Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Iceman Cometh

Technically, this is the last picture I took of the day in question, but I'm leading with it anyway. I'm the Editor in Chief here: Tremble Before My Whimsy!

There are many things I'd never tried before moving to France: a number of smelly cheeses, monopod-based foodstuffs, duck, mushroom picking, attending a professional "football" match, and rock climbing among them. Had I made a New Year's Resolution that I remembered for 2007 or 2008, trying new things might have been a good one.

This past weekend, was another first, albeit a slightly embarrassing one for one from the Great White North: snowshoeing.

Danielle shows her off-roading chops

I had, technically, done this once before when I was in the Boy Scouts. Except that was still back in the days when snowshoes were as the Huron had made them: you strapped your boots the leather webbing which in turn was bound to wooden frames, the size of which forced undersized adolescents such as myself to walk like John Wayne after a full day on a clinically obese horse. In my experience, waiting for the snow to melt was a quicker means of getting about.

This time, I was in the company of Danielle and David. They and the posse they had assembled managed to not appear too crestfallen when they realized that I was not accompanied by Amynah, as she was too ill to make it. We drove to a ski hill somewhere past Freiberg, in the German Black Forest.

There I discovered that snowshoe technology has progressed rapidly in the (cough) two decades since last I attempted to walk on water, so to speak. The devices I attached to my boots were light, and narrow enough that they barely interfered with my stride at all.

The greatest difficulty we encountered was finding lunch: none of the four restaurants we investigated were serving, or were full up. We gathered what scraps of food we had lying about, and hit the trail. We stopped after twenty minutes outside a chapel (oddly placed: it would have made more sense to have it at the top of the ski slope, I would have thought).

Tragedy struck almost immediately: Danielle set a package of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, brought all the way from the U.S. by Amynah on the snow. As soon as she turned her back, they made their break for freedom, sliding all the way down the hill, sixteen hungry eyes watching them disappearing in an orange doppler blur in the distance.

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Absconding Chocolate

That said, the rest of the hike was delightful, as outings with this crew reliably are. The weather was perfect, and the snow glittered like diamonds. We only hiked for a few hours, making it back into the village just as the sun set. The evening ended at a German restaurant where my policy of ordering the item with the longest word paid off: the duck with orangenpfferenrahmsosse was delicious, all the more so because the restaurant actually served second helpings at no extra cost.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Putting the "No more!" into "Noël

The Strasbourg city tree on Place Kleber. Ours looks just like this, trust me. Photo by Stefan Hamm.

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas, or, failing that, enjoyed your day off with friends and family. Amynah and I stretched our Christmas out over three days, though our social obligations are continuing.

On Christmas Eve we invited over a small group of friends to treat them to a Canadian-style Christmas dinner. All of our guests were international researchers at Amynah’s institute, and none celebrate Christmas normally (thus why we were fairly certain they’d be around for dinner).

We aimed to put on a feast: garlic mashed potatoes, two different kinds of leeks, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce and not one but two chickens (one spiced with tandoori, made by me, one “whitey style” made by the only person around here that would call something “whitey-style.”)

The guests, about to tuck in

Most of the food was not entirely new to the group, of course, except for the stuffing. Lama, who speaks more French than English, asked what the word for this would be – I had no idea, and so we just called it “Le stuffing.” The dinner was a success, in the sense that everyone finished the evening clutching their stomachs, eyes glazed as their digestive systems commandeered all reserve energy to cope with the protein avalanche.
Of course, we then had dessert, which consisted of a cranberry tart made by Amynah, egg tart thingies made by Qi and some sort of delicious Syrian crepe-marzapone confection brought by Lama.

We woke up at roughly 10 AM the next day, having been awake until 2:30 AM cleaning up the mess (I’ve no idea how my Mom, making at least as much food pretty much on her own, managed to do so without leaving so much as a speck of evidence of having done so in our kitchen). We exchanged our presents, and opened a few gifts that my parents sent, the highlight being a pair of underwear I’d left at their place this past summer.

