More mixed nuts: Election debrief… Whoa…


Ha! So I blew my election predictions in every way possible: not only did the Conservative not form a minority but the NDP is not even close to be the official opposition. Some formidable parliamentarians fell to the anti-Harper sentiment, replaced by people who now have big shoes to fill. As defeated MP Paul Dewar said, there is no safe seat. But I’m still reeling from the sense that our Parliament will be diminished from the loss of the wrong people. My former boss and friend, Pierre Lemieux, a man of admirable strength and integrity, one who earned the trust and love of his constituents one intervention at a time since 2006, lost it all suddenly on Monday. I’m not one to lament the exercise of democracy, even when it doesn’t go my way. I’ve written enough polite letters  to people who thought it was all about them, in some gosh-forsaken corner or rural Canada; I’ve scrolled through enough Facebook statuses calling Canadians idiots for electing a Conservative majority the last time around to fall to the same excesses. Elections are a beautiful thing, period.

In no organized fashion, here are a few of my thoughts as we move into the next chapter of Canadian history.

And a 1. I’m not one to blame media bias for the electoral loss of the Conservatives. It was annoying enough when the defeated Liberals blamed their misfortune on Conservative campaign ads. All the major newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Harper as the best choice for Canada, to the Left’s great chagrin (and even some on the right). That said, the CBC’s giddiness toward the Liberal majority government is just a little unbecoming. Call me a realist but I never expected media to be unbiased: journalists are humans, with likes, dislikes and opinions. However, there is a certain finesse in peddling your wares in a way that at least appears balanced. Showing-off your red knickers on national radio and television is just coarse.

And a 2. Speaking of red boxers, the Public Servants who live and work in Ottawa had no love lost for their Prime Minister. Their organized strategic voting campaign and open support of the Liberals and — to a lesser extent — the NDP definitely had a powerful effect on the electoral make-up of the Ottawa area, who went from tri-colour to bright red. The Canadian Public Service is rife with with bullying, mental illness and absenteeism. It is also rife with highly skilled and highly competent men and women who came to their position through a rigorous process of promotions and contests. I have never been privy to any negotiations or backroom talks between the Conservative government and its Public Servants but it always seemed to me that — in very broad strokes inadequate for such large topic — our outgoing government was approaching the relationship with the bullying, absentee Public Service in mind, whereas the incoming Liberals approach it with the highly skilled and competent Public Servant in mind. Of course, both approaches are lacking, one for being too stern and paternalistic and the other for being too soft and coddling. The truth is that the driven, committed and public-service minded Public Servants suffer from the deadwood in the Public Service at least as much (if not more) as the taxpayers and service seekers do. The clerk responsible for my maternity leave with the twins made several mistakes that cost our family dearly, among other things putting me on maternity leave rather than short term disability when I went on bed rest and my sick days ran out. It forced me back to work when my twins were 10 months-old. While I was on maternity leave trying to straighten this shit out, my pay clerk was on a never-ending series of sick days, with no one responsible for her files. Call again Friday, maybe she’ll be there. I had to make several trips to the nearest Service Canada office to wait in line for hours with my 2-3 month-old twins to lodge a request to start my mat leave on the right day, which meant a retroactive redress calling for a administrative tribunal decision. This anecdote is not meant to pile-on Public Service employees. On the contrary, it’s to show that the people who have to cover for, redress and handle the mistakes of one colleague, presumably over and over again, also have an interest in a vibrant, productive and healthy public service. Whatever the solution to the issues with the Public Service is, it should involve the people on the inside, the hands and heads who are doing the work, interacting with colleagues and dealing with the fall-out of bullying, mental illness and absenteeism. I do hope that better labour relations between the Public Service and the government will in fact lead to a more constructive approach to Public Service reform. Although if the Ontario Liberals are any indication, as far as labour relations are concerned, the only thing being a Liberal guarantees is not being Conservative.

