MPs to debate about Darfur

Leaders of all the parties in the House of Commons have agreed to a “take-note” debate Monday night in the House of Commons to discuss the situation in Darfur. The chief characteristic of a “take-note” debate is that it is a debate in which there is no declared resolution to debate. In other words, MPs can get up and say pretty much whatever they please on the topic at hand.

On Friday, after Question Period, Liberal MP Keith Martin had this to say about the situation in Darfur:

The situation [in Darfur] has become incredibly worse this past week. Two basic things have happened. No. 1, there are meetings between Iran … and Sudan. Iran wants to transfer nuclear technology to Sudan and Sudan wants to acquire nuclear capabilities. This is a very serious problem.

The second thing is that they are running out of food in the camps which is going to result in starvation. The United Nations have already cut down the food that they are giving to refugees by over 50 per cent and these people will starve to death. The janjaweed Khartoum- sponsored rebels are slaughtering people at will right now and Khartoum is blocking the United Nations from going in. What we desperately need right now is we need the government of Canada to submit a motion at the Security Council level calling on the United Nations to put in a chapter 7 peacemaking forces to Darfur as soon as possible. That is the only way that we are going to stop the carnage in Darfur. It is the only way we are going to stop the genocide. It is the only way we are going to save innocent civilians.

The take-note debate is one way of letting MPs chew over a particular topic with no danger that the House will take a particular position on the issue and commit the government to one course of action or another. So Martin, for example, will not be allowed to introduce a motion that might call upon the government to take some action at the UN.

That’s one of the problems with these “take-note” debates: Because there is no declared resolution — a “Be It Resolved That …” kind of statement — the debate can be unfocused and attendance is poor. The last significant “take note” debate was on Canada’s role in Afghanistan and it was indeed unfocused and attendance was poor.

The take-note debate on Darfur will likely begin shortly after 6 pm Ottawa time on Monday night.

Softwood deal "a sell-out", NDP says

The NDP ran an effective campaign in British Columbia in the last election, increasing the size of its caucus from that province. The Conservatives, by their own admission, did less well, even though they hold most of the seats from B.C.

I travelled with both NDP leader Jack Layton and Conservative leader Stephen Harper during some swings through B.C. and softwood lumber, as you might expect, was a big deal. Both leaders appealed, with varying degrees of success, to the blue-collar crowd that works in the province’s forests and mills.

And both parties, no doubt, will make the softwood deal announced late last week a key feature of the next federal election campaign in B.C.

Here’s the NDP’s opening shot:

The softwood framework agreement would commit Canada to an export tax on Canadian lumber and varying quotas if and when there is any change in market conditions from their current state.

“I’d like the Prime Minister to tell me what magical industry exists in a state of suspended animation from year to year,” said Layton. “This deal is ideal for the Americans and will prove an ordeal for Canadians.”

The deal completely undermines Canada’s repeated victories through the NAFTA dispute settlement process. Under the terms of the framework the US will keep over $1 billion of illegally collected duties from Canadian lumber companies.


Lower the flag, let the media watch, poll says

Pollster Ipsos-Reid says most Canadians disagree with both parts of a new policy initiated by the Conservative government when it comes to honouring members of the Canadian Forces who die in the service. Nearly two-thirds or 66 per cent of those surveyed say the government was wrong to ban the media from repatriation ceremonies held most recently at CFB Trenton for the return of the remains of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan. And 55 per cent disagree with the government’s return to the traditional policy of lowering flags on federal buildings, like the Peace Tower, only on Remembrance Day to honour military dead.

So far as the media ban goes, “residents of Quebec (73%), British Columbia (70%), and Ontario (67%) are the most likely to believe this decision is really a muzzle and that it should be up to the families that it be televised to Canadians,” the pollster said.

The telephone poll of 944 adult Canadians was conducted April 25–27. The pollster claims that it is accurate to within 3.2 percentage points 19 times out of 20. Regional results will have a larger margin of error.


Information Commissioner says Conservatives are tightening information control

Information Commissioner John Reid says the Federal Accountability Act contains “retrograde and dangerous” proposals to further restrict the kind of information Canadians can receive about their federal government. A Canadian Press report says:

The proposed Accountability Act, now being debated in the House of Commons, will actually make government less accountable when it comes to making information available to Canadians, Information Commissioner John Reid said Friday.

