VICE Canada election recaps

Since recapping Canadian election campaigns for VICE seems to be my jam, I thought I’d assemble all my Big Picture Analyses in one place for ease of access. Stay tuned; God willing, there are plenty more to come.

Brad Wall Is Saskatchewan and That’s Why He Handily Won the Election [Saskatchewan, 4 April 2016]

The Definitive Guide to How Canada Stopped Being Totally Embarrassing [2015 Retrospective, 29 December 2015]

Red Dawn [Newfoundland and Labrador, 30 November 2015]

The Definitive Guide for Why You Voted In Justin Trudeau [Federal Election, 19 October 2015]

The Fog of Avalon [Federal Riding Profile: Avalon, NL. 14 September 2015]

Alberta Loses Its Goddamned Mind for the Fourth Time: A Guide for the Perplexed [Alberta, 5 May 2015]

citizens of nowhere

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s “if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere” quip is maybe history’s most cynical reading of Hannah Arendt.
Arendt’s point in her essay on human rights, of course, is that universal human rights are a lovely idea in theory but in practice they can only be enforced for citizens through membership in a state (functionally a nation-state, since all states tend to degenerate into tools of a national group’s interest rather than a properly pan-national or civic institution. That’s my takeaway on that point 8 months after reading the essay, anyway; I need to go back and check).
The problem, then, is that stateless persons, or refugees, or other unpopular minority groups – i.e. those most in need of universal human rights protections – would be unable to have them enforced. You really are a ‘citizen of nowhere’ without state membership and recognition. But for Arendt, of course, this was not an end point. How can we build properly international political institutions to enforce human rights and protect people who have been rendered stateless by repression, war, economic of climate-related displacement, etc? Arendt makes a critique of the human rights discourse but it’s supposed to be constructive; it’s supposed to prompt us to work on solving the problems it identifies and she assumes we don’t want the world to be a piece of shit.
May’s position, of course, stops short of this. “Without membership in the nation-state you are a citizen of nowhere (so piss off if you aren’t British).” This is the exact ugliness that prompted Arendt’s chapter on “the Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man” in the first place. It’s a good read, especially if you want to glimpse down the very dark road the Brexiteers are taking the UK right now.
Okay, that concludes this outburst of political theory, please carry on with your lives now.

the colony of borrowed dreams

Gerry Porter (one of Newfoundland’s great and undersung thinkers!) threw out a tweet earlier today that set the wheels in my head churning all morning. I started to respond to it but quickly realized that even a light answer would be too much for Twitter. So after filling the reply box with -2500 characters, I decided just to put it here instead. Consider it food for thought.


I’ve been thinking about this all morning. I think the operative word here is “modern.”

Arguably one of NL’s fundamental problems has been a preoccupation with ‘modernizing’ (political reform in the 19th century, Confederation in the 20th, etc) the country/province along schema of development that are ultimately unsuited to the real conditions of life on the island. Carson and friends wanted a bourgeois state for a colonial outpost. The madness of the 1920s (and, ultimately, Smallwood) were oriented around ideas of ‘modern’ industrial development that didn’t fit the political/geographic economy of the island. And even in the contemporary, enlightened era of late capitalism and Newfkult 2.0*, all our political thinking (and institutions) seem wedded to the idea that a ‘modern state’ is ‘Costco + medicare’, that “real cities” are all indistinguishable sprawls of big box stores surrounding a gentrified downtown core (see: Edmonton, AB, for the kind of nightmare aesthetic that road will bring you). Newfoundland’s metropolis also enjoys the bonus struggle in trying to make use of all the surplus labour scattered around a large swathe of forbidding geographical terrain in pre-industrial fishing settlements.


Patrick O’Flaherty once bemoaned Confederation as resulting in the “continual inrush of North American vulgarity” and while obviously the nationalist case is no better (and certainly no more immune to the fantasies of “North American vulgarity” already at work in Newfoundland irrespective of our constitutional arrangement to Britain or Canada), I think his blow does glance across the crux of the problem: all our models, all our thinking about how to live here together (politically, economically, culturally, even physically) are copied and pasted from somewhere else and they do not fit.


