Archive for ‘News and Politics’

June 25, 2013

7 Reasons to Visit Calgary After the Floods

white hats in calgary

Calgarians are known for their community spirit, which has been on display since the disastrous flooding began in Alberta. ( file photo by Julia Pelish)

[Article and poem first published in on June 22, 2013]

From Beyond the Wake

Water, the menace,
knows no prejudice,
It slaloms, it stampedes,
A cavalry of catastrophe,
Brimming over with haste

Buck up in its face,
Flood back human grace,
A stoic swell,
A dam of pride
unbreakable by fate,
rising mountainous

from beyond the wake

When your friends are in trouble and you’re far away there’s only so much support you are able to give. With CalgaryCanmore and so many other Alberta communities in grief, we wanted to do what we can at to help. We are trying to ignite a Kickstarter campaign that will complement the Red Cross efforts to aid flood victims in need of financial assistance. But Kickstarter is only based in the United States and requires compliance with American tax law, so we are searching for colleagues south of the border to assist in getting it started. (Email us if you or someone you know can help.) Hey, if Gawker can raise $200,000 for a video of a fat mayor (allegedly) smoking from a crack pipe, there has to be enough human decency to raise the equivalent amount to help good people in need.

In the meantime, as we observe the historic flood and the damage it has done to this marvellous city and its neighbours, I wanted to list the great many things to celebrate about Calgary and southern Alberta. It’s a reminder of why you should visit, once the water has receded and the restoration has begun.

1. The People

When you first hear the term “Western Hospitality,” it’s easy to think it’s a marketing ploy. If you’re a journalist, you will even be keen to disprove the term or at least scrutinize its claim. Travel to Calgary a few times and you realize Western Hospitality is real and it’s real because the people of the city take the idea of welcoming visitors to heart. No city of 1 million people can match Calgary’s level of friendliness and gracious spirit.

2. The Calgary Stampede

Few massive events live up to their hype the way the Stampede does. It is everything you would expect from a giant, two-week-long celebration — and then some, as the free pancake breakfasts, early-morning cocktail parties and late-night music concerts combine to bombard you with incentives to come back. The Stampede is the highest-grossing festival in Canada, bringing in more than $170 million in economic activity each year. Its importance to the community is immense and why everything possible will be done to salvage it this year. [See 2012 Calgary Stampede coverage on]

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May 26, 2013

Explaining Canada’s tourism strategy


Ottawa hosted this year’s Rendez-vous Canada industry conference. (Julia Pelish/

[This column was first published in on May 17, 2013, and later appeared on the Huffington Post.]

OTTAWA, ONTARIO — The Canadian Tourism Commission has come under unwanted and ignorant criticism this month. The truth is, any of us would be hard-pressed to find a government agency that manages to do more with less than the CTC. Its budget has been slashed by 20% to $58.5 million from the 2012 level of $72 million, a sum that had also been reduced from previous years. Yet, the Canadian tourism industry grew 4.2% in 2012, increasing its revenue to $81.9 billion. A $100-billion target has been set for 2015.

“We’re the little engine that could,” Michele McKenzie said on May 3 in Cape Breton while attending that Nova Scotia region’s annual tourism conference and she underscored that sentiment a week later at Rendez-vous Canada, a yearly gathering of Canada’s tourism and trade industry.

In the face of relentless competition and staggering budget cuts, the CTC has deployed a strategy that involves provincial and municipal tourism boards and agencies focusing on traditional markets like the United States. On the federal level, the CTC is pushing all of its efforts toward attracting consumers from Brazil, India, China and Australia — nations where revenue potential is immense. The economies of Brazil, India and China are going to continue to grow and their citizens are will travel farther afield, and Canada has an opportunity to ensure consistent travel from those populations. Australians are used to long flights and the ascent in value of their currency allows many of them to fulfill the dream of venturing to Canada.

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October 19, 2011

On Galapagos Islands, humans bring wealth and danger

santa cruz galapagos islands

Boat activity is bustling on the shores of Santa Cruz, the most populous of the Galapagos Islands. (Julia Pelish photo)

PUERTO AYORA, SANTA CRUZ, GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR — Yvonne Mórtola walks down Avendida Charles Darwin with a frown. One white Toyota pick-up truck after another passes down this two-lane asphalt road in the most populous city of the Galapagos Islands. Engine revs and muffler coughs have suffocated the sounds of nature that so signify these protected islands off the Ecuadorean coast. No longer is it easy for Santa Cruz residents like Mórtola to stand on a street corner of Avendida Charles Darwin and hear waves lapping, finches’ chirps or sea lion barks.

