Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch...

For those of you who enjoy my stories of playing with currency, lapdances by drunk Russian strippers, treks through Thai jungles for mushrooms, redneck rampages and run-ins with corrupt police, you won't like this next entry.

My home and native land, Canada, is in the midst of a political crisis that runs much deeper than current media can display. The effect of this crisis is the fifth federal election in ten years, but the symptoms are seemingly terminal.

This political situation in Canada has come about because of widening polarization among the people in Canada, and this current election is turning out to be one of the ugliest in Canadian history. The election campaign is only in its fifth day, yet I have witnessed arguments break out at work and even while waiting in line at a Tim Horton's coffee shop! Even our hockey games have become politicized (candidates are declaring which hockey teams they support)!

Canada is a very regional country, encompassing vastly different outlooks on life. The maritimes and Newfoundland are predominantly social democrat in outlook, while Ontario is mainly centrist liberal. Manitoba and Saskatchewan tend to lean towards left-of-center while Alberta and British Columbia are hardcore conservative bastions. Quebec remains a primarily nationalist province with strong left-wing tendencies. Federal elections tend to be decided along these lines.

To understand it more, we need to look at how a British-style parliament works. Basically, the group of MPs (Members of Parliament) that enjoy the support of the House (the House of Commons) form the government, with the leader of that group chosen as Prime-Minister. In this case most groups of MPs are assembled into political parties, although there is nothing in the constitution that mentions political parties.

* It should be noted that Canada's constitution is not a clean one-page document like in America, but rather a large collection of legislation, treaties, orders-in-council, declarations by past monarchs and Supreme Court decisions all stuffed into the large Parliamentary Library...the sum total of all this is Canada's constitution.

Currently in Parliament there are 304 seats up for grabs and, under the parliamentary system, the "group", or party, that wins the most seats in an election forms the government (there is a seat for every 100,000 voters).

The problem is that there are also five political parties: the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party (social-democrats), the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec nationalists) and the Green Party (environmentalists). The Conservatives and Liberals are by far the biggest parties, and the two historic parties of Canada.

For 75 years of the 20th Century, on and off, the Liberal Party governed Canada, and produced such political heroes as Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien. Like it or not, the Liberals have styled themselves "Canada's natural party". The Conservatives, on the other hand, have enjoyed temporary greatness followed by stunning defeats. Brian Mulroney lead the old Progressive Conservative Party from a sweep of Parliament in 1984 to a shattering implosion in 1993, and after that the Conservatives were hard-pressed to gain even 4 seats in Parliament.

In far-right leaning Alberta a party rose up to challenge the Liberals and even the Conservatives, who they thought were too left-leaning. The Reform Party began as a protest party but managed to gain quite a few seats in Parliament to offer significant political power. Our current Prime-Minister, Stephen Harper, was a member of the Reform Party in its birthing heyday.

The Reform Party attempted to run candidates across the country in 1996, but its stance on gay rights, abortion, privatized medicare and young offender justice terrified the rest of Canada (which is much more left-leaning) and Reform was utterly swept in the elections and Jean Chretien's Liberals won the biggest majority they have ever enjoyed (Jean Chretien even quipped "Thanks, Reform!"). The Reform Party fell apart, but not completely.

Under the careful guidance of an elite circle of hardcore conservatives, including Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper, the party renamed itself and changed its image, and appeared again in the 2000 elections as the Canadian Alliance Party. It did a little bit better in those elections but the fact of the matter was that the right-wing votes were split between the old Progressive Conservative party and the Canadian Alliance party, thus handing the Liberals a third-straight majority in Parliament.

The Progressive Conservative party was in dire straights, not winning any more than 4 or 5 seats since the days of Brian Mulroney. Membership was down and the party was going bankrupt. Luckily for them, the Canadian Alliance Party was looking for one more image change to give itself more legitimacy in otherwise Liberal Canada. Stephen Harper, who had helped birth the Reform Party and morphed it into the Alliance Party, stepped in and, in a historic deal, merged the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives, renaming it the "Conservative" Party.