We then headed to lunch at David and Danielle’s in Kehl. We opened Christmas Crackers, a British tradition that was a first for me (inside mine: a miniature roll of tape. You won’t shut me up that easily, Beeson’s!) Then we enjoyed another massive feast, the centerpiece of which was an enormous leg of lamb.

Everyone now suffering badly from seasonal over-consumption, we rolled ourselves back across the border to St Thomas’s Church, an ancient stone heap whose amazing acoustics had been enjoyed by Mozart and Nobel-winner Albert Schweitzer, who raised money for his hospital in Africa by holding concerts here. This time, it was hosting a concert of gospel-style Christmas music, sung by a woman from North Carolina, and Marcel Loeffler, a blind maestro of the accordion. I’d wanted to see a concert in this church since coming here and I was not disappointed: when Lisa hit a high note, the entire space was filled with flawless, beautiful sound.

Lisa and Marcel doing something considerably less seasonal

Yesterday, we reverted to our more usual Christmas traditions: watching Bollywood movies in our pajamas. I think that’s how Jesus would have done it, don’t you?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Hairy Potter

The semi-reflective faces in this nativity scene allow you, if you look at them at the right angle, to put yourself in the scene. I found I make a rather fetching, if surprisingly hirsute, Mary.

A couple of weeks ago, Amynah’s friend Ani and her husband Jean-Luc were kind enough to treat us to a lunch at their home in Marienthal, north of Strasbourg, followed by a shopping excursion. Faithful readers of this blog may well be able to predict what the shopping was for.

Ani is an enthusiast of Alsatian pottery, waking up every Sunday at 6AM during the summer to hit the brocantes (flea-markets) in the local villages to acquire older pieces. Her home is a museum of the stuff, and she can identify pretty much each piece not only by which village it came from, but which potter, and which generation of potter.

Betchdorf pottery, pre-fired. When it's done, it'll look like the stuff above.

Needless to say, she is very well known in both Soufflemheim and Betchdorf, the two main pottery villages, and Amynah and I were very lucky to have her guidance. The day we went was an open house for all the potters in both villages, so Woerlings, the first place we visited, was packed with patrons. Nonetheless, both the owner and his daughter made their way through the crowd to say hi to Ani and tell us a bit their work. The duo were glowing: Woerling fille had made an all-pottery Nativity scene, that. earlier in the day, had attracted the local Cardinal (in full red-robed regalia), who praised it as being worthy of being displayed in a church. As such, the Woerlings were happy to press vin chaud upon us, letting us keep the tea-cups they came in.

Next stop was Betchdorf Christine Ruhlmann, a personal friend of Ani’s. She had turned in for the night, but came back to open up for us when Ani called. Her shop was nearly empty – Ruhlmann husband and wife being more interested in creating art than churning out beer-steins. There were a number of interesting items on display, as far as I could see through the cigarette haze, and when I was not distracted a love-starved cat that woke up from his cozy-slumber by the ceramics-oven to follow Amynah and I around like we were made of catnip-marinated-steaks.

Some of the Ruhlmann art. We bought a sugar bowl.

As usual, we came home with far more pottery items than we could possibly use, or need. Half of it was wrapped for us at the store, so we’re going to slap each other’s names on the packages and call it Christmas. Nor do we have any idea how we’re to get this stuff back home when we eventually leave France. Perhaps a ceramic suitcase?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vanity, thy name is Fish Marcher

Thanks to everyone who posted on the previous entry - it's very gratifying to know that people enjoyed my account. I was very fortunate to have been able to attend the event, and am glad that I could share my experience.

I do hate to follow up the last post with something so utterly facile, but I did promise readers a peak at my facial hair's progress, once it had reached the not-embarrassing stage (though, on reflection, no one specifically asked to be exposed to such horrors). In her ongoing campaign to rid my of my whiskers, Amynah has progressed from Three Musketeers references to pointing out, that they make me look "Old" and "Haggard" - but in a bad way. For those of you who wonder what Amynah's eyes have to endure every day, here I am in all my hirsute glory.

