the flaws of the bill, including the lack of a working definition of the right to “free, prior, and informed consent” that appears in U.N.D.R.I.P. itself. This lack of definition concerned senators enough that they allowed the bill to be defeated. 

If the Senate saw its role differently, perhaps Bill C-69 and C-48 would have also been dead in the water. An emboldened Senate focused solely on regional equality could secure a fair deal for the West, or at a minimum act as check against anti-Western legislation. 

Prime Minister Trudeau’s goal of a more non-partisan Senate is positive in theory, but in practice, he has appointed individuals that are ideologically aligned with his liberal agenda, thus explaining why these senators overwhelmingly side with government legislation, even against the interests of their provinces.

The Supreme Court ruled that changing the composition or selection of the Senate would require the consent of the provinces and territories; in short, a verboten constitutional amendment.

However, the Senate can adopt a “gentleman’s agreement” to change their role to one of stronger regional equality. This would involve a joint resolution affirming a suspensive veto. Right now, a gentleman’s agreement is what allows the Senate to delay, but not defeat, legislation.

For the sake of the continuation of the federation, we need political will to reform the Senate into a serious deliberative body that will protect regional equality. An encouraging sign was the announcement of the formation of a Senate caucus to represent regional interests, made up mostly of conservative, Western Senators. 

But real change in the Senate inevitably means reopening the constitution, something that every national politician has been loath to do since the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords of Brian Mulroney. Since then, there has been an unofficial cross-party rule that the constitution is off-limits, but this political consensus only cements the place of the West as a second-tier region. In the name of repairing national-unity, it’s time to break the consensus. 

A new Canadian Senate should first and foremost, rebalance its provincial and regional representation. One option is the American and Australian model, where each state has an equal number of senators, regardless of population. 

More suited to Canada however might be Germany’s upper house, the Bundesrat (federal council). Rather than be appointed by the federal government (as in Canada) or directly elected (as in the U.S. and Australia), they are delegates of the länder (state) governments. The number of seats each state receives is based on “degressive proportionality.” That is, that smaller provinces receive more seats than their population would otherwise grant, but not an equal share. This would solve Ontario and Quebec’s objection to having equal Senate representation as Prince Edward Island. 

A reformed Senate may also include representation for First Nations. In New Zealand, its Maori indigenous people have their own seats in parliament, serving as a kind of quasi constituency. Including First Nation seats alongside provinces could be an important component of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. 

Alberta is the only federation in the democratic world without a democratic upper house to represent the regions, and the only country in the world where smaller areas can have much greater representation that larger regions. 

There is no silver bullet to repairing the fabric of Canada’s union, but creating a democratic and regionally representative Senate is a critical ingredient if it is to be saved. 

Joseph Quesnel is the Indigenous Issues Columnist for the Western Standard

Joseph Quesnel the Indigenous Issues Columnist for the Western Standard. He is a Metis policy analyst and commentator who writes on Indigenous issues as well as energy and resource development policy.

Opinion

NAYLOR: My CTrain ride from Hell

The series of disturbing incidents began after I left the downtown Western Standard office and jumped onto a southbound LRT train about 2:10 p.m.

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Alberta health officials often say people should be taking extra precautions because they don’t know how a large percentage of COVID-19 cases are being transmitted in the community.

Well, after my CTrain ride from hell on Wednesday, I know one place they can start.

The series of disturbing incidents began after I left the downtown Western Standard office and jumped onto a southbound LRT train about 2:10 p.m. MST.

Unfortunately, there was a gentleman – and I use that term loosely – who had been on the platform yelling obscenities at the top of his voice.

I’m not sure what his anger was directed at, but he was obviously under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Quite possibly both.

I watched with unease as the man also boarded my train. He sat down momentarily, then got up and continued with his loud verbal diatribe.

All without wearing a mask.

Current Calgary bylaws say you must have a mask on while taking transit.

Fortunately, the screamer got off a couple of stops later and was last seen stumbling and trying how to figure out how to open the door to get into the downtown Bay.

But the ride from hell was just beginning.

Taking his place in the seat across from me was a young woman in her early 20s, wearing jeans with no knees in them and running shoes with no laces. If I had to guess, I would say she was from the city’s vulnerable population.

And she was visibly quite ill.

For the first few stops she was content with brushing her hair and shaking it all over the place.

Then the coughing began. And she couldn’t stop. It sounded like a very bad chest or lung infection. Her repeated coughs sounded almost guttural.

And she wasn’t wearing a mask.

The eyes of the man sitting next to her literally widened in terror. He tried to slide down the seat as far away as he could. But there really was no escape.

I saw all my already-reduced Christmas plans going “poof.”

Apparently tired out from her coughing fits, the woman then laid out on her portion of the seat, using her knapsack as a pillow. But she couldn’t sleep because of the continuing coughs wracking her.

