Lack of Pride

“When is Pride this year?” straight friends ask, voices raising with equal parts excitement and condescension. As a gay, I’m presumed to be well-versed in such things, but alas, there’s no easy answer. There exists no single “Pride,” after all, simply a long sequence of independent extravaganzas across North America, each observed on conveniently different dates.

Los Angeles Pride happened long ago for instance, on the traditional first weekend in June. San Francisco pride — the big one — has come and gone as well, occurring, as it does, on the last weekend of that same month. Vancouver Pride kicks off this Saturday, and Vegas Pride comes a month after that, in early September. Countless other cities are sprinkled somewhere in-between.

Such cleverly staggered scheduling, which allows the don’t-stop-the-music set to engage in summer-long “Pride tours” across the continent, hopefully helps illustrate the fundamental vacuousness of this would-be holiday. It’s certainly one of many variables justifying my profound disinterest in it. Despite being gay for as long as I can recall, I not only shun Pride, I actively resent the implication that attendance offers any meaningful indication of one’s GLBT acceptance.

I’ve always felt a bit of sympathy for Rob Ford’s various mumbled explanations of why he’s never attended Toronto Pride during his four years as mayor. His no-show status has of course been widely taken as proof of his supposed homophobia, but his official excuse — that he’s simply an old-fashioned guy who finds the garish flaunting of sexuality uncomfortable — seems perfectly reasonable. To modern elite opinion-makers, however, who have done so much to inflate Pride as the culture’s leading litmus test of tolerance, personal uneasiness is a sentiment so exotic it may as well be uttered in Swahili.

While I’m no prude — actually, strike that, I am a prude. And what of it? Flipping through online albums of Toronto Pride 2013, one finds ample documentation of S&M bondage couples, barely-there thongs, buttless chaps, and all manner of grinding, thrusting, jiggling, and twerking. It’s perfectly acceptable to find such things gross or distasteful, and an exploitive cheapening of both sex and the body.

It is no great character flaw to value modesty or dignity, nor is it bigoted to esteem forbearance and control. Libertine attitudes towards sex, nudity, fetishism, and exhibitionism are issues entirely disconnected from the civil rights matter of whether peoples of divergent sexual orientations are deserving of the same rights and protections of those in the majority. To argue the contrary is to claim possessing a minority sexual preference should be synonymous with sexual deviancy in general — a premise not only dated, but dangerous.

There was a clever Onion piece published more than a decade ago (I doubt such a thing would be written in this more sensitive age) headlined “Local Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance Of Gays Back 50 Years.”

“I thought the stereotype of homosexuals as hedonistic, sex-crazed deviants was just a destructive myth,” the paper quotes one horrified onlooker. “Boy, oh, boy, was I wrong.”

Sounds about right. Indeed, one has to wonder just how much comfort Pride is even attempting to offer the genuinely sexually conflicted at this point. Considering how much “coming out” anxiety tends to center around fears of lost normalcy, it’s not clear at all how declaring common cause with society’s most brazen display of freakshow non-conformity is a useful means to that end.

Looking at photos of North America’s earliest Pride parades is a window into a different world. The marchers of those days, calmly holding hands with their same-sex partners in sensible polo shirts and penny loafers, were certainly subversive, but only to the extent they were seeking to remind a society in denial of the unavoidability of their existence, and the bland, non-threatening nature of it. Theirs was a call for inclusion in the most literal sense, the welcoming of homosexuals into society’s most central institutions: family, work, religion, politics, and the acceptance of their love as valid as any other sort.

That goal having now largely been achieved, the Pride movement, like so much of the modern Gay Rights activist complex, has become a victim of its own success. As North Americans get used to people being here and queer, the moderate LGBT middle class has drifted away from leadership of the tolerance movement, allowing the wild fringe to fill the void. What results is a historical irony: just as society is most eager to assert its tolerance, Pride redefines the deal. Endorsing the acceptance of ordinary people distinguishable only by what gender they love now demands an additional stamp of approval for all-purpose indecency and licentiousness.

Politicians, corporations, and all manner of interest groups clamor to agree to the terms. But for an increasing lot of gays, it’s hardly obvious why we should care.

The limits of liberalism

Over the last couple of decades, a dominant narrative of North American politics has been the dangers of drifting too far to the right. From Tim Hudak’s doomed bid for the premiership of Ontario to the surprise defeat of the Wildrose party in Alberta to self-destructive Tea Party campaigns across the United States, the explanation for why so many conservatives can’t get it together appears obvious to most. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, right-of-center candidates are placing too much emphasis on the adjective and not enough on the preposition.

Far less contemplated these days is whether there is any negative cost to be incurred from drifting too far to the left, particularly now that progressives increasingly define themselves through boastful acceptance of previously-stigmatized personal behaviour.

The aspiring candidacy of Jodie Emery, Vancouver’s so-called “Princess of Pot” and spouse of recently-released Canadian drug lord Marc Emery may prove a revealing case study.

Mrs. Emery is currently seeking the Liberal nomination in the parliamentary riding of Vancouver East, and she’s hardly hidden the fact that her primary purpose in running is to advocate for the legalization of marijuana, the Emery family’s pet cause. Legalization of marijuana is a position favored by Liberal boss Justin Trudeau, but to suggest the two are on the “same side” of the issue is to betray its moral — and electoral — complexities.

Justin’s stance is essentially a utilitarian one: he sees legalization as a way to battle organized crime and liberate an overburdened criminal justice system. Yet he’s also described consumption of the drug as a “vice” with scant social virtue. His much-ballyhooed admission of prior use was heavily coached, and if not exactly remorseful, was certainly qualified and self-conscious. His legalization plan, though vague, has emphasized the importance of keeping cannabis far from children, and he’s bemoaned that in Harper’s Canada, it’s “easier for youth to access pot than alcohol or cigarettes.”

The Emerys have a slightly different perspective, to put it mildly. As editors of Cannabis Culture magazine, founders of “Pot TV,” proprietors of head shops and seed stores, and MCs of all manner of pot conventions and trade shows, the power couple lead a subculture a that views marijuana not as an unavoidable social sin whose ills must be minimized and controlled with compassionate legislation, but an undeniably positive product with virtues worth celebrating.

