Winners and losers on byelection night

Now that the mini-referendum for Jim Prentice is over, let’s study the entrails (disgusting image, I know) to discern the winners and losers of the night.

WINNER: The PCs and Jim Prentice

The other parties will find all sorts of good things to say about how they fared, but this was objectively a bad news night for almost everyone. They will say it was no surprise that Prentice won in a safe Tory seat, and that Stephen Mandel won in Edmonton’s only safe Tory seat. But if voters really want to send a message to a government, they do it via byelection, where you can give the government a firm slap on the wrist and a stern rebuke. For example, when Ralph Klein retired, his old seat went to a Liberal. So, it can happen, and the PC opponents did everything they could to make it happen. While the failures to defeat the Tories in Edmonton-Whitemud and Calgary-Foothills were not entirely unexpected, the margins of victory for the PCs were impressive. The real wins for the PCs were in the toss-up ridings, where Tories were returned. If there was going to be a message sent anywhere, it would have been in those two constituencies. But they won both. So, message sent: all is forgiven, keep up the good work. Sheesh.

LOSER: Danielle Smith and the Wildrose

Is the bloom off the Wildrose? Signs point to yes.

The Wildrose failed to win the toss-up ridings of Calgary-West and Calgary-Elbow. Although they came close in Calgary-West, they came in THIRD in Calgary-Elbow, behind the Alberta Party party candidate. (This is where you may ask: there’s an Alberta Party?) In Edmonton-Whitemud, they trailed the NDP; not a surprise, to be sure, but a disappointment. The Wildrose is having a very hard time making any headway in Edmonton, which does not bode well for their future.

They came close, but at the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Wildrosers may start to privately discuss whether Danielle Smith, who has been the golden girl of Alberta politics, has lost her glow. If you can’t win a byelection against a supposedly unpopular, supposedly out of touch, unquestionably ancient government, when will you win? Maybe Albertans are getting tired of Smith and her attack dog mentality, and her permanently snarling MLAs. At some point, the public starts to wonder if you’re government material, or if you’re better suited to opposition status. The Wildrose is beginning to have that permanent opposition look.

WINNER/LOSER: The New Democrats

The New Democrats, with the always willing participation of the media, will paint Monday night as a triumph. Sure, they didn’t win (didn’t really expect to, they’ll say), but look at the result in Edmonton-Whitemud, where they finished second! Clearly, the NDP dearly wanted to win Whitemud, and a solid second place makes them optimistic for the future. But look elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean anywhere other than Edmonton. In Calgary, the party remains a joke. Pathetic fourth place finishes in two ridings, and a humiliating FIFTH place in the other. Overall, they garnered a mere 9% of the popular vote. There are positive signs for the NDs in Edmonton, but no pulse at all outside of it. That’s OK with the NDs, really. They are quite content to shore up their Edmonton base and ignore everywhere else.

LOSER: The Alberta Liberals
While the NDs can find reason for optimism, there are no positives for the Liberals. Once upon a time (10 years ago next month, to be exact), the Liberals were the government-in-waiting, the party with the best chance of unseating the Tories. But after unexpected Stelmach tsunami of 2008, and the near-death experience of 2012, the party has become an afterthought. Monday night, they finished third in two ridings, and fourth in the other two. It pains me to say this (if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I was a Liberal MLA back in the halcyon days of a decade ago), but the Liberals are going backwards under Raj Sherman. Sherman should step aside and hand the leadership over the Laurie Blakeman, if she’s crazy enough to take the job.

WINNER/LOSER The Alberta Party

An impressive second place showing by the party leader in Calgary-Elbow (that’s good), and nothing at all elsewhere (that’s bad). But does anybody really care about yet another political party?

There is still plenty of time before the next election, but this mini-referendum on the state of Alberta politics gives a boost to the Tories. The commentators who were writing political obituaries for the PCs may have to revise their narrative. Go figure.

Thoughts on a terrible week

Like most other Canadians, I’ve had a hard time processing everything that has happened in Canada this past week. It seemed that the peaceable kingdom had been turned upside down, with soldiers being killed on our streets for the crime of being, well, soldiers. The best I can do today is go over a few points; there’s almost too much to absorb.

