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.

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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Being a Distinguished Visiting Fellow And Freezing In Ottawa

I am now back in Norwich having completed the visit as Distinguished Visiting Fellowship in Ottawa. Here is my plane letter/diary, which I kept while I was there and finished on the way back to the UK.

The visit was hectic. On my first Friday I gave the Founders Seminar at Carleton which was reasonably well attended. I spoke on HIV/AIDS and social justice, not something I knew a great deal about so it was good to have the chance to get my head round the issue. The following Monday I gave a seminar which was attended by a crowd of two people, a third put their head round the door and fled. Fortunately, for my ego, on Tuesday I gave a class which the students were expected to attend so it was full. This was organised by Chris Brown a Professor in the Department of Politics. He came to get me to walk across the campus. I recognised him. I had met him in Botswana where he had been a District Officer “Development” based in Molepolole in Kwaneng district.

The first weekend was not active, mostly sorting out my work and actually writing a bit. The week had passed so quickly that I was feeling a little panicked at how much I had to do and how much had not been done. I was invited out on Saturday by Carolyn McMaster, a friend of long standing. She was in Pretoria in the early 1980s, handling the CIDA support to Botswana, when I was an ODI Fellow there. She invited two couples who had been posted in South Africa by the Canadian Foreign Ministry. We had a fun evening, mainly talking about things Southern African. I had asked directions to bottle store at the hotel and ended up in one that sold only Ontario wine. I got the most expensive, which was $29-00 a bottle. The fact that this was the most one could spend on a bottle is telling. It was a Syrah, and to be honest it was not too bad. Somehow the words Ontario and wine don”t go together in my mind.

I subsequently had an interesting interaction with the shop assistant at that store. There was a sign saying that they do not take $100 bills. I asked if this were legal. “Yes”, she said, “we don’t keep change”. I thought about this and it seemed a little illogical. “OK”, I asked, “If I buy $96 worth of wine then you will accept the $100”. “No”. “Then this does not make sense”. She agreed but was most upset that I had called her on it.

The 17th March was St Patrick”s day, not marked in the UK or South Africa, but very different here. The streets were full of people wearing green, with shamrocks inked on their faces (and possibly other body parts), and silly little hats. Either there is an Irish community in this city or any excuse for a party.

I usually took the bus from Ottawa University to Carleton. It is the large yellow American school bus. I have always wanted to be on one of those. However, interestingly the seats were really uncomfortable and there were no seat belts. Sitting at the back was quite unpleasant and made me feel ill. So the commute was 12 minutes fast walk to the bus, a 15 minute journey and then five minutes in the “tunnels” at Carleton. The tunnels are amazing, they join all the buildings. It is possible to walk from one end of the campus to the other without going outside. They are populated by people who drive “the carts”, which are sort of golf carts that scoot through the tunnels to do, who knows what missions. I wonder if there is a sub-culture developing, “sub” in both senses of the word.

The hotel room I was in had a small kitchen (it was really an apartment) and there was a laundry on my floor, which was good. Having washed shirts during my first week I set about ironing them. It was a very long time since I had done this, and the iron turned itself off every 15 minutes as a safety feature. So frustrating. I then discovered a laundry across the street that would do all this for $1-49 per shirt. My basic philosophy when travelling is to try to avoid have laundry done when the cost is greater than the price paid for the garment originally, but this was well below that and such a saving on time.

Right next door was a gym. I had originally chosen this hotel, (www.suitedreams.com) because it had the best exercise room of all the ones suggested, but then I spotted the gym. They charged $65 a month ($70 with the tax), so I joined. I figured if I went 10 times it would be worth it and was full of good intentions of going in the morning and evening! Hah! But I did manage 20 visits ($3-50 per visit says the economist in me) and also got a great deal of reading done on the bicycle and cross trainer so was pleased with myself.

Ottawa is an interesting little city. I soon developed a feel for the area round the hotel and the Universities. The weather was kind over the month I was there. There was snow on the ground when I arrived and the canal was frozen. By the time I left the canal was mostly thawed and almost all the snow melted. I got down to a vest, shirt and fleece by the end of the visit, which meant that some of the locals were going round in shirts with the sleeves rolled up. At the beginning my dress was vest, t-shirt, shirt, fleece and coat!

As the 18th was my birthday I decided to go to a “Comedy Club” round the corner, “Yuk Yuks” on Elgin. It was the fourth round of the Canadian stand up comedy championships. The club had an empty bar upstairs, with a faint sour smell of puke, and a packed basement. Some of it was very funny, some was not! Then I had a MacDonald”s vanilla shake as a special treat. I think what I particularly like is the chemical additive taste.

My second weekend was rather fun. On the Friday I was invited to the annual Royal Commonwealth Society Humanitarian dinner. It was attended by the great and the good of Ottawa and I think the average age was 60+. I was the only male present who was not wearing a tie (I simply don”t have one). It was rather like being one of the characters in a Robertson Davies novel. The people were nice and very earnest. The guest of honour had been Canadian High Commissioner in South Africa, where he was mugged rather badly. He spoke from the heart about his impoverished childhood and upbringing, and then went on to describe the despair felt by aboriginal children, who have an alarmingly high suicide rate. He is engaged in trying to improve their lives through literacy.

