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Canada Post or Canada Past?

December 11, 2013

Canadians who value their deep history of universal postal service are reeling from the latest round of cuts to Canada Post: the end of door-to-door delivery service accompanied by a hike in postage stamp costs.

In other words, higher prices for worse service – and it’s all part of “an aggressive restructuring strategy”.

Also part of the strategy: a lot of job cuts. The frame the government is using, however, is that euphemistic term “attrition”. Canada Post plans to reduce up to 8,000 jobs through attrition.

Let’s look at that word, attrition.

The defines it as such:

attrition [əˈtrɪʃən]n

1. the act of wearing away or the state of being worn away, as by friction
2. constant wearing down to weaken or destroy (often in the phrase war of attrition)

Welcome to Canada, circa 2013.


Look away

February 18, 2013

If you’re a government wanting the public to look away while the environment gets ravaged by controversial projects such as Alberta’s tar sands and major oil pipeline projects, what do you do?

Apparently, you try to shift the gaze. Instead of keeping the lens focused on this…

Syncrude Oil Operations in Alberta Tar Sands

…you hire a marketing firm. You do a series of focus groups with Canadians. You show them pretty pictures of the country’s most majestic natural habitats. You talk about “restoring developed lands”. You overlay some inspirational music.

And when your marketing firm tests it with focus groups, you discover people don’t feel badly anymore. They feel a sense of national pride. Because who doesn’t love Canada’s natural beauty? You reframe environmental degradation as “responsible resource development”.

Kind of like what this ad does …

Now consider this news story entitled Light on facts, heavy on patriotism, focus groups help hone NRCan advertising. It exposes the mechanics behind ads like this.

Quoting directly from the Canadian Press story:

“Focus-group testing on what the Harper government calls its Responsible Resource Development campaign found the advertising to be light on facts but uplifting and patriotic, according to a government-commissioned study.

“The fruits of that taxpayer-funded labour will again be on display this spring as a second wave of ads — designed to persuade Canadians of “the importance and impact of Canada’s energy sector” — hits the air.

“Natural Resources Canada has budgeted $9 million in the current 2012-13 fiscal year for ads that show a cross-section of resource industries in a job-friendly and environmentally sensitive light.

“It’s a carefully calibrated exercise.”

Now, try to look away.

If all the world’s a stage, I want better slides

February 3, 2013
guest blogger


Over the past several years, if you have been to a public speaking engagement by my soul mate and partner Trish Hennessy, you might have seen me lurking in the shadows, usually wearing all black.

I help the love of my life in every way I can, using everything I have, and whenever possible. She invited me to post my thoughts on the secret to improving presentation skills here, and I am happy to oblige.

I’ll talk about some technical bits at first, but in a second post I’ll get to the truly interesting part of a presentation: its rhythm.

My background is in the technical production of theatre. I came to Toronto to train in this field at Ryerson University. I’ve studied other things and worked elsewhere, but I’ve always been drawn to the excitement and clarity of live performance, and work in the industry to this day. It’s a bug as they say, and you don’t need to be on stage to get infected; those backstage are vulnerable too.

When Trish made the decision to move from the backstage of strategic communications support to assume a more public role that would include public speaking, I jumped at the chance to employ skills I’d learned from my own work in theatre to support her during the transition. Below are some things we figured out together.

Read more…

It’s not a tax haven

February 2, 2013

Tax havens: wrong term.

It’s tax evasion.

Tax havens make tax evasion sound like a temporary holiday, whereas for many of the world’s wealthy, it’s a permanent strategy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes in the country in which they live.

It’s not tax havens, it’s tax evasion. And it robs public coffers of a lot of money.

This Toronto Star story cites an economist who estimates: “Approximately $12 trillion of unreported, private financial wealth from the developed world — including Europe, Canada and the United States — is held in about 80 tax havens. … If the $12 trillion earned a modest 3 per cent annual return and was taxed at 30 per cent it would generate $150 billion to $200 billion a year — more than enough to pay for Europe’s budget deficits.”



December 15, 2012

I was reading this story about the devastating shooting rampage that left 26 dead in a Connecticut school. And I noticed a pattern.

“A custodian ran around, warning people there was someone with a gun,” the story said.

And I thought: In Canada, that would likely be a CUPE worker.

“A teacher went out to check on the noise, came back in, locked the door and had the children huddle in the corner until police arrive,” a story said.

And I thought: In Ontario, that teacher would likely be an ETFO, OSSTF or OECTA member.

Police, first respondents, and other medical and trauma support staff would represent a range of other unionized members.

And we keep electing public officials who vilify public servants and union members.

Who say ‘let’s outsource’, which is another way of saying ‘let’s pay them less’.

Who try to remove workers’ protection by suggesting the end of the Rand Formula.

Who go after workers’ sick pay, pensions, and job security.

Who try to remove collective bargaining rights long ago secured as a human right.

It’s an effective tactic when unions are presented as omnipotent inhuman entities.

