Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's Greatest Strength Is Neutering It

In the Joan Didion essay "Goodbye to All That," the California born writer observes that it is not possible for people in the East to appreciate what New York City means to other Americans. "To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best's and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live," she writes. "But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions ("Money," and "High Fashion," and "The Hucksters"), New York was no mere city."

Instead it was "an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power," and so it remains. The Occupy Wall Street protestors beat their drums in lower Manhattan within sight of big financial firms and their suits. But their chants aren't aimed at Goldman Sachs and its board, or junior executives who commute in from Connecticut, so much as the average American's idea of Wall Street. The symbol is what gives the protestors and their movement the bulk of its strength -- and it is, at the same time, the movement's fatal weakness.

How to explain this seeming contradiction?

Ronald Reagan's Real Legacy

In the course of clearing her throat for an attack on Rick Perry Tuesday night, Michele Bachmann tossed out this now-standard bit of conservative boilerplate:
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan produced an economic miracle…
It's probably hopeless to take on the Reagan economic myth at this late date, but honestly, it's long past time to put it to rest. The truth about the '80s is far more prosaic: In 1979, Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve. Inflation was running at about 12 percent when he took office, and Volcker immediately slammed on the monetary brakes in order to bring it down. Whether he was targeting interest rates or monetary aggregates remains a bit murky, but it hardly matters. In the end, he engineered one minor recession in 1980, and when that didn't do the trick, he tightened Fed policy even more and threw the economy into a second recession—this one extraordinarily deep and painful—which he maintained until 1982. When he let up, the economy recovered. Reagan had very little to do with it.

With Goldman's Foray Into Higher Education, A Predatory Pursuit Of Students And Revenues

Education Management Corp. was already a swiftly growing player in the lucrative world of for-profit higher education, with annual revenues topping $1 billion, but it had its sights set on industry domination. So, five years ago, the Pittsburgh company's executives agreed to sell its portfolio of more than 70 colleges to a trio of investment partnerships for $3.4 billion, securing the needed capital for an aggressive national expansion.

One of the new partners brought an outsized reputation for market savvy, deep pockets and a relentless pursuit of profits -- the Wall Street goliath, Goldman Sachs.

After the deal closed and Goldman became a partner, employees soon noticed a drastic shift in culture. Longtime admissions managers were replaced, ushering in an era in which recruiters were endlessly hounded by supervisors about hitting weekly enrollment targets. The admissions staff nearly tripled, requiring expanded floor space to accommodate a sales force of more than 2,600 across the country.

Management handed down revamped telemarketing scripts designed to prey on poor and uneducated consumers, honing in on their past mistakes in life as a ploy to convince them that college would solve all their problems, according to conversations with more than a dozen current and former Education Management Corp. employees over the past two months.

How far will Ottawa go?

Have whole groups of workers in Canada effectively lost the right to strike? Just how far is Prime Minister Harper’s newly minted Conservative majority government prepared to go in siding with employers against employees to thwart strikes that inconvenience the public? And what will that mean for labour relations at a time when the economy is at risk and employers and workers alike have a common interest in getting along?

These are troubling questions raised by the government’s recent heavy-handed moves to block strikes at Air Canada and Canada Post. In both cases the Tories have flexed their muscles by weighing in on the side of employers, instead of persuading the parties to get back to the bargaining table.

In Air Canada’s case, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has tried to frustrate a legal strike by 6,800 flight attendants (who have been without a contract for more than six months) by taking the dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board for review. That move was a bid to head off a potential work stoppage as early as Thursday. Raitt sought the board’s ruling on what, if any, services have to be maintained to prevent danger to the safety or the health of the public.

Watchdog fires back at Tories

OTTAWA — Canada’s fiscal watchdog fired back at the Conservative government, saying their recent attack against him is baseless and could even be an attempt to stop him from highlighting broken Tory promises.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page — who’s expected to provide non-partisan analysis on federal spending — was under attack this week after it was revealed that he was scheduled to speak at a Liberal fundraising event in Nanaimo, B.C.

A letter from Conservative strategists to supporters sent Wednesday said Page made “a major lapse in judgment” when he accepted the invitation.

Page insisted he was unaware of the partisan nature of the event, and the Conservative criticism was crafted without all the facts. “Maybe (the Conservatives) don’t like the fact that I’m talking about fiscal sustainability. But we’re going to continue to do it,” he said Thursday after speaking to economists in Winnipeg.

“Where’s the error in judgment? Maybe the error in judgment is the fact that they have not produced a fiscal sustainability report... If their issues are something else, if they don’t like us talking about fiscal sustainability, which is something they promised to produce in 2007, that’s different. But we think it’s fundamental for us to go out and speak with people.”

