Sunday, March 12, 2017

Nanaimo's downtown

Great that the "No-to-the $80-million-arena" side won Nanaimo's referendum yesterday--and won so decisively (80% against!).

But what should we do with that downtown site--and the downtown generally? The idea that City Council had shelved of a Granville-Island style market, plus a fair bit of housing, plus waterfront walkway would be a great start. So would a foot ferry to Vancouver--that's definitely something worth the city subsidizing to at least some extent. Persuading someone to re-open a downtown movie theatre (with cafe and bookshop attached) would help. And beyond that? Make (well advertized) extended free parking available a couple of blocks away from the downtown on some of what are now vacant lots. Invest further in live theatre and live music. To the extent that we emphasize tourism, encourage visitors to come over from Vancouver and buy antiques and works of art (including native art!) --not cruise ships that people get off of for a few hours to buy trinkets. Carry through with the idea of extending the waterfront walkway to Departure Bay. Have a little shuttle bus constantly going back and forth between the centre of downtown on Commercial and the old railway station in the Old City Quarter--and a similar bus doing the same between Commercial and the university, to bring the students downtown.

The downtown currently has far more plusses than people give it credit for--real character along Commercial and the Old City Quarter, some decent shops and and restaurants (and cafes), decent live music. And great views too!

If we invest in making the downtown more livable, more people will want to live there--and that's a better investment than cruise ships and conference centres that bring one-time-only visitors, or none at all. Plus, as Richard Florida showed decades ago, investing in the culture of a city draws new business more effectively than anything else.

So far as hotels go, let's encourage modest-sized proposals for this modest-sized city--not out-sized projects that would depend on a continual stream of package tours from overseas. A good example is the one that's just been put forward for a six-story hotel at Front and Chapel ( I love that it includes a top-floor bar that would be open to locals who want to take in the great view over a beer, not just to hotel guests.

Investing in the culture of a city can include sports too--but let's do that smartly, and within our means. As the example of the Vancouver Canadians has shown, the experience of a sports event is at least as important as the level of league play. The Canadians play in a Single A short-season league--i.e., at the lowest minor league level. But because the stadium has character and the experience is made fun, people love it--and it really does add to the character of that city. We already have a decent hockey arena and a team in a league at a decent level (for our sized city); we really don't need the WHL. But what about investing, say, $5 million or $10 million to upgrade Saurauxmen Stadium so we could get a Single A baseball team in Nanaimo? That stadium already has real character--and a history (Mickey Mantle was there at the opening). Portand built a brand new Triple A baseball stadium for $15 million; we could do an awful lot to improve Saurauxmen with $5 or $10 million, attract a low-level minor league pro baseball team--and have a better sports culture year-round (not just in hockey season). Sports venues don't need to be in the centre of downtown blocking the view--and they don't need to cost $80 million!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Obituary: Daniel F . Vickers

The Globe and Mail is publishing today a slightly edited version of this obituary, which I sent in to them shortly after Danny died. I'm grateful to the paper for not trimming much, but I thought I would post the full thing here for those who may be interested. There's no way to express fully how endlessly sad it is that he has died.
In one of the best-known scenes from the acclaimed 1997 film Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) defends a friend who’s being ridiculed by a pretentious Harvard graduate student. The topic is early American history: as the grad student starts to argue that, in his view, historians have greatly underestimated the impact of inherited wealth in early America, Will interrupts to suggest that the idea is not in fact the grad student’s own: “You got that from Vickers, "Work in Essex County," page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you going to plagiarize the whole thing for us?”

The academic being referred to, Daniel Vickers, was then on the way to becoming, in a quiet way, one of the most respected historians of colonial America. In two landmark scholarly monographs (Farmers and Fishermen and Young Men and the Sea) as well as in numerous other publications Vickers drew a picture of eighteenth century New England that emphasized the importance of class and of capital, and provided an extraordinarily vivid sense of ordinary people’s lives during the period. Vickers made a somewhat unlikely figure as a leading historian of America: a Canadian, he lived and worked north of the border for most of his life. But he was as widely loved when he taught in the States as he was in Canada; as one UCSD student expressed it, “Vickers is awesome…. He teaches American history, and he is Canadian!!! He has the coolest point of view, and doesn’t teach about stupid crap...we learned the interesting side of history.”

Vickers died February 8 in New Westminster, aged 64. Born and raised in Toronto, Vickers was the son of art historian G. Stephen Vickers and community service volunteer Elizabeth Hannah Smith Vickers. Danny sometimes joked that he might hold the record for consecutive years being educated by institutions associated with the University of Toronto; primary school at the Institute of Child Study was followed by high school at the University of Toronto Schools, and then a BA and an MA at the university itself. It was during his university years that he met Christine McManus, whose own Masters research work was in neuropharmacology; before long, the two were married.

