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.

Worst. Leadership race. Ever.

Somewhere in my collection of flotsam and jetsam of old newspaper clippings from my youth, I have the famous Edmonton Journal paper from the day after the Progressive Conservatives, under Peter Lougheed, finally toppled the Social Credit dynasty. The headline, written in massive type in true Tory blue, read: “Now! It’s Lougheed!”

Now, as the longest reigning Canadian provincial government in Canadian history staggers to the finish line of its third leadership race in eight years, the most likely headline should be “Finally … it’s Prentice.” 

On Saturday, the PCs will announce the winner of their leadership race, and if all goes according to plans (and polls), the new man will be Jim Prentice, another Calgarian with extensive ties to The Industry. (Calgary, it seems, produces leaders or would-be leaders; Edmonton produces opponents. Good thing somebody does.)  As everyone knows, the PCs are in disarray. After 43 years in power, the party seems to be suffering from the political equivalent of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. If you were to lay a bet right now, it would seem the wise choice to put your money on the odds-on favourite in the 2016 election, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

But wait! The PC party obit has been written more often than Mark Twain’s. (Twain, after a premature obit appeared, famously said: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”) In some ways, when Prentice takes over the party, he will be in a better position than Alison Redford.

Redford, you may recall (and it seems almost impossible to believe, considering how far she had fallen), took over with sky-high hopes. Finally, the progressives cheered, a truly progressive Progressive Conservative. A worldly, big-city lawyer — and a woman! (I had a feeling the Liberals were in trouble when a long-time Liberal operative I know greeted the election of Redford not with dread, but with unbridled joy.)

Redford was, shall we say, a bit of a disappointment. The party Prentice inherits is in disarray, bedevilled by a series of puny, travel-related scandals and a general sense of exhaustion. While Redford started on a high with great expectations, Prentice starts with the party at a low ebb. In other words, nowhere to go but up.

(I write this based on my assumption that Prentice wins. If either of the two lame-duck candidates — professional dunderhead Ric McIver, or the slithering Thomas Lukaszuk — somehow wins, you can dust off that PC obit and run it today. If Prentice wins, we can happily write the long overdue obit of Lukaszuk.)

Prentice actually has some potential. After the feckless farmer Ed Stelmach, and the patrician Redford, all Prentice has to do is play the hard-nosed businessman type and ground the government’s silly fleet of airplanes. (By the way, this ‘scandal’ of Finance Minister Doug Horner taking his wife on the occasional plane ride is a whole lot of nothing. If there was an empty seat on the plane, as I assume there was on the times she went along, the actual cost to the taxpayer is nil. This is small change.) Alberta, after all, is in pretty good financial shape, and to most voters, that’s all that matters. Once Prentice realizes that he had billions of dollars to throw at any problem — health care, education, whatever the problem du jour is — he will make these problems go away in time for the next election. 

Once this dreadful, uneventful, petty leadership ‘”race” is officially over, Prentice can get down to business. His first order of business will be, of course, business. Get to work, avoid trivial scandals, and the Tories can easily extend their record setting longevity streak. The Wildrose is always just one dip into the lake of fire away from reminding the public of their extremist roots, as we saw in the last election. 

(By the way, the New Democrats are also holding a leadership vote, pitting the earnest Rachel Notley against the earnest David Eggen, and somebody else who is, I assume, earnest. Just thought I should mention it.)


Thomas Lukaszuk, world’s most expensive relationship counsellor.

OK, I have about a million questions about the Thomas Lukaszuk $20,000 phone bill scandal. Or maybe about seven. 

First, the background. It was revealed this week that Lukaszuk, the soon-to-be third place finisher in the anemic PC leadership race, rang up a $20,000 phone bill while on a personal trip to Poland. Lukaszuk first said it was because of ‘government business’, which at least had a ring of truth to it. But later it was revealed that the ‘government business’ was a call from a frantic cabinet minister who was involved in a family crisis. The police were called, and the minister felt unsafe, so the story goes. Lukaszuk, ever the hero, worked for about an hour on the file, helped the minister obtain a lawyer, exchanged a bunch of legal documents, then went back to his vacation. One hour of work, he says, and a $20,000 phone bill. 

The mind reels with questions. Such as:

1. Who is the cabinet minister? Lukaszuk says the matter in question is covered by a publication ban, which sounds like hiding behind legal mumbo-jumbo. Lukaszuk could safely say he got a call from Minister X about an urgent family matter without violating any publication ban. I guarantee you that everybody in the legislature press gallery knows who the minister is. 

