About 90 percent of Canadian taxpayers file their income tax returns electronically, but the Canada Revenue Agency would like to remind the remaining holdouts that filing your taxes by paper is just fine by them. Though it’s a bit harder to lay hands on a paper tax package: they’re available at fewer locations (i.e., no longer at the post office), or you can order one, or print one out. People who filed by paper last year will get their tax packages mailed to them, which I can confirm: despite living on the technological edge most of the time, I still do ours by paper for reasons I can’t quite explain or justify.
[Read the whole post before you come after me, okay?]
On Thursday morning the entire province of Ontario was woken up, first at 3:04 AM, then again at 3:36 AM, by an Amber Alert issued by the Brantford police. It was the sixth Amber Alert issued by Ontario police since the emergency alert system was extended to mobile phones. Though we live in Quebec, for some reason we get all the Ontario Amber Alerts, so we got it too. The usual flurry of complaints ensued: despite the backlash against people clueless enough to call 911 to complain about being woken up by an Amber Alert, the complaints seem to be getting worse.
I think I know why people are complaining about being woken up by Amber Alerts. It’s not because they’re being selfish bastards who don’t care about children. (Or it’s not just because.) It’s because the way Amber Alerts have been integrated into the emergency alert system in Canada, and in Ontario in particular, is broken by design. And unless it’s fixed, more lives will be put at risk than are saved.
Let me explain.
To be honest, I felt a bit weird listening to and enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack. That’s because I’m descended in part from Loyalists from New York. My people were on the opposite side from Alexander Hamilton: the farmers he refuted, and the people he fought against, both rhetorically and literally.
The Woodhull side of my family—my father’s mother’s side—makes a big deal of our Loyalist background, though (as you will see) not every Woodhull was a Loyalist.1 Before my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Woodhull (1741-1810)2 made a run for the border after the American Revolution, they hailed from Suffolk County on Long Island.3
Benjamin’s father, Josiah Woodhull (1695-1761) built what is now known as Josiah Woodhull House around 1720; his father, Richard Woodhull Jr. (1649-1699), founded Brookhaven. There are rather a lot of Woodhulls on both sides of the border (not all of them made a run for it, you see), and they’re a rather clannish bunch who are very much into their family history: my grandmother often told me that if I ever encountered someone who spelled their last name that way, they were a descendant of Richard Woodhull and therefore a relative.4
Those relatives include, on the treasonous side of the family, Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826), a son of Benjamin’s first cousin, who as “Samuel Culper Sr.” acted as a leading member of the Culper Ring, spying on the British during their occupation of New York.5 They also include Victoria Claftin Woodhull (1838-1927), a free love advocate who ran for president of the United States in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket, getting arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the vote. (Her nominal running mate was, get this, Frederick Douglass, though he did not campaign or even acknowledge the nomination.) Aunt Vickie was a distant relative of mine by marriage, having married (and divorced) Canning Woodhull (ca. 1828-1872), a grandson of Benjamin’s son Robert (1765-1848),6 who treacherously went back to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Canning was apparently “an alcoholic and a womanizer,” and he married Vickie when she was 15 and he was twice her age,7 so we’d rather talk about her than him.
My mother’s side of the family tree was a bit more opaque, a bit less researched—possibly because they’re a bit less full of themselves than the Woodhulls. They’re from New Brunswick, which was carved out of Nova Scotia in 1784 because of the arrival there of thousands of Loyalist refugees. A Loyalist connection seemed likely there as well, but I wanted to make sure of it before I started spouting off online about my Loyalist roots.
So I did something I never expected myself to do: I committed genealogical research.
The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.
I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.
1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.
2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.
3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.
4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that
(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;
(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT
(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.
5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)
6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.
(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)
I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.
For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.
Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.