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Is icy Montreal paradise?

An ideologically-driven census shift sparks scuffle. The airforce scrambles jets to intercept a Russian bomber over the Arctic. A Minister causes head-scratching by announcing plans to spend billions on prisons for “unreported” crimes. Montreal is deemed the world’s 2nd happiest place, with some of the most beautiful women.


Top News: It’s Canada’s own version of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, but it has nothing to do with gays in the military.

The Harper government came under intense criticism for its decision to replace the compulsory long-form census questionnaire — backed with the threat of fines and jail time for people who refused to fill it in — with a new voluntary form.  The move is aimed at playing to the Conservative government’s libertarian base, which decries government efforts to collect information.

The decision went largely unnoticed at first, but exploded in the government’s face when Industry Minister Tony Clement said that he had been assured by statisticians that the data collected by a voluntary census would be just as accurate as that collected previously.  Within hours, Canada’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, resigned in protest, saying he had warned the government against the ideologically driven measure.  Clement was called before a Parliamentary committee.

Only in Canada could the biggest scandal of the summer come from how public statistics are compiled.

While the census proved to be the government’s most vexing problem over the past month, it was far from the only one.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay were grilled over Canada’s controversial decision to purchase 65 new F-35 fighter jets.  The $9-billion contract was never tendered for bidding and critics were almost unanimous in condemning the government’s decision to buy an unproven single-engine fighter for arctic patrol duties.  Canadian military pilots have long warned against flying patrols over the arctic without the security of a second engine, as birds in the summer and frigid temperatures in the winter can cause sudden engine failures. MacKay’s response was to say that aircraft engines are more reliable now than in past.

In a bizarre twist, as the controversy grew, Canadian fighters were scrambled to intercept a pair of Russian long-range bombers that were patrolling over the arctic.  Both the timing and the terminology that surrounded the Cold-War-style confrontation, which it turns out was not actually in or even close to Canadian airspace and was between Canada’s supersonic F-18s and the 45-year-old propeller-driven Soviet-era TU-95 bombers, prompted critics to charge that the Harper government was manufacturing a “need” for new fighters.

The military clearly didn’t appreciate the heat that was being turned on its political bosses over the F-35 decision, with someone at an Alberta military base taking the extraordinary action of attempting to delete sections of a Wikipedia entry that was critical of the government’s procurement process.

In another almost surreal blunder, Stockwell Day, the government’s minister in charge of the Treasury Board, justified plans to spend billions on new prisons by citing an “alarming rise” in Canada’s “unreported” crime rates. The illogical nature of the statement aside, when asked to clarify, he cited data from 2004.  Since then, most indications are that crime has been in decline.

And the controversial heavy-handed police response to the rioters at the recent G20 summit in Toronto won’t go away.  Government lawyers last week threatened to revoke the bail for two protesters after they spoke to reporters following their three-week detention.  Initially, police tried to say that the pair had violated the terms of their release, but then appeared to realize that revoking a citizen’s right to speak freely didn’t look all that good.

The Mounties, Canada’s national police force, cleared former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis and her husband, former Alberta Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, of any criminal misconduct, leaving greater questions as to why Harper fired her suddenly last March.  Guergis, who was also banished from the Conservative Party, is seeking reinstatement in order to be allowed to run under its banner in the next election.

Passengers on Canadian airlines are not allowed to wear burkas or other articles of clothing that hide their faces, Transport Minister John Baird announced this week. He ordered an investigation after burka-clad women boarded a flight in Montreal, unnerving a number of passengers and crew.  A majority of respondents to a recent poll were in favour of Canada having a burka ban similar to that recently enacted in France.

Internationally, the Harper government joined with the European Union in pressing for renewed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

A military court acquitted a Canadian solider of murdering a wounded Taliban fighter in a supposed mercy killing in Afghanistan.  Robert Semrau was convicted of the lesser charge of disgraceful conduct.

While Semrau is likely to go to jail, former Canadian newspaper magnate Conrad Black was released on bail last week after portions of his conviction were overturned by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.  Black was released on a $2 million bond, but is unlikely to be allowed to re-enter Canada, since he gave up his citizenship in order to enter Britain’s House of Lords.  

Money: While Canada’s economy has fared well through the recent downturn, it is not immune to the woes facing the United States, economists warned.  Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney said Canada’s economy is slowing, though growth remains marginally ahead of the U.S. rate.  Carney, who has been waging an open war against Canada’s own real estate bubble, said despite the cooling economy, the bank will likely continue to raise interest rates, which strengthens the dollar, putting further pressure on Canada’s export industries.

As if on cue, General Motors closed its transmission plant in Windsor, Ontario.  The move puts another 500 people out of work in the city that already has Canada’s highest unemployment rates.

Frank Stronach, the auto parts tycoon, received shareholder approval for a plan to sell voting control over the company he founded, Magna International Inc, for nearly $1 billion.  The move is being challenged in court by dissenting shareholders, who believe the move will be unnecessarily burdensome to the company.

Elsewhere: One of Canada’s most celebrated character actors, Maury Chaykin, died last week at 61.  While his name was not widely known his face was, appearing in 153 movies and TV shows.  He is best known for his role as the suicidal Major Fambrough in the film Dances With Wolves. 

Montreal has long been known as Canada’s feel-good capital, but little did Canadians know that it is among the world’s happiest places.  The Lonely Planet released results of a poll showing that Montreal is second only to the South Pacific paradise of Vanuatu as the happiest place on earth.  According to GQ magazine, it also has some of the world’s most beautiful women.  Now if only the Montreal Canadiens could win the Stanley Cup…..