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.

And the winners will be ….

When I was a kid, on Academy Awards night I’d always have to go to bed before the winner was announced. This was a very long time ago; movies had sound, but not imgresalways colour. Even if I had to go to bed, I’d sit at the top of the stairs to listen to who won, which is weird because I didn’t see any of the nominated films.

Today, as a grown adult, I can stay up as late as I like (up to 11 pm sometimes, even on school nights!) and now I can watch the entire Academy Awards ceremony, in all its 4 hour glory. But just like when I was a kid, I often haven’t seen all of the films. Or some years, any of the films. But that hasn’t stopped me from making my fearless (because I have nothing to fear, literally) predictions. And so, for those of you who care (this means you, Elinor Florence, formerly of Red Deer, Ab.) here are my sterling Oscar predictions.

Supporting actress: The first of three locks is Patricia Arquette in Boyhood, mostly because she did a courageous thing for an actress — she aged. Actually aged, 12 years to be exact. She’s won every other award this year, and the Oscar is a dead cert. Meryl Streep is also nominated, which is the least surprising nomination of the year, or any year. Streep is basically the free space on the card; when in doubt, put in Streep. One of these years, she won’t make a movie, and she’ll still be nominated by force of habit.

Supporting actor: An even bigger, stronger lock. J.K. Simmons, the very definition of veteran character who you’ve seen a million times but don’t know his name, will win for his performance as a tyrannical drum teacher in Whiplash. Haven’t seen the film, but it’s on my list. Hard to find time when The Bachelor has been so good.

Best actress: Lock no. 3. Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Moore plays a professor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and if that isn’t Oscar catnip, I don’t know what is. I trust her performance is an atonement for her annoying character on 30 Rock, what with that terrible ‘Baws-ton’ accent.

Best actor: That’s three locks, and up until recently, it looked like four. Michael Keaton seemed destined to win for Birdman, but coming up fast on the outside is Eddie Redmayne. The British actor is remarkable as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. He’s great, and should win the Oscar. He won the Screen Actors Guild award, which ALWAYS indicates an Oscar win, and playing a handicapped guy is always a good Oscar bet. But Keaton is a longtime Hollywood favorite, and Hollywood loves a comeback. This one is close, but I’m going with Keaton. Redmayne, and another Brit fave, Benedict Cumberbatch, will have to wait for another year.

Best director: A toughie. There are two contenders (OK, FIVE contenders, but only two who can win). It all comes down to Richard Linklater for his dozen-years-in-the-making Boyhood, or Alejandro Inarritu for Birdman (let us pray they let John Travolta announce the winner; he’ll make a classic hash of that name). Linklater has won most of the other awards, but the Directors Guild award when to Inarritu, and that award is almost always a predictor of the Oscar. And so it will again. Inarritu it is.

Best picture: Somehow, I’ve seen most of these films. I really enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, thought American Sniper was compelling, The Imitation Game very good, as was The Theory of Everything. I have mixed feelings about Boyhood — it’s good, but not great; I actually liked all of the other pictures more. But the critics love it, and it is an amazing accomplishment. I haven’t seen Birdman, the other odds-on favourite. Apparently, it’s between the two, and I’m going to pick … a movie that starts with B.

Ha ha. Just kidding. I’m going witimgresh Boyhood, although I don’t know why.

Stuff Happens, week 6: All about Eve; Sun sets on Sun News.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was all smiles on Monday when announcing that Ontario PC MP Eve Adams was crossing the floor to his party. But the news gave hims critics a new opportunity to question his judgement. Adams has more baggage than Samsonite; she has done so much underhanded and/or highhanded stuff, even the Conservatives told her she wasn’t wanted. But she comes with a bonus in the person of her fiance. Dimitri Soudas was also turfed from the Tories for going too far to secure his finance’s nomination, but before he came a cropper he was the Conservative party’s executive director. The Liberals say he will be used only to put up lawn signs. If they actually waste an asset like that, they deserve to lose.

