The Value of Values

Values matter. Values inform our character and offer touchstone and compass for our lives. If values are sacrificed for expediency, opportunity, or fear, we become blind wayfarers, adrift beneath a starless sky.

Values are as essential to us as individuals as to our collective selves: the nation. That is why we write them in the documents we cherish. They ring from the American constitution’s amendments, reflecting sacrifices made and victories won, as well as from the defiant, aspirational Declaration of Independence. Similarly, Canada’s constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms express values ingrained from lessons learned.

Sometimes, and seldom when seas are calm and skies blue, we are tested. The tests are not of the values themselves but of our fidelity to them.

Canadians were tested in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour. Aboard were Indian families seeking to trade the corruption, poverty, and violence of their homeland for Canadian sanctuary. Officials discovered that the ship had passed through Hong Kong and so cited a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act which barred entrance to anyone arriving through a third country. It was a ruse. There were no direct routes from India to Canada. Canadians simply did not want Indians and certainly did not want the Komagata Maru’s 352 Sikh migrants. They were forced to steam away.

A generation later, in May 1939, the German ship St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba. 937 Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s madness. Nearly all had applied for American visas and saw Cuba as their stepping stone to freedom. Everyone knew of the Holocaust. Western newspapers had been reporting on the theft of Jewish dignity and rights and of Kristallnacht, the two horrifying nights the previous November in which synagogues and Jewish businesses were smashed. Everyone knew.

And yet, the Cuban government refused to allow the St. Louis’ passengers to disembark. The ship was forced to leave. It steamed north and when close enough to see Miami’s lights, American warships turned it away. President Roosevelt was told of the people’s plight and of their certain death if forced back to Germany, but he said nothing. A State Department telegram explained that the refugees must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” At that time, the waiting list was several years long.

The St. Louis was forced up the coast until it finally reached Halifax. Its reception was the same. The passengers were not allowed landfall. Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was travelling in the United States at the time and referred the matter to his Immigration Branch director Frederick Charles Blair. Blair ordered the ship gone. When asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada he retorted, “None is too many.”

The St. Louis arrived back in Europe and Belgium, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands accepted some of the passengers but not all. With options exhausted, 532 returned to Germany and 254 perished in the Holocaust’s ovens.

The Komagata Maru and St. Louis are, in essence, again at our door. This time it is Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of a complex and brutal war. As in 1914 and 1939, many Canadians and Americans are arguing that we should bar that door. We should, it is said, ignore the fact that unless we are indigenous people that we are all from somewhere else and, more significantly, that we should ignore our values.

One argument for saying no to the refugees is that Islamic terrorists could slip in with legitimate refugees. However, we should note that recent terrorist attacks in neither Mali nor Paris were conducted by Syrians or refugees. Then we should consider a study by the Economist and wager a guess as to how many immigrants and refugees have committed terrorist acts in the United States since 9-11. The answer is zero.

America’s Homeland Security and Canada’s RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service agree that Syrian refugees present no threat to Canada or the United States. Time Magazine reported Pentagon sources as stating that the Syrian refugees are being carefully screened and that nearly all are, “survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, families with multiple children and a female head of household.”

A second argument is more disturbing. The racism that sent the Komagata Maru and St. Louis away is with us still, it’s just become more cleverly hidden. The embers of racism are kept alive not just by the obscene beliefs and actions the KKK that we seldom see but by the little racist jokes at coffee shops that we too often hear. A number of pundits, politicians, and even some who wish to be president have been fanning those embers into flames. Canadian cities have seen Muslim women harassed and a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was burned. Donald Trump has called for a registry of Muslim Americans. Jeb Bush said that only Christian Syrians should be admitted.

Do these fears, attitudes, actions, and proposals reflect the values inherent in our founding documents? Do they reflect the lessons learned from the Komagata Maru and St. Louis, or the Holocaust, by the treatment of indigenous people, or our Second World War Japanese internment camps? What would Lincoln, Kennedy, Diefenbaker, or Pearson say? Or, if you rather, and if you believe, in the Bible’s Matthew 25:35, Jesus taught that showing love for Him was done by caring for the most needy: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” And you invited me in.

