In the coming days, Canada will see heightened activity in the nation’s ongoing gender identity politics debate. The “1 Million March 4 Children” protest against how gender identity is taught in schools, is set to occur on Wednesday, with synchronized events in more than 50 cities countrywide. Two days later, separate Toronto rally will spotlight two figures prominent in the gender-critical movement: Chris Elston, colloquially known as “Billboard Chris” for his distinctive method of protesting against childhood medical transition, and Josh Alexander, a Renfrew, Ontario student who was expelled earlier this year after objecting in class to his school’s transgender washroom policy.
“We’re in one hell of a mess,” declared Chris Patten, a former Conservative minister and establishment grandee, ruing the state of the nation. Inflation, slow economic growth and cack-handed monetary policy had condemned the country, he declared on “Question Time”, a current-affairs show. “It’s also, and this is a word one isn’t supposed to use any more, it’s also because of Brexit.” The Leicester audience nodded. Finally, someone had said it. The great Brexit taboo had been broken!
If discussing the downsides of Brexit is taboo, people have been falling foul of it for years. Leaving the eu has dominated political discourse for approaching a decade. Economists and analysts have pored over its economic effects, filling newspapers, television and social media. Commentators wail about it daily. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, boasted of fixing the myriad problems Brexit caused for Northern Ireland. Labour has promised to darn the obvious holes in Britain’s relationship with the eu. For a word that folk are no longer supposed to use, it is used a lot.
British politics is littered with fake taboos: topics that are supposedly unmentionable, yet discussed incessantly. From reforming the National Health Service (nhs) to cutting immigration and Brexit, politicians and voters engage in the fiction that some topics are verboten. It is a useful tool. Ideas that are unpopular can be laundered as forbidden. Impractical schemes can be painted as merely transgressive rather than foolish. Pretend taboos cover a host of failings. If there is a taboo in British politics, it is admitting that most political taboos do not exist.
Pretending that they do has lots of upsides. A fake taboo can mask hard questions. An immaculate return to the eu, as offered by a polling question, would indeed be popular. About half of voters would support it, while a third would oppose it. But it is also impossible. The same problems that encouraged people to leave, such as free movement and the fundamental question of sovereignty, would emerge on re-entry. Would British voters still support rejoining if it meant Schengen or the euro? Crying taboo is far easier than grappling with reality.
Leaving the eu is only the latest fake taboo. Ever since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 predicting racial strife, immigration has been supposedly off limits. Yet Britain has, somehow, managed to argue about it for 50-odd years. When statisticians revealed record net inward migration of 606,000 in 2022, those on the right insisted cutting immigration was beyond the political pale. This is backward. Cutting immigration is the stuff of political consensus: both main parties say it is too high, as do most voters. If governments are supposed to do what they say they will do, then immigration policy has been a failure. Conjuring a taboo is preferable to facing that.
This is a common tactic. Consider the poor performance of white working-class boys in schools. “Why has it become such a taboo subject to speak out on behalf of the under-privileged?” wondered Ben Bradley, a backbench Conservative mp, on the topic. But sharpening up white working-class boys has been a goal of every government for a quarter of a century. In 1996 Chris Woodhead, the chief school inspector, labelled it the “most disturbing” problem in education. In the David Cameron years, mps discussed extending the school day to boost their performance. Throughout it all, white working-class boys have stayed near the bottom of the class. Every government has targeted them. Every one has failed.
Sometimes a pseudo-taboo is an excuse for inertia. Any criticism of the nhs is a no-no, say some politicians. If it is a religion, as the cliché goes, then blasphemy is on the rise. The nhs has become the butt of jokes. TikTok is filled with spoof videos about grumpy receptionists telling the unwell to get lost. More Britons are dissatisfied with the nhs than at any point on record.
Reforming the nhs, which is free at the point of use, is, apparently, another taboo. Sir Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spent years fighting over what now seem to be arcane debates about nhs structures; Mr Cameron pledged no top-down restructuring of the nhs, then noticed that his health secretary had, in fact, done a top-down restructuring of the nhs. A wholesale shift to a European-style insurance model is not taboo. It would merely be expensive, difficult and unpopular. Better to pretend something is forbidden rather than tricky or hated.
