Dispatch from the Front Lines: Mélanie and Marco get creative!
Health care collapse. Lucki remains unlucky. Listicles aren't the same as a functioning country. And more!
Happy Saturday, Line readers. We hope you’re having a wonderful weekend. Before we get into the dispatch, and it’s a meaty one today, we want to just toot our own horn here for a minute. We didn’t plan it this way, but it occurred to us on Friday that for the last two weeks, every bylined contributor to The Line has been a woman. It is overwhelmingly true in our line of work that the massive majority of our unsolicited submissions are from men, predominately white men. Further, the demographics of the industry are such that when we turn to experienced veterans and ask for a piece on a topic de jour, they are more likely than not to also be white men.
We’re absolutely delighted to have been able to, quite by accident, turn The Line over to the ladies for the last few weeks. If you don’t mind our saying so, we think they did a hell of a job with it.
Please enjoy this week's gender-balanced Line editors' video.
In October of last year, back when it was not quite clear yet what was going to happen with inflation, Line editor Matt Gurney spoke with Trevor Tombe, an economist at the University of Calgary, to ask for a basic primer on inflation. Anyone in this country much below the age of 45 has no living memory of it, having only experienced it as children. Tombe was incredibly generous with his time and answered all of our questions. On top of that, he’s a hell of a guy. We at The Line have nothing bad to say about him.
In fact, we’re here to praise him today, although our praise may take an unusual form. Gurney asked him during their interview about the worrying pattern in recent years of experts and leaders being wrong when assuring us that public concerns about a given threat were unwarranted. Tombe acknowledged the danger, but still had a fairly sunny view, overall, of the risk of inflation.
And, well, yeah. In a recent piece at The Hub, Tombe is now acknowledging that he was wrong about inflation. He underestimated the risk. It's worse than he thought.
We really, really hope this doesn’t sound like a churlish spiking of a football, because we’re trying to make the opposite point. What Tombe did is exactly what we would hope for from any professional. No one bats a thousand in life. Everybody gets stuff wrong. Most people, if forced by fact, can admit to being wrong. That’s the easy part. What Tombe did was the hard part. In his article, he examined what his assumptions had been, how reality diverged from them, and he offered analysis on what that means both for the inflation we have already seen and that we may see moving forward.
This is exactly how it should be done. This is how the free exchange of ideas is supposed to work. Check out his piece. It's why we'll continue to trust him on these matters — he's not infallible, but he's honest, and that's all we can ask of him. It’s also what we promise all of you. We won’t be perfect. But we’ll be honest.
Okay, let’s talk about the health-care system.
We don’t talk about health-care systems a ton at The Line. Gerson and Gurney are both obviously familiar with the circumstances in their own provinces, but details and specifics about health-care systems vary sufficiently by province that we don’t generally talk about it from a top-down, national level. There really isn’t a "Canadian" health-care system. Only in the most basic and abstract terms is it useful to think of it or refer to it in that way.
We’re bending that rule today simply to note that we have massive problems with health care in this country right now. The details are a bit different in every jurisdiction. In Ontario, for instance, things seem to be very bad indeed, and that isn’t surprising. Our most-populous province left itself a sitting duck for any unexpected public-health emergency through years and years of chronically underfunding a system that was far too small to meet the needs of its growing population. While Ontario may be in particularly rough shape, things aren’t going well anywhere. A quick gander at the headlines from the leading newspapers in any province will show you similar stories about procedures being delayed, or hospital emergency rooms closed, due to critical shortages of key staff (largely though not exclusively nurses).
This is not being directly caused by COVID-19. What we mean by that is that our hospitals are not reeling under the strain of an influx of critically ill COVID patients, as they were earlier in the pandemic. COVID remains a challenge for the health-care system. It is a nasty virus that is circulating in the population, generating a higher baseline level of serious illness than we would be dealing with had COVID-19 never emerged in the first place. But it is not that added pressure that is bringing down the system, per se. It’s a contributing factor, along with the inevitable and yet somehow unplanned-for burden of an aging boomer demographic, a tsunami of serious illnesses made worse by lack of access to routine diagnostics and care during the worst of the pandemic, as well as lower health-care system capacity due to departures and burn out of exhausted frontline medical personnel.
