Monthly Archives: May 2014

Keeping our own economic promises



The premiers of Canada’s least economically promising provinces display a marvelous esprit de corps, becoming a cheerful band of battle-ready brothers, when their mutual enemies in Fat City rattle their swords.

So it was this week when New Brunswick’s David Alward, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, Prince Edward Island’s Robert Ghiz and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tom Marshall emerged from the semi-regular gabfest they dub rather self-importantly, Council of Atlantic Premiers, with agreements to, in effect, throw down the gauntlet on Ottawa’s front yard.

Having agreed to harmonize apprenticeship programs across the region (finally), they raised their voices en mass and called for Ottawa to stop pushing its immigration and jobs-protection agendas in the absence of any credible research or consultation on the subjects. 

Referring to a pending report he and his provincial counterparts commissioned on the impact of federal changes to the Employment Insurance system in the Atlantic region, Premier Ghiz told the Telegraph-Journal, “What this is really about is the Atlantic provinces putting together evidence-based research to take to the federal government that will indicate how the EI changes have negatively affected our region based on the seasonal industries that we have.”

Added Premier Alward: “It’s not just about EI. We can talk about any other changes. When they impactt regions, when they impact provinces, there needs to be a level of consultation before.”

Indeed, said Premier McNeil, the federal government must stop functioning as if it were in a partnership with only itself. “There needs to be a broader consultation between governments. The national government needs to make the provinces part of the decision making that has a huge impact on the regions or programs that are affecting regions.”

Well said, and bully for all of them. Now what? 

It’s true; since snatching power from the wobbly, scandal-riddled Liberals, federal Conservatives have displayed a dreadful lack of respect for the provinces, and not just the ones that hug the East Coast. Our region has, however, always seemed to earn special contempt from the callow, black-hearted, centre-obsessed boys and girls who populate the Prime Minister’s Office. 

Government of Canada reforms to EI seem almost deliberately crafted to cause the most inconvenience and disruption possible in the Atlantic provinces, where seasonality is, alas, one of the defining characteristics of the labour market.

Meanwhile, Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s ban on temporary foreign workers in the restaurant trade will hit the region’s tourist trade disproportionately hard, as the industry draws from an immigrant labour pool that is, alongside all the other evaporating ones, shrinking.

Still, Atlantic Canada’s premiers have complained about these and other slights for years and largely to no avail. Lamentably for Mr. McNeil, et. al, this is not a national government that feels any compelling need, whatsoever, to make the provinces part of its decision making. 

In fact, the federal Tories sometimes leave the impression that if they could shut down this messy Confederation of ours and run the whole show from glass towers impressively arranged along the banks of the Rideau Canal, everyone would be much happier. 

Poorer, for sure; but happier.

In fact, a more profitable use of our regional premiers’ time and energy – given the central government’s utter intractability – would be a full-sail vision quest, the purpose of which would be to translate their periodic displays of unity and filial bonding against a common foe into pragmatic commitments to formal socio-economic cooperation in the region itself.

Atlantic Canada’s real enemy doesn’t dress in blue pinstripes and speak with an Ottawa Valley accent. 

Our real enemy is our own parochial notion that our sputtering engines of growth are somehow stronger functioning apart from one another than they are operating in concert, together. 

Our nemesis is our pride, which cleaves to centuries’ old commercial conventions, long past their best before dates, that helps maintain an ossified culture of inter-provincial barriers against the movement of trade, people and skills.

In this regard, the Atlantic premiers’ decision to take the handcuffs off apprentices   is right and correct. 

But what more can this battle-ready band of brothers do for themselves, for the people they represent, for the region whose economic promise is not yet kept?


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The official flora of Canada’s next province: palm trees



I get that John Baird is a very important man with a very important job doing very important things, like saving the world for Stephen Harper’s democracy. But does Canada’s foreign minister have to be such a party pooper?

Specifically, as the thermometer outside my office door barely nudged 10 degrees Celcius this week did he have to throw water on the idea of this country welcoming the tropical paradise known as the Turks and Caicos Islands into its provincial fold?

“We’re not in the business of annexing islands in the Caribbean to be part of Canada, so that’s not something that we’re exploring,” Baird declared on Monday, as the premier of the Caribbean state, a British protectorate, openly flirted with the notion of he and his 29,000 fellow islanders formally becoming Canucks. 

