Most Political Pundits Are Wrong About the Election

The historic and unexpected nature of the election results on November 8th obviously begs for an explanation. However, the dominant narrative advanced by many political pundits, both in America and abroad, is completely wrong. The simple fact is that Donald Trump didn’t win the election, Hilary Clinton lost it. Yet what should be an obvious point has been lost in media hand-wringing about being “out of touch” and “not understanding their country.” One can find examples of this sentiment in The Washington Post, The New York Times and even on Fox News (although with a strong touch of exceptionalism). This narrative is not limited to the media though as many Trump partisans also believe that the “out of touch” media don’t understand “real” America. Take but a few examples from Twitter the day following the election:

But if we look at the results we can see that such a narrative doesn’t hold up. There simply wasn’t a surge of white “Trump Democrats” abandoning a Democratic Party that supposedly held them in contempt for a GOP candidate who understood the plight of white America.  Rather, Democrats stayed home while the GOP vote remained relatively consistent. Simply put, Hilary Clinton didn’t  – or couldn’t, more on that later – get her supporters to the polls, so they stayed home. The didn’t vote for Trump, they just didn’t vote.

The most important point to make is that Trump and the GOP did not mobolize large sections of the American electorate to win. Rather, in terms of sheer number of votes (not percentage) Trump’s 59.2 million votes is the lowest GOP vote total since Geroge W. Bush in 2000.

Furthermore, of the roughly 231 million eligilbe voters over 108 million didn’t vote. Despite a similar size pool of eligable voters as 2012 and 2008, 2016 voter turnout of 50% is the lowest since 2000 and the absolute number of votes cast is less than for both those elections. We can draw a few basic conclusions from these numbers. First is that Trump didn’t capitalize on his promise to bring new voters out to the polls and second, his overall appeal to the American electorate was even more limited than a candidate like Mitt Romney.

A more detailed look at the numbers further undermines the idea of a white backlash against the elitist Democrats. A good place to start to start digging deeper into election analysis is the New York Times 2016 Election edit poll data. The first and most obvious point from these polls is that Trump won 58% of the white vote, a mere 1% increase from what Romney won in 2012. The biggest changes were actually in the African-American and Hispanic vote, where Trump increased the GOP’s share by 7% and 8% respectivly. However, these numbers are percentages of the total vote, not absolute numbers. Thus, the seeming surge in Trump support among minority communities can be easily explained by the GOP successfully mobilizing their limited number of supporters among African Americans and Hispanics while the Democrats failed to do so.

It is often suprising to first time election workers/volunteers how little election campaigns revolve around ideas. The number of undecided voters in elections very low, in the case of 2016 roughly 5% of the electorate. So the goal isn’t to change anyone’s minds but rather it is to identify your supporters and ensure that, come hell or high water, they vote. This is where the fabled “ground game” comes into play. Since 2012 the RNC commited themselves to ensuring that they had the capacity to wage a successful ground game regardless of who won the nomination. After Romney’s defeat the party recognized that their message had limited appeal and demographics were working against them. So, in order to compete they needed to have an exceptionally efficient vote. Thus, once the RNC reluctantly lined up behind Trump, their machine went into operation. While pundits were right to point out that Trump had no political machine so to speak of, it didn’t matter. He was able to piggy back on a pre-existing infrastructure designed to win elections. In this respect the 2014 mid-term elections should have served as a warning to Democrats as to what happens when their vote doesn’t materialize. But instead of taking it as a warning sign, the DNC simply assumed that the allure of a presidential election would bring out supporters.

Even watching CNN’s coverage of the election reinforced this idea that it was voter turnout that decided the election. Given the nature of how returns are reported, most Republican freindly counties in states like Michegan and Wisconsin reported first. However, the Democrats were not overtly concerned as they repeatedly stated – correctly – that the returns from Milwaukee and Madison in WI plus Detroit, MI had not come in yet. Similar to the process in Virginia, where rural counties reported first and gave Trump a lead that was subsequently wiped out whent the votes from Washington, DC suburbs were reported, the DNC and CNN anchors expected a surge of votes from these urban areas would swing the two states blue. Yet when the results finally did come in at around 12:45am the surge was more like a ripple. The expected Democratic vote failed to materialize.

