Tag Archives: New Brunswick

Plotting some common ground for shale gas

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It is only my uncommon determination to discount the fruits of my fevered and hyperactive imagination that prevents me from earnestly entertaining my latest New Brunswick Economic Development Conspiracy Theory, version 2.0.

But for this mindful discipline, however, my theory might go a little like this:

At some point in the not-too-distant past, Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward sat down with Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant in a dark, windowless room in the basement of one of New Brunswick’s seedier hotels. They had agreed to meet to hatch a plot, the outcome of which, then prayed, would be to their mutual advantage.

Each man knew that the shale gas controversy was not going away any time soon. Too much emotional capital had been spent for either opponents or their opposite numbers in industry to retreat from the front lines of lunacy. Too much empty rhetoric had been spilt for the sake of hearing one’s voice repeated ceaselessly on the nightly newscasts.

Yet, as political leaders, Messrs. Alward and Gallant recognized their respective responsibilities to take firm and preferably opposing positions on the issue.

The problem was that they also recognized, in each other, if not kindred spirits then at least a meeting of minds.

Though Mr. Alward argued publicly that shale gas was New Brunswick’s last, best hope for economic salvation, in his heart he worried about the environmental impact of an industry whose North American track record was, at best, spotty.

Conversely, though Mr. Gallant vigorously called for a moratorium on exploration and development until such time as two new studies shed better light on the subject, in his heart he worried about the province’s long-term economic future without the royalties and taxes a shale gas industry would generate.

The question, they reckoned, was how to have one’s cake and eat it too. Is it possible to satisfy both commercial and community interests without requiring unacceptably high sacrifices?

The related, if more urgent, question was how to take the mickey out of the public debate long enough to peaceably erect an industrial and regulatory apparatus acceptable to all but the most ardent green warriors (certainly all the Tories and Grits from here to the horizon)

And their stratagem?

That’s easy: Bore everyone to death, or at least until most people in the province would rather have their incisors pulled than stand to listen to a) one more meaningless, partisan diatribe about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing; and b) one more corporate shill expounding on the environmentally risk-free bounties from that friendliest of all fossil fuels.

Once the electorate is properly and finally focussed on other, more diverting  affairs like, say, the homophobic Winter Olympics 2014 (and not constantly expected to tender their proudly uniformed opinions, for or against shale gas) then, and only then, can the real, grown-up, bipartisan work of shaping a safe, regulated, productive, job-generating, income-producing, made-in-New Brunswick solution; the envy of the industrialized world.

Yup, it’s a nice theory and it does look good on paper. Too bad it’s bogus.

That constant whining sound emanating from Fredericton’s political class on the subject of shale gas is merely the all-too-familiar politics of disputation for the sake of disputation. No plan; nothing special. It’s politics as usual; that is to say, as usual Premier Alward blasts Mr. Gallant for standing soft on the issue and Mr. Gallant returns the favour by charging Mr. Alward with willful misrepresentation.

In fact, of the two, Mr. Gallant is more consistently correct and thoughtful with his criticism. But, at this point – where we seem to have come to a full stop, crumpled over by the burden of all our words – does it matter?

Where are our deeds? Where is our determination to forge practical alliances that span party and ideological lines to extract and sell our natural resources as safely and sustainably as possible?

While we’re at it, where is our courage to collectively face the essential energy paradox of our times – that we actually need the cleaner-burning fossil fuels to bridge us and our technologies to a greener more renewable future?

In the end, alas, politics upends even our finest conspiracies.

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The other state-of-the-province address

A bearish outlook for New Brunswick's economy

A bearish outlook for New Brunswick’s economy

As any political operative worth his argyle socks and patent leather brogues will tell you, the first rule of delivering a state of the union address is never talk about the actual state of the union – or province, as the case may be.

For if New Brunswick Premier David Alward, reportedly a tad under the weather (must be all the existential dread floating around Freddy Beach these days), had skipped the meaningless pabulum about an “incredibly exciting and prosperous” future and an impending economic “resurgence” in his annual speech last week and talked, instead, about the true state of the province, he might have sounded a little like this. . .