The question of the Syrian refugees, like all questions, whether at home, at work, or on the national stage, circle back to values. We believe in our values or we do not. Talking about them doesn’t count. We should measure ourselves, our leaders, and our nation according to the congruency of words and actions. If we do not act according to our values then we really don’t believe in them. If community doesn’t really matter then let’s stop pretending it does. If we really don’t believe in multiculturalism or tolerance or diversity or the separation of Church and State then let’s say so. Let’s concede that all men are not really created equal after all. Let’s take a chisel to the Statue of Liberty so that it no longer proclaims:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Daily Life in Domiz refugee camp, Kurdistan Region of Iraq


We have a choice. We can listen to our values. Let us insist that the Komagata Maru and St. Louis incidents were aberrations from which we learned. Let us celebrate our values by living them. Let us reject those who sully established values for personal, professional, or political gains no matter how cleverly disguised as for the greater good.

We should welcome Syrian refugees because our values say that we should. And if all that is not enough, there is one more reason that we should save them – because we can.

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The Rich Man’s Riot and Democracy’s Dawn

Like each of us, a nation’s character is forged by triumphs recalled and tragedies we choose to forget. On an April evening in 1849, a Montreal mob burned Parliament to the ground. The fire and ensuing riots are among many largely forgotten incidents suggesting that Canadians are not what we like to think we are.

Canada is not the meek and peaceable kingdom of our collective mythology. It’s more complicated than that. We are more complicated than that. If we wish to understand who we are as Canadians, who we truly are, then we must understand and acknowledge the ugly but transformative power of riots whose fires, blood, and mad destruction dot our past and colour our character.

The flint that lit the 1849 flames lay in the muskets and determination of farmers who, twelve years before, marched down Toronto’s Yonge Street and up the road to St. Denis. They understood power. They knew they had none. A small, rich, urban elite – we would call them the one percent – was making all the rules and ruling only for themselves. A British governor held executive authority and he appointed only rich business and clerical leaders to his cabinet then heard only the advice of London and those well-heeled friends. The people and its elected assembly were routinely ignored.

William Lyon Mackenzie, in what is now Ontario, and Louis Joseph Papineau, in what is now Quebec, harnessed the people’s righteous indignation and led armed rebellions. The Toronto fight ended quickly with gunfire where Maple Leaf Gardens would later stand. Papineau’s rebellion was longer and bloodier but it too was crushed. Three hundred and thirty died, 2,000 were arrested, 151 were banished to Australia, and 12 were hung. The leaders fled to the United States.

The foppish Lord Durham was dispatched to find out what happened. He grumbled through five months of high living and then wrote a report revealing that he had learned little. Thinking the rebellions were inspired wholly by religious and ethnic tensions, he recommended joining the two colonies under one administration to overwhelm the pesky French Catholics. However, he also recommended that the new colony’s governor rule according to advice from Canadians rather than London.

The old conservative elite rigged the new game to keep their old power. People like Toronto’s Bishop John Strachan and Montreal brewer John Molson still called the shots. Reform politicians Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, however, forged an unlikely alliance. They insisted that members of the executive council – the cabinet – be appointed not from among the rich and clerics but, rather, from among those elected by the people.

After two violent elections that were corrupt even by 19th century standards, and then shifting priorities in Britain, a new Governor arrived. Lord Elgin allowed democratic reforms that farmers and urban merchants were demanding. The 1848 election afforded Reformers a parliamentary majority and Elgin asked Baldwin and LaFontaine to become co-premiers and form a cabinet. The 99% had won. The 1% were out – and they were mad.

Among the new government’s first legislation was the Rebellion Losses Bill. It pledged to compensate all those whose property had been damaged in the 1837 rebellions, including the rebels themselves. The old conservative elite was outraged. Their petition to the governor was dismissed. Although Elgin disagreed with the bill, he said that the people’s government had legally passed it and so he must sign it. At five o’clock on April 25, in the presence of the members of both houses of parliament, he affixed his signature.

As Elgin left the legislature, elegantly dressed business people and Conservative (Tory) MPs pelted his carriage with rocks. An egg smashed his face. With horses at a gallop Elgin escaped the melee. Drunk with indignation, 1,500 angry Tories and their supporters gathered at Champ-de-Mars. Holding torches aloft they marched, shattered windows, and chanted their way to the opulent St. Anne’s Market building that housed parliament.