Good lord, it looks like I don't have any arms in this photo! What the heck am I typing with?

And for comparison purposes, here I am earlier this year, in more innocent times.

I myself am undecided - I think I look a little like evil Spock, but am not entirely convinced that is a bad thing. Feel free to share your opinions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paris Darbar

This is a massively long post – sorry!

For those of my readers for whom Amynah is a only an occasional name on the blog (perhaps a figure of my writerly imagination), some background. Amynah is an Ismaili Muslim, a small Shi’a religion with roughly 15 million members worldwide. They are one of the only Islamic sects with a living spiritual leader, a man known as the Aga Khan (or His Highness, or the Imam).

The present Aga Khan took on the job from his grandfather in 1957. Starting last year, the Ismaili’s worldwide began celebrating the Golden Jubilee – the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Aga Khan’s tenure.

There are many events to commemorate this, but the most eagerly anticipated are the “Darbars” (or Deedars, depending on one’s orthographic whimsy). These are gatherings of the faithful to hear the Imam speak. For the Golden Jublilee, the Aga Khan visited Dubai, Syria, India, several cities in Canada and the United States and Singapore, among others. This summer, I accompanied Amynah to the one in London. This week was then final one of the Golden Jubilee Year, in Paris.

Being a minority with a somewhat mystical bent, and a living leader who traces his spiritual authority directly back to the Prophet Mohammed, the Ismaili’s have historically had a rough time of it, vis a vis their fellow Muslims. With the exception of a Golden Age some thousand years ago, Ismaili history is one of persecution divided, as Amynah says, into “The Greater Hiding Period” and the “Lesser Hiding Period.” That’s not entirely ancient history either – Canada’s population of Ismaili’s is disproportionately large because our then-Prime Minister agreed to accept as refugees thousands of members of the community that were being exiled from Idi Amin’s Uganda and fleeing from nearby Kenya and other African countries.

It would be easy, with a history like that, for a community to draw in on itself, remaining inward looking a secretive. However, the advantage of having a living spiritual leader is that the community remains adaptable, able to evolve with the modern world. Under the current Aga Khan the Ismaili’s reach out, not in – the Aga Khan Development Network is one of the most effective of its kind, operating through much of Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia. They build schools, establish business, found universities and preserve significant heritage sites.

For the last Darbar we attended, in London, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the room set aside for non-Ismaili family members, chatting with other hangers-on while we waited for the prayers to finish so we could get to the food and dancing. While I met some interesting people this way, and Amynah’s friends and family were very good at checking in on me to say hi, for the most part I was bored out of my mind.

The Darbars, especially in Europe and North America, are enormous events. There were 35,000 people at the London event. The French Ismaili community is much smaller than those of Britain or Canada, but – as this was the final Darbar of the year - they were planning for some 20,000 people to show up. Knowing that the local congregation was likely to be overwhelmed, Amynah and I decided to sign up as volunteers.

Amynah had sent in forms to register us as attendees, indicating our willingness to earn our supper. A week or so before we were to leave for Paris, I received a phone call, from a Chamsia in Paris, telling us that Amynah was signed up for “communication” – helping to coordinate the radio traffic between the various teams. I told her that I was available as well, and so she added me to the schedule.

A few days later, I received a phone call, telling me that I had been signed up to work the Parking detail. I said fine, and, having guessed from my name that I was not Ismaili, the caller told me to contact the non-Ismaili-spouses coordinator. I did so, thinking I was just letting him manage his numbers.