“My fellow New Brunswickers. I wish I could tell you that it is a pleasure to be here this evening. Unfortunately, it is not. I wish I could tell you that the future of this province is bright. Again, unfortunately, it is not.

“We politicians love metaphors and allegories. In my calmer moments, I sometimes find myself warbling the words to an old folk song by American melody maker Harry McClintock. You can hum along, if you like:

‘In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, there’s a land that’s fair and bright/Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night/Where the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day/And the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees/

The lemonade springs where the bluebird sings/In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.’

“Now, doesn’t that just sound like the New Brunswick we all want, the one we all deserve? Regrettably, another tune that more accurately reflects our current circumstances comes to mind. You know the one:

‘Some people say a man is made outta mud/A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood/Muscle and blood and skin and bones/A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong/You load sixteen tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.’

“The company store, in New Brunswick’s case, is Wall Street, where money lenders and bondholders hold all the leases on our collective life in this province.

“Here’s a number for you: $11 billion. Does anyone in this audience know what 11 billion of anything looks like? I read somewhere that you can count out one billion inches from the top of Baffin Island to the southern tip of South America. Also, apparently, there are one billion drops in 15,000 gallons of oil.

“At any rate, $11 billion is New Brunswick’s longterm debt. That’s $14,600 for every man, woman and child in the province. And, according to the Royal Bank of Canada, our net debt per capita was fifth highest among the provinces in 2012-2013. “And here’s the kick in the pants, folks: That’s only going to keep going up. Why?. Because that great sucking sound you hear is coming from Alberta, which is hoovering up all our young people as fast as we can produce them.

“No, my fellow New Brunswickers, things are not rosy. Things are not looking up. And we are definitely not on the verge of a New Brunswick resurgence, whatever the heck that means.

“Quite frankly, we’re in it deep; right up to our necks and no one’s lining up to throw us a rope – certainly not the feds who can see as well as anybody else that the writing on the walls of this region is turning Liberal red.

“So, then, what do we do? Give up? Move away?

“I say: ‘Not on your life.’ We fight and we don’t give up. If the old plans and ways of doing things in this province no longer work, then we throw them out and make new plans, do things differently.

“Ultimately, this means becoming the most self-reliant private sector in Canada if for no other reason than this: As things stand, we simply can’t afford ourselves. All public dollars must be spent on things that build long-term prosperity; things like early childhood education, for one.

“My fellow New Brunswickers, none of this will be easy. But we’ve been in tight spots before. We’ve come through them. We’ll come through this one, too – but only if we face the facts and stop sugar-coating our circumstances.

“Those of us who are adults don’t eat pabulum for breakfast.”

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It’s time to stop thinking magically about the future

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Those of us who are well-established in our irascibility – a function of our sullen conviction that most people are thoroughgoing nincompoops – approach the dawn of a new year experiencing an odd mixture of dread and resignation.

Didn’t we just come off the tail-end of one of the stupidest 12-month periods in recent Canadian history? Why must we do this all over again? Do we really expect to get it right this time when getting it wrong is what we do best?

Of course, part of getting it wrong – maybe the most important part – is making darn sure that otherwise eminently solvable problems become utterly intractable and, so, eternally, nauseatingly durable.

Consider, in this context, shale gas.

There might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff trapped in sedimentary rock beneath the surface of New Brunswick. Presently, a handful of companies pursue exploration leases to determine whether any of the resource is commercially exploitable. If any of it is, then a new industry dedicated to its extraction and export could create hundreds of jobs and replenish provincial government coffers with royalty revenues.

Meanwhile, cognizant of the potential environmental hazards associated with drilling operations, the Government of New Brunswick has released not one, but three sets of guidelines to govern industry practices. Premier David Alward calls these rules “the toughest and most comprehensive in North America.” He’s not wrong.

All things being equal, then, one should expect a broad level of public support for the investigative phase of this resource’s development. After all, no one’s building a strip mine or digging a quarry, many of which exist in New Brunswick, posing far more of an existential threat to potable water and uncontaminated soil than do shale gas wells.