It’s a grim situation, made more grim by the fact that there are no easy fixes. Throwing more money at this will help, because money has a way of doing that, but the fundamental issue is constraints on the system in terms of its physical and human infrastructure. Money can fix those problems, sure, but only on a timescale of years. It takes years to train a new nurse, years for them to become sufficiently experienced to fulfill the most critical duties, and years further to take experienced nurses and bump up their education and qualifications for the most senior roles. Doctors don't seem as critically short, but there are capacity issues there as well, and you all know how long it takes to graduate a new doctor and train them up. We could relieve a considerable portion of the burden on our hospitals if we had much more capable long-term-care and rehabilitation systems, not to mention expanded community care options, that kept people out of hospitals in the first place, or gave them a place to transfer into on a timely basis once sufficiently recovered in a hospital. But the constraints there are similar, and will also need years to address. We need many more facilities, and many more staff to operate them.
It’s not that these problems are unsolvable. No magic is required to build new facilities and train workers to run them. It takes time and money. Money we have, though less of it than we’d like. Time we don’t have, but there’s nothing we can do about that except cope as best we can.
Solutions, though, also need political will, and a degree of societal maturity about having difficult conversations and making tough choices. Uh oh. Health care is woven tightly in with our sense of national identity. The first step of fixing any problem is admitting it exists, and we really don’t think we have gotten there yet — everyone will agree there is a problem, but too much of that recognition is still wrapped in soothing delusions about this crisis being either exclusively the fault of the pandemic or easily blamed on a nasty conservative politician or two.
The pandemic was a disaster. Many of our premiers, conservatives and otherwise, did make bad choices that made things worse, and continue to make things worse. These are facts. We should acknowledge them. But until we acknowledge broader, structural problems in Canadian health care — it is a horrifically expensive, inefficient and (by useful international comparisons) utterly mediocre system that we have invested far too much national pride into to ever discuss rationally and reasonably — there will be no public or political willingness or ability to begin to fix it.
So do as we are doing: try to make a lot of money and figure out which American for-profit hospital is most convenient for you.
In other news, we at The Line admit to sharing a good, deep, hearty chuckle at the news that Hockey Canada would hire former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to lead a review into its governance structure. You may recall that the organization is knee-deep in the shit after news that it has paid out millions in sexual assault lawsuits.
We know that the organization is taking its issues seriously — or, at least, wants everybody to believe that they're taking them seriously — because they've done what every organization in trouble does when it gets into real trouble. They stuck a Supreme Court Justice on it.
Or, as our friend Lorrie Goldstein put it:
This is getting to be a bit of a habit, isn't it?
We mean, is a former Supreme Court justice really the best person to help Hockey Canada review its governance structure? Wouldn't an HR professional with experience in managing sexual assault files, or a lawyer who focuses on non-profit governance, be better suited for that kind of job?
So why lean on a retired Supreme Court Justice? We think to ask the question is to answer it. Because the Supreme Court is an institution with a high degree of credibility, and Hockey Canada knows very well that they can piggyback on that credibility to launder their institutional problems.
We don't think Supreme Court justices should be freelancing in this way because it can only undermine trust in the court in the long run to see people like Beverley McLachlin rent her once-stellar reputation out to China by way of Hong Kong. Or to see the late Peter Cory give an "unconditional commendation and formal recognition of the financial diligence demonstrated by both ME to We and We Charity" in the midst of that organization's scandals. Or to see headlines like: "How 4 ex-Supreme Court justices got caught up in SNC-Lavalin affair."
The Supreme Court has a stellar reputation among Canadians for a reason. We trust it to be staffed by the very best this country has to offer; by people of not only impeccable ethics and credentials, but also of personal integrity. We also expect our justices to be smart — at least savvy enough not to let themselves get exploited.
Of late, our faith in this bunch is being far too regularly challenged. And, frankly, it makes us think that the Americans might be onto something with lifetime appointments to the bench. Either die at the top, or spend your golden years on the golf course, guys.
