Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sgt. Ryan Russell's Funeral

I had thought about writing a blog entry on what I perceived to be the excesses surrounding the funeral of Sgt. Ryan Russell, the police officer killed last week in Toronto. I hesitated, however, out of respect for the deceased. While his death, like all others in public service, was tragic, I do question whether anyone is truly served by the measures undertaken by both the police forces across Canada and our domestic media in honouring his sacrifice.

In the first letter of today's online Globe and Mail, the writer makes, I feel, a valuable observation.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bill Maher On American Gun Laws

It's a cold Sunday afternoon where I live, and so the Internet is providing some much-needed insulation from mother nature. I just finished reading an article about Bill Maher on which included an excerpt from his Friday night appearance on the Jay Leno Show. While I almost never watch the show (Leno is too bland and pays it too safe for my liking), Maher's appearance added some zest to a moribund format.

Police Brutality at the National Level

This morning, the Globe and Mail website has posted video evidence of brutality by the R.C.M.P. in Kelowna, B.C. The footage, shot by a newsman, shows the authorities pulling over Buddy Tavares, wanted in connection with careless use of a firearm. As he complies with the orders to get out of his vehicle and lie down on the pavement, one of the officers kicks him in the head, for no apparent reason. As one of Tavares' friends says in the video, he is recovering from brain surgery, and the kick could have either killed him or put him into a coma.

The sickening episode can be viewed here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Word of Caution About Wind Turbines

I have long been a supporter of alternative forms of energy. While the geography is not always ideal, I felt for a long time that the Ontario's pursuit of wind and solar power suggested a government with a vision for the future. Those who complained about wind turbines near their homes, were, I believed, simply examples of Nimbyism, worried about their property values, their views of adjacent vistas, etc.

However, a column by Thomas Walkom in today's Star suggests that there in fact might be reasons for caution. Bob McMurtry, an orthopedic surgeon and former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario, heads a group called the Society for Wind Vigilance, which has uncovered disturbing evidence that turbines may not be as benign as we have been led to believe. You can read the article here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thanks to Toronto Star, the Inept SIU Re-opens G20 Investigation

After the Toronto Star recently published photos surrounding the police assault on, and subsequent arrest of Dorian Barton, the student who ran afoul of authorities for taking pictures of police horses during the G20, the province's Special Investigations Unit, an ostensibly inept organization, has agreed to reopen its investigation into the case.

Having previously looked into the case but finding no evidence upon which to proceed, the Director of the SIU now finds himself in a situation where he and his unit can no longer gloss over at least one of the many hundreds of instances of police misconduct during last summer's summit.

At least it's a start.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Way Out of Poverty?

In today's Star, Carol Goar writes about a fascinating anti-poverty experiment undertaken in Dauphin, Manitoba which ran from 1974 to 1978. A joint federal-provincial initiative, it was undertaken to determine if a guaranteed annual income could be effective in reducing the worst social and physical impacts of poverty.

The results are provocatively suggestive of real benefits for society if people are removed from the ranks of the poor. Unfortunately, given the current federal climate, it is unlikely that this idea will be revisited in the near future, but Goar's article is certainly worth reading.

More Evidence of Police Brutality at the G20

There is a compelling video on today's Star website in which Toronto student Dorian Barton explains how attempting to take some pictures of police horses during the G20 led to the police breaking his upper arm and arresting him for obstruction. Originally investigated by the SIU and dropped due to lack of evidence, it is to be hoped that this new spotlight will encourage them to revisit the assault. As matters now stand, Barton is suing the Toronto Police Force.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I Do Not Donate To Universities - Part 2

The other day I reprinted some material from The Hamilton Spectator dealing with the Freedom of Information request it had made to uncover some of the perks meted out to Peter George, the recently retired three-term President of McMaster, and his family.

Today, the paper has a hard-hitting editorial about the attitude of entitlement that afflicts so many of our institutions. I am reprinting it below:

Secrecy makes it all worse

It is too easy to simply rail against former McMaster University president Peter George regarding the university paying his spouse’s airfare so she could accompany him on a week-long trip to Australia in 2006.

He made a ton of money as the head of the university, we tell ourselves. Surely they could have covered the cost themselves. And besides that, he’s making a ton of money — $99,999 a year over 14 years — even after having left McMaster. Why shouldn’t we point our angry fingers his way?