But lest John Q. Public becomes confused, he must always ignore the facts. Now, the only images tight plays of petroleum conjure in the minds of the majority are those of angry, rural locals (and their urban, politically correct confederates) who are convinced that democratically elected governments cannot be trusted to regulate industry responsibly.

Somehow, placards, barricades and protest lines do a far better job than does the law of holding accountable those dirty, rapacious drilling operations.

Equally absurd, and no less irksome, is the notion, gaining widespread currency in the mainstream of the population, that New Brunswick should abandon all efforts to develop any of its natural resources – non-renewable and otherwise.

The argument against harvesting and processing fossil fuels is already familiar and, though not actually practical, not without some merit. But many of those who decry pipelines for Alberta bitumen into Saint John’s refinery also condemn wind turbines, which pollute nothing, contribute no green house gases to global warming, as they add 500 megawatts of electricity to the province’s power grid each year.

With evidence that is almost diaphanous, opponents of “big wind” claim that proximity to the rotating blades produces everything from migraines to vertigo to brain tumors. Besides, they whine, they’re ugly.

Such was the condition of New Brunswick’s polity in the year that was. Such, we may reasonably fear, will be its condition in the year ahead, solely because, in this province, a lack of intellectual firepower is matched only by a catastrophic failure of the collective imagination.

Increasingly, far too many of us cannot conceive of a day when we will witness the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It’s never happened before. We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

The corollary effect, of course, is that we get politicians who will only pander to our misguided, uninformed expectations.

But the day of reckoning is nearly upon us. A province of 750,000 people, sporting a structural deficit of $500 million on a long-term debt of $11 billion – a province that is shedding people and jobs faster than any other in Canada – cannot afford to engage in magical thinking about its future.

Should this realization eventually dawn on New Brunswick, version 2014, I’ll gladly apologize to all those of my fellow citizens who once apprenticed in this sullen, self-satisfied land as nincompoops.

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Can we go ‘up the road’ for a change?

They queued in long, broken lines, some still bleary from the shanks of many recent  evenings of farewells. Some stood, laden down with boxes and suitcases; others carried their entire lives in their wallets and satchels. Each waited patiently for his individual moment of truth to arrive.

At five o’clock on an iron-cold January morning, it was hard to believe that the most vibrant place – where the cultural, social and economic roads converged – in New Brunswick’s Hub City had become the boarding lounge of the Greater Moncton International Airport.

Here the infamous provincial diaspora was well underway: hundreds of young, middle-aged and elderly people voting on their respective futures with their feet.

Sure, some declared that they would one day return from Alberta’s dirty brown fields of opportunity. But just as many or more insisted that they were leaving for good.

“There just isn’t any point in staying,” one traveller told me. “The jobs aren’t here, and most of my family is out west, now, anyway.”

Added another: “I don’t get a sense of any direction or vision in New Brunswick. I mean, what’s the overall plan for the economy?”

Still another captured the zeitgeist of the moment perfectly: “I’m just tired.”

That’s it, isn’t it? We’ve all grown bone weary: utterly, achingly tired.

We’re tired of politicians making promises they can’t possibly keep. We’re tired of tabulating the province’s $538-million annual deficit and $11-billion longterm debt. We’re tired of public sector cutbacks that either go too far or don’t go far enough and, in any case, don’t seem to make a lick of difference.

It is so much easier to heed the siren’s call, beckoning us to leave, to move and never to return.

Why, out in Fort McMurray, if one played his cards right, one could become a project engineer or a maintenance coordinator or an electrical engineer or a mine maintenance manager.

Why, out in Fort Mac, where the tundra mice play, one could earn $100,000 a year driving a truck.

What’s keeping us here? Tradition? Roots? Family ties?

Sentimental nonsense! Off we go and (not looking back), good riddance!

In fact, we have a point, though it’s not an especially novel one.

Outmigration has been one of New Brunswick’s (indeed, all of Atlantic Canada’s) signature demographic features for 150 years. Wave upon wave of Maritimers and Newfoundlanders have left their homes in the East to build new ones in new communities in the West. This transfer of knowledge, skills and capital is what built Canada’s great industries, institutions and infrastructure, from the CNR to the drilling derricks of the oil sands.