Let’s take a minute here and discuss everyone’s favourite topic for a lazy summer weekend: guns!
Late last week, the federal government announced that it intends to roll out via some kind of executive order a prohibition on the importation of handguns into Canada. Up until very recently (technically for two more weeks), handguns, though regulated, could be imported by gun stores and then sold to properly licensed individuals. As part of their so-called “freeze“ on handgun ownership in the country, the Liberals had said they plan to pass legislation effectively zeroing out those imports, with some very, very narrow exceptions. Rather than wait to pass the legislation through normal processes and methods, the Liberals now say they will be using an executive order, likely an order-in-council through the cabinet, to accomplish the same thing on a temporary basis, with full legislation to come later.
The first point, which we’ve made many times before — sigh, so many times — is that this is entirely political theatre aimed at shoring up Liberal political fortunes in key urban and suburban ridings. This will have negligible public safety benefits, at best. Gun crime in this country is overwhelmingly the fault of organized criminal groups and gangs, using firearms smuggled easily across the U.S. border. The Liberals know full well that what they are proposing will have no real impact on violent crime in Canada, which is why they’ve been so lackadaisical over the years about actually doing anything. The Liberals talk about guns a lot and trickle out announcements any time there’s some big high-profile disaster (their "military-style assault rifles ban" came right after the Nova Scotia massacre, the latest handgun announcement after the debacle in Uvalde, Texas). But nothing they are proposing today couldn’t have been done seven years ago. The Liberals' use of firearms policy as a political wedge, admittedly an effective one, has scaled up in direct line with their growing political woes anywhere outside their safest ridings in the biggest cities.
They pretend otherwise, which always gives us a laugh. For all they like to bemoan misinfo and disinfo, even seeking to regulate the internet so that they may combat it on our behalf, they fling bullshit with the best of them when they think there’s another fraction of a percentage point of electoral support to be had somewhere in the 905. This week, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino continued his depressingly casual assault on the truth when he said that the import freeze would immediately begin bringing down the number of handguns in Canada. It won’t, of course. It will begin bringing down the number of handguns legally owned by carefully vetted law-abiding collectors and target shooters, who are among the safest citizens in our society, with consistently low rates of committing violent crime. The number of actual handguns smuggled into the country for use by criminals will continue to grow. The minister somehow forgot to mention that during his remarks.
But we also had a funny comment made by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. Joly is already having herself a little bit of a week. At the gun-control announcement, she enthused that the idea for the executive order sprang out of a conversation between her and Mendicino: "Working with Marco, we came up with this idea of creating this new system of requiring permits, but meanwhile, we will deny any permits from any commercial entity or people wanting to bring handguns to Canada," Joly said. "So this is how creatively we've worked, and that's why we're talking today about an import ban."
What’s so delightful about that comment is what it unintentionally reveals. The Liberals like to pretend that all their gun-control plans are just a gradual, thoughtful, evidence-based process. And then the Foreign Affairs minister, a woman whose staff seems to be make a habit of not telling her anything important lest it confuse her, moseys on up to a microphone and casually mentions that a major gun-control measure, using powers well within their legal rights since they were first elected, will be rolled out this month after the idea popped into their heads during a recent gab sesh.
We’ve been arguing for years that the Liberals make this stuff up whenever they see political opportunity. We’re pleasantly surprised to see Joly confirm that for us. They’re winging it, relying on their creativity rather than their, uh, well-established powers and jurisdictional authority. Okay!
Somewhat related to the above, we want to get readers caught up on developments in the controversy over RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. Readers looking for a primer on the basics should read this by Stephen Maher, as well as two weekly dispatches we wrote, first this one, then this one, which tracks later developments. The core of the controversy is this: shortly after the Nova Scotia massacre in April of 2020, Lucki had a teleconference with local RCMP officials and civilian staff. The meeting was unpleasant; Lucki has already acknowledged behaving badly and has apologized. But the allegations go further than simple rudeness: two participants in the meeting (among the local personnel) both accused Lucki of pressuring them to speed up the release of information concerning the firearms used in the attacks. They also noted that Lucki herself linked this pressure to her having promised then-public-safety minister Bill Blair that those details would be out in time for the Liberals to make an announcement of the above-mentioned rifle restrictions. Lucki was being pressured by the boss, they claimed she said.