Around this time, in 2002, Jean Chretien's 10-year reign as the most popular Prime-Minister in Canada was coming to an end. The "little scrapper from Shawinigan" (a reference to his hometown in Quebec and his fiesty, combative political style and, ultimately, to his habit of grabbing hippy protesters by the throat and/or punching them in the face) was nearing 70 years in age, and his right-hand man, Finance Minister Paul Martin (who had made Time magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1999 for engineering Canada's economy so that it became the first G8 country to balance its books and declare a fiscal surplus) made a play for the top spot. In a Liberal convention Paul Martin attempted to get himself nominated leader of the Liberal Party and oust his mentor and friend (and boss). Martin managed to get 52% of the Liberal delegates' votes, enough to topple Jean Chretien but also enough to drive a deep rift in the ranks of the Liberal Party.

In 2004 Canada went to the polls, and Paul Martin and his Liberals won a minority government; that is, they were the party that held the most seats but the other three opposition parties combined held more seats. The Liberals would be forced to compromise on every issue in order to gain the support of the opposition. The largest of the opposition parties was none other than Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

In Canada, when a governing party loses the confidence of the House the government falls and a new election is declared. All fiscal issues put forward by the governing party are considered confidence issues, so the annual budget must pass the House of Commons or the party is considered to not have the confidence of the House and a new election is called.

In 2006 this is precisely what happened. After 2 years of ineptitude and a paralyzed Parliament Stephen Harper and his Conservatives (still called "Tories", the old British name for conservatives) got the socialist NDP and separatist Bloc Quebecois on board and defeated the budget. Paul Martin and his broken Liberal Party fell and the country went to the polls.

Stephen Harper won the election, but, like Paul Martin, only with a minority government. Unlike Paul Martin who could have counted on the support of two other left-leaning parties in Parliament, the Conservatives were now facing an opposition united by ideology, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. For the next two years they found themselves making compromise after compromise on every issue in order to stay in power. In 2008 the Liberals and NDP joined together and threatened to form a coalition, which would have made them combined the largest group of MPs to enjoy the confidence of the House and power would have shifted back to the Liberals. The country went to the polls again.

The 2008 election returned Parliament back to almost exactly the same state: Stephen Harper's Conservatives hanging on to a minority government while the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois opposed them from across the aisle.

From 2008 until now, 2011, the Conservatives hung on to power not because of increased support from the electorate (Tory support has never risen much beyond 38%) but because of dissatisfaction from the voters with the Liberals. After the Paul Martin affair the Liberals chose as their leader Stephan Dion, a life-long Quebecois bureaucrat who could barely speak English and whose mere presence on television annoyed the hell out of the average Canadian. The Liberals ditched Stephan and, in a quick convention, chose Micheal Ignatieff to lead them.

Micheal Ignatieff is the son of Russian immigrants who fled to Canada following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. He has been a professor of politics and economic theory at Oxford and Cambridge and more recently at Harvard University. He returned to Canada in 2007 to teach at University of Toronto when he was approached by the Liberal Party to potentially lead them. He has written 14 non-fiction books and was a personal friend of US Senator Ted Kennedy.

Unfortunately for Ignatieff, the Liberal Party he took over was a shambles after Paul Martin and two consecutive electoral defeats, and "Iggy", as the press calls him, has had to work hard to not only get Canadians to know him and take him seriously, but also to unify the party and turn it back into the "mean red machine" it once was. Harper and the Conservatives have wasted no time attacking him as being unpatriotic for living outside of the country for so long (as a distinguished academic who has taught at the world's greatest schools and given lectures at the UN). In fact, the Conservatives have been using age-old Canadian self-confidence issues to potray Ignatieff as an evil American-lover, while Ignatieff has publicly said "Yes, I do love America, and I love Canada, and I love the unique relationship our two countries share."

It was Micheal Ignatieff who, in 2008, attempted to form a coalition with the NDP to topple the minority Conservatives, and the Conservative response has been an attack campaign calling a coalition an "undermining" of democracy and "reckless". However, what Conservative supporters are not looking at is the fact that coalitions are perfectly legal means of government in a parliament, so long as they enjoy the support of the House of Commons. If a coalition between parties produces a majority that, then, is the confidence of the House.

