April 19, 2005

A cup of Earl Grey, and my favourite physician...

A Tardis in a pretty landscape...

CBC Television - Doctor Who

The new British Doctor Who series is great!

I only ever saw a few of episodes from the sixties and seventies series', which used to be replayed on KVOS TV Bellingham, and thought they were pretty cheesy and corny, with lousy special effects. So, essentially, I was really in it for the theme music, which is such a signature of the series.

When the new series started being broadcast on CBC on April 9th, I wondered if it would be even cheesier, and it kind of was - and it kind of wasn't.

The first episode combined a young London girl whose boyfriemns is eaten by a plastic garbage bin, a mysterious stranger who reappears throughout history (you know who), and re-animated department store mannequins on the rampage. Yes, reanimated department store mannequins.

"Oh God," I groaned, "it's just as stupid and cheesy as the old series..."

But you know what? the FX were actually very good! And the acting was... very good! And overall, I thought it was... very good!

* sigh *

It's nice to have a new once-per-week TV obsession...

April 15, 2005

Greed and Corruption Applied Liberally, North of the Border

Prime Minister Paul Martin fends off Conservative attacks. Illustration by Patrick LeMontagne, 2004. Used with permission.
Illustration by Patrick LeMontagne, 2004.

Used with permission.

Observations on the Canadian Liberal sponsorship scandal

"A British politician is usually caught with his hand up a woman's skirt while a Canadian politician is usually caught with his hand in the till." - Sun Media columnist Valerie Gibson

These days, the media is saying that the Canadian Liberal Government is in a state of crisis. For months and months, Canadians have watched nightly as the Liberal sponsorship scandal has unfolded. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest political scandals in the last 100 years. I think it might have the potential to bring down the Canadian Liberal government. Certainly, Stephen Harper's opposition Progressive Conservative party seemed ready to circle overhead, waiting for a political opportunity.

According to a recent poll, only 25% of Canadians would support the Liberals if an election were called tomorrow. Canadians are now more concerned about government corruption in Canada (and about the sponsorship scandal in particular) than about the state of health care: it's the biggest problem on the national radar today. That's saying something, since health care was a major issue during the election that brought Paul Martin to power in 2004. Now, a year later, he's testifying at a government inquiry into corruption by members of his own party.

The story thus far...

In the mid-'90s, under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the federal Liberal government created a program to promote federalism in Quebec. This was the fed's response to growing Quebec separatist sentiment after the "Non" result from the last referendum on Quebec separatism. In that case, "Non" meant "No, we won't secede. We'll stay in Canada, for now". The federal sponsorship program was intended to allocate lots of money for advertising, trade shows and promotional activities in Quebec so that the Government could tell Quebecers how great Canada is. However, kickbacks and double billing by a small group of self-serving, greedy men turned the whole program into the biggest Canadian corruption scandal in recent years.

Now, the Gomery Commission, led by Justice John Gomery, is hearing testimony on the matter. Prime Minister Martin ordered the Gomery Commission, based upon the findings of a report from the Auditor General, Sheila Fraser. Martin is the first sitting PM to give testimony at a public inquiry since about 1873. Recently, he gave testimony regarding his knowledge of goings-on while he was the Liberal finance minister under Jean Chretien back in the '90s.

Now, Martin's minority Liberal government faces the possibility of an imminent election call, and a major loss of confidence by the Canadian public. The other parties represented in the House of Commons are the Progressive Conservatives (read: right wing), New Democratic Party (left wing), and the Bloc Quebecois (whatever is in the best interest of Quebec and French-Canadians).

Here are some of the main players and events

  • Paul Martin: Current Prime Minister of Canada, and head of the minority Liberal Government.

  • Auditor General, Sheila Fraser: Published the scathing 1994 Auditor General's report on the misuse of public funds from the Sponsorship Program, which led to the Gomery Commission.

  • Former P.M., Jean Chretien: Mr. Chretien claims no direct involvement in any wrongdoing or inappropriate activity. Mr. Chretien has a bit of history behind him - not exactly lily white history either.

  • Alfonso Gagliano: Former Head of Public Works, and close friend of former PM, Jean Chretien.