Vickers went to Princeton for his PhD. It was there that he began what became his life’s work academically, but he found Princeton itself stiflingly elitist, and escaped as often as he could to Toronto or to New England towns such as Salem and Nantucket, where he would spend long hours poring over local records.

After two years as a post-doctoral fellow in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a year teaching at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Vickers was appointed to a permanent position at Memorial University in 1984. The family flourished in Newfoundland, but in early 1999 Vickers was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The high reputation of the doctors at the University of California, Dan Diego was a factor in Vickers accepting an offer to join the UCSD History Department later that year.

By this time Vickers was well known to historians throughout the States. His award-winning 1994 book Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex Country, Massachusetts, 1630-1830, had delineated through painstaking analysis of archival records of entire communities the extent to which the development of New England had depended on labor that was largely unfree—with workers held in check not by slavery but by onerous burdens of debt. It had been hailed by reviewers as “one of the best works yet written on the early American economy” and as a book that explained “the deepest inner workings of New England society.”

This was followed in 2005 by Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail, in which Vickers challenged the long tradition of treating a young man’s decision to go to sea as an inherently momentous one, and the life of a seafarer as inherently exceptional; again through painstaking archival research, he demonstrated that that most young men who went to sea did so with a sense of inevitability—and that not until the late nineteenth century did seafaring life begin to seem exceptional. Maritime history was somewhat out of fashion with the general public when the book appeared, and it sold less well than its publishers had hoped, but reviews of Vickers’ work by historians were again extraordinarily enthusiastic; the book was praised as “a masterly work,” and “the most original American maritime history ever published.”

As with his first book, Vickers was aided greatly in his research by his wife Christine. He credited as well research assistant Vince Walsh for a substantial contribution to the project.

In a third book, a 2006 scholarly edition of The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), Vickers made available to a wider audience what is believed to be the earliest American maritime autobiography extant, and provided, in the words of one reviewer, “an excellent introduction that places Bowen in the larger context of Atlantic history.” A fourth book, A Companion to Colonial America, a large edited volume, appeared in 2008; it was praised as “an indispensable survey of a generation of scholarship on early American history.”

Vickers served as chair of the UCSD History Department for much of his time there, and was well respected for having helped to unify a distinguished but sometimes fractious department. The family found the suburban lifestyle and sunny consumerism of San Diego less congenial than the rocky insularity and dour humour of Newfoundland, however; in 2006 Vickers accepted an offer to return to Canada to chair the History Department at the University of British Columbia—where he was again credited with having done much to bring together a large department with often divergent interests.

Throughout his life Vickers was devoted to family—to his parents and his sister, to Christine, and to their three children, all of whom remained close to their parents, even as they put down roots thousands of miles apart.

During his time in San Diego and Vancouver Vickers managed to live life more or less to the full—but lived always with his cancer. In San Diego he was at one point near death and required a bone marrow transplant; his insurance would not cover the hugely expensive treatment, which his doctors managed to provide only by including him in a research study for which participants’ costs were covered.

At UBC Vickers started work on what would have been his most ambitious project, exploring multiple strands in the history of early capitalism. Weakened by the lymphoma, he was forced to scale back the project to a more focused study of the borrowing and lending habits of Matthew Patten, a New England farmer of the eighteenth century who left behind unusually detailed records. It was to be a work that, in Vickers’ own words, would use Patten’s “personal diary and accounts to examine the distinction between commercial and neighborly obligations in the pre-industrial world.” That project remains uncompleted at his death.

Everywhere he taught Vickers was praised by both faculty and students as highly intelligent, warmly collegial—and extraordinarily funny. Though not known for witty remarks, he was unsurpassed as a raconteur; his speaking style could be both lively and droll, and he had slow but impeccable timing.

Tall, thin, and ungainly, he had a surprisingly good singing voice, and an extraordinary memory—for baseball facts and figures as much as for the details of maritime history. Even during his final days in hospital, when he was having great difficulty speaking and breathing, he was able to respond with enthusiasm when someone said “You can probably even remember who played third base for the Detroit Tigers of 1941.” The words came loudly if not clearly through Vickers’ oxygen mask: “Higgins. Pinky Higgins!”

Vickers was known throughout his life for his generosity of spirit, and his utter lack of acquisitiveness. When the letter came from Mirimax in 1997 asking Vickers’ permission to have his work quoted in a forthcoming film starring Robin Williams, he thought it was all very funny—and never thought for a moment of asking the Disney subsidiary for any money.