Another thing that the Conservatives have kept quiet is the fact that in the bad old days of the Reform Party Stephen Harper wrote a paper explaining why coalition governments are needed and how the Reform Party should go about leading one to take on Jean Chretien's Liberals. In a 1998 interview with TV Ontario Harper said he endorses coalitions as being the most democratic means of governance in Canada. In 2004 he attempted to form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to topple Paul Martin's minority Liberal government. Now, when the Liberals are doing just the same to him, Stephen Harper is suddenly attacking coalition government as "undemocratic".

The fact of the matter is that minority government is, by definition, undemocratic. The Conservatives enjoyed the support of 38% of the people in the last parliament, while the Liberals and NDP combined had the support of over 52%, making a coalition between the two the actual voice of the majority of voters. Thus, a coalition government is the most democratic form of government possible in Canada.

The most recent election came about after a stunning confidence vote in Parliament. The Conservatives were found to be in contempt of Parliament by the House for refusing to give financial details over plans to purchase 130 F-35 Stealth fighters from the USA. The allegation is that there was no competition and that General Electric, who produces the aircraft, padded Conservative Party coffers to get the contract with no questions asked. The deal will cost the Canadian taxpayers over $30 billion over the next 10 years. This finding of contempt of parliament triggered a non-confidence vote and last Friday Stephen Harper and his Conservatives were toppled by a united opposition. The election was on. The fifth in 10 years.

Oh yes, finally, being politicians, I'm sure they've all had lap dances from Russian strippers.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nova Scotia vs British Columbia: The Eastern Trump Card

Why did I choose to settle in Nova Scotia and not British Columbia? This is a difficult question to answer and I'm still not sure of the reason myself.

Both have stunning beauty aplenty, although I give British Columbia an extra point for the Rocky Mountains. British Columbia also has a better job-market and better salaries. British Columbia has better weather (along the coast, at least). British Columbia has more people (4 million compared to Nova Scotia's 900,000), thus more of a tax base, thus better government services and infrastructure. British Columbia, a younger province by 3oo years, has nicer architecture and cleaner cities.

So why the hell didn't I head out west like I originally planned?

Because British Columbia isn't Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia has an abundance of culture going for it, and the people are absolutely amazing. Walk the streets of beautiful Victoria and good luck looking anyone in the eye. In Halifax, people strike up conversations with complete strangers while waiting at the crosswalk. How can you beat such friendliness?

Here are some more Nova Scotian peculiarities:

The Nova Scotia license plate reads "Canada's ocean playground"...PLAYGROUND!!!! All BC has going for it is "Super. Natural." Point to Nova Scotia!

Nova Scotia has REAL beaches. Sandy, sunny beaches (in the summer at least) with seagulls and beach cottages surround the province on all four sides. In fact, although Nova Scotia is only 900 square kilometres, it has 7000 km of beaches! British Columbia, on the other hand, has only 2,300 km of beaches, and 90% of those are rocky and covered in seaweed. Plus the water of the North East Pacific is too cold to swim in at any time of the year. Another point for Nova Scotia!

Cape Breton Island beats both Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes hands down. The rolling hills, the small Gaelic population in quaint little towns, the vibrant culture and the stunning coastline beats out the redneck-infested western islands where the brush is so thick you can't stray off the roads.

Nova Scotia was the end of the line for the Underground Railroad, and by 1865 over 8,000 runaway slaves from the southern states had settled around the province, bringing a vibrant and musical cultural heritage with them. Today their descendants are an integral part of Maritime society. BC doesn't have that. They didn't even exist at the time!

Nova Scotia is home to songs, ballads, odes, shanties, books and poems about love for this land. Farewell to Nova Scotia is about a soldier leaving home for the battlefields of France in 1914. British Columbia has Brian Adams and Nelly Furtado. 'Nuff said.

Nova Scotia hosts the annual Tall Ships festival, showcasing old galleons, frigates, cutters and yachts from all over North America and Europe. They even have mock sea battles in Halifax harbour, firing cannons at each other while tourists eat lunch on patios! BC hosts container ships, trawlers and oil tankers.

Atlantic lobster. Can't find that in the Pacific!

