Monthly Archives: February 2015

Farewell dear, old friend 


I once wrote that my pal Marc Chouinard embodied the indelibly optimistic spirit of Greater Moncton. I now think that the Hub City embodied his.

We met in 1997, when we both maintained separate work bivouacs at a successful marketing and communications firm on Lutz Street. His first words of advice to me, as the only anglophone in the office recently relocated from Halifax, was: “Give everything you’ve got; accept everything they give; most importantly, never give up.”

Of course, “never give up” was Marc’s raison d’etre. And his various biographers have managed to convey this truth in predictably warm fashion.

“Marc Chouinard, originally from Campbellton, New Brunswick, has been involved professionally in the cultural sector since 1976,” reads the blurb on the 2013 Ideas Festival website. “He has worked (on) a variety of projects across Canada and Europe, including the Francophonie Summits (six editions), the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the East Coast Music Awards (Chair of the Board of Directors in 2005 and 2006) and the Brunswick Arts Board, (on) which he served as co-chair.

“Currently General Manager of the Capitol Theatre in Moncton (and director of the Capitol’s art gallery), he presents each year hundreds of artists on the two stages of this important cultural space in Atlantic Canada.

“In 2002, he was named to the Canada Music Council by the Minister of Canadian Heritage. The ECMA presented him with it’s Industry Builder of the Year Award in 2008. In 2009, his curriculum vitae was included in Canada Who’s Who at the University of Toronto and at the end of December 2010 Governor General David Johnston named him to the Order of Canada”.

As for New Brunswick Premier Gallant, he had this to say upon learning of Marc’s passing, after a short bout with cancer, at the age age of 62, earlier this week: “(He) was one of my closest confidantes and a friend. Marc’s accomplishments are an example for us all. He worked behind the scenes to support and mentor others, helping artists reveal their talents to our communities.

“He was also a steadfast promoter of Acadian culture thanks to his work with the FrancoFête en Acadie and the Sommet de la Francophonie. On behalf of the province, I offer my sincere condolences to Marc’s friends and family. As Marc’s life is celebrated, let us all remember the man he was and his commitment to his community.”

As for me, I knew Marc as an irascible, demanding, frequently annoying SOB whose laser-like ability to burn away the detritus of my own neurotic tendencies in the interest of revealing whatever broader truth I happened know (but was determined to keep hidden) was almost preternatural.

And for this, I loved him like a brother. His counsel and advice made me a better writer and, no small part, a better person.

Once, some years ago, Marc and I collaborated on a project (with Janice Goguen, then a public servant, now a Moncton businesswoman) designed to unite the cultural export industries of New Brunswick’s francophone and anglophone communities. I remember telling him that it was impossible; never the twain shall meet.

All he replied through that trademark Cheshire-cat smile of his was this: “Give everything you’ve got.”

He was right, of course.

I gave an hour-long speech before an audience of 200 touchy cultural types at the Delta Beausejour in downtown Moncton, not minutes on foot from Marc’s beloved Capitol Theatre, in late March 2006.

At the end, to my astonishment, most faces were smiling.

I ducked out to the cold, early spring for a smoke.

I bent my head to peer at the pavement and to thank God for getting me through what I feared most: public speaking.

Behind me, alone, the Cheshire Cat spoke: “So that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

It was Marc telling me, once again: Never give up.


Juggling N.B’s balancing act


For public leaders, the great challenge in stewarding an economy like New Brunswick’s is not, essentially, crafting jobs-vows and packaging promises for economic growth.

The great challenge is learning how to walk, chew gum, sing, dance, buy the groceries, and cook the dinner – all at the same time.

Of course, to prove to the common weal that they are, indeed, multi-tasking geniuses – gifted beyond reasonable doubt in the calculus of actually getting things done – young governments are inevitably tempted to issue a bevy of so-called “prosperity plans” and “opportunity programs”, which they insist clearly present the key that unlocks the door to durable progress.

It never does, of course. 

