Bret Snider

On the Fragility of Democracy      April 2022

On January 6, 2021, the world witnessed an insurrection in the United States on its capital by thousands incited by Donald Trump’s claim that the Presidential election was not free or fair. Five people died. A huge number of Americans still believe his claim to be true.

            We think democracy is old (demos meaning ‘people’ and ‘krátos’ meaning ‘force’ or ‘power’), and Ancient Athens gets credit for it. However, there were other states at the time (circa 6th century BC) also thought to have been playing with the notion of various forms of what we would now characterize as democracy. In the city state of Athens, it lasted for a few hundred years then it largely disappeared as a common form of government.

In the modern world, the United States established its constitution in 1788 and is considered the world’s oldest democracy (234 years). So, in a span of over two thousand years, we largely had other forms of government that included monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, theocracies, and tyranny. To this day we still have them. In our modern Western world, we consider these forms of government to be unfair and unjust. However, since confederation average voter turnout in Canadian federal elections has been 70 percent, it drops to about 60 percent provincially. Average historic voter turnout in the United States is less than 60 percent. In other words, many take democracy for granted.

Watching the Ukrainians defend their democracy from the Russian invasion has been inspirational and terrifying at the same time. I used to refer to Vladimir Putin as “Rootin-tutin-Putin.” However, having watched news reports of his absolute barbarity and wanton disregard for human life, I now refer to him as “Vlad the Impaler,” a reference to the 15th century Romanian Prince who had a penchant for impaling his enemies to evoke fear in those who opposed him. Putin murders or imprisons his opponents, and has been responsible for the annexation of six territories since coming to office or gaining effective control of the Russian Federation. What Putin didn’t count on was the defiant will and determination of the Ukrainian people in their defence of democracy.

In 1989 I was fortunate enough to be asked to serve with the United Nations to help oversee the first free and fair election in Namibia. It was a former German colony known as South West Africa. However, in the aftermath of World War I, all former German colonies were ceded as “Mandates” to other countries by the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations). Most gained independence in the 1960s, except for Namibia, which was ceded to South Africa. The South Africans treated it as a de facto fifth province. It had mineral resources, Walvis Bay (the only deep-water seaport on the western part of southern Africa) and acted as a buffer zone between the Marxist-Leninist government of Angola to the north. So, all in all, it was not bad place to keep control of for both financial and security reasons.

The international delegation was diverse as each country had sent different types of people to be election supervisors, many of whom were from non-democratic countries or had little experience with electoral politics. By way of example, the French sent judges, the Dutch sent accountants, the Russians, Chinese, and East Germans sent “Diplomats” so–spies. Canada sent 50 Election Supervisors (who consisted of Elections Canada staff), political appointees, 100 RCMP Officers, and 250 Canadian soldiers.

Almost 8,000 foreign nationals were present representing 120 different countries. Canada, Britain, and Australia had by far the strongest teams present and had the best grasp of the process as the electoral rules were based on those countries’ election laws. Throughout the mission 74 people died, but the election was deemed to be free and fair. Shortly thereafter, Namibia became an independent country.

When I started to become active in politics, local campaigns would often have hundreds of volunteers. Now you are lucky to get dozens.

According to Lord Tytler, a Scottish Historian, the average age of the world’s democracies is around 200 years. After two hundred years, the nations collapse due to various economic policies and be followed by a dictatorship. Lord Tytler identified “Eight Stages of a Democracy”, from beginning to end. The eight stages go from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence, and finally from dependence back to bondage.

  • Reginald Pulliam, Evan Belanger/Alabama Media Group

As of February, the US is $23.3 trillion in debt.

Most people don’t realize how few people are engaged in keeping our democracies alive, providing us with viable political alternatives, points of view, and ultimately a choice. In Canada, political Riding Associations (provincially) or Electoral District Associations (federally) are responsible for raising funds and cultivating volunteers to help field democratically chosen candidates in elections. At best, they consist of a few hundred members for each of the viable political parties, and within that subgroup, a handful of people serve local party executives and volunteer in elections to aid candidates in their efforts.

When the subject comes up in conversation, we should reflect on the small number of people, regardless of political stripe, who contribute their time, talent, and treasure to provide us with the political choices we take for granted. We need only look at the current challenges faced by the people of the Ukraine and how passionate they are in their fight against Putin’s totalitarian Russia.

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

  • Winston S. Churchill, 11 November 1947

Fish & Chips & Feeling Fine      March 2022

A few weeks ago, Bobby Walker, a retired Millwright invited my wife, Lisa, and I to dinner. For those of you who don’t know what millwrights do – they install, repair, dismantle and reassemble machinery in places like car plants, airports, industrial facilities, and mills. And, in the early days, many were of Scottish decent like Bobby who has a brogue deeper and thicker than a 20-year-old glass of scotch. Lisa works for a firm that administrates third party benefits to mostly private sector unionized workers and Bobby, who was a union member, is a friend and neighbour of ours.

He chose the Tara Inn on Kingston Road which I thought ironic – a Scott to choose an Irish pub. Bobby likes the place and a friend of his was providing live music. Nonetheless there we were. He and Lisa regaled in tales of people, incidents, and stories gone by. There were situations and persons of whom I knew nothing about, but it was fun to listen to regardless. It was a circumstance we have all been in where you just shut up, smile, and enjoy the experience.

Throughout the fish and chip meal, I kept noticing the people around us. The Tara staff were fulfilling their responsibilities and asking all patrons for proof of vaccination upon entry and was operating at the capacity limits required to ensure safety. Table assignments were socially distant, and all were respectful.

At one point I noticed a woman close to our table trying to take a selfie of she and her husband by propping up her cell phone on a nearby vacant table. Every time she did the phone fell over just before the camera was ready to do its job. I offered my assistance, and they were grateful.

As Lisa and Bobby continued their trip down memory lane, I noticed the joy of other patrons. All had smiles and it was self evident that the tone and tenure was all positive. Those present were getting into a post pandemic mode – a return, though limited, to normality after two years of restrictions.

As a country we have lost thousands in wars, 1812, the Spanish flu in 1918, World Wars I and II, Korea, UN Peacekeeping missions, and now during Covid-19 but life continues and we, the lucky ones, must carry on while not forgetting those friends and loved ones who weren’t.

Individuals, families, and businesses have all paid a price during this once in a lifetime trauma, but signs are good and moving in the right direction and the experience at the Tara was a tell. Past generations have faced significant challenges but after it’s all over life returns to some semblance of normality. This was our trial, and while it’s not over, it appears that we are close, and now we must prepare to move on.

February 2022

Political Will & Public Transit

By Bret D. Snider

I consider myself fortunate in that I have had the opportunity to travel, mostly for business, but also pleasure. In my sojourns abroad, I have had the occasion and need to utilize local public transit to get from point to point and have constantly been surprised at how efficient they are–and how lacking we are. In Toronto, we perceive our transit system as we do our city: ‘world class’. However, when I consider our rapid transit system, I view it as mediocre. Case in point, try getting from the east end to anywhere in the west end easily, particularly from northern Scarborough.

Most of us, when thinking of ‘world class cities’, would name the usual places–London, Paris, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Berlin. But when you compare the public transit infrastructure, Toronto comes up short. I have spent a lot of time in Chicago and the transit there, while not pretty, is highly functional. Most cities of comparative size have much better access to high-speed transit than we do, and it always seems to be a political football that we drop.

We have started and stopped major transit initiatives for many years and seen successive administrations change course based on the spectre of tax increases. As a person that has on occasion been involved in the political process, I get the dilemma and the risk of standing behind tax increases, but the dilemma of transit is that it’s never going to get any cheaper to build. It’s a one-way ride–more capital expense the longer you wait, and it’s unlikely that the population of Toronto is going to get any smaller.

However, I believe that the primary influence on our new transit considerations will likely be people working from home and fewer requirements to be in a rented (or leased) building or floors where people work together, far from their homes or places of residence. Most independent businesses don’t own the places they function in and it’s a big line item for most entrepreneurs.

By way of example, last week I observed four TTC buses with a total of one paying person on board. Not one in each bus, but one in total of all four buses. Clearly this is not a scientific observation but, I would put forward that it may forewarn a trend that we, as taxpayers, may want to consider and must have the courage to ask our elected officials. Are we getting the services we need? And should we re-consider our transit requirements based on what could be the new normal: a much higher percentage of the population working from home–not as a necessity but as a life choice–and perhaps as a corporate decision to reduce costs.

In turn, this begs larger questions about how much we need to be or should be spending on infrastructure. Clearly, the jury will be out on this question until the pandemic is over and done with. Going from Scarborough to Etobicoke on the Gardiner with so many entrances and exits eliminated poses challenges and delays for many. Whether things will go back to what we were used to is an open question. A hybrid scenario is most likely, where people will still have to go into the office on a more limited basis. Perhaps it’s not time to go back to the drawing board just yet, let’s keep our pencils sharp.