“I’m not closing the door completely,” Rufus Ewing told reporters in Ottawa. “It is not of my mandate to close the door. What I’ll say is on the radar is some kind of relationship. I can’t say what kind of relationship it will be,” 

Still, insisted Baird: “We’re not looking at any sort of formal association with the islands.”

But, as the Globe and Mail’s editorial writer asked reasonably yesterday, “Why the heck not? Yes, the idea is slightly loopy. But a people subjected to six months a year of winter, preceded by four months of fall, are entitled to the occasional tropical daydream. And if Newfoundland could go from a British colony to Canadian province, why not some slightly more temperate islands?.”

Of course, the circumstances of Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1949 were unique to that place and time (having had something to do with 15 years of government by appointment only), yet Canada’s self-styled national newspaper is not wrong about this. And its readers concur. After all, if Richard Branson gets to own a palmy getaway at the equator, why can’t we?

“Has anyone even run the numbers?” writes Peter Sutherland of Ottawa. “The cost of providing Canadian social services for some 30,000 islanders versus the money that would stay in ‘Canada’ (not the southern United States or Mexico) during the winter? Looks like this rare opportunity will once again fade as fast as my short-lived summer tan.”

Adds Mary Lazier-Corbett of Picton, Ontario: “Assuming there is an informed wish on the part of Turks and Caicos to become part of our Confederation, it would have huge advantages to Canada. . .It would. . .open up opportunities for citizens in the ‘new‘ area and force us all to rethink, rationally, what it means to be Canadian. . .Go for it!”

Finally, this word from Janice Campbell of Halifax: “Frostbitten hand to winter-numbed heart, there is so much I’d forgive the Conservatives if they did this. Puh-leeze, Mr. Baird.”

Well, Mr. Baird, the people have spoken; what say you now? Shall you stand in the corner just as the festivities kick into high gear?

“If you don’t want another prov/territory,” Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall tweeted to the prime minister, “Turks/Caicos can join Canada as a part of Sask.”

To which Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz responded, “Hey, Brad, PEI would be happy to partner with Saskatchewan on the Turks and Caicos project!”

Replied Wall: “Now we’re talking.”

Even Mr. Baird’s colleague Conservative MP Peter Goldring likes the idea. “There are opportunities that are going to be growing in the Caribbean,” he told Global News. “I think it would be good for business if we were to develop a good strong relationship and maybe even a marriage.”

It’ll never happen, of course, because the politicos in positions of real power – never the most imaginative among us – can’t divine an immediate up side.

I, on the other hand, can think of 12. In the Turks and Caicos, average high temperatures for January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December are, respectively: 27, 27, 28, 28, 29, 30, 31, 31, 31, 30, 29, and 28 degrees Celcius. Plus, it never gets below 20 at night.

As one gets older, these considerations acquire greater significance, especially as one obsessively checks the mercury outside my office door. 

It’s May 28 and what do you know? The temperature just shot up to 13.

Maybe John Baird is right after all. 

Turks and Caicos? 

Bah, who needs you?


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When the new intern walks with a cane


In a recent issue of The Economist, an ad for the Mandarin Oriental hotel group features   Hollywood heavyweight Morgan Freeman reclining serenely on a couch, his handsome, septuagenarian face the picture of health, confidence and Cheshire Cat-like perspicacity. He is smiling as if to say, “You know I’m not going anywhere.” 

The image is oddly appropriate, as it appears directly opposite an editorial entitled “A billion shades of grey,” which examines the gathering economic and demographic tsunami of old folks who can’t afford (or just don’t want) to retire from work. 

Mr. Freeman, it’s safe to say, does not suffer from such problems. The star of cinematic triumphs, including Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption and Invictus, works when the work, itself, interests and (presumably) enriches him. Apparently, that includes occasionally lending out his white-whiskered mug to luxury hotel chains.

But for millions of others in the industrialized world, the choice is not so cavalier. Not surprisingly, then, society’s various workplaces are becoming inexorably geriatric. Notes The Economist: “The world is on the cusp of a staggering rise in the number of old people, and they will live longer than ever before. Over the next 20 years the global population of those aged 65 or more will almost double, from 600 million to 1.1 billion. . .(The) striking demographic trend (is) for highly skilled people to go on working well into what was once thought to be old age.”

