Monthly Archives: June 2013

The passing art of political oration

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When I die, it’s a safe bet former Prime Minister Jean Chretien will not attend my wake. But if – against astronomically long odds – he does, I hope that he will speak straight from the heart, as he did the other day about former Fredericton Member of Parliament Andy Scott, who passed away at the tragically young age of 58.

“You know,” Mr. Chretien told CBC Radio, “he was no shit disturber. He was a good guy. I liked him very much.”

In fact “shit-disturbing” is how I roll, and I make no apologies for it. But the point is that the “little guy from Shawinigan” demonstrates in retirement what Canadians crave, and no longer get, from their political leaders in active service: clear evidence that blood, not antifreeze, courses through their veins.

The zombieification of public officials, which has been underway for some time, respects no political boundaries and makes no ideological distinctions. It is an equal-opportunity malady that renders its victims cold to the touch.

Consider these brittle bromides from the Conservative Party of Canada’s website: “(We believe) in keeping families strong. . .Due to our strong record of tax relief, we’re helping the typical family save over $3,100 a year.  Going forward, our Government is committed to keeping taxes low for families and all Canadians.”

Here’s what the Liberal Party of Canada declares on the same subject: “(We believe) that when individuals and families are given the opportunity to succeed, the economy grows and Canadians become stronger. That’s why equality of opportunity is a fundamental Liberal principle.”

Not to be outdone, the New Democratic Party of Canada also “believes” in families, specifically, “(we believe) in a progressive tax system, taxing capital gains at the same rate as salaries or wages, ensuring that large profitable corporations pay a

fair share of taxes, targeting tax reductions to help the middle class, working families, and the poor, and combatting tax shelters and money laundering.”

How so very brave of them.

Still, compare and contrast this to remarks British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered to the Canadian parliament in 1941 on the war effort: “There shall be no halting, or half measures, there shall be no compromise, or parley. These gangs of bandits have sought to darken the light of the world; have sought to stand between the common people of all the lands and their march forward into their inheritance. They shall themselves be cast into the pit of death and shame, and only when the earth has been cleansed and purged of their crimes and their villainy shall we turn from the task which they have forced upon us, a task which we were reluctant to undertake, but which we shall now most faithfully and punctiliously discharge.”

Granted, the world is no longer engaged in a conflagration of WWII proportions. But that’s no excuse for boring people into a torpor. Did tedium serve the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau when he addressed the Royal Proclamation Ceremony of the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982?

“The Canadian ideal which we have tried to live, with varying degrees of success and failure for a hundred years, is really an act of defiance against the history of mankind,” he declared. “Had this country been founded upon a less noble vision, or had our forefathers surrendered to the difficulties of building this nation, Canada would have been torn apart long ago. It should not surprise us, therefore, that even now we sometimes feel the pull of those old reflexes of mutual fear and distrust.”

As it happens, the recently departed Mr. Scott was, himself, a pretty good speech-maker. Here’s some of what he had to say at the Assembly of First Nations Annual General Assembly in 2004: “I’m a new minister in a new job, but you have my commitment that I will work with you as a partner in good faith. . .Generations that will follow us will look on this time in Canada and this leadership for how we responded to the new spirit of cooperation that was there for all to see at the roundtable. I say with the deepest sincerity and conviction: we will not let them down.”

Unlike many of his peers in political life, Mr. Scott never dulled his tongue lest he appeared too human.

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Hail to the chief “Keystone Kop”

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Some call it oil. Others call it tar. Still, U.S. President Barack Obama appears disinclined  to call the whole thing off over a simple matter of nomenclature.

In a speech at Georgetown University on Wednesday, the second-term Commander in Chief, mired in legislative gridlock, makes one thing more or less clear: Alberta bitumen must pass his administration’s litmus test for environmental benignity before it gets piped to refineries in Texas.

On whether the sandy crude should, in the alternative, be railed to said locations (and, therefore, cause more carbon pollution than a pipeline ever could), he doesn’t venture an opinion. Such is the kookiness of Keystone politics these days.