In fact, in every case, these “plans” and “programs” are anything but – more wish lists than articulate frameworks. But, they make great copy for newspaper editorialists; lamentably for everyone else, that’s about the sum total of their value.

Still, a government such as freshly minted Brian Gallant’s in this province owes itself and voters a valiant, mold-breaking exercise in economic specificity, in which plans really are plans, programs really are programs and vision is more than a talking point for a chamber-of-commerce audience of jaded luncheon rats. 

Happily, the early signs here are promising.

The new appointees to the province’s Jobs Board (notably David Campbell and Susan Holt) have, in recent days, made useful points about the ways and means of building and sustaining industrial capacity.

In effect, these boil down not to one ingredient, but many, operating in concert to slowly, incrementally, convincingly improve the conditions for commercial growth, innovation, expansion and, naturally, job creation.

These necessarily require Government to hone its juggling skills just as they require public shepherds of long-term prosperity to focus more on the steak of their proposals than the sizzle of their pronouncements.

The traditional temptation is, however, to stray from this noble, difficult purpose. Often, it’s the sweet, low-hanging fruit that distracts.

In this context,  alone, the ostensibly good economic news about New Brunswick from the Conference Board of Canada this week is actually troubling.

For the first time since 2007, the organization insists, the province is set to surge ahead, posting better year-over-year GDP growth than the nation as a whole. This, the argument goes, will surely boost employment, reduce labour shortages and go a long way towards narrowing the wage-and-skills gap, especially in natural resources and goods-producing industries.

The problem with this rosy forecast is that it relies entirely on factors beyond New Brunswick’s control: an uptick in export business with the re-emergent American northeast and the consequent effect of depressed oil prices, i.e., a low Canadian dollar.

When things are fertile, who thinks about the inevitable drought?

Who thinks to leverage the good times (with, for example, ground-breaking, world-beating product and service innovations, strategic infrastructure, advanced training and education) to ameliorate the bad?

Similarly, the promise of better days ahead might lure policymakers into believing that the timing for a general tax grab has rarely been more efficacious. Several economists and, at least, one poverty group, have issued strong injunctions against such a move.

They are correct. Rash increases in income or consumptions taxes are not the way to go at the moment.

But neither is hand-wringing.

Everything must be in play in this province, and everything is of a piece – a piece of every other.

The Gallant government’s approach to date has indicated that it knows this. Temporary upticks in the economy are no more promising, in the long-term, than are sudden, socially irresponsible hikes in levies on citizens.

The future is in the long game – in the simultaneous chewing of gum, walking, singing, dancing, grocery buying and dinner cooking.

Let’s see that the big-picture plan contains enough meat to nourish future generations of this province.DSC_0005

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Dear potash, you may now kiss the bride


Until recently, Potash and shale gas in New Brunswick have gone together like a horse and carriage if not, precisely, love and marriage.

But are we now witnessing from the sidelines of a new provincial Jobs Board – more concerned with marrying this region’s disparate economic opportunities than allowing their pervasive separations to widen – the opening gambit of some type of betrothal in the natural resources sector?

Politically, Liberal Premier Brian Gallant’s stern insistence on slapping a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was a smart move. His Tory predecessors had utterly bungled the file with the predictable result of having neutralized any chance of engendering informed debate, let alone winning hearts and minds on either side of the controversial issue.

Those opposed to the practice of exploding rock deep beneath the ground to extract natural gas, potentially poisoning drinking water, relied on Internet research (some compelling good, some stunningly bad) to reinforce their intractability.

Those who supported the practice, believing that it could be safe as long as regulations in this province were tougher and more reliable than any found in the developed world, remained bewildered by the road blocks and burning police cruisers at Rexton, N.B., in the summer and fall of 2013.

And, as usual in these sort of contretemps, never the twain would meet.

Economically, though, Mr. Gallant’s “wait-and-see” policy regarding shale gas development (Is it benign? Can a social license be negotiated with affected communities? What’s the long-term, dollars-and-cents impact on the province’s finances?) is running down the clock.