In the fall of 2016 Vickers’ cancer took on a more aggressive form, and he was forced to take a leave from UBC. He leaves his wife Christine, his sister Hannah, his children Sarah, Simon, and Tim, and his grandchild Teddy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Say No to Nanaimo's $120 Million Arena Proposal

Something local this time: I posted a shorter version of the following earlier tonight on the "No Event Centre for Nanaimo" Facebook page. After the $20 million expenditure on a cruise ship terminal that's used by four ships a year, and the many millions spent on a conference centre that is barely used and that is a continuing drain on city finances, the last thing the city needs is another downtown white elephant. The referendum to decide this issue is Saturday, March 11.
I've just been reading up on this issue. Some numbers, and some thoughts:

The interest on $80 million over 20 years might well be another $80 million. It's almost certain to be at least $40 million (assuming an average 5% interest rate over two decades). That's a total of at least $120 million, even if interest rates stay low. Plus, there is likely to have to be an annual subsidy. See, for example, the Guelph Storm; Guelph ended up spending $40-50 million some years ago to build an arena that was supposed to generate an annual surplus; instead the city subsidizes it to the tune of over $200,000 annually.

The Clippers have a perfectly good arena that already seats more people than the WHL franchises in Kootenay or Prince George attract (which is fewer than 3,000 a game). But because the WHL has told Nanaimo it would only consider us for a WHL franchise if we build a new arena, it's now proposed that we spend at least $120 million. Imagine what that amount could do to help the city's culture--and sports-- facilities, or the many other good causes in the city that need help.

Frank Crane arena in Beban Park can seat 3,000--but it's never full. Why is it supposed that junior hockey of a very slightly better quality could attract 5,000 fans regularly in the future, when currently junior hockey attracts an average of fewer than 2,000? By comparison with a hockey arena, try this number: even the state-of the art baseball facility in the Portland area (seating 5,000) cost only $15 million. How about a baseball park that would allow for a franchise of that sort (Single A) to compete with the Vancouver Canadians? That would be a great rivalry--and it would cost one eighth of what this attempt to get a WHL franchise would cost. At the very least, Sarauxmen Stadium could use an upgrade. And that would still leave an awful lot left over out of $120 million to help the homeless, help the theatre, help the ballet, help the schools, help the Clippers if they need it. Help build a movie theatre downtown. Help build more small rinks for the average citizen to use. Or extend the trail along the waterfront. There are so many things that would benefit the city and that wouldn't be white elephants!

Why kill the Clippers? They are good hockey franchise with a long history in Nanaimo, and they would surely leave or fold if a WHL franchise came to town.

A copy of "Nanaimo City Updates" arrived at our house today. It seems to me to be a totally disingenuous document; it describes the "events centre" as "a community meeting place catering to all and promoting community wellness," with no mention whatsoever of how the WHL has driven this proposal. The document also assures us that "the proposed events centre ... will be paid for through current revenue streams, causing no property tax increase for residents or property owners." How can they be certain in advance that over the next 20 years this massive, massive expenditure will not cause any tax increases? I may be putting it too mildly when I say "disingenuous."

Monday, January 30, 2017

Canadian Values, and the Oath of Citizenship

Controversies over immigration tend to produce more heat than light, and surely there is nothing enlightened about either the anti-immigrant hysteria fueled by Donald Trump or the Trump-lite version propounded in Canada by some in the Conservative Party. “Kellie Leitch,” we are assured on her campaign website, is the only candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party “who will ensure that those coming to Canada believe in the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law.” At one level this assertion is of course absurd: no one could possibly “ensure” anything about the beliefs of potential immigrants, any more than they could ensure anything about the beliefs of native Canadians. But that’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate questions to be raised on this issue. Are we doing enough to make the Canadian values that are enshrined in the Constitution plain to prospective immigrants? What are prospective immigrants being told by our government? Is the oath of allegiance that new immigrants must affirm worded appropriately? These are legitimate questions that deserve to be explored.

Leitch, of course, does not stop at the principles enshrined in the Constitution (the sort of principles enunciated in the sentence quoted above—“equality of men and women, freedom of religion,…equality of all under the law,” and so on). Her website asserts that a much wider range of values are central to the Canadian identity:
• Equal opportunity – We must strive to ensure that everyone has as much of an equal opportunity to succeed as possible, especially our youth

• Hard work – Everyone must work hard and provide for themselves and their families

• Helping others – Once people become prosperous, we all are expected to give back to our communities to help others

• Generosity – Canada is a place that shows what is possible when hard work and generosity come together

• Freedom and tolerance – A Canadian identity that is based on freedom and tolerance to allow each of us the chance to pursue our best lives and to become our best selves

We all hold these values in common and they make our country great. If we want continue to grow and develop that identity, we need to make sure that those who want to come to Canada share those values.
Every one of this additional set of principles that Leitch claims we “all hold in common” seems to me to be in one way or another problematic.
• Why should the principle of equal opportunity be qualified in the way that Leitch does ("as much of an equal opportunity…as possible”)?

