Letter from a trench in France

“Our greatest excitement this week was the gas-attack. Bower Heney and I were up on top of the telephone dugout about 11 o’clock at night taking a look around the country watching the flares and the occasional burst of a shell when gradually one battery after another began opening up a way up on the left until every gun in that sector was going as hard as it could go. 18 pounders, 4.5 inch Howitzers 4.7s and 60 pounders and in the quiet night air they seemed even louder than ever. Away up on the line we could see a perfect shower of flares going up and occasionally a red flare would hover a little longer than the rest. This of course being our SOS.

A light breeze was blowing down from that direction and sure enough we scented the gas; a sort of thin mist it looked like and we weren’t long in putting on our gas helmets or gasperators as the men call them. At first we were rather nervous about it as the Bosche is always pulling off something new, but after about 20 minutes of it and we were still all right we settled down to it and in an hour and a half it had passed over and we could take off our helmets. The bombardment we made on the German front line was evidently too much for him for he never made any attempt to leave his trenches. There were quite a number of our infantry casualties as a result of not having sufficient time to get on their helmets and two of our horses that were up at the battery with the wagon are going to die, so we were really lucky in getting through it so easily.”

Excerpt of a letter from Lieutenant Patrick Gemmill [Grandfather] to Emily Gemmill [Great-Grandmother], August 11th, 1916.

Patrick Gemmill


Patrick Gemmill survived the Battle of the Somme, Vimy Ridge and the Second Battle of Passchendaele.

In 1939 he returned to France as a Colonel.


Great moments in timing

Despite having been embroiled in democracy protests for the last few weeks, the Fraser Institute has decided this is an awesome moment to trumpet Hong Kong’s freedom…the only type of freedom that matters to them:

Priorities, people. Priorities!

The war against public sector sick leave

Today President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement proposed slashing the federal public sectors paid sick leave from 15 days a year to 5.

This prompted this tweet from Andrew Coyne:

Which got my interest.

Now as far as I can see the case against the federal public sector having 15 paid days a year in sick leave is that the absentee rate – or days workers call in sick – in the private sector averages to 8 times a year. And thus, ipso facto, something must be wrong with the public sector. Because Adam Smith and other infallible invisible hands.

What it doesn’t tell you however, is whether public sector workers are taking paid sick days on days they aren’t sick or if private sector workers are coming to work sick.

In other words, the public & private sector absentee rate gives us no clue as to how many days a year a person is, in a medical sense, sick.

Which is a question for the medical community, not businessmen or politicians.

Calculating this is very difficult and depends much on demographics and, indeed, the nature of one’s job. Public health workers, who are exposed daily to disease, should be expected to be sick more days than a closed accountant’s office with 2 or 3 employees working in separate rooms.

But the Centre for Disease Control does have some useful, and suggestive, statistics which the kids on the street call Table 2. Mean physically unhealthy days in last 30 by demographic characteristics, chronic disease conditions, and risk factors. Adults >= 18 Years, BRFSS 2009. I encourage you to examine the table in full, as it’s usefully divided into gender, age, ethnicity, economic status and so on. But the gist is this survey found the average person, whether through illness or injury, felt unwell 3.6 days out of 30.

What does this tell us about sick leave? Well, the average [federal] public sector worker called in sick 1.25 days every 21 working days of a month. The average private sector worker, 0.66 days.

Let’s adjust 3.6 days so that it reflects, approximately, how many working days per month a person feels unwell. Which by my calculator is 2.52 days per 21 working days.

In other words, and by extrapolation, public sector workers went to work feeling physically unwell 1.27 days per 21 working days per month and private sector workers 1.86 days.

Which is suggestive that cutting sick leave has nothing to do with public health and more to do with other factors.

Such as, perhaps, spite.

A Mason’s rage

Gary Mason tweets:

Now, this is in relation to former BCTF President Susan Lambert tweeting a rumour that there might be sweeping changes to the School Act that would, in effect, privatize a lot of it. Now Lambert clearly labels this a rumour. You know, of the kind journalists occasionally themselves report on.

Now Mr. Mason is obviously angry at Lambert’s “irresponsibility”. Seething, I’d say. He knows this rumour isn’t true because the Minister of Education said so. So, good as gold there.

But given we are talking about a B.C. Liberal Party that promised not to tear up the teacher’s contracts back in 2002…

….and then did…

…who promised not to sell B.C. Rail…

…and then did….

…and who promised not to introduce a Harmonized Sales Tax

…and then did…

…I, personally, might be inclined to hedge my bets on this one and anything else for that matter.