So it is in The Great White North (pun, fully intended). A Statistics Canada study, released earlier this year, found that “many older workers who leave long-term jobs do not fully enter retirement. In fact, over one-half of workers aged 55 to 64 who left long-term jobs between 1994 and 2000 were re-employed within a decade.”

Moreover, “of Canadians who exited a long-term job at age 55 to 59, 60 per cent were re-employed within the next 10 years. This was the case for 44 mer cent of those who exited their long-term job at age 60 to 64. Men were more likely than women to be re-employed.”

We Atlantic Canadians appear to be less anxious to punch a clock while our own biological ones are clicking down to the inevitable zero hour, but the data doesn’t factor in other findings that have pointed to the East Coast’s disproportionate share of small, entrepreneurial businesses, whose moms and pops do, quite literally and often, work till they drop.

I imagine that would be me. I belong in the generational camp (right between the baby boom and Gen X) whose members often thought self-employment was a brave and noble endeavor (much like, I imagine, a trapeze artist thinks nets are for wimps). 

At any rate, I’ve been doing this for long enough that any conception of retirement seems, to me, quaintly antiquated – a notion that might have preoccupied my grandfathers when private pension plans for middle-income earners actually meant something, and equity investing was for the risk-embracing wealthy way over there, on the other side of the railroad tracks.

In fact, the western workplace is merely transforming to reflect the salient trends in our culture over the past 30 years.

Begin with a healthy disdain among policy makers, politicians and corporatists of every stripe for unions, worker welfare, protective regulations, and rational guidelines in financial markets. Add a healthy dollop of technological innovation. Sprinkle in advances in medical science and improvements in overall nutrition. Then stir.

Et voila! What you get is a super geezer ready, willing and able to deploy his vast reservoir of work and life experiences in the service of that hot, new, nameless, faceless, off-shoring entity that pays the bills until it, or he, finally succumbs – whichever comes first.

In fact, increasingly, this is how the corporate world both likes and eats its cake. As The Economist points out, “the notion of a sharp division between the working young and the idle old misses a new trend, the growing gap between the skilled and the unskilled. Employment rates are falling among younger unskilled people, whereas older skilled folk are working longer.”

That’s good news for those of us who, by necessity or choice, aren’t going anywhere.


Lest we forget our rights in the Internet age



My human nature abhors a snoop, unless he would be me. I am as compelled to conceal most details of my admittedly humdrum life as I am to blow the lid off someone else’s potentially dangerous cache of secrets. 

This is why, when it comes to privacy in the age of the Internet, I do not worry overmuch about irreconcilable urges. Everyone, it seems, has them.

Earlier this month, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that a Spanish guy does, indeed, possess the “right to be forgotten” in cyberspace, just as he had argued, setting a precedent that could spell profound implications for privacy advocates and free-speech supporters, alike. 

According to an online news item in the Guardian, “In what could be a landmark case for internet privacy, a European court has ruled that Google must amend some of its search results. . .The test case. . .was brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, after he failed to secure the deletion of an auction notice of his repossessed home dating from 1998 on the website of a mass circulation newspaper in Catalonia. . .

(In) the advisory judgement. . .individuals have a right to control their private data, especially if they are not public figures.”

The Guardian piece goes on to report that “More and more individuals are claiming they have a ‘right to be forgotten’, particularly when the internet pulls up personal information which may appear one-sided or unfair.”

For its part, Google characterized the ruling as “disappointing” and indicated it would take its time “analysing the implications”.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was simply gobsmacked. 

“(This is) one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen,” he told BBC Radio 5 last week. “If you really dig into it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re asking Google. . .you can complain about something and just say it’s irrelevant, and Google has to make some kind of a determination about that. That’s a very hard and difficult thing for Google to do – particularly if it’s at risk of being held legally liable if it gets it wrong in some way.”

Moreover, he said, “Normally we would think whoever is publishing the information, they have the primary responsibility – Google just helps us to find the things that are online. . .I would expect that Google is going to resist these claims quite vigorously. I think they would be foolish not to because if they have to start coping with everybody who whines about a picture they posted last week, it’s going to be very difficult for Google.”

Still, if some authorities think it’s perfectly okay to require search engines like Google to scrub the past clean on demand, others seem determined to obtain access to the unfiltered mausoleums of information that represent the virtual lives of nearly three billion IT-savvy earthlings. 