The legislature was in session but members scattered as rocks smashed through windows. Sandford Fleming, who would later plot the railway route through the Rockies and invent standard time, grabbed a portrait of Queen Victoria and ran it out a back door. Several legislators, including John Sandford Macdonald, who would later be Ontario’s first premier, blockaded the large front entrance. Led by a well-known lawyer, the mob stole a 35-foot ladder and used it to crash their way inside. Legislators were knocked down and kicked. A fat man in an expensive waistcoat jumped atop the speaker’s chair and yelled, “I dissolve parliament!” Furniture was smashed. Gas pipes were broken and then torches thrown. Bankers, lawyers, and clerics cheered the collapse of the roof as the screaming, leaping flames licked the sky. The fire quickly engulfed a neighbouring house, two warehouses, and a hospital. And the cheering went on.

Rich Man's Riot.


The next night, men left their fine homes, expensive sherry, and imported cigars to reassemble downtown. There were more speeches about race, religion, class, and the natural order of things and power lost. This time their spitting anger was focused on the homes of political enemies whom they blamed for stealing what was considered rightfully theirs. LaFontaine’s house on rue de l’Aqueduc and Baldwin’s boarding house were among those attacked with torches and rocks.

As the mad violence threatened to fill a third night, the military assembled. General Gore warned of the arming of police constables and that the 71st regiment had rifles and cannon ready. There were scattered incidents of violence but a tense and eerie calm gripped the city.

Everyone knew the riot’s instigators. Everyone knew who had thrown stones and set flames. But Baldwin and LaFontaine restrained their reaction. They did not meet violence with violence. They ensured that some arrests were made but also that all were freed. They carefully enhanced security and for weeks there were flares of politically inspired violence but a bitter peace eventually prevailed. The army retired to base and the police locked up their guns.

Over the next weeks, Parliament was moved to Toronto. A Tory petition to London demanding an overturning of the Rebellion Losses Bill was denied. The payments were made. A Conservative movement demanding Canada’s annexation to the United States was initiated by new voices of the old Tory elite, including some who would later be fathers of confederation. It was allowed a natural death.

Most importantly of all, those still raging at the shift of power from the one to the ninety-nine percent fought not on the street but through committees, editorials, and speeches. The government remained in office with executive power, then and forever afterward, held not by the privileged, handpicked few but determined by the votes of the many.

The 1849 rich man’s riots did not signal Canada’s independence from Britain, but it was a crucial step. They did not give birth to true democracy, but parliament’s flames illuminated its dawn. Perhaps we are well served to recall incidents such as the Montreal riot to better understand ourselves and who we truly are. Further, perhaps we should ponder if the old fights regarding whose voices should be heard and interests served will be, or maybe even should be, re-fought. If so, let us listen for the voices of this generation’s Baldwin and LaFontaine, lest torches be lit again.

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Percy, Poppies, and a Pledge

He wasn’t a movie star. He wasn’t a famous athlete or the latest singer whose catchy ditty momentarily captured a spot in the charts and teens’ hearts. And yet, there it was. At Lakefield College School, tucked in the woods by the lake about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa and, in the 1940s, also halfway between 19th century British elitism and 20th century Canadian ruggedness, a boy took a knife in hand. In the windowsill of the little library he carved the name Percy Nelles.

The other boys, and at that point the school was all boys, understood. Nelles awed. He inspired. Nelles had been one of them but now belonged to the world. Teachers turned a blind eye to the vandalism for they understood too. And so as they passed the window each day the boys glanced down, some whispered the name, and in silent reverence many drew fingers over the defiant tribute.

Nelles had been a Lakefield student when the school was young but the values upon which it would thrive were already firmly established. He was a skilled cricket player and an enthusiastic member of its army cadet corps. Upon graduation in 1908, he joined the Fisheries Protection Service. With the creation of the Canadian Navy in 1910, Nelles became a midshipman in HMCS Niobe. Promotions came quickly. He enjoyed service in many ships and during the First World War at the navy’s Nova Scotia Head Quarters as flag lieutenant and director of the Naval Service.

