Monthly Archives: December 2014

The good, the bad and the merely okay of 2014


To despise, revile and ridicule the year that was is a taunting temptation. So too, is the impulse to celebrate, rejoice and exult. Rarely, do we find, in repose, the clarity to declare that the past 12 months of our brief lives were. . .well, just fine, thank you very much.

They weren’t spectacular; but neither were they calamitous. They weren’t elegiac; but neither were they prosaic. They produced (if we were lucky and studious) just enough to help us keep calm and, as the saying goes, carry on.

In fact, in New Brunswick, there was much to mark merrily in 2014, starting with the orderly transfer of democratic power (a miracle, by every standard, on this vicious orb).

The young and energetic Liberal Leader, Brian Gallant, replaced the slightly older, but equally energetic, David Alward as premier of the province. The latter receded gracefully into the background of politics, after one term in office, as the former rode the crest of a wave of support appropriately reserved for honeymooners.

Premier Gallant promised in his campaign to restore the legal apparatus for a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive options. Within a month of assuming office, he did just that. According to a CBC report in late November, “The premier promised in the election campaign to review Regulation 84-20, which requires women seeking a hospital abortion to have two doctors certify it as medically necessary. The review identified barriers to abortion services, according to Gallant.

“It also requires the procedure to be done only by a specialist, whereas other provinces allow family doctors to perform abortions. The so-called two-doctor rule has been in place for two decades, supported by previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments.

“Identifying those barriers was an important step towards eliminating them,” Mr. Gallant stated, adding that the new rules will no longer insist that two doctors guarantee that the surgery is medically warranted. As the CBC reported, “This will put reproductive health procedures in the same category as any insured medical procedure, according to the government.”

Indeed, the premier noted, “We have identified the barriers and are proceeding to eliminate them in order to respect our legal obligations under the Supreme Court of Canada ruling and the Canada Health Act regarding a woman’s right to choose.”

Lamentably, that’s where the innovation ended.

As for natural resources, the new premier has been equally faithful to his campaign promises (much to the surprise of every scribbling pundit in the province, including Yours Truly). He will not, he says, sanction any form of fracking as long as he remains unconvinced about the technology’s safety and environmental soundness. And, for now, he remains unconvinced.

This decision could cost New Brunswick tens-of-millions of dollars a year from a mature industry that has never polluted the air, spoiled the soil or poisoned the water table. It might even inspire a wholesale exodus of oil and gas industries from this province at a time when the budgetary deficit clings perilously close to $400 million and the long-term debt hovers around $12 billion.

Still, Mr. Gallant is adamant. And, for that, at least, he should be respected. As an elected representative, he is sticking to his guns. How he intends to pay for his multimillion-dollar infrastructure build over the next four years remains an open question – and, for now, a question for another time.

In the end, as New Brunswick’s social contract appears progressive, its economic future looks very much like its present and recent past: unspectacular, uninspired and fundamentally unproductive.

For all the good this province’s new government purports to arrange for its citizens, all who might pay for such noble intentions find cold comfort at the curb to which they’ve been kicked.

For all the bad this province’s new government hopes to avoid, all who might benefit from such principled injunctions obtain higher costs at local fuel depots fed by foreign oil and gas.

As for the rest of us, the merely okay with the status quo, we’ll just keep calm and carry on, hope for the best and imagine that at this point in our brief lives we are, indeed, just fine.

Tagged , , , ,

Oh, a-fracking we will not go. . .


You have to hand it to him. If nothing else, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is a man of his word.

He galloped into office with a promise that, he believed, resonated with most voters: No more fracking, of any kind, until proof emerges that the process can be rendered safe and harmless to the environment (by which standard, we might all be wise to follow our children west to Alberta, where fantasies do, indeed, come true).

Then, a week before Christmas, he brought down the hammer.

“We have been clear from Day One that we will impose a moratorium until risks to the environment, health and water are understood,” Mr. Gallant told reporters in Fredericton, after he announced new amendments to the province’s oil and natural gas act that prohibit both water and propane-based fracking in the search for commercially exploitable shale gas.

The premier also made it clear that companies may continue to explore for resources. It’s just that they can no longer frack in their efforts to assess the potential of some 77-trillion cubic feet of onshore shale gas that is estimated to lie beneath the surface – which is a little like telling someone that he may own a car, just not the engine.

