When it comes to politics, let companies be neutral

First published at Global News on March 23, 2018.

It used to be controversial for a company to weigh in on a political issue. Now, it’s expected.

It’s an all too familiar trend. A gang of noisy activists calls on a company to take a stand on an issue or end a relationship with a vendor. The company, wanting to make the problem go away, gives in, thus alienating another group. The only winners are, well, the noisy activists who started it all.

The latest casualty is Domino’s Pizza, which was dragged into Canada’s pipeline politics after an anti-Trans Mountain Pipeline protester shared a photo of a stack of pizzas with a caption thanking Domino’s for its support of Camp Cloud, the makeshift tent city on British Columbia’s Burnaby Mountain.

After supporters of Canada’s oil industry pounced on Domino’s, the company investigated and couldn’t find any evidence that a franchisee in the area made any such donation. Even if one had, it would hardly be tantamount to a company-wide endorsement of the cause.

Regardless, momentum was building for the Domino’s-hates-oil side of things. When the company spoke up last Sunday, it was in support of the oil industry.

“Although we fully support everyone’s right to their opinion and free speech, we do not endorse the protest movement as we recognize the importance of the Canadian oil patch industry and the economic impact the industry has on all Canadian citizens,” a statement on the Domino’s Canada Facebook page said. “Most importantly, we offer our full support to the dedicated, hard-working men and women assigned to the ‘patch’ who often times face very difficult conditions. Your efforts are truly appreciated.”

Within minutes, Domino’s became a favourite shop of Albertans, a flood of whom pledged to start making orders. But then the winds shifted again, as anti-oil activists fought back, slamming Domino’s on its own Facebook page and vowing to get their (gas-oven-baked) pizzas from elsewhere.

Further complicating matters, Domino’s deleted its Facebook post, and the activist who posted the initial photo clarified that the pizzas were not given for any political reasons, but rather they were part of an unclaimed order that was given away.

I’ve no doubt that in the midst of this there was an executive at the Windsor, Ont., headquarters for Domino’s Canada who knew nothing about pipelines and regretted waking up that morning.

In siding with Canadian oil, Domino’s picked the path of least resistance — and what I believe to be the correct position — but it should concern any business leaders that the company was forced to make such a determination because of one person’s Facebook post in the first place.

Let me be clear in saying companies have the right to take whatever political stances they want, just as consumers have the right to respond however they please. But that doesn’t mean we should revel in a culture in where this is the expectation.

When activists demand that companies sever ties with a vendor, stop advertising on a particular platform, or condemn a political position, the damage goes beyond simply generating public relations nightmares. The practice is rooted in the flawed belief that companies — which, at their most basic level, serve a transactional role in society — must exist with consciences to be legitimate.

It isn’t just about being political, but landing on the “right” side of the issue — despite there being no such thing as a consensus on the contentious issues that trigger these episodes.

If some CEO takes aim at something near and dear to my heart, I may decide to put my money elsewhere, but why must I agree with a company’s management on things like domestic energy production and tax reform?

If a company wants to engage in moral or political battles by donating to political parties, or refusing service to people of certain belief systems or lifestyles, let them. But stop pigeonholing brands that don’t want to play that game.

Celebrities are faced with the same pressures. Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift have refused to engage in political conversations, and have been attacked for making such decisions.

Guardian editorial chided Swift for not preaching politics to her fans, concluding that she must be a “musical envoy for the president’s values” because she hadn’t chimed into the chorus of celebrity condemnations of Donald Trump.

Activist culture has taken neutrality off the table. This idea that taking a side is everyone’s duty is found in the words of Desmond Tutu, who once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

In times of genuine oppression, I agree. But not every contentious issue is a matter of oppression and injustice. Sometimes, it’s just political disagreement, in which cases neutrality should be regarded as a virtue from any player whose job is not to litigate these matters.

We’re seeing an expansion of the second-wave feminist edict that “the personal is the political,” which rose to popularity in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, there’s little that isn’t political, or at least ripe to be politicized.

These activists are looking for fights. And if they don’t find a reason to fight they will generously provide one.

