Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Drug addiction should be a health, not criminal issue

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Canada is currently in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis.

The two most western provinces and territories — British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and the Northwest Territories — have been hit especially hard, likely due to their relative proximity to China, where much of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is produced.

According to Government of Canada statistics from 2016, B.C. and Yukon each had more than 15 opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, while Alberta and N.W.T. each had between 10 and 14.9 overdoses per 100,000 people.

This epidemic had led to a recognition in some quarters that the current approach of criminalizing drug use hasn’t been remotely effective in preventing deaths.

Safe injection sites, which will soon be coming to Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge are a positive development in handling opioid addiction as a health, rather than criminal, matter, but if we want to address the root cause of drug overdoses, we ought to take the bold step of decriminalizing drug use full stop.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh acknowledged this bitter reality when he said that personal drug use should be treated as a “social justice” rather than “criminal justice” matter.

Critics will say that decriminalizing drugs normalizes their use, but this objection misses the mark.

Decriminalizing drugs, as opposed to legalizing them, simply shifts the burden of dealing with them from police officers and lawyers to public health officials.

When people are physically addicted to substances like heroin or fentanyl, illegality is not going to stop them from using.

The question is whether they’re going to share needles, and risk contracting HIV, buy impure drugs off the streets to get their fix, risking a fentanyl overdose, or engage in other criminal activities to get money for their addiction.

Decriminalization allows public health officials — people who actually study drugs and their effects — the latitude to deal with the opioid crisis in the most effective way possible.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, arguably the epicentre of Canada’s opioid crisis, has taken this approach.

Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic not only provides opioid users with a place to do their drugs safely, but also prescribes them free medical doses to avoid overdoses and allow addicts to spend their money on necessities.

Naturally, there are many people uncomfortable with giving addicts their fix, but once one thinks about drug abuse as a health issue, it’s a perfectly sensible approach.

It’s not as if anyone can walk into the Crosstown Clinic and receive free heroin. They must demonstrate a need.

These are people who tried heroin alternatives like suboxone and methadone and still couldn’t get clean.

Not only does this program prevent needless deaths, but it allows the most severe addicts to function as members of society, rather than outcasting them as criminals and junkies.

Drug policy is in the federal government’s jurisdiction, so the provinces are somewhat constrained, but the Crosstown Clinic shows that municipal governments, with the province’s blessing, can do more to address the opioid crisis.

The Alberta Government acknowledges the need for harm reduction in its opioid crisis response, which includes safe consumption sites, peer support and drug substitution therapy.

This is a solid first step in the right direction, but the Alberta NDP should take the bold next step and do what it can as a provincial government to stop treating addicts as criminals.

If enough provinces take B.C.’s approach, then the federal government, which already supports supervised consumption sites, will take note and hopefully take steps towards reducing the bloated Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Rights of LGBTQ students should be non-negotiable

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

U.S.-style culture wars are coming to Alberta.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney recently announced that he will oppose the NDP government’s new bill codifying support for gay-straight alliances in the province’s schools.

Bill 24, an expansion on Bill 10 from earlier this year, forbids teachers from divulging a student’s membership in a GSA to parents without the student’s consent, which will have the impact of blocking educators from potentially outing LGBTQ kids to their parents.

Kenney’s opposition to this common-sense measure is a blow to those moderates who hoped Kenney would pivot away from the social conservatism that has defined much of his political career after winning his party’s leadership.

Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown did just that after winning his party’s leadership with support from social conservative elements. He even marched in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade.

Kenney has decided not to take this route, instead launching a full-scale assault against GSAs under the guise of parental rights.

The UCP weren’t allowed to participate in Calgary Pride until they demonstrate their commitment to LGBTQ rights. Kenney’s level of commitment is now on full display.

Kudos to Education Minister David Eggen for standing up for Alberta’s LGBTQ students. Is Bill 24 a political move designed to paint the Conservatives as stodgy social conservatives in the runup to the 2019 election?

Absolutely. But Kenney has so far done everything in his power to promote this view.

Politics aside, it is of the utmost importance that any potential future government has a difficult time reversing the progress the NDP has made for LGBTQ rights in the province.

It doesn’t matter what one thinks of the NDP’s fiscal record. The rights of the province’s LGBTQ students to join a GSA should not be subject to debate.

Kenney is a shrewd political actor. He wouldn’t have taken this position if there weren’t electoral gains to be made from it.

The Alberta Teachers Association, which Kenney accused of encouraging its members to join the nowdefunct Wildrose party en masse to block the merger with the PC party that brought about the UCP, wants to speak with the UCP leader to clarify his misconceptions about GSAs.

Kenney won’t bite, saying only that he’s spoken to “hundreds” of teachers who expressed their concerns, but the ATA represents 46,000 members across the province.