“Marijuana is so good! It does so much for so many!” Marc crows in a 2010 YouTube video (ironically devoted to blasting Justin Trudeau as a “f—cking hypocrite” for backing mandatory jail times for drug traffickers). “It’s brought us everything from music to technology to cutting-edge news services, major athletes, every form of entertainment and science and architecture…”

This stance, that pot consumption is harmless, and should be completely destigmatized — if not encouraged — is probably a great deal closer to the views of the Liberal base than their leader’s cautious policy of managing risk without endorsement. Yet Justin’s pragmatism is the result of having enough sense to appreciate that elections are not decided by base alone, but the electorate’s broad centre — those much-coveted middle class, suburban swing voters who remain unfashionably inclined to regard mind-altering substances as a destructive force poisoning the culture of their children and neighborhoods. Considering that Justin’s pot stance is already taking a tremendous drubbing in suburban-oriented Conservative attack ads, it’s unclear if there’s any electoral gain to be had by embracing a darling of the stoner set who lacks even a pretence of pragmatism. In a centralized parliamentary system like ours, it only takes a single rogue candidate to upset a leader’s carefully constructed nuance, and Justin — who’s already shown himself more than capable of torpedoing troublesome candidates — is surely asking himself if Jodie’s a risk worth taking.

A similar dilemma defines the Liberal relationship with legalized prostitution.

Mrs. Emery happily endorsed the idea on Sun News yesterday, declaring it a private, consensual business transaction not terribly different (of course) from the private, consensual business of buying pot. This too, is the sort of proudly permissive position held by much of the Liberals’ ideological base, who prefer to conceptualize the buying and selling of sex as a libertarian thought experiment or abstract goal of sexual liberation. Canadians in the cautious middle, alas, inclined as they are to contemplate problems from a less academic angle, are more likely to fret about whether legalization of prostitution will simply increase its presence in their communities, as legalization of banned things is wont to do.

Though critical of the Harper Government’s John-battling prostitution bill, Trudeau’s party has not embraced the cause of complete legalization, preferring, instead, to hide behind the time-wasting excuse that more research and consideration is needed to reach an informed conclusion. It’s an even more delicate position than his stance on pot, and an even more revealing reflection of his party’s anxieties about being defined by cavalier social policies rather than practical economic ones.

Though it’s easy to dismiss his leadership as entirely frivolous, Justin Trudeau possesses great importance in defining the limits of left-wing social policy at a time when many progressives are inclined to regard “going too far” as the exclusive disorder of the right.

Assuming her candidacy is serious, Jodie Emery will be the canary in the mine.

Differences become starker in North American democracy

Since the differences between Canada and the United States are almost all political, we can learn much from the two countries’ recent deviations in the practice of democracy. Just as Canada’s rulers seem to be consolidating their privileges in an increasingly authoritarian parliamentary system, Americans have witnessed a number of inspiring episodes as of late highlighting the comparatively open nature of their republican institutions.

On June 10, Eric Cantor, the Republican House leader, was defeated in a primary election to continue representing his party in Virginia’s 7th district. It was the first time in American history a party leader had lost office in this fashion, and the greatest victory to date of Tea Party insurgents, who had never before unseated a politician of such standing.

Regardless of what one thinks of Cantor, or the right-wing arguments against his credibility as a conservative, the idea that a national party leader could be so easily overthrown simply through populist dissent in his own community says good things about the health of America’s representative democracy. Cantor, it was often said, harbored ambitions of being Speaker of the House someday, yet in the end it was his lack of respect for his present duties as a representative— namely, to represent his community —that ultimately torpedoed his career. He ran an aloof, condescending campaign (most glaringly personified by the fact that he wasn’t even in his state for most of election day) and took it for granted that his status as a national figure insulated him from domestic accountability. And he paid the price.

The opposite was true in Mississippi last week — though only barely. There, six-term Republican senator Thad Cochran kept his party’s loyalty by the narrowest of margins, winning the state GOP renomination by less than half a percent in the June 24 primary. Though his opponent, Tea Party-backed State Senator Chris McDaniel, has proven something of a sore loser, it’s clear Cochran won simply by playing the game better. In a state that’s nearly 40% African-American, Cochran appealed to the liberal sensibilities of black voters by playing up McDaniel’s harsher flavor of conservatism, and unapologetically embracing that which made him so loathed by Tea Party-types in the first place: his talents at ensuring Mississippians always amply benefitted from Washington contracts and subsidies. Or, as both backer and opponent alike were fond of putting it, his ability to “bring home the goodies.”

Neither of these stories would be possible in Canada. In this country, after all, party nominations are not accountable to voters at large, because Canadian political parties are not seen as public utilities within the nation’s democratic system, but privately-owned entities that operate independently within it — and tolerate only the barest minimum of public participation in their internal affairs.

In the United States, one becomes a party member — and thus an eligible primary voter — simply by declaring himself to be one. In Canada, the privilege must be purchased and continually renewed, and can be withdrawn by party elders at any point for misbehaviour. Despite the fact that most Americans are not generally interested in primary elections, over 65,000 Virginians voted in the Cantor race and 300,000 Mississippians in the Cochran one. By contrast, only 100,000 Canadians voted to make Justin Trudeau leader of a national political party (a participation rate of around .4% in a country with 24 million eligible voters). And that was an unprecedented high. Only 1% of Canadians are said to be registered members of political parties, but it’s impossible to know for sure, since the parties tend to be fairly cagey with their membership figures. That same caginess ensures we have no idea how many people are voting in MP nomination races, as Canadian political parties are not by law required to disclose such data to the media or anyone else.

Canadian party elites would no doubt find the fact that Senator Cochran was re-nominated, in part with the support of Democrats (as many of his black voters certainly were) thoroughly ghastly, but “open primary” states like Mississippi, in which voters choose for themselves which primaries they want to vote in — regardless of their party registration — the principle is that politicians are accountable to the voting public as a whole, rather than one narrow faction of it. Democrats have a right to ensure Republicans don’t get too conservative, Republicans have equal right to ensure Democrats don’t get too liberal. If done correctly, the result can be a less polarized, centrist party system in which even in periods of one-party dominance, the opposition can still exert some influence on outcomes.

That both the Cochran and Cantor results were upset shockers similarly highlights the degree of unpredictability in the American system, the very thing Justin Trudeau is currently waging his merry little jihad against as yesterday’s promises of “open nominations” decay into today’s practice of installing preferred candidates light bulb-like across the country. Doubtless much of the GOP national establishment did not want to see Congressman Cantor go down, yet because the American parties have no authoritarian bosses, there was no one available to pull a Trudeau and insulate him with the leader’s stamp of approval, as J-Tru did in anointing Adam Vaughan and Chrystia Freeland, his nominees of choice in successive Toronto by-elections.