“This used to be a dirt road,” says Mórtola, a top-level Ecuador National Parks Service naturalist who works as a guide for tour operator Ecoventura. “I used to be able to throw a Frisbee to my dog down here, but I can’t do that anymore. It just isn’t safe on the road.”

While 97 percent of the islands are protected by the parks, it’s what’s happened to the other 3 percent that worries Mórtola and others concerned about the environment on the Galapagos. In the 1990s, migrants arrived looking to get in on one of the world’s oddest commodity booms. Call it the Great Sea Cucumber Rush. The marine animal that helps clean oceans of bacteria, algae and waste is highly coveted by the Chinese and Japanese as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. With an abundance of sea cucumbers, the Galapagos became a focal point for the trade. Fishermen could get $1 per sea cucumber and reports said that 10,000 sea cucumbers would be shipped daily from the Galapagos. Those fishermen could sometimes catch in an hour enough sea cucumbers with an equivalent value of a week’s worth of traditional fishing.

Mórtola, who has lived on the islands for more than a quarter-century, says she remembers prostitutes on Santa Cruz earning so much money during the height of the boom that “they would light their cigarettes with $10 bills.”

The population of Santa Cruz rose nearly four-fold, reaching 10,000 before the government passed a unique policy called the Galapagos Resident Law, which states that no one can live on the islands unless they were born there, married someone who resides there or could prove they worked there prior to 1998, the year the law was enacted. Still, the population of Santa Cruz has continued to grow, reaching 16,500 as of the last census and Puerto Ayora is at 12,000 people. In recent years, the government has been expelling thousands of illegal, undocumented migrants from the island.

“You look at Santa Cruz, and it used to be a very nice community,” says Pablo Jaramillo, the captain of Eric, Ecoventura’s recently renovated yacht, and a resident of San Cristobal, the second most populous island (8,000). “But there are too many people now. You do not even know your neighbour in some cases.”


More lush than the other 12 main islands in the chain, Santa Cruz is home to the Darwin Research Station, where the giant tortoise population is being rehabilitated in a huge undertaking that involves such careful incubation of eggs that researchers can create the sex they want by manipulating the temperature. When the incubator is set to 29.5 Celsius degrees, females will be born. At 28 Celsius, a male will hatch. With the species needing to grow, more females are being created at the station.

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October 15, 2011

Occupy Toronto fails to deliver practical solutions

occupy toronto protest october 15

Plenty of signs filled St. James Park during the Occupy Toronto protest.

Occupy Toronto is a dud, so far.

At 1 p.m. on Saturday, about 1,500 people were stationed in St. James Park, and I’d say one-third of them had to have been media types. More cameras were in hand than at a TIFF after-party as protesters carried signs declaring doom for banks and unity for the 99 percent of the world that doesn’t control the majority of wealth.

The photo opportunities were plenty. The advancement of practical solutions? Not so much. From the handful of people I spoke to in the park, the perception seems to be that workers need to take over the economic system, a view that’s out of step with the beliefs of most Canadians and one that shows a lack of acceptance that extreme socialism has failed just as the extreme form of capitalism practiced in the United States has collapsed.

At the north end of the park behind St. James Cathedral, one speaker after another took to a microphone to deride an economic system that benefits a small number of oligarchs who have made it nearly impossible for all others to attain an education or a home without being shackled with debt. Yet, calls for cannibalizing the rich, re-distributing the wealth through thievery and usurping Parliament Hill don’t do anything to solve the problem. Worthwhile prescriptions for the economy were present by some speakers, including a man who pointed out that Argentina bounced back from a disaster far worse than what the U.S. and even Greece is going through. In 2002, 60 percent of Argentines were living below the poverty line, now the level is 30 percent (it’s 9.4 percent in Canada) and unemployment is at less than 8 percent. Argentina’s rebound wasn’t simple, but it provides evidence that the world is not doomed and that economies do resuscitate, even if the rebound is painfully slow.

occupy toronto st james park

This guy said he was collecting money for the homeless, not to get a better fake Stanley Cup.

What no one at Occupy Toronto and few in the global movement have addressed, however, is the real threat to wages in the western world: The shift in economic clout to China and India. What do you do when suppliers divert their focus from you to a market on the other side of the world? You watch jobs go where the consumers are, you see salaries shrink here while over there they rise, you discover your skills need to compete against billions of people and not just whoever’s in your local job market.

