February 8th, 2010


[META] Welcome, [OBSCURA]!

Given my plans to post photographs taken by other people, it seemed only prudent for me to distinguish these photos from mine not only by the addition of a new tag, but by the creation of a new icon to accompany these posts. The [OBSCURA] icon is derived from a 2005 photo of an early camera by Slovenian Wikipedia Janez Novak. It seemed appropriate.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] More on the ongoing TTC workers and users feud

If Livejournal can be used to gauge popular opinion in any kind of community, the rather hostile reaction to this post to the toronto community linking to this article on TTC workers' reactions to their recording by angry customers suggests that employee/customer relations at the TTC are going to remain tense.

That much is clear from a Facebook group TTC workers set up, called “Toronto Transit Operators against public harassment,” after TTC chief manager Gary Webster publicly issued a stern memo to all staff on Saturday. The note was in response to a recent series of gaffes, caught on camera and posted online, showing transit workers sleeping or stopping for coffee while on the job.

By Sunday night, a few dozen workers were pushing back at the customer complaints through a Facebook group, where they posted their own pictures of inconsiderate passengers and discussed a possible work-to-rule campaign. By midday yesterday, the group had swelled to 500, but had been infiltrated by transit riders irate over the threatened job action, who piled on with more complaints until the group's creator, Jack Gazic, had to close the site to new members.

Yesterday, Mr. Webster defended the memo, which he sent after consulting with Adam Giambrone, who remains TTC chairman as he campaigns for mayor.

Mr. Webster said he issued the memo through the media not to turn up the heat on his 12,000 employees, but merely to ensure it reached them all, unlike a similar note issued internally last month that somehow went unread by many.

“No one's told me the memo has inflamed the situation,” Mr. Webster said in an interview, adding that he met with several front-line workers yesterday. They told him they accepted his message, but wanted more support from management in dealing with problem customers.

[. . .]

Alan Levy, a labour relations expert and former University of Toronto academic, was dubious about the TTC's public tactics.

“The notion of making it public is a PR exercise; it isn't something that's designed to alter the behaviour of people who already feel victimized,” said Mr. Levy, who teaches at Manitoba's Brandon University and works as a labour arbitrator and mediator. “It's only going to alienate the employees that much more.”

The job action never materialized yesterday, perhaps due to morning comments on a TV program by union leader Bob Kinnear, who said he didn't sanction it. Still, the fact there was a threat at all, followed by an up-tick in public anger on the Facebook site, showed Mr. Webster's attempt to bring TTC workers into line had done anything but.

Bob Kinnear, head of the TTC workers' union, strongly opposes the recording of his employees, although given how he's generally held in contempt by TTC users he's listened to only by his constituents.

Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, recently said it’s not OK for teenagers to film TTC operators in their duties:

“We’ve got 13 and 14-year-olds that feel that they have an entitlement to film our operators in the performance of their duties, and that’s not acceptable."

With some members of the transit union calling for a work to rule, what exactly does "not acceptable" mean? In the latest incident of TTC operators vs. riders, a Dufferin bus driver told his annoyed passenger to stop filming him and get off the bus. Another driver fought back at a commuter with a camera by taking his own pictures of the man.

Typically, citizen journalists and 14-year-olds with an iPhone and a sense of entitlement don’t film public employers doing exactly what they are supposed to.

The bylaw on film and photography on TTC property for business purposes says that no one is allowed to film for any commercial purposes without permission. But Brad Ross, a spokesperson for the TTC said that tourists or groups of friends wanting to take a photo on the subway is okay. As far as that other kind of TTC photography that has been so popular lately, Brad Ross, head of corporate communications for the TTC, says: “It's not helpful. We don't encourage our customers to take pictures of our operators and our employees working.”

The ultimate outcome of any employee/customer conflict is expressed succinctly by the title of Mary Vallis' blog post at the National Post, "In the war between passengers and TTC drivers, the masses will win". That said, there's certainly going to be casualties, even without a work-to-rule campaign that would really make a lot of people think fondly of Reagan's gutting of the air traffic controllers; as one author notes, a bus driver on the Dufferin route shut down his bus on Saturday in response to a rider's recording.

This controversy over the misbehavour of some TTC employees--something that should be recorded, I think, given my own personal fecklessness of what's jokingly called the TTC's complaints system, and you all know that I've my own camera and little compunction against using it--is just part of a wider problem with a strained TTC system that's starting to slip behind the times.

As she makes her way through St. George subway station, Heather Fraser can't help but feel something is missing – something other than the ceiling tiles, that is.

Or a Smart Card to let her bypass the surly fare collector.

Or a collector, period. This one has vanished, leaving a hand-scrawled sign asking customers to “Please pay your fare and go in.”

No, it's more than these things. What's missing to Ms. Fraser, a business-design guru at the Rotman School of Management, is the simple satisfaction of a basic public service, pleasantly rendered.

“It works, but something's not right,” Ms. Fraser says, unwittingly coining an apt slogan for the Toronto Transit Commission, once known as The Better Way.

TTC users have had much to complain about lately. Sleeping collectors, primordial systems, gruff service, congestion, dirty stations and delays are among the shame-badges pinned to the TTC's grey-and-maroon uniform. Another was added this week when a fed-up rider posted YouTube videos of a bus driver taking languorous coffee breaks mid-route while his passengers sat idling.

Bad as its been for customers, the stakes are far higher for Toronto's image as a progressive international city.

“It's quite stark and it's quite simple,” says Eric Miller, a civil engineering professor and transportation expert at the University of Toronto. “It's impossible to build a dense urban city with high quality of life without proper transit, full stop. It is not an option, it is not a frill; it is essential, and part of our problem is we don't appreciate that.”

The rude and ill-considered actions of a minority of TTC users don't help things. Equally, the rude and ill-considered actions of a minority of TTC employees don't help, and since these are the people who are getting paid by the city of Toronto to provide customer service to the users of a public utility, I'm inclined to think that a bit more respect for customers is a very good idea. Don't like getting shown up as underperforming? Don't underperform.

[LINK] "CFB Trenton chief charged with murder of two women"

The small eastern Ontario town of Trenton, located perhaps couple hundred kilometres east of Toronto on Lake Ontario, hosts CFB Trenton, one of Canada's most important military bases and is the centre of Canada's air operations. Trenton has been of note in the past few years as the point of entry for Canada's Afghanistan war dead, the place whence the dead are whisked west on Highway 401--"the Highway of Heroes," as it's officially called"--to Toronto for final preparations. That's part of the reason why the latest news out of CFB Trenton is such a non sequitur, as if it came out of a Nelson DeMille potboiler.

The commander of CFB Trenton, a career officer with 23 years in the military, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of two women - a corporal at Trenton and a Belleville woman who vanished 11 days ago.

Col. Russell Williams, 46, was also charged Monday in with sexual assault in connection with two home invasions in the Tweed area, Det. Insp. Chris Nicholas said at a news conference today in Belleville.

The charges came “due to a singularity in those incidents,” Nicholas said. “We linked those crimes to a single suspect.”

Jessica Lloyd, 27, vanished Jan. 28 and police said on Monday that her body had been found. A second woman, Cpl. Marie France Comeau of the 435th squadron, Trenton, was found dead in her home in Brighton on Nov. 25, 2009.

The home invasions occurred in September. “Geography played a role” in the investigation, said Belleville Police Chief Cory McMullan.

Williams has had a full and high profile 23-year career in the military.

He has been responsible for some of Canada’s most significant recent military operations, including overseeing the backbone of Canada’s contribution to the crisis in Haiti – a 24-hour “air bridge” that links Trenton with Port au Prince, Jacmel and Kingston, Jamaica.

He also was responsible for co-coordinating re-supply for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and air support at the Vancouver Olympics.

"Blink," I say. "Blink."

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Robertson, Taylor, and a clash of ideologies

One of my favourite tags for blog postings is "clash of ideologies". Samuel Huntington famously wrote about the "clash of civilizations," of how different groupings of cultures, most defined by shared religion, were bound to come into conflict with each other in different ways and to different degrees. "Clash of ideologies," for me, refers to the frequent contradictions between what the people who define these civilizations profess to believe and would demand their subjects followers believe, and what they actually do.

Liberia's Charles Taylor, former warlord and president of Liberia, is currently on trial in The Hague on multiple counts of crimes against humanity. As a warlord, from 1989 on he precipitated what's arguably the prototypical African civil war in the world imagination, with blood diamonds and chopped-off hands and child soldiers and enforced cannibalism, and the sponsorship of similar chaos in Sierra Leone besides. He won Liberia's 1997 presidential election with over 75% of the vote, apparently because the electorate feared he'd restart the war if he lost, what with slogans like "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him" and all, and continued to commit various atrocities right up to the time of his 2003 exile. His 2006 arrest has marked the beginning of a long, painful trial.

Just last week, at his trial Taylor decided to talk about his relationship with American evangelical preacher and activist Pat Robertson.

The international prosecutors contend that Taylor offered concessions to Western individuals in exchange for lobbying work aimed at enhancing his image in the United States. The prosecution maintains that Taylor also spent $2.6 million on lobbying firms and public relations outfits in the hopes of influencing the policies of former President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Under cross-examination, Taylor said that Robertson had volunteered to make Liberia's case before U.S. administration officials, and had spoken directly to President Bush about Taylor. He also confirmed that Robertson's company, Freedom Gold Limited, signed an agreement to exploit gold in southeastern Liberia, but that it never generated any profit.

"Mr. Taylor, indeed at one point you said that you can count on Pat Robertson to get Washington on your side," he was asked by the lead prosecution counsel, Col. Brenda Hollis, a former U.S. Air Force officer. Taylor replied: "I don't recall the exact words, but something to that effect."

A spokesman for Robertson, Chris Roslan, confirmed that Robertson was awarded a gold exploration concession by the Liberian government during the 1990s. But he said that there was "no quid pro quo" to provide the government with anything in return. Roslan said the company, Freedom Gold, is no longer in operation and has never found any gold.

"This concession was granted by the Liberian government to promote economic activity and alleviate the suffering of the people of Liberia following a terrible civil war," said Roslan, adding that Robertson had never met Taylor or paid him any money. "Freedom Gold accomplished this by employing some 200 Liberians in addition to providing humanitarian efforts including free medical care and installation of clean water wells for area residents."

That last component in itself might have been a defensible investment, if one I'd not care to support myself and would feel free to criticize. Unfortunately, as this CBS article from the time of Taylor's deposition in 2003 notes, he didn't limit his concerns to humanitarianish investments.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson accused President Bush of “undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels” by asking Liberian President Charles Taylor, recently indicted for war crimes, to step down.

“How dare the president of the United States say to the duly elected president of another country, 'You've got to step down,'" Robertson said Monday on “The 700 Club,” broadcast from his Christian Broadcasting Network.

“It's one thing to say, we will give you money if you step down and we will give you troops if you step down, but just to order him to step down? He doesn't work for us.”

Robertson, a Bush supporter who has financial interests in Liberia, said he believes the State Department has “mismanaged the situation in nation after nation after nation” in Africa.

“So we're undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country,” he said in the broadcast.

Oh, but good news!

Robertson told The Washington Post in an interview published Thursday that he has “written off in my own mind” an $8 million investment in a Liberian gold mining venture he made four years ago, under an agreement with Taylor's government.

“Once the dust has cleared on this thing, chances are there will be some investors from someplace who want to invest. If I could find some people to sell it to, I'd be more than delighted,” he said in the article.

Better a Christian génocidaire (Baptist génocidaire, sorry) than anyone else at all? Voltaire wrote about cannibals like Robertson.