Speaking of authoritarian bosses, last week was also notable for the US Supreme Court’s 9-0 smackdown of President Obama’s attempt to run ’round Congress and unilaterally appoint judges and federal board members without first seeking the Senate’s consent, as required by the constitution. Obama’s defense was that Article III gives him the right to install whomever he wants so long as the Senate’s in “recess,” and thus unable to convene to give his picks scrutiny, but as Justice Ginsburg said during arguments, in the age of jet travel “the Senate is always available.” Obtaining Congressional approval might be a slow and painful process, but so long as Congress claims it’s available to sit and consider presidential nominees — even if that availability consists of minute-long perfunctory sessions during breaks that exist only to signal their own availability — a president who claims there’s just no way to get an up-or-down vote for some guy he wants to stick somewhere is either ignorant or dishonest.

It was a fascinating clash of all three branches in which the Court upheld the legislature’s right to scrutinize executive branch appointments as one of the fundamental principles of American democracy — a principle, once again entirely unknown in Canada, where prime ministers just happily install whomever they please. In the US, unqualified Supreme Court judges get vetoed by Congressional consideration hearings. In Canada, they get expelled by the Court itself — but only after being inaugurated and having collected several months pay, as was the case with Justice Nadon. In America, cabinet ministers are expected to be eminently qualified for their positions —because the Senate reads their resumes line-by-line. In Canada, you simply wake up one morning and find Peter MacKay is attorney general for some reason.

Whatever polite pretences Canadians are given for the absence of truly open nomination races and greater scrutiny of prime ministerial appointments — stability, protection from extremism, anti-American contrarianism — the Occam’s razor explanation is clear enough: the elites at the top of the Canadian political pyramid simply don’t want their absolute powers diluted by a lot of fussy checks and balances. Ours is a system in which bottom-up input on important decisions — either from the people’s representatives or the people directly — is a force to be feared and distrusted.

Over the last few weeks, Americans have been reminded that despite its many flaws, their constitutional system is still one that provides considerable safeguards to ensure the little guy can triumph over the big. In Canada, the big guys simply trample — and we’re supposed to be grateful for the privilege.


Constructed Canadians

I get a little exasperated sometimes with the customary avalanche of carefully-constructed Canadian Pride™ that gets unloaded upon this nation every July first. This year’s lead offering was a supposed “most Canadian music video ever” released by Commander Chris Hadfield, of International Space Station fame, and his lesser-loved brother David, who as far as I know, possesses no fame at all.

There are lot of cloying, irritating things about In Canada, as the Hadfields’ song authoritatively calls itself. Chris Hadfield, for starters. How about taking a powder, Commander? The man was in outer space for a few months — he didn’t discover a new planet. Yet it seems every week he still manages to claw himself back into the headlines to bask in yet another round of adulteration whipped up by a compliant press, who are now basically functioning as his full-time publicity agents. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone appoints him to the Senate. Possibly himself. A modest hero he’s decidedly not.

In any case, the Hadfields’ viral hit suffers from all the same deep-seeded structural flaws that invariably turn any attempt at summarizing the Canadian experience into an exercise in disingenuous cornballism.

The base problem is that any Canadian seeking to encapsulate our collective essence always starts from the questionable assumption that nothing that “defines” our nation is also allowed to be present in America. Canadians are taught that national identity is a zero-sum game; nationalistic quirks must be owned, never shared. So we’re never told that the Canadian experience includes eating hot dogs or watching football or shopping at Wal-Mart or other mainstream rhythms of Canadian life because those are things the dreaded Americans do too, and we’re trying to be distinct here. The fact that football and hot dogs and Wal-Mart are precisely the kinds of things that make us distinct in the eyes of 96% of the planet matters little — the implicit audience for any well-curated manifesto of Canadian pride is always Americans, who are assumed to be interested, or other Canadians, who are assumed to be insufficiently aware of their own uniqueness and thus in need of endless lecturing on the matter.

The end result is that Canadian attempts to generalize their un-American distinctness invariably fall into three tendentious trends of stale rhetoric, all of which are on ample display in the Hadfields’ video.

Inspiringly patriotic anecdotes must either be exceedingly pointless and superficial (Chris sings about how “we love Nanaimo bars” and hoard “Canadian Tire money in at least one kitchen drawer”), exceedingly parochial (perhaps in Ontario they “wear Sorels in winter, while plugging in the car” but that’s certainly not the case in comparatively mild Vancouver), or insufferably dishonest and braggy (anyone who claims “you don’t butt in in Canada” has clearly not boarded a bus in this country).

It is not obvious at all what makes eating certain foods or shopping at certain stores a more fundamental part of the “Canadian” experience than buying or eating things that originate in America (or some other foreign place). If we’re looking to define the Canadian essence by Canadian consumerism, surely the standard should be the consumption of products that are actually popular, in a day-to-day sense (Hamburgers! Spaghetti! Ice cream!), as opposed to ultra-particular novelties like Nanimo bars that we may come into contact with, what — once a year? Indeed, the reason we all have drawers of Canadian Tire Money is because none of us shop there often enough to use it.

Nor can it be taken for granted in a country as enormous as Canada that any quirk of geography or weather — no matter how postcard perfect it may look on YouTube — can be generalized into a familiar experience without alienating large chunks of our widely-dispersed population. Not all Canadians experience winter in the snowy fashion so common back east, and the rocky mountains are known only in theory to the plains people of the prairies. To assert otherwise is to establish a hierarchy of experiences, in which colorful activities only a small sliver of the population will ever get to enjoy, like “paddling your canoe,” are given precedence over Canadian activities that are actually ubiquitous and unifying. Say, jogging.

Then there’s the cloying righteousness that comes with positing universal, aspirational virtues like politeness and respect as something Canadians unquestionably are, rather than imperfectly strive to be. I would have thought the antics and ongoing popularity of Rob Ford would have put a bit of a damper on those living in arrogant denial of the existence of rude, mean-spirited Canadians, but I suppose the wonderful thing about vanity is that it’s rarely weakened by fact.

What actually makes Canada an admirable country is our constitutionally-protected values — democratic self-rule, individual liberty, minority rights — that have kept our people safe and free, and our collective commitment to those civic virtues — labor, business, family, education, community, faith — that have made us wealthy and happy. These principles are not eccentric or splashy, and Americans have them too. But in the grand global scheme of things they remain tremendously rare, and that’s probably the more useful standard.

What makes Canada interesting, likewise, is the fact that we’re a British-founded, primarily European-settled, mainly English-speaking country located on the fertile, empty continent of North America. This, again, is a status we share with the United States, but it’s still a status 96% of the planet can’t claim, and thus still forms the essence of “what it means to be Canadian” in the most honest sense. “Canadian culture,” in turn— in the unglamorous sense of how we live, eat, work, talk, love, worship, and play — is far more tied to our common history and heritage with America than our few trivial deviations from it.

To posit otherwise in the name of patriotism, to fetishize random consumer goods or uncommon outdoor adventures or non-existent personality traits into the core of the Canadian identity, is to create a national narrative in which insecurity, arrogance, and dishonesty are in ample abundance, but genuine pride for who we actually are — not so much.

