Thursday, November 19, 2015



The first time I heard this radio ad against illegal tobacco, I was driving through a suitable setting.
It was Alderville First Nation, where Highway 45 is lined with signs, often crudely lettered, about the cheap native cigarettes and tobacco products to be bought in all the outlets that form a deadly gauntlet.
The ad warned of an incredible fact, that is if you believe this province is law-abiding. One out of every three cigarettes sold in Ontario is illegal. And that is the foundation of the evil treasury that provides up to $75 million each year to fund, the ad says,  "the guns and drugs and gang violence we see on our streets every day."
Apparently only Panama has more illegal smokes than this province on this side of the Atlantic.
Drive from 401 into the Kawarthas and about 30 km. north of Coburg you find this Hades of cheap smokes. Just to the north is Roseneath, which features an antique carousel that I once enquired about buying for the Ex. But the main feature for everyone is bargains in smokes and gasoline.
 Only about one-third of the Mississauguas, around 325, live on the reserve at the east end of Rice Lake with the rest clustered along the highway. The strip attracts a lot of traffic because there are two service stations selling gas that is always at least a dime cheaper than in Toronto.  There used to be just one, which is cash only, but then the Esso outlet dropped its prices so it's one cent above its competitor.
 Unfortunately, the natives get it much cheaper than even that. They don't have to pay those government taxes, just like all the other tax breaks they get although there is a growing feeling that there should be a statute of limitation on making the victors pay eternally since that doesn't happen in most of the world.
The ads in the media, one featuring some acting about a gun death, are placed by something called the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco.  I really haven't dug into the outfits behind the coalition because I really don't care if it's cops, giant tobacco companies, governments and do-gooders because the cause is just.
Please don't get your knickers in a twist because I have had the temerity to mention native Canadians in connection with any crooked schemes to avoid taxes on tobacco.
I haven't sampled the tobacco wares of Alderville as to the prices, what taxes are charged or fiddled,  and the quality. But my friends who smoke certainly boast of the bargains there. And I assume there are a lot of people who keep mum about the real bargains to be had that slip under the government's tax radar because they don't want to screw up a good thing..
Unfortunately for the huge majority of natives who not only are not involved in this lucrative trade but hate those who are because the bad PR fallout hurts their causes, the evidence is overwhelming, from what Christie Blatchford unearthed in her great book about Caledon, and from what senior cops have told me, that much of the ugly civil disobedience by masked native activists  is supported financially by the underground factories that produce cartons for up to $20 when the legal cartons sell for nearly $90.
At those prices, I thank heaven that I was a non-driven smoker, so it wasn't that difficult to quit.  (Although I do miss my Brigham pipe and Cuban cigars  - but not Cohibas at the later prices) After all, apart from the cost, the evidence is iron-clad that smoking kills. And so, the ad says, do all the guns that gangs can buy because like the terrorists in Syria from oil, they have all the money they need from their black-market product.
I have no idea what proportion of the illegal cigarettes being sold around me come from native sources. One problem is that the Mounties and OPP are careful when talking about any of this because they just don't need the hassles from chiefs, politicians and the PC patrols.
 I have the wish, which I suspect will always be an illusion, that when I continue to drive Highway 45, which I do about 40 times a year, that those '"cheap smoke" signs will disappear in a year or two. (I also have another vain hope that those two service stations will no longer be pumping all that cheap gas for anyone who shows a native card. )
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimated a few years ago that up to a billion dollars annually is lost by federal and provincial jurisdictions by this avoidance of tobacco taxes.
Just imagine what our governments could do with that money. That also would be a billion that you and I wouldn't have to fork over in extra taxes. Of course in a Utopia, we wouldn't have to spend all those billions in health care looking after smokers.
This may be the only ad campaign I will support this year. In fact, I would welcome more of these ads, which really would be a first for me. And I suspect many Canadians agree, but not, of course, brazen smokers, and those quick to take offence who will say that this has nothing to do with any ethnic group.

