Stuff happens, week 12: Prentice sets the stage; Smith shut down; no future in Future Shop

The story this week in Alberta is The Greatest Budget Ever Sold.

After weeks of Grim Jim Prentice telling us that the sky was falling, and it was falling on your head, his government delivered a budget that was full of cuts and tax increases. But it was full of little cuts and little tax increases, just enough to make people frown and go ‘harrumph’, but not enough to go ‘WTF??’ He raised funding for education by 2% – but won’t hire any new teachers (which will make all those new schools he promised kinda empty). He made cuts to health care, but with a scalpel, not a bone saw. He increased taxes — horrors! — but only to the better off. He hinted at the return of health premiums, but brought in something else that only deals a glancing blow to the wealthier. And for big corporations and big oil — nothing. Apparently, Alberta’s mega-corporations are so sensitive, that even a half-percent rise in what is already Canada’s lowest corporate tax rate was just too damaging to these delicate flowers. Overall, not the “transformative” budget he promised, and certainly not enough of a change to demand an election. But that won’t stop him. The election train has left the station; the only question left is the estimated time of arrival.

The election, whenever it is called, will have to be held without Danielle Smith. The former Wildrose Party leader, who came as close as anyone to toppling the Tory dynasty before betraying everything she stood for by joining the PCs, was rejected by the party she joined. On Saturday, she lost a bid to be the PC nominee for her new party, bringing an ignominious end to blazing political career. But don’t shed any tears for Danielle Smith: the end of her political career was entirely of her own making.  (Oh, and the Wildrose has a new leader. Brian Jean, a former federal PC, is the new, entirely unfamiliar face of the party.)

Meanwhile, in Ontario, the government released its ‘sunshine list’, made up of every government employee who makes more than $100,000 a year. Turns out, being a government employee in Ontario can be a pretty good gig — more than 111,400 of the province’s municipal and provincial employees topped six figures. In some of the larger police forces, more than half of the employees top $100,000. One constable made $245,000; ten constables topped $200,000. Premier Kathleen Wynne’s chief of staff makes more — way more — than President Obama’s. And a number of top execs at government agencies make staggering salaries, like the president of the U of T Asset Management Corp, who took home $937,000. Save this blog for the next time somebody complains about poor, underpaid civil servants.

Omar Khadr got his day in court this week, pleading for parole. Canadian-born Khadr, now 28, has been in prison since he was 15 for a ‘war crime’, which was basically being the winner in a battle to the death with an American soldier. The Harper government has been utterly irrational in its attempts to keep Khadr — who was a child soldier under the control of his radical parents — in jail for as long as possible. The simple fact is that if Khadr had committed murder in Canada as a 15 year old, he wouldn’t have served remotely as much time in prison as he has as a so-called ‘war criminal’. It’s all politics right now, the Harper government calling his crime ‘heinous’. What’s really heinous is the Harper government’s handling of this case.

The big get bigger: this week, Heinz and Kraft agreed to a merger that will create the North America’s third biggest food company, with sales of $22 billion. And here in Canada, the big retail news is the closure of fomerly-Canadian owned Future Shop. Some Future Shop stores will be converted into Best Buys, the American owners of Future Shop. But as for the others … they not only closed, they closed on Saturday.

A Germanwing jet with 150 people on board crashed into the Alps this week, killing everyone on board. This would have been a two- or three-day tragedy story, until it morphed into something much, much worse. The co-pilot, an apparently normal 28-year-old German, deliberately crashed the plane into the mountain after the pilot had been locked out of the cockpit. An airplane crash is now a mass murder/suicide.

RIP: Don ‘Smokey’ McLeod, former pro goaltender and briefly and Edmonton Oiler, at 68. Goalies are famously weird guys, but McLeod was in a league of his own. When McLeod was a member of the WHA’s Houston Aeros, he demanded a six-figure contract. When the Aeros offered him $99,999.99, he walked away and joined another team.

Stuff happens, week 11: A bridge too bent; freedom for cable subscribers

The bendy-bendy portion of Edmonton's newest bridge.

The bendy-bendy portion of Edmonton’s newest bridge.

Here in Edmonton, the city is in the process of rebuilding a major bridge into the downtown. It’s the 102 Avenue bridge, which I wrote about so lovingly a while back. I’m sure you remember that, right? Of course you do.