2. Why Lukaszuk? Lukaszuk says he didn’t have a personal relationship with the minister, so why would he/she phone him? Lukaszuk was the deputy premier, and he says the call was referred to him after being pawned off on him by the premier’s office. Why in God’s name would anyone turn to Thomas Lukaszuk for advice? Remember, this is a guy who got into an argument with a senior citizen at the man’s home, and called the cops on him. Asking Thomas Lukaszuk for help is like turning to Charlie Sheen for personal advice.

3. Why didn’t Lukaszuk tell the minister to get lost? If I was in the same situation, and I got a call like that while on vacation, my response would be: “Are you kidding me? I’m on holidays! You’re a grown adult, take care of it. Call the cops or something, but why the hell are you bothering me about this?”

4. What kind of people did Alison Redford appoint to her cabinet? It’s frightening to think that there was someone in charge of a provincial government department and its multi-million dollar budget who was so baffled about how to handle a personal domestic problem that he/she felt the need to call in a stranger for advice. Good lord. 

5. Who leaked the info? Personally, I don’t care. Clearly it was somebody who wanted to discredit Lukaszuk , which seems pointless since Lukaszuk already does a great job of discrediting himself. But this is where the story gets even weirder. Reports today in almost identical stories in both papers say an opposition MLA and a researcher say Service Alberta minister Manmeet Bhullar approached them and told them to look into Lukaszuk’s phone records for some juicy dirt. Bhullar denies the story, but I believe it. 

6. What kind of name is Manmeet?

7. Why is the MLA making the accusations allowed to remain anonymous? If you’re going to make a charge like this, you should be required to put your name and face to it. Frankly, I’m surprised that the Journal and the Sun allowed the MLA to remain unnamed. If you’re an elected official, and you make a charge against another elected official, you should man up (or woman up) and allow your name to be used. What is the MLA afraid of? He/she can’t be fired or reprimanded. Making the claim anonymously is gutless and discredits the story, and the Journal and the Sun should have had the balls to tell the MLA that they needed a name, or no story. It’s unfair that Bhullar isn’t allowed to directly confront his accuser. 

After the endless stream of scandals large and small, and the unmistakable stench of decay wafting over the PC party, the final question is one that I imagine Jim Prentice must be asking himself: Why the hell did I ever want to be involved with this collection of idiots?


Ode to the bridge to somewhere: a mini-memoir

I went for lunch today with my old pal Bruce Miller. I chose the Original Joe’s on 102 Avenue because a) it’s relatively cheap and good (I always have a wrap, which is enough food for today’s AND tomorrow’s lunch), and b) I wanted to see the gaping hole where the old metal bridge used to be.

If you’ve lived in Edmonton for any time, chances are you went over the 102 Avenue bridge. I can’t imagine how many thousands of times I went over that bridge, mostly as a kid. It was sort of my gateway to the world, or at least to downtown Edmonton. Some world, eh?

I grew up on 102nd Avenue, in a big red brick house that was big enough for me and my 10 siblings. Traversing that weird metal bridge was something I did thousands of times, but it always gave me a tiny frisson of excitement. In a car, the wheels hummed their own unique tune; you don’t get many chances to hear rubber on metal, so it was always briefly entertaining. Going across the bridge on a bike was a whole different experience — scary, actually. I always felt that you could lose control easily, which was probably untrue, but it was still thrilling. The option was to ride on the sidewalk, which, as I recall, was made out of wooden planks. But that presented its own problems, as it always seemed that one could topple off their bike, over the railing, and — splat! — onto Groat Road below. OK, not very likely, but hey. I was a kid.

On one side of the bridge were the homes of the Glenora area. On the other side were the businesses of Glenora. As a young consumer, they were the establishments where I would spend my hard-earned allowance money on Saturday morning. The focal point of my universe was the intersection of 124th Street and 102 Avenue. On the corner where an upscale restaurant and the Glenora bed-and-breakfast sits was Carrington Drugstore. This is where I would go to buy my Mad magazine once a month (15 cents originally, then 25, then 40, etc.) or my pocketbooks of compilations of Peanuts cartoons (which I still have). It was also a popular spot to buy Mother’s Day gifts of pocketbooks of mom’s favourites, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart (known as the American Christie), and the occasional collection of Erma Bombeck columns. It was also where we would go to buy smokes for mom. Seriously. It was a different world.

Next door was a tiny grocery store where I would buy my Saturday candy. I don’t know the name of it, but since it was run by a couple of little old ladies, we called it the old ladies’ store. One of the ladies was a nice old British dame, the other was a kind of crabby old broad who got very impatient if you took too long to pick out your candy. If for whatever reason the old ladies’ store wasn’t open, or you wanted something different, you could cross 124th Street and go to the diner, which also had a supply of candy and some terrible ‘humor’ magazines called Broadway Laffs, or something like that. I don’t know the name of that place either, but since it was owned by some Chinese people, it was, or course, the Chinamen’s. The only remnant of the area that survives today is the Esso station, where dad would stop for a fill and maybe some NHL Power Players stickers, or a stuffed ‘tiger tail’ (Esso’s slogan being ‘put a tiger in your tank’). 