We showed up Wednesday evening at the Paris Conference and Exposition centre, not far from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the registration process to get into the Darbar is somewhat more involved than that required to board an international flight. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that as there is no active “jamat” (mosque) in Strasbourg, Amynah had registered us on-line as coming from abroad (as it was, one of the women at the desk actually said, with unbridled Parisian hauteur “They’re from Strasbourg? That’s not in France.”) Even so, this was easier than the registration process for London, which I took on myself while Amynah was in prayers: thrown by our differing last names, the officials at the registration desk demanded that I present both of our passports and a wedding certificate. I lacked the latter, but finally convinced them to give me our event passes through a combination of a wedding photo I keep in my wallet and crying).

After registering, Amynah and I found our way to the communications room, which was tucked away in the nether reaches of the enormous complex. On arrival, we were greeted by coordinators Chamsia and Rheishman, both of whom appeared to have been on the go for the previous 72 hours straight. Our job, it was explained to us, was to monitor one of the ten radio frequencies in use. Most of the traffic would be irrelevant, but if someone from one team needed to call another team (“Parking” for “Medical,” for instance) they would ask us to patch it through.

It should give you some idea of how desperate for volunteers they were that they put me, a man whose French breaks down entirely when deprived of facial cues to glean meaning, on the radios, whose static-to-language ratio was roughly 1:1. Fortunately, they put me on “Frequency 1,” which was nominally reserved for the big-wigs, all of whom were in meetings with each other for the duration of the event. I therefore spent three-hours on the first evening listening to absolutely nothing, during which time I sketched out a plot for my next novel (I got as far as the aliens landing in post-Revolutionary France, but am unsure how to link them to zombie-Napoleon).

Fun Fact:: “Walkie-talkie” in French? Talkie-walkie. Ask me not why.

The next day, Amynah and I woke up at 6 AM to catch the commuter train from our hotel near the Gare d’Est to the Exhibition grounds. On arrival, we tried to acquire some Volunteer identification at the registration desk, only to be told that they had run out. I was also told that I had been expected in Parking some two hours earlier, and was scheduled for the non-Ismaili spouses zone for the afternoon. Somehow, between those two tasks and Communication, I had been triple-booked.

Discretion being the better part of valour, and having forgotten my toque, I elected to check in with Chamsia and Reichman in Communications before wandering outside in the cold to play traffic cop. I told Chamsia about my dilemma – she said she would contact the parking guys to find out where I was needed most. I do not know how sincere she was – she never had a full table of radio monitors, so I doubt she was eager to lose even incompetent staff. In any case, I never saw her make the call, but she did put me on Frequency 10 – monitoring the Parking guys I was supposed to be assisting.

For the most part this went smoothly – they only called in twice, and both times I calmly shouted “Un moment s’il vous plait” before throwing my “talkie-walkie” at Chamsia as if it were a disgruntled cobra. At some point, I heard one volunteer radio another asking what to do with “Un Anglais” that had shown up looking to help. He was told to station him near the main gate. Twenty minutes later, a message came though: “We’re getting complaints about the guy at the front gate – he doesn’t speak a word of French.” Meanwhile I sat, helpless (yet warm) in Communications Central, cursing the fates: That should have been me, damnit!

As the morning wore on, more volunteers poured in, and Chamsia felt confident enough to set me free. As the guys in Parking sounded like they now had things under control (also, they sounded very cold) I made my way over to the non-Ismaili area. Things here were much calmer – I asked what I could do, and was told to inform the dozen or so people that had shown up so far that food was available on the enormous food-bearing table that they had to walk around in order to take their seats. I did so, earning the bemused looks one would expect under the circumstances.

Looking to do something a little more productive, I offered to give the two ladies behind said table a break. They were suspiciously grateful, and assured me they would “Be right back” before disappearing, never to be seen again. Running the table was no hardship – the only hard part was fending off the hordes of people streaming by the table who were stealing sandwiches to which they were not entitled (not surprisingly, I had trouble, as a non-Ismaili, stating with any conviction that the free food at an Ismaili event, paid for by Ismailiis, was off limits to everyone but non-Ismailis, especially as it was all came from the same storage area down the hall).

After some time I was joined behind the table by Collette, a woman originally from Burkino Faso, now a resident of Montreal. Together, we made sure that none of the 200 or so non-Ismailis present ever wanted for a croissant or tea. Truly we were heroes.

