Understanding why and what we remember through the European perspective
A few years ago I spoke some words at the Remembrance Day ceremony here in Lions Bay– and I focused on how people in Europe experienced being liberated by Canadian troops in 1945. It makes sense to reflect on that, as we need to understand what they, these brave men and women, accomplished. And yes in a way, if The Netherlands were never liberated back then I would most probably not be standing here today.
Norman Kirby was among those troops. You landed on D-Day and marched and fought all the way up to the northern parts of The Netherlands and into Germany. By late August and early September 1944, allied troops crossed into Dutch territory. It caused a real panic among the Germans and their collaborators who started to flee and whose operations were severely impacted. The war could have ended right then and there if the massive allied attack on Arnhem, Operation Market Garden as it was called and you all probably know it better by the movie about it, ‘A Bridge too Far’, had succeeded. It failed as it met fierce German resistance and it caused the allies to get stuck behind the great rivers, separating the West and North of The Netherlands from liberated territory.
What followed was a winter of hunger, plunder and terror where the German occupiers basically destroyed what was left of The Netherlands while starving its population. The place was reduced to rubble. My own father who was seventeen in that last winter had to hide when German troops raided towns and villages to capture young men to work in Germany’s readily collapsing war industry. My father survived, as did my grandfather who was interned in Buchenwald, one of the more notorious concentration camps.
Around the same time that the allied troops entered The Netherlands, Anne Frank and her family were deported on September 3, 1944 – the last transport of Jews to Auschwitz from The Netherlands. The Frank family had been following the advance of the allied troops from their place and those of you have read her diary will remember the excitement when they figured out that allied troops were getting closer and closer to liberating The Netherlands. For them it was the last bit of hope that separated them from a certain death.
The story of Anne Frank and her family symbolizes the deep horror of the Nazi occupation. Their ordeal started in 1942 in what I find to be one of the most gut wrenching things I have learned about the Holocaust. A note from the German occupiers that her oldest sister, Margot, had to report to the train station on a certain night, on her own, unoccupied with only one piece of luggage. And yes, she had to walk there on her own saying goodbye to her family, forever, in the hallway. This is one of the cruellest things one can imagine and for the Frank family it was the sign to pack up and hide, a mission which almost was successful, as we know only her father Otto managed to survive the war.
As a kid I just did not grow up with those stories, they were part of post-war life in The Netherlands. My parents would point to Jews that had survived, to people that had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, to people who had served in the resistance, to people that had lost loved ones and yes, on a lighter note, to some of the girls who got hitched to a Canadian soldier when they finally arrived during the first week of May 1945, liberating the Dutch from five years of occupation and the ‘winter of hunger’ as it came to be known.
These stories were essential in remembering and why freedom was such a precious thing. On this side of the ocean here in Canada we learn about the sacrifices of the soldiers and the battles for freedom, but in the Europe I grew up in I had learned firsthand what it actually meant what Canadian soldiers delivered us from. My father took me to the Remembrance Day services in May and after they ended he and I would casually stroll back to our house, leaving behind a square filled with floral tributes to the fallen. He would tell me that none of the unborn would ever realize what freedom really meant. In my childlike enthusiasm I firmly rejected this notion, but subconsciously I knew he was absolutely right. Not until you have experienced what it is to see entire families disappear from your street or to sit on a darkened attic for days on end to avoid capture, deportation and death, can one come to realize the true value of freedom.
And remembering is very hard. Over time things get lost, or sometimes people deliberately forget and move on. The Dutch never came to terms with the fact that out of 140,000 Jews, only 36,000 survived the war. Next year I will travel back to attend the unveiling of the Monument of Names in Amsterdam, a monument that has the names of each and every of those 104,000 Jews on it, much like the Vietnam monument in Washington, DC. It was built by letting donors adopt the names of murdered Jews and we as a family adopted a few. In doing that you bring them back to life, a bit. But note, it took some 70 years to get to this monument and yes; Anne Frank’s name will be on it.
But, if we do not keep telling and sharing these stories, people will not remember the why and the how of war. And people will no longer fully grasp why the Dutch were elated to see Canadian troops roll into their cities in the spring of 1945. So remembering today is not only to honour the soldier, but to fully understand what they fought for, what they gave their lives for.
This was the text for my words to the Lions Bay community on November 11, 2017. The photo of Norman Kirby was made during the ceremony of 2016.
While still a free and separate region, twenty years after the handover Hong Kong’s future is more uncertain than ever
June 30, 1997 was one of those rainy days that are typical for the summer months in Hong Kong, wet, humid weather with massive downpours that tend to render umbrellas useless. Light rain started as Governor Chris Patten said goodbye to his residence in the afternoon and a torrent of rain enveloped HMS Tamar where British Forces beat their retreat, culminating when the Prince of Wales delivered the Queen’s farewell notes. Mainland Chinese officials argued that the rain washed away the stain of colonialism, others pointed out that the Gods were crying as a free and prosperous Hong Kong was delivered to an uncertain future.
Whatever it was, on that very day Chris Patten made it very clear what the new order would be after his departure: by stating that “now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong”. Not only was this the core belief on which he had staked his political legacy, it was vested in the territory’s constitution, the Basic Law. It basically said that Hong Kong would get to manage its own affairs and issues of defence and foreign relations fell into the lap of Beijing as the sovereign entity with ultimate control, a deal that is guaranteed to last until 2047, the fiftieth anniversary of the handover. The rationale for that timeframe was simple, Britain and China – at the time under Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping – agreed that China needed time to catch up with the city-state’s living standards and seamless integration of Hong Kong into the motherland would take some time. And that is why today, on the face of it, Hong Kong is still pretty much what it was twenty years ago: a self-governing entity separated by borders from mainland China and enjoying levels of freedom that are simply not present anywhere in the People’s Republic.
Yet things have changed quite a bit since that rainy day twenty years ago. The Hong Kong press even before the handover started to self-censor while Beijing has kept a tight lid on elections, it remains impossible for pro-democracy anti-government parties to obtain a majority in the city’s parliament, the Legislative Council. What is more, its citizens do not have a say in who gets to be its Chief Executive, effectively Hong Kong’s leader who came to replace the job previously held by the British governor. The current leader, Leung Hun-ying, is, like the first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, a Beijing friendly business leader, a background that is seen to balance the political need to remain close to the motherland while ensuring the interests on Hong Kong’s economy are met. Next week the job will go to Carrie Lam, the first woman to hold the position and a civil administrator who will face the near impossible task to succeed where all of her predecessors pretty much failed: to get the people of Hong Kong to at the very least accept, work with and place its trust in its own administration. It will require the one thing where businesspeople and civil administrators normally fail: applying political skills. And the reason for that simply is that they’re not elected, have never really campaigned and are thus not really in synch with what the people on the street want and expect.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong’s powerful business elites solidly aligned themselves with the leadership in Beijing in order to ensure a stable business environment – which in Hong Kong means keep developing pricey real estate, unhindered. What is good for Hong Kong’s economy is good for local stability and that is best for the leadership in Beijing or so the reasoning went. China’s key strategic goal has always been to prove that integration into the mainland works so that the same model could be re-purposed for the main prize: peaceful re-integration of Taiwan into the People’s Republic. The warm relationship between Hong Kong’s wealthy elites and the Chinese leadership seems to have solidified the relative calm over the territory’s first twenty years under Chinese rule. But it was not always easy as China was well aware of the resentment towards the motherland. Beijing leaders reportedly were puzzled by statements from some business leaders in the run-up to the handover that ‘Hong Kong people were yearning to join the motherland again after years of colonial oppression’. Nothing of course was further reform the truth as the city-state’s population never saw itself as suffering under British rule, on the contrary.
Hong Kong’s Identity
One of the things that I recall from my Hong Kong days is the unambiguous way in which the former British crown colony’s residents define their status. In general they consider themselves to be Hong Kong residents or possibly Hong Kong Chinese, but that is more often to underline their ethnicity, not their nationality. Residents of Hong Kong are proud and when asked about it and will rarely if ever say that they are from China. And the reason for that is simple: most of them are not. In fact the very large majority of Hong Kong residents ran away from China during Mao’s reign of terror and their descendants through the years forged a very different identity, culturally and economically. Over 150 years of British rule created an ethnically diverse open market where trade, the rule of law and political stability created a turbocharged and self confident city state with its own dialect and customs that, had it not been for some historical flukes, would have remained a set of sparsely populated coastal islands with fisheries as the main economic driver.
But while business and culture flourished, having over seven million people crammed on a small plot of land does pose its environmental challenges. Even during the end of British rule it had become clear that issues like housing, development and pollution could no longer be effectively handled by a benign colonial administration. In the wake of the handover it became even clearer that the interests of a Beijing-appointed business elite stood diametrically opposed to the wants and needs of a population that despite its growing wealth had a vested interest in ensuring that the city-state would remain livable. The call for more democracy and freedom was not a hollow one, it was a genuine quest to sit at the table and determine what Hong Kong should look like. There was limited interest in it from becoming a polluted metropolis much like other Chinese urban centers where development and economic growth trumped everything else. A quick health check with the Hong Kong Chinese diaspora in places like Sydney and Vancouver will tell you that the combination of political uncertainty and quality of life was more than enough to leave for better and above all greener pastures.
All of the discontent culminated in the 2014 street protests in Hong Kong that became known as the Umbrella Revolution, a series of street protests in reaction to Beijing tightening of Hong Kong’s electoral rules. Now Hong Kong has a long tradition of outspoken politicians and legislators who have made it their life’s work to ensure Beijing’s power is kept in check ranging from the feisty Emily Lau Wai-hing to the calm and measured Martin Lee. However, these were the more traditional pro-democracy personalities who despite their disdain for Beijing’s undemocratic approach sought to play within the unfortunately tight framework in which they had to operate, always facing a pro-Beijing majority. They accepted the hand they were dealt and managed to present Hong Kong’s as effectively as possible.
But out of the Umbrella Revolution a new crop of youthful activists has emerged and they have been willing to take the debate a step further than the Lau-Lee generation. With some resounding wins during the 2016 legislative elections (which are essentially unwinnable against pro-government parties) some fresh young candidates pushed what now has become known as the ‘localist’ line: openly calling for Hong Kong’s independence from China. The most noteworthy ones were Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching who both successfully contested seats in the election under a pro-independence banner. In doing so they were pursuing both a logical conclusion to Hong Kong’s post-umbrella pro-democracy movement while at the same time crossing the very line that is guaranteed to spell deep trouble: openly calling for secession from the Chinese motherland. They crossed the one line that no one was supposed to cross. And in opening the door to Beijing’s retribution both Leung and Yau were eventually disqualified from taking their seats after intentionally using their oath-of-office taking ceremony in the new legislative council to display their total disrespect for China as Hong Kong’s sovereign master.
While their actions were qualified as ‘immature’ or ‘unnecessarily provoking’ both Leung and Yau thought it would be their one and only chance to make their pro-Hong Kong, pro-democracy case for all the world to see, while baiting China into showing its hand. And through their local intermediaries China did indeed take that bait. Beijing found a legal route to boot them out of their elected seats and the Hong Kong administrative apparatus dutifully complied to ensure that the territory’s elected body remained unanimously loyal to the motherland.
The localist movement was much like the Arab Spring or the populist movements that are shaking western democracies right now: a logical outcome of unleashing tensions that the system could no longer contain. And it was an outcome that was inevitable, the young Hong Kong protestors and localist activists not only acted out what they felt as citizens of Hong Kong, they demanded exactly what they were explicitly promised on that rainy day twenty years ago: that now it was the people of Hong Kong who would call the shots in their own home. And by showing their hand now the Chinese overlords made it abundantly clear that Hong Kong’s freedom to manoeuvre under the Basic Law is and will remain minimal.