Blair denied this. In recent testimony, he denied it again. We are skeptical. These Liberals aren't exactly the sort of fellows who'd take maximum care to observe procedural niceties — things like a firm separation between police investigations and partisan political agendas — when they sniff any political advantage. But that's admittedly just speculation — there is no evidence that Blair or Trudeau (or any of their proxies) leaned on Lucki.
Lucki tried to sort all this out, blaming it all on ... you guessed it! ... bad communications. She says the whole thing stems from her having told Blair that the gun info would be released, and being upset to later discover that she'd given him erroneous information. That's ... a stretch, for reasons we'll get into in a minute. But the basic crux of the controversy remains whether Lucki was pressuring the officers. If not, there's no problem. If yes, then we need to know why.
Lucki insists, no, she wasn't. But in language so ludicrously precise that her denials read more to us as confessions.
Take this from Lucki: "I was not directed to publicly release information about weapons used by the perpetrator to help advance pending gun control legislation."
Sure. But were you pressured? Was it hinted? In the aftermath of a disastrously poor showing by the RCMP during the attacks, did Lucki try to find any way to curry favour with displeased bosses and pick up on their hope that getting this info being out would be handy?
Or take this. Conservative MP Raquel Dancho asked Lucki, "[Local RCMP commander] Darren Campbell said that you specifically said you promised. You're saying, 'Maybe I did, but I definitely said I confirmed to the minister....'"
To which Lucki replied: "I may have said that, but it wasn't the context. If Darren Campbell put that in his notes, I'm not going to question his notes. What I'm saying, though, is my intention was not .... It wasn't a promise in the traditional sense. It was confirming the answer to a question."
What the hell is a promise "in the traditional sense"? Does it involve an exchange of rings and heartfelt speeches from close friends and family? A Klingon palm-slicing ceremony? Does it need an ordained minister present, or will a justice of the peace suffice?
We could go on, but the fact of the matter remains that if Lucki was leaning on officers to release info that was germane to an ongoing active investigation, that's a problem. And the bigger problem is that she linked her pressure to a forthcoming political announcement about gun control.
There's no way around that point. Lucki has confirmed that she did indeed "link" the release of the info to the upcoming announcement. Other RCMP officials testifying that day confirmed that they had no idea that a gun-ban announcement was coming until Lucki brought it up at the meeting.
And that's the problem for Lucki. She can't explain that away as a communication problem. She was telling her officers, in the midst of an active investigation, that there was a political announcement coming, and there is no reason for her to have done this except to pressure them to help it along.
That’s wildly inappropriate. Her carefully worded answers can't get around this. In a country where accountability existed as a real-life thing, she'd have resigned weeks ago.
We try to avoid spending too much time on Twitter nowadays, but we've noticed a trend emerge on the site that irks us. It's not new, exactly, but it seems to have become a favoured rhetorical tactic among Liberals and their apologists. And as it touches on virtually all of the blurbs above, it’s worth noting.
We'll call it Rebuttal by Listicle, and it works a little like this: rather than actually engage with critiques of the country or the government, partisans will simply post random rankings that show Canada is at the top of some subjective set of metrics like "freedom" or "quality of life."
Because these listicles look impressive and official, the partisans in question can treat them with the weight of proven scientific truth. Canada's great! Look, the list proves it! Them’s the facts!
We have three major problems with this rhetorical tactic.
The first is optics: Please tell the couple priced out of the housing market in every major urban centre, the one that is now worried about the grocery bill, can't fill the car with gas, and frets about heating costs next winter, that none of these problems really matter. That they should just be grateful and happy with this definitely not-broken country because Canada scored well in a ranking compiled by an intern at an American newspaper. Show the lists to the person suffering a lingering illness, with no family doctor, in a town where the ER is closed, and wait patiently for their enthusiastic high five.
