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Hey, parents! Take your baby off social media

Colin Horgan | posted Thursday, Feb 9th, 2017

The way they tell it, Yasser Korany and Genevieve Maheux-Pelletier were asked to sign a photo waiver at their son’s school in Kleinburg, Ontario, which would allow for photographs and videos of their child to be posted to social media. Yasser and Genevieve refused to sign it. Now their kid, Karim, won’t appear in the class photo and, they say, has been excluded from some class projects.

When they complained, the school board responded by noting how impossible it would be to prevent photos of their son ending up online somehow. That’s likely very true; people take pictures of groups of children at school events and post them online constantly. How could the school do anything about that?

But Korany and Maheux-Pelletier aren’t crazy to ask for some leeway on the school’s policy—in fact, just the opposite. Their request is reasonable. Whether they realize it or not, they’re asking the school to grant their child a simple, but valuable thing: freedom.

As a new father, I think it’s a reasonable request. Before our son was born, my fiancée and I decided we would do all we can to keep his face off social media for as long as possible. In coming to that conclusion, we talked about the contrived social expectation that we post photos of him online.

Why would it actually be necessary, we asked? Wouldn’t we email or text pictures with our family members and close friends, anyway? What was it about the idea of posting photos to Facebook in particular that made it so alluring? I personally felt it just come down to the “likes”—that same fleeting feeling of outside validation obtained by posting photos of holidays or our cat. And if that were the case, then what benefit would our son receive in that scenario, as someone unable to reasonably consent to anything, let alone understand what we were doing?

Ultimately, the deal largely seemed to break down like this: We would get to post photos of our child and get to feel good about ourselves for a few minutes, and he would get his photo on the internet forever. That seemed unfair.

Because that profile created for him (even without an actual profile page, and small though it may be) would hardly be limited, even to whatever circle we chose in our account settings. Photos are still, for example, mined for data—particularly for information about who is in them. Whether we posted our child’s name along with the photo, or whether we tagged him in it or not, Facebook’s facial recognition software would likely still know he exists (as would Google’s or Snapchat’s). And though we, as adults, have notionally signed a consent for that to occur, our child had obviously not.

The information about us online, however much there is, is meaningful—perhaps more so than we consider day to day.

In Dave Eggers’s The Circle, Mae—an employee of a fictional mega-social media company—at one point finds, to her surprise, that her social media history is being displayed for a large group in an auditorium as part of a company presentation. Despite being a convert to the company’s ethos of openness and personal transparency, the incident irks her. What was it that mortified her?

“She couldn’t put her finger on it. Was it only the surprise of it? Was it the pinpoint accuracy of the algorithms? Maybe,” Eggers writes. “But then again, it wasn’t entirely accurate, so was that the problem? Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? Maybe that was it. It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted.”

Whether we like it or not, the information online that is attached to our face will—and already has—come to define who we are, in some fashion. It might not contribute a lot, but it’s something. As adults, we are aware of this. And if we find, for instance—maybe after installing ProPublica’s browser extension that reveals what Facebook thinks we like—that some of that information is incorrect, we can take steps to fix it, and to rein in the assumed parameters of our personality.

Children can’t do that on their own. So, every time their face goes online without their consent, there is the implied assumption they don’t have a personality worth protecting. Instead, the thinking seems to go, they’re just babies, doing baby stuff.

But one day they won’t be, and they will find themselves, even if in just a small part, defined for a large group of people and for companies—complete strangers, in other words—by images of their life someone else gave away. Where they have been, who they were with, what they did on a particular day—none of it will belong to them alone. It will all be proprietary data. They will not own those memories. They won’t even own the ability to forget.

They will be just like their parents. Except they had no choice.

Does this mean that we have shared nothing online with friends and family about our son? No. There is a picture of his legs. Another of his back. One of his arm. He has been the subject of status updates. We have not been perfect; nobody is. We’re also not Luddites. Photo printing is expensive or non-existent; it’s convenient to email or text a picture.

But the social media algorithms have yet to see his face. And for as long as possible, as much as we can, we will try to give him something many of his peers have already lost: freedom from the machine.

Is it too much to hope that other people help in that regard? I don’t think it’s crazy to ask.

The one group we can teach our children to loathe

Scott Gilmore | posted Wednesday, Feb 8th, 2017

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I’ve taught my young children that all races and creeds are equal. I’ve tried hard to instill in them a profound sense of empathy, to help them understand that regardless of how someone looks or talks, they deserve to be heard. And, I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to practice what I preach—to give them a role model who is accepting and compassionate.