• Canadian TV coverage was both very good, and very bad.

Some American commentators have heaped praised on the CBC’s permanent anchor, Peter Mansbridge, for his rock solid anchoring of the emerging tragedy. I never thought of it, but they’re right. Mansbridge is a total pro, keeping things in perspective and very smartly letting the public know that even the professional reporters had a hard time getting things straight. But the other networks acquitted themselves well. CTV had muscular Kevin Newman at the anchor desk, and he was cool and calm. Global was fine as well. All of them could have gone off on panicky tangents, but they didn’t. I can’t say the same for the B team that populates the morning news shows on CTV News Network and CBC Newsworld. In the early going of the crisis, the Newsworld anchor, a woman whose name escapes me, was in so far over her head it was almost embarrassing to watch. At one point, she said something like “Not to be too dramatic here, but Parliament is under attack!” Seriously.

• Another low point in the coverage came not from the media, but from the police. When the Ottawa police and the RCMP finally held a press conference, no doubt seen live around the world, they conspired to say absolutely nothing. Not one shred of new information came out of the press conference, as the cops held fast to their talking points. It was embarrassing to watch.

• High praise must go to Josh Wingrove of the Globe and Mail. When gunshots rang out and people were running for cover, he tagged along with the security people and captured the images of the gunfight that ended the crisis. Nobody has given him credit for guts, but he deserves it. He willingly went into a dangerous situation, and recorded the whole incident. Perhaps no piece of Canadian news footage in history has been seen and replayed more than Wingrove’s clip.

• Still with the media, the next day’s Edmonton Sun front page was the greatest missed opportunity I’ve ever seen by a newspaper. In place of an actual news photo — and God knows there were dozens of arresting images — the Sun chose to display a huge maple leaf, with the headline “We will not be intimidated: PM Harper’s vow after hears of Canadian democracy attached.” While even politicians were putting politics aside, the Sun couldn’t resist giving their hero Harper the Winston Churchill treatment. The next day, one of their stable of hacks devoted a column praising Harper to the skies for his utterly uninspiring post-shooting speech.

• Now to the use of the H word, as in hero. Was Corp. Nathan Cirillo a hero? Sadly, no. He was an innocent victim of a scumbag, and his loss is utterly heartbreaking and enraging at the same time. But hero? No, sorry. He was a guy doing a sacred duty who was in the right place (guarding the war memorial) at the wrong time. But the remarkable collection of people who attended to him until the ambulance came, tending to his wounds, giving him CPR, giving him comfort? Yes, those are heroes. And needless to say, the true hero of the piece is Kevin Vickers, the seargeant-at-arms who calmly dispatched the shooter with a few remarkably well placed shots, then let cowering MPs know it was safe to leave. Now, that is a hero.

• As terrible as this week has been, it at the very least gave us profoundly Canadian, lump-in-the-throat moments. When Vickers entered the House of Commons the next day to a roaring ovation from MPs, you couldn’t help but feel deep pride in the Canadian way. As silly as the whole ceremony looks, it represents the way our democracy works, and returning to work after such a traumatic day sent a profound message. And then there were the thousands who saluted the funeral procession of Cpl. Cirillo on the ‘Highway of Heroes’, a spontaneous display of solidarity and determination. Ya gotta love this country.

• And finally, the big questions. Was this our 9-11? Of course not. Did we ‘lose our innocence’ on that day? No; only the most naive Canadian thought this couldn’t happen in Canada. Will Canada ‘never be the same again’? No; it will change a little, in that it will be harder to get into public buildings and we’ll be more alert to questionable characters. But I don’t think one creep with a gun can change an entire country. Canada was a great and open country before October 22, 2014, and it will remain a great and open country after October 22, 2014. We’re blessed to live in this great nation, even if there are some who don’t feel the same way.

• Finally, this magnificent editorial cartoon, by Bruce MacKinnon of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, deserves to be seen by every Canadian.

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CFRN at 60: When TV really mattered.

Once upon a time, there was something called local TV. It was made up — quite literally — on the spot, live. Looking back on it today, it was probably pretty bad. But it was ours.

