The Worst Kind of Disappearing Act

Living in the United States, the fact that I am Canadian has become one of my most defining features. Many of my graduate school peers referred to me as simply “Canada” and I am often introduced as “Maureen, from Canada!” I honestly don’t mind. I’m very proud to be Canadian and am always eager (sometimes too eager) to share my heritage with others. For many Americans, however, knowing that I am from Canada is enough. They hear “Canada” and immediately  tell me how much they enjoyed visiting Vancouver (especially true when I lived in Colorado) or tell me they have family in Ontario (pretty common now that I’m living in Michigan). Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort to make a connection and enjoy chatting about all parts of my home country. But I rarely have the opportunity to talk about where in Canada I’m from. I say that I don’t have the opportunity because often the person I’m talking to hasn’t heard of my home province (except that one asshole who had but said “I thought that was just a joke province” – what does that even mean?!) or just doesn’t seem particularly interested, maybe because they don’t know much about it. I know this isn’t a fair representation of all Americans but it has been my genuine experience. This reaction bums me out because as proud as I am of being Canadian, I’m equally proud of being a Maritimer and an Islander. Which is why I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about an article written by John Ibbitson for The Globe and Mail titled “How the Maritimes became Canada’s incredible shrinking region.”

For Canadian geography amateurs, the Maritimes consists of three provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (PEI). I was born and raised in PEI and am fiercely proud of that fact. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I moved away from PEI in 2007 and though I visit frequently, it is unlikely that I will settle there for reasons that were astutely highlighted in Ibbitson’s piece. In fact, he opens his article with a brief profile of a 19-year-old student who was also born and raised in PEI (coincidentally in a town where most of my paternal family is from) and describes how she would love to live on the Island but doesn’t feel there is ample enough opportunity for that to be a realistic option. I know so many people my age who feel that way. It’s a big part of why I moved away in the first place. The Maritimes is a beautiful place filled with culture and friendly people. Unfortunately, opportunity is also missing because of two inter-related phenomena described by Ibbitson: economic and demographic decline.

Weakened economies in each of the Maritime provinces are exacerbated by the fact that young workers are moving away and taking their tax dollars with them. Ibbitson lays out a compelling argument for how the Maritimes’ relationship with the rest of Canada has negatively impacted economic growth in the region but I won’t dwell on them here. Instead, I want to focus on his proposed solutions.

In addition to reducing dependency on Ottawa, encouraging private sector growth, and promoting opportunities in the rural economy, Ibbitson contends that a key solution to the Maritimes’ twin problem of economic and demographic decline is immigrants. Professor Peter McKenna is quoted in the article as saying “Our region… lacks the energy, entrepreneurial spirit and the desire for a fresh start that new Canadians bring. We simply do not have enough new Canadians coming to the Maritimes.” Ibbitson reiterates this point by arguing that Maritime provinces should “aggressively recruit immigrants” to replenish diminishing populations.

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are not doing particularly well in this regard, attracting only one-third of the immigrants they should be. On the one hand this may be something of a chicken-and-egg problem as newcomers “tend to gravitate toward communities that already have newcomers.” But Ibbitson rightly points out that racism and a general aversion to change may also be keeping immigrants away from the Maritimes.

This resistance to change is no joke. I remember the kerfuffle when Charlottetown, PEI wanted to construct a traffic circle at a busy intersection. A lot of the opposition to this idea stemmed from legitimate concerns regarding the cost of the construction but there also seemed to be a general attitude that things just shouldn’t be changed. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” except with a lack of awareness that the dangerous intersection was, in fact, “broke.”

Still, there is reason to be optimistic, particularly for my home province. Unlike its neighbours, PEI has actively recruited newcomers and immigrants make up 10% of Islanders, a statistically appropriate number given the provincial population. Although the number of immigrants to PEI has increased since I moved away, I do remember noticing the increasing multiculturalism of Charlottetown when I lived there. I remember feeling proud of the relative diversity of my high school. It was still overwhelmingly white but the faces in my yearbook were significantly more diverse than many of my friends’ who went to suburban high schools elsewhere in Canada. I’m grateful to have been exposed to many different cultures despite living in a small place and I hope newcomers continue to feel welcomed by my province both in policy and in practice.

I am not so blinded by love for my province that I think it is a perfect case study (I wonder about how welcome and integrated newcomers truly feel), but it is worth noting that unlike New Brunswick and Nova Scotia employment growth in PEI has reflected the national average. This is no small feat for a region that is in danger of disappearing. As employment growth stagnates and reverses elsewhere in the Maritimes, Acadia University President Ray Ivany suggests in the article that “The demographic and economic spiral has reached the point that, if we don’t grab hold of the situation now, there is a reasonable question to be posed of whether we can turn it around.”