I have been equally clear with my children that there is one exception to the golden rule, that there is one group of people who deserve to be loathed and for whom bigotry is not only acceptable, it’s necessary. I am talking, of course, about baby boomers.

I imagine a shudder just went down your spine. You’re not alone. We all feel that way. I find it hard to understand how we’ve managed to stomach them for as long as we have. Surely, by now, we could have safely moved them into their own homeland, perhaps somewhere in the swamps around Orlando or in the desert? But no. They still walk among us. Sometimes, tolerance can go too far.

Has there ever been a more cynical, hypocritical, and destructive generation? It’s hard to know where to begin. How about with the fact that they are such utterly self-absorbed asses? There has never been a generation so fixated on itself. Right from the moment they bought their first Beach Boys album, they’ve being telling everyone in earshot how unique and important they are, these vanguards of a new century.

The audacity of this narcissism is awesome to behold. These are the sons and daughters of veterans of the Second World War, a generation of people who sacrificed everything and literally saved the world. They are even called the “Greatest Generation”! But the baby boomer response was, “Sure, but we invented tie-dye and disco.”

They are surely the most destructive generation in history. Their cult of consumerism has left our climate in tatters. And, staying true to their hypocritical routes, they are the first to complain about a carbon tax. In fact, while they drove our national debt into the stratosphere, they can’t abide even the smallest tax. As Maclean’s recently reported, in Vancouver, millionaire boomers couldn’t even stomach a reduction of their $570 home owners grants. Their greed is mythical in its proportions. After having accumulated more wealth than any other generation ever, and poised to inherit billions more from their elderly parents, they are still refusing to retire, keeping other generations out of the workforce.

But their hypocrisy is surely their greatest crime. This is the generation that cut its teeth protesting civil rights and Vietnam, who never stops talking about the Summer of Love, then gave us Iraq, Afghanistan and Donald Trump. They know all of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos, but are twice as likely to oppose a mixed marriage. These are the people who built massive, bankrupting pensions and social safety nets to coddle their own aging butts, and then are the first to roll their eyes when millennials complain a bachelor’s degree now requires $50,000 of debt.

It’s long past time we grasped the nettle and did something about baby boomers. Now is the moment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, someone who clearly recognizes the threat these horrible people pose, has been systematically eliminating Boomers from his cabinet. Quite rightly, he sent John McCallum and Stephane Dion to China and Germany respectively—as far away as they could go without a rocket. Trudeau’s hands are free; he can finally act.

But how? Trump’s new border restrictions will make it very difficult to ship them south. And, we can’t send them north to be set adrift on an ice floe—their carbon-spewing lifestyles have made that impossible. What’s left? I recommend we consider labour camps—somewhere they can put their 20th-century skills to work. They could repair typewriters, program old VCRs, or sell macramé plant holders. And all proceeds would be used to reduce the massive national debt they’ve left us, to replant the forests they paved over for box malls, and to purchase and bury all remaining Anne Murray records.

It’s simply not enough to teach our children to revile them. We must act now.

Find out how much the Canada Child Benefit will help your family

Maclean's | posted Wednesday, Jul 20th, 2016

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If there’s one transformative policy in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s first budget, it’s the new Canada Child Benefit. Liberals campaigned hard on an overhaul of the last government’s approach to helping parents with kids, and they’re calling their CCB “the most significant policy innovation in a generation,” and “a plan to help families more than any other social program since universal health care.”

Nine out of 10 families will, according to government calculations, get bigger monthly cheques than a suite of child benefits delivered to families during Stephen Harper’s time in office. The program, it’s claimed, will “lift hundreds of thousands of kids up from poverty.”

Putting aside the lofty rhetoric behind the Liberals sales pitch for the CCB, the real question facing Canadian families is: Are you better off? How does the new, non-taxable program stack up against the payouts from the former (and taxable) Universal Child Care Benefit and Canada Child Tax Benefit?

Use this calculator to determine an estimate of how much those defunct programs helped your family—and what you can expect the CCB to deposit in your bank account.

To use the calculator tool, click here.

How big is the Fort McMurray fire?

