Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

Pope Francis has completed his first days in office. Much has been made of his frugal lifestyle, his apparent simplicity and his sense of humour. Those are admirable traits and it is also refreshing to hear a religious leader talking about solidarity with the poor rather than the prosperity gospel preached by so many. On the other hand, virtually every knowledgeable commentator cautions that we should not expect changes to the hierarchy’s conservative doctrinal positions on matters such as birth control, the ordination of women or of married men. Francis may prove to be a humble man and a pastoral leader, but the substance of the message likely will not change as much as the manner of its delivery. The media has gone overboard in covering the selection and installation of a new pope. It is great television – the backdrops of St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican, the suspense, the white smoke, the pope’s first appearance on the balcony. But now at least some journalists and commentators are getting down to work, as they should, to tell us more about the man who has been elevated to this position of prominence and power.

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Preston Manning’s talk fest hits Ottawa

Preston Manning’s right wing talk fest

Ron Paul is a Texan who has made three marginal runs for the American presidency and who is also considered by many to be a godfather of the Tea Party movement that has driven the Republican Party to the far right. The Huffington Post reports that Paul’s campaign in the Republican primaries in 2012 foundered “when newsletters published under his name back in the 1980s and ‘90s were found to contain anti-gay and racially-charged statements.” Paul says that he did not write those comments even though he acknowledges they appeared in his literature. Paul is a headline speaker at a conference of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy about to occur in Ottawa. Paul has already held forth in a series of Canadian interviews in which he says he opposes public health care and all gun registries but wants to see the Keystone XL Pipeline built as soon as possible to deliver Alberta oil to Texas refineries.

Preston Manning and his wife Sandra created the Manning Centre in 2005 to act as a training ground for conservative politicos and a think tank and advocacy arm for conservative causes. Each year Manning holds what he calls a networking conference in Ottawa. Often the guest speakers are those such as Ron Paul, who for the most part have narrowly missed prominence, and others who have now left prominence behind them. A speaker in the latter category this year is former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

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Pope Benedict XVI as communicator

Pope Benedict XVI as communicator

Pope Benedict XVI has left the scene and I want briefly to look at his performance as a communicator. A past anecdote may be instructive here. I worked in communications with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for four years in the early 1990s. Those were not easy days for the church. Issues regarding the sexual abuse of children by clerics and the church’s role in residential schools were becoming hot topics and causing great angst.  I recall asking one of the bishops if we should do some public opinion polling. He was amused and replied, “Bishops don’t ask for advice, they provide it.”

When Benedict succeeded Pope John Paul II in 2005, much was made of their different personalities.  John Paul had been widely hailed as a great communicator while Benedict was considered to be more cerebral and introverted. John Paul was indeed a charismatic man but his communication was mostly all one way. He believed, as popes and bishops have over the centuries, that they are the repository of God’s wisdom and it is their duty to share it with the rest of us.

In that fundamental way, there was virtually no difference between the two popes. Now, on the  threshold of a new papacy, we are being told that we should not expect the message to change, no matter who is elevated.  Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto likes to say that Moses did not descend from the mountain with Ten Suggestions in hand. The church’s message apparently is fixed.  What is at stake in communicating that message is not a change in substance but rather in the style of delivery.

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CIDA praises, buries Development and Peace

Development and Peace, Access to Information

It is not often that a religiously-based publication breaks news because most of them don’t have the staff or resources to do so. A recent exception occurred in The Catholic Register, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Toronto. In January 2013, the Register published an investigative story showing that when the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) drastically reduced its funding to the Catholic organization Development and Peace (D&P) in 2012, it did so despite high praise for the aid organization from within CIDA’s own bureaucracy.

Development and Peace, a long-time partner in development work with CIDA, made a new proposal for funding in July 2010. In February 2012, after being kept in suspense for almost two years, D&P was told that CIDA, which had provided $44.6 million in the years 2006-11, had chopped that amount by two-thirds, to a total of $14.5 million over the next five years. Bev Oda, who was then the CIDA minister, provided no detailed reasons for the cuts.