In a special report to Parliament, Reid said no government has ever put forward “a more retrograde and dangerous” set of proposals to change the Access to Information Act since the legislation first came into effect in 1983.

The Accountability Act, and other reforms being proposed, will “increase the government's ability to cover up wrongdoing, shield itself from embarrassment and control the flow of information to Canadians,” says the scathing report.

And from Reid’s report itself:

The government’s approach to the access to information elements of its accountability package of reforms, came as a surprising disappointment to many – including the Information Commissioner. Many of the key reforms which the government had promised to enact, failed to find their way into the Federal Accountability Act. Instead, the government proposes to send them to committee for further study and discussion. Such a process raises concerns about the government’s commitment to access reform. Yet, of even more serious concern, is the content of the discussion paper issued by the government to aid the study and discussion of access reform. All of the positions the government now takes in the discussion paper are contrary to the positions the Conservative Party took, and its leader espoused, during the election campaign.

The Ottawa Citizen puts this story on the front page today.



Statement from the family of Cpl Randy Payne

The Department of National Defence issued the following statement this afternoon on behalf of the family of Cpl Randy Payne (left):

Cpl Randy Payne

EDMONTON – The family of Cpl Randy Payne would like to express their sincere gratitude to the people of CFB/ASU Wainwright and the surrounding community who have taken the time to convey their condolences, support and well wishes in the wake of this terrible tragedy. Randy touched many lives and was a loving husband, father, brother and son. He will be sorely missed by both his family and all those who had the honour of knowing him over the years. 

In respect to those who are suffering the most during this time of great loss, it is requested that Randy's family be allowed to mourn in privacy.

In recognition of the sacrifice made by Cpl Payne and his fellow Military Policeman, Matthew Dinning, in the service of peace, there will be a public memorial service held at the Base on Wednesday, May 3, 2006 at 11:00 a.m. in the Tommy Prince Drill Hall. All are welcome to attend. 

In lieu of flowers, the family has indicated that donations can be made to an educational trust fund for Cpl Payne's children, Tristan and Jasmine. These trust funds have been established at the Toronto Dominion Bank in Gananoque, Ontario.

Statement from the family of Lt. William Turner

Lt. William TurnerThe Department of National Defence this afternoon issued the following statement on behalf of the family of Lt. William Turner (left):

EDMONTON – Toyo Turner, the sister of Lieutenant William Turner, who was killed on April 22, 2006 while serving in Afghanistan, wishes to issue the following statement to the media:

“I want to first extend my deepest sympathy to the families of Cpl. Randy Payne, Bombardier Myles Mansell, and Cpl. Matthew Dinning. I share in the grief that you are all feeling, and want you to know that my thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time. I want the Canadian public to know that my brother died doing what he loved and doing what he truly believed in. Bill knew that he was making a difference to the people in Afghanistan and wanted to continue this effort despite the obstacles that our troops face. Our family is going to continue supporting our troops, Bill's second family, who remain in Afghanistan. We are committed to supporting what he so strongly believed in.

I also want to send a message to our troops. Bill spoke so highly of all of you, particularly those soldiers in A Company who supported him after Captain Trevor Greene was injured. He met a lot of wonderful people, and really appreciated the connections he made with all of you, including the Americans who shared his love for NCAA basketball. I want you to shake off what has happened to your comrades and focus on keeping yourself and each other safe so you can come home to your families. Bill's family continues to be behind you all 100% and believe in what you are accomplishing. Thank you for supporting us.”


Conservative policies on honouring fallen soldiers a "despicable" mistake, says father of fallen soldier

Jim Davis lost his son, Cpl. Paul Davis, last month in Afghanistan. On Mar. 2, Cpl. Paul Davis was on a routine patrol in a light-armoured vehicle outside Kandahar when it ran off the road after colliding with a taxi and flipped over. Cpl. Davis, the gunner, was killed and six other soldiers were injured, including Master Corporal Timothy Wilson, who later died.

Mr. Davis lives in Bridgewater, N.S. and I asked my colleague John Vennavally-Rao to ask Mr. Davis what he thinks of two Conservative government policies for honouring fallen soldiers. The first policy affects the policy on lowering the flag that flies on federal government buildings, including the Peace Tower, when a soldier dies. The Conservatives say the previous Liberal government was inconsistent in lowering flags for the dead in Afghanistan and that it will lower the flag only on Remembrance Day to honour soldiers killed at any time while in service.

