How Russia could determine our next prime minister

Did you hear about the Canadian commandos who slipped into the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine in 2016? The commandos were targeting the new Republic which, with the help of Russia, was seeking independence. It was a surgical strike to incapacitate the breakaway region.

image: Unian

While it was widely circulated on social media, it’s not true. An English translation of the story was shared over 3,000 times on Facebook alone. A similar story blew up on pro-Russia websites this last May. The new iteration, which spread even more widely, suggested that three Canadian soldiers were killed after their car hit a land mine while they were being escorted by the Ukrainian military (Walrus magazine, December, 2018).

It’s part of Russia’s disinformation campaign to discredit the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and sow general discontent and division -a sophisticated drive in which lies are mixed with truth.

It works. Russia’s Internet Research Agency managed to affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. It microtargeted Facebook ads to stir up conflict in an appeal to patriotism, honour, inequality, race, nationality, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Russia’s propaganda is not dogmatic; it’s an attempt to destabilize Western governments. Moscow is in for the long game –discontent leading to civil unrest and the disintegration of democracies. It’s Putin’s revenge for the collapse of the USSR and economic sanctions against Russia from Western nations including Canada.

The Internet Research Agency is always looking for wedge issues and none is more volatile than immigration. The UN Compact on Migration has recently become a focal point with Prime Minister Trudeau supporting it and Opposition leader Andrew Scheer against it.

Scheer recently rose in the House of Commons recently and stated that signing the compact would mean that “foreign entities” would be able to dictate Canadian immigration policies.

While Scheer’s comments are not true, it does play into Russia’s disinformation campaign. The pact’s preamble states explicitly that it “reaffirms the sovereign right of states to determine their national migration policy,” meaning governments will not sign away their rights to design their migration policies by signing onto the pact. Former Conservative immigration minister Chris Alexander has called Scheer’s comments “factually incorrect.”

Scheer is nervously looking over his shoulder at Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada and worries about them stealing right-wing votes.

Inspired by the “Yellow Vest” protests in France and fueled by Social media, demonstrations have spread across Canada. In Calgary one protester yelled through a megaphone: “They hate our country and they hate our way of life,” to cheers and whistles, not specifying who “they” are.

Professor Fenwick McKelvey at Concordia University has studied social-media manipulation. He believes there are plenty of other domestic pressure points Russian bots could exploit. “You’ve got language, Indigenous issues,” he says.

When you see how effective Russian was in the 2016 U.S. election, it’s not a stretch to think to see how Bernier could ride a wave of political instability. Immigration fears, Alberta’s anger on one side of pipelines and Indigenous conflict on the other, Right-wing governments in Quebec and Ontario -all provide fertile ground.

McKelvey says Canada is vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, if it isn’t happening already. If the thought of Prime Minister Bernier seems improbable, so did President Trump.

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Ditch the stoner image of cannabis users

Now that cannabis is legal in Canada a more accurate picture of users is emerging. Cannabis users are coming out into the daylight and they don’t look like what’s depicted in the movies.

image: GFarma.news

The Hollywood portrayal of marijuana users usually involves a bumbling buffoon who sits on a couch, smokes weed and binge watches TV. He can barely remember where he left his car keys, much less hold down a job or do well in school.

In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jeff Spicoli is a carefree stoner and surfer with little regard for school. In Cheech & Chong’s movies like Up in Smoke, a couple of stoners take meandering road trips in smoke-filled van.

The stigma of cannabis use is historical. “Marijuana” was first used as a pejorative term to describe what U.S. blacks and Mexican used in the 1930s. Leafly.ca says:

“The Great Depression had just hit the United States, and Americans were searching for someone to blame. Due to the influx of immigrants and the rise of suggestive jazz music, many white Americans began to treat cannabis (and, arguably, the Blacks and Mexican immigrants who consumed it) as a foreign substance used to corrupt the minds and bodies of low-class individuals.”

With such an image of degenerate and low-life users, cannabis consumers have been reluctant to admit use even after legalization. Some still feel like they have to be secretive about it. A friend emailed me:

“However, nothing has changed for me, somehow I still feel like I have to hide in my back yard if I want to smoke a joint…..how weird is that!!!!”

That reluctance is reflected in surveys. Health Canada’s Canadian Cannabis Survey asked respondents about their willingness to disclose use. Even once cannabis is legal, 25 per cent said that they would not disclose that they use it. While not a majority, it reflects reluctance to be judged by the stereotypical image of befuddled fools.

That connection is also reflected when respondents were asked about social acceptability of cannabis use. Less than half, 45 per cent, said that recreational use was socially acceptable.