Peacetime saw the navy shrink but his career flourish. Nelles was captain or commander in a number of ships and served at the Imperial Defence College. In 1934 he became Canada’s chief of naval staff – the first Canadian-born and trained to do so. Four years later, with Hitler’s mad ambitions about to plunge the world back into war, Nelles was promoted to rear admiral.

Nelles had not forgotten his old school. He played an instrumental role in an initiative that in 1939 saw the Canadian Navy officially recognize the newly formed Lakefield Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC) St. George – Canada’s only school-based sea cadet corps. Boys were divided into four platoons and a band. In crisp blue uniforms they trained for a half hour or more each day, learning skills needed to become naval officers. For five years they also enjoyed sessions on Georgian Bay’s Beausoleil Island. They knew that Nelles had helped establish the Sea Cadet Camp facilities and its fun but rigorous program.

Meanwhile, Nelles was reassigned to Britain where, as the senior Canadian flag officer overseas and head of the Canadian Naval Mission, he oversaw the Canadian Navy’s preparations for the June 1944 D-Day invasion of France. He coordinated 110 ships, 10,000 sailors, and 15 air force squadrons for the successful landing of 14,000 Canadians on the heavily fortified Juno beach. D-Day was the turning point in the war that reminded all that evil is sometimes incarnate in a man or movement. Evil’s enemy can sometimes be a kid from a Saskatchewan farm, or Calgary street corner, or even a little school in Lakefield.

Percy, Poppies and a Pledge


The library is gone now. The space became a classroom, then staff room, and is now a slick new Admissions office. But the windowsill is still there and so may also be the boy’s carving that was so simple and yet represented so much.

It is the same simplicity represented by the little poppies we wear each November. They express our devotion to those who offered their full measure of devotion for causes perhaps forgotten but in support of values that endure. They proclaim our insistence that the sacrifice and service of those who died, of those who returned whole or broken, and of those still in uniform, shall not be forgotten. Our remembering is as simple as the little felt poppy, or the windowsill carving, but as complex as citizenship itself.

For a few days each year we are asked to transcend our lives’ minutia and the exhortations of some politicians and all corporations and become more than voters, taxpayers, and consumers. We become citizens. And as citizens we bear the burden of remembrance.

To remember all who served is overwhelming and so this year I will offer respect for all by remembering one. This year I will remember Percy Nelles. In my moment of silence on the 11th at 11, I will curse war but revere the warrior. I will hate the hypocrisy, greed, and stupidity of wars of choice but honour the value of service-above-self.

But even this is too easy. Perhaps his memory is better honoured not by a forgotten carving or soon discarded poppy. Maybe this year we can summon the courage to act as Nelles did, as they all did, and let the values that inspired their service more fully inform our lives. These are the values, the essence of informed, engaged citizenship, that we saw on vivid display in Canada’s recent election. We see it every day in the acts of selfless volunteers. We see it in those whose courage and convictions broaden the circle of community. We see it through actions that demonstrate not just tolerance but acceptance and by acts and attitudes that show a willingness to trust a little more and take a little less.

Engaged citizenship is hard. It is a hell of a lot harder than wearing a poppy for a few days or standing silent for a minute a year. But let us compare the challenges of engaged, values-based citizenship to the difficulties and sacrifices of those for whom we don poppies.

Rear Admiral Nelles, this year, I pledge to do my best.

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Leadership and Narcissism

Leadership and Narcissism

The Canadian election is over and the American presidential campaign is heating up. Justin Bieber’s adolescent petulance has again made headlines and pictures of celebrities in Halloween costumes have been spamming my Twitter account. CEOs at Volkswagen, a couple of banks, an oil company, and those running Soccer’s FIFA World Cup have been behaving badly. Perhaps it is an appropriate moment to consider narcissism.

The word derives from the Greek legend of a handsome young man named Narcissus who fell so head over heels in love with himself that he devoted days to gazing longingly at his reflection in a pool. He eventually died and was transformed into the flower called narcissus.



In 1914, Sigmund Freud used the legend to discuss the problem of excessive self-love. In the 1970s, University of Chicago’s Heinz Kohut deepened our understanding by writing that all children have a grandiose sense of self and see others as merely pawns. Due to a trauma they may not recall, and may not have even been a negative experience, some people never move past that stage. Kohut dubbed the result a narcissistic personality disorder.