In my early years growing up in Edmonton, there were two channels. One was the CBC outlet, called CBXT. I suppose it produced some programs, but for the life of me I can’t remember them. But to most of the first generation of TV addicts, there was only one station. It was CFRN TV, channel 3.

CFRN — now under the bland corporate moniker of CTV Edmonton — was the source of all things television to those of us who grew up in the 1960s and into the 1970s. The channel is celebrating its 60th birthday this month, with a retrospective of what’s left of their old shows available on the CTV Edmonton (sigh) website. Aside from bringing up memories, the anniversary brings to mind just how much local TV has changed. And not entirely for the better.

Ask any kid in Edmonton today to name the shows they watch on TV, and you’ll get roughly the same answers, with The Simpsons reruns probably topping the list. You would get the same answers in any Canadian city today, or any North American city for that matter. TV has been homogenized. CTV Edmonton looks the same as CTV Calgary, and CTV Winnipeg, and CTV St. John’s, for that matter. The only differences between the channels is the news crew, where you’ll find different middle-aged veteran anchors, different younger co-anchors, different cheery upbeat ‘meteorologists’, and different sports guy/gal.

But back in the early days, every channel was different. I don’t know if CFRN was any better than CFCN in Calgary, or any other Canadian TV station, but it sure managed to produce a lot of memories.

First among them, and a beloved memory for thousands of Edmonton boomers, was Popcorn Playhouse, the legendary afternoon kids show. Thousands of Edmonton kids had their moment of fame on Popcorn Playhouse, interviewed however briefly by the legendary Eric Neville, who hosted the show with a casual charm that made him a made-in-Edmonton star. (You can read my rare interview with Eric Neville here, for a story I wrote for Avenue magazine. It’s one of my all-time favourite interviews.)

While Popcorn Playhouse remains the boomers’ fave (it has a Facebook page called Fans of Popcorn Playhouse, with 2,100 members), I was also a fan of The Noon Show, a weekday lunchtime hour of general nuttiness hosted by the smooth and unflappable Ed Kay (click here for a nice photo album from Ed) and frequently by the towering Norris McLean (my apologies for any incorrect spellings of names). The show had a house band, Gaby Haas and the Barndance Gang, which featured on the clarinet a deadpan comic foil named Clarence Plouffe. (Legend has it that a later Gaby Haas show on cable TV was the inspiration for the Schmenge Brothers on SCTV.) The highlight for any boy who raced home at lunchtime to watch the show (back in the day when mom was home in most families) was the daily airing of The Three Stooges. I loved the Stooges, as did pretty much every boy in Edmonton (I firmly believe that girls did not watch the Stooges). One of my favourite bits on the Noon Show was during the last show of the summer, they would dismantle the set as a deadpan newsreader (Sid Lancaster, as I recall) would read the news without missing a beat.

Afternoons were for ‘women’s programming’, which in Edmonton was a show called Laura, featuring Laura Lindsay (again, not sure of the spelling). I never watched it, even if I was home sick (or “sick”) from school, But everybody knew Laura Lindsay; I remember one day she came into my dad’s Jack and Jill store downtown, and it was slightly exciting to be in the presence of a celebrity. Sometime in the afternoon, weary housewives (or kids home “sick”) could watch an old movie on Siesta Cinema.

On weekends, CFRN really produced, with a couple of other legendary local shows.

Kids Bids was a peculiar show, to be sure. On Kids Bids, a small audience of children would bid on an array of prizes, using boxtops of Old Dutch potato chips as currency. The auctioneering would be conducted by a pair of real auctioneers, whose name I believe was O’Hara, who didn’t cut the kids any slack. They would rattle off their hyper rapid auctioneers pitch until some poor kid bid everything they had for something they probably didn’t want.

And then there was Kiddies on Kamera, a literally juvenile talent show. Kiddies on Kamera was exactly as advertised, minus the spelling. Every week, kids would display whatever talent they had on the show, and if memory serves me correctly, it was divided roughly equally between Highland dancing and baton twirling (occasionally, a really daring baton twirler would light the ends of the batons on fire). Now, that’s entertainment!

