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Harper thumbs his nose at Parliament

Rather than delivering his quarterly economic update in the legislature's chambers, he opted for a railway shop. The government and opposition argue over stimulus figures. Harper courts asbestos miners. Afghan elections become a domestic issue in Canada. PM declines to meet the Dalai Lama. Canwest collapses under debt. And the "Prince of Pot" turns himself over to U.S. authorities.

Top News: Prime Minister Stephen Harper adhered to the letter of the law, but probably not its spirit, when he delivered an economic update in the friendly confines of a Maritime railway shop. Harper is required to deliver quarterly updates on the economy as part of an agreement he reached earlier this year with the Liberals to support his government’s budget, and would normally deliver the speech to Parliamentarians, but instead thumbed his nose at the legislature, opposition MP charged. Harper’s minions tabled the printed update in the legislature at the same moment he began an election campaign-style speech in New Brunswick, allowing both him and his Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to avoid question period in the House of Commons.


In the speech, Harper declared his government’s efforts to stimulate the economy a success, saying that more than 90 percent of the stimulus funds have been allocated to projects. Opposition parties said Harper’s assertions are laughable, claiming that only 14 percent of the more than $50 billion has actually flowed into the economy.


While the Liberals talked tough about what they view as Harper’s mishandling of the economy, their party was in disarray after the sudden resignation of its senior Quebec lieutenant and defense critic, Denis Coderre, following a spat with party leader Michael Ignatieff.  The split with Ignatieff has its roots in Coderre’s unabashed ambitions to position himself to be the next party leader from Quebec. For the Liberals to regain power in an upcoming election, they will need to gain seats in parliament from Canada’s second largest province. However, within days, it was clear Coderre had overplayed his hand and he began professing his loyalty to Ignatieff and claiming his comments had been misunderstood. Ignatieff welcomed Coderre’s contrition, but has not offered him back either of his jobs.


Quebec’s asbestos industry is becoming a new battlefield in the continuing pre-election positioning between the Conservatives and the other parties. The mining of the substance is a huge industry in Eastern Quebec and in an effort to shore up support, Harper vowed over the summer to block a United Nations moratorium on asbestos sales, while Ignatieff has indicated he will consider the scientific evidence that asbestos can cause lung cancer. Recently, Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis, who represents the asbestos-mining area of Thetford Mines, raised the stakes by saying that the next election will determine whether the country will be run by a Harper government, which will protect the asbestos industry, or by Ignatieff, who will acquiesce to pressure from the international anti-asbestos lobby.


While Harper campaigned across the country arguing that no one wants an election campaign, and the Liberals licked their wounds, the simmering but largely uncovered issue troubling Ottawa was the growing unease with the conduct of the Afghan elections, which Canadian officials were in charge of overseeing. U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, working for the United Nations, was fired for pointing the finger at alleged cases of massive fraud by supporters of incumbent president Hamid Karzai. For many months leading up to the Afghan vote, Harper had been linking the success of Canada’s military deployment to fair and open elections. That appears to have been wishful thinking and the declining support for Canada’s deployment has accelerated.


The Harper government took a page from U.S. President Barack Obama’s placate China playbook by keeping a healthy distance from the Dalai Lama during a tour of North American cities last week. The sudden reversal in policy is in sharp contrast to Harper’s antagonistic approach to China prior to the financial crisis, which Harper and his ministers insisted was over China’s lamentable human right record, and comes on the heels of a recent tour by Canadian government officials looking to drum up Chinese investment in Canadian oil, gas and other primary resources. That has prompted a reaction from many Canadians that want to maintain greater control over resources and encourage more refining and manufacturing jobs in this country.


Money: Canadian media giant Canwest finally collapsed under the weight of its own debt, estimated at $4 billion, and is expected to be broken up over the coming months. Among the Canwest assets likely to be sold are Canada’s largest chain of metro daily newspapers, its national television network, Global, and its holdings in Alliance Atlantis, the producers of the wildly successful CSI shows. It was that expensive acquisition earlier this decade, coupled with declining newspaper revenues, that analysts blame for crippling the company.


The Canwest restructuring is complicated by Canadian media foreign ownership rules that are different for print media, broadcasters and Internet. Many had expected the Harper government to ease restrictions on foreign ownership of cultural industries, but there has been little action on the file since the Conservatives were first elected in 2006, in part because the three opposition parties would likely act in concert to block any changes.


Air Canada, which narrowly averted filing for bankruptcy protection this summer, earned itself a little “breathing room” by issuing $300 million in new equity in an institutional bought deal. The funds will be used for "working capital and general corporate purposes," the airline said. Air Canada and rival WestJet have been in a pitched seat sale for more than a year, and Canadian travelers have been the beneficiaries


Elsewhere: While hockey season got underway across Canada last weekend, it was a rare glimpse of high culture that got the country’s attention. At the urging of his wife Laureen, Prime Minister Harper got up on stage with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Yo Yo Ma, its special guest at the annual fundraising gala, and charmed the audience with a rendition of the Beatles’ standard “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The joke is that Harper’s minority Conservatives are currently only getting by with the support what he used to disparagingly refer to as “socialists and separatists.” Nonetheless, this bit of self-effacement earned Harper some widespread kudos and was quickly turned into a viral Internet advertisement by the Conservative Party.


It didn’t take long for Canadians to claim credit for Willard Boyle, who last week was a co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics, for pioneering work in modern communications. Born in Nova Scotia and educated in Montreal, Boyle, like many Canadian scientists of the era, went to work for Bell Labs and NASA for much of his career. He retired in 1979 and now spends much of his time at his cottage in Nova Scotia, not far from where he was born.


Marc Emery, Canada’s self proclaimed Prince of Pot, who is under indictment in the U.S. for selling cannabis seeds by mail, turned himself over to U.S. authorities in a plea bargain deal that spared two of his colleagues from having to serve time in jail.  The 51-year-old marijuana advocate is expected to serve five years in a U.S. prison, but a grassroots movement that started in British Columbia and is moving across the country calls on the Harper government not to sign the extradition order and, failing that, to request Emery be transferred back to Canada to serve his sentence in a Canadian penitentiary.


Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!