NDP calls on ethics boss to investigate Raitt

The official Opposition will call on the ethics commissioner to investigate an possible conflict of interest involving federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt over an alleged free seat upgrade from an Air Canada top executive, NDP labour critic Yvon Godin said.

The call comes after a document released to the media indicated Air Canada's CEO and executive vice-president Duncan Dee apparently upgraded Raitt's flight from economy to business class — almost a $550 value — for free on Sept. 25.

Godin said he now has possession of another electronic ticket suggesting Dee also authorized an upgrade for Raitt's chief of staff, Douglas Smith, on Oct. 10.

A spokesman from Raitt's office said neither the minister — who this week blocked the airlines' flight attendants from striking — nor her chief of staff ever accepted or requested a complimentary upgrade from Air Canada.

Police move in on Occupy protesters in New York, Denver

NEW YORK — Officials in New York City Friday postponed a planned cleanup of the downtown Manhattan park where anti-Wall Street protesters set up camp a month ago, averting what many feared could have been a showdown with authorities.

Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said the private owner of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield Office Properties, decided late Thursday to delay the cleaning, which had been slated to begin at 7 a.m. He offered no reason for the delay.

Protesters celebrated the postponement at the publicly accessible park, where the mood was festive.

However, at least seven people were seen being arrested when several hundred people left the park and marched through the downtown financial district. A spokesman for the New York Police Department confirmed there were arrests but did not say how many or provide any details.

Many protesters had feared the cleaning would be an attempt to shut down the movement that has sparked solidarity protests in more than 1,400 cities. There were plans for global rallies on Saturday in 71 countries, according to Occupy Together and United for Global Change.

An Attack on Multiculturalism

Building a national identity on past heritage obscures our current multicultural reality.

The federal government’s latest effort to highlight the importance of our military history involves the creation of an $11.5-million fund to promote the War of 1812 as a critical moment in our nation’s history. This initiative is part of the Conservative government’s broader strategy to place greater emphasis on our historical linkages to the Commonwealth. We’ve seen this, over the past few months, with the redesignation of the “royal” title to our armed forces, and the return – and prominent display – of the portrait of the Queen of England to Canadian embassies abroad, and to our government buildings.

The Tories have released their plans for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, with $28 million set aside to help Canadians understand that Laura Secord is more than just a chocolate shop. Read more here.

The strategy is clear: The Conservative government wants to reconstruct a sense of national identity out of the remnants of our British colonial past. This distinctly English-Canadian version of “nationhood” does not adequately represent our country’s increasingly diverse population. Indeed, this strategy could backfire because some (notably those in Quebec, among First Nations’ peoples, and among non-English, non-British Commonwealth, descendants), could view it as a step backwards – a regression. Perhaps this signals what we have been witnessing in many countries in Europe: a rejection of multiculturalism.

This is not at all to dispute the importance of our military history and our undeniable connections to the British Commonwealth and the British Crown. These are important foundational elements of our country’s past. The pride and reverence that most Canadians feel for their military establishment is evident and demonstrated in the relatively large attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies, and in the show of support for our fallen soldiers on the “Highway of Heroes.” The British monarchy also remains an important symbol of identity for many Canadians, as evidenced by the throngs of Canadians who greeted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their recent cross-Canada tour. Even some immigrants to this country (particularly those coming from British Commonwealth countries) can be nostalgic for the pomp and ceremony associated with the British monarchy. These histories, these symbols, will remain an essential part of our identity.

Careful what you wish for, Prof. Mendes

Political newspaper accidentally unearths a breaking story, as liberal law professor Errol Mendes uses its electronic pages to praise the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. In Citizens United SCOTUS ruled that campaign-finance law must treat corporations, unions, and other groups as though they have the same speech rights as the individual people of which they are made up. The American left cannot mention this heinous act of pro-corporate radicalism without ejecting a fount of furious spittle; the “repeal” of corporate personhood is, for example, the first and foremost demand of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their allies elsewhere. President Obama memorably denounced Citizens United from the podium, staring the nine justices right in the eyes, in his 2010 State of the Union address. But Mendes apparently thinks corporate speech is an “important form of political expression” and that it may be protected by our Charter. Damn, Canada really is moving rightward!

Mendes argues that the public per-vote subsidy to Canadian political parties is a “trade-off” necessitated by the Chretien government’s cutoff of corporate and union donations. He thinks that the Harper government is moving slowly on eliminating the subsidy in order to avoid a constitutional challenge. It is not clear to me, from his argument, how that would help. When the money eventually runs out, anybody with standing will still be free to sue—though that would be a hard thing for a political party as such to do, since they do not enjoy the same kind of corporate legal existence as a company, a partnership, or labour union. (Parties are very quick to avail themselves of this elusive quality when someone tries to sue them.) It is not even clear how it was really a “trade-off” to quash the speech rights of corporate beings and give a bunch of money to political parties: what did the corporations and the unions receive in exchange for their loss of political power?