Clearly, Mr. Obama – who is as lame a duck as a president can get – has nothing to lose, and he knows it. The “audacity of hope” minstrel is back in full-throated glory, appealing to every possible constituency under the setting sun of his mandate.

“The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years,” he roars to the delight of environmentalists. “Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record – faster than most models had predicted it would. These are facts.”

Here are some others: “2012 was the warmest year in our history. Midwest farms were parched by the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, and then drenched by the wettest spring on record. Western wildfires scorched an area larger than the state of Maryland. Just last week, a heat wave in Alaska shot temperatures into the 90s.”

In fact, he says, “The question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science – of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements – has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it. . .As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.”

That is the zig; now for the zag.

“One thing I want to make sure everybody understands. . .This does not mean that we’re going to suddenly stop producing fossil fuels,” he declares to the relief of the oil lobby. “Our economy wouldn’t run very well if it did. And transitioning to a clean energy economy takes time. . .I know there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. . .I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Ah yes, something for everyone. Most of all, perhaps for Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who’s still hung up on the whole “tar sands” versus “oil sands” business. “There is no tar in the oil sands,” he told a news conference in Ottawa, following Mr. Obama’s speech. “Not everyone understands that.”

But on the broad stokes of the president’s address, Mr. Oliver was sanguine. “We agree with President Obama’s State Department Report in 2013 which found that, ‘approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area’.”

All of which reasons strategically for an eastern pipeline into Saint John. After all, the more Alberta oil that can be diverted away from the American marketplace, the more persuasive the argument for Keystone becomes in Washington.

Some say “to-may-toe”. Others say “to-mah-toe”. Still, it seems clear, they’re calling the whole thing on, and everybody wins.

Except, perhaps, the planet, which stubbornly refuses to appreciate the nuances of politics.

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Mayors set vastly different examples

 

Sitting while burgermeistering turns the Twitterverse agog, we say

Sitting while burgermeistering turns the Twitterverse agog, we say

It is with a certain chill that one wonders how Toronto Mayor Rob Ford might have handled flood-ravaged Calgary had he been the burgermeister of that fair, if water-logged, city.

Would he have blamed the heavy rains and bursting riverbanks on left-wing conspirators determined to prove that climate change is real? Would he have taken the opportunity to sweep the streets clean of the homeless and disenfranchised, relocating them by means of bus and pick-up truck to the ex-urban hinterland? Would he have headed for the high country to wait out the storm with nary a peep of support for his fellow citizens, the ones he left behind?

However he might have managed the emergency – which is, by no means, over – one suspects his response would not have come close to matching the gold standard set by Calgary’s actual Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose status as hero seems secure for all time. The Twitterverse loves the guy, and for good reason.

No finer example of leadership in action currently exists at any level of government, anywhere in Canada. Mr. Nenshi’s instincts have been razor sharp: He’s been selfless, cogent, organized and, perhaps most importantly, available.

His advice to his community has fairly flowed with common sense.

On national television he said, “We live in this urban, cutting edge city but like everyone else we live in nature; we live in this world. I am very familiar with this river (the Bow). It is part of my heartbeat the way it is a part of the heartbeat of every Calgarian, and no Calgarian has ever seen it this high and this fast. . .We can fix stuff, we can replace stuff; we can’t fix people.”

In one of his innumerable public updates, he declared, “I can’t believe I actually have to say this, but I’m going to say it: The river is closed. You cannot boat on the river. I have a large number of nouns that I could use to describe the people I saw in a canoe on the Bow River today. . .I am not allowed to use any of them.”

CBC News reports his Twitter feed as a litany of useful minutia:

“Latest update: water cresting, lots and soon. Stay away from riverbanks, stay tuned for further instruction.”

“Getting a first-hand look across the city. I’ve never seen levels this high and fast. Worst is yet to come.”

“And with that, a day that started 43 hours ago comes to a close. It included one plane, two helicopters and 3:45 am and 8:30 pm press briefings.”

“Did you lose precious family photos? Local photog @gabemcclintock offers to help make new memories.”

“Donate your grad dresses to young women in High River who lost theirs.”