Collette, I discovered, had a wonderfully open view towards religion in general. At one point, she saw a man pass by with a thusby, which is a set of prayer beads used by Ismailis. She asked where he had acquired it and he (and this is utterly typical of the kind of generosity I see all the time at such events) gave it to her without a moment’s hesitation. As Collette returned to the table, counting off the beads as she prayed, I asked her if she was Muslim, to which she replied no, she was Catholic: “But I know how to use this.” I thought it was great, though I’m sure the Pope would not approve.

While all this was going on, all of the Ismailiis in the hall had retreated into the Darbar Hall for the ceremonies. These lasted roughly two hours, during which the faithful were addressed by the Aga Khan, who arrived earler with his family.

For the Jubilee Year, His Highness has made a point of coming outside of the Darbar hall to speak with the non-Ismailis gathered outside. In London, there were roughly 700 of us, and as I was helping with crowd control, I ended up in the back and thus didn’t get very close to where he eventually spoke. This time, there were only 200 of us, tops, and I got into the front row, thanks to some speedy footwork on Collette’s part. This did not occur without some difficulty: they ran us through metal detectors beforehand, and confiscated my nail-clippers. Were they perhaps afraid that I was going to groom him? (To his credit, the security guy who took them from me tracked me down ten minutes later to give me a tag so that I could reclaim them. That’s dedication!)

It has been pointed out to me many, many times that this is a great privilege – Amynah’s never had such an intimate audience with His Highness in her life, and here I was within handshaking distance. So, for my Ismaili readers, I’m going to do my best to relay what was said, though I’m afraid I can’t do a very good job.

He took the podium, having changed out of his traditional clothes into a suit. He seemed to be in a good mood, though his voice was a little hoarse from speaking at the Darbar. He spoke in French, so much of the subtleties of the message were probably lost on me.

First, he thanked us all for coming, and welcomed us into the community, even if not as Ismailiis. He said that Ismailiis were a people that believed in pluralism, and were a part of the Western world, but were also very much a part of the Muslim world, not apart from it, despite theological differences. He then spoke of the work of his charitable foundations, especially the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN): It was through pluralism, and strong institutions that societies thrived: countries like Bangladesh and Kenya may have their political troubles, but are by and large peaceful countries, and that is because their citizens have a sense of civil society – over time, that will translate into stability. To that end, he invited all of the non-Ismailis present to contribute what time or expertise they had to the AKDN, to further this goal of building more pluralist, “cosmopolitan” societies world-wide.

It was only a brief speech, but afterwards he stepped down to greet people more personally. We’d all been told not to address his unless we were spoken to, but when he came near where I was standing, Collette, standing beside me, couldn’t resist, asking for a blessing by calling out “Benediction! Benediction!” I don’t think he heard, much to her disappointment.

He moved on shortly thereafter, but it was inspiring nonetheless: in the last few weeks, the Aga Khan had done Darbars in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Singapore, returning to Canada again to open a Centre in Ottawa. That is a grueling schedule, especially for a 72-year-old. That he cared enough to speak to a miniscule crowd as us on what must have been a long day showed a commitment to his message, and to living what he speaks.

The rest of the day went pretty quickly – once the Darbar was over, the feasting and dancing could begin. Amynah and I returned to the “talkie-walkie” room, but the channels were all dead, as 18,000 people caught up with friends and family and ate the lamb-curry that was being ladled out by the ton in the main hall. Eventually Amynah’s relatives from England found us, so we managed a mini-family reunion, albeit one partially spent cleaning ear-wax out of returned radio-headphones. I was eager to see if we could find more people we knew from Canada, but the night was getting on - we left our friend from Montreal (in Europe working for the AKDN) near the stage, where the band had the remaining crowd bashing sticks and dancing in circles for the dandiya. Amynah and I caught the last train back to our hotel, in order to catch four hours of sleep before heading home to Strasbourg.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mary, Mary, Why dost thou buggeth?