Nothing like this exists anymore, which is a shame. I’d bet that a modern version of Popcorn Playhouse would be a smash hit today, but no TV station wants to put those kind of resources into producing a live kids show. I can’t blame them; the cost would be tremendous, and it’s a lot easier and profitable to just plug Judge Judy or Ellen into that time slot. The days of TV producing homegrown celebrities is long past, and that’s kind of sad. CFRN was a big part of growing up Edmonton. Now, as CTV Edmonton, it’s just another interchangeable piece in the big media machine.

Political grab bag time.

And now, in lieu of a real blog of connected thoughts, here are some disjointed thoughts on matters political …

• The leadership race for the provincial New Democrats is even more of a snoozer than the PC leadership coronation of Jim ‘Don’t Blame Me’ Prentice. There are three candidates in the running. One is some guy I have never heard of, and see no need to get to know. The other two are two colorless sitting MLAs, David Eggen and Rachel Notley, both from Edmonton (Edmonton produces NDP leaders the way Calgary produces PC leaders, which is to say almost all of the time). Eggen is not a bad guy (I served with him in the legislature), but he is uninspiring and poor public speaker. In the legislature (not that anyone cares), he’s strictly a scripted questioner. If there’s any passion in Eggen, other than the desire to be an MLA, I haven’t seen it. Notley is better, but not by much. She oozes sincerity, but is as warm and inviting as a school librarian. Notley will win in a walk, I believe, which would be their best decision. Having a female socialist leader of a party will ensure the NDP retains the kit gloves treatment they have always received from the media. She’s no Brian Mason, who was good with the quip for the media, but she’s the next best thing.

•  It hardly matters who the New Democrats choose, however. The next election will come down to a Wildrose/PC winner-take-all brawl, with the NDs and the Liberals hoping to pick up the crumbs. And right now, it looks like the NDs will get the lion’s share of whatever is left over. Every ND and Liberal MLA in the legislature right now owes his or her job to personal popularity and working the doors. The NDs have a skill at targeting ridings and getting a candidate in early — sometimes years ahead of time — to give themselves a fighting chance of winning winnable ridings. The Liberals, however, are in their usual state of disarray. For example, while the other parties had candidates in place when the byelections were announced, the Liberals had nobody in place in two of the four ridings. The Liberals can frequently find good candidates, but then give them little or no backup. With two sitting MLAs (Calgarians Darshan Kang and Kent Hehr) leaving to take doomed attempts at winning for the federal Liberals, the Liberals will lose two valuable assets for the next election. The loss of Hehr, in particular, is a real blow, giving the party a sinking ship feeling.
• On the federal scene, Justin Trudeau is finally getting almost universally bad reviews for his ‘give peace a chance’ stance on combating the bloodthirsty maniacs called ISIS, or ISIL, or Islamic State, or whatever they’re called today. While the debate on Canada’s role in fighting this scourge is serious and important, Trudeau has been inarticulate and even juvenile, saying the government wants to “whip our our CF-18s and show them how big they are”. That’s pathetic. Trudeau has been rightly roasted in the papers, but one media outlet has been almost muted. The Sun papers, which have been foaming at the mouth over Trudeau since he won the Liberal leadership, have barely said a word. Even their resident Bill O’Reilley wannabe, Ezra Levant, has been mercifully silent. Could it be that the Sun is, however briefly, chastised by having to apologize to Trudeau for its grossly offside Levant rant? I think it’s hilarious that at a time when the Sun should be in its glory attacking Trudeau, they’re practically sitting on the sidelines. Maybe Trudeau really does lead a charmed life.

The Sun will never darken my door again.

A few weeks ago, a nice young man came to my door, offering a three-month subscription to the Edmonton Sun for $30. I know the Sun essentially sucks, but I figured, hey, $30 for three months of a newspaper. What’s the harm?

After about a week, I contemplated cancelling my subscription and getting a refund. After three months of having this daily right-wing screed darkening my door, I can tell you without contradiction that I will never, ever spend so much as a dime on the Edmonton Sun again. And this comes from a lifelong newspaper reader, someone who loves newspapers and wants them to thrive. But the Sun is indefensibly bad.

