Canadian Elections Explained. Mostly.


Being very sensibly immersed in summer, you may not have heard the most recent political news: Canadians are preparing for a federal election for this autumn.

This is almost unheard of here, as political parties usually have the good sense to call fall elections in the… you know… fall. However, the incumbent party apparently wants to make Canadians hate democracy with a blind fury, and plans to make this happen by inflicting more than 100 days of campaigning on them.

I know from my own experience as an outsider looking at the American or European Union situations that the politics of another country or group can be … puzzling sometimes. So today I offer you this primer on the Canadian political system.

Parliament: Where the Canadian government sits in Ottawa, Ontario. This is large, old and imposing brick building with a high fence at the front, and a nasty drop into a cold river at the back; it is covered by several feet of snow at least eight months a year. We sentence 300+ people to work, eat, and breathe there for terms of up to five years, and wonder why they come back changed men and women.

Member of Parliament: This is a local person who has been convinced to run for a seat in the government. Like in any other democracy, Canadians will plant lawn signs, canvass, campaign, and rally around their chosen victim until election day. After that, they regard him or her as a “politician,” to be muttered about darkly in the coffee shops.

Opposition: The parties that fail to form the government collectively form what is known as the Opposition. They get to second guess and criticize the government’s every move, which makes their jobs way more fun and less work than actually governing. See also Armchair General, Monday Morning Quarterback and Movie Critic.

Question Period: A period of time every day that parliament is in session, where the government and especially the Prime Minister must face the Opposition and answer questions about its policies and conduct. Americans should try this some time.

Lawn Sign: Candidates typically go to great trouble and expense to get supporters to place partisan signs on their lawns. This is probably a singularly ineffective way to advertise because,

A) Someone who is committed enough to put up a lawn sign is already going to vote for you;

B) Anyone who is undecided will be further confused by a walk through any average neighbourhood: “Oh look! A Liberal sign. Maybe I’ll vote Liberal. Wait! A Conservative sign. Perhaps I’ll vote Conservative. Hang on! A New Democratic Party sign. Think I’ll vote NDP. Whoa! Another Liberal sign. Maybe I’ll vote Liberal.” And finally,

C) This being an autumn election, most of the signs will be buried in the snow across much of the country by polling day anyway.

Door-to-Door Canvassing: Another dubious campaign strategy is going door-to-door. Typically a campaigner will knock on your door, shake your hand, and say something like, “I’m Joe Blow, and I’d like your vote this October.” This year, candidates will likely say, “I’m Joe Blow, and I’m really, really desperate for a new pair of runners. Mine gave out six weeks ago.” Or they may say, “Mm! Mmm mmph mmmph mmm!” because they’re bundled up in a toque, scarf, mittens, earmuffs and a parka.

Door-to-Door II: Whether or not it’s a good time of year, Canadians still value a personal visit and a handshake from the local candidates. This is just one of the many unreasonable expectations we have for our politicians. My riding, for example, has 106,144 people it, which means the local candidate would have to shake something like 1800 hands a day to meet everyone, or die trying. The riding of Nunavut, meanwhile, has only 26,745 people – which might make a personal visit doable, if only the riding wasn’t 2,093,190 kilometers squared in size.

Bad Seasonally-Themed Political Writing: From a voter perspective, the only thing worse than facing a polling day blizzard will be enduring the bad thematic political writing. Look for headlines like: “A Fall for Harper?” or “Opposition Wants To Rake In The Votes ” or “Who Will Exit First: The Maple Leafs or NDP?”

Photo credit: RouxRoundel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Time and Again


It’s August. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you know that means it’s 35C (95 F) outside. Unless you’re in Europe right now, in which case you don’t know how hot it is because all the thermometers are under water. As is your house, your car and your office building.

Anyway, because it’s boiling out, officials have once again released their hot weather advisory: you’re instructed to take in plenty of fluids, stay indoors, and turn off the air conditioner.

Yes, you read that right. Energy managers were absolutely shocked to discover that power usage has gone through the roof this month. So they’ve asked everyone to please just stop using electricity.

“We just cannae take much more of this!” said Ontario Hydro chief engineer Jimmy Doohan, in a recent interview. “Our dilithium crystals are gaen to blow, laddie!”

If this were a one time request or a special circumstance, I wouldn’t mind shutting off a few lights and such, to ease the strain on the system. However, I don’t know about your local utility, but mine has been completely surprised, stunned and flabbergasted by August power usage, every year, since about, oh, 500 BC. You’d think by now they’d have say, a backup plan, or something.

Of course, these are the same people who are totally surprised by snow.

In Canada.

In February.

“We cannae do it!” said Chief Snowplough Driver Montgomery Scot in an interview last winter. “If we keep up this speed we’re gaen to blow up!

All right, maybe I’m being a little hard on my regional administrators. After all, humans have a long history of unexpecting the expected. For example, in my copy of the “Big Book of Bad Plannin-” (they ran out of room for the title), there’s evidence to suggest unpreparedness started as early as the cave days. Here’s one cave painting, translated:

CRO: Wot you say we put campsite here?
MAG: But isn’t dis in path of annual mammoth stampede?
NON: Don’t be silly. Dat only happen last year. And year before.
CRO: Wot dat noise?
[Thunder of several thousand large animals approaching]
MAG: Argh!
NON: Eeeg!
CRO: Oogh!

