English: Justin Trudeau promotional photo take...

English: Justin Trudeau promotional photo taken by Jean-Marc Carisse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Well Justin Trudeau ruffled a few feathers last week, didn’t he?  While discussing the legalization of marijuana in Canada, Liberal leader and Papineau MP Justin Trudeau admitted that he’s smoked the cannabis in question five or six times over the course of his lifetime, including once after he was elected a Member of Parliament in 2008 (unlike tricky Bill, it turned out Justin did in fact, inhale).  Many of his critics joined with members of the Conservative government (who expect to be campaigning against Trudeau in the next federal election) to pounce on the admission as a reflection of his shortcomings as both a leader and a man; not only did he consume a controlled substance, he did so as a member of Parliament, bringing disgrace and shame to the noble House of Commons and the Institution of the Canadian government.  OK, I’m embellishing a little, but suffice to say, there were more than a few people who were genuinely miffed that Trudeau Jr. had partaken of the Mary Jane, and while they might be able to forgive him if it was all youthful indiscretion, the fact he did so as an adult (and father) seemed to be an even more unforgivable crime.

The debate around legal marijuana was already occupying headlines here in Ottawa as police and municipal authorities have found themselves in a sort of unofficial tug of war with a new marijuana dispensary that opened in the Nation’s Capital in June (called the Greater Ottawa Health Advocacy Centre), and there’s been no shortage of legal acrobatics as a result.  And last month, a group called the Ontario Safety League petitioned the provincial government to crack down on convenience stores and mom and pop shops selling marijuana paraphernalia like pipes, bongs and roach clips, claiming it’s availability sends the wrong message to children.  I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest both the Conservatives and the OSL relax a little and grow up a bit.  Maybe they should, you know, try a joint or two themselves.

For the most part, Canadians rate pot pretty low on their daily list of things that may kill, mug or otherwise violate them.  Canada has a pretty laissez-faire attitude when it comes to enjoying a reefer or two (or four or five) and the use of medicinal marijuana is pretty much an accepted fact of Canadian life.  Even the United States, a country whose movement on social issues often makes glaciers look hyper-active, has seen a shift in popular attitudes on weed, with more and more states legalizing it’s medicinal use (though there are still plenty of states that consider it a toxic enemy of both Jesus and the almighty State and have unleashed SWAT teams on places they suspect may be harbouring a plant or two). CNN’s popular medical guru, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, reversed his long-held opposition to the use of medicinal marijuana, describing his previous position on the matter wrong and ill-informed.  Even President Barack Obama experimented with marijuana during his college days (and my oh my, didn’t FOX news and the Breitbart Report have a ball with that little nugget).  Now in Trudeau’s case, there is a definite element of hypocrisy.  In 2009, he voted in favour of legislation which would have  introduced mandatory minimum sentences for possession of marijuana, and this would have been around the last time he toked up.  Now while the Conservatives current attack strategy on this front failed (most Canadians dismissed the issue as a non-starter and some polls suggest Trudeau’s approval ratings-already higher than the Prime Minister’s according to some national number crunchers-got a bit of a bump), Canada’s Tories have proven nothing if not agile, and you can expect Stephen Harper’s camp to spin the pot issue as more of an hypocrisy and leadership one then a legal one moving forward.  Some more hardcore members of Canada’s conservative media have tried painting this as a contemporary Adscam scandal, digging up “evidence” and dates in an attempt to draw some sort of elaborate conspiracy of, well, no one really knows.  Failing that, they have criticized him for trying to score cheap political points with Canadian voters (don’t any public statements made by any politician, Liberal or Conservative, try to score political points with voters?  With cheap ones being the best kind?), but the only Canadians to take their attempts seriously is the small fringe tribe who would hate the cure for cancer if it came from anyone who wasn’t a Conservative.  If anything, Trudeau’s very, very rare (according to him) penchant for enjoying a joint now and then should be far less concerning then Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s increasingly common episodes of public drunkenness, as well as his occasional attempts to cover his missteps up before being confronted with concrete evidence.  And that’s to say nothing of his (possibly unfounded) allegations of crack cocaine use.  Personally, Trudeau’s admission doesn’t change my perception of him any.  Mostly because aside from his support for legalizing marijuana, I have no idea what his policies are or where he stands on major issues.  Has he offered an opinion on possible Canadian military involvement in Syria, for instance (or a concrete alternative if he opposes it)?  What are his ideas for the economy and jobs?  How does he plan on addressing the challenges our public healthcare system faces in the near future?  What does he think of unmanned American drones in Canadian airspace?  The atrocious and unacceptable conditions most of Canada’s First Peoples live in?  Arctic Sovereignty?  Quite often, his default stance seems to be whatever puts him squarely opposite of what the ruling Conservatives are saying.  Those are the things that influence my decision when I’m casting my ballot, not if he indulged in a harmless hobby nearly a decade ago.

