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Dispatch from the Front Lines: Brother, can you spare a per diem?
Feeding our soldiers: the newest stretch goal in Canadian public policy. Also: trouble for an SCC judge, old failures are new again in Toronto, and more.
Happy long weekend, Line readers! We are going to take Monday off, but will be back with a bang on Tuesday. We know many of you are enjoying religious observances and family traditions with loved ones this weekend, and we plan to do the same, so we got this done early. We hope you enjoy it.
A reminder before we proceed: for the month of April, The Line is experimenting with leaving our full dispatches open to the general public, and instead paywalling one column each week. So please do enjoy this, but if you’re one of our freebie readers, we really do help you join up today and help us continue growing one of Canada’s newest (and we think best) independent journalism outlets.
One more item of house keeping: Jen Gerson updated her latest column, published Thursday, to clarify the timeline of Danielle Smith’s proposed legal action against the CBC: the premier has given an end-of-month deadline for a retraction before commencing legal action. To date, there is no such action before the courts. Thank you to our readers who noted that the original column was unclear on the sequence. We regret any confusion.
And with the housekeeping done, enjoy our video!
Here’s a totally normal story from a well-functioning country that isn’t at all broken: it turns out that processing per diems for a hundred or so folks is now beyond the capability of the federal government.
This story came to us courtesy the Ottawa Citizen, where David Pugliese reported that the company sized unit of Canadian military personnel operating in Poland has seen months worth of expense filings go unpaid. In some situations, a military unit sent abroad would include its own logistical support team, including cooks. In other situations, a relatively small unit sent to a place with functioning civilian infrastructure is told to feed themselves and keep the receipts for reimbursement. For our troops in Poland, there to provide logistical and training support to Ukrainian forces since October, the government went the latter route.
And that’s fine. Really. Frankly, we’re sure the troops are happier eating out at local places and enjoying delicious Polish food — really, it’s amazing — than getting three servings of military slop a day. The problem, though, as these poor troops discovered, is that the military and national defence bureaucracy no longer has the ability to process the expense payments. So these balances are just sitting on their personal credit cards. For months.
From the Citizen:
The reimbursements from the Canadian Forces were supposed to be paid on a monthly basis but there is a backlog in the processing of the claims.
[Military spokesperson] Plourde-Fleury said the Canadian Forces have “been taking immediate steps to address” the backlog. “Additional administrative staff were deployed in January 2023, and have been hard at work to clear the backlog and provide ongoing support to Op UNIFIER’s members,” he explained. “The deployment period for financial staff has also been extended, in order to create an overlap with the incoming replacement staff, and increase the capacity to clear the backlog.”
He stated that the backlog has been reduced and the Canadian Forces hope to have approval of monthly claims back on track in the coming weeks.
But Plourde-Fleury acknowledged that even initial travel claims to Poland submitted by military staff have yet to be processed.
The mission began in October.
It seems almost pointless to add much actual insight and analysis here. This kind of dysfunction speaks for itself. We’ll limit ourselves to two comments: operational deployments are incredible stressful on military personnel and their families on the homefront. That’s uncontroversial, and unavoidable. That’s why military service is recognized as a sacrifice even during peacetime deployments. The basic bargain we make with our servicemembers is while they are serving their country abroad, their country will take care of their families at home. Leaving these families with high-interest credit-card balances they can’t pay off because the Canadian government is too broken to reimburse soldiers for expenses they were told to incur is an on-the-nose failure of Canada to honour its debt to the the military parents, spouses and children who have been, in effect, ordered to advance the Canadian government money to subsidize military deployments.
The second comment we’ll make, is that this isn’t just further evidence in support of the Canada-is-broken thesis — it’s a very specific kind of break. We’ve all known that Canadian governments, at all levels, have struggled to turn new policies into new programs. That’s not new. But even granting that failure, we’ve generally been able to keep doing the things we already do. There seemed to be enough residual muscle memory in our governments. Can we do new things? No, not really. But we’ll keep doing the stuff we already do.
This military fiasco is alarming because it’s a sign that our state-capacity issues are now extending into areas that previously worked. Not only are we struggling to do new things, we’re forgetting how to do things we used to be able to do. This goes beyond what our typical gripes about state capacity. This is something else. This is state atrophy, or rot.
Now that the public is paying attention, we suspect we’ll see some reasonably rapid progress. The government will throw bureaucrats and maybe consultants at the problem until it goes away. This is how they have reacted to similar issues: we hurled ground staff at airport delays until they cleared, and bureaucrats at passport offices until the backlogs eased.
But we have to ask why we now require exceptional redeployments of staff to maintain typical levels of service. And we don’t like the answers we can come up with. Ottawa has added tens of thousands of civil servants, at an annual cost of tens of billions, in recent years. During that time Ottawa has also sharply ramped up spending on consultants; the annual cost now surpasses $20 billion.
What the hell is going on?
Speaking of success stories in deliverology, Line editor Gurney, though normally focused on national-level issues at The Line, still does work locally in his hometown of Toronto — he pontificates on local radio, contributes occasionally to the Toronto Star and Toronto Life, and writes for TVO on local and provincial matters. This week, as his hometown began a special byelection to replace now-former mayor John Tory, Gurney had to laugh at one of the first policy proposals out of the gate.
The suggestion was offered by Councillor Brad Bradford, and it’s not a bad one on its merits. In response to a recent spate of violent incidents on the Toronto Transit Commission, particularly in the city’s underground subway system, Bradford has rolled out a four-point plan. Gurney wrote about all four points at TVO, but feels one point might be of interest for a national audience.
Bradford proposes installing platform barriers (which are known by a weirdly diverse set of names) in the city’s subway system. Described simply, these barriers make it impossible to access the tunnels from the station platforms — and impossible to jump onto the tracks, or be shoved onto them. Doors in the barriers open only when trains are in the station, and have aligned their own doors with those on the platform.
To which we at The Line say, hey, sure. Fine. Sounds good. It’ll apparently cost about a billion bucks to retrofit the entire system, and take years, so it won’t be helpful in the here and now, but it’s a perfectly valid idea.
The thing is, the idea rang a bell. Gurney had to go crawling through the ole dusty cobwebs of his aging memory, but with a bit of help from Google, he eventually dredged up the story: in 2009, after two boys were shoved onto the tracks at a TTC station in a random attack (they were okay, thank God), the city considered platform barriers. The estimate then was that it would take at least 13 years to roll out. Some sources said 15 years. And the interesting thing about those numbers is that, had Toronto gone ahead and stayed on target (a stretch, we grant, but if), the safety boosting improvements would either be already complete, or soon to be.
But, of course, what actually happened was … nothing. Just like nothing happened when we talked about it again in 2018. Sorry, pardon us. In 2018, we didn’t do nothing. We commissioned a study.
So, hey. Don’t feel like we’re dumping on the idea, Brad. It’s a perfectly fine notion. Just like it was 14 years ago, and five years ago. You’ll just have to forgive us if we don’t have any faith we’ll get ‘er done this time. Lives were on the line all those other times, too. It didn’t matter. Why will it now? Good luck with the campaign, though.
On a more positive note, we at The Line would like to note amid all the doom and gloomerism that the only thing Canada has going for it right now is Jeremy Hansen’s chin.
Hansen, in case you did not know, is the Canadian astronaut who has been selected to fly on the Artemis II mission around the moon. He will be the first Canadian ever to make the trip, and the first non-American to leave Earth’s orbit.
We can’t find a picture of the guy to use at the top of this page, and we can no longer embed tweets (more on that next), so you’re just going to have to click on this link, or trust us when we say that this guy has a chin. He’s right out of central casting for “Canadian astronaut,” a live Buzz Lightyear, so perfect for the role that we half suspect he has been concocted by AI.
Don’t take any of this the wrong way. We’re not trying to objectify the man, a former fighter pilot in the RCAF who holds the rank of colonel and a bachelor of science in space science and a masters of science in physics. No, he’s far too attractive to suit the tastes of The Line’s only female editor.
Rather, we wanted to highlight The Chin and all his accomplishments because it offers a little glimpse of optimism in the face of our dour misanthropy of late. We may have lost all faith in our state capacity and national institutions, but we continue to maintain a hell of a lot of respect and hope for Canadians as people. This country is still remarkably capable of creating genuinely awesome individuals, and of communities that can come together in times of crisis and difficulty. Jeremy Hansen is just one example of this. He’s a goddamn astronaut, and a pretty obvious example of a Canadian of whom we can be proud.
So go forth to the moon, Canadian man, and bring that chin safely home.
Last August, we were one of few media outlets that aired publicly what so many lawyers had told us privately: that there were reasons to doubt the qualifications and legal acumen of the newest Supreme Court judge, Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin, who was hailed at the time of her appointment as the first Indigenous person to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Her contributions on the highest court remain very much TBD, but an additional warning sign came from an Ontario Court of Appeal decision last week. A trio of appellate judges overturned a decision that she wrote while on the Superior Court. Justice O’Bonsawin had quashed a provincial court judge’s decision acquitting a man of sexual assault.
She held that the trial judge determined a complainant consented to sexual acts when in fact he found a reasonable doubt as to whether she consented to those acts. Moreover, she never analyzed whether any errors of the trial judge would be sufficiently grave to warrant overturning an acquittal: something that should only be done exceptionally. She seemed to think it was her role as an appellate judge to retry the case.