“South line C-train service to downtown will be a while yet. We still recommend staying away from downtown if you at all can.”

“Big news: C-train service back in downtown tomorrow! Blue line back except city hall and centre street, NW line to 8th street.”

It’s often true that adversity brings out the best in people. But not always. Consider the sorry example Mr. Ford now sets in Hog Town, where his administration sits under a cloud laden with controversies, both minor and distinctively otherwise.

Did he or did he not smoke crack with known drug dealers? He refuses to sufficiently clarify the alleged circumstances as police continue to probe the matter. Meanwhile, his reputation stinks like burnt toast.

“Uh oh,” begins the blurb for a new Android gaming app called Stay Mayor.  “Looks like the Mayor’s in a buttload of friggin’ trouble with that alleged video of him smoking crack! And who knows if it even exists, amiright? But juuust in case, why don’t you help him collect a heap of cash to buy it before The Gawker does. Only your twinkle toes can out-maneuver the Blood Thirsty Media to help him collect more than they did in that damn ‘Crackstarter’ campaign. $201,255 to be exact. And hey, everyone needs a little boost now and then, so make sure you collect power up buckets of deep-fried courage for more footballs to throw at life’s problems. . .but make sure you avoid those pesky crackpipes!”

If all mayors are equal, then, some are more equal than others.

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On seismic testing, just the facts please

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Those of us who remain curious about the economic potential of onshore tight oil and gas in New Brunswick might as well face it: There is no perfectly safe way to develop an industry that pulls vast quantities of petroleum from the ground. There never has been, and there never will be.

The only thing that matters is identifying the level of risk we are prepared to assume in return for jobs, royalties and tax revenues. And to do this, we need facts. But where are they?

The news media is in its element when it covers controversy. Altercations and recriminations between shale gas protestors along Highway 126 and SWN Resources, which is undertaking exploration there, make headlines. Dispassionate examinations of the claims both for and against the technologies involved more often do not.

And so, we are left sifting through emotionally charged assertions for clues of validity. We are left, for example, parsing this statement from a local resident, whom the CBC quoted in a story the other day: “There’s lots of money in Alberta, but when people come home they don’t want to see this. The money is good, but the money isn’t everything. . .They still put charges of dynamite in the ground and they still blast them.”

He was referring to the practice of seismic testing, which, according to the website naturalgas.org, “artificially (creates) waves, the reflection of which are then picked up by sensitive pieces of equipment called ‘geophones’ that are embedded in the ground.” Essentially, the procedure takes a picture of what lies beneath.

The question, of course, is whether this citizen’s concerns about the potentially catastrophic effects of the process on the water table and broader environment  – which, not incidentally, mirror those of many others in the province – are justified.

Or is Marc Belliveau of the provincial Department of Energy and Mines closer to the truth? Yesterday, he told this newspaper, “There is, unfortunately, a lot of misconceptions of what seismic testing is and what it is not. . .It’s used in making highways, it’s used in finding water sources for municipalities. . .There was seismic testing carried out along more than 500 kilometres in New Brunswick two years ago. . .There were no issues.”

Still, that was then. What about now? Back in the stone age, when I briefly majored in Geology at university, seismic testing was breakthrough technology in the oil and gas industry. And, like all breakthrough technologies – which are, by their natures, intrusive – this one did cause “issues”.

Even today, the procedure can be problematic. Earlier this month, oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico agreed to forgo using the technology over concerns that it may harm marine life. According to a news report from KNOE.com, “Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Development Council says the (moratorium) will give the government and industry time for required environmental studies and research.”

That said, the best evidence suggests that seismic testing in New Brunswick is about as safe as can be expected given the province’s regulatory framework and SWN’s statement of exploration practice, which appears on its website.

“The vibroseis technique is only used on roadways and provides quality signals with minimal disturbance,” the company declares. “Seismic vibrator trucks are equipped with an underlying vibrating plate to generate specific sound signals. . .The strength of the signal from one seismic vibrator truck is very small; several trucks need to be activated simultaneously to create a signal strong enough to be recorded. These vehicles create noise levels similar to that made by a logging truck.”