Kenney has been peddling blatant misinformation about GSAs. In a recent news conference, he suggested that they’ll be teaching sex ed.

GSAs are a social club, not a classroom. The only thing they’ll be teaching is that there’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQ, something that every party leader should support.

Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who supported Kenney during the UCP leadership race, said that although he supports GSAs, he’s also in favour of notifying parents when their child joins one, barring extenuating circumstances.

Bill 24 does the opposite, prohibiting educators from notifying parents except in circumstances where the child is at risk. That’s as it should be.

Barnes and Kenney can’t have it both ways. Either they support GSAs, which allow LGBTQ students and their allies a space to gather away from any homophobia that is all too real in schools, or they don’t.

Notifying parents of a student’s GSA membership defeats this purpose, by possibly exposing them to homophobia at home.

There’s no justification to willfully run that risk, with all the progress with LGBTQ rights that have been made in recent years.

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Opinion, Published Articles

Calgary Flames lose political fight to Mayor Nenshi over new arena

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi won a third consecutive term on Monday, confounding pollsters who predicted his political demise was imminent.

Nenshi, who was voted world’s top mayor by the World Mayor Project in 2014, was reported to be down between nine and 17 percentage points to challenger Bill Smith in multiple polls by Mainstream Research, whose president Quito Maggi acknowledged major “polling failures” after Nenshi’s re-election.

No kidding. Nenshi ultimately won the race by seven percentage points.

This wouldn’t be the first time in the past couple years that polling agencies have miscalculated — on an even greater scale, few predicted that Donald Trump would become U.S. president or the United Kingdom would vote to leave the European Union.

What was unique for a municipal election was the array of powerful forces aligned against Nenshi returning to power, most prominently the Calgary Flames ownership, who didn’t appreciate the mayor’s hardball tactics during negotiations for a new arena in downtown Calgary.

The cost of replacing the Scotiabank Saddledome was pegged by the city at $555 million. It offered to pay $185 million, including the cost of demolishing the current arena. The Flames would then directly pay another $185 million and the other $185 million would be raised from a 35-year ticket tax financed by the franchise.

The team’s offer was for a $500-million project, which it said would cost the city $225 million and the Flames $275 million.

However, the club demanded the city offer free transit for those attending events at the new arena, which would cost the city $10 million in foregone revenue every year. They also wanted Calgary to fund the ticket tax, despite including it under the team’s costs.

The Flames ownership disingenuously claimed they weren’t playing politics with the new arena.

But the team’s vice president, Gordon Norrie, tweeted his support for Smith on the day of election from his official @CalgaryFlamesVP account.

He also repeatedly accused Nenshi of “arrogance” throughout the election campaign.

And Norrie wasn’t just acting as a rogue executive.

After Nenshi’s re-election, the Flames director of communications Sean Kelso tweeted that Nenshi is worse for Calgary than Trump is for the U.S. Echoing Norrie, he added “#arrogance” to his tweet.

Both men are, of course, entitled to their opinion, but to claim that they weren’t trying to put their thumbs on the scale for Smith is simply untrue.

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman also joined the fracas, blaming Nenshi for the impasse in negotiations, suggesting that the Flames may have to leave town if they don’t get their way.

The negotiations will undoubtedly continue. The costs of moving a popular hockey franchise outweigh the benefits.

Just ask Winnipeggers.

The Winnipeg Jets were relocated to Arizona in 1996, rechristened as the Coyotes, and declared bankruptcy in 2009. The Coyotes remain a financially-troubled franchise, but the failure of the Atlanta Thrashers brought the Jets back to Winnipeg in 2011, no doubt a costly endeavour for all involved.

Back to politics, Nenshi now has a mandate to ensure taxpayers get the best deal from a large company that can afford to pony up significant sums of cash for a new arena.

As Jen Gerson wrote in Wednesday’s National Post, “the idea that taxpayer funds should prop up a new building so billionaire owners can make extra bank on luxury boxes just doesn’t bring a tear to my eye.”

Nor should it.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

UCP leadership race has some Seinfeldian overtones

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

The United Conservative Party leadership race is shaping up to be the Seinfeld of Alberta electoral politics. That is, a race about nothing.

Instead of concrete policy proposals, the contest thus far has been more about broader themes than specific policies.

It doesn’t help that one frontrunner, former PC party leader Jason Kenney, is openly refusing to release specific planks unless he wins.

His competitors — former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, Calgary-based attorney Doug Schweitzer and former Wildrose president Jeff Callaway — have each released a smattering of policy proposals here and there, but are mostly sticking to UCP talking points.

They all want to cut taxes and balance the budget (though how they plan to do both concurrently remains a mystery), tame a purportedly out of control public sector and punish British Columbia for opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

Each candidate agrees on these themes, but has different means of addressing them, with the exception of Kenney.