Still, Mr. Gallant allowed, “We’ll certainly always listen to businesses that may have concerns and try to mitigate some of the impacts if they (believe) them to be negative on their operations.”

Not surprisingly, the CEO of Corridor Resources had a few choice words to share. “We have always maintained that a moratorium is not necessary for an industry that has operated responsibly and safely in this province,” Steve Moran told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal on December 18. “Here is an industry that wants to create more jobs and they just basically shut it down. . .We expect that the government of New Brunswick should want to fully understand the potential rewards of allowing the industry to proceed, while ensuring the risks are manageable and acceptable.”

What’s more, he said, “The only certainty is that nobody will ever know the economic potential, should hydraulic fracturing no longer be permitted. To not allow the work to continue, would amount to a refusal by the government of New Brunswick to ask the question  of what the reward of pushing this resource might be. We would consider that a wasted opportunity for the people of New Brunswick.”

And, not incidentally, for Corridor, itself, which has over the past several years invested upwards of $500 million on the industry in this province.

Still, it’s not as if Mr. Gallant had left many options for himself. Breaking so fundamental a campaign promise in these early days of his term might have been politically suicidal (though, a strategist might argue that this is precisely when one wants throw one’s pledges under the bus; the public’s memory grows mighty short when economic development flowers from a broken word or two).

Mr. Gallant’s predecessor, Tory Premier David Alward faced a similar Faustian decision: raise the provincial portion of the HST, as every mainstream economist advised, or keep his campaign promise to maintain the status quo (note, of course, how well that worked out for him in the end).

Politics aside, it’s not clear, in any of this, what will constitute “safe” and environmentally benign fracking procedures. According to the premier, “Any decision on hydraulic fracturing will be based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence and follow recommendation of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.”

If the approach now involves reviewing the evidence of natural degradation from fracking in jurisdictions other than New Brunswick, how relevant is one state’s or province’s experiences to our own?

According to a New York Times investigation, published last month, in North Dakota “as the boom (in shale gas) really exploded, the number of reported spills, leaks, fires and blowouts has soared with an increase in spillage that outpaces the increase in oil production,” partly because “forgiveness remains embedded in the (state’s) Industrial Commission’s approach to an industry that has given North Dakota the fastest-growing economy and lowest jobless rate in the country.”

Four our part, the tolerances of New Brunswick’s own regulatory regime are not something we’re likely to test any time soon.

On that, we have Mr. Gallant’s word; and, so far, his word is good.

Tagged , , , , ,

Will this be the year of the ‘centre’?

As 2014 rounds the bend and dashes straight for the finish line, Moncton remains that one indisputably bright beacon of economic hope for New Brunswick.

Far less certain, however, is the role the Hub City’s urban core will play in providing cultural and commercial coherence for the broader municipal area.

A vacant lot now yawns where Highfield Square once stood – the future home, presumably, of a mixed-use entertainment and sports facility.

Public opinion surveys over the past couple of years have suggested that most residents both want and expect a new events centre to tie together the loose ends of Moncton’s downtown.

And yet, whenever I broach the subject either in conversation or print, I’m just as likely to evoke bitter opposition as I am support for such a project. (In fact, I am growing quite fond of the hardy cohort of outraged readers who insist that my endorsement only proves that I have sold my God-given talents to corporate demons who just want public dollars to build them another hockey rink).

Indeed, the city’s collective mind seems torn between dueling conceptions of civic life: forced development and revitalization or market-driven urban sprawl.

Still, a city without a vibrant downtown is, simply, no city at all; and there is very little doubt that a new centre (hockey rink and much more) will go a long way towards consolidating the urban core.

As Mayor George LeBlanc once declared in a promotional video posted to the city’s website, “Pursuing a new downtown, multipurpose sport and entertainment centre has been one of my key priorities for Moncton. . .It will make the downtown more vibrant and prosperous. It will be a catalyst for. . .development.”

Not long ago, Moncton economic development consultant David Campbell and university economist Pierre-Marcel Desjardins put numbers to the boast.

According to the former, in a report to City Council, a new centre will annually “attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people. . .generating between $12 and $15 million in spending.” In the process, it will “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Desjardins estimated that the construction phase, alone, would generate $340 million worth of “economic impacts” for New Brunswick and other parts of the country, as well as nearly $17 million in taxes for the provincial and federal governments. Moreover, he indicated, sales from ongoing operations could easily reach $9.5 million in 2015 (assuming, of course, the centre is open for business by then).