Breaking supposed taboos is cheaper than fixing the problems they shroud. Politicians speak regularly about the need to “reduce the stigma” surrounding mental health. In an interview Mr Sunak revealed that his mental disposition was improved by the family dog. At the same time, Sir Mark Rowley, head of the Metropolitan Police, said the force would no longer respond to mental-health call-outs, in a change that is part husbanding of resources and part accelerationism. Ensuring that the police and hospitals are able to cope with psychosis is expensive. Reducing the stigma is free.
So controversial, so brave
Building an imaginary taboo and then smashing it has long been a tactic of the populist fringe. “But you can’t say that!” is a line from the How To Speak Populist phrasebook. But now it is used by all wings of politics. Once influential populist parties such as the uk Independence Party may have all but died. Those politicians who played up to it, most notably Boris Johnson, have been booted out. Yet the style of politics they espoused—of enlightened voters speaking truth against the wishes of a complacent elite—lives on.
And no wonder. Transgression is enjoyable for a life-long insider, such as Lord Patten. Establishment figures can paint themselves as revolutionaries, daring to speak truth to power. Even the tamest of events, such as attending a pro-eu rally, enjoy an added frisson if an idea is, supposedly, forbidden. Middle-of-the-road ideas —“Brexit is not going well, is it?”—can be laundered as thrillingly transgressive. Why let populists have all the fun? ■
Read more from Bagehot, our columnist on British politics:
Britain’s new political sorcerer: the Reform Fairy (May 31st)
British voters want more immigrants but less immigration (May 25th)
Truss Tour: 2023 (May 17th)
Also: How the Bagehot column got its name
Julia Malott: Nope, parents are not ‘fascists’ for being skeptical of gender politics
As parents’ voices grow louder, there’s a perception in the progressive left that all of these emerging movements are rooted and inspired by “far-right” extremism. Many in leftist circles suggest that parental rights advocacy is a dog-whistle: a veiled attempt to advance anti-transgender policies. A recently leaked video from an Ontario Federation of Labour meeting offers a glimpse into how some of the province’s most influential union members perceive these protests. As one member notably stated during the meeting: “The fascists are organizing in the streets … . This is far more than a far-right transphobic protest. They’re fundamentally racist, they’re fundamentally anti-union, they are fundamentally transphobic, and it’s just a matter of time before they come for us.”
It’s a grave mistake to deride the parental collective pushing back against the status-quo as fascist sympathizers motivated by transgender hate. A glance past such alarmist rhetoric reveals that — while a fringe group of hate has always existed — the concerns many parents are championing are much more moderate than a “far-right” moniker suggests.
For many parents, the core issue at hand is preserving their agency and autonomy over the ideological content of their children’s education. They want transparency about what is being taught, the option to excuse their child from content they believe doesn’t align with their values, and the discretion to determine age-appropriateness for activities, such as certain reading material or events like drag queen performances at schools. Perhaps least surprisingly, parents want to be involved in the key decisions of their own child undergoing a social transition in the classroom.
The matter of social transition behind parents’ backs in particular is so condemning of their role in upbringing that it has thrust the entire gamut of gender identity matters into the national spotlight, revealing just how out of balance transgender accommodation has become. The manner in which the left has responded — by doubling down in their rhetoric and deriding parents as militant zealots, has played powerfully into the rapid growth of this grassroots movement.
Many parents, even amid those who will stand in protest, have little desire to limit other families’ decisions regarding gender teachings and expression for their children. They realize that their objective of ensuring their own parental autonomy is intertwined with safeguarding those same freedoms for other families as well.
So where do we go from here? What might a balanced approach to parental rights look like within the nuanced landscape of gender identity politics? Fortunately, we need not start from scratch; history offers us a model for the coexistence of diverse ideologies within our educational institutions. Look no further than religion.
Amid religious diversity, we teach acceptance. Students are taught to make space for varied faith expression among their peers, whether through clothing or other customs, and with a strong desire to maintain neutral, religious symbols are not adorned by the institution. The lesson for students is to embrace and include, even where personal beliefs diverge; Meanwhile, the guiding principle for the institution is to avoid actions that display favouritism toward any specific religious doctrine.
Such a solution could address a significant portion of the concerns fuelling the rising parental unrest. Moderate parents would applaud such an education system, and this would still be inclusive of transgender students. But in order for this to be realized, the two factions moving ever further apart will first need to come to the table and talk. Given the recent rhetoric from progressive quarters, the prospect of this dialogue anytime soon appears distant.