Companies would be well-suited to stop taking the bait.

Behold, the return of Ford Derangement Syndrome

First published at Global News on March 13, 2018.

Doug Ford hadn’t even been officially announced as the Ontario PC party’s new leader before media hysteria ensued.

Contrary to what the naysayers predicted in the lead-up to Saturday’s reveal in Markham, Ford emerged as the victor. And many in the media are displeased.

It’s hardly a shock that the Toronto Star — which spared no effort in its attempts to dethrone Ford’s late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford — isn’t a fan, though it was amusing to see how the paper twisted itself in knots over the new PC leader.

The newspaper’s editorial said he was a byproduct of a “flight to the right” in the PC party (as though it’s revolutionary for what’s supposed to be a conservative party to choose a conservative leader). “So all we have to go on is sloganeering and attitude,” and “simplistic rage” against the elites, the editorial determined.

The Star’s editorial board members listed a few of what they felt were Ford’s objectionable policies, before concluding that he doesn’t have any policies.

In fact, their real issue is that he doesn’t embody their policies.

A CBC analysis warned readers in the headline that Ford would bring “Disruption, distraction and dysfunction.”

The most bizarre response to Ford’s win was a tweet from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, featuring a photo of a laughing Doug Ford with a fire alarm edited in. The photo was captioned, “We’re gonna need your help,” with a link to a fundraising page.

On the page, there was no information about Ford, nor his apparent secret plan to erode civil liberties. A CCLA representative was unavailable for an interview to explain.

Usually, when fear-mongering about politicians kicks into gear, we at least get a half-true sentiment to fuel it. With Ford, the “independent, non-partisan” CCLA thinks it’s enough to say, “Look at him, now give us money to stop him.”

There’s a very simple explanation: like the Toronto Star and CBC, the CCLA is suffering from Ford Derangement Syndrome.

It’s a revival of the condition that swept Toronto during Rob Ford’s mayoralty, and is now spreading across the province.

It follows the path of Trump Derangement SyndromeHarper Derangement Syndrome, and, of course, the original, Bush Derangement Syndrome, coined by columnist Charles Krauthammer and defined as “acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.”

It’s when loathing of a conservative supersedes any sensible discussion about their policies.

Ford’s critics are unconcerned — or even unaware — of his policies. They simply don’t like him.

Conservatives and liberals alike often don’t have much time or patience for each other’s worldviews. The major difference is how the left exhaustingly tries to reshape and redefine conservatism on its terms.

It’s why we see commentators asking, “Why can’t all conservatives be like _____?” ad nauseam.

Michael Chong was a favorite in this category in last year’s federal Conservative leadership field. In the PC race, it was Christine Elliott, who has always been a more moderate figure in the conservative movement.

There is another criterion that endears conservatives to the left, however — irrelevance. When you cease to be a force, the hatred and derangement subside.

Ford’s ideological conservatism is disliked as much as his potential for victory is.

Take a look at the mea culpa columns and op-eds from the last couple of years about George W. Bush. After facing the left’s and the media’s wrath for the better part of the decade, Bush is now held up as a model conservative.

Ford, on the other hand, has a shot at leading Ontario. He could win or lose the election come June, so to say either outcome is a certainty is foolish.

If you want evidence of this, just take a look at Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells’ Jan. 29 tweet saying, “there is no chance Doug Ford will lead the Ontario Conservatives (sic). Suspense now is over whether he realizes this.”

Wells had a sense of humour about his inaccurate prediction, but the tweet illuminated a truth you’d think the media would have figured out by now — underestimate anti-establishment candidates at your own peril.

While comparisons between Doug Ford and Donald Trump may generally be weak and lazy, one similarity that does exist in both of them is the defiance of what the intelligentsia thought inevitable.

From Brexit to Donald Trump to Doug Ford, the left didn’t just advance a narrative that these outcomes were unlikely, but rather that they weren’t even within the realm of possibility.

And this will continue as Doug Ford seeks the job of Premier of Ontario. Ford Derangement Syndrome may, in fact, be his greatest asset in the upcoming election. When they don’t think he can win is when they stop fighting.

