Central Moscow is in turmoil as thousands of protesters take to the streets to demand fair elections to the City Council on 8 September 2019. 

Over 1,300 people were detained by police over the weekend with reports of protesters being brutally clubbed and manhandled.

The protesters say the election authorities are refusing to register candidates they don’t want to see on the City Council, inventing reasons to keep them off the ballot paper. We are told disqualified candidates submitted forms that contained errors or fraudulent signatures.

The demonstrations are happening just days after I return home from Russia. In Moscow I saw little groups of flag waving protesters but nothing on the scale now being reported. Otherwise I would have joined in to learn more about the issues.

Heavy police presence

There is a heavy police and security presence in central Moscow but I figure this is just normal.

The Western tourists I speak to marvel at the prosperity and freedom of today’s Russia, at least in the big tourist destinations. They and their tourist guides openly crack jokes about the KGB and the old surveillance state when everyone was frightened to say boo! to a goose. Things are different now, they say. 

A bronze dog in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg – pointed out to us as we file by - is the spitting image of Vladimir Putin. We all chortle. Then gales of laughter. What fun! 

The huge GUM store on Red Square – once the shopping destination of choice for the Soviet Union’s nomenklatura offering goods that couldn’t be found anywhere else – is now full of high-end fashion outlets and very expensive international brands.

But behind the glitz there is a different reality. 

Assassination a stone's throw from the Kremlin

One morning as I am walking over Stalin’s bridge to Red Square I come across two women, perched on little stools, in front of flowers and photographs of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian politician and an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin whom he believed to be deeply corrupt. 

Nemtsov was assassinated on 27 February 2015 on this very bridge, a five-minute stroll from Red Square. As tourists wander past, unaware of that brutal killing four years ago, I ask the women how long they’ve been there and what the authorities think about the protest. I learn there are about 60 of them who take it in turns to keep the protest going. They’ve been there every day since Nemtsov was shot dead with four bullets in the back. 

They want those responsible to be tracked down and brought to justice and for a memorial to be erected on the spot where Nemtsov was slain. Personally, I can’t see it happening. 

In the early days, they tell me the authorities were very hostile to the protest but the women are now largely left alone. Sometimes men in boots appear and throw the flowers over the bridge parapet. When I ask for a leaflet explaining more about the protest, the women shake their heads (there are no leaflets) but one gives me the lapel badge she is wearing.

 Now I am reading about an opposition politician Alexei Navalny who has been hospitalised as 

 “the result of harmful effects of undefined chemical substances”. 

Radioactive relationships

We all know about polonium but I wonder what else is in the cupboard? 

The former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, reportedly told Putin in a private meeting at the G20 summit in Osaka last month that, in relation to the Salisbury poisoning, there was:

“irrefutable evidence that Russia was behind the attack – based on painstaking investigations and cooperation with our allies”

Russia, of course, denies this.

Russia Today just reports the news as they see it.

In the same way, the assassinated Boris Nemtsov and the four year vigil on the bridge is not news and is therefore not reported.

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The Soviet Union collapsed on 26 December 1991. 

Update on 31 July 2019 from the Globe and Mail: The Kremlin lashes out, but Russians are no longer afraid to fight back.

Update on 3 August 2019 from the Guardian: Opposition leader detained. And more here.

Update on 4 August 2019 from the Observer on the police crackdown.

The oldest tree in Newmarket is in the back yard of a house at 438 Botsford Street but it may not be with us much longer.  

The old White Oak was designated as a heritage tree in 2005 and is at least 214 years old, possibly as much as 314 years old. It is huge.

Think about it. Astonishingly, it was there during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

And the old tree was standing during the Rebellion of 1837. It is a fabled part of our Town’s history. 

438 Botsford Street (or Liberty Hall) was the home of James B. Caldwell, a rebel sympathiser. The tree became known as Liberty Tree.

"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot"

It sits smack bang up against the property line with a neighbouring house on Timothy Street whose owners, despite the tree’s heritage designation, paved over the entire back yard to provide additional parking for their new apartment building. About 35% of the tree’s root system is buried under 8 inches of impervious asphalt.

As a result, the old tree could be starved of the vital nutrients it needs. It doesn’t get the constant drip of nourishing rainwater. And construction of the Timothy Street building saw huge piles of earth being heaped on top of the tree’s root system by heavy construction equipment. Fifty per cent of a tree’s root system is in the top one foot of soil and 90% is in the top three feet. Heavy machinery can do real damage but it is hidden and can take years to manifest. For the moment, the tree looks good for its great age but that could change overnight.

