Monthly Archives: October 2014

New Brunswick: Last stop on the trolly to the great hereafter


And now for something completely obvious.

News flash: New Brunswick (Nova Scotia, too) is in the grip of its very own, made-in-the-Maritimes “death spiral”. The question, of course, is: what does the afterlife look like?

Former Premier and current Deputy Chairman of TD Bank in Toronto didn’t actually pronounce the time of this province’s passing – under the weight of its own inertia and all that sand that’s piled up around the hole into which its head has been stuck lo these many years – at a ballyhooed energy conference in Saint John last Friday. But he came darn close to pulling out the heart panels.

“Clear. . .zap. . .clear. . .again. . .clear. . .zap. . .clear.

In fact, Mr. McKenna said this: “Our regional economy is flatlining. We are depopulating. Our population is not just leaving; it’s getting older. It’s aging at twice the rate of Alberta’s. (Well, naturally it is, as that’s where capital markets and the current federal government encourage every mentally healthy, able-bodied young person in this country to go and become reliable, God-fearing taxpayers).

Here’s another snippet from Mr. McKenna’s all-too-familiar tirade against complacency:

“We are in an endless cycle of high deficits, declining population, higher interest rates and payments, a aging population, higher cost of services, less equalization, less personal income, higher taxes and consumption taxes. It’s a death spiral that we’re in if we don’t do something about it.”

Ah. . .and therein – as the Bard might have said, watching the surfer dudes ride the Pettitcodiac’s mighty tidal bore – lies the rub. What, indeed, is to be done?

We could eschew the costly histrionics surrounding shale gas development, based on a largely discredited “docu-drama” some years back, which featured (among other provocative absurdities) a guy lighting his tap water on fire (Reality check: the water table in upper Pennsylvania had been laced with trace amounts of methane long before fracking technology was the apple in the drilling industry’s eye).

We could concentrate on building the safest means – pipelines – of transporting crude oil from Alberta to Saint John and, in the process, create thousands of short-term, and hundreds of long-term, jobs for New Brunswick.

We might even work to leverage these energy opportunities to lure much-needed venture capital to the province for. . .oh, I don’t know. . .economic diversification away from natural resources and into educational centres of excellence that would pioneer commercially viable, sustainable, renewable, and exportable manufactures in the fields of wind, tidal and solar.

Or, we could go the other way.

We could put the province and all its lands and buildings up for sale to all those national and international bidders who boast the biggest coin in their pockets.

Dear China, the ad would read, “We, in New Brunswick, know how polluted your mega-cities are. Come on over to New Brunswick. We’ll treat you right fine. We’ll sell you our property, and we won’t even charge you minimum wage for the privilege of cleaning your kitchens and bathrooms – you know, the ones that used to be ours.”

Hey Alberta, we might exclaim, “We know you have our children in a ‘death-spiral’ of expanding expectations and blossoming debt. Someday, you know that bubble is going to burst. And when it does, you might like a safe haven to park your aging human capital.

“Consider New Brunswick as Canada’s preeminent retirement village. After all, as we never risked a damned thing on anything, including natural resources, our minds and hearts are clean. We are your last, best hope for a comfortable, easy death. . .Just bring your cheque books, because our B&Bs and private hospices are going to bruise those babies American-style.”

Indeed, given New Brunswick’s appalling fiscal condition, it’s dreadful demographic decline, its moribund economy, its listless and fearful political classes, it’s astonishing that this province has anything to offer the world or even its own people.

Of course, it is our own people – our entrepreneurs, in every shape, size, colour and stripe – who will (who must) save us from our collective inertia.

That, too, remains completely obvious.

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Drilling for common sense in the energy debate


If all politics is the art of the possible, then the genre that inhabits New Brunswick is surely the craft of the calculating.

During the recent election campaign in the province, former Liberal Premier and current Deputy Chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna reportedly worked hard behind the scenes (and sometimes in front of them) to help the party’s fair-haired boy, Brian Gallant, comport himself well enough to hold on to the lead right into office.

Of course, that’s what political elders do: they mentor.