Last Sunday the city closed down Groat Road (a heavily trafficked route into downtown Edmonton) underneath the bridge to affix the monstrous metal bridge spans. Everything went find until …. they bent. Yes, bent. Twisted like a crazy straw. Incredible. I don’t know how such a thing could happen, but I can just imagine the construction crew watching the beams slowly bend out of shape, and everyone going, “Uh, you checked the specs on this, right?”

This week in the continuing saga of the Republicanation of the Conservative Party: a Conservative MP complains “it makes no sense to pay ‘whities’ to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs”; another MP says that new Canadians who want to wear a niqab at their citizenship ceremony should “stay the hell where you came from”; and another (that would be Stephen Harper) suggests rural folks need guns to protect themselves from evildoers. Ah, the warm and fuzzy Conservative party.

Have we reached atrocity exhaustion? Isis attacks at a museum in Tunisia, killing 21, and it barely rates a brief item on the news. In Yemen, scores of people (‘scores’ is a term the media uses when they don’t have an exact number, but they know it’s a lot) are killed in suicide bomb attacks on mosques. The response from the west? Um, there’s a ‘Yemen’?

There is good news for Canadian cable TV subscribers. The CRTC has ordered cable companies to offer subscribers a ‘skinny’ cable package that can be augmented by speciality channels added one-by-one, not in bundles. That means no more paying for a half-dozen channels you don’t watch just so you can watch one. Some of the lesser watched channels will fall by the wayside, but I don’t think the world will be a lesser place without Cottage Life TV. But don’t get too excited — cable doesn’t have to make the changes for about a year.

Yeah, it’s March Madness!  It’s the annual tournament promoted by the American college sports system to brings hundreds of millions of dollars into the American college sports system. On the surface, it’s an athletic contest, but in reality it’s a gigantic gambling opportunity. Still with basketball, Steve Nash, indisputably the best basketball player this country has ever produced, retired this week. Nash is one of those rare athletes who can properly be called a role model, someone all Canadians can be proud of, whether you watch basketball or not.

RIP: Robert “Bob” Appleyard was an English crickter who was able to bowl fast-medium swingers or seamers and off-spinners with almost exactly the same action. In his limited Test career, he took a wicket every fifty-one balls, and in first class cricket his 708 wickets cost only 15.48 runs each. And no, I have absolutely no idea of what of this means. But I need to finish this blog with an RIP, and this is the best I could do.

Stuff happens, week 10: Jim gives in; Taber gets trashed.

As soon as the legislature resumed on Tuesday, the Prentice government did a complete about-face in its opposition to gay-straight alliances in schools, introducing amendments to Bill 10 to allow the alliances when requested. The Bill 10 kerfuffle was a self-inflicted wound that Prentice has now stitched up, hoping there is no scar left behind. What it has proven, however, is that the ‘conservative’ side of the PC party still holds a lot of sway over the ‘progressive’ side. While Prentice hopes he can put this whole sorry mess behind him, the passage of Bill 10 gives the opposition Alberta Liberals something to crow about. It was MLA Laurie Blakeman who introduced her private member’s bill on GSAs that led to the PCs reactionary Bill 10. See, Albertans? It’s good to have some variety in the legislature.

The southern Alberta town of Taber has come in for some mockery for some of its new bylaws on public behaviour. The bylaw imposes fines for fighting, spitting in public, yelling, screaming or swearing in public. Some of the laws (“an assembly of three or more people in any public place where a police officer has reasonable grounds to believe the assembly will disturb the peace of the neighbourhood” is banned) are a little over the top, but realistically, most of the rest are basic laws in place almost everywhere. And if I may ask, if someone is yelling obscenities in public, shouldn’t that be illegal?

On International Women’s Day, Defence Minister Jason Kenny posted a picture on his Twitter account that he suggested was a picture of a Muslim woman who had been put in chains by Islamic extremists. Turns out, the picture was actually from a symbolic Shia Muslim ceremony. The Harper government’s hate agenda goes off the rails … again.

