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Learning to listen

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
– G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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If you’ve been following the fallout from Donald Trump’s election, one designation has been increasingly prominent in the analysis: “progressive.”

Perhaps you have long been familiar with this term (in the sense I am using it) but I first encountered it a couple of years ago. Progressives commonly define who and what society should champion, defend, promote, even believe. They commonly hold that they are beyond meaningful challenge by virtue of their positions’ intrinsic righteousness and, in fact, they are seldom challenged (at least until recently) because they tend to be on the “politically correct” side of many issues we commonly encounter in the press and other public forums.

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And the thing is, I commonly agree with their core assertions: climate change is real; LGBT rights are human rights; Islam is a religion, not a terrorist organization; women, for all the strides they have made, are still subject to misogyny, double standards and sexism; etc.

Unfortunately, for all of their good intentions, the progressives or, perhaps, the “liberal left” are victims of their own conviction and certainty. Any number of analysts have pointed to the tunnel vision of those who felt that Donald Trump was unelectable. While I share their despair at Trump’s election, I was never convinced that he couldn’t win. I fear those who were entirely disbelieving haven’t paid enough attention to history.

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And while we are fellow travelers in so many ways, the progressives and I diverge at a fundamental level. Progressives are too often, to my way of thinking, ideologues. As an idealist myself, I think it is important to recognize that someone can share many of the ideals proclaimed by progressives without falling into the ideologue trap, a trap that prevents the ideologue from carefully considering a reality that is, perhaps, staring you in the face.

The ideologue claims a position on an issue, commonly social/political, that is essentially unassailable, a secular version of fundamentalist religion you might say. Watching mainstream media outlets, particularly CNN, on election night in America was fascinating. I had been watching CNN in the weeks and months leading up to the election far more than I ever had.

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And make no mistake, the preference for and expectation of a Clinton victory was predominant. However much the various anchors tried for balance, each and every segment involved those who were defending Trump being exactly and exclusively that: defenders. And to be clear, I get it. Everything about Trump, his campaign, his rallies trended toward the repulsive – for me! At the same time, attention needed to be paid to the reality that a huge segment of the population found Trump to be preferable. The New York Times – giving credit where credit is due – has gone so far as to admit that they need to get out of the newsroom more and talk to people on the ground.

Progressive ideologues play easily into the hands of the so-called alt-right. The progressives’ ideological righteousness and the accompanying dismissal of any point-of-view that diverges from theirs contribute to the radicalization of what might otherwise be simply different opinions.

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Listening for and seeking to grasp differences, however, have become casualties of our preference for being pseudo-informed. When the public forum is dominated by 140-character tweets, headlines and sound-bites, the effect is insidious. Increasingly, few have time for a lengthy consideration of anything. Slogans take the place of arguments, positions become hardened and unassailable, and extremes become the norm.

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Canada, so far, has avoided this trap but we cannot be complacent. Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch – she of the “Canadian values test “ who wants to eliminate the CBC – has her followers and dismissing those who are sympathetic to the positions she brings forward will not convince them to give either consideration further thought. If we don’t learn to listen to one another, we risk outcomes a great many prefer not to imagine.

Let’s meet, before it’s too late

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. – Dante

Recent events in the U.S. as well as an interview with one of the federal Conservative party leadership candidates has convinced me all the more that we need to see the emergence of a truly Progressive Conservative option in this country. I know this will distress an equal number of friends on either side of this paradoxical descriptor but it remains my preferred position.

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Kellie Leitch, federal Conservative MP and leadership hopeful, spoke with the host of Sunday Morning on CBC, largely trying to defend/avoid her position on a “Canadian values” test for prospective immigrants. According to her, some two thirds of Canadians are in favour of such a test. Really? I would need to see the question that led to that result or some other kind of evidence before I would even begin to believe it but I won’t make the mistake of dismissing such a claim.

That’s where the results of the U.S. election come into the picture. I was among the many here in Canada, the U.S. and around the world who just couldn’t believe that someone as apparently vile and unsuitable for high office as Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. At the same time, for all of my personal revulsion, I am enough of a student of history to know that people can make choices, to put it mildly, that are not necessarily in their best interest.

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So I’ll pause right there. Chances are I’ve offended someone by now. Trump’s victory tells us that some 60 million people in the United States were able either to embrace whatever it is he stands for or, at the very least, to see him as preferable to the alternative, regardless of his flaws. So I’ve potentially ticked off 60 million. Perhaps someone who agrees in general with Kellie Leitch’s idea will see me as elitist. Someone else might think I’m going too easy on Trump and his supporters. Who knows.

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What I absolutely believe, however, is that the only way forward is to walk the middle ground. While Canada has not succumbed to the drastic polarization that we see in the U.S., I fear that we could be subject to the same forces as led to the rise of Donald Trump. I was never confident that he couldn’t win, however much, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe that he couldn’t. Through my experiences in politics, I know there are people who are quietly applauding a Trump victory (or, like Kellie Leitch, not so quietly). I don’t fully understand how anyone could but then neither can I fully understand much of what has happened in the world that I consider horrifying.

