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Jerry Amernic: Putin is this century’s Stalin

Commentary

Nothing going on in Ukraine surprises Chuck Konkel. The barbarity and tactics of the Russians. The courage and stamina of Ukraine’s military and its people. Not even missiles landing on Polish soil. A 40-year-plus veteran with the Toronto Police Service and currently a Staff Sergeant, Konkel is no ordinary cop.

He was born in Rotterdam to a Polish father and Dutch mother, both of them stateless refugees after World War II who came to Canada when Konkel was just an infant. He has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and during university spent time as an officer cadet in the Canadian army. Then he saw an ad. The Royal Hong Kong Police was recruiting Canadians to help fight corruption. Konkel replied and spent three years there, rising to Inspector. Along the way he learned Cantonese which when combined with his other languages—English, Dutch, and Polish, along with passable French—made him an officer with special skills.

He joined the Toronto police in 1976 and his investigative background over the years includes the full gamut—murder, money laundering, credit card theft, you name it. But he is best known as an expert on Asian and Eastern European organized crime. Konkel’s international crimefighting assignments are right up there with James Bond.

In the 1990s he helped train the National Police of Poland on behalf of the FBI. In fact, Konkel was personal advisor to the Commissioner of that force until it was no longer deemed safe and he was urged to leave the country. Two weeks after his return to Canada the Commissioner was murdered, according to Konkel, by the Russian mob. Another time, acting under authority of the federal Department of Foreign Affairs, he hosted the Canadian visit of senior members of the Russian Police who were part of the personal security for then-President Boris Yeltsin. He also went to Moscow himself to execute a search warrant for an investigation on a site that was making illicit components for missiles. Oh yes, Konkel also does something else. He writes novels.

His third crime thriller—Who Has Buried the Dead just released by Optimum Publishing International and available on Amazon and Chapters sites and in bookstores—is full of parallels between Josef Stalin and Vladimir Putin. The novel focuses on “The Scottish Book” which involved a group of real-life mathematicians who often met at a pub in Poland. When Nazi Germany invaded that country, some of its members fled to America and wound up working on the Manhattan Project, building the atomic bomb that would ultimately end World War II.

The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, as well as Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, and the Allies were all looking for The Scottish Book which is the crux of Konkel’s novel. He calls it “one of the last great secrets” of the war. But in the process he shares what he sees as parallels between Stalin and Putin as the book provides historical insights into the mindset of the old Soviet hierarchy, its loyal but naïve base, and the threats binding them to their leader. In the old days that was Stalin, but today it’s Putin.

The historical part focuses on what happened in the spring of 1940. The Soviet NKVD conducted mass executions of over 20,000 Polish military officers, prisoners of war, and so-called intelligentsia in the forests of Katyn in Poland. It wasn’t until three years later when mass graves were discovered by the Germans, but by that time Nazi Germany and Russia were at war on the Eastern front. For decades afterward the USSR blamed the massacre on the Germans and only in 2010 did the Russian state Duma approve a declaration pointing the finger at Stalin. Three years earlier a Polish film called simply Katyn was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 80th Academy Awards.

Says Konkel: “The brutal levelling of cities, the indiscriminate killing and mass murder which happened over 80 years ago in Katyn all embody Stalin’s World War II Russia and that legacy lives on today in Putin who is working straight from Stalin’s playbook.”

Konkel’s first novel The Glorious East Wind was published in 1986 by Random House Canada and McGraw Hill U.S. It was about the final years of British Hong Kong and predicted the massacre at Tiananmen Square. His next one Evil Never Sleeps was published by Harper Collins Canada in 2000 and was about corruption in Mexico.

Konkel has been working on the new novel for the past five years, a period in which he has been battling a rare form of cancer that affects one in 1.5 million people. But that hasn’t stopped him. He makes extensive use of his experience working with Interpol, the National Police Forces of Poland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and the FBI and RCMP. Konkel is still involved with them all. Of his writing, the Canadian literary publication Quill and Quire says: “Chuck Konkel has been heralded as the second coming of late John Le Carre. His writing has been described as John Le Carre on speed.”

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Konkel says Winston Churchill was the first Western leader to recognize how bad Stalin was and that the West has some lessons to learn about how to deal with a man like Putin. “Stalin tried to reinvent this romanticism about Russia and Putin is doing the same thing,” he says. “He is using the same methodology with fear and intimidation and this fight for the Motherland. A holy war.”

But Konkel doesn’t buy the oft-repeated view that Putin is a man who lost it due to increased isolation stemming from Covid.

“Putin was this middling operative in Eastern Germany but he was an opportunist who rose through the hierarchy. He is not stupid but a very shrewd man and while Stalin was transparent but devious, Putin is more nuanced. He is charming when he chooses to be and influential. He is basically a 21st-century villain.”

Konkel says Putin remains very dangerous and that Western naivety and lack of moral fortitude work in his favour.

“Russia still gets a lot of money from Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, China, and other countries,” he says. “There is the energy card, but Russians also like to drive German cars and they drink wine. How will this war in Ukraine end? Putin can play the long game and as long as the United States is not united and countries like Germany continue to trade with Russia it will go on. I see it ending with some form of truce or maybe a buffer zone. Unfortunately, it is the people of Ukraine who suffer.”

And what of the Canadian role, if any? Konkel doesn’t pull his punches on that. “I had a lot of respect for Stephen Harper when he told Putin at a G20 meeting to get out of Ukraine. As for today, well, Canada is singing around the campfire while the world is burning.”

Opinion: Detractors of Ford’s plan must offer alternative solutions to Ontario’s housing crisis 

Commentary

In an effort to address Ontario’s housing affordability crisis, the Ford government recently passed a bill meant to spur homebuilding around the province. The government is also considering allowing development on certain Greenbelt lands surrounding the GTA.

Whatever your view on the government’s latest moves, everyone agrees there’s a problem. Ontario’s housing shortage is so painfully obvious that it’s just that—painful. Ask anyone looking to rent or buy their first home. At its root, it’s an issue of supply and demand; too few homes for too many would-be buyers and renters. When demand outpaces supply, prices rise. 

If you prefer numbers, consider that in the 1970s roughly one home (on average) was built annually for every 1.2 new Ontarians compared to 2.4 new Ontarians in the most recent decade. In other words, the rate of new homes compared to new Ontarians is half what it was in the 1970s. Similarly, GTA rental vacancy rates averaged almost 3 percent in the 2000s but fell to less than 1.5 percent during the 2010s. No matter how you slice it, there aren’t enough homes to accommodate current and anticipated Ontarians. This is bad news for renters, buyers, and anyone looking to put down roots in Ontario. It’s also bad news for the economy, social cohesion, and the very idea of Ontario as an upwardly mobile society.

Which takes us back to the Ford government’s latest piece of housing legislation has passed—the More Homes Built Faster Act—and aims to markedly reduce both the number of regulatory hurdles homebuilders face and limit the power of local governments to block housing development. 

The sweeping legislation allows up to three housing units “as-of-right” (that is, without rezoning) on single-family parcels provincewide, spares non-profit housing from development charges, refocuses the role of the Ontario Land Tribunal, curbs the power of conservation authorities, and exempts projects under 10 units from site plan approval (a major step in the development approval process). Time will tell whether these changes are sufficient, and indeed some argue they don’t go far enough. Regardless, the legislation represents a massive change to the way Ontario approves housing.

Unsurprisingly, these moves have come under fire from some municipal governments and city planners. By removing significant steps in the approvals process, or by exempting some homes from development fees, the province has diminished the power of city hall to shape growth and the revenue it can raise from it. 

The Ford government’s other recent housing decision—to remove some lands from the Greenbelt while expanding it elsewhere—has also drawn the ire of conservationists, many of whom already opposed any reduction of conservation authority power over housing approvals.

Of course, some of these concerns may be valid, especially concerns about transparency; proper scrutiny of any government decision is necessary. However, Ontario’s housing crisis requires an appropriate response. If detractors feel the More Homes Built Faster Act does harm to local planning processes, they must also recognize the harm done by housing scarcity. If this legislation is insufficient or inappropriate, what alternatives do they offer to close the gap between supply and demand? 

So far, it’s mostly radio silence.   

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The government’s new legislation, while imperfect, is a good step towards more housing development, which is key to increased affordability. However, if its reforms fall short and no one offers a viable alternative, Ontario will not achieve its housing targets, which all parties support. Rhetoric is easy. Without credible policy commitments, however, we won’t get meaningfully different outcomes.

Time will tell how this all plays out, but the important thing is progress. Ontario is long passed the stage of debating whether or not to change the way communities plan for and approve housing. Changes are overdue, and the Ford government has made some serious proposals. Any objectors to these proposals must offer constructive alternatives. In other words, they should explain how else Ontario can close the growing gap between the number of homes we need and the number available. Because unless that happens, housing in the province will remain out of reach for too many.