Amanda Shendruk | posted Friday, May 6th, 2016

(This post has been updated)

One day, so much destruction. On Thursday morning Maclean’s published a series of maps showing Canadian and international cities superimposed with the burn area of the Fort McMurray fire. Those maps reflected the size of the fire as of 5 pm Alberta time on Wednesday. Yet by Thursday afternoon the government announced the fire area had increased dramatically to 85,000 hectares. Below are updated maps showing the original fire zone, marked by dotted lines, along with the burn area as it stood at 1 pm Alberta time. All indications are that it has grown much larger since.

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How Prince, rock’s effortlessly dangerous star, changed the game

Michael Barclay | posted Friday, Apr 22nd, 2016

Nothing compares 2 him.

There is simply no musical figure of the last 40 years who commands the respect bestowed upon the man born Prince Rogers Nelson, who was found dead Thursday morning, at age 57, at Paisley Park, his Minneapolis residence that doubled as a studio, office and performance space.

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Prince sold more than 100 million records, wrote hits for other people, and his songs are part of the canon of Western pop music. That is rare, but by no means unusual. More important, you will not find a musician in the Western world who will not at the very least concede Prince’s musical mastery; to many, he was the most innovative, creative and technically skilled musician of his generation—as a guitarist, a vocalist and producer. At the age of 19, he was signed to Warner Brothers and somehow convinced them to let him play all the instruments on his 1978 debut album himself—something that, at that point in time, only someone at Stevie Wonder’s level would even attempt.


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Prince was second only to Michael Jackson—they were both born in 1958—as an African-American who bridged cultural divides by exploding expectations of what pop music could be. But whereas Jackson needed someone like Quincy Jones to shepherd his musical vision, Prince was everything in one: steeped in soul music and synthesizers and jazz and Joni Mitchell and disco and—oh yeah, he could shred on guitar in ways that would send all those L.A. metal posers back to school. Prince may have had to share his 1980s superstardom with Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, but he was easily—and seemingly effortlessly—the best of all of them in one package.

He was also the most dangerous. The term “rock and roll” itself was originally a euphemism for sex, but Prince was libidinous and libertine in ways mainstream America had never seen. He posed on album covers in women’s underwear (Dirty Mind), or completely naked (Lovesexy)—or naked while riding a white winged horse (1979’s self-titled album). His first hit single was called “I Wanna Be Your Lover”—and he wasn’t kidding. Nearly every song was about seduction, often smutty enough to raise the ire of concerned parents. The Roots’ Questlove has talked about buying multiple copies of 1999 because his father would break any copy found in the household. Most famously, it was Prince’s “Darling Nikki”—a song on Purple Rain about a seductress who “likes to grind” and is found “masturbating with a magazine”—that Tipper Gore heard coming out of her teenager’s bedroom. It led directly to the formation of the Parents Music Resource Committee, a group of “Washington wives” that held congressional hearings about pop’s turn toward the pornographic. Compared to R. Kelly—hell, even Nickelback—Prince seems quaint today; with few exceptions (the extremely uncomfortable “Lady Cab Driver,” for starters), he doesn’t play the arrogant, conquering seducer, but a lover who’s more interested in your pleasure than his.

Like David Bowie, Prince seemed to be an avant-garde alien, a trend-setting musical polyglot who acted as if gender and race—indeed, identity in general—were fluid concepts. His 1980s backing band, the Revolution, was the only major act—before or since, really—other than Talking Heads to boast a multi-racial lineup where women played lead roles. Unlike Bowie, Prince rarely granted interviews, especially at the height of his fame, which only increased his mystique. And really, what could he possibly say that would make him more interesting?

Prince released 10 albums in the ’80s; only one of them could be considered superfluous, the nonetheless massively successful soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. He won Grammys and an Oscar for his 1984 breakthrough, Purple Rain (the last three tracks of which, including the epic title track, were recorded live in the Minneapolis club where the movie was filmed). His 1987 album Sign O the Times wrote new rules for R&B, its influence having bounded back in recent years in the work of Miguel, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Drake; its title track was covered by none other than Nina Simone, on her final album. The earlier records are no less vital, 1980’s Dirty Mind in particular. On the 1993 compilation The Hits/The B-Sides, the one disc’s collection of castoffs—including a version of a song Sinead O’Connor turned into a hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U”—is every bit as excellent as the chart-toppers (see: “Erotic City”).