What’s unique about the current exodus, however, is that, nowadays, few western-bound sojourners seem particularly interested in the fundamental reasons for our regional ennui. Fewer still are willing to risk their livelihoods and living standards by staying put and lending a hand in what surely must become The Great and Awesome Fix of New Brunswick, circa 2014.

For, without exaggeration, this is what’s required: a thorough overhaul not only of the way we spend public dollars and account for public programs, but of the way we govern ourselves and even of the expectations we create and maintain for ourselves and our neighbours.

In this, our finest resource may well be the self-reliance for which we have, until recently, been known. From this has stemmed the optimism, energy, derring-do and entrepreneurial courage and savviness that is always necessary to people who want to get important things done.

Important things like a downtown multi-purpose events centre for this city, a facility that Toronto developer and Moncton native Vaughn MacLellan hopes to complement with his own in the near future.

“We believe that the property is ideal for high density, multi-use office, retail and multi-residential development,” he told the Moncton Times & Transcript the other day. “At the end of the day, we want to try to create a lively, energetic area where people live, work and play.”

And not, dare we hope, find ourselves too tired to grab our future by the scruff and give it a good shake.

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Same old, tired chestnuts of office

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Tradition, if not prudence, demands that the premier of New Brunswick addresses the province’s electors at least once a year through the shrewd graces of the local, mainstream media.

So it was last week and this when David Alward presented himself to various editorial boards, his talking points in hand, his brow appropriately furrowed in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion.

New Brunswick, he said in so many words, was on the horns of a dilemma. Or, rather, perhaps it was at a crossroads, a critical juncture, a turning point. In any event, it needed a reality check, an infusion of entrepreneurial vigor, a shot in the arm.

These, naturally, are what one must endure when the sturdier veins of vision become varicose: cliches, all of them empty.

“We are still as focussed as we have ever been in terms of getting back to that fiscal strength where we need to be as a province,” Mr. Alward told the Telegraph-Journal. “We have taken and continue to take the difficult decisions, whether that be from an expenditure perspective – we see for the first time in many, many years a government actually come in under budget – the work on foundational reforms, whether that be on work on pensions or local government.”

It is, of course, authentically absurd to speak of coming in “under budget” in a province that’s running an annual budget deficit of $538 million for the current fiscal year and a long-term debt of $11 billion. Shall we now praise the provincial Tories for managing to keep most of their spending promises while the apparatus of the economy crumbles at their feet?

Yet, Mr. Alward also spoke of cornerstones: “Jobs and the economy continue to be the overriding issue that faces us collectively as a province, but as individuals and families as well. Continuing the work that we have done with the development of natural resources will be a very important part of that.”

Specifically, he said, “We are committed to seeing natural resource development as a key cornerstone. . .Next steps when it comes to shale gas development, next steps on things like the TransCanada pipeline, on a number of mining opportunities in the province, will all be very important.”

Does this seem yawningly familiar? Once upon a time in the Progressive Conservative liturgy, shale gas was but one “opportunity” the province might tap to lift the spirits of its flagging economy. Others included: commercially viable university research and development, health care innovation, software engineering, back office services, and data storage.

Now, the message coming from government circles is all about shale gas all the time, which would be just fine if there were anything new and constructive to contribute to the conversation. There isn’t.

The industry still doesn’t know if or when it will proceed to extract what remains, at best, an estimable asset. A vocal minority of New Brunswickers remain adamantly opposed to shale gas drilling. The rest of the population doesn’t seem to know or care enough about the issue to venture an opinion one way or the other.

And yet, this potential economic player somehow becomes a “cornerstone piece” in the puzzle that is New Brunswick 2014.

So does a pipeline from Alberta’s oil depots into Saint John. Forget the fact that political goodwill, while useful, does not a pipeline build without pubic support and regulatory approval.

These projects are not, in fact, projects until they begin to generate revenue for their commercial masters.

How, then, can government seriously view them as pillars of the provincial economy? A priori reasoning works marvelously well in philosophy – not so much in public planning.