Still, given Mr. Gallant’s stand against shale gas development in the province, the pairing did seem odd.

In an interview, two years ago, Mr. McKenna told me in certain and enthusiastic terms, “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit! If 10 per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes. . .The way I look at it, the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

In other words, he said, New Brunswick’s shale reserves could change the conversation about the province’s anemic economy forever. They could transform the region into a jurisdiction whose wealth rivals that of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Pennsylvania or North Dakota.

“What we need to understand is that just by the roll of the dice, we have landed in exactly the best position on the board at this moment in time,” Mr. McKenna said. “We have a Canaport facility with massive storage and with a jetty, getting right into deep water. We have a port that’s ice free and has the capacity to accommodate the biggest vessels in the world. The West Coast can’t do that.”

The former premier was similarly straightforward about the province’s overall condition: “This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership. Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

Still, if Messrs. McKenna and Gallant stand far apart from each other on tight onshore gas (though they remain generally linked by shared political purpose), the division is not likely to last long.

By vigorously arguing for a pipeline – perhaps, two – to transport Alberta bitumen into Saint John, the current premier is actually, though unwittingly, eroding the rhetorical wall he has erected around the shale gas industry.

That’s because it’s getting increasingly difficult for the unaligned majority in this province to appreciate the logic of Mr. Gallant’s position on fossil fuels.

For reasons that resist trenchant examination, we are told that pipelines transporting crude into New Brunswick are safer, more environmentally responsible energy developments than is drilling for natural gas using only proven, contemporary technology under a regulatory regime that’s reported to be the toughest in the world.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to do as Frank McKenna has suggested: Permit both undertakings to proceed carefully, yet expeditiously?

In the alternative, if the issue is less about safety than global warming, shouldn’t we take a page out of New Brunswick Green Leader David Coon’s playbook: Stop both projects from happening?

Banning one, and not the other assumes expectations of harm and safety that may be mismatched. After all, pipelines have been known to leak. If we are being asked to assume that risk, however small, maybe we should take another look at the safety record of the shale gas industry before we eject it from the field of possibility.

It’s a tricky calculation, but it’s one we may well be forced to make make sooner than we once thought.

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Loosen up the ties that bind in Atlantic Canada


The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, that favourite whipping post of the progressive left, is no stranger to provocation.

Its website recounts proudly its origin story:

“One evening in 1969, John Bulloch, a teacher at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, was soaking in his tub and reading the new federal White Paper on taxation. He was infuriated to see it proposed a 50 per cent tax rate for Canadian small businesses.

The then Liberal government had exempted the powerful from many of its proposals, and proceeded to hammer small business and middle-income Canadians.”

One tax revolt and three years later the CFIB was born, and it’s been fighting what it believes to be the good fight ever since.

Consider the recent doings of its Atlantic Vice-President Jordi Morgan, one of the featured speakers at last week’s Sussex & District Chamber of Commerce (yours truly was the other one) annual business awards dinner. He’s incensed by interprovincial trade barriers. Indeed, he has every right to be.

Almost everyone in the Atlantic provinces – businesspeople, politicians, economists, academics – agrees that the framework regulating the flow of goods and services across provincial borders is archaic, frequently absurd and often pernicious.

In fact, dismantling inter-provincial trade barriers in Canada has been one of the putative goals of swaths of provincial leaders since the last decade of the 20th century, when the Agreement on Internal Trade came into effect to explicityly “reduce barriers to the movement of persons, goods, services and investments within Canada.”

The problem is the effort has been like drawing blood from a stone. As Mr. Morgan observed during his address last week, “It takes leadership, and will require considerable. . .courage.”

That’s because we have quite probably lost site of the lessons of our own history – a common enough occurrence in this and every other country.

“Earlier this year,” Mr. Morgan reported, “we surveyed our membership. . .Almost 89 per cent of our members who responded in Atlantic Canada agree the premiers should commit to reducing internal trade barriers. This is nothing new.”