The Maple Leaf flag, one of the most beloved icons (yes, I can use that word in this case) in our history, was raised for the first time 50 years ago today. This is just the kind of event the hyper-patriotic Stephen Harper government usually supports with multi-million dollar ad campaigns. But, just like the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 2012, it went entirely uncelebrated. Why? Could it be that the charter and the flag were both creations of Liberal governments? Yes, it could.

As the crisis in Ukraine worsens, the west seemed to be split on how to approach the problem. Europe, as explained by German chancellor Angela Merkel, prefers peace talks with Vladimir Putin. The U.S., naturally, is leaning towards arming Ukraine. Not sure how Europe wants to negotiate with Putin since he claims Russia has nothing to do with the attack on Ukraine. Putin, as always, is laughing all the way to the Balkans.

Gotta hand it to China. Here in the west, billionaires are lionized regardless of how scummy they are. But in China this week, one billionaire — described as a “evil gangster” — was executed for his crimes.

The city of Edmonton withdrew its bid for the 2020 Commonwealth Games on Wednesday, when Premier Jim Prentice told the city the province wouldn’t financially back the bid. Since nobody in the world cares about the Commonwealth Games — even people in the Commonwealth, if they even know they’re in the Commonwealth – this is no big loss. Combined with our scuttled bid for a World’s Fair, it still makes you wonder: doesn’t anybody want to be our friend?

The media and movie fans were slathering over the release of the film version of the steamy bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. But in France, the film classification board decided not to give the film an adult rating, instead allowing kids as young as 12 to see the film. The president of the classification board said it “isn’t a film that can shock a  lot of people,” even calling it “a romance, you could even say schmaltzy.” According to the French, the film is less “oo la la” and more “oo blah blah”. Reviewers in North American reflected the French opinion that this supposedly steamy film barely simmers.

Falling oil prices continue to wreak havoc with provincial economies. Also continuing: the rise of Edmonton gasoline prices, which jumped another 10 cents a litre this week. Why? Because they can.

RIP: Sun News Network, age 5, of extreme neglect. The cheap-o Canadian rip-off of Fox News failed miserably to connect with Canadians with its non-stop feigned outrage. I can’t celebrate journalists losing their jobs, but Sun News was a bad idea, executed badly, and deserved its demise …. Former Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Ruel, 76 … Bob Simon, 60 Minutes reporter and long-time correspondent for CBS News, was killed in a car crash. He was 73. Simon’s career at CBS goes back to the Vietnam War, and he covered pretty much every conflict since. One of the last of a breed of hard-nosed reporters that used to be quite common on TV news … Kenji Ekuan, 85, the designer who created the red-capped soy sauce bottle found in every Chinese restaurant everywhere … Gary Owens, 80, the announcer on the old Laugh-In show from the 1960s … Michele Ferrero, the richest man in Italy and 20th richest in the world, at 89. Ferrero’s brands include Nutella, Mon Cheri, Kinder Chocolate, Ferrero Rocher, Tic Tacs and Kinder Eggs.

Letter from a 100-year-old man.

My uncle Rolland, the last of the five Tougas brothers of Edmonton which included my dad, turned 100 last year. I get occasional letters from him, more so since dad’s passing two years ago. Rolland and dad wrote each other regularly, but they never spoke on the phone. That’s because Rolland has no phone. This fact tells you a little something about Uncle Rolland.

Rolland lives by himself in Utah. He has an apartment that would need an interior decorator to even qualify to be called spartan. He has been retired from whatever it was he did for probably 50 years. He has no wife, and no friends as far as we can tell. My brother Todd, the executor of his estate, visited him last year, and had dinner with him in his apartment. It was the first time he had ever had anyone over for dinner.

He’s not a kook, as my dad would have called him. A hermit, perhaps, but not a kook. His letters are perhaps the least revealing personal correspondence in the history of letter writing. In the hundreds of letters he wrote dad, he never revealed anything personal, not so much as a “not feeling well today”, or anything as shallow as that. To give you an idea, here’s what was in the letter he wrote to me that I received this week.