As for the Ontario Safety League, I’d be inclined to take them more seriously if they invested as much energy to remove tobacco products from stores as well, because let’s be honest folks, having kids smoking cigarettes is more likely and far, far more dangerous.  And you can add alcohol to that list as well if you’d like.  A lot of people refuse to believe it, but marijuana is a far more benign substance (though much more tightly controlled) then the products that Big Tobacco or your favorite brewery produces.  When was the last time you heard of someone dying of marijuana cancer?  Or being killed while toking and driving?  Don’t confuse my sarcasm with mockery of serious tragedy, but the fact remains that cigarettes and alcohol are far more addictive (why do you think Big Tobacco in the US has been paying out billion dollar settlements for the better part of the past two decades?) and each can kill you in a hundred different ways with a dozen different breeds of cancer.  And if you have any doubt about behavioral influences, just ask your local police force if they’d rather be called to a domestic dispute involving alcohol or marijuana.  What do you think the answer might be?  At best, weed may give someone a bad case of the munchies, little more.  And when was the last time you heard of a doctor prescribing a medicinal cigarette or screwdriver?  I rest my case.

The majority of opposition to marijuana is based on a very old, very obsolete and very hypocritical ideology, one that is slowly eroding in the face of growing awareness and acceptance.  I myself believed it was a drug like many others until I began to think for myself and learned that most of what I’d been told about the substance was about as legit as Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins.  Do I honestly care if a politician tokes up now and then?  Not in the slightest?  But do I care if he gets hammered more than occasionally?  You betcha, because an addiction to alcohol doesn’t just pose a far greater threat to the addict in question, but to those around them as well (MADD has some pretty grim statistics on how many Canadian funerals take place every year as a result of drinking and driving).  What I do care about is that public figure’s candor about the issue.  And if a public organization decides to publicly wade into a debate, then they need to understand that any scent of hypocrisy is going to cost them serious credibility (quick query, if the OSL is so concerned about the well-being of our children, when was the last time they issued a public message on sugar, the 21st century’s new tobacco?).  And when it comes to marijuana, the government already provides Canadians with more hypocrisy then they can stomach.

And you can rest easy mom.  I, like President Clinton, have never inhaled but not for fear of the potential consequences, but rather because I couldn’t handle the smell (seriously, the stuff does reek).  It’s the same reason I don’t drink coffee or tea (plus, can you honestly imagine me on caffeine?  Didn’t think so.).  But that time, during my slightly botched appendectomy, when there was a lapse of communication at the nurse’s station and I got an injection of painkiller as well as three or four pills?  I’m not going to lie, THAT was pretty sweet.

Shayne Kempton

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Canadian television journalist Mike Duffy of CTV.

Canadian television journalist Mike Duffy of CTV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Back in 2006, Stephen Harper lead the Conservative party to the first of three electoral victories in Canada, winning minority governments in 2006 and 2008 before finally winning his coveted majority in 2011.  When Harper defeated Paul Martin in ’06, he promised a government of accountability and transparency, one where the scandals and accusations that soured so many Canadians on the Liberals who had governed since 1993 wouldn’t happen.  He made plenty of other promises as well (a reduced G.S.T., a renewed military culture, fiscal prudence, etc.) but that was the big one, the one that earned Harper and his Conservatives their first-and most important-victory.  But the actions of two former journalists are now threatening to demolish the carefully polished Conservative brand of public trust and responsibility.  The two in question, however, aren’t investigative journalists or pundits looking to dig up deep dark secrets to generate scandalous controversy.  No, rather, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, once respected veterans of the Canadian news business, are causing more damage to the Conservative government with their actions as Conservative Senators then they ever could have as journalists.

Make no mistake, this is not the first chink in the Conservative armour as defenders of truth and responsibility. The reason Canadians went to the polls in 2011 was because the Harper Government was found in contempt of Parliament, the first of any democratic government in the history of the British Commonwealth, for deliberately withholding information from Parliament.  Not that it mattered much; six weeks later the Conservatives were elected a third straight time, this time winning the majority they had always hungered for, handing the Liberal party its worst ever national defeat and driving then Liberal leader Michael Ignattieff back to his teaching job at Harvard.  Odds are if Harper knew that being found in contempt would have gotten him his majority, they would have lied to Parliament years earlier.