It’s not just its obsession with the Edmonton Oilers at the expense of real news. It’s not just that you have to wade through dozens of pages of car dealership ads to find the tiniest of news stories. It’s not just that the newsroom is so woefully understaffed that very limited space available for local news is swallowed up by enormous, space gobbling photos. It’s not just that it employs Canada’s worst editorial cartoonist. Considering the tragic state of newspapers today, I could almost live with all of these flaws. But what I cannot abide by  the fact that the Sun is now the Official House Newspaper of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, publisher.

The Sun is, and always has been, brazenly right wing. Right wing blather is what the Sun does, and I know that. It is what it is. But there is such a thing as being intelligently right wing. The Sun is not. It has now gone so ludicrously over the line, so Fox News-ish, that it now can’t even pretend to be objective.

The object of the Sun’s ire is, obviously, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau.

In the approximately 90 days I’ve been reading the Sun, I’ve seen anti-Trudeau stories or columns in easily 70 of those editions. I’m confident in saying that the name Justin Trudeau has appeared far more often in the past 90 days than the name of some guy named Stephen Harper. And Thomas Mulcair, the actual leader of the opposition? Barely rates a mention.

The Sun hates Justin Trudeau — and hates is not an exaggeration — because he represents the gravest threat yet to their glorious leader, St. Stephen of Harper. The attacks on Trudeau are relentless, and sometimes nearly devoid of facts. The Sun tried very hard to tar Trudeau as a terrorist sympathizer because he visited a supposedly radical mosque that was on some kind of government watch list. Turns out that Trudeau visited the mosque before the warning was issued, but that didn’t stop the Sun from trying repeatedly to make something out of nothing.

Then, of course, there’s Ezra Levant. I doubt if any Canadian newspaper has ever hired anyone so venal, so vicious. This self-aggrandizing blowhard has been given free reign to write columns with little regard for the facts. Why he remains in the employ of the Sun organization is beyond me, particularly after the Sun was forced to apologize this week to — ready for this? — Justin Trudeau. Levant went on a screed on his Sun TV show about Trudeau that was so wrong, so cruel to the Trudeau family, that the Sun was forced to apologize.

The Sun’s standard fall back position when Levant goes over the line, which he does regularly and with great glee, is that he is a commentator, and not a journalist, so he is not bound by the usual rules of journalism. This is total bullshit, of course. A columnist is bound by the same rules of accuracy of any reporter; he or she is allowed an opinion on the facts, but the information in the column must still be accurate. Levant apparently works under a different set of rules.

The fact the Sun supports the Conservatives is not reason enough to abandon the whole publication. Lots of papers have made the same mistake. But the Sun’s praise of Harper is so obsequious, so blinkered, so unflinching, that it has zero credibility as a newspaper in national matters. And I’m OK with any media outlet keeping a close eye at Justin Trudeau. For example, in Wednesday’s Sun, national bureau chief David Akin wrote a thoughtful, reasoned piece on Canada’s role in the war on ISIS. The Conservatives haven’t made up their minds yet, the New Democrats are asking pointed questions, but Trudeau’s Liberals have already said “The Liberal Party is not supportive of any extension into a combat role. We think Canada’s role should be strictly non-combat.”

Akin’s point was that the Conservatives and the NDP are discussing the matter, while the Liberals have made up their minds. This is important to bring up. This is how it should be done.

But Akin in a reasoned voice in the right-wing looney bin that is the Edmonton Sun. It is, quite literally, not worth the paper it is printed on.

Someone save me from another NHL season.

So here I am, basking in the late September sunshine, relishing a 27C day. That can only mean one thing — it’s hockey season!

Oh God, no! Didn’t it just finish last month? Or does it only seem like it?

I’ve actually grown to kind of hate the National Hockey League. I hate the grossly inflated size of the league. I hate the way the league has attempted to graft hockey onto any geographical area and arena that will have it. I hate its random, nonsensical approach to discipline for violent acts. I hate the fact the hockey season is spread out over three earth seasons. I hate the fact it only gets interesting when winter is on the way out.