Like George Costanza in the series of Seinfeld episodes when he and Jerry are pitching a sitcom to NBC, Kenney insists that the leadership show must be about nothing.

As the most recent Leader of Opposition, Brian Jean would be the show’s titular character. He’s also the most popular of the four candidates amongst Albertans, with 51 per cent saying he’s the most suitable to be leader, according to a ThinkHQ poll reported by Global News.

He and Kenney initiated the merger of their two conservative parties that sparked this race, just as Seinfeld and Larry David, on whom George is based, conceived of the sitcom.

Jean vows $2.6 billion in budget cuts, referendums on photo radar and equalization payments, and a full repeal of Notley’s carbon tax.

His wacky neighbour, the Kramer of the leadership race, is Callaway, whose signature proposal is to purchase Manitoba’s Port of Hope to get Alberta’s oil to foreign markets, given the B.C. NDP’s reluctance to allow more pipelines through its territory.

This harebrained scheme to purchase another province’s port is one the likes of which only Kramer could conceive.

Given his outspoken social progressivism, Doug Schweitzer is the Elaine of the race.

Elaine, portrayed by the now-legendary Julia Louis-Dreyfus, won’t date someone who’s anti-abortion and Schweitzer doesn’t want to lead a party that rejects a woman’s right to choose.

But Schweitzer is no Dipper. He wants to kick B.C. out of the New West Partnership if they don’t accept Kinder Morgan and radically alter the province’s income taxation to create two flat brackets — nine per cent for those who make less than $100,000 per year and 10 per cent for those who make more than $100,000 annually.

After the first leadership debate, Jean, Kenney and Callaway rushed to social media to declare themselves the winner, as if it were a boxing match.

Schweitzer was the only one not to unilaterally declare victory, which shows good character.

In a race about nothing, that goes a long way.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

‘School choice’ unfair to public purse

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Charter schools, which are essentially publicly-funded private schools that parents receive vouchers to enrol their children in, are socially destructive institutions.

Alberta is the only province that makes charter schools a publicly-funded alternative to public schools by law. This has got to stop.

My main objection to charter schools is twofold — for students and parents, they drain taxpayer dollars from the public school system, preventing it from achieving its full potential. From teachers’ perspective, they weaken collective bargaining rights, as charter teachers are prohibited from joining the Alberta Teachers’ Association, which limits the union’s ability to fight for increased benefits for all teachers in the province.

UCP leadership frontrunners Brian Jean and Jason Kenney are both staunch supporters of what they call “school choice,” giving parents the opportunity to send their children to private schools on the public dime, an odd position for people who pride themselves on their fiscal prudence to take.

NDP Education Minister David Eggen is often accused by his political opponents of harbouring a hidden agenda against charter schools, but he’s done nothing thus far to prevent their proliferation.

When they were brought to Alberta as a U.S. import in 1994 by the hard-right government of then-premier Ralph Klein, there was a cap on the number of charter schools permitted in the province.

Interestingly, the previous PC government of the generally more moderate Jim Prentice vowed to remove Klein’s cap, but the NDP won the 2015 election with no such intention.

The theory behind charter schools is that they would encourage competition, forcing public schools to compete with them and adopt their stronger suites, like smaller class sizes. It’s hard for public schools to do this while they’re competing for funding with schools that have lesser obligations to their students and educators than they do.

For example, charter schools are under no obligation to accommodate students with special needs, as public schools are.

Charter schools also lack democratic accountability. Unlike Alberta’s Catholic and public schools, they don’t have a school board with elected trustees.

There’s the notion amongst charter school proponents that alternative teaching methods practised in charter schools will “trickle down” to the public school system. This assumes that charter schools are above public schools, which is itself problematic

If there are two school systems competing for the same pool of tax dollars, why is one of them considered to be superior to the other?

The answer isn’t more public funding of what should be private educational institutions, but disposing with the concept that certain types of private schools are entitled to public dollars.

The government ought to be funding the public school system solely. If parents want to provide their children with an alternative education, they can pay tuition.

The question of whether parents should be permitted to segregate their children through private education is a different story.

In an ideal world, everyone would send their kids to a strong public school system that is well-funded and respects everyone’s differences. One step towards that would be to cut off funding for charter education and use those funds to make Alberta’s public system as great as it can be.

If the NDP government is serious about increasing funding for public schools and supporting organized labour, they should start by cutting charter schools loose.

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Canadian Politics (Federal), Opinion, Published Articles, U.S. Politics

Beware of those who cry ‘fake news’

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Since last year’s U.S. Election, the term ‘fake news’ has entered our political discourse like a ton of bricks.

Although intended to signal an actual phenomenon — web articles that appear to be actual news but are entirely fabricated to serve a political agenda — the term has taken on a life of its own.

It seems that those who are most quick to label reporting they dislike “fake news” are its truest purveyors.

As George Orwell wrote in his masterful 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.” What he said then of the ‘fascist’ label could be said of the ‘fake news’ epithet today.

The most prominent practitioner of calling undesirable news fake is, of course, U.S. President Donald Trump, who refused to allow CNN reporter Jim Acosta to ask a question at one of his first presidential press briefings, because, “You’re fake news.”

The question of whether fake news — like an article that baselessly claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed The Donald — helped propel Trump to victory in the U.S. Electoral College is entirely debatable.

That Trump himself used blatant falsehoods to stir up emotion amongst his supporters, however, both on the campaign trail and in office, is beyond dispute.

Some of his most egregious claims, for those in need of a refresher, include the allegation that three million people voted illegally in the election where he lost the popular vote by three million, that he personally witnessed thousands of Muslims celebrating on the streets of New Jersey after the September 11 terrorist attacks and, my personal favourite, his insinuation that “Lyin’” Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination.

Clearly, when Trump cries “fake news,” he’s projecting his insecurities onto the American news media, which although not without its flaws and frailties, is largely in the business of reporting facts.

This psychological projection is by no means exclusive to the pro-Trump crowd, or even the U.S.

Here in Canada, there are those who criticize “the media” for its apparent coziness with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, citing the soft news surrounding our media savvy prime minister, such as his Star Wars socks that inexplicably got international media coverage.

It’s rather disingenuous to claim that the Canadian media hasn’t covered Trudeau’s ethical lapses, such as his cash-for-access fundraisers that are increasingly being outlawed provincially.

Sure, the media as a whole could do better reporting hard news rather than fluff, but this has little to do with ideological bent.

It’s more about how revenues are generated in the digital world. Traditional newspapers and news media outlets need content that generates clicks, which generate advertising revenue, which allows them to chase important stories.

There is no such singular entity as the media — different media organizations have distinct ideological bents, and that’s as it should be.

With that said, there’s certainly a credibility gap in news reporting.

The New York Times, which in many ways is the gold standard of news reporting, has yet to fully recover its credibility after it presented allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, based on the claims of anonymous sources within the Bush administration, as objective fact.

This significantly weakens the paper’s clout when it goes after fake news sources, whether it’s the president of the United States or Russian bots.

Skeptics can point to its role in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and ask how the Times is any different.

This is a misguided criticism, as most newspapers, though they all have an ideological slant, don’t generally fabricate news for ideological purposes.

When we lump the news media, for all its flaws, together with the malicious intentions of fake news, we do a disservice to the journalists who put all they’ve got into holding the powerful to account, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.

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Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Time for a name change

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

The Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Edmonton Eskimos recently stopped in Whitecourt and Grande Prairie as part of their northern Alberta tour.

The trip has been presented as an opportunity to engage northern Albertans in the CFL by giving locals the opportunity to meet players from the closest CFL team.

But if the Eskimos are truly serious about engaging northern Albertans, they may want to consider changing their team’s name from a term used for Inuit people, many of whom reside in province’s north.

As Natan Obed, president of Canada’s national Inuit organization, observed in 2015 Globe and Mail opinion piece, ‘Eskimo’ has never been a term Inuit people have used to describe themselves. It was imposed on them by European settlers as part of the colonization process.

“The CFL football team does not honour our culture, our history, our present, or our future. The name is an enduring relic of colonial power,” wrote Obed.

It’s not just the Eskimos that have an offensive team name, of course. There’s the Cleveland Indians in baseball, Washington Redskins in American football and hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks, to name but a few.

These team names share a common thread — they’re all directed at indigenous peoples.

It’s noteworthy that Edmonton’s CFL team is the only professional Canadian sports franchise faced with this issue.

Canadians often pride ourselves on being more tolerant than our southern neighbours, so let’s act the part.

Particularly at a time of heightened awareness regarding the plight of aboriginals, it would be a measure of considerable goodwill for the team owners to at least consider a name change.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, a former CFL commissioner, said last year that the time was right for the Eskimos to change their name to something more inclusive.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, whose overall politics are far more progressive than Tory’s, has been conspicuously absent from the debate, merely calling it “an important (question) to grapple with.”

Understandably, Iveson doesn’t want to offend fans of a popular franchise, but sometimes one must risk offence to do the right thing, particularly when it’s as simple as changing a name.

The CFL continues to defend the Eskimos brand, pointing out that the team doesn’t use race imagery in its advertising, unlike the Cleveland Indians’ notorious Chief Wahoo.

If the team is genuinely trying to avoid using discriminatory images, then it’s all the more reason for them to change its name.

So what would Edmonton’s CFL team change its name to?

Nearly anything would be less odious then the current moniker, but I think Tory was correct to suggest the team hold a contest for fans to select a new name.

This would be a means of truly engaging the entire community with the franchise, while demonstrating respect for indigenous peoples by treating their diversity of cultures as more than a caricature.

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