Friday, November 13, 2015



There is nothing I treasure more than a great line from a show or a book or a speech. And for years I've been wanting to ask where this one came from.
It was in 2009 that The Rick Mercer Report telecast a wonderful stomach-churning segment that had Mercer push Rick Hansen and his wheelchair into a gorge at Whistler.
As the Man in Motion bounced up and down at the end of the bungee chord, he shouted from far below: "I can't feel my legs."
Surely all of Canada guffawed because all of Canada knows that Hansen can't feel his legs because he's been a paraplegic since that pickup truck accident nearly 50 years ago.
Hansen has been a member of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame since it began in 1993. As a member of the selection committee, I recall there was no debate about his induction because of his stalwart work as an activist and example.
Just as there was only approval when Mercer was proposed for the Hall this year because he has done many stories about people with disabilities. "I just stumbled on this amazing group of people who happen to make great television."
I asked Mercer whether he suggested that gag line after the launch. Or did a CBC producer or writer for the show? Was it a standard Hansen gag to put people at ease. Turns out that
Newfoundlanders never push and tell.
Mercer claims not to be a social advocate, that he has no altruistic reasons as he searches for what he says must be entertaining for his "comedy" show. But his love and respect for Paralympic sport has been a gold mine of useful publicity to educate the public and to encourage those locked in that wheelchair that there can be life after the accident.
Obviously he has fashioned a close relationship with Hansen, demonstrated by a program late in 2015 when he went sturgeon fishing with him for another Mercer Report.
The Internet was alive after that televised bungee stunt with disabled youth who had renewed hope they could make their lives better.
There's nothing like creation of a risky real adventure to make the point better than any lecture that medical setbacks can be conquered. Mercer does it routinely and deserves the honour.
(I think too of my cardiologist, Dr. Heather Ross, who demonstrates that her heart transplant patients can have a great life afterwards when she and the retired Thunder Bay firefighter in whom she installed a new heart travelled in the hostile environment of the Poles.)
The other inductees couldn't have been more different. Lauren Barwick is a determined paraplegic equestrian who has won more medal at major games than any other Canadian athlete. Bernard Glickstein is a passionate personal injury lawyer whose work for his clients extends far beyond the law.
What buoyed the three recipients at the 22nd induction luncheon, and the largest crowd ever for the annual event, was the realization that, in the words of a patron, Governor General David Johnston,  the stigmas associated  with physical disabilities "are slowly being erased thanks to the dedication of those in the hall of fame."
The good new days!

Thursday, November 12, 2015



There are a shrinking number of TV shows that I love to watch. The ingredients that attract me are the elevation of the overlooked, the challenging of myths, and the running of a sword of words through the pompous and politically correct.
Programs that feed new facts and approaches into my thinking are important too. I'm not looking for chewing gum for the mind, just time wasters with an obvious plot, but more substantial stuff.
So of course I'm a fan of 60 Minutes. And Bill Maher. Although the endless Republican debates have splashed my boredom with the tedious and endless American election on them too.
I like peering into the past with Downton Abbey, the fiction based on real issues of the West Wing, and the deadly leadership brawls of House of Cards and the British series that prompted it.
I have read every word of the Sherlock Holmes canon and find the modern variations fascinating when the writers don't get too clever.  Murdoch Mysteries is a gentler Canadian delight when I'm seeking escape, although the latest episode, with space suits and rockets and the PM trying to save New York, was cartoonish and slap dash, not one that we can be proud of when we taunt the Americans that they don't have an equivalent.
Towards his farewell on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney, with his outlandish eyebrows, was seen as a crank commentator who let  little things bug him too much. The young dismissed him as an old fart.
 He may have overdosed on trivial beefs, like counting the raisins in a box of raisin bran and announcing  the cereal company was ripping us off. Yet I loved that stuff which he made a commentary of the times.
 I confess that as a columnist, I would save up my pet peeves and the cheating of companies, say banks with their gouging charges, and unleash them in one column of indignation.
I really didn't give a damn whether readers loved that stuff or didn't keep reading. It was a safety valve on my sanity.
 Not that companies like Bell or Rogers like you challenging them when they cut corners. To them you're a nitpicker when you complain about dollar charges.
To me we're just keeping them honest because if we didn't fight them on the smaller stuff, like that service fee that TD charges at the end of the month, they would hose us even more on the big stuff, like the interest they grudgingly hand out after they use our money to make a fortune.
I was lamenting the disappearance of curmudgeons like Rooney the other day when I took several magazines to my TV chair in case that television that night would be just a vast wasteland that makes you wonder why you pay for cable.
 Like dandruff, subscription cards fluttered to the carpet. You know, the 6" by 4" cards that publishers stuff in their magazine so you can reply instantly to their blandishments. Damn it, I said to myself, I've been picking up these damn things  for decades. They're not a pain in my ass but my back. Why can't they limit themselves to one piece of garbage per magazine?
I'm sure all readers have their list of the little things that bug them. Like the delivery of my newspapers to the most awkward spot on the porch, if I'm lucky that they made the porch.
Or the repetition of the same ads on TV, some times back to back, so that if you regularly watch baseball or the stock picking on BNN, you may see the same ad dozens of times a week.
Or the fact that it really doesn't matter how often you keep filing your phone number with the "do not call" agency, the duct cleaners will call in the middle of the meal twice a week.
All media need a good crank commentator who never lets triviality stand in the way of anger. What we need is more grumbling about the dumb intrusions on our wallets and our time because silence just encourages the jerks!