He continued: “In 1864, the first of the Charlottetown conferences was convened to hammer out some of the philosophical and legal structures of our nation. . .The founding fathers found a point of agreement in opposition to Inter-Provincial Trade Barriers. They believed if Canadians were to prosper it was essential that all Canadians could freely access markets within the country.”

In fact, the Constitution is clear. Section 121 (March, 1867) states: “All Articles of the Growth, Produce or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Province.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the national marketplace. “Through a variety of decisions throughout the 20the century, subsequent judicial interpretations of section 121 served to open the door to closing more doors,” Mr. Morgan said. “While custom duties and similar charges remain prohibited between provinces, successive government have successfully closed or restricted their provincial borders through mazes of indirect taxation and absurd regulations.”

How silly have matters become?

The size of milk and cream containers are tightly mandated. Asked Mr. Morgan: “Do we need protection from the amount of milk we put in our coffee?”

Then there’s the annoying fuss over truck tires. “From province to province, the regulations aren’t consistent,” Mr. Morgan said. “There are situations where depending on the load, trucks must stop and change tires when they cross the provincial border to be in compliance.”

These are only a few examples from a regulatory regime that, more often than not, continues to obstruct trade long after the protections it once provided outlived their useful purpose. It also seems patently ludicrous that while Prime Minister Stephen Harper jaunts around the world signing free trade agreement with the Europeans, the fine for bringing the equivalent of two bottles of wine purchased in another province into New Brunswick is 300 bucks.

Within this context, interprovincial trade in goods and services should not be a politically charged issue. To its credit, the CFIB is not making it one.

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In the world of enterprise, nothing beats the bold


The joke is as old as it is bad, but it’s also apt.

Set-up: How do you know you’re an entrepreneur?

Punchline: When the Government of Canada won’t let you claim EI.

Certainly, 25 years ago, on a late August morning dripping with hope and heat, I wasn’t thinking about this when I toddled out of Toronto in a U-Haul with sticks of furniture, my nose pointing due East towards a land of old dreams and, if I was fortunate, new chances.

To be clear, I was born in Hog Town, but I was raised in Halifax. And I had always claimed a form of dual citizenship with all the conflicting emotions that this implied: Ontario arrogance; Maritime pride (misplaced perhaps?); bluster and bravado; and just an insouciance of Nova Scotian humour and generosity.

Frankly, I suspect that this had been the cause of my restlessness since arriving in Toronto for a “good job” some five years earlier. What I know is that, in 1989, my bones ached to move down the road again, much to the consternation of my small, close circle of friends.

“You must be mad,” one exclaimed at hearing the news of my pending departure. “Why would you want to throw your career in the toilet to go hibernate in some East Coast outport?”

Others evinced similar displays of shock and dismay. After all, they insisted, the Maritimes was over, a victim of its dependence on federal transfer payments, a have-not region that absolutely will not pull itself up by the bootstraps and do what better regions do: Quit complaining and get to work.

They had a point. At 28, I was far too young to take such a risk (My God, my eldest son-in-law is now five years older than I was then!) But I didn’t have a choice. I had a notion, and that was to be my own boss.

Nowadays, my wife likes to observe slyly that I am utterly unemployable. Of course, she is correct.

Whatever devotion to a bi-weekly pay-pouch I once had – whatever willingness I had to blindly adhere to the prescriptions of a buffoonish boss (apart from me goodself, naturally) – was gone. And the bug that bit me those many years ago keeps biting, though the world threatens to tumble into economic disarray all over again.

Happily, I’m not alone on this, the last day of small business month in Canada.

The box scores on entrepreneurship have been in for some time.

According to Industry Canada, 98 per cent of businesses in this country employ fewer than 100 people. Between 2002 and 2008, roughly 100,000 small businesses emerged (and this doesn’t include the plentitude of “Mom and Pop” operations of the self-employed kind).

In 2011, small enterprises gainfully employed about five million individuals – roughly 48 per cent of the national labour force – and accounted for more than 30 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product. In fact, between 2001 and 2010, little companies were responsible for creating a disproportionate number of jobs in the economy, given their commercial might: just over 43 per cent of the total.

