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Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top 10 National/International Stories of 2013

Last week, I looked at the Top 10 Local and Provincial stories of 2013, and, as promised, we now open our scope wider to the national and international stages. I believe I said that last week's list was easier to compile than this one, but the struggle with the National/International Top 10 was a "Sophie's Choice" of which stories make the cut and which to leave off. A couple of the stories below could be easily separated into their own categories, but since the year was jam-packed with activity, I can be understandably forgiven to fold a couple of things together in order to create a more inclusive picture of the year that was. So, without further ado, let's look at the national and international news that made the head of the headlines in 2013.

10) Terror Gets Personal
Twelve years into the War on Terror, and we know we can handle the big things: planes crashing into buildings, mass transit being bombed, co-ordinated attacks on hard targets like embassies, military installations and the like... In 2013 though, terror really hit us where we live, and play, and shop. In April, a pair of fraternal malcontents exploded two pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon resulting in three deaths and 264 injuries. A five-day long manhunt ended with one bomber dead and another taken into custody after Boston PD effectively shutdown the city in order to pull their dragnet. Barely one month later in London, an off-duty soldier named Lee Rigby was attacked by two men armed with knives and a cleaver, and then they stopped to give a statement to a passerby saying that they did it to avenge the death of Muslims killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by British soldiers. The confession was infamously caught on video while the attackers were still covered in Rigby's blood. Then, in September, a group of extremists claiming to be with the Islamist group al-Shabaab laid siege to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, resulting in 72 deaths and over 200 injuries. Although initial reports seemed to indicate a much larger group perpetrated the attack, numerous law enforcement agencies have concluded that there was likely only four gunmen, and they were all killed during the stand-off; the only charges thus far have been against people accused of directly aiding the attack. In the face of something like a 9/11 or a 7/7, these are rather unsophisticated, but it's an important reminder that one need not be a criminal mastermind to create terror.  
9) The Quebec Charter Creates New Rifts
Honestly, how did this ever seem like a good idea? But the truth is that the Charter is as much a tool to score political points as it is a move to secure "Quebec values." At a time when Quebec voters are engaged in a three-way stalemate, the Parti Quebecois government of Pauline Marois hoped that an appeal to the province's rural francophone constituency would provide them a wedge issue with which to gain traction, bring down the minority government, and galvanize support for a majority. Instead, it brought a boat load of negative attention on Quebec and Marois as "La belle province" looked like the home of hate. Even amongst the ranks of separatists there was dissension as the already slim Bloc Quebecois caucus tossed a member, Montreal MP Maria Mourani, for opposing the Charter. So what will happen? If it's defeated, that's bad for the PQ, if it's passed, it will probably go to the Supreme Court of Canada where it will be soundly defeated, still making it a defacto win for the PQ. Or the PQ could just come to its senses and yank the thing off the table, but I doubt it.
8) Lac-Mégantic Makes Us Fear the Rails
It's to the credit of the relative safety of the railway that Lac-Mégantic was the biggest train disaster in Canada for nearly 150 years. With 42 dead, another 5 missing and presumed dead, and over 30 buildings in the heart of Lac-Mégantic destroyed, the July 6 tragedy has touched every man, woman and child living in that small Quebec town. After the very human cost of the disaster was tabulated, the very human error that resulted in the derailment was examined. Lax safety standards, insufficient staffing, and the increasing use of rail to transport dangerous goods were the three strikes that came together that night in Lac-Mégantic as the one engineer walked away from the train before properly securing the brakes, resulting in 5 locomotives and 72 tank cars filled with petroleum to go screaming down the tracks. To literally add insult to injury, the company responsible, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., slipped out of fiduciary culpability by declaring bankruptcy, and then MMA chairman Ed Burkhardt said he's suffered as much as the citizens of Lac-Mégantic adding that the crash cost him "a big pile of money,"and that "It's reduced me from being a fairly well-off guy to one that's just getting by." Believe us when we say Mr. Burkhardt that no one's feeling your pain.
7) Justin Trudeau Ascends
He was always the frontrunner. In fact, he was the frontrunner when he wasn't even running. So when Justin Trudeau took his rightful(?) place as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, it was like everything was in its right place. It didn't take long for the Trudeau advantage to be felt by the Liberals, re-securing the Labrador seat resigned by disgraced Conservative MP Peter Penashue, and then leading his party to two more by-election victories in November and being highly competitive in two others. Of course, there were a number of factors at play in those races, but what's indisputable is Trudeau's impact on the polls. With his leadership, the Liberals seem primed to make the 2015 election a race, and has surely reduced the presumption that the Liberals, as a party, were on their way out. It remains to be seen if Trudeau can put together a team and a policy that Canadians can get behind, but from a pure product positioning standpoint, everything's coming up red.
6) U.S. Politics Reaches Breaking Point
It's hard to believe that it was just one year ago that Barack Obama secured re-election in a hotly contested presidential race. More than that, he won handily with a tremendous margin of error, and Obama's party secured control of one-half of the legislative branch too. One might have thought that the president would have gotten a grace period, but no.... The Republicans, instead, retained their single-minded determination to kill the Affordable Care Act (AKA: Obamacare), attempting vote, after vote, after vote to repeal the legislation is spite of the fact it was signed into law, upheld by the Supreme Court and ratified by the American people in a general election. This obsession drove the government to shutdown in October as the sole caveat to a budget deal was either the cancellation or postponement of Obamacare. As the weeks wore on, Republicans discovered to their regret that the public would rather have a working government than a partisan bitch fest, and pulled the plug on the whole darn thing. Although the rollout of Obamacare came with legitimate problems that the Republicans could have seized on, or, better still, could have helped resolve, they doubled-down on the "Just Say No" approach. As the year closed, moderate Republicans seemed to indicate that enough was enough as John Boehner lashed the Tea Party for pushing the country to the brink of another fiscal cliff, and Tea Party darling Paul Ryan reached across the aisle to come up with a budget compromise. How this sudden turn against the hard-right caucus that's driven so much Republican policy will play to voters in the upcoming midterm elections will be a big question for 2014. 
5) First Nations Idle No More

Spurned by the passage of the omnibus budget bill C-45, Canada's First Nations began to organize and protest in a way not seen in decades. In the waning days of 2012, there were flash mobs, hunger strikes and a blockade of the busiest passenger rail line in the country, but the movement started truly catching fire after the new year. Aboriginal people south of the border picked up the cause, more protests broke out and Stephen Harper conceded to a meeting with First Nations leaders, but rather than cooling things off, the meeting spurned on further action. Not all of it was disruptive. A group of Cree youth begins the 1,600-kilometre walk from Whapmagoostui, Que., to Parliament Hill, and a group of high-profile Canadians inlcuding Maude Barlow, Naomi Klein and Sarah Slean returned their Queen's Diamond Jubilee medals. Although Idle No More was very active through the spring, other burgeoning political scandals and stryfe threw it off the front page, but the problems it was created to combat are far from solved. In November, a fire broke out on the Attawapiskat reserve in one of the trailers that was supposed to be temproary housing after someone lit a candle during a power outage. The fire left leaving over 70 people homeless, or at least more homeless than they were since faulty sewage lines forced them into the donated trailers in 2011. Many in Canada's First Nations community must now be wondering if it isn't time for an Idle No More Part 2.
4) The NSA is Watching Everyone
It was the paranoid's dream (or nightmare) come true as the lid on the super-secret, and secretive, National Security Agency was blown off this year as leaks from a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden revealed that the agency he worked for was indeed spying on everybody. Amongst the some 1.5 million documents released by Snowden, who had Top Secret access without even being an NSA employee, were detailed information on numerous NSA surveillance programs designed to monitor and collect data off of cell phones, land lines, e-mails and websites on a global scale. Millions of people were affected including high-ranking members of foreign governments, or at least the foreign governments who weren't recruited to assist the NSA in their surveillance. For added creepiness, later disclosures revealed that Canada was part of an organization called "Five Eyes," a co-operative of five English-speaking countries including Canada who assisted the U.S. in intelligence gathering. In Canada's case that also meant giving the NSA permission to surveil the 2010 G8 and G20 summit in Toronto/Muskoka. In Canada, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) came under increased scrutiny as their role in assisting the NSA was revealed, as well as accusations that they were spying on Brazil's mining and energy ministry to gain economic intelligence. As the new year dawns, if you feel like you're being watched, keep in mind that you probably are.
3) Pope Francis Makes Us Believers
The surprise February resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a first for the Vatican in over a millennium, was followed by an even more surprising development, the first pope elected from "The New World;" "A Pope from the End of the Earth," one headline read. And aside from all the firsts, including being the Catholic church's first Jesuit pontiff, the man who dubbed himself Pope Francis did something people had thought no longer possible, bring positive attention to the church. Pope Francis hit hard against income inequality and what he called "unchecked capitalism," he relinquished the papal apartment and "Pope mobile" for more modest accommodations, and he tossed a German bishop for blowing $42 million on a new residence. But that's old school Jesus teachings (like Matthew 19:24), where Francis set a somewhat more modern tone is his approach to social issues. Sure, he's stood firm on the Church's stance on abortion and contraception, but he's criticized priests who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers, and said of homosexuals that, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?" In Catholic leadership terms, the Pope is a stark raving liberal, and as a result his greatest miracle maybe getting the cynical 21st century worshiper to take a second look at the Catholic Church. 
2) The Middle East, Somehow, Gets Worse

The promise of the Arab Spring seemed to fade fast in 2013. In Egypt, one of the epicentres of last year's populist uprising, President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by the Egyptian military after a new round of protests began regarding Morsi and his lack of progress on issues ranging from the economy to internal security to infrastructure. Unlike the Arab Spring though, there were rounds of counter-protests, as supporters of Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, marched in support of the duly elected leader of Egypt. As a result of the political instability, violence has been no stranger in the streets of Cairo and other cities, and all Egyptians live under a cloud of a very uncertain future. A little ways away in Syria, things weren't much better. The bloody civil war continued without much intervention from the West until the summer when it seemed that chemical weapons were deployed by government forces against the rebels. As international weapons inspectors verified the claim, war hawks in the U.S. and U.K. wanted to strike at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but a war weary population and many of their elected representatives begged to differ. But in a fluke of TV diplomacy, al-Assad would agree to disarm his chemical weapons stockpile, which does nothing for the hundreds of people still being killed by conventional weapons in the ongoing war. The one bright spot, oddly enough, is Iran. The election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a thawing of relations with the U.S. which included a phone call with Obama, and an initial agreement to cease development of nuclear weapons. It seems odd to say, but hopeful Iran might lead by example in 2014. 
1) The Harper Façade Beaks
It turns out Idle No More was the canary in the coal mine. As the new year dawned, the government of Stephen Harper took it on the chin from some citizens for ignoring the growing dissension amongst the country's First Nations peoples, but things were about to get so much worse for the once united front of the Conservative Party of Canada. As the year wore on, it seemed like the party could do nothing right: it got slammed on the environment, outsourcing and insourcing, connections to Rob Ford, and lost several key members of caucus to retirement or criminality. More than that, the hubris (or resolve) of the PMO was tested with backbencher revolts, a sticky nomination in Brandon-Souris that nearly cost the party the seat, and a private members bill that sought to rein in the power of party leaders. But near fataly affecting the party is the ongoing Senate Expense Scandal, not just because this government promised senate reform and hadn't yet delivered, but because of the stink of backroom politics and nepotism that the Conservatives once so handily beat the Liberals with. The ordeal wasn't just a betrayal of a campaign promise, and the support being lost wasn't just from moderates and independents that gave Harper his majority, but Conservatives themselves were questioning their leader. How and why were their party donations going to help people so corrupt as Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau? Even though those figures are gone from senate now, and despite the best hopes of Harper, this issue is far from over and will have a serious effect on the government as it readies itself for the 2015 election.

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