So lets dispense with the “out of touch” narrative. It is very easy to understand why Trump won. It wasn’t that a large number of white people were secret Trump supporters who flipped their vote in the secrecy of the voting booth. It wasn’t even that the polls were wrong, if everyone voted the polls would have been right. Instead, we (society, media, academics) need to understand why the DNC vote collapsed. However, such a discussion would lead the media to having to seriously consider the effect of voter suppression laws on minority turnout and that inevitably leads to a discussion about institutional racism that America is not comfortable having. So instead of having the hard conversation that is necccessary, most pundits seem happy to opine about how they “just don’t understand working class America.”   Such a narrative is not only misleading, it is harmful and it allows anti-democratic practices to flourish while discouraging the DNC from attacking the racism of the GOP.



What the Conservatives Have Wrong About Changing “O Canada”

O Canada.svg

Friday saw one of the more inspiring and heart-warming moments in the recent history of the House of Commons. Despite being confined to an electric wheelchair and having lost the use of his voice due to ALS, Member of Parliament Mauril Belanger appeared in the House of Commons to ensure that his private member’s bill to change the lyrics of “O Canada” to be gender neutral passed the third and final reading.  The final vote on Bill C-210 is on Wednesday, June 22nd and is all but assured to now pass smoothly. In a fitting conclusion to this saga, a day later, after seeing the vote pass with a comfortable majority, Belanger was serenaded with the gender-neutral version of the anthem at the Ottawa Walk for ALS. 

However, this feel-good narrative obscures the substantial opposition from the Conservative Party of Canada, as well as numerous members of the general public. Conservative opposition is best expressed by the following tweet from party HQ on Friday during the vote:

The Conservative Party trying to drum up popular anger against the proposed change is simply their latest tactic to prevent “In all our sons’ command” being changed to “In all of us command”. Through a variety of procedural ploys, the Tories attempted to delay the vote long enough that Parliament adjourned for the summer, thus killing the bill on the order paper. Their oposition is particularly amusing given that in the Throne Speech of March 3rd, 2010, the Harper government proposed making the very same change. While Harper and his cabinet walked back the proposed change two days later, the Tories clearly were not horrified by the thought of changing the anthem a mere six years ago. I suspect that their recent opposition comes more from seeking political advantage than any meaningful conviction.  Thankfully, their efforts, sincere or not, have been rendered mute with Friday’s vote. I say thankfully not only because I agree with the change to the anthem, but also find the Conservative’s position deeply ahistorical. Much like their celebrations of the War of 1812 in 2012, the party faithful has invented their own version of history and then sought to defend it as part of some mythical vision of Canadian history which never existed in the first place.

The initial and most important point is that “O Canada” has not been our anthem from time immemorial. In fact, it was only adopted as Canada’s official national anthem in 1980. Prior to that “O Canada” was the national anthem while “God Save the Queen” was the Royal Anthem of Canada. Confused as to the difference? So was the entire country so you aren’t alone. However, even that designation only dates from 1967. Prior to the Centenial, depending on what city you were in determined what song was sung as the national anthem before, say, a sporting event. Go to a Montreal Canadiens game and you got “O Canada” (in French) while at a Toronto Maple Leafs’ game you’d get “God Save the Queen.” The earliest possible date for “O Canada” being adopted as an unofficial Canadian anthem was 1939, with George VI’s visit to Ottawa for the dedication of the National War Memorial. So at best, “O Canada” has only been our anthem in any form for less than eighty years and even then, it was the French version that predominated.

Throughout the period from the composition of the English version in 1908 until the (mostly) definitive version was published in 1927, “O Canada” was simply one of a variety of patriotic songs sung in English Canada. Throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian years (1880-1910) and into the First World War, a variety of civic organizations would arrange patriotic song contests and recitals, usually designed to encourage patriotic feelings in young Anglo school children. In fact, from 1867 onwards it was “The Maple Leaf Forever” that many in English Canada viewed as the Dominion’s unofficial anthem. However, “The Maple Lead Forever” fell out of favour because it was clear that its lyrics were not inclusive. In particular, its first verse, praising “Wolfe the dauntless hero” was rightly seen as excluding French Canadians, hence the rise of “O Canada” in the 1920s and 30s. The obvious question arising from this story is, if it is permissible to change the anthem to ensure a third of the population isn’t alienated by the anthem, why is it controversial to ensure that over 50% of the population is represented in the anthem’s lyrics?