As for people like me and my wife, the perpetually self-employed, we are the canaries in the national coal mine. The cohort to which we belong account for 15 per cent of all workers; we are far more vulnerable to the ups and downs in the economy than just about everybody else; and, of course, we don’t get EI (though we pay into it) when our adventures in entrepreneurship inevitable fade and die away.

But, again, that’s okay with me. Of all the bromides about enterprise to which I actually subscribe is the late, American management guru Peter Drucker’s: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

I’m also fond of Mark Twain’s: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from from the dafe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. . .Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

And the joke will always be on them.


The paradisiacal perils of entrepreneurship


Over the past 40 years of a reasonably successful span in the world of work, I’ve held hundreds of jobs; but only six of them have been salaried or, perhaps more accurately, indentured. Throughout, I demanded my freedom.

The first found me as a “copy-boy” for The Canadian Press, working the weekend graveyard shift amid hard-smoking deskers who knew more about the affairs of mid-1970s porn stars than they did about their own jobs, let alone the terror of the 15-year-old boy they sent to the local pool hall for 2 am supplies of instant coffee.

The second saw me as a Pepsi-sponsored “junior sports reporter” for a Dartmouth AM radio station, where the best salary among on-air talent was $14,000 a year, and the best digs anyone there could afford was a bachelor-basement apartment, replete with hot plate, on the Halifax side of the harbour.

The third elevated me to “box-boy” for a major women’s apparel retailer at the Halifax Shopping Centre, where for $3.55 an hour I unpacked garments, organized hangers, swept floors, vacuumed carpets, and otherwise ducked the grandmotherly purpose of the elderly ladies who peddled the merchandise I placed in their parchment-white hands to pinch my cheeks whenever they were on break.

The fourth brought me to Toronto, where I laboured (mostly happily) to become the best “trencher” (i.e., novice reporter) the Globe and Mail had ever seen. As it happened, that didn’t.

Still, I managed to keep the job, despite the fact that I knew virtually nothing about the businesses and politicians I was assigned to cover. As my boss said at the time: “Bruce, justice demands that all of us have our buckets of shit to carry every once in a while. Just make sure you’re not one of mine.”

My fifth is hardly worth mentioning, if a nest of vipers is hardly worth remembering.

My sixth was for this newspaper as a writer and editor (for about ten minutes) in the first decade of the current century. Unlike my earlier experiences in the salary mills of this industry, it was an almost uniformly enjoyable experience. Lots of license. Plenty of authority. A multitude of talented writers from which to draw. And a not-bad salary to boot.

So why, after three months, was I itching to get out from under that efficacious boulder?

The only answer I’ve been able to credit with any degree of verisimilitude is that I had been ruined by the 90 per cent of my working life spent in various degrees of productive entrepreneurship.

To be clear, this has not meant that I have invented anything, or improved a manufacturing process in any way, or even inspired another to follow in my footsteps. It has just meant that, on balance, I have been happier working for myself than anyone else.

Why this is, is anyone in my own family’s guess. Some there say I am an unreconstructed narcissist. Some believe that I am a lazy ox, unwilling to hold down a “real job” and pull the plough till death do us part. Others simply don’t care. Oddly enough, neither do I.

The essence of entrepreneurship is freedom. Freedom to succeed. Freedom to fail. Freedom to begin again, over and over, just as you did when you were ten years old, and the world was a boat you floated in an icy May bay on the south shore of Nova Scotia, as you looked for a good wind to take you to the far shore – somewhere you had seen, coveted and had never visited, until, of course, you did.

Make no mistake, the darkness is coming. The good jobs have all gone. The salaried positions are winnowing. We, in this place, in this fine and decent plain on the planet, must rebuild the entrepreneurial culture that made this country possible.

We are the true heroes of our futures in this roundly, friendly, lovely, exquisitely elegant community that is New Brunswick.

Let us all be entrepreneurs. Let us all scratch that itch to be free.


How to survive the coming recession (and live to tell the tale)


Potatoes. There, I’ve said it. You’re welcome.

When things go sideways, as they inevitably do in capital and labour markets everywhere from London to Lower Jibib, you can’t go wrong by stockpiling spuds.