Big news in Canadian TV this week (yes, I know the words ‘big news’ and ‘Canadian television’ are as rare a combination as ‘Stephen Harper’ and ‘reasoned arguments’.) The CRTC announced a change to the Canadian content rules. Under the old rules, TV stations were forced to show 55 per cent Canadian content on daytime TV. Now, that rule has been eliminated, the idea being that Canadian TV can stop spending money on mediocre daytime TV and spend it on better quality prime time TV. First, I find it hard to believe Canadian TV has 55 per cent Can-con during the day. Even more unbelievable, the CRTC is leaving intact the rules that half of the TV shown between 6-11 p.m. is Canadian. Take a look at the CTV or Global prime time schedules; there is no way on earth there have 50 per cent Canadian content. Methinks CTV and Global will take the money they save on not producing Canadian daytime TV and spend it on buying more American primetime TV.

A working meth lab was found in an Indiana Wal-Mart washroom. Local meth dealers immediately complained that Wal-Mart was undercutting their prices.

Folowing the taping of a ‘roast’ of Justin Bieber, the pesky pop star apologized for his bad behaviour, proving that by saying ‘sorry’, he hasn’t lost touch with his Canadian roots. You know what he should have apologized for? His music. 

RIP: Sam Simon, 59, co-creator of The Simpsons, of colon cancer. Simon, who also wrote for sitcoms like Cheers, Taxi and The Drew Carey Show, was instrumental in developing The Simpsons in its first four years, but left after that point after clashing with creator Matt Groening. But when he left, he retained the executive producer title you still see today, and was given royalties from future home video sales. It provided him with tens of millions of dollars a year in royalties, much of which he gave to various charities. More importantly, he gave the world the gift of The Simpsons … Al McCann, 85, the longtime sports guy on CFRN TV back in the day when local TV had familiar local faces.

Stuff happens, week 9: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the dumbest of them all?

The halo over Jim Prentice is getting more and more tarnished. Prentice, who has been on a PR offensive over his upcoming budget and unnecessary and illegal election, put his foot in it on CBC Radio on Thursday. Prentice told listeners that when it comes to Alberta’s economic woes, everyone is to blame; or, as he put it, “In terms of who is responsible, we all need only look in the mirror, right?” It’s partly true, of course, but by far the biggest share of the blame belongs to the PC party. But that’s a subtlety lost on the Twitterverse, which went bonkers (no doubt assisted by organized efforts by special interests).  NDP leader Rachel Notley, who is so often on her high horse she should just stay there, was so affronted she demanded an apology, the poor thing. Prentice only made matters worse with the lame defence that he was quoted out of context, which is the last refuge of a politician caught saying something stupid. With public sector unions in control of massive war chests of advertising dollars, Prentice is going to be under fire unlike anything he has experienced in his political career. With the legislature resuming next week, Prentice will have no choice but to keep talking. But outside the Leg, methinks Diamond Jim will opt to keep his mouth shut for a while.

Speaker of Twitter, TSN learned a hard lesson that letting a Twitter feed crawl along a broadcast may not be a good idea. During TSN’s marathon broadcast on NHL trade deadline day, a Tweet that appeared suggested that the wife of a Toronto Maple Leaf player has slept with a teammate. I won’t repeat the names, because I don’t like scurrilous gossip, and I don’t really care. Understandably, the slandered parties are a little PO’d, and are suing TSN and the blogger. TSN has mercifully decided to end the practice of airing Twitter blather on the screen, so some good has come from this.

Forbes magazine released its annual Filthy Rich list this week, and Bill Gates is back on top, bless ‘em. Gates is worth $79 billion, the leading member of the Tech Billionaires club, which includes Larry Ellison of Oracle (whatever that is) at $54 billion, Jeff Bezos of Amazon at $35 billion, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame at $34 billion. Forbes says the 15 richest people in tech are collectively worth $426 billion, or about six times Alberta’s expected budget deficit.

Things just keep getting worse in Ferguson, Missouri. You may remember Ferguson as the city that erupted when an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by the police, and the state declined to lay charges against the cop. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report on Ferguson that found cops there were brutally racist, routinely violated black residents’ constitutional rights, and used excessive force and unjustified traffic stops that were basically a way to scam blacks out of money. Cops made racist jokes about blacks via their official email accounts, like this knee-slapper: Obama wouldn’t be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” And it gets worse. Investigators reviewed 35,000 pages of police records and analyzed data on every police stop. They found blacks made up 93 percent of arrests, 88 percent of cases where force was used, 90 percent of citations, and 85 percent of traffic stops. The city’s population is about 66 per cent black.