Salvation through symbolism: the Canadian elite’s new ideology of aboriginal policy

On Wednesday, a group of people claiming to be something called the “Vancouver City Council” passed a motion conceding that their quote-unquote “city” is actually located on “the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.” The self-styled “mayor” declared it a historic moment.

It has long been a marked affectation of the British Columbia elite — be they political, legal, academic, or cultural — to ostentatiously emphasize their awareness of grievances committed against First Nations in centuries past by systematically undermining the legitimacy of the “settler” society that’s been established since. The most pronounced tic is the habit of beginning virtually every public address — a politician’s stump speech, a university commencement, the call to order of the human resources subcommittee of the library board, etc. — with a sombre, yet smug reminder that whatever glories are about to unfold are occurring on the “traditional, unceded territories” of this-or-that native band. Often the ritualism goes even further: the Liberal Party’s 2013 Vancouver leadership debate, for instance, was kicked off with the party president handing a bag of tobacco to a local aboriginal leader as an anachronistic offer of concession.

Many political gatherings have similarly eschewed the settler tradition of opening proceedings with a vaguely Christian prayer in favor of explicitly aboriginal hosannahs, usually with lots of drumming and chanting. In 2011, Mayor Robertson chose to take a pass when it came to swearing his oath of office on a bible, but had little problem being blessed by holy men of the tribes whose land he sought to unjustly rule. Indeed, amid all the “wither the housing market” talk of their Wednesday declaration, it’s worth noting that city council ostensibly declared their own illegitimacy not to address any outstanding property dispute, but simply to get the ball rolling on organizing even more culturally-acceptable welcoming ceremonies than the ones they already hold.

Female B.C. politicians — afforded, as they are, more opportunity to make political statements with fashion — now routinely attend public events wearing scarves, blouses, jackets, dresses, and jewelry decorated with the distinctive art of West Coast aboriginals. The old Lieutenant Governor of the province, Iona Campagnolo, claimed one of the proudest achievements of her otherwise meaningless term was commissioning herself a beautiful new official uniform embroidered with intricate silver cross-stitching of whales and eagles depicted in traditional Coast Salish style. When the mayor of Kitmat was flash-mobbed by a gaggle of aboriginal activists protesting the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline a few months ago, one of the great optical ironies was that the mayor herself was decked out in a floor-length coat emblazoned with aboriginal art at the time.

Then there’s the war on settler names, a cause that’s been quite enthusiastically championed by British Columbia’s current Liberal government. Ex-premier Gordon Campbell in particular went on quite the kick during his final years in office as he sought to restore all manner of “traditional” aboriginal names to prominent pieces of provincial geography. In 2010 the former Queen Charlotte Islands became “Haida Gwaii” (though not overnight — Premier Campbell grinned himself through a whole ceremony for that, too), and the Strait of Georgia was rebranded the “Salish Sea.” He wanted Stanley Park to go back to being called “Xwayxway,” too, until the feds who own the park (or I suppose we should say, “claim to own”) put a kibosh on that one.

All this sort of stuff is obviously motivated by a certain kind of white liberal guilt; the idea that the imperialistic horrors of one’s racial ancestors can be atoned through a kind of showy self-loathing, combined with a “better-late-than-never” embrace of the culture of the conquered. This, to use the trendy term, is a way of bringing “social justice” to the aggrieved party, which in today’s touchy-feely times is considered every bit as important as the real thing.

The awkward fact, alas, is that the anti-colonialist affectations of British Columbia’s white ruling class are little more than products of their own limited colonial imaginations, particularly deep-seeded Christian notions of sin and guilt, which even in these post-Christian times, are proving remarkably entrenched in “settler” culture.

In the eyes of today’s anxious white overclass, after all, “traditional” aboriginal cultures and societies primarily function as a sort of secular Garden of Eden — an idyllic, if somewhat vague and ahistorical locale entirely free of want or worry. The unfashionable modern sins of racism, war, capitalism, old-world religion, and environmental degradation, meanwhile, are viewed as the poisons of Europe, and a burden of “original sin” carried by all the continent’s ethnic descendants. By extinguishing, undermining, or subordinating signifiers of European culture, one engages in an act of spiritual self-flagellation and takes a step towards restoration of the fallen utopia — and thus moral salvation.

The unfortunate thing about treating aboriginal policy as a path to spiritual betterment, of course, is that endless rituals of symbolic atonement do little to alleviate the unavoidably temporal sufferings of Canada’s aboriginal population. A new name for a park won’t provide clean water for a polluted reserve; a smudge ceremony at the school board won’t raise abysmal aboriginal graduation rates.

Worse still is the fact that the postmodern moral code of BC’s white overclass also insists on pushing the destigmatization and acceptance of dangerous social vices of which aboriginals are the disproportionate victims — chiefly drugs and prostitution — while simultaneously demonizing sectors of the economy which present the community’s surest path to greater prosperity and self-sufficiency —which is to say, natural resource development.

In other words, far from heralding the bold progressive break they imagine, there’s little reason for aboriginals to believe the latest animating ideology of Canada’s elite will offer much substantial improvement over previous self-serving ideologies of condescension and indifference that caused so much suffering in generations prior.

Temporary Foreign Fantasies about Temporary Foreign Workers

Near as I can tell, Minister Kenney’s line on temporary foreign workers goes something like this: There is no crisis — now give me credit for having solved it.

Thus, on Friday afternoon Canadians observed the incongruous spectacle of Kenney announcing sweeping reforms to the country’s embattled TWF program  despite having just that morning published an editorial in the Globe and Mail defending the same program’s honor from the “myths” of ignorant critics.

It is a myth that Canada’s TFW program “is mainly about allowing employers to hire large numbers of people from abroad to fill low-skilled positions at below Canadian wage rates” wrote Kenney. Upwards of 75% of the 200,000 temporary foreign workers Canada admits annually are actually well-off interlopers from America, Australia, or Western Europe recruited to fill briefly-needed managerial or consulting jobs in the upper tiers of business, commerce, law, and science.

It’s also a myth that TFWs comprise some gigantic chunk of the Canadian labor market. In contrast to the fanciful imaginations of some, says the Minister, “the real number is 2 per cent.” Yes, “some businesses have abused the program” — cough cough McDonalds— by allowing “what is supposed to be a last resort to become a business model,” thereby depressing market wages in certain sectors. But even then, “only 0.21 per cent” of Canada’s low-wage drudge workers are TFWs, so let’s not be too quick to smash the panic button.