"It's a piece of our history"

Victor Woodhouse was on the Council back in 2007 when the Council was considering making a $750 grant “to invest in the well-being of the tree”. At the time he said:

“It is the only designated tree in Town. This is a piece of our history. It’s too bad it’s not more visible to the public so everyone could enjoy it.”

So, what needs to be done? The Town should immediately commission an expert arborist to check the tree for signs of distress and to report on its overall condition. If the paving has to be dug up to save the tree then that should happen. No question.

But how was it possible for the Liberty Tree’s root system to be paved over, apparently without a second thought?

Who is policing the Town’s designated heritage properties and its other features of historic value? 

Trees need us

The Town is currently looking at its policies on trees and not before time. For years, developers have been buying up and clear-cutting building lots before putting in applications to the Town to demolish old houses and redeveloping with much bigger ones. Profit is the priority and trees get in the way.

That mind-set needs to change. Trees need us. And we need them.

What a terrible indictment of the Town of Newmarket and its stewardship if, by inaction, indifference or neglect, it allows the old Liberty Tree to wither and die, its roots suffocating under a parking lot.

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Update on 16 August 2019: And here is how Newmarket Today covered the story.

By-law passed and then forgotten

 

Earlier this afternoon I received this curious email from Conrad Black or someone purporting to be Conrad Black. The email address is shown as This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Baron Black of Crossharbour takes issue with an earlier post of mine in which I describe him as a convicted fraudster:

“Mr. Prentice, my media office has sent me your reference to me as “convicted fraudster” in a recent internet piece. The fraud in question was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously and spuriously retrieved by the lower court to which the vacated counts were remanded for “assessment of the gravity of (the lower court’s) errors.” 

The charge consisted of the receipt of $285,000 that had been approved by the independent directors, posted in the company’s public filings, and was deemed (correctly) by the trial judge to be a clerical error of a co-defendant.

Finally, this count also was “expunged,” that is to say I have now officially never been charged in the U.S. 

The reason publicly given for this was not an ex gratia act of mercy and clemency by the president; it was on the recommendation of the White House counsel office after thorough research that I should never have been charged and that no crime was committed. Your reference was defamatory. 

As I doubt that you have enough readers or measurable influence to do me any damage, I don’t believe that if I sued you, while I would certainly gain a judgment that you have defamed me, I would receive a damage award adequate to cover my legal expenses. 

But this will serve as your notice that if you continue to describe me in those or similar terms-not calling me a jerk or a horse’s ass or anything like that, which would be a matter of opinion and fair comment, but as a criminal whose principal descriptive characteristic is the commission of frauds of which I have been convicted, I will be able to demonstrate intent to defame, which bears serious consequences even if you are only read by ten people. 

In that event, I will not be so forebearant. I did win the greatest libel settlement in Canadian history ($5 million) from the authors of the infamous special committee report of 2004. This is the only cautionary notice you will receive. Conrad Black”

Delicious!

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Update at 18.00 on 24 July 2019: Can I continue to describe Baron Black of Crossharbour as a “convicted fraudster”? I believe I can but I’ve got to tread carefully. Lord Black has pots of money to hire fancy dancing lawyers and I’ve got Wikipedia.  

The noble Lord tells me the conviction for the “receipt of $285,000” was “expunged” by the President:

“on the recommendation of the White House counsel office after thorough research that I should never have been charged and that no crime was commited”. 

The Office of the Pardon Attorney (in the US Department of Justice website) addresses this question:

"Does a presidential pardon expunge or erase the conviction for which the pardon was granted?"

And gives this answer:

"No.  Expungement is a judicial remedy that is rarely granted by the court and cannot be granted within the Department of Justice or by the President.  Please also be aware that if you were to be granted a presidential pardon, the pardoned offense would not be removed from your criminal record.  Instead, both the federal conviction as well as the pardon would both appear on your record.  However, a pardon will facilitate removal of legal disabilities imposed because of the conviction, and should lessen to some extent the stigma arising from the conviction…"  

That’s seems clear enough. Expungement cannot be granted by the President but only by a Court of Law and the White House Counsel’s Office is not, of course, a Court of Law. 

A presidential pardon – an Executive Act of Clemency - would not remove a pardoned offense from a criminal record. 

So how does his Lordship figure that I am defaming him when I refer to him as a “convicted fraudster”?

Isn't that what he is?

Update at 18.00 on 25 July 2019: The following exchanges took place with His Lordship

Me (Jul 25, 2019, at 12:14 PM) 

Thank you for your email of yesterday’s date in which you warn me not to refer to you as a convicted fraudster. You say I have defamed you.

You mention expungement which followed a recommendation from the White House Counsel’s Office.

I am told expungement cannot be granted by the President only by a Court of Law. Furthermore a Presidential Pardon does not remove the pardoned offence from the criminal record.

The two lie alongside each other so to speak, the pardon and the original offence.

Am I wrong about this? If so, in what way?

Lord Black of Crossharbour (Jul 25, 2019, at 12:39 PM):  

You are mistaken. Officially, I was never charged. 

Me (July 25, 2019 at 1:03PM)

In what way am I mistaken? How is it possible to be convicted of an offence without being charged first with that offence?

And what do your mean by “officially” when you tell me that “Officially, I was never charged”?

Please be as clear as possible so I can fully understand the argument and your reasoning.

Me (July 25, 2019 at 2.32PM)

I have been reflecting on our earlier exchanges. 

It would aid my understanding if you would let me have sight of the report from the White House Counsel’s Office on which you rely and which said you should never have been charged and that no crime was committed.

Will you please send it on to me?

Lord Black of Crossharbour: (2.51PM)

No

The convicted fraudster, Conrad Black, has been rooting for Boris Johnson in the latter’s quest to become Britain’s next Prime Minister. It is easy to see why. They both display a casual disregard for the truth. 

Earlier today Johnson won the Conservative leadership with 66% of the votes on a 87.4% turnout – 92,153 to Jeremy Hunt’s 46,656. So Johnson becomes PM on Wednesday after his visit to the Palace, voted into office by a tiny unrepresentative sub-set of the British population. 

The shrivelled membership of the Conservative Party (with only 159,320 members) looks quite unlike contemporary Britain - it is older, wealthier and whiter – but they like Boris who makes them laugh and feel good about themselves. And they are prepared to overlook his many negative qualities.

More bluster than achievement

After following the antics of Donald Trump for years, the New York Times knows a liar when it sees one. It describes Johnson today in these terms:

“A rumpled master of political theater and the quotable quip, he is idolized by rank-and-file Tories determined to quit the European Union no matter what the consequences. Yet his record as journalist, legislator, London mayor and foreign secretary displays far more bluster than achievement, and a consistent disdain for hard work, probity or the truth.”

Johnson routinely makes false claims. When he was European Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph he invented stories about the EU which, astonishingly, were taken at face value by credulous Conservative voters back home in Britain. He told them, for example, the EU wanted to standardise the size of coffins and condoms and they lapped up this drivel.

The winning formula that brought him success as a journalist was all laughter and lies.  

Horrible to behold

Half a lifetime ago when Johnson was editing The Spectator and I was a humble backbench Member of Parliament he called me out of the blue to quiz me on my views on fox hunting (which were then very well known). I was very much in favour of a ban on hunting with hounds and played a modest part in getting the law changed. In the profile which subsequently appeared Johnson observed:  

“It is customary these days to say that backbench MPs don’t count for much. Gordon Prentice has proved that a single Parliamentarian, by tabling a judicious amendment to a Government Bill, can still wreck a part of our culture.”

I was quite happy with that but then he goes and spoils it all by quoting an unnamed Labour minister who apparently says I am “horrible to behold” and that no-one has a good word to say about me. 

Oh dear!  

Now that he is Prime Minister, Johnson’s promises will collide with reality. Writing in Sunday’s Observer Andrew Rawnsley reminds us that at various times Johnson promised (a) to leave the EU without a deal on October 31 if the EU refuses to renegotiate Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (b) not to have a General Election before Brexit is done and (c) no further referendum. Rawnslay says:

“At least one of those pledges cannot be kept. When it has to be broken, I’d quite like to see the look on Theresa May’s face.”

"Utterly unfit to be Prime Minister"

Boris Johnson’s former boss at the Daily Telegraph Max Hastings, tells us he is “utterly unfit to be Prime Minister”.

“Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade. In a commonplace book the other day, I came across an observation made in 1750 by a contemporary savant, Bishop Berkeley: “It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.” Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him.”

Conrad Black, who was the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator from 1985-2004, last month sprang to Johnson’s defence. In a piece in the Spectator Black brands Hastings a coward:

“Max Hastings vs Boris Johnson: I know who I’d trust more”

“(Boris Johnson) had his lapses, but he was capable, successful and reliable when it counted, and he is, as he appears, a pleasant man. Max is an ill-tempered snob with a short attention span. He has his talents, but it pains me to report that when seriously tested, he was a coward and a flake. I think Boris will be fine.”

Donald Trump agrees.

With endorsements such as these how can Boris fail?

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Update at 18.20: And this is how the Guardian views the Johnson Premiership.

Tonight (Monday 8 July 2019) is a big occasion for Tony Van Bynen - and for members of the Liberal Party in Newmarket-Aurora.  

Van Bynen at the Keith Bridge at Davis Drive. Alas the bridge didn’t meet the specifications. It’s cracking up. Defects and deficiencies have been noted

The 68 year-old Van Bynen who has spent 18 years in municipal politics being “steadfastly bipartisan” is being acclaimed at 7.30pm at the Royal Canadian Legion in Newmarket’s Srigley Street as the new Liberal candidate for the October Federal Election.

Van Bynen will address hundreds of Liberal Party activists expecting to be fired-up and motivated for the campaign ahead.

Van Bynen will not let them down. He has spent a lifetime preparing for this moment

What will he say? Will he invite questions? Will the hat be passed around to help fill his campaign war chest?

Inspiration

He will tell his audience he draws inspiration from three famous leaders – the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King and John A. Macdonald.

The Dalai Lama has certainly made his mark on the old banker. For years I have witnessed him at York Regional Council, head slightly bowed, deep in meditation, saying nothing.

And then there’s Martin Luther King whom Van Bynen admires for his social justice. We shall find out tonight whether Van Bynen's concern for social justice goes beyond mere neighbourliness which has been, until now, the defining core of his political beliefs.

Van Bynen also looks for inspiration to John A. Macdonald, praising the man’s vision and commitment to build. At a time when Justin Trudeau is trying hard to put relations with Canada’s First Nations on a sounder and less contentious footing, the old banker’s choice of Macdonald (who believed in the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples) may seem misjudged.

Priorities

But in any event, this is Van Bynen’s big opportunity to throw his natural banker’s caution to the winds and tell us what he really thinks about the challenges facing Canada. When he gets to Ottawa what will be his priorities?

Will we hear a call to arms or get one of those bland re-heated offerings that he used to dish out year-after-year to the local Chamber of Commerce, telling them how terrific Newmarket is? No. I think we can expect a rousing speech which sends shivers up the spine.

Van Bynen will want to speak out clearly and unequivocally about the things in Canada that need to change. If he sees injustice I expect him to shout about it, not look the other way. 

This may be a tall order for a man who is happiest when dealing in woolly generalities, who rarely stakes out a position on controversial subjects unless he is absolutely forced into a corner. He tells us this is his golden rule:

“We need to listen to all perspectives”.

Pensions a priority? (other than his own)

How would that have worked when Sears Canada closed its doors at Upper Canada Mall? When the local Sears was selling off its stock at knockdown prices I recall conversations with Sears staff whose pensions were disappearing before their eyes. Whose side would the Voice for Fiscal Prudence have been on? And when he gets to Ottawa what will he do about it?

Van Bynen will talk about climate change but I doubt he will use the term “climate crisis” or even “climate emergency”. Even though Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, that would probably be a step too far. He says:

“Climate change is very real and the Conservatives are pretending it is not a serious issue.”

Tonight he will laud the various initiatives taken at Newmarket Council such as solar panels and Soofa benches. But he won’t mention the York Regional Climate Change Action Plan. He chose not to comment when it came up for ratification on 16 November 2017. He missed the previous meeting when it was considered it detail (and that's OK) but was silent at full Council when he could have spoken. But that's entirely typical.

Follow the leader

We can thank the old banker’s long-time colleague, former councilor Dave Kerwin, for reminding us that Van Bynen is not a leader. It is best to think of him as a well-paid administrator. The old banker came up with this little gem in 2016:

“Leadership is as much about followership.”

I think he means we are all joined in a common pursuit, a common endeavour, the leaders and led. He just gets more money than the led.

When it is all over and Tony Van Bynen MP is comfortably settled in his new office in Ottawa, gazing out over the river, daydreaming, will he still block me from reading his tweets, as he does now?

Probably.

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Van Bynen told City Life Magazine his inspiration comes from “three famous leaders”

“I very much admire the Dalai Lama, because of his way of listening. Martin Luther King Jr. is someone whom I admire for his social justice. And when I think of John A. Macdonald, I think about the man’s vision on commitment and how to build.”

Update on 9 July 2019: And this is how Newmarket Today covered the meeting.