History is full of towns and cities that boomed then busted, thrived then gradually became ghost towns. On the rare occasion that I travel from Ann Arbor to Detroit, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness and sadness. It’s hard to reconcile the powerful and beautiful architecture of the downtown core with the desolation and blight of its immediate surroundings.  The Maritimes may not be Detroit but the pain of watching a place you love on a downward trajectory is shared. Fortunately for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI it’s not too late to turn things around. I hope the ideas put forth by the Ibbitson article are earnestly considered, debated, and acted upon, so that this shrinking trend doesn’t become a disappearing act.

A Nerdy, Harry Potter Rant

* spoilers below

J.K Rowling doesn’t Tweet all that often but when she does it’s usually worthwhile. See the exchange below where a fan questions why she announced after the final book was published that Dumbledore is gay because she “just can’t see him that way.” The Harry Potter author responded as such:

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BOOM. (To be fair it’s worth noting the author of the original Tweet apparently responded saying “amazing answer… Yes you are absolutely right. Such an inspiration!!” though the original Twitter account has since gone inactive.)

I think Jo (I can call her that because she told her fans once that we could, plus in my mind we’re kindred spirits who just haven’t met yet) concisely said all that needed to be said about Dumbledore being gay. But if I may (and of course I may – this is my blog!) be permitted to tackle the issue of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation from a purely HP-universe perspective…

Many have suggested that this detail about Dumbledore’s character was an afterthought that Jo inserted given that there is no implicit or explicit mention of this fact throughout the 7-book series. I would be tempted to think the same except for one vital thing: Dumbledore being gay makes so much sense. In fact, a cornerstone of the plot rests largely on him being in love with a man. I’m referring of course to Dumbledore’s “lost summer” with Grindelwald in which the two young men are seduced by the idea of the Death Hallows and pledge to install a new world order in which Wizards and Witches rule over Muggles (non-magic folk). Over the course of their planning the two wizards have a big falling out and part ways. Grindelwald goes on to become one of the most powerful Dark Wizards of all time while Dumbledore rejects completely his former ideology about “the greater good” and opts instead for a life as Hogwarts professor and professional badass.

The importance of Grindelwald, and his relationship with Dumbledore, becomes a focal point of Book 7. Grindelwald steals the Elder Wand soon after parting with Dumbledore which Dumbledore takes into his possession after defeating Grindelwald in a duel years later (he was reluctant to confront his former friend but is eventually persuaded by the fact that Grindelwald was committing atrocious crimes in pursuit of power). The Elder Wand, and it’s ownership, is the reason why Harry doesn’t die when he confronts Voldemort for the final time in Book 7. So as peripheral as Grindelwald may seem, he ends up being pretty damn important to the plot.

Grindelwald is also vital to understanding the character of Dumbledore (and this is true even if you set aside the Headmaster’s sexuality). When we first learn that Dumbledore considered dabbling in the Dark Arts it is shocking. Throughout the series Dumbledore has been a standard-bearer for good which makes the details of his past not only surprising but also very confusing. It goes against everything we know about Dumbledore as a character. Dumbledore claims that this early experience taught him that power is his weakness and his temptation.

With all due respect to Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, I don’t buy it.

The brief time he spent with Grindelwald is the only time he seemed interested in power at all. Two months during one’s youth seems like an awfully short window to become obsessed with power and then quit pursuing it cold turkey. It is therefore more plausible that what seduced Dumbledore that summer was not an idea, but a person. So many things make more sense if Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald. His initial attraction to Grindelwald’s ideas, his hesitation to confront Grindelwald even at the height of the Dark Wizard’s power, and Grindelwald’s refusal to give Voldemort information about Dumbledore or the wand even under torture.

A central theme throughout the Harry Potter series in the power of love and the way that love can make us do extraordinary things. Lily sacrificed her life for her son because she loved him, Snape becomes a double agent and betrays his former master because of his unrequited love for Lily, Harry is tricked into breaking into the Department of Mysteries when he thinks his beloved godfather is in danger, Dumbledore is temporarily blinded to the horror of his ideas because he is experiencing an overwhelming feeling of love for an exciting stranger, and his love for his family eventually helps him see the error of his ways. Love is the central theme that underpins the entire Harry Potter story and Jo has never shied away from portraying love as messy, complicated, and powerful.

For all of these reasons something clicked when J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is gay. Knowing that crucial fact about the character fills a gap in the plot for me. Sure it’s just how I think through things in my head but, as Dumbledore himself said, why on earth should that means it is not real?