The Government of Canada, for one, is doing its level best to shine daylight on two bills (C-13 and C-31) that would expand the snooping powers of police. According to a report in the Globe and Mail last week, these controversial pieces of legislation will “give police and other law-enforcement officials new powers to request and monitor the private data of Canadians, despite objections from privacy watchdogs.”

Where is, these watchdogs wonder, our ‘“right to be forgotten”?

In a letter, earlier this month, to Conservative MP Mike Wallace, chair of the Commons justice committee, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian stated, “The time for dressing up overreaching surveillance powers in the sheep-like clothing of sanctimony about the serious harms caused by child pornography and cyberbullying is long past.”

In her own statement last week, British Columbia’s privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, advised the feds to “separate the provisions addressing cyberbullying from those that extend law enforcement powers,” arguing that “any proposed increase to those powers must be critically examined and vigorously debated.” 

She added: “It is up to government and law enforcement agencies to make the case to Canadians as to why increased police powers are necessary.”

Canada’s various privacy commissioners and the likes of Jimmy Wales may argue interminably about which is more dangerous to a healthy democracy: Too much of an individual’s personal information concentrated hands of a powerful few; or not enough accurate information about an individual’s actions available to the great, unwashed masses.

The good news is, perhaps only, that the debate is far from settled. 


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Making the enemies list and checking it twice


Beware all the liberal media vipers in our midst

Beware all the liberal media vipers in our midst

Canadian political junkies are in for a treat next month when former Conservative operative and Stephen Harper confidant Bruce Carson spills the beans about his brief sojourn at the center national power. 

But we addicts of hysteria in statecraft may not actually need his upcoming book, “14 Days: Making the Conservative Movement in Canada”, to help us comprehend the true dimension of Tory paranoia. These days, the party’s power brokers are managing to do that all by themselves.

As the Globe and Mail reported last week, Conservative officials recently sent a fundraising letter to potential contributors asking them to pony up big bucks for what is certain to be a titanic battle against the Liberal establishment and their lickspittles and  lapdogs in the mainstream media.

The Globe quoted portions of the letter from Fred DeLorey, the party’s director of political operations, thusly: 

“(The) increase in the number of seats, plus the need to expand Conservative communications and outreach. . .will require the biggest campaign budget in Conservative Party history to ensure victory next year. . .To compete for these extra new seats in 2015, our outreach and communications budget must expand too – and we must do it now. If we wait until next year, it may be too late.”

Indeed, lefties lurk around every corner.

“Despite all his verbal flubs, lack of experience, and his failure to outline any practical economic policy for Canada, Justin Trudeau is still awarded a shining halo by liberal-minded journalists and pundits who are bedazzled by their own hopes of a Liberal second coming,” Mr. DeLorey fumes.

What’s more, he instructs, “Over 80 per cent of Canadian media is owned by a cartel of just five corporations – each of which owns dozens of publications and networks under various subsidiaries and affiliates. . .The Canadian newspaper industry today is largely controlled by a small number of individual or corporate owners, which often own the television networks.”

As a result, this “media convergence has greatly complicated our Conservative Party efforts to present the unfiltered facts and foundations behind our policies for economic growth, our faith in family values and our commitment to jobs, free trade and prosperity. . .The official campaign for re-election of Stephen Harper and our Conservative majority government won’t start until next year – but in the media it seems it has already begun.”

Fie, a pox on all your wobbly Fourth Estate houses, especially the CBC, which  

“costs taxpayers too much and its operations should be privatized” before, presumably,  “inexperienced Liberals like Justin Trudeau or leftist ideologues like Thomas Mulcair” make it their official mouthpiece!

This is not the first time Tory brass have taken a swipe at Mother Corpse (or, indeed, any media that doesn’t display the word “Sun” in its corporate letterhead) in a fundraising letter. In fact, for several years now, the practice has been all but required by right-wing etiquette. 

In 2007, the late Doug Finley, who was then the Conservative Party’s campaign director, decried alleged incidents of political bias among frontline reporters at the CBC. Is this (he asked rhetorically) what $1.1 billion in taxpayers‘ money buys for hard-working, well-adjusted Canadians?

Still, though most citizens will dismiss such frantic hyperbole outright, the Tories do know their audience, which suggests that there’s less genuine fear than calculated fiat in the messaging.