So we are into twenty years of ‘one country, two systems’ and in a way the countdown to the next benchmark date has started as thirty years is not all that far away. The Basic Law has no firm expiry date, but based on recent developments there is good reason to believe that on June 30, 2047, Hong Kong lose its unique position and will become what most have feared would be the most undesirable outcome: a Chinese city like any other.
Personal Note: I lived and worked in Hong Kong in the 1992-99 period and witnessed the build up to the eventual handover and the first few years when the territory tried to find its way under its new sovereign rulers. I had the pleasure to meet both Chris Patten (his book ‘East and West’ about his time in Asia is highly recommended reading) as well as Tung Chee-hwa and to this day remain fascinated and intrigued by what I consider to be one of the best and most dynamic places on this planet.
In a recent talk I branded Hong Kong 'turbo-cultural' which I define as 'a multicultural entity where ethnic differences are minimal and all potential tensions are subordinated to the greater good of economic success to which most, if not all, residents have access'.
Photos: Cotton Tree Drive leading from Central up to the Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island (photo from December 2015) and localist politicians Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching.
Is a monetary crisis the real threat, and if yes, what will it look like ?
While climate change appears to be the one existential threat to civilization to some and mass immigration to others, it can be argued that the far more imminent one is monetary collapse. Lionel Shriver takes on this theme in her latest novel, ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’. In it she paints an in my opinion unusually realistic view of how a once wealthy family is reduced to poverty and famine as the value of the once mighty US Dollar evaporates.
Shriver’s trademark approach is to take on some current issue and frame it into a unique and often dark fictional narrative with character studies that leaves you wondering if you have to read the whole book again as it is not only that good, you are still ridden with a myriad of questions about each protagonist in the book. She has successfully taken on America’s ongoing healthcare trauma in ‘So Much for That’, obesity in ‘Big Brother’ and extreme school violence in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. The latter was turned into a movie with Tilda Swinton and the story leaves you wondering about the horrendous reservoirs of misery that the human mind can apparently sink to. Beyond depressing, but a captivating read. ‘The Post Birthday World’ on the other hand is far more upbeat and captures an extra-marital affair in minute detail, exploring two different outcomes: if a kiss had or had not happened. So my expectations for her latest tome, ‘The Mandibles’, were quite high and Shriver does not disappoint. On the contrary, she has taken her social commentary to a new level altogether.
It would be hard to describe the book and not give away its plot, but in short it comes down to the greenback losing its value and the countries that have so generously advanced money to the debt-addicted American nation now seek repayment by other means. The world’s reserve currency is now the ‘bancor’ and America’s first Latino president resorts to extreme measure to ensure that the nation’s debt can be repaid in order to avoid a looming war with, among others, China. As we have seen in real-life with Greece’s debt crisis, the pain of drastic monetary action falls on the citizenry and so it falls on the Mandible family whose journey we follow over a 25-year period. Again, what makes Shriver’s writing so compelling is the plausibility of her fiction. In many ways we have already and consciously started the downward journey to a world where the greenback is no longer valuable and where we have to find our way back to gold and other instruments, like bitcoin, that store and preserve value.
It is not hard to imagine a world without currencies and cash and just imagine if we did away with it all, would the physical world not look exactly as it is now? A house is still a house, with or without a mortgage contract, right? The Mandibles is almost a piece of basic economic theory explaining how the artificial monetary construct on which we have built our society is vital in sustaining our physical world and pretty much all relations that govern our lives. Once money evaporates, the world around us changes so much that our core foundations get uprooted to such an extent that everything around us falls apart and gets destroyed. Rip up a mortgage contract and your house will all of a sudden look very different, that is what Shriver’s book tells us.
So yes, although fiction, the book is a piece of social-political commentary that resonates deep in the current environment, something that Shrives alludes too when referring to the 2008 financial crisis. In her book, Keynesian budgetary policies are demonstrated to have outlived their usefulness and a tech empowered welfare state that is used as an outsourcing center for the world’s new economic powerhouses (China, India) stand out as examples of our near term economic prospects. The crowning piece however is a libertarian nirvana that has seceded from the United States. On close inspection however it is nothing less than a Darwinian struggle for survival where the absence of government supported healthcare and rampant crime are the inescapable side effects for those that seek to claim one of the last remaining pieces of freedom on planet earth.
As dry and haunting as this may sound, Shriver brings this dark vision of our future to life with some phenomenal protagonists that span four generations. The kids that are our current day millennials, the post-boomers, boomers as well as the last representative of the greatest generation embodied by the Mandible pater familias ‘Great Grand Man’ whose fortune everyone is after are condemned to each other and to figuring out life without the hoped for family fortune. As a consequence, each family member has to fend for his or her own interests. And Shriver dives right into her knowledge of self as she describes the impact of the economic crisis on the generation that ultimately carries the most guilt in our monetary undoing: the baby boomers. Obsessed by self-interest, health and eternal youth, these are the ones that have to fight hardest to accommodate the most to the unforgiving post-dollar world. One of them, Nollie Mandible, is the boomer that is able to redeem herself and is in all likelihood Shriver herself as she paints the way out of the disaster that has effectively destroyed the United States as we know it.
It did not take me long to finish the book, it was that riveting a read, blending personal fictional drama with a fairly plausible analysis of the world’s future if we keep borrowing and printing money. It is after all not that hard to fathom that at some point this century Indonesia will invade Australia, yet it takes some dark futurology to invoke it in a novel as an entirely logical outcome of a re-ordered world. Shriver does that, with both humor and substance, and has put down a book that we all should read and reflect on while we still have our hands on the monetary steering wheel.
The region’s first angel investment conference aligns entrepreneurs and funders for a diversified regional economy
Last week I attended and presented at the Caribbean Angel Investor Forum in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the first conference of its kind. Jointly organized by the Caribbean Export Development Agency and the World Bank. The goal was to put angel investing in the Caribbean on the map and seek to professionalize the emergence of a new asset class which can be a key driver for economic growth and job creation. It was hoped that it could also deal with debunking the stereotype of angel investing as some sort of game for the wealthy only. Not only do many people invest at the angel level these days, they do this in combination with offering mentoring start-ups and helping to build ecosystems that will support stronger and above all more diversified economies.
A number of angel investors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and government officials from all over the Caribbean as well as the US and Canada exchanged ideas and above all sought to learn from each other. The Caribbean has not been immune to global shifts and the Trinidad delegation pointed out that their economy could no longer take oil revenues for granted and that diversification of the economy through angel deals was a necessity for them. While each country had its own issues, it was key to bring them on all on the same page with regards to proper angel investing. It was therefore good that at the opening Tomi Davies from Nigeria laid down very clearly that early stage investing was primarily investing in people and building long-term relationships. It was relatively easy for me to expand on that theme by explaining that I had seen well-funded companies with great technologies fail, while I had seen relatively lower-tech companies with limited amounts of cash flourish simply because of the people involved.
While in some Caribbean countries the concept of angel investing has only just taken hold, others are making solid progress and have raised the bar significantly. In the latter category falls First Angels Jamaica, which has built up a small portfolio of interesting investments but above all has developed a very disciplined investment approach. At the same time they are lobbying for government and regulatory support, which will benefit all Jamaican investors and entrepreneurs. Its chairman, Joseph Matalon, opened and closed the conference and not only shared his experiences to date but pointed to the challenges in getting government support. In that he elaborated on the fact that politicians are driven by election cycles and that building ecosystems where angels invest and nurture emerging companies takes much longer. This is something we have seen in Canada as well where the focus on natural resource projects somehow always outranks entrepreneurial activity during election cycles. In any case, Jamaica’s minister of state for finance, Fayval Williams, was present to hear this message and took the opportunity to summarize the progress the island state has made and emphasizing the fertile ground it now is for entrepreneurial activity.
It was timely that the NACO common documents had just been launched so I could give some depth and materials to my workshops on deal structuring and due diligence and share some vital education with the Caribbean community. There was energy and a clear thirst for knowledge on how to negotiate financings, how to create solid working relationships with entrepreneurs, and equally important, how to get angel investors to work together: share deals, pool funds and do due diligence together in an organized way.
The best part of the conference for me were the entrepreneur sessions. A number of regional start-ups pitched their ideas followed by ‘speed-dating’ at a number of tables. The impressive thing was not only the quality of the pitches – they would easily be very competitive in a North American setting – but the visionary and global approach each entrepreneur took. They all understood that their market was pan-Caribbean and global and their plans and ambitions more than underlined that. A much needed emergency platform, an extremely energetic candy manufacturer, a Caribbean Uber-type transportation play, an in-ABM advertising deal that generated some interesting revenue streams and a platform for stroke and elderly patients brought the audience to action. It was great to have dinner afterwards with a few of them, one local entrepreneur had graduated from MIT, set up his mobile survey conversations start-up in Kenya and had now stopped at the conference on his way to Silicon Valley to talk about his Series A financing. Global thinking in action indeed.
So there is no lack of ambition and willingness to finance and nurture an emerging angel and start-up ecosystem in the Caribbean and kudos to those that have taken the plunge in making it happen. But there are some major hurdles too. Lack of capital is not one of them according to most of the participants although some time was spent on figuring out how to mobilize the Caribbean diaspora to invest back home, much like ethnic Chinese have done when their country roared back to growth in recent decades. Lack of investable deals however was the key and most cited issue. Building deal flow not only requires patience, it also is a matter of education, mentoring and changing a mindset as is engaging with local universities and possibly enticing diaspora talent to come back and start companies. Add to that the common complaint that local entrepreneurs often lack the maturity to negotiate a deal and be mentored and it became very clear where the energies are to be focused. A combination of education and trial and error will in the end yield results and this is exactly what Matalon alluded to when he spoke about the time and effort involved in building successful start-up ecosystems.
The key driver for this however in the end is success. Not until the first early stage deals grow, become success stories and generate exits, will the larger environment take notice and mobilize new entrepreneurial minds who have seen that it can be done while also unearthing new pools of capital.
While each participant came away with different insights and ideas, all of them were energized. At the same time they were armed with a good sense of reality by understanding in what areas work needs to be done going forward. The first Caribbean Angel Investor Forum was a well-organized effort and a good start to get that process going. Keep your eyes open for the next emerging start-up market.
Creating a Canadian standard for term sheets to get more and better deals done, faster
Over the past year and a half I have been conducting a workshop on term sheets and structuring deals across Canada. This is part of the National Angel Capital Organization of Canada’s (NACO) effort to encourage angel investing and in particular help tech businesses get off the ground. It has taken me to Niagara, Kitchener-Waterloo, Calgary, Victoria, my hometown Vancouver, Kingston in Jamaica and next week Regina and Saskatoon. Wherever I go there are keen and very diverse audiences willing to learn how to structure and do better deals. Having done this work for many years it is sometimes surprising to see how light the knowledge about this is on the ground and what difference an intense 4-hour workshop can make, not to mention getting people enthusiastic about participating in an asset class that was until recently the domain of a privileged few. Because yes, people are writing cheques into high-risk ventures or into funds that are trying to get a return on supporting emerging tech firms across Canada. As I have learned, the term sheet is the starting point of what sometimes can be a very long and rocky relationship, so better get it right on day one.
In the process it has become clear that Canadian start-ups often use outdated term sheets, sometimes found after a Google search or by simply copying American documents that are an awkward fit for local deals. As a board member of an angel fund, I see many founder generated term sheets and even when there are reputable advisors or directors involved, the quality is generally poor. I do not need to see a term sheet where one page is dedicated to director biographies. These are not deal terms and documents like this go straight to the garbage can, unless we find the company willing to renegotiate and rewrite the document. In most case such a joint effort yields much better term sheets and at the same time we have enhanced the entrepreneurs’ understanding of the process.
