Friday, December 22, 2006

Wal-Mart: For the Better or for Worse?

Wal-Mart is an every growing company. Most recently, in Canada, they opened three "supercentres", which are stores that are even larger than normal Wal-Marts and include more groceries, in London, Stouffville and Ancaster (all in Ontario). In fact, Wal-Mart has 273 stores across Canada, and plans to open 14 more by the end of 2007. Wal-Mart, of course, has also received a lot (in my opinion, they are well deserving of it) criticism about labour and ethics.

So what is the problem with Wal-Mart? There are plenty, some of which I will go through.
1. Labour
Wal-Mart and labour. As you may guess, this is a very lengthy topic, which I can only briefly talk about. If you would like to read more, please go to the very lengthy Wikipedia document: Wal-Mart employee and labor relations.
Some of the allegations against Wal-Mart in respect to labour have included being "forced" to work 'off-the-clock', discriminating against race and gender, and extreme retaliation against unionization, to name a few. I would like to write about its union "problems". According to the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (and by the way I highly recommend it), Wal-Mart has actually bought 'spy-vans' to spy on and follow workers who they think are pro-union. The film also says that they have video cameras in the employee break rooms to monitor union activity. Also with unions, there is actually only one Wal-Mart store in all of North America that is unionized: Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. There was also a unionized (or attempting to unionize) store in Jonquière, Quebec. But Wal-Mart closed that store, and many believe that was because of its union activity. Luckily for the workers, Québec law makes it so that Wal-Mart must pay all workers the same wage until they are offered similar employment. Finally, the film also brings up the Wal-Mart labour situation in Germany, where they have very tough pro-union laws. The workers get quite good way, they get somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks of vacation, and most importantly, they like their jobs.
2. Small Business
A 1997 study at Iowa State University found that small towns can lose almost half of their retail trade within 10 years of a Wal-Mart opening. Again, I have watch the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, and it tells the story of a few small town stores, and how they had to close because of Wal-Mart taking away all of their business. This is one of the biggest problems with letting Wal-Mart go where ever it wants to, and in unlimited quantities (meaning lots of stores in one city. Saskatoon has about 220,000 people and three Wal-Marts; one is under construction. One company based in Arkansas has almost taken over the retail market worldwide. And it is not like it is nice socially responsible company, either. The CEO (Lee Scott) makes much more money in a week than the 'associates' make in a lifetime. And as the comic to the left depicts, and this happens way too often, many people who have spent their lives and their life savings on a business, which they truly loved, have seen it go bankrupt because of this mega-store. Wal-Mart also likes to take credit for all of the jobs it brings to communities, like all of the people it takes to run a Wal-Mart just didn't have jobs before. They had jobs, in local businesses. But when those shops had to close, they had not other choice but to work for Wal-Mart, and put up with, especially in small communities with a lack of employers, anything Wal-Mart asked of them. Finally, I have a relative in North Battleford, Saskatchewan who is, like me, a New Democrat and anti-Wal-Mart. But she, like many anti-Wal-Marters, must shop there on occasion. The reason is that because many small businesses closed, there are a few things now in North Battleford that must be bought at Wal-Mart, no one else has it anymore. Just another way that Wal-Mart is taking over retail.
3. Sprawl
Having Wal-Marts causes urban sprawl. Again, back to the film with the small towns where businesses closed. Many of the businesses of those small places were downtown, and on Saturdays, downtown 'small place' was quite busy for a small town. But seeing the large size of Wal-Marts, they could not be downtown, they had to be on the outskirts of the town. So when many of the downtown businesses closed, no one had a need to go downtown. And, unfortunately, this same principle happened in many cities, too.

So what is the solution to Wal-Mart. It is obviously not possible to create a law that makes the existence of Wal-Mart illegal in Canada, but there are things that we can do to at the least create a better Wal-Mart. Like what they did in Germany, we can create tougher, more pro-workers labour laws, make tax and zoning laws that encourage very small Wal-Marts (by making it much more costly to have mega-sized stores) which may even make downtown Wal-Marts and create regulations and we can create tax climates which make it easier for small businesses to compete. And lastly, we can do the good old advocacy work to show people why they should not shop at Wal-Mart.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Canada Needs Public Medicare

Last Monday (Dec. 18), the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think-tank, released a report (How Good is Canadian Health Care?) about how Canada is not getting enough from its publicly funded medicare system, and how we should have private health care. They also say that we're spending "an awful lot of money" on health care, but we're not getting enough value out of it. The report also ranks Canada in things such as infant mortality, years of life lost to disease, etc. Finally, it recommends that Canada allow us to pay for a portion of health care expenses to improve health care delivery.