• Much as I value hard work, I see no reason why “everyone must work hard and provide for their families” should be made a universal principle. Were we to make it a universal requirement that Canadians adhere to this value, those not qualifying would include the young Pierre Trudeau (whose family wealth enabled him to live for decades without much by way of regular employment) and the young Leonard Cohen (who spent years as a young man dividing his time between writing and drug taking—“I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. … Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”)

• I would happily endorse “helping others” as a value worthy of support—but not with the apparent qualification Leitch attaches (that the obligation to help others kicks in only once one has become prosperous).

• How much should we be patting ourselves on the back for our “generosity”? Decades ago we committed ourselves to devoting 0.07 of our GDP to helping the world’s less fortunate nations; since then, the percentage we actually give has declined to 0.024. (Meanwhile Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and several other developed countries have exceeded the UN’s

• Most Canadians today do indeed tend to value freedom and tolerance, and that's a good thing. But Leitch shades her endorsement of these principles. When you think of freedom only in terms of the freedom to become “our best selves,” you open the door to arguments that would restrict freedom—that would call into question the freedom of those who do not seem to be using it to fulfill their potential. (People like the young Cohen and the young Trudeau? Tell them to get a proper job!)
I'm sure not everyone shares in the complaints I have about the Leitch long-list of values--and I'm sure others would want to add to my list. The point here is not only that Leitch's list of values is poorly thought out and sometimes contradictory. It is, more importantly, that any such list of values will be entirely subjective--no matter how loudly we may assert that it expresses values we supposedly "all hold in common."

The narrower concern prompted by Leitch’s agenda, though—are we doing enough to try to ensure that those coming to Canada accept principles such as the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law—deserves serious discussion. Unlike Leitch’s broader list—her subjective grab bag emphasizing the value of hard work—this short list names values that are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. I suspect that it is this sort of screening that Canadians have in mind when they say they support “screening immigrants for anti-Canadian values”—as a large majority of Canadians have said they do (in various polls taken by the Toronto Star, Nanos, and Forum Research). It’s not just Conservatives who say they support such screening; one poll reported that 57% of Liberal voters and 59% of New Democratic voters joined the 87% of Conservative voters who supported the proposal. The idea of trying to screen immigrants on this basis has intuitive appeal to many Canadians who are aware of cultural practices in some parts of the world that are horribly cruel on a systemic basis to women, or to gays and lesbians. And it may have particularly strong appeal to those who are aware of Immigration Canada having entirely abandoned in-person interviews. (Such interviews were an important part of the process until early in this century, when they were abandoned as too costly.)

Any discussion of these issues should begin by acknowledging that there have been relatively few cases over the years in which immigrants have committed horrendous acts--so-called honor killings, for example--that are clearly linked to their holding values antithetical to those enshrined in our constitution. Certainly there have been far more such acts committed by native Canadians than there have by immigrants. From the systematic brutality practised against First Nations Canadians over many generations, to the Montreal massacre of 1989, to gay-bashing (and murder) in places such as Vancouver's Stanley Park, to the Quebec City killings of January 2017--this list only scratches the surface. Doing everything we can to dissuade native Canadians from adopting values that disparage other groups (and that spawn hate crimes) should be a much higher priority for us that worrying about immigrant values.

Moreover, there's plenty of evidence that, in cases where immigrant families do arrive holding, for example, deeply embedded prejudicial feelings against women, the next generation tends to acquire mainstream Canadian values.

We should not, then, be overly concerned at the prospect of immigrants subverting the values enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. But to say that immigration-related issues should not be given a high priority is not to say we should ignore them. It is surely entirely appropriate to ask if we are doing all we can to make clear to prospective immigrants what values are enshrined in the Constitution--and to make some effort to dissuade those who hold views antithetical to those expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms from immigrating.

Let's ask, then, if bringing back interviews could in fact come anywhere close to ensuring “that those coming to Canada believe in the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law”? Let’s listen to what former Immigration officials have to say on this point. They deserve to be quoted at length:
When I worked at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, we seriously considered whether a values pledge for permanent residents or new citizens would be effective, or even just a useful symbolic statement. After looking at examples from Australia and the Netherlands, we concluded that, while they may have an intuitive appeal, such pledges are ultimately empty exercises. Even assuming one could agree on a list of values that newcomers would pledge to uphold … it would be about as meaningful as clicking “accept” on a computer program’s ‘Terms of Use’ and, in practice, probably even less enforceable.

Nor are the experiences of Australia and the Netherlands — both of which have similar or worse integration problems than Canada — a compelling endorsement of such “screening.” … People will sign or say almost anything to come to Canada (or Australia, or Europe). Just ask the officials charged with immigration fraud detection. The tens of thousands of people who submit fraudulent education and employment credentials, marriage licenses and language test scores along with their Canadian permanent resident applications every year will hardly balk at signing a values pledge that is neither verifiable nor backed by a credible threat of enforcement.

