Archive for Canadian politics

The married couples allowance

I don’t agree with Polly Toynbee who rails against the married couples’ allowance (actually the married couples’ and civil partners’ allowance) in todays Guardian.  Or with Caron Lindsay who has said she won’t claim it on ethical grounds.

For several years before we went to Canada in ’06, the only income I had was non-means tested disability benefit and a small pension.  The two together came to more than the personal tax allowance, so even though my income was not enough to live on, I still paid tax. If I’d been single, I would have received additional means tested benefits, but because I was married and living with my husband, he was expected to support me.

In Canada I was no longer receiving benefit, but still had the pension.  My income was not enough to use up the personal tax allowance, but I was able to transfer the unused portion to my husband, reducing his tax bill. I’m fairly certain that in Canada all cohabitees can do this, regardless of whether they are married or not.

This seems fair to me.  If we continue to expect the earning partner to support the non earning or low earning partner, then it is right that they should be able to utilise their partners’ unused tax allowance.  So, the new married couples’ allowance is a step in the right direction.  It would be better if it were the whole allowance rather than a portion of it, and if it could be used by all couples, not just those married or in a civil partnership.

The rules for means tested benefits continue to be an obstacle to single mothers who wish to form new supportive relationships. The new allowance isn’t going to change that.  From the reports I’ve read in the press, undeclared cohabitation forms a high proportion of ‘benefit cheat’ cases in the courts, motivated not by greed but by a desire for love and support. I think that is very sad, and I would agree with anyone who finds Ian Duncan Smith’s preaching about ‘family values’ hypocritical.  But that doesn’t mean that the allowance is wrong per se.

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Canadian Tax Returns

The Canadian tax year runs from 1st January to 31st December, but tax-payers have until 30th April to make their return.  I completed ours yesterday.  It is a complicated process, because separate calculations have to be made for the Federal and the Provincial taxes, and both give taxpayers allowances for all sorts of things that no Brit would expect to be tax deductible: union dues, a Canada employment allowance (that’s just for having a job), donations to political parties, owning oil wells — that one is called ‘royalties’ which gave me false hope that it had relevance for us, being married, being a priest, having children, doing house renovation, and so on and so on. There can be very few facets of life in Canada that haven’t had a Canadian politician wondering if he can buy votes by creating a tax allowance for it.  There are probably allowances for installing hot-tubs and wearing stetson hats, but I just haven’t identified them.

Completing the return involves filling in a main form — the T1, which then tells you to fill in another form, which at various points tells you to fill in various subsidiary forms.  Then you are told to copy or refer to figures from various of these forms and cross reference with the forms you may or may not have already filled in for your spouse.  Before long, I’m surrounded by bits of paper filled in in pencil  and feeling that beating myself over the head several times with a cricket bat would be more fun than I’m having.

Each of the previous seven years that I’ve been filling the forms in for both of us has followed a similar pattern.  I spend a day doing the return, followed by a stiff drink or several.  I post the forms off and then a few weeks later I get a nicely worded letter detailing the errors I have made telling me that we are liable for less tax than I thought and explaining why.

I wish my dealings with HMRC were so pleasant.  I won’t miss filling in Canadian tax returns, but I will have fond memories of the Canadian Revenue Agency.



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Ten weeks to go

This year was probably my last White Good Friday, and I won’t be sorry if I never experience another White Christmas either.  My heart’s desire is never to see another snowflake for as long as I live.

Swapping continents involves keeping a lot of balls in the air at once, and between now and the end of June I will have constant anxiety about dropping one of them.

Planning our relocation, I’ve found the British Ex-Pat forums invaluable. With the help of the forum I’ve managed to keep the cost to under £10,000, which is remarkable given that we spend nearly £13,000 in ’06, though then we were spending a generous relocation allowance from Ian’s employer.

The biggest expense is for a 20′ container, which will transport our books and household goods. The cost of transporting our two cats is the next most expensive item, more than our own airfares; they travel on the same aircraft as us, but as cargo. The remainder of the expense is made up of car and van hire and a hotel for our last few days in Canada after our house has been emptied.

The whole of my time in Alberta has been overshadowed by the fact that our life here is subsidized by an industry, the tar sands, that I think should be closed down. There isn’t any way the industry can be made sustainable.  Being here has meant living a contradiction and it has made me unhappy.  It was a huge relief to me last year when the sale of our house meant that I no longer had a significant financial investment in the economy. But I’ve also made friends here, and how genuine can my friendship be when I wish their economy, and with it their careers and financial security, to blazes?

I think the outlook for Alberta is grim whatever the future holds. If the world is going to deal with climate change then Alberta is going to become known as the province of stranded assets.  If the world doesn’t deal with climate change then the outlook is grim for all of us including Alberta. While I’ve been here, I’ve been very disappointed by the British government’s backing for Canada on the EU Fuel Quality Directive. A true friend to Canada would not give it a helping hand on the path to perdition.


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I hope Neil Young will remember….