The debt clock, that is: hundreds-of-millions of dollars in annual deficits; a $12-billion long-term debt that no degree of public-sector austerity will settle without robust, private-sector economic growth.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Grit government is now talking boldly about vastly expanding potash mining in the province.

In an exclusive for Brunswick News Inc., Adam Huras reports this week that the Province “will issue a request for proposals. . .to explore a massive stretch of land in southern New Brunswick it believes could be home to the province’s next potash mine.”

The area in question reportedly incorporates more than 24,000 hectares (240 million square meters) of land less than an hour’s drive north of Saint John.

Question: What do potash mining operations here use to power their facilities? Answer: hydraulically fracked shale gas.

Another question: Why? Another answer: Because it’s reliable, plentiful and, frankly, cheaper than any alternative.

Now, when a provincial government raises the possibility of opening up its public pocketbook to help finance a major expansion of a demonstrably successful resource industry in order to create good, sustainable, long-term jobs, the long bet appreciates that said government must also understand the importance of the fuel supply said resource industry deploys to justify embroidering its business plan.

It also stands to reason that Mr. Gallant’s cabinet and Jobs Board recognize that any move, on government’s part, to so convincingly enlarge a sector that depends on shale gas will goose opinion about the energy supply (for and against) in the public square, regardless of any moratorium.

Inevitably, that means a conversation – one that ended, unproductively, when the Grit team took office last fall.

Naturally, the talking points from the premier’s office, over the next few days, will tow the party line. No, we haven’t changed our minds, they will say. Yes, we believe there exist legitimate questions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing. Of course, until we know the truth, we will not act precipitously.

Still, that’s what every marriage broker says when he or she is conducting their due diligence.

Will the groom behave honorably? Will the bride comport herself in the best interests of her extended family and community?

How deliciously ironic that those who signed the first divorce papers might now officiate at the new wedding?

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Whose democracy 
is it, anyway?


If those who doubted that the national police force is now working for the political office of the reigning government, let those fine, pristine sensibilities fade into the harsh reality of a hard, partisan winter.

The Harper government has retailed two – and only two – presiding ideological platforms over its well-worn terms in office.

The first is that it, and only it, is the peerless steward of economic growth in this country; the second is that it, and only it, is the last defence against the hordes of human demons and other assorted bad guys determined to upend our constitutional democracy.

The first conceit is patently false, as the national government hasn’t raised a well-appointed finger to encourage anything close to durable economic development in eight years.

In fact, it has gone out if its way to play favourites with the western oil patch at the expense of less flashy, though more sustainable industries.

The result has been predictable: an unemployment rate that, while down nationally to 6.6 per cent, remains as high as 20 per cent in rural areas and even urban enclaves not blessed with dirty bitumen. Now that global oil prices are on the run, it is only natural to expect Canada’s presumptive protectors of the public peace to tar everyone who doubts their sincerity with the same black brush they use to colour their annual balance sheets.

This rather obviously brings me to my second concern, which is: What, on earth, does the RCMP think it’s doing by shilling for the federal Conservatives on environmental stewardship?

Shawn McCarthy’s recent piece in the Globe and Mail aptly serves the point. “The RCMP has labelled the ‘anti-petroleum’ movement as a growing and violent threat to Canada’s security, raising fears among environmentalists that they face increased surveillance, and possibly worse, under the Harper government’s new terrorism legislation,” he writes.

“In highly charged language that reflects the government’s hostility toward environmental activists, an RCMP intelligence assessment warns that foreign-funded groups are bent on blocking oil sands expansion and pipeline construction, and that the extremists in the movement are willing to resort to violence.”

The report cites the 2013 cop-car burnings in Rexton, New Brunswick, as evidence of increasing radicalism everywhere without bothering to differentiate between the actions of a very few and the broad, peaceful concerns of the very many.