I’ve written, in other contexts (mostly surrounding education), of the dangers of fanaticism. While “progressives” might not like to hear it, I happen to think they fall into that category far too often. They believe that they occupy a moral high ground to which others might hope to ascend and, filled with the warmth of righteousness, disregard those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to climb that mountain with them.

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Conservatives (most Trump supporters, Tea Party and Kellie Leitch variety) are equally ideological. They contend that their view is sacrosanct, and that they alone represent what is righteous and good. Too often, especially in the U.S., a somewhat bizarre form of Christian fundamentalism is mixed in. Whatever the case, in the same manner as the progressives I’ve mentioned, they alone possess the “truth”.

Hence my affection for the “progressive conservative”. Some will, no doubt (some already have), argue that I am simply remaking the designation. I choose to leave that argument for another time. For now, I simply want to suggest that the paradoxical quality of the Progressive Conservative brand points to a much-needed balance. A great deal of ink has been spilled in the U.S. crediting Trump’s victory to the deafness of the progressive left to any voices but their own. Personally, I think that is overstating the case but I might take that up at another time as well.

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For now, suffice to say that I think that tunnel vision has become the order of the day all across the political spectrum. Sadly lacking just about everywhere are nuance and an acknowledgement of divergent positions that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. When you ignore the FELT opinions of millions of people, don’t be surprised by a backlash.

Can we move to a middle ground? Can we imagine ourselves as progressive in some things (socially is the most commonly mentioned) and conservative in others (fiscally being the usual)? Such a clear division is, itself, an oversimplification. I would rather think of “progressive conservative” as a state of mind, one where you are always open to new information, hoping to clarify situations and understand more thoroughly and deeply.

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As an idealist, I refuse to adopt a stance which demonizes either the left or the right. I do not think anyone possesses some absolute truth to which all others must ascribe. Canadians rightly pride themselves on their overall fairness and respect for difference. At the same time, complacency fueled by a sense of moral superiority is a sure way to alienate lots of people. If Kellie Leitch’s claim to have 2/3 of Canadians supporting a “Canadian values” test is even somewhat true, then we need to have a national conversation. If someone objects to the designation “progressive conservative” then I’ll put it this way: please, let’s meet in the middle. And let’s do so before it’s too late. If you need an object lesson, consider this: you can’t unelect Donald Trump.

Education: understanding what it is (and isn’t)

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.
― Albert Einstein

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As a retired teacher, I have been profoundly frustrated by the current government’s approach to education in New Brunswick, although I recognize they are simply following the example set by governments through many decades. The current state of education – reflected most recently in the Department of Education’s assessment results – requires a complex response to a complex issue.

 

Instead, typically, Premier Gallant offers the simplistic recommendation that we need to “invest in education”, with no reference to or recommendation regarding where such an investment should be targeted. As someone who has watched any number of initiatives implemented and later abandoned at a cost I would not want to calculate, I contend that such vague pseudo-optimism is distracting and fundamentally irresponsible. Rather than contributing to an analysis of the ever-escalating cost of public education in the face of continuing failures within the system, this simplistic approach stifles real and frank debate of where we have gone wrong.

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I say “where we have gone wrong” because of a distressing reality. Even as we have, year-to-year, increased spending in education, literacy has seen little sustained improvement among adults (those who have completed their formal education) and numeracy is notoriously problematic at virtually every level. While the recent assessments reinforce this reality, I don’t want to overstate their significance as a benchmark for success (or lack thereof) in schools. To emphasize my central concern, New Brunswick’s educational system has been in crisis for many years and throwing more money at it isn’t going to solve anything.

Temporary solutions often become permanent problems.
― Craig Bruce

During my time as a teacher, I saw the virtual elimination of vocational education; the institution of semestering in high schools; the implementation and abandonment of the “Foundation Program”; the marginalizing of physical education, literature, art and music courses; a focus on technology as a teaching methodology as well as a necessary component of the daily, in-class experience of students; a demand for evidence of ever-shifting “best practices” (shifting because the research that supports such practices frequently changes opinions regarding what is “best”) in classrooms; the division of high school into the foundation years (grades 9 and 10),where there are no credits, and the graduation years (grades 11 and 12) where there are credit requirements; a denigration of the idea of teachers as experts in a subject discipline which has intrinsic value (in favour of numerous administrative oversight positions that seek to educate teachers in the above-mentioned “best practices”); a corresponding demand that teachers abandon the idea that they should be imparters of knowledge in such areas.

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Any one of the above deserves further elaboration but, hopefully, the sheer volume of items suggests the ongoing demand for change in education; consider further that each of the above involved an “investment” of some kind, whether through curriculum changes, material acquisitions, additional administrative staff or other costs.