Beyond the fact that “O Canada” is not as historic as many Canadians seem to believe, it has also undergone multiple changes throughout the years. While Robert Stanley Weir’s 1908 translation has become the basis for the modern song, it was actually one of many attempts to create an English version of the anthem at the turn of the last century. While previous versions had failed to catch hold of the popular imagination, Weir’s version, which contained no reference to God and the line “thou dost in us command”, became the popularly accepted version.

Robert Stanley Weir

Robert Stanley Weir


It wasn’t until 1914 that the line “thou dost in us command” was changed to “in all thy sons command” to specifically reference the men being sent overseas to fight in the First World War. It is particularly important to note that the change in lyrics was intended to be gendered. This use of the masculine sons instead of the neutral us was not a case of using the male as a substitute for the universal, such as using mankind instead of human -kind, rather it was an explicit reference to male soldiers fighting overseas. If people want the anthem to reference Canadians serving overseas that is completely legitimate but given that Canadian soldiers are now sons AND daughters, the anthem should reflect this reality.

Finally, the religious references in the anthem, such as an entire fourth verse all about God, were added even later than “in all thy sons command.” These references to God were only inserted in the 1927 Diamond Jubilee of Confederation version. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1970 that “God keep our land became an official part of the anthem. Now, instead of repeating “O Canada we stand on guard for thee” four times, the second time the line is repeated the Canadian government changed it in 1970 to read “God keep our land glorious and free.” However, this change towards the religious was not without controversy as many Canadians opposed it and insisted, for years afterwards, in singing the “original” version.

The overall point is that the history of our national anthem is one of almost constant change. The English lyrics – and versions for that matter – have been repeatedly altered to reflect the priorities and concerns of the existing generation. The change proposed by Mauril Belanger is simply the latest attempt to update our anthem to ensure it is reflective of Canada in the 21st century. But rather than recognizing the dynamic nature of “O Canada”, the Conservative Party has decided to cling to an imagined history where “O Canada” has remained the static and unchanging since John A. Macdonald handed it down to Canadians from atop a Canadian Pacific Railway train crossing the Rockies. Unfortunately for the Tories, and thankfully for everyone else, Canadian history isn’t so simplistic. Now, let us see what happens when someone proposes removing God from the national anthem or the constitution?   


Opponents of Settling Syrian Refugees in Canada Are Ignoring History

On Monday, May 2nd the Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted their second of three debates in their 2015-16 Great Canadian Debates Series. This one, on the resolution  that “Mass resettlement to Canada is the best thing for [Canada] and the best thing for Syrian refugees” featured Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on the pro side and Senior Editor of The Atlantic David Frum on the con side. Judging by audience polls at the beginning and end of the debate, the audience came in sympathetic to Ms. May’s position yet by the end most people in attendance sided with Mr. Frum.  I was not one of the people siding with the negative side as, despite his excellent rhetoric, I found substantial problems with Frum’s speech. While I thought his arguments didn’t reflect the geopolitical realities in the Middle East, relying instead on broad generalizations about demographics to explain political instability in the region, I will let others with greater expertise comment on these flaws. Rather, I wish to discuss the Canadian side of the question and specifically focus on the ahistorical nature of Frum’s argument.

One of the main points Frum brought up to support the contention that mass resettlement of Syrian refugees would be bad for Canada was the supposed inability of Syrian refugees to integrate into Canadian society. According to Frum, the Syrians who would be coming to Canada were shaped by a culture that is predominately rural, patriarchal, authoritarian, and intolerant of religious or ideological difference and for Frum, these cultural differences would necessary clash with a Canadian – or western – culture that was pluralistic, democratic, secular and egalitarian. As evidence, he pointed to the rising rates of hate crimes against Jews and LGBTQ people in Europe, as well as the violent attacks in Paris and Brussels perpetrated by radicalized French and Belgian Muslims. When May rightly pointed out that these crimes were not committed by refugees but rather French and Belgian citizens, Frum argued that it was the children of Muslim refugees who came to Europe in the 1990s who were perpetrating theses crimes. Hence, current problems in France and Belgium were only a warning for all of the western world as to what was to come if the west continued to pursue a policy of mass resettlement. For Frum, these supposed cultural differences transcended generations and will create problems for decades.