That hard-to-locate hope everyone in the Occupy Together movement wants for future generations exists in Shanghai and Goa. The truth is, the folks at St. James Park who don’t like capitalists are learning that capitalists care less and less for us too. We don’t have the projected spending power of China and India. Our best chance for the future is to accept that we must service those two countries with energy, agriculture and technology.

All the Guy Fawkes in Toronto, New York and London can band together and tear down capitalism and it still won’t change the law of supply and demand.


It’s cold, windy and wet, which probably dampened the number of people who came to the protest on Saturday. The other cause for the anemic numbers, though, has to do with the relative health of the Canadian economy.

“We don’t have financial institutions in Canada that failed, that cost taxpayers money,” finance minister Jim Flaherty told the CBC. “The situation in Canada, thank goodness, is better than that and our unemployment rate is significantly better than that of the Americans.”

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September 8, 2011

2012 U.S. Presidential Election: Huntsman wins Republican debate, no one will notice

It’s an indictment of American politics and the conservative movement that the Republican candidate who speaks the most sensibly is running at 1 percent in the polls. Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to China under Barack Obama for nearly two years, displayed a level head, candor and a global perspective during Wednesday’s GOP candidates’ debate held in Simi Valley, California.

Jon Huntsman

Jon Huntsman, a reasonable man, which means he has no chance of being president.

For that, his views will be buried in the majority of news accounts because his name is not Rick Perry or Mitt Romney. This debate was essentially set up as a boxing match that pitted the governor of Massachusetts against his counterpart from Texas. Such a dramatic plot buildup left no room for networks or commentators to manoeuvre away from that script. If this was coverage of a sport, an underdog could win with a definitive moment. Multi-candidate political debates rarely have knock-out punches, though, and with eight people on stage and less than two hours of coverage Huntsman and the non-headliners had little opportunity for a game-changing achievement.

Huntsman impressed, nevertheless, answering some questions that showed he’s a right-winger with a conscience. He spoke about the “humanity” that should be involved in immigration policy, the tragedy and “un-American” nature of the “fortress security mentality” the country has adopted since 9/11, and, most distinctly of all, backed science full-heartedly when some of his peers continue to stubbornly declare their disbelief in climate change and evolution.

“We can’t run from science, we can’t run from mainstream conservative philosophy,” Huntsman said, commenting on Republicans’ need to appeal to mainstream, independent voters, millions of whom are educated enough to know humans and velociraptors didn’t co-exist and that extreme flooding and other bizarre weather patterns just may be a hint that something big is happening with the planet. “If we’re going to win in 2012, we have to make sure we have someone who can win the numbers.”

And, yes, it was nice to hear a Republican politician point to Canada and say we are an example to follow.

“Why is it that Vancouver has the fastest-growing real estate market in the world? It’s because they let people in legally and it lifts all boats,” Huntsman, the former Utah governor, said during the immigration discussion.

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July 18, 2011

On Nelson Mandela Day, remembering a Robben Island visit

Nelson Mandela cell on Robben Island

Tourists flock to Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, a ferry ride away from Cape Town. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article about Nelson Mandela’s overwhelming presence in South Africa was published in the Toronto Star in June 2010, just prior to the start of the World Cup. Here it is again, on Mandela’s 93rd birthday.]

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—On top of everything else, Nelson Mandela could probably provide the most compelling argument there is against capital punishment. Convicted of treason and terrorism against South Africa in 1964, Mandela would likely have been executed were it not for international pressure to spare his life. The thought of a world without Mandela and his astounding magnanimity is sad; the thought of a South Africa without him is enough to cause a shiver.

Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 with every reason to chase vengeance. Instead, he chose a divine path of forgiveness and reconciliation that lifted the country out of apartheid and showed the world the power of grace. Now, his name has become an industry in South Africa.

You can see where he was born, the home where he lived prior to his arrest, the location where he was taken into custody, the university that bears his name, some of the houses he now owns and, of course, the place with which he is most identified: Robben Island, the 12-square-kilometre dot of sand and limestone where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration.

The island off the coast of Cape Town became known as Mandela University, because the lawyer would educate both inmates and prison guards. Tours that include a round-trip ferry ride and a discussion by a former prisoner cost 400 rand (about $55). From those ex-inmates, you learn about the degradation of apartheid that occurred inside the prison too, where the subordination of black political prisoners was constantly reinforced. Prisoners who were Indian or mixed race, for example, would be given six ounces of meat with their dinner, the blacks five.

Mandela’s prison cell attracts a crowd, making it the only lock-up in the world people are eager to get into. They can’t; its bars remain shut but visitors can step into a similarly cramped pen a few cells down the tight hallway that fills with echoes. Just about everyone who walks in spreads their arms to get a sense of the space. You’ve been in walk-in closets that are larger.