When no roads are available, SWN says it deploys the “shot hole technique”. In these instances, the company clears “a maximum three metre-wide path for a drill vehicle in the woods. No vegetation larger than 15 centimeters in diameter is cut. The track-mounted drill vehicle drills a hole 15 metres deep. A small seismic source is placed at the bottom of the hole and is sealed with clay and drill cuttings per provincial regulations. When safely secured, the source is activated with specialized equipment. Afterwards, the area is restored to its original state.”

Whether or not this statement can allay public concern depends entirely on the degree to which one is willing to allow fact to triumph over fear.

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Serious sun-silliness in the summertime

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The first day of summer is always a revelation. It is the day on which, in most parts of Canada (even the formerly frozen north), we may put away our winter bomber jackets and know that, in so doing, we will not be sorry. For this reason, alone, it is the day on which the news of the world is more likely to provoke chuckles than outrage.

The U.S. economy now turns a corner – its long, dark night being over – and begins to generate jobs and growth. The unemployment rate, we are told, will probably fall to under 6.5 per cent for the first time in seven years. Gross domestic product will rise to more than three per cent a year. Thousands will build houses. Thousands more will buy them. Naturally, then, the value of the average American’s retirement portfolio won’t be worth a plug nickel.

“Markets tank as end of easy money looms,” blares the headline in the Report on Business. “The upheaval began with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernake’s observations. . .that prospects are looking up for the U.S. economy,” the story strives to explain. “Paradoxically, his forecast of better times was greeted with considerable dread among investors, coming with a likely timeline for pulling back on stimulus measures.”

My naturalized American of a brother has the right idea. In California, he plows his hard-earned dough straight into his Hollywood condo – all the better for properly hosting family and friends. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird should be so lucky to meet his acquaintance.

According to the Globe and Mail, our nation’s chief diplomat is currently “defending his New Year’s holidays at Canadian official residences abroad, arguing they were a favour from friends, rather than a perk. . .The opposition said Mr. Baird was freeloading from the public – but Mr. Baird’s office says the minister was only taking favours from friends, and it ‘did not cost taxpayers a dime.’”

Neither, apparently, did it cost Mr. Baird a dime, which is kind of the point of NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar’s rebuke: “It smacks of entitlement. . . abusing his relationship with the high commissioner to get a freebie. . .For him to have his vacation at an official residence of the government of Canada without paying one red cent is entirely inappropriate, and to bring along six of your friends complicates matters more.”

We wonder whether they made their own beds, or did residence staff “do them a Duffy”. Allegedly, the less-than-venerable senator from Prince Edward Island hasn’t made his own bed in years, though shortly he may be required to lie in it. Or so the Globe reports: “The RCMP is investigating Senator Mike Duffy for possible breach of trust in connection with payments he received during the 2011 federal election.

“Court documents show that the probe into Mr. Duffy’s affairs is being conducted by the ‘sensitive and international investigations’ detachment and focuses on whether a breach of trust occurred. It was revealed last week that the RCMP were investigating the Senate expenses affair, including a cheque from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former top aide, Nigel Wright, to Mr. Duffy.”

Some people have money; some do not. Take federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He had a good thing going for awhile, charging charitable organizations a pretty penny to flash his pearly whites at their fundraisers. Then came Saint John’s Grace Foundation, which asked the good fellow to return the $20,000 they paid him last year to say a few words on behalf of old folks’ homes. Party poopers! Apparently, that sort of thing just isn’t done in those circles.

Still, according to a CBC report, “Trudeau, who was an MP at the time of the fundraiser, has offered to compensate charities that paid him to speak at events. He stopped accepting paid speaking engagements last year when he decided to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party.”

Ah yes, as Sly and the Family Stone once observed, it really is “hot fun in the summertime”, even here in the Great White North.

Denial and deflection on shale gas

Too much official hot air as shale gas in New Brunswick bloats expectations

Too much official hot air as shale gas in New Brunswick bloats expectations

Into each political life, a little denial must fall. But the New Brunswick government’s contention that the tide of opinion in the province is turning in favor of shale gas development seems particularly delusional.