But the crucial point, which Mr. Campbell argued rigorously and cogently, is that a new centre is not – as some have proposed – a luxury; it is quite nearly a necessity.

“Downtown – only 1.5 per cent of the city’s land area – generates nearly 10 per cent of the total assessed tax base and over 14.4 per cent of property tax revenues,” he notes. In fact, the urban core “generates nearly 11.5 times as much property tax revenue, compared to the rest of Moncton, on a per hectare basis.” What’s more, “the cost to service the downtown is much lower compared to many other neighbourhoods and commercial areas around the city.”

Yet – though it plays host to 800 business, 3,000 bars, restaurants and cafes 18,000 workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents (depending on how one fixes downtown “borders” – the area is in a state of disrepair.

“The economic engine is showing signs of weakness,” Mr. Campbell lamented. “There is currently over 350,000 square feet of vacant office space in the downtown. Office space vacancies across Greater Moncton have risen from 6.6 per cent in 2011 to an estimated 13.5 per cent in 2013. Residential population in the core declined by 9.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011. Including the expanded downtown, the population dropped by 3.3 per cent. (This) compared to a robust 7.7 per cent rise across the city.”

A new centre that hosts a wide variety of events, with enough seats to compete for top shows, will incontestably revitalize the downtown area.

The real question is whether that’s still a priority in the little city that could.

Tagged , , ,

Confessions of a mall-walking man


I arrive each day, always determined to better my time. I stroll deliberately through the Sobeys’ entrance or, when the weather is inclement, the Wal-Mart doors (because that’s the closest anchor store to the coat closet my 15 bucks a year as a member of the Champlain Mall walking club buys me).

Over the past two-plus years I’ve nailed down this routine as fine science: Wake up, write a column about some absurdity in world affairs, check my time, review my weather app, ascertain which starting line makes most sense, and proceed to said launch point. And, then – having pulled up the stopwatch on my iPhone – I’m off.

On a good day, I can do four miles winding in and out of the mall’s main thoroughfares and minor egresses in just over 45 minutes (averaging 11 minutes and 30 seconds a circuit).

On a bad day, my time is more like 13 minutes a mile. Bad days invariably arrive during the high Christian holidays (Christmas and Easter). On those excursions, I am a canoeist in an unruly river, strewn with rocks, logs, drifting branches and sudden, unexpected eddies.

“Um,” my wife and walking partner often tells me as she senses that I am about to sprint through the rapids of humanity obstructing my straight shot adjacent to the food court, “please try not to knock anyone down.”

I sniff and snarl at the mere suggestion. After all, I have become a voyageur of the mall. I know, instinctively, where to duck and weave, when to zig and when to zag. My paddles are my arms; my vessel is my butt.

I can’t say the same about some of my fellow travellers in the “domed domicile”.

One guy in a motorized cart, festooned with flags of Canada, New Brunswick and, I think, the old American Confederacy, zooms by so fast, you’d think the cops were hot on his tail.

Beware ambulatory folks: Death by rocket-powered wheelchair is a distinct possibility in this place where most still walk, not run, to their final destination.

Postponing that last walk is, of course, the point of it all. And that makes the routine in the credenza of consumer delights – that most secular, coarse and crass of all places – almost sacred. How much more life can you squeeze for yourself from the simple act of staying active, regardless of the means and the venue you choose?

Then, of course, there’s the secret life of the mall, itself, when it’s quiet on, say, a Sunday afternoon, in mid-July, when no one’s around except the blessed night people who tend to the mechanical rooms and underground passageways – the ones who make the whole thing tick before the wallets and purses arrive, and long after they’ve gone. When you’re a serial walker, you get to know them, after a while and in a fashion. And they get to know you.

“How’s your time today?” a security guard asks.

“Not bad,” I yelp, “though the shin splints are acting up.”

“Yeah. . .That’s because the floors beneath the surface are solid concrete. Here. . .l’ll show you where you can stretch. . .”

And he does.

Here comes the UPS guy, just in front of Purolator man. I know them both (though not nearly as well as they know each other). Still, they seem to enjoy asking me for reports from the front lines of their regular routes – their time, in this mall, being more valuable than mine.

“So, where are the bottlenecks this morning,” the UPS guy asks me, as he hauls a lorry loaded with goods and merchandise for any number of retailers.