 

The evidence (including but not limited to assessments) we do have suggests that any of the above-noted changes have had, at best, a negligible impact on student achievement. The dollar cost of the many initiatives I have enumerated is more than I could calculate. Hopefully, my point is obvious: rather than calling yet again, without offering any specific direction, for additional “investment”, we need to look carefully at what we are doing. More specifically, I believe we need to look at our system and ask the most fundamental question: what do we want this system to accomplish? Until we know clearly what we are trying achieve in public schools, every decision we make will be little more than a shot in the dark; inevitably, it will also be very expensive.

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We all agree that the future depends on education (or “learning” if you prefer), but without a better and clearer idea of what we hope our schools can achieve, we will simply be throwing more money aimlessly at a system that has shown very little real improvement when it comes to the most fundamental of its tasks: graduating literate and numerate young people capable of moving along on their path of lifelong learning. If the future matters to us as much as we claim, we must take the time to know better how we plan to get there. Before we spend more, we need to know what we are paying for.

Vaguely seeking clarity: assessment in education 2016

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
—Jacques Barzun

Assessment in education (primarily within the public system) has become a political football unlike any other. Through any number of assessments – whether local, provincial or international – various constituencies either live in fear of, or celebrate, the release of the latest “results”.

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“Results” is in quotation marks here to indicate how difficult this term has become. To be fair, perhaps it has always been a more complicated term than was once allowed but the modern determination to parse and to dissect the achievement (or lack of the same) on any number of standardized assessments is both strenuous and relentless.

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Those who are old enough might hearken back to a supposed golden age where students were assigned a letter grade or a percentage. I say “supposed” because it doesn’t take a great deal of argument to convince someone that such a method of reporting can mean a great many different things. One persons “A” is another person’s “C” you might say.

While this clearly indicates the developing sense over the years of a need to offer a more precise and objective evaluation of student progress, as with so many things, the net result, in my estimation, has been negative. To put it another way, as I’ve watched what has unfolded re evaluation and assessment throughout my career and beyond, the cure has proven, again and again, to be far worse than the disease.

Objectivity has about as much substance as the Emperor’s new clothes.
-Connie Miller

While this situation can be blamed on any number of factors, a key element, I believe, is the ascendancy in the popular imagination of all things “objective”. In essence, a move has been afoot for a very long time to supplant human expertise and the exercise of judgement for what is held to be objective measures of just about anything. As a side note, one of the last redoubts of human judgement is the court system where the onus is on a judge to determine – in anything but a jury trial – the guilt or innocence of an accused as well as the sentence imposed should an accused be found guilty.

Conservative forces throughout the U.S. and Canada have been great proponents of mandatory minimums for any number of crimes, the explanation being variations on the “tough on crime” mantra. While that might sound good to some ears, all I hear is an ideological unwillingness to accept the informed judgement of those best placed to make judgements, namely, JUDGES! If it should happen that a given decision is deemed truly objectionable, it can be appealed. And so it should be.

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As for education, time was that the assessment of student progress was left exclusively to teachers, largely at the classroom level. Students came to class, teachers taught to a quite rigidly prescribed curriculum, teachers tested in various ways, a “grade” was assigned.

The unfortunate truth (and yet, an unavoidable one, I would argue) is that not all teachers are created equal. But then, neither are doctors, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, wait staff – add anyone you would like to the list! Seemingly we allow for such differences in every other instance. Education alone, it seems to me, has reached a place where every child is somehow supposed to be provided a uniquely tailored experience where, regardless of teacher, school, or any other factor, he/she can achieve certain “outcomes”.

Reality should be intruding by now and, if you are reading this, you are saying (hopefully) something along the line of “well that doesn’t seem realistic; not everyone can be expected to be the same (add or alter where needed but I suspect the point is clear).

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Perhaps the greatest irony at the heart of so much theory in education these days is the assertion that all children are unique even as schools seek to ensure uniform “outcomes” for all students.

Which brings us to “outcomes”, the vagary at the heart of modern assessment, at least the assessment we see in New Brunswick. I can’t comment on Math results on provincial assessments since I do not pretend to have any expertise in the area. As for English, I taught high school English for 28 years (the same at summer school for 7), worked on development teams for the Grade 11 English assessment for a number of years, “assessed those exams (as well as the current grade 9 English Language Proficiency Assessments) for more than half my career – you get the picture.

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So, as one professional no longer working in the system, I would like to say: “outcomes” are so vague and open to interpretation that they do not provide the kind of guidance a teacher needs when it comes to devising a curriculum. I believe with my heart, mind and soul that young children, especially, need clarity when it comes to expectations. “Outcomes” breed a vagueness in assessment that does not allow a student to know clearly where weaknesses need to be addressed. Conversely, they fail to provide an understandable account of strengths and “success” if you will.

However much modern educational theorists like to decry “grading” as harmful to self-esteem, failing to account for the “multiple intelligences” in each of us, etc., human beings do better when expectations are clear and the bar they have to reach is well-defined. Currently, one of the few indicators we have of such a measure even being allowable is the provincial assessment program. Even then, all we have is a statement of percentage deemed successful. Good luck to anyone trying to figure out just what it means to BE successful. That determination has be to left to the “professionals”. The rest of us simply wouldn’t understand.