Another study by Starbuds Canada done before legalization found that 27 percent of Canadians, or about 10 million people, currently consume cannabis. Another 17 percent said they would consider using it.

The largest growing demographic of users and those curious about using, are older, more affluent consumers. While Canadians over the age of 65 use the least, they are the most interested in trying it.

The majority of users have higher education degrees, including 43 percent university and 32 percent college. Most users are under the age of 54 and one-third of them have children.

Dave Martyn, president of Starbuds Canada says:

“With cannabis going mainstream, the ’stoner’ stereotype is dying. Cannabis isn’t just for intoxication, people are using it to relax, unwind, like they would a glass of wine at the end of the day. The average cannabis consumer is more likely to resemble your neighbour than any portrayal in pop culture.”

Canada’s Roma

The Romani people of Canada have been met with both fascination and suspicion.

image: from film “Opre Roma: Gypsies in Canada”

For more than a century, Canadians have been fascinated by the colourful bands of “Gypsies” that roamed the country. There was a circus-like feeling when they came to town. Dressed in colourful costumes, women danced, told fortunes, sold herbs, and worked as midwives. Men made and sold copper utensils and furniture. Gypsies must have been  a rare source of entertainment in frontier towns like Kamloops.

Historical entries of the Roma are brief says Professor Cynthia Levine-Rasky, author of Writing the Roma:

“In historical almanacs, most encounters are discussed only fleetingly, such as the report of the “Gypsy show put on in Kamloops in 1898, or in description of visitors who dressed ’like Gypsies,’ or in the numerous sightings of nearby campsites (Canada’s History Magazine, June/July 2018).”

While these Gypsies were never identified as Roma, the nature of their activities closely corresponded with the people. The Roma liked the myth that the name “Gypsy” projected, so it’s understandable.

“Gypsy” obscures the people’s origin. In Europe, the Gypsy label was given to the Roma because they were thought to originate in Egypt. The Roma never identified a homeland. Their origins were further obscured as they took surnames from whatever country they landed in.

We now know that the Roma originated from Northern India in the eleventh century. Their exodus to North Africa and Europe suggests they may have been refugees from the spread of Islam into India.

In Canada, the most common subgroups of Roma came from the United Kingdom, Russia, and Hungary. In some respects, the Roma were like other ethnic group. “Also like other groups, the Roma have been misunderstood or regarded with suspicion,” says Levine-Rasky. “But, unlike with people with other ethnicities, the myth of the Gypsy travelled alongside the Roma wherever they went.”

One attack on the Roma is seared into their historical memory. The Roma settled into a camp near Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, in 1935. Women told fortunes in town and the men, who were skilled mechanics, did odd jobs.

In the middle of the night five drunken miners attacked the camp, intent on raping two Romani girls; Bessie and Millie Demetro.  A reporter wrote: “hardly a member of the band escaped the carnage that followed.” Their father, Frank Demetro, fired a gunshot into the air to scare them off. He was arrested for firing another shot that killed one of the miners. Demetro was taken to hospital to care for his injuries and placed under RCMP guard. Frank’s brother Russel, fearing that Frank would not survive prison because he was diabetic, admitted to the shooting. Russel was tried but acquitted on a plea of self-defence.

Canadian Roma commemorate the event with a song in which Frank appeals to his wife Kezha: “Kezha, de ma ki katrinsa te kosav a rat pa mande (Kezha, give me your apron to wipe the blood from me)”

But don’t look for bands of Gypsies roaming the countryside today.

“When we learn of their historical travails, however, the Gypsy myth is challenged, just as it is when we encounter the Roma in Canada today –a dynamic and pluralistic community numbering about one hundred thousand and encompassing citizens of many faiths, occupations, and statuses,” says Levine-Rasky.

 

One power grid solves the green energy problem

Solar and wind energy suffer from a storage problem. They produce in abundance, often too much, when the wind blows and the sun shines. Storage of that abundance is one solution but it’s expensive and inefficient. You don’t get as much out as what you put in; like a bank account that gives you negative interest.

image: HowStuffWorks

The sun takes a long time to cross the four and one-half time zones of our big country. The advantage of that is when the sun shines on Canada’s largest solar farms in Ontario at ten o’clock, surplus electricity could be used to make breakfast in B.C. and lunch in Newfoundland.

Great idea, except that we have no way to get the excess power across Canada.  B.C. is connected to western Alberta by a major (345 Kilovolt) line and stops. There is nothing between Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. One connects Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces; none connects Newfoundland.