Those suffering from the disorder, he wrote, do not suffer at all. They thrive. They revel. They strut. They succeed and they celebrate. They are aware of their inflated sense of self while carefully calculating their interactions with others to advance careers that they see as their due. A narcissist is completely and sincerely convinced that their opinions are superior to all and so their world – be it a particular organization or company or even the broader arts, business, or politics – will be improved if others just got out of their way. A 2004 Harvard Business Review article noted that executives at Oracle described CEO Larry Ellison like this: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

A narcissist always makes a good first impression because he is irresistibly charming, witty, and confident. It’s an easy act because his life is a performance. He is often a loving spouse and parent, for example, as it allows yet another demonstration of his ability to master difficult tasks. He often gets things done at work because he swiftly clears aside obstacles whether they are people or established practices. If caught doing something unwise or illegal, critics are dismissed as jealous or mindless ‘haters’ and rules or laws as merely misguided impediments. Narcissistic leaders are capable of shoe shuffling mea culpas but privately smile at critics and criticism as bothersome bumps on the road constructed by poor souls who will eventually understand that all will be better when they are allowed back on the bridge with only their hands on the tiller. Consider Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton.

Washington University’s Erica Carlson writes that it is this combination of self-awareness and refusal to accept criticism or consequence that results in narcissists never believing that they need to change. Narcissists are incapable of change. The world must change to suit them and not the other way around. Consider Kanye West even before he announced that he would run for president.

Not all leaders are narcissists and not all narcissists are leaders. But, according to Dr. Thomas Paine, narcissists are overwhelmingly represented in leadership positions in sports, entertainment, politics, and business. Paine warns us to watch for a leader who is a charming conversationalist but always brings talk back to himself or his preferred topic. Watch for a leader who surrounds himself with sycophants and banishes those with long corporate memories and others who challenge his views or goals. Look out for the leader who can feign empathy but whose goal-driven actions aggrandize himself and his personal metrics of success while revealing no genuine concern for the feelings or even the lives of others. Watch for the leader who smiles at adversity with the confidence that he will weather all storms and emerge triumphant. Most importantly, he warns, watch for leaders who value their success more than that of the organization they lead. Consider Donald Trump.

Narcissism is more important than the Beibs or Kardashians. It is more important than measuring your personal rate of selfies per hour. Our intersecting worlds of culture, business, and politics matter a great deal and so the slippery slope from confidence to arrogance to narcissism among some of our leaders in each world matters. In fact, it is crucial.

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Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front


Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front will be published in Canada and the United States on February 2, 2016.

The United States and Canada had reached a crossroads and three leaders were trying to pull their countries in wildly different directions.

President John F. Kennedy pledged to pay any price to advance America’s homeland defense and strategic goals and he needed Canada to step smartly in line. Canada lay between the United States and the Soviet Union and so was a vital part of America’s security. Kennedy demanded that it house nuclear weapons and change its economic and foreign policies to support his. Frustrating Kennedy at every turn was Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, an unapologetic nationalist seeking to end the trend toward greater continental integration by bolstering Canadian autonomy and developing an independent identity. Meanwhile, Liberal leader Lester Pearson, the Nobel Prize–winning diplomat, saw value in continuing the slide toward integration.

While battling communism around the world, Kennedy never forgot his northern front. He adroitly exploited his enormous popularity among Canadians to seduce its people and pressure its government to bend to his will. He ruthlessly attacked Diefenbaker and shamelessly supported Pearson.

Newly released documents present shocking revelations about these crucial years. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Canadian ships and planes guarded America’s Atlantic coast, while Canada suffered a silent coup d’état. Kennedy pushed a nuclear weapons system on Canada while knowing full well that it was merely a decoy to draw Soviet fire. Kennedy carefully influenced and monitored the overthrow of a Canadian government and the election of another. While Canada helped Kennedy tumble into the Vietnam War he did nothing to stop American inspired violence on the Great Lakes border. Perhaps most startlingly, if not for Diefenbaker, Kennedy may have survived the assassin’s bullets in Dallas.