Ex-diplomat says Poland asked him to keep tabs on Alberta politician
A month after Global Affairs Canada told CBC News it was looking into claims that the Polish government asked one of its diplomats in Canada to gather information on a former Alberta cabinet minister, the dismissed consul general at the centre of the affair says he still hasn’t heard from the department on the matter.
Andrzej Mańkowski told CBC News the only official he has heard from is a B.C. bureaucrat who asked him to return his diplomatic licence plates and identification.
“[Officials with Global Affairs] haven’t tried talking to me,” he said.
Mańkowski showed CBC News a copy of a letter dated Aug. 31 he received from B.C.’s Chief of Protocol for Intergovernmental Relations Lucy Lobmeier asking him to turn in his identity card and to return his diplomatic plates “within 30 days of this letter.” She also thanked him for his service.
Mańkowski alleges he was dismissed from his post in late July after he refused to carry out orders from the Polish government to gather information about Thomas Lukaszuk, a former deputy premier of Alberta who often provides commentary to CBC News about the province’s politics.
“It’s clear that Polish diplomacy during Communist times, the main responsibility was to collect information, to gather information on some Polish representatives abroad,” Mańkowski said, adding he felt as if the request was a throwback to that time.
“The analogy’s extremely evident.”
Last month, Global Affairs Canada said it was taking the allegations seriously.
Spying allegations ‘out of this world’: ambassador
In August, Lukaszuk said he believed he had been targeted by Poland’s department of foreign affairs over his activism against a controversial Polish pastor, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who has private radio and television stations in Poland.
Rydzyk, who has ties to the Polish government, has been criticized for delivering sermons featuring homophobic and anti-Semitic views and for preaching against the European Union.
Lukaszuk also shared what he said were encrypted messages Polish government officials sent to Mańkowski asking him over the course of a year to prepare notes on the former Alberta politician.
CBC News has not independently verified these messages were official government communications. Mańkowski did not dispute their veracity in his interview.
“Asking for my opinion about Lukaszuk was just a kind of trap, was just a political test of my loyalty,” he said.
Poland’s Ambassador to Canada Witold Dzielski called the allegation “totally absurd.”
“The idea of Polish diplomacy spying on a former provincial politician … it’s really out of this world,” Dzielski said.
He said he has never met Lukaszuk and did not know of his previous career in politics before Lukaszuk emailed him about an unrelated consular matter long before the reports about Mańkowski came out.
Dzielski said that if the notes cited by Lukaszuk are real, they were leaked illegally because they would constitute private diplomatic communications.
The affair has captured attention in Polish media, where the story first broke.
In July, Polish opposition politicians cited the messages released by Lukaszuk when they asked Piotr Wawrzyk, a secretary of state in the government’s foreign affairs department, whether Mańkowski was dismissed because he refused to spy on Lukaszuk.
In reply, Wawrzyk said the government could recall a diplomat who refused to carry out an assignment.
Wawrzyk, who was also a deputy foreign minister, has since been fired himself over an unrelated matter both local media outlets and Reuters have linked to a clandestine scheme awarding migrants visas in exchange for cash.
On Saturday, The Associated Press noted he had been hospitalized following an apparent sucide attempt.
“The minister, Wawrzyk, was laid off because of a totally different subject,” Dzielski said.
He pointed out that those documents were cited by opposition politicians in the context of a heated election campaign.
Dzielski� also said it’s normal for diplomats to be asked to gather information on notable members of diaspora communities.
‘A very marginal conversation’
“We are working very closely with them,” he said. “It is obvious and natural, and it is an element of diplomatic workshops, that we provide and we build ourselves opinions about the quality of cooperation with particular actors.”
He said Global Affairs has spoken to him about the allegations. “We had a very marginal conversation on this which reflects the level of seriousness of this topic,” he said.
A NATO member, Poland has worked closely with Canada to help out its neighbour Ukraine ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year.
Asked for comment, Global Affairs said in a media statement it “continues to work closely with security and intelligence community partners to assess the situation and identify next steps as appropriate.”
The department said last month it had contacted Lukaszuk and that it took the responsibility of protecting Canadians from “transnational repression” very seriously.
Put politics aside to solve housing crisis, or your kids might never own a home: Raitt
The Current20:05Putting politics aside to tackle the housing crisis
Political leaders of all stripes must find a way to work together to solve the housing and climate crises impacting Canadians, says former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt.