So how great it was that Boris Mann – another Vancouver tech veteran – and I got invited to project manage #NACOCommondocs, a project designed to launch a Canadian standard for Common and Preferred share deals as well as Convertible Loan and Convertible Equity, the latter also known as SAFEs, or Simply Agreement for Future Equity. As easy as it would have been for Boris and me to lock ourselves in a room for a day and bang these new standards out, they have to reflect the Canadian market place and regional opinions. And, some deep legal thought from the six law firms that are sponsoring this important project, not to mention accounting opinions. So we have travelled to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Victoria, Halifax and of course Vancouver where lawyers, angel investors and entrepreneurs commented on our work and at times ripped apart some of our assumptions and deeply held beliefs. Our egos, believe me, can take that. There is nothing like solid and constructive feedback that seeks to improve your product. And yes, there are regional differences. In some parts of the country angels will insist on having the ‘redemption right’ in any term sheet, whereas in Vancouver and Calgary the mere mentioning of this concept generated outright hostility. Try and synthesize those two points of view into one standard document!
But as always in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle and there are many ways is which we can bridge the discrepancies and still present a menu card from which to build a perfect term sheet for your start-up. Both angel investors and founders can now use a base term sheet with options to extend with additional clauses that will better reflect their deal. At the same time lawyers will no longer have to worry about wasting billable time on educating cash strapped company founders on what a term sheet really is. They will be able to point to the NACO website and say: educate yourself, negotiate a deal and we can help you with the rest.
As we dove into this it became clearer that there are indeed many aspects depending on if you are doing a common share, preferred share, convertible loan or a convertible equity (SAFE) deal. Tax implications, share options, vesting schedules, you name it, it is all more than just sticking a clause in an agreement. So in addition to the term sheets and accompanying educational notes we will present a number of one-pagers on the NACO portal when the project is launched April that will complement and enhance knowledge. Expect notes on tax credits, friends & family rounds and the not unimportant one that answers the question: which document to use when?
But above all the key drive is to build better companies as Canada’s economy is diversifying while at the same time being asked to compete in a razor sharp global environment. Last week’s BC Tech Summit in Vancouver made me realize how far we have come over the past twenty years and how mature start ups have become, even when (often) using crappy term sheets. There is strong momentum with many ideas and readily available capital, although we can do more to create better companies and mobilize more investment dollars. The challenge will be for solid people to combine these ingredients and build a strong technology cluster that will – as much as angel investors like exits – stay in Canada and build wealth right here.
The pioneer of modern day populism gets ready for a vote that may change very little
Being the first always takes some unusual bravery and unique character. It was the Dutch that started experimenting with right leaning movements that put immigration on the agenda in the late 1990s and its initial champions were indeed hardly average citizens. A flamboyant gay professor, an errant moviemaker and a poor Somali refugee turned politician were the pioneers in ending the small nation’s politically correct consensus model. Championing enlightenment values they warned of a society that would succumb to accommodating non-western values and, eventually, the erosion of individual rights. The professor convincingly argued he was not prepared to fight the 1960s battle for women and gay rights again, the refugee and moviemaker teamed up to make a controversial short film about the submissive role of women in Islam. Brave as they were, within short order two of them were murdered and one was hounded out of the country to take up US residency. Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali had been able to create a foundation on which the Dutch will now contest a much anticipated and divisive election that will tilt country further to the right, fracture its parliament and decimate one of the dominant purveyors of that famed consensus, the Labour Party. That said, it remains to be seen if the March election will bring the sort of change that some are now expecting.
Almost each and every piece written about The Netherlands ever since Fortuyn rose to international fame will wax on lyrically about Dutch tolerance and its liberal attitudes. The lax attitude to drugs in particular gives North Americans something to drool about for some reason. Foreign commentators fail to understand and align their rosy view of the country with the realities that literally brought blood to its streets. The perceptions are as mistaken as they are misinformed. The Dutch by nature are not more liberal than any other group: history and culture have forged a nation that is at best extremely pragmatic and at worst pretty indifferent. The political violence and drama are not a shattering of a liberal nirvana, no; they represent a logical reset, as something was apparently not working anymore. The pragmatic consensus had run its course, a notion not fully understood around the globe.
When its economy rose from the ashes in the post war world, cheap labour from Southern Europe and notably Turkey and Morocco fuelled growth and created a lower class of non-integrated citizens of whom the expectation was that they would pack up and go once they had reaped rewards from a Dutch dream. But nothing like that ever materialized – on the contrary, family reunifications increased the size of this group dramatically – and a growing Muslim minority became a feature of Dutch life. In a nation that stood silently by and in many cases actively collaborated in the deportation and murder of 102,000 of its Jewish citizens, the guilt of that weighed so heavily that any form of discrimination, indeed any critical discussion of minorities became a total taboo. The instinct was to make it work as best as possible and to rather not talk about it. In an odd twist of fate it was the Dutch contribution to the holocaust that ensured that instead of Jews its new and sizeable minority was now Muslim.
As the 1990s unfolded and more refugees (Eastern Europe, Africa) came to take up Dutch residency, the European Union added its weight by usurping the nation’s sovereignty, its currency and with it its confident sense of self. Native Dutch emigration against a backdrop of political discontent and an emerging economic crisis set the tone for the first decade of the new century. If you can get out, you might as well. For a brief moment the belief that things would be fine emerged, hopes of a ‘moderate Muslim’ and successful integration patterns heralded some calm, but not for long. The Brexit vote and migrant streams from the Middle East boosted the fortunes of the new right and put pressure on Mark Rutte, the current prime minister who is heading a reasonably successful Liberal-Labour coalition.
With its three pioneers off the stage, Fortuyn 2.0 emerged in the form of Geert Wilders, an erstwhile liberal politician who broke ranks with his party over Turkey’s potential EU membership. His words were harsher, far more direct including a political rally in which the crowd shouted “less, less!” to Wilders’ question if they preferred “less” or “more” Moroccans. He answered his audience that “we will take care of that” and it landed him in court, which, true to the populist instincts of his movement only boosted his popularity and poll rankings. Any attention is better than no attention and the nature of his campaign had become mainstream as his star continued to rise in the polls.
Another thing the nation pioneered successfully was reality-TV. Yes, the wave of shows that enveloped the world originally started out with the ‘Big Brother’ series in the 1990s: launched in The Netherlands, exported globally. The coarser and the more vulgar the language, the more viewers, and so it went with Dutch politics where – much like Donald Trump – the race to the abyss was accelerated in order to get more media attention. Morality and decency be damned, the voter not only stopped caring, they had developed a veritable appetite for it all. And leave it to the Dutch to do one better. Only a few weeks ago it was treated to a real ‘golden shower’ video with a famous 1970s & 80s singer allowing herself to be rained on by her lover. Yes, by all means do the math on her age.
So in this cacophony of noise, political instability and eroding sense of nationality, populist parties are thriving and if polls hold steady Wilders’ Freedom Party has a decent shot at being the largest party, with second place going to Rutte’s free-market liberals, the very people who until now represented the real Dutch right. The left has fractured into a Socialist Workers Party, Party for Animals, GreenLeft, Democrats 66, the remnants of Labour and 'Think' a party representing immigrants. To top it all off the Party 50+ is gaining traction in a nation where the greying top layer is increasingly worried about its entitlements although it has consistently refused to produce babies at the replacement rate in order to secure these benefits. And at the same time no one is interested to have the required level of immigration to supplant these unborn babies. Call this hedonism at its best. So in a bizarre way the fear of immigration contrasts itself with the need for immigration, a fact none of the Dutch parties, left or right, has so far really acknowledged.
Dutch consensus worked well historically as proportional representation forced the parties to collaborate, sometimes tilting left, sometimes tilting right, but never any dramatic shift in either direction. The pragmatic mandate brought non-ideological common sense to governing the lowlands and that may indeed explain the nation’s social and economic successes in the post-war years. The question now is if the current pressures on the system will force it to break or not.
If Wilders wins big, he will most likely not become prime minister as any coalition can lock him out of power, a position he actually may prefer. It is better to oppose and make the usual noise than to take real responsibility. At the same time any coalition government will be weak by virtue of the number of parties now required to get support from a parliamentary majority. So the best the Dutch can hope for is a fragile consensus that may not be able to carry the load of issues it is being asked to deal with.
The cracks that have started to emerge in Dutch political system after Fortuyn, Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali may reach deeper after this election. But it will not be an election to end it all, more one to perpetuate it all.
UPDATE March 16, 2017:
So the results are in. The populist right under Wilders gained, but not nearly as much as was projected only a month ago. The newer parties on the left (Green, Party for Animals, Think) did well too, but not nearly well enough to change the game. The two largest parties lost big (Labour was clobbered and the Free-market Liberals lost but are still the largest party in parliament with 20% of the seats) while the traditional Christian-Democrats and Independent Liberals recovered some ground.
So? The electorate gave a stern but mild warning to the traditional parties to get their act together. The voters pulled both right and left, but not hard enough. The traditional centrist parties now have the unenviable task to agree to form a four party coalition that will need to steer the small nation through the stormy waters it is in. A mild repudiation of the ‘ruling elites’ has given these very elites the task to try it once more, but they will have to take into account that that there is some unhappiness that will need to be addressed.
An outcome where no one wins is probably the best definition of a compromise. The Dutch are good at that and in the end may not be a bad thing at all.
Will creative destruction be America’s future ?
One of my good friends here is a true old style American liberal. Crossed the border into Canada as a result of his disgust over Vietnam in the sixties, became a professor and now an angel investor and avid student of history. But a liberal, above all. We get together often to talk business and politics, so not long after the election of Trump I reached out, preparing myself for a somewhat emotional lecture of how devastated he was about it all. Yet his reaction was as calm and measured as it was baffling to me. ‘No’, he said in a resigned manner, ‘this was bound to happen, if something is not working Americans will try the next best option and it is as simple as that’. ‘But’, he added, ‘progressivism as we know it is dead in America, that’s for sure’. No anger, no frustration, just a simple statement underlining how Americans pragmatically tweak and change things as they see fit.
It was a sobering but above all realistic call of what had just transpired. His words lingered in the air in the subsequent weeks as I tried to unwind the new balance of power, figuring out how things would be managed from Washington going forward. The name that kept popping up was that of Steve Bannon, CEO of Breitbart Media and Trump’s campaign manager. Having met Andrew Breitbart many years ago when he was only known as ‘Drudge’s Westcoast guy’ I was quite familiar with the brand and the general political direction of the media outlet Bannon invested in and now managed. It has to be said though that when Breitbart passed away there was praise for him from all sides of the political spectrum, a sentiment that was hard to find now that his successor was ensconced in the White House. But what was Bannon really about, what were his objectives? The superficial slurs of ‘white supremacist’ seemed too banal and uninformed, there had to be some deeper grounds on which Bannon made his career as an activist and that landed him only steps away from the presidency.
Once I had digested some readily available articles about him, most quite overlapping in terms of information, I watched ‘Generation Zero’ a documentary Bannon released in 2010 and which supposedly lays out his vision for America. It is a somewhat dark and haunting epic centered around the financial crisis of 2008, its origins and its key perpetrators, at least according to Bannon: the baby boomer generation. To put it in simple terms, he sees four turning points in American history, each an economic crisis that mutates into an all out war that unites the nation and in turn resets American life to a new start. The American Revolution, The Civil War and the Second World War were the first three, the recent financial crisis of 2008 is a prelude to the fourth turning point that – as it happens – we are now entering into. The movie itself does not point to the imminent war, but based on Bannon’s comments it is likely an ever-expanding conflict with radical Islam, or could it be China?