The movie-television rights have already been optioned for this non-fiction book that reads like an adventure novel, brimming with sparkling stories, fascinating characters, and fresh insights into this critical moment. Cold Fire will astonish readers with the intriguing ways in which the struggles of these three resolute leaders determined the course of the next half-century.

The book can be pre-ordered at Chapters:

or at Amazon:

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

In the fifth century, a northern European marriage tradition encouraged newlyweds to enjoy a daily dose of mead, a fermented liquid honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Using the only calendar available, the sipping stopped when the moon returned to the wedding day’s phase – about a month. From this custom came the honeymoon.

The concept has grown. We experience honeymoons at work. The new person is allowed silly questions and rookie mistakes. New business leaders are similarly excused if questions reflect a genuine desire to understand and not veiled threats, and mistakes are forgiven if blame is accepted and apologies are quick. Often, however, honeymoons end when a business leader’s personality flair reveals a character flaw; intelligence becomes arrogance, or the pace and nature of change threatens profits or values.

Such is also the case in political leadership. Political honeymoons are Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fault. He became president in March 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Within 100 days of inauguration he presented, and Congress passed, 15 major bills. He began by closing and stabilizing banks and then quickly touched nearly every sector of America’s sputtering economy. Some New Deal legislation worked and some failed but within those frenetic 100 days confidence and investment were rekindled and lives and capitalism itself were saved. Soon, however, even FDR’s honeymoon ended. Critics appeared from the left and right and the Supreme Court overturned his most ambitious initiatives.

Every leader, whether in business or politics, is warned that a honeymoon is as real as it is transitory and so it must be as productive as possible. Since FDR, every newly elected political leader has also been measured according to his or her First 100 Days.

Few leaders have demonstrated those twin realities as clearly as Barack Obama in 2009 and Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Both were propelled to office by charm, charisma, and positive campaigns. Both undertook ambitious agendas supported by the public and enabled by their party’s legislative majorities. Then, inevitably, both saw popularity plummet as their 100 days involved more talk than achievement and performance that couldn’t match promise. Obama watched Republicans take the House of Representatives. In his next election, Trudeau formed a frail, two-seat minority government.

Justin Trudeau has yet to be sworn in but the clock is already ticking on his honeymoon. Like all honeymoons, it offers novelty and excitement. The United States has seen two father and son presidents – Adams and Bush – but this will be a Canadian first. Never have Canadians welcomed a new leader not through the lens of TV news or at the behest of newspaper endorsements but, rather, primarily through the citizenship levellers and engagement enablers of YouTube videos, tweets, selfies, and blogs. Not since Pierre Trudeau, have Canadians embraced a celebrity politician as they would a movie or rock star.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons


Our prime minister designate followed a masterful campaign with a positive election night speech, a fun meet and greet with surprised Montreal subway commuters, and an articulate, confident press conference. Even those who did not vote Liberal seem invigorated by his promise of change in policy and tone; shown most blatantly in his inviting premiers and opposition leaders to the climate conference in Paris. Much of the country, in fact, much of the world appears giddy with expectation. A Canadian journalist has, only partly in jest, asked the international media to stop ogling our prime minister.

The Liberal parliamentary majority could guarantee a productive 100 Days with actions and bills addressing the environment, murdered and missing indigenous women, tax reform, infrastructure spending, an end to Canadian military action in Syria and Iraq, and more. We should enjoy the ride but remember our history. The 100 Days will end and the honeymoon won’t last. Soon enough, Canadians will stop sipping their honey and Mr. Trudeau may not seem quite so sunny.

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Rocks, Guns, and Unicorns: Today’s Campaigns Are Child’s Play

The longest Canadian federal election since 1872 is finally over. Thank goodness. The attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau began before the writ was dropped with TV ads declaring him not ready and others showing wildly out of context quotes and clips. The New Democratic Party and Liberals launched their own ads and assertions that were equally nauseous in tone and questionable in accuracy.

The long Canadian campaign was nothing, of course, compared to the American four-year presidential marathon that became real fully two years before party nominations. Canadian negative campaigning also pales in comparison. Consider the House Benghazi Committee that was ostensibly created to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Libya in September 2012. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy recently bragged that the committee’s sole purpose is to destroy Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Today's Negative Campaigns Are Child's Play.