At least check my anger at the door until the B.C. Liberal’s current term is over to see if it was, you know, actually warranted.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Bill Good also has some comments

Yes, holding power to account there, Bill. But tell us what you really think.

Enjoy your retirement.


The Muzzle Puzzle

‘Whenever you have a filter you are, by definition, losing information.’— Jeff Hutchings, Dalhousie University

Today’s Twittstorm du jour was sparked by a piece in Maclean’s magazine by Professor Andrew Leach on the alleged muzzling of Canadian scientists by the Harper Government. The heart of his argument is this passage:

For me, the key questions are whether government researchers should, themselves, be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers? To speak out publicly against government policy is, by the current definition, fundamentally at odds with the role of a public servant in our democracy. Public servants are expected to provide impartial advice to the policy development process and loyal implementation of government policies once decisions are taken. They are not supposed to critique that policy publicly when it doesn’t align with their interpretation of the evidence or their beliefs with respect to how that evidence should be weighed. Allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions – whether based on scientific evidence or any other criteria – turns the relationship between the bureaucracy and their democratically elected masters on its head, undermining the trust essential to an effective working relationship.

On the one hand, this argument is well-rooted in the traditions of parliamentary democracy we inherited from Britain and the new tightened rules on media accessibility introduced the government in 2007 were intended to address this problem.

On the other hand, what problem? It’s an especially odd position since the Tories came to power advocating the opposite:

Yet the No. 1 policy statement for government communications, according to Treasury Board, is to “Provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about its policies, programs, services and initiatives.”

The directive is part of the “Communications policy of the Government of Canada,” posted on the Treasury Board website and dated Aug. 1, 2006, months after the Conservatives came to power.

The policy calls on public servants to speak “openly” with Canadians.

“Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility,” says the document.

“Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability. It enables informed public participation in the formulation of policy, ensures fairness in decision making and enables the public to assess performance.”

So what changed? Why the volte-face? Was there a sudden rebellion by federally-employed scientists that required a change to the previous rules? Did, for example, Professor David Schindler cross this line? Leach doesn’t allege so. If yes, no one has provided any compelling argument this was a demonstrable, large-scale problem.

At this point, we should probably examine what the real-world consequence were of the new media rules.

Exhibit A:

But in a message sent to its employees this week, Environment Canada said it had denied interviews with scientists in 22 per cent of the 316 media requests received since the beginning of 2013.

Exhibit B:

A dramatic reduction in Canadian media coverage of climate change science issues is the result of the Harper government introducing new rules in 2007 to control interviews by Environment Canada scientists with journalists, says a newly released federal document.

“Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high-profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent.

Exhibit C: 

Braithwaite and her colleagues — aware of the national and international interest in the shrinking polar ice — wanted to hold a “strictly factual” technical briefing for the media to inform Canadians how the ice had disappeared from not only the Northwest Passage but many normally ice-choked parts of the Arctic.

The briefing never happened. Nine levels of approval — from the director of the ice service up to the environment minister’s office — were needed for the “communication plan,” according to the documents released to Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.

“Ministerial services” — the sixth layer — cancelled the briefing

So the real-world effect of providing just enough of a speed-bump to reporters on deadlines in access to federally employed scientists has been – surprise, surprise – a reduction in media coverage of certain issues which also has the effect of restricting the public’s understanding of both the science and by extension how sound government’s policy is.

Which I would posit, given the Harper Government’s record, is a feature not a bug.

Ah, say Professor Leach, “there are plenty of entities, government-funded and otherwise, that can do a fine job of holding the government to account externally.” Which is a nice thought. But in addition to an era where the Harper government is restricting access of the media to government scientists, we also concurrently live in a era where the Harper government is making life difficult for “other entities” trying to hold the government to account. Specifically providing extra funding to the Canadian Revenue Agency to audit environmental charities who are now self-censoring themselves on public issues. And so on and so forth.

Leach also broaches a better way where government-supported research” could “take place in arms-length agencies” like NASA ( forgetting that despite being at “arms-length” NASA has had war waged against it all the same by the GOP over climate matters).

Finally, I would posit that maybe, just maybe, not all data-collection is the same…

Store economist 1: “I think we should price aggressively. My data suggests this would lead to a dramatic increase in market share.”

Store economist 2: “I disagree. We should maintain our current high margins. This adds an aura of exclusivity to our product line and will be better over the long term….”


An excellent collection of links on this subject at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

From the files of “Cartography Oddities”

Some may remember the controversy over a map used in commercial from the Enbridge Corporation promoting the Northern Gateway Pipeline that removed about 1000 sq. kms of islands from Douglas Channel, suggesting that navigation for tankers would be a much simpler task than it would be.


Today, a group called Canada Action tweeted the following map:


Oh my, you say, what a difference in traffic. Norway seems to be okay, so what’s our problem?

You don’t think there might be something strange with these maps too?

Why yes, yes there is.

Using the Distance Measurement Tool of Google Maps the map on the left depicts an area 270km x 200km (or 54000 sq. kms). The map on the right depicts an area 640km x 535km (or 342,400 sq. kms). Do you think if you increase the scale of a map, in this case by a factor of 6, you will see more stuff?

Why yes, yes you will.

The second problem is the map on the left depicts an internal coastal waterway, while the map on the right depicts the open ocean of the North Sea.

So who are Canada Action?

Hard to tell. Especially here.

But rest assured Canada Action does not have an ideological or partisan agenda.

They just stand up for the truth. Just not in comparative map-making.

Taking media lessons from Wayne Lapierre

Man who – on multiple occasions – expresses desire to “go out with a bang and take people with him” shoots 3 RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick with 2 long guns that once would have been registered. Wounds 2 more. Still at large.

What is Canada’s National Firearms Association response?

“Incidents like these demonstrate the validity of the mounting evidence that none of Canada’s firearms control efforts over the past 50 years have had any effect on preventing violence, or otherwise stopping bad people from carrying out their evil deeds.  Canada’s excessive firearms control system has failed again.” 


Right. That’s the lesson.

Ronald’s bad timing

In a recording of the call given to the CBC, McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts discusses recent CBC stories on the company’s use of temporary foreign workers and his resulting meeting with federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney.​

“This has been an attack on our brand. This has been an attack on our system. This is an attack on our people. It’s bullshit OK! I used those words when I described my conversation with the minister last week. He gets it.”

McDonald’s Canada CEO calls foreign worker controversy ‘bullshit’ – CBC News Apr 24, 2014

Meanwhile, earlier that day…

Changes to the temporary foreign worker program that made it easier for employers to hire from abroad in recent years were a factor in rising unemployment rates in B.C. and Alberta, according to a C.D. Howe Institute report released today.

Low-skilled workers with some high school education were hardest hit by the changes, according to the report by Simon Fraser University public policy professor Dominique Gross titled Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada: Are They Really Filling Labour Shortages?

A change to the program between 2007 and 2010 accelerated rising unemployment levels by 4.8 percentage points in B.C. and 3.1 percentage points in Alberta, the report said.


“This suggests that … by lowering employers’ constraints on hiring TFWs, the federal government reduced the incentives for employers to search for domestic workers to fill job vacancies.”

Foreign workers drove unemployment higher in B.C.: C.D. Howe report – Vancouver Sun, Apr 24, 2014.

I think John Betts might convene a crisis meeting tomorrow.

Bonus Betts:

“Yes, they are disenfranchised. Some of them don’t work for us anymore. But in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

Temporary Foreign Workers are vulnerable.

B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch and the restaurant chain launched an investigation after Filipino Richard Pepito, a former employee, went public with accusations that the franchise owner gave him paycheques that included overtime, but then required Pepito to pay the owner the overtime back in cash.

He told The Sun last year he wasn’t alone in being denied overtime pay, and staff were led to believe that if they complained they would lose their status under the temporary foreign worker program and be sent back to live in poverty in their home country.

“I felt discriminated against, harassed and bullied,” said Pepito.

They are being exploited to undercut Canadian workers, breeding resentment.

Immigrants to citizens, not disposable serfs.

UPDATE: The CFIB’s Dan Kelly weighs in unwisely again:

You’d think one would have get the data first before offering full-throated support, but that’s just me.


It’s time to have an adult conversation about the Canadian Federation of Independent Business

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been receiving some press lately, much of it negative. Who would think a program to bring workers from low-wage countries and/or with dicey political situations – one with oversight problems – might be subject to exploitation by Canadian employers. All to solve a problem that likely doesn’t exist.

[T]he Parliamentary Budget Officer reported that he could find little evidence of systemic or countrywide job shortages or skills mismatches

The latest involves a Victoria McDonald’s franchise. In a statement to the CBC, Dan Kelly, the President of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, weighs in to protect the ethical reputation of Canada’s small businesses.

HAHA…I mean call Canadian workers unreliable and shifty.

Although Kelly said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the B.C. McDonald’s case, he said that, unfortunately, he does hear more and more from business owners that “temporary foreign workers are often their hardest working employees” who will “take every late shift or early morning shift that’s offered to them.”

They’re not going to take the day off because they have to take their dog to the vet. They’re going to show up to work on time, they’re going to work a full week without disappearing,” Kelly said.

“The strengths of some of the TFW workers, in terms of their work ethic is, it pains me to say this, but, sometimes it is better than that of their Canadian counterparts,” Kelly said.

It’s really hard to explain away just how contemptuous of Canadian workers the comment about “taking their dog to the vet” is [presumably you should allow your dog to die rather than miss a shift). It’s a moment of the mask slipping (and a somewhat ironic one at the that because in other “national conversations” the CFIB is full of praise for the work ethic of private sector workers vs. their public sector counterparts).

But what I really want to highlight this very brief part of Dan Kelly’s eloquence here:

I can tell you, anecdotally

You see, we have a government organization called Statistics Canada. And they keep detailed data on such things as absentee rates. Which, oddly, Dan Kelly doesn’t cite.

For example, the Days lost per worker in year for the Accommodation and food services sector is 7.6.

6.1 days for illness or disability. And 1.5 days for Personal or family responsibilities – you know, where you take your dog to the vet.

The inactivity rate – absent workers divided by total workers – is 3.

So one can sort of, kind of begin to discern why Dan Kelly wouldn’t mention any of this, and instead chose to rely on anecdote.

The second thing worth mentioning, from the CFIB’s own perspective, is just how bad the messaging is here. This group has long warned us of the need to “cut red tape” on “small business” or jobs might be at risk. But now we see these jobs might not be for you or me. Why would Canadians support cutting, for example, health & safety regulations for businesses that seemingly don’t want to employ them?

It’s a terrible own-goal. But, you know….

Kelly said it’s time to have an “adult conversation about the world of work” and that “we have to admit as Canadians that there are certain sectors of the economy and certain regions of the country where Canadians are not particularly excited about working.

Given the statistics on absenteeism and national unemployment rate, one wonders what he’s on about. Oddly, even Jason Kenny – yes, JASON KENNY – understands the solution1

“I have stood up in front of business groups and said that if employers want to keep complaining about a general skills shortage, then they should be reflecting that by increasing salaries, wages, benefits and investments in training,” [Kenny] said.

It’s time to have an adult conversation….about the CFIB. Who they are and what they really represent. Because it’s not you or me. Or even Canada.

1Although of course the Conservatives can screw that up too

Raising the ire of some critics is the Conservative government’s decision to drop the regulation that prevented employers — who had criminal convictions in human trafficking; sexually assaulting an employee, or causing the death of an employee — from applying for workers under the TFWP.

Dissent, audited

It’s been known for the past few years that the Harper Government would utilize the tools of the Canadian Revenue Agency in order to harass the bearers of bad news [as it relates to Conservative party policies].

The labour movement is one. But most notably, the environmental movement.

Bruce Campbell writes on this today in Behind the Numbers blog over at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The tactics employed, how CRA’s rules are [likely] being retroactively changed to fit with the Tories predetermined outcome. A sample:

While this government is focused on reducing so called red-tape for for-profit businesses, it has imposed an onerous and seemingly interminable administrative burdens on the charitable organizations it chooses to audit.

These audits are highly intrusive—requesting information that has no discernible relevance to an organization’s charitable activities. They demand the most miniscule of financial details. They force charities to devote considerable resources to compiling successive rounds of information, diverting from their policy and other charitable work, and incur substantial, sometimes prohibitive, legal costs.

In some cases they have demanded charities turn over all e-mail correspondence, a measure which has major privacy implications.

But towards the end comes this newsflash:

While the targeting of environmental NGOs has received prominent media attention, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), whose work covers a broad range of public policy issues, is also being audited.

The CCPA is a registered charity. Like charities have for many decades it produces original research on and speaks to public policy – mostly on economics but on a variety of subjects.

Much like the Fraser Institute.

Which is not, to public knowledge, being audited. And all things being equal, they bloody well should be. But as we all know, some animals are more equal than others.

The Conservatives, and conservatives, may find it politically convenient to utilize the tools of the State to make life difficult for those that disagree with them and have the facts to back them.

But this is short-term, short-sighted expediency. In the long game they are playing with fire. For one, they might not be in power in a few years time. Precedents have been set, rules have been changed. If I was the Fraser Institute I might be tempted to lay low for the next couple years. But what I would really do would be to stand in solidarity with the CCPA. For despite differences they are the same sort of organization, serving the same purpose. For the day may come when CRA auditors go through their accounts with a fine-toothed comb (and maybe finally we’ll find out who their donors are).

The Fraser Institute cannot condemn the CCPA without condemning themselves.

Second, the Tories, by redefining the rules so that the outlets for disagreement and dissent are increasingly narrow and toothless, are pushing a lot of people towards radicalism. Ordinary people.

It’s not healthy for our democracy.