Swans And Snails And Puppy Dogs’ Tails: What Canadian Politics Is Made Of

Black Swan

Everybody knows that snails don’t run.

But no one told Sam.

Sam arrived in our household along with Soda, a colourful betta fish we picked up from the local pet shop as replacement for Ollie.  (Ollie succumbed to fishy old age and was transitioned ceremoniously into compost in the garden, under the grand epitaph: “Here Lies A Good Fish”.)

The pet-store guy threw Sam, a finger-nail-sized “mystery snail, in for free.  Selecting companions for betta fish can be a bit tricky: otherwise known as Siamese fighting fish, they aren’t known for their affability.  But betta fish aren’t threatened by snails, we were assured.  Plus, snails keep the water clean.

All seemed well, at first.  Soda simply ignored the tiny striped mollusk meandering around his space.  The only thing he attacked was his food.  Until the night he drove Sam clean out of the bowl.

Presumably spooked by Soda, the little snail hoisted himself over the rim, made his way to the edge of the table and hurled himself fearlessly into the abyss.  Righting himself somehow on the hardwood floor, he made a beeline for safety and was three-quarters of the way to the front door by the time I found him in the morning, a long trail of slime in his wake.

Sam can run like the wind, it turns out.  He’s snail-hood’s version of Usain Bolt.

I didn’t witness any of this, of course.  I was fast asleep along with the rest of my family.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  Sam’s great escape was akin to a “black swan” event, I think, of the sort described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book: “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”  Before 1697, Taleb writes, everyone knew that all swans are white.  Then Dutch explorers discovered black swans living in Western Australia and the rule was broken.

Highly improbable events have been top of mind in the aftermath of last week’s disturbing Canadian election.

It was highly improbable, for instance, that scandal-plagued, ethics-challenged incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would earn re-election.

But the contest turned out pretty well for him.  Despite finishing second in the popular vote he gets to stay on as Prime Minister.  He scored more seats than any of the other parties, thanks to seat-rich Toronto and its suburbs, which channeled Justin’s father Pierre and flipped Western Canadians a solid middle finger salute, an electoral insult sure to be repeated in future elections.  As Marcus Gee pointed out in a Globe and Mail essay on the weekend: “Get used to it, Toronto is the key to winning.”

Mr. Trudeau returns to the PMO in diminished circumstances, of course; but as one wag on social media put it at least he gets to be a real minority.  He remains as clueless as ever, claiming a “clear mandate” from Canadians after essentially being elected the Prime Minister of Toronto.

It’s also highly improbable that Andrew Scheer will survive as Conservative Party leader.  “We ran an excellent campaign, from top to bottom, and for that, we should all be proud,” Mr. Scheer declared in his concession speech.  Even by Mr. Trudeau’s generous standard that’s a champion nose-stretcher.  His campaign was a disaster, lurching from dumpster fire to dumpster fire, from his infamous “dog’s tail”/same-sex-marriage conflation, to his inflated insurance-salesman resume, to his still-retained American citizenship, to skullduggery against People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier exposed on the eve of the election.

A nimbler politician would have handled these issues adroitly as they cropped up – they were but molehills in comparison to the mountainous transgressions of Trudeau, after all.  But Mr. Scheer was flat-footed and clumsy – Sam the fleet-footed snail ran better than he did.  By October 21 he had fully inhabited the off-putting caricature his opponents created for him.

He needs to go.  It’s not personal; I haven’t met him, but he is by all accounts a good and decent man.  However, if Mr. Scheer remains at the helm then the Conservative Party deserves the electoral oblivion that awaits it.  If he couldn’t take down the Liberals in this election, despite the grievous damage Mr. Trudeau inflicted on the Liberal brand, then he won’t take them down next time.

Conservatives should learn from the Tim Hudak fiasco in Ontario.  After Mr. Hudak failed to defeat a vulnerable Dalton McGuinty in 2011 it was abundantly clear that he didn’t have what it took; he hung on as leader despite that and was roundly thumped by an even-more vulnerable Kathleen Wynne in 2014.  The provincial Liberals’ long and disastrous record of stupendous financial incompetence wasn’t enough to cover over Mr. Hudak’s deficiencies.  Inasmuch as we’re repeatedly told that “governments defeat themselves”, citizens need somebody to vote for.

It’s highly improbable that the Conservatives will come up anyone much better, mind you.  Quality political leaders don’t come ‘round very often in today’s world.  It’s slim pickings out there: competent, inspirational party heads have become as rare hen’s teeth.  The choice we had in Election 2019 is instructive:  who do you like for PM, a part-time drama teacher or a part-time insurance salesman?

Politics doesn’t easily attract the best and the brightest.  The character assassinations, the lengthy absences from family, the constant glare of cameras, a daily life surrounded by graspers and connivers and hangers on – who needs it?  Most successful businesspersons, professionals, and entrepreneurs prefer to remain out of the public sphere, content to live quietly with whatever skeletons reside in their closets.

Canada desperately needs a political black swan to rise from the ashes of this election, a wise and good leader, a man or woman of stature and magnetism – a Canadian Churchill, in short, who can step forward as a voice of reason to calm the waters and re-unite this fractured country.

It’s unlikely to happen.  Which is deeply unfortunate, as it’s highly improbable that Canada will ever be the same.  Separatist sentiment in Alberta has never been so high, even as separatists have enjoyed a resurrection in Quebec.

It’s an unhappy state of affairs, the predictable product of an incompetent PM nakedly pitting provinces against one another in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, in an election which delivered not a single Liberal MP between Greater Vancouver and Winnipeg, and an election in which two-thirds of Canadian voters opted for parties that want to drain the economic life-blood from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Conrad Black article, writing in the National Post, noted that “economically, Quebec has completely outperformed Canada in the past decade; six straight budget surpluses, substantial debt reduction, and a brilliant Hydro-Quebec worth $500 billion… The Quebec Caisse de Dépôts et de Placements has net assets of $326 billion for 8.5 million Quebecers, and the Canada Pension Plan has assets of $404 billion for 29 million non-Quebec Canadians. Quebec unemployment is the lowest in the country.”

Despite that rosy picture, Quebec (which will brook no talk of an oil pipeline across its territory) will receive $13 billion in “equalization” payments next year, helped by a formula that inexplicably excludes Quebec’s valuable hydroelectric jewel while including Alberta’s fossil fuel resources.  Recession-weary Alberta (and Saskatchewan), of course, will receive zilch.

It’s no wonder that separatist sentiment is running white-hot in Alberta.  “It’s time for Alberta’s Boston Tea Party moment,” respected political statesman Ted Morton declared in the Calgary Herald on the weekend.  The anger runs deep, and it’s not going away.  We’ve had it, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

It’s highly improbable that a large, well-established peaceful Western democracy will come apart at the seams.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

The notion that Alberta (plus or minus Saskatchewan) will separate from Canada seems absurd on its surface.  “If you think you have problems getting a pipeline built now,” we are told, “wait until you’re a landlocked independent nation with international borders on all sides to negotiate.”

And yet.  As other have noted, it’s worth considering that one of the richest countries in the world is little landlocked Switzerland and its 8 million citizens, not long on natural resources but endowed with one of the world’s most advanced free market economies.

Imagine what Alberta could do as an independent state, blessed as it is with vast natural resources and shepherded by the resourceful, ingenious, well-educated and resilient citizens that are typical Albertans.

Alberta as the Switzerland of the Americas: it’s a fascinating idea.

More on that later.  At the moment I have a snail to resuscitate.




2 Replies to “Swans And Snails And Puppy Dogs’ Tails: What Canadian Politics Is Made Of”

  1. Hi Ed,

    Heard about your blog from classmates at the CanWest Vet conference in Banff last week. Refreshing stuff. Just listened to my frustrated brother describe how nothing but government policy destroyed his Natural Gas Exploration company in Calgary. He is going from CFO to part-time Uber driver.
    Hope you and your family are well. I share your dismay at Trudeau being elected..I am urinating in the wind here in Ladysmith- a Roman Catholic conservative in a Green riding. But life is good!
    Will now be a regular reader.
    Best Regards,

    1. Colin, good to hear from you, it’s been a long time. Frustrating times here in AB, for sure. Your brother’s experience isn’t unique, sadly…. I seriously just caught an Uber ride home from YYC last week, piloted by an ex-oil patch exec.
      Thanks for the positive feedback on my writing… like , I feel like I’m urinating into the wind, most days.


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