Survey after survey have clearly established that more people than not believe tight petroleum drilling – which employs the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing – poses a threat to the environment and, by extension, to communities in rural areas. A recent Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll merely confirms what we have known for months.

“New Brunswick residents are concerned about the safety of shale gas exploration and are split on whether the process is important to the economic future of the province,” the Halifax-based opinion-taker announced this week. “One-half (48 per cent) of residents believe shale gas to be critically important or important but not critical to New Brunswick’s economic future, while a similar number (44 per cent) believe it to be not very important or not at all important to the economy of the province.”

Meanwhile, “when asked (about) the safety of shale gas exploration, on a scale of ‘1’ to ‘10’ where ‘1’ is not safe at all and ’10’ is extremely safe, the average rating was 3.9 indicating many residents perceive shale gas exploration to be unsafe. Those in the Northern Region (3.3) and Moncton area (3.5) are more likely to consider the exploration of shale gas unsafe compared with those in the Southern region (4.6).”

All of which moved CRA’s chairman Don Mills to observe, “it is clear that there will be significant and continuing challenges to government and industry in the development of shale gas resources in the province of New Brunswick.”

In an interview with the Telegraph-Journal this week, he went further: “The results say to me that the provincial government and the industry are both in a tough corner right now. . .There are so many people who believe that fracking is unsafe, I think the opponents of shale gas have won the day on that argument, at least at this point.”

What, then, justifies Energy Minister Craig Leonard’s sunny disposition? He also told the TJ this week, “(People) need to understand that we have the strictest rules in North America in place. But the support is growing and from what we are hearing on the ground, most people we are discussing this with say that even if they have concerns with the process, they want us to see what kind of resource we do have through the exploration phase.”

That’s hardly a ringing public endorsement. People are always willing to consider the necessary evils of their circumstances as long as those evils remain hypothetical. The moment the drills go into the ground and the gas starts flowing in earnest, it’s a whole new ball game. For the provincial Tories, the game may already be over.

CRA’s early June survey found that support for the government, among decided voters in New Brunswick, had slipped to just 29 per cent, down from 32 per cent in March. The Liberals commanded a 41 per cent approval rating, up from 35 per cent in the earlier three-month period. These shifts in electoral preferences neatly coincide with Grit calls for a moratorium on further shale gas development.

Now, in a tactical tour de force (though farce may be a more accurate word), the provincial government is hoping to secure acquiescence to onshore exploration by conflating the effort with a potential eastern pipeline into Saint John – a project for which there is broad, if not unanimous, support. This sort of deflection, though common enough among politicians, almost never works. Worse, in most cases, it backfires.

The plain, hard truth is that leadership in public office inevitably entails disappointing and angering many of those who put you there.

If shale gas is, in the opinion of this government, worth pursuing, then get on with it – safely, responsibly and openly, of course. But leave out the sugarcoating and magic tricks. No one’s buying any of it.

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Give The Hub a well-deserved hug

Up, up and away for Moncton

Up, up and away for Moncton

We touched down on the tarmac of the delightfully and grandiosely named Greater Moncton International Airport, and a line from an old Eric Clapton tune immediately sprang to mind: “Hello old friend, it’s really good to see you once again.”

We had been away, out west, where the news from the cities of our births had been simply and detestably rotten.

My Toronto was riven by controversy. Mayor Rob Ford had failed to obtain a clean bill of moral health from Hog Town’s top cop, Chief Bill Blair, who announced the results of his full-metal-jacket foray into a nest of alleged drug dens in the city’s north end. Writing in the Globe and Mail, municipal affairs columnist Marcus Gee reported, “The raid centred on the Dixon Road apartment complex associated with the purported Rob Ford crack video. Minutes away is the house where a photo was apparently taken showing Mr. Ford with three men, one of whom has since been murdered.”

As Mr. Gee archly observed, “What is not excusable is the mayor’s own persistent refusal to answers questions about the affair. He told reporters. . .that he knew nothing about the raid and had nothing to hide, but has yet to say. . .whether he has anything to do with the men in the notorious photo, what he was doing at the house where it was taken or whether he knows the people who live there (two of whom have criminal records, one for trafficking in cocaine).”

