What Did Loyola Really Decide?

My first serious engagement in public policy matters occurred in 1997 when I was asked to join the Groupe de travail sur la place de la religion à l’école publique du Québec. Our mandate was to reflect on the place that religious teaching should have in Quebec’s public schools. Quebec was already in the process of eliminating religious school boards, but that administrative measure left untouched the content of religious teaching in Quebec’s public schools. Parents of a certain age will remember that for a number of years, they were required to tick off a box when signing their kids up for school indicating whether they wanted them to receive Catholic religious teaching, Protestant religious teaching, or non-confessional moral education.

That situation was clearly unstable. First, now that schools in the public system were no longer Catholic or Protestant, it required of each school that it provide three different kinds of course, a logistical nightmare for resource-strapped public schools.… Continue reading

John Ralston Saul: The Comeback

Over the next few weeks I’m reading all the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing (not including my own), and writing up my reactions — mainly to promote conversation. Today we have John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback: How Aboriginals are Reclaiming Power and Influence.

I must admit that I have always struggled with John Ralston Saul’s books. I own several. My biggest problem is that I never know what the hell he’s talking about. It could be him, or it could be me, but something tells me it’s him. I’m constantly getting pulled up short. He’ll be writing along, and he’ll say something like “you know how whenever you do blah-blah, someone will come up to you and say blah-blah,” and I’ll be like, “um, er, no actually, that never happens to me.” It’s always like that.

Reading Saul reminds me of the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where a transporter malfunction leaves Geordi and Ensign Ro “out of phase” with everyone else on the ship.… Continue reading

Physician-Assisted Dying: What Now?

Five years ago, I agreed to join an “expert panel” of the Royal Society of Canada. Our mandate was to provide a broad assessment of end-of-life care in Canada, and to make recommendations on how it might be improved. One of the recommendations that we made in our 2011 report was that there was no ethical justification for the maintenance of the criminal prohibition preventing physicians from helping their critically ill patients to die a dignified death, one that conformed to their wishes, and avoided them needless suffering.

I was therefore naturally very pleased when the Supreme Court of Canada issued its judgement in the Carter case, declaring that those articles of the Criminal Code were incompatible with Canadians’ Section 7 rights to life, liberty and security of person. Looking back at the 1993 decision in which a 5-4 majority had ruled that those articles were not in fact unconstitutional, a unanimous Court this time argued, in essence, that the empirical environment in which it was now being asked to render judgment had changed.… Continue reading

Thinking about Secession in Catalonia

I’m in Barcelona for a couple of weeks, teaching an accelerated seminar in the European MA program at Pompeu Fabra University. Yeah, I know, tough life.

Shortly before my arrival, requests for interviews with major Spanish newspapers started filling my inbox. Well, “filling” may be a bit too strong a word. I actually received three such requests, but they were from major outlets such as El Pais, a major national paper, and Aran, a newish paper started by Catalan separatists. They all wanted me to comment on recent events in Catalonia. (A referendum of sorts was held here on November 9th. The Spanish constitutional court deemed it illegal, and so it ended up being a bit of a non-event, with slightly under 40% of eligible voters turning up to vote in what had been downgraded to a “participatory consultation”. The “yes” option received a resounding majority of votes from those who showed up.… Continue reading

Free Spirits: An Argument against State-Run Booze

When I lived in Oxford, I loved to go shopping for wine. There were a couple of wine stores down the street from where I lived that were clearly owned by wine-lovers. New arrivals had lovingly inscribed tasting notes taped to them. The selection in the two stores was quite different, and clearly reflected the tastes of the owners.

I don’t enjoy shopping for wine in Montreal that much. That’s because rather than being able to walk into a small store with lots of character, I have to go to the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) retail stores. Don’t get me wrong: these stores are bright and efficiently run. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there is nothing particularly right about them either. Each store is pretty much the same as any other. The folks who work there are unfailingly courteous and knowledgeable, but they are knowledgeable in the way you become knowledgeable when you take a 3-week training course, rather than in the way you are because you have developed a personal obsession with a particular cépage, and have idiosyncratically but charmingly stocked your store to reflect your particular obsession.… Continue reading

Are these really the Border Services we want?