And a 3. The upheaval in the Conservative party brought-on by their electoral defeat has given way to an unusual candour from Conservative MPs and candidates with regard to their misfortune and what may have caused it. Over the Conservative’s three consecutive governments, much ink was spilled about the “gag order” or “muzzle” Prime Minister Harper and his PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) had presumably placed on its caucus and staff. My observation as a former staffer is that the great majority of Conservative Members and staff had a natural understanding of party discipline and didn’t need a muzzle or gag order to close ranks. The Conservatives, especially former members of the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party, have always enjoyed a confrontational rapport with the media. Get misinterpreted, quoted out of context and attributed a “hidden agenda” for long enough and you stop caring about the press. I myself ended-up on the front page of Le Devoir for attending a luncheon (paid out of my own pocket, attended on my own time) at the Parliamentary restaurant with a leadership figure from the Catholic Church, leading to suggestions of somber motives and machinations. When you get grilled aggressively by a journalist for answering the phone, you stop answering, know what I mean? All this to say, being freed from the requirements of party discipline has opened the door to candidates and staffers’ analysis of what went wrong and has been cathartic for me. When I left Pierre’s employment, I had long stopped identifying with the brand of conservatism sold by the Conservative party. As far back as the 2011 campaign, when I was campaign manager, I knew that strategically-speaking we had to avoid references to the Conservative Party and especially the leader of the Conservative Party when canvassing. We knew we could win on the strength of our candidate as long as the National Campaign didn’t screw-up too badly. We won that election handily but lost the last one in a blood bath: there was only so much ignoring our voters could handle. When I left my job, I told people that I felt loyalty towards my boss but that I couldn’t support the Conservative Party as it was and had been for a number of years. When I heard Lisa Raitt on the radio lament that the Conservatives were unable to appeal to women like her (which are, incidentally, women like me just with less children), it was like a breath of fresh air. Sentiments such as these were never expressed before, at least not in public. Defeated Finance Minister Joe Oliver said that he heard his constituents over and over again tell him how much they liked him but couldn’t support the leader of the party. I’m sure this is something that my boss’s canvassers heard over and over again in the last 6 weeks. When I was campaign manager, this type of feedback was not welcomed by the National Campaign. Same for the PMO when I was a staffer fielding hate mail from Conservative Party members (you know, those who *liked* us?) about attack ads. We were always told that they had the numbers, they had the polling, they had the donations to prove that they had it right. Just stay the course they would repeat. And maybe it was true at the time but with the gift of hindsight and my own experience, I now believe that I saw last Monday’s results coming like a train wreck in slow motion. Now that the Conservatives have received a stunning blow, I hope that something new emerges from the ashes of what used to be. I still hold firm to conservative ideals, which I believe are not mutually exclusive with intelligence, compassion and vision. I also believe in federalism, the Canadian Constitution and Parliamentary democracy. How nice would it be to have a federal Conservative Party that inspires rather than scold? Many have made hay of Justin Trudeau’s charisma but leadership is about more than steering the wheel: it’s also about giving people a reason to follow. We need to be inspired.

And a 4. Bets are now being registered to see which one of the Liberals’ lofty campaign promises — I’m not sure anyone expected to be held-up to it — are going to be shelved first. Income splitting was criticized for benefiting “wealthy families” who can afford to live off one salary. As one of Canada’s new “rich” — as defined by the Liberal platform — I would appreciate the break afforded by income splitting. Believe it or not, when you have 9 dependents, a 4% tax hike makes a difference in such luxuries as groceries and dental work. I would not bet the farm on the widespread legalization of pot coming anytime soon. I don’t think that the Liberals, even given their comfort level with deficit spending, will have quite enough money to borrow to make a dent in our infrastructure deficit. They’ll give it a good try but I don’t think it will come anywhere close to what voters are expecting. What are your bets?

And a 5. You know what? I’m actually happy we have a Liberal majority, in a way. I know that many people expressed the desire for a Liberal minority with NDP opposition to level it off. Believe me, a minority Parliament is not a healthy state in our Westminster system. It is stressful, unproductive and, because it leads to more frequent elections, costly. If Canadians wanted a Liberal government, let Canadians have a Liberal government and give it the opportunity to govern. This is Canada after all: where we have scrupulously fair elections, a functioning judicial system and just about every blessing a country an ask for.

In Rick Mercer’s words:

Ontario’s new Health and Phys Ed curriculum: this is not a cafeteria


The roll out of Ontario’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum (better known as “sex ed”) has caused a flurry of activity on my Facebook feed. I feel blessed to have friends and acquaintances on every side of this issue but it makes Facebook commenting a bit of a mine field. Try as I may to post nuanced positions, the reality is that social media is a not a friend of nuance. That’s why I have my blog: so I can annoy everybody — from left to right — at the same time… But only if they choose to read me.

This? That's me in my natural state.

First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. I am a practicing Roman Catholic. As a matter of religious doctrine, I believe myself — and that handsome guy I make kids with — to be my children’s primary educators. This means that the responsibility to choose what my children learn falls squarely and unequivocally on my shoulders. The decision to send my children to school or to keep them at home is a religious right, or should be. Many Catholic parents oppose the new sex ed curriculum because they see it as an usurpation of parental authority and their role as primary educators. Not, take note, because they are afraid of the real names of their genitals or what they are used for. In fact, many of us wish teens would learn more about how their reproductive systems work. More on that later. 

I am a Catholic parent but I am also a citizen. I live in a democracy which is — as Sir Winston Churchill reminds us — the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried so far. When Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the new and improved curriculum a few years ago, the outcry on the eve of provincial elections caused the hasty retreat of the controversial new elements. The new Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to reintroduce the curriculum and is showing no sign of backing down. The people who have elected her are reacting with a collective shrug or, as a Facebook friend of a friend wrote: “I’m so glad they’ll be teaching consent.” Because really, how else are young men and women supposed to learn what a consensual sexual relationship is unless they learn it in school? My point is that the people who elected the Ontario Liberal Party are generally happy with the curriculum changes, either because it reflects their own values on health and sexuality or because they don’t care. The parents currently storming the barricades are not those who elected Premier Wynne. Is it a surprise to learn that she is not sensitive to their plight?