Because this is not just about George and his ability to negotiate a lucrative employment contract and convince the university’s board of governors to pay his wife’s way to Australia.

It is about the “fat-catism” that seems to infect so many of our public institutions. And it is about the fact that those in charge of those institutions, including members of their governing boards, are so out of touch with both the optics of their spending habits and the day-to-day financial realities most of us face. Add to that a heavy shroud of secrecy and it’s no wonder individuals such as George end up at the business end of those angry fingers.

Most people would not object to an executive taking his or her spouse on a business trip. But most of us would also expect that executive to cover the extra cost. That an executive would ask for and be granted coverage of a spouse’s travel expenses smacks of a sense of entitlement and a complete lack of understanding of what the average person would deem appropriate.

What’s hardest to swallow, though, is the idea that expenses such as George’s — which totalled almost $30,000 for the Australian conference — are both so high and so, apparently, not our business.

Universities receive taxpayer funding and are supposed to be accountable to the public. Granted, universities are not solely funded through taxpayers’ money. But the public makes a substantial enough investment in post-secondary education that it is not unreasonable to expect an open accounting of that money.

The financial information regarding the Australia trip was released to The Spectator through a Freedom of Information request. That should not be necessary, just as it should not have been necessary for The Spectator to fight almost two years — between 2006 and 2008 — for disclosure of George’s contract, with details of its perks and job entitlements. It is even more aggravating that the university spent $66,000 on legal fees to prevent details of the contract from being released to The Spectator. McMaster abandoned its fight in June 2008, releasing the information to the paper.

It was a wise change last March when, four months before he took over as McMaster’s president, Patrick Deane’s five-year contract was made public on the university’s website.

Secrecy only makes bad optics even worse.

Lee Prokaska

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Education - A Favorite Political Whipping Boy

As a former teacher now enjoying his fifth year of retirement, there are several contentions in Angelo Persichilli's column, 'Public sector unions serving up a juicy issue' (January 9) with which I must take issue.

Persichilli's general thesis, hardly fresh, is that those working in the public sector are both coddled and protected by their unions. More specifically, he endorses the idea, recently resurrected by B.C. Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon, that teacher salary increases should be tied to student performance. The columnist readily dismisses B.C. Teachers President Susan Lambert's criticism of the notion as “a destructive idea that doesn't bode well for public education” and asks, 'Why can every profession be evaluated but teaching?”

Both his dismissal and his question deserve to be addressed. First, his implied equation that good teaching=good student performance is flawed. While I never regarded myself as an extraordinary teacher, 30 years of experience in the classroom taught me several truths, perhaps the most important one being that no matter what learning environment I provided, it was still ultimately the students' choice to either accept or reject what I offered. While that would seem to be a self-evident truth, it frequently gets lost when the discussion of remuneration for results is raised.

There will always be, as we used to sardonically describe them, 'difficult to serve clients,' students who have no interest in school and are there only due to parental pressure, provincial legislation, or the fact that they have nothing better to do during the cold winter months. While this may appear cynical and counter to the current orthodoxy which asserts that every student can achieve, it is a truth that few experienced educators would deny. How could I ever convince Jason, for example, whose main interest seemed to be drugs and girls, that education was his key to a successful future, and that what schools offer have real value? Or what about Janine, who, owing to an abusive family background, saw adult authority figures as untrustworthy and not to be respected? Indeed, were salaries tied to student performance, how many teachers would want to face the challenges presented by a class of such students, knowing that their ability to make a living was tied to the academic results they obtained?

Conversely, there are always those classes with students whose motivation, focus, and ready engagement with the subject matter ensure a vital atmosphere that is a joy to work within. What teachers, knowing that their livelihoods would be enhanced, would be reluctant to instruct such self-directed learners? Because such an academic environment almost guarantees good results, would that really be a good method by which to gauge a teacher's effectiveness and salary?

Persichilli's second question, “Why can every profession be evaluated but teaching?” deserves to be addressed as well. Implied in the question, indeed, in the entire article, is that teacher unions are somehow defenders of the incompetent and that educators are not bound by the rules constraining mere mortals. While there is some truth in his observation that “less qualified and ineffective teachers are shuffled around the board and thrown into class after class where their students learn nothing,” readers may be interested to know one of the key reasons for such unethical practices.

