Sunday, 23 March 2014

Quebec Separation Debate - Deal or No Deal


We have entered a period in the last two months where the political climate in Quebec has become polarized.  It is unfortunate because you read the National Post and the Globe and Mail and then go read Le Devoir and it becomes clear that the two camps which Pauline and company have been so generous to re-divide Quebec and Canadian society into profoundly misunderstand each other and do not trust or respect one another.  To English Canadian and Quebec federalists, separatism is an irrational, ridiculous, and needless destructive pursuit, driven by anxiety about identity that amounts to tribalism.  To francophone Quebec separatists, English Canada is an entity that doesn't care about them, doesn't know anything about them, doesn't care to know anything about their society, language and culture except to retain jurisdiction over these domains and, eventually, impose its English language on them and assimilate them.  I used to sympathize with these folks a lot more until I came and actually lived here.

The following truths I have noted are not to rub dirt in the face of Quebec nationalists if they lose their bid to form a country (which I hope they do) but to add my bit of resistance as a Quebec resident to what I see as an illegitimate attempt by the Parti Québécois to usurp the province's identity in its entirety and monopolize the meaning and the direction of that identity.  To put it bluntly, I live here, raise my kids here, and pay taxes here and I am not a fucking guest of the PQ.  They are not keepers of the holy see, some inner sanctum heart of hearts of sacred Quebec nationalist ideology, which is what they reveal to perceive themselves as when they say they need a majority for a charter, a third referendum, independence etc.  Of course they don't like to talk about these last two subjects during campaign, and have been trying to change the channel for the past weeks, because this subject reveals them for the extraordinary hypocrites that they are. But that's the risk you take when you add a celebrity billionaire candidate like Pierre Karl Péladeau to your roster to bolster your economic credentials.  CEOs aren't used to the scripts and filters which rob the political discourse of its substance, and he spoke with none on that fateful Sunday when he announced his candidacy.

Because I will be accused of English Canadian bias (because being an English Canadian makes me have zero credibility as far as the Mahatma high priests of Quebec culture are concerned), I will argue reasons I have against separation, (and therefore against a PQ government, as the election of one will create uncertainty and anxiety on that subject, if not advance it) as coldly and rationally as possible, without provoking the emotion and anger that almost always poisons this debate.

#1 - Numbers.  I can understand if you are a francophone Quebecer and speaking English has never really been your thing or, you can speak English perfectly but for some obtuse ideological reasons prefer not to, why you would want to form your own country to not be restrained by the Canadian constitution in linguistic rights, legislation banning hijabs, etc, in other words, things which mean nothing to you that you are forced to respect.  It would feel unfair and limiting to have alien or foreign forces dictating what you can and cannot do, preventing you from emulating France, that declining bankrupt country that doesn't give a shit about you  (This is an over-generalization of the PQ electroate - I estimate we can further break it down to be about 1/3rd urban, educated bien-pensants like I just described, led by the opinionated minister Jean-Francois Lisée, and 2/3rds rural/blue-collar/welfare, led by Péladeau's trash tabloids and trash TV).

The demographic I just described, three thirds combined, God Bless their secular charter, numbers by my estimate approximately 25-30%  of the Quebec population.  That is too big of a number to write off, which is why we are still dealing with this bullshit as a country thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred and fifty years later (Quebec nationalism can be traced back to, well, all the way back to 1763 when French and English soldiers were at war over the territory.  Thing is, it's also been part of Canada for the same amount of time).  There is another 8-10% of the population which feels little or no attachment to Canada as well, while perhaps not being as overtly hostile toward it; as such, sovereignty consistently polls in the 40% range.  Not bad, but sure nothing to make a country with.  And for those who think the 1995 referendum was stolen I ask, how do you propose to unite a society on such a divisive issue?  Is 51% an acceptable majority to create a new country?  Practical reality tells me its not.

And if francophones were an oppressed majority (80% of the population), yet 60% of the population favours staying in Canada, do the math.  That's right. Even half the francophones do not want to leave.  This places the sovereigntist forces in a very tenuous position as far as creating a country is concerned.  They don't have, and have never had, the numbers.  But mythology is more powerful than facts.  Their cries of "fifty plus one" which is the magic number that is all they think they need to get their "country", ignores what happens to the millions of Quebecers rights and freedoms guaranteed by their Canadian citizenship that they choose not to revoke.  It is also very arrogant and parochial of them to claim to speak for all francophones, and shows an enormous sense of entitlement.  Can 8 million people really be forced into something only 3.2 million want on a good day and none of whom out of that can even explain coherently how it would work? (Listen to the leader's stumbling about no borders, Canadian dollar, Canadian passports.  Why the hell do you want a country then?).