Sunday, November 8, 2015



I will believe in and use the driverless computerized car when I don't have to worry about trying to reboot such a car when I am going down 401 in the passing lane.
I look at all the pretty pictures and stories about how we will soon have cars that will drive themselves, park in a twinkling and avoid all accidents.
How nice! But it's not going to happen for years. After all, there are too many problems with the simpler computerized devices we have now.
 I sit at my computer or turn on the giant TV and find that too often I have to turn them off and on, or unplug them, or go around in angry circles punching at a frozen keyboard or a useless remote, because for mysterious reasons they are not "working" at that particular moment.
Spare me the "garbage in garbage out" lecture. There are enough weekly glitches in my computerized  world for me to think I won't be around any more when routine traffic is filled with cars being driven by a master control under the dash while the driver watches TV.
If you think this is the silly burbling of a Luddite, you assume that every elevator and escalator you want to use is always working. And everything else controlled by a computer. You may work for a company that doesn't have a person or two dedicated in an IT department just to keep the computers going, but any company of any size still needs such help.
The early "teething" days of the Toronto Sun with computers, were without warning I could lose a column or editorial or a chapter of a book, are still scars on my memory. There was a new employee in our IT department who got me as his first problem after my column and the editorial disappeared into a horrible black hole. He never rescued them. I told him it wasn't his fault but I got so mad that he returned to his boss and quit.
Of course there have been vast improvements, and the experts promise that computers have never been more reliable. Now I welcome that and generally think progress is grand.
But I have been tricked before by experts and futurists telling me what wonderful things will be a reliable part of our lives within weeks.
I was asked by a magazine when I was a young hotshot editor to write about what Toronto would be like in 25 years. It was fun writing it but not reading it in the same magazine a quarter of a century later when moving sidewalks, air cars, fuel from manure and almost free solar energy were still mainly in the future along with your very own space rocket.
Computers are central to the work life of my three sons. But the one that works for the giant computer company complains about daily problems with his equipment. My four grandsons must think their grandparents are fuddy duddy refugees from the dark ages as they have been surrounded by computers and video games and smart phones for most of their existence, They are almost openly scornful when Mary and I try to figure out whether the latest problem is a real glitch or caused by operator error.
Mark called me the other day by phone from where he lives in Dalian, China.  Mary and I were thinking how nice it was to chat regularly, and for free, with a  son on FaceTime or Skype through the phone or our computers. I told him I had been having trouble contacting him  and wondered whether my password was wrong. He gave it to me again and while I chatted on the phone, used it on my computer to call his computer. It started ringing, but before he answered, I heard the puzzled voice of my cousin in Ottawa.
So I disconnected, then tried again. Got Chris Plewes in Ottawa again. Kept happening. It baffled the three of us since Chris and I have never talked over FaceTime or Skype, and have only traded a few messages on Facebook or by email. But somehow all the modern marvels of computerized communication had conspired so that when I called a son on the other side of the world, I ended up talking to a relative in our capital.
It was a funny incident, not a deadly one. But as long as there are hiccups in my electronic devices on a regular basis, like that one, I will not be trusting a computer to drive me one inch.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015