The problem with Frum’s argument, which are similar to ones made by anti-immigration activists such as Nigel Farage and Mark Steyn,  is that these same points have been raised by immigration opponents in Canada for the past  century to argue against letting Chinese, Italians, Jews and Japanese people into the country. Yet, Frum and others fail to recognize that despite these arguments being proven wrong time and time again, they continue to repeat them. Fundamentally, I argue that anyone who repeats these anti-migrant discourses needs to be aware of their history and explain why in migration from Syria – or Muslim countries in general – is unique in the history of Canada. It was this burden that Frum failed to meet on Monday night.

During the 1930s many xenophobic Canadians argued that the children of Eastern European immigrants who came to Canada in the early years of the 20th century were incapable of integrating into Canadian society. In a 1931 letter from S.J. Gothard, editor of the Vancouver-based magazine The Canadian Police Gazette, to Prime Minister RB. Bennett, Gothard argued that, “[Anglo-Canadians], who rather imagine ourselves as reputable citizens, are taxed to the limit for a horde of foreigners, who never could assimilate themselves to our customs and who certainly never will make desirable immigrants.”  Gothard later goes on to describe these people as, “the riff-raff of Europe.” While the specific language has certainly changed, the idea that new immigrants will be a net drain on the social safety net and not contribute economically to the country was brought up by Frum during Monday’s debate.

Immigrants from Southern Europe were a particular target of Anglo-Canadians. In a 1937 letter to now Leader of the Opposition RB. Bennett, one of his constituents James A. Ross wrote about the supposed unsuitable nature of Southern European – read Italian, Greek and Spanish – immigrants. Ross states that, “I don’t think they are suitable and you know as well as I do that their morality is poor… Most of them are ignorant, morality is not high and a number of them are dirty.” Ross then argues that integration is impossible because “inter-marriage will not be successful.” Specifically, when Ross refers to morality, he specifically is referencing, in the language of the time, sexual morality, more specifically the alleged high libido and lack of self-restraint demonstrated by Southern European men . As we witnessed with the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Years Eve, portraying migrants as a sexual menace is a powerful and enduring discourse.

In line with portraying immigrant men as a sexual menace, another anti-immigration argument raised in various forms over the years is that group X are not suitable to become Canadians because their culture/beliefs/ideology is incompatible with democratic Canada. In the first half of the 20th-century Chinese migrants  – although in modern parlance we would call them refugees, given the levels of violence, poverty and instability throughout much of China during Inter-war years – were the subject of xenophobic attacks in  the press and even parliament. In 1907 Future Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, then the Minister of Labour in Wilfrid Laurier’s government,  wrote in a brief to the Canadian Governor General that:

In an Anglo-Saxon community like [Canada], where democratic institutions prevail, the introduction in large numbers of alien races inherently ignorant of the most elementary principles of self-government can not but by itself be inimical to the best interests of Canada.

In this quote we can see the exact same logic at work that Frum and others apply to immigrants/refugees from Muslim countries. Rather than simply coming from a country which is autocratic, their country and culture of origin makes these migrants  somehow inherently incapable of living and thriving in a democratic society. It is also particularly ironic that the Liberal government of the day argued that Chinese men (women of any colour coudn’t vote yet) were incapable of participating in a democracy when it was the very Liberal goverment who made it illegal for British subjects of Chinese ethnicity to vote. However, as Lisa Marr has demonstrated in her work Brockering Belonging, even being barred from the franchise didn’t prevent Chinese Canadians from being active participants in Canadian politics. Mackenzie King’s racist and essentializing arguments were wrong then and remain wrong now. Why then is Frum correct when he essentially paraphrases King? I argue he isn’t.