And yet, this harmless program is still being vastly retooled. There will be a moratorium on hiring TFWs in the retail, restaurant, hotel, and other stereotypically low-wage industries in regions of the country where unemployment is over six per cent, and even where it’s not, Ottawa will still do its best to make hiring them a hassle. The anachronism of lumping elite and prole temporary workers into a single migrant class will also end, thereby eliminating the need for future cabinet ministers to clarify definitions in newspaper editorials. Fines for rule-breakers will be raised. The government estimates the country’s total TFW intake will decline 50% as a result.

But again, why bother bringing such exhaustive reforms to a program impacting such a thin slice of the population — and a mostly privileged slice at that?

My own take is that this is but the latest chapter in Jason Kenney’s long, distinguished career of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the immigration issue in order to maintain the loyalty of an unlikely coalition of white immigration skeptics and ethnic “new Canadians” he considers so critical to his own political future. In this case, the strategy seems to be to ride public ignorance as far as it will take him.

The real problem with the temporary foreign workers program is that it’s been made to carry the cross for the totality of public displeasure with Canadian immigration in general. This is a predictable outcome in a nation that’s been consistently denied the chance to debate immigration in general, particularly the fundamental questions of how many immigrants we want, for what purpose they should be invited, and what costs the native born should bear in exchange. The TFW controversy marks the first time in decades the Canadian political class has even slightly broached some of these concerns, so it’s hardly shocking that a lot of pent-up opinion would be unloaded as a result.

Kenney is quick to dismiss Thomas Mulcair’s populist complaint about “having everybody in your McDonald’s or your Tim Horton’s coming from another country” as ignorant demagoguery, and as a critique of the TFW program Kenney’s right — as noted, only a very extreme minority of fast-food employees are temporary migrant workers. Yet Mulcair’s observation is nevertheless true in a larger sense — visit any McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s in suburban Canada these days and you will, in fact, be confronted with everyone behind the counter “coming from another country.” They just won’t necessarily have used the TFW program to get there.

It’s increasingly obvious that Canada is becoming a visibly stratified society in which a foreign-born underclass performs most of our dirtiest jobs, while a native-born overclass hogs all the good ones for itself — say judgeships. Studies show Canada’s immigrant population earns considerably less than its native-born — “by 2005, male immigrants were earning 63 cents and females 56 cents to every dollar earned by Canadian men and women,” according to a 2005 Statistics Canada survey — and the gap’s been widening for several decades.

Similarly, the notion that our bleeding hearts are supposed to be soothed upon learning that the majority of TFWs actually come from Europe and the States, the fact remains that the vast majority of Canadian immigrants in general do not.

In 2012, the last year for which we have data, over 80% of all Canadian immigrants hailed from the developing world, with China, India, and the Philippines providing the largest bulk. And since it’s these legal immigrants — not TFWs — who are doing much of the nation’s low-wage labor, Canada’s underpaid immigrant underclass does indeed possess some uncomfortable racial homogeneity.

Likewise, while 200,000 TFWs may only represent 2% of the Canadian workforce, Canada admits an additional 200,000-ish “plain” immigrants every year, a number which has climbed steadily since the 1970s. As result, Canada’s total foreign-born labor force has swelled to the point where they now comprise around 21% of all men and women working today. None of their employers were obligated to “find a Canadian first.”

A final red herring is that the TFW debate is primarily an economic one; a discussion of jobs taken, wages lowered, etc. This helps spread the misconception that Canadian immigration is primarily about the economy. Which it most certainly is not.

Most Canadians would probably be shocked to learn that as much as 75% of all new permanent residents admitted to Canada are imported with no economic rationale whatsoever, and are simply relatives of existing immigrants or refugees. Immigration Canada in fact does its best to ensure most Canadians don’t know this, by sneakily classifying the “spouses and dependants” of economic class immigrants in the same column as economic class immigrants themselves, a trick which makes the economic class seem twice as big as it really is. A 2013 Fraser Institute report found immigration to actually be a net drain on the Canadian economy, considering the welfare state costs associated with absorbing a bunch of new residents who frequently have a very hard time finding work in an economy that doesn’t need them, and boast above-average rates of unemployment and reliance on social assistance as a result.

When Canadians complain about immigration, as they do whenever they repeatedly tell pollsters they want immigration rates frozen or lowered, they’re complaining about all of this stuff — as well as the cultural transformation of their communities by an influx of outsiders, the breakdown of a common Canadian identity in favor of increased ethnic ghettoization, the lack of efficiency crippling many sectors of the economy through the crutch of cheap foreign labor, the rise of race as a signifier of wealth and social standing, and so on.

Tinkering around with the TFW program won’t address any of this, which Minister Kenney knows. Yet it’s in his interests to pretend otherwise.

Though the press makes much of his famed outreach to “ethnic voters,” a less-discussed side of the man is his simultaneous effort to convince traditional Tory voters (ie; white immigration critics) that his management of the immigration file is restrained, pragmatic, and economy-focused, in contrast to the flailing arm “massive increases in immigration” he accuses the opposition of plotting.

Canada’s temporary foreign worker program has become an unfair receptacle for repressed anti-immigration sentiment, and Kenney’s perfectly willing to stalk that horse if it improves his tough guy bona fides.

Taking credit for taming the gigantic, mythical problems of what is actually a small, misunderstood program is obviously a great deal easier than substantially addressing the larger flaws of a deeply unpopular immigration regime he’s invested so much personal capital in building.


Fighting Pipelines

It’s hard to overstate the omnipresence of the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia these days. One can’t so much as visit the cinema or load a YouTube video without being subjected to a barrage of pro-pipeline propaganda from Enbridge, the deeply insecure Calgary corporation in charge of the thing. Their desperation is cloying, but justified. Despite the federal government’s cautious, and exceedingly qualified approval of the pipeline this week, there’s little reason to suspect this long-uncertain project awaits any fate beyond increasingly certain death.

Support for Northern Gateway — which seeks to deliver Alberta crude to the northern BC coast for Asian export —has never cracked 50% among British Columbians; current polls put the number somewhere in the high-20s. The Enbridge people haves spent millions trying to fight this tide by throwing all manner of random argument at the public (my personal favourite was the brief period in which they tried a sort of feminist angle by highlighting the personality of Enbridge vice president Janet Holder, who, the company felt we must know, is a former bodybuilder and breast cancer survivor), but opposition is vast and deep and powerful. This is in no small part due to the fact that debates over natural resource development in Canada are increasingly framed as moral questions rather than economic ones — with moral justice determined by a trendy coalition of priestly castes promising salvation from 21st century sins: climate change, colonialism, and capitalism.