Insert Cruz Pun Here

So this happened yesterday:

Personally, Cruz’s announcement reminded me that Canadians are very lucky he decided not to practice politics in the land of his birth. Although there probably wasn’t much danger of that anyway. If Cruz hates Obamacare so much I can’t even imagine what he thinks of universal health care.

The fact that Cruz is officially in the running for the GOP nomination adds some drama to the early stages of the 2016 presidential elections but it seems virtually impossible that he will actually get it. And therefore impossible that we’ll see the inauguration of President Cruz. Impossible because Cruz is just too wacky, too extreme. Even for many of his fellow Republicans. FiveThirtyEight offers great statistical data to backup this claim.

Un-electable, however, should not be equated with dimwitted or delusional. As several sources in this New York Times article point out, Cruz is ambitious, savvy, and intelligent. He strategically positioned himself as the “Tea Party champion” just as the Republican base shifted to the right in 2010. He successfully “tapped into an anger among the party’s grass roots that many Republicans had not fully appreciated” and that gives him some political clout. Maybe not enough to elect him President of the United States but enough to make him worth watching, at least until the race really gets going.

There’s No Place Like Home

After taking last week off to spend time with one of my best friends it’s time to get back online and figure out what I missed.

I’ll be starting with an article by John Ibbitson for The Globe and Mail called “How the Maritimes became Canada’s incredible shrinking region.” It’s been shared widely on my social media and for good reason. It’s a brief but interesting and important analysis of the economic situation in the Maritimes; a subject very near and dear to my heart and the hearts of my fellow Islanders. I’ll post something more in-depth later when I’ve had time to really delve into it but the overall sentiment described by the young woman Ibbitson interviewed resonated with me immediately. She described a strong desire to stay on Prince Edward Island but felt that she had no future there. I know so many people of my generation who feel that way. In fact, it’s exactly how I feel.

I love my little province immensely and though I’ve lived in several different places since leaving in 2007, it will always be home and I want so badly to see it prosper. Which is why I’m looking forward to doing some serious reading and thinking about it. In the meantime, check out where I’m from (and yes, it’s ok to be jealous).

Obama Reads Mean Tweets

President Obama appeared on Jimmy Kimmel last night and participated in my favourite Kimmel bit – he read mean tweets about himself. He was a great sport and demonstrated that his awesome sense of humour remains in tact despite all the shenanigans happening in Washington . Check it out:

House of Cards Review

* Spoilers below

Frank Underwood is a bad president. And I don’t mean he’s a bad president because he manipulated and murdered his way into the Oval Office. I mean he’s bad at governing. Season 2 of House of Cards left us with Frank achieving his ultimate goal. Having ruthlessly climbed the political ladder all the way up to the Vice-Presidency, Frank succeeded in manipulating the president into resigning and became the unelected Leader of the Free World.  Season 2 ended with Kevin Spacey looking directly into the camera in sinister triumph and rapping sharply on the desk (a signature of his) before the screen went black. It was a breathtaking moment but as the credits rolled you couldn’t help but wonder “What’s next?” Frank has, after all, realized his greatest ambition. Where would he go from here?

As it turns out, his sociopathic rise to the top might have been the easy part of President Underwood. No longer able to pull strings from behind the scenes, Underwood finds himself unable to enact any of his desired policies including a ludicrous jobs program that would gut social security. Presumably as president he can no longer coerce his opponents into submission leaving him hapless in a way that we’ve never seen him before.

But fear not House of Cards fans, Season 3 is still filled with power struggles and drama. It’s just that this time around it’s not Frank and Claire against the world, it’s Frank and Claire against themselves. And it looks like they’ve finally each met their match. Until this season, Frank and Claire were presented as a the ultimate power couple. A union of two equally ambitious forces whose marriage was more mutually beneficial political arrangement than fairy-tale romance. Previous seasons emphasized the interdependence of Frank and Claire so the turmoil between the two in Season 3 represented not just an intimate portrait of an unusual marriage but also a crumbling alliance that could significantly alter American and global politics.

The inward focus of Season 3, combined with the tedium of watching Frank try to govern, made the season a slower, less gripping build than its predecessors. It was a great season for Claire fans, however, as the consistently fantastic Robin Wright was granted much screen time. Claire spends much of the season struggling to get her political career off the ground and realizing that her relationship with Frank is not nearly as equal as she had thought. There were several moments when she breaks away from their alliance and in my apartment these moments had us high-fiving in support of “Team Claire.” Sure she isn’t weighed down by quite the same constraints as the President but so often in Season 3 Claire shined while Frank fumbled.