Then things got weird. In 1993, he shaved the word “slave” into his beard, to protest his treatment by his label of 15 years, Warner Brothers, who refused to release albums at the pace preferred by the prolific Prince. Over the next two years they squeezed three more albums out of that contract, including the once-shelved 1989 curiosity known only as The Black Album. When Prince returned in 1995, with an album on his own independent label, he’d “changed his name” to an image combining the astrological symbols for Mars and Venus (which also served as the title of his 1992 album). To the chagrin of writers and broadcasters everywhere, he insisted that he be referred to as “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” He was one of the first artists to take his fan base to the then-nascent Internet, selling online-exclusive releases, like the 3CD set Crystal Ball, containing material from his vaults that he claimed Warner Brothers didn’t want him to put out.

All of that, of course, made him appear crazy, especially at the height of the CD boom. He came off as a rich rock star complaining he wasn’t getting enough money. Of course, it looks entirely prescient; now it’s routine for major artists to eschew major labels and go it alone. Two decades later, Prince would be a major supporter of Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service, praising it for being the only such product to prioritize artists over money men.

The next year, 1996, he married his girlfriend of four years, Mayte Garcia; they had a baby boy who died seven days after birth, from a rare skull defect. He granted Oprah Winfrey a strange tour of his Paisley Park mansion a week later, showing off the crib as if nothing had happened. Mayte later had a miscarriage, and the marriage fell apart shortly after. Prince remarried in 2001, to Torontonian Manuela Testolini, and bought a house on the city’s toniest street, the Bridle Path; they split in 2007.

Perhaps it’s coincidence, but Prince’s creative decline began around the same time as his deal with Warner ended. The last two decades left longtime fans scrambling to find the moments of brilliance scattered across 16 studio albums. Younger audiences were hard-pressed to find his music online: he was notoriously litigious if anyone uploaded his material to YouTube, clinging to the (sadly) now-obsolete notion that music was worth paying to hear. His 2007 SuperBowl half-time performance almost single-handedly resuscitated his career, and the demographic of his still-legendary live shows started skewing younger. Despite disinterest in his recorded output (notwithstanding 2014’s Art Official Age, which was surprisingly strong), Prince remained committed to new work, releasing four albums in the last two years alone, including one with his new band, 3rdeye Girl, featuring Torontonian guitarist Donna Grantis. Even his most hardcore fans had trouble keeping up with his output.

Great musicians, iconic musicians, die every month. Prince is different. Not because of his music, which endures. Not because he’s one of the last of an era, from a time when young musicians practised for endless hours and learned their craft night after night on stage before they recorded a note of music. No: It’s because Prince is one of the few musicians, like Miles Davis or James Brown, who broke new ground and changed the course of popular music—not just in terms of appeal, but the way it’s made. Unlike so many geniuses who went either unrecognized in their time or only appealed to a niche audience, the anomaly that was Prince—like only the Beatles before him—somehow managed to be massively successful while doing so. And he did so in a time when there was still a shared mainstream culture that made it all that much harder for outsiders to break through—especially if you happen to be a black man from a snowy northern town, articulating your dirtiest sexual fantasies while wearing women’s underwear on stage and singing in falsetto and wrapped in lace and playing hard rock guitar and somehow convincing Hollywood that you should star in your own biopic at the age of 26.

It’s beyond bizarre that Prince is dead when so many of his heroes—progenitors and equals—are still alive: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sly Stone, Joni Mitchell. Yet Prince likely recorded more music than those four put together, and we’ll be wading through it for generations to come. Long may we bathe in his purple reign.

The Jian Ghomeshi verdict is in. But the story isn’t over

Anne Kingston | posted Wednesday, Mar 30th, 2016

Jian Ghomeshi

When Ontario Court Justice Horkins read his judgment in R. v Ghomeshi this morning—acquitting the former CBC radio host of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance-choking—he was speaking to an audience far beyond the jammed courtroom. Clearly his words were intended to reverberate publicly in that other court that runs parallel to (and usually at odds with) the jurisdiction over which he presides: the court of public opinion. And reverberate his words did, eliciting the inevitably Rorschach reactions that have accompanied the Ghomeshi trial from day 1.

The 25-page ruling—largely a recap of defence lawyer Marie Henein’s “greatest hits” during cross-examination (down to quoting her accusing one witness of “playing chicken” with the justice system)—is more stringent than nuanced. Its focus is squarely on the fact that a finding of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” was rendered moot by the three witnesses’ lack of “reliability” and “credibility”: “The success of this prosecution depended entirely on the Court being able to accept each complainant as a sincere, honest and accurate witness,” Justice Horkins stated. And, alas, they weren’t: “Each complainant was revealed at trial to be lacking in these important attributes.” He went on to clarify: “The evidence of each complainant suffered not just from inconsistencies and questionable behaviour, but was tainted by outright deception.” There were no dark nights of the soul for him, it appeared: “I have no hesitation in concluding that the quality of the evidence in this case is incapable of displacing the presumption of innocence.” As the verdict was read, a palpable relief was evident among Ghomeshi’s family sitting in the front row; Ghomeshi himself watched without expression.