Reports McCarthy, quoting directly from the report: “‘There is a growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canada petroleum movement that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels,’ concludes the report which is stamped ‘protected/Canadian eyes only’ and is dated Jan. 24, 2014. The report was obtained by Greenpeace . . . If violent environmental extremists engage in unlawful activity, it jeopardizes the health and safety of its participants, the general public and the natural environment.’”

Fine; but how do you conflate peaceable, law-abiding citizens’ legitimate concerns with violent extremism without driving a nail through the democratic principles that lets you issue such verbal nonsense in the first place?

This “waiting-for-terrorists-to-strike-from-the-shadows” mentality has overtaken our public spaces, our private conversations, our personal expectations and perhaps even our conception of ourselves as members of an inclusive plurality.

Do we jump, do we fight, do we run away?

Surely, we don’t listen to anything but the blow horn from Parliament Hill anymore.

Neither, it seems, do the national cops, now more willing than ever to give their political masters the partisan wherewithal to scare enough voters into hating tree-huggers in the name of catching a few ill-minded radicals.

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Is it a whole new ball game for N.B.?


When a government seeks a home run in the early innings of its time at bat, it helps to have a couple of heavy hitters warming up in the dugout.

Last week, New Brunswick’s Grit Premier Brian Gallant announced his appointments of three all-stars in the field of economic and business development to help shepherd the province’s new Jobs Board secretariat.

According to the premier, Jacques Pinet (as the group’s new chief executive officer), Susan Holt (as the new chief of business relationships) and David Campbell (as the new chief economist of New Brunswick) “will work to set the conditions for growth so that we can help our province’s businesses and entrepreneurs create jobs which will, in turn, help improve our finances. . .These individuals each join government with a strong and diverse background in the private sector.”

For their part, the individuals in question appear as fired up about their new positions and the promise of making a difference as do their bosses Gallant and Economic Development Minister Rick Doucet, who jointly chair the Jobs Board.

“The time is right to change the way we approach economic development and job creation in New Brunswick,” said Pinet, a Moncton lawyer and former senior executive of Assumption Life. “It is clear the status quo is not working. Jobs Board represents a fresh opportunity to re-invigorate our economy. I am honoured to be part of these efforts.”

Added Holt, the former chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Business Council, “New Brunswick has a history of entrepreneurship and innovation. I am looking forward to working with our business community to unleash their ideas and establish the kind of environment that will lead to job creation and prosperity in today’s economy.”

In fact, said Campbell, an economic development consultant and researcher, “Together, Opportunities NB and Jobs Board will help the government better co-ordinate and evaluate job creation efforts. Diversifying the economy, developing the workforce and making strategic investments in infrastructure are all examples of the way we can work towards the common goal of job creation.”

To say that these folks have their work cut out for them vastly understates the case.

The province’s fiscal morass of rolling annual deficits amounting to hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year on a longterm, structural debt of some $2 billion reflects an even more worrying combination of conditions that have, for years, conspired to undermine economic capacity in the province.

The labour force is dwindling, strategic infrastructure for business development is only just keeping pace with the rest of the developed world, and innovation, commercialization and productivity rates haven’t budged convincingly since the turn of the century.

As the national unemployment rate continues to drop (to 6.6 per cent last month), New Brunswick’s remains stuck in the 10 per cent range (though, this is likely the most optimistic number a statistician will average, as the actual, seasonally adjusted, rate in many parts of the province is closer to 18 per cent, especially among young, employable people).

I know Pinet only by reputation. I know Holt only slightly better. But I’ve been a friend and colleague of Campbell’s for years and he is – as is I imagine each of his new colleagues – the right person for the right job at the right time.

He is certainly correct when he writes, as he did recently, on his blog, “If we don’t find a way to get the province’s economy back to at least a moderate level of economic growth no amount of fiscal austerity will be enough to bring balance to the province’s books.”

That sounds like a cue if there ever was one.

Dear Messrs. Campbell and Pinet – dear Ms. Holt – your time at bat is drawing near. Let’s see how you hit it out of the park.

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It’s a whole new game for the Hub City


I despise the phrase, “game-changer”.