“I can tell you.. I think it's a mistake,” Jim Davis said today. “Today we have 4 fallen soldier and I think it's despicable that were not lowering the flag for those families.”

Lincoln Dinning, the father of Cpl. Matt Dinning, who died over the weekend in Afghanistan, is also asking that flags be lowered for the dead in Afghanistan. In a cruel twist of fate, Lincoln Dinning wrote to the Prime Minister two weeks before his son was killed asking that Prime Minister Harper lower the flags.

Today in the House of Commons, Dinning’s MP, Liberal Paul Steckle, read Dinning’s letter to the Prime Minister so that it would become part of the Parliamentary Record:

Here is what Steckle said:

Mr. Paul Steckle (Huron—Bruce, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I recently received a letter from the father of the late Corporal Dinning. The letter was sent to the Prime Minister on April 7 and as per Mr. Dinning's request I will now read it to the House. He said:

As a proud Dad of a Canadian soldier currently serving in Afghanistan, I was glad to see that you made your first foreign trip to that country. You have said publicly many times that you support our troops and respect the job they're doing in Afghanistan. You even invited some of them to your Throne Speech this week. For all that I applaud you.    

My question is simple. For all the support and respect that you say publicly why do you choose not to fly the flag on Parliament Hill at half mast when one of our soldiers is killed. When I called your Heritage Minister's office this week to inquire as to why it hadn't been lowered for the death of Private Robert Costall, I was told it is usually only done for politicians and VIPs. I would suggest to you that there is no more important VIP than a Canadian soldier who gave his life in the service of his country.  

Please correct this wrong and show that actions speak louder than words and fly the flags at half mast the next time a Canadian soldier is killed…  

P.S.–I hope and pray that you won't have to lower the flag but since Afghanistan is a war zone the likelihood exists that more soldiers could die.   
Mr. Speaker, this letter is even more poignant as the next Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan was Mr. Dinning's own son.


Secondly and separately, Ottawa has now banned media coverage of the repatriation ceremony at Trenton.

The Prime Minister had this to say about that policy today in the House:

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, as you will know and I think the member as a former minister of defence will know, when there is a fatality in Afghanistan or in another theatre of course the media does film the casket being loaded onto the plane in Afghanistan.

From that point on what the government will do is respect all traditional military practices and protocols.
In the case of dealing with funerals and families who are grieving, I know the Minister of National Defence's primary consideration is that we do everything possible to assist at the departmental and political level with the grieving the families may be holding. It is not about photo ops and media coverage. It is about what is in the best interest of the families.

Mr. Davis believes it is in the best interest of the families to have the media broadcast the repatriation ceremony.

“I'm hurt,” said Jim Davis.  “I'm hurt by it. Four soldiers come home today and the nation has to be reminded and when that flag comes down the public knows reminds them why comes down.. During my grieving days we received a lot of letters of condolence.. If they didn't know my son had died I wouldn't have received those condolences.. 

“If the media doesn't'carry the message to the public Canadians aren't gonna know.. I want to see what's happened this afternoon I want to tune on my TV see that grieve for those families. I'll be denied that opportunity so they are making a mistake.

Sharon Davis, the step-mother of Paul Davis, echoed her husband’s remarks. “Its so important to wrap arms around families… I really believe its robbing Canadian people to share n the grief.. Everyone wrote to us and said they were so proud.”

Jim Davis said he remembered seeing the TV cameras at his son’s repatriation. “When I noticed that that's when it hit me: The whole nation is watching this. I thought, ‘Gee, Paul. the whole country is watching’. He wouldn't have believed me. That was nice.”


Government finance: Main estimates tabled

The government plans to spend a total of $199.7-billion between April 1, 2006 and March 31, 2007, according to documents tabled in the House of Commons today.

Total government spending in this fiscal year is set to rise by $12.7-billion or 6.8 per cent. That rate of growth in government spending is more than double the rate of growth of the Canadian economy, which the Conference Board of Canada believes will grow by about 3.1 per cent in 2006. The rate of growth of government spending is also well above the inflation rate of 2.2 per cent.

All the numbers tabled by the government today, however, are likely to change.