My first question: Why would we get better value from our health care system if it's private? How can adding corporate profits into the mix make the system more affordable? I do not see how that is possible.

I totally agree that allowing us pay for a portion of health care expenses would make a faster and improved system. All of the people who don't have much money would be out of the system. Only the middle and high income class would be able to access it. But is this where we want to go? Charging people to have access to doctors and nurses? We would become like the U.S., where there are at least 50 million people who don't have health insurance.

My second question: How would infant mortality rates go down with this plan? Well, less children who lived in middle/high-class homes would die, because there wouldn't be as much time to wait (as long as the parents can pay). But what about poor and low-income parents and their children? They would have to wait even longer for care, or have to go very deep into debt (that is if they qualify for a loan) just to pay for health. Health is a right! Nobody should ever be denied health care just because they didn't make it into business or law school. That is one reason we are different from the U.S., because here we actually care about the lower class. The only people who would benefit from private health care would be the corporations which charged the large profits, and those who could pay, because they would get prompter health care. But we don't want a society were the higher class is healthier, they are not better people than the poorest people in Canada.

Many people say that we should have a two-tiered system, where you could wait longer for public, free health care, or pay for a faster service. But there are problems with this:
1. People who cannot afford to pay will have to wait even longer. Most doctors will give preference to people who will pay them personally, as they will make more money. In this situation people who cannot pay will only be granted health care if there is a time slot that they cannot fill with someone who will pay.
2. Less services would be available through public medicare. People who choose to pay for health care out of their own pocket will probably have to pay less taxes, as they are no longer a 'burden on the system'. And because the public system will get less money, they will not be able to buy better facilities and equipment, so those who cannot pay, again, will be second-class citizens.
If you have any other problems that you would like to say about a two-tiered system, please put them in the comments section, and I might add them here

The best way to improve our health care system is to keep it public, and available to everyone, but put more money into it to lower wait times, hire more nurses and doctors, lower medical school tuition, build more facilities, and get better and more equipment. The problem is that Liberal and Conservative governments do not do this, but we need to work hard to ensure that we have better health care, for all!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Canadian Immigration Flaws

Immigration is something that is needed in Canada. We have a population of 30 million or so, while America has a population of 300 million, and about the same land space as Canada. Even if you take into account the inhabitable parts of the north, we still have a very low population. Also, we have a birth rate of 1.5 children per woman in their life time. Pretend for a moment that we would never have any more immigrants, imagine how much our population would fall within 80 or so years. America has a birth rate of 2 children per women, and if you take the fact that you need a man to have a child, too, their population will be quite stable for a long time to come. But what I'm saying is that we need a decent amount of immigration to keep our economy stable, and even more if we want to grow.

I would like to write about a few problems and things that need to be improved in our immigration system.
1. Process of Immigration
Immigration takes time and money. To become a permanent resident of Canada, it will cost you at least $1000. While this is not terribly expensive, $1000 could be used to pay rent or a month or two. And in Canada, we need immigrants. We should be encouraging people to come here, not telling them how much to pay. The average waiting time for 80% of immigration applications is 46 months, just about 4 years! And this is just for one member of the family to get here, after one is here, it takes at least a year, but more often than not, it takes several years. This waiting time is quite inappropriate for Canada. I do realize that there has to be reference checks, etc. that may take awhile. I think we should hire more people to do these checks, so immigrants can get here faster, and we can lower the unemployment rate!
2. Amount of Immigrants Accepted
According to Statistics Canada, between 1991 and 2001, there has only been 1,830,680 immigrants. That works out to be 183,068 immigrants per year. That is an incredibly low number. There are approximately 230,000 deaths per year in Canada, and about 340,000 births (and babies will take at least 16 years until they start working to grow our economy). We need to accept about 260,000 immigrants a year (that much, as long as they are evenly distributed across Canada, not all in Toronto) to grow our economy.
3. Recognize Foreign Credentials
When immigrants apply for immigration to Canada, they are usually told that their post-secondary education will be recognized in Canada, and they'll find work as a doctor or doing whatever they were trained to do. Unfortunately, it is too often that, when they get here, their degrees aren't recognized by the government, so they have to become a janitor or a taxi driver, even though they are a doctor or an engineer! I think that we should create a test for many different professions (kind of like a final exam) that the immigrants have to pass so that we know they are properly qualified, and if they pass, they are entitled to work in that profession.
4. Equal Rights: Canadians & Immigrants
There is one quick note that I would like to mention about equal rights. I found out that in Canadian Citizenship and Immigration policy, it says: If you were married outside Canada, you cannot apply to sponsor your same-sex partner as a spouse. However, if you are a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident, you may qualify to sponsor your partner as a common-law or a conjugal partner. So we allow same-sex marriage to be performed in Canada, but if it happens in other countries, it is not valid? What about equal rights? Are Canadians all of the sudden more supreme than others? This is discrimination based on sexual orientation, I thought that wasn't allowed in Canada, especially by the government.