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Julian Fantino’s kiss of death to NGOs

Julian Fantino mining for development

The Conservative government has in the past two or three years forced the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to shift funding away from long-established development partners such as the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. CIDA money has instead began to flow to Canadian corporations, particularly to mining companies active in the global South. Julian Fantino, the minister in charge of CIDA, thinks that’s a great idea but his agenda may actually be a kiss of death for those non-government organizations (NGOs) who have become involved in joint projects with the mining industry. The Toronto Star reports that many loyal donors to those NGOs are upset and they are keeping their wallets in their pockets.

Abandoning ship?

A story in The Star says that Plan Canada, one of several organizations involved in projects that link CIDA, NGOs and mining companies may abandon its partnership with Iamgold in Burkina Faso. CIDA is providing Plan Canada $5.6 million to operate an educational program in the West African country. Iamgold, which operates a gold mine there, is committed to spending another $1 million per year to the project and Plan has also committed $1 million. The project is to offer job-skills training for 6,400 children.

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Edgar Schmidt and Canadian democracy

Edgar Schmidt blows the whistle

Edgar Schmidt, a senior lawyer in the federal Department of Justice, has taken a courageous and highly unusual step. He has launched a court case against his employer for what he believes is its failure to protect Canadians against Parliament creating laws and regulations that could infringe upon their human rights. On the day after Schmidt filed his claim with the court in December 2012, the department suspended him without pay and barred him from his office. That harsh action, in turn, did not amuse the Federal Court judge hearing the case. “The court doesn’t like that,” said Mr. Justice Simon Noel. “We see that in different countries and we don’t like it . . . Canada is still a democracy.”

Knowledgeable observers are saying that Schmidt’s case and the department’s harsh reaction toward him speak to the erosion of democracy in Canada. In fact, a group called the Voices-Voix Coalition, has filed a submission with a United Nations working group in which it accuses the government of a whole range of transgressions against democracy. The UN group will hold sessions in April- May 2013.

Schmidt is (was) a senior  lawyer whose duties since 1998 have included drafting and advising on legislation. He was, prior to his suspension in December, a general counsel and special adviser in the department’s Legislative Services Branch.

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Gabrielle Giffords confronts NRA on guns

Gabrielle Giffords confronts                   NRA on guns

Has the time finally arrived, after the unspeakable shooting rampage in December 2012 that killed 20 children and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, when the United States will finally take action to prevent thousands of its citizens from being gunned down every year? Two years ago Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a political event in a mall parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. She survived but six people were killed. Giffords has had to retire from politics but has made a difficult and courageous recovery. “Since that terrible day,” Giffords writes on her website, “America has seen 11 more mass shootings – but no response from Congress to prevent gun violence.”

Recently, Giffords met with town and school officials in Newtown before visiting with victims’ families from the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Giffords  has chosen to become involved in a campaign for the stricter regulation of guns in the U.S. and has just launched an organization called Americans for Responsible Solutions.

There are 33,000 guns deaths a year in the U.S. and 12,000 of those are murders. Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin, quoting American sources, writes that “more Americans die from gun-related homicides and suicides in the space of half a year than have died in the past quarter century of terrorist attacks, as well as the Afghan and Iraq wars combined.”

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John Baird's Office of Religious Freedom

John Baird, Office of Religious Freedom

The Conservative government will soon announce an Office of Religious Freedom, fulfilling a promise made in the 2011 election campaign. The stated intention of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is to create an organization that will monitor and criticize religious persecution and to promote religious freedom around the world. There is no shortage of persecution in countries as diverse as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Colombia and Mexico, but as is always the case in politics it is important to scrutinize the intent and the fine print of any undertaking. Doing so raises some genuine questions about the wisdom of this idea, a fact that may also explain why the government has been so slow in fulfilling its promise.

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