I have been thinking a lot about how colonialism involves an attempt to recreate conditions of the ‘old world’ (or wherever the imperial centre is) in a new and different space where it generally does not fit and which does violence to both the place and the people living there. The ongoing attempt to colonize Newfoundland is failing not only because all colonization is destined to fail in the long run (!), but because Newfoundland (through all the accumulated wreckage of its history) is particularly resistant to recreating the vulgar dream of mainstream, mainland North American life and the corresponding political economy needed to support it.
None of this actual answers any of Gerry’s questions, but there is a very compelling case to be made that there is no model that can support the mainland-imported dream of a ‘modern state’ that Newfoundland liberalism has been straining towards for the last 200 years. (Plus – what is a ‘state’? That’s a whole other quintal of fish.)

But I genuinely think that before we can reconsider our models of life and development, we should also start reconsidering our dreams.

* – ie a provincial state that will fund videos instructing Newfoundlanders how to speak Newfoundland English (gut-foundered!), that will instruct Newfoundlanders how to “practice being what they naturally are,” (as Robert Nutbeam put it in 1974), but will not fund any actual cultural production. Bless Ed Riche and the crew at The Overcast for continually hammering this last point home.


my grandfather is coming to the end of the road. if I live to be half the man he was (a good, kind, smart man who is my role model for a life of integrity), it will be living better than anything I can envision for myself right now.

anyways, I’m working on a personal essay that deals with a lot of things and feelings. but I thought I might post an excerpt that feels appropriate for this situation, and that I hope he would like.

the last time I was talking to him, he told me he’d see me around again, in the course of time. that he will.

rest easy.

It is a glory August day out in Bonavista bay. The early morning was overcast but as the boat pushes off from the shore, beams of light break through the clouds and start to warm the water. My father and my grandfather are taking me cod fishing. I am twelve, and all I can think about as we start the day is a poorly-translated Japanese dating sim I found for my SNES emulator after trawling the bottom of Web 1.0 for a week. I’m not really into this fishing thing.

We leave the cove and head out into the open water. Someone hands me a jigger. It’s old, shaped like a caplin with two large silver hooks jutting out of its mouth. The line is wrapped around a worn wooden frame. Pop tells me to unravel it and let it drop down to the bottom before pulling it up a touch and giving it a few gentle bobs. Dad tells me that when I feel the pull of the fish, I have to give it a quick jerk to lodge the hook in and then reel it in steady. I ask them if this will take long. Pop smiles; no. The cod is a greedy fish.

Three generations of the Brown family spend the morning in the boat catching fish and talking. About the weather, about old family friends, about my father’s childhood in Baie Verte, about Pop’s life as a rural minister, about founding credit unions and co-operatives, about the jiggs dinner Nan is no doubt preparing back at the house, about a million other trivial things I would now give anything to recall. I catch a lot of fish. Pop was right; the cod are greedy.

(An artist would tell me years later as he tattooed that jigger on my arm, “Pops know, man. Pops know.”)

Our dory crosses the bay back to our house in Lethbridge. In the aging afternoon we stop on a small island to clean the fish. Dad shows me how; you grab her by the gills, the knife goes in at the bottom by the tail and you draw it up her stomach, saw through the neck and the guts come cleanly out. I don’t have the stomach to try myself. It would be many more years before I gutted my own fish, but right now no one seems to mind. Sensitivity runs in the family; a dying moose apparently looked Pop in the eye once and that was the first and last time he went hunting. I’m just happy to be out on the beach and watch.

More than ever, now, I know it is out of the ordinary grind of life, those fleeting summer days, that make up the fragile moments of depth that stretch on in the soul forever. Home, in the true utopian sense that drives us, is always just outside our grasp. Its presence is fleeting; we feel it fully only in its absence. To paraphrase Ernst Bloch, it shines into everyone’s childhood but no one has yet really been there. Time is everywhere accelerating and yet always also static, ready for our tiger’s leap into the past.

Eternity is always slipping through our fingers. The Spirit Fish is strictly catch and release.

the edmonton oilers as an ideological state apparatus, and other concerns

I was in Ottawa last week for the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association. It was a good time.

Ottawa is one of my favourite cities in Canada to visit. It’s beautiful and there is a lot to soak in for a giant nerd like myself. There’s also a lot of visiting to be done because a good number of my poli sci undergrad friends have found themselves there, living the dream (ie. languishing in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy).