It’s curious that complaints about the egregious behaviour of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) get so little traction. I wish there were a sophisticated, multi-faceted, complex explanation for this, but having watched the press on this for almost a decade, I think the explanation is pathetically straightforward: the CBSA deals mostly with foreigners. Sure, the Agency does a few bad things, a few human rights abuses and arbitrary exercises of power, but the broadly defined ‘we’ group is essentially willing to ignore this – or at least put up with this – in exchange for the sense of security that an armed border guard gives us.

Today, in my regular pursuit of near futile causes, I’d like to highlight just two things, to serve as a reminder that CBSA practices are quite far from the norm of what ‘we’ typically will tolerate from armed state officials and jailers in Canada.… Continue reading

In the wake of Jian Ghomeshi and #beenrapedneverreported: How do we move forward?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the sordid Jian Ghomeshi story has been the ensuing explosion of women’s voices recounting episodes of sexual violence that have gone unreported. #beenrapedneverreported, a hashtag launched by my friend Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette and Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star, has become a sad but necessary global phenomenon. Thousands of women from around the world have used the hashtag to share painful memories sometimes buried decades in the past.

Being able to share these painful memories has had a therapeutic function for many of these women. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go years with the pain and trauma of sexual assault compounded by the feeling that, for a variety of reasons, this pain must be kept secret.

There is undoubtedly a huge range of reasons that women choose not to report episodes of sexual assault. The majority of cases of sexual assault occur at the hands of people who are known to victims, often family members.… Continue reading

A quiet loss for refugees

Today the Supreme Court of Canada handed down an important decision about refugee claimants with criminal records.

Obviously, that’s a tough sell. With so many people in the world whose basic human rights are not protected by their home states (about 15 million at last count), advocating for the tiny subset of refugees who have been convicted of a crime is not easy.

The arguments in their favour, however, are familiar to us, even though they come with an echo of a kinder and gentler time. There are two principal reasons why we forgive criminals: rehabilitation and atonement. That is, our criminal justice system echoes these two ideas at many levels. A commitment to rehabilitation means believing that people can change, and can return to being productive members of society. A commitment to atonement means that we embrace that idea that those who have ‘done their time’ or ‘paid their dues’ should be free to resume their place as members of society.… Continue reading

The Ghomeshi Affair and the Ethical Power of Consent

The internet is abuzz with reactions to Jian Ghomeshi’s dismissal from the CBC. At this point, it is unclear what exactly Ghomeshi did to whom and how whatever he did could be grounds for his dismissal. There are allegations from three anonymous women that Ghomeshi violently assaulted them during sex and a fourth claims he told her at work: “I want to hate fuck you.” Ghomeshi’s response has been to claim that the allegations of non-consensual ‘rough sex’ are false and that those making the allegations are liars. He does not dispute that he has engaged in BDSM practices with women but he insists that the activities that he has engaged in have all been fully consensual and thus are above reproach. Brenda Cossman, a professor of law at University of Toronto, has already pointed out that in Canadian law consent to violence is not always sufficient to immunize oneself against a criminal charge of assault.… Continue reading

National Daycare? I Feel Good!

Joe recently asked “How do we feel about a national daycare program?” Unlike Joe I am not ambivalent about the NDP proposal to create a national daycare program. Indeed to quote James Brown: “I feel good!” The opportunity to have children and raise a family is highly valued by most people. Similarly, the opportunity to have a satisfying job or rewarding career is valued by most people. It reasonable for the state to adopt policies aimed at ensuring that these opportunities are available to all citizens on a reasonably equal basis. Of course, today Canadians do not enjoy anything like equal access to these opportunities. ‘Fat cats’ like Joe and me have much better access to these opportunities than most Canadians. We have the resources that permit us to readily combine our career projects and our family projects. Lots of people find it much more difficult to combine work and family.… Continue reading