It’s quite another matter once we see the human face of union workers. Connecticut reminds us of that human face.

There are always ‘teachable moments’ in any tragedy or crisis. The obvious is that gun control makes a difference in society.

Less obvious: The people in who are there for us in the midst of crisis; otherwise known as our labour movement.

Hennessy Goes To Washington

August 3, 2012

By Trish Hennessy

This excerpt from The Newsroom is making the social media rounds, and it got me thinking about the paradox of the word freedom.

The language is saltier than I like to share, the character’s a bit of a jerk in this clip, and I disagree with his assessment of a certain generation but, this rant somehow reminds me of my trip to Washington, D.C. in May.

I’d never been to America’s capital city before and I’ve always wanted to go, but I haven’t travelled to the U.S. for many years and I wondered if the post-9/11 heightened security measures might make entering the country difficult. I’ve written in support of the Occupy movement — would I be on some kind of watch list? I warned my partner that if I was asked questions about this, our travel plans might go awry.

Going through customs, we were asked the usual questions: What is your purpose for this visit? Business, I said. What kind of business? I’m giving a public talk. We engaged in some lighthearted banter and just as I was beginning to think my worries had been unfounded, the customs officer glanced at his computer then looked up at me and asked: So, the Occupy movement — didn’t that start in Canada? It caught me by surprise, but my partner shrugged and quipped: Didn’t it last for about a day? The customs guard said a derogatory remark about protestors — something about agitators — then stamped our passports and sent us on our way.

I tried to shake off my unease with that encounter by taking an afternoon walk to glimpse the White House from the front gates. I happened upon this:

What I saw in front of the White House.

Look closely: It was a fake President Obama, complete with fake security detail, right in front of the White House. Only in America. If stumbling across Fake Obama wasn’t enough, I could buy an Obama bobble head doll or drop a few dollars to snap a picture of myself at a fake White House Press Gallery.

I’ll admit it: I did both.

I probably should have doffed the jean jacket.

There were museums and all manner of tourist traps, but for a country whose politics encourage you to look up and revere the individual potential of being able to rise from rags to riches, it’s what I saw when I looked down at the sidewalk that lingers.

Many sidewalks — especially in Freedom Plaza — were inscripted with quotes from earlier Americans reminding their fellow citizens to think not only of their own personal fortunes, but that of others too.

Quote after quote reminded Americans about the power of the many, acting together for the benefit the majority.

“Our capital city, born in the Potomac marshlands, has grown by feeding on an indestructible idea” — Joel Sayre

An indestructible idea: This was borne of the dream that a nation built on the value of equality could be the driving force of hope, opportunity, and shared prosperity.

Empowered by the grandness of this idea, Americans looked to their President as a reflection of the will of the people – as Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, embedded on the sidewalk of Washington Plaza: “The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are, the President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him.”

The spirit of equality was at the root of the democratic notion. There was freedom, too, but in earlier times the word freedom represented the value of equality; it was about a promise that America could be a destination for those wishing to break free of the hierarchy they’d been born into in other countries. (At least in theory).

Words evoking the value of fairness and equality could be seen throughout the sidewalks of Washington, and beyond. On the cab ride to the airport, I passed the Commerce Department Building with this inscription embedded on its archway: “Commerce among nations should be fair and equitable” — Benjamin Franklin.

In 1800, John Adams expressed this hope for future Americans, embedded on the sidewalk of Freedom Plaza: “May the spirit which animated the great founder of this city descend to future generations.” In those early days, America’s founding fathers could never have imagined a Wal-Mart, let alone the reality that Wal-Mart’s six heirs would be worth more than the bottom 40 percent of Americans today.

Walking the streets of Washington, months after the Occupy movement in that city had taken over Freedom Plaza, it was impossible to shake the disconnect between America’s founding belief system and what’s changed. As this Truthout essay notes, America is in trouble:

“How do we detect when a society is in trouble – real trouble? What canary in the coal mine signals danger? The real signs of major trouble are to be found not only in huge deficits, unemployment, even terrorism. The time to pay close attention is when people begin to lose belief in things that once mattered profoundly – like the most important values that have given meaning to American history from the time of the Declaration of Independence: equality, liberty, and democracy. The long trends are ominous: … there is now massive evidence that for decades Americans have been steadily becoming less equal, less free, and less the masters of their own fate.”

While the Occupy movement attempted to speak truth to power by staring down Wall Street and reframing inequality as the 99% vs the 1%, the signs of anything changing soon aren’t obvious. In part, it’s because the notion of freedom in America has been delinked from the value of equality.

Freedom, especially post-9/11, is a word that strikes me as tapping into America’s darkest fears, rather than its greatest hopes.

“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, and our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks.” — George W. Bush, September 11, 2001.

“Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what they see right here in this chamber — a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” — George W. Bush, September 20, 2001.

“Extending the reach of freedom is the urgent need of our nation’s security and the calling of our time.” — George W. Bush.