While there are few east-to-west Canadian connections, there are 34 lines connecting Canada to the U.S. The problem with north-south connections is that the sun shines on all solar panels in the same time zone at once.

Those gaps in Canada’s transmission lines create a challenge for green energy sources -wind even more than solar. Whereas solar power is fairly predictable, wind can be a problem. Sudden storms can wreak havoc with a power grid, dumping huge amounts of power into the system with nowhere for it to go. Some power utilities, such as in Germany and Texas, pay customers to consume electricity just to rid of it.

Climate change is creating increased demand on air conditioners in some areas of North America, while creating storms and wind in other parts. One big grid would link the wind power to where it’s needed.

The fragmentation of power grids is a problem says science writer Peter Fairley of Victoria:

“This balkanization means each region must manage weather variability on its own (Scientific American, July, 2018).”

Since we are already connected to the U.S., if the States were connected, so would Canada. It would be one big continental grid -something like the internet. The U.S. solution is simpler because they have only three major grids, the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection and the ERCOT Interconnection in Texas.

A big grid would soak up all the power you can pump into it but it requires weather reports. We need to know where the sun is shining and where the wind is blowing to determine where sources are. We already have that. The U.S. Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory maps the potential energy areas of four kilometre squares, updated every five minutes throughout the year. Couple that weather information with a huge single grid and you can send surplus power to where it’s needed.

Fairley continues:

“What we need is a weather-smart grid design, directed by meteorology and built on long-distance transmission lines that can manage the weather’s inconsistencies. Such a system could ship gobs of renewable power across North America to link supply with demand, whatever the weather throws at it.”

Just think, the tidal power generated in the Bay of Fundy could heat a toaster in Moose Jaw faster than the rate at which photos of kittens are shared on Facebook.

 

‘No Jab, No Pay,’ not here

Australia has a blunt way of getting parents to vaccinate their children called ““No Jab, No Pay.”

image: Forbes Phoenix

As the name suggests, parents don’t receive welfare payments, tax benefits, and child-care rebates if they don’t vaccinate their children. It can amount to $15,000 annually.

Not only do parents lose payments but unvaccinated children can be barred from daycare and schools during disease outbreaks. Daycares that allow unvaccinated children can be fined up to $30,000.

The exceptions to vaccinations are those children who have some medical condition such compromised immune systems or cancer. These children have a genuine reason not to be vaccinated; and these are the children who can benefit most from everyone else being vaccinated.

Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. But rates only improved slightly since the ‘No Jab, No Pay’ policy was implemented, from 90 per cent to 93 per cent. The improvement was not entirely because of the threat. A key to their success is a national registry. Health reporter Andre Picard says:

“We should not forget either that, in addition to financial penalties, Australia greatly improved its monitoring of vaccination. Having a register that shows what vaccinations children have – or haven’t – received has contributed greatly to bolstering rates (Globe and Mail, July 9, 2018).”

While it seems effective, it’s not appropriate for Canada. We are similar to Australia in that we are both former British colonies but Australia’s culture is different than Canada’s. Perhaps it’s because they were a former penal colony that the big stick approach is more accepted.

Canada has a hodgepodge of provincial systems with no consistent registry. We need to do better. We now have an immunization rate estimated (because we don’t know) to be 85 per cent. Herd immunity requires rates of 90 to 95 per cent.

There are many excuses for not vaccinating children. One is selfishness. If sufficient numbers of other children are vaccinated, herd immunity protects my child.

These parents don’t remember, or never knew, what it was like when vaccinations didn’t protect against diseases like polio. I do. I remember growing up in Edmonton during the “polio season” when epidemics of the crippling disease raged in the summer and fall. Provincial public health departments tried to quarantine the sick, closed schools, and restricted children from travelling or going to movie theatres. My uncle survived polio but walked with difficulty with the use of a cane and died prematurely because of polio complications.

Another reason is the irrational fear that vaccinations cause disease. While these hard-core anti-vaccination parents receive a lot of press, they only number about two per cent. The other 13 per cent fall into the categories of complacency, those who doubt the necessity of vaccinations, and those who just don’t’ find it convenient to get the vaccinations done.

Convenience is a big factor. Parents don’t get around to vaccinating because it takes time and effort. One-on-one attention is sometimes all it takes, such as an email or phone call reminder.

Canadians need to be encouraged, not bullied into improving or vaccination rate. We need a national registry. Improved rates will provide immunity, not only for their own children but for those vulnerable children who are unable to receive them.

Canada’s contribution to NATO

During President Trump’s Alternate Truth tour of Europe, he scolded NATO countries:

“Many countries are not paying what they should. And, frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them.”

