Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's gutsy to say no to the kirpan

This past week, Quebecers openly showed what it is to be a distinct society within Canada.

On Jan. 18, four members of the World Sikh Organization of Canada were refused access to the National Assembly of Quebec because they were wearing kirpans.

Ironically, the members of the Sikh community kicked out of the National Assembly were trying to get in to present their views on Bill 94, anti-niqab and anti-burka legislation that would require anyone dispensing or receiving a government-paid service in places like hospitals and schools to show their faces.

While carrying a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, in the Quebec National Assembly is considered dangerous, it is allowed in Quebec schools. Supreme Court judges unanimously decided in 2006 to allow a Montreal student to attend school with his kirpan.

The judgment even underlined that banning it would violate the charter’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

But for a strong majority of Quebecers, whether it is an article of faith or not, a kirpan is first and foremost a weapon. If a knife is not allowed on a plane, why should it be allowed in parliament? And no one has forgotten the shooting in May 1984 when Cpl. Denis Lortie killed three and injured 13 people in the National Assembly.

The different reactions of the two solitudes were interesting. In Quebec City, the Charest government’s response was wishy-washy. Immigration minister Kathleen Weil left it up to the National Assembly’s security to decide, while opposition parties cheered at the ban.

Parti Quebecois spokesman Louise Beaudoin, reminded of her earlier disagreement with the Supreme Court’s decision on the kirpan, even declared “multiculturalism may be a Canadian value. But it is not a Quebec one.”

The Action democratique du Quebec went a step further by asking the Sikh community living in Quebec to obey their duty of reasonable accommodation for the majority.

“It’s part of the accommodation. If you come here, you put your kirpan aside,” said the ADQ leader, Gerard Deltell.

MNA Francois Bonnardel added “a weapon is a weapon, period. There is no tolerance. If I founded a sect and decided a Swiss knife is my object of worship, would you allow me in the National Assembly?”

In Ottawa, the Bloc Quebecois smelled a good wedge issue. It now wants to push for the ban of kirpans in the House of Commons.

Politically skilful, the Conservatives escaped the question by attacking the Bloc for its misplaced priorities, accusing Gilles Duceppe’s party of not being interested in economic issues.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff showed once more how far from the Quebec mainstream he is by defending the ceremonial dagger as a symbol of tolerance and religious freedom. The weapon Quebecers in the vote-rich regions wanted him to defend was not the kirpan but the gun.

The PQ’s Beaudoin might have phrased it in a way to promote her sovereignist views, but she is right in recognizing the issue at stake.

The kirpan debate brings back on the table, once more, the excesses of Canadian multiculturalism. No politician outside of Quebec might have the guts to admit it publicly, but I am quite sure many English Canadians feel very Quebecois on this distinct issue.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Virtue, Moir pull out of skating nationals

Olympic and world ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are withdrawing from this week's BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships.

Virtue and Moir, who missed the entire fall ISU Grand Prix season after Virtue underwent leg surgery, said Monday they plan to return for the prestigious Four Continents event in mid-February in Taiwan, and to defend their world title in late March in Tokyo.

"Our plan is to be Four Continents champions and world champions," Moir told reporters on a conference call, adding he'd be "extremely shocked" if he and Virtue didn't compete at those events.

The two aren't required to skate at the nationals to be named to Canada's world championship team in late March, Skate Canada CEO William Thompson confirmed.

Virtue said her comeback is going well and the team is excited to unveil its new programs, but she and Moir didn't feel they were quite ready for competition.

"While our training has been amazing, we haven't been able to master the programs to skate them at 100 per cent," Virtue said.
Chan top draw in Victoria

Virtue had surgery in the fall to alleviate chronic aching in her lower legs caused by compartment syndrome — a condition caused when the muscles can't expand within the tissue that contains them.

The 21-year-old from London, Ont., had the same surgery — but on different lower-leg muscles — in the fall of 2008, and she and Moir returned to win the Canadian title less than four months later.

But the pain lingered, hampering Virtue even as she and Moir, a 23-year-old from Ilderton, Ont., won Olympic gold last February in Vancouver and went on to claim their first world title a month later in Turin, Italy.

With the top pair out, 2010 silver medallists Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier will be favoured to take their first Canadian ice dance title. They finished third at last month's Grand Prix final.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who finished fifth at that event, are also expected to contend for the national championship.

The absence of Virtue and Moir leaves Patrick Chan as the top draw when the Canadian championships begin Friday at Victoria's Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. The reigning three-time men's national champ won his first major international title last month when he took the ISU Grand Prix Final in Beijing.

Reigning Canadian women's champion Joannie Rochette hasn't skated competitively since earning bronze at the Vancouver Olympics shortly after the death of her mother. Rochette is taking the season off to decide on her future in the sport.

Skate Canada's Thompson said he expects a strong event even without Virtue and Moir.

"You don't want to lose your Olympic champions, but I think there's an awful lot of good skaters still competing and it will still be an excellent event."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Farmers must prepare to defend food prices

Owen Roberts, Urban Cowboy

Global food prices are on the rise after having spiked over the past six months.

An announcement last week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization put farming on the front pages, saying worldwide food prices hit record numbers in December.

Look at that again. Food prices hit record numbers.

Yet, we hardly notice. Despite the fact that food is essential, it’s so cheap relative to other commodities and pursuits in the developed world, that even when it hits a peak it’s mostly a hiccup in our lives.

Think about what happens when other record numbers appear.

Record high oil prices send car shoppers scurrying for Smart Cars, Honda Fits, Nissan Micras and Kia Rios.