The conference wasn’t bad either. It was a good time to meet some cool people working in my field and also to meet even more people who would probably prefer if I fucked off from the political science industry forever. Them’s the breaks. The selection at the beer garden was also good.

I presented on two panels. The first was roughly what I expected; as it turns out, a roomful of quantitative social scientists were not really a super receptive audience for our group presentation about queer/feminist readings of gender, race, and nation in political cartoons from the 1980 Québec referendum and the Patriation of the constitution. Oh well. We’re going to keep plugging away on the project because it’s really great work.

My second panel about ‘Political Science at the Margins’ was great, because I joined many of my friends and colleagues to present my (tentative) dissertation work and conclusively prove that the University of Alberta is the hippest (and most critical) political science department in the country.

Anyway, I thought it went so well that I would post the text of my presentation for the (approx.) 2 people in the world who care about my dissertation topic. This is super broad (eg. yes I am aware this totally glosses over the problems of Althusserian ‘functionalism’ and downplays the struggles/resistances between competing discursive formations within the ISAs themselves, but I only had 5 minutes). Some of the nuts and bolts are going to change over the course of the process, but this is the general thrust of what I’m working on at the moment.


4 June 2015

Ok! Well first off, I’d like to thank Margot [Challborn] for organizing this panel and bringing all these smart and talented people together, and also for letting me get up here and pretend to be one myself.

I’d also like to thank the conference organizers for really underscoring the theme of ‘political science at the margins’ by putting us so late on the last day of the conference after a lot of people have already left Ottawa. As a teacher, I really appreciate the object lesson and I’m sure the audience does as well.

Since we’re on the subject of margins, I suppose I should outline which margins I’m coming from. CPSA is always a great personal reminder that I am a total outsider to this discipline. I’m interested in Marxism, Spinoza, psychoanalysis, and feminism, so most respectable political philosophers won’t give me the time of day. And since I don’t know what a regression is, most “Canadianists” don’t think I’m doing real political science either.

But that’s okay! I’m definitely more fun at parties, and that’s all that really matters.

As a Newfoundlander writing about Canadian politics without being wrapped up in the post-Confederation Stockholm Syndrome, I’m also a bit of an odd man out, because no one west of Port-aux-Basques gives a shit about what happens on that island. But I firmly believe this works to my advantage. Being caught up in Newfoundland’s hauntology, I’m basically immune to the affective forces of Canadian nationalism. This actually helps a great deal in terms of critically engaging with it.

And ‘a critical engagement with Canadian nationalism’ is probably the best way to describe what I’ve been doing for the last few years, as well as the broad thrust of my dissertation.

I wrote my comprehensive exam in Canadian politics basically arguing that Canada contains within itself a set of conflicting identities. Broadly speaking, there are three major sets of ideas about Canada: the essentially ‘imperialist’ vision, handed down to us by the drunken Anglophiles known as the Fathers of Confederation; there is Pierre Trudeau’s utopian vision of a pan-Canadian individualist liberal order, the wet dream of this country’s technocratic centre-left; and finally, there is a vision of Canada as a multinational democracy, where largely autonomous national groups exist in political cooperation with one another. Federalism here is less a cluster of elites battling for spending power and more a genuine ethical orientation for its citizens – you know, how to live together and democratically share in the business of ruling.

What I’m currently interested in – assuming my dissertation proposal ever gets accepted – is how the Canadian state mobilizes and manages bodies in the service of these different nation-building projects. In particular, I’m wagering that we can re-read philosopher Louis Althusser as an affect theorist who was doing ‘affect theory’ before ‘affect theory’ was a thing. His contribution to the theory of ideology is basically that its function is to ‘train our bodies to think’, and that sounds like affect to me.

Ideology is not a ‘false consciousness’ to be opposed by ‘the truth’, but instead shapes the way our bodies feel and perceive the world around us. It names the way our desires, our most intimate experiences of ourselves, are mediated through the social systems of power that surround us. To paraphrase Lauren Berlant, ideology is literally ‘in us’ as the basic structuring condition for ‘making sense’ of the overload of sensory information our bodies take in (and process) every moment of every day.

So what Althusser calls ‘ideological state apparatuses’ are the institutions (ie. the Church, the family, the school system, the media, etc) that manage and mobilize these affective configurations in service to the dominant mode of production – which, in Canada, can best be described as settler-colonial capitalism.