The danger of a Liberal resurgence in this country is real, but right-wingers deal with their terror of fancy-pants, artsy-fartsy types by towing the party line. And they do it better than anyone else. 

That’s why, in political terms, they have more money than God (despite their persistent and disingenuous poor-mouthing). It’s also how they have effectively demonized the mainstream media for a sizable chunk of the mainstream audience of news and opinion (again, despite their absurd and disingenuous claims to victimhood at the hands of commie-influenced press barons).

Time and again, the modern incarnation of conservatism in Canada makes claims to truth where none exists and then makes quislings of all who dare question its wisdom and virtue.

Still, we political junkies wouldn’t have it any other way. Most of us are journalists, anyway. Who else but a late-stage partisan paranoiac is going to keep us on our toes?


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Verbal jousting won’t cure what ails New Brunswick



They may know next to nothing about forging policies that actually inspire confidence in the public peanut gallery. But when it comes to mud-slinging and spin-balling, our elected leaders are bonafide artistes, each deserving a standing ovation.

So it was on Wednesday, which marked the end of the current legislative season in New Brunswick. There in Freddy Beach, dutifully providing rounds of enthusiastic applause to themselves, were Tory Premier David Alward and Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, bending all kinds of truth to score political points.

Thundered the latter: “This government was quite busy breaking its promises. They made three key promises to be elected in the last election in 2010. They promised they’d balance the books, without cutting services and without increasing taxes. It’s obvious these three promises were broken. I’m asking the premier to explain to New Brunswickers how they are supposed to believe anything in their platform when they broke the three key promises in order to be elected in 2010.”

Rejoined the premier: “We would have thought with a least the recent policy convention we would have had some clear signs with where the Liberal party stood, but all we have is no vision at all. . .The future of New Brunswick is at stake. There hasn’t been a time in many years where the stark realities, the differences between parties, will be made more clear in the coming months. We know our young people want to have the opportunity to stay here in New Brunswick instead of having no choice but to go elsewhere.”

As for the not-quite-hidden agenda behind the political theatre this week, Mr. Alward confirmed, to the edification of exactly no one, that “elections matter. . .The reality is that this election more than any in the past will make the difference in the future of the province. We have a plan and we are dead-focused on that plan, moving forward with shale gas development, moving forward with mining, our forestry renewal and moving forward with a pipeline.” 

But if elections matter, these days they seem to matter matter less to the “future of the province” than they do to the make and model of the rowboat we choose to run aground on some shoal along the not far-off horizon. 

Moncton academic Richard Saillant sounds the alarm in his excellent new book, “Over the Cliff?”, regarding the province’s looming and interrelated fiscal, economic and demographic crises: “For several decades, New Brunswick’s economy has surfed on a rising tide of labour force growth, fuelled by the baby boom generation and the steady, largely successful march of women towards equal participation in the workforce. The tide is now receding, dragging down the economy. A new Age of Diminished Expectations is upon us.”

That’s not much of a campaign platform, but it does suggest one for either Mr. Alward or Mr. Gallant, should they actually put their rhetorical cannons away and level with the electorate for a change.

The requisite soliloquy might go a little like this:

“My fellow New Brunswickers, I come not to praise my record, but to bury it. “Clearly, we need to hit the reset button in this province. All of us, Conservatives and Liberals alike, have made costly mistakes. 

“We let the size of our public service balloon out of all proportion to its utility. We’ve wasted countless millions of dollars on failed economic development initiatives and corporate welfare. We’ve put too many of our eggs in one basket. We haven’t stuck to our knitting. And, if you will permit me one last cliche, I will make you one, and only one, promise going forward: No more promises!

“Now is not the time for verbal jousting, but for non-partisan collaboration across party lines. Now is the time for dismantling ‘politics as usual‘ and for working together towards hard, but commonsensical, fixes for our problems. 

“We must finally recognize that no one – not the federal government, not the money-market lords of Manhattan, not the foreign conglomerates of the world – is coming to our rescue. It’s all on us.

“It’s time we stop huffing and puffing at each other and get on with it.”

Ah, yes, some theatre – though it be pure fiction– can be marvelously inspiring. One might even say, worthy of ovation. 


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To reduce poverty, improve education



Any political regime, regardless of ideological bent, that claims the high ground in the perennial war on poverty rallies the faithful with empty rhetoric and promises it knows it can’t possibly keep.