British Columbia’s ruling Liberal government is opposed to Northern Gateway, as is the opposition NDP, two parties that share an equally slanted scale when it comes to “balancing” economic development with environmental concerns. Indeed, for a province that likes to think of itself as polarized, it’s striking to note the lack of rhetorical difference separating Premier Clark’s Gateway stance from that of her New Democrat rivals — and even the third-place Greens, for that matter. “Our position remains unchanged: it is no,” said a politician the other day. It could have been anyone, but it happened to be Mary Polak, the Liberal environment minister. Though transnational pipelines are not a provincial prerogative, Premier Clark has vowed to slay the beast with the might of a thousand bureaucracies, spitefully threatening to withhold regulatory permits or cut the electricity to any carpetbagger who tries to build it.

The universities are all opposed — predictably, as one’s bona fides as a legitimate academic are now largely determined by how seriously one takes climate change, with that standard, in turn, determined by how strenuously one opposes anything involving the Alberta oil sands. Student activists, meanwhile, are championing complete fossil fuel “disinvestment” — the notion that institutions of higher learning should be shamed into selling all their stocks in oil companies, just as universities of yore were dragooned into selling their investments in apartheid South Africa. The proposal won 77% support in a recent campus referendum at the University of British Columbia. Involvement in this sort of thing is a badge of status among youth; if you’re a British Columbian under 30, chances are you’re well-acquainted with the phenomena of friends editing their Facebook names to include a “NoEnbridge” somewhere.

The press is hostile. The otherwise pro-business editorial boards of both the Vancouver Sun and Province have expressed extreme scepticism of Gateway, while media voices outside the city’s mainstream duopoly have been even harsher. The Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s leading self-styled “alternative” weekly, ran an unsettlingly sympathetic cover story on the possibility of pipeline sabotage some months ago, complete with a cartoon of a pipe strapped up with a Wile E. Coyote bundle of dynamite.

Then there’s the aboriginals, whose opposition is perhaps most consequential of all.

Both the provincial and federal governments have made much of how critical aboriginal “consultations” are to the pipeline’s future, with Premier Clark insisting “legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights must be addressed” before she even considers the project. The 209 qualifications famously imposed by Ottawa’s Joint Review Panel were no less ambiguous, declaring that Enbridge must honour “principles of thorough and effective consultation” with affected aboriginals before progressing any further. Such obligations are of course impossible to fulfill, given the enormous ambiguity of what such nice-sounding language means in practice.

Aboriginal law is blurry in BC, with the province’s lack of formal treaties generally interpreted by the courts as giving First Nations broad right to dictate fair use of their “traditional” lands. Yet because Gateway’s path weaves through numerous tribal territories of overlapping claim, and since no single aboriginal organization or leader possesses the undisputed right to issue conclusive consent, there’s every reason to believe “consultations” over Gateway will ultimately go the way of the Harper government’s years of consultations over the First Nations Education Act, ie: subject to the veto of those with the loudest voices — say, Union of BC Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip, who recently declared “war” on the pipeline at a downtown Vancouver rally. Though Enbridge boasts holding over “2,000 meetings and 43 open houses with First Nations and Metis,” aboriginal consent is a principle that’s ultimately determined by the mob and media, not polite conversation.

All this adds up to an almost insurmountable challenge for the Harper administration, who see Gateway as the country’s sole path to bringing Canadian oil to growing markets in Asia. The Conservatives would prefer to have a pipeline discussion centered around job creation and trade diversity — for which the Enbridge case is strong — instead, they find their pet project framed as a totemic symbol of the combined evils of global warming and European imperialism. Questions like whether Gateway will unto itself contribute to a measurable increase in global warming, or whether there exists even some theoretical standard at which we could objectively declare the pipeline “safe enough” (a standard Enbridge seems desperate to satisfy) are dismissed by critics as immaterial. Opposition is a matter of morality.

This is absurd, yet the absurdity is entrenched at the highest levels of British Columbia’s legal, political, and intellectual establishments, and attempting to fight deeply-entrenched absurdity brings to mind the old adage on the folly of wrestling a pig: you get messy, and the pig likes it.

Conservatives should be particularly aware of what an enormous cash cow pipeline projects have become for the activist left. Setting up some outfit claiming to be opposed to climate change and fossil fuels has become a tremendously effective way to gain buckets of cash from liberal billionaires with guilty consciences, with such money now the lifeblood of British Columbia’s famed eco-activist industrial complex. The Dogwood Initiative for instance, which is earning a lot of media attention at the moment for attempting to organize a pointless anti-Gateway referendum as a means of persuading the provincial government to hold a position they already do — is almost entirely funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York. But such groups can only remain well-heeled so long as they’re able to stoke continuous moral panic over a looming mortal threat.

In fighting a fight that’s impossible to win — and let’s be clear, between the opposition of the BC Liberals, aboriginal veto power, entrenched public skepticism, and an endless stream of injunctions and lawsuits from all of the above, there’s really no glimmer of hope here — Tory pushiness will not only fail to see Gateway completed (hell, started) but help contribute to the growth, organization, and funding of reactionary environmentalist groups who will gain unprecedented prestige and legitimacy in fighting an unpopular cause led by a generally unpopular government. Dogmatic loyalty to the losing side of this fight, in turn, poses great danger to the incumbency of British Columbia’s 21 Conservative MPs — so critical for a Tory majority.

There are signs the Conservatives get it. The BC MPs have been silent, and despite banner headlines in the press, the “green light” the Harper government gave to Enbridge on Tuesday took the form of a quiet press release with a title that could not have been more apologetic: “Government of Canada Accepts Recommendation to Impose 209 Conditions on Northern Gateway Proposal.” It was, as some wags noted, as if the Prime Minister was trying to distance himself from his own decision — even as he made it.

Plenty of ideas are practically sound, but politically impossible. Canada, as the saying goes, is a nation rich by nature yet poor by policy, and this seems to be a fate happily embraced by British Columbia, whose elites appear ever-more satisfied with a province that’s economically marginalized, yet rich in moral superiority.

If confident assertions of financial self-interest were all it took, one imagines the YouTube ads would have done the trick by now.

Thoughts on the 2014 Ontario Election

I felt weirdly emotional about the 2014 Ontario election. Perhaps it was because the stakes were so high — Canada’s largest province is now the single-most indebted subnational entity on earth, with a per-capita debt almost five times that of California — perhaps because the morality of the race was so stark — rarely in modern Canadian history have we seen a party as brazenly corrupt as Ontario’s ruling Liberals, wasting, as they have, untold billions (with a b!) of tax dollars on everything from cynically relocating unpopular power plants into Conservative-held ridings to bailing out incompetent charities run by Liberal insiders.