Harper’s interventionist urges are off-target

Stephen Harper is no laissez-faire conservative. As his ongoing battle with Air Canada flight attendants shows, the Prime Minister is happy to have his government intervene in the affairs of private business.

But it’s a curiously lopsided kind of intervention. If, as he insists, Harper wanted to protect the economic recovery, he wouldn’t waste his time on Air Canada.

Instead he’d use his government’s muscle to deal with far more pressing problems that threaten Canadian jobs.

Air Canada first. To argue that this particular carrier is essential to the Canadian economy is, frankly, nuts.

Privately owned Air Canada, while admittedly the country’s largest airline, is just one of several.

Obviously, WestJet and Porter Airlines aren’t affected by any labour dispute at Air Canada. That means their intercity flights are still available in the event of a strike.

Stimulus spending didn't stop growing backlog in Canada's infrastructure, feds told

OTTAWA — Billions of dollars in stimulus spending in recent years have failed to stop a growing liability from crumbling roads, bridges, water systems and other public infrastructure, the federal government was told in May.

Newly released briefing notes from the Privy Council Office, the central department in Canada's public service that advises Prime Minister Stephen Harper, suggest that it's time to review existing programs to ensure that they are effective.

"There is a significant backlog in municipal infrastructure maintenance, and costs for repairing and maintaining older infrastructure have grown substantially," said one passage from the briefing notes, which were released to Postmedia News through access-to-information legislation.

The analysis was prepared for Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue, who entered Harper's cabinet following the federal election in May. It also said that a major multi-billion dollar infrastructure program, the Building Canada Plan, has little money left for new projects even though it was designed to last until 2014.

"The vast majority of funds in the BCP are fully committed," said the briefing notes.

Natives decry military's comparison of protests to terrorism

The head of Canada’s largest aboriginal group is denouncing the military for using its counterintelligence unit to keep an eye on native organizations and their protest plans, saying this implies such advocacy can be compared to terrorism.

The Canadian Forces’ National Counter-Intelligence Unit, meant to address “threats to the security of the Forces and the Department of National Defence” such as espionage, terrorists and saboteurs, assembled at least eight reports on the activities of native groups between January, 2010, and July, 2011.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he was offended to learn that native activism is considered “threatening to national safety and security” in Canada.

“The fact that Canada would expend national defence resources to monitor our activities amounts to a false and highly offensive insinuation that First Nation advocacy is akin to terrorism or threats to national security,” Mr. Atleo said in a statement. “The reality is that all of the events monitored in the documents released were peaceful demonstrations conducted with the full co-operation and notification of all relevant authorities.”

Stop meddling in Air Canada’s labour dispute

The federal government’s explanation for its intervention in the labour dispute between Air Canada and its flight attendants – that the global economy remains fragile after the financial crisis of 2008 – does not amount to a coherent policy. This rationale does not offer a basis for distinguishing this dispute from one affecting any other sizable company.

On Monday, Lisa Raitt, the federal Minister of Labour, expressed the government’s disappointment that the flight attendants, who belong to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, had voted against a tentative agreement between Air Canada and the CUPE negotiators. She proceeded to observe, “Our government’s top priority is Canada’s economic recovery and Canadian jobs” – which is a good goal and a true proposition, but in the context it amounted to a non sequitur.

Then, on Wednesday, Ms. Raitt referred the dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which, under the Canada Labour Code, has the power to order that employees continue to supply their services “in order to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety or health of the public.” That seems to be quite a stretch in the circumstances. Surely nobody is suggesting that Air Canada passengers would be flown anywhere without cabin crews. But the immediate, practical effect of the referral is to suspend the possibility of a strike or lockout.

Toronto library services face cutbacks

Say goodbye to leisurely Sunday visits to the library.

The Toronto Public Library staff is proposing to discontinue Sunday service in at least eight neighbourhood branches, among other measures, in an effort to reduce its operating budget by 10 per cent as demanded by Mayor Rob Ford.

It’s also proposing reducing hundreds of weekday hours at many other branches. These recommendations were made public Thursday.

“Sunday and morning services are drastic cuts and will negatively impact us,” said Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. “It’s a strategic step backwards for the city.”

Closing libraries was suggested by consultant KPMG some months ago. Ford backed down after an unprecedented public outcry led by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. But the mayor left the door open to a reduction in operating hours and other cuts.

