Politics: Britain Votes and Canada Celebrates 150 Years

On the 8th of June Britain went to the polls. Theresa May called an early election in the expectation that she would strengthen her hand ahead of the Brexit negotiations. In her mind she would be returned to power with an increased majority. Two months ahead of the election the press was united in the view that this would happen, and the Labour Party, under the leadership of the demonised Jeremy Corbyn, would be crushed. Well that did not materialise. The Tories (Conservatives) won just 317 seats, and as there are 650 seats in the House of Commons this is not a majority. Labour gained 30 seats, giving them 262. It is now generally felt the winners lost and the losers won.

This election saw a numbers of firsts for me. I felt really strongly the Tories should be voted out of power after the appalling outcome of the referendum, and the almost certainty that the UK will leave the European Union. I entered the discussion as something other than just an observer and voter. I posted on my Facebook page urging people to engage and vote strategically.

The biggest change though was that in this election I voted Labour for the first time in my life. At least I believe I did because Ailsa had my proxy vote. It was clear that the election needed strategic voting, effectively whoever was the most likely opposition candidate needed the vote. That meant although I would normally support the Liberal Democrats, there was no way they would win in our constituency, Norwich North. We have had a conservative MP since 2009. In the 2015 General Election she held the seat with a majority of about 5000, in 2017 this was reduced to just over 500. I felt my vote really mattered and counted.

Because May is governing through a coalition the general consensus is that there will be, at some point soon, a vote of confidence which she will lose and there will have to be another election. I am quite uncertain as to what will happen, but I hope that now Labour have a sense that they could win, and with any luck we will see a change in government. In my view that would mean a move towards significantly more social spending and higher taxes. Both would be good thing. Of course Britain’s departure from the EU is going to hit the economy hard, the value of the pound has already fallen significantly.

I travelled to England on the 30th of June, thereby missing a big celebration in Canada. The country celebrated 150 years as a Confederation. The provinces that formed the confederation in 1867 were the colonies of Canada (this province then divided into Ontario and Quebec); Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The current structure has ten provinces and three territories, Newfoundland only joined in 1949, before this it was a crown colony ruled by a British governor.

I have to admit to not fully understanding the system of governance in Canada. It is fully independent and a member of the British Commonwealth. According to Wikipedia – that font of all knowledge: “Canada has a parliamentary system within the context of a constitutional monarchy, the monarchy of Canada being the foundation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The sovereign is Queen Elizabeth II … the Queen’s representative, the Governor General of Canada … carries out most of the federal royal duties”. Each province has a Lieutenant Governor and the $20 Canadian banknote has a picture of the Queen. It is all strange for an independent nation. Australia and New Zealand are similar.

If I were to become a Canadian citizen, there is a test and these are things one would have to know. Indeed, as part of becoming a citizen, one has to swear the Oath of Citizenship, the first part of which is an Oath of Allegiance, ‘a promise or declaration of fealty to the Canadian monarch’. I have asked many of my Canadian friends how they feel about this close link with the UK. The consensus seems to be that it is ok; a sense of ‘if it is not broken don’t fix it’. I am not sure how this will pan out when Charles and Camilla become King and Queen respectively. However they went to Canada to mark the 150 years and presumably this was also to place themselves for their future roles.

The students from the Balsillie School had a trip to Ottawa in June. Our Masters’ of Public Policy (MIPP) group went up for a week and had a chance to see how the government works. Many of the rest: the Masters’ of Global Governance (MAGG) and PhD students travelled up on Thursday and gave presentations of their policy briefs to the Department of Global Affairs Canada (GAC). I went with this group. They mostly worked in teams and in total there were 15 presentations, which took all day. I was exhausted by the end of the day. The GAC people invited other civil servants, so there were always people interested in the students and what they had to say.

The team I mentored talked about currency fluctuations and the impact they have on international development assistance. It sounds dry, but I think it is fascinating and it has real and detrimental effects on the funding for health and HIV. This is something I have been thinking about for a long time and have been working on for about a year with the support on UNAIDS and DFID. The most recent report had been posted by DFID and is available on the UK government website. Nick Zebryk, who has worked with me for a couple of years, co-authored the report and did much of the research. We sent it out to everyone we talked to, and many others besides. Interestingly there has been little reaction to the final report, although there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the research.