But the current crisis they find themselves trying to quash threatens to damage the Conservatives, and Harper himself, unlike anything before.  In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or so, here’s a warp speed recap-a handful of Senators have grabbed headlines in the past few months for some interesting expense claims.  Senators and MPs alike are allowed to claim reasonable living expenses as part of the execution of their duties, and receive partial or full reimbursement.  And while it’s normal to think that plenty of politicians from all parties take advantage of this system and make a couple of extra bucks on top of their generous salaries, this group has been using the Canadian Treasury like a golden piggy bank.  Former Liberal Senator Marc Harb has put Canadian taxpayers on the hook for over fifty thousand dollars while former Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau has asked John and Jane Q Canadian to hand over forty-eight thousand dollars (Brazeau has also made a few headlines recently for getting arrested for domestic violence).  Both Senators recently resigned their seats in their respective caucuses, and now sit as independents.  Both have also vowed to fight official demands that they repay the fraudulent claims in full after independent audits found them in violation of Senate rules (although the same auditors stated that the rules governing claims for living expenses were a more than a touch fuzzy). But the worst of the bunch has got to be Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, a pair who really should have known better.

Duffy has claimed over ninety-one grand in expenses, and trying to sort out the stories, excuses and outright fabrications he’s used to defend such ridiculous claims would drive Nancy Drew to drink.  He complied with the order to pay his claims back, but after he secured a bank loan to repay his debt, he was cut a cheque by Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff (no word on what happened to the loan). Wallin is currently under investigation for claims exceeding three hundred thousand.  Yep, you read that right.  A big three with five zeros behind it.  Then a decimal point and two more zeros.  Both Duffy and Wallin have resigned their position within the Conservative caucus as well, sitting as independents until their respective audits/investigations are completed (much like Patrick Brazeau, although Brazeau’s public arrests will probably keep him from returning any time soon).  In reality, while the official stories are that they didn’t want to be distractions to the government, their resignations were most likely orders from the Prime Minister’s Office itself.

But you have to ask yourself, how did these two not know better?  Between the two of them, they have close to a century of journalistic experience.  For twenty years, Duffy could be found grilling politicians every Sunday on various CTV political shows, and he earned enough respect in Ottawa’s political landscape that his Senate appointment in 2009 was seen as a huge coup by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (Duffy was a fundraising machine and attracted more than his fair share of votes in 2011).  Wallin became the first woman to host Prime Time News in 1992 after a career that had seen her work at the Toronto Star, fill the position of CTV’s Ottawa Bureau chief as well anchor Canada AM.  She also has 14 honourary doctorates, a spot in the Canadian Broadcasting Hall of Fame, is a member of the Order of Canada and is even an honourary Colonel in the Canadian Air Force.  So, the question is, if these two had still been high-profile members of the national media, would hey have failed to notice a story like this?  Would they not have sunk their teeth into it like a pit bull on a mailman and held on until it was bled dry?  So how did they not know there was going to be about seventeen hundred mega tonnes of toxic political fallout  when this story eventually broke?

     This scandal has taken on a life of its own.  Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s aforementioned Chief of Staff, was forced to resign over the ninety thousand dollar cheque he cut Duffy.  And that’s a scandal all on its own.  By all accounts, Wright is considered as smart as he is shrewd, and everyone who knows him professionally has asked the same question-what on earth was the man thinking?  And secondly, is it possible that no one in the PMO, or even the Prime Minister himself, knew about his spontaneous generosity?  And how does Stephen Harper look after he publicly defended Wright and all of his embattled Senators now that they’re either unemployed or have been exiled from the ranks of the Conservative party?  NDP leader Thomas Mulclair has demanded an RCMP investigation (good luck Tom) and newly elected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has seized on the issue, allowing it to paint Harper and his government as scam artists and con men.  Furthering the government’s headaches are new allegations that the final audit into Mike Duffy’s fraudulent claims was censored by the government to remove any trace of wrongdoing.  Facepalm anyone?

     Stephen Harper rode a blue wave of change into power seven years ago because of a scandal that he was able to exploit enough to damage not only his opponent, but his opponent’s brand.  And once he had cracked the Liberals veneer, he chipped away at it methodically until he was able to break it almost beyond repair.  And while this particular scandal lacks the size of the Sponsorship one that ultimately proved the downfall of the Liberals, it has almost as much meat, it paints Harper and his government as hypocrites and has provided the opposition (including a re-energized Liberal party) ammunition to assault the very foundation of the national Conservative party and everything they’re supposed to stand for.

     The Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with most of the Canadian media.  When they haven’t been able to manage the media, they have ignored or ridiculed it.  Insiders have often maintained that part of the logic behind the Conservatives’ suspicion of journalists is that they could damage the government if allowed too close.  The ultimate irony here is the scandal that former journalists-and now former Conservatives-Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin find themselves at the heart of, could help defeat the Harper government (or not, time will have to tell).  Apparently, journalists are only powerful enough to hurt a Conservative Prime Minister when they’re on his team.

Shayne Kempton