“Stay clear of the Sears-aisle bathrooms,” I advise. “Major water-works there. . .Lots of people milling around.”

“Good to know,” he barks congenially.

And I proceed, happily chugging away past the ladies’ apparel stores, the tea shack, my dentist’s office; past the cell-phone kiosks where the merry techs spend as much time solving luddite problems as they do pushing product; past the HMV, the quilt store and, finally, to the coat closet by the Wal-Mart, where I literally bump into my club’s president and indefatigable cheerleader.

“Where’s your lovely other?” she asks, referring to my wife.

“She’s already done,” I laugh. “I’ll find her.”

I check my stopwatch and smile.

It’s been a good day.


A visit from the ghost of X-mas past, present and future

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house 

not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The koolaid was drunk by the incoming chair

of New Brunswick’s new government, so long may it fare.

The people were snuggled all smug in their beds

as St. Brian and company messed with their meds.

Still, I, on my pea and with my hands firmly cupped,

had the sneaking suspicion I was about to get stuffed.

Okay, I should probably end this travesty of a beloved Christmastime doggerel right about here. After all, the author of the original A Visit from St. Nicholas most certainly did not ask to be so routinely and savagely parodied before or after his death. Indeed, Clement Clarke Moore has been rolling in his grave every year at about this time on the calendar since 1863.

Still, the temptation is irresistible. There’s something about the facile cadence of the verse, the jaunty rhythm, the easy rhyme, that just makes a wonk want to wag his tail. Indeed, famous wits have loved to murder this poem since it first appeared.

Here’s American humourist James Thurber’s 1927 opening “stanzas” in The New Yorker magazine:

“It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them. The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.”

And here’s Dave Barry on the subject a couple of years ago in the Miami Herald:

“’Twas the night before Christmas. Or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever religious holiday your particular family unit celebrates at this time of year via mass retail purchases. And all through the house not a creature was stirring, except Dad, who was stirring his third martini in a losing effort to remain in a holiday mood as he attempted to assemble a toy for his 9-year-old son, Bobby. 

“It was a highly complex toy, a toy that Dad did not even begin to grasp the purpose of, a toy that cost more than Dad’s first car, a toy that was advertised relentlessly on TV with a little statement in the corner of the TV screen that said ‘SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED’, which was like saying that the Titanic sustained ‘some water damage’, because this toy had more parts than the Space Shuttle. And speaking of space, Dad was now convinced that extraterrestrial life did indeed exist, because the assembly instructions were clearly written by beings from another galaxy. And these beings insisted on Phillips screwdrivers, and Dad could not find his Phillips screwdriver. In fact, he was wondering who ‘Phillips’ was.”

And here’s an anonymous entry to the sweepstakes of swiping good master Moore’s effort:

“It was the night before Christmas, when all thru the abode only one creature was stirring, and she was cleaning the commode. The children were finally sleeping, all snug in their beds, while visions of Nintendo 64 and Barbie, flipped through their heads. The dad was snoring in front of the TV, with a half-constructed bicycle on his knee. So only the mom heard the reindeer hooves clatter, which made her sigh, ‘Now what’s the matter?’

“With toilet bowl brush still clutched in her hand, she descended the stairs, and saw the old man. He was covered with ashes and soot, which fell with a shrug. ‘Oh great,’ muttered the mom, ‘Now I have to clean the rug.’

“‘Ho-ho-ho!’ cried Santa, ‘I’m glad you’re awake. Your gift was especially difficult to make.’ ‘Thanks, Santa, but all I want is some time alone.’ ‘Exactly!’ he chuckled, ‘I’ve made you a clone.’”

Ah, yes. . .

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house

not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The Peromyscus leucopus had asked of his master,

“What should come first: hydraulic fracturing or certain disaster?”

The premier, well fed, spent nary a moment

to consider the question before answering in foment.

“The people have spoken and that’s good enough for me,

as for the rest, only time will see.”

And so, happy holidays to all and to all a relatively restful, worry-free, mindful, meditative, non-paranoid night.

Tagged , , , ,

Ode to the frigid joys of a frosty evening


I must admit, I have never been a big fan of winter. Now that it is upon me, as inevitably as a snow plow in a nor’easter comes to wreck the foot of my driveway after solid hours of diligent shoveling, I am loathe to sing its praises even to my impossibly cheerful grandsons and granddaughters who need only toboggans and cups of hot chocolate to keep them deliriously happy.