These are just a bunch of candles. Do I need a reason for everything I do here?

One of the many features of Christmas in Strasbourg is the annual return of the 18th century tapestries. The 14 draperies show the story of the Epiphany, and used to hang year round. Today, they are only displayed for the month of December. You can see why – the ones exposed to the sun are noticeably faded, while the other half are still quite vibrant, even after 250 years.

Taking pictures in a dark church poses a bit of a challenge with my camera; relative to modern devices, it’s a primitive beast that may well have crawled out of the Paleolithic ooze. The dim image here was the only one that came close to capturing the colour on display.

Get your hand away from the vicinity of the Sacred Bellybutton!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Umlaut Ahead! Strasbourg's Marché de Noël

Roughly half the 700 hundred Strasbourg Christmas market vendors are selling these miniature Alsatian houses. One day, I will buy enough to make a model Alsatian village, in which I will hold a miniature Christmas market, half of which will be selling even tinier Alsatian houses. Did I just blow your mind?

For a small city, Strasbourg claims pre-eminence in a startlingly broad spectrum of fields; it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin department of course, and the largest city in Alsace, but claims also to be both the crossroads and capital of Europe, by grace of the number of European Union institutions based here.

However, Streetsville, France, claims to be central to something much, much more important that a mere region, or even continent. It brazenly advertises itself as the Capital of Christmas.

The reason, of course, is the Christmas market, one of the largest in Europe and definitely the largest in France (though not, of course, unique, as Zurika can attest). Several hundred stallholders set up all around the city, selling all manner of toys, handmade objets, ornaments and, of course, vin chaud.*

The event draws tourists in their thousands, who choke the narrow alleys between the stalls as they search, usually in vain, for that one vendor selling something, anything, unique enough to make enduring the cold, damp, and crowds worth it.

Outdoor skating rink with the Musée Oeuvre Notre Dame behind. Where are their hockey sticks?

I sound cranky about it, but in truth I’m rather fond of the market, even if I rarely buy anything from it. It is divided into many sub-markets around the city, ranging from the main market in front of the Cathedral (where the whole tradition kicked off in 1570), to an almost hidden square near our apartment where, in my first year here, I sampled garlic bread smeared with a paste made from escargot.

Two for one sale: God and Mammon. Why choose?

My favourite market is the “guest” market located on Place Gutenberg, next-door to my former apartment on View of the Marching Fishes Street. Our first year here, it was occupied by Romanians, from whom I failed to buy anything as I was still in anti-materialist shock from having sold all my possessions in Canada. Last year, it was occupied by merchants from Québec, of all places, from whom I bought a number of nostalgia-inducing items, mainly of the winter-clothing variety.

Did I mention the Christmas lights strung up throughout the city? No? Well, then this photo doesn't make a lot of sense then, does it?

This year Gutenberg is occupied by the nations of the European Union, thus featuring artisans from everywhere from Malta to… errr… France. I got suckered by the Bulgarian stall, staffed by a trio of ladies who proffered to me almost every item in their inventory, from soap to plastic figurines, each one offered with the hopeful assertion “It’s from Bulgaria!” Being a sucker with a soft touch for the exotic, that actually worked. I am now the proud owner of the prettiest children’s doll you’ve ever seen. It’s from Bulgaria!

* Vin chaud is, I believe, wine of insufficient quality to merit use as insecticide, mixed with a packet of chemicals that make it taste like turpentine. The potion is then heated; if you're lucky, you may scald your tongue and thus be unable to taste how awful it is.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Not a rant, per se...

Update: As the discussion moves to what the Governor General will do, we are shocked to find that a bimonthly history magazine has managed to publish up-to-the-minute commentary relevant to her role in brouhahas of this nature.

So, Canadian politics somehow got interesting while I wasn’t paying attention.