Assessment in education: say what?

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan

I read a report in the local paper recently that awakened my frustration with the manner in which the press frequently covers matters related to education. Implicitly (and almost explicitly) the article lends support to the claim that “time on task” is the answer to virtually any existing educational deficit. By doing so such articles continue the trend of simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. It is the instructional equivalent of the oft-paraded boast that New Brunswick high schools graduate more students today than they did 30 years ago. Neither time on task (as a solution) nor graduation statistics (as proof of success in the system) provides the kind of detailed analysis of the system that might help people understand how broken that system really is.
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If we still had investigative journalism that could take the time needed, a story could be told of empty curricula wrapped in theoretical educational dogmatism, schools overburdened with the attempted implementation of social engineering, and classrooms as sites for ongoing experimentation in service of someone’s pet educational theory. It is far sadder and more dire than a simple addition of days can indicate.

As education has struggled, at the university level, to present itself as a viable social science in its own right – on a par with psychology, sociology, history, etc – it has been driven increasingly by the desire to present its claims as rooted in research and the scientific method. In itself, this isn’t so bad. It has long been my contention, however, that positioning education in such a way does little to actually serve students. For all of the talk of “student-centred” instruction, the theories that underpin the actual practice of such instruction view young people more as lab rats or commodities than they do complex and diverse human beings.
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How appropriate that just around the time I was thinking about this issue the Department of Education should release the latest results of its provincial assessment program. Be prepared for any number of follow-up editorials and/or commentaries pointing to the number of days students are out of the classroom, whether it be because teachers are involved in some form of professional development or a particularly harsh winter. In either case (or any other), it remains my contention that pointing to “time on task” is nothing more than continuing evidence of the lack of political will necessary if we are to take a hard look at the state of our educational system.

Consider: the prevailing view in our system – for the better part of three decades now – is that holding a student back a grade when he/she has failed to meet expectations is tantamount to inhumane. What is far more destructive, in my estimation, is moving a student forward into an environment where the resources to address any deficit are lacking. The young person in question falls further behind with each passing year but “accommodations” are made to ensure that forward progress is not interrupted. I can’t avoid mentioning the occasions, when I was teaching, where transcripts from middle school occasionally revealed students entering high school without having passed a single course in Grade 8. From the system’s perspective, it was simply time for such a student to move on.
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Such practices as “anecdotal report cards” – ostensibly an improvement over the old percentage or letter grades – simply obscure further an already murky picture of achievement. Teachers write accounts of student progress in light of “outcomes” – a term I personally despise because it does not offer anything definitive – rather than assign a “grade”, something that high schools, universities and community colleges will demand as a student moves through our educational system.

And then the anomaly: amidst all the “outcomes”, along comes the provincial assessment results. Reported how? As percentages! Now, admittedly, these percentages are not percentages as most of us of a certain age would remember them. These are not marks per se; rather, they indicate the percentage of students who have achieved an “appropriate” level of literacy. Now I ask you: how many people are truly aware of that distinction? For most, using the grade 2 reading assessment as an example, the results mean that 73.8% of students “passed”. Things are apparently looking up by Grade 9: 80.4% of those students “passed”.
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But let’s look at this from the perspective of another measure. We routinely hear that New Brunswick has an adult functional illiteracy rate of between 50-60%. In other words, when people find themselves in the real world of the workplace and day-to-day living, some 50-60% of adults struggle with basic tasks such as reading instructions, filling out an application, etc. Based upon provincial results, surely that functional illiteracy rate should be closer to 20%?

At what point will someone point to this glaring discrepancy? Surely it suggests that something is amiss in our assessment practices at the very least. But, more importantly, these assessments prevent the kind of careful scrutiny of programs that might lead to real improvement. Where you might ask?
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Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. Teachers and educational systems need to reacquire an appreciation for fundamental skills. “Educational practice” is virtually the sole concern of education programs at universities. What has been lost in our current system is concern for what it is we expect students to KNOW. Until such time as we return to an appreciation of the central place that knowledge plays in nurturing reading and writing ability, math skills and, most importantly, critical thinking, the disparity between reported “results” on provincial assessments and more objective measures of adult literacy and numeracy will remain. In fact, results massaged in the service of political optics will probably increase any such disparity. In the immediate term, the student suffers; in the long term, we all do.

And the winner is . . . .

The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.
– Ray Kroc
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Blaine Higgs is the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. Truly, a change has come and is coming. Understandably, a great many of those who are busy with their lives, and have little ongoing interest in politics, might shrug if given this news. “Change”, if you were to do a survey of all elections just about anywhere, is the recurring theme of well over 90% of them. Certainly it has featured prominently in any I’ve either been in myself or watched from afar.