An in-person interview is a [good] idea — but not for the reasons [Leich] proposes. Face-to-face interviews, which were the rule for most immigrants until the early 2000s, are much more effective at catching all sorts of fraud than a paper file review that is often conducted half-way around the world by people unfamiliar with the language or culture of the applicants. Former immigration officer James Metcalfe’s description of what was lost when Immigration Canada abandoned interviews is typical of what many older officials in the Department of Immigration will tell you:
There are all kinds of things that tipped me off about the veracity of an applicant’s claims. For example, I have never met a chef or cook who did not have burn marks or cuts or scars on their hands or arms. I have also never met a mechanic who had lily-white hands with no cuts or split fingernails … (O)fficers … could assess the individual’s ability to communicate in English or French right there, because they were in the same room together.
But note what Metcalfe doesn’t talk about: abstract values or beliefs. The criteria that an in-person interview can confirm are the objective and verifiable traits of language ability, education, employment history and criminality. Leitch is quite right that in-person interviews absolutely should be required of permanent resident applicants — but as part of the existing vetting process, not a new “values” screening process. (Howard Anglin, “Leitch is mostly wrong — but also right — about immigration,” iPolitics Insights column, January 24, 2017)
To me at least, Anglin and Metcalfe’s arguments are entirely persuasive: re-instituting screening for immigrants makes good sense—so long as the aim is to stop fraud, and not to screen for values. As a byproduct, it’s hard to imagine that the process of catching fraudsters would not also result in entry being denied to a number of applicants who do not in fact share the values of most Canadians. But trying to design a system that would directly screen for values—and do so effectively—would be futile.

If we don’t screen for some subjective set of values, what (if anything) should we be doing in this area that we aren’t doing now? Two things, it seems to me.

First of all, we should make the Canadian values that are protected under our Constitution far more plain to prospective immigrants than we do now. Currently, the wording used emphasizes the protection accorded to the new immigrants themselves—and downplays the protections provided under the Constitution for others. It makes no specific mention of the principle of gender equality, or the prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Here is how the Government of Canada “Apply to Immigrate” web page presents our values to prospective immigrants:
The Charter Protects Your Rights The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of Canada’s Constitution and protects you from the moment you arrive in Canada. It sets out the values that Canadians live by and describes the kinds of personal human rights and freedoms we can expect in this country. Some of those rights and freedoms include: The right to life, liberty and personal security; Freedom of conscience and religion; Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media; Freedom to hold peaceful meetings; Freedom to join groups; Protection from unreasonable search or seizure and unjustified detainment and imprisonment; The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; The right to retain and instruct counsel (a lawyer) without delay; The right to a fair trial, through due process of law; The right to equal protection and benefit under the law, without discrimination.

Rights come with responsibilities People who live in Canada are expected to understand and obey Canadian laws, allow other Canadians to enjoy their rights and freedoms and help preserve Canada's multicultural heritage. It is also important for Canadians to become informed about politics and help to improve their communities and the country. Citizens of Canada have other rights and freedoms, such as the right to vote in elections. To learn about these rights, see the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Surely it would be appropriate to give stronger and clearer guidance right at the outset to those who are considering applying to immigrate to Canada. Rather than simply referring applicants to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, let’s include Section 15 on Canada’s official “Apply to Immigrate” website:
Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
And let’s be explicit as to how our judicial system has interpreted Section 15—making absolutely clear that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity is as much against the Constitution as is discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion. Let’s make clear that, in Canada, men can marry men and women can marry women. And let us add, politely but firmly, that those who are not comfortable with the values enshrined in the Canadian Constitution are strongly advised against applying for Canadian citizenship.

Might not some people who are misogynistic or homophobic still apply? Certainly they might. But at least some who are so inclined would surely think twice, and consider applying elsewhere instead.

Making the values that are enshrined in the Constitution far more plain to prospective immigrants than we do now is one thing we should do. Another is revise the Oath of Canadian Citizenship. Leitch’s “Canadian values” campaign has paid little or no attention to the wording of this oath—and that’s more than a little strange, given that Canada's Oath of Citizenship (like that of any other nation) in some very real sense already constitutes a "values pledge." The difference between an oath of citizenship (or allegiance) and a Leitch pledge "screening for Canadian values" is simply that an oath of citizenship or allegiance typically references objective, fixed criteria rather than subjective ones. Again, it would to my mind be folly to think of adding any reference to values to the Canadian Oath of Citizenship beyond the objective criterion of those values that are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But here's the odd thing: currently the Canadian Oath of Citizenship makes no mention of the Charter. Here is the current wording of the Oath of Citizenship:
I swear [or affirm] that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
That’s 23 words about the British monarch and her heirs and successors, and only 17 words about anything clearly Canadian. Even dyed in the wool monarchists might agree that this is disproportionate.

