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2005 Archives from ColbyCosh.com
Remember, you're not paranoid if they actually hate you

It's easy for an Albertan to conclude that Alberta--as both a real polity and a bogeyman of the imagination--has been the only real issue in the last few federal elections. One reason it's easy is because it's very largely true. Witness this conversation between Kelly Nestruck and an "intelligent" friend, or Alan McLeod's brief, conventional analysis of the "Alberta-centred" Conservatives (a species of thought that isn't going to go away soon, despite the efficiency with which the non-Albertan Kate McMillan shreds it).

- 12:50 am, December 23 (link)
It may be Edmonton, but it's still Alberta

Q: What do you do when your city's stuffed-shirt postliberal politicians ban smoking in public buildings, and the temperature becomes too cold for all but the hardiest patrons to duck outside for a quick nail?

A: You invent the butt bus.

City officials have been working feverishly to figure out a way to shut down the buses that have sprung up outside at least two bars since the city's strict smoking bylaw came into effect July 1. A decision could come as early as today.

"This city is becoming so... communist. You'd think we lived in freaking Toronto or something," Kevin Schotts, a 31-year-old T.B.'s Pub regular, complained as he took a drag on his cigarette. "This is redneck Alberta. We should be able to have a smoke wherever we want to."

God bless you, Mr. Schotts. The buses, as one Globe commenter points out, actually serve to prevent smokers from doing what they do in other cities with similar bans--namely, crowding tavern entrances and suffusing them with their noxious exhalations. It's a wholly logical, win-win response to the bylaw--which is why the practice will presumably be stamped out in short order.
- 3:19 pm, December 16 (link)
Orientalism

At last, a digest of reader mail on education systems and cognitive styles in Alberta, Ontario, and elsewhere. My interlocutions and editing will be minimal. Our first missive comes from a senior engineer at Ballard Power Systems in Burnaby (one who graduated from the University of Alberta):

I've been living in BC for about five years now, and the school system out here also seems to be in the grips of fashionably liberal ideology. Just about any sort of innovation that might actually improve the school system is violently opposed by the teachers' union, the BCTF. The idea of open boundary school districts and charter schools have been proposed, only to have the BCTF claim they'd destroy the school system. I'm jarred by the knee-jerk reaction, given that both ideas have been implemented in Edmonton and seem to have worked very well.
A number of my in-laws are teachers around the Greater Vancouver region, and I'm stunned by the bureaucratic barriers to accountability in the teaching profession. For example, school principals in BC aren't allowed to evaluate the in-class performance of teachers. It's astonishing - the manager of the school has no effective tools to manage the employees!
Another problematic issue is the inclusion of special needs children into regular classrooms. The warm and fuzzy (and laudable) justification for this policy is to avoid warehousing these kids, to let them experience as normal a childhood as possible, and teach the other kids to interact with disabled people. In practice, the result is usually to create a classroom distraction for the majority of the kids and divert a lot of the teacher's time into dealing with one or two special needs children. In some cases, the special-needs kids are accompanied by teacher's aides, but the distraction factor often remains. There's also a question of what the kids are really getting out of the experience--some of them are apparently so disabled that they're capable of little or no real interaction, and I suspect the benefit might be more for their parents' egos.
All of these issues point to one conclusion: the people running the school system are ignoring practical issues and solutions to make the system work better in order to conform to ideology. It's sad, because there are so many good teachers out there working hard to provide a good education, and the system is set up in a way that makes their jobs harder.
Here's one from an undergraduate who has made the cross-country trek:
I am originally from Calgary and went to high school at Western Canada High School, which is undisputedly the best public school in the city and maybe second only to Old Scona in the province. I was certainly not a distinguished student in high school, marks in the mid-80s, and I was not involved in the International Baccalaureate program. Yet I decided to go to the University of Toronto, as it is certainly one of the top schools in Canada, and I assumed that the students there would be amongst the best in the country, and certainly the best in the province. Much to my surprise, many of the students from Ontario, especially those who got very good marks in high school, were drastically behind me in most of the areas that are fundamental to a good education. I am in the fourth year of my economics degree and I have found that students from Alberta are far and away superior to those from Ontario. I have yet to meet an Albertan who comes to U of T and does anything less than phenomenally in whatever program they are enrolled in.
So far, I have thought of a few reasons for this: 1. This is a self-selective group: students who decide to move all the way across the country to pursue their education are very serious about what they want to do and are more motivated to do well than does who simply take the subway to class. However, I have noticed that students that I know of who come from B.C. and the Maritimes do not do nearly as well as Albertans. Thus I was lead to conclusion number 2: that the Alberta education system as a whole is superior. This is certainly the case in mathematics where the Pure Math 10/20/30 system is leaps and bounds ahead of any system in North America. 3. As an economist I had to think of the role of the Alexander Rutherford scholarship. The Rutherford scholarship provides a phenomenal incentive to continue further education (up to $2500) and in my case it helped to make my first year of university essentially free. I hope that my anecdotal evidence is helpful in confirming your suspicions; alas, I fear that my liberal use of commas will not convince you of your theory of "tidiness" (but I am just an economist).
I'm not sure if Andy Grabia wanted his name used, but he had an interesting response that probably won't get him murdered or fired right away:
My experience in gaining an education degree at the U of A still leaves me confused. First off, it should be noted that I came into the program essentially as an after-degree student (too convoluted to explain). After studying philosophy and political science, certain things in the Education department were of great shock to me. The first thing I noticed was the lack of intellectual vigour. To be blunt, the program seemed much easier than the arts program. And I was in the secondary strain, with a major in English and a minor in Social Studies. From all that I have seen, and heard, the elementary program is even easier.
Secondly, the teaching was weak. This seems ironic, considering the program, but the department seems less focused on hiring academics than they do on hiring old public school teachers who have been through the system. As such, you get a lot of focus on "practicum experience" and even professors who will tell you that sitting in a class learning theory is a waste of time. That was a real eye-opener. There is theory being taught, but much of it seems outdated. I wouldn't go so far as to state that you are inundated with the Frankfurt School. Frankly, I think your old program [arts -ed.] forces that down the throat much more than the education faculty. And I wouldn't even go so far as to state that there is an ideological bent to any parts of the degree. Most teachers are very apolitical, in fact. But there is an emphasis on building the esteem and character of children that in a certain sense overrides the questions of outcomes and results. And that is political.
That was the third thing I noticed. I actually had a professor tell me once that I wasn't going to be a good teacher because I didn't believe in coddling 17-year-old kids. My belief is that I am not there to save anybody, nor am I there to raise anybody. I will leave that to the parents. That belief does not go over very well in the field, though. This is ironic, because there is also a very stong sense of the profession not being appreciated. I would agree, and say that for the most part people really have no sense of how difficult a job it is. But in so many ways it is the teachers' own fault, because they continue to take on roles that expand their responsibilities, and therefore their workload.
See, now this is where I am confused. I just said the program is intellectually weak, and full of awful professors. And yet, despite my belief that this should somehow create bad teachers, quite the opposite is true. It is a well acknowledged fact that the U of A has one of the three best education programs in the country, along with the University of Lethbridge and the University of Victoria. As well, results continue to indicate that Alberta has the best K-12 system in the country, if not the world. How can this be so? The only conclusions I have come up with is that either (a) my expectations of what should make an excellent education program are totally off-base, (b) I just had a bad experience and there are lots of intelligent, innovative professors in the program or (c) the education system in Alberta is working DESPITE what is going on at the province's largest and finest University.
After graduating, it was impossible for me to find a job. The bureaucracy that exists at Edmonton Public alone would make your head spin. I taught for a semester in Bonnyville, and then decided to move onto something else. It just wasn't worth it. The constant blows to your ego in just finding a job are daunting, let alone the blow you takes when you get in trouble because a 16 year old kid tells you to fuck off. I do miss teaching, but I don't miss all the bullshit.
In the end, what I told you is probably of little help. On the one hand, I think the program could be more vigorous, and I think it should be an absolute requirement that you complete a four-year degree in another faculty before getting a two-after degree in education. I think that the professors shouldn't just be old principals from Alberta's education system, but people engaged in deep academic study and research. I don't care if they ever taught in a K-12 school, frankly. And I think that, at least for those wishing to teach English, there be a required course in English grammar and usage. It is not offered, which is deadly considering these people have to go out and tell children what is wrong with their writing. I am only familar with grammar and usage due to the insane amount that I read. I have had no formal training in it, and as such I am not as clear about it as I should be. Even my own writing suffers as a consequence.
On the other hand, there is value in doing things differently than in a program like the Liberal Arts. Writing twenty-five essays a semester can only stretch the brain so much. "Constructing dioramas out of felt and cardboard," as you call it, does have value. Not only does it allow for me to present my knowledge in a way that is interesting and best suits my own skills, but it teaches me things that I can use in my classroom and pass on to my students. Sure, there is a value in making my English 30 students write X number of academic essays a year, with an introduction, conclusion, and three body paragraphs, but at the same time there is a value in making those same students keep a creative writing portfolio that is evaluated at the end of the year. My most enjoyable and developmental experiences as a student and as a teacher came not through writing a 15-page-essay on geopolitics in Southeast Asia, or in marking yet again another three-page-essay on Gatsby and the American Experience, but in the exploration of Antony and Cleopatra through a modernized script that I had to write, or in watching a student recite "Straight Outta Compton" in my classroom in front of twenty other stunned 18 year olds.
So, to sum it all up, I have no idea.
In defence of dioramas! But a worried Albertan writes:
I spent last night sending emails to my grade 8 son's teachers. In two years of junior high, he has written two math quizzes and one open-book science test. That's it. Lots of at-home group projects. Finally this year he has an english teacher that appears to know what she is doing (lots of paragraph writing, actually reading stories instead of movie-watching, etc.) and behold, she sends home a diorama assignment. I despair--I have three more kids and no other options than the public system, being non-French or Catholic of Albertan descent.

I don't suppose he means he's Cree. Euan Hart found this gem and chucked it at my head:

Here's an example of Albertan comma usage I saw recently and boggled at. I don't find it un-Albertan, alas.
Rick Glasel wrote:
I agree with you, Grade 13 didn't seem to accomplish much except make university freshmen a year older. Another peculiarity of Ontario's public education system is two years of public preschool compared to one for the other provinces that I'm familiar with.
I don't think you can blame it on Marxists and Greens holding teaching positions. Teachers in BC are more radical than those in Ontario, yet B.C. schools seem to generate good results. Maybe it's part of a different problem; in the seventies and early eighties, many bright and ambitious young Ontarians moved west, and nobody back home in the Golden Triangle noticed. Eventually you end up with the remaining native-born population trending towards mediocrity in all things. You could also ask why the various immigrant communities in the GTA don't seem to have prospered as much as their equivalents in the Lower Mainland.
Just like the proverbial fellow who chose his parents wisely, B.C. was, I suspect, wise to make sure it was facing east Asia on the map.

Another contributor has some interesting things to add about the future of teacher training.

As a recent graduate from an Ontario university, I sadly have to agree with you. I went to Calgary schools, and to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, along with many intelligent Saskatchewan folks. It did not prepare me for Ontario schooling. I should note that I am a Calgary native, born and raised, and went to Ontario because the school offered me the most credit for the program I was taking.
Don't get me wrong. The people of Ontario are as intelligent as you and I; it is their education system which is failing them. They do not have any sort of rigorous, standardized final exams like our Alberta diploma examinations. Instead, the final grade used to determine post-secondary entrance it decided entirely by the Grade 12 teachers, [placing individual students at the mercy of subjective grading and punishing those in rigorous schools that refuse to grade-inflate.] There is also a movement in Ontario to remove the requirement that all students pass a literacy exam in Grade 11 to get their diplomas. Apparently there is a strong movement in Ontario that feels it is unfair to require graduates to be literate to get a high school diploma...
And on a final note, I have a fair number of friends who took, and are taking teachers' college. And by the sounds of it, it is getting significantly harder as time progresses. I assure you, there are diorama classes, but the competition to get into the colleges now is getting fierce, and therefore the standards are increasing. (Don't forget, the Ontario teachers' union has the provincial government by the testicles, and being a teacher is not a bad career move--in fact, it is pretty darn good.) But the system as a whole is poor, and no amount of funds or reduction of class sizes will help until accountability, rigorous standards and the ability to measure those are put into place. It is grotesquely unfair for an Alberta student to be judged by a final grade that is subject to our diploma exams against an Ontario student whose teachers may have bumped up his average to give him a leg up on getting into the University of Calgary.
But many people in Ontario seem to feel the same about Alberta. Some people admitted to me that they were surprised a guy with my education could be from Alberta, the land of rednecks and hillbillies.
Finally, we have a letter from a wayward Albertan, "Joe Schmbox," who is working in a senior scientific position out East.
As someone schooled just outside of Edmonton who has resided in Ottawa for 4½ years, I can only provide you with a single vote in favour of your hypothesis. Certainly those who are born and bred in Ottawa, and raised in families funded by our federal coffers, do seem to lack--something. Fellow Albertans who have recently moved here are given to sharing guarded jokes about things like the Eloi and the Morlocks. We understand that we could have it wrong--every country has its regional biases. But I have not found a single example that refutes the supposition. In my 100-plus-employee research organization, none of the top-tier executives are from Ontario, and most are Westerners. We'd all like to come home, but I'm afraid we, the sighted, are all too successful here in the kingdom of the blind.
There were other letters along this line that I was simply asked not to reprint at all. C'est la guerre.
- 8:39 am, October 21 (link)
Over there

"I'd always thought that the whole 'the teaching profession is guided by left-wing/unclassifiable lunatics and their insane ideas' line was a little overblown, but brother, I don't think that any more." This from Chris Selley, who normally finds when he dissects conservative pieties that he ends up with a pile of hokum in the left hand and bunkum in the right. I'm afraid he'll find that OISE only gets worse as he learns more about it.

Judging from my encounters with teacher training in Alberta, it seems to involve a lot of browsing through the works of discredited mid-century Teutons--your Adornos, your Frankls, your Bettelheims. But at least there are, you know, books involved, and with a little luck you might read a few photocopied pages of Piaget, or someone like that, and actually learn something. I have the impression, right or wrong, that one could obtain a teaching certificate in Ontario without ever doing anything more intellectually rigorous than constructing dioramas out of felt and cardboard. (Just see to it that they celebrate diversity.)

I hesitate to add this, but I believe that intelligent Albertans who move to Ontario tend to notice a slight but observable cognitive gap, ceteris paribus, between the two populations. I can't produce evidence for this; it's a vague sense, one of those hypotheses you hoard up, mark "NOT TO BE DISCUSSED IN POLITE COMPANY", and finger in an intrigued manner every time you meet with some confirming instance. Still, it is an honest suspicion. The distinction is not so much a matter of general intelligence as it is a subtle difference in tidiness, if that makes sense; it turns up in things like comma usage. Probably it's just plain chauvinism. I can say that Edmonton's public schools, in particular, are the most widely admired on the continent; and I can attest, at the very least, that my own rural public education seems to have been excellent by overall Canadian public standards. I would also note that as an undergraduate I could never see any proof that students from Ontario derived a head-start from that extra year of high school. Responses (and self-coital suggestions) are invited.

[UPDATE, October 21: Readers fire back.]

- 1:59 pm, October 11 (link)
Coleridge's heart, Diefenbaker's soul?

A recent excerpt from Monte Solberg's weblog:

We had a hard frost here last night but it seemed to touch the yard unevenly. Some of my little Manchurian elms were barely nipped, but one of them took it on the chin. So some are still green, one is turning color, and one has black curled leaves.
My poplars are tinged with black, the linden got bitten at its upper reaches and, as always, the willows seemed to sail through. They are the last to lose their leaves in these parts and might just be my favorite prairie tree. They are hardy, fast-growing and have an exotic look. Sometimes you'll see one alone on the prairie, and the way it spreads out kind of broad and low gives the impression that you are on the African savannah.

I don't wish to be accused of missing the point--I'm sure Monte's love of the Alberta landscape is not one inch short of genuine--but I think this guy could stay as an MP, if he wants to, until he turns 100. If this is mythmaking, it's mythmaking at an elite level. Is there any Liberal politician alive who could sound sincere expressing that acute sense of place so casually? The question answers itself. Our rulers love Canada as an idea, but very few ever display the first condition of legitimate patriotism--namely, passionate attachment to a particular part of one's nation. Stephen Harper, who pretty well spent the summer denying he'd even heard of any such place as Alberta, could stand to take notes.

- 10:10 pm, September 27 (link)
Plans! Big plans!

Just in case any Ontarians are wondering how I plan to spend my year-end "prosperity dividend" from the Alberta government--well, I have to be honest with you; it's already spoken for. Healthcare premiums aren't subject to marginal tax rates here, see, and at my income level it so happens I have to set aside a little more than an Ontarian would. And because you guys have that great cigarette-smuggling infrastructure out there, our government can get away with imposing extortionate taxes on smokers--about a dollar a pack more. All this is what's sometimes sarcastically known as the Alberta Advantage. I'm sure I'll have enough left over at the end of 2006 to afford a few beers, though.

[UPDATE, 10:55 am: Fenwick went to the trouble of actually doing some analysis. It goes without saying, I think, that Ralph Klein's "lack of vision" in simply mailing out cheques is far more defensible on every level--tactically, morally, economically, logically--than Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft's straightforward, bold notion to "provide free tuition for university and college students."]

- 10:06 am, September 21 (link)
Cui bono?

Don Martin has an excellent piece in today's Post--in many ways, the piece I've been waiting for--about the steady emigration from Newfoundland to Alberta. It's truly a modern gold rush, the kind of thing you don't expect to see happening in the 21st century; a whole nation is arguably being transplanted to the other side of a continent. The 21st-century twist is that it's being transplanted intact, with retail inventories, broadcasting, education, and culture all adapting to the norms of the invader. By 2020 there should be a distinct Newfoundland-flavoured "McMurray accent" emerging from the school playgrounds up there. (Not kidding, not exaggerating.)

I sympathize with the Newfie diehards back home who have to deal with the breakup of families and the depopulation of 300-year-old communities; Martin's piece is, at times, heartrending. But no one points out the irony that Newfoundland exists as a quasi-national entity in the first place because a whole bunch of Irishmen got on their bikes and followed a resource boom.

[UPDATE, 8:13 am: This passage from the piece seemed puzzling and even slightly outrageous to me at first:

Economic development office secretary Mary Greene calls the economic breakup of her family with its one dozen siblings "a great sadness." The most recent to leave was her ailing father, who sought to take advantage of Alberta's superior health system and the recuperation care offered by his relocated children.

"We basically had to find the greatest concentration of family members to look after him and that was in Alberta," Ms. Greene shrugs. "As much as he'll say he'd love to come back here to smell the ocean, he's content and has so many offspring out there he's got an entourage to care for him."

There is no seething resentment against Alberta's energy bonanza here. "My family would love to be back home, but you have to go where the opportunities lie," Ms. Greene says. "But I think Newfoundlanders must wonder when they're going to see the same benefits Alberta enjoys from the oil industry."

I thought Ms. Greene was referring to Alberta's oil industry in this last line, but as a reader points out, she presumably means she's waiting for the benefits of Newfoundland's offshore oil. Makes a lot more sense that way.]
- 7:27 am, September 6 (link)
The Equalizer: Tom Courchene says that Alberta must voluntarily share its oil wealth or else Confederation will be destroyed. In today's National Post, I respond with a 750-word expansion of that "world's tiniest violin" gesture you do with your thumb and index finger. Read it online now at NationalPost.com.

Here's a question you might ask Dr. C even if you agree with the spirit of his idea. He believes Alberta should set aside petro royalties and hand them over to the Council of the Federation, a talk shop of provincial premiers, so that the money can be used to improve the condition of the "have-not" [and never-will] provinces. Why do we need the Council to do this for us? Alberta could establish and administer its own fund, to be distributed voluntarily by Alberta under made-in-Alberta formulae. Why is it necessary for us to have help in this enterprise? Are we too stupid to engage in competent philanthropy, or does Courchene just implicitly regard Alberta's oil money as the natural property of the whole federation ab initio?

I think the shrewdest response Ralph Klein could make to Courchene's idea is to announce the establishment of a $1.5 billion fund whose interest would be used to mitigate calamities or temporary economic emergencies elsewhere in Canada. And in the next sentence he should state that the fund will be endowed exactly 24 hours after the Conservative Party is elected to a majority government in Parliament. (It's not that the Conservatives are something Ralph Klein or Colby Cosh particularly care for, you understand--but if the Liberals are allowed to tweak equalization in openly unjust ways to buy Liberal votes in Atlantic Canada, why shouldn't something be done for the Opposition?)

The IRPP web page has the full text of Courchene's latest study. It makes exceedingly difficult reading, but is full of interesting observations, not all of which are Alberta-related.

[UUPDATE, 11:47 pm: Norman Spector writes:

Interesting piece... However, the objective of equalization is stated clearly in s. 36 [of the Constitution Act]--it’s there to support or criticize as a principle, but it's there.

Specifically (as Fr. Raymond de Souza also discusses in Thursday's Post) it says:

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

This stipulation is universally regarded as non-justiciable, and I think I could get most everyone to agree that it is just this side of incoherent. Spector is, nonetheless, right to bring it up.

It is hard for a policy critic to stand on this text unless there is some agreement, or existing general sense, that s. 36(2) truly represents the sole objective and limit of equalization. If no one shares the belief, then it might just as well be written on an outhouse wall as in the Constitution. Interprovincial equalization as currently designed is swallowing up Saskatchewan's petroleum and potash revenues; in one recent year, Saskatchewan lost about twice as much in equalization from an increase in oilpatch activity than it gained in royalties. These revenues aren't the product of "taxation"; if Saskatchewan's tax rates aren't changing significantly, there is no pretext within s. 36(2) for its resource revenues to be touched. But they were, and are. Courchene also points out in his paper that it is more expensive for some provinces to provide the same public services because they possess higher labour costs. If s. 36(2) were taken seriously, we would be transferring cash not on a dollar basis but on an hours-of-labour basis. (His suggestion, if I understood it correctly, was that Ontario might be a "have-not" right now under this form of accounting.)

Courchene could have raised another point: what is the right definition of "reasonably comparable levels of of public services?" As far as I know, equalization isn't adjusted for geography, yet the most basic services--transport and communications, health care, education, almost anything you could name--are going to be inherently more expensive per-capita in geographically larger jurisdictions. If it is only the level of public service available to the client of government that counts, perhaps tiny P.E.I., which could almost educate and medicate its citizenry in one building, should be sending cash to huge, mountainous B.C.? (And should provinces that have to provide "public services" to resource industries be rewarded with bonuses, or punished by being forced to pay for those services out of an "equalized" tax take?)

I don't think s. 36(2) can be treated rigorously, though I can't very well quarrel with the text of the Constitution as such. Under a strict definition of "reasonable", the clause would involve counterfactual questions of the same insane, destructive sort that justiciable pay equity involves--the kind that would destroy "reason" in order to save it. Under a very strict definition, 36(2) would considerably worsen the existing moral hazard of equalization, completely taking away "have-not" governments' incentives for not preying on their own tax bases. And then again, it could always be pleaded by "haves" that provincial revenues, in the long run, depend on policy choices made within individual provinces, and that the constitutionally correct amount of equalization is thus inherently near-nil. Insofar as s. 36(2) should be treated as having force, though, it would seem--no matter what interpretation you select--to rubbish Courchene's whole idea of dragging Alberta's direct resource revenues into equalization.]

- 6:22 am, September 1 (link)
Oink

Did anyone besides Norman Spector catch Val Sears' little drive-by from Tuesday's Ottawa Sun?

Certainly, Harper cannot be a winner as long as his national policies are devised in Alberta, that porcine province with little connection to the rest of the country.

Leaving aside the insult, I must say I've never seen the case for Alberta separatism put so succinctly. Have you noticed that it's routinely argued for much more passionately by central Canadians than it is by Albertans?

- 8:46 am, August 31 (link)
Passe-partout
Yesterday, close to 250 protesters gathered on Parliament Hill to demand the prime minister rescind [Michaelle] Jean's appointment [as Governor-General].
Protest organizer Debbie Jodoin, a member of the conservative group Free Dominion, questioned whether Jean was the appropriate choice to represent the queen in Canada.
"Who comes first, Madame Jean? Quebec, France or Canada? Madame Jean, where do your loyalties lie?" asked Jodoin, calling attention to Jean's dual French and Canadian citizenship.
And while we're at it, what kind of passport did those shady characters Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain carry?

There are good reasons to oppose Michaelle Jean's appointment, but her "dual" citizenship doesn't strike me as one of them. I put "dual" in quotes only because the adjective is being so widely used; I would have thought that Ms. Jean was at least a triple citizen, but perhaps someone has already explained how a person born in Haiti might have misplaced her natal rights in that country.

I don't think dual citizenship is particularly rare in Canada. [UPDATE, Aug. 30: A reader supplies an official estimate of 700,000 resident dual citizens and 6,000 triples.] When I expand my Google Talk window to display the ten people I e-mail the most, I find (using my best guess) four dual citizens and a fifth who's arguably on the way (he's a Canadian native living in the U.S. with a green card and an American girlfriend). A sixth is married to a citizen of the U.K., which requires three years of residence (and "good character") before naturalizing spouses. For all I know there may be more in the lot. I don't suppose any of these people consider themselves disloyal. Some of them have made use of the economic and travel advantages of dual citizenship, and I challenge anyone to deny that he would do the same given the choice. (Note that carrying multiple citizenships can, in some cases, allow one's children to make residency choices they wouldn't otherwise possess.)

We live, after all, in a country that had no separate concept of citizenship for about half its history. Five or six generations of Canadians certainly would have been surprised to learn that it was in any way awkward to be both a British subject and a good Canadian. As a monarchist I would argue that it's still appropriate for Canadians--whatever their ethnic origins--to feel powerful emotional attachments to Britain. And it's only natural that a French-Canadian (or a Haitian-Canadian) would feel similar cultural attachments to France, attachments welded in place by law, language, habits of mind, and an intellectual heritage. I disapprove of the school of "conservative" thought that denies the special status of France and Britain vis-à-vis Canada; it is simply bad philosophy, and bad Canadian history, to challenge someone to produce a unitary declaration of loyalty to "Quebec or Canada or France." (Though there's no harm in asking them how they voted in the 1995 Quebec referendum.) I myself am ineligible for citizenship in any other country, but don't ever ask me whether I'm loyal to Alberta or to Canada if you think you might not like the answer.

- 7:43 am, August 29 (link)
The meaning of the affaire Michaelle Jean...

...is pretty clear to me, in my hedgehog fashion. As I've argued before, English Canadians persist in regarding the divide between federalism and separatism in Quebec as something clear and static, and reality persists in defying them. Quebeckers, and sane people outside Quebec, are united in regarding Quebec as a linguistically and culturally distinct nation. In this context, nationalism is the ideology, and separatism is just a negotiating position. Silly linear Anglos! It's not just that an individual with a separatist past can be redeemed magically and come crawling bareheaded and open-handed into the federalist camp. It's that an individual can be a provisional separatist and a provisional federalist at the same time, in precisely the same way that a person can be a democratic socialist for the purposes of short-term politics and an adherent of proletarian dictatorship for the purposes of a distant, idealized future. Indeed, this is not just a simile; the positions basically go hand in hand. The lingering influence of Hegel amongst white-wine revolutionary intellectuals makes it pretty easy for these people to create and maintain convenient compartments between "being" and "becoming". (And it is true, in addition, that there is a cultural gap between the adversarial style of anglo discourse and the playfulness of the franco kind; we each have our characteristic paths toward the truth.*)

Since our law overtly contemplates the peaceful democratic dissolution of Confederation as a future possibility, I do not believe we are in a position to object to the nomination of a separatist or ex-separatist to the office of Governor-General on those grounds alone. (An FLQ supporter is another thing altogether, and I think the new "prince consort", as the separatist media has been calling Jean-Daniel Lafond, still needs to come clean about his past positions with respect to revolutionary violence.) But I also don't take Mme. Jean's brief, formal statement of loyalty to Canada very seriously. Yes, yes, you love Canada and you love Quebec--don't we all; they're both so adorable. The question is whether you envision one being a part of the other a century from now. The press has seized upon Mme. Jean's ambiguous quote that "independence isn't given, it's taken", and paid less attention to the context of the infamous dinner--a context encapsulated in the toast "C'est fini les petits peuples!" It seems clear enough that Jean and Lafond share an appreciation, perhaps grudging, for Canadian institutions as currently constituted. It also seems pretty clear that, at one time at least, they were crass leftist hipsters with a serious boner for Frantz Fanon.

Perhaps merely sitting at a table and tipping back plonk with a former leader of the FLQ should be enough to disqualify Mme. Jean from the viceroyalty. It may be worth noting, though, that when Pierre Vallières brought out the old chestnut about Quebeckers being les Nègres blancs d'Amérique, she parried with a silencing witticism: et les Nègres blancs québécois ont aussi leurs Nègres noirs, de plus en plus. Well put--and reminiscent, too, of Orwell's observation that when you embrace the nationalistic aspirations of people B oppressed by people A, you immediately start hearing from people C, who are routinely kicked around by B and regard A as their protectors. (Hey, welcome to Canada!) All I can think about with regard to Mme. Jean, I find, is what fun it would be to ferret out her thoughts about the future of Quebec at length. But nobody's going to be given that opportunity as long as she insists on clinging to the hope of obtaining the best job in the country. She became an ex-intellectual the minute she agreed to it.

(*This is one reason signs of incipient secessionism amongst Western Canadians need to be taken more seriously amongst those categorically opposed to the idea. In a binary-minded place like Alberta, a place dominated by the Protestant imagination, the time spent contemplating open rebellion can be expected to be long--but if the event should ever become psychologically possible, it won't be confined to salons for forty years. The knives will come out quickly.)

- 11:52 am, August 17 (link)
Here's a slightly brushed-up version of my July 10 essay for the Calgary Herald's centennial series.

"The rest of Canada can't be wrong." That was the Alberta Liberal slogan in the harvest election of 1935, still the meanest and most dramatic in our province's history. Facing a chaotic brawl against Social Crediters, United Farmers, Tories, non-partisan independents, the democratic-socialist CCF, and the Communists, the Liberals tried to distinguish themselves with a simple appeal to Albertans: trust in the wisdom of your provincial brethren, and vote for the natural governing party. Needless to say, it didn't work. In the polls of Aug. 22, 1935, Social Credit won a crushing victory.

And while the Socreds have long since dwindled into insignificance, the Alberta Liberals still aren't getting very far with "The rest of Canada can't be wrong" as a tacit credo.

For students of Alberta history, the 1935 election is an awe-inspiring moment -- perhaps the most startling act of defiance ever perpetrated by a Canadian electorate. William Aberhart, originally a schoolteacher from Ontario, had needed just five years (1918-23) to turn a tiny Bible-study group into Calgary's fastest-growing religious organization. By 1927, when Aberhart founded the Prophetic Bible Institute -- an innovative combination of broadcast facility and Protestant academy -- his ringing voice and back-to-basics evangelism made him the outstanding media star in the Canadian west. But he didn't meddle in politics until 1932, when he chanced upon a pamphlet by an eccentric Scottish engineer, Major C.H. Douglas.

Like any sensitive man living in the Depression, Aberhart was preoccupied with the misery of the aged, the hunger of children, and the hopelessness of the young. No apparent great world crisis or act of physical destruction had caused the crash of 1929. Somehow, a staggering amount of wealth had just evaporated overnight. Douglas's theory -- that purchasing power was chronically short of output under capitalism -- seemed like an essential insight into a world gone mad. Energized, Aberhart began using his radio broadcasts to publicize Social Credit on the radio, delivering thunderous Mosaic speeches and making sly use of what we would now call "sketch comedy."

One message got through loud and clear: Social Credit "experts" could be brought to Alberta to manipulate the monetary system and -- without incurring inflation -- generate a $25-a-month "social dividend" for every man, woman and child in Alberta. This was provocative stuff. (At the time, the average working man's wage in Canada was about 40 cents an hour.) The scandal-wounded United Farmers government had been able to provide no distinctive answer to the Depression, and the pressure from Aberhart was so great that the UFA would gladly have made Douglas god-emperor to save its hide. But the government's best minds understood Social Credit's implications better than Aberhart, and could see no practical way to introduce it on the provincial level. They, and the other parties, became roadkill for the Social Credit media machine.

The $25-a-month Socred promise endowed the election with literal life-and-death importance. Party workers on all sides defaced opponents' signs as a matter of course. Social Credit audiences bullied and jeered opposing speakers; a favourite tactic was to drown them out with car horns. Entire areas of the province became hazard zones for old-line candidates. Eminent men defected to Social Credit simply to preserve their community standing. The hardliners who stuck with the traditional parties tried to demonize Social Credit, warning of food riots and capital flight. And they brought in spokesmen from outside the province to denounce the movement, which only hardened Albertans' determination.

The turnout on election day was well above 80 per cent, and has no equal in Alberta elections held before or since. Because of the complexity of counting transferable ballots, it took days to confirm that Social Credit had won 56 of 63 seats. But the overall outcome was obvious, and worldwide reaction was immediate. Albertans, it seemed, would be the first to test-fly a non-red, Anglo-Saxon alternative to high capitalism. The Social Credit fan Ezra Pound, hearing the news, dashed off excited letters to friends from Italy. In California, a young Robert A. Heinlein was stirred to write his first novel about the glorious Socred future. From California, Upton Sinclair scolded Albertans for having rejected conventional socialism in favour of economic illiteracy. A Boston newspaper printed the legendary headline ALBERTA GOES CRAZY.

But the revolution fizzled quickly. Citizens of Calgary who lined up at City Hall for their first $25 on the day after the election had to be turned away -- and they never did see a cheque. For all Aberhart's passion, control of the monetary levers was firmly in the hands of the brand new Bank of Canada. Douglas refused to travel to Alberta, and sent vague, worthless advice. An effort to introduce made-in-Alberta "prosperity" scrip failed miserably. The premier became preoccupied with podunk authoritarianism, passing laws to torment bank employees and threaten unfriendly reporters. The courts and Parliament fended him off until the Second World War arrived. Aberhart died, largely unmourned, in 1943. His assistant and successor, young Ernest Manning, abandoned the monetarist heresy and became an eloquent spokesman for the newly rehabilitated concept of capitalism.

Looking back, the 1935 election might be regarded as the most ignominious event in Alberta history. It's the classic example of a rural populace falling for pie in the sky from a fast-talking evangelist swindler. What's perhaps notable is that Albertans never seriously considered socialism or communism as an alternative, even when Social Credit failed. Social Credit, as a theory, never claimed to redistribute tangible wealth; it merely sought to recapture a social surplus lost through bad accounting. Aberhart, as nasty and misguided as he was, didn't peddle envy.

The Alberta voters of 1935 didn't want a big government that took over factories or farms. They didn't want to nationalize their neighbour's feed store or his fancy sandstone mansion. They simply wanted the economic and political framework rectified, in order to give every man a chance to realize his own dreams. They might have had the details wrong, but the redemptive individualistic spirit was right.

- 3:46 pm, July 21 (link)
Hubbert for dummies

The Peak Oil theory of M. King Hubbert has suddenly become popular with a certain species of intellectual--the kind, mostly, who has a bone to pick with capitalism and who is searching eagerly for a post-Marxist killer flaw in it. If you've ever had one of these guys jawing at you, you'll want to read Steve Verdon's series on peak energy (1, 2, 3, 4). His verdict is that the Hubbert-peak theory is true in a sense, but mostly useless for setting policy or making predictions about the global oil supply. (Hilariously, world oil production already passed a distinctly noticable peak in the late '70s, leading the Hubbertians to declare imminent doom--and then backpedal when they realized it wasn't the real one. Overall their prognosticative record is about as solid as that of the Jehovah's Witnesses.)

What's surprising to me is that I've talked to several Albertans who swallow the calculations of Hubbert's present-day followers without noticing that they often depend heavily on the distinction between "conventional" (or "proven") oil sources and supposedly exotic ones like the Athabasca Tar Sands. When Hubbert himself wrote, the distinction was real and important, because bitumen extraction was still experimental and unprofitable. Today the difference is all but arbitrary, and oil companies are switching capital to the sands en masse, recognizing that "non-conventional" extraction in Northern Alberta may be more economical even than future "conventional" finds. There are any number of excuses for Americans not to know this: for them the education process has just begun. For someone in Alberta not to realize it is just mind-blowing.

- 10:57 pm, July 13 (link)
Alberta bound

Wednesday's Washington Post featured a timely primer on Alberta's tar sands and a portrait of their capital, Fort McMurray. Closer to home, Steve Maich of Maclean's has a good column on the (long-term?) political consequences. (Though it does bother me when someone skates over Albertans' reaction to the National Energy Program with a word like "resentment". Yeah, we "resented" seeing our chief industry deliberately driven out of the country. We're an awfully sensitive bunch.)

If you're one of those who has no hope of deriving personal benefit from $55 oil--remember, it's good for Mother Earth!--you may be comforted by Chinese economist Andy Xie's contention that (a) there is actually an oil bubble and (b) it is about to pop.

- 12:14 pm, June 16 (link)
Mad cow USA

Canadian cattlemen are watching with dread and hope this morning as the Americans do follow-up tests on a possible BSE case confirmed Friday.

Officials from the Agriculture Department said Saturday that a series of tests would be carried out on the cow's brain tissue at a department laboratory in Ames, Iowa, and at an internationally known facility in Weybridge, Britain, to determine if the animal is infected with mad cow disease, clinically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The tests could take up to two weeks, Reuters reported a department spokesman saying.

So far, the department has revealed few details about the origin of the cow. A spokesman said Friday that the animal was first tested in November, and that initial results were inconclusive. Another test was applied, and results were negative.

The New York Times reports flatly that "Confirmation that the animal had mad cow would make it more difficult for [U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike] Johanns to reopen the border to live cattle from Canada, which he has said is a top priority."
The United States closed the border after mad cow disease was discovered in a Canadian cow in May 2003. Two additional cases were confirmed in Canada last year. Mr. Johanns tried to reopen the border in March to cattle younger than 30 months old. But Mr. Bullard's group won an injunction from Judge Richard F. Cebull of Federal District Court to keep it closed. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for July 13 in federal appeals court in San Francisco, and a July 27 trial is set for Judge Cebull's courtroom in Billings, Mont.

But it's not nearly as simple as reporter Alexei Barrionuevo makes it out to be. A mad cow of purely American origins would, in the eyes of any reasonable analyst, make it easier to open the border. According to the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, the USDA specifically said on Friday that "there was no indication [the new cow] had been imported." As an Alberta Beef Producers spokesman says in Sunday morning's Calgary Herald, "A positive test might encourage a resumption of [U.S.-Canada] live cattle trade, since the two countries would have the same disease status." Overseas markets are already treating Canada and the U.S. as a single market, and those markets were closed to American cattle when an Alberta-born cow in the U.S. was discovered to have BSE in January.

As the Times says, the USDA has been satisfied with new Canadian testing requirements, and was preparing to open the border when the exported Alberta cow was caught in January. An American ranching group called R-CALF succeeded in obtaining a bogus injunction against the USDA move at that time. In truth, the case discovered in January was actually good news, because--like other recently discovered cases--the cow had eaten material milled and purchased before the existence of new regulations banning the incorporation of animal proteins into cattle feed. Both countries' scientific agencies believe and admit that more cattle with BSE, in small numbers, can be expected to be found on both sides of the border. But as long as all the positives are associated with old feed, or were themselves born before the new regulations, the positives merely confirm that the regulations, combined with more intensive testing of downed animals, are probably working.

Unfortunately, it is hard to get a judge to understand this (mad cows are good news? Durrr?), and the border remains closed--a measure that confines American border-state processing capacity to American cattle, but does nothing to persuade BSE-free countries to admit those cattle. R-CALF is merely playing dog-in-the-manger, and taking advantage of a judge's scientific illiteracy, to keep the upper hand on American meat packers and consumers. Even though both countries are essentially in the same boat, R-CALF's delay tactics--which are predicated on the supposed possibility of damage to the U.S. beef industry--are actually persuading marginal Canadian producers to sell out and kill healthy cattle.

It's small wonder that, as the Herald reports today, "some Alberta cattlemen [expressed] little sympathy for the U.S. yesterday." Most Canadians realize, though, that the USDA has been taking free trade seriously--if a bit tardily--and that it would be bad for both countries if mad cow in the U.S. herd became a cause célèbre amongst American environmentalists, vegetarians, and food-fear specialists. To date, North American beef has never caused a single confirmed case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the brain disorder that can be caused by eating BSE-infected beef). And that's a statement we can make with high confidence, because scientists have found North American CJD cases that were traceable to the British outbreak of the late '90s.

- 3:23 am, June 12 (link)
Casting the first stone?

A reader writes with a question:

Ralph Klein made a comment that he would be "drawn and quartered" for doing things similar to that which are being alleged at the Gomery Inquiry. Given Alberta's long-running one-party state, what prevents Adscam-type activity there?

Let's just say that Ralph should be more careful about shooting his mouth off. The Kelley Charlebois affair perhaps doesn't rise to the level of Adscam, but if I were Klein I wouldn't be issuing open invitations for people to recall it to mind. And some say that if the whole truth were known about the quid pro quo in the ATB-WEM scandal, it would make Adscam look like dime-store stuff quantitatively and ethically. The openly discussable facts about loan guarantees extended to West Edmonton Mall in the 1990s are bad enough, but the bottom-line effects on the notional sale price of the Treasury Branches (our province's oddball government-owned quasi-bank) have been delayed far into a wispy future, and while the guarantees were extended on the basis of bogus economic reasoning, there was at least a paper trail.

Alberta doesn't have some kind of magical insulation against sleaze; you have only to pick up the National Post and read the latest about the Alberta Securities Commission to confirm it. At the interface between business and government, this province has the same problems of parochialism and incestuousness that Quebec does. They might be worse. The points in our "defence" are that these problems don't affect taxpayers outside Alberta; that the government of Alberta is a successful economic manager, and imposes less of a total tax burden for its mildly crooked operations; and that there is a bloc of cranky, pious evangelicals in the Assembly, serving as a redeeming corvine presence on guard against the most egregious behaviour by public servants. Perhaps the most important point of all is that the "one-party state" in Alberta depends to an enormous degree on the continued stumbles of the federal Liberals; to the degree that the Grits can't clean up their act, they make life harder for our opposition, which is lucky to get its deposits back, never mind run a proper research mill. But rest assured, a lot of Albertans are dying to vote for someone other than Ralph Klein, and the truth is that right now he is suffering a slow-motion version of Jean Chretien's political fate (itself an absurdly protracted process). Like any party in unchallenged command of a polity, the Alberta Conservatives encompass many factions that are constantly watching each other, hoping to stick the knife in. It's not genuine accountability, but it will do in a pinch.

- 2:04 pm, April 12 (link)
ColbyCosh.com, agora for alcoholix

My inbox is swelling with a wave of pro-market comment on liquor retailing. The most urgently relevant missive comes from Matt Bazkur, a hophead who has the goods on the bureaucratic habits of the LCBO (and others). Let's roll the tape:

As an Ontario beer geek, I want a better selection of beer in Ontario. I’m even willing to pay more for the right. As a right-wing nutjob, I want the government out of the booze business. However, my beer-geek desires override my nut job instincts to the extent that I could live with a mix of private and public. Heck, I could live with all-public if they just had a better selection.

Fat chance!

...there is a lot of nonsense that goes on because of Ontario government involvement in the liquor distribution process:

1. Exhibitors at wine/liquor/beer festivals must buy their own products from the LCBO and additionally pay a mark-up. From a posting by an importer at The Bar Towel:

"...all products being poured at this festival and any other beer and wine shows like it where consumers pay for samples must be purchased from the LCBO under a Special Occasion Permit For Sale, which means that we pay full retail plus an additional 16% levy on top."

2. All products must have their alcohol content expressed on the label in alcohol by volume. U.S. beer producers often don’t list the alcohol, and when they do it’s often done by weight. Overseas producers generally work with other methods of measuring alcoholic content--Balling, original gravity, Plato, etc. Any that wish to sell in Ontario must either change their labelling--most balk at that and tell Ontario to stick it--or have the importer slap on stickers.

Here’s another quote from the same importer at The Bar Towel on the issue of labeling:

"...bad news is, American micros are notorious for having alcoholic contents vary widely from batch to batch. One of the Rogues and 4 of the Dogfish are now held up because the alcohol content on the bottle does not come within the allowable variance from the actual tested alcohol. We're trying to sort this out but it will probably involved our having to pay the LCBO a usurious fee to re-label. Can't apply stickers ourselves...unionized warehouse...they charge us the equivalent of about $80 an hour to have these applied...I believe they're using unemployed brain surgeons, which is why it's so expensive."

3. All products must be bilingual. Here, from The Bar Towel, is the owner of The Scotch-Irish Brewery on why the introduction of his excellent Sergeant-Major’s IPA was delayed:

"The LCBO has requested a change to the six-pack carton. The French translation of "returnable bottles where applicable" was omitted. Since the cartons are already printed, I am making an adhesive label to put on the cases. Once I have this done (the labels should be ready on Friday) I must courier a sample of the stickered carton to the LCBO for final approval."

4. A beer called Delirium Tremens has recently been pulled from the LCBO shelves. Evidently they received a complaint about the name. Maybe two. Nobody knows. This is the same beer that is held up as an example of American bible-thumpingness, as there’s often a state or two that will ban it. But who are the reactionaries now? Here’s a comment from the same importer:

"I was offered this beer many years ago and did in fact contact the LLBO at the time. They told me that they would not approve the product for sale in Ontario because of the name, so I never pursued it. These are the same people who told me that they would not accept Rogue Santa's Private Reserve and who, after we already had a P.O., cancelled an order of Pike Auld Lang Syne because the old man with a beard on the label (representing the old year) looked too much like Santa Claus--even though he had no hat and the beer was not an Xmas beer but a New Year's beer."

No one here holds out any hope of Arrogant Bastard Ale being made available anytime soon.

5. Finally, here’s some nuttiness that went on over some sour Belgian beers, including a few that included cherries as part of the recipe. The LCBO first held up the shipment because the beer was too sour. Then the Canadian Food Inspection Agency held up the shipment because it contained cherries. So the brewery told Canada to get stuffed. Here are the quotes from the importer:

"Well, I should have known, the LCBO lab is holding up the Cantillons deeming them "unfit for sale" because the "volatile acidity" exceeds the standard....no doubt Molson Canadian sets the standard! We'll be appealing this ruling based upon the fact that Cantillon is such a unique product that no Canadian standard for beer could ever have been set with a beer like this in mind. As the acidity does not pose a health hazard, we are hopeful that we will be given an exemption.”

"...We've put a hold on the second shipment pending resolution of these lab issues. If we don't get an exemption, the LCBO will either destroy the beers at the supplier's expense or ship them back to Belgium with the supplier picking up the tab for freight in both directions. Either way, if this happens, we'll never see Cantillon in Ontario again. As it is, Cantillon is now refusing to sell to the LCBO, and will only do so if I pay them in advance."

[Later] "Well, some good news today...the LCBO is going to release the Rose de Gambrinus so now we only have the Kriek to deal with and a chemical substance which comes from the cherry pits is currently considered a "contaminant" by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency--so we now have to wait for a ruling from them. We hope they will rule in our favour, as it's hard to imagine that real cherry pits pose a health hazard to consumers considering how much other crap we shove down our gullets every day."

In fairness to the CFIA, fruit pits can sometimes pose a toxic hazard; this doesn't necessarily seem like sheer adventurism on the agency's part, presuming that foreign imports of foods and beverages should be government-inspected at all. It is profoundly shocking if true, though, that the LCBO should treat Belgian cherry beers--one of the most famous beverage treats in the world--like some incomprehensible potation from Saturn. And I believe Cantillon can be purchased in Alberta, though I've never looked for it myself.

Craig Burley wrote to defend the LCBO--though only in part, and with the same kind of frank selfishness I've heard from a few other readers.

For one thing, the inability to purchase beer and wine at groceries and corner stores is unconscionable--not only would it be a significant shot in the arm for small business (which every politician claims to support), but having lived for many years in Quebec I can testify to the consumer benefits.

But that doesn't have much to do with the LCBO per se. LCBO's stocking fees are too high, but living in Hamilton, minutes from the Niagara wine region, means I don't have to worry too much about that. Its practices vis-à-vis the smaller wineries are unconscionable, but that doesn't affect me too much (unlike the person in, say, Ottawa or Windsor or Timmins) since it's easy for me to just go to Thomas & Vaughn, or Magnotta, and buy a reasonably priced, high-quality bottle. Or case. (Or several cases).

What the LCBO does do is selection, and it does it well. Even smaller centres get a breadth and depth of selection that is wonderful (and you can get it shipped in free if the LCBO lists it, even if you're in Deep River and they don't stock it). And the LCBO does have terrific market power--it's one of the world's largest purchasers of liquor, beer and wine [actually the largest -ed.] and while they don't throw their weight around enough, they do use it.

On balance, I like the LCBO. I wouldn't shed a tear over it if it died, and frankly I'd take a lot of vicarious pleasure in the victory of the Magnotta people (easily the best low-cost winery in Ontario, Magnotta carried on a famous fight against the LCBO). But I honestly prefer the Quebec model, and if they were to convert to that I would still patronise the LCBO for wine and liquor--just as I did at the SAC in Quebec--and I'd get my beer elsewhere and be happier.

Garth Wood sent a good e-mail talking about the retailing situation in Alberta from a more informed standpoint than my own.
The Chateau Louis doesn't just have an impressive array of beer--it's also got the most un-freakin'-believable selection of Scotch I've ever seen, anywhere in North America. There's gotta be a specialty Scotch store somewhere on this great big continent that has more selection, but I wonder... Even the Willow Park flagship store here in Calgary can't beat it. Apparently, the gent who runs the Chateau Louis store is kind of a Scotch nut. [True. -ed.] Which merely points out the beauty of having private stores--their owners can even indulge their own whims and whimsies, sharing the goodies with the general public as a result.

One of the reasons people find the booze pricing so attractive in Alberta is because, when the Alberta government privatized the retail side, the ALCB on the wholesale side broadly switched from a percentage-markup pricing system to a flat-rate-per-unit (however defined) pricing scheme. Lower-priced products such as beer are slightly more expensive than in other provinces as a result, but higher-priced stuff like Scotch, fine wine, etc., end up being less expensive than before. My brother, who's lived on the Lower Mainland for the last twenty years, fairly drools when he comes to Alberta, and he always goes home with a few bottles of Scotch, port, Irish whiskey, and so forth. He claims he saves around $100 or so on a typical buy, which lasts him several months...

3. The criticism that the overall selection of booze in liquor stores has dropped may even be true in some system-wide sense, but it doesn't really matter--what really matters is whether I have access to more selection than previously. [There's that "frank selfishness" again. -ed.] Back in the day, there were a couple of really high-end ALCB outlets in Alberta (in Edmonton, it was in the "Beaver House" building downtown), and they had impressive selection. The average ALCB outlet, however, had mediocre selection at best. Nevertheless, because these high-end stores existed (and thus were part of the ALCB's overall price list), it could be said that the ALCB system had a great selection. If you happened to live in Edmonton or Calgary and could get to these showcase stores, you too could enjoy the variety. Otherwise, the ALCB's message to the average Albertan imbiber was "suck it," and I had to belong to the Opimian Society in order to get access to decent wine and reasonable variety. I've long since discontinued my membership in the Opimian, since the average booze store now does really quite well, thanks.

And the other nice thing about the new system? Even if the selection has narrowed overall, the churn in the selection is fairly high--new products are constantly coming onstream, old or unpopular products are discontinued apace, and we have a moving window on the variety our planet has to offer. It's nice. Now if only we could get rid of the [government involvement in the] wholesale side, so I could finally get my Leffe Dubbel Brun...

I'll finish by linking to some observations made a while ago by Pieter Dorsman in B.C. And then leave off. Is the sun below the yardarm yet?
- 7:00 am, February 3 (link)
Here's to your health

My recent brief entry about liquor privatization attracted some interesting comment, though none, so far, from Ontario. The most interesting--from the standpoint of one who is always looking for opportunities to put his half-baked grad-school French through its paces--is at le blog de polyscopique. Laurent's entry is short, too, and basically says that it seems anachronistic and weird for the state to maintain a monopoly on liquor retailing in the 21st century. A commenter popped up to provide a link to a précis of the Alberta experience--a précis, it so happens, trafficking under the schmancy rubric of a "study" and funded by SEMB-SAQ, the union of Quebec liquor-store employees.

The commenter in question protests that l'étude should not be dismissed just because it was written at the behest of SEMB-SAQ. And I agree. It should be dismissed because it's ridiculous. Its chief points are that:

  • the ALCB's buildings were sold for less than it cost to buy them in the first place;
  • the government's rakeoff from liquor declined when it was no longer in charge of selling it, depriving the Alberta treasury of money;
  • the price of alcohol rose faster in Alberta after privatization than elsewhere in Canada;
  • most privatized booze shops in Alberta offer a narrow selection of goods;
  • and the whole process wasn't particularly happy for the unionized ALCB workers.

    The first point will come as stunning news to those who haven't heard that capital depreciates, and the last point can be conceded freely. As for the money lost to the Alberta treasury--well, you'd have to be an idiot living in a cave to think it needs any more just now; that's money that stayed in the private economy at a time when the government was in surplus.

    Points three and four make a powerful impression on the mind only if you forget that privatization tripled the number of outlets. It's true that few liquor stores offer a diverse selection--most are corner shops--but we now have specialty stores and gigantic warehouse outlets where none existed before. Meanwhile, you save money on gas when you have cold beer within walking distance, to say nothing of the potential effects on the incidence of drunk driving. I challenge any liquor store in the known universe to match the beer selection available at the Chateau Louis on Kingsway, and I defy any Albertan oenophile (or any other Albertan who's not in a labour union) to tell me without laughing that things were better when the ALCB was in charge. Granted, the ALCB in its last years still had a whiff of Social Credit about it; the store hours were kept short and the locations few, and one was always made to feel as though one was stopping off at some gray edifice to perform a vaguely shameful act. In that sense, there is less for other provinces to gain from privatization.

    The SAQ price data also conflicts with the figures gathered by the Fraser Institute--pick your poison--which found that retail prices rose after privatization and then settled back down to their old levels. Since Alberta didn't privatize liquor wholesaling, any problems with pricing are arguably, and on first principles probably, attributable to the fact that we didn't go far enough. For myself, I've noticed no problems. I don't buy enough booze to be super price-sensitive; the one change I have noticed is that certain items go on sale when the private retailers want to clear out stock, so there's absolutely no question that you can drink more cheaply if your shopping tastes are even slightly elastic.

    I also had two ironically-juxtaposed letters from Newfoundlanders, no doubt readers of Damian Penny's site. One correspondent wrote:

    I spend half of each month in a small (pop. 3,500) rural Newfoundland community. The local liquor store carries a wide range of wines and spirits, which it certainly couldn't and wouldn't do if it were privatized. The demand for the more obscure or higher-priced products is small.

    I couldn't give him much in the way of personal experience, but I observed that one important effect of privatization was to vastly increase the selection available to retailers, who immediately started asking the government wholesaler for stuff the ALCB hadn't known there was a market for. I think, in fact, that Alberta's privatization was a major reason monopoly retailers like the LCBO have expanded price lists so dramatically in the last ten years: in a sense Alberta did everybody a service by taking the plunge.

  • Free John Barleycorn

    Despite his Newfoundland vantage point, Damian Penny has come up with the most succinct summary of what happened with liquor privatization in Alberta. Labour unions warned at the time that prices would soar and selection would decline; now, 12 years later, enemies of the free market complain that prices are too low and selection has improved. There is a special whimsy in watching these people travel east to warn Ontarians--whose leaders are pondering the fate of the LCBO, or pretending to--that retail privatization somehow intensified the blight in Alberta's poor urban neighbourhoods. Watch out, Toronto! Don't turn into another Medicine Hat!

    We're all a little mystified out here at why Ontarians regard a monopoly on liquor retailing as such a wonderful thing, but the LCBO actually seems to do a fairly good job at imitating a private business in its retail policies (price aside) and service practices. And perhaps its customers are comfortable susidizing the monopoly behind the monopoly--which doesn't want any change made to its happy, profitable little conspiracy with the government against drinkers. "Conspiracy" is not a word to be used lightly, but when one of the parties comes out and pretty much says "Look how much money we're squeezing out of these sodden jackasses!"--well, what else would you call it?

    - 6:37 am, January 31 (link)
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