These are of course entirely plausible theories of history and Bannon fills the documentary with evidence of it all, but noticeably points to the liberal baby boomer generation – of which he is a part – as the inadvertent architects of the fourth turn. The economic argument he puts forward could equally have been made by Bernie Sanders: government bails out Wall Street and the average citizen foots the bill. A bill that is now so high that we are passing on an amount of debt that will likely crush and frustrate the next generation’s prospects of having a chance at a life that would resemble that of previous generations. Bannon takes the gloomier road and points to the baby boomer’s hedonism and self-indulgence as the dark force that has wrecked America for many decades to come. In it, he makes no distinction between the three boomer leaders that presided over the steady rot that has infected the system: Clinton, Bush and Obama. Elitism trumps ideology.
Throughout Trump’s campaign there was a call to go back to the 1950s, a time when ‘America was great’, productive and growing. I have seen similar nostalgic calls for that period in my native Netherlands when the late Pim Fortuyn took the stage as right-of-centre populist, when the post-war years were heralded as a model to aspire to. No one has ever made clear why, my father always said the fifties were an incredibly and forgettable boring period, but Bannon succeeds in explaining the why. No one, he argues, after having gone through the Great Depression and World War II was interested in anything but a ‘white picket fences’ happy suburbia where everyone worked, played and was content. This also explains why we can no longer replicate this utopia: none of us have gone through a real depression and devastating war, so none of the baby boomer or millennial generations can actually value, much less aspire to that what is so special about this sub-urban dreamland. If anything, it has made most people deeply unhappy and often in search of a ‘meaning of life’ quest. If Bannon’s views come to fruition there will be plenty of meaning to be found in merely surviving and fighting whoever takes on what is left of the western world. As I said: gloom and a prelude to a civilizational war is what ‘Generation Zero’ is all about.
Bannon seeks the creative destruction of this deformed society that we now live in, a society where risk taking, the core American value, has been taken away either directly or by government guarantee. In that he parts ways with Sanders who would use the state as a force of good, Bannon wants to tear the state apart.
The carmaker bail-out is a great example and that brings us to that other creative destructionist supporting Trump, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Few understood how a gay tech entrepreneur could back up Trump. Based on what we know about him is that he saw in Trump exactly the same thing Bannon noticed: the agent that could bring about a radical reset of how we run the economy, how we manage America. As a so-called ‘techno-libertarian’ Thiel would no doubt have rejected the now infamous auto industry bail-out, not only because of its poor economics (which would have been Bannon’s point) but also for the fact that ‘the car’ was already being re-engineered by different companies in a different place. Why bail-out ‘big auto’ when Google is already on its way building tomorrow’s car? Thiel believes strongly that America lost its way because it stopped innovating at the pace it once did and only a radical overhaul of existing industries can open the way to a new America. Herein lies of course a conflict with the new president whose promise to ‘bring back’ manufacturing jobs contrasts sharply with the idea of ‘reinventing’ manufacturing jobs. If he is to take Thiel’s – and Bannon’s advice – the actual destruction of old industries would set the stage for very different jobs.
So, Bannon and Thiel unleashed a quest for a new America and settled – for the time being – on Trump to bring in that agenda. And while the entire world is fretting over immigration and the president’s daily tweets, the far more powerful move into the future is beginning to shape up. It is one that is inspired by both Bannon and Thiel and will very likely end or reform liberal society to a point that we find it hard to recognize it, quite possibly unleashing an unregulated and extreme form of free-market enterprise. Because that is what America is best at and reversing laws like Frank-Dodd will unleash another Wall Street bonanza, this time however there will not be a government to bail out the losers.
The deeper question is if Bannon and Thiel will be able to influence Trump to bring about their vision for a renewed America and what geopolitical gambles will be part of that package. West Wing access is a fluid thing even for these two. In case their tenure or Trump’s comes to an end the question will be who will work with what has been put in place because as my good liberal friend alluded to, it is unlikely that we will ever be turning back. The early stage of the Bannon-Thiel fueled revolution is an answer to the wave of irreversible technological, global and fiscal realities. We will all have to deal and work with it.
Saying goodbye is never easy and this week I felt some real sadness upon learning that The Chase Hotel in Palm Springs had been sold to a group of developers. During our early years here in Canada we spent no less than three Christmas holidays in one of the nicest family hotels I have ever visited, and here’s the story.
It was a chance encounter for sure. Irene and I had spent weeks googling for a nice place to stay over Christmas in the desert resort, knowing that with two very young kids we needed access to a lot of things and ideally a kitchen. So somehow we hit The Chase during our online search and booked two adjoining rooms with kitchen in the heart of the old city of Palm Springs, better known as the ‘Movie Colony’. It was an older motel - famously frequented by Doris Day in the 1950s - small and nicely renovated with a decent pool and sizeable, like huge, rooms. We felt at home right away, in no small part because of the owner, Craig Blau and his super friendly staff. A retired fisherman from Oregon he and his wife had started looking for a home in Palm Springs, but ended up buying a hotel. By his own admission he had absolutely no knowledge of the hospitality business and that is probably exactly what made him such a great host, he ran the place as if it was his own home and treated each and every guest with the same open friendly attitude that you would extend to any houseguest. I did not get the impression Craig wanted to lose money on his hotel venture, but making the hotel hugely profitable was never of paramount importance or so it seemed. The hotel oozed calm, friendliness and warmth, much like the desert surrounding it.
A simple self-serve breakfast of fruit, juice and muffins (enabling our kids to walk down and have breakfast on their own if they wanted), oranges and grapefruits right from the poolside trees and late afternoon chocolate chip cookies were the signature treats at the Chase. And then the guests, a stable crowd as they kept coming back year-after-year, we made some good friends there and even a potential business deal emerged with a couple from Newport Beach who were devoted Chase frequenters. The kitchen in the room enabled us to make some great meals – our induction to the world of Trader Joe’s hails from the Chase days – and the BBQ at poolside was often used while we sipped away at quality cabernets that in Canada are too expensive too buy. And although we only brought kids, guests were allowed to bring their dogs and Craig would politely but firmly dismiss any potential guests that did not like dogs. If people wanted to bring their pets, fine.
Centrally located it was only a stroll to Palm Springs’ main drag, South Palm Canyon Drive with its shops and Sonny Bono statue. Yes, you could feel some of the old Hollywood influence and Craig was always keen to venture some background stories, like how our favourite Mexican restaurant around the corner was frequented by Suzanne Somers who, rumor had it, would never tip the waiters. And then there was the Palm Springs Art Museum just a few blocks away and the short drive to the Indian Canyons for some desert hiking. People always ask me what you can do in Palm Springs beside golfing and sitting next to the pool, but there is so much there, one could spend months exploring and living the desert life. The Chase somehow opened that door for us.
The pressure of development was always there and more than once the owners got offers or threats from neighboring developers to move The Chase somewhere else. I remember Craig telling me that he had some issues with a neighboring property owner who threatened to sue him as it was his “American right to develop anything he liked” next to Craig’s hotel. Craig remained unfazed and commented it was his American right to oppose that in any way he could. It highlighted his total calm and care to keep The Chase the way it was, simple, clean, friendly and above all unpretentious. The only thing that would really excite him was politics and I recall how he was embarrassed about Bush Jr. and the Iraq war and it makes me wonder what Craig is thinking right now that we have landed in the age of Trump.
As time moved on our Christmas holidays changed, in 2008 taking Craig’s own strong advice to go to Arizona, as its desert was so much nicer than the one that surrounds Palm Springs. Life moves on and we lost touch with The Chase. With Craig now well into his seventies it is going to be redeveloped and the fear is smaller rooms with your prefab mini-kitchenette because the new owners want you to eat in their new restaurant, of course. What’s worse, the hotel will lose its name and revert to its 1950s name, Holiday House Hotel. I remember sitting in the patio with Craig one day and asking him why they called the hotel ‘Chase’. He looked at me with a grin and pointed at his dog and said ‘we couldn’t come up with anything so we just named it after the dog’. And that was precisely how the hotel was, warm, fun with an ability to take life not all that seriously. The Chase Hotel, its owners and staff will be deeply missed.
Christmas, 2005. Nora and Maeve in their pajamas in the hotel's reception area with Craig on the right and the dog that gave the hotel its signature name. Forgot the name of the guy on the left.
Entrance to The Chase on West Arenas Road.
So I finally had some time to put down my thoughts on British Columbia's convoluted public education system with some ideas as to how we can fix it. You can find it here.
Over the past year I have been conducting a workshop on structuring early stage deals and term sheets as part of the NACO Academy. Now this will take me to such places as Calgary and Kitchener to name a few, so imagine my pleasant surprise when I was invited to conduct the workshop in Kingston, Jamaica. The local angel investing group FirstAngels Jamaica had organized a two-day event where they would present one of their latest deals, have their members network and allow me to run two modules, one a general introduction to angel investing and a second one focused on term sheets.
Like any other small nation Jamaica is forced, by history and circumstances, to look outward and be creative in developing its economic potential. And for good measure this goes well beyond reggae, tourism and having great athletes booking Olympic successes. Jamaica consequently is a nation of entrepreneurs and in that they are supported by a well-connected Jamaican diaspora that is able to source capital and deals that spur entrepreneurial activity on the island nation of some three million people. In addition it is also one of the key hubs for Caribbean economic development.
So it was great to discuss the deals FirstAngels had recently done and understand how local universities on the island plugged into this development. What emerged was a country with a real zest to develop new business sectors, ideas ready to be funded and incubated by a steadily growing class of private investors keen to diversify their holdings and help fund local growth. When asked what the biggest constraint was on growing this community the answer was as I had expected: deal flow. So far FirstAngels has funded four deals and they are keen to find more within their geographic setting, it should be noted that angel investors generally prefer to invest close to home.
During the actual workshops and panel discussion it was interesting to see the parallels and differences with other angel networks in North America. There were lots of questions from the audience that consisted of both (aspiring) investors, entrepreneurs and various professionals. A lot of time and questions dealt with valuation and I did my best to dissuade the attendees from getting too hung up over these and encouraged them to focus on the bigger picture and map out the future financing milestones of a new venture first. It was also rewarding to dive deeper into concepts that weren’t fully incorporated into local deal structuring and I happily elaborated on founder vesting and structuring option plans. It was great to have some Jamaican lawyers on the panel and get them to share some of their experiences.
But above all it was great to meet the entrepreneurs and learn how they got their businesses off the ground with limited resources. FirstAngels presented their most recent deal, an investment in BookFusion, and the e-book company is not any different from US or Canadian startups. Having cleverly outsourced some development to Europe combined with a US presence this Jamaican company is on to the next step with the support of the local angel community. Their story merged perfectly into my framework for the workshop and enabled all the participants to learn more about starting and financing companies and above all feel energized to take the next steps in that process. As for me I really enjoyed the extremely friendly and positive Jamaican atmosphere and once more realized how the rapid movement of capital and ideas is fuelling a new breed of economic activity across borders.
Note: anyone interested in getting me to do the two-hour introduction to angel investing or the four-hour structuring deals and term sheet workshops should contact Melissa Dodaro at NACO for further details.
Some lessons for life and political success: staying at it
It is surprising to some extent to see how the world these days devours ‘self-help’ and or ‘career advisory’ books, all promising to deliver the right tools and techniques to bring us riches and happiness or some sort of combination thereof. It was a relief for me this summer to return to my old passion of reading political biographies and to realize that all the clues to happier lives and better careers can easily be found by studying the lives of some of history’s great and see how they navigated some of the deeper challenges that defined their lives and come out as winners. So this summer I dove into David Landau’s epic work on the life of Ariel Sharon and it was followed by the deeply researched and voluminous biography that Ezra Vogel put together on Deng Xiaoping.
As a historical figure, Sharon tends to generate some negative reactions given the abrasive style he was known for, his presumed guilt in the Sabra and Shatila massacres and triggering the second intifada following his visit to the Temple Mount in 2001. Both of these claims by the way are clearly and helpfully dispelled by Landau’s book. Deng however usually can count on a far more sympathetic treatment as the man that transformed and modernized China. This of course is somewhat questionable as Deng most probably had been far more directly involved in unleashing lethal force, on his own subjects no less, during his career as one of Chairman Mao’s key enforcers and eventually as China’s paramount leader. During my years in Asia it was not unknown to hear business leaders praise the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen as one of the essential building blocks of a stable China that is open for business. Whatever the merit of that morally flawed argument, both Deng and Sharon built their careers in newly formed nations – Israel being established in 1948 and the People’s Republic of China only one year later, 1949 – that were under such formative pressures that the internal and external use of force were essential parts of the job.
Although China and Israel came into being under vastly different circumstances and cannot be compared in terms of size and histories, the parallels between the careers of both men are striking. Both biographies clearly present that their entire lives were essentially in the service of their nation and that both consequently took a deep personal toll in the process. These were compounded by significant personal dramas. Landau’s description of the death of Sharon’s young son Gur is moving and heartbreaking, much the same can be said for the way Deng’s son Pufang was denied medical treatment during the Cultural Revolution a result of which he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. It is a testament to the quality of the books that you can sense how the deep pain of these personal tragedies accompanied these two men for the rest of their political lives and how it motivated them.
Yet the essence of both careers was that it took a lifetime to get to the top positions, Deng being a solid seventy-four when he could truly claim to be China’s paramount leader, Sharon was seventy-three on the day he was inaugurated as Israel’s prime-minister. Both books give a very detailed accounting for the reasons it took so long and how both men persisted against the many different forces that were aligned against them. The pragmatic fixer Deng had the nearly insurmountable task to carve out a space for plain reason and common sense progress in the toxic environment created by Mao’s continuous political struggles where dogma trumped everything else. Deng was purged from the leadership twice: in 1966 and within about a year of returning from the first one, in 1976. Both of these had career ending potential, yet Deng not only overcame both events, he emerged stronger and far more decisive. Sharon in turn had to navigate a different but equally explosive political environment in Israel – Landau’s book is a key primer to get a feel for the machinations of Israeli political power-play – but also his own character which at times created some roadblocks on avenues that had opened up for him. The benefit of the long road that both had to travel was of course the accumulation of deep experience and a huge personal network of politicians, administrators and military commanders complemented by an incredibly clear and growing sense of direction for each nation. This of course was compounded by the fact that by the time they reached the highest office there was little time left for them given their advanced age. For Deng it meant rejecting orthodox communism and embracing capitalism while maintaining one-party rule, for Sharon it was ditching the nationalist settler movement that propelled him to power and embrace disengagement from the Palestinian enemy.
Once you come to the end of Sharon’s biography it is both harsh and painful to see how he in early 2006 succumbed to a hemorrhagic stroke that sent him into an eight-year coma from which he never woke up. The remaining question that even the masterful Landau can not answer is whether Sharon would, following the departure from Gaza in 2005, have continued his unilateral disengagement by withdrawing from the West Bank and setting the stage for more favorable conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace than is the case now. What we do know is that had Sharon lived as long as Deng, he would no doubt have left an even deeper imprint on the Middle East. Deng retired from the political scene in 1992 having reached the tender age of eighty-eight and as opposed to Sharon, did live to see most of what he set out to do: a stable and steadily growing China.
So what do these old men of state and their biographers have to tell us about our lives and careers? The same lessons that drove Deng and Sharon to ultimate success in their lives and careers. Hard work, focus, family and never ever giving up.
Note: Deng Xiapong and the transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel (2013) and Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon by David Landau (2014). As a complement I would recommend reading The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962-1976 by Frank Dikötter (2016) which gives a bit more depth and analysis of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution an area on which Vogel’s book was a bit light.
So in many ways my life and career are a direct result of British engagement with Europe. In anticipation of the formal 1992 creation of the European Union, British banks started to evaluate their continental strategies and some, for the first time, embarked on recruiting graduates from across the channel. By sheer coincidence I ran into Barclays Bank at a job fair – not coincidentally in Brussels – and was asked to apply for their European Management Development Program. I did and so my first job application landed me right in the City of London, learning the ropes of banking at one of its more venerable institutions.
The interesting thing was that my new British colleagues ridiculed their nation’s and their employers’ European project and where somewhat miffed at all the opportunities and goodies that were thrown in the direction of the bank’s ten ‘Euro-recruits’. From day one I was lectured on the conspiracy coming from Brussels to subvert British freedoms, abolish pound sterling and eventually dismantle Westminster. This was long before immigration concerns and Nigel Farage. These were the last days of Margaret Thatcher whose career essentially ended over her views on Europe and the infamous campaign by The Sun newspaper to dispense some advice to the President of the European Commission on where to put his European Currency Unit as it was called in those days. Having grown up in a nation devastated by World War II where European co-operation was essential to economic recovery, there was never any debate, discussion, let alone an inkling that there might be something negative to say about European co-operation and integration. On the contrary, the late 80s were a time when the advent of the single market would bring more freedoms, riches and success for those that participated in it and my instant recruitment into London was the undeniable evidence of that. Critical thinking about the European Union was non-existent. Imagine my initial surprise at the British bitterness about it all.
That said, it did change my thinking and my crash course in Euroskepticism allowed me to see that giving up your currency would mean giving up your ability to be the master of your own destiny as Greece has now painfully learned. Globalization is great and opens the door to many opportunities, but to hand its management to unelected bodies far removed from the nation state will inevitably open the door to some unintended consequences. Even with Thatcher disappearing from the scene, the debate in Britain raged on.
And now, some twenty-five years later that British suspicion about the entire project has invaded many parts of continental Europe and has been adopted by emerging political movements on both the left and the right. Deep frustrations over unrestricted immigration and the economy at large are turbocharging populist sentiment and the EU is the first in the line of fire as an establishment project seen to have been instrumental in undermining the safety and security blankets that many across Europe had come to take for granted. Protest and anger are thus not only informed by evidence, but equally by ‘nostalgia’ something populist politicians love to plug into.
So the Brexit vote should not come as a surprise at all despite the near hysteria that enveloped the media and markets almost immediately after the results were confirmed. The consequent demise of both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn were also long in the making, the Brexit vote just accelerated it. And as such last week’s events should be welcomed as a timely wake-up call for Europe to come to terms with deep economic shifts, nearby war and chaos (Ukraine, Syria) and the festering wounds inflicted by harsh monetary policies, again Greece, but who is next? European commissioner Frans Timmermans today on his Facebook page admitted that the time has arrived to be ‘brutally honest’ and that the Brexit vote is a symptom of the feeling that ‘we have lost control of our destinies’. As much as the vote shook up Britain, it will give an equal boost for re-examination in Brussels.
So that is why we should welcome what happened in Britain last week. Although there will be quite some chaos in the weeks to come, think financial turbulence and purges in the British Labour and Conservative parties, there will and has to be a way out of this mess. It will consist of finding a ways to re-establish British relations with Europe, which will neither end nor remain the same, but more likely and hopefully will find some new middle ground. Britain cannot afford to let a referendum – a terrible tool to set a political course at the best of times – determine its future direction. Once the internal bloodletting is done, possibly followed by a general election, serious discussions can start without invoking the dreaded Article 50, which will set a timetable for a British exit. This process will help Europe find its balance and involve some serious re-examination on issues such as centralized governance, immigration, security and macro-economic policies.
Yes, I refuse to believe that Britain is out and that we are headed for some sort of dark age. But even if that were to happen there will be a route to some new equilibrium. Things will not be easy, but at the very least we are all awake now and ready to participate in framing a new future for Britain, Europe and the world at large. My induction in global thinking decades ago in London does not allow me to believe otherwise.
Postscript on July 7, 2016: it is of course quite extraordinary and maybe not coincidental that one of the very colleagues I referred to here and with whom I worked together in my first year at Barclays is none other than Andrea Leadsom (née Salmon), one of the two remaining contenders for the conservative leadership.
In only a few months time, I will be leaving on a mountain climbing expedition with Summits of Hope, the same group I scaled Kilimanjaro with two years ago. We will be attempting to summit Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas at 6,961 meters (22,837 ft) above sea level. I have started training and look forward to this great challenge, realizing it will be a lot harder than Kilimanjaro a few years ago.
I will cover the cost for the entire expedition myself, but we are raising money for children at BC Children’s Hospital. Summits of Hope is quite different from other charities as all funds raised directly support one full-time position at BC Children’s oncology ward, cancer research, education and laptops/toys for children in the hospital. I’ve pledged to raise at least $5,000 in donations for this climb, but my goal is to raise more. This is the same amount I targeted for the Kili trip, but ended up raising over $11k thanks to many generous contributions. It is often surprising what people will contribute, really.
Global News anchor Kate Gajdosik was part of this year's Kilimanjaro trip and here is a video of that prior to her leaving, and here is her detailed post on the climb and Summits of Hope's important role in it all.
So if you would consider making a donation, take a look at my Summits of Hope profile page with a link to donate. Please make sure you select ‘Pieter Dorsman' as the climber you are supporting on the donation form and designate the amount that’s right for you, no amount is too small or too large. Tax receipts of course will be issued directly. For a donation of $40 or more, I will fly your message on your own personalized flag and we will send pictures of your flag flying on Aconcagua when we return.
Selfie on Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro on October 17, 2013.
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, I remembered I once wrote a piece on the one terror attack that I ever experienced, or at least came relatively close to. This is what I wrote in 2003 about the 1992 attack on the Baltic Exchange. I made a few edits, but is largely the same text. And the photo of the damaged Commercial Union building above wqs made on April 13, 1992.
It was in April 1992 when I was working in the City of London that I went on my first real business trip. For a young guy, a great milestone in an emerging career and the location was not bad either, Athens in Greece. It was a business development conference and that week, apart from the conference, was pretty much dominated by the very close election race back in the UK where the unexciting John Major eked out a narrow election victory over Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. On Saturday morning as the conference wrapped up we heard the news that a big bomb had gone off in London’s financial district, the area where most of us worked. There were no clear indications of the exact location, casualties or damage other than that it had been a huge explosion. Those were the days before the internet and mobile, so we digested the news slowly and did not race to our laptops to have a complete minute-to-minute rundown of events. I stayed the extra day and when I got home on Sunday night one of my managers was on the phone shortly after my arrival asking me whether I had heard about the attack and how the trip to Athens had been. I summarized what I had to say quite briefly and let him know that I would give a full report of my trip the next morning. “Well, Pieter”, he said, “you are going to have a few days off because the bomb exploded at the Baltic Exchange and our office building is in such a shape that it is very unsafe for staff to return to work”. This was quite a surprise, our office was at the northern end of St Mary Axe, in fact everyday I walked right past the Baltic Exchange at the southern end of St Mary Axe, the place were the bomb had gone off.
The next morning, the day off, I went to the area, camera in hand, and what I witnessed shocked and perplexed me completely. The area that had been damaged not only extended well beyond to what anyone would have believed knowing the location of the bomb; the damage done to that area, now cordoned off by police, was phenomenal. The impact of the explosion had covered the direct area with endless mountains of glass as nearly all of the windows of the adjoining Commercial Union skyscraper were knocked to smithereens. The force had also seriously damaged many other buildings, destroyed windows over a vast area, damaged cars and what amazed me and for some reason stuck in my mind: it left most traffic signs in a very wide area curved. The damage had thus also affected our building at the very end of St Mary Axe, although from the outside things did not look particularly bad. Apparently, there was significant damage and one of the greatest concerns was the structural damage not directly visible to the eye. Hence our few days off, in fact we spent the next two months in some reserve office space the bank had made available near St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The background to the bombing was soon clarified. The IRA’s political affiliates, Sinn Fein, had lost a seat during the election (Sinn Fein did contest seats in Westminster but they never occupied them) and the heinous attack was a “punishment” for the conservative victory. Three people were killed and I remember very clearly that one of them was a teenage girl who had happened to be there, waiting in a car while her mother picked up her dad from work.
I never directly linked the attack to myself or the chance that I could have been killed by it although the bomb went off right on the route that I walked every day from the Underground station to the office and back. I just did not happen to be there that day, I was in Athens, and there was, and is, no other way to look at it. During my stay in London Downing Street 10 had been attacked by a rocket propelled grenade launcher and one day the entire Underground system was shut down leaving my then girlfriend, and now wife, Irene presuming I was dead, however I was just four hours late being stuck in a bus somewhere on Piccadilly. At the time, the terror never felt like it was directed at me, or us, or to anyone close to me and I never got the sense from my British colleagues that they ever felt like they were a target. It was a constant, it was there, and if it came close to home it was sure to move on to another location. I never sensed fear, pain or worry. The nature, origin, much less a solution was ever discussed. The IRA was qualified as a group of isolated fanatics who did not even have majority support in their own ranks, losing a seat during the election was yet more evidence of their failure, isolation and increasing irrelevance. For me, it left a very vivid image of the physical impact of a bomb attack and it makes it easier to picture what can happen to people if they are in the vicinity of such a dreadful blast.
Today, some twenty-three years on, with a settled conflict in Northern Ireland and a wave of new terror attacks enveloping Europe, it may be worthwhile to recall how the British in those days dealt with lethal terror. They adjusted a bit here and there, but carried on regardless. The other side of this of course is to remember those that perished, then and today, innocent bystanders in a pointless orgy of violence.
Quite a few people have been asking about the ‘why’ of the terror attacks in Paris. Many others are shocked and surprised at the outburst of such extreme violence. For many however these attacks are hardly a surprise as they represent the most recent instalment of a process that got started in the 1950s with roots going back many centuries. Let me try and weave the component parts together into a narrative that I hope explains the ‘why’.
Collapse of the Ottoman Empire – It starts with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War where on the remnants of that empire a number of artificial states were created in the Arab-Muslim world. All of these states came to be ruled by repressive autocrats or families who were more or less aligned with the western powers that defeated the Ottomans.
Autocratic Rule - These ruling elites largely survived through divide and conquer policies (think Sunni vs. Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Syria) or by closely aligning with the region’s dominant religion (think of the House of Saud as protector of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina). Needless to say, these despots have used the most brutal and inhuman techniques at their disposal to consolidate their hold on power. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad clan in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya are some of the more recent examples here.
Resource-based Economies - The abundance of oil (Gulf States, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya) prevented any form of economic or social innovation, the western petro-dollars kept flowing, creating a wealthy uber-elite that had no incentive to change, innovate or otherwise promote change to seek the betterment of their underlings. On the contrary, diversifying the economy would open the door to a level of foreign influence that could destabilize a hold on power that was tenuous at best. Many scholars have argued that an Arab world that at one point was highly successful and progressive reverted to anti-modernist stagnation.
Channeling Resentment - Resentment and anger of the ordinary underlings could easily be channeled by directing tension and aggression to externalities. Israel was the regional bad guy to fight against, or the ‘other Muslim’ with the Iran-Iraq war that constituted the absolute violent low point in terms of intra-Muslim bloodshed last century. While this war of neighbours consolidated the ayatollah’s power in Iran and Saddam’s in Iraq, it created utter devastation for their citizens.
Conflict with Modern and Secular World - Traditional Muslim life was challenged by modernity over the second half of the 20th century and as calls for progress through democracy were violently suppressed, a return to fundamental Islam (or Islamism) became a far more potent vehicle to challenge the westernized corrupt elites that governed the Arab world. Many have pointed to the Egyptian author and scholar Sayyid Qutb who emerged in the 1950s as a proponent of a return to tradional Islamist societies as a response to corrupt, westernized autocratic rule. Qutb is seen as the foundational ideologue of al-Qaeda and now, ISIS.
Quest for Purity - As with most fundamentalist or totalitarian groups, the all-encompassing idea is to create a better world where the prevailing ideology provides a route to a pure and uniform society. In the case of Islam that meant a return to a form of government where the secular state and religious authority are merged into one and where Islamic doctrine governs day-to-day life. The best example of such an entity was the original caliphate of the 7th and 8th centuries. It also provided the antidote to the western model that separates church and state.
Religion - And as opposed to fascism and communism where Hitler and Stalin banned or otherwise submerged religion, the religious doctrine in the fundamentalist mindset is the same as the political worldview to govern. When Hitler died fascism collapsed the next day, not so with Islam or Christianity for that matter as religion is far more potent than any secular worldview. It is outside the scope of my notes here, but the concept of God and the afterlife sets religion apart from any political ideology.
Dissent and Religion Merge - So to go back to say the mid-1990s the dominant protest movement in the Middle East became radical Islam or Muslim fundamentalism, whatever term suits you best. The idea to resurrect the caliphate started to manifest itself violently and in pursuit of its goals severing the ties between the West and the Arab autocrats became one of its primary goals. It should be remembered that al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden was able to emerge and grow in a fertile environment where first the Russians intervened in Afghanistan (1980s) and where the United States led a UN-sanctioned war against Saddam Hussein after he conquered Kuwait in the early 1990s.
Attack the West, Provoke War, Weaken Local Rule - The 9/11 attacks completed the first phase of the process and the West’s response was exactly what al-Qaeda must have seen as its desired outcome: invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, suppressing personal freedom in the West by creating a security state. All of these could potentially divide the West, weaken the local Arab autocrats and in time strengthen the hand of Islamists.
The Quagmire – And that is pretty much what happened. The easy target was Saddam Hussein not only as a serial violator of UN resolutions, but Saddam himself had moved way too close to fundamentalism and organized terror in order to preserve his position which originally was far more pro-western and secular than the new make-up of the Arab world required him to be. So George Bush decided to remove him. Post-war Iraq was chaos and enabled local Iraqi fundamentalists under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to create a foothold where western powers may have thought that a ‘fly-trap’ would get all radicals into Iraq where they could be defeated in a decisive manner. This did not happen and the United States beat a retreat, leaving a country in deep chaos under corrupt and sectarian Shi’ite rulers whose presence further strengthened the efforts of Sunni fundamentalists. Following Zarqawi’s death they re-emerged under the banner of ISIS.
Arab Spring – All of this took place more or less around the same time of what came to be known as the Arab Spring of 2010-2012 where democratic uprisings (notably in Tunisia, Libya and Syria) saw a weakening of the old autocratic rule and a nascent democratic movement. But as we know now, opposition was not only channeled through believers in freedom and democracy, fundamentalists often gained the upper in hand in the revolts that emanated from that Arab spring. Noted examples are Libya, Syria and yes, Egypt, where a democratic experiment with a fundamentalist president (Mohamed Morsi) failed miserably.
And there’s ISIS – So building on the groundwork of Qutb, al-Qaeda’s successes, the US failure in Iraq and its subsequent withdrawal, weakened Arab autocrats, combined with the emergence of newly energized fundamentalist groups provided the fertile soil for the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or now better known as ISIS.
The Islamist Vanguard - As all revolutionary movements, be they fascist, communist, clerical or millennial in nature, a wealthier upper middle class vanguard establishes the way, think of the privileged upbringing Osama bin-Laden had or the background of Germany’s RAF terrorists. Or take Sayyid Qutb who studied in the United States, Colorado to be precise. They are the ones that conceptualize, create and finance the platform where the disgruntled troops can assemble and fight in pursuit of a better tomorrow, or in our case, a new caliphate governed by divine law.
Alienated Converts - In the case of fundamentalist Islam, those initiators can draw on a large pool of potential converts, often than more than willing to take up arms and fight. They are essentially the unemployed or underutilized poor young men across the Middle East whose ranks have grown in a demographic boom that was never accompanied by an economic one. Add to this the very many Muslims across Europe (primarily Maghreb and Turkish influx to North and Western Europe) who are not only unemployed and underutilized, but alienated in a culture that is in all aspects diametrically opposed to the ones in which they grew up.
Sexual Repression - And this brings us to the repressed sexuality in Muslim culture an element often overlooked but it stands to reason that it plays a crucial part in the emergence of fundamentalist violence. Traditional Muslim societies suppress both male and female sexuality and the resulting hormonal overdose for men can easily be channeled into violence. Let me give a simple example by pointing to that young and affluent Parisian couple where the girl is scantily dressed and both are enjoying a glass of wine in a trendy Paris bistro after a not so strenuous week at a local college or university. Their lives and values have been somewhat different, to say the least, from the single alienated Muslim youngster who empties his AK-47 on them. I hope this gets the point across.
Europe - That brings us to Europe, at one point in the history parts of which were occupied by the Ottomans. The idea of the fundamentalists restoring their caliphate is fueled by the notion that its borders should once more extend to what they once were. Here the fundamentalist Muslim doctrine merges with nostalgic notions of a time past and of what could be tomorrow. Potent recruitment material. Is a European reconquest a real goal for ISIS? Hard to say, but in the current environment where the US has retreated, the north Atlantic alliance is at its weakest ever and where the Muslim segment of Europe’s population keeps growing in relative terms it is an attractive notion for ISIS to promote as part of its overall strategy of enlarging its domestic Arab footprint by severing the ties between Arab’s remaining autocratic rulers and European elites.
Decadence and Freedom – And Europe (and America, Canada and Australia) represent the opposite of what fundamental Islam stands for: open and liberal gender relations, separation of church and state, increasing secularity (empty churches) and a general quest to enjoy life. We often see references from religious purists (not just Muslims, Christians too) to hedonism as one of the most abject expressions of life in Western societies. Any western city is now a perfect target and you do not have to necessarily bring in your recruits from overseas because they are already there. Paris has all of that and additionally a pretty terrible history with Muslims, few will recall the massacre of hundreds of Algerians in 1961 whose bodies were discarded in the Seine by the French police. More recently we can point to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing massacre at that magazine’s editorial offices. So what could be a more perfect target?
It is outside the scope of this article to provide a solution to this deep and violent conflict. The core purpose is to explain in a short but hopefully enlightening way how we ended up in a world where a small group of terrorists can randomly butcher totally innocent people in a city far away from their ancestral homes. The most important thing to note is that there is no single and simple explanation like “if the United States had not invaded Iraq this would not have happened”. These are anti-intellectual short cuts that deserve no merit, as the reality is so much more complex. A number of things that I offer here may on their own not be solid evidence of contributing to terrorism, but together they constitute a narrative that may help us to understand the recent violence better.
Anyone trying to find a solution will be perplexed by this complexity, which inevitably leads us to conclude that it will take a very long time before we can really address and solve it.
An intellectually hollow campaign sets the stage for a transitional, but not an aspirational new leader
Only a few weeks ago I was sitting in the bus driving into Vancouver talking to two ladies who – by my estimate - were well into their sixties but still active in the workforce, commuting to work on a daily basis. As we crossed the Lions Gate Bridge passing two crowds waving Blue and Green signs, one of them focused on our political early morning chat. "You know what?" she said, “None of the parties are presenting a vision of the future … what do they really want for Canada?” It was exactly what I had been thinking throughout the campaign. No future aspirations, like addressing the question as to what will Canada look like 30 years from now. Or what given the enormous changes taking place internationally can we do and shape our place and role in the world? When I ran for school trustee about a year ago I discovered that talking about the future and about how to embrace change to create better opportunities does resonate with voters. It enables voters to see their role in creating change and to be part of that ‘better future’. It was what Ronald Reagan did so well, and why he was able to pull so many Democrats into his column: visionary politics transcend party politics.
Yet, most elections in Western democracies these days have resorted to a low level debate about taxes, deficits and growth. And beyond that the only alternative offered is one of mobilizing the ‘fear vote’ or engaging with the ‘change vote’. Neither has substance and so we are treated to the usual smorgasbord of tax credits and incentives and broad references to ‘change’ and ‘security’. The problem with this is that the lives of most voters are not materially affected by a budget tweak here or a tax credit there. TFSA limits are largely irrelevant and working families are no better off by Conservative cash hand outs, Liberal tax credits or an NDP-driven childcare program that will never see the light of day because provinces will never pony up their part of the bill. The fact that some parties were arguing the country was in recession while it most likely was not, only proves this point.
Odd as it may sound, the Conservatives were by and large the key offenders here. While Stephen Harper was right in defending his record and Canada’s economic progress he failed to offer anything beyond that. No vision, no real plans other than a ‘steady as we go’ approach that sought to only solidify his core support and bring in just enough middle income voters to secure a win. It was a strategy that would have failed under the best of circumstances and one that would not generate any strong interest during a campaign where the central theme was to unseat Harper himself. The Liberal Party under the telegenic Justin Trudeau did sense the need for change and borrowed heavily from the Obama playbook by proposing exactly that, all outlined in an endless array of proposals intended to bring that real change to Canada. And yes, there was some audacity involved in proposing to abandon first-past-the-post elections, legalize marihuana, ramp up infrastructure spending, address climate change and rewrite a few conservative bills like C-51.
There are two caveats to this of course, one being that Trudeau promised so much that it will be nearly impossible to deliver on all of it during his four-year mandate. Just imagine how his freshly minted caucus feels about abandoning first-past-the post. The other aspect is that Trudeau did not present a clearly defined vision; the change for change sake does not constitute a plan for the future as the Obama supporters have found out. It does deliver on a few specific items but fails to take on larger, generational issues like demographics and the challenges it poses for the family, healthcare and retirement or a redefined global map which in turn drives economic challenges and brings about new strategic relations. As one younger voter told me, “none of the candidates talked about technology” and that is a pretty serious indictment.
The more ideological driven parties fared no better, although to be fair to the Greens and the NDP they are operating under both an electoral system and regional differences that make it quite hard for them to be really competitive across Canada. The NDP rather than by embracing the increasing skepticism on the left (and the right) of the sustainability of capitalism and austerity as we now know it, doubled-down on a tack to the center approach which made its leader Thomas Mulcair somewhat indistinguishable from Harper and Trudeau. Europe has an array of social-democrats that have fallen into the same trap and taken a brutal clobbering at the ballot box which is exactly what happened to Mulcair.
The Green Party saw an opening in this electoral mess while capitalizing on the renewed interest in environmental issues and believed it had its best chance yet to capture more than one seat and start making a real difference. Not so. All three of the larger parties had started to embed green ideas into their platforms with the Liberals and NDP proposing a lot of what the Greens were offering in terms of support for families, small businesses and health. Trudeau’s initiative to invite Elizabeth May to join both him and some of his ministers to a climate summit in Paris will only strengthen his hand. No one can imagine them letting May take credit for any progress at the summit and if they do, it will be seen as a Liberal success, not a Green one.
But let’s return to the election. Most staggeringly was the inability of all parties to address foreign policy in a time where a more isolationist America, a more assertive China and Russia, not to mention a devastating religious and generational conflict in the Middle East is creating a sea of instability last seen in the 1930s. So by way of example, the Conservative Party’s instinct to defend our partnerships in bombing ISIS was right, it totally failed to really address the fundamental issue in Syria which is that the root of the crisis (and mass murder resulting in endless streams of refugees) is its current leader, Assad, and not just ISIS. The fact that a supposedly smart and well-organized campaign kept droning on and on about ISIS while one simple look at Twitter could have told them that drowning refugees could more readily be attributed to Assad was one more piece of evidence of how superficial this campaign was.
Not that the left had anything intelligent to say about this. Trudeau, May and Mulcair all trumped a resort to the past – how is that for visionary policies – where Canada would pull out of fighting missions and revert to peacekeeping, whatever that means in today’s world. Re-imagining a peaceful world with Maple Leaf carrying soldiers handing out blankets is reminiscent of the same nostalgia that sometimes envelops European elections where the stable and culturally uniform 1950s are presented as the ideal age of western civilization. The only problem is that the world has changed, a bit. Presenting a vision of the past in the end is not the most sound way to prepare for the future.
And the future looks decidedly different. And again preparing a vision or a reasonable argument for a challenge by that very future helps a politician. The Conservatives sensed that the 'niqab’ was one such issue that would deliver them votes, by harking back to the past where the 'niqab' was not something that was part of daily Canadian life. And it would probably play to the Conservative fortunes in a province - Quebec - where there had been a deep debate about religious and cultural symbols (and let’s just park the discussion as to whether the ‘niqab’ is a religious or cultural expression). But team Harper completely misread the nature and context of the ‘niqab debate’ and one has to wonder what sort of campaign smarts were involved in unleashing this without any solid thinking onto Canadians. Don’t get me wrong, it is an issue worth debating and finding a solution to as the former Liberal leader Ignatieff alluded to or by assessing how the French have dealt with it with a number of years ago. The problem was that the Conservatives dropped it in the middle of a national campaign where it was (a) not an issue and (b) if it were one it was a regional, ie. Quebecois issue. And then it totally bungled the topic itself while harping (excuse the pun) on about citizenship ceremonies while not addressing that the issue – as the socially liberal French and Dutch have found out – is one of dealing with fundamentalist forms of religion present in increasingly secular societies that take personal liberties pretty seriously. None of that, alas, and what followed was a shameful and intellectually unhinged debate where no one got it right.
Of course the Liberals, NDP and Greens jumped on Harper about being divisive, which may have helped them during the campaign but failed to address the opportunity it really created, namely talking about what a multi-cultural future for Canada could really look like. To be clear, this is not an easy undertaking and something which very few democracies have been able to articulate well, but it would be not too much to ask our politicians to not use the ‘niqab’ as a wedge issue but as a starting point to create a forward looking vision for Canada. By remaining stuck in past and ideological boxes all parties failed and it underlines the fear that an inward looking and rosy view of Canada in no way prepares the nation for the challenges that lay ahead in the 21st century.
Now that the smoke has cleared and we are getting ready for Trudeau’s inauguration it is a good time to assess what happened during Canada’s longest election ever. A successful incumbent failed to make a credible bid for re-election while having all the tools at his disposal to do so. That is something for the Conservatives to ponder in the coming years. The ideologically driven opposition of social-democrats and greens failed to present a credible future vision and got entangled in a lethal mismatch of a ‘Canada past’ and electoral maneuvering. The NDP has a real shot at rethinking what the ‘left’ really represents in the 21st century by trying to cleverly address the dark side of capitalism. The Green Party should do the same, but only real electoral reform can save them from eventual obliteration as the ‘green message’ has now been co-opted by all the other parties.
And that leaves us with the election’s winner who if you really think about it, did not win by articulating a vision for Canada, but who won by default. I did not vote for Trudeau, but I do admire some of his bolder proposals that will hopefully bring about things that can help unify Canadians in their purpose. The scope of his agenda is however most likely too ambitious to deliver in four years at which point in time we can only hope the parties can give Canadians a real peak into aspirations for the future. In that sense Trudeau is not an aspirational, but a transitional leader.
Photo: rather than the ubiquitous party leader photo I grabbed one I took of the ferry departing Bowen Island last year. With the Canadian flag it sort of says that we are leaving something behind and going into uncharted waters.
Canadians are gearing up for the October 19 federal election for which the campaign got underway in early August, making it the longest election campaign ever. The early start was one of the more recent strokes of Prime Minister’s Stephen Harper ability to influence the outcome of events, betting on a long drawn out campaign that should, at least in theory, benefit the party with the biggest war chest.
From the outset of this electoral battle it has been clear that a change in government would be its core theme, with the left wing NDP, the centrist Liberals and to a lesser extent the emerging Greens as the three key contenders to topple the incumbent Conservatives. There has been a lot of noise, quite a bit of it superficial, and no end to columns, social media posts and other commentary that decry the manipulations and penchant for secrecy by the man to be beaten, Harper. Yet, on closer inspection it would seem that Harper’s ability to govern Canada for almost ten years with varying degrees of success is rooted not so much in the nefarious qualities that his opponents ascribe to him, but in cleverly navigating the political tides of a rapidly changing nation. And while doing that, he is using an array of tools that have historically been available to most of his predecessors. In that Harper learned from the best.
And those best were on their way out after some thirteen years in office, which is a lifetime in politics. Such long tenors usually end with bickering over succession and scandals and many will recall the channeling of sponsorship moneys to Quebec and the relatively short-lived government of Paul Martin. The latter was no match for Harper’s ‘time for change’ message in 2006 as the Conservatives were at the time extremely tuned in to the changes enveloping Canada where globalization and the emergence of the Western provinces as powerhouses had started to redefine the northern nation. New immigrants from all over the world, but in particular from Asia, arrived and all were driven by the quest to start a new life, a new business and above all a stable future in a place where access to wealth and health was possible. The old Canada of the later 20th century with its relatively high taxes, big government, powerful unions and an ambivalent role in international affairs all represented a world that not only did not resonate with new Canadians, but it also was no longer in tune with a rapidly changing dynamic and global market place in which Canada had to compete. The columnist David Frum put a fine point on it by arguing that the East Coast elites had started to lose their grasp on a newer Canada and this consequent realignment gave Harper the window to become Canada’s leading politician.
And indeed Harper was astutely aware of the emerging ‘new Canada’ yet he could ill afford to adopt a hardcore right of centre agenda to govern and maintain support across the entire country. There is no party in Canada that actually can impose its ideological framework on the nation as its political, cultural and economic diversity requires a careful balancing act, in particular when as was the case with Harper, you only have a minority to govern with. So Harper has essentially governed from the center from the day he rolled into Sussex Drive, even when he finally got a majority position in parliament in 2011. In the process most of the items on the right-of-center’s wish list were steadily watered down or did not happen at all such as privatizing healthcare, wholesale selling of pubic assets, killing the CBC or marginalizing public sector unions. No, Harper has both as minority and majority government governed safely from the center while adding a gradual right-of-centre flavor to his policies. The often feared ‘secret agenda - whatever that was – never came to haunt Canadians.
In fact many real conservatives rolled their eyes at the GST cut (as the right will generally always favor a sales tax over an income tax), the car industry bail out and running budget deficits while not really cutting income taxes but producing endless tax credits for this group or that. All these have not made him that much different from any centrist or left-of-center outfit in the industrialized world. Of course this came at a cost, there are many libertarian minded conservatives who checked out of the conservative tent after the introduction of Bill C-51 and the near incomprehensible extradition of Vancouver’s marihuana king, Marc Emery, to the US. But in the last two instances Harper carefully played to the ‘law and order’ and ‘security’ voters. And Bill C-51, it should be remembered, was supported in parliament by the Trudeau Liberals. Harper has been both smart and careful in his approach while trying to ensure he had sufficient support across the nation and thereby steadily tilting the values in the political center rightward step by step. Whatever the opposition’s frustrations, they are more likely to be with Harper’s success that for a number of reasons eluded them.
So Harper’s ‘conservative-light’ framework was validated by the election results of 2008 and 2011. And where the rest of the industrialized world was ravaged by housing prices collapses, unemployment and bank crises, Canada actually did quite well in comparison and became the envy of many across the world. The late Jim Flaherty should at this place be remembered as an adroit captain of finance, not afraid to take on files that really alienated the conservative base such as when he initiated taxation of income trusts.
So despite the current calls for change, the evidence points to a relatively contented nation that appears to want change, but with more than half of the voters still undecided the question is, do they really want to bring in uncertainty and is there a real aversion to that new right-of-centre Canada?
Some evidence may be found in the way the leading opposition parties position themselves. One would think that the NDP would roll out a compelling left-of-center platform, capturing the aforementioned deep resentment that appears to exist in Canada. However its leader, Thomas Mulcair, has from the moment the campaign got going steadily moved his party to the right with promises of more police on the streets, balanced budgets and to go slow with any increases of corporate tax rates. If you add into this his past admiration for Margret Thatcher that was kindly dug up by some diligent journalist and his supportive position on Israel, you could as well be looking at the conservative front-runner. But Mulcair is neither a conservative nor a hardcore leftist, he is in the end a pragmatist who knows that Canadians are worried about the economy and absolutely do not want to rock the boat in uncertain times. He also knows that the road to power runs through the center and that center has indeed tilted rightward over the last ten years, thanks to Stephen Harper redefining it. Mulcair is simply reacting and navigating his way to election success, following a proven political recipe. In that he is also no doubt taking a page from the NDP in British Columbia where Adrian Dix’ defeat in the 2013 provincial elections a few years ago provided a textbook case of what not to do when you are riding high in the polls. Tack too far to the left and you lose, or in that specific case: threaten pipelines in attempt to establish your environmental bona fides and you will lose by alienating all those Canadians that make a living or whose pension depend on natural resources. You risk that the large group of undecided voters that float around in the center may vote for another party, or simply stay home on election day.
The power game in the center has strangely enough opened up an opportunity on the left and Justin Trudeau has now jumped into it with ideas around budget deficits to kick-start the economy. It may be one that will cost him dearly because he is abandoning that very place where the Liberal Party has historically been the dominant player: the center. At the same time he has opened himself up to be labeled a ‘flip-flopper’ when it comes to the economy and the deficit. That label is dangerous in any election – remember John Kerry for whom the term was coined - when competing against two formidable power players in the center like Harper and Mulcair, it could be lethal.
The three largest parties are tied in most polls with the bulk of the electorate undecided as of the day of this article. The debate is now almost entirely focused on the party’s leaders and their soundbites with very little analysis of what really is going on and where each party could possible take Canada after the October election. The safe bet is the center where Harper managed to win an election when the world was stumbling into a deep recession in 2008. He may repeat that feat and take some heart from the British elections where Cameron’s conservatives tied with a left tacking Labour until a day before the actual vote during which the British opted for safety and delivered the incumbent prime minster a majority. Using that analogy Trudeau will most likely be the one to remain locked out on October 19 where two smart centrists, one tested and one untested, will have to fight it out.
Just a short note that I have just posted a longer piece on funding for education. Posts like this appear on a separate page here as it is a distinct category of commentary, more or less related to my election and role as school trustee. On this page you will find commentary on pretty much any issue I fancy.
Last summer we visited Athens and in making the bookings for our stay made sure we would be close to the city center and through Airbnb found an apartment in swanky Kolonaki. Surrounded by government offices, diplomatic missions and the residences of those that occupied these buildings during the day, we enjoyed the location’s many advantages including the daily stroll to Syntagma Square in the heart of the city. On one of the late night walks back, my daughter pointed to the green areas surrounding the various Greek government buildings. It was hard to discern immediately in the dark, but if you looked well enough you would see armed soldiers in full battle dress guarding the area, hiding in the park bush. It was sort of a shock to see this level of military presence and it complemented the many heavily armed police officers we had seen not only in our neighborhood, but also in many other locations in the city. Not exactly the signs of a stable democracy with a confident government.
Of course we knew all too well that the European Union's austerity program had created political instability in Greece, but we were still somewhat surprised to see this level of security around town. And it was not just to ensure safety in Athens’ political and diplomatic quarters, on one Sunday we ran into a noisy demonstration of activist youths who ran down Ermou Street ensuring that all stores closed as rapidly as they demanded in order to ensure that none would be open for business on Sunday. Noisy, borderline violent and intended to be disruptive, it underlined the tension in Athens. It was not easy to explain this to our North American kids, but yes, in certain quarters of Europe the right to a day off for workers on Sunday is seen as fundamental, and to fight for it is taking a stand against capitalism, or as it is now often labeled, ‘neo-liberalism’.
The government buildings in our neighborhood were adorned with both the Greek and EU flags. Combined with the armed police and the especially heavy security presence around the German embassy our quiet neighborhood walk presented us with the microcosm of Greece’s political reality in the summer of 2014. No longer sovereign and with a supranational entity enforcing both economic terms and identity, neither of which could be delivered without a heavy dose of armed protection. It gave me, in the very summer that marked the 40th anniversary of the end of Greece’s military junta a somewhat uncomfortable feeling. Was this the reality of what Greece’s journey to democracy and wealth had run into?
Now, the general train of thought is that Greece’s government was compelled to sign up for an economic austerity pact with the EU and its main enforcer, Germany, in order to keep the country closely tied into the Eurozone and ensure a measure of economic stability. It would align the Greek economy with that of the rest of the EU, its internal free market and monetary system as mandated by Europe’s central bank the ECB, at a cost to the average Greek citizen of course. Left of center opposition to the austerity so imposed has always conflated the EU with ‘neo-liberalism’ or the tendency to suppress local and individual interests to a multinational corporate and low tax agenda. This is interesting as the EU has been given many labels, but it is hard for true free-market conservatives or classic liberals to view this pan-European arrangement as something that would ultimately liberate markets and societies. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s deep distrust of the organization which still carries a lot of weight today and likely will keep Britain forever out of the Eurozone project. As it can be debated whether opposition to EU and its austerity measures is defined by leftist or right-wing sentiments, it would be safer to characterize this resistance as populist with nationalist undertones. As such these feelings feed into political streams that oppose the political establishment and in Greece this was channeled by two new movements, Syriza on the left and Golden Dawn on the right. Last night Syriza booked a spectacular election win in Greece’s parliamentary elections and will now with a clear mandate challenge the austerity measures imposed by the EU.
Greece has a deep leftist tradition and it was only logical that a reinvigorated left would channel Greek discontent, promising that change is on the way. Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras now has a mandate deliver on a renegotiation and see if Greece can get out or relax the terms of its Eurozone straightjacket, the consequences of which no one yet can really oversee although there are many different scenarios that now carry the name ‘Grexit’. I would suggest to not bother with the 'market commentators' as no one really knows. What is clear is that Syriza’s win will have a profound effect on Greece and will no doubt inspire other EU-skeptical movements, both left and right, all across Europe.
What the election results above all underline is that the existing order in Europe is under pressure and that the rules of engagement are now being rewritten. Whatever Tsipras’ ability to effect such change, the blue colored and star-studded EU flag may not fly as confidently along Greece’s white and blue as it has in recent years.
A generation’s fears and aspirations captured in one ceremony
So there I was with my youngest daughter, surrounded by a crowd where women in the fifty plus category were clearly in the majority. And judging from their looks, not having the same access to the sort of healthcare that preserves youth and sexiness even when you are closing in on seventy, like the pop diva they were about to see. In all likelihood they were here some eleven years ago when Cher’s first farewell tour blitzed across North America, only to see itself repeated this year with the Malibu-based pop diva hitting the tender age of sixty-eight. I had missed that opportunity back then and had resolved to go and see her if she ever made it to town again. That said, I had never for myself been quite able to define what so deeply attracted me to her, apart from enjoying a few songs like “I Found Someone” and her pretty unique ability to defy – with whatever means available – old age.
The “Cherest Show” started – following a great opening act by Cyndi Lauper – with nothing short of a standing and boisterous ovation, making it impossible for Cher to address the audience for quite a few minutes. And it was clear to both the singer and her audience why the prolonged welcome took place. A deep joy of seeing Cher again in pretty much the same youthful look as before, knowing it might really be the last time she did a live tour, but also quite likely a deep recognition that pulling this off at age sixty-eight deserves some respect. Never did I see such a moving moment between a stage artist and a crowd.
The show itself has now morphed into more of a Cirque du Soleil type fantasy extravaganza where the music plays far less of a role. It is more a celebration of the multifaceted phenomenon that is Cher and nowhere did that become clearer halfway the show where a series of movie clips captured the Hollywood career of the artist with some of her more noted performances (with the classic Jack Nicholson scene from The Witches of Eastwick) and quotes from a number of interviews. And right there it was. In one excerpt Cher said that she never really knew what she was, a singer, a moviestar, an artist or whatever, but that she had always achieved and been successful at that what she had pursued, but never ever belonged to a particular group. That statement had a deep impact, at least on me it did. Because therein lies the key attraction to Cher as a persona and something that for many is so hard to achieve: to accomplish goals and be totally yourself without ever succumbing to group pressures or group identities. More than that, to carve out your own niche in life.
That of course Cher herself has done in spades and the standing ovation in no small part was evidence of that all so human aspiration. But the near religious atmosphere of paying respect to a higher being was also driven by all those fifty plus boomers who are all so desperately seeking to defy that one thing that even wealth and success can not postpone: old age and death, eventually. The diva however invited a healthy does of realism into that, “ I am sixty-eight” and if I am going under “you will not be far behind” pointing to an older guy in the audience adding, “Is that your wife? Must be your second or third!” and alluding to a not too distant funeral ceremony, “you’re coming with me!” Cher’s ability to make light of the inevitable resonated with all present, again emphasizing the bond the star and her audience enjoy.
Her performance is a celebration of defying age and trying to carve out a unique role for yourself, one way or the other. All of it is buoyed by extravagant and colorful costumes, light and showy glee riding high on the pulsating drums of “Believe” and “Strong Enough”. And bringing back the life and times of Sonny Bono was another emotional twist in capturing the fluidity of life in the show.
The most endearing moment however came at the very end and it captured the heart of coming of age and saying goodbye in its most poignant form. After gliding across the stadium and singing her final song, Cher walked to each and every corner of the stage and as a somewhat timid older mother waved in the most friendly and innocent ways to the excited crowds. It was as if she was saying, I am going now my kids, my friends, please take care of yourselves because it is unlikely I will be coming back anytime soon, if ever. It was the most genuine scene of the evening. While the glitz faded, the diminutive stature of Cher made her so complete and human that there was nothing left to be said and done by star and audience. The premise of the ceremony was fulfilled.
I glanced at my twelve-year old who absolutely captured the beat and show, but it will take another thirty years for her to grasp how her parent’s generation jumped on to that lifeline handed to them by one of the most transformative stars of the twentieth century.
We attended the June 27 show at the Rogers Arena, Vancouver, Canada. This article also appeared on Medium, here.