Vindication for foster parents subjected to Easter Bunny litmus test

First published at Global News on March 9, 2018.

Not wanting to make your kids believe in the Easter Bunny doesn’t disqualify you from being a parent, after all.

So says an Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling in a case involving former foster parents Derek and Frances Baars, and the Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton.

The Baarses had been fostering two sisters, aged three and four, for just shy of three months when the girls were taken and the foster home was closed by CAS. The episodes came after the foster parents refused to comply with a demand from a CAS caseworker to instill in the girls a belief in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

The devoutly Christian couple was celebrating all other aspects of the holidays — including the hunt for chocolate eggs — but wouldn’t lie about the mythical figures associated with them. As a kid, I cared less about who delivered the chocolate than I did about the fact that there was chocolate, but CAS had a different view.

While explaining to your kids that Santa and the Easter Bunny make annual house calls may be an innocent enough lie, it is a lie nonetheless. And parents are under no legal obligation to tell it. So why should foster parents be?

The only relevant questions should have been whether the Baarses were able and willing to care for these girls, and provide a home for them. They exceeded all requirements in the application process, and it’s worth noting that their faith beliefs — including their beliefs about the Easter Bunny — were known to the agency when they were approved to run a foster home.

What should have been about stability for children became an ideological litmus test about a lagomorphic humanoid confectioner.

That litmus test, we now know, is unconstitutional.

In an interview on my show, Derek Baars said the decision by CAS was rooted in “the idea that the government has this hold over you as to what you may or may not — and actually what you must say — in your home.”

The court ruled that the Baars’ constitutional religious freedoms had been violated because CAS effectively tied parenthood to a belief system, irrespective of other aspects of care that are inarguably more consequential.

Neither the Baarses nor the girls had any issue with the foster relationship, making it all the more egregious that CAS opted to create one.

“There is no doubt that there was a need for stability, permanency and care in (the sisters’) lives,” Justice Andrew Goodman wrote in his decision. “It is very clear from the evidence that the children were being cared for.”

Goodman charged that in taking the children away, CAS “contributed to the turmoil these children had already faced in their short lives,” saying that in the choice between whether the Easter Bunny or permanency was more important. “The Society very clearly chose the Easter Bunny.”

The children’s agency attempted to justify its seizure of the children by claiming it was enforcing the wishes of the girls’ birth mother. Despite looking through all of the caseworkers’ notes, the judge found no evidence that the mother had ever indicated any preference — let alone a strong one — about holiday myths.

It really appears that a CAS worker went to extraordinary lengths to impose her own will on two loving parents. And onto the next home for the girls.

Child protection is important, as is the need for a robust agency that can remove children from harm.

Though the court’s ruling on this case is encouraging, it still concerns me that a CAS worker can act on an inkling to “protect” children from something as benign as not believing in stories they’ll outgrow in a few years, regardless.

Would CAS have expected Jewish or Muslim foster parents — who don’t believe in or celebrate Christmas or Easter at all — to set up a Christmas tree and lay out Easter eggs? Are certain religious belief systems off-limits for foster parents entirely?

No one can argue there isn’t a need for foster parents, so alienating those with strong faith values is a poor step.

In fact, when I look at the families in my own circles who have fostered or adopted, all but one are religious. In most of these cases, it was their religious beliefs that compelled them to take on the role of foster parents in the first place.

Anyone who makes this sacrifice deserves better than what the Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton did to Derek and Frances Baars, whose lawsuit wasn’t about money, but rather about granting them a clean record and putting a guideline in place so this doesn’t happen to any other families in the future.

They hope to adopt in their new home in Edmonton. God bless them — and all foster parents.

$2,260 fine for helping cancer patients? Get stuffed, government

First published at Global News on March 1, 2018.

The target? A cancer survivor. The offence? Driving other cancer patients to treatment. The punishment? A $2,260 fine.

There’s nothing redemptive about the outcome of a sting operation by bylaw enforcement officers in London, Ont., last month.

And yes, you read that right — a sting operation.