Not only is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms not mentioned in the oath; there is no mention of the Constitution of Canada at all. Now you might say that “faithfully observe the laws of Canada” implies adherence to the principles of the constitution. But the two are, in a very real sense, different things. To be sure, the constitution of a sovereign state is often defined as its “supreme law”—but it is law of a different sort from the laws that one “obeys” or “observes.” It is as much a set of principles governing the interpretation of other laws as it is itself a law. It is not in ordinary laws but in the Canadian Constitution—and, in particular, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—that core values are most clearly expressed.

Those who have paid attention to the wording of the oath have not infrequently argued that the prominence it gives to the British monarch is entirely inappropriate to modern Canada. As Joe Killoran has pointed out, it’s not only her status as monarch of another sovereign state that makes Elizabeth an unsuitable candidate for modern Canada to swear allegiance to. It’s also the restrictive religious status that goes with the job. The British monarch is head of the Church of England, and must always be a member of that branch of Protestant Christianity. So long as we retain the British monarch as our head of state, Canada is part of a hierarchy in which the head position is not open to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. If a monarch wanted to leave the Church of England, she or he would have to abdicate.

For the foreseeable future Canada is stuck with the British monarchy. But we are unlikely to be stuck with it forever—and we need not foreground it in the Canadian Oath of Citizenship. Let me propose a change, then—a change that, to be sure, is at some level merely symbolic, but that another level would be truly a change of substance. Let us adopt the following wording for the Canadian Oath of Citizenship:
I faithfully affirm that I accept and will abide by the principles set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that I will observe the laws of Canada, and that I will fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
While we’re at it, we might consider requiring non-immigrant Canadians to take a citizenship course before they turn 18—at the end of which they would be given a chance to themselves affirm the same oath of citizenship. Given a chance, only. Not compelled.

And the oath itself? We don’t need a requirement to be willing to “bear arms,” as you’ll find in the American Oath of Allegiance. And we don’t need any long-winded guff about the monarchy. Just something modest and to the point. Canadian, you know.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Animals and Plants, Pain and Suffering

When omnivores ask vegans why we’ve chosen not to eat animal products, many of us are likely to say, first of all, that we want to do what we can to reduce the suffering of non-human animals. Omnivores will often then trot out the following argument: But plants are living creatures and feel pain too; if you were consistent in your views, you’d have to consume nothing at all except water.

That’s not quite as ludicrous an argument as some vegans would have you believe. A common response by vegans is to begin and end with ridicule—as, for example, Gary Yourofsky does in this Facebook post for the Evolve Campaign:
The second inanity of meat-eaters is attempting to indict the vegan lifestyle by claiming that plants suffer and die to feed the vegans of the world. Yet, I am still searching for People for the Ethical Treatment of Carrots, Last Chance for Broccoli or Apples Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow. … People for the Ethical Treatment of Carrots doesn't exist because everyone knows the difference between taking a carrot out of the ground and slicing a pig into pieces. Everyone also knows the difference between mowing a lawn and tossing a live baby male chick (egg industry) into a rendering machine. If one does not understand the difference, then that person is disingenuous, irrational and illogical. (“The ridiculous ‘But you're killing plants’ argument,” March 6, 2011)*
Much as Yourofsky may be amusing, the ridicule seems to me to be unnecessary and unfortunate. Along the way, though, he does come close to making one reasonable argument. Everyone does surely sense there to be a “difference between taking a carrot out of the ground and slicing a pig into pieces, [or] between mowing a lawn and tossing a live chick into a rendering machine.” But do we know that the carrot and the blade of grass do not suffer? Do we even know that the carrot and the blade of grass do not suffer to the same extent as the pig or the baby chick? Do we know those things with absolute, 100% certainty? I think if we are honest we probably have to answer no to that question.

For some years a small minority of scientists and philosophers have been suggesting that plants should have moral standing (see, for example, University of Victoria philosopher Thom Heyd’s interesting article, “Plant Ethics and Botanic Gardens,” PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, Issue 9, 2012); and that plants possess some form of sentience and should be granted rights (see, for example, Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, co-authored by neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, 2015**).

I’ve been a bit nervous in the past about giving credence to such arguments—primarily, I realize now, out of a fear that, to the degree that those of us who are interested in reducing animal suffering accept them, we open the door to just the sort of reductionist anti-vegan argument outlined above. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m persuaded that we should in fact welcome the sorts of arguments that Heyd, Mancuso, and others put forward. We should welcome them, first of all, as we should welcome all disinterested inquiry. But we should welcome them too because, if anything, they strengthen the arguments for adopting a plant-based diet.