As my friend John Robson explains very well in this short video, the provincial government is in the business of teaching civics and morals. You may argue that the government should limit itself to value-neutral academics such a reading, writing and arithmetic but this would be a theoretical exercise at best: the Education Act spells the role of the school system in shaping values and morals very clearly. You’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound: once your children are under the auspices of our state-run education system, the system makes the rules. And that includes the rules about dating, mating and reproducing (or, preferably, not reproducing). As Justice Deschamp wrote for the majority in the 2012 case pitting Quebec parents against the Quebec government over the contested Ethics, Culture and Religion (ECR) curriculum (emphasis is mine):

Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.

Yup. That’s right. While this decision refers to a different curriculum in a different province, it does a good job of highlighting the highest court’s sentiment with regard to parental rights in education. I have heard many people, several teachers themselves, argue that the school had to teach sex ed because the parents weren’t. That’s not true. The Ontario education system has to teach sex ed because matters of civics and morals are part and parcel of its mandate. You might argue that this does not correspond to your idea of civics and morals but you ascribed to that vision when you registered your children in school. Remember that dotted line? Your name’s on it.

In an address at the Maryvale Academy Gala last January, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast  tore into Kathleen Wynne’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum calling it a “seizure of parental authority”. He said (emphasis mine):

“We know that the proposed program threatens the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in the moral dimension of sexual behaviour (…). Parents are best qualified and have the greatest interest in working with their own children to handle this serious topic at an age and developmentally sensitive time,” he continued. “More notably, parents have the fundamental right to do so―a right the Province appears willing to usurp without due consideration.”

(You can read the entire address here.)

Willing to usurp? The Province is not merely “willing to usurp” the role of parents as primary educators, it’s obligated by law to do so. As for the fundamental right to educate children in matters of morals, this is a right that is not recognized by law. As the Supreme Court clearly stated, that right stops at your front door. Some of my Facebook friends who support the curriculum updates shrugged: “It’s a great curriculum. Those who don’t agree just have to opt out.” Believe me, as a parent who had to pull an anxious child out of Health & PE:

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I had to collude with my daughter to find out exactly when to pick her up. Had my daughter not been a willing participant, I would have had no way of knowing when the Health component of the PE class was being taught. Then she would be marked as “absent” — which adds up on her report card — and still expected to write the Health & PE test, failure to do so would also show on her report card. I was glad to give my daughter an occasional break from “Health” but on the whole, she still had to learn the stuff and write the test. Opting out? Not exactly. And here’s the difficult lesson of my post so far: you can’t really opt out of Health & PE even though you have a theoretical right to, as per the Education Act. You have to opt out of the system. We took our children out of Health. And French, math, science and history too. We homeschool. You’re not happy with the extent of government encroachment on your role as primary educator? Your options are: (1) change the Education Act; (2) force the rolling back of the curriculum by electing a government that supports your vision; (3) take your children out of public school. I’m sad to inform you that the happy middle where you get to send your kids to school to learn things you want them to learn at the exclusion of those you don’t like is not an option. Sorry. This is not a cafeteria.

Education is always political. Remember what they say about the hand that rocks the cradle? Well, if you don’t, the Provincial government does, as does Canada’s highest court. There is no such thing as a value-neutral sexual education class. The term “safe sex” is not value neutral. Neither is “risky behaviour”. When I helped my grade 8 daughter study for her Health exam, I learned that Natural Family Planning was also known as “the calendar method” and had a success rate of 30%. This kind of misinformation is not value-neutral.

What your children learn in school is always political. It may look neutral if you share the values promoted in the curriculum but your comfort is only as safe as our democratic system: someday, the tables may turn. After all, the social conservatives — be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish — are having all the babies. Do you think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are raising feminists and allies? Doesn’t this make you a little squirmy about the world your 1.3 children will grow into?

Believe it or not, I am not losing sleep over the so-called graphic content of the new curriculum. My extended family has a few same-sex married couples and a transgendered woman. I have dear friends of all colours of the rainbow. Gender fluidity is a fact of life in my family. The mention of masturbation in grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases and co-related risky behaviours in grade 7 are not phasing me in the least: by then, my children had long been exposed to them in the school yard and especially the school bus. Our bus drivers always listened to mainstream pop radio, where hip hop songs are way more explicit than anything their gym teachers could dream-up. Honestly, your children’s innocence is only as safe as that of their peers.

If anything, I wish the curriculum taught more about how babies are made! I had a conversation with my daughter a few years back while she was texting a friend. Both girls had received the best sex ed the school system could provide. A friend had had unprotected sex during her periods and wanted to know if she could get pregnant. Both thought that ovulation happened during menstruation. So here we are, giving our teens all the information they need to have safe sex. All the information except how babies are made. 16 year-old girls are having unprotected sex without the foggiest clue of when they are fertile. Great. Have we thought of letting kids figure out how to masturbate on their own and teach them how babies are actually made instead? Just a thought.

Nobody should be complaisant about the government’s mandate to teach sexual education. You may be fine with the current state of sexual education but if you — like me — live in a democracy and enjoy the perks of political freedom, you may very well find yourself on my side of the barricades one day. And I promise that I will still be there with you.