The documents tabled in the House are known as the Main Estimates and are used to support legislation by which the government gets legal authority to spend public money. The Main Estimates are laid out according to the fiscal framework set out in that fiscal year's federal Budget.
But the federal Budget for the current fiscal year will not be tabled until next week which means the fiscal framework for the Main Estimates is based on the last Liberal budget.

The government was forced to proceed with this rare procedure of tabling the Main Estimates ahead of the Budget because of statutory or legal requirements related to the authority of Parliament to spend money.

So, recognizing that these numbers are almost certain to change when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables his budget at 4 pm on Tuesday, May 2, here are some of the spending highlights announced today (I hope to have more later):

  • Of the total $199.7-billion the federal government plans to spend this year, $70.2-billion will be spent on various government programs and $128.4-billion will be allocated to statutory spending requirements.
  • The federal government will transfer $38.3-billion to other levels of government, mostly the provinces, which represents an increase of 5.6-billion or 17.2 per cent over the previous year.
  • Payouts to individuals, in the form of employment insurance and benefits for the elderly will total $45.6-billion this year, an increase of $1.5-billion or 3.4 per cent over the previous year. Notably, payouts under EI will decrease this year by 1.1 per cent or $171-million.
  • Crown Corporations will receive $5.2-billion, an increase of 9.6 per cent or $193.2-million.
  • The government will allocate $34.4-billion to pay charges on the public debt, a drop of $1.5-billion or 4.2 per cent compared to the previous year.
  • The government's operating and capital expenses will be $47.5-billion, an increase of $4.25-billion or 9.8 per cent compared to the previous year.
  • The government will pay $1.2-billion more in salaries and wages to its employees, a result, it says, of new collective agreements with many employees.
  • Parliament and the Governor General cost Canadians $519.7-million in 2005-2006 and are estimated to cost $24.2-million or 4.6 per cent more this year. Mind you, spending on Parliament and the Governor General accounts for just three cents of every ten dollars the government spends.
  • Spending on social programs accounts for the biggest proportion of government spending. More than 45 cents of every dollar the government is to spend this year – some $90.4-billion — will go to social programs, including major transfers to individuals and other governments. Spending on social programs will rise 8.6 per cent this year.
  • So far as individual sectors go, the biggest increase in program spending will be to industrial, regional and scientific-technological programs. Spending in that sector will rise 15.6 per cent to $3.9-billion but will  account for just 2 cents of every dollar spent by the government.
  • The biggest decrease is in the transportation sector, where spending will drop by 4.6 per cent to $1.5-billion.
  • Spending on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. will total $1.11-billion this fiscal year, a jump of 13.2 per cent compared to the previous year. Spending on the CBC is the single largest cultural program item next to spending by Department of Canadian Heritage.

Media barred from repatriation ceremonies

On Tuesday evening, the remains of the four Canadian soldiers killed in Iraq on Saturday will be repatriated to Canada. They will arrive at CFB Trenton. The ceremony that accompanies their arrival back on Canadian soil can be a moving and solemn one.

But as my colleague Craig Oliver reports tonight, Canadians, for the first time, are barred from seeing that ceremony — a permanent change of policy by the federal government.

The media will be barred from the airfield at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont., when a plane carrying the remains of four Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan lands on Tuesday evening.

In the past, television and print media have been invited to attend when the bodies of Canadian soldiers who have fallen overseas are repatriated.

News organizations were informed of the media ban by telephone calls just before the end of business in Ottawa on Monday.

Government officials said the policy is permanent.

The move echoes one attempted by the administration of President George W. Bush. Worried over diminishing support for the Iraq mission, it tried — and failed — to prevent publication of images of caskets carrying American troops

But Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor insisted politics had nothing to do with the decision.

“I have made the most appropriate decision during this most emotional time for the families,” O'Connor told The Canadian Press.

“The repatriation of our fallen soldiers back to Canada is a private and solemn event between the families and the Canadian Forces.”

CTV's chief political correspondent, Craig Oliver, said it appears the Conservative government is concerned that, with the mounting casualties in Afghanistan, the mission is losing the battle for public opinion … [more]

Norman Levine

‘With your education, you could have been a doctor,’ Mona said.

‘It’s true,’ she said to Emily.

‘But I’m a writer,’ I said. ‘How many doctors has Canada got — thousands. How many writers? A handful. It’s easier to be a doctor than a writer..’

– Norman Levine

“Why Do You Live So Far Away?”

Published in Champagne Barn (Penguin Books, 1984)