Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Beautiful Meal

Last night I went to Massimo Capra's restaurant (in Toronto), Mistura. This was my second visit to this restaurant and, as was my experience on the first visit, I had a wonderful meal.

I mainly note this because of the fact that I am normally fairly dubious about celebrity chefs like Capra. Capra writes in the Globe (not too time consuming) and also appears regularly on Restaurant Makeover where he is an affable mentor to a any number of struggling cooks. There is nothing in his television presence to give a clear picture of what a dab hand Capra is at creating meals that flavourful yet delicate and a space that is interesting without being domineering.

This is a good night out experience -- don't plan to go there for your budget meal. The food is interesting without being freakish. The atmosphere is light enough to feel comfortable, yet tranquil enough to allow for conversation. There is no sense of being rushed -- which is a good thing when the food deserves to be lingered over (which is normally hard for someone like me who generally wolfs their food). The service was pleasant, helpful and informative -- when we asked what gave the duck its flavour the waiter explained and even brought out a bottle of the exotic preserved fruit from Cremona that was used to flavour the skin. Everyone on the staff (including Massimo who was sitting at the bar tasting some new terrines) seemed to be enthusiastic about the food and about seeing the customers arrive to enjoy the food.

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The Terrible Idea of Senate Reform

The word is in the air that the present government again proposes to reform the Senate. The Government proposed to introduce Senate elections, which will commence as senators retire from the senate and their seats come open to be filled. There is no suggestion that the powers of the Senate will be reformed at the same time or that the distribution of seats within the Senate will be modified.

There are nice legal questions around the ability of the government to make these changes without following the amending procedure set out in the Constitution Act, 1982 that are worth a momentary comment. The 1982 Constitution provided Canada with a domestic means of amending the Constitution (no more trips to England to politely ask Westminster to do the job). It has two provisions regarding the Senate. First, s. 41 provides that unanimous consent of all of the provinces is needed if a proposal is made to change the rule that no province will end up with fewer senators than the number it had in 1982. Second, s. 38(1) combined with s. 42 says that "the method of selecting Senators" may only be changed if the Senate and the House of Commons agree and two thirds of the provinces representing at least 50% of the population agree (there is a procedure for dispensing with the Senate's consent if they refuse and the House of Commons insists). While there are various ways in which the "method of selection" could be left theoretically unchanged while still allowing for elections (eg. having the elections be advisory while leaving the power to appoint in the hands of the Governor General) my suspicion is that most courts would see introducing elections in any form as a significant change to the "method of elections." However, that is something that will get sorted out in court proceedings.

The more interesting question is whether or not it is a good idea at all. The Senate is a spectacularly undemocratic body. There is a first obvious reason for this, which the election proposal appears to address -- that is, Senators are appointed and hold office until tehy retire at age 75. However there is a second, I think, more important reason. The Senate is deliberately set-up on a quasi-regional/provincial basis with the seats being distributed without any real regard to population. Thus a senator from Prince Edward Island represents approximately 33,000 residents while a senator from British Columbia represents somewhere in the neighbourhood of 690,000 residents. If we throw in the territories this gap becomes even wider.

The undemocratic nature of the Senate, however, is tempered by the very fact that it is not elected. When we look at the history of the Senate in the last fifty years there are a very few incidents where it actually stymies the legislative agenda of the government. For the most part it tinkers with and refines legislation and only on a few matters has it really stood up to the government of the day. Even in those cases where it did stand up to the government (say free trade and the GST) once the House of Commons showed that it was intent on proceeding or an election was held, the Senate got out of the way. This is actually quite remarkable given the fact that the Senate is populated with senators who are often of the opposite party than that which holds power through the support of the Commons (Mulroney, Chretien and Harper have all been in this situation). So why this restraint?

The answer is that the Senate lacks any form of popular legitimacy and the senators know it. While it is easy to think of the senators as a bunch of undemocratic, political hacks, the evidence suggests that most of them are democratic in their views and fundamentally accept the idea that in Canada we have a system that endorses a government that is responsible to the House of Commons. This understanding and lack of legitimacy acts as a practical brake on the willingness of the Senate to throw its notional power around, despite the fact that on paper it is largely co-equal with the House of Commons. Thus, like the notwithstanding power in the Charter, the power of the Senate to stop legislation or to initiate legislation is really a reserve power -- rarely to be resorted to (if ever). This allows the Senate to serve a useful function as an agency to tinker with legislation, develop big picture policy on background matters and act as an emergency governor in the face of rare, radical proposals. However, it is not a real power.

Senate elections will fundamentally change that dynamic. With Senate elections there is a necessary development of a form of legitimacy and with that will come an expectation that the newly elected senators will use their power to do what they were elected to do. Thus we are likely then to see the Senate flex its muscle on a wider range of matters and in doing so influence legislation and government policy in a way that is intrinsically unrepresentative. The local interests of Prince Edward Island (which is already over-represented in the House of Commons) will become even more important. Similarly, the interests of rural Canada will be given even greater predominance over urban Canada (which is under-represented in the House of Commons). The Government will becoming increasingly accountable not to the overall will of the electorate but instead to a bewildering combination of local interests and coalitions. Members of the House of Commons will become irrelevant to the point of being gelded.

Canada is undemocratic enough as it is. Introducing an new elected player into our system that is even more divergent from any concept of one person one vote will not help this. The interests of the Provinces are best looked after by the Provincial governments -- who have strong, independent jurisdictions within their boundaries. Allowing national interests to become too preoccupied with provincial issues helps no-one. Perhaps the best answer would be to abolish the Senate -- but that is unlikely ever to happen give our amending formula. In the absence of that solution, let's not do anything to take it off the sidelines.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Terrorists Lay Down Arms

The BBC reports that an independent monitoring group headed by a retired, but widely respect general, recently confirmed that another religious terrorist group has laid down its arms as part of bringing decades of sectarian strife to an end.

Oddly enough this reuslt was achieved not by maintaining the protagonists "no negotiations with terrorists" position but instead involved an intelligent use of military force, police investigation, intelligence gathering, moral suasion, education, economic development and (horrors of horrors), negotiations.

Of course there is some danger that all this is about to come undone thanks to the raging hormones of a nineteen year old boy and a 58 year old Northern Irish MP

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Homelessness and Magical Thinking

The British Columbia Court of Appeal has effectively called Victoria city council to task for magical thinking regarding homelessness. No-one who lives in Victoria or its surrounding municipalities can rationally believe that there is not a serious homelessness problem in Victoria. There are however different perspectives as to who suffers from this homelessness problem.

At one side of the spectrum there are those who expressly or implicitly think of homelessness as a self-inflicted injury on the part of the homeless -- that is, the problem would be solved if only the homeless would stop taking substances or get a job or take their meds or just 'straighten-up' and have some self-respect. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who see society as having inflicted the injury of homelessness on itself by failing to provide protection for children or adequate health care for the mentally ill or basic welfare for the poor or affordable housing for those who are low in income. As is generally the case with spectrums, most of us take views which are a blend of these thoughts.

To my mind however, the injury of homelessness is done to all of us. The suffering of those people who are without homes is obvious. Even in Victoria the elements are not kind at night. In the winter it is cold, wet and dark and in the summer it is just cold and dark. It is also a dangerous environment, as night always brings out the drunk or the risk-taking who will do things that are near unthinkable in the light of day when, if nothing else, the regulatory pressure of being observed serves to regulate some of our baser behaviour. I suspect that there are few homeless people who have not encountered situations where they have been assaulted or threatened while outside without shelter or protection in the night. While it is easy to fault those who are left without homes for drinking or taking drugs or allowing themselves to retreat in to psychosis, I wonder who would not want to do this when faced with the rigors of the outdoors. If the trials of tough day at the office require a glass or two or wine or a few beer at the end the day, how can the stress of the street not require something stronger.