“Toronto is the best example. NDP mayor, provincial premier who’s Conservative, federal Liberal who’s the prime minister,” said Raitt, co-lead of the new non-governmental Task Force for Housing and Climate, which launched Tuesday.
“And if they don’t figure this out, one voter is going to punish them all.”
The new task force is concerned with accelerating the construction of new homes, while ensuring that’s done in a sustainable way. In a press release, the group of former city mayors, planners, developers, economists and affordable housing advocates said it intends to convene until April 2024 to develop policy recommendations. The work is supported by the Clean Economy Fund, a charitable foundation.
Raitt held several senior cabinet posts under former prime minister Stephen Harper. But as co-lead of the task force, Raitt said she won’t engage in the political partisanship that she thinks “poisons the well” around these issues.
“Part of the reason why we’re coming together as the task force is to have a real pragmatic and practical conversation about these issues instead of weaponizing it into a political arena, and finger pointing back and forth,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
Canada needs to build an extra 3.5 million new units by the end of the decade, over and above what’s already in the works, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. A report this week showed rental costs have increased 9.6 per cent from Aug. 2022 to 2023, to an average now of $2,117 a month.
This week, the federal government announced it would cut the federal goods and services tax (GST) from the construction of new rental apartments, in an effort to spur new development. The Liberal government also pledged $74 million to build thousands of homes in London, Ont., — the first in what it hopes will be a series of agreements to accelerate housing construction.
Speaking in London on Wednesday, Housing Minister Sean Fraser called on municipalities to “legalize housing,” urging them to remove “sluggish permit-approval processes” and zoning obstacles if they expect federal investment in housing construction.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre criticized the government’s plans as not going far enough, while pointing out it echoes some of his party’s proposals. He’s proposed measures that tie federal funding to the number of housing starts. Funding would be withheld from cities that fail to increase the number of homes built by 15 per cent, while cities that pass that threshold would receive bonuses.
Poilievre’s proposals also include a “NIMBY” fine on municipalities that block construction because of opposition from local residents, and the sale of 15 per cent of federally owned buildings so the land can be used to build affordable homes.
Don Iveson, former mayor of Edmonton and co-lead of the task force, said he understands why partisan politics can creep into the debate — but Canadians expect more.
He said the task force intends “to help all orders of government” understand what’s needed to tackle these problems from an economic, technical and planning perspective.
“We’re not going to be able to solve the housing crisis [by] building housing the way we built it for the last several generations,” said said Iveson, who was mayor of Edmonton from 2013 to 2021.
Your kids need a place to live: Raitt
Iveson said the challenge of scaling up housing construction will require some new ways of thinking.
That might mean a greater emphasis on automation and building houses from components prefabricated off-site, which he described as “essentially a more factory approach” that could also reduce construction costs.
Raitt said the task force will examine where houses are built, and in what kind of density, to ensure scaling up can “get the most bang for the buck.”
That might mean Canadians might need to have difficult conversations, including whether to build multi-storey buildings instead of single-family homes.
Raitt said older Canadians who already own their own homes might not like the idea of taller buildings going up around them, but they should speak to their kids about it.
“They don’t care if it’s going to be four, six storeys in a residential neighbourhood. They just want a place that they know that they can purchase,” she said.
“Talk about whether or not our kids are going to have a place to live, let alone rent, let alone own, let alone a house in the communities where they were brought up, because right now it’s not looking so good.”
Counting the cost of climate change
When it comes to climate change and sustainability, the task force’s goals come down to a “very simple equation,” Raitt said.
“Whatever we’re building now is going to be here in 2050. So if it’s going to be part of the calculation of our net-zero aspirations, whatever they’re going to be,” she said.
She said the task force will work to formulate ways to build housing that take emissions into account, but don’t include prohibitive costs that slow down the rate of construction.
“It’s going to be a little bit more costly to build with climate indications built in … but you’ve got to make sure that there’s policies surrounding that to make sure it still makes it affordable,” she said.
Iveson said wildfires, floods, heat domes and extreme weather events are already disrupting the economy, as well as posing huge financial burdens for the Canadians caught up in them.
“Climate change is already costing us a fortune,” he told Galloway.
Building without those climate considerations “maybe seems affordable in the short term, but it’s false economy when it comes to the real costs ahead of us,” he said.
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