Edmonton Alberta. -11°C with windchill.

The journalist Michael Den Tandt has the following article in today’s Edmonton Journal attacking musician Neil Young’s opposition to the Tarsands.  I reproduce the first few paragraphs, but with some substitutions, imagining what a journalist with the same mindset as Den Tandt — that immediate profit trumps ethics — might have written a hundred and fifty years ago:

Neil Young is probably no more, and no less, a moral coward than the next person.  But he is a moral coward.

That’s because — like most of the rest of us — he declines to face the logical consequences of his beliefs. He fails to extend. The failure to extend is endemic in the broadening debate about the sources of labour, its cost and follow-on effects. It reduces this debate, for the most part to hyperbolic babble, in which combatants trade volleys like medieval theologians arguing over whether angels have mass.

Does Young have the right to use his celebrity to stick it to the Slave Owners? Clearly he does. As Stephen Maher of PostMedia News  has pointed out, this is a poet’s classic role — to act as goad, inciter and rabble-rouser. Artists are like Shakespearean court jesters. They get away with saying things no one else will or can, and they should.

But let us, for a moment, talk turkey, about the politics of slavery, and labour, and the related moral choices that we each make. 

As many have noted previously, slavery is not going away in our lifetime…..

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One year to go

In exactly a year’s time I’ll be crossing the Atlantic for the last time.  My original intention for this blog was that it should be about Canada, but since my own interest in this country was exhausted after about six months, my blogging on my temporary domicile has mostly been limited to railing against its appalling environmental record.  I’ll try to do better for my last year here.

Tomorrow is Canada Day, so I’ll start with Canadian nationalism. I was in my local supermarket this morning, the local radio was playing in the background and I heard an advert start with the words “You know Canada is a great place to live eh?”.  About a week ago I was watching the CBC coverage of the Calgary floods.  Almost comically, the interviewer of a man whose house had been flooded started his question “Now we all know Calgary is a great city …”

The city of Edmonton,where I live, had a publicly funded campaign during the winter to celebrate Edmonton as a “great winter city”.  It isn’t.  Seriously and objectively, no town that gets down to -42°C in winter can be rationally described as a “great winter” anything. Winters in Edmo are primarily about survival.

Tomorrow the “greatness” of Canada syndrome reaches its annual zenith.  There will be crowds on the streets dressed in red and white waving maple leaf flags with dawn to dusk coverage of the concerts and parades on TV. My husband, who is a Canadian, hates it.  He doesn’t remember Canada Day being celebrated with such fervent nationalism in his youth, before he spent three decades in the UK, and regards it as part of the Americanisation of Canadian culture, with Canada Day having become a tawdry imitation of July 4th.

I think he is probably right, and there is irony in Canada becoming more like the USA by becoming more nationalist, since Canadians define themselves by their difference from their southern neighbour. But, unlike my husband, I don’t dislike the hoopla on Canada Day. I only experience it through watching CBC, and on TV at least there is a lot of emphasis on Canada being a country of migrants.  Citizenship ceremonies are held on Canada Day, and CBC tells the stories of some of the new Canadians, political refugees, economic migrants or entrepreneurs. It’s propaganda which depicts Canada as providing a level playing field for all its citizens, which isn’t really the case, but it is also inclusive and non-racist in intent.  It contrasts positively with nationalist and patriotic sentiment in the UK which is almost always hijacked by the anti-immigrant right.

For the rest of the year, however, the “Canada is a great country” rhetoric grates on my  sensibilities.  Like any European with a knowledge of history, I’m wary of nationalism, and governments that whip up nationalist sentiment.  I wince and turn away or turn off. I also think Canadians protest too much:   If you have to keep saying that the place where you live is great, you begin to sound as if you are having difficulty convincing yourself.

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Harper addressing Parliament

Can someone explain why Stephen Harper has been invited to address Parliament?  The last time a Canadian prime-minister did this was in 1944.  Canada had, of course, contributed enormously to the Allies’ war effort, keeping Britain supplied with food and materials via the Atlantic convoys (my late father-in-law took part in The Battle of the Atlantic), and supplied a million troops.

A comparison with WW2 is apt, because the struggle to combat climate change is also a fight for survival, and this time Canada is on the wrong side.  Harper has muzzled his own scientists, obstructs international negotiations on emissions reduction and lies, prevaricates and obfuscates in order to protect Canada’s dirty oil industry.

Inviting him to Parliament makes as much sense, in terms of British interests ,and ethically, as inviting Henrik Verwoerd to invite Parliament in 1962.  Except that we didn’t do that, of course.

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The European Fuel Quality Directive

The following is the substantive part of an email I sent to Norman Baker a couple of days ago:

Dear Norman,


I should have written to you about the Fuel Quality Directive before now.  After all, I am in a unique position as both a member of the Lewes Liberal Democrats, whose MP is responsible for Britain’s vote in the EU on the FQD’s implementation, and a resident of Alberta, home of the tar-sands industry lobbying against implementation.