After all, money’s no good anymore. Gold, silver and other precious metals are in shockingly short supply. And guaranteed investment certificates are only just suitable for burning in derelict oil barrels.

But a good, old-fashioned Russet or Shepody is a friend for life, or at least for the duration of the next, great “downturn” which, if the pundits are right, should be arriving with typical punctuality any day now.

Here’s another hedge against the coming recession: toilet paper.

Laugh while you can monkey boys and girls, but a handy stash of T-P will stand you well when you can no longer afford to replace your threadbare Armani suits and little black faux-leather dresses with genuine cloth.

“The results from the tenth annual Toilet Paper Wedding Dress contest are in,” writes Mary Gillen for the Huffington Post’s Bridal Guide. “Every ply is perfect on these runway-ready gowns. Contestants created stunning gowns, made from nothing but toilet paper, glue, tape and a needle and thread.”

In an economic meltdown, T-P is essential in at least one other way: Having reviewed the condition of your retirement savings plans, what else would you use to dry your tears?

Of course, in the words of Bob Dylan, “it’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.” So, you’re going to need candles. Lots of candles.

They’re not just excellent sources of illumination on cold, furnace-absent, winter nights; when the heat goes out, you can use them to warm your tootsies under one of those metal-lined, conductive car blankets (if, that is, you were smart enough to buy one when pennies were falling from heaven).

And, on the subject of right-sizing, what about those three cars parked in the outsized driveway of your McMansion? Do you really need them for quick trips to the local bodega when you run out of smokes (something else, by the way, you can no longer afford to replace)?

Why not repurpose them as temporary living quarters for your brood of adult children who have either lost their jobs or can no longer pay for their higher educations? You will have already licked the heating problem (see the aforementioned candles-and-car blanket solution).

Meanwhile, you might consider abandoning your 6,000 square-foot digs, altogether – perhaps, to the scores of squatters, who used to be neighbours, suddenly milling around the periphery of your property like the cast of The Walking Dead. Buy yourself a “tiny house”. They’re all the rage these days.

According to, “The size of a home varies around the world. While some families live in one-room huts, others live in gigantic homes that seem to never end. Whatever the case, homes tend to grow with their owners’ prosperity.

“Since 1970, the size of the average new American home has grown by 50 per cent. This growth trend is similar in most western countries.

“However, for every trend there is a counter-trend. In the case of home size, more and more people are choosing to live in small homes. Most downsizes opt for more modest quarters, while some homeowners take this trend to a new level, choosing to live in tiny homes (and we mean tiny!). These tiny homes can be as small as 90 sq. ft. complete with bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and living quarters.”

Naturally, under such cramped conditions, you’ll want to spend a good deal of your time in the great outdoors (and, apart from the zombies you’re likely to encounter, as a true Canadian don’t you just relish this prospect in mid-February?). So, you’ll need to craft an absorbing outside activity or two to occupy your mind.

I return to first principles. Go digging for winter tubers. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a few potatoes you missed during the fall harvest. At this point, they won’t be much good for eating.

Still, for pure entertainment value, they can’t be beat as you chuck them at the limousines of the one per-centers who travel up and down your burning, frozen street, slaking their thirst for pity in the new age of disaster tourism.


Fighting a bad case of pipeline paranoia


Time was when the Energy East Pipeline proposal was the least controversial and troublesome of all of New Brunswick’s options for fossil-fuel-based industrial development. In fact, it was a no-brainer.

Encourage line builder and operator TransCanada to reverse the flow in one of its existing pipes, build a bunch of extensions, including one into the Saint John refinery and, hey presto: instant construction jobs for at least a few years.

Those, of course, were the good, old days. Times change.

Last spring Maude Barlow, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, told the North Bay Nugget in an extensive interview, “I want to let communities know not to be pressured to make a decision or risk not getting the benefits of the pipeline. I can tell you there are no benefits. There’s no argument for this pipeline. It’s an export pipeline and we don’t need it. . .We get the risk and (oil companies) get the reward.”

