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.

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.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Let GSAs do their job

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney recently came under justified criticism for insensitive remarks he made about gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

Kenney said that under his premiership, parents would be notified if their children were a member of a GSA, essentially an extra-curricular club for students to get together and socialize under the rubric of support for LGBTQ rights.

The problem with Kenney’s proposal is that this notification may be how parents find out their kids are gay, which is especially problematic if the parents are homophobic. It would have the effect of outing homosexual students to their family, something that makes the already difficult process of coming out even harder.

The law mandating GSAs if students request one, Bill 10, was ironically first proposed by the late leader of Kenney’s party, Jim Prentice. But it wasn’t implemented until the New Democrats won the 2015 election.

The Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association said they would send letters home to parents of students who request to form or join a GSA when the PC’s first came forward with their legislation to make GSAs obligatory.

This can be contrasted with the two Edmonton-area Baptist schools that are currently refusing to even submit a draft policy to Education Minister David Eggen, as the NDP government has requested of every school.

I’m not sure what’s worse — no provincially-mandated GSAs or ones that are completely toothless and don’t allow LGBTQ students solace from an often-hostile outside world.

It’s certainly a good thing that GSAs have become so publicly accepted that we’re no longer debating whether they should exist at all but how they operate. But their operation should be left up to the GSAs themselves, not dictated by politicians or school boards.

To be fair, Kenney said his proposal wouldn’t apply to abusive parents, but this exception itself raises some questions.

How would the school board know which parents are abusive? Is he talking only of physical abuse or the greyer area of emotional abuse? Does homophobia count as abuse under this framework?

With this stipulation, Kenney is throwing GSA advocates a bone while speaking out of the other side of his mouth to homophobes.

It’s worth noting that Kenney’s record on LGBTQ rights is lacking, to put it mildly.

In 1998, when the PC leader was a young firebrand MP for the Reform Party, he staunchly opposed the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in favour of an Edmonton teacher, Delwin Vriend, who was fired from a Christian school for being gay.

This landmark ruling resulted in sexual orientation gaining protection under Alberta’s human rights legislation.

Kenney was aghast, standing in the House of Commons to denounce what he considered, “an unprecedented attack on democracy and on our constitutional order in what can only be described as an exercise as raw judicial power.”

Back to GSAs, Wildrose leader Brian Jean spoke out against Kenney’s proposal. This is particularly impressive coming from the leader of a party that as recently as 2012 had a candidate damn homosexuals to an eternity in a “lake of fire.”

In an April 5 Facebook post, Jean said, “that a child struggling with his or her identity or sexuality, I believe they should not be forced to talk about it before they are ready,” which is pretty close to the NDP’s position.

There’s no doubt some politics at play here, with the looming merger of the PC and Wildrose parties and necessary leadership race for the new conservative entity.

Kenney and Jean appear to be trading places with their bases, with the PC leader appealing to the hard right and the Wildrose leader pitching himself to the centre.

Time will tell which approach is more successful, or if the NDP can successfully turn this into a wedge issue for the 2019 election.

Either way, GSAs are a valuable tool in the fight against homophobia and should be permitted to operate independently.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

The virtues of Daylight Savings Time

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Daylight Savings Time (DST), when we move our clocks forward an hour in anticipation of springtime, has acquired a bad reputation.

NDP MLA Thomas Dang, with the support of PC MLA and leadership candidate Richard Starke, recently introduced a private member’s bill in Alberta legislature that would abolish DST in the Wildrose province, syncing its time zone up with Saskatchewan’s central time, saying, “It’s time we had one time.” In most parts of Saskatchewan, moving their clocks forward is a thing of the past.

The practice has been in Alberta since it was introduced by plebiscite in 1971 and now Starke wants to have a plebiscite on its removal. Dang said 82 per cent of respondents to a government-commissioned survey said they want to end DST.

Sure, nobody likes to have to start waking up an hour early in the middle of March, but DST is still quite valuable. Many people enjoy the longer days during the summer and their attendant social and health benefits — more vitamin D, increased exercise, more time spent socializing and overall improvements in mental health, according to the American National Institute of Health — as a result of the time-shift.

