{mosimage}In his first few weeks as Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff has been surefooted. He has exuded confidence, determination and a sense of what needs to be done. Canadians have seen a strong alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper if the country is forced into another federal election sooner rather than later.

Still, we know very little about him, other than that he is the son of Russian aristocracy, a Harvard intellectual, author of both political treatises and novels and has been absent from the country for most of his adult life. He offers plenty of impressions but precious little about where he would like to lead the country.

{mospagebreak}Early in the new year most people are winding down from Christmas socializing, including entertaining at home. Considerable preparation typically goes into hosting guests over the holidays: making lists, shopping, preparing food, de-cluttering, cleaning and decorating, and perhaps also doing minor repairs or even major redecorating or renovations. The goal, of course, is to create a hospitable atmosphere.

Hospitality has many positive connotations: welcome, comfort, kindness, acceptance, attentiveness and generosity. For Christians, it extends well beyond laying out the welcome mat for guests to our home. It’s a year-round practice, a certain attitude towards everyone with whom we come in contact.

{mosimage}In magazines and on TV, the Christmas trees are tall, symmetrical and tastefully decorated using just the right amount of restraint. Sets of ornaments are evenly distributed and garland perfectly draped. Oftentimes there’s a colour scheme — blue and white or red and gold, for example — with impeccably co-ordinated trimmings.

In contrast, our family Christmas tree (always a real one, and so intrinsically imperfect), contains an eclectic mix of embellishments accumulated over many years. All of them, though, have meaning, and so rather than one more holiday task to be completed, decorating the tree is a welcome walk down memory lane.

{mosimage}The Christmas season is the prime film-launch time of the year. There are the award nominations to consider as well as the simple commercial fact that this is the time when families go to movies in droves. So, brace yourselves for the onslaught of the sublime and the absurd, the elegantly crafted and the insipid, the insightful and the hopelessly banal. 

Alas, the numbers of genuinely accomplished works of art are few, the formula-driven installments of previous successes omnipresent, and the range of offerings shamelessly constrained by myopic distributors.

{mosimage}As we mark with joy the coming of the Saviour, let us spare a prayer for our world. What should we pray? A few suggestions:

Let us pray that, somehow, tribal conflict in the Congo can be resolved and that the United Nations gather enough international effort to help bring an end to the violence in that war torn nation.

{mosimage}John Peter Humphrey is a Canadian to be reckoned with. And much of the world did so on Dec. 10 of this year. The Vatican hosted a day-long meditation and celebration on Humphrey’s most famous writing, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrating its 60th anniversary this month. But any contemplation of the declaration just makes clear that old saying, “ideas have consequences.”

Humphrey, a native of New Brunswick and a Christian, was born in 1905. A lawyer, jurist and legal scholar, in 1946 Humphrey became the first director of the Human Rights Division of the just created United Nations. After consultations with his boss, Eleanor Roosevelt, he drafted the Universal Declaration.

{mosimage}As I write, Gayla Peevey sings “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Soon the McAvoy family will embark on our annual Christmas tree hunt. I am already psyching myself up. 

When our children were small, finding a Christmas tree was simple. Jennifer and I would bundle one, two and then three little ones in snow suits and pack them into a sled. We would pull the sled six or nine metres into a tree farmer’s field, spot a tree more or less in proportion, cut it down and take about a dozen pictures. With smiling faces we would return home, put the tree in the stand, invite family and friends to add a bit of tinsel and a few ornaments, and we would be happy. 

{mosimage}Faced with a surefire deficit next year, it took considerable courage for the Liberal government in Ontario to stick to its commitment to tackle poverty. The poor are the most voiceless of all of us, and least likely to vote. It would have been easy for Premier Dalton McGuinty to dispense with this promise, as he had with other more contentious promises in the past. Remember “no new taxes”?

On Dec. 4, Deb Matthews, Minister of Children and Youth Services, announced her government’s commitment to lift 90,000 children from poverty by 2013. It involves doubling the Working Income Tax Benefit to $2,000 and increasing the National Child Benefit Supplement to $1,200 per child. There will also be an increase in the Ontario Child Benefit and extra millions to help children leaving foster care and beefing up its Youth Opportunities Strategy to help kids in poorer neighbourhoods get summer jobs and training. (See our story on Page 11.)

{mosimage}How soon they forget. Remember back, way back, to Oct. 14? We had this thing called a federal election. A certain Conservative politician was re-elected as prime minister of Canada. And in his acceptance speech, he promised to work in a spirit of compromise with the opposition parties on behalf of all Canadians in the face of an almost unprecedented economic crisis.

And a certain Liberal leader also promised he, too, would co-operate with the competition to make Parliament work. In fact, so did the leaders of the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats.
{mosimage}Many people find visiting someone in a nursing home an uncomfortable experience, at least initially. They don’t know what to expect or what to say and do.

If you are planning to call on a friend or relative in long-term care over the next few weeks, follow these suggestions to help ensure positive interactions.
{mosimage}Sometimes progress has to be measured in baby steps. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a dance, two steps forward, one step back. That’s how Canadians could view the state of free speech in this country. In late November, there was a bit of progress, along with evidence that one of our most cherished freedoms is still under assault.

We’ll get to that, but first a bit of backstory. Despite what you may think — and what our Charter of Rights and Freedoms says explicitly — freedom of speech has been eroded in recent years. Human rights tribunals, unaccountable quasi-judicial bureaucratic bodies charged with ensuring we all live in harmony, have been slowly expanding their turf. From originally being concerned with rooting out discrimination in job markets, housing and other essential parts of life, they have moved into adjudicating between various people who have found ways to offend each other with their words. Their rationale for moving in this area can be found in Sec. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.