So as you can see, we need to significantly change our immigration policy if we are to even grow our country and our economy and if we want to have an equal country for all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

North American Free Trade Agreement

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a document that may not directly affect our everyday lives, but is something that has a serious effect on Canada's economy, and yet is not discussed much in the news, so I would like to once more go through this agreement signed by Brian Mulroney (Canadian Conservative Prime Minister, September 17, 1984, to June 25, 1993).

So first of all, what powers does NAFTA give, and to whom does it give the powers to. An initial summary of what I will say is that it gives most economic power to the Americans and their corporations. But, of course, I will explain it further than that. According to an article by Mel Clark in the June 2006 Monitor, a monthly publication from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, some of the powers Mulroney and his Conservatives gave to America are as follows: control over our water, the right to demand that our broadcasting policy be consistent with American interests, and the power to force us to sell them our forests, to name a few. It also gives foreign corporations the right to sue the Canadian government over such issues if we do not do the ridicules things in that agreement. While I do not fully understand how, it is supposedly true that NAFTA has the power to destroy our medicare system if the Americans decide they would like to pursue that course. In an article in the Monitor, Ed Finn says it quite bluntly (which I like): This agreement was not really about trade. It was—is—a legal bill of rights for transnational corporations. To keep this article somewhat brief, I will stop writing about the merits of this deal, but if you would like to read more, please click on one of the two 'NAFTA's to read more: NAFTA1, NAFTA2.

Unless you're the Exxon Mobile CEO, you probably agree that NAFTA is not saving our country. So what are our options to save Canada? Lots of people who see flaws in NAFTA — like the NDP — want to just try to re-negotiate it. But that will only take a lot of time, and seeing there is at the most two sentences in it that benefit Canada, one cannot tweak it; it is a disaster. But there is one thing we can do to fix it: get rid of it. And that is not as hard as it may sound. Article 210-6 of NAFTA states that the agreement may be “terminated by either Party upon six months’ notice to the other Party”—and without paying compensation or meeting any other condition except giving the six months’ notice. Okay, that was easy, but what happens to Canada-U.S. trade? It would take place under the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has already hinted that it is not 'anti-Canada' when it made the decision that our Wheat Board is not illegal, despite extreme opposition from America. Also, by abolishing NAFTA and working with the WTO, the U.S. won't be able to literally make us trade with them. If they start acting like jerks, we are not legally tied in with them. and, we would have full fighting power back, as the insane clauses of NAFTA (i.e. taking our water/timber, destroying medicare, etc.) would be gone.

What benefits do we get out of NAFTA that we couldn't get without it? None, unless you think that having the average wage increase by 8% between 1990 and 2000 and the top .1% of Canadians wages increase 100% is good (which you probably don't). We need to show the world (and people who read blogs) why this deal needs to go down the drain, so that going down the drain is exactly what happens to it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Canadian Wheat Board must Stand

A government, and elected representitives, are supposed to do what the people want. In my province, Saskatchewan, there are 14 federal ridings. 12 of these have Conservative MPs. So one may rightfully think that these MPs are supposed to do what the farmers say. As you may know, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) board of directors consists of 15 seats. In the last election of these seats (Dec. 2006), 8 of the seats were filled with people who support the monopsony (supposedly it is technically not a monopoly) of the CWB. Therefore, it is quite clear that the majority of Western grain farmers support the monopsony of the CWB. But yet the majority of Saskatchewan MPs do not. So yet again, Conservatives do not listen to their constituents.

The Conservatives, of course, do not support the current, single-desk system of the CWB. They want to keep the board, but let farmers market their own grain to whomever they want. See, the CWB has pretty much the same system as labour unions do: strength in numbers. I am quite sure that General Mills does not put the best interest of farmers before their profits. If there is no 'union', they can quite easily exploit the farmers. But with there is a 'union', either they can buy Canadian wheat, or they cannot buy Canadian wheat. And if they choose to buy it (and they need to in order to grow sales), they must pay a fair price to farmers. It is a truly wonderful and remarkable system.

In defense of Chuck Strahls' (Minister of Agriculture) schemes to destroy single-desk, they say that they have a "mandate" by Canadians to do so. I have a few points against that. 1. Canada-wide, they only got 36% of the popular vote. 2. In Saskatchewan, they only got 48.9% of the vote (not quite a majority) 3. I am sure farmers do not cast their vote based on one issues 4. When farmers do cast their vote on one issue (CWB election, 2006), they say that they want to keep the current system.