Still, get ready one and all for another round of useless deficit targeting. Tradition  demands the February is the month for reckoning the condition of our collective pocketbook. And so, as usual, all the vain assumptions will be assembled. All the projections, masquerading as actual calculations, will be trotted out.

Mr. Alward, meanwhile, may wonder whether prudence, in the absence of anything novel or encouraging to say, now demands his silence.

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New Brunswick gets it right on drug plan

 

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Three years ago, David Alward made catastrophic drug coverage one of the linchpins of his election campaign. The other was capping the Harmonized Sales Tax at 13 per cent. Thus began, perhaps, the premier’s complicated relationship with what economists term “inputs and outputs.”

Specifically, one actually needs to raise revenue before one increases spending or one tends to go broke pretty darn quickly.

Most householders in New Brunswick get this simple arithmetic. A $500-million annual deficit and a $11-billion long-term debt against the province’s accounts suggest that our elected lawmakers are not as perspicacious as the people they represent.

Still, every so often, a case can be made for a spending program in the absence of a new and ready source of revenue to cover its costs – especially when the administration of such a program will likely prevent the state’s extensive financial hemorrhaging in the future.

Indeed, such a case can be made for the Tory government’s comprehensive drug plan, announced last week, and its specific codicils for catastrophic prescription coverage. Apart from opposition Liberals in the legislature, most interested groups in the province seem sanguine about what they observe in the fine print, which splits the cost of the $50-million (per annum) plan almost evenly between consumers and the Province.

“We’re pleased to see this happening – it’s a moment in history for New Brunswick health care,” Anne McTiernan, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society in New Brunswick, told the Telegraph-Journal last week. “It will make a huge difference on a go-forward basis for New Brunswickers. It will address both the financial barriers for people accessing important drugs.”

Added Barbara MacKinnon, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association, for the same piece: “This is an excellent plan. Although it is going to cost, it is really going to keep people out of the hospital. . .If you can get the right diagnosis, the right prescription drug plan, then you are not going to have a stroke.”

In fact, this plan is not likely to financially hobble anyone – not the province which is, arguably, already on skid row, or individuals whose premiums have been scaled to their incomes.

According to the Department of Health, “For individuals earning a gross income of $26,360 or less and families earning a gross income of $49,389 or less, the premium will be approximately $67 per month per adult ($800 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $26,361 and $50,000 and families earning a gross income of between $49,390 and $75,000, the premium will be approximately $117 per month per adult ($1,400 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $50,001 and $75,000 and families earning a gross income of between $75,001 and $100,000, the premium will be $133 per month per adult ($1,600 per year). For individuals earning a gross income of more than $75,001 and families earning a gross income of more than $100,001, the premium will be $167 per month per adult ($2,000 per year).”

Meanwhile, “Children 18 and younger will not pay premiums but a parent will have to be enrolled in the plan.  All plan members will be required to pay a 30-per-cent co-pay at the pharmacy up to $30 per prescription.”

There’s even a bone or two tossed to the approximately 80 per cent of New Brusnwickers who hold private drug coverage, to wit: “From May 1, 2014, to March 31, 2015, some New Brunswickers who have private drug plans but still incur high drug costs or need access to a drug covered under the new plan but not through their private plan may join the New Brunswick Drug Plan.”

After that, the province mandates that all private group drug plans “must be at least as comprehensive as the New Brunswick Drug Plan.” That means they must provide comparable coverage in terms of prescriptions and costs.

It has taken three years to craft a program that make sense. But, as Health Minister Hugh Flemming points out, if it’s the right plan, it’s worth the wait.

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New Brunswick gets it right on drug plan

Maybe it, like health, will recover

Maybe it, like health, will recover

Three years ago, David Alward made catastrophic drug coverage one of the linchpins of his election campaign. The other was capping the Harmonized Sales Tax at 13 per cent. Thus began, perhaps, the premier’s complicated relationship with what economists term “inputs and outputs.”

Specifically, one actually needs to raise revenue before one increases spending or one tends to go broke pretty darn quickly.