Skyrocketing interest rates (remember them?) drive home seekers to rental units.

Plunging and stubbornly low temperatures prompt housebound Canadians to flock to the Caribbean.

But food’s different, and I wonder if most of us had a clue that in December food prices hit the ceiling. Likely not. The pinnacle occurred during the height of consumer spending for Christmas, when almost anything goes. So what if food’s a little more expensive? Everything is expensive at Christmas. Many consumers wouldn’t notice, let alone raise an eyebrow over it.

Before long, though, someone other than economists will need to answer for this spike. I suspect it will be farmers, because inevitably that’s where fingers will point.

Here’s why. Many of the wholesale items found in the international food basket (the one scrutinized for food-price analysis) are straight from the farm — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans. And since June, some of them gained value by double-digit percentages. Wheat, in fact, was up almost 70 per cent. Corn rose more than 50 per cent.

Again, did anyone notice?

At some point, people will. Inevitably, these gains will make their way down to consumers. Processors and retailers won’t absorb them for long.

Then, farmers, it will be over to you.

Ironically, it’s easier to explain the price spike globally than domestically, and graphically show the reasons it exists. For example, weather calamities in major agricultural countries such as Russia and Ukraine (drought) and Australia (flooding), as well as western Canada (too much precipitation), led to pressure on supplies, which meant higher prices. Video captures these situations easily.

But how do you graphically show chronically low prices? It’s reasonable for consumers to wonder how farmers could have existed on prices that were half as high as they are now. It’s understandable that record prices, then, could conjure up some suspicion of gouging.

Farmers need to head this off at the pass. Price spikes give them a golden opportunity to recount the misery-laden past, to recount how commodity prices have been in the basement for decades. That explains why grain farmers have mostly been scraping by, having to resort to huge federal aid some years, at he same time expanding their operations to realize economies of scale to survive. The price spike is actually just getting them to where they need to be, to make a decent living.

That, however, is poorly understood, and when prices rise farmers are vilified. It happened in 2008, and steps must be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. No one else in the so-called value chain will take the hit, and it’s easy to blame farmers.

Local food’s popularity is helping warm up consumers to the concept of fairer prices for farmers. But it’s a slow process. Education, rather than price-spike pressure, is how to get there calmly and sustainably.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

U.S. Steel workers boosted by picket line visit

U.S. Steel workers have been given a $10,000 morale boost.

The national and Ontario presidents of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who visited the picket line Tuesday to express support for the worker’s pension fight, brought a generous cheque for the strike fund as well as their encouraging words.

“We want you to know that you’re not alone in your struggle to defend pensions and indexing,” national president Paul Moist told about 50 people at the Wilcox Street picket line. “This company should return to the bargaining table and take its concession demands off the table.”

About 900 Hamilton workers were locked out of the former Stelco plant Nov. 7 by their American employer after refusing to accept company demands for radical changes in their pension plans, including the loss of indexing for about 9,000 area retirees.

In an interview, Moist said if private sector employers win the fight to eliminate indexing and defined benefit pension plans, public sector workers will soon face the same fight.

“This pension fight is not confined to the private sector. If private sector employers win this, then it’s only a stone’s throw to the public sector,” he said. “This is a fight for the entire labour movement, not just the Steelworkers.”

That theme will play large on Jan. 29 when workers stage a day of action against the company at city hall.

U.S. Steel locked out the Hamilton workers, members of Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers, after they rejected company demands to close the existing defined benefit pension plan to new hires. New employees would be directed instead to a defined contribution savings plan.

Defined benefit plans pay a fixed pension per month, often calculated by multiplying a percentage of average pay by years of service. Defined contribution schemes mimic registered retirement savings plans by paying according to how much has been saved over the years and what that pool has earned.

Employers dislike defined benefit plans because provincial law requires that those plans hold enough money to pay current and future obligations if the employer goes out of business. If the plan is underfunded, the employer must make up the shortfall within five years.

As a result of contribution holidays Stelco awarded itself, along with years of bad stock market returns, the former Stelco plans are about $1.2 billion short of that goal.

U.S. Steel has also demanded an end to pension indexing for retirees. Since 1990, Stelco retirees get increases of up to 3 per cent in their pensions based on a formula that balances cost of living increases with the performance of the markets. Last year, that produced an increase of just under 1 per cent, or $10 per $1,000 of pension.

While the annual increases are small, over time they help slow the eroding effect of inflation on retirement income. According to the union, indexing means a worker who retired in 1990 with a pension of $1,000 a month is now getting more than $1,300.

Moist and CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn also flogged the federal government for allowing U.S. Steel to buy Stelco in 2007. That deal, they said, is an example of how the Investment Canada Act fails to protect Canadian workers.

“Clearly the Investment Canada Act doesn’t seem to be working for Canadians,” Moist said. “Corporations are coming here and breaking promise after promise.”

When U.S. Steel got federal approval to buy Stelco, the company promised to maintain production and employment levels for three years. Within one year, however, the entire Canadian operation had been shuttered and U.S. Steel was serving Canadian customers from its American mills. The federal government has launched a lawsuit over those broken commitments and is seeking penalties now totalling about $15 million.

Hahn accused the government of betraying workers by not taking a stronger position against the company.

“Why isn’t the Ministry of Labour telling this company to get back to the bargaining table?” he asked. “Politicians are failing the people who elected them.”

Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina was also on the picket line yesterday, telling workers “If U.S. Steel is not interested in operating this plant, then we should get someone who is.”