The easiest option would have been to get up and move. But the car was crowded and I’m not sure there were seats available.

The other question I asked myself was why myself, or the gentleman next to her, didn’t confront either of these people, asking them to put on their masks?

The only answer I could come up with was that I didn’t want to aggravate someone who was already under the significant influence of booze and/or drugs. We’ve all seen the violent actions which this can provoke.

The ride from Hell was completed by another man in the carriage who was obviously developmentally delayed.

He just walked from end to end of the car. He would get to the end, stare out a window momentarily, turn around and walk back again. He ended up passing in front of me every 15 seconds, all the time muttering under his breath.

And not wearing a mask.

I finally escaped at the Canyon Meadows station, gulping in the crisp, fresh air. I thought to myself that if I didn’t catch coronavirus on that trip, I wouldn’t catch it anywhere.

I don’t claim to know what the solution to this problem is. We can’t have Transit staff on every train to make sure the rules are followed in an enviornment that is clearly ripe for infections.

But in my many rides downtown since the start of fall, I haven’t seen a single visit by a peace officer. They must be preparing to raid small family Christmas gatherings.

If health officials want an answer to where the community transmission is coming from, they might want to start with Calgary’s CTrain.

Dave Naylor is the News Editor of the Western Standard
dnaylor@westernstandardonline.com
TWITTER: Twitter.com/nobby7694

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Opinion

MORGAN: Kenney may have been politically incorrect, but he was right about infections in some communities

“Premier Kenney may have been somewhat insensitive in how he said it, but he didn’t say anything untrue when he spoke to the issue of the outbreak in the South Asian community.”

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stepped in it. He dared to address the exploding infection rates of COVID-19 within Calgary’s South Asian community and of course, is now being called a racist, with demands for an apology. Caught between libertarian-minded Albertans resisting lockdowns and statists demanding ever-more paternalistic restrictions, the blows are coming at the premier from all sides.

Kenney’s opponents smell blood, and they would love nothing more than to try to tie Kenney’s policies to racism, as they try with anything mildly conservative. Unfortunately, this political reaction and opportunism may increase the infection risks in vulnerable communities as public figures fear to address them frankly.

We need to be blunt about the numbers. Infection rates in Calgary’s South Asian community are rising at triple the rate of other communities. Shouting down and deriding leaders for daring to address this issue as being racist is absurd, and damaging. How can we find out why the infection rates are rising so quickly in these communities, and how can we bring those rates in line if we can’t openly talk about it?

I spoke with Calgary cardiologist Dr. Anmol Kapoor about this sticky issue.

Dr. Kapoor created an initiative called “Dilwalk” which was modelled to bring awareness to some of the health consequences that can come with South Asian dining. While Indian food is indeed fantastic, like so many things it can be harmful for people if not consumed in moderation. With food being so tightly tied to our cultural fabrics, it takes an approach with sensitivity and understanding in order to communicate to the South Asian community on these concerns. Dr. Kapoor has worked hard to bridge that gap.

“Premier Kenney could have used different words.” said Dr. Kapoor, referring to the now-infamous radio interview. The South Asian community is proud, but can be sensitive. Things need to be presented in a “culturally appropriate” manner.

I asked Dr. Kapoor why case counts were so disproportionately high in Calgary’s Northeast district where a large portion of the city’s South Asian community live. He explained that there are a number of cultural factors at play.

Many people in the South Asian community live in multi-generational households for both cultural and economic reasons. Because of this, it can be difficult for any member of a family unit to isolate within their own household, even if they feel they may have been infected. It is difficult to find personal space and this makes family transmission difficult to avoid.

There is a language barrier for many new Canadians from the South Asian community. While Dr. Hinshaw has been communicating regularly and in detail on how we can work to get the pandemic under control, there is a lag in communications getting down to people who may need to get the messaging in a different language. More efforts should to be made to get resources to the community in different languages and in a timely manner. If it takes weeks for messaging to get out, the impact of the messaging is often lost.

Many people in the South Asian community work in jobs which can’t be done from home and often involve a lot of public interaction. This puts them at a higher risk of catching and transmitting the virus. Many people in these workplace situations either don’t have supports should they need to take time away from work, or don’t know what supports are available. People need to be reassured that they aren’t risking bankruptcy by self-isolating. It’s not so simple as closing the doors of your business or walking away from work for a couple weeks. Social supports are required and if they already exist, they need to be effectively communicated to people.

The common theme I heard was that communications need to be better and that they need to come from trusted sources. Community leaders should be tapped to help reach out to the impacted zones and get health messaging out there. Compliance with health measures and suggestions will be much higher when the suggestions come from familiar and trusted voices.

Dr. Kapoor expressly offered to take part in just such a role. If any UPC MLAs or AHS members are reading this, just reach out.