Pentagon's accounting shambles may cost an additional $1 billion

DOD had pledged clean books by 2017, but Panetta wants deadline moved up three years

The Pentagon, which previously warned that reliable military spending figures could not be produced until 2017, has discovered that financial ledgers are in worse shape than expected and it may need to spend a billion dollars more to make DOD’s financial accounting credible, according to defense officials and congressional sources.

Experts say the Pentagon’s accounting has never been reliable. A lengthy effort by the military services to implement new financial systems at a cost so far of more than $6 billion has itself been plagued by overruns and delays, senior defense officials say. The Government Accountability Office said in a report last month that although the services can now fully track incoming appropriations, they still cannot demonstrate their funds are being spent as they should.

The issue of poor bookkeeping has taken on particular political salience as lawmakers more closely scrutinize the $671 billion annual military budget for waste, fraud and abuse amid soaring federal deficits. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, responding in part to bipartisan pressures, announced Tuesday that DOD does not intend to wait six more years — as agreed in 2009 — to put in place long-awaited accounting reforms that advocates say will increase efficiencies and reduce mismanagement.

“The ability to audit our books ought to be something we do on a faster track, and we will,” Panetta said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Panetta announced a new deadline of 2014 for one major financial audit, covering the status of the department's funds at the end of the fiscal year. Three other major financial audits, covering its assets and liabilities, net costs and  aspects of the financing of operations, still will not be ready before 2017, department officials said. The details of how the new target date is to be met will not be known for another 60 days.

Toronto police farce

Cop union boss Mike McCormack cuts through the police budget theatrics

The first part of my conversation with Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack the other day went something like this.

(You’ll have to read between the lines.)

McCormack (sounding like James Cagney, only with a Scarborough accent): “Whatta u want?”

Me: “Have you seen the Twitter shot of Rob Ford stumbling around town with women at a bachelorette party?”

McCormack (laughing): “No, I have not.”

Me: “Would it surprise you?”

McCormack (laughing louder, but only half-joking): “I would be shocked.”

Me (switching gears, or given ’em): “Does he have a valid driver’s licence?”

McCormack (in full howl): “I don’t check the CPIC system any more. It cost me five days’ salary last time.”

Funny guy, that McCormack. Funny thing, too, the state of police politics (again) in Ford country. The theatrics are approaching farce.

Occupy Wall Street Protesters Believe Zuccotti Park Cleaning A Ploy To End Occupation

NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg believes Occupy Wall Street protesters have a right to freedom of speech at a Manhattan park, but not to keep the owners of the public space from cleaning it.

Officials say Bloomberg visited with protesters Wednesday to tell them of plans to clean Zuccotti Park by the end of the week. Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said in a statement the protest has "created unsanitary conditions and considerable wear and tear on the park."


The park is owned by Brookfield Properties (for whom Bloomberg's longtime girlfriend, Diana Taylor, is a board member), which has asked the police commissioner Ray Kelly for help from the NYPD to clear the park so it can be cleaned. In a letter to Kelly (see below), Brookfield Properties wrote, "The situation continues to worsen and we need your assistance to ensure public safety."

Holloway said the cleaning will be done in stages Friday. Protesters will have to leave, but will be allowed to return after it's cleaned. (UPDATE: Ray Kelly confirms that the protesters will not be allowed to return to the park with camping gear or any other equipment that has enabled the occupation.)

Soaring Suburban Poverty Catches Communities Unprepared

EDGEWATER, Colo. -- Before the unraveling, Selena Blanco and her family felt secure in their hold on middle class life in this bedroom community just west of Denver. She and her husband both held professional jobs in industries that seemed sheltered from trouble, his in technology, hers in health care. Together they brought home $100,000 a year, enough to allay concerns about paying the bills, let alone having to ask for help.

But over the last two years, both have lost their jobs. Her unemployment check ran out in the spring, leaving them to subsist on his jobless benefits alone, about $1,500 a month.

The Blanco's shattered fortunes have supplied them an unwanted new status, one they share with millions of suburban households in a nation previously accustomed to thinking of suburbia in upwardly mobile terms: They are poor.

They are officially so according to the federal government's definition, which sets the poverty line for a family of five at an annual income of $26,023 or less. It is viscerally true when one sees how Blanco, 28, now spends her day. She takes her four-year-old son to a county-operated Headstart program, free preschool for the poor. She forages for clothes at thrift stores. She scrounges for coupons to keep her family fed.

We fabricated drug charges against innocent people to meet arrest quotas, former detective testifies

A former NYPD narcotics detective snared in a corruption scandal testified it was common practice to fabricate drug charges against innocent people to meet arrest quotas.