#2 - Distribution

The four biggest cities in Quebec are Montreal (1.8 million), Quebec City (760,000), Laval (400,000) and Gatineau (315,000), making up approximately 41% of the province's entire population and generating (by my estimate) at least 65-70% of its GDP.  Probably more.  The Parti Québécois would have zero chance of convincing majorities to vote for independence in any of these cities.

Why not?  All except Quebec city include sizeable anglophone communities, but at an official 8% of the province's population, this should hardly matter.  Quebec City remains a primarily French and deeply conservative city, but as the seat of the provincial government, counts tens if not hundreds of thousands of active and retiree provincial civil servants amongst its population.  Yet even this city struggles to embrace the PQ.  Although PQ supporters are spread across the province, including within these centres, it is worth considering why they are unable to obtain a plurality of votes within a first past the post electoral system.

I believe it is partly due to the nature of the voters and partly to the nature of these communities.  Montreal and Laval, are home to hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, and are receiving the vast majority of the 55,000 immigrants who arrive in Quebec each year.  They are also home to hundreds of multinational companies, corporate head offices, and nationally (as in Canada) important public institutions and infrastructures which put together obviously employ a great deal of the population.  As much as this must exasperate the PQ, economic and livelihood considerations (job security, real estate values, state of local infrastructures) are likely to trump language and culture in these centres, as well as the desire to remain the choice international destinations for capital, tourism, and cosmopolitan lifestyles in North America's most underrated country, Canada.  Of course the PQ believes that this situation is all their doing and they therefore are entitled to monopolize it for their own ends but go ahead, try again with your charter and referendum and get embarrassed even worse than you were last time.   Cities populated by "citizens of the world" do not vote for paranoiacs who think they are going to save their culture by legislating discrimination against linguistic and religious minorities.

Why can't the PQ get a toehold in Quebec's industrial/technological/franco heartland that stretches from Quebec City's southern suburbs to the Beauce region and Thetford Mines? Beats me.  These are the only areas of the province where the federal conservatives have deputies.  Small business, low taxes, and individual freedoms are popular political themes among residents, if you listen to the local talk radio or read Maxime Bernier's blog.  To its credit, this province is diverse and is not in its entirety the eco-socialist nightmare its detractors in Western Canada think it is.  And that's a good thing for those of who live here and shudder at the thought of Bernard Drainville trying to impose his "values" on us for a second term.

#3 - Hypocrisy

Speaking of Mr Drainville, maybe he can tell us where he'd be getting a paycheque in his new republic of Quebec if (we can only pray to Allah, his nemesis) he ever loses his seat in the National Assembly.  Oh, I guess it would be a pension from CBC where he used to work which is a federal crown corporation and...deposited into his bank account at a Canadian financial institution (Sorry Bernard, even the Caisse Populaire's holdings in the rest of Canada are vast and growing).  I think most Quebeckers and Canadians can only dream of railing against a country's existence while collecting a fat-ass paycheque from it.  And there are several people at ICI Radio-Canada in a similar situation.  Which leads us to ask, how many honest to god Quebec entrepreneurs, captains of industry, job creators, and owners of companies that actually pay people (not government subsidized cultural industries) have made passionate sorties in favour of separatism other than the Peladeau family.  Right.  Zero.  I know it's cool to attack the rich here and nobody wants to thank business for this economy whose fruits we all enjoy but seriously.  I want all the social democrats to remember that their cultural heroes all live on the public dime to the tunes of multiple six figures and yes, that public dime comes from all of Canada's environmentally unsustainable, resource-based, capitalist economy.   Not saying that like it's a good thing but it's a true thing that should lead to some soul-searching for quite a few people. 

#4 - Division

The PQ strategy is to be so elitist, so disconnected, so morally repugnant as individuals and as a party that non-Quebecois de souche will leave in anger and disgust as these idiots refuse to confront economic and demographic realities and bankrupt this place by creating new social programs when existing ones are not even solvent and pass laws as draconian as requiring businesses to request exceptions, special permits to advertise the need for bilingual employees.  You morons its 2014.  Why don't you go to a country of similar size like Hungary or Sweden and tell me if legislators waste their time on such pointless bullshit?  You will not divide us and make us flee - reasonable people - normal, honest, interesting Quebec people see your stupidity for what it is and will stand up to your bullying until it stops.  Because losing to you idiots would be the most pathetic thing in the world.  It would make us even bigger losers than you.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Fear and Loathing at Canada Post

How does a nation protect a venerable ancient institution like its postal service?  How do you square the fact that the post still has an important role, albeit not one as central as it had in the past, in today's society, while recognizing that the service is not as relevant today as it once was? How do you address the truth that the lack of profitability in traditional mail creates a situation of taxpayer-subsidized busywork?  I don't have specific answers to these questions, but I do know that the party that is responsible for answering them, the Canadian government, is making just about the worst job possible of it.  Through their actions, they are ensuring that the service Canadians expect steadily declines, which creates antipathy toward postal workers and Canada Post, and in turn gives the government licence to ignore postal workers and their concerns (the cynicism manifests itself in government responses which amount to who sends mail any more anyway? Ha ha ha), which then further demoralizes postal workers, which in turn lowers the service level even more.

This is the negative feedback loop dynamic Canada has been stuck in with its postal service for almost three years, and the radical changes coming into effect right now ( a 30% stamp price increase, no more door to door home delivery) is sure to add fuel to the raging junk mail fire.  This is not an issue the government has any interest in engaging with, for the simple reason that it contains no political benefit for them, and their formal position on the changes in the postal landscape so far has been callous dismissal.  The website of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, on the other hand, features plenty of ideas, petitions, demands, righteous indignation, and frustration, but Lisa Raitt (or whichever pylon minister is responsible for this file now) has been content so far to ignore any and all of this noise and just keep that back to work legislation at the ready.  How do we get a file that has been allowed to corrode to this point out of the ditch?

One thing is certain, things have not been the same since the strike.  The "essential service" or "minimum service" or whatever was in effect during the first year the fight dragged on between the government and the union was erratic, unreliable, and anything but punctual.  This may be anecdotal based on my experience, but it has mostly continued despite a "deal" being reached in June 2012.  The Post was a well-oiled machine before that strike.  Now the mail is often late, missing, or arriving in bunches after several days of nothing.  A birthday card I sent did not arrive on time because of a feud over the condition of the recipient's front steps.  A document my wife urgently needed (because the party whom she needs to send it to needs an "original". Such parties are the roadblocks to society's universal conversion to PDFs.  More on that later) has arrived today 5 business days after its postmark.  So much for that 1-2 business days inter-provincial turnaround promised on mailboxes.  I don't blame the postal workers for this.  Nobody wants to work for an employer that clearly views them as an inconvenience, and despite the "arms-length" nature of Crown Corporations, there is little doubt in anybody's mind about where the buck stops with these hybrid entities - the Federal Government.  So when your employer tells you that they expect you to deliver mail to a million more addresses in five years, with 7,000 less employees, and find 5 billion dollars in profit to boot to plug that hole in your pension plan, how do you feel about your job?

Yes, the government deserves full marks for kicking Canada Post employees where it hurts, and delivering mail not an easy or pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination.  But we must acknowledge that it is unnecessary in 2014 - if not outright absurd -  to send a document down a rabbit hole of complex journeys by truck, train, plane, and foot, through distribution centres, and to have complete trust in this system to deliver that document, with no mechanism to get that document back or to even know where it is, wait several days AND pay 63 cents PLUS your time to locate a mailbox to physically walk to and drop it in.  Or, I could scan said document right here where I'm sitting right now, email it, and have it to that other person instantly.  And if they claim they never got it, guess what? It's right here in my sent with date and time stamped to prove it.   Yes e-commerce is not the "zero carbon footprint" phenomenon you thin it is because servers do eat up a ton of energy, but being that one of CUPW's arguments against abolishing of home delivery is the "increase in emissions" that will result, I think it stands to reason that the electronic process I described above is exponentially simpler, easier, more convenient and lower impact than the manual one.