Struggles between competing visions of Canada obviously exist in relation to the changes in the material structure of the Canadian economy, and thirty years of neoliberalism have obviously had an impact on how our economy operates. And since Harper came to power in 2006, we’ve seen the institutionalized return (and re-imagining) of the ‘imperialist’ vision of Canada. It isn’t quite as hung up on Canada’s British connection as its older iterations (although that is clearly also present, since now the Queen’s portrait is everywhere) but instead emphasizes Canada’s role in the global vanguard of Western, (white) liberal capitalist ‘civilization’ against the ‘barbarous’ and despotic Oriental hordes.

I want to trace the emergence of this (re)vision of Canada through two ISAs in particular. The first is national museums, which are elite-centred, cultural ‘temples’ where citizens are ‘baptized’ into the nation through material ‘rituals’ of organized remembrance. I’m not being glib here, this is literally how the first curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization described the institution’s mandate.

The second is professional hockey. It’s by far the most popular, widespread, and easily accessible cultural engagement for most Canadians, and as “Canada’s game” it plays a big role in Canadian identity formation. Its link to Canadian militarism is pretty fascinating too, as is its relationship to violent masculinity. Basically, I think there’s a reason that the only thing Stephen Harper has published since becoming prime minister is a history book about Canadian hockey, and we can probably learn a lot by reading it symptomatically.

This is all pretty unorthodox for a ‘political scientist’ to be doing. But I have this radical idea that the way people go about their ordinary lives shapes how they feel, think, and act, and that to understand how power relationships in Canada organize and reproduce themselves, we should be looking both high and low. We should look not only at the explicit machinery of state power, but also its more subtle and pervasive movements at the margins.


god guard thee, newfoundland

There’s an old joke I read once about a well-known Newfoundland lawyer giving a talk to the Canadian Bar Association back in the early 1930s. “That’s the real difference between Newfoundlanders and Canadians,” he quipped as the group finished singing O Canada. “In Canada, you guys can sing ‘we stand on guard for thee.’ Back home, we have to sing ‘God guard thee Newfoundland’ because no one else is up to the job.”

That first bit may or may not still apply in the age of Stephen Harper, but the last week of provincial politics proved the rest of it still holds. The Honourable Members of the House of Assembly have historically been masters of the Newfie joke and when it came time for them to tackle the problem of “democratic reform” they certainly brought their A-game. Despite what our legislators and their partisan cheerleaders tell you, Barnum & Bailey would be hard pressed to put off a better circus than the late-night passage of Bill 42.

We now know, for instance, that the move to reduce seats in the legislature was motivated less by a high-minded commitment to democracy (or even fiscal expediency) than it was a crude PR ploy by the Tories to get us talking about something – anything! – other than how incompetent they are. And hey, nothing says “great PR” like rushing through a desperate bill to dramatically alter the provincial electoral map ahead of an election they’re almost doomed to lose. Especially given that the last-minute amendments are likely to hurt them in the next election anyways. I hope they can get a refund on whatever consulting fees they paid for this advice because gentle Mother of Christ, guys.

The Tories are hoping that the plebians they’re about to hammer in the forthcoming austerity budget will see the self-inflicted seat cuts as our politicians nobly leading by example and sharing in the financial pain. They’re also hoping this will draw attention away from the fact that we’re in this mess thanks in large part to their own reckless approach to the province’s finances.

The financial argument for reducing seats has never made a lick of sense, given the dearth of money to be saved. If we’re trying to scrimp pennies by renovating the legislature, why not shave off a few cabinet portfolios or shrink the number of parliamentary secretaries in the House? Why not skim a little off the top of all MHA salaries? The argument that we need to cut seats in order to be ‘on par’ with the Nova Scotia or New Brunswick legislatures is equally baffling. Since when is democratic representation a race to the bottom? And if we’re so concerned with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, why not start by modernizing the roles MHAs actually play instead of cutting them wholesale?

In other words, why jump straight to slashing seats? Other than to pay homage to the time-honoured Newfoundland tradition of gutting democracy at the first sign of economic trouble, I mean.

Again, we already know the answer to all this. Bill 42 was a ploy to rope-a-dope Dwight Ball and the Liberals, who fell for it hook, line, and sinker. For whatever reason it had been trendy going back to 2013 for the opposition parties to make unprompted calls for shrinking the legislature and the Tories, desperate to strike back against surging Liberal polls, gave them what they wished for.

