Did Harper stuff Jesus in his pocket?


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With the major industrialized countries of the world on the cusp of announcing a major new agreement to reduce greenhouse gases and Canada’s government announcing a host of measures to beef up the military and cut down on refugees to Canada, the most pressing news story of the past two weeks in Canada was whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper stuffed Jesus in his pocket.

While attending the state funeral in New Brunswick for former governor-general Romeo Leblanc last week before heading to Rome for the G8 summit, Harper was offered communion. What happened next remains a subject of considerable debate. Journalists reported that Harper did not put the wafer in his mouth, but instead stuffed it in his pocket. His spokesman insists that he swallowed it.

The picayune matter did much to overshadow Harper’s trip to Italy, where he was to meet with the leaders of the world’s economic giants.

Harper went into the summit with a lot at stake. With polls showing modest improvements in popular support, Harper had the opportunity to rub shoulders with President Barack Obama. But he also knew that Obama would vigorously back Europe’s push for aggressive action on climate change, which could profoundly affect the economic wellbeing of Canada’s western provinces.

Harper appears to have emerged largely unscathed from the encounter, at least in the eyes of his western electoral base. From the moment the 80 percent reduction by 2050 targets were announced, Harper’s cabinet ministers and other officials have been highlighting the “aspirational” nature of the communiqué, allowing the government to tell the west that it’s business as usual, at least for the time being.

What’s not business as usual is Canada’s sudden get-tough stance on refugees. Harper’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, this week announced that Canada was implementing visa requirements for all visitors from its two greatest sources of would-be refugees, Mexico and the Czech Republic.

The announcement touched off a bitter tiff with the Czechs, who recalled their ambassador and tried to invoke the "solidarity clause" with the rest of the European countries to demand that Canadian tourists obtain visas to travel anywhere in Europe. Kenney dismissed the retaliation effort as a tempest in a teapot and intended for domestic consumption. Many critics said the same about Canada’s new visa requirements.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced $5 billion in new spending to equip Canada’s infantry with new armored troop carriers. Since the vehicles won’t be delivered until well after Canada’s deployment to Afghanistan is expected to end in 2011, the news was taken by some as a sign that the Canadian military expects to be staying longer.

While the Conservative government’s fortunes have improved in much of the country, there is little sign that its frosty relations with Quebec are going to thaw anytime soon. The refugee law and a whisper campaign against the anti-climate change actions won’t help. In the wake of a poorly received series of attack ads portraying the rival Bloc Quebecois as being soft on pedophiles, Harper is now running a distant third place in Canada’s second-largest province, without which any hope of earning a majority government in a federal election is impossible.

One person high in the eyes of Quebecers – and all Canadians – is Julie Payette, who is very high indeed. Making her second trip into space, the Canadian astronaut finally blasted off this week after her space shuttle mission had been scrubbed six times for a variety of weather and equipment-related problems. While space shuttle missions are old hat for Americans, it remains pretty big news when a Canadian soars into orbit.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien can be excused for feeling he was over the moon this week. Chretien became just the third Canadian to receive the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II, who is Canada’s head of state. Chretien, 75, who led Canada from 1993 to 2004, joins two other former prime ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson, in this honor. King led Canada for 21 years through much of the Great Depression and the Second World War; and, Pearson earned a Nobel Prize in 1957 for his work in defusing the Suez Crisis prior to becoming prime minister during the tumultuous 1960s.

Ottawa stepped up efforts to prepare for a deadlier-than-usual flu season, buying 500 new ventilators to distribute to hospitals across the country. Noting that on a per-capita basis, Canada has been among the countries hit hardest by the H1N1 swine flu virus, Canadian health officials sounding the alarm that the spread of the disease, which has already killed 29 in Canada and sickened a reported 663, could soon get much worse. Canada’s cold winters and enclosed, heated buildings are natural conduits for all influenza viruses, and with tests showing underwhelming efficacy of possible vaccines, officials are warning Canadians to brace for the worst.

Money: Better times are ahead for the Canadian economy, according to the International Monetary Fund, which forecast that it would outperform virtually every major developed economy. The IMF said Canada’s resource-rich economy would shrink less and begin to recover sooner than the U.S economy. The news was greeted by the Harper government as justification for its refusal to increase stimulus spending.

Despite growing joblessness and underemployment, Canada’s economy got another shot in the arm from strong signs of a resurgence in housing prices. Economists called the turnaround “amazing” as sales of existing homes in June jumped a seasonally adjusted 8.7 percent from the previous month, marking a fifth straight increase. Sales were 17.9 percent higher than a year earlier, and resales in the second quarter of 2009 climbed 31.5 percent from the previous quarter.

Elsewhere: Former Playboy Playmate of the Year Shannon Tweed said she was not upset than the City of Ottawa rescinded its offer to name a day in her honor. Acting mayor Doug Thompson had let it slip that he planned to celebrate the former Miss Ottawa Valley’s return this week, but when some city councilors pointed out that she in no way fit the criteria, he was forced to back down. Tweed, in town with her musician husband Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) for Ottawa Bluesfest, was gracious, saying that she was honored anyone would even consider such a nice gesture. "It's sweet that anybody would want to do anything (for me) and I really appreciate it," she said.

Canadian golf fans are already looking past this weekend’s British Open to the Canadian Open, which tees off July 23 at Glen Abbey Golf Club, the course designed by Jack Nicklaus just west of Toronto that still ranks as one of Canada’s best. While Tiger Woods continues to refuse to play in Canada’s premier tournament because, he says, it comes so closely on the heels of the British, organizers are pleased with the quality of the field, which includes: Canadians Mike Weir and Stephen Ames, defending champion Chez Reavie, Sean O'Hair, Retief Goosen, Hunter Mahan, Ricky Barnes, Trevor Immelman, and crowd favorite John Daly


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