On the second Saturday I went out to the University and worked all day. I got a great deal done and felt very pleased with myself. My host here, is Michael Brklacich, Chair of the Geography and Environmental Studies Department (to see who he is and information about the department see http://www.carleton.ca/geography/faculty/brklacich.html ), was given tickets for an ice hockey game. His neighbour has season tickets and could not go. These were excellent tickets as well, costing $190 each, and about six rows away from the ice. Mike very kindly invited me to go with him. It was deeply interesting and a lot of fun. I ate the most unhealthy meal I have had for ages, a steak sandwich with fries. I avoided the beer and had a glass of red wine instead. The game was fast and furious and in the end the Ottawa Senators (our team) won by four goals to one.

Sunday I tried working, not very successfully I am afraid. In the evening I went and had dinner with Peter Henshaw who works for the Privy Council as an advisor. He is also an expert on post world war two history of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. I filled about four pages of my notebook which was really interesting (a small but select group of people share this enthusiasm).

The third week had to be one of writing, and it was. I decided, after the discussion with Pete to try “pitch” an op-ed proposal to the Globe and Mail published in Toronto. They showed interest and so that was an additional small task, altogether about a day of drafting, getting comments and submitting it. It was run on the 2nd April the day of the public lecture. An op-ed is only 700 words, so they have to be carefully chosen, see The Globe and Mail.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I wrote. On the Wednesday evening I gave a presentation to the Africa interest group, made up of past diplomats and are an interesting group of people trying to influence Canadian foreign policy. I then had dinner with Stephen Lewis, who is an iconic Canadian public figure. He is also a thoroughly decent person with a sense of humour, I came away having changed my mind on some things.

Thursday was a pain because I had to travel to New York, and that meant catching the 06h15 plane. It seemed to me, that, as I already had a boarding pass, getting to the airport an hour before departure would be ample time. Wrong! There is a US immigration office at Ottawa and this took for ever, indeed I resorted to asking people in the queue if they would mind me going ahead of them. It was ok but a bit stressful.

The cab ride in from La Guardia was simple and quick. The two day meeting was held at the Desmond Tutu Centre. This is a former seminary with outstanding 19th-century Gothic architecture. The dinning area or refectory was super with stained glass windows and wood panelling. It has been wonderfully developed and the bed was the most comfortable I have slept in for a very long time. The desk and chair were, on the other hand, totally inadequate. It is worth looking at http://www.ahl-tutucenter.com

In addition to the meeting I was able to see the multi-media show that was unveiled in Durban on 2nd April as part of the South African AIDS conference. This is based on the HEARD project on female truck drivers and was shot by Liz Rubincam. The pictures are on her website http://www.lizrubincam.com under “truck drivers”, and I expect both will soon be on ours http://www.heard.org.za.

It was a busy couple of days and I was quite pleased to get on the plane to Ottawa on Saturday afternoon. Both ways the planes were quite empty and so I was able to stretch out and work, although the flight is short, only 55 minutes in the air. That Saturday was apparently the nicest in Ottawa for months but in New York it was grey and rather miserable. On the Sunday it was pouring with rain but Mike very kindly took me to the Gatineau park outside Ottawa for lunch, it is not far, a 20 minute drive. It was amazing to see the amount of snow on the ground as one left the city and headed for the hills. There must be micro-climates. It was good to get out of the city and be reminded that there is countryside. It would, I think, be spectacular in autumn

By my last week the temperature had risen and there were joggers running wearing just shorts and t-shirts. One measure of temperature would be the number of people outside and what they are wearing. It still seems cold but there are chairs outside restaurants and a few hardy souls are using them. Before it was just the smokers! There was one day when walking to the bus I thought my ears were going to fall off!

The last week was really busy. On the Monday I gave a talk in the morning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; a lunch presentation at the IDRC, and then had a meeting and gave a seminar at the University of Ottawa (the other university in the city and quite different, it is French and English medium and much more part of the city whereas Carleton is suburban).

On the Tuesday I talked at the Canadian development agency, CIDA. The finale of my visit was a public lecture on Thursday. This was at Carleton and was, sadly not very well attended, hindsight tells us that it was right at the end of the term and so was a time when most students were either gone or rushing to hand in overdue essays. I began with a joke, well actually I began by saying I was going to tell a joke because “Canadians are terribly serious and you need to know that this is a joke”.

On my final night we organised a dinner at Thai restaurant. It was great. There were 12 of us including people I had not seen for a very long time including Chris Brown”s wife who I had known in Botswana. Jonty Crush (a friend from Waterford days – 37 years ago) was there along with his wife. The last week also saw a number of dinners.
It was a really good four weeks and although not as much was accomplished as I should have liked, it was intense and busy. There was not really a spare moment and looking back there were a number of unexpected achievements. It was a window into Canada and Canadians (they are quite serious and apologise a lot, but on the other recognise they are a favoured nation and take global responsibilities to heart).

I am going to end this letter here because for those people to whom it is being posted it in now four pages long any more words and I will have to either reduce the type size or go on for another two pages. Smaller type is hard to read and I want to watch a movie on the plane so two more pages is not going to happen either. It is also over 2000 words long, which is half the length of the article I wrote and more than three times op-ed.