But mostly, I hate how hockey has gone from pastime to obsession, obliterating everything else in its path. Take right now, for instance. Training camps are underway, and already the floundering local rags have devoted hundreds of thousands of words, gallons of ink and God knows how many trees to detailing the minutia of the Edmonton Oilers. From now until they are eliminated from the playoffs, the Oilers will be on the front page of the Edmonton Sun and Car Ad Daily a bare minimum of 100 times. The Edmonton Journal won’t match the Sun’s obsessive coverage, only because it doesn’t have the space. But today’s paper still managed a front-page picture of an exhibition game, and the paper’s only local sports columnist (Canada’s only sports columnist who has no opinions on anything) actually devoted his column to how much promise the Oilers show — after one exhibition game! Every game will be televised with the worst kind of small town ‘hooray for our team’ boosterism usually reserved for Texas high school football. Edmonton hockey fans will fill Rexall Place for every game, paying whatever the team asks for the right to sit on their hands and watch a thrilling tilt between Edmonton and arch rivals, Phoenix, then go out to their frozen cars in -30C weather and spend 40 minutes in the parking lot. They’ll pay whatever it takes for a beer because, hell, they’ve got wads of Fort Mac cash in their jeans, and they’ve got to spend it on something.

I’ll admit that I might get mildly interested in the Oilers sometime around February. I say February because, despite the fact it’s my birthday month, it is the dreariest, shortest-but-longest month of the year, and I always need something to distract me from the spirit-sapping tedium of an Edmonton winter. I hope they’re good — or, more importantly, entertaining. But otherwise, I don’t really care. I don’t care if the Flames are better than the Oilers, I don’t care if Toronto is lousy (although that would be my preference), I don’t care about Montreal, or Ottawa, or Vancouver, or Nashville (they still have a team, right?). Maybe joining a hockey pool would rekindle my interest in the NHL. But that would require actually paying attention to the league and the players, and that sounds like too much work.

I wish I enjoyed the popular obsession with the NHL. In this town, you can carry on hours long conversations with complete strangers if you casually mention the Oilers. But I just can’t bring myself to care about a billionaire’s plaything and his millionaire pawns. Wake me up when — if — they get to the playoffs. By then, it will be spring again.

A few kinds words about a Progressive Conservative. Seriously.

This is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to write. But I feel compelled to say a few kind words about — shudder — a member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Oh, this is gonna hurt.

Dave Hancock has announced his retirement from politics. At 59, and after 17 years in elected office and pretty much every position in cabinet from minister to premier, it must have been a difficult decision. He would almost certainly have won another term, regardless of how the next election goes for the PCs, and have enjoyed a very well paid semi-retirement as a backbencher and respected party elder. But, as he quoted a former cabinet minister, it’s better to leave the stage while they’re still applauding. In keeping with that theme, I’ll give him a round of applause.

I served in the legislature while Hancock sat on the other side, always in the front row.  Hancock was a formidable foe, and in a good way. A lot of ministers during the Ralph Klein/Ed Stelmach governments answered even the most honest questions with a snarling insult. Hancock wasn’t that kind of guy. Ask him an honest question, and he would give you an honest answer. But he was no pushover. If he thought a question was stupid (and, believe it or not, that happened) or was unnecessarily combative, he could dish it out with the best of them. When he was angry, it was (apparently) genuine anger, unlike the feigned outrage that cabinet ministers would so often summon. While many cabinet ministers clearly dreaded question period, I always got the impression that Hancock relished it. He even had a sense of humour, the rarest of commodities in government.

Perhaps most importantly, he was competent. You’d like to think that anyone in a provincial cabinet would be competent, but — prepare yourselves for a shock! — many of them were not. Honest! There was no shortage of complete and outright boobs in the Klein/Stelmach governments, second-raters who rose up the ranks thanks to their ability to kiss the right asses. Hancock was not one of them.

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was known as ‘The Happy Warrior’ for his upbeat attitude and his obvious relish for politics. I think you could say the same thing about Hancock, a happy warrior for the cause. Oh sure, it was the wrong cause, but he was just the kind of guy we need in politics.