Upon learning a 58-year old woman — herself a breast cancer survivor — had been driving cancer outpatients to appointments at St. Joseph’s Health Care London, the municipal government had to intervene.

According to the London Free Press, which broke the story, the unnamed woman started her service three years ago, citing a need to give back, and seeing people in her cancer program who didn’t have reliable transportation — especially for procedures involving sedation, like colonoscopies and endoscopies.

Patients pay only $12 for the service, which covers the roundtrip journey, as well as bottled water and the reassuring company of someone who’s been there. The woman, who has not been identified by name, even helps elderly people get situated into their homes, rather than kicking them out onto the curb like other paid services might.

But this is government we’re talking about, so let no good deed go unpunished.

Her tickets are for owning and operating an unlicensed vehicle for hire — the same laws used to target many UberX drivers. To the City of London, her charitable efforts are no different than starting a shuttle service out of the back of a Volkswagen Vanagon to ferry drunk students from bars to campus.

But this woman isn’t part of the nasty battle between Uber and the taxi industry — she’s a civic saint doing a service that government clearly can’t.

London’s head of bylaw enforcement wouldn’t agree to an interview. I wouldn’t either, if I were him. How do you sell that you’re keeping the streets clean and the people safe when the only one victimized by the entire ordeal is the woman ticketed by the government?

In a London Free Press story published Wednesday, London’s deputy mayor, Paul Hubert, said he understands bylaw officers followed a process, which usually involves officers issuing warnings before following through on charges. “I appreciate and applaud this woman’s desire to help, but there are other ways (that don’t run afoul of bylaws).”

Yet what makes this whole ordeal worse is the lengths to which the bylaw officers went to issue the tickets. One called the woman, pretending to have a colonoscopy appointment. This ruse is particularly ironic when one considers how these officers appear to be hellbent on telling good people to bend over.

After the trip, his colleague came over to the car and gave the tickets. During the journey, she offered words of comfort and support to the undercover bylaw cop, presumably as a cover for her evil ways.

These officers likely saw this whole episode as a victory.

I can only imagine the two sitting around a table in a drab City Hall office plotting away until the wee hours of the morning. Or, at least until 4:00 p.m., because, well, government.

I wonder how long it took to come up with the “Eureka!” moment of pretending to be a concerned patient in need of a cancer test. A minute spent on this was too long.

Thankfully, generous Londoners stepped up and raised the ticketed amount — and more — for the woman in just a few hours.

Not that right and wrong should be crowdsourced, but when I discussed this on my radio show, in the calls and emails that followed, I didn’t encounter a single voice sympathetic to the government. So it’s all the more deluded to me why London’s bylaw bureaucrats thought they were doing God’s work when they embarked upon this feat of entrapment.

How could the planning and execution of this go on without someone along the way realizing this wasn’t a menace on the city streets, but rather a woman delivering a vital service? So vital, in fact, that doctors at the hospital have spoken up to condemn the fine, knowing how many of its patients have benefited from the service. “From my point of view, she is providing a service to the hospital … It makes the hospital run more efficiently,” said Chris Vinden, who performs endoscopies and colonoscopies at St. Joseph’s.

It’s difficult to travel any substantive distance in London by Uber or taxi for $12 in a single direction, let alone round trip. Anyone with regular outpatient appointments could find themselves priced out of care, and existing volunteer services are already at capacity.

She wasn’t a problem, but a solution.

But worry not, because government is there to help us.

Like when a Montreal man was given a ticket for $149 for singing in his car.

Or when a man in Gatineau was fined $52 for leaving his car unlocked (because police were concerned his money would be taken, ironically).

Or when the owner of a cleaning company — also in London — was given three tickets, worth hundreds of dollars each, for smoking in his personal car, which was registered to his company but not a work vehicle.

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, and demonstrates government’s ability to create more chaos than it remedies, with reckless abandon.

Today’s bureaucrats would be well-suited to brush up on why Ronald Reagan once said, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” were the “nine most terrifying words in the English language.”

In the meantime, buzz off.