But this is different. I say that (and I can already hear the sceptics sighing) because I know Blaine Higgs. I have been there to watch him when he was the Finance Minister in David Alward’s government. I have been privy to a number of the arguments that were had over the path Blaine wanted to follow and the opposition he experienced in trying to implement certain policies and plans.
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I am not overstating the case when I say that I never once saw Blaine diverge from a principled position he had adopted. The objections raised to certain of his plans were almost exclusively “political” in the worst sense of the word. On occasion, he could be overruled but never once did I see him compromise on an issue of principle for the sake of political expediency. I wonder how many politicians of any age can say that.

The manner in which he was selected was the purest form of democracy. With few exceptions, a cast of volunteers comprised the support staff responsible for the conduct of the actual election. Considering that from beginning to end that meant some 13-15 hours behind registration desks or manning polling stations, their efforts should be acknowledged.
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And then there were the supporters of the various candidates. While each ballot signaled a reduction of actual votes cast, the number willing to hang in until the end was remarkable. I was personally involved as a scrutineer and one of my roles had me observing a mobile poll provided for those who could not endure the long line-ups. Any number of elderly and disabled delegates were determined that they would make their choice known, regardless of the waiting, the heat in the athletic centre or any other reason that might make someone depart. Again and again, I was convinced that a great many people felt that THIS leadership election really mattered.

And, yes, I am among those who believe that this was a truly remarkable day. We live in an age where cynicism and politics are commonly combined in the minds of a great many. Watching our neighbours to the south, it’s easy to see why. But we don’t need to look beyond our own borders. I will allow Blaine Higgs and the elected members to outline the failings of the current Gallant government. But one of the many things that makes Blaine Higgs different is his willingness to acknowledge the systemic problem that afflicts politics in New Brunswick.
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Traditional political culture demands that the opposition condemn virtually everything the government does and that the ruling party dismiss as foolhardy or absurd anything the opposition might suggest. Blaine Higgs wants to build a new paradigm, one where a succeeding government builds on the achievements of the preceding one, rather than tearing down all that came before just because the other government did it; one that promises only to govern well and in the interest of all citizens, rather than promising specific things to specific groups in hopes of garnering support.

Make no mistake: this is new. I happen to think it is an idea that has been around for some time but never before have we had someone who is as willing to put it to the test in a real way. Blaine Higgs has said that his first priority is the province of New Brunswick and its people; second is politics. I would argue that if you take care of the first priority, the second will take care of itself.

In fact, the two are really, in an ideal world, the same. “Politics” comes from a Greek word meaning “relating to citizens”. Blaine Higgs was elected as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick through an appeal to our best selves. He wants to stop waste – of people and resources – and to promote common sense and real solutions based on evidence and analysis.
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In a strange but appropriate paradox, Blaine Higgs is the realistic idealist New Brunswick needs for its next Premier. He is an idealist who believes that people want the best and are willing to participate in achieving that best where and when they can. He is the realist who knows that no ideal can be reached without clear direction and hard work. Now that’s a vision for the future that any New Brunswicker, of any party, should be ready to support.

Blaine Higgs and politics done differently

A root cause of our warped civilization (politics?) is a failure of imagination, an inability to conceive the world (the political world?) as ever having been, or ever capable of being, other than the way it is now.
from William Blake

Integrity and plain-dealing CAN win elections!
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I’m supporting Blaine Higgs in his quest for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. I met Blaine before we were both elected in 2010. He had been the public face of Irving Oil’s plan to build a headquarters on Long Wharf at the same time as I had been serving as a councilor for the city of Saint John. I didn’t get to know him especially well at the time, but even then I was impressed by his professionalism and his direct approach. When the time came to announce Irving’s decision to forego the Long Wharf plan, Blaine delivered the bad news without recrimination in a plain and forthright manner. He had a job to do and he did it well.

Seeing Blaine appointed as Minister of Finance in the Alward government was universally acknowledged, at the time, as one of the very apparent “good moves” of the new Premier. He had a wealth of business experience to bring to the job and a reputation for fair-dealing and evenhandedness that offset any disparaging voices that might have labeled him an “Irving man”. Throughout his four years as Minister, he established a reputation as a man who was able to walk a fine line: he never publicly criticized his own government but his feelings on controversial issues were usually quite apparent, even when they might have wandered from the “party line”.
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Over his four years as Minister, his name – both in the political sphere and among the public – became associated with honesty, plain talk and a forthrightness that was viewed as unique among government spokespersons. From my position as a bankbencher, I was able to assess the degree to which individual ministers had command of their files. None could match Blaine in his depth of understanding and the breadth of his grasp of the details. Few of the members on the opposition benches had the stomach for confrontations with Blaine during Question Period, at least when any questions had to do with Blaine’s portfolio.