In 2011, when The Guardian newspaper started reporting that you were going to vote against implementation, I simply did not believe what I was reading. Damian Carrington, who was taking the lead on the issue, is not a journalist whose accuracy I trust (I note in today’s Guardian that, despite reporting on the tar-sands issue for several years, Carrington still thinks that Canada has a president). At first, I treated the reports as so much anti-coalition propaganda, because I could not imagine that you would consider voting against implementation.

I was wrong, but by the time I realized there was substance to the reports, I also knew you were listening to environmental lobbyists, and when you abstained on the vote on implementation I thought you had listened, but were probably constrained from voting for implementation by a promise made to Stephen Harper by David Cameron.  Since it is reported that you may be intending to vote against implementation now, clearly I was wrong again.

These are weak excuses for not having lobbied you on the issue myself, and even though I know that you have spoken with Dr James Hanson, who is a million times more qualified than I am to put the argument for FQD implementation, I want you to know that I think you are mistaken, and are overly influenced by the Canadian and oil industry lobbyists.

If I understand your position correctly (and I’m not sure that I do), you do not want the FQD implemented until it includes all unconventional crudes, not just tar-sands.  Your critics say this will simply push the FQD into the long grass, which is exactly what the oil industry lobbyists want. You deny that this will happen.

I do not know enough about the way the EU works to know whether a no vote by Britain will result in implementation delayed or indefinitely postponed, but two things are obvious to me:

Firstly, the FQD already includes provision for review in 2015, allowing the other unconventional crudes to be added. This undermines your argument, but your only reply is that you have ‘no faith’ in the review.  Why?

Secondly, it is very clear to me, from here in Alberta, that a no vote hands the Canadian Government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers a propaganda coup.  This may seem unimportant compared with the substantive task of reducing the carbon content of European fuel, but it is not. Canada has no realistic plan for reducing its carbon emissions, and no intention of putting one in place.  It would have to close down the tar-sands industry, and nobody in Canada wants to talk about that – and I mean nobody.  There is an air of unreality about most climate change discussion in Canada that is probably best described as ‘the view from Planet Exxon Mobil’, which infects even environmental organisations. So, for example, we have the environmental group Pembina Institute which does good work on some issues, but on the tar-sands talks about ‘responsible development’.  Dr Hansen will have explained to you that there is no responsible development of the tar-sands; the only responsible course of action is no development at all. 350 org has no local groups in Canada.

There are good reasons for the silence about the elephant in the room.  No Canadian, however concerned about climate change, wants his or her house and pension fund to devalue, or to lose his or her job. In the federal election of 2007 the Liberal Party presented Canadians with a ‘green shift’ manifesto which would have used carbon taxes to shift development away from the tar-sands and into green industries. Even then, the Liberal leader Stéphane Dion denied it would prevent tar-sands development, although it certainly would have done. The ‘green shift’ was attacked, not just by the Conservatives, but by the New Democrat Party, who objected to the cost to middle-class families; not mentioning that their preferred option, of a carbon trading scheme, would only have been cost free if it was also as ineffective as Europe’s has been.

The ‘green shift’ was rejected by the electorate. The Liberal party has been very careful since then never to say anything sensible about climate change, and it was at that point Canada adopted the perspective of Planet Exxon Mobil.

To give one example: Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official federal opposition (NDP), visited Washington in March this year, where he compared unsustainable development to slavery, but found himself unable to say whether or not he opposed the Keystone XL pipe-line, even though it is as good an example of unsustainable development as can be found anywhere on Earth.

To give another: Justin Trudeau, newly elected leader of the Liberals, has supported tar-sands development, saying it should be defended when foreign critics call for a halt.  The Liberal website, nonetheless, states that Canada’s energy policy should be sustainable.

The governing politicians of Canada and the Canadian journalists who support them, use rhetoric that makes it clear that they see the emissions issue as purely one of greenwash. They tend to assume that foreign governments are as cynical as themselves – only paying lip service to the issue as a sop to a tiresome green lobby. I have no doubt that is how Stephen Harper sees David Cameron (perhaps rightly), and possibly you Norman.  A no vote will confirm him in that view.

Moreover, it is possible the vote will take place before President Obama has made a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, sending the wrong message at the wrong time to the USA about the importance Europe places on the issue.

Your advisors may have emphasized the importance of Britain’s friendship with Canada, but true friends are truthful with each other, and in the long run it will not help Canada if it is allowed to continue its delusory path. As you know, Nicholas Stern has recently warned of the risk of ‘stranded assets’, and Canada is at risk of becoming The Country of Stranded Assets. Honest speaking about the tar-sands industry, and a vote in favour of implementation of the FQD,  would be a friendlier act to Canada than giving in to its lobbyists. …………..

There is one point I wish I had included in the email, which is that it is a very strange situation, when a Liberal Democrat MP expresses a lack of faith in the ability of the EU to do what it says it is going to do (carry out a review of the FQD in 2015), but no such scepticism is being expressed by Greenpeace.

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