So it was last week when New Brunswick’s Conservative government laid out a plan to reduce penury in the province – one that looked very much like a version its predecessors in Shawn Graham’s Liberal administration introduced five years ago. 

How did that one work out for us?

“New Brunswickers want to know the results of the last plan,” Grit MLA Don Arsenault observed earlier this week. “Where do we stand now in making sure that we are heading in the right direction? The government is hiding those numbers, hiding those results, because we are just a couple of months away from the election.”

As for the new plan, Mr. Arsenault said, “There are 28 actions with no deadlines. How can the government measure whether the plan meets its objectives?”

To which Education Minister Marie-Claude Blais sneered, “It (criticism of the plan) is for political gain. That is what the members opposite want to do. That is what they like to do. There are measurables, and the measurables are being attained right now. . .We are doing all of that, and we will continue to do that.”

In fact, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have the foggiest notions for reducing poverty in New Brunswick. They trot out the few remaining numbers the gutted  Statistics Canada can provide and arbitrarily decide to chop income disparity by between 20 and 50 per cent over, say, five years. All of which are nice, round numbers that signify precisely nothing.  

Politicians play the poverty card because they think it makes them appear virtuous. But as they stop chasing their opponents’ tails, they merely set their sites on their own.

Poverty is one of those social bedevilments, like illiteracy, that’s impregnable to partisan maledictions or entreaties. It does not recognize doctrinal superiority. In fact, you best attack it by throwing politics out the window, joining hands across party lines and drinking deeply from the wishing well of good public intentions. 

Once that’s done, you spend a whole bunch of money literally reinventing pre-school and primary education systems in this province.

Progressive think tanks, university educators, child advocates – even the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – have all come to the same conclusion: Early Childhood Education, or ECE, plays a vital role in ameliorating the effects of poverty on families and provides disadvantaged kids with a leg up and out of their impoverished circumstances.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project conceived 30 years ago at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina ay Chapel Hill remains one of the best-known and persuasive longitudinal studies in the field of early development. The initiative, a controlled experiment, was designed to ferret out the  benefits for poor children, if any, of early childhood education. 

According to its findings, “Children who participated in the early intervention program had higher cognitive test scores from the toddler years to age 21. Academic achievement in both reading and math was higher from the primary grades through young adulthood. Intervention children completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college. Mothers whose children participated in the program achieved higher educational and employment status than mothers whose children were not in the program.”

Even some economists now believe that ECE is a formidable weapon in the public-policy arsenal for combatting poverty. 

In a paper he published last October, Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group, wrote that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run. . .Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”

ECE will not eliminate poverty right away; it efficacious effects are generational. And it does cost money – a commodity that’s in short supply in these parts these days.

But collaborating to find a funding solution is a far nobler way for our elected Grits and Tories to pass the time than is sniping at each other over poverty reduction policies and programs that won’t work anyway.


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Who’s been working on the railroad?



A former Conservative henchman once declared that Canada’s passenger rail line receives operating subsidies from the federal government thanks solely to the general public’s sentimental attachment to trains – or, rather, the idea of them.

During an interview with the Globe and Mail in 2012, ex-transport minister Chuck Strahl, opined that “train travel in Canada has this romantic notion that if we all rode the rails, all of our problems would disappear.”

To which I might rejoin, “Well, wouldn’t they?” 

Though I haven’t had much occasion recently to “ride the rails,” when in the past I have, I managed to settle the affairs of my own corner of the world with greater alacrity and confidence than I’ve ever managed to muster whilst whipping down a pot-hole-strewn highway or jetting through turbulence in the lower stratosphere.

There’s just something about a train ride that’s so comforting, so evocative of a more elegant, civilized time. Indeed, Mr. Strahl was right. All such sentimental journeys are, by nature, romantic. But what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

The blunt truth is that without some form of public support (both financial and material) passenger rail service in Canada would die a fast and furious death. The numbers just don’t add up to suit the neo-cons and free-market proselytizers among us. Predictably, every government cut to Via Rail since the early 1980s, has hastened that federal Crown corporation’s demise. In fact, if I had any faith in the proposition that governments actually know how to plan for the future I would swear that the gutting of the “national dream” was a deliberate, carefully executed plot.

Today, Via’s national, intercity service provides 497 trains a week in all provinces, except Newfoundland Labrador and Prince Edward Island, rolling over 12,500 kilometers of track. More than four million passengers a year avail themselves of the service, though most travel the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

That may sound like a robust business, but since 1981, federal subsidy cuts have have prompted the railroad to chop from the outside in. 

In 2012, the Canadian line between Toronto and Vancouver was reduced to two, from three, days a week. The Ocean line between Halifax and Montreal was hacked to three, from six days a week. Other service cutbacks in the Corridor line west of Toronto followed suit. 

With each cut, of course, comes a self-fulfilling prophesy: ridership actually falls which, in turn, justifies more reductions in service and frequency down the road. 

All of which makes the news of Via’s decision last week to spent $10 million fixing a stretch of track between Miramichi and Bathurst welcome, indeed, though Via CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano offered an overly circumspect explanation for the move:

“We took three months to look at our options with the rail line, meet the province, municipalities, look at the market opportunity, and convince ourselves that if we made the investment and re-tarted the service, that there would be a possibility for growth,” he said at the announcement. “I think three months to look at that is reasonable.”

Actually, it’s rather ominous, for what Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano is scrupulously avoiding, in his statement, is the fact that without this paltry investment, all passenger rail traffic from the Maritimes to Quebec would effectively cease. Thirty years ago, such a scenario would have been unthinkable in official circles. Today, well, not so much.

As for the financial patch, “it’s useful,” national transportation consultant Greg Gormick told this newspaper’s Cole Hobson recently. “It’s useful, but it doesn’t represent any big change in thinking, any admission that we have some problems with the rail passenger system. . .There has to be a plan to boost the ridership and improve the promotion of the train. That’s the crunch. I think there’s still a lot of things that need to be done before anyone knows which way they can turn on this.”

The fact remains that without some form of government support, the numbers for privately administered rail – especially along the lightly populated Halifax-Montreal corridor – will never add up.

Yet, trains are an integral part of our history, our psyche, and, despite their cost, they do provide an essential, environmentally efficacious, mode of transportation without which all Canadians are somehow diminished.


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Moncton’s cultural climate change is past due



The great “snow dome of 2014” across the street from this fine rabbit warren of esteemed scribblers and other ink-stained wretches has all but vanished – proof, perhaps, that when Moncton wants to get things done, it does so in a more convincing fashion than any other city of its size in Canada. 

Here, even the weather cooperates, eventually.

Of course, what’s now emerging, as the ice melts, is the vast, crumbling parking lot that once belonged to the now vacant Highfield Square – a testament either to unrealized potential or dereliction of duty, depending on how the municipal cards fall over the next few months. 

In our bones, we Monctonians know that the greater metropolitan area needs, nay deserves, a new multi-purpose events and entertainment centre. We’ve been thinking about it for decades, talking about it for years. After all, it only makes sense.

A facility with suitable amenities and capacity (the sweet spot is between 9,000 and 12,000 seats) would generate, according to reputable estimates, between $12 and $15 million in annual spending and attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people to the downtown core, where 18,000 souls already work, thousands more reside and hundreds of shops, cafés, bistros, and restaurants operate under seasonably variable circumstances. A downtown centre would, quite simply, anchor these opportunities year round.

Those few among us who still cling to the proposition that Moncton is at its best when it’s flat on its back romanticize adversity to maniacally absurd dimensions. A turtle dies when it can’t turn over, when it can’t move. And Moncton is no turtle. 

Mayor George LeBlanc’s state of the city address earlier this week was instructive. In it, he reminded his Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club audiences that a centre will cost $100 million, give or take, and that “we have to get it right. Let’s go big or stay home.”

He also pointed out, according to a report in this newspaper that, “for the first time, the city reached more than $400 million in tourist dollars spent last year – $409 million, to be exact. Moncton saw 1.65 million visitors in 2013, which outperformed all of the Maritime cities by about 20 per cent. LeBlanc reiterated the city’s stance on a hotel levy which would need to be regulated by the province. It would aid the infrastructure spending needed to attract even more tourists to the city.”

What’s more, “LeBlanc touched on the fact that the city saw an average of about $500,000 in new construction spending a day with 2013’s total building permits issued and reminded those at the meeting that Moncton was named best place to do business in all of North America – not once but twice, referring to 2012’s and 2013’s KPMG cost-competitive ratings.”