As we have seen, these discourses about Eastern and Southern European, as well as Chinese immigrants, have been proven false time and time again. The children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren of  Ukrainian, Jewish, Italian, Greek, Spanish and other Eastern and Southern European migrants have all seamlessly integrated into Canadian society; to the point that David Frum, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, can now speak as a representative of white Canada and employ the same arguments people used against his maternal grandparents against a new generation of Canadians. Furthermore, while Asian-Canadians still regularly deal with racism and accusations that they are unwilling/incapable of assimilating into Canadian society, the idea that Chinese people are incapable of being citizens in a democratic society is clearly ludicrous. So given that these racist discourses have been employed time after time by opponents to mass migration into Canada and have, time after time, been proven false, why is Mr. Frum and company right this time? What makes Syrians, or Muslims in general, so different? Until anti-immigration activists seriously confront this question their arguments cannot be taken seriously.





The Leap Manifesto Is History Repeating Itself

A small set of Eastern Canadian intellectuals and political activists write a radical political program with the intention of having Canada’s main left-of-centre party adopt it as the basis of the party’s electoral platform. However, in the subsequent convention, held in Western Canada, where a particularly vicious economic downturn has thrown tens of thousands out of work, many of the rank and file members push back against some of the more controversial ideas in the manifesto. Despite opposition,  the party accepts the manifesto as party policy, but the debate leaves festering wounds that  many worried would eventually split the party apart.

Does this set of circumstances sound familiar? For anyone who followed the NDP Convention in Edmonton this past weekend it should. The party, despite strong opposition from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and organized labour, adopted the Leap Manifesto as the basis for party policy moving forward.  Predictably, many in the Canadian media have denounced the manifesto, as well as former NDP members. It even prompted this Maclean’s cover:


Yet, the above description also perfectly captures the founding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP, in 1932-33. After a conference in Calgary in the summer of 1932 various representatives from organized labour, farmers’ movements and a group of left-wing parliamentarians known as “The Ginger Group,” headed by J.S. Woodsworth, organized themselves into a political federation. However, it was the nascent group’s next meeting in Regina in 1933 that produced one of the most famous documents in Canadian history, the Regina Manifesto.

Founding Meeting of the CCF in Calgary, 1932

Founding Meeting of the CCF in Calgary, 1932

The majority of the Regina Manifesto was written by two Eastern Canadian academics, Univeristy of Toronto history professor Frank Underhill and McGill law professor F.R. Scott. These two men were founding members of the League for Social Reconstruction, essentially a 1930s think-tank, whose membership was composed of middle-class Toronto and Montreal professionals and academics; a world away from the labourers and farmers of the CCF. Hence, when Underhill and Scott composed their manifesto, it reflected their political and economic priorities, many of which were similar, but not identical, to the other sections of the CCF.

Particularly controversial was the Manifesto’s position regarding farm ownership. In clause four, Underhill and Scott wrote that, “The security of tenure for the farmer upon his farm which is imperilled by the present disastrous situation of the whole industry, together with adequate social insurance, ought to be guaranteed under equitable conditions.” However, this stance seemed to contradict clause three, which called for “social ownership” of primary industries. This led one Toronto delegate, Bill Moriarty, to describe the CCF’s policy in an editorial published in Workers’ Age as, “Social ownership for the city, private ownership for the country.” Yet such a contradictory position was necessary to secure the support of farmer organizations across the country. But for many farmers and their elected representatives, the various compromises in the Regina Manifesto were not enough and the Ontario section of the United Farmers ultimately split from the CCF in 1934.

Fundamentally, the divide in the CCF over the Regina Manifesto mirrors the divide in the present-day NDP over the Leap Manifesto. The party, then as now, is an amalgamation of different interest groups who share broadly similar, but not identical political goals.Particularly divisive, both then and now, is the divergent priorities of rural and urban Canadians. While core issues have changed, from the role of private property to the role of fossil fuels in the Canadian economy, the party still struggles with these basic ideological and economic divisions.