As he did with dad, he includes at the top of the letter a clipping from the newspaper with the week’s weather forecast for Salt Lake City. Never sure why he does that. The letters always include a number of newspaper clippings that I presume he believes would be of interest to the reader. In this letter, the clippings were:

• a single headline, “2014: Earth’s hottest, Utah’s 4th warmest”. Just the headline, not the story;

• two stories about the NHL all-star game;

• a story about heavy snow in New York;

• a newspaper editorial about the strength of the U.S. dollar, and a chart of the value of world currencies;

• the NHL standings.

The letters are often as baffling as the clippings. Not because they don’t make sense (Uncle Rolland seems to be in possession of most of his marbles), but because 100-year-old men do not have the best penmanship. It takes several passes at trying to figure out what he’s saying. The first paragraph, as far as I could tell, says “Your fatter, further reporter time of family news under the dequites 2 years!” Upon further review, he notes that dad has been gone for two years.

Then there are a few paragraphs related to the newspaper clippings (“5 feet of snow in ski resorts. Unique!”), the “paucity” of coverage of the NHL, and something about the decline of newspapers, which I’m pretty sure says “salt title throat, USA Today narwal you to memo all are thinner really as quote”.

But then, an astonishing personal revelation! Uncle Rolland went to the doctor! “My recital of decline led him to note my condition similar to that of a 90 year old man, not 100.” He must be quite proud of this, because I could read all the words.The next paragraph said, and I sort of quote, “Please excuse my deteriorating writing, I life you’ll be oblet valent its ensane however.”

Unusually bold statement from Uncle Rolland.

I will send a return letter. I print it out after writing it on my computer, since my handwriting is at least as bad as his, and include a few clippings. I am tempted to actually write one using a pen, so I can tell him that avocado guam splurge, flerm pistachio bleak. But that would be cruel.


Stuff Happens, week 5: Death and the supreme court; the comeback of measles.

The big story of the week was a Supreme Court decision allowing physician-assisted deaths in certain cases. Polls have shown Canadians solidly in favour of allowing Canadians to die with dignity when all hope is lost, but politicians have treated the issue the same way they’ve treated the abortion issue — by simply ignoring it. Well, not anymore. In my view, it’s about time we allowed human beings to be given the same consideration we give to a sick dog or a horse with a broken leg.

The week began with one of those indelible sports moments. With something called the ‘Super’ Bowl on the line with an estimated 11 trillion people watching. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made one of those decisions that only one-in-11 trillion people thought was a good idea. Sometimes, even the smartest people outthink themselves, and this was just such an example.

The major development in Ottawa this week was the unexpected resignation of John Baird, Stephen Harper’s beloved attack dog and foreign affairs minister. One of the strongest ministers in Harper’s weak lineup, Baird will be missed for his political skills. No word yet on where’s he’s going next, but a good bet would be some kind of official spokesman for the government of Israel. He already has loads of experience in that role.

Just when you thought the Islamic State couldn’t go any lower — or, for that matter, humanity in general — comes the latest atrocity. A captured Jordanian pilot was (and this is so sickening, I can hardly write it) put in a cage and burned alive! I don’t believe we’re even dealing with human beings anymore. The Islamic State fiends may have finally gone too far. Jordan is righteously enraged over the brutality, and it has begun serious retaliation. Jordan, with an army of 110,000 and 650 aircraft, can do serious damage.

The Ukrainian crisis is heating up again, with the fighting intensifying and NATO bolstering its positions in eastern Europe. Canada’s minister of defence warned Russia to “back off” on Ukraine. Russia responded with an official statement that said: “Ooooo, we are SO scared.”

Two signs of the times: Yellow Pages is reducing the number of houses to which it delivers the directory, and Telus is dropping the paging service, as only 160,000 Canadians now use a pager. And Radio Shack in the U.S. has filed for bankruptcy. Apparently, years of being the butt of late night comedy jokes was too much for the company. Next up, Arby’s.