The bombshell testimony from Stephen Anderson is the first public account of the twisted culture behind the false arrests in the Brooklyn South and Queens narc squads, which led to the arrests of eight cops and a massive shakeup.

Anderson, testifying under a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, was busted for planting cocaine, a practice known as "flaking," on four men in a Queens bar in 2008 to help out fellow cop Henry Tavarez, whose buy-and-bust activity had been low.

"Tavarez was ... was worried about getting sent back [to patrol] and, you know, the supervisors getting on his case," he recounted at the corruption trial of Brooklyn South narcotics Detective Jason Arbeeny.
"I had decided to give him [Tavarez] the drugs to help him out so that he could say he had a buy," Anderson testified last week in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

He made clear he wasn't about to pass off the two legit arrests he had made in the bar to Tavarez.

"As a detective, you still have a number to reach while you are in the narcotics division," he said.

NYPD officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The protesters might have a point

If by their heroes you shall know them, then there is plenty of sport to be had at the expense of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread across the United States and soon into Canada and countries across the sea. Conceived at the culture-jamming HQ of Vancouver's Adbusters magazine, the protests have attracted the support of the usual Scooby-Doo gang of philosopher-pranksters (Slavoj Zizek), celebrity anti-capitalists (Naomi Klein), lunatic-fringe paranoiacs (Chris Hedges), and pop-cultural bottom feeders (Cornel West).

That is why the protests look, one the face of it, just like every other episodic post-'60s gathering. That suspicion is amplified by the claim - which has become something of a media mantra - that the protest has no specific point, that it is just an even vaguer iteration of the anti-globalization movement. But that's not entirely fair: what is at issue is the combination of lack of opportunity and high levels of unemployment on the one side, and growing inequality thanks to a financial elite that has prospered while the country has staggered. There is a great deal of anger out there, and Wall Street is the right and proper target. The real problem for OWS isn't that the movement has no message or goals, it is that it does not have an adequate ideological language in which to express them.

Occupy Canada rallies spread in economic 'awakening'

Canadian organizers are revving up their plans for the Occupy Wall Street-conceived global action day, the most adventurous idea yet for a movement that some experts say has the potential to trigger a major shift in the economic thinking of governments and big corporations.

The number of Occupy Canada cities for Saturday's rallies has grown to at least 15, while the international total is now more than 1,500. At least 20 cities also have Facebook pages dedicated solely to the movement.

As of Thursday noon ET, Occupy Canada's Facebook page garnered more than 12,000 "likes" and more than 17,700 people were "talking about this." Offshoot Occupy@ cities include Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, several other cities in B.C., Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Edmonton, Calgary, Saint John, Moncton and St. John's.

Leading up to Saturday, the various Occupy Canada cities are firming up where their efforts will take them through so-called general assemblies. Organizers are keeping a low profile, calling the day of action "leaderless" and "non-violent," with few going by name and most posting information on Facebook and Twitter.

Air Canada files unfair labour complaint against union

Just hours after Labour Minister Lisa Raitt blocked Air Canada’s flight attendants from walking off the job, the airline filed an unfair labour practice complaint against the union.

The bad-faith bargaining complaint against the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 6,800 flight attendants, was faxed to the Canada Industrial Relations Board late Wednesday night.

That move came after Labour Minister Lisa Raitt intervened Wednesday, asking that board to rule on two matters – effectively suspending any possible job action until a decision is made by the quasi-judicial panel.

Raitt raised the question of health and safety concerns for the nation and whether it provides an essential service. As well, she asked whether a deal between Air Canada and unionized employees is possible given two tentative deals have been rejected by members even though union officials had recommended acceptance.

If the board agrees, Raitt want a collective agreement imposed or the dispute sent to binding arbitration.

How 9/11 Changed the Law and Ethics of War

From the authorization of the use of force to the legitimacy of military action against non-state actors, the lingering legacy of 9/11.

Visit the new CIC website at OpenCanada.Org. Canada's hub for international affairs.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States initiated military action against Afghanistan – a state it accused of harbouring those who launched the devastating attacks. There has been much reflection on what 9/11 has meant, and how it changed the nature and trajectory of international politics.

But what about the legality and ethics of war itself? At a recent seminar in Oxford, the co-directors of the Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict (ELAC) analyzed this broader question, and identified at least three major effects of 9/11 on ethical and legal developments.

Foreign Bribery, Homegrown Inaction

International pressure mounts on Canada to prosecute Canadian businesses complicit in corruption abroad.