A few hundred kilometers up the St. Lawrence, the mayor of my wife’s Montreal, Michael Applebaum, had just resigned after Quebec police slapped charges of fraud, breach of trust and corruption on him.

As the CBC recounted the sorry saga, “(Mr.) Applebaum was selected as mayor by Montreal city council Nov. 16, 2012, following the resignation of Gérald Tremblay amid allegations of corruption. . .The province’s anti-corruption unit, UPAC, said the charges (against Mr. Applebaum) relate to obtaining permission and political support for two real estate projects in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough between 2006 and 2011, during which time Applebaum was the borough’s mayor.”

All of which caused me to wonder whether Moncton’s Hizzoner, George LeBlanc (as honourable a fellow as the summer day is long), had misplaced his invitation to the party of Canadian mayors acting out. Thank Almighty God for the small mercies of prudence in public office, rare though this quality of character may be. These days, the headlines from The Hub are nothing but good, nothing but fortifying.

After a vote of 8-2, Moncton City Council agreed to purchase the former Highfield Square site in western part of the downtown area – the logical move towards building an events centre that could generate millions of dollars a year in tax and private-sector revenue. In fact, a related ballot green-lighted a request for proposals. According to a report in this newspaper, “If all goes according to the city’s timeline – funding help from the federal and provincial governments being the overwhelmingly large missing piece of the puzzle – work could start in 2015 and the project would be completed in early 2017.”

Meanwhile, the Moncton-based Atlantic Cancer Research Institute has made national news with its novel technology. Again, this newspaper reports, “(It’s) a time-sensitive, non-invasive clinical test in which a sign of cancer could be recognized without having conducted a biopsy. . . .Not only could the product detect early concentrations of diseased cells attributing to cancer, it could be used in detecting heart disease, neurological ailments, and many more health issues in both humans and animals.”

Granted, the ACRI – which has received many plaudits from leading scientific think tanks around the world – does not benefit directly from the good works and sound planning of the municipal authority. But both institutions say something larger about the community in general. And, compared with the sick melodies sung in certain other urban centres in this country, it’s a welcome and familiar refrain for a weary, returning traveller.

“Hello old friend,” indeed.

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Are happy days here again?

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Here, in the shadow of the western world’s setting sun, we are languishing in a near-permanent state of decay – both victims and authors of our decidedly unenlightened self-interest.

This, at least, has been the received and incontrovertible wisdom, and there’s no longer any point in trying to save ourselves.

First, came the financial crisis of 2008, which effectively wrecked private savings, public accounts, the manufacturing sector, and the housing market. Then came the government bailouts (“stimulus” spending, if you prefer), which saddled states, provinces and cities across North America with spiraling deficits and structural debts.

Finally, came the language of the resignedly defeated: No growth is the new normal; quit your jobs and plant your gardens, for the end of our global, capitalist hegemon draws nigh.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the economic abattoir. Suddenly, with no portents or premonitions, everything got just a little bit better. How? Why? Economists, bankers, politicians are still scratching their heads.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Nariman Behravesh, the chief economist of IHS Global Insight, told The New York Times recently. “There is more optimism about the U.S. and in particular about the second half of this year and 2014. Three months ago, we wouldn’t have come to that same conclusion.”

Three months ago, no one, it seems, was ruminating on the efficacious effects of certain economic outliers, such as advancing technology, growing energy independence and the resurgence of what can only be described as a sort of gritty self-determination.

Referring to the future, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen told The Times, “It’s better than it looked. Technological progress comes in batches and it’s just a little more rapid than it looked two years ago,” adding somewhat circumspectly: “The great stagnation will end for a lot of people but not everyone. I think there will be great breakthroughs but the distribution of those gains will go to owners of capital and intellectual property.”