What’s more, she added, “I would like to know what are the big jobs, because this pipeline is for export. It’s about greed. They’re playing with a potential environmental catastrophe that environmentalists have been warning about. . .It’s so much more dangerous (than any other oil) and it’s crossing watersheds and many waterways around the Great Lake Region that are already being threatened. We certainly don’t need to add to that threat.”

To which TransCanada, ever sensitive to bad press, of which it sees a lot these days, replied on its own website:

“Quebec and New Brunswick currently import more than 700,000 barrels of oil every day – or 86 per cent of their refinery needs – from countries such as Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. At current oil prices, this is over $75 million drained out of the Canadian economy – every single day. Energy East proposes to connect Western Canada’s resources to Eastern Canada’s needs. Greater supplies of domestic crude would improve the financial viability of eastern Canadian refineries by giving them access to less-expensive, stable domestic supplies.”

That’s not all: “Once this primary purpose is served, Energy East will supply export markets. TransCanada has always been open about this and it is not something we are shying away from. Exports are a good thing for our country. They provide economic growth. They create jobs. They generate tax revenue that helps our provinces build new universities, resurface hundreds of kilometres of highways or provide our seniors with home care.”

None of which has prevented environmentalists from legally delaying the work in sensitive habitats along the St. Lawrence River.

Meanwhile, some major natural gas customers in central Canada want TransCanada to assure them they won’t be ripped off when (if?) the project is completed.

To some extent, this is part of national pattern of pipeline paranoia. Both the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway initiatives, which would send Alberta crude west to the sea and south to the United States, are mired in controversies and concerns about leaks and spills.

But the larger, existential issue is what these pipes represent. As the Green Party of New Brunswick’s election campaign platform explicitly stated: “Discourage increases in the production and use of fossil fuels by denying permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Energy East pipeline.”

That’s all well and good, but not especially practical. Our essential paradox is that we still need dreaded fossil fuels if only to help power our shift away from them – to drive many of the engines of ingenuity that will generate durable solutions to our sustainability problems.

Premier Brian Gallant should be commended for his sturdy support of Energy East. “I am quite confident we can do (this) in a very sustainable way,” he told a news conference in Saint Andrews, N.B., last week. “I’m also convinced the economic benefits are very exciting for our country and our province. So I am going to go around and speak to other provinces and within our province, to New Brunswickers, as to why this is important.”

Indeed, it’s a no-brainer.

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How the Grits are crashing their own party


In politics, like comedy, timing is everything. In timing, like comedy, politics is everything. That said, welcome to the strange, recent displays of young Justin Trudeau, Leader of the federal Liberal Party, aspiring Prime Minister of Canada.

What persuades him to characterize the Government of Canada’s decision to commit planes and troops against the latest incarnation of Middle East violence as a genitally influenced decision is anyone’s guess.

But to say, as he did last week, that his Tory nemeses “whip” out the nation’s aging fleet of fighter jets to illustrate just how well they still work in the ugly business of killing people and decimating far-flung enemy states is the apex of juvenility. It is, as one commentator correctly adjudged, the sign of “an unserious mind.”

Of course, it can be argued that Canadians have endured far too many serious minds since the world went to hell In 2008.

On the Liberal side, there have been those of Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, each spewing their self-referential brand of national purpose and pomp.

On the NDP side, there have been those of Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair, each scolding, in their own tiresome ways, Canada for its disengaged, anti-progressive tendencies.

Then, there’s been the true pater familia of all political dads – none other than Prime Minister Stephan Harper, himself – who has done his reformist best to convince the country that he’s a benign, hands-off father-figure who won’t interfere in the business of his constituents if, and only if, his constituents utterly subjugate themselves to his politically crafted ideology.

Into this absurd company marched Justin Trudeau, the son of legends, promising a more sensible and respectful form of leadership. In him, scores of citizens saw a new hope, a new mandate, and a “back-to-the-future” apparatus for a fully engaged, skilled, educated, and largely independent public bureaucracy.

Certainly, it was his candour that caught the devoted attention of the mainstream media. He was the first, major federal political figure to support decriminalizing marihuana. He was among the first to publicly support a woman’s right to choose abortion, despite stiff opposition within his own caucus. And he was out front, first and centre, with a pledge to introduce universally accessible early childhood education.

On the latter issue, he has squandered his mojo in the face of Mr. Mulcair’s announcement last week of a comprehensive daycare plan. On soft drugs, he seems to have ceded some of his leadership to, of all people, Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who now says he’s willing to consider parts of what is, in effect, Mr. Trudeau’s original proposal.

And now, young Justin has this to say about foreign policy:

“Why aren’t we talking more about the humanitarian aide that Canada can and must be engaged in?,” he freelanced to journalist Don Newman at a conference last week.

So far, so good; but then there was this: “Rather than. . .trying to whip out our CF18s and show them (the Islamic State) how big they are” why don’t we. . .well, do the other thing?

To which, government attack dogs replied in predictable fashion.

“Mr. Trudeau’s comments are disrespectful of the Canadian Armed Forces and make light of a serious issue,” PMO spokesperson Jason MacDonald told CTV News. “Our involvement in the fight against (the Islamic State) has been motivated by a desire to do our part in fighting a group that has made direct terrorist threats against Canada and Canadians, in addition to carrying out atrocities against children, women, and men in the region. As the Prime Minister has said: ‘we take that seriously and will do our part.’”

Game, set and match.

Is Mr. Trudeau in danger of screwing up his free lunch with Canadians? Major polling agencies have confirmed that the young politico is still running well ahead of his arch-rival Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Still, that could change in a heartbeat. It’s a long way to the ballot box next fall, and in politics, like comedy, timing is everything.

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The perils of running a petro-economy


Western oil magnates and their fellow travellers in government and media once crowed superciliously about their pride of economic place in Canada. They and they alone, they insisted, were responsible for the nation’s surging fortunes in global markets.

They still exult this way, though lately their gloating has become a tad muted thanks to the pounding the price of oil is taking on international commodity exchanges. West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI), the standard used to benchmark all grades, fell to $82 a barrel earlier this week. That was off by more than 10 per cent since the beginning of the month.

We wretched urchins on the East Coast may be tempted to indulge in a little schadenfreude when we witness the fear and loathing that cyclically descends on Alberta’s oil patch. Something about the best laid plans of mice and men rattle around in our brain pans as we watch yet another plane load of New Brunswickers abandon their unpromising, little towns for putatively greener pastures under big sky country.

But, in the broader context, when Alberta hiccups, all of us should worry.

For more than 30 years, economic planners and regulators at both the federal provincial levels have been slowly and deliberately transforming this country into an oil and gas giant. They have nurtured, with countless millions of dollars in publicly supported research and development and tax breaks, astonishing advances in drilling and extraction technologies. Now, we’re all dependent on this continued success, for without it, there’s precious little else to fall back on.

Today, Alberta companies employ nearly as many Maritimers between the ages of 18 and 35 – many of whom are the major breadwinners for their families back home – as do Atlantic firms. Over the past year, the bitumen-rich province generated all of the country’s net jobs growth, adding some 82,000 positions.

Currently, Alberta accounts for nearly a third of Canada’s GDP. According to Oil Sands Today, quoting figures compiled by the Canadian Energy Research Institute, “New oil sands development is expected to contribute over $2.1 trillion (2010 dollars) to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years about $84 billion per year. According to Statistics Canada, $84 billion is enough to feed more than 90 per cent of Canadian households for a year.

What’s more, “The oil sands industry will pay an estimated $783 billion in provincial ($122 billion) and federal ($311 billion) taxes and provincial royalties ($350 billion) over the next 25 years.”

Meanwhile, “employment in Canada as a result of new oil sands investments is expected to grow from 75,000 jobs in 2010 to 905,000 jobs in 2035 with 126,000 jobs being sourced in provinces other than Alberta. . . .It is estimated the oil sands industry will purchase about $117 billion in supplies and services from Canadian provinces outside Alberta over the next 25 years – about $5 billion/year. For every direct job created in Alberta’s oil sands industry, approximately one indirect and one induced job will be created in the rest of Canada.”

All of which is swell, unless you’re an environmentalist worried about humanity’s rapacious ways with Mother Nature or, as the case may be in the current circumstance, an economist.

Although oil prices have been sliding globally for only a few weeks, the signs of steadily softer demand are everywhere, especially in emerging powerhouses such as China and India, where the pace of growth is slowing. And the causes of this bottoming trend are especially perplexing.

“Historical pricing has been affected by, and dependent upon, turmoil facing the Middle East,” writes Brigham McCown, a former government executive, attorney and public policy expert, in a recent commentary for Forbes. “In times of war and geopolitical instability, prices have historically increased rather quickly, often overnight. As turmoil eased, so too would oil and gas prices, albeit at a much slower pace. Based on historical data, one would expect prices to be dramatically spiking given current events in Syria, Iraq and Libya, yet for all of this instability, prices continue to drop.”

That they do suggests that something more systemic than routine price fluctuations is at work here.

Canada’s unequally booming industries may soon feel the brunt of a great, leveling downturn thanks entirely to Alberta’s outsized pride of economic place in this country.

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Don’t pinch the public’s pennies for affordable daycare


For a study in contrasting world views, look no further than the federal Conservatives’ and New Democrats’ respective plans for daycare in Canada.

As the former ramped up its campaign rhetoric this week, promising tax cuts, credits and kiddie benefits for all – in effect, telling Canadians to take their own money and run – the latter unveiled a promising, though lightly coloured, early childhood education initiative that could find government-subsidized spots for up to one million pre-schoolers.

Of the two approaches, the NDP’s – which would charge parents a not unreasonable daily fee of $15 per child – is clearly the more thoughtful.

But the Tory scheme benefits both from its simplicity and its coarse, yet effective, appeal to base emotion: It doesn’t pick your pocket; rather, it appears to line your palm.

Try making the same argument about a multi-billion-dollar child-care program.

Right-wing politicos and their table-banging confederates in the chambers of public policy love to poke the mama bears of this country.

What right, they ponder provocatively, does the state reserve for itself – on the citizen’s dime, no less – when it interferes with a kid’s natural development in the home?

What’s wrong with babysitters, nannies, au pairs, or, for that matter, good, old mum and dad?

Stephen Harper’s “reformers” knew exactly what they were doing back in 2005 (before their ascent to power and prestige) when they promised to axe the Grits’ hard-won national daycare program and replace it with the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which would dispense monthly cheques (each with a minimum value of $100) to families with kids under the age of six.

At the time, Mr. Harper said, “The only people who should be making these choices (about pre-school) are parents, not politicians, not the government.”

In effect, though, the future prime minister was signaling his intention to wield whatever authority he would soon possess to limit, not expand, options for working mothers and fathers. And recent reports from Ottawa indicate that he hasn’t changed his mind in the run-up to next fall’s general election.

According to National Post columnist John Ivison, writing on Saturday, “The Conservatives are planning to enhance the universal child-care benefit in the upcoming fiscal update, so that parents with children older than six will also receive $100 cheques, multiple sources suggest.”

All of which merely adds insult to the injury inflicted years ago when the Tories first propagated the absurd notion that $100 per child per month was a perfectly adequate, no-strings-attached alternative to universally accessible, publicly subsidized child care for kids aged 2 to four.

Still, many parents will prefer to embrace the Harper approach (and the money it provides) and dismiss the evidence, which is, frankly, overwhelming.

A report last year by Queen’s and McMaster Universities concluded that children who tend full-day kindergarten (FDK) are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

A compendium of expert research and opinion on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, also states: “Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system. Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK, Communities for Children in Australia and Toronto First Duty found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development, more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.”

Yes, establishing and operating an effective system will cost billions of dollars. And yes, overcoming the inevitable problems, both large and small, won’t be easy.

But, as the The Early Years Study 3 points out, “Investing $1 million in child care would create at least 40 jobs, 43 per cent more jobs than the next highest industry and four times the number of jobs generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care increases the economy’s output (GDP) by $2.30.”

With such facts staring us in the face, how can we take the money and run?

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