Target stores in Canada began to liquidate its stock beginning Thursday. No doubt Canadians will still complain that the shelves are empty.

Measles — yes, measles — is making a comeback in the U.S., the result of years of anti-vaccine propaganda from ill-informed ‘celebrities’ who blame vaccines for everything from autism to the cancellation of their sitcom. Talk about a first world problem: science has wiped out a potentially deadly disease, but it makes a comeback thanks to bogus studies and ill-informed B-level celebrities spouting their own pet theories. Here at home, a survey of Albertans found 21 per cent completely or somewhat agreed that some vaccines can cause autism, despite there being not one shred of evidence to prove it. The solution: sure, don’t vaccinate your kids if you don’t want to … but don’t expect them to be allowed to attend public schools.

I made the mistake of watching Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner on Saturday. I hadn’t watched this tired old act in ages, and I saw that it hadn’t changed. He railed loudly about the Toronto Maple Leafs, and actually said (when referring to the Leafs) “when we beat the Senators”. How this guy still has a national platform is beyond me.

The groundhog … seriously, who give a shit about this?

RIP: Golf legend Billy Casper at 83.

A message from Our Conservative Government.

This week, I received via Canada Post a handy little booklet from my ever-smiling Member of Parliament, Rona Ambrose.

It’s called a Tax Tips Guide, subtitled Helping You and Your Family Save More, a 15-page (!) booklet of tax tips from the federal government, outlining how I can save money on my taxes.”Well, isn’t this nice”, I thought in quotation marks. It’s almost as if the government doesn’t even want my tax dollars, and is trying desperately to convince me to pay as little as possible. Seems kind of counterintuitive, but whatever. A dollar saved is a dollar not spent.

As I am always looking for a way to screw the feds, I eagerly dug in. After a quick scan, then a more lengthy perusal, I arrived at a depressing conclusion: in 15 pages of ‘tax tips’, not one single tip applied to me. Universal Child Care Credit? My youngest child is nearly 24, so no go. Textbook Amount and Scholarship and Bursary Exemption? I’m years — decades, even — out of school. Lower taxes for seniors? Not a senior, yet. Small Business Tax Credit? Nope. Volunteer Firefighters’ Tax Credit? Nope. Meal Expense for Long-Haul Truck Drivers? Unless I can deduct the snacks I eat while watching Ice Road Truckers, that’s another no. Even though I have  family, none of the ‘family friendly’ grab bag of deductions applied to me. And since I’m a good six years away from eating my dinner at 4 p.m. and watching Wheel of Fortune, the senior goodies don’t apply either. Basically, the booklet contained as much useful information for me as any edition of Cosmopolitan.

However, while reading the booklet, I began to notice something. The Tax Tips Guide also had a subtle, barely detectable ‘vote Conservative’ bias towards it. I thought it seemed just a little odd when, in the second paragraph of the second page, the phrase “our Conservative government” popped up. Two paragraphs later, there is was again — our Conservative government.

Could it be that this was actually propaganda for the federal Conservatives, paid for by the taxpayer, in the guise of a tax guide? Hmmmm…

The further I went, the more often the phrase turned up. In fact, the phrase ‘our Conservative government’ appears 39 times in the booklet!

I guess you can’t accuse the Conservatives of being subtle. The Harper government has raised government-funded political propaganda to unparalleled heights in this country. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on government ads for training programs, infrastructure projects, tax deductions, etc., all with an undercurrent of ‘the Conservative government is good for you’. Every much-watched TV event in Canada — Grey Cup, Super Bowl, Oscars, you name it — is gifted with millions in government advertising money. There may be cutbacks in other levels of government — say, science or veterans assistance — but the bucket of money for advertising is never empty.

Our Conservative government? Let us pray not for long.

Stuff Happens, week 4: Musical MLA chairs; Apple has a very, very good year; Greece goes rogue.

Will the last MLA out of the Alberta legislature please turn out the lights?