Blackfire Exploration, a junior Canadian mining company, recently made headlines across the country amid allegations that it bribed the mayor of a small Mexican town in exchange for political protection for its mine there. Most Canadians may not be aware that paying such a bribe in Mexico is a crime in Canada.

Little more than a decade ago, Canadians and other western business people typically considered side payments and kickbacks to be part of the normal cost of doing business in countries where bribery is standard practice. However, revelations of the RCMP raid on Blackfire’s Calgary office are a good reminder that times – and international norms about acceptable international business practices – have changed.

Although criminal charges have not yet been laid against Blackfire, news of its investigation follows on the heels of a recent foreign bribery case involving another Canadian firm. In June, Calgary-based oil and gas firm Niko Resources Ltd. agreed to pay close to $10 million in fines for bribing a Bangladeshi public official in violation of Canada’s Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act (CFPOA). Before the Niko case, only one Canadian company had ever been similarly charged: In 2005, Hydro Kleen Systems Inc. paid a paltry fine of $25,000 – less than the amount of the alleged bribe – for CFPOA crimes.

China-Canada Investment Deal In The Works

Canada and China are creeping closer to signing an agreement that would set investment rules and guide dispute resolution for investors, International Trade Minister Ed Fast said Thursday.

Fast is in China on a trade visit, accompanied by representatives from companies like SNC Lavalin, Cameco and Bombardier.

In a teleconference from Qingdao, Fast said he and his Chinese counterpart agreed they want to get the foreign investment protection agreement done.

Fast addressed the issue amid news that Canada's trade deficit grew in August, with exports up 0.5 per cent but imports up 0.7 per cent for the month.

Fast says the agreement under negotiation would set out clear rules under which Canadians could invest in China and the Chinese could invest in Canada.

"It also sets out a very clear set of rules under which disputes relating to investments will be resolved. And if we can put that agreement to bed, and we’re making excellent progress in that regard... it will send a very clear message to Canadian companies that China is open for business," Fast said.

Koch-Owned Georgia-Pacific Plant Linked To High Cancer Rates, Film Alleges

WASHINGTON -- David Bouie, a 64-year-old resident of Crossett, Ark., says something isn't right on Penn Road. In the 15 homes on his street, 11 people have recently died of cancer. The casualties include George Parker and his wife, Ollie Parker, as well as Bobbie Sue Gibbs and her neighbor Tom Perkins, both of whom passed away with multiple cancers. Dolores Wimberly, a former neighborhood resident, says her daughter Laetitia, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer at 43; and Penn Road resident Norma Thompson says her husband died of lung cancer, while she continues to have breathing problems, often relying on a respirator.

"Whenever we take a trip out of town, our respiratory system seems to get better," said David Bouie's wife, Barbara, who has spent her entire life in Crossett, the largest city in Ashley County. "I don't have trouble breathing, or use my eye drops, or anything. But when we come home, it starts all over again -- the headache, everything."

A provocative new video by political filmmakers Brave New Films says that Crossett residents who suffer from poor air quality and ambient carcinogens are victims of pollution emitted by a Koch Industries-owned paper manufacturer, Georgia-Pacific. The plant is located directly upstream from the channel behind Penn Road. "Whatever's in (the water) is killing these trees," says David Bouie in the video. "You can see the steam coming from the stuff. It gets up in the air, and it flows over where our property is."

Herman Cain 999 Plan: Did It Come From SimCity?

WASHINGTON -- In Herman Cain's America, the tax code would be very, very simple: The corporate income tax rate would be 9 percent, the personal income tax rate would be 9 percent and the national sales tax rate would be 9 percent.

But there's already a 999 plan out there, in a land called SimCity.

Long before Cain was running for president and getting attention for his 999 plan, the residents of SimCity 4 -- which was released in 2003 -- were living under a system where the default tax rate was 9 percent for commercial taxes, 9 percent for industrial taxes and 9 percent for residential taxes. (That is, of course, if you didn't use the cheat codes to get unlimited money and avoid taxes altogether.)

There has been all sorts of speculation about where Cain came up with the idea for his catchy plan -- Unnamed economic advisers? A clever marketing promotion pulled from the pizza industry? -- but beyond a few hardcore gamers in the comments sections of blogs, few have looked to SimCity, the land where there's a "God mode."

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere

It all started with an e-mail. On July 13 Adbusters magazine sent out a call to its 90,000-strong list proclaiming a Twitter hashtag (#OccupyWallStreet) and a date, September 17. It quickly spread among the mostly young, tech-savvy radical set, along with an especially alluring poster the magazine put together of a ballerina atop the Charging Bull statue, the financial district’s totem to testosterone.