But now the Liberals have somehow won a fourth term in office, and by an even larger margin than their previous mandate, when their stench of scandal and fiscal incompetence was significantly milder. Conservatives like me are expected to have some sort of response to this, so here goes:

Thought #1: Canadian voters are lazy, and simply like blindly re-electing whoever’s currently in charge.

Ontario has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2003. Quebec, aside from a 18-month separatist blip, has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2003. British Columbia has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2001. Manitoba has been governed by the NDP since 1999. Alberta has been governed by the Conservatives since 1971. Every party running each of Canada’s five largest provinces, in short, has been in charge for over a decade now, and has won at least three back-to-back elections. A fourth term for the Liberals seems consistent with a larger Canadian trend of supporting incumbent parties more or less by default, and expressing abnormally high skepticism for those offering something new.

Thought #2: If incumbency provides such an advantage, we should change the rules so appointed premiers who inherit office from their predecessors are forced to call elections as soon as possible.

Kathleen Wynne served as premier of Ontario for more than a year and a half without being elected to that office by anyone other than the 1,000-odd party hacks who appointed her Liberal leader following Premier McGuinty’s 2013 resignation.

It would be absurd to argue Wynne did not benefit electorally as a result of this set-up. If nothing else, spending that much time as premier before actually running for premier made her a familiar face to voters, and a woman who was, by definition, easy to imagine in the province’s top job. That year-and-a-half head start also gave her the advantage of being able to use the powers of her office for electoral gain — for instance, by introducing a left-wing budget designed to leech voter support from the NDP.

In America, when a senator abruptly resigns or dies, the governor gets to appoint a replacement. In states like New Jersey, that then triggers an emergency election in which voters are summoned to either approve the appointment or elect someone else. I think Canada could benefit from a system like this for premiers. Say, any appointed premier should have to call a provincial election within a month of inheriting the job.

Thought #3: It can’t be denied: Tim Hudak ran a terrible campaign.

Mr. Hudak ranks up there with former BC NDP boss Adrian Dix in terms of men who were handed power on a sliver platter only to slap it down in a fit of erratic incompetence. In seeking to unseat what he correctly described as the most corrupt government “in Ontario history,” all Hudak had to do was run a relatively low-key campaign and squawk endlessly about how awful the Liberals were and how embarrassed anyone should be to support them. If the election was a stark up-or-down referendum on the Liberal record and Liberal competence he could have easily won by default.

But of course that’s not the campaign Hudak ran. In making the centrepiece of his pitch to voters two dopey, showy numbers — “100,00″ fired bureaucrats and “1,000,000″ new jobs — the Conservative leader deftly turned the campaign into a referendum on himself, and the validity of his math.

Hudak’s numbers were endlessly deconstructed by economists — often unfavourably — while his warnings of “100,000″ firings became Exhibit A in the Liberals’ efforts to paint the man as a cruel, right-wing sadist, who, like Mitt Romney before him, “liked firing people” for fun. His twin promises were both too scary and too utopian, and fulfilled a bevy of negative stereotypes. And of course every day the press spent talking about all this was a day voters weren’t reminded of Liberal awfulness.

Thought #4: Negative works.

Premier Wynne did not have many good things to run on. Her budget — which predicted a magical surplus by 2017 — was widely denounced. Her only scandal defense was saying “sorry.”

So she ran on negatives, and she ran hard. Mr. Hudak was likened to every random right-wing demon under the sun — Stephen Harper, Mike Harris, the Tea Party, the Joker — even poor Ms. Horwath of the NDP was likened to Rob Ford. Wynne held a photo-op in the Walkerton water plant — which poisoned four children in the early 2000s — and warned ominously that budget cuts “have consequences” (despite having cut funding to the plant herself). The Liberals ran ads in which voting Conservative literally made your family disappear. Hudak happily assisted by playing to type (see above).

Unpopular governments can only get re-elected if voters can be convinced to vote against the newcomer, rather than for the incumbent. As the campaign slogan of a particularly infamous Louisiana governor once implored: “vote for the crook — it’s important!” Such appeals clearly won the day in Ontario.

Thought #5: The dynamic of Canadian provincial politics is increasingly union-versus-non-union

I was a bit surprised the NDP did as well as it did last night, given how redundant they’ve become. Premier Wynne helped move the Ontario Liberals quite far to the left, and in doing so, helped complete a process, long in the works, of turning the party into the preferred vehicle of organized labour. The Ontario Liberals now collect more campaign donations from big labour than the NDP, and Wynne ran an election explicitly positioning herself as the only leader capable of defending the rights of government workers (who comprise some 70% of unionized Ontarians) from the sharp blade of Conservative austerity. There’ll be just as many public sector workers under under my rule, she promised — “or more!” For this, she was rewarded with the endorsement of the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and no less than 19 unions running attack ads against Mr. Hudak.

The party systems in most Canadian provinces now offers a clear choice between one union-friendly party (usually the NDP) and one non-union one (the Liberals in British Columbia and Quebec, the Conservatives in the Maritimes, Premier Wall’s party in Saskatchewan, Wildrose in Alberta, etc). Sometimes this divide takes on the character of a right-left ideological struggle, as it did in Ontario, but just as often the fight is simply a reflection of organized labour — the most powerful, entrenched force in Canadian government today — congealing around a single party in order to defend their interests. Considering how union interests are almost universally at odds with interests of fiscal responsibility and efficient public services, this makes union-backed governments uniquely regressive. An especially regressive four years awaits Ontario.

Thought #6: Corruption washes over voters like so much warm water.

“A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic,” Joe Stalin is somewhat dubiously credited as having said. Corruption in Canada is getting to the point where you could say a similar thing about wasted tax dollars. A million here, a billion there — numbers, nothing but numbers.

I honestly don’t think enough voters realize the impact government corruption has on their own lives, though again, part of the blame falls on politicians like Mr. Hudak for consistently failing to explain it. Waste and fraud isn’t just some boring sin of the political class we affect outrage about for reasons of moral superiority; it’s a existential threat to the survival of government itself.

A government that wastes billions in revenue is a government with billions less to spend on something else, which necessitates the need for greater borrowing and debt to make up the difference. Debt, in turn, can only ever lead to bad things — massive cuts to government services, giant tax hikes, or bankruptcy — at which point the problem is no longer quite so abstract.

Thought #7: No one cares that you’re gay.

You can always tell something’s not actually very historic when supporters note it was the first this-or-that “in the history of the Commonwealth.” So the fact that Premier Wynne is the first lesbian prime minister “in the Commonwealth” doesn’t actually tell you anything useful, beyond the predictable fact that there’s never been a gay prime minister in, say Uganda or Pakistan.