Lunenburg, Peggy's Cove, the Annapolis Valley, the Bay of Fundy...these historic towns and regions date back to the earliest colonization of North America and for the most part have been preserved in their original state. Lunenburg (pictured above) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most towns in BC didn't exist before 1890.

The Royal Nova Scotia Tattoo, an international festival of pipe and drum drill bands from around the world, happens every year in Halifax. British Columbia hosts the annual "Save The Whales" festival. Which one is more exciting?

For those who can't get enough of pipe and drum marching bands, Halifax wins hands-down!

Cape Breton's Gaelic culture. More people speak Gaelic in Cape Breton than in Scotland, and it is home to the world's only Gaelic University. BC has nothing on that!

What's Nova Scotia without the intense cultural inheritance of Cape Breton? While many of the fiddles and step dances and ceilidhs (kitchen parties) are put on for the tourists in the summer, these things are still part and parcel of many Cape Bretoners lives. British Columbia can only boast of draft dodgers and pot smokers. And even Nova Scotia has a fair share of those...

I'll let this video from Nova Scotia Tourism say it all...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Fallacy of North America

It seems like ages since I left Russia but I'm really only coming to the end of my third week back in Canada. In 3 short weeks I've got a car, a job, a bank account and begun looking for a place to live (34 and staying with my mother may be alright in Russia but is so not cool in Canada).

Despite all this hectic activity, I haven't had time to really adjust to life in the Maritimes. I still feel stuck somewhere between here and there, and the reverse culture shock is unsettling. I've gone through periods of "I love it here!" to "I want to go back to Russia!" I definitely miss some things about Russia, namely, the chaotic freedom, the architectural aesthetics (of Moscow, at least), the beauty of the people (mainly the women) and the feeling of doing something wonderful with my life.

Here in Halifax I feel only the crunch of time and finance. I have a full-time job and it pays better than my English Teacher's salary but it doesn't offer the kind of financial freedom that living rent-free did in Moscow. My schedule is also heavily regulated by work, and I can't be late or negotiate or enjoy long breaks throughout the day.

One thing that really bugs me about life back home is the complete ignorance of the Canadian people to life outside their own little bubble. I can't relate at all with anybody, and when they begin in-depth conversations about what was on TV last night or how much interest they're paying on their mortgage or their car financing, I switch off. How could I ever possibly explain to them the wonders of Moscow, the history of St. Petersburg, the vastness of the steppes, the feeling of standing on Mamaev Kurgan? How could they even care about the wonders of the Moscow Metro or the absolutely mesmerizing femininity of Russian women or the chaos of gypsy taxis? The fact is, they can't.

I found Russians to be much more engaging in conversation, and much more intelligent about the world around them, then Canadians. Russians were always polite and interested in different places, whereas Canadians have that irritating North American smugness. I also find Canadians incredibly dishonest and feel like everyone is out to rip me off. In Russia, I KNEW everyone was out to rip me off but those I counted as friends I could trust 100%.

In many ways Russia is superior to Canada. Canada's infrastructure is stable, the air is clean, the society well-organized, democracy and the rule of law is healthy and the economy is sound, but the culture really sucks. The exact opposite is true for Russia.

This is mainly the effect of reverse culture-shock, and with time and patience I'll become numb to the glaring hypocrasies I see around me, and eventually I'll become another ignorant dumb-ass Canadian. I do love living in Nova Scotia, however, and ultimately this province is superior in many ways to snooty British Columbia (and the beaches here are better). For me, however, there is no difference right now between people from the Maritimes and people from the west coast, or people from Florida or Wisconsin for that matter. That North American attitude is really grinding on me, and I miss the deep cultural wonder and beauty of Russia and Europe.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

50 Facts About Russians

*Disclaimer - some of the people reading this are humourless douchebags. While nothing on this planet can change the fact that these idiots continue to post comments here after reading (barely) and not understanding this post, I can at least offer a warning that THESE ARE NOT REAL FACTS!!! Morons. Now, enjoy!