Negative ads and practices are used because they work. They have always been with us. In many ways, they are tamer now than before.

Consider Burr and Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was the primary force behind the Constitution’s ratification and as the country’s first treasury secretary he saved the United States from bankruptcy. Aaron Burr was a senator and then Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. In 1804, Jefferson made it clear that he would drop Burr from the ticket in the upcoming election and so Burr ran for governor of New York. He lost by a wide margin; due mostly to vicious negative attacks launched against his character and lies told about his record. He blamed a number of people including Hamilton.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. In a New Jersey field they paced it off, turned, fired, and Hamilton fell. One of America’s most respected founding fathers died the next day. Burr returned to Washington and, with Jefferson’s blessing, served out his term as Vice President.

Canada’s history is less violent. In 1861, Conservative John A. Macdonald was running for re-election. Former friend and Reform Party candidate Oliver Mowat arranged to run in Toronto and, as was legal at the time, against Macdonald in his Kingston riding. Mowat had a number of scandalous allegations made against Macdonald and printed in newspapers owned by members of his party. (The Reform Party became the Liberals.) Included among those blatantly and unapologetically partisan papers was the Globe. It was owned and edited by Reform party leader George Brown.

Macdonald arranged his first public meeting. Mowat hired a group of young men who spread themselves around the back of the hall. When the meeting began, they instigated fights. They threw rocks at those on the stage. Macdonald jumped into the fray and threw punches along with the rest. Macdonald won the fight and election and later become Canada’s first Prime Minister. Mowat was later elected Ontario’s premier.

In the twentieth century, newspapers and money continued to wield enormous power. In 1950, young Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy was running for the Senate. His multi-millionaire father, Joe Kennedy, used various committees to quasi-legally funnel several million dollars to his son’s Quixote effort. Joe saved the Boston Post from bankruptcy with a $500,000 loan and then, two weeks before the election, saw the influential paper flip from supporting the Republicans to endorse his son. Kennedy defeated the far more experienced Henry Cabot Lodge by a narrow 52% to 49% margin.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson used one of the first negative TV ads in 1952. A carnival barker fields questions for a Republican candidate who, because he has two heads, offers two contradictory answers. The ad was clever but the Republican’s Eisenhower won the election.

Things have become increasingly worse. It was believed that forcing candidates to say that they endorsed a particular ad would help. It didn’t. Some thought the backfiring of certain ads, such as the Conservatives making fun of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s face in 1993 would help. It didn’t.

Today we seem to be stuck with campaigns that demean democracy rather than elevate it. Canada’s prime minister, for instance, based much of his 2015 re-election bid on trying to divide and frighten Canadians. In the campaign’s dying days he spoke only of taxes and used a sophomoric game show gag to make his point while saying things about his opponents that were obviously untrue. It was embarrassing.

Meanwhile, the United States has Donald Trump saying demonstrably false and ludicrous things while firing shot gun blasts of negativity and yet polling far above his opponents. America also has the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United v. FEC ruling that declared money is free speech. It allows folks like the Koch brothers to buy Congressional seats in ways that would make 19th Century Robber Barons blush.

A glance back suggests that parties, candidates, and the wealthy are not about to change. Maybe it’s up to us. Maybe we need to become a little more discerning and ask the next question of candidates who insult us by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites and slogans. Maybe we need to reject those who use negative smears in ads, speeches, and debates by using social media to fact check and fight back. Truth may beat trolls. Maybe we need more journalists with the courage of comedians such as John Oliver to take on issues that corporate-owned media or ideological mouthpieces avoid. Maybe we need to respect our citizenship by more intentionally exercising it. We could begin by insisting that candidates and politicians address more than just boutique tax cuts meant to buy us and, rather, tackle substantive issues that challenge and improve us; all of us. We can do it with our tweets and blogs and donations and attention and attendance and, most importantly, we can do it with our votes.

I may be naive. But that’s okay. Hope is never a waste of time. I sincerely believe we can have an uprising without a coup. We can have a revolution without guns. All we have to do to be better is want better. All we have to do is demand better. In this way, history’s lessons will not be that resistance is futile but that better is necessary and change is possible. We’ll see.

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