The special irony is that, in the name of freedom, America has restricted movement between borders and placed restraints on the right to free speech, as illustrated in this essay by Naomi Wolf.

One evening, we went to the outskirts of Washington, to a suburb the locals described as a community in the process of gentrification. A group of young Americans walked up to the bar, to celebrate after an evening of ball playing. We got to talking about America and its greatness.

But what about health care, I asked.

Oh, I have health care coverage, one of the young men said.

You must have a good job with benefits, I responded.

I do, he said.

What about Americans who don’t have a good job with benefits like you have, I queried.

Yeah, I don’t have health care benefits, his friend acknowledged.

Oh, I’ll take care of him if he needs health care, the man said to me with a wink.

In Canada, I said, no one has to hope for the generosity of such an offer. If I fall ill and need health care, I’m covered — we all are. That’s the gift we give each other.

His friends started nodding in appreciation.

Well, the man said, raising a glass. Here’s to freedom.

Now I knew I was a guest in their country and I should have been a polite Canadian and raised my glass to freedom, but having spent the day soaking up the ethos of those words written out on the sidewalks of Washington, I simply couldn’t get myself to toast a word that has become so associated with military security, that has become so devoid of its original meaning.

Instead, I quoted an old Kris Kristofferson song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” You live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world, I said. You’re among the most prosperous generations to have ever lived. You should walk the streets of your fine city and remember the spirit with which America was built. In an era where six wealthy Americans own as much as the bottom 40% of Americans, it’s hard to fathom a system that makes it OK to enjoy your own private good benefits without striving to make them available to all. Freedom from the worry of falling ill, the worry that cancer will jettison you into a battle not just for your life, but also for the health of your bank account. Your generation has every opportunity at its disposal to go back to those founding values of equality and fairness, to set it right. That, not freedom, is what I’m happy to toast to.

His friends moved to raise their glasses, but he did not. I wished them all good health.

The gift we give each other

June 5, 2012

By Trish Hennessy

It can be easy to forget that taxes, while paid grudgingly, were never quite so vilified as they are today.

When my mother was born on the dusty Prairies in the heart of the Great Depression in 1935, Canadians didn’t know what a healthy, widespread middle class was like because it hadn’t yet been established.

They didn’t know income supports such as Employment Insurance or public pensions, because those didn’t exist yet either.

They didn’t know higher learning, because universities were then the domain of the very privileged few.

And they didn’t know a universal public health care system would one day become synonymous with what it means to be Canadian.

These, and many other cherished public services, didn’t exist the year my mother was born. But in a single lifetime, the world changed. By the time my mother was raising a young family, incomes in Canada were growing, jobs were aplenty, income inequality was narrowing, the physical infrastructure needed to support burgeoning cities had been laid down, and public programs that improved our quality of life had become part of the social fabric.

These were made possible not by the generosity of a few wealthy sponsors. Rather, we as Canadian citizens pooled our resources to fund this better life together. For ourselves, for our children, and for each other. We were taxpayers but, first and foremost, we were social citizens investing in one another and in our future.

There was pride in that investment. While we knew we couldn’t yet compare with more equal advanced societies such as Sweden and Norway, we saw that we were more equal and sharing in our prosperity than were our neighbours to the south, the United States.

We believed not just in the theory that one could go from rags to riches in a single lifetime; we also believed that our children and grandchildren would do better than their parents. That was the social bargain we had entered into with our governments, who were tasked with creating and protecting social programs and income supports that made Canada an enviable place to live.

Then, in the 1990s with a recession to contend with, Canadians were asked to share in the sacrifice of dealing with our governments’ fiscal deficits. There would be cuts to public programs in the short term. That was the ‘belt-tightening’ effort required to protect what we cherished. Things went downhill from there.

By the mid- to late-1990s, as the economy slowly recovered, a new era of politics took root in Canada: One that put the needs of the market ahead of the needs of the people; one that reduced governments to mere cash dispensers, promising tax cuts at every opportunity in hopes of buying a vote.

In focus group research, I’ve noticed with interest that most Canadians cannot put a price tag on the amount of tax cuts we’ve received. They would likely be surprised to know that, based on OECD data, the amount of revenue as a percentage of GDP has dropped from 36% in 1995 to 33%, the equivalent of nearly $50 billion annual loss in tax revenues that once paid for infrastructure, income supports, public services, education and health care.

Nearly $50 billion a year lost in the ether.

$41,000. That’s average amount middle-income Canadian families enjoy in public services that their taxes fund. It’s worth about 63% of their income.

You know what I find even more surprising? When Environics Research asked Canadians what they do that makes them feel like a good citizen, the most popular answer was ‘volunteer’, the second most popular response was ‘be kind/generous to others’, and the third answer? Pay taxes.

Taxes: The gift we give each other. With the help of Interlocutor Communications, sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Sécretariat Intersyndical des services publics, I made a really short video about it. If you love the public services our taxes fund, please pass it on.
The English version
The French version

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