Wynne was elected at a time when there are already openly gay mayors, senators, and other high-ranking politicians in democracies all over the world, particularly Europe and America, which of course are two regions excluded from the arbitrary gaggle of random countries that constitute the Commonwealth. I doubt many foreigners can conceptualize what being “premier of a Canadian province” even means, let alone why having a gay one was historic, considering the Europeans have already elected two openly gay people to run entire countries.

I think the debt thing should be the bigger deal.

A big announcement

After 13 years, I have decided to end Filibuster. But don’t worry — not in the way you’re thinking.

As my career as a Canadian political commentator continues to unfold, I am finding less and less need for a website branded with an identity separate from my own. Unlike many webcartoonists, I have no desire to maintain any sort of professional “distance” between myself and the work I produce, nor do I desire any pretence of mystery or anonymity. I draw politicized cartoons and write political columns — by definition, everything I produce for this site is first and foremost an expression of my personal beliefs.

In this context, continuing to tag my art and writing with the “Filibuster” brand adds nothing. No one identifies me as the “Filibuster guy” nor do they speak of “the latest Filibuster cartoon.” Both fans and haters alike know me as J.J. McCullough, with “Filibuster” merely a superfluous additional name that conveys no useful information. I chose the name back in 2001 simply because I liked how it sounded (filibusters, in those days, were relatively rare, making the term sound exotic and obscure), and because I understood all good webcomics to need a name.

I’m not really a webcartoonist anymore, however; I’m a guy who does lots of stuff, one of which is posting cartoons on the web. As soon as I’m able, I plan to rejigger the site a bit to make it less “webcomicky” and more reflective of my modern career as a political commentator in general.

I will continue to own the URL, though as you may notice, everything is now. Old links will now redirect to their new equivalent, so there should be no hassle for anyone.

The Promise of Prostitution

It all comes down to the sort of society we want to inhabit.

There is a strain of thought, increasingly popular these days, that regards any law even partially justified on the basis of upholding some standard of “morality” as an arbitrary, fussy threat to individual independence. Laws that forbid or stigmatize personal behaviour are angrily dismissed as archaic remnants of a bossy, judgemental, religiously dogmatic past — the Victorian nanny state at its most overzealous and smothering.

The contrary, less fashionable perspective is to look to government as protector of a specific sort of civilization. A government justified in occasionally limiting — within, as the Canadian constitution says, the conventions of “a free and democratic society” — certain forms of “immoral” personal conduct in the name of upholding the values responsible for building all that’s good and productive about our civilization in the first place.

Thanks to the vigorous campaigning of the Canadian sex worker lobby, and their sympathetic portrayal in the press, recent debates over prostitution in this country have been mostly framed with the language and logic of that first philosophy.

What we cruelly stigmatize as “prostitution,” say the activists, is simply an individual freely choosing to do whatever she wants with her body — in this case, sell access to it. Such freedom fighters characterize their enemy as the tyrannical authority of a hopelessly puritanical police state, one that’s scolded and hounded legitimate businesswomen into alleys, docks, and off-ramps (not to mention the arms of dangerous pimps), and all for the quote-unquote “crime” of deciding what to put in their own bodies — a decision the state considers them perfectly capable of making in countless other contexts.

Drafted in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s tendentious “Bedford” ruling, which declared Canada’s Victorian-era ban on sexual solicitation unjustly cruel to prostitutes, and thus unconstitutional, the Harper government’s recently-released Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act had little choice but to concede to the emerging elite consensus. The Tory bill showily bans the direct purchase of sex, to be sure, but the practical significance of this headline-grabber is undermined by several other clauses that tacitly concede a prostitute’s right to conduct business — so long as her operation is a quiet sole proprietorship.

Prostitutes can advertise, but only so far as the goods being promoted are their “own sexual services.” They can’t sell themselves in a “public place,” which implies they can in private ones. Pimping and employing is forbidden, but otherwise “living off the avails” — as we used to say — is not, and clause 286.2 explicitly allows prostitutes to purchase any “service or good” in the interest of her enterprise.

What the government is admitting, in short, is that some form of decriminalized prostitution — albeit covert and underground — is here to stay. The onus is now simply on the johns to ensure they don’t get caught, when previously it was the other way ‘round. Seeking to minimize prostitution’s “public” presence while guaranteeing professional protections for the prostitutes themselves, it’s hard to read the Exploited Persons Act without hearing a tired sigh on the part of the government — fine, just keep it where I can’t see it. 

That, of course, is not nearly enough for prostitution’s more aggressively libertine proponents, who would much prefer to see “sex work” become a fully embraced and accepted industry within modern capitalist society — with salaries and CEOs and downtown office space and all the rest of it —as opposed to a barely-tolerated one driven underground by intentionally burdensome legislation.

While there are undeniably those who fret with valid concern about the abuse of prostitutes that can occur when their clients, by definition, must be men of low enough class to be comfortable breaking the law (though conversely, one hardly expects prostitutes to represent a higher class of society now that their side of the transaction will be legal), there are a great many more — in both press and politics — who simply see this battle as the latest front in the wars of sexual liberation, and a heroic struggle to free one more private bedroom practice from arbitrary government taboo.

Absent in this conversation is much consideration for the broader societal, and yes, moral consequences the total removal of such a historically stigmatized activity would bring. A society in full embrace of fully-legalized prostitution, after all, is a society in which sexual services are cheerfully advertised on television, radio, magazines, and billboards, and sales transactions happily take place in broad daylight — if not well-lit, showy storefronts. A society in which welcoming odd men into your intimates is just another job for young girls to contemplate as they ponder their future, while teenage boys can save their allowance to buy sex with a stranger before they even reach drinking age.

It would mark our final arrival at a licentious destination to which we have long been drifting. After years of passive objectification, women’s bodies would finally be unambiguously designated in law as products to be bought and sold. Sex would officially drop all lingering pretences of being an intimate, emotional bond of love and trust (or at least affinity and friendship) in favour of legal reclassification as a cheap consumer good for achieving short-term gratification.

That’s a vision of a certain sort of culture, and one only the government has the power to create. It’s the price of making real a particular brand of libertarianism, and I’m not convinced we’re all ready to pay it.

It all poses a very interesting dilemma for the left-wing opposition parties, incidentally, who have not yet offered a firm opinion on the Tory bill — much to the chagrin of their radically permissive base, who would love to see it discarded for something less equivocating.

Will Tom and Justin double-down on the ultra-libertine, if it-feels-good-do-it agenda they’ve previously used to dictate their official stance on two other contentious social issues — marijuana and abortion —or do they make prostitution a line in the sand, and admit that assenting to the creation of a dynamic new industry of for-profit sexual favours is maybe one slouch too far in the direction of hedonistic dystopia.

We often talk about the inherent ugliness of “extreme” right-wing social policies. Well, there’s another style, too.



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