Most householders in New Brunswick get this simple arithmetic. A $500-million annual deficit and a $11-billion long-term debt against the province’s accounts suggest that our elected lawmakers are not as perspicacious as the people they represent.

Still, every so often, a case can be made for a spending program in the absence of a new and ready source of revenue to cover its costs – especially when the administration of such a program will likely prevent the state’s extensive financial hemorrhaging in the future.

Indeed, such a case can be made for the Tory government’s comprehensive drug plan, announced last week, and its specific codicils for catastrophic prescription coverage. Apart from opposition Liberals in the legislature, most interested groups in the province seem sanguine about what they observe in the fine print, which splits the cost of the $50-million (per annum) plan almost evenly between consumers and the Province.

“We’re pleased to see this happening – it’s a moment in history for New Brunswick health care,” Anne McTiernan, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society in New Brunswick, told the Telegraph-Journal last week. “It will make a huge difference on a go-forward basis for New Brunswickers. It will address both the financial barriers for people accessing important drugs.”

Added Barbara MacKinnon, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association, for the same piece: “This is an excellent plan. Although it is going to cost, it is really going to keep people out of the hospital. . .If you can get the right diagnosis, the right prescription drug plan, then you are not going to have a stroke.”

In fact, this plan is not likely to financially hobble anyone – not the province which is, arguably, already on skid row, or individuals whose premiums have been scaled to their incomes.

According to the Department of Health, “For individuals earning a gross income of $26,360 or less and families earning a gross income of $49,389 or less, the premium will be approximately $67 per month per adult ($800 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $26,361 and $50,000 and families earning a gross income of between $49,390 and $75,000, the premium will be approximately $117 per month per adult ($1,400 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $50,001 and $75,000 and families earning a gross income of between $75,001 and $100,000, the premium will be $133 per month per adult ($1,600 per year). For individuals earning a gross income of more than $75,001 and families earning a gross income of more than $100,001, the premium will be $167 per month per adult ($2,000 per year).”

Meanwhile, “Children 18 and younger will not pay premiums but a parent will have to be enrolled in the plan.  All plan members will be required to pay a 30-per-cent co-pay at the pharmacy up to $30 per prescription.”

There’s even a bone or two tossed to the approximately 80 per cent of New Brusnwickers who hold private drug coverage, to wit: “From May 1, 2014, to March 31, 2015, some New Brunswickers who have private drug plans but still incur high drug costs or need access to a drug covered under the new plan but not through their private plan may join the New Brunswick Drug Plan.”

After that, the province mandates that all private group drug plans “must be at least as comprehensive as the New Brunswick Drug Plan.” That means they must provide comparable coverage in terms of prescriptions and costs.

It has taken three years to craft a program that make sense. But, as Health Minister Ted Flemming points out, if it’s the right plan, it’s worth the wait.

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Cautionary tales from the oil rush

 

What goes up...well, you know

What goes up…well, you know

Forgotten somewhere behind the picket lines in rural New Brunswick, amid the gloomy certitudes about the oil and gas industry’s power to corrupt the environment, lies a more visceral byproduct of resource extraction: crimes not against nature, but humanity.

Canada’s violent offence rate is so low these days, few people associate lawlessness with mining and drilling operations anymore. History, of course, is replete with tales of banditry, thuggery and worse from the front lines and frontiers of assorted gold rushes and oil booms in North America.

There are, as Robert Service (the Arctic’s unofficial poet laureate) once wrote famously, “strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold.” Indeed, “the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” Over the past year, however, such literary apocrypha has become reality in the border territories between western and Canada and the United States.

A New York Times piece, published on Sunday, describes recent disappearances and murders in the high plains of Montana and North Dakota. “Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms,” the article reported. “Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.”

That observation echoed an earlier Times story in which “Christina Knapp and a friend were drinking shots at a bar in a nearby town several weeks ago when a table of about five men called them over and made an offer. They would pay the women $3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television. Ms. Knapp, 22, declined, but the men kept raising the offer, reaching $7,000. . .Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults.”