Society as a whole suffers too from homelessness. In one sense it suffers the same way as the homeless themselves, for they too are full members of society who are entitled to all of the rights and protections guaranteed to all citizens. Their homelessness is our homelessness, as they are rendered unable to care for themselves or make the contributions to their families or society that they may want or we may expect. But even those who view all of that as mushy left-wing thinking would agree that the society at large suffers from the scourge of homelessness. Streets are rendered either unsafe or threatening. Neighborhoods see upswings in crime and the disruption that comes from desperate people with no basic provisions, no hope, no where to go and no investment in society having to 'hang about'. The physical environment suffers as people have to live their lives without the basic sanitation that our homes provide to us for the disposal of waste and the maintenance of personal cleanliness and hygiene.

On the ground in Victoria what has been seen and continues to be seen is a deterioration in our pubic spaces. Victoria is not a large enough city where there can be a "no go" zone that is distant from most of the neighborhoods in the city (such as is the case in Vancouver). Instead homelessness is pervasive throughout the downtown and into many public areas that are not all that downtown in character. There is no "going around" the homelessness problem (if one is unwilling to look upon the poor or the destitute); there is only fleeing it by living one's life outside of the city altogether. This undermines our sense of social cohesiveness; undermines the quality of life in the city and threatens the social fabric of Victoria as people become reluctant to live and work in the City. It is here that magical thinking begins to infect the thinking of Victoria's city council.

Magical thinking is the phenomena of confusing or divorcing causes from effects. Thus in a world of magical thinking blowing a whistle will cause a steam train to appear as we all know that whistles precede the arrival of a train by mere minutes. If the train does not come then we must have been blowing the whistle the wrong way -- perhaps a bit louder or a bit higher or perhaps we just need a couple of whistles. So to does Victoria city council think that homelessness -- or at least its adverse effects on public space -- can be solved by merely passing a by-law banning the erection of shelter in parks or on public spaces. Surely with such a law being passed the homeless will fade into the background and perhaps even find jobs, get themselves cleaned up or whatever is necessary so that the good taxpaying (rather than sponging) citizens of Victoria can walk on Harris Green in comfort. This is so much cheaper and easier than shelters, public health nurses and needle exchanges -- everyone in favour please raise your hands.

And yet, they still camp? How can this be? Perhaps we just need to beef up our by-law with a bit more paper and ask a judge to give us an injunction which will magically make the homeless go away. Or at least make them stop cluttering up our public spaces. A bit more paper and the problem will be solved.

In the end the British Columbia Supreme Court and the British Columbia Court of Appeal declined to engage in that sort of magical thinking. These courts accepted a simple argument -- banning people with no homes who live outdoors from erecting shelter over their heads in all public spaces directly threatens their personal security unless some alternative is offered to them. To offer a few hundred shelter beds to shelter a homeless population in the thousands does not cut it. The by-law has been struck down and council -- and all of us -- have been sent back to rethink the approach to the problem.

Now we have to figure out what to do -- and here comes the tricky part. It is clearly the hope of those who fought this case that Victoria will respond by building more shelters and allowing for more beds. Whether this will work or will merely result in the "if you build it, they will come" phenomena we see with highways is an interesting question. Ideally this would be joined with more extensive and meaningful interventions to help those who want to leave the streets do so. There is another route open to the city now -- to regulate outdoor camping rather than banning it outright. I fear that what we will soon see is a few parks or public spaces abandoned to the homeless as semi-permanent shanty towns -- a phenomena that has been growing in the United States. Perhaps the city will throw in a few porta-potties and some sinks and then ban camping everywhere else. This is a cheap, dirty and ugly response to the problem that fits well with the out of sight, out of mind approach we have seen with many governments in Canada.

Of course one of the real problems in coming up with a response to the problem of homelessness is that it has been largely left to the cities and charity. The provincial government and federal government have largely washed their hands of the issue both in terms of funding and, as importantly, thinking. Yet the reality is that these are national problems. People do not become homeless and remain in their parents backyard. They migrate to the city from suburbs, small towns and reserves. The problem is thus a national problem that is transported to the cities but the homeless are not always (or probably even predominantly) the children of the cities. They are the children of the nation. As such they should be helped by our national and provincial governments so that the burden of homelessness can be borne by all of us and not just exported to cities. It is only with this approach that we are going to ever develop effective solutions to the problem of homelessness that are not just stopgaps (shelter beds) or magical thinking.

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