I am more likely to cleave to Shakespeare (“Now is the winter of our discontent”) or Robert Byrne (“Winter is nature’s way of saying, ‘Up yours’”) than to Paul Theroux (“Winter is a season of recovery and preparation”) or, heaven forbid, William Blake (“In seed time, learn; in harvest, teach; in winter, enjoy”).

Yeah, well listen up Billy B., I ain’t half done me own learnin’, let alone harvesting. And don’t even talk to me about enjoying anything. I’m far too young for that fatuous folderol.

And yet. . .

A year ago to the day – this day – my wife and I were scheduled to fly into La Guardia and then commence what was to be a wonderful, middle-aged adventure exploring lower Manhattan on foot.

Only, winter got in the way. Flights from Calgary to Halifax were canceled. Every airport along the northeastern seaboard was, for days, shut down, covered under blankets of snow and sheets of frozen rain.

In fact, last winter turned out to be the longest, coldest, most intractable in 50 years (or so the cab drivers in Moncton reliably informed us as they rushed, almost daily, to our rescue).

I cursed the fools who boasted about their snow mobiles and blowers – the ones who couldn’t stop chattering about the next, big blow from the polar vortex, the ones who took perverse delight in the worst possible weather.

I steeled myself to the unavoidable, grittily clearing my walkways and paths of ice and crunch, believing that my labours would somehow presage an early and blessedly warm spring, full of green shoots and buds.

Then, one atypically bright day, my eldest grandson arrived with his father for a visit. They surveyed the product of my efforts and concluded that the banks I had created around the house were sufficiently high to embark on a classically Canadian wintertime project.

“Poppy,” the young one said with the fearless certitude of every five-year-old on the planet, “We need to make a snow fort.”

“Well,” I moaned, slightly, “maybe later, okay?”

“Oh no,” he insisted. “We have to do it now, before it all melts.”

I looked at the outdoor thermometer. It read 10-below. But I also knew I wasn’t going to win this argument.

And so we began with shovels and buckets and breaks for juice and water. We dug and plowed and burrowed until the sun went down and long after.

His Dad helped with big, lurching heaves of icy boulders and fine, craftsmanlike carvings into the walls of the forming network of latticed snow caves.

When we were done, long after everyone’s bedtime, we lay there for a piece under the ceiling our efforts, hope and imagination had created under the great black bowl of the Milky Way.

Then, it all came down on us in one great, calamitous bump. Snow, once the enemy, had become the blanket that covered us all as we joyfully shoved chunks of it down the fronts and backs of our parkas and ran like wild animals, screaming into the dark, suddenly soft and warm night.

It’s 2 am as I write this, and I am looking at the spot where we built Casa Bruce last year. The ground is frozen, but snow is conspicuously absent. I check my weather app, which tells me that Christmas, this year, might well be green.

Still, I don’t mind, as I wait to welcome my grandchildren for the holidays. We’ll make do. We’ll have fun. That’s what they always manage to teach me.

After all, as Anton Chekov once said, “People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.”

As for me and Albert Camus, “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”


How Veterans Affairs fails Canada’s heroes


For a government that applauds its military’s service and prowess, lauds its warriors’ nearly mythological battlefield achievements and routinely augments its own fat-bellied, peacetime ambitions with the hard sinew and patriotic service of its men and women in arms, Harpertown has a strange way of displaying its appreciation to its avowed friends.

Some truly intrepid, hard-slogging reporting by Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press paints a tale of stunning incompetence at Veterans Affairs of late – a record that does not evidently stem from, as the Prime Minister’s Office wishes it might, the bureaucracy, but from the political office, itself.

As Mr. Brewster reported on December 11, “The inability of Veterans Affairs to spend $1.13 billion over the last eight years should have come as no surprise to the Harper government, which was warned two years ago that the department was struggling to forecast the needs of its clients.”

That might have had something to do with the fact that this government’s widely publicized exercise in public-sector pilates since 2008 (18.5 per cent staff cuts across the board or go home and cry into your mama’s pea soup) has effectively eliminated 900 full-time positions at Vets.

Still, Mr. Brewster relies on an unimpeachable source for his conclusions: Auditor-General of Canada Michael Ferguson’s report on the subject in 2012.