HBO comedian John Oliver, whom I often find myself agreeing with, criticized DST last year, arguing that it’s an anachronism from a time when Western societies were largely agrarian and farmers required maximal daylight. It serves no practical purpose today and may in fact cause harm due to the loss of sleep, he contended.

But, this explanation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Farmers have long been opposed to DST, since their livestock don’t adjust well to the time changes. In fact, Dang said farmers overwhelmingly support his legislation.

Perhaps the provincial government is trying to reach out to farmers after their farm safety legislation, Bill 6, upset that community.

TV executives are also not fans of the time change, but for entirely different reasons — people don’t watch as much television when they’re enjoying the outdoors. Maybe that explains Oliver’s opposition.

The original goal of DST was to save night time energy use by having the sun up until later. It was introduced in post-World War I Germany to save on coal for that devastated economy. The impact of DST on energy use is highly debatable, but it’s a goal the provincial NDP ought to be sympathetic to, given their emphasis on energy preservation.

There are indeed widespread benefits to having more daylight in spring and summer, although the time adjustment is not without its possible hazards, as Oliver alluded to in his segment.

For instance, according to Dan Nosowitz of Popular Mechanics, traffic accidents tend to increase in the week following the March clock change, as drivers tend to be sluggish from losing an hour of sleep. However, since people tend to drive better in the light, Nosowitz suspects that there would be a decrease in accidents throughout DST’s eight-month duration.

Having it stay light out later also results in an overall decrease in crime. “The reason is simple: crimes tend to happen much more often in darkness. Extend the daylight, and crimes, especially outdoor crimes like muggings, go down,” writes Nosowitz.

So no matter how you put it, DST is a mixed bag — people lose a bit of sleep, which has negative consequences, but they also spend more time outdoors, with positive results.

In other words, “DST is both a rebellion against the clock and an acceptance that we are all slaves to the clock,” writes Nosowitz.

It’s far from perfect, but eliminating it is no magic bullet.

Canadian Politics (Federal), Opinion, Published Articles

Harper’s race-baiting a sign of weakness

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in Humber Et Cetera

The barbarians are coming, says an increasingly desperate-sounding Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper began his marathon election campaign down in the polls, so he hired Lynton Crosbie, an Australian right-wing political strategist who helped orchestrate victories for Harper’s pals John Howard in Australia and David Cameron in the U.K.

The BBC has described Crosbie as a “master of the political dark arts,” the reasons for which will hopefully be clear by this column’s conclusion.

First, the prime minister resurrects his government’s legal feud with Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim woman from Mississauga who does not want to take off her niqab in front of the court where she’s receiving Canadian citizenship.

Ishaq has no problem unveiling herself privately for identification purposes, but this is not enough for the Harper Cons.

“That’s not the way we do things here in Canada,” said Harper with characteristic smugness.

Shockingly, a vast majority of Canadians agree with the forced unveiling of women in public, something more common to the Shah’s Iran than Canada’s purported cultural mosaic.

According to a government-commissioned poll, 82 per cent of Canadians support forcing devout Muslim women to unveil for their citizenship ceremony. This percentage increases to 93 per cent in Quebec, where most of the NDP’s seats are based after 2011’s Orange Wave under the late Jack Layton.

The NDP is staunchly opposed to any niqab ban and their poll numbers in Quebec have plummeted since Harper made it an election issue.

One wonders whether the poll’s respondents were informed that a niqabi can privately unveil themselves to a female court official if they choose not to do so in public. The omission of this fact could skew the poll’s results.

The courts have twice ruled in Ishaq’s favour, but to the Harper Cons that just means the courts are doubly wrong.

“I don’t much like the niqab and I wish that people wouldn’t wear it. But what I like even less is telling people what to do,” said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, himself a Muslim.

How is forcing a woman to take off her niqab any better than forcing her to wear it?

Good question, Mayor Nenshi.

The source of Harper’s animosity towards the niqab appears to stem from his crusade against ill-defined “barbaric cultural practices.”

This began when the government announced its plan to make forced marriages, female genital mutilation and honour killings illegal. As you can imagine, these are already criminal acts in Canada.

Yet the Tories took their fear mongering a step further, pledging a hotline for Canadians to snitch on those nebulous barbarians.