Within his own caucus, he was someone who defied conventional wisdom and made many uneasy. He could never be accused of defying the united front of the party and the government (as Jim Parrott did, defiance which saw him ejected from caucus for a time), but it was also clear that he was not always in agreement with some of the decisions taken by the party and its leadership. Walking such a fine line isn’t easy but Blaine managed it as well as anyone might, and enhanced his reputation with the public at the same time. I don’t think he was trying to impress anyone or annoy anyone else: he was just being himself.
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Being himself: that best encapsulates why I think Blaine deserves to be the next leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. Blaine’s “self” is honest, hard-working, smart, straightforward and deeply ethical. As the Minister of Finance, he saw a path that would allow New Brunswick to regain its fiscal health and, through that process, protect and secure its heritage of health care, education, social programs, bilingualism and other elements of which New Brunswickers are rightly proud. I believe he has been moved to offer himself as leader because he realizes that only as leader can he hope to achieve the vision that he had come to believe was within reach until the Gallant government came on the scene and rapidly undertook the dismantling of many of Blaine’s signature innovations.

Those I have spoken with who dismiss Blaine as someone who isn’t bilingual, who is too focused on fiscal issues, who once ran for the COR party, who has no traction beyond his limited constituency, etc., miss the point, as far as I am concerned. As the extremities of the U.S. presidential race illustrate starkly, people are increasingly tired of the “same old, same old” in politics. Blaine represents New Brunswick’s best answer to the tired regime of “promises, promises” and the subsequent disappointment that follows when yet another government shows itself to have done whatever it deemed was necessary to “get elected”.
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Blaine can “get elected” and return the PC party to government by doing in reality what the current Premier only pretended when he conducted his last campaign. Brian Gallant is now learning to regret his catchy slogan “we’ll keep our promises by only making promises we can keep”. Blaine Higgs reputation for integrity and plain-dealing can overcome any perceived need to promise the moon in order to gain people’s votes. When Blaine promises thoughtful, responsible and compassionate government, people can be convinced he means it because they have seen him in action. They know he is a man of his word and that he can be trusted. Perhaps alone among current politicians, Blaine has built a reputation for saying only what he means and nothing more.
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In today’s cynical environment, trustworthiness and integrity – as realities rather than just slogans – are precious commodities. Blaine Higgs is unique in my experience in politics. While I have seen many disagree with him and question his choices, I have never heard anyone say that he is anything but honest and forthright. With Blaine, what – and who – you see is what you get. An honest man – trustworthy, smart, thoughtful, compassionate, a listener: that’s Blaine Higgs, a man, in my estimation, eminently suited to lead the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. His greatest strength is his character and “character” is what can lead the PC Party to victory in 2018.

No place like home

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

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Coming home last night around 10:30, I stopped by my local convenience store to buy some penny candy. I can do without chocolate and any number of other confections but penny candy remains my weakness. When the craving hits, I will not be denied. Mind you, the selection isn’t what it used to be but then we all have our version of the “golden years”, don’t we. Or we do if we’re old enough.

The store was surprisingly busy. A number of young people were stocking up on late night snacks, a guy ahead of me was buying a pack of smokes, and one would-be customer had to leave when he realized he had forgotten his wallet. He reassured himself by checking the time, confident he could get home and back before the store closed.

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What struck me as I was hanging by the candy waiting for the line to diminish so the busy clerk could make her way down to me and answer my need for a sugar rush was how pleasant everyone was. Even the guy who forgot his wallet was no more than disappointed. He took it all in stride and left with a cheery “I’ll be back”. The clerk was all smiles and patience and the other customers were chatting here and there, chuckling at something or other. If Norman Rockwell were still around, he could have found inspiration in the moment, Canadian-style.

It made me glad to be just where I was at that moment, hanging out later at night in my little corner store with a group of people, unknown to me, who seemed to feel something of the season or maybe just a general satisfaction with their lives, at least on this mild, Canadian night, all of us aware at some level that such nights would have to give way to bitter chill some day soon.

I happen to know that the owner of the store is an Iranian by birth. He immigrated to Canada some 30+ years ago and has been making a go of it as a convenience store owner ever since. I know him to say hello to and he is always congenial and happy to talk about his time in Canada and even to complain about taxes and how hard it can be to make a go of it in these tough economic times.

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I like to give him as much business as I can and, in doing so, I am following a trend that seems to be growing in the city. Both of my daughters are increasingly committed to the idea of supporting local entrepreneurs and businesses where and when they can. And they seem to have been joined by an increasing number who are, perhaps, realizing that the sense of place and belonging that comes with connecting through local enterprise is a pretty good feeling.

And times are tough in some ways around here. If we’re paying any kind of attention we know that the economy is stagnant, that good jobs are hard to come by, that poverty in Saint John remains high, that the population is aging, public services are increasingly costly, etc. Most of us could add to the list, I’m sure.

But I’m grateful to live where I do. I know I have been fortunate in ways it is all too easy to forget. Many have said before me that those of us who were born here won the lottery. While we are drawn to the big news stories of refugees, terror and mass killings, it is easy to forget that for a great many in the world, daily life is a challenge few of us born in the West could ever imagine.


Some years back, when I was in Africa with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, this was brought home to me in a way that has endured. As guests of the Ghanaian National Association of Teachers, my colleagues and I were given the very best the country could offer as far as accommodations and other amenities went. In one instance, we were staying in a Beach Resort close to a town that had as its major attraction Africa’s oldest slave castle. Built by the Portuguese in the 15th century, it was a very substantial reminder of a dark time.