“Buried deep in. . .(this) report,” the reporter states, “was a warning that Veterans Affairs was producing inaccurate forecasts of future client needs that were based on historic data, rather than current information. The same report also took aim at the case management and referral system for operational stress injury clinics, which was the focus of (November’s) much-hyped $200-million overhaul.”

Predictably and nastily, the Harper government has chosen to defend itself by laking the low road.

As Mr. Brewster reports, a class-action lawsuit in British Columbia brought against the federal government for its ham-handed implementation of a veterans charter it has endorsed since 2005 (when the former Liberal government of Paul Martin first flew it up the flag pole) met with this spicy bit of disingenuity from Mr. Harper, himself, earlier this month:

“It (the legal action) is actually a court case against the previous Liberal policy. . .In any case, we have repeatedly enhanced the benefits under that policy to the tune f $5 billion, opposed every step of the way by the Liberal party, who has voted against all those benefits. They can keep voting against those benefits for veterans. We will keep bringing them forward.”

And what do Canada’s actual servicemen and women believe? That entirely depends on whom you ask, but if you ask the Canada Coalition for Veterans, they’ll have this to say: Fire Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino immediately, and, next fall, kick the Tory bums out of office.

According to a CBC report last month, “A group of angry veterans, who want the Harper government defeated in the next election, is appealing to serving members of the military to join them in protest. Ron Clarke, a member of Canada Coalition for Veterans who has been campaigning against the closure of Veterans Affairs offices, made the appeal Wednesday during a Parliament Hill news conference. It may put those in uniform in an awkward position, but Clarke says they need a government sensitive to veterans and their needs. ‘We need a government that looks after our veterans,’ he said.

“The plea is just the latest move in what is a major rift in the veterans community, one that has the potential of undermining the coalition’s aim of galvanizing votes against the Conservatives. Last week, a group of outspoken veterans advocates announced that six organizations had formed a coalition that would, at a minimum, boycott government announcements and photo-ops.”

All of which has cast the worst possible light on a government that has clearly failed to fulfill its responsibilities to thousands of discharged soldiers, untold numbers of whom continue to suffer from untreated physical and mental battlefield injuries.

Indeed, with friends like this, who needs enemies.

Tagged , , , , ,

Fun and games with fanciful figures


David Chaundy of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC) asks a question of such thoughtful irrelevance, it’s stunning that no other professional numbers-cruncher has, to my knowledge, raised it.

If you had $56 billion what, would you do with it?

Mr. Chaundy’s challenge to readers of one of his recent commentaries for APEC is equal parts whimsy and gravitas; it stems from a metaphorical gauntlet he threw down to delegates to a recent business outlook conference.

The context, he writes, is the federal government’s Fall Fiscal Update of November 12, in which the finance department “revealed a projected $56 billion in surpluses over the next five years, beginning in 2015/2016. . .Since the government is not going to make you and your friends into overnight billionaires, how would you use these projected surpluses to advance Atlantic Canada’s economy?”

There is, of course, a catch. The feds have already committed to spending $26 billion over five years by introducing the Family Tax Cut, or income splitting ($10.3 billion); increasing the family child care benefit ($13.4 billion); raising the limit on tax-free savings account contributions ($2.3 billion); and investing in infrastructure ($1.3 billion).

That leaves you with a mere $30 billion with which to go to Hawaii and, as the accountants say, get permanently lost or, in the alternative, save the Atlantic Canadian economy for Queen and country.

The honourable route is not as easy as it looks, but Mr. Chaundy embarks jauntily, nonetheless . “Adjust transfers to the provinces,” he advises. “Ensure sufficient infrastructure funding (and) focus on globally competitive innovation.”

Regarding his first prescription, he notes astutely, “By tying the size of transfer programs such as Equalization and the Canada Health Transfer to the growth in the overall economy, the federal government has provided itself with greater fiscal certainty and largely insulated itself from the fiscal impacts of population aging. This is not the case at the provincial level.”

Mr. Chaundy endorses the Parliamentary Budget Office’s recommendation to restore the Canada Health Transfer growth rate to six per cent and factor a sliding scale of regional benefits based on provincial age demographics. Such moves could mean an addition $500-600 million to the Atlantic provinces over the next five years.

As for infrastructure, he writes “The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that underinvestment in infrastructure in Canada amounted to a gap of $145 billion: Canada needs to spend $20-30 billion a year for ten years on top of current spending to return infrastructure spending to historic levels.”