In that respect, the debate over the  Leap Manifesto is not anything new.  If we should learn anything from the CCF-NDP’s early history it is that ideological conflict is ingrained in the party’s history, but so is compromise. The party has been able to, over its 80 plus years, effectively manage often bitter ideological divisions, the latest divide over the Leap Manifesto will be no different. So sorry Macleans, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein aren’t going to kill the NDP, even if it does make a sensationalist cover story.



Secret Codes and The Liberal Party of Canada

Over the course of the 1920s, 30 and 40s, high-level Liberal Party operatives sent literally thousands of encoded telegrams through the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Telegraph Service. As anyone who has worked with the private papers of any politician from the first half of the twentieth century will know, telegrams were a key, but expensive, means of rapid communication in a country as large as Canada. The fonds of almost every politician from the era are filled with hundreds of telegrams, sent mostly over the CPR network and featuring the company’s Telegraph Services logo.

CPR Telegram Header from the 1920s

CPR Telegram Header from the 1920s

While fast and convenient, these messages, asides from being expensive, also had serious draw-backs. Namely, while supposedly confidential, too many eyes would see the message en-route to its intended destination and any of those eyes could be partisan supporters of opposing parties, or simply unscrupulous people willing to trade political intelligence for political or financial gain. The Liberals solutions to this problem was to send these telegrams in code. While keeping names and locations unchanged, other words would be substituted using a prearranged method.

Albert Hudson after his appointment by Mackenzie King to the Supreme Court of Canada

Albert Hudson after his appointment by Mackenzie King to the Supreme Court of Canada

Some of the best examples come from the fonds of Manitoba Member of Parliament Albert B. Hudson, the former Attorney General and (most fittingly for this post) Minister of Telephones and Telegraphs for Manitoba and backbencher in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government of 1921-1925. While retiring from electoral politics prior to the 1925 election, Hudson’s connections to the Manitoba Liberals meant that he was a power broker in Manitoba. As a consequence, after the 1925 election, he was tasked by King and the Federal Liberals with convincing the seven Progressive Party MPs from Manitoba to either prop up the Liberal’s minority government or, ideally, to join the Liberal Party.  Hudson and the Liberals had to keep his talks with the Progressives secret as they were integral to ensuring the survival of the Liberal Government, which despite only winning 100 seats to the Conservatives 115 in the 1925 General Election, were attempting to govern with the support of Progressive and Independent MPs. Given the fluid nature of the political situation, it was important that King and the Liberal hierarchy had the ability to relay news and instructions to Hudson in Winnipeg, hence the use of coded messages. Here is one example from the 21st of December 1925 that Hudson received while in Winnipeg:

Crerar Lengthen Tidy Excitement Toronto Ottawa Scar Prick Avoidance Transmission Jury Summed Conflict Annunciation Ornament Egbert Annunciation Drury Whirled Throws Congelation Sibilation Befit David Annoying Incrustation Crerar Caucus Wrenching Propagandism

In order to decode the message, the sender would also include instructions on how to read the message. For this message, the instructions, sent in another telegram, were  to “subtract 150 Slater Code.” Not having access to the Liberal code book I have no idea what the Slater code is nor what subtracting 150 would accomplish. However, Hudson helpfully decoded the message and wrote it on the back of the telegram paper. Here is the decoded text:

Crerar leaves this evening Toronto. Ottawa Saturday present attitude towards joining subject condition and opinion yourself and Drury we think conditions should be written and include Crerar Caucus with Progressives.

Thomas Crerar was the former leader of the Progressive Party from 1921 to 1922 and former head of the Manitoba Grain Growers’ Association. While not sitting in parliament in 1925 – he would return as a Liberal in 1929 – he was enormously influential in Manitoba and would be key to getting the Manitoba Progressives on the Liberals’ side. To ensure that these discussions remained secret, Prime Minister King’s personal secretary, who sent the telegram, sent it in code, to keep prying eyes confused.

While Hudson’s fonds from 1925-26 provide the best single collection of coded telegrams, the practice of sending encoded messages continued well into the 1940s. During the 1940 Federal Election Campaign Prime Minister King sent the following message to the head of the National Liberal Federation, Senator Norman Lambert. King, when discussing his campaign trip by rail to the prairies wrote that, “I shall have to keep in communication with my own office by both telegraph and telephone, receiving coded messages en route. These will require deciphering and will have to be dealt with.” While King did not do his own deciphering, unlike Hudson fifteen years earlier, the Liberal Party still employed the same tactics. 