The RCMP already has a hotline to report suspected extremism, but it’s not particularly useful. The National Post, a paper generally sympathetic to the Harper Cons’ worldview, reports that 92 per cent of tips were completely bogus.

Although none of the aforementioned barbaric acts is exclusive to Muslim communities, it’s clear who Harper is targeting with this pledge.

Remember, Harper says, we need to be worried about what’s going on in mosques specifically.

This explains the prime minister’s previous outright refusal, as revealed by the Globe and Mail Thursday, to allow Sunni Muslim refugees from Syria settling in Canada, hiding behind the rhetoric of helping Syrian minorities.

This is all coming from a government that’s in the process of selling $15 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a medieval theocracy guilty of “barbaric cultural practices” if there is such a thing.

Former Ontario premier Bob Rae came out swinging against Harper’s divisive rhetoric.

“Somebody says it’s a dog whistle – it’s not a dog-whistle, it’s a foghorn,” Rae told the CBC Monday.

The foghorn is only getting louder as the Oct. 19 election approaches.


Canadian Politics (Federal), Global Affairs, Opinion, Published Articles

Fahmy free, but lots of blame to go around

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in Humber Et Cetera

Welcome home, Mr. Fahmy.

After rotting in Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison for more than a year, Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy is now able to return home to Vancouver. Egyptian General-President Abdel Fattah Sissi officially pardoned Fahmy on Wednesday.

And for what crime did he earn the ire of Egypt’s military junta? It’s a bit complicated.

Fahmy, along with Al Jazeera colleagues Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, was arrested in December 2013 while covering the aftermath of a military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first democratically elected government.

They were charged with terrorism and fabricating news, which are, at least ostensibly, ridiculous charges.

According to Fahmy’s own account in the Globe and Mail, published as an op-ed in March, his employer is at least partially to blame.

Al Jazeera’s operations in Egypt can be thought of as the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Fahmy worked directly for Al Jazeera English (good), but the Qatar-based broadcaster also operates Al Jazeera Arabic (bad) and Mubasher Misr (ugly), both of which support the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is an outright mouthpiece for the Brotherhood.

Qatar supports the Brotherhood, not only in Egypt but also in Syria, Libya, Turkey through the ruling AKP and Palestine through Hamas, so it’s not particularly surprising they would support outlets that uncritically air its views.

At some point in 2013, Fahmy discovered footage he had recorded for broadcast on Al Jazeera English was being used for Mubasher Misr without any discretion. His employers had not consulted him.

Fahmy’s concern that his footage appearing on the Muslim Brotherhood’s propaganda network could land him in a lot of trouble with Egyptian authorities was dismissed by his superiors.

“I have been clear in my rhetoric that this case is about freedom of speech in the sense that three journalists have been silenced,” Fahmy wrote. “Yet, what can’t be ignored is the political score-settling between Qatar and Egypt that has left us pawns behind bars.”

Alleging negligence, Fahmy sued Al Jazeera for $100 million in Canada this past May. The outcome of the suit is still pending.

For what it’s worth, Al Jazeera denies any wrongdoing.

Conceding some of Fahmy’s footage may have wound up on Mubasher Misr, the network said he was not alone in that regard. Mubasher Misr uses footage from international wire services all the time.

The problem with this reasoning is that Al Jazeera doesn’t have a legal responsibility for employees of Associated Press or Reuters. They do, however, have an obligation to protect their own journalists on the ground.

“The advice of Fahmy and many others in Al Jazeera was taken into consideration,” the network said in an online response to Fahmy’s suit. How reassuring.

The Harper government must also take its share of the blame for Fahmy’s plight.

A request made by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for the prime minister to secure Fahmy’s freedom was rebuffed as recently as Tuesday, the day before his pardon.

The government said it’s too busy trying to get re-elected to bother with such trivialities, as if they had done anything to get Fahmy released when they weren’t in campaign mode.

This lead to Fahmy’s main lawyer Amal Clooney lambasting the Harper government’s handling of the whole ordeal.

“If I were a Canadian citizen, I would want to see my prime minister now showing leadership on the global stage,” Clooney told the CBC only a few weeks ago.

Sissi apparently agreed, decrying the court’s guilty verdict a few weeks ago and then issuing the pardon.

You know things are screwed up when Egypt’s military dictator is the voice of reason.