It wasn’t the witnesses’ behaviour after the alleged attacks that was the problem, the judge ruled; it was the fact they omitted information, were inconsistent in their testimony and lied on the stand.  Yet he also questioned the fact that the complainants “engaged” with Ghomeshi after the assaults, which both Crown and defence defined as normal behaviour after a sexual assault. “Each complainant in this case engaged in conduct regarding Mr. Ghomeshi, after the fact, which seems out of harmony with the assaultive behaviour ascribed to him,” Horkins wrote. “In many instances, their conduct and comments were even inconsistent with the level of animus exhibited by each of them, both at the time and then years later. In a case that is entirely dependent on the reliability of their evidence standing alone, these are factors that cause me considerable difficulty when asked to accept their evidence at full value.”

The first witness, L.R., seemed “rational and balanced,” under examination by the Crown; under cross-examination by the defence, “the value of her evidence suffered irrefutable damage.” She claimed Ghomeshi was driving a yellow VW, the “Disney car,” when in fact he’d bought a similar model seven months later. She’d failed to mention her hair extensions to police and had uttered numerous inconsistencies in media interviews.

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Lucy DeCoutere leaves the Toronto courthouse following the reading of the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial on Thursday, March 24, 2016. DeCoutere was one three women who accused Ghomeshi of sexual assault, and the only one to go public with her accusations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Lucy DeCoutere, the only complainant to waive the publication ban, was subject to the fiercest judicial scolding: she was criticized  for “deceptions maintained under oath,” “suppression of evidence” and “a wilful carelessness with the truth.” The high public profile she cultivated before the trial also came under fire, with reference to her hiring a publicist and conducting 19 media interviews, including one in which she “analogized her role in this whole matter to David Beckham’s role as a spokesperson with Armani.” The judge was not amused by DeCoutere referring to criminal court as “…theatre at its best,” and as a place where someone with her acting background could excel (“…Dude, with my background I literally feel like I was prepped to take this on, no s–t,” DeCoutere boasted to the third complainant). A swipe was also taken at the language employed by DeCoutere and the third witness in their 5,000 online exchanges which gave rise to accusations of possible collusion: “They expressed their top priority in the crude vernacular that they sometimes employed, to “sink the prick,… ‘cause he’s a f–king piece of s–t.’”

The judge went one step further to speculate whether DeCoutere’s testimony had been compromised by her high profile as a victims’ rights advocate which brought her “massive attention”: “the manner in which Ms. DeCoutere embraced and cultivated her role as an advocate for the cause of victims of sexual violence may explain some of her questionable conduct as a witness in these proceedings,” he ruled. “Ms. DeCoutere felt that she had invested so much in being a ‘heroine’ for the cause that this may have been additional motivation to suppress any information that, in her mind, might be interpreted negatively.” He admitted he had no grounds for the assertion: “I do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that this was in fact a reason for suppressing evidence, but in light of the amount of compromising information that she willfully attempted to suppress, it cannot be ignored as a live question.”

The fact the first witness contacted Ghomeshi after the alleged attack (she testified she didn’t remember doing so and that even hearing his voice traumatized her) elicited similar censure, even while acknowledging that it is not unusual for this to happen in sexual assault cases. “The expectation of how a victim of abuse will, or should, be expected to behave must not be assessed on the basis of stereotypical models,” the judge ruled. “Having said that, I have no hesitation in saying that the behaviour of this complainant is, at the very least, odd.”

The judgment also exists as a pointed response to the scene occurring Thursday morning outside of Toronto Old City Hall as protesters stood in freezing rain,chanting and brandishing #IBelieveSurvivors signs. Acknowledging that “the courts must be very cautious in assessing the evidence of complainants in sexual assault and abuse cases,” Justice Horkins warned that “[c]ourts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants.” These stereotypes extend to believing that all sexual assault victims tell the truth, he said: “I have a firm understanding that the reasonableness of reactive human behaviour in the dynamics of a relationship can be variable and unpredictable. However, the twists and turns of the complainants’ evidence in this trial illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful. Each individual and each unique factual scenario must be assessed according to their own particular circumstances.”