In fact, it was a great season for interesting women. Jackie Sharp returns with both ambition and vulnerability. Heather Dunbar is introduced as a powerhouse that poses a legitimate threat to Frank partly because she may prove to be equally ruthless. The thing a like best about House of Cards is the idea that as much fun as it’s been watching Frank climb to the top, it will be equally delightful to watch his downfall. And if Claire, Jackie, and Heather are the forces that topple his carefully stacked house of cards, well that’s even better.

Blustering Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress yesterday and spoke primarily of the on-going negotiations between the United States and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program. His speech forcefully reiterated his position that a nuclear deal with Iran is a “bad deal” that poses significant risk to the survival of Israel and to international peace. He was warmly received by Congress and his speech was interrupted several times by applause and a few standing ovations. However, many commentators – including a White House official – felt that his speech was heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. As the title of this blog post suggests, I agree.

As I watched the speech yesterday morning I was often distracted by how gimmicky it sounded. Alliteration, metaphor, a misinterpretation of a Robert Frost poem, and various cliches were used unsparingly as Netanyahu painted a picture of Iran as a messianic, terrorist regime. His characterization of the Iranian regime is not wholly inaccurate as Iran has indeed supported non-state actors in conducting terrorism and has a horrendous human rights record. But once Netanyahu began his long tirade of how “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam” complete with – I kid you not – a Game of Thrones reference it all began to feel more like a performance piece than a genuine contribution to the debate on how best to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Because that’s the thing. Whatever the acrimony between Obama and Netanyahu, neither of them wants Iran to possess nuclear weapons. And both agree that Israel and the international community has much to fear from an Iran with that capability. The sticking point, therefore, is not whether or not it is dangerous for Iran to possess nuclear weapons but rather how best to prevent it from obtaining such capability. Netanyahu made it clear during his speech that the current negotiations are not his preferred method, but there are several reasons why engagement with Iran is the best way forward. It’s easy to get caught up in Bibi’s bluster and deem this position naive or overly optimistic but this type of dismissal ignores empirical evidence that suggests that the negotiating table may be a stronger weapon than punitive disengagement.

First, the Iranian regime is more pragmatic than many appreciate. That is not to say that they are always reasonable or ever a-religious. It is simply to suggest that as a regime Iran is not driven solely by religiosity but also by a pragmatic understanding of the political calculations it must make in order to retain power and/or achieve its political goals. For example, in the late 1980s the Supreme Leader issued a fatwa encouraging Iranian women to use birth control and making contraception widely available. His decision was motivated by a desire to slow the baby boom that was burdening the economy. This position has since been reversed as the country’s fertility rate has dropped below replacement level. If the Iranian regime were purely messianic, contraception would never have been made available in the religiously conservative country regardless of the consequences of demographic shifts. This example is highlighted not to endorse the Iranian regime’s policies on contraception but rather to illustrate that the regime practices pragmatism where necessary. Even the rise of Rouhani and previous reformers like Khatami indicate that there is some room in Iranian politics for moderation. There is thus room to incentivize cooperation and more palatable behaviour. This point seems obvious and yet if one were to judge the character of the Iranian regime based on Netanyahu’s speech alone one would be left with the opinion that Iran is devoid of rational thought and incapable of restraint.

Second, the unfortunate reality is that Iran is a sovereign state that can, and will, pursue a nuclear program without cooperating with the United States, the United Nations, or any other members of the international community. Short of declaring war on Iran (which Netanyahu seemed to hint at but most everyone else agrees would be a terrible idea) there is little that Israel, the United States, and their allies can do to physically prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program. That is, of course, a very scary thought. It’s also why engagement with Iran is necessary. Further isolating and sanctioning of Iran may only stoke its ambitions while leaving the international community in the dark.

Finally, the Iranian regime relies on the narrative of an evil America to consolidate its conservative base and retain power. Harsh American rhetoric (like Bush labelling Iran part of the “Axis of Evil”) and sanctions only validates the Iranian regime’s position. By negotiating with Iran in good faith, the United States helps undermine a key pillar of the regime’s legitimacy.

Engagement with Iran makes many people in the United States, Israel and beyond wary and this is understandable as there is a lot at stake. However, such discomfort should not stand in the way of meaningful negotiations as, for the reasons outlined above, they are much more likely to promote stability than isolation or sanctions. As Netanyahu himself said yesterday, “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.” Well, negotiating and communicating with international partners on security issues is part of acting like a normal country. No matter the outcome, these nuclear negotiations are not a silver bullet to reform in Iran or even guaranteeing that the country remains free of nuclear weapons. But they are an opportunity to challenge Iran to prove itself as a responsible member of the international community.