The journey to Ottawa seemed endless. We went up by train: about 90 minutes from Kitchener to Toronto and then over four and a half hours from Toronto to Ottawa. The trains are comfortable and there is a more than adequate trolley service, but it is long journey. The students and most of the staff stayed in the residences at Carleton University. Having joined them there in 2016 I decided a hotel room in the city was worth splashing out on. The hotel I use is the one where I spent a month in 2007 when I was a Visiting Fellow at Carleton. I think the curtains and carpet are exactly the same, although I am sure they have been cleaned frequently. It is a ‘suites’ hotel which means there is a living area and small kitchen, rather wasted on such a short trip.

Travelling to back to Norwich actually took only a little longer than the journey to Ottawa, and was much less pleasant. I had an economy comfort seat in the first row, which meant there was leg room, but the seats are small. The plane was completely packed, schools in Canada broke-up on the 29th, and while there were not many young people on the plane, I think it was full of escaping teachers. This may make sense as the 150th Anniversary was worth being in Canada for, especially if there is a chance an individual would see the 200th, and anyone under 30 has a good chance of being alive for that. I personally regret that I did not delay my travel for a few days.

At least, though, I have a few weeks in Norwich before travelling to Southern Africa for a Waterford Board meeting in Swaziland and a quick stop in Durban. I am not looking forward to the long plane journeys of the next month or so, perhaps one upgrade will be warranted. It is also with reminding myself that, as a KLM elite card holder, I at least get access to the lounges and all the perks that go with this status. It would be hard to contemplate travelling without these benefits.

Don’t pick your nose and other salutary tales!

I began writing this posting on a holiday weekend in Canada. It turned out to be rather traumatic and it was entirely my own fault. On Friday, before going to work, I shoved an exploratory finger up my, nose. This was a really bad idea. Blood started to pour out in an impressive and steady stream. After an hour and a half of pinching my nose, icing it (the most effective form of ice I had was a bottle of vodka from the freezer, which worked surprisingly well in terms of providing the maximum coverage), and trying other remedies, (including) those I found with a quick Google search, I knew I needed help. As Tony Hancock put it in “The Blood Donor”:

‘I had lost close to an arm full’.

It was a prolific nose bleed.

I caught a taxi and headed for the Grand River Hospital, which is actually within walking distance of the apartment. It did not make sense to walk with a stream of crimson coming from my nose. Fortunately, the majority of the towels I have in the house are red; in fact blood red. This meant I was able to carry something with me to absorb the gore. When I got to the hospital I was checked in with the triage nurse, details were taken and I was labelled. Mine said: “Stupid older white male who does not know how to pick his nose – no rush”.

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Lost Moleskins and much entertainment

The beginning of April saw the winter term drawing to a close. My last day of teaching was Monday 10th, which as it turned out was also the last day of term. I had not realised that. A pity, because I had a panel of colleagues from the community to talk about wellbeing. The class was not all there, some having started travelling on their spring breaks. Indeed not all those that attended were mentally there either – they were thinking about deadlines, assignments and perhaps even holidays. When, the previous week, the second course I taught ended, and the class went to the pub, I was very touched that they invited me to join them. I should have gone.

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Spring is here and the snow is almost gone

The weather has finally begun warming up here in Waterloo. It is now possible to walk around without a winter coat on, although a jersey is still necessary. The squirrels are increasingly active and migratory birds are returning. We are all looking forward to spring and summer, and it really does feel as though it is imminent. What happens is that the temperature fluctuates widely. It has been as high as 18ᵒc one day and as low as -10ᵒ the next night. I wonder how the animals cope; the trees on the other hand, seem, rightly, rather reticent to bud.