Regarding Canada, a piece in the Regina Leader-Post last April explained, “As the oil belt in southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana expands, police are grappling to deal with a resulting increase in crime. In our province, that means more traffic crime – specifically, more aggressive and impaired driving charges, as well as more fatal accidents. To address crime trends that have come about as a result of a population increase in the oilfield area, members of the Saskatchewan RCMP from the enforcement, intelligence and border security sections are in the midst of a two-day summit with their U.S. counterparts in Glasgow, Montana.”

Meanwhile, a story published on theatlanticcities.com last month observes that “in 2005, the Williston Police Department in Williston, North Dakota, received 3,796 calls for service. By 2009, the number of yearly calls had almost doubled, to 6,089. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the Williston P.D. received 15,954 calls for service. . .The police department in nearby Watford City received 41 service calls in 2006. In 2011 they received 3,938. That’s life in an energy boomtown.”

Ask a dozen sociologists about the reasons for the phenomenon, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. But it seems clear that the word “boomtown” says it all: the uncontrolled explosion of opportunity generates unpredictable consequences – including roving bands of assorted misfits and bad guys – catching institutions, infrastructure and law enforcement off guard.

Here, in New Brunswick, of course, we don’t know much about any of this. The safety and serenity of our bucolic environs has as much to do with the fact that we export our criminals, as well as our law-abiding sons and daughters, out west.

But should the glint in Premier Alward’s eye – and that in those of at least 100 other political and business leaders in this province – ever manifest itself as a pipeline from Alberta into Saint John and/or a commercially viable, environmentally benign, shale gas industry proffering jobs and income, galore, we may want to remind ourselves about the social costs of overnight success.

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There’s still life in the old folks home

 

Leaves of grass for NB's labour market

The day passed like any other at this time of the year: under a darkening gloom that  heralds the inevitable arrival of the great, white death that is the Maritime winter.

If genies were real, and I employed one, I would move my birthday (yesterday), to a more cheerful month, such as May, which Milton observed lyrically “doth inspire mirth, and youth, and warm desire.”

There’s nothing especially youthful, mirthful or warm about November. And as the days get shorter, it so happens so do the years in this corner of the country.

A piece in the Telegraph-Journal yesterday suggests that New Brunswick is aging more rapidly than just about everywhere else in the nation. By Statistics Canada’s reckoning, 17.6 per cent of this province’s 750,000-strong population is age 65 or older. Nova Scotia’s populace is just fractionally more geriatric: 17.7 per cent of people there are upper sexagenarians.

Under the circumstances, If you came from Nova Scotia to live in New Brunswick (as I did) you now can’t help feeling as if you’ve merely switched rooms in the old folks home. “The four Atlantic provinces round out the top four spots in the country in terms of having the most seniors – all more than 17 per cent,” the T-J reports. “Alberta and the territories have the lowest percentages of seniors – all less than 12 per cent.”

Meanwhile, “New Brunswick also has the second highest median age in Canada at just under 44 years of age. Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest median age at just over 44 years.”

Such news, like the weather and the time of the year, naturally evokes situational unease, a sort of contact dermatitis of the soul. Indeed, it has become customary for political leaders from all parties to decry the demographic shift underway in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada.

But fellows like Michael Haan, the Canada research chair in population and social policy at the University of New Brunswick, thinks we’re missing point. We should stop complaining – something we’ve been doing almost reflexively for years – and embrace our wizening profile. After all, what else do you do with lemons but make lemonade?

Actually, his argument is a little less flippant than that as he tells the T-J, “I think young, entrepreneurial people should see opportunity here. You have a large population of aging baby boomers who are wealthy and have time on their hands. . .These are interesting people who have lived full lives.”

Well, I know I have. In fact, despite Mr. Haan’s unfortunate use of the past tense, I still am living a full life. I belong to the largest cohort of the boom – those who turn 53 this year – and when I amble down history lane, I am frequently astonished by a half-century of change.

In 1960, the year I was born, for example, the Gross National Product of the United States was $503 billion. Today, it’s closer to $16 trillion. In that year, the median household income in America (not adjusted for inflation) was less than $6,000. Today, it’s more than $50,000.

Also in 1960, according to The People’s Chronology (published in 1979), “The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC meets for the first time September 14 at Baghdad and  forces a retraction of the decrease in oil prices by Standard Oil of New Jersey. . .Some 2,000 electronic computers are delivered to U.S. business offices, universities, laboratories, and other buyers. . .The debate will rage as to whether computers wipe out jobs or create new ones. . .Aluminum cans for food and beverages are used for the first time commercially but 95 per cent of U.S. soft drinks and 50 per cent of beer is sold in returnable bottles that are used 40 to 50 times each.”

It’s easy to forget the “full lives” members of every generation lead. The passing of time, of youth, renders us sentimental codgers and coots in this dangerously sentimental month of the year.

Sure, we’re getting old. It happens to the best of us. But New Brunswick’s economy is not a nursery school with seats saved for precious toddlers.

There’s work to be done, and we’re not dead yet

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No room for pleasantries in real politics

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Despite his occasional partisan bluster – a necessity of elective office, regardless of one’s political flavour – the premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy who actually cares about other people’s feelings.

In fact, until recently, about the only way to get an authentic rise out of David Alward was to suggest the he and his government ministers were aloof to the concerns of their fellow citizens, content to play king and courtiers in their castle made of sand above the high water mark on Freddy Beach.

“It bugs me,” the pastor’s son (who is a certified psychological counsellor, a former community developer and an active rural hobby farmer) once interrupted himself in mid-interview with yours truly. “I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive.”

The truth, of course, is that openness has all but typified the premier’s political oeuvre since he came to govern one of Canada’s defiantly ungovernable provinces in 2010. Where his predecessor, Liberal Premier Shawn Graham, protected his counsel like a NSA agent under house arrest, Mr. Alward has done a contortionist’s job at public events, and in private meetings, explaining, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities; in effect, his thinking.

And that may be his biggest problem.

On Friday, the premier was in a rare uncompromising, even antagonistic, mood. Lashing out at anti-shale gas activists in the province, he declared that they represented the point of the spear aimed directly at the heart of natural resources industries here.

“This is not just about SWN (Resources Inc.) being able to develop,” the Telegraph-Journal quoted him. “This not just about Rexton or Kent County and SWN. Mark my words that the same groups that are against seeing SWN move forward with exploration are against projects like Sisson Brook or other potential mining projects we have in New Brunswick. They are against seeing pipelines come across our country to Saint John and creating the prosperity (they) can.”

The denouement of his point was simply this: “The question the New Brunswickers should be asking is ‘what is our vision for our province’? . . .Do we want to have our young people living here in our province building their lives here or are we condemning them to having no choice of where they are going to live in the future?”

These are, indeed, the questions. They have always been the questions. It’s just too bad that Premier Alward has waited until now – less than a year before the provincial election – to pose them with such cogency and force.

In fact, had he spent more time over the past 18 months unapologetically supporting industry’s efforts to ascertain the economic potential of shale gas (indeed, of all promising avenues of natural resources) – and commensurately less time defending his government’s decisions and convening public panels in vain attempts to win friends and influence people – the conversation in this province might now be profoundly different, and radically more productive.

The bottom line is that Mr. Alward’s generally laudable instinct to consult ‘the people’ has also been a lamentable liability of his leadership, and on more files than natural resources.

The awful state of the province’s books – its rolling $500-million deficit on a long-term debt of $11 billion – is not, strictly speaking, the premier’s fault.

Still, in a way, it is.

By refusing to consider raising the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, because he promised ‘the people’ he would consult them first, in the form of a referendum, he effectively tied the hands of his Finance Minister and severely compromised New Brunswick’s fiscal recovery from the Great Recession.

Had he forced the province to swallow this bitter, but necessary, pill early in his mandate, the public accounts would have been far healthier than they are today, providing the governing Tories with more and better options for health, education and social policies.

It might even have influenced the debate about shale gas by having eliminated much of the monetary hysteria that now underpins it.

Make no mistake: The consultative, empathetic premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy.

But, oftentimes, as the saying goes, nice guys finish. . .well, not first.

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