The bulk of my readers here are, of course, Canadian (Hi Bob! Hi Doug! How’s it goin’ eh?) and therefore need no background on what’s been going on in my ice-bedecked homeland, but I do have some readers, (beyond the imaginary ones in my head), that are less familiar with how things work over there. Canadian readers can skip directly to paragraph 8.

First, and most importantly, Canada has a Parliamentary democracy, modeled on Britain’s legislature. Throughout most of the last century, the Liberal party has governed either with a Parliamentary majority, or in minority governments propped up by the NDP. Normally, the official Opposition is the Conservative party – being an equitable people, we Canadians occasionally let them take the wheel to allow the Liberals some shut-eye/corruption purging.

Irrelevant entertainment break! I also hope it reinforces the French stereotype that Canadians are flannel-wearing lumberjacks. Or, it's a metaphor - but for what? Suggest yours in the comments!

The last federal three elections in Canada have yielded minority governments – the first was Liberal led, followed by Parliaments in which the Conservatives held the most seats, but not the majority. Our last election was six weeks ago, during which the Conservatives picked up seats, the Liberals lost more seats, the NDP picked up a few and (if memory serves) the Separatist Bloc Québecois (BQ) held steady.

Here’s where things get interesting. The current Prime Minister has managed, up until now, to keep the scent of Liberal blood in the air, so that the NDP and BQ (both parties of the left) continue to chase after that party’s central/left voter base. As long as he continued to engineer a situation where the Liberals were constantly on the back foot, he was able to do pretty much anything he liked, even though, as a minority leader, he would normally need to be in constant negotiation with the opposition parties to get his legislation through.

His government recently threatened to introduce a measure that would remove a subsidy that grants political parties funds on the basis of their popular vote. The subsidy was introduced by the Liberal government as a way to limit the influence of big money in political fundraising. The Conservatives, being much better at raising “grassroots” funding (many, small donations), are less reliant on these funds. The three opposition parties are heavily reliant on them.

All three parties were now backed into a corner – without those subsidies, they may well be out of competitive politics for a generation. Crises sharpening minds wonderfully, they decided to do something that has not been attempted in Canada since Confederation – create a coalition government.

In Canada, this is causing consternation in some circles: the Liberal leader, who will, under the new agreement, be Prime Minister, lost seats in the last election. There are complaints that this agreement goes against the will of voters, expressed just six weeks ago.

In theory, the members of the House of Commons decide their own leaders – voters get almost no say in the matter. Of course, this is neither how the system actually works, nor is it how it is perceived come election time.

The reason for this dysfunction (and subsequent ignorance) is the Party Convention. To steal an argument from historian Christopher Moore, historically, the Prime Minister was chosen by his peers – that is to say, other MPs. Today, party leaders are chosen by their party membership*, and thus do not require the confidence of the MPs who are elected in the same party in order to govern. Meanwhile, as leader, he has the power to give them Cabinet posts and party funding. *(Often this means people who had their memberships bought for them by the leadership campaign).

The effect of this is that MPs, to use Trudeau’s phrase, are nobodies fifty feet off of Parliament Hill. In fact, they’re nobodies on it either. Unlike Congressional members or Senators in the U.S. they do not, for the most part, have the ability to modify, let alone oppose, legislation. Those that do are booted from the party. This leaves the Canadian Prime Minister with more power within his government, relatively speaking, than the President of the United States.

A coalition government, would hopefully loosen up Canada’s Parliament, in all parties. MPs with real power will be more held to account by their constituents, and Prime Ministers who actually have to answer to their colleagues in the house can only be more responsible to their civic, rather than political, duties.

Pre-confederation coalition government. Yes, these things actually play on TV in Canada.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Today in French justice

Nicholas Sarkozy voodoo dolls are found to “Offend the dignity of the Head of State.”

The fine for such an outrage? One Euro, which would seem to imply something unflattering about the market value of Sarkozy's dignity these days.

Worse, the gentleman in question is allowed to keep selling them, so long as he mentions on his product that doing so is a very, very bad thing.