Credit where credit is due. The Liberals did manage to get Bill 42 amended from its initial state – protection for the 4 seats in Labrador, only eight seats cut instead of ten, no election delay, and a population-requirement exemption for two as-yet-to-be-determined rural districts – but in all likelihood the Tories introduced the measure expecting to make some, if not all, of those concessions. And no one ever said bad legislation couldn’t be bipartisan.

Unlike the NDP, I don’t believe this bipartisanship is a case of deliberate collusion. I think it just shows that on the question of legislative reform, the Liberals and the Tories are of the same mind – which is to say neither has any mind at all.

It’s all the rhetoric from both sides about democracy that really turns my stomach. If their main concern was crafting a functional legislature they would not start by arbitrarily cutting seats. Dr. Kelly Blidook already dismantled the Liberal/Tory rationale but it’s worth rehearsing some of the bigger problems with Bill 42 again. Unless other reform measures are brought in, fewer MHAs means more concentrated power in the hands of the premier’s office. Fewer MHAs means more inefficient committees (if indeed we get legislative committees at all), which means the quality of debate and discussion in the House will continue to suffer. Fewer MHAs means more power for party leaders, which means the few sensible MHAs who do manage to get elected will be more muzzled than they already are by the dictates of the leader’s office.

Cutting seats, in and of itself, is actively counterproductive to democratic reform. Bill 42 is almost the exact opposite of reform and the fact that it’s being praised as such by party hacks both in and out of the legislature is a shocking case of civic illiteracy.

Believe it or not, I’m not opposed to the reduction of seats in principle. But the seats cut and the terms of reorganizing electoral boundaries shouldn’t be up to the parties in the legislature themselves. Virtually every other democratic system on earth leaves these decisions up to an independent body. That commission looks at the province’s demographics and finances and whatever else and takes all relevant factors into consideration when deciding how (or if) to redistribute and refashion the electoral districts in the House of Assembly.

Instead, the government is moving backwards. It’s effectively deciding what the commission must find in advance and then telling them to find it, in significantly less time than is normally required. And if they can’t get their work done in the time allotted, they’ll have to scrap whatever they have and start over in 2016. Then we’re out about as much money as cutting the seats would save in the first place.

The whole process is so asinine I’m almost at a loss for words. It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t a sign that the vast majority of our legislators don’t understand the nature and function of their own jobs.

It’s unclear just how many people support Bill 42. I don’t doubt that if you started asking people on the street if they’d like to see fewer scrubs cluttering up the backbenches, most of them would give an enthusiastic yes. Given our farce of a legislature I can definitely understand the appeal. Part of me wishes they’d just shutter the House indefinitely and spare us the pretence – especially now that they’ve been practically unanimous in affirming their own uselessness.

But I also believe that if you asked people what they really wanted – do you want a legislature that works? – they would also say yes. And I believe if we had an opposition party capable of living up to its purpose – giving a voice to popular sentiment, articulating and framing and focusing the abstract sentiments of citizens into concrete proposals, and actually working towards a more mature and robust democratic system – then they would have been able to call on the Tories to respect the institution and the processes in place to safeguard it.

Representative democracy, on its best days, isn’t about catering to the lowest common denominator but raising the level of public discourse – and citizens along with it.

Instead, the Liberals have proved that they can only see as far as the next opinion poll and they’re terrified of sticking their necks out and losing the lead. They’re more worried about Dwight Ball coming off like a ‘flip flopper’ in the endless, deafening, tediously shallow soundbite war of media-driven politics than in seriously thinking about how to make the House of Assembly work.

I didn’t expect much from the Tories. But admittedly – and perhaps foolishly – I expected more from the Grits. They may have helped tone down some of the coming changes but they were still eager participants in a shallow debate about bad legislation designed to address a completely fabricated problem that will actively aggravate the issue it’s meant to solve. Dressing it in the language of democracy is just adding insult to injury.

But what odds. Every media observer, concerned citizen and political scientist in the province is up in arms about butchering the legislature and both the premier and the premier-in-waiting are patting themselves on the back as though they were the new Fathers of Confederation.

Old John A. might have been a genocidal drunk but even he had at least cracked a book on parliamentary government once in his life.

God guard thee Newfoundland, indeed.