Politicians and environmentalists are joined at the hip in a mischievous partnership in how they approach their goals which usually are wonderfully beneficial for the public if they can be achieved without dubious accounting and outrageous fibbing.  
Pols and activists see nothing wrong with misleading to the point of outright fabrication in overstating their case. 
And to hell with what it costs the middle class taxpayer. They're just there to be plucked and eaten like a fat but stupid hen.
The latest example has emerged from a costly swamp where it has waded for decades.
CBC just did a TV program about whether those disposable cups in coffee shops are really recycled if they're put in the special receptacle. Turns out that often they're not, for a variety of reasons.
And the Star had a front-page story about a Toronto apartment resident who goes to considerable effort to separate his garbage only to see the collection truck far below throw it all together.
The "facts box" in the Star reveals the underpinning of the issue. It costs $111 a tonne to send the city's waste to landfill, but $343 a tonne if it is diverted to a recycling facility.
So the city and commercial operations, from restaurants and shops to industries and offices, save a lot if they only pretend to recycle.
Since Toronto produces a lot of garbage - 2,256 daily tonnes in 2013 - Toronto's latest landfill will be full in 2026 if the diversion rate does not improve.
Similar warnings have been around for decades. Of course they have because it costs so much to recycle. The dirty secret is everyone in the city would save considerably, especially in taxes or indirectly in rent,if there was a lot less recycling and the politicians and the save-the-earth folks were honest about how they deal with a problem that is never going to go away.
The environment bounces around in public approval polling. Some years it's at the top of our concerns, other years it slides below unemployment and the economy. Ironically, when you consider the costs, the environment might sink more rungs in the polls as Canadians contemplate how much it costs us as we have been turned into a nation of garbage pickers.
Back in my past when I had to produce five or six Sun columns a week, I decided to take a new interdisciplinary course in environmental science at U of T.
 I had motivations besides it would be useful to have another degree.  I thought the professors would give me grist for my mill, the thousands of columns and editorials I had to produce. Then the environmental movement bugged me, from the early mouthy days of Pollution Probe to the holier-than-thou spokesmen who keep giving us guilt trips about just about anything we consume.
I remember a study a group of us made of the city's landfill projects. That came useful as background when activists killed the sensible plans to ship Toronto's garbages by safer rail to huge holes in the middle of nowhere. Instead we had to spend a fortune carting stuff to the States and then buying a landfill closer to the highways down which the huge trucks rumbled as a pollution and safety problem.
 I remember my term report based on a Northwestern University study that organic food is a bit of a fraud because unless doses of herbicides and pesticides soak the plants, they're the same as careful organic products no matter what they were fed.
Much to the disgust of radical classmates, there was not much proof that genetically-modified food were awful menaces. After all, basically scientists were just mimicking what smart farmers had done for generations.
As I wandered from City Hall to Queen's Park to Ottawa, and listened to the ministries and commissioners and activists,  and then read their polluted-sky-is-falling reports, my columns started to reflect some simple truths inside the hysteria.
For example, the regional works commissioner confided in me that he had been renting warehouses to store old newspapers because there was no market for them even if newspapers like the Sun were buying all the recycled newsprint they could get. Some years we were separating old newspapers from garbage at considerable cost only to burn a lot of it because of the glut.
Of course we should recycle but when it costs three times what it does to bury or burn, shouldn't there be a debate about some of that cost? Should we ignore that technology may well help us cope in another 11 years when our dump is full but has been turned by research into a useful mine?
Our politicians have caved on all the major issues. They let the pop industry get away with eliminating returnable bottles. Toronto tap water is just as good, and some times better, than bottled water (which is often tap water run through a filter) so why don't we tax the hell out of the zillions of water containers that never disintegrate?
Look at the international scandal of ethanol. This addition to our gasoline costs more in energy to produce than it saves, and now we have a world flooded with extra oil. Yet agribusiness goliath have conned subsidies out of provincial, state and federal governments to produce a product that all marinas warn against because of the damage to outboards and small engines.
Yet the politically-correct folk of the environmental movement insist that we have to pay for their dubious attempts to save energy no matter what the cost. For example, take the ancient machine called a windmill, rename it a turbine, and ask for its product to be supported from taxes even when there are no net savings.
There is a political reform movement where no government expenditures are taken for granted but traced back to their roots to see if all the costs and steps were still justified.
 Isn't it time for this city staggering under its taxes and needs in transit and transportation to re-evaluate whether we are really getting the best bang for our buck when it costs three times more to fiddle with our garbage than it does to bury it?