The world knows what Canada stands for

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Senior Columnist

Formerly published in The Other Press. November 24, 2014

I’m a big proponent of solid brand management. As a writer, managing the very brand of writing I bring to a publication, employers, and clients is of vital importance. While such an exercise is worthy for a company or a freelancer, I’m not convinced that the same could be applied for national governments.

That is what the Harper government seems to be trying to do, and in some cases, it has made Canada a laughingstock. In late October, the Economist caught us “boasting”—in space of all places.

The Canada logo seen on the Canadarm2 is photoshopped. (Reddit)

The Canada logo seen on the Canadarm2 is photoshopped. (Reddit)

Images of the Canadarm2, the robotic limb of the International Space Station, displayed a large logo of Canada. The logo was Photoshopped. The images, however, appeared on federal government websites until they were taken down. The Canadian Space Agency claims that the doctored images were for “internal purposes” and that their widespread use on government websites and caching on Google images was “a mistake.”

The journalist who discovered the doctored images, Kenneth Cukier, wrote that the “tactic of fairly ham-fisted airbrushing used here seems more reminiscent of North Korean propaganda posters than of Western democracies’ typical PR efforts.”

As someone who has also spent time on the Korean peninsula, I say that Cukier’s criticism is a very big blow to Canada. Yet, I agree with the sentiment.

This is not the first instance of the Harper government’s attempts at the brand management of this country. Two instances, which have also resulted in controversy, occurred in 2006 (after Harper formed his first minority government), which replaced “Government of Canada” on official stationery with “Canada’s New Government.” Another rebranding of government stationery took place between 2010 until the 2011 election, which branded our national government as “The Harper Government.”

I, like most Canadians, would simply like to call it “Government of Canada.” Should they wish to be a little more formal, I’ll accept “Her Majesty’s Canadian Government” as a substitute.

I understand the economic need to get Canada’s name out there, but while the government seems to think that we are still a junior player in a global economy, I beg to differ. Canada is a world-class society, leading the world in a variety of different metrics. Canada remains a beacon of freedom for those who wish to live here. Canadians are the envy of citizens from all around the globe and Canadian values have been made clear to everyone through former diplomatic, military, and business endeavours.

There’s no need to boast, nor is there a need for us to rebrand ourselves. Doing so opens us up to the kinds of criticisms offered by Cukier and those who are of like mind.

App-based programs offer hidden benefits while points programs still a mixed bag

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Senior Columnist

Formerly published in The Other Press. November 24, 2014

I’ve been somewhat hesitant to join loyalty rewards programs offered by some of my favourite shops and retailers after reading many articles that offer only scathing criticism. For the longest time, the rewards card I had in my wallet was an Air Miles Rewards card, though it isn’t so much a loyalty program since Air Miles are accepted at different retailers and online stores.

Recent changes in my life, however, have opened my eyes to the benefits of being a loyal customer. I’m now a member of a few different rewards clubs. My experience thus far with the traditional card-based points programs has been standard.

For example, I’m a member of the HMart rewards program, a Korean grocer with a few locations in the Lower Mainland. Though I never saw the value in getting a card myself, HMart was the only grocery store I used for my Korean foods, and those were imperative. My need for kimchi and bulgogi, coupled with the fact that HMart is the closest Korean grocer to me, meant that signing up for a points card would do me little harm. In fact, I routinely save $5 off every single purchase I make there simply by redeeming the points I have accumulated.

Indigo (or Chapters) is also a membership I proudly retain. I visit the bookstore frequently, and my impulsive book-buying behaviour makes me an ideal candidate. Not only do I get special pricing with an Indigo card, but their system also makes it easy to accumulate points quickly and redeem them whenever I choose. It also helps that the program works seamlessly between different stores: Indigo, Coles, and Chapters all fall under this program. Joining this rewards program, if you frequent the bookstore as much as I do, is a win-win.

But Starbucks is the most impressive rewards program I have joined.

The designers of the Starbucks program, which includes a smartphone application, have implemented a program that thrives off a seemingly human need to excel. I’m obsessed with levelling up in the program, on my way to becoming a “Gold” rewards member. This entitles me to benefits such as discounts and free merchandise, as well as exclusive member-only promotions.

Though the idea of these programs is to get you spending more, there are some practical cost-saving attributes found in app-based programs. The Starbucks program, for example, requires that the user pay for drinks from a gift-card balance in order to acquire the stars to “level up.” Ironically, this is perhaps the hidden gem of the whole regime, but also the one that prevented me from joining long ago in the first place.

Shopping through card balances keeps your debit or credit cards in your wallet. I’ve had some pretty rough bank statements for too much Interac usage, and paying into a rewards program balance once or twice per month is much more cost-effective than using your debit card daily for that $3-coffee.

Reward cards also add a bit of certainty to my budget, and certainty will help me infinitely in mastering the art of budgeting my personal finances.

Week four: Some progress, but same old struggles

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Senior Columnist

Formerly published in The Other Press. November 24, 2014

Patrick Vaillancourt is a political essayist and seasoned in the arts of non-fiction writing. His first book, a memoir, is scheduled for publication later this year. He is participating in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, for the first time. 

This past month, I have discovered that writing a novel is really quite difficult. I consider myself to be a decent writer, but coming up with characters and a plot through one’s own imagination is a work of the mind more so than a work of the pen.

I am also resigned to the fact that, unless I write like a madman for the next week, I probably will not make it to the 50,000-word mark required to “win” NaNoWriMo. The fact remains that many of the main concepts for this project have not been wholly thought out, and while some of it is written, the task becomes more daunting when you have no secondary plots or conflicts to give to your characters.

Despite being behind, I will keep working on the project, with the hope that a breakthrough will simply take place and that I’ll be able to hammer out the details before the end of the month.

One of the major tasks this week was in getting to really know my characters. Getting to know them not only helps with keeping them consistent throughout the project, but also gives the writer much more flexibility in terms of writing about them. It has proven to be an effective way to pad the word count while also giving the reader a better sense of who the characters in the novel really are.

Whether your character has an obsession with blueberry jam or has it out for their high school math teacher, these kinds of tidbits of information will allow those who read your novel to better appreciate your story. Readers like to be able to relate, and so the more detail you include about your characters, the more likely a reader is to read and say to themselves “Oh! I’m like that too!”

Finally, the one thing I will be putting to use in the final week is to basically get everything on the page, from every ill-conceived idea to every unfinished snippet of dialogue. Some seasoned participants may be all-too-aware of this trick, but the first-time novelist does not, and that has been slowing my progress considerably. I need to keep reminding myself that the goal isn’t to have a finished product by the end of November, but simply a 50,000 word framework from which to build a finished product.