Resignation fever swept the Legislature on this week, as another six MLAs announced they were not going to run in the next election. Most notable was the resignation of Liberal leader Raj Sherman, who announced on Monday that he was quitting as leader of the party immediately. Sherman was sincere and passionate, but never caught on with the public or the media. Five more PCs announced they would not run again, most notably Doug Griffiths. Like Doug Horner last week, Griffiths quit immediately, sparing him the scene of ex-Wildrose MLAs joining the PCs in their first caucus meeting on Wednesday. Clearly, Horner and Griffiths just couldn’t stand the spectacle of a sometimes vicious foe like Danielle Smith getting all kissy-faced with Jim Prentice. Can’t say that I blame them.

Still with Prentice, the premier announced on Thursday that he and his cabinet will be taking pay cuts to set an example for Albertans, by which he means public sector unions. The cut amounts to $11,000 from his $218,000 salary, and about $10,000 from the ministerial salary of $200,000. Prentice called it “symbolic”. No kidding. A ten grand pay cut when you’re making six figures won’t result in any minister resorting to Kraft Dinner. Combined with the resignations, a spring election — however unethical and borderline illegal — seems almost certain. The question now is, will he call an election before or after tabling a budget?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued his pre-election bill splurge, with word of more ‘tough on crime’ legislation, including ‘life means life’ sentences. Worse yet, Canadian prisons have cut out real milk in favour of money-saving powdered milk. Now, THAT’S cruel and unusual punishment.

On the day when the price of oil fell another four bucks a barrel, gasoline in Edmonton went up 15 cents a litre. I’ve given up trying to figure out any reasoning behind gasoline prices.

The voters of Greece, where tax avoidance is a national past-time, voted for a left-wing, anti-austerity party in the general election. Greece owes Europe quadrillions of dollars, and the Greeks have apparently decided that paying it back is something they’re not really into. The rest of Europe is getting rather pissed at their ouzo-sucking relatives, and there are bound to be recriminations. Worse, the new government seems to be sympathetic to Russia, the world’s least sympathetic country. Stay tuned …

Shocking news from the cola front. For years now, we’ve been drinking Canadian Coke, and didn’t know it. Canadian Coca-Cola has always been slightly sweeter than Coke sold everywhere else, but on Tuesday Coke began producing Canadian Coke that’s the same as everyone else has been drinking. It is slightly less sweet, with 8 per cent fewer calories. But it hardly qualifies as diet Coke; it’s still 240 calories, down from 260. Also coming up from Coke: less Coke. New 500 ml cans, down from 591 ml, are coming in March. So far there has been no outcry about the New Coke. Or is it Old Coke? Or New Old Coke?

On the business front, an up-and-coming company called Apple had a pretty good quarter, worthy of lots of italics. The computer/phone/music colossus sold 74.5 million iPhones (that’s 9.4 iPhones a second) made $74.6 billion in revenue, and $18 billion in profits — in the last quarter of 2014! That’s just three months. In the past 12 months, Apple’s revenues of $199 billion were greater than the gross domestic product of the Czech Republic. And to think that not too many years ago, I was afraid that Apple was going to go out of business and leave me with a useless Mac.

Remember last week how I railed against TV news simply repeating statements from politicians? Of course you don’t, but I did. Anyway, Global News Edmonton hit a new low in that regard this week. When Conservative MP Tim Uppal announced he was running again, Global actually ran this statement from Uppal: “In the next campaign, voters will face a clear choice between Prime Minister Harper with a proven record of protecting our values, managing the economy and keeping taxes low for hard working Canadian families; versus Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s high tax, high debt agenda that will threaten jobs and set working families back.” What news outlet worthy of the term would broadcast such flagrant, shameless, non-newsworthy propaganda?

RIP: Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds, at 77 …Joseph Rotman, 80, Canadian businessman and philanthropist … Link Byfield, 63, Alberta conservative columnist, politician and publisher … Rod McKuen, American poet and songwriter, at 81. Frank Sinatra commissioned an entire album (Sinatra: A Man Alone) of songs by McKuen, which resulted in his most famous song, Loves Been Good To Me.