1: Russians distrust anything cheap.
2: The English word "bargain" can not be adequately translated into Russian.
3: Although Russians distrust anything with a cheap price, they are fine with freebies.
4: A Russian who reaches high levels of power feels it his his/her duty to put down those who don't.
5: In Russia you need to call the lazy waitresses over by aggressively yelling "Girl!"
6: One needs skills in hitting people with your elbows on the Moscow Metro.
7: In Russia you can drink beer on a park bench without getting arrested.
8: Russians gather in the kitchen and stay up very late, talking about "life".
9: Russians usually avoid talking about work.
10: During any reception in Russia people are immediately separated by gender.
11: There are a lot of police in Russia, most of whom do nothing.
12: Russians never throw anything away. Ever.
13: However, if Russians throw out half of their things, nobody notices.
14: A Russian stranger is likely to call you with familiarity, like "man" or "woman".
15: Russians don't usually say "please" or "thank you".
16: The Russian proverb "Arrogance - the second happiness" cannot be adequately translated into English.
17: Russians drink a lot of vodka. It's not a myth.
18: You don't have to fear for your life when walking the streets in Moscow alone at night.
19: Russian men are convinced that feminism has led to the collapse of the West, and Russia's historical mission: resist.
20: A myth within a myth: Russians believe that Americans believe that bears walk the streets in Moscow, but this myth of a myth is a purely Russian invention. Americans actually believe all the bears in Russia are dead.
21: Russians simply do not understand it when a foreigner from the west applies for permanent residence in Russia.
22: Dentists are very surprised when people show up for a "routine" check-up. So are doctors.
23: Russians drink tea with a centimetre of sugar on the bottom of the cup.
24: All Russians, from young to old, abuse emoticons.
25: The number of brackets in an email or sms infers the importance of a message. For instance - Birthday party tonight ) means a birthday party, but Birthday party tonight )))))) means a fantastic blow-out extravaganza.
26: Moscow has the best subway system in the world.
27: Despite having the best subway system in the world, there are millions of Muscovites who refuse to ever take it, and spend half their lives stuck in traffic.
28: A Russian will use the slightest reason to bring everyone gifts of chocolate. "It's your birthday in four and a half months? Wow! Chocolate for the entire office!"
29: Anyone who speaks a language other than Russian is automatically suspect.
30: On New Year's, don't surprised if you are invited out at 11:30 pm, drink champagne and cognac until 6 am, eat herring under a fur coat and olivia salad in a kitchen, and then party in a flat for three more days.
31: The only alcohol-free zones in Russia are McDonalds.
32: Smiling for no reason makes Russians angry.
33: Borscht, cabbage rolls and pirogies are actually Ukrainian.
34: Russians don't send their elderly to nursing homes or make their children leave after 18; instead they all live together in the same 1-bedroom flat.
35: Despite the small roads and the frustrating traffic jams, Russians still buy giant SUVs.
36: Sushi is more popular in Russia than in Japan.
37: In fact, Japan is more popular in Russia than in Japan.
38: Russians are extremely friendly if they've known you for more than ten minutes. If you've known a Russian for at least a week, you will be invited to meet their family.
39: Russians are also extremely emotional and passionate, and although they don't show emotion in public, they cry and laugh and shout and play more than Italians.
40: Russians care more about the philosophical side of living than the material, and have a folk song for every situation.
41: Most Russians are very superstitious, and new-age superstitions are en vogue.
42: Russians are passionate lovers, and will quarrel like bitter enemies and make out like porn stars in public.
43: Russians love to criticsize their own country, but will be offended if a foreigner does.
44: If a cashier manages to not break anything while scanning your items, they have provided good customer service.
45: Russians love McDonald's, KFC, Subway and Burger King more than Americans.
46: Russians spoil their kids rotten, and then magically expect them to behave responsibly at the age of 18.
47: Although Russians eat more fast food than people in the west, Russians are still healthier.
48: Russians cannot do anything that requires putting a car in reverse. It can take the average Russian driver ten minutes to parallel park (I've seen it countless times).
49: Winters in Russia are actually quite beautiful, and Russians are fantastic winter drivers.
50: Russians are actually freer than westerners; there are less laws and social constraints, and yet the crime rate is lower than in the US or UK.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ask A Man With A Russian Accent Trying To Convince You To Go To An Ecstasy Party

From The Onion

Dear Man With A Russian Accent Trying To Convince You To Go To An Ecstasy Party,

My next-door neighbor has something of an in-house menagerie. Between his three dogs and several tropical birds, things can get pretty noisy. I very much believe in "live and let live," but sometimes late at night and early in the morning, the squawking and barking can just get to be too much. What is a firm but neighborly way to let him know that his pets are causing me distress?