Still, some economists predict the U.S. economy will outperform its average of two per cent per year growth rate by as much 1.5 percentage points over the next eight quarters, which would effectively close the doomsday chronicle of recent times.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in Canada. May was an astonishing month for employment in this country. The economy generated 95,000 new positions, most of which were full-time, private sector jobs. That was the single, largest monthly surge in more than a decade.

Again, in interviews with the Financial Post, the experts were gob-smacked. “Canada’s job gain. . .is simply stunning on the headline and most of the details,” said Derek Holt of Scotiabank Economics. It is equivalent to the U.S. adding over 1 million jobs in a single month.” Indeed, noted Douglas Porter of BMO Capital Markets, “Even outside of construction, which is definitely the eye-popping stat here. . . (May’s data) was still a mammoth number for employment.”

Naturally, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty prefers to take the long view. To the Post, he declared, “What’s more important is the positive long-trend when it comes to employment in Canada. . .We can’t be complainant. We are still facing a very volatile global economy. We recently saw European unemployment hit a record high. Canada is not immune to these challenges from beyond our border and we will be impacted.”

He is correct, of course. Canada is joined at the hip with the international community, and our national prosperity depends on the degree to which we diversify our goods and services and, crucially, our trading relationships.

And yet, the recent numbers suggest that rugged, defiant entrepreneurialism – inventiveness, creativity, opportunism – is not as easily squashed as the prophets of calamity (in whose company, I must admit, I have found myself) would have us think.

That’s worth remembering here, on the East Coast, as we gnash our teeth and wring our hands over the high cost of government, the seemingly endless string of failed economic development schemes and the hollowing out of our productive population.

The heart of true enterprise still beats. We can feel it if we try.

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The perils of pontificating for money

Not $20,000 in the penny plastic

Not $20,000 in the penny plastic

From time to time, I augment my absurdly meagre living by crafting speeches for famous people. It’s nice work, when I can get it. I have noticed that the more exalted the public figure, the less inclined he is to draft his own addresses.

Still, the real money is not in the writing, but in the yakking.

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin territory can command upwards of $250,000 per appearance. These days, he’s fond of making commencement speeches (I have no idea what, if anything, the billionaire charges for these). His recent post on the social networking site, LinkedIn, suggests that in such circumstances he prefers to forgo his customary fees and handle them personally, which means haphazardly:

“I have been offered to do graduation speeches over the years and did accept an honorary Doctor of Technology from Loughborough University. It was strange at the time, but now we have Virgin Galactic perhaps it’s not so strange! I was chuffed to receive it, having left school at 15. It was a hell of a lot easier than going through university to get it! If you are graduating, congratulations and good luck for your future. Every graduate – scratch that – every person has the chance to reach for the stars in their chosen field.”

The king of all toastmasters, however, must be former U.S. President Bill Clinton who has, according to some estimates, raked in as much as $89 million pontificating before rapt crowds of establishmentarians since the end of his second term. An item in the New York Daily News, published earlier this month, notes that the “retired” Commander in Chief “has earned a whopping $500,000 speaking advance to deliver a 45 minute speech at the 90th birthday bash for Israeli President Shimon Peres – putting (his) price tag at roughly $11,100 per minute.”

On the other hand, “The Democrat won’t personally benefit from the sum, as it will reportedly be directed to the William J. Clinton Foundation. Clinton’s foundation did not respond to a request for comment. . .Initially, invited guests were asked to pay an $800 entrance fee but President Peres pulled the plug on the cover charge, saying he wouldn’t attend the party in his honor if it turned into a fundraiser.”

All of which brings us to the odd case of Canadian Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has promised to reimburse New Brunswick’s Grace Foundation – whose mission is to support the “St. John & St. Stephen Home” for the elderly – $20,000 he charged for a speech he delivered last year, when he was just a lowly Member of Parliament.

The decision, he announced on CTV’s Question Period, was “the right thing to do.” What’s more, he vowed, he was prepared to work with any group he might have addressed in his official capacity as an elected representative “to try to fix it and make it right.” If news reports are correct, that’s a lot of fixing.