Closer to the bridge was a small grocery store called Fong’s Food Market, which I didn’t much care for. It had a lunch counter of sorts, which my brother Gary frequented. I have no idea why. Closer to the bridge was a small office building which still exists today, but it was not the kind of place I went to willingly. On the main floor was my barber — first it was Fred, and Fred’s Barber Shop, then when Fred retired or died or whatever old barber’s do, it was taken over by a guy named John, who called it John’s Barber Shop. I remember getting my hair cut there once, plunking myself down in a chair in a room full of old people who like to hand around in barber shops. I got some nasty looks from the old coots because I sat on one of their hats. Who puts their hat on a chair?

Upstairs, however, was a fate worse than Fred’s — the dentist. His name was something like Lindskoog, and I suspect he retired early or bought a boat or something based entirely on the money earned from Tougas family teeth. In the days before fluoride, our teeth were cesspools of decay, which Dr. Lindskoog happily drilled and filled. My sons barely have a half-dozen cavities between the three of them; when we were kids, if we only had a half-dozen cavities to fill on a visit, we considered that a pretty good check-up.

And as for the building where Original Joe’s sits today — I don’t know what was there. it was some kind of manufacturing facility, or a garage, or something. Whatever it was, it held no interest to a kid and his allowance. 

It’s weird to see nothing where that old metal bridge once stood. Pretty much everything else on 102 Avenue has changed, so I guess losing the bridge is hardly surprising. But still, I kind of miss that old humming sound. 


The Fringe: Edmonton’s holiest sacred cow.

Every city has its sacred cows, institutions that are so established and so revered, that they are beyond genuine criticism. Edmonton has more than its share. The folk fest is invariably praised to the skies, regardless of the quality of its lineup. The Heritage Festival is always lauded despite the fact that is is always the same. The river valley is considered Edmonton’s great gem, despite the fact is it inaccessible to most people, and generally ignored by almost everyone.

But there is no holier sacred cow than the Fringe Festival, Edmonton’s annual orgy of theatre.

Now, don’t get your panties in a knot (whatever that means). I would not criticize the Fringe as an event: I think it’s fantastically cool. It’s a great Edmonton success story, an example of how a fairly isolated northern city (as Ralph Klein once said, Edmonton isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from there) makes its own fun, and turns it into something quite wonderful. The public clearly loves it, and the city is justifiably proud of it.

However, in my mind the Fringe productions have become almost unassailable. I am convinced that the normal standards of criticism do not apply to Fringe productions.

Check out the reviews of Fringe productions in the Sun and the Journal. They are overwhelmingly positive, often gushing. As of Tuesday, the Journal has given out four-and-a-half stars and above to a whopping 49 productions. Another 53 have scored three-and-a-half stars. Only 19 have rated two-and-a-half or lower, with only three total bombs. The Sun is roughly the same proportion, declaring only ONE play to be a bomb.

Think about this. What are the odds that of the dozens and dozens of Fringe shows — some seasoned professional productions, some by first timers, some by amateurs — would be overwhelmingly good to great? Hollywood’s entire film production year doesn’t score remotely as highly, despite multi-million dollar budgets and the best talent the industry has to offer. Could it be, perhaps, that Edmonton Fringe reviewers apply a different standard to Fringe shows? The answer is obviously yes.

The best reviewed play by both papers so far is (ready for this?) Propylene Glycol, Maltodextrin, Retinol Palmitate, and Other Words I Don’t Understand Like Love, which is some sort of modern dance rubbish (shudder). On the other side of the spectrum, how does one explain how two plays (Dr. Frightful Presents: Dead Air, and Running on Stilts) are placed on the opposite sides of the spectrum? The Journal gave Dr. Frightful four stars (The Journal gives out four-star reviews like candy at Haloween), while the Sun gave it a half-‘sun’. Running on Stilts got four ‘suns’ from the Sun, while being slagged as sexist and misogynist and worthy of just one star in the Journal.

My point is that Fringe reviews should be read with a heaping teaspoon of salt. Sure, use them as a rough guide to something you might like, but don’t put too much stock in them.

Time to stop beating on Alison Redford … she’s already dead.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a Krusty the Klown impersonator for hire. At the opening of a new Krusty Burger, he savagely attacks the Krusty Burger version of the Hamburgler for stealing Krusty Burgers. Watching the beating, a child in the crowd says “Stop! He’s already dead.”

That’s the way I feel about Alison Redford. The announcement that Premier Dave Hancock has asked the RCMP to look into Redford’s use of government aircraft makes me think, “Stop! She’s already dead.”