First, under provincial legislation, teachers are required to be evaluated on a regular basis, usually by senior administration, i.e., principals and vice-principals. The reality of administering schools today inevitably means that many assessments are either rushed or not conducted at all, owing to time constraints. While few would argue that having first-rate teachers should be the highest priority for a school, administrative politics and career ambitions that require networking, keeping current with the pedagogical 'flavour of the month,' meetings with disgruntled but influential parents, etc. etc. often take precedence, leaving principals little time to be the 'principal teachers' the term once meant.

My friend Dom, also a retired teacher, long ago summed up a large part of the problem when he said, “Lorne, administrators just don't want to do their jobs.” He was alluding to the hard work involved in rooting out bad or incompetent teachers. Rightly, federations have contractual procedures in place to prevent the arbitrary dismissal of teachers; a detailed series of steps must be completed, including offering opportunities for remediation, before a teacher can be dismissed for incompetence. Given the above-mentioned constraints, few administrators are willing to invest the time needed to complete those steps, which can hardly be deemed the fault of teacher federations.

Therefore, to base teacher remuneration on student achievement, while for some a beguilingly attractive expedient, is a shortsighted notion that ignores the complexities and dynamics of today's classroom. If implemented, it will not be the panacea that vote-seeking politicians would have the public believe it to be.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Story of What is Possible

As I get older, I find the cynicism that seemed to hold me in such good stead when I was younger just doesn't fill the bill anymore. Oh, it's true that I will likely never lose my deep suspicion, even contempt, for the majority of politicians, who usually seem to be out not to serve the people but rather themselves and the interests of their party. (Forgive the over generalization, but some habits die hard.)

In any event, I find myself looking increasingly for some 'good news,' stories that demonstrate our capacity to rise above our mere self-interest and do something meaningful and substantial for others. That criterion is met in an article from today's Star that tells the story of Carlos, a 13-year-old Haitian, one year after the earthquake. Written by Catherine Porter, it describes the efforts of a Canadian family and the difference they have made in the life of this boy and those around him. I hope you will take a few minutes to read it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why I Do Not Donate To Universities

The following two stories, the first of which could only be obtained by the Hamilton Spectator through a Freedom of Information Request, demonstrate two of the reasons I do not donate to universities. The first illustrates McMaster's tendency toward profligate spending by those it favors, and the second represents what some would say is the cost of such lavish expenditures:

Mac defends $13,000 to fly former president’s wife to Australia

McMaster University spent more than $13,000 on executive class airfare for the spouse of former president Peter George so she could accompany him on a week-long trip to Australia in 2006.

The $13,125 spent for return flights from Toronto to Adelaide for George’s spouse was part of nearly $30,000 in expenses he submitted for attending the Australian conference, hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities in April 2006. The documents were released to The Spectator through a Freedom of Information request.

The airfare for George’s spouse is equivalent to the average yearly tuition for two McMaster undergraduate students.

The university also paid $700 AUS (about $588 CDN) for George’s spouse to attend social activities and city tours associated with the conference.

The trip also included five nights’ accommodation at the Hyatt Regency in Adelaide.

Documents released to The Spectator also showed that McMaster paid $445 in airfare so George’s spouse could accompany him to New York City in March 2006 for what was billed as a four-day trip for “donor cultivation.”

A McMaster spokesperson said the spousal travel arrangements in both cases were pre-approved by the chair of the university’s board of governors and considered an appropriate use of the school’s funds.

“Under Peter’s contract, spousal travel was permitted when it was travel that served the purposes of the university,” said Andrea Farquhar, McMaster’s director of public and government relations.

“This wasn’t a holiday,” Farquhar added. “It was a trip for a conference. It was just a week, so it was essentially fly there, do the conference and fly home.”

George attended the Australian conference to speak on issues related to leadership and fundraising. At the time, the university was in the midst of an ambitious four-year fundraising campaign that ultimately brought in $473 million.

The fundraising campaign necessitated a significant amount of travel, Farquhar noted, and there were times when it was appropriate for spouses to be in attendance.

“Spouses often play roles in different kinds of events,” she added. “They can be called upon to meet with alumni or donors or spouses or business or government representatives or other university representatives.”

Information obtained from an earlier Spectator FOI request showed that George claimed more than $200,000 in expenses from January 2006 to August 2008, while another $185,000 in expenses was claimed by McMaster’s five vice-presidents during the same period.

The Spectator also requested receipts for a $2,676 expense submitted by George to cover the cost of a rental car for the month of October 2006.

The university indicated that the actual receipt was lost. The university said that the vehicle rented by George was a Nissan Altima.

The following represents the flip side of McMaster's largess with its employees, and is written by Cupe 3906, the bargaining unit in the new labour dispute:

To Hamilton Area Unions and Labour Organisations and allies:

I am writing to inform you of a pending strike at McMaster University
by the Hospitality staff who are members of SEIU Local 2. At present
picket lines are scheduled go up Friday Jan. 7th at 6am.

For the past few months we have been in negotiations with McMaster
University and have reached an impasse at the bargaining table.

The employer, a publicly funded institution, has demanded concessions and roll backs from some of the lowest paid workers at the University. Importantly the administration has asked to remove a job security
clause that would then allow them to move to casualize the workforce.
This would mean the eventual end of 175 decent paying full and
part-time jobs in Hamilton. In essence the administration wants to take
these jobs away and create poverty level McJobs in their place.

Several years ago we worked with the University to adopt a living wage
policy that would ensure the university paid its staff a living wage
and would not contract out our jobs. The new administration wants to
throw that out and begin a race to the bottom.

At present, barring a miraculous change of mind by the employer, we are
heading into a strike position as of 6am Friday January 7th.

It is sad that an institution funded by public money can see fit to give raises to its top administrators but demands the lowest paid give
what little they have.

We are hoping we can count on your support and where possible to ask
members to respect our picket lines, where that may not be possible we
ask that you request your members who may have to go into McMaster to
spend as much time as possible discussing the situation with our

Further we will in the near future be calling for a solidarity rally at
the picket lines and we hope you will be able to send members from your
union or affiliates.

Of course all support on the lines is appreciated.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Maude Marlow On The Dire Implications of A Pending Trade Agreement

Scanning the Globe's website, I read an article by Maude Barlow, National Chair of the Council of Canadians, regarding a trade agreement that could further erode our sovereignty. NAFTA-like in its scope and mechanisms, the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) would accord to European business entities many of the same rights Americans enjoy to sue Canada over, for example, environmental laws that affect their ability to conduct business. No wonder the Harper Conservative Government has been so secretive about these negotiations, given how the pact, if ratified, will give it a further excuse to do nothing to address our environmental concerns.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A James Travers' Column

In yesterday's Star, James Travers wrote an insightful column entitled Being Canadian means taking ownership of Canada, in which he reminds us that there is a big difference between viewing ourselves as customers, as opposed to proprietors of the country. It is the former mentality that the Harper Government has been promoting and exploiting, so that many of us are fooled into the belief that simplistic 'solutions' requiring no sacrifice are the only requirements for addressing problems in our country. Those who see themselves as proprietors of Canada, on the other hand, appreciate the complexity of the issues we face. Political expedience, being what it is, dictates that the later view is discouraged.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Fair and Balanced Reporting on Cuba - Part 3

Part Three of the program on Cuba, dealing with the country's medical diplomacy, can be accessed by clicking on the above title.

Fair and Balanced Reporting on Cuba - Part 2

Part Two of the Cuba report highlighting the role of preventative medicine can be accessed by clicking on the above title.

Balanced Reporting on Cuba - Part 1

Having visited Cuba twice in 2010, my wife and I have developed quite an interest in and affection for the people. Warm and gracious, they seem to exude a passion for life that transcends their very humble, in many cases quite impoverished circumstances. PBS, one of the few American sources of fair and balanced reporting, recently completed a three-part series on the country. Part One offers an overview of the country and its prospects for economic change and growth, while Part Two examines the vital role preventative medicine plays in the overall health of the people. Part Three examines the role Cuban doctors play in helping the people of poorer nations through medical missions.

While the reports do not gloss over the restrictive nature of life in Cuba, neither do they take a confrontational ideological stance towards what are remarkable achievements in a developing nation.

Part 1 can be accessed below: