Which city is more scrupulous in enforcing its pollution bylaws, Glasgow or Toronto?
No, this is not a thought experiment. In Toronto, during the manically hyped International Film Festival, Iraq reporter and some-time actor Sean Penn lit up a cigarette during a press conference at the Sutton Place Hotel.
There are bylaws in Toronto about just this sort of thing, and they carry heavy penalties. I've seen postings in elevators warning of $5,000 fines. It's enough to make you really flick your Bic.
There are bylaws in Glasgow too. I haven't had a chance to peruse that city's elevator literature, but I'd wager it features equally big fines in similarly small print.
In Glasgow, it was Keith Richards who lit up in a public place.
Perhaps, because it is Keith Richards we're talking about, I should be more explicit: He lit and smoked a cigarette. Whether Keith was, himself, lit up, is irrelevant. He wasn't at a news conference, nor, it might be helpful to add, was he up a palm tree. He smoked, on stage, during a Stones concert.
Here in Toronto the result was interesting. Sean Penn escaped any penalty. But the Sutton Place Hotel, the venue of the press conference, got hit with a $605 fine.
This doesn't seem fair. The hotel wasn't smoking. But evidently the hotel's staff had neglected to convey personally to the intrepid Mr. Penn the many prohibitions of the Smoke-Free Ontario Act.
The Glaswegian authorities were more merciful. Neither the company that operated the stage, nor the Great Inhaler himself, Mr. Richards, were fined. In Glasgow, they made a judgment of Solomonic finesse: A "stage" was not an "enclosed public space" in the meaning of the bylaws. Scots are nothing if not subtle.
It is useful to add that Mr. Penn's defiant fumigations caught the attention of no less a marplot than the Ontario Health Promotion Minister himself, Mr. Jim Watson, who allowed that Mr. Penn was a "great actor" but notwithstanding the comforts his great art has brought the world -- I'm paraphrasing here -- he was not above the law, and that "he could be charged and he should be charged." He hasn't been and won't be.
Film-festival officials grovelled in perfectly toneless and abject prose: "The festival and our hotel partners make every effort possible to ensure that our guests are aware of and respect Ontario's Smoke-Free Act. We apologize that our moderator did not address the issue during the press conference." I hope none of the PR people are writing scripts.
So Toronto takes its bylaws very seriously. And so does the Ontario government. When a minister scolds a wide-screen demigod, you know it's serious. The environment is a big issue in this province, as I hope this comparative study illustrates. Those Scots may be slackers, but Ontario is the dour jurisdiction when it comes to its air.
Just as it's big on global warming. Or so I thought. This is a province in love with blue boxes and a house of great crusaders against the tobacco menace -- which an authority no less than Al Gore has recently linked to the global warming phenomenon itself. Except when it comes to areas larger than a pop star's studied show of trivial rebellion, or something a little more drastic than parking the liquor empties in the right-coloured bin.
Consider the statement this week of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Rona Ambrose, the federal Environment Minister, has been talking of imposing fuel-emission standards on automobile manufacturers. Here's Mr. McGuinty: "The one thing we will not abide is any effort on the part of the national government to unduly impose greenhouse-gas emission reductions on the province of Ontario at the expense of the auto sector."
This is the same Premier who recently welcomed the news that government-subsidized GM plants would soon be the home for the manufacture of the new "muscle car" -- the gas-guzzling Camaro.
Fine a hotel for one star-lit cigarette, but welcome the manufacture of thousands of environmentally retrograde muscle cars. And promise not to "abide" any effort to "unduly impose greenhouse-gas reductions."
This is a parable of the entire global-warming debate. Those who accept the science of the climate-change projections, who profess to be most anxious over the "greatest crisis" of our times, will say every right word, and pursue the most trivial acts of symbolic environmentalism. But when it comes to action that has any real cost -- political or personal -- they are as hard-line an opponent to any change in the status quo as the most relentless climate skeptic.
It really is time for those who say they accept the crisis represented by climate change to live up to their professions.
The skeptics can always retire to Glasgow. And contemplate the Scottish understanding of an enclosed space.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.