The pandemic is a nightmare for all of us in every possible way. It is a battle with multiple fronts which needs actions on the part of government which are clear and unhesitating. Clear communications are key and we can’t hesitate in targeting areas where outbreaks are occurring for fear of political backlash.

Premier Kenney may have been somewhat insensitive in how he said it, but he didn’t say anything untrue when he spoke to the issue of the outbreak in the South Asian community. If we want to knock this thing down, we need to be able to identify and target the hot spots. Along with the many other things the government needs to do, they need cultural ambassadors to help speak to impacted communities on their behalf. We can’t let political correctness put people at risk.

Cory Morgan is the Podcast Editor and a columnist for the Western Standard

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Opinion

GRAFTON: Another flighty Liberal bailout, as Trudeau prepares to spend non-existent COVID-19 bucks on failing airlines

Ken Grafton writes that Trudeau is planning a massive bailout of Air Canada, owned mostly by wealthy foreign trusts.

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In the words of Virgin Air founder Richard Branson, “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.”

Now it seems, after months of being non-committal on the issue of airline bailouts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is about to charge up the Canadian Taxpayer Mastercard again – not a paltry Branson $1 billion though, but a whopping Liberal $7 billion, if carriers and unions have anything to say about it.

Branson was warning that airlines are expensive and often lose money – and Branson should know. Virgin Atlantic applied for bankruptcy protection in New York on August 4th. They are attempting to negotiate a $1.6 billion rescue plan. Virgin Australia also filed for bankruptcy earlier in the year. 

These are not the best of times. COVID-19 grounded most commercial flights globally in March, resulting in plummeting airline stock prices. Airlines have been losing millions of dollars every week, and billionaire “canary-in-the-mine” investor guru Warren Buffett has sold out his entire $4 billion airline portfolio. Buffett said, “Investors have poured their money into airlines … for 100 years with terrible results. … It’s been a death trap for investors.”

Airline failures however, predate COVID-19. Airline bankruptcies since 1980 include TWA, US Airways, United, Air Canada (in 2003), Delta, American and many others.

The airline business model is problematic in a number of respects. First and foremost, it lacks scalability. This means that cost growth increases linearly with revenue growth, thereby making it very expensive for an airline to grow. A new A380 will set you back approximately $437 million USD. It costs about $83,000 for a fill-up at the pump, and a new set of 22 tires is a jaw-dropping $121,000

As Buffett explained to Berkshire shareholders in 2007, “The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.” 

But, as history records, Orville made a safe landing that day in 1903.

Another problem with airlines is a sensitive dependence upon price competition. The reality is that if one airline decides to cut fares, for whatever reason(s), competitors have little choice but to follow. This can have disastrous impact financially.

Air Canada is Canada’s largest carrier. Privatized in 1989, its’ history includes layoffs, restructuring, mergers, previous bankruptcy and government bailouts. In May, Air Canada threatened to lay off 50-60 per cent of it’s 38,000 employees, saying that it is losing $20 million per day as a result of COVID-19. It is projecting a 75 per cent reduction in flight capacity during Q4 compared to 2019, and reported Q3 revenue of C$757 million, down 86 per cent from a year earlier, with an operating loss of $785 million CAD.

It has since been taking advantage of the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program.

Now, as a result of COVID-19, Air Canada wants another bailout from the taxpayer.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau said, “To protect Canadians, the Government of Canada is developing a package of assistance to Canadian airlines, airports and the aerospace sector. As part of this package, we are ready to establish a process with major airlines regarding financial assistance which could include loans and potentially other support to secure important results for Canadians.”

But who exactly are taxpayers going to be bailing out?

The top 10 Air Canada shareholders are all investment management funds. Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc., Fidelity (Canada) Asset Management ULC, Fidelity Management & Research Co. LLC, EdgePoint Investment Group Inc., US Global Investors Inc., RBC Global Asset Management Inc., Causeway Capital Management LLC, Mackenzie Financial Corp., APG Asset Management NV, and CI Investments, Inc.. 

The irony of Canadian taxpayers ponying up $7 billion to bailout wealthy global investment funds would be amusing if it weren’t true. 

Perhaps Trudeau will broker a loan from Air Canada’s shareholders. They can afford it.

The likelihood of you getting an operating line of credit from your local bank because you had lost 90 per cent of your income and were billions in the red? Zero to none.

According to Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc the government is “very much discussing” the possibility of nationalizing the airlines, as Germany has done.

If the argument for deregulation and privatization is increased efficiency and cost benefit, then it follows that private sector enterprise must be prepared to bear the cost of failure. Trudeau is burdening Canadians with crippling debt as a result of COVID-19. The wealthy investment funds that own Air Canada should be prepared to do the same.

Ken Grafton is freelance columnist for the Western Standard from Aylmer, Quebec

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