The idea became a meme, and the angel of history (or at least of the Internet) was somehow ready. Halfway into a revolutionary year—after the Arab Spring and Europe’s tumultuous summer—cyberactivists in the United States were primed for a piece of the action. The Adbusters editors weren’t the only ones organizing; similar occupations were already in the works, including a very well-laid plan to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington, starting October 6.

Websites cropped up to gather news and announcements. US Day of Rage, the Twitter- and web-driven project of a determined IT strategist, endorsed the action, promoted it and started preparing with online nonviolence trainings and tactical plans. Then, in late August, the hacktivists of Anonymous signed on, posting menacing videos and flooding social media networks.

Solyndra and Keystone: Not All Environmental Scandals Are Created Equal

This unseasonably warm and unexpectedly lively autumn, the Obama administration finds itself embroiled in two environmental scandals. One, involving run-of-the-mill cronyism and bureaucratic ineptitude, we’ve been hearing about endlessly. The other, in which cronyism on a grand scale is imperiling the planet, is being swept under the rug.

First, there’s Solyndra. To the delight of Tea Partiers and climate change deniers everywhere, the Energy Department made some serious missteps when it guaranteed a $535 million loan to the shaky start-up solar company whose fortunes depended on the success of a quirky technology. An Energy official who avidly pushed the project had a blatant conflict of interest: his wife’s law firm represented the company. So what might have been written off as a bad bet also showed bad faith.

Even so, the Solyndra scandal is overblown. Companies routinely fail in every industry; the whole point of industrial policy is to provide backing for ventures that might produce big breakthroughs but can’t attract sufficient private investment precisely because they are too risky. Of all the green investment areas, solar is the most risky, since solar energy is nowhere close to being cost-competitive with conventional energy. But the real lesson of Solyndra, lost in the right-wing hysterics, is that in the area of renewables, the government should be giving big subsidies to wind, not solar. And it should be more aggressive and sophisticated in its approach to developing clean energy technologies and markets.

Do Cops Need a Warrant to Search Your Phone?

As the Occupy demonstrations have grown, videos and photographs taken by protesters have begun to circulate on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere online. Many, like the one below or those highlighted by James Fallows and Alexis Madrigal, show police using physical force or pepper spray against the assembled protesters.

If you're at Occupy Wall Street or one of its spin-off incarnations, you may find yourself in a situation in which a cop asks for you to hand over your cell phone or your camera. In particular, if you're there as a citizen-journalist, hoping to document and publish the action, you may find your work -- sources, interviews, video footage -- at risk. Can you refuse to turn over your devices? Do the police have a right to search your photos and video footage? Do they need a warrant to do so?

There's no simple answer -- the laws are varied state to state and, to make matters more complicated, constantly in flux. The basic principle is that police need a warrant to both seize and search your cell phone, but that principle is not absolute. There are two major reasons that police may not need a warrant to either search or seize your phone: if you are arrested, or, if they believe that you have footage of a crime taking place and that you plan to destroy the footage.

Wisconsin GOP's (Koch-Led?) Plan to Hijack the Presidential Election

Last month, Pennsylvania Republicans attracted national attention—and faced a local backlash—after Mother Jones noted their plan to change how the Keystone State awards electoral votes in a way that could make it much harder for President Barack Obama to win reelection. The plan has since stalled in the Pennsylvania Legislature, but that doesn't seem to matter to Wisconsin GOPers, who recently decided to try the exact same move.

As I reported last month, the rules of the electoral college provide Republicans with an opportunity to undermine Obama's reelection plans. In the presidential election, each state is worth a number of electoral votes equal to the size of the state's congressional delegation. Each determines how its electoral votes are allocated, and all but two states use a winner-take-all system in which the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all of its electoral votes. Under the Republicans' plan for Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the states would change from this system to one in which each congressional district gets its own electoral vote. (Two electoral votes—one for each of the state's two senators—would go to the statewide winner.)

As in Pennsylvania, the GOP controls both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature plus the governor's mansion—the so-called "redistricting trifecta." Congressional district maps are adjusted after every census, and the last one was completed in 2010. In states where they control the trifecta, Republicans will get to draw the boundaries of the congressional districts without any input from Democrats. Pennsylvania is likely to have 12 safe GOP seats compared to just 6 safe Democratic seats; Wisconsin is expected to have a 5-3 R-D split.

Missing from Occupy Wall Street: Barack Obama

At Zuccotti Park, the shoebox-shaped spit of land in lower Manhattan that for three weeks Occupy Wall Street has called home, there are signs everywhere—strewn on the ground, taped to trees, thrusted skyward, hand-painted on the bulging belly of a pregnant mom. Their messages run the gamut: "We Are the 99%," "Jesus Is With The 99%," "Get Wall St. Off Welfare," "Corporations Are Not People," "Eat the Rich," "End the Fed," "Marx Was Right." A flattened pizza box became a peace offering: "Why can't the Ron Paul People and the Karl Marx People Get Along?" You get the picture.