You want to guarantee Prime Minister Poilievre, this is the way to go about it: smarmily dismissing legitimate grievances and concerns by tweeting a list and calling it a day.
And, of course that's presuming the ranking was subject to even a moderate degree of fact checking, logic, or scientific scrutiny goes into these rankings at all.
Let's look a little more carefully at the ones posted by former Trudeau senior aide Gerry Butts, shall we?
He has a whole thread devoted to cherry picking Canada-topping rankings compiled by something called The World Index. What is The World Index? Well, we don't know, Bob. The Twitter bio says: "Know the world.Focus on economics,art & culture, science,technology,sports,travel,politics [stet] and military affairs." Okay. The only website listed takes us to an Instagram account with 37 followers.
The list above, in which Canada hits #1 for Best Countries for Quality of Life, 2021, is from U.S. News & World Report, an American media company. We checked out their methodology for the 2021 survey, and this is what we found: it’s a survey of 17,000 people, run by an academic. What’s being surveyed? Glad you asked! “Participants assessed how closely they associated an attribute with a nation.” You’ll be thrilled to note that these 17,000 people around the globe gave Canada near perfect scores on being “not bureaucratic,” and having a “well developed public health system,” “well-distributed political power,” and “transparent government practices.” (Lol, *dies inside*.)
Hey, it’s great that people associate Canada with being awesome, but we hope that when Liberals talk about “evidence-based policies,” they are using actual, you know, evidence, not just rankings by survey participants.
Let's take a closer look at a weird smash-up tweet from Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen.
Again, it looks like it's just a bunch of lazily photoshopped lists from "The World Index" with questionable sourcing. The one that really caught our eye was the list of "Most Transparent Countries," also from U.S. News & World Report. Seeing Canada ranked as the world's "Most Transparent Country" is enough to send this country's journalists for a long walk headlong into an oncoming train. From the lack of openness in our parliamentary committees and the habitual silence from our police forces, to our totally broken access to information processes, Canada has to actually be one of the least transparent liberal democracies in the world.
Anyway, we checked the methodology for that survey too. Yep. Again, it’s perception-based. Liberals are touting Canada’s performance based on how transparent people think we are. Perfect. Just perfect. (Also, we dropped into second-place last year, but we guess Gerretsen liked the 2020 result more. How transparent!)
We're not going to argue that all rankings of this nature are invalid or useless. There are credible organizations that do try to quantify difficult-to-measure areas like "infrastructure" or "quality of life" so that countries can see how they are holding up relative to their comparable peers. But any kind of ranking of this sort is going to be subject to a host of subjective factors. Which is why any credible think tank publishing such a ranking will show their work, demonstrating how they weighted those factors.
One such example of this would be the Human Development Index, a statistical composite used to gauge a country's state of overall development. It's published in the Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme. This one is interesting, we'll note, because Canada ranked 16th in the 2020 report, an entirely middling score for a rich country. It's even more striking when you compare our performance to historical rankings. Canada used to top the HDI — back in the '90s. We've been steadily slipping in the field relative to our peers since 2000.
Which brings us to the third reason we find Rebuttal by Listicle so profoundly irksome. There is no dispute that Canada remains one of the best countries in the world in which to live. But what benefits we enjoy have largely been inherited. Meanwhile, we have been witnessing a steady erosion in a large number of areas that can generally be summed up as "institutional capacity." As a result, we have less ability to manage crises, make rapid changes to government problems, and solve major complicated issues than we require in order address the problems of the future. Problems that are rapidly growing into existential crises.
Is this solely the Liberals' fault? Certainly not. But we don't see them doing very much to even acknowledge these problems, much less fix them. Maybe those rankings are worse than bullshit: maybe they allow our governments to settle into a comfortable and complacent state of steady decay. At the very least, Rebuttal by Listicle indicates to us that they would rather huff the fumes of the past than face the problems of today.
Alright, folks. Have a wonderful weekend!
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter, we guess, @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org.