One afternoon, when I had some free time, I decided to walk from our hotel into town. It took me about 15 minutes and along the way, I noticed certain things I had missed before. The huts along the road had no electricity. I was able to see darkened interiors where a fire in the centre provided a place for cooking and, if needed, heat as well, I suppose. Pavement, sidewalks, street lights? Non-existent.

On the return journey, I decided to follow the shoreline and take the palm-fringed, white sand beach that I had noticed from the resort, a beach that was, curiously I thought, virtually entirely unused. Anywhere else and it would have been teeming with sunbathers and the aquatic set, I thought.


Not long after I had started my stroll, I realized why the beach was unused: with its tidal action, the beach was the only logical alternative for a population that had no sewer system of any kind.

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As Christmas approaches, more than anything I hope that all of us blessed to call Canada home realize just HOW fortunate we really are. And, the times being what they are, I hope as well that we have a chance to say hello to someone new around here and help to make them feel just a little bit more welcome. I hope someday they’ll be able to call this place home.

What in God’s name?

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
– Dalai Lama

Where do I begin? I’m trying to find some kind of silver lining amidst the thunderclouds of misery that have come to attend the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. If someone reading this thinks that “Middle East” is somewhat broader than events warrant, let me explain.

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While most of our attention is focused on Syria and Iraq as the heartland of the hot war with ISIS/ISIL, the rest of the region languishes amidst a more familiar misery. In Israel and the Occupied Territories, violence and conflict are so ingrained that only the most remarkable of the latest incidents makes the news. Heard anything out of Yemen lately? War continues there. We in the West just haven’t heard much on the regular news feeds. I could go on but I suspect most only need a reminder.

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As far as that goes, the “Middle East”, as a term, provides a kind of insulation from the reality of conflict in the area. Turkey isn’t part of the Middle East, nor are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Mali, etc., etc., etc. What they all have in common, though, is an ostensible religious component. Some group or other involved in whatever war is happening looks to their version of a god and lays claim to righteous indignation and a calling on the deity’s behalf to right the wrongs around them.

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Making this situation even more bizarre is the trumpeted religiosity of so many of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates. I’m hard-pressed to think of an exception among that crew. When Donald Trump – not the first person who springs to my mind when I think of evangelical Christian – lays claim to the bible as his favourite book, I truly feel the world of the Twilight Zone is alive and well and walks among us.

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I can only presume that in Trump’s and others’ versions of Christianity, God smiles upon systemic bias, racial profiling, hostile exclusion of the “other” and other, equally “Christian” practices. If I find myself getting especially riled up over these idiocies, I try to find comfort in Orwell’s 1984. In his description of Doublethink, the ability to hold two entirely contradictory claims as true, the author captured the essence of a human characteristic that has, no doubt, persisted throughout history. It just seems that doublethink is becoming increasingly mainstream, especially when candidates for the world’s most powerful office seem intent on becoming leading practitioners.

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But as I said when I started, I’m trying to find the silver lining amidst all this because it is, I admit, depressing when I think about it for too long. As might be expected, hope and comfort can be found amidst the details. None struck me as powerfully as the story of the congregation of a Peterborough synagogue that offered its space as a place for worship for those Muslims whose mosque had been the target of arsonists.

To be up front here, I long ago ceased to identify with any religious group although my heritage is Roman Catholic and I remain deeply interested in the church and its goings-on. As a general principle, though, I have found it increasingly difficult to ascribe to any particular dogma. I consider myself a person of faith even as I make no claim to being able to define just what that faith is. The best I have to offer is an affirmation of the purposefulness of life, the goodness of existence and awe in the face of it all.

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When it comes to manifestations of that faith, I see it in such things as the actions of the Peterborough synagogue. If the news is to be believed, a great many who would claim to be followers of a deity of compassion and of love would be outraged as such action. Reconciliation, kindness, generosity – whatever you want to call it – these have no place in the claustrophobic religious practices of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any other fanatical expression of religious intent.

A great deal of time and ink has been spent trying to argue that the extremists who claim affiliation with any major religion are perverting that religion. While that might have a pleasant, comforting aspect, I think it misses the point. Just what any religion is “meant to be” is far from clear. To use the one that most of us around here are familiar with, Christianity, how many different versions of that can you name? I find out about new manifestations regularly and, no doubt, I will continue to do so.

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To hear it on the news, you would think that Christianity and Islam and other faiths have some fixed “good” that all the proper Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., ascribe to. History of any age can point to any number of atrocities committed in the name of religion and, like it or not, they are the tangible actions of a particular understanding of that religion. Heretics being burned at the stake during the Inquisition wasn’t an aberration; it was the “right” thing to do.