One name, however, is nearly absent: Barack Obama.

In recent years, you could expect Obama to feature at gatherings of this sort—his organizers were signing up volunteers in the crowd, his war policies were under attack, his supporters were urging him on with his health care reform bill, and so on. Not Occupy Wall Street. There are no "Yes, we can" or "Sí, se puede" chants. No Obama '08 T-shirts or stickers or posters. There's just a single passing mention of him in the latest issue of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, the official newspaper of Occupy Wall Street. Many protesters, asked about Obama and his near-absence at Occupy Wall Street shrugged indifferently, or dismissed the president as just another politician, or ignored the question. And it's not just this weekend: Signs of Obama are nowhere to be found in the videos and photo albums chronicling the weeks-long Occupy Wall Street protests.

Jeb Bush's Cyber Attack on Public Schools

In June 2010, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to give the commencement speech for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the state's largest virtual charter school. ECOT, which provides K-12 online education for kids who never set foot inside a classroom, was celebrating its 10th anniversary and its largest graduating class—nearly 2,000 kids. Naturally, the event, held on the campus of Ohio State University, was webcast for those who couldn't make it.

Bush served up the usual graduation platitudes about the future. Then he hit on the reason he was saluting this particular school: digital learning. It was, he said, nothing short of a revolutionary approach, a way to meet "the unique needs of each student so that their God-given abilities are maximized, so they can pursue their dreams armed with the power of knowledge."

It wasn't the first time Bush had praised the wonders of online education. Over the past year, he's emerged as one of the nation's most prominent boosters of virtual schools, touring the country to promote technology as an instrument of creative destruction against the public school system. Last December, he teamed up with former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, to launch a new initiative called Digital Learning Now, which is aimed at tearing down legal barriers to public funding for virtual classrooms.

Wisconsin Republican Proposes Changing State's Electoral College Law

A Wisconsin Republican lawmaker is proposing that the state switch its distribution of electoral votes to district-based awards.

State Rep. Dan LeMathieu (R-Sheboygan County) emailed legislators Wednesday morning asking for support for a bill he filed to switch the state from winner-take-all electoral votes to distribution based on presidential candidates winning congressional districts, with only two electoral votes going to the statewide winner. The move follows the introduction of a similar proposal in Pennsylvania.

“This method would better protect the votes in each congressional district,” LeMathieu wrote. “If I live in a congressional district that votes for a candidate that loses the statewide vote this method would allow my district to cast a vote for the candidate the majority of the voters in that district supported. This method would also decrease the incentive for fraud because you would only be affecting the outcome of one congressional district and the two at large votes, instead of all ten votes.”

War Of 1812 Bicentennial: Tories Spending Big To Become Party Of Patriotism

OTTAWA - The public's knowledge of the War of 1812 might be a bit sketchy, but Canadians might not easily forget who's banging the drum for the bicentennial.

Parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre was marched in to a news conference Wednesday at the Canadian War Museum by a piper and percussionist in period costume during. He was just one of seven Conservative ministers and MPs who fanned out across the country to re-announce what the Heritage Minister had already done with much fanfare at southern Ontario's Fort George a day earlier.

The attention and resources devoted to the conflict's bicentennial — at least $28 million in spending according to the last budget — is part of a particular brand of Canadian nationalism that political observers say Prime Minister Stephen Harper has embraced and tried to sell during his time in power.

Tom Flanagan, who served as Harper's chief of staff until 2004, said the patriotic themes pressed by the prime minister diverge from those favoured by the Liberals — multiculturalism, bilingualism, and peacekeeping for example.

Doug Ford rips council for healthy-drinks policy

Councillor Doug Ford wants to know why Toronto is foregoing thousands of dollars to “force-feed” healthy drinks to kids.

The high-profile councillor and brother of mayor Rob Ford took several minutes of a government management committee meeting on Wednesday to rip council and city staff for health regulations weighing down an exclusive beverage vending contract with Pepsi.

That contract began in 2005 and was expected to bring $850,000 in annual revenues to city coffers – or $2.5-million over the life of the contract. But a new report to the committee shows actual income topped out at $359,000 in the first year and dwindled to $313,000 last year.

City staff blame council’s healthy vending initiative, which requires Pepsi to stock its machines on city property with 50 per cent health drinks, for the huge gap between forecast and reality.

“The healthy cold drink vending requirement has had a declining impact on vending sales since its introduction in 2005,” the report says.