These are not the indicators of a city that resigns itself to second- or third-rate status in the nation’s municipal cosmos. 

Moncton’s civic boosters (and I am one of them) have routinely trotted out that old trope that we “punch above our weight class.” It’s a phrase that always plays well in the center of the country, where condescending attitudes about small cities insulates citizens in the megalopolis from the truth about their obligations to the rest of us. Good for us, they say; just as long as we look after our own problems, as we orphans in this Constitution must. 

I wonder if we, in this distinctly unpromising corner of of the nation, should adopt any spin-managed message to represent ourselves to the world. Our economic development record in Moncton speaks for itself. Our community is as diverse and vibrant as any other in this country. We have been, and continue to be, the masters of our own fortunes – the true “hub”’of economic adventure, of enterprise, in New Brunswick. 

That we should honour this by enhancing it with a sparkling, glittering, ridiculously busy downtown core is, frankly, a no-brainer. It’s in our civic DNA. It’s our customary right of passage through the chaos of economic and social dislocation elsewhere in New Brunswick. 

It is time to move our municipal conscience forward, before another deep winter buries us in ice, before our hearts finally fail to melt the “snow dome” that threatens to take up permanent residence where culture deserves to triumph.


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The time is for taking more responsibility



When did everyone suddenly become so accountable?

Clearly, it happened on one of those occasions when we had our backs turned against the zeitgeist, when the arbiters of les mots du jour were feeling particularly shame-faced over some likely inconsequential misdemeanor. Now we’re stuck with one of the least inspiring measurements of virtue ever invented.

Politicians must be accountable, so must the governments they lead: To whom, exactly, is still a matter of some conjecture.

Corporate directors are nothing if not accountable to their shareholders whose interests they protect with quantities of vigor in direct proportion to the size of voting-class stock in play. 

Doctors are accountable to their patients, and patients are accountable to their insurers. Meanwhile, insurers are accountable to their (you guessed it) shareholders.

Teachers are accountable to their students. Students are accountable to their parents. Parents are accountable to their credit card companies, which, in turn, pay junior’s tuition and away-from-home living expenses.

To be accountable is to be answerable, subject, liable amenable, obligated, chargeable.

On the other hand, to be accountable is not necessarily to be responsible. There’s an important distinction between the two. 

Just ask Pasi Sahlberg, the Director General of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility – the centerpiece of its teacher education system. In an interview last year with American documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, the administrator was unequivocal:

“The Finnish language doesn’t have  word for ‘accountability’, particularly in education. Accountability is something this is left when responsibility is subtracted. In many places, people are getting education completely wrong when they think that stronger accountability – more testing, more evaluation, more penalties against teachers and principals – works.”

His bragging rights appear to be genuine. According to a piece in the Smithsonian magazine not long ago, “In 2000. . .the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.”

None of which explains why Finland dropped from first to twelfth in the world in last year’s PISA assessments, of course. But does that make Finnish educators accountable to a system that’s creaking or responsible for getting everybody, including themselves, back on track?

Personally, I prefer door number two in this and just about every other human game show in which people rely on one another’s good graces to get ahead.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, notions of accountability emerged in the sometimes indistinguishable fields of government, business, sports and entertainment when, it became appallingly clear, leaders and celebrities oftentimes shared the moral compass of an amoeba. 

Oh look, there’s Billy-Bod Clinton playing “chase the nubile political intern” in the Oval Office. What a dirtbag! Oh well, if we can’t make him more responsible, we can certainly hold him accountable. How do you spell impeachment, again? 

The current Canadian government adores the concept of accountability and all it implies. It even maintains something called a Management Accountability Framework that purportedly, “support(s) the management accountability of deputy heads” and 

“improve(s) management practices across departments and agencies,” though it’s not immediately clear how any of that works.

The problem with emphasizing accountability over good old fashioned responsibility is that, in a funny way, we let out ourselves off the hook. We imagine that as flawed, weak mortals, we will transgress in, as yet, uncountable ways, so we’d better have the woodshed site-ready for the inevitable floggings we’ll take. Once properly flogged, we’re again free to offend if, that is, we’re again prepared to face the consequences.  

Accountability assumes that punishment is the inevitable denouement of every story. Responsibility resides in the spiritual fortification where trust, faith, honor, duty, and charity still thrive.

There, with only the best of all possible luck, we may find the next generation of political leaders. 


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