Atlantic Canada’s portion could amount to some $670 million annually if the funding formula was a per-capita calculation. “But if distributed according to need, the Atlantic provinces would receive proportionately more due to the region’s older infrastructure.”

Finally, on the subject of innovation, Mr. Chaundy is as clear as every other economist in the developed world: No amount of spending on social services or, indeed, infrastructure will actually goose a jurisdiction’s earned incomes and overall net worth. “What is critical for the region’s growth are firms that are export oriented and that have differentiated their products and services in the global market through their proprietary technology, specialized competencies or superior quality of their products or services.”

Mr. Chaundy suggests the federal government ponies up an additional $1 billion a year. (That’s not, in fact, a heck-of-a-lot when you consider the several, different diverse economies functioning within individual provinces. Does Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil and gas industry resemble, either in the skills it requires or the technology it deploys, anything remotely comparable on Prince Edward Island?)

The new money could be used to help businesses leverage private sources of funding for innovation, technology commercialization, strategic alliances, mergers, and expansions.

All of which makes eminently good sense and, in fact, always has.

For several decades, two of Atlantic Canada’s great fiscal burdens have been the cost of providing for its disproportionately older workforce and comparatively ancient infrastructure. Both have siphoned off public money that might otherwise have been spend on economic capacity-building exercises of the type Mr. Chaundy describes.

Still, these mind experiments always remind me of those times when, in weak and weary moments, I daydream about winning the lottery.

Let’s see. . .If I had a million dollars, $10 million, $50 million. . .what would I do?

Something or someone always arrives to shake me out of my reverie.

This time, it’ll be falling oil prices.

Hello resource economy.

Goodbye surplus city.

Tagged , , , , , ,

What’s another weasel word for ‘waterboarding’?


Oh, Dick Cheney; God, love you, man.

At least, you’d better hope the Almighty has a soft spot in his eternal, cosmic heart for ilk such as yours.

Down here, on planet Earth, we mortals wrote you off at about the time you insisted that forcibly pouring water down someone’s throat to the point of nearly asphyxiating him was not torture.

Indeed, you sly dog, you casually observed it was merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Why, it happens all the time. Right? Move along people; nothing to see here.

Earlier this week, the former vice president of the United States in the George W. Bush administrations of 2000-04 and 2004-08 (the world’s very own, live-action Darth Vader-Emperor Palpatine dynamic duo of the early 21st century) was at it again, defending, on major news programs in the United States, the indefensible.

Lending a hand to congressional Republicans in a co-ordinated attack on a scathing report by Senate Democrats on the CIA’s predilection for torturing people it suspected of being terrorists in the years following the 9/11 attacks on lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., Cheney declared, “I would do it again in a minute.”

Naturally, he denied that what American intelligence officials were authorized to do to its detainees and prisoners constituted anything like torture, a claim that is almost as risible as his own definition: “Torture is what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation techniques.”

There they are again, three of the ugliest weasel words of the modern age: enhanced interrogation techniques. The intelligence community, ever up for a twisted joke, actually slaps an acronym on them (EITs) as if to further distance the practices to which they refer from what regular folks generally understand to be torture

According to information contained in a 2005 Justice Department memo, obtained by The Associated Press last week, “EITs” included: abdominal slaps, attention grasps, cramped confinement, dietary manipulation, facial holds, facial slaps, insult slaps, forced nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation, wall standing, wall slamming, water dousing and, of course, everybody’s favorite, waterboarding.”

None of which gave Cheney pause to reflect when he was in office; it still doesn’t.

During one news program on which he appeared, he seemed genuinely unfazed by a section of the Senate report which described the mistaken identity of a man who subsequently died at the hands of his interrogators:

“The problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end(ed) up back on the battlefield,” he said.

When pressed about findings indicating that as many as 25 per cent of those who were detained were innocent, he said, “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent. . .I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.”

And how did that work out for him?

According to the current director of the CIA, EITs didn’t actually get the job done as Cheney and his pals like to claim. At a press conference convened at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, last week, John Brennan stated: “Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.”

“But,” he said (and it’s a mighty big but), “let me be  clear. . .We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees.”

In other words, “the cause-and-effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainees is, in my view, unknowable.”