  • Chuck Guite: Liberal bureaucrat in charge of the federal sponsorship program. Alleged to have taken kickbacks in exchange for obtaining huge federal government advertising contracts for various Quebec ad firms.

  • Jean Brault: Former head of Groupaction Marketing. Charged with fraud and conspiracy, implicated senior members of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberals in kickback schemes involving sponsorship money

  • Jacques Corriveau: Another friend of ex-PM Jean Chretien, Corriveau is a graphic designer who admitted to double-billing and acting as a lobbyist for the Liberal party although he was not registered as a lobbyist (a finable offense).

How much money is involved? What is the Cost to the Canadian Tax Payer?

The sponsorship program was originally budgeted for $250 million. The Auditor General's report found that about $100 million was paid to various communications agencies in the form of fees and commissions. Thus far, the RCMP have laid specific charges in connection with about $2 million worth of contracts.

Impacts on the Canadian government and the country

In addition to the massive waste of taxpayer dollars, this scandal has also caused a huge loss of public confidence in the federal government. Opinion polls say that less than 30% of Canadians surveyed would vote for the Liberal party if an election were called tomorrow. Some federal Liberal Members of Parliament have even jumped ship to the Progressive Conservatives - which is kind of like a politician jumping from the middle-right to the farther right of the Canadian political spectrum. (For comparison, the Canadian "Conservative" political right is still a bit to the left of the American "Republican" political right. The difference between them is getting smaller and smaller each year, it seems to me...)

When Prime Minister Paul Martin came to power in 2004, he rode in with a reputation as Jean Chretien's fiscally-responsible finance minister, overseeing the largest Canadian federal budget surplus in recent times. That surplus continued to grow within the cocoon of successive Liberal majority governments, and that same cocoon gave the Liberals the leeway to make policy without the drag of a powerful opposition in the House of Commons. But, it has shown it's downside in unchecked corruption, arrogance and greed.

Oh, the Arrogance of Power...

I'd seen news reports about something called "Shawinigate", and had heard rumours about Jean Chretien being involved in some kinds of patronage or insider deals. When I heard stories about him and some corruption, I figured that he was just disliked. After all, this was a PM who didn't take crap from anybody. He described himself as "the little guy from Shawinigan", but I had also heard him called the street fighter from Shawinigan. His whole manner seemed to tell Clinton and Dubya that they could go F--- themselves. I think Dubya was really irritated by Chretien, and I liked that. Reagan's dead butt probably still has lip prints from our Conservative defac-eighties PM, Brian Mulroney. So, Chretien's arrogance looked like strength and defiance in my eyes.

Unfortunately, Chretien was similarly tough with his own countrymen. He was known to have grabbed a man by the throat when the guy got to Chretien before his own security men could during a public appearance. One comedian called this move "the Shawinigan handshake" (it's extra funny if you say it in Chretien's thick, gravelly Quebec accent.)

It is widely believed that it was Chretien's office that was responsible for ordering all that pepper spray on protesters at the 1997 APEC Conference in Vancouver. Apparently pepper spray was necessary to keep the teeming masses from embarrassing the PM when foreign leaders like Suharto come to visit. Suharto's questionable human rights record was what got the APEC protesters all worked up. When asked how he felt about the use of pepper spray on protesters, the street fighter (who had gotten the Mounties to fight in the streets for him) replied dryly, "Pepper? I put it on my plate!" What a character. (On Canadian author Will Ferguson's Bastard or Bonehead scale, Chretien rates as a definite Bastard.)

So in recent months, Paul Martin has been working hard to distance himself from allegations that, as Chretien's Finance Minister, he could not claim ignorance or lack of responsibility for the sponsorship scandal. "How could the Finance Minister NOT know about this kind of thing?" Canadians are wondering. Many people feel that the federal Liberals deserve to be booted out. Being a minority government, Martin's Liberals are not in the same powerful position that Mr. Chretien enjoyed. The voices of the Conservatives and the NDP bear a lot more weight in the House these days. The popular maxim is that a minority government is a more accountable and less arrogant government.

As of today, both Mr. Harper and Mr. Martin indicate that calls for a snap federal election or a recall of the Liberal government might have been a little bit premature. I hope they will at least wait long enough for the Gomery Inquiry to finish, but stranger things have happenned in Canadian politics.

At the moment, I want to stay idealistic, and believe that our PM has integrity and is not just trying to cover his political rear end.

Read a timeline of events, courtesy of the CBC.

More background on the individuals and companies involved is available from the CBC web site.

April 14, 2005

Sin City. Sin World. Sin Life.

Mickey Rourke as 'Marv' (Sin City)

The world of Basin City seems to exist inside a brutal extremist universe, chock full of skeletons of old pulp stereotypes which creator Frank Miller has pushed to psychopathic extremes. Frank Miller's graphic novel Sin City takes the gritty, pulp novel style of film noir and writers like Raymond Chandler, and hard-boils the values down from gritty greys to basic black and white.

In the classic detective novel "The Big Sleep", Raymond Chandler depicted a suspicious, loner gumshoe detective, lying, vindictive women and loathsome greedy criminals. Miller gleefully pumps this genre up a violent notch or ten. In his world, single-mindedly violent male anti-heroes protect or avenge scantily-clad, slutty-looking females. Horrible violence is done to innocent victims and the response of the avenger is similarly horrible. Vigilante thugs hunt down psychopathic cannibals, an idealistic, fatalist, loner cop takes on a serial rapist and a community of Rambo-style prostitutes defend their neighbourhood against the city's corrupt cops and politicians.

I read somewhere that Frank Miller grew up in Hell's Kitchen, New York, a tough place to live from the rumours I've heard. During his time writing/drawing Daredevil for Marvel, Daredevil was based in Hell's Kitchen too. I can only assume that this place has a big influence on Miller's work.

Sin City is a world in which both crime and punishment are violent and bloody. There's no trial, jury, lawyers or media. Just the vicious act, and the equally vicious vengeance.

I really like the visual, technical style of the Sin City movie, and have a great respect for Miller as an artist. From what I've seen, the Sin City graphic novel is an amazing and striking piece of work. I accepted the world of the Sin City movie while I was watching it, accepting the stereotypes, the hard core violence, the impossibly tough male heroes, and the insanely, beautifully gritty and visceral visual style of the movie. I accepted and enjoyed all of that in terms of the world Miller and Rodriguez were presenting. I think it's an ambitious and original take on violent crime drama, like Pulp Fiction's gritter, more hard core cousin. But after the lights came up and I thought about the underlying themes of it, I started to get a rather sour taste in my mouth.

In my home city of Vancouver, BC, over 60 women have gone missing from the downtown east-side since police investigations began in earnest in 2002. Physical and DNA evidence has linked over a dozen of the deaths to a pig farm owned by William Pickton. The investigation and discovery of evidence is still ongoing. This case is one of the most gruesome and infamous murder investigations in Canadian history.

In Sin City, a psychotic young male serial killer who lives on an old farm, kills, dismembers and consumes multiple female victims. This reminded me too much of what is simply referred to as "the missing women investigation" or "the Pickton case" up here in British Columbia. Our cops were picking pieces of DNA evidence out of the ground for over a year. The similarity between this movie and what has happened within 20 kilometers of my own neighbourhood might seem surface and coincidental, but I found myself feeling very pissed off when the words "murdered women" and "farm" crossed my ears in the movie theatre. The thing is, most of the women in "Sin City" are prostitutes. That one-dimensional characterization of women as either defenseless victims or prostitutes seems shallow and pathetic at best.

I totally get that this is the genre that Miller is using. I'm a huge fan of James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, and his 50's style of Anglo sexism and racism is part of his own culture and steeps into the world of his characters. I still disagree with it personally, but accept it as part of the makeup of the creator's outlook or intended message.

Many of the women who have gone missing from Vancouver, I think the ones whose DNA was found on the Pickton pig farm, were also prostitutes. The fate of at least 15 women were discovered this way. Local public opinion has said that the investigation of the missing women case would have progressed further and faster if the victims had not been sex workers. So, Miller's scuzzy, depraved-looking vision of the role of women in Sin City resonates in my gut as a painfully negative image.

The Clown Prince...

Miller's ground-breaking 1991 graphic novel, "The Dark Knight Returns" brought Batman, Robin and The Joker back to life in another gritty world where an aging and out-of-touch Batman must take on the tactics of his villians in order to defeat (or at least outlive) them, and reclaim his identity as Gotham's resident anti-hero.

Resembling Batman's arch-nemesis more and more, that white-skinned, red-lipped media freakshow known in the U.K. as "Jacko", has now gone from being the self-proclaimed King of Pop to become our collective Clown Prince of Pedophilia. I so badly want to spit in Jackson's fake face the same way The Dark Knight's Batman spat in the Joker's face after the villian died in their last encounter.

Is our collective interest in (and seeming approval of) violent anti-heros an appropriate reaction to the violence of the real world? I don't have an answer for this, but it's the closest thing I can think of for rationalization. All I know is I still feel kind of pissed off, and Sin City, although beautiful, just made me madder.

April 08, 2005

"Little Guy" and "Homeless Dude"

There's this homeless man I call "the little guy". He's about 5 foot 4, with red hair and a beard. He always seems to have red marks or sores on his face and forehead. What strikes me about him the most is his hesitant, almost deferential body language. He stoops, has a little trouble making eye contact, and can be hard to hear over the noise of the street traffic. He seems like a harmless, gentle person.

A number of months ago, I saw him at Stadium SkyTrain Station, and he announced that he was going to go to his friend's apartment that evening to eat sandwiches and watch some colour TV. He seemed very happy about it, and it made me happy for him. I told him to have a good time, and he said "Oh, I will!"

A while ago, outside a Starbucks coffee shop, I gave the little guy my Starbucks card and some change. He told me he really likes coffee and sweet things. "It gives me a boost without getting me all full".

He told me he used to be a houseman at some big hotels, which he named, but I cannot recall. I pictured him in a uniform going from room to room, cleaning up, having friends among his coworkers, and getting a regular paycheque, while working inside where it's warm and dry.

The last time I saw him, he was about a half block ahead of me on Beatty street in the Yaletown area of Vancouver. He was wandering in front of the Terry Fox memorial, towards BC Place Stadium. He stopped a few feet in front of a woman who was walking her kids home. I could see his hands palms-up in front of him and knew he was telling her his story and asking for spare change in his quiet voice. She glanced at him for just a second looking either concerned or afraid, and then kept on walking away. Some days are better than others.

* * * * *

One Homeless guy I usually see at Stadium Station is a black guy I have been chatting with for the last couple of years. I cannot recall his name. He told me he's originally from back east, like Ontario or somewhere. My wife and I just refer to him as "Homeless Dude at Stadium Station".

For the first year and a half, he seemed to be ailing with a spectacularly runny nose. He said he had a lot of trouble with inflammed tissues in his nose. I saw him looking rather dusty or powdery on at least one occassion. Combined with the raw running or bleeding nose, I can only guess at what he was into.

Some days he was quite lucid, and other days, not at all. One time, he went on to me about God, and quoted a bunch of things from the bible, and a few things that I think he may have made up. He might have claimed to be Jesus' brother James or someone like that. I thought it was nice that he was finding some comfort in religion, although he seemed far too agitated about it.

This past winter, we had some extremely cold sub-zero nights, and I noticed that between Christmas Eve and late January, I didn't see this guy at all. I had started to wonder if he'd died or something, when I saw him sitting in a wheelchair at Stadium Station one day day in early February. He told me he'd sufferred frostbite from sleeping outside and had almost lost a bunch of toes. I told him that aside from that (which I said I was very sorry to hear), he looked quite well. I noted how his eyes looked whiter and less cloudy than they had, and his nose wasn't running at all. I figure he must have gone through some detox when in the hospital. He said he felt a lot better now.

The other day, I saw him sitting in his wheelchair at Stadium Station, laughing to himself. He told me that he was just sitting there thinking his own thoughts and enjoying watching all the people go by.

He told me that he still wasn't sure if he'd be able to keep his toes or not. The doctor told him that they had to heal more before they could decide. He thought maybe one of them was almost dead already. It had been frozen right up to the top knuckle. Now, he wears these little thick red slippers instead of shoes, presumably because his feet are still covered in bandages.

It was a sunny and relatively warm spring day. I think he could have lost his life on the streets. Compared to that, it's better to just lose a toe.