Human decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it.
– Christopher Hitchens

So when I look to the generosity of the synagogue congregation toward their Muslim neighbours, I don’t ascribe to the interpretation that this indicates “true religion” at its best. I prefer to believe that there lives in all of us, oftentimes awakened as a result of our religious experiences, a fundamental human decency that gets lost, quite often, amidst the noise of conflicting passions and beliefs. Fear, in particular, can corrode an otherwise kindly heart.

The world we see in the news can often appear a dark and dreary affair indeed. The silver lining, most often, is found in the small actions taken close to home, wherever “home” might come to be (I’m thinking of all those refugees hoping to find a new one in places they had never expected to be). Hope is never a futile thing: just don’t expect to find it very often in a headline.

Fear itself

Always do what you are afraid to do
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fear: it’s in the air. No matter where I go, regardless of the occasion, if I run into someone I haven’t seen in a while, the conversation eventually comes around to the question of Syrian refugees. And beneath virtually every opinion offered on the rightness or wrongness of Canada’s plan to welcome 25,000 souls to our shores before the end of 2015 lurks that undeniable element of fear.

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We occupy a privileged position here in Canada and, even more so, here in our little enclave on the East coast, far removed from the metropolises of Europe and elsewhere where the threat of yet another ISIS/ISIL outrage must feel incredibly imminent. The effectiveness of ISIS/ISIL’s approach to intimidation cannot be overstated. The unlimited scope of their attacks has put all of us on edge in a way that no group, in my memory, has ever been able to do.

Attacks on embassies, war ships, even the World Trade Towers, have the perverse logic of being symbols of something identifiable that the radical group opposes. In the latter case, in light of what we see as the inherent innocence of the victims (people going about their business, doing their jobs), the logic is profoundly offensive, but at least we can follow it: World Trade Centre as symbol of U.S. economic imperialism, etc., etc., etc.

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But Paris? What did anyone killed or wounded in that attack do? What was the landmark, the symbol, the thing that shouted “offensive” in the twisted minds of the death cult that pretends to have something to do with religion called ISIS/ISIL? A concert? A soccer match? A restaurant? As others have noted, the randomness of the targets is the very thing that has made them so effective. By striking somewhere that has no obvious benefit, the message is clear: everyone, everywhere is in the cross-hairs unless you are with us.

No wonder fear is evident, even here in small town New Brunswick.

But I’m here to add my voice to those who cry out against that fear. I am not suggesting that we abandon healthy caution but, as in all things, we owe it to ourselves and to those who are more immediately affected by the ongoing calamity in Syria and Iraq to not allow fear to overwhelm our better instincts. Never have I felt so in need of perspective.

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For the friends that I have talked to about this, the central concern is the obvious one: extremists infiltrating the ranks of refugees in order to insinuate themselves into positions where they can cause harm. That’s where that privileged position of ours comes in. With the exception of Air India decades ago and the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Quebec last year, we have largely been free of extremist attacks in Canada.

What’s it like, I’ve often wondered, to live in a place where the young girl approaching you across the square might be a suicide bomber, or where the car sitting idly outside a building might be rigged to detonate at any moment? What is it like, in other words, to live in a place where the threat of violent death is, realistically, a constant?

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And at that moment, I realize that that is not Canada. Here on the periphery of the violence that afflicts so much of the world, we look upon it with dismay and are grateful that it so rarely has an impact upon us. So, naturally, if we can be convinced to fear that same violence making its way to our shores, we will object to any action that could lead to that. Understandable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m nervous. The world is looking like a dangerous place and the barrage of images of carnage and cruelty beyond measure in conjunction with the overreactions of crazies who want all refugees banned and tests of Christian belief administered, etc., all contribute to putting just about anyone on edge. At the same time, my rational self demands that I take a step back and act in spite of any visceral fear.

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While it might sound like overstatement, I really do think this issue is about Canadian identity. We cannot contend that we are (or aspire to be) the world’s most inclusive and fair-minded country while demanding that Syrian refugees pass litmus tests we would apply in no other circumstance. As I’ve tried to understand my own fear, I’ve further attempted to grasp just what it is we imagine needs to be done in addition to any current screening already applied to refugees.

Because the date, the end of the year, appears arbitrary, I hear myself saying that we need to abandon that. Even as I say it, I realize that my “logic” in saying so isn’t based on anything other than an unsettled feeling inside myself – fear, in other words. “Can’t be too careful” to quote the old adage.

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And I know we can’t! But what makes me think that the agencies responsible for such things in Canada are suddenly going to abandon caution and forego the responsibility they have for ensuring all of our safety? That just isn’t the Canada I believe in and those aren’t the Canadians I know.

The bottom line is I have to work on it – my fear, I mean. Because I am afraid. Canada has as much of a chance of being subjected to some kind of attack as anywhere else. But that is not, I have to tell myself, the same as welcoming refugees fleeing from a misery that I can’t even imagine. Emotion is as transferable as a bad cold, maybe even more easily spread, and I think we can all point to bad decisions we’ve made in our lives when emotion got the best of us. Let’s not let the same mistake get the best of our country. Too many lives hang in the balance.