A key consideration here is that we need not have absolute proof that plants do not experience pain in order to argue against the practice of inflicting what is obviously extreme suffering on farm animals; we can readily enough deal in probabilities. Scientists such as Robert Elwood have spent a good deal of time investigating the degree to which creatures such as lobsters and shrimp feel pain, and concluded that they do in fact experience something closely akin to what we call pain; in many cases exhibiting “prolonged and complicated behavior, which clearly involves the central nervous system,” as Elwood puts it. We know from our own experience under local or general anesthetic how important our nervous system is to our ability to experience pain. Even if plants, which of course lack a central nervous system, can feel something akin to the pain that vertebrates feel, it seems fair to conclude that the overwhelming weight of probability is that killing and eating animals entails causing a great deal more suffering than does the killing and eating of a carrot. For this argument based on probability to constitute a sound ethical justification for a vegan diet, we need not claim that we know with 100% certainly that plants do not feel some form of pain less extreme than that of the screaming pig—and we certainly need not claim we know that plants lack any capacity whatsoever to experience pain.

But what if it were true that the carrot and the blade of grass suffered just as much as the screaming pig? The ethical argument for a plant-based diet would in that case become even stronger. That’s because “food animals” do not arrive on humans' plates ex nihilo; they consume vast quantities of plant matter over the course of their lives. Indeed, as the film and associated book Cowspiracy make so dramatically clear, “worldwide, 50% of the grains and legumes we’re growing we are feeding to animals. … In the United States, it’s closer to 70, 80%--about 90% of the soybeans.” (Dr. Will Tuttle, as quoted on page 244). So if killing plants does in fact cause pain and suffering in itself, we’re causing twice as much of that pain and suffering by eating meat and dairy products as we would if we ate only plants—in addition to all the pain and suffering we inflict on non-human animals.

From any angle, then, in order to reduce pain and suffering we should adopt a plant-based diet. But arguably, we should emphasize certain plant foods over others. One of the interesting points Heyd makes is this:
[W]hen we obtain food from plants we need not kill the plant, as in all the cases in which fruits, seeds, nuts, or ‘spare’, non-essential, leaves are consumed. This is the case with most staples, such as wheat, rice or the various sorts of beans (legumes), which are seeds normally harvested after maturity of the plant. It is also the case with regard to all the food items that, in common parlance, are called ‘vegetables’ but really are fruits, such as tomatoes, squashes (such as zucchinis and pumpkins), cucumbers, or tubers (such as potatoes).
I would stop well short of suggesting there is any moral imperative not to eat carrots. But Heyd, Mancuso, et al. give us plenty of food for thought—and even more reason to stick to a plant-based diet.

*In fairness to vegans, Yourofsky's tone does not seem to me to be typical. More representative, more measured in tone, and better reasoned are the arguments on this point put forward by Free from Harm: ("Eating Animals: Addressing Our Most Common Justifications," by the Free From Harm Staff Writers, March 27, 2014). **I’m indebted to Rhona McAdam for pointing me in the direction of this book recently.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

What is "Real Food"? The Case of Vegan Mac & Cheese

Maureen and I ate at an excellent vegan restaurant in Victoria yesterday (Be Love); their cashew/coconut cream macaroni rivals that of The Sneaky Pickle in New Orleans for the finest macaroni dish I’ve ever had—far, far tastier, to my mind, than the macaroni and cheese dishes I used to love for so many years. Be Love calls this dish Mac & Cheeze (similarly, they call their delicious cashew-cream-based dessert Cheezecake). Such dishes are often referred to (including by those of us who are vegan or vegan-friendly) as “fake mac & cheese.” When we use a phrase like that, we are of course acknowledging that, however much they may differ from (and be an improvement on!) the macaroni and cheese we enjoyed as children, such dishes are created with reference to (or in memory of) “real” macaroni and cheese. But we don’t for a moment think that there’s anything fake about them in any broader sense.

Sad to say, not everyone thinks of “fake” and “real” in this way. A case in point is Alexandra Gill’s snarky review of two new vegan restaurants in Vancouver in today’s Globe and Mail, which concludes in this way:
I get it. It’s not really cheese. And for some people, these processed reproductions are a godsend. But if you can’t fake it, why even bother trying to make it? There is so much better to be found in its natural form.
Let’s leave to one side Gill’s extraordinary incomprehension (“why even bother…?”) of the many reasons other than taste for people to want to eat a plant-based, whole food diet (far better health, infinitely less damage to the environment, eliminating the appalling cruelty that farmed animals are routinely subjected to); I’ll keep the focus in this post on the nexus of real, fake, natural, and processed.

To begin with, Gill evidently assumes vegan dishes that reference familiar cheese-based or meat-based dishes to always be designed with the intent of slavishly coping the features of those dishes. That may be the case with some such vegan dishes, but a good vegan “mac & cheese” is no more a copy of a traditional mac & cheese than Manet’s Olympia is a copy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino—or Shakespeare’s King Lear is a copy of the anonymous play King Leir that he drew on for much of his source material. In such cases the later works resemble the earlier, but it would be entirely wrong-headed to call the later work a copy of the “original.”