 When exactly the practice of sending coded telegrams ended I haven’t been able to find out. Presumably, with the increasing presence of the telephone across the country, secret codes became unnecessary.  Furthermore, despite coming across hundreds of coded telegrams, I have been unable to find any information about the type of codes the party employed. I also have not been able to find a code book  or anything similar. If anybody out there does have any more information about the Liberal Party’s secret codes let me know in the comments or on twitter!

Quick Hits: Forest Fires and Soil Renewal

A forest fire burns in Northern Ontario.

A forest fire burns in Northern Ontario.

The following is from a letter written by Thunder Bay businessman George Wardrope to the recently elected leader of the Ontario Conservative Party (and future Lt. Governor of Ontario) the Honourable William Earl Rowe. In the letter, Mr. Wardrope complains about the multiple failures of the current Liberal Government of Ontario, headed by Premier Mitchell Hepburn. Among the government’s many perceived failings was its unwillingness to fund forestry services in the province, supposedly resulting in massive forest fires in Norther Ontario during the summer of 1936. While Wardrope lists six key reasons why these forest fires are calamitous for Northern Ontario, I want to highlight reason number one and five. The first argument Wardrope makes for the destructive power of the fires is:

The burning off the top soul, which is the basic treasure house of posterity. Due to the lack of personnel and equipment, through lack of Government co-operation, the top soul has been burned and this has impoverished posterity and is likely to leave us with large tracts of desert such as in New Mexico, where nothing can grow.

He then goes on to explain that “the destruction by fire will cause a failure of forest and plant growth.” For Wardrope, it is clear that forest fires are entirely destructive, burning up not only valuable timber resources and destroying the habitat of fur-bearing animals, but also literally scorching the soil and making the land into a literal desert.

Such a view makes a certain degree of intuitive sense. Forest fires seem to be the ultimate in natural destruction. The landscape after a fire has passed appears to be utterly devoid of life and in one respect Wardrope is write about the destructive power of forest fires, the immediate economic value of the forest is destroyed. Timber can no longer be harvested from the burned land and any fur-bearing animals have either fled or been cooked. However, even in the 1930s, Wardrope’s view was becoming outdated. Thanks to extensive research undertaken in the US as part of the New Deal government programs, forest management practices began to change as people realized that forest fires were a necessary tool for revitalizing the landscape. Rather than representing pure destruction, fires actually represent renewal.

In the present day, fire, in the form of controlled burns, is an effective tool of forestry management. So maybe, in this case, the answer to the question 1930s or today is easy to answer!


Note: This letter can be found on Microfilm Reel M-9015 at Library and Archives Canada. It is from Volume 123, File 1256 in the George Drew Fonds MG32 C 3.

Don’t Blame CBC, Canadian Newspapers Are Killing Themselves

Today on Twitter we get this exchange between Stephen Maher, a political columnist for PostMedia and David Akin, the Parliamentary Bureau Chief for Sun Media (which really is just PostMedia). The general theme of their discussion? The CBC and their allies in Parliament who refuse to specifically define the organization’s mandate are killing off newspapers.

Simply put, Their argument is preposterous. If anyone is to blame for the supposed “death” of newspapers it is the papers themselves, and more specifically their parent companies, who are responsible for their own death. The decline of print journalism in this country is largely due to self-inflicted wounds.

One of the main arguments Maher and others use to explain why CBC is killing newspapers is that CBC’s model of providing free online content means it is impossible to make a paywall work. Superficially the idea of “why would people pay for something when you can get it for free”  has some appeal. However, upon further examination, it is clear that this argument rests on a number of flawed assumptions. Primarily, it relies on the premise that CBC’s online content is, and would continue to be, the only source of free news on the internet. For international news that clearly is not the case. From BBC to CNN to Agence France Press, there is a multitude of places one can go for free news from around the world and some of it, such as the BBC, is even of world-class quality. Whether CBC exists or not, I’m still going to go to BBC, not the National Post for news about the air campaign against ISIS and the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

Furthermore, even within Canada, there are plenty of other free news sources that aren’t the CBC. Most prominent is the Toronto Star, but the Huffington Post also covers Canada, as does Vice and Buzzfeed. Between all of these online publications, I could easily get my fill of national news without ever visiting the CBC website OR paying for access to a Canadian newspaper’s online content. The only case where the argument about CBC taking away customers who would otherwise pay for access to content behind a paywall is somewhat valid is in relation to local news content.  Even in this case though, many large cities have a Metro newspaper that is free and often provides the level of local coverage that most people want.  Additionally, even if there was no CBC offering free, local news, I question how many people would pay solely for the “City” section. I suspect the answer is not many.

The second problematic assumption is that paywalls are not the only, or even the most effective, tool for generating revenue. As the New York Times found out in 2007, despite their TimesSelect paywall generating $10 million in revenue a year, its growth paled in comparison to the revenues generated by online advertising. Hence, the Times dropped their paywall for their post-1980 archives with the purpose of increasing readership and maximizing their income by focusing on the most productive revenue stream. While the Times reintroduced a paywall in 2011, it is the softest of soft paywalls and anyone with Google can easily view any article they wish to. In utilizing this approach, the paper is trying to generate the revenue of a paywall without losing traffic and ad revenue. How effective this strategy has been remains unclear. However,  in respect to online ad revenue, CBC does not compete with anyone for the simple reason that their web content doesn’t have ads. Even if we assume that there is a finite amount of online advertising dollars available to Canadian publications (which there isn’t), CBC is not taking anyone’s share of the pie. There is nothing stopping PostMedia or any other online news site from maximizing their ad revenue by increasing traffic by offering attractive online content.

The third and final faulty assumption behind the “CBC ruins paywalls” argument is that it assumes that news consumption is, in the words of Jeet Heer, “a zero-sum game.” As obvious as it seems, reading one news source does not preclude someone from reading other news sources online. Rather, most people purposely read multiple publications every week to get different perspectives. Furthermore, having a low barrier of entry for reading the news on the CBC website might actually foster an individual’s interest in current affairs and encourage them to seek out more news from a diverse array of sources. Thus, the availability of free news does not mean that people will not pay for access to content. The problem for PostMedia is that they have not been producing content worth paying for.

Ultimately, the decline of newspapers and their inability to create new revenue streams from online content is a self-inflicted wound. Rather than providing value added content behind their paywall, PostMedia has instead chosen to cut, cut and cut some more. The inevitable result is  decline in quality of news coverage leading Canadians to rightfully question why they would pay for access, especially when the Toronto Star is available for free and the Globe and Mail provides higher quality content for a similar price.

Additionally, both the Globe and Mail and PostMedia papers have made a series of poor decisions, driven by corporate concerns, that only served to alienate readers. Most notable is PostMedia’s decision to endorse Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in the 2015 Federal Election, over the protests of many of their papers’ editorial boards and in defiance of the opinions of  70% of Canadians. However, in many ways, the Globe and Mail’s decision to endorse the Conservative Party, but not Stephen Harper, was even more bizarre. It was as if they recognized the contempt most Canadians held for Prime Minister Harper and wanted to make their corporate interest driven decision more palatable to their readers. Ultimately, they failed on both accounts, as the Liberals won a majority and the Globe was subject to ridicule online.

Furthermore, The Globe and Mail also ignored the opinions of the vast majority of Canadians when they excluded Elizabeth May from their Federal Election debate. Despite almost 80% of Canadians wanting May included in all election debates,  The Globe and Mail chose to ignore their demands and excluded her from the debate. It is this contempt for the public and their supposed customers, that caused me to cancel my Globe and Mail online subscription. I won’t switch to The National Post because I object to giving my money to a paper who refuses to fund quality journalism and uses their editorial page as a mouthpiece for the corporate interests of their owners. So in the end I will read CBC but not because I am not willing to pay for news; I did that for four years. Rather, I, and many others like me, are not willing to purchase the products currently on offer. The supposed death of Canadian newspapers is not murder, it is suicide.