Redford has already resigned in disgrace, mostly for being insufferably arrogant. She has been trashed mercilessly by two of the also-rans running for the leadership of the PC party, mostly by the oily Thomas Lukaszuk, who was one of her biggest supporters and his best political ally. This week, while Tories were running from her like she had the ebola virus, she resigned her seat in the legislature. That wasn’t good enough for the cowardly premier Hancock, who has asked the RCMP to investigate the auditor general’s claim that she had ‘ghost passengers’ listed on the manifests of government planes so she could ride without being surrounded by the hoi polloi.

Now, let’s look at this. If there really were doctored documents that ensured the princess premier would travel alone, and if the premier knew about it or authorized it (she denies it, and the fact she asked the auditor general to look into government travel tends to back up her claim), how is this possibly a criminal matter worthy of the precious time of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police? Surely this is light years away from being a criminal act. Stupid and arrogant, sure. Obnoxious, certainly. But criminal? Ridiculous.

The sad fact is that people seem to hate Redford with a passion, and it’s now seen as perfectly OK to pile on her mercilessly. Ralph Klein used government planes as his own personal taxi service. Nobody complained, because King Ralph was a beloved, rascally old alcoholic who playfully threw money at homeless people and told them to get a job. What a kidder! Redford, however, is a patrician snob who probably would have thought the idea of throwing money at homeless people to be in ‘poor taste’. What a killjoy.

Hey, I’m no fan of Redford. But nobody in recent Canadian political history has risen so high, so fast, and crashed so shamefully as has Alison Redford. Calling in the cops to investigate was is, at worst, petty use of government dollars is shameful. The Tories are using the RCMP as a shield to deflect attention away from their own culture of entitlement that allowed Redford to run rampant. And by calling in the cops, the PCs can now say they can’t comment on any matter that is ‘before the courts’ (which it isn’t). Also very conveniently, the RCMP is unlikely to make a decision on charges until after the PCs elected Jim Prentice as their new leader.

Redford’s use of government aircraft is disgraceful, and she has paid a high political price for her hubris. The PC party’s tossing Redford under the bus — then putting the bus in reverse, running over her again, then getting off the bus and kicking her, then calling in a tank to run over her again — is equally appalling.



Woe Canada: When the CFL tried to conquer the USA. A book review.

Considering how long the venerable Canadian Football League has been around, remarkably little has been written about its turbulent history. That lack of information makes End Zones & Border Wars all that much more of a delight for fans of the seemingly indestructible league.

End Zones & Border Wars, by Vancouver Province sportswriter Ed Willes, chronicles a time, from the late 1980s into the mid-190s, when the CFL was teetering on the abyss. Ottawa went bust, as did Montreal. The B.C. Lions were in perpetual ownership chaos (the league had to run the team for a while). The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were $3 million in debt, and the Calgary Stampeders held a Save Our Stamps campaign in 1986. Toronto was a mess (some things never change).

But in the early 1990s, the CFL and some of its owners (a disreputable group that included names notorious to CFL fans, names like Ryckman, Glieberman, Pezim, and Skalbania) came up with a scheme to save the league with an infusion of cash, via American expansion. The CFL had grand plans to expand into cities that didn’t have NFL franchises, with the dream of becoming a second major football league in the U.S.

As football fans know, it was a colossal fiasco. There were some successes (the Baltimore franchise appeared in two Grey Cup games in their two years, winning one, eventually morphing into the present-day Montreal Alouettes), but the good never came close to outweighing the bad. As Willes describes in loving and often hilarious detail, the American franchises were mostly owned by seriously undercapitalized sharpies who talked a good game, but did not deliver. The old World Hockey Association had its chaotic moments, but the CFL might have topped them all. The Las Vegas Posse practiced in the Riviera Hotel parking lot; the Shreveport Pirates billeted their players above a barn full of circus animals. Games would be played in 50,000-seat building with 5,000 fans in the stands. And our course, there was the unforgettable performance of O Canada at the Posse’s first home game, a moment of ineptitude that summed up the CFL expansion experience in one song.

CFL fans will gobble up Willes’ fact and anecdote filled book. I have a few quibbles, however. Willes spends far too much time on the epic 1994 B.C.-Baltimore Grey Cup game. Yes, it was a great game, but his lengthy dissection of the game takes away the book’s momentum. The photos are a seemingly random collection of game pictures (a dozen from the ‘94 Grey Cup game alone), there are no graphics of the team logos of the failed American teams, or even the season standings. Otherwise, End Zones & Border Wars is required reading for fans of the beloved old league, a vivid retelling of the time when the CFL was in a seemingly permanent state of being third down and 30 yards to go.

End Zone & Border Wars is published by Harbour Publishing.