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Harper's hijinks on anthem and budget

Parliament distracts the country with a re-write of Oh Canada while pushing through a budget. The Afghanistan torture scandal continues. Governor General Michaele Jean returns to Haiti, her birth country, to reiterate Canada's support. Sarah Palin brings the US healthcare debate to Canada. A former MP and his wife make headlines for two scandals. A study (improbably) shows that women are better at math and men are hardwired for monogamy. Canadian banks are now the world's most profitable. And Corey Haim, child superstar, dies at 38 of an accidental overdose.

Top News: Canadians got quite used to hearing their national anthem in the closing days of the Olympics, in which home-grown athletes won 14 gold medals – the most of any country. But the Harper government decided that familiarity breeds contempt and announced plans in last week’s Throne Speech to rewrite the lyrics of "Oh Canada" in an effort to make it more gender neutral.

The line in question states “True patriot love, in all thy sons command.” That line had been added during World War I to encourage young men to enlist in the military. The original line, according to historians, is “…in all us doth command.”

Well, it didn’t take long for the wave of protest to slam into Parliament Hill, which is exactly what the Harper government had hoped. The fury distracted the media, and by extension the public, from the government’s introduction of a federal budget that cuts social programs, lowers corporate taxes and does almost nothing to reduce the country’s $56-billion deficit. Instead, the government argues, Canada’s economic recovery will simply grow government coffers back into the black. Economists of all political stripes disputed the government’s claim, but one had to look hard to find substantive critiques of the budget amidst the anthem controversy.

The bait-and-switch worked like a charm and the Tories managed to duck any front-page criticism of their budget. And, one day after the budget, the government beat a strategic retreat from the anthem flap, saying they are nothing if not responsive to the public’s wishes.

Meanwhile, the budget passed through the House of Commons with little debate. The opposition Liberals have no stomach right now for an election, and the New Democratic Party has no money to fight one.

Another fight that has been deferred by Harper — or in Canadian parlance it’s called “ragging the puck” — is what to do with opposition demands to have classified documents made available to the Parliamentary committee studying how much the government knew about Afghan detainees being tortured and when they knew it. The controversy dates back to late last year when diplomat Richard Colvin revealed that his warnings to then-foreign-minister Peter MacKay, now the Minister of Defence, had been ignored and that he’d been ordered to hush up. The government steadfastly denies the allegations, but has done everything possible to avoid offering any evidence, exculpatory or otherwise. Last week, amid renewed calls to turn over documents, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced he has asked former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacabucci to serve as the arbiter and decide what, if any, documents should be revealed. The opposition parties, smelling blood, called the move, which could delay the release of documents for months, little more than a stalling tactic.

The anthem story aside, Canadian traditionalists also had to deal with new revelations that the mostly white European heritage of the majority of Canadians will soon be a thing of the past. A recent study predicts current visible minorities will soon make up as much as one-third of the population and will shortly become the visible majorities in Canada’s largest cities. South Asian, predominantly from India and Sri Lanka, are expected to make up the largest contingent of immigrants, followed closely by Chinese.

When Haitian-born journalist Michaele Jean was named Canada’s Governor General in 2006, many non-traditionalists hailed it as a true embodiment of Canada’s multicultural nature. This week, Canadians got to see Her Excellency’s touching return to her birth country in an official visit to the earthquake ravaged island. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper had done during his visit last month, Jean reiterated Canada’s intent to devote funds and expertise to the rebuilding efforts.

The health care debate in the United States took a few interesting turns in Canada last week. Former vice-presidential-candidate-turned-Fox-News talking head Sarah Palin turned heads in both countries when she admitted that as a child in Alaska’s frontier, her family had availed itself of Canada’s public healthcare system. The revelations seem to undermine her often-vitriolic condemnation of public healthcare in general, and Canada’s system in particular.

That said, Canada’s own love affair with public healthcare could be waning. Public healthcare proponents had been hoping that the high-profile decision by Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams to have heart surgery in Florida rather than in Canada would result in some public excoriation. Quite the contrary. Williams has rarely been more popular, according to recent polls.

A recent survey conducted by the Canadian Medical Association also indicates Canadians are wary of the sustainability of the system, and are open to some private-sector carrots-and-stick incentives to promote Canadians to be more proactive in looking out for their own health, including exercising and eating well, with one-in-three respondents saying it would be acceptable to tax the heaviest users of the system.

Still with healthcare, if there were ever a telling statistic that universal healthcare is anything but, one need only look at the staggering epidemic of tuberculosis in Canada’s far north and aboriginal communities. The infection rate among northern communities is 185 times higher than in the country as a whole. The disease, which scars the lungs and can lead to early death, is widely considered a disease of poverty and most likely to infect those who live in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation and water quality. Anti-poverty advocates said promoting better public health is a central tenet of the Canada Health Act and should receive considerably more funding.

One of Canada’s power couples was back in the news over the past week. Former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, who was arrested last year for driving under the influence and was found with cocaine in his car, escaped with just a modest fine after pleading guilty to reckless driving charges. While Ontario’s Attorney-General has promised a full explanation, prosecutors would only say that procedural errors by the police had contributed to the charges being reduced. Opposition critics had a field day, since the drug charge comes under federal jurisdiction, putting Justice Minister Rob Nicholson on the hot seat.

Meanwhile, Jaffer’s wife, Helena Guergis, apologized for a very public meltdown at airport security in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, after she arrived late for her flight and was denied boarding. Guergis, the Minister of State for the Status of Women, got in a heated argument with Air Canada staff, then airport security personnel, and ended up calling PEI a “hellhole.” She apologized when the issue was raised by Wayne Easter, the Liberal MP for the area, and said she would not resign.

A recent Canadian study shows women over 40 are at the top of the mathematics food chain, due mainly to their penchant for multitasking. Another suggests that all human males are hardwired to be monogamous, but not all of the time. Another Canadian study indicates that monogamous, liberal atheists tend to be smarter.

Money: Canada’s banks, hailed by many as the safest during the 2008 financial meltdown for not having been caught in the mortgage morass, are now among the most profitable in the world because of mortgages. Canada’s major banks posted a combined quarterly profit of more than $5 billion.

A Canadian Internet security firm played a major role in taking down the giant Mariposa botnet, which had infected more than 13 million computers in 120 countries and was pilfering personal data, including credit card information. Ottawa-based Defense Intelligence worked with Spain’s Panda Security and Spanish authorities. 

Elsewhere: Canadian child star, Corey Haim, an icon for many Gen X-ers, died of what police believe was an accidental overdose. The Los Angeles County Coroner confirmed that Haim, 38, who battled substance addiction for several years, had been complaining of flu-like symptoms when he went to bed and was later found unresponsive. 

Jean Beliveau, to many the greatest Montreal Canadiens player ever and an iconic figure in Quebec, is reportedly making a steady recovery after suffering a stroke in January. Beliveau, 78, admitted he is still quite weak, but is no doubt hoping to watch his beloved Canadiens surge into the playoffs.