So why are the Conservatives against the Wheat Board? Well, it could be that they just are anti-family farm, don't listen to Canadians, are in a trance that they have a mandate, or, most likely of the four, they favor large, American corporations to individual Canadians. As we all well know, American corporations and the Bush administration have long been foes of the CWB. They have released reports and whatnot, but the World Trade Organization has cleared the CWB from wrong-doing. In other words, the Americans want the destruction the the Board, therefore so do the Conservatives. Do you see what is wrong with this picture? Canadian Wheat Board must be a pretty good organization, even American farmers think that it is a good idea, and they would like the CWB to also have jurisdiction south of the border.

To conclude, I would like to give my full support to those farmers and their coalitions that are fighting to keep the Wheat Board alive. Keep on fighting!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Homelessness and Affordable Housing

Homelessness is an ever growing crises. According to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, there are currently 150,000 to 250,000 people living on the streets. I probably don't have to explain to you the problems that this brings about, such as crime, and most notably, health problems. There has been at least four homeless people who have died on the streets of Alberta this year alone.

In a book I read awhile ago about affordable housing, there supposedly is a plan out there called the 1% solution. The reason it is called this is simple: the supporters of it want the federal government to give an additional 1% of their budget (about $2 billion) to affordable housing. This probably won't give every single homeless person a place to live, but it would significantly help. And the great part is that it is only 1% more. The book also explains how there used to be (pre - '70s/80s) much more government money for affordable housing, but so many Conservative and Liberal governments cut funding for it. I also remember that (I think under a Liberal government), a plan was created with other governments across Canada (provincial and municipal) to pay for affordable housing. But the problem was that the feds gave little (if any) money for it! They just agreed it was a good idea.

In the last budget, Minister Flaherty announced a higher income tax rate for people who earned less than $36,400. Their tax rate is now 15.5%, .5% higher than before. While this will only cost them about $180 more per year, that money could be used to, say, buy their kids new clothes and Christmas presents. This budget also lowered the GST by 1%. And seeing that necessities like groceries are not taxed, this will not benefit low-income people, it will benefit people who buy things like computers and TVs. In other words, the people who are not homeless, and can always feed their family enough. Do you see how this works? The Conservatives are giving to the rich the money they are taking from the poor. And this does not even take into effect the several other benefits now such as the child fitness tax credit and the 2% drop of corporate taxes.

My point from the above is this: the government is giving so many benefits for people who don't need it, but they are not giving enough to the people who really need it. The cost of all the tax incentives could have been used to pay for social programs (lots of which have been cut by them) and affordable housing. In fact, the GST cut will cost an estimated $3.5 billion this year, and $5.17 billion in the next year. Remember the 1% solution? This could have been easily done if there had not been this GST cut.

In the next election, let's show the Conservatives (and the Liberals) what Canadians believe in, because either they don't know, or they're just missing a little something called compassion.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Income Trusts

I know that you are probably sick by now of constantly hearing about income trusts, but I found a very good article on a blog that also talks about ethical investing.

For your convianence, if you, after reading this, are intent on buying an ethical mutual fund, check out Ethical Funds.

Spring Election; Liberals Gaining Strength

There has been a lot of talk about a spring election. Stéphan Dion, the new Liberal Leader, has announced that he and his party are getting ready for a spring election. Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc leader, is also considering introducing a non-confidence motion over the war in Afghanistan. So if the Liberals and the Bloc decided that they both want an election, even if the NDP sided with the Conservatives, the government would fall. And as Harper has said many times, he will not help take down his own government.

While I would like to see the Conservatives get kicked out of office, I strongly believe that an election is not wanted whatsoever right now by Canadians. And I predict that whoever were to vote for that potential motion would see a drop in votes. We have had elections in 2004 and 2006, and adding a 2007 election will be anything but good for the nation.

UPDATE: Stéphan Dion has said that he would not support a Bloc motion to take down the government over Afghanistan, and without Liberal support, the motion cannot pass.
Also, Jack Layton (NDP Leader) said in his Dec. 18th press conference that he would like to see this Parliament work for Canadians, giving the impression he does not want an election very soon.

Recent polls have indicated that the Liberal party is on the rise across Canada. Supposedly, they have the support of 35% of voters, while the Conservatives' have 32%, and the NDP 12%. The poll has a margin of error of up to 3.1% (Decima Research Poll, Dec. 7-11, 2006). If you adjust that, the Conservatives could actually be tied with the Liberals, and the NDP could be only .4% lower than the official results of the last election. And it has to be remembered that only 1,025 people were polled, out of the 23 million registered electors. Canadians can see, better than what this poll tells us, what the Conservatives are doing to this country, and they can also see the progress the NDP has made in this session.