I have had a very busy few weeks. On 7 March we had Stephen Lewis come and sit on a panel with a number of students and faculty members. He is extremely well known in Canada, and more broadly as an exceptional humanitarian. The auditorium was packed and a number of organisations placed tables outside to advertise their activities to the assembled company. It is good to be able to facilitate these events; it is part of building a community here in Waterloo.

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False Spring? I hope not!

In the middle of February I greatly enjoyed sitting in my office or my apartment and watching the snow fall. It was quite magical. In total we probably had about 10 cm, enough to cover the ground and make everything into a winter wonderland. Normally here there is a period when the ground is covered by grey snow as it slowly melts. In the corner of the parking lots there are piles of the white stuff, bulldozed there by the clearance teams. This year it warmed up from about the 18th of February and most of the snow disappeared very rapidly. I woke one morning to see a digger loading the snow into large trucks in our apartment parking lot. It is taken away and dumped somewhere. There must have been at least six or seven loads. It was probably necessary to do this, because the piles take a very long time to melt, and the snow was heaped in the guest parking. It provided an insight into the workings of Canada in the winter, and perhaps even into the cost, as I’m sure this service will appear on the bill.

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‘January brings the snow, makes your feet and fingers glow’.

It is most unusual for the first of the month of the year to have come and gone without my having prepared a new blog. I’m not quite certain what happened. I can only think it was a combination of the pressure of teaching and preparation which distracted me. There is quite a lot to report, both events of the past month and ones for the next few months. I have been, and will continue to be, busy.

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Returning to Canada, not as easy as I hoped

Christmas day in Norwich was abnormally warm. The temperature rose to 14° C and it was possible to walk around without even a coat on. It then turned very cold, with a layer of ice on the car in the morning, and much scraping before we could go anywhere. I was quite pleased with this. I had cut up a lot of wood for our wood burner in the lounge, so I was able to use some of it. In addition to this, one of my Christmas presents, which I must stress I actually asked for, was a couple of sacks of coal. I had such fun building and tending the fire.

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Sharing 60

Sharing 60

Normally when I post on the website I comment, at the end, on films I have seen or books I have read. This month’s post unusually begins with the two films I watched on the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in early November. The first was the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It was excellent, thought provoking and depressing. The story is of a 59 year old scaffolder who is unable to work because of a heart problem. He is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of not getting the state benefits he should, because he is deemed fit enough to look for work. It is a searing indictment of the failure of the welfare state, increasingly the case in the UK. This is the result of global trends to elect people who don’t care, at least not in the way I was brought up. It made me ask what I would do if I had power, probably a basic income grant for all.

In Durban I am sharing the car with Rowan, who has travelled over to spend five months in South Africa. She has two days’ work a week in Umhlanga, so on those days I walk. There was a youngish white man, on crutches, begging on the street a few hundred metres from the flat. I asked him over to tell me his story and, in exchange, gave him a decent amount of money. He said he was a welder by trade. He lost the lower part of his left leg in a motor accident a few years ago. He said he was trying to scrape together enough money to replace his identity document in order to get work. He is living with his wife and child in one room in the town centre. How much of that was true? I don’t know. South Africa is a harsh society for people who don’t have resources.

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Autumn in Canada, Switzerland and England

The autumn colours in Canada are amazing, more so in some parts than others. I was invited to a meeting on ‘Outbreak Interventions’ organised by Quebec International in Quebec City, held early in October. The trees in the city were on display. Words would fail should I try to describe the reds, yellows and oranges, so I am not even going to attempt it. We were given a tour of the city and were told that they had spent money of preserving their elms when Dutch Elm disease swept through North America. These were indeed very magnificent trees, so the money was well spent.

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Money in Montreal

My main event in September was the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GF) replenishment meeting in Montreal. This took place on a Friday and Saturday in the middle of the month. To get there, I took the train from Kitchener to Toronto and changed for Montreal. The journey took from 9 am to about 5 pm and was incredibly productive; I got through a mountain of reading. The rail service in Canada is a great way to travel. It is not fast but the trains are comfortable, there is an ‘at seat service’ for tea, coffee or meals, and it is a good place to read, work and generally chill.

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