“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

When you leave Robben Island, you can stop at the gift shop to purchase Mandela merchandise, including a “presidential collection” line of shirts similar to those he wore during his presidency. Another set of fashion blares “466/64”, his prison number. It indicates he was the 466th prisoner to arrive on Robben Island in 1964.

While Mandela or his lawyers approved the sale of goods at Robben Island, not everything tied to his life has his support. On the contrary, he’s often said his name is not for sale. But as his legacy builds the potential for him to be exploited grows.

“There’s a lot of people in the country making money off of his name and he’s not seeing any of it, his children’s foundation isn’t getting any of it,” says Tanya Kotze, owner of Africa Direct, one of the country’s leading travel agencies. “I wish they would let the old man be.”

No one seems ready to let go of him, however. South Africans are delighted with even a glimpse of Mandela these days, when politicians are carrying on in ways that would be laughable if the nation wasn’t on a precipice.

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June 17, 2011

One man’s crusade to heal Canada’s health-care woes

When the NDP made getting more foreign-trained doctors practicing in Canada a part of their election platform, Jerry Green felt a sense of victory. Green has been advocating for federal and provincial governments to correct what he believes are injustices in the form of the onerous impediments foreign-trained doctors contend with in order to practice in Canada and the continued lack of accessible health care for many Canadians.

Green, a Torontonian who is a Canadian-trained doctor, has been fighting to get back his full medical licence for nearly 25 years. He says he lost the licence in 1987 “for prescribing vitamins instead of drugs” and years later, after many requests and battles, received an educational licence from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).

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June 1, 2011

Lots of political moxy at Spirit of Hope in Toronto

Alan Dershowitz and David Gergen at Spirit of Hope panel discussion

Alan Dershowitz and David Gergen got into it at Spirit of Hope panel discussion in Toronto on Tuesday night.

David Gergen has a lot of fans — me included — because his even-tempered demeanour only seems to get broken when it meets blatant hypocrisy. On Tuesday night, Gergen, the CNN political analyst, winced and shook his head and appeared to be struggling with a virtual straitjacket as he forced himself to stay seated while colleague Alan Dershowitz spouted some bewildering balderdash in front of an audience at Beth Tzedec Congregation at 1700 Bathurst Street.

Gergen and Dershowitz, colleagues at Harvard University, were joined on the Spirit of Hope panel by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama’s former White House press secretary. The night featured some fascinating discussions and revelations.

Woodward, whose recent book is “Obama’s Wars,” thinks “the Arab Spring has been misnamed. It’s more like the Arab Convulsion” and it could be “this president’s 9/11.” The situation is so tenuous, he said, that it threatens to dominate the remainder of the Obama administration’s first term, which would be damaging considering the president and his staff need to concentrate on the U.S. economy. Gibbs, who left the White House in February but remains a staunch Obama supporter and adviser, told the audience of about 2,000 that the president has had more close, private conversations with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with any other world leader since taking office. Gergen said the killing of Osama bin Laden “blunted the opposition argument that Obama was weak on foreign policy” so much that it could win a second term as long as the economy shows some improvement. “Obama got Osama. The Democrats are going to shout that at their convention.” And Dershowitz revealed that Netanyahu changed “the speech he wanted to give to Congress” last week in response to a perceived slight in an address Obama gave announcing his support for returning Israel to the 1967 boundaries that divide it from Palestine.

Dershowitz’s comments all evening seemed politically motivated rather than analytical and while that won him applause from the audience, it rankled the other panelists, who each took turns correcting his errors. Dershowitz, who had been asked by Netanyahu to be an Israeli ambassador, even went so far as to say, “The United States can always count on the support of Israel but Israel cannot always count on the support of the United States.” Fact is, the U.S. gives at least $3 billion annually in economic and military aid to Israel.

Gergen was continuously agitated by Dershowitz’s comments and in his closing remarks at the event sponsored by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies called for more conciliatory language from both American and Israeli politicians and commentators. Otherwise, he said, Israel could continue to lose support globally, leaving just Canada and the United States on its side. “That wouldn’t be good for Israel and it would be a concern for North America,” he told the attendees, which included moderator Heather Riesman, founder and president of Indigo Books & Music.

With the United Nations General Assembly ready to pass a motion in September that will recognize an independent Palestinian state, the Middle East tensions are only going to ratchet up it seems. But Woodward had a more dire concern.

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