Thinking government can fix fake news is, well, fake news

First published at Global News on February 23, 2018.

If you don’t use the internet the way Justin Trudeau wants you to, you might just be fake news.

While “fake news” has become a rather ubiquitous punchline, the spread of it on social media has apparently become a priority for Canada’s Liberal government.

Just a few weeks after the Toronto Star reported that Trudeau threatened digital companies with regulation if they don’t curb fake news, Canada’s minister of democratic institutions has weighed in. In an interview with CBC, Karina Gould said companies have until the summer to get their acts together.

“My hope is that over the course of the spring that we have some more in-depth conversations with social media companies. We’ll have to see where those go and how we think they’re progressing,” she said. “If we don’t see something more robust in the next six months, then we need to take action.”

What action, she didn’t say. But even expecting digital giants to play along with this absurd exercise is government injecting itself where it doesn’t belong. There’s no place for the state in the Twitter accounts of the nation, one might say.

Gould didn’t say (and likely doesn’t know) what government is even capable of doing in this space. She did say that she feels “very uneasy with a government telling people what’s good and bad news,” in response to a proposal by the French government to ban publication of fake news.

At the same time, however, she called Germany’s approach — which involves threatening companies with hate speech laws — an “interesting” one. As we know, Germany has always excelled at striking a balance between government pressure and citizens’ rights.

I hope Gould’s inability to come up with a concrete solution to what her government sees as a growing threat ends the discussion, because this is one for media companies — social and traditional — and their users to sort out.

Those in the dot-com sector must protect the integrity of their platforms. So far, they’re failing. But the desire to let truth reign supreme by stopping the spread of misleading, or downright false, information, raises other concerns.

True and false may be black and white values, but “fake news” lacks a cohesive definition.

Are the Onion and its Christian counterpart the Babylon Bee — publishers of clever, poignant satire — fake news? How about biased, but fact-based publications like Press Progress on the left, and Canada Free Press on the right?

It’s disingenuous to put any of these in the same category as fly-by-night sites like EaglePatriotLiberty1776PaulRevere.com or RightWingersAreRacist.kkk.

This false equivalence was on display in a viral “False, misleading, clickbait-y and satirical ‘news sources’” Google Doc published last November by a Massachusetts communications professor. In it, legitimate conservative outlets like the Washington Examiner and Daily Caller were deemed “unreliable” while the unabashedly left-wing Huffington Post and Buzzfeed didn’t appear at all.

Can Justin Trudeau, or any politician for that matter, be trusted to discern what media are worthy of consumption?

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna tweeted last week that an opinion column she disliked, by the Toronto Sun’s Candice Malcolm, was “fake news.”

When a cabinet minister labels a critic “fake news” in the same month a colleague threatens companies that allow fake news, Canadians should be concerned.

How can the government regulate what it so woefully misrepresents?

Social media was supposed to be society’s great equalizer. No longer is speech limited to those with a corporate or state backing — everyone has a voice. Unsurprisingly, not every voice is worth hearing. But that’s the price of free speech. And it’s worth it.

I fail to see why government thinks it can do a better job at sanitizing the discussion than I can by simply clicking the “mute” button.

But the belief that Canada — which isn’t even in the top 10 countries when it comes to Facebook usage — can influence companies to solve this problem is a delusion of adequacy on the part of Trudeau. The government can make all the requests it wants, but Canada’s clout is limited.

If companies don’t comply, the government’s options are fairly limited: it could go after users who post items afoul of government policy or law; it could block access to sites, putting Canada on par with dictatorships like North Korea and China; or it could withhold advertising dollars from these companies.

Much as Trudeau may fancy China’s “basic dictatorship,” I hope imitation isn’t his form of flattery.

I wouldn’t mind the government axing its $7 million social media advertising budget for fiscal reasons alone, but it’s a dangerous game for government to start picking and choosing where to spend its money based on editorial bias.

Pretty soon, the only home for government propaganda will be The Toronto Star (and no, I’m not talking about the editorials.)

Misinformation may be a problem, but anyone who believes politicians can be the arbiters of truth is, themselves, a believer in fake news.