But Gill doesn’t just assume that all vegan “inspired by” dishes represent attempts to copy slavishly; she also assumes that such dishes are less “real” in other senses. Here she is writing about the vegan mac 'n cheese served at Meet in Gastown:*
The mac ’n cheese does a better job of faking it [than do the restaurant’s vegan burger offerings]. The yellow cashew sauce is thick and melty, and the nutritional yeast sprinkled over top adds crumbly, gratin-like texture. But honestly, the green side salad is the most satisfying part of the meal because it’s real food.
So which is more real—traditional mac & cheese or vegan mac & cheese? To Gill, the latter is a “processed reproduction” of the real thing. But let’s give the matter of processing a moment’s thought. Cashew cream—the main ingredient in the sauce of most vegan “mac & cheese” recipes, is minimally processed; all you do is grind the cashews until they become smooth and creamy. What about cheese—which is of course the main ingredient in the sauce of traditional mac & cheese? Because humans have been making it for so many centuries, we tend to regard cheese as natural, and as unprocessed. You may well be unshakeable in your belief that it’s “natural” for one species to take the milk of another (and take the babies of that other species away from their mothers in order to do so). But you can hardly maintain that cheese is not a highly processed food: from the heating and fermentation of the cow’s milk through the manipulation of lactic acid levels, the addition of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminants, and the separation into curds and whey, to the inducing of mold and the complex aging and curing process—it’s all highly complex. The twentieth-century creation of industrial products known as processed cheese—which of course are even more highly processed—has no doubt helped foster the sense that “natural” cheese is an unprocessed food. In fact it is by far a more processed food than the cashew cream that’s the basis for vegan “cheese” sauces—and a less natural one too, if it comes to that.

What’s more real, then? Traditional mac & cheese or vegan mac & cheese? What’s more natural? Perhaps it’s better simply to ask this: what’s better? Alexandra Gill and I will no doubt differ as to what tastes better, while she chooses to simply ignore issues such as what’s better for the environment, what’s better for human health, and what’s better for non human animals. For many of the rest of us, though, such “side issues” matter a lot more than does the matter of taste. It’s simply a wonderful bonus when dishes such as vegan mac & cheese also offer better taste—as is the case these days in many, many restaurants, as well as in many recipes that you can google and easily make for yourself at home.

*I've not eaten at the new Meet in Gastown, but (thanks to my daughter Naomi) I have eaten more than once at its sister restaurant, Meet on Main, which shares the same menu; I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Margaret Wente on the Radical Left "taking over our universities"

In her Globe and Mail column this past Saturday, Margaret Wente tries to argue that, in Canada and indeed North America, "radicals have taken over” our universities. It's worth a closer look.

Perhaps her most striking piece of evidence concerns the percentage of self-described Marxists who supposedly inhabit today's universities. In her column, Wente uses the present tense in asserting that, according to “studies of US universities, 18 percent of social science professors say they’re Marxists.” But check out the study in which the 18% figure appears; “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” by Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University is readily available online.

It's clearly a carefully researched (and well-written) study. But it turns out that the study was conducted in 2006; it's a bit of a stretch for Wente to present it as evidence of current trends.

Secondly, the study consisted of a questionnaire that was filled out by roughly half of those to whom it was sent. The authors themselves write that the results were likely somewhat skewed, under-representing conservatives and over-representing those on the political left; a series of follow-up phone calls by the authors indicated that, for whatever reason, those on the left seemed to have been more likely to fill out and return the questionnaire than those on the right. It would seem, then, that even in 2006 it would have been misleading to conclude that 17.6 percent (the exact figure in the Gross and Simmons study) of academics in the social sciences in North American universities were self-described Marxists.

But what of the overall trends? Wente's column suggests that there's been a huge growth in the radical left presence on North American universities in recent years. Is she right? What did the "18 percent" study have to say about overall trends? As it turns out, Gross and Simmons were very far from concluding that professors were becoming more radical. On the contrary, they said, “the number of moderates in academe appears to be growing.” (p. 40) Radicalism was then a somewhat common (though still very much a minority) stance among professors who had “come of age in the 1960s,” but the researchers found that it was far, far less common among younger professors.*

In Wente’s hands, in other words, Gross and Simmons’ evidence is twisted to suggest exactly the reverse of what they said.

It should readily be granted that Wente is not alone in distorting the results of this study; you can find the 18% figure on a variety of right-wing websites, cited without qualification as if it represented today's reality. But in a supposedly "post truth" world, surely we should expect more from our major, mainstream media.

*For what it's worth, my own experience in calling at a great many North American universities from 1975 onwards absolutely supports the conclusion that Marxists are far, far less common on campuses today than they were 10 years ago--and less common still than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It also supports Gross and Simmons' 2006 conclusion that the group that has been growing most is political moderates. Center and center-left political views seem prevalent in social sciences and humanities faculties, center and center right political views in business and engineering faculties.