    President Donald Trump walks away after being greeted by NATO Secretary General Jens

In the real world, NATO countries don’t owe the United States a cent. Members contribute to the organization for mutual protection. Trump is confusing what he thinks is a debt with the goal of increased spending to two per cent of GDP by 2024.

The United States spends almost four per cent of its GDP on NATO as a matter of choice. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder says:

“No one owes us any money. Nor is the U.S. spending more because allies are spending less … our defense spending is a national decision and is determined by our national security and defense needs.”

Regardless, the amount of money spent on defense is not the whole picture. Professor Elinor Sloan, political scientist at Carleton University says:

“A big reason countries don’t adhere to [the two per cent of GDP] is because it is a flawed metric. It doesn’t capture the military capability a country can deploy in support of NATO operations, measure absolute military spending or account for the percentage of a defence budget spent on major equipment as opposed to, say, pensions and housing (Globe and Mail, July 10, 2018).”

The two per cent figure doesn’t take into account non-monetary factors such as Canada’s willingness to take on leadership roles, contribute to dangerous missions, and accept casualties and the loss of life. You can’t buy leadership and commitment.

The military is an integral part of the U.S. economy. They have more than 1.3 million troops on active duty, 450,000 stationed overseas. The military-industrial complex fuels the American economy and asserts global hegemony.  It’s a way of distributing wealth nationally through military contracts, something like Canada’s equalization payments to provinces. It’s also a social security scheme to provide work to youth who have few options. Author Danny Sjursen, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, says:

“The military is also a welfare state; it is the most socialist institution we have. It provides a certain degree of economic stability (Harper’s magazine, June, 2018).”

Canada has its own interests but they don’t include a welfare state based on the military. Nor are they exclusive to NATO.

Not long ago, we only had two coastlines to protect. As Canada’s Arctic flank becomes exposed because of global warming, we need ships, fighters, and submarines to establish a presence in the North. The Arctic is melting. As shipping traffic increases, foreign bombers and fighters will test our sovereignty.

NATO is important to Canada, not just for the military component but for the political connections to Europe. As the U.S. becomes more unstable under the Trump administration, we look to Europe as an ally and trading partner.

As we watch in disbelief as Trump scolds his NATO partners while cozying up to Russia, Canada will be strengthened as we chart our own course.

Facebook tests honest ads in Canada

Facebook hasn’t been completely honest. They haven’t made it clear how we pay for the service.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with 2 billion active users –I’m one of them. What I get from Facebook is the opportunity to connect with friends and family. What Facebook gets is $52 billion a year in advertising, an average of $80 per North American user annually. I get a valuable service and Facebook gets $80. But what’s troubling me is: just who is trying to influence me? Who have I sold myself to?

The answer hasn’t been clear because the true source of postings isn’t always obvious.  An investigation by the U.S. Senate revealed that Russians anonymously influenced the outcome of the last presidential election. Facebook told the Senate that Russian agents placed 80,000 posts that were seen by 150 million Americans.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos said that Russians bought 3,000 ads amounting to $100,000 between June 2015 and May of 2017. In violation to Facebook’s policy, 470 were connected to inauthentic accounts. Not all the ads were overtly political.

“Rather,” says Stamos, “the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Such propaganda sneaks by our defences unnoticed because of the homey feel of Facebook; you don’t expect disinformation to be bundled with posts from friends.

Other Russian accounts weren’t subtle at all. One Facebook posting was from a fake group called “United Muslims of America.” It targeted actual Muslims. The group claimed that Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. “created, funded and armed” al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Another Russian Facebook group, “Army of Jesus,” featured Jesus arm-wrestling Satan in which Clinton is Satan. Trump is “an honest man who cares deeply for his country,” the group added.

Facebook knows you well. They know where you live, what you like and what you share, where you travel, what you do for a living, when you are online and for how long. Facebook knows you in unimaginable detail. There are more than 52,000 Facebook categories used to microtarget ads to your interests and desires according ProPublica: subtleties of your character that that even you may not even be aware of.

In an attempt to clear the fog of deception, Facebook Canada has announced that they are going to pull the curtain back and reveal more about advertisers. Ads will now have to be associated with a Facebook page –that’s already standard with brand-name products. And ads will reveal how you have been targeted.

The U.S. Senate wants Facebook to go further with their proposed Honest Ads Act. The act would require disclosure of the rate charged for the ad, the name of candidates in the case of political ads, and contact information of the purchaser.

In the past CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted, claiming that Facebook is just a technology company. Now it’s becoming abundantly clear that Facebook is not just a sharing platform but a publisher, and as such must be responsible for its content.