These decisions are not made by Canadians after sessions of internal tortured reasoning and argument, they are made on the basis of choice.  What is easier? And the answer can be found in mail volumes, which are declining precipitously every year.  And before I get called out as merciless, efficiency-seeking, ruthless modernizer, let me tell CUPW and its members that I am one of the deranged weirdos who still sends physical letters to his friends.  Yes, I am a purist who believes there is innate value in the medium of the letter which is lost in electronic communication.  Sadly, me and some other romanticists are not going to keep a multi-billion dollar postal operation afloat, so we need to look at our options here.  And the options are all unpleasant.  The Post has to make some hard choices.

Back in the 1990s, when the Post was swimming in red ink like it is now, a less tough choice was made.  A network of brick and mortar post offices, where unionized employees were paid high salaries and benefits to essentially do retail/clerical work (sell stamps and envelopes, process money orders and money transfers, send packages) were shuttered.  Now your trip to the "post office" is likely to be to inside a grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy, and where the "postal" employees work for that grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy chain.  As such they receive the market wage for this kind of work, e.g., close to minimum wage, because if Shoppers or IGA or Deepak's Convenience pays $25 an hour to man a cash register, they will pretty much be out of business.

The Union hates this, of course.  They have a mandate to protect their workers' interest whatever the cost, and if that means saying that their workers have "expertise" at selling stamps in protest to the end of their retail monopoly, they will say it.  The example above illustrates why they act this way: when there is no threat of going out of business, in simple terms when you are allowed to keep operating even though your liabilities exceed your assets because you are owned by the government, you don't care about whether your service is profitable or whether people even use it.  All that matters is you make your workers appear like suffering victims as much as possible, like they couldn't have possibly been expected to save a dime of those great wages they earned yesterday.  They will need higher wages tomorrow regardless.  Even unionized private sector workers do not have this sense of entitlement - just ask workers at GM, Chrysler, and Loblaws, to name three, whose union leaders would ask for the moon with the routine belligerence until market conditions caused their members to actually accept pay cuts to keep their jobs.

I mention this because there are still a number of said non-retail "post offices" (real brick and mortar ones, like from the 1950s), in rural areas.  These are of course the ones the CUPW is fighting tooth and nail to keep open on its website.

Of course, this is where the issue gets murky and we have once again problems stemming from a business being run by the government.  The government derives a lot of its support from rural areas, and is loathe to pose any gesture which might annoy them now.  People in such areas tend to look on big city folk and their ways with suspicion, and do not want any downtown urban custom like buying  stamps inside a Shoppers Drug Mart imposed upon them.

Another demographic it was widely believed the government courts heavily is seniors.  Apparently not, with the two opposition parties as well as provincial and municipal politicians rushing to the barricades to cast themselves as tireless defenders of seniors' right to home delivery.  But I think the government is shrewdly playing its cards here - they are taking the calculated risk that committed senior conservative voters will not ditch them over this.  And if a few do, well, that's the cost of doing business.  Just look at how they threw veterans (another supposed core constituency) under the bus.

All these battles over optics, fought in a climate of delay, denial, ignorance, and apathy do the Post and the population it serves no favours.  There is a simple way to get it back on track.

-Urban delivery on its own, believe it or not, is still profitable.  It's the staggering distance, low density, and wide open space of rural routes that make them chronic money losers.

-The Urban operations should be spun off into a private entity with the option to look at options like banking and other services to diversify their revenues as letter volume inevitably decline further.  They can also expand or spin off the already profitable and growing Purolator package delivery business they own.

-Meanwhile, sick banks, the pension liability and the money losing rural service need to be absorbed into the general government revenue as a huge, painful, one-time charge.  It's going to hurt but it's the right thing to do for everyone who's already been promised the moon.  Meanwhile, new hires need to be hired on a much more flexible, cost-effective compensation system.

Will we get that? Not with this government, who would rather brag about a fake surplus than deal with a real financial problem the country has.  They will ensure that postal workers' working conditions further deteriorate, that the use of the post declines further with its reliability, and the liability transferred to future taxpayers will be even greater for something they are ensuring will be much less significant in Canadian every day life.  The Post Office is a government mandated and provided service, which is something the current government fears and loathes.  Another term, and they will ensure that it is something most Canadians do, too.