According to last week’s Globe and Mail, “Mr. Trudeau won’t necessarily reimburse every organization that paid for his services – including schools and non-profit organizations – saying he was ‘open to exploring all options with them.’ Doing so could cost him most of the $277,000 he earned for speeches since becoming an MP. Mr. Trudeau earned a reported total of $1.3-million during his entire public-speaking career before running for party leader last year.”

The question, of course, is: If the repayment is the right thing to do now, why wasn’t it the right thing to do in March when he initially rejected the Grace Foundation’s request for recompense? (Its fundraiser actually lost money thanks, in part, to Mr. Trudeau’s pricey stipend).

Do sitting politicians have an obligation to present themselves at charitable functions free of charge? Or do they only see the light when Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Mac Harb are on the hot seat over dicey expense accounts?

These are issues only Mr. Trudeau can resolve. Big bucks carry big responsibilities – the best reason, perhaps, for keeping one’s trap shut whenever at all possible.

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The healing properties of a great walk

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Chained to a post, the bike languishes in the baby barn like a forgotten pony. It’s not its fault. It’s done nothing wrong to deserve its alienation from my increasingly fit company. It’s just that, gradually, over the past year or so, it’s been replaced in my affections by a sturdy pair of walking shoes.

Nowadays, they take me everywhere within a five-kilometer radius of my home in downtown Moncton: to the lake, the park, the grocery store, the cafe that serves the best coffee east of Montreal. They are admirably beat up, like a hobo’s boots.

I began my deliberate, quotidian, 45-minute marches for no other reason than to see if I, a man in his early 50s, could muster enough self-discipline to stick with something that had nothing to do with the usual mid-life preoccupation of making money. It was easy, at first. Then, it got hard. Walking every day without exception, I discovered, was as much a mental as physical game.

Still, in a recent broadcast of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, host Michael Enright explored what appears to be a renaissance for the alternately graceful and rigorous pastime of perambulation. His guests included a psychologist, a biologist and an urban planner. The show’s promo put it this way: “It seems that walking has come back in vogue. Walkable neighbourhoods are a cornerstone of current urban planning and they help drive real estate values up. People are moving back to the downtown cores of cities, where they can walk to do their shopping or get to work.”

Our ancient history, of course, supports the walker. (Even though, over the past 100 years, we’ve done everything we can to render him extinct – from inventing the internal combustion engine to enshrining the American television sitcom).

Says the CBC blurb: “Humans and their forebears have spent five million years perfecting one of the talents that make us most unique as a species. . .the ability to walk upright. We evolved to walk on two legs. Our bodies are meant to walk, and our biology wants, even requires, us to walk.”

Event the Internet is now telling us to walk. Here are some words of advice from About.com’s Wendy Bumgardner: “Walkers live longer. The Honolulu Heart Study of 8,000 men found that walking just two miles a day cut the risk of death almost in half. The walkers’ risk of death was especially lower from cancer.”

Not only that, she says, walkers are smarter: “A study of people over 60 funded by the National Council on Aging, published in the July 29, 1999, issue of ‘Nature’, found that walking 45 minutes a day at a 16-minute mile pace increased the thinking skills of those over 60. The participants started at 15 minutes of walking and built up their time and speed. The result was that the same people were mentally sharper after taking up this walking program.

They’re more emotionally stable: “Walking. . .leads to the release of the body’s natural happy drugs – endorphins. Most people notice an improvement in mood. A November 9, 1999 study published in the ‘Annals of Behavioral Medicine’ showed that university students who walked. . .regularly had lower stress levels than couch potatoes or those who exercised strenuously.”

Not inconsequentially, walkers are also more successful than couch potatoes in one other important arena of human interaction: “What better reason for men to take a brisk two mile walk each day – a reduced risk of impotence from mid-life onward.”

For all these reasons and more, I shall remain an ardent walker. My wife and I are spending Christmas week, this year, in Manhattan (a strolling man’s paradise). Someday, when we’re fit enough, we plan to tackle the Appalachian Trail (at least, a chunk of it). Who knows, we may even find ourselves, one fine year, trudging along the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain, en route to the holy shrine of the apostle St. James.

In an hour, maybe two, I’ll get out my bike. But first, a good walk beckons.

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