In fact, The Stars and Stripes’ Jon Harper reported this week “More than a decade (ago). . .the U.S. military’s top lawyers were warning that ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were legally questionable, likely ineffectual and could expose American troops to criminal prosecution and torture at the hands of their own captors,”

So, then, the CIA’s EITs quite probably violated several specific human rights and, what’s more, they didn’t work.

Would it, I wonder, torture the world’s news media to turn their collective back the next time Dick Cheney comes running for an interview?

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Diamonds on our souls, as we dream and wonder


“You know, Poppy, I love Grandma’s sausages and syrup,” Dingleberry Number One informed me as I prepared the wieners and warmed the local tree sap.

“Of course you do,” I replied while inadvertently flipping flapjacks into a soapy sink. “Grandma knows how to do everything,” I growled.

Still, Dingleberry Number Two chimed in from his illegal peanut-gallery perch on the kitchen counter: “You know how to do some things, too, Pops, don’t you?”

I thought about this as I ran warm water against the pancakes, turned down the stove-top, so as not to reduce the sausages to charred pencil ends, and blew my nose into the the only dish towel my two, fine young cannibals (AKA, grandsons) hadn’t earlier claimed for identical purposes. “Yes, me boys,” I bravely ventured, “For one thing, I can make stuff up.”

Number One: “Grandma says you tell stories.”

Number Two: “Yeah, and sometimes they’re not even true.”

Oh, oh, oh. . .perish that thought. “They are always true,” I insisted. “It’s just that sometimes they’re not factual.”

Consider, I said, the story of the big, rock-candy mountain cave.

Number One: “I used to like candy.”

Number Two: “Uh. . .well. . .I used to like candy, too.”

Well, then, I announced, “you’re sure to like this story.”

Number Two: “Then, um, do you think we could have some candy. . .or, maybe, a cookie. That would be okay.”

No time for any of that, I declared. “Attend to Poppy, for he – who is I – is about to pontificate.”

As all eyes rolled in breathless anticipation, no doubt, of their grandfather’s preternaturally gifted story-telling, I commenced:

“Once upon a time in a land far away, a bunch of people lived in a cave. But not just any cave. Its walls were studded with diamonds and its floors were paved with good intentions; so much so, in fact, that every time a worthy resident of Spelunkertown trod upon its main thoroughfares, the ground would gurgle happily, “thank you for walking all over me,” before asking, “would you like a diamond to keep you company as you go along your way?”

Number Two: “What’s a diamond?”

Number One: “It’s like a cookie, only it sparkles.”

Number Two: “Pops, I’ve changed my mind. . .Could I have a diamond, please?”

All in good time, my eager chap, I said, “but first a song. . .Who, here, knows the chord structure to Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’? . . .No?. . .No one?. . .Okay, then, back to the story.”

Number One: “So, Grandma’s just out getting groceries, right?”

Number Two: “I think she keeps the cookies in the pantry.”

Enough, I cajoled: “Do you want to hear the end of this story, or not?”

Number One: “Not really.”

Number Two: “I could eat.”

Grandma will be back soon enough, I sputtered.

Meanwhile, where was I?. . .Oh yes. . .

“After a while, the good people of Spelunkertown had taken so many diamonds from the walls of their shared cave that it ceased to be interesting. No one came to see it anymore or walk along its broad, compliant streets. No one cared whether the hole in the earth they once loved together might inspire the excavation of new and even better grottos where people could gather in glittering conviviality and companionship.

“No one thought of their neighbours, because their neighbours had taken their diamonds to lands far away, across the horizon. People, once close, had become distant memories to one another.”

Number Two: “I’m confused.”

About what?

“You said the story was about a “big rock-candy mountain cave”.


“So, where’s the candy. . .I was waiting for the candy.”

It’s a metaphor. When all you’re interested in is satisfying your own appetites, then you’re always going to be alone in the world.

Number One: “I’m hungry. . .Are you done?”

Indeed, I was.

Number Two: “Okay, Pops, sit next to me.”

Number One: “Poppy, you sit next to me.”

Funny, that. I can sit next to both of you for as long as you want.

And with that, we sat together and ate together a glorious meal of soapy pancakes and charred sausages on the big couch that Number One, thinking of Number Two, had picked for Grandma’s house.

And, together, we fell asleep in our own, dazzling cave of dreams and wonders.

Tagged ,
%d bloggers like this: