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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

The Notwithstanding Clause from Bourassa to Legault

Francois Legault, full of confidence with the surprising scale of his CAQ electoral victory, is currently threatening to make use of the Notwithstanding Clause to insulate his proposed immigration restrictions from court challenges. He may go through with it even in the face of substantial public opposition, particularly in Montreal. But if he does, I hope that the public debate will distinguish between arguments about the substance of his proposals from arguments about the 'legitimacy' of the Clause itself. It was introduced in the constitutional negotiations of 1982 as a quite defensible compromise feature of the Charter, both to avoid the kind of juridical absolutism that has caused so much grief in the United States, and to preserve the democratic powers of the provinces from oppressive federal centralization. Even if one intensely dislikes some specific application of the Clause, that does not demonstrate that Canada would be better off if it could somehow be rescinded, unlikely in any case. Individual citizens or groups of citizens in functioning democracies may quite often find themselves disliking particular laws introduced by elected governments. including ones that they voted for. But that dislike is not alone justification for unlimited opposition, to the point of disobeying such laws. Both in the past and at present, this ordinary requirement can be obscured by deafening cries about 'rights', a word with unlimited possibilities for producing insoluble conflicts between clashing interests. It makes more sense to concentrate public support or opposition on the substance of the policies that appear to require the use of the Clause. That was certainly a large part of the story, thirty years ago this December, when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a position already taken by the Quebec Superior Court, on a case brought by five Montreal merchants (Brown's Shoes and four others)… Read More

Waiting for the Next Black Swan

[caption id="attachment_8109" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Gaming dice[/caption] I witnessed two events in my childhood which have affected how I have understood the world lifelong. The first happened when I was six, living in a house in Calgary, on a small dead end street, lined with poplar trees, close to the hill sloping down to the Bow River. It was May 9, 1945, VE-Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe. As part of the celebration, a daredevil and decorated Calgary pilot twice flew his famous 'F-for-Freddie' Mosquito bomber right down our street, so low that the twin propellers chopped leaves off the treetops. It had been part of an equally amazing low flying display all around the city. I and every kid on the street were out under the poplars, thrilled to the marrow. But we were all devastated, only a day later, when we learned that the plane had crashed, killing the pilot and crew, due to one last deadly stunt tried just before landing. I learned more about this double event year by year (there is a fully detailed account at,freddie.html). By the time I was twelve and an avid reader, I knew that the Mosquito was one of the most brilliantly-designed, fast, and versatile aircraft of the war. I had also met a former Mosquito pilot, who told me that, while pilots loved the plane, landings were often nerve-wracking, as it landed 'very hot' at well over 100 mph. By my teens, I also reflected that the pilot might have been exhausted, perhaps – who could blame him? – nursing a hangover, or perhaps just caught by a deadly cross wind. But anyway, on what was to be one last daring flyover before landing, his plane clipped a pole on the ground,and immediately crashed,… Read More

The Second Iraq War in Current Mythology

Rob Reiner's new film, Shock and Awe, is not about the massive aerial attack with which the Bush administration launched its war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2003, but on how the war was portrayed at the time,, not only by the government, but by almost all American media, including the NY Times and Washington Post. Reiner contends that this portrayal was fundamentally dishonest. The heroes of his film are the editor of the Knight-Ridder newspaper combine, played by Reiner himself, and two of its reporters, who spent many months interviewing opponents of the war in its planning stages that they found inside the CIA and the Pentagon. Reviewers have not been much impressed by this attempted update of All the President's Men, but have accepted it as a it seriously as a virtuous hindsight reflection. But it is much more revealing as a distillation of common received ideas about the war and its portrayal, endlessly repeated in over a decade of visual 'docudramas'. The unstated assumptions found in these latter. Shock and Awe included, deserve closer examination, as they are likely to have a substantial effect on how the war is 'remembered', and may influence the way future ones are fought or avoided. The editorials and reports of major newspapers and press syndicates continued to be influential in the changing era of televised war, often giving direction to the TV coverage. But neither the newspaper people nor the follow-up movie makers have much admitted, bellicose or disillusioned fictionalizations aside, that even their most conscientious reporting has carried its own ideological freight, and frequent facile encapsulation as thumbs up or thumbs down, mostly the latter. Shock and Awe got some chilly reviews, but these still largely took for granted Reiner's explicit claim of pure truth-seeking. The Globe & Mail' was… Read More

The Mortgaged Decade: 1998-2008 and the Long Hangover

Angelo Mozilo (left) and Alan Greenspan (right)   On July 11, 2008, Countrywide Financial, a huge California mortgage broker, bankrupted. It was one of many financial industry blowups of that disastrous year. Bear Stearns had already collapsed in March, nearly bringing down its largest Wall Street investment banking rivals, even Goldman Sachs, and by fall epidemic devastation required multi-billion dollar government bailouts. But Countrywide, and its once-admired but henceforward reviled CEO, Angelo Mozil0, perfectly incarnated the financial folly and hubris of the whole preceding ten years. Countless books and TV documentaries about the 2008 Crash have since appeared, full of explanations and accusations. The best ones have identified most of the proximate causes of the disaster, all including the proliferating 'subprime' mortgages and complex derivatives based on them. But most were deficient in providing historical context. The most dubious claim, made by many academic economists and governmental authorities, was that 'no one had seen this coming'. In reality, lots of people had, including me, with a 2003 Policy Options article, 'Risky Business and Rocket Science', about dodgy 'mathematical' models to justify many dazzling baubles. I drew on my studies in the history of science, but also on more personal experience. Ever since 1980, I had spent breaks from academia working with a financial research consulting firm. I had learned on the job, interviewing financial executives and synthesizing their opinions and plans, but also using familiarity with mathematical statistics, and doing much reading, year after year, on all aspects of the money business. I started in 1980-82 , interviewing institutional investors, the administrators of tens of billions of dollars held in Canadian trust, insurance, and pension funds; in later years, I analyzed similar information from institutions worldwide. These big investors made up the 'Buy Side' of Bay Street and Wall Street.… Read More

Two Psychological Televangelists

Steven Pinker (left) and Jordan Peterson (right) Canada has long been an incubator of 'public intellectuals' achieving international acclaim, from Marshall McLuhan to Malcolm Gladwell. Lately, two academic psychologists have cast nearly all rivals for public attention into the shade: Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist, language theorist, and popularizer of science-based humanism, and Jordan Peterson, psychoanalytical analyst of of individual abnormality and political pathology. Both have Montreal connections. Pinker was born here (1954), and studied at Dawson College and McGill, before parting for several American Ivy League appointments and settling into a Harvard professorship, Peterson, eight years younger, after growing up and beginning his college life in Alberta, took his Ph.D. at McGill, He spent some years of his own at Harvard, but returned to Canada to teach at the U. of Toronto. Both show some stigmata of their age cohort. Pinker is a baby boomer from the classic boomer years, those entering late adolescence in the great upheaval decade of 1965-75, while Peterson is from the tail end of the boom, he and others in this age group entering their university years as the radical fevers of the late 1960s, while still burning, were being accompanied by second thoughts and multiple disillusions. Ever since the 1920s, psychologists and psychoanalysts have made a great noise in the U.S. as a secular or quasi-secular new clergy. Most of the older generation were e'migre' Europeans, Freudian or near-Freudian. Throughout the century, bookstores, newsstand magazines, and even mass circulation newspapers featured regular pontifications from Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Bruno Bettelheim, Viktor Frankl, and Erik Erikson, all born around 1900. Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs' invaded business courses in marketing; Bettekheim and Frankl drew on personal experience in Nazi concentration camps in theorizing about victims and their victimizers.  Erikson entranced some readers and exasperated others by… Read More
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