—Going Wild In Washington

Dear Going Wild,

Look, what is problem? You meet me, you meet Sergei, we are all friends now. Wait, hang on…please! Another drink for my new friend! Anyway, like I say, is one hour maximum drive only. I take you in my car, no problem. Is BMW five-series. We take pills on way, you feel very, very good when we arrive. Like on fire, but nice. You know? Vanya is also my friend, he is very good DJ. He is spinning best house music and we will dance all night. Best music, best pills, best girls, best champagne, everything the best. We go now, okay?

Dear Man With A Russian Accent Trying To Convince You To Go To An Ecstasy Party,

A very good friend of mine recently lost his job and is now struggling to make his mortgage payments. I'm by no means wealthy, but I'm certainly comfortable enough to lend my friend the money he needs until he gets back on his feet. The problem is, he's very proud of his self-sufficiency. How can I offer him a loan without hurting his feelings and jeopardizing our friendship?

—Just Trying To Help

Dear Just Trying,

Over there—is your girlfriend? Very pretty. She will come too. We will all feel very nice and dance. The pills, they will not cost you nothing. Is my brother's place, everything for free. Is heated pool, is bar in basement, is, ahh…is home theater, is craziest sound system—everything you want. But we go now. Is late and I tell Yuri—Yuri, he is my brother—I tell Yuri I am coming there half hour ago. Get girlfriend now. We go.

Dear Man With A Russian Accent Trying To Convince You To Go To An Ecstasy Party,

My wife and I like to have cookouts every couple of months during which we have friends and family members over for steaks. However, every time my brother-in-law attends, he dominates the grill, insisting that he alone knows how to properly cook the meat. What is the best way to let him know that I think he's being obnoxious without causing too much friction between myself and my wife's family?

—Gearing Up To Grill

Dear Gearing Up,

You know what is your problem? Is too much thinking. You will never do nothing you're whole life, just think. What is to think about? Take pill, dance. Simple. You think you know everything, but you don't know nothing. I have Breitling watch like this because I am thinking all day? No. Because I am doing. You would not believe me if I tell you things I have seen.† Crazy, crazy things. But maybe, you think, you are better than me. Are you thinking you are better than me, my friend? That would not be—hold on, is my mobile. Da? Nyet…nyet…nyet…da…nyet…nyet…da, dosvedanya. Is Yuri. You see, my friend? You are making us late. Sergei, you go now. I stay for little while longer and talk to new friend.

Dear Man With A Russian Accent Trying To Convince You To Go To An Ecstasy Party,

I've never considered myself a very religious person, but I certainly don't begrudge others their beliefs. My sister, however, married a very devout man and has taken up his faith; she now seems determined to also convert myself and my two daughters. How can I let her know that her proselytizing is unwelcome without my kids losing their aunt?

—Preaching To The Choir

Dear Preaching,

You know, If you were not such my good friend, maybe I am getting angry now.

Dear Man With A Russian Accent Trying To Convince You To Go To An Ecstasy Party,

With tax season fast approaching, I am for the first time thinking about hiring an accountant. I have traditionally prepared my own taxes, but after seeing in the past year a significant increase in my personal income due to switching from a salaried to freelance position, do you think it is worth the money to hire a professional?

—Taxed In Tucson

Dear Taxed,

You do not understand me, my friend! Please, do not go! Sit! Sit! Here, let me buy you drink. Relax, and we talk. Look, I only want for you to have good time, so why you resist? You hurt my feelings…here, drink. Good! Here is mine, too. Yes, very good. Now, why not you come for little while, and if you don't like, you just leave, no problem? I take you back myself. Please, go talk to girlfriend. I wait for you here.

Confidential To Fed Up In Phoenix,

Ah, yes! Now you see! You will not regret, my friend. It will be night of your life, is my promise. Whoa! You almost fall over, my friend! Ha, ha, ha! Is no problem. We get you pills, you be okay. We go now.