Letter to the Editor

I thought I'd post my Letter to the Editor (The Star Phoenix) that was published December 4th, 2006.

The recent announcement by the Conservative government that they want to fully pay off the national debt by 2021 will not benefit the majority of Canadians.
Of course, I believe that having low or no debt is preferable, but it matters on how you reach that goal. "Canada's New Government" has significantly cut programs in the short time they have been in power, just so they can lower the debt.
These were programs that benefited Canadians quality of life and our economy, because you need educated, healthy people to have a strong economy.
On the Department of Finance's own website, it states that "The Government is committed to keeping the growth of program expenses below the growth of the economy over the medium term." How can we as Canadians accept that our government is "committed" to cutting programs for Canadians, for the only goal of lowering the debt? A parent doesn't cut piano lessons or quality of food for the children so they can pay off their line of credit.
If Minister Flaherty was in Saskatoon, I'd like to tell him one thing: A government is supposed to do what will benefit the vulnerable and average Canadians.

Friday, December 15, 2006

More Canadian Blues, Concert and Jazz music to be aired

The Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) has ruled that the minimum percentage of blues and jazz music aired by Canadian radio stations is to rise to 25% from 10% per broadcast week, and concert music (opera, musicals, etc.) to 20% from 10%.

What a delight to be able to have an increase in Canadian content on our radio stations. American artists have not just been popular in their country, but throughout the world, even in Far East Asia. But how many times have you seen a Canadian artist with that much success? Unfortunately, it is quite rare. Instead of supporting these world-wide, multi-millionaire entertainers, we need to support our fellow Canadians.

From this report, the CRTC also proposed a plan to get at least $3.5 million dollars from broadcasters to support Canadian artists and their development. This measure will get money from broadcasters by not basing the amount on their market share, but on that station's revenue. Again, what a great way to support developing Canadian artists.

An Elected Senate

An elected Senate. As Harper has been saying for the past day, "Finally, after 150 years, we will have true democracy" and the like. Obviously, as a Canadian, I believe in democracy, it is an amazing system. And having an elected Senate, compared to the status quo, is more democratic. But I'd like to ask these questions: What will be the real change for Canada's democratic system? Will this change be the best possible for the time that it will take, and will it even be the right thing to do? To start off, I will explain the Senate. The Senate is often called the chamber of "Sober Second Thought" and others may call it the chamber of "Sober, Un-accountable Thought". And if it is elected, what will it be? It will just take in all of the politics like in the House of Commons. The Senate will become just another thing that makes people hate politics. There will be more campaign and election costs, and candidates will have less workers as some will also be working for Senate candidates. But to my main point: The Senate will become just another House of Commons. The Senate will no longer have a purpose, such as the chamber of sober second thought. With no real purpose, and more hassles for government and Canadians, Harper's plan is pointless.

So what should we actually do? I can guess what you think my stance is, as it is also the NDP stance, but it makes sense: Abolish the Senate altogether. If we stay with the status quo, we have an unelected chamber that is technically higher and more powerful than the elected body of representatives. And if we follow Harper's plan, we have a meaningless, resource-using legislative body, it would be just like having two phones in a very small room that are connected to the same line, but you have to pay the full phone service price for each of them. But back to abolishing the Senate. The Senate's framework or intended purpose is no longer applicable to society. It has always been that Senators needed to own $4,000 of property in order to become a Senator. This was created long ago to ensure that only the middle-high and high class of people could become Senators. While this restriction no longer prohibits most Canadians to become a Senator, the principle is still there. There was an incident in the '90s where a nun was appointed to the Senate, but long ago she took a vow of poverty, thus she did not have $4,000. To resolve this, someone transfered $4000 of land to her, but this law was never repealed.

Finally to my last point. The Senate, even when it is elected, can delay and hold up government business. Say if 'A' party won the majority of the seats in the House of Commons, thus becoming government, but even though 'A' (a right-wing party) party won the House, 'B' (centre-left) party has a majority in the Senate. Then how could laws by the Prime Minister and the government ever come to be? For the duration of that Parliament, very few things that could benefit (or harm) Canadians would become law. And seeing that the House jurisdictions are smaller than Senate jurisdictions, the House more accurately reflects the people.

In our country, we need to be progressive. But, we have to make sure that our changes are for the better, and that they keep business flowing smoothly. And these are things that Harper needs a lesson in.