RIP: The Grim Reaper must have been on vacation this week, because the only passing of note I could find was that of character actor Daniel von Bargen, 65. He wasn’t exactly a household name, but von Bargen did have two memorable minor roles on successful TV series. He was Commandant Spanger for 15 episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, and more famously he was George Costanza’s inept boss, Mr. Kruger, when George worked at the industrial smoothing company on Seinfeld for four episodes.

When did we become ruled by ‘being prudent’?

Once upon a time, if we had a decision to make that might have some consequences, we would consult with trusted advisors. It might be your parents, a religious leader, law enforcement people, or a politician. (HA! That last one was a joke; we have never trusted politicians.)

Today, however, we have a new trusted advisor, one whose advice trumps everything else. Including common sense. That advisor is the insurance company.

The most recent example of how insurance companies have taken over decision making comes out of Lethbridge, a pleasant southern Alberta city.

First, some background.

As you no doubt have heard, a Somali-based terrorist group, al-Shabab (not to be confused with al Shamal, who are a Shriners group and unlikely to go on killing sprees), released a video encouraging its followers to attack shopping centres. On the list — West Edmonton Mall, still the largest in North America. (Yeah for us!)

This resulted in the usual flurry of panic amongst those who like to panic, and assurances from police that WEM is safe. Now, the odds of a terrorist attack are at WEM are pretty small; but today, who knows? It could happen. And I guarantee that Edmonton police, the RCMP, CSIS, and probably Homeland Security in the U.S. are knee deep in this file. Thanks to the warming from al-Shabab, WEM is probably safer than ever. Thanks for the heads up, al.

But WEM is not safe enough for the insurance company of Lethbridge School District No. 51.

This weekend, there’s a huge cheerleading championship at the mall that attracts teams from across Canada. In light of the “threat”, 25 teams have pulled out, including the G.S. Lakie Middle School team, which has a seven-year unbeaten streak at the event. The school board that made the decision (without consultation with the parents) said their insurance company thought “it was prudent” to skip the tournament. The team, of course, is heartbroken.

What kind of madness is this?

Let’s look at the odds of anything happening to the Lethbridge girls. The insurance company apparently put the odds at high enough that they should stay home. But ask yourself this: what’s more likely to happen, a terrorist attack that involves the Lethbridge cheerleaders happening at West Edmonton Mall, or a bus crash involving the Lethbridge girls on their way to the cheerleading event at West Edmonton Mall? Clearly, the odds of a bus crash are small, but exponentially higher than the odds of a terrorist attack. But the insurance company didn’t tell the team not to go because they could be involved in a bus crash (very little chance), but because of a potential terrorist attack (minuscule chance). Does this make any sense at all?

Insurance is a valuable tool, and it makes a lot of sense to insure yourself against the unforeseen. And I suppose if you’re an insurance company, and someone asks for an opinion, you will err on the side of caution, because that’s what you do. But when you’re taking life advice from a corporation, something is wrong.

What irks me more than the “prudent” insurance company opinion is that the school division accepted the advice. Seriously? What the hell is wrong with you people? This is a great message to send to the kids, isn’t it? Be afraid, be very afraid, of EVERYTHING! Live your life in fear! Listen to your insurance company!

And to the parents of the girls, a bit of advice, if I may: go to the event. Rent your own bus, change your team name to the No Fear Cheer Team, and go. Send a message to the spineless bureaucrats and panicky insurance companies that you are not going to live life in fear of the unknown, and the unlikely.

Go, team, go!

Stuff happens, week 8: Alberta election assured; Harper spins terrorism

It’s gloom and doom in Alberta these days, what with falling oil prices and all. Time to tighten the belts, Premier Jim Prentice says, because we’re going to be billions of dollars short in the ol’ piggy bank. Hmmm…. so how come the government is predicting a $465-million surplus for the end of the fiscal year March 31st? Yes, a surplus. Seems that this Tory government is every bit as incompetent at predicting revenue as the other Tory governments. With a surplus in the cards, it will be that much more difficult for Prentice to justify calling an election. But that hasn’t stopped Prentice from setting the table. On Friday, he told radio listeners that his budget “will be the most significant in modern times”, and it will have impacts on every single person in the province. Amazingly, he says the budget will have a 10-year plan to wean the government off its dependence on natural resource revenue, something no one has done in this province in 50 years. If Prentice could actually pull that one off, even I would vote PC. But he can’t, so I won’t.