Some of this confusion would be perfectly understandable for a member of the general public. But there’s no way any graduate of a first-year criminal law course — or, indeed, any course on the role of the appellate courts — should still be making these kinds of mistakes.
For someone now a Supreme Court judge … yikes!
Of the errors in her ruling, the most damning was the accusation that the trial judge had indulged in “myths” related to sexual assault. Specifically, O’Bonsawin held that the lower court judge had relied on “myths” that such assaults don’t take place in public.
Such myths have been present and pernicious in trials of sexual assault historically, and it would be naïve to hold that they have been eradicated. So that would, indeed, be a problem. If it had occurred.
But it didn’t. The trial judge made no such finding.
In fact, the trial judge demonstrably did not indulge in the myths of which Justice O’Bonsawin accused him. One cannot help but wonder whether Justice O’Bonsawin views any instance of not accepting a complainant’s evidence as engaging in “myths.” Such a view may be fashionable in gender studies classes, but it is utterly incompatible with basic criminal law principles, such as the presumption of innocence and the heavy onus on the prosecution to prove guilt.
Though the Court of Appeal was impeccably professional in how it criticized Justice O’Bonsawin’s decision, its reasons are frankly embarrassing for her. The panel consisted of Justices Ian Nordheimer, Lorne Sossin, and Jill Copeland — all appointed to that court by the Trudeau government, and none of whom is considered a “conservative” judges (far from it). But they had no choice but to point out several very basic mistakes. This was not a “hard case.” And she got it wrong.
Judging only on this decision (which, hey, one shouldn’t!), we are inclined to the view of Léonid Sirota (the only other person in the media to criticize this appointment last summer) that Justice O’Bonsawin is “is a very average lawyer who is out of her depth when it comes to the big-picture questions that a Supreme Court judge is forced ― by no means in every case, but with some regularity ― to turn his or her mind to.”
Actually, “average” may be too kind.
Look: she may still grow into her role. The nature of the Supreme Court is that colleagues would notice such errors in the future. But “let’s appoint her to the Supreme Court so colleagues will notice basic errors” is not a vote of confidence in the Court that is supposed to be the highest in the land.
At little half-breaking news to offer in this week’s dispatch; beloved Line readers may find themselves running into difficulty if they choose to share their favourite independent publication with their followers on Twitter.
That’s because it seems like Twitter is effectively making it impossible to share Substack links for reasons it has not clarified, and we don’t understand. We at The Line have long suspected that Twitter had tweaked its algos to reduce traffic to Substack articles shared on the social media platform. Now it seems to have gone a step further, blocking likes, retweets, and comments on tweets that include a Substack link. There are some reports this is because Twitter feels threatened by Substack’s plans to roll out a new short-post option. Twitter hasn’t said, but as of Saturday morning, if you attempt to search “Substack” on Twitter, you get results for “newsletter” instead.
This is obviously messed up. The fact that it is anti-competitive is bad enough. We find the move particularly galling as it comes from a platform now owned by Elon Musk, the ostensible champion of free speech, or at least of free speech that suits him. If the left were looking for proof of its free-speech skepticism — that is, it’s a liberal value that is in fact only trotted out to protect those who have established wealth and power — well, we couldn’t find a better piece of evidence in their favour than half the clambaked ideas Musk seems to have come up with since taking over Twitter.
We find this one particularly pernicious, probably because it affects us and our growth directly. We’re still a new publication seeking to grow our audience, and social media is one of the most cost-effective ways for new media outlets to find new readers. Banning us from Twitter — but not other legacy media outlets — fundamentally tilts the playing field to the favour of legacy media outlets with long-established brands.
Add the threat by Meta to pull all news links as a response to Bill C-18, and we’re rapidly creating an Internet environment that is absolutely hostile to independent and new media.
A statement from Substack’s founders to the tech website Mashable reads as follows:
"We’re disappointed that Twitter has chosen to restrict writers’ ability to share their work … Writers deserve the freedom to share links to Substack or anywhere else. This abrupt change is a reminder of why writers deserve a model that puts them in charge, that rewards great work with money, and that protects the free press and free speech. Their livelihoods should not be tied to platforms where they don’t own their relationship with their audience, and where the rules can change on a whim."
We’re unsure of how to react to this news, ourselves. In the short term, all we can do is to ask our existing subscribers to share us with individuals whom you think might enjoy our particular talents for dark humour, gloomy prognostications, and caustic wit. If we can’t rely on social media, we must rely on you and your recommendations to grow.
Oh, and if you can, please pitch in a few bucks and subscribe, if you haven’t done so already. At the very least, it will make Elon cry.
Alright, everyone! Have a wonderful long weekend.
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