On its face, the remark is unassailable; if we reflexively believed everyone who came forward with an allegation of sexual assault, there would be no need for sexual assault trials. As in all criminal allegations, false statements of sexual assault occur, though the estimated number is somewhere between two and eight per cent, according to the FBI. Why the judge felt the need to highlight this point amid concerns that the Ghomeshi trial will have a chilling effect on victims not coming forward for fear of not being believed is unclear. Early in the trial, in fact, Justice Horkins proved himself sensitive to that very issue when he denied a media lawyer’s application for the court to make public a photograph sent by the first witness to Ghomeshi in which she’s wearing a bathing suit.

The fact the witnesses discredited themselves resulted in virtually no time spent on discrepancies in accounts of the alleged assaults or consent. Where the judge made three mentions of DeCoutere and Ghomeshi sharing a karaoke duet of “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” “consent” was only mentioned once when defining “sexual assault.” It was also noted that the third witness, S.D., lacked clarity in her description of Ghomeshi allegedly choking her: she “was not particularly precise or consistent in the details of the alleged assault,” he said, quoting her confusion remembering how long the assault took place. “Seconds. A few seconds. Ten seconds. I don’t even—I don’t—it’s hard to know. It’s hard to know.”

One line was drawn by Justice Horkins: “My conclusion that the evidence in this case raises a reasonable doubt is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened,” he ruled. “At the end of this trial, a reasonable doubt exists because it is impossible to determine, with any acceptable degree of certainty or comfort, what is true and what is false.” That sentence, no question, will be the basis of discussion surrounding the Ghomeshi trial in the weeks, months, even years to come.

Rob Ford: Former chief of staff Mark Towhey on letting his boss go

Mark Towhey | posted Tuesday, Mar 22nd, 2016

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He was the best of mayors and the worst of mayors. Rob Ford was larger than life, figuratively and literally. He was one of those rare people that you simply had to care about—you didn’t have a choice. That’s not to say you had to like him, though hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto and around the world loved him. At least as many hated him. But no one who ever met him didn’t care.

For thousands of people in Toronto, he was the only mayor, the only politician, the only important person who’d ever cared enough about them to return their phone call or come to their door and listen, often ending those conversations with: “I hate to be rude, but I gotta let you go, buddy.” There was always another call to answer. Another person to help.

For these thousands, the city of Toronto was not a great place to live. It was just the place they lived. The many things that make Toronto a great city did nothing for them. They didn’t visit the world-class art galleries or museums, attend the theatre or Michelin-rated restaurants. They didn’t use the 100 public libraries or the free city pools. They got up too early, worked too hard, earned too little, paid too much for rent, food, transportation and taxes, then collapsed into bed too late and slept too little.

When they awoke to find garbage strewn across their driveway, the city bus 20 minutes late, the potholes on their street still unfilled—and City Hall raising their taxes again—they boiled. They were legion, but they were unseen and unheard. No one cared. Until Rob Ford. He gave a damn.

Ford became their champion. He heard their cry. He gave voice to their concerns. He tilted at their most despised windmills. He never talked down to them, always treated them with respect and almost always agreed with them. He was their guy at City Hall. He didn’t always win, but he was always willing to go down fighting their fight.

When Ford ran for mayor in 2010, this legion was inspired with hope. Hope their lives might get just a little bit better. That the obstacles put in their way by government might become just a little bit smaller. They rallied around their champion and, to the wonder of all those who loved their galleries, museums and local theatre productions, they carried him to a landmark victory. He became their mayor. And he didn’t disappoint.


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In his first year in office, mayor Rob Ford eliminated a despised vehicle registration tax that raised money the city never needed: in every year since its introduction, the city’s operating surplus dwarfed its revenue. He made the TTC an essential service, ensuring no one would ever again lose money or work because of a strike. He outsourced garbage in as much of the city as he could, saving millions of taxpayer dollars and vastly improving customer service for those affected. He stood tall for the taxpayers and stared down the powerful city unions, rolling back crippling labour conditions that prevented city managers from improving service and controlling costs. He was the best mayor the city ever had.

Rob Ford was also the mayor who infuriated the political class. No political bagmen had helped fund his election victory, so he was beholden to no one. He eschewed the big-picture thinking most politicians revelled in. He didn’t debate at length how to “transform the public realm by animating the urban spaces in the city’s built form.” Instead, he insisted potholes be filled and the graffiti get cleaned up.

He wasn’t worried about Toronto’s much-vaunted Green Roofs Plan, he was worried about roofs that leaked in the winter. He didn’t care about funding expansions to world-famous museums, he wanted to help more people afford reasonable homes, or continue to afford the ones they had.

He scoffed at sacred cows and questioned the assumptions underlying an out-of-control city budget. Why hire public health nurses on a permanent basis to operate a temporary program? Why spend millions on bug-infested, crime-riddled social housing ghettos when it would be cheaper to give everyone who needed housing an allowance to pay for it themselves wherever they wanted to live?

Ford would shake his head and deride those on council who disagreed. As mayor, he enjoyed provoking them as much as they’d enjoyed provoking him when he was a suburban councillor from a distant ward. Their anger was both a mystery and an entertainment for him. He didn’t shrink from a scrap and was willing to take a beating. He excelled at “rope-a-dope” politics, happy to stand, back to the ropes, and suffer blow after blow until his opponents exhausted themselves. Then, he’d lean in and step over them when they fell down.

As he succumbed to his private demons, he continued to try and fulfil his public mandate, defined by him as individual constituent service on a mass scale. He kept showing up, even when he shouldn’t have, and became the nucleus of a decaying public circus hurtling toward critical mass. He became a running gag on American late-night TV: the mayor who smoked crack and had more than enough to eat at home. When those who could afford to travel met friends and family in distant lands, Rob Ford was the topic of conversation and it embarrassed them. He drew global attention to the city we love, but not for the reasons we’d hoped. He was the worst mayor the city ever had.

Those in the thousands who loved him may have loved him too long and forgiven him too much. Those in the thousands who hated him may have forgotten why they despised him and exposed their own flawed character as they triumphed in his collapse.

But nobody didn’t care.

Those of us who worked closely with him will always wonder “what could have been, if only?” We’ll never know. Like it or not, ready or not, we’ve got to let you go, buddy.

Mark Towhey is author of Mayor Rob Ford — Uncontrollable: How I Tried to Help the World’s Most Notorious Mayor. Towhey helped engineer Ford’s 2010 election win and took over as the mayor’s chief of staff in August 2012.

Federal budget 2016: Building the case for cash

John Geddes | posted Monday, Mar 21st, 2016

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau operates a crane while touring a crane operator training facility on August 27, 2015 in Oakville, Ont. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Many Canadian political junkies think they know the moment most worth remembering from Canada 2020’s policy conference in Ottawa back in 2014. It was at the Liberal-linked think tank’s confab that fall that Justin Trudeau made news by dismissing Canada’s contribution of fighter jets to the combat mission in Iraq as a case of Conservatives “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show how big they are.” But only in the wonkiest of policy-wonk circles does anyone remember how, later that same day from the same stage, David Dodge made the case for governments fearlessly plunging into debt to pay for public infrastructure.

Yet it’s the former Bank of Canada governor’s dry remarks, not the future prime minister’s highly quotable crack, that echo now. As Trudeau’s government prepares to table its first budget on March 22, Dodge’s case for borrowing to build stuff has long since taken on the status of conventional wisdom. After all, his distinctive rasp is as close to the voice of God as exists in Canadian public policy debates. Along with once running the central bank, he was a key Finance Department official behind the last Liberal government’s celebrated elimination of deficits back in the 1990s.

So Dodge, who these days advises clients of the law firm Bennett Jones, made spilling red ink to fund public works sound to Liberals not just respectable, but shrewdly strategic. Rock-bottom interest rates, he said, make this “a very opportune time” for governments to borrow, particularly to pay for assets like new highways and faster telecommunications networks, which promise “a durable improvement in the standard of living.” Leap ahead to the 2015 election, and Trudeau followed that advice with his surprise promise—arguably the single most successful part of his platform—to run big deficits mainly to fund infrastructure.

That pledge remains central to Liberal planning as Finance Minister Bill Morneau puts the finishing touches on his first fiscal blueprint. Exactly how the infrastructure splurge will be greeted next week, however, is a subject of deep concern among Liberal advisers. They worry the multi-billion-dollar program will be seen as merely a reprise of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2009 response to recession—a quick, politically expedient and costly injection of stimulus. The Liberals contend that their version will be the start of a far more momentous project: a long-term retooling of the Canadian economy for sustained growth that will deliver rising middle-class incomes.

Their preferred framing continues the marketing of the Liberal government as ambitious and forward-thinking. Taking the focus off what’s ailing the Canadian economy right now also has the advantage of easing pressure on Morneau to somehow deliver a short-term cure. It’s not at all clear what that prescription would be. In a way, Harper’s challenge in early 2009 was far more straightforward. That winter, the recession brought on by the U.S. financial market collapse was hitting Canada hard. The Conference Board of Canada’s 2009 winter forecast had the economies of Canada’s four biggest provinces—Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia—all shrinking. Big spending seemed obvious.

The board’s 2016 winter forecast presents a more complicated outlook. It sees only Alberta’s economy shrinking this year. Even Saskatchewan and Newfoundand and Labrador, the two other provinces slammed directly by the oil price plunge, are projected to grow a bit. Marie-Christine Bernard, the economist in charge of the board’s provincial forecasts, points to Ontario’s expected gross domestic product growth of 2.4 per cent for 2016 as “a good result,” and B.C.’s country-leading 2.7 per cent as “solid growth.” In Manitoba, Bernard notes, hydro development is keeping the economy expanding, while Nova Scotia benefits from new shipbuilding projects.

Beyond those significant province-by-province differences, there’s been a subtle relaxing, in recent weeks, of the wider sense of urgency about Canada’s economy. In early January, Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz painted a grim picture, predicting it might take three to five years for Canada to recover from the oil price shock, an adjustment he warned would be “difficult and painful for individuals.” By early this month, though, Poloz decided to leave interest rates unchanged, and the central bank said financial market volatility “appears to be abating.” Also in the first week of March, Statistics Canada reported a stronger-than-expected bounce in exports for January, as Canadian firms finally seemed to be taking advantage of the low loonie to boost sales into a fairly healthy U.S. market.

Still, private sector forecasters are not declaring an end to anxiety. CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes says Morneau will deliver his rookie budget into an economy hungry for government spending. “Yes, we’ve seen some better data. Yes, the Bank of Canada seemed to suggest the risks are kind of balanced,” Mendes says. “Yes, there have been some upside surprises recently, but they were set against very low expectations.” He says the 2016 outlook remains “weak to modest.”

That’s assuming sizable stimulus from Ottawa, spending built into the CIBC’s projections. Back in the fall election campaign, the Liberals promised to hold annual deficits to no more than $10 billion. They abandoned that ceiling as the economy stayed sluggish. Last month, Morneau said the government was on track to post an $18.4-billion deficit in 2016-17, but that didn’t include any of the fresh spending he’ll announce on budget day. Mendes expects a $35-billion federal deficit for the coming year, and doesn’t regard that as remotely troubling. He points to Canada’s low level of government debt by international standards. “We’re starting from a very favourable point compared to countries like the U.S., Japan,” he says, “and they have no trouble coming to debt markets and still borrowing.”

Still, polls show many Canadians remain uneasy about deficits, and the Liberals will have to justify much bigger ones than they proposed in the campaign, even though most of the country isn’t in recession. So they are stressing long-term goals like more social housing, green infrastructure like public transit, and clean energy. But where will money flow first and fastest? Mendes says the basic choices are creating jobs where the oil sector has shed them, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan, and investing where export-driven growth potential is most promising, notably Ontario and Quebec. Leaning decisively either way would invite a political firestorm around regional favouritism. “You may see it evenly distributed,” says Mendes.

While Morneau will want credit for the infrastructure plan, he’ll also try not to let it hog the budget spotlight. The Liberals’ promised new Canada Child Benefit (CCB)could vie for top billing. The CCB will replace a raft of existing payments to parents, including the Tories’ signature monthly Universal Child Care Benefit and the income-tested Canada Child Tax Benefit. In his election platform, Trudeau promised nine out of 10 families will get more than they do now under the streamlined, tax-free CCB—an average of $2,500 extra a year from Ottawa for the typical family of four. That’s enough to pretty much guarantee a positive reception from voices on the left, like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which says the CCB will “drive down poverty among children and their parents.”

In fact, the CCB might well end up looking more impressively thought-out as social policy reform than anything about the infrastructure spending will as economic policy. Morneau has already signalled that the Liberal plan needs more work. He only recently named Dominic Barton, global managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., to head a new advisory council on economic growth. If Dodge helped create the climate for the Trudeau government’s first budget, Barton has a chance to be the deep thinker who influences their next one.

 

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