Stephen Harper, he of the delicate political touch, has decided to ram his anti-terrorism legislation through the House of Commons. He has limited debate, and clearly wants to make this bill the law of the land in time for the next election. Dozens of people who study these things have raised serious concerns about the bill, most notably how it can be turned into a tool of the government to stifle dissent. Is it a bad bill? Not all of it, to be sure, but large parts are of concern. I know this because everything Stephen Harper does is political, and designed only to secure his re-election. He knows tough-on-terrorism is a political winner, and a chance to paint the NDP and the Liberals as terrorism softies. And the fact that he is cutting off debate on a vitally important bill tells you everything you need to know about it.

An outspoken opponent of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was assassinated in Moscow on Saturday. Russia announced the Putin himself will lead the investigation. It shouldn’t be hard to round up suspects. All he has to do is look in the mirror.

The Oscars were handed out Sunday. It’s always a Big Deal, but ask yourself this — can you name all eight best picture nominees?

Once again gas prices took a shocking upward leap in Edmonton, another 10 cents a litre. After falling to around 68 cents, gas is now up to almost a buck a litre. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.

Leon Benoit, a dim bulb MP from Alberta, told the House of Commons this week that the Supreme Court is “lawless”, simply because it has made some judgements he doesn’t agree with. It’s always disturbing to hear Canadian lawmakers borrowing inflammatory language used by Republicans, but what’s actually funny is that this “lawless” court is stocked with Stephen Harper appointees.

imagesRIP: Star Trek nerds around the world mourned the passing of Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock from the original TV series, at age 83. He lived long, and prospered, thanks to his Spock role. He was somewhat conflicted, however, about the part. He wrote one book called “I Am Not Spock”, and a later book called “I Am Spock”.  He also released an album (left) which I suspect was every bit as good as William Shatner’s album.

Stuff happens, week 7: The return of premiums; a Canadian dog has its day.

The Prentice government continues to float trial balloons. Not long ago, it was a sales tax. Now, it’s the return of health care premiums. The government says most Albertans are in favour of bringing back premiums, which has to be complete BS. Health care premiums mean nothing to the wealthy, and probably nothing to the poor (who would likely be exempt), meaning the only people who would pay it are the middle class. With all these threats of increased taxes, this can only mean one thing — no new taxes. It’s the old bait and switch thing; make dire predictions, and when they don’t come true, you look like a hero.

A ceasefire in the Ukrainian conflict lasted about as long as a plate of pyrogies at a potluck supper at the Ukrainian centre. If anything, the fighting has only gotten worse since the so-called ceasefire. It’s looking more and more like the new Russia is as bad, if not worse, than the old Russia. At least in the old days, when the USSR invaded a country, they just did it and admitted it. The new Russia invades a country, then says “who, me?”

Miss P displays winning form.

Miss P displays winning form.

It was great day for Canadian dogs, as a beagle named Miss P was named Best in Show at the prestigious (well, for dog shows) Westminster dog show in New York.

The big story in some parts of North America is the weather. It’s so cold in the east, that Niagara Falls partially froze. Staggering amounts of snow have fallen in the Maritime provinces. And in the U.S., more than 500 cold weather records have fallen. And we’re talking real cold in some cases — well into the -30s. Elsewhere, however, cold is a relative thing. Alabama closed schools on day last week for the kind of temperatures we in Edmonton consider a pleasant winter’s day.

An Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabab released a video Saturday calling for attacks on shopping malls, including West Edmonton Mall. I guess this means little ol’ Edmonton has hit the big time when terrorists take notice of us.

And finally, the world is a little better place today — the final new episode of Two and a Half Men aired this week.

RIP: Steve Montador, a former NHLer, at age 35. … Lesley Gore, of “It’s My Party” fame, at 67 … Louis Jourdan, suave former movie star, at 93. Jourdan played the villain in Octopussy, among other films … Bruce Sinofsky, 58, documentary filmmaker of Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper, two outstanding examples of documentary filmmaking … Harris Wittles, 30, a producer and writer of the great comedy Parks and Recreation. The cause of death was an apparent drug overdose … John Barrow, 79, Canadian Football League hall of famer.