Fast forward several hundred years, and things hadn’t improved much during the time of the Roman empire.

CAESAR: I say we move all our armies to the eastern front.
GAIUS: But sir! Don’t you think the Gauls will revolt again this year, like they have every spring?
CAESAR: Nonsense, whatever makes you think that?
LEGIONARY: Ave! Caesar, there is some fellow named Asterix here to see you?
CAESAR: Let him in.
[pow! crash! biff! smack!]
CAESAR: Oh, I die! Fac ut nemo me vocet.*
(*Latin for: Hold all my calls.)

We hadn’t even smartened up by the Middle Ages:

PONTIUS: Ho! Geoffrey! What dost thou think of my political speech?
GEOFFREY: Read it to me.
PONTIUS: Gentlefolk: I thinketh that ye olde Archbishop ist a weenie…
GEOFFREY: Hark! Look at that sundial! Methinks it is time to go. Anon. Alack. Etc.
[running away]
INQUISITION: Mr. Pontius? Come with us, please.

I’m not sure why humans are so bad at planning for the future, especially for those things we can predict. But, I can think of three reasons: 1) Humans are basically just dorks. 2) Nobody takes history class in high school anymore, so we’re doomed to repeat ourselves endlessly or 3) We’re too easily distracted.

If number three is the case, it’s only going to get worse. Because with computers and the Internet, attention spans have decreased to the point that… oh, look! Here’s an email from my cousin Joe.

…Where was I? Oh yes, so what’s the solution? Well, maybe everyone should start by doing some advanced planning in their own lives. Figure out what you want to be doing next week. Next month. Next year. Heck, even next decade.

How can you go about doing that? Gee, I really don’t know.

I never thought to research that far ahead for this column.


Photo Credit: “Field of sunflowers” by I, BenAveling. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Don’t Worry, Be Happy*

Photo Credit: Américo Nunes via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Américo Nunes via Wikimedia Commons

(*Some geographical restrictions may apply)

Some time ago, the University of Leicester released what was dubbed the ‘world’s first happiness map.’ Several variations have since been produced by other organizations.

The original, produced by Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist, was the result of reviewing data published by several organizations like UNESCO and the WHO (the organization, not Pete Townsend’s band). Participants in the various studies had been asked questions related to happiness and their overall satisfaction with life.

The map is surprising for many reasons. The first is that the study author resisted using stacked happy face icons to illustrate levels of happiness on the map. The second is that there is no longer something rotten in the state of Denmark (sorry, Shakespeare), as it was the happiest place on Earth. Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Finland, Sweden, Bhutan, Brunei and Canada rounded out the top ten.

The unhappiest places on Earth were the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Burundi. I suspect there are a few other places on Earth that might rank as even unhappier, but potential respondents are too busy avoiding bombs to answer surveys.

So what makes a country’s citizens happy? It’s an important question, as governments have started looking at happiness as a potential measure of a country’s well-being as well as GDP. (GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, which is private consumption + government + investment + net exports. It is not, as any new mother might surmise, something your baby produces). Adrian White suggested that happiness is associated with health, followed by wealth and then education. Of course, I think there are several other reasons to explain why some countries are happier than others.

Switzerland obviously ranks well because of one thing: Swiss chocolate.

As for the other countries in the top ten, you will note they are primarily northern countries with cold climates. Colder climates make for happier people because:

1. Good weather is so rare that when it does happen, we really, really appreciate it.
2. Cold weather makes for better hockey. And there’s nothing like watching 10 men or women with blades on their feet and big sticks fighting over a puck to get your aggressions out.
3. Cold weather also reduces the number of nasty, poisonous things wandering about the countryside. I’m quite happy that the local swimming pool doesn’t have to be checked for water snakes, and that I don’t have to arm wrestle the spiders that sometimes invade my house.

The US, in spite of famous documents talking about the right to pursue happiness, isn’t quite as chipper as you might expect, coming in as it did at 23. Apart from war woes, one suspects US happiness levels drop every time former President Bush speaks goes abroad. This is because Americans fear that if he gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the same impromptu shoulder massage he gave Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin would judo fling him across the room and geopolitics as we know it would go all to hell.

Australia, coming in at 26, was obviously somewhat miffed that I made fun of their winter sports aspirations a few weeks ago. France, meanwhile, came in at 62nd in world happiness, which just goes to show that while French women may not get fat, they’re not exactly thrilled about being thin either.

Japan was astonishingly low in the rankings as well, coming in at 90. According to Naomi Moriyama, Japanese women don’t get old *or* fat, so I’m not sure why the Japanese aren’t happier. On the other hand, anyone who has seen an episode of The Iron Chef will know that the Japanese have an entirely different perspective on what’s funny and entertaining than we do here in the west.

China, India and Russia all scored near the bottom of the list too, which is odd, considering that these countries are on their way up the world economic and status scales. White suggests that big countries and/or big populations reduce happiness, but personally, I think there can only be one explanation: my work hasn’t yet been translated into Chinese, Indian and Russian languages yet. I must see someone about this.