The words conjure, in me, images of small boys on a football pitch, bullied by larger boys stealing the ball, kicking shins, shoving urchins into the mud, scoring on empty nets and then triumphantly celebrating their victory as a well-earned win, marked fetchingly in the “if-you-can’t-stand-the-trampling-stay-out-of-our-way” category of crooked competition.

Sort of like Wall Street in 1929, 1987, 2001, 2007 and anytime soon (pick a year) coming to an RRSP near you.

But every once in a long while “game-changer” seems to be an appropriate description for small cities with big appetites and even larger ambitions to beat the bully-boys at their own game.

So, then, witness, last week’s launch of Fibre Centre in uptown Moncton (somewhere amidst the nine-foot drifts of snow and ice and Centennial Park, where the more placid of our urban ilk still appreciate a mid-morning ski outing on Nordic trails).

There, hundreds of business and political elites gathered to hear the great news: Greater Moncton carved another notch in its belt as one of North America’s most competitive cities with the first “network-neutral colocation and interconnection facility providing a three-way junction point linking submarine and terrestrial dark fiber assets in Atlantic Canada.”

And before you shrug your shoulders and mumble “uh, come again”, the new technology works this way: For the first time anywhere in the region businesses of every size, complexity and stripe – along with public and private institutions, governments and public organizations – will have seamless access to the world through unused (ie., ‘dark’) fibre-optic cables which just happen to flow through Moncton.

The secret: There’s a lot of state-of-the-art, digital pipe going begging in these parts, these days.

“Moncton now has a physical access point to the mass of fibre optic networks that pass through, but heretofore have not actually been able to directly interconnect with each other here,” said Ukrainian businessman Iouri Litvinenko, Fibre Centre’s co-founder. “Facilities such as these have proven to breed economic development globally.”

Added the firm’s other co-founder, American tech entrepreneur Hunter Newby: “Fibre Centre is a neutral meet point for networks of al kinds. We are not a carrier, or network operator, ourselves but rather (we) own the building, known as a ‘carrier hotel’, and provide the managed real estate environment, known as a ‘meet me room‘, as well as data centre space, where all networks can colocate and openly interconnect with each other.”

Four years in the making, the deal’s the official launch podium featured Ben Champoux,, CEO of Greater Moncton’s economic development organization, 3+ Corporation; James Lockyer, chair of 3+; Gaetan Thomas, CEO of NB Power; George LeBlanc, Mayor of Moncton; Newby; and, of course, Brian Gallant, premier of New Brunswick.

Said Gallant: “This is a phenomenal opportunity. . .We should all be very proud of this firm’s decision to choose Moncton. Arthur C. Clarke (the late science fiction writer) once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I can tell you that Fibre Centre has a lot of magic.”

For his part, Mayor LeBlanc noted that the news burnishes Moncton’s reputation as one of the continent’s truly smart cities. “All digital roads lead here. . .or, rather, almost all,” he quipped. We, at the city, are happy to be Fibre Centre’s first customer.”

So, then, is this a game-changer for a community that has been switching up the rules for itself ever since the railway left and the nation’s retail behemoths took a powder?

Consider that nowhere in eastern North America is there as comprehensive and technologically sophisticated hub of fibre optic cable than here.

Also consider that nowhere in eastern Canada would an announcement like this draw hundreds of people to a spare auditorium, providing no parking, in sub-zero temperatures, surrounded by mountains of frigid white.

Game-changer, indeed.

I’d call it a game-opener.

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When less means more, at least politically


New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has decided to chop his annual salary by 15 per cent this year. His fellow cabineteers – all 12 of them – have agreed (if that is the right word) to follow suit, each taking pay cuts of ten per cent.

Sure, these are symbolic gestures at a time when the province struggles with structurally high yearly deficits and a long-term debt of some $12 billion.

But what’s wrong with that?

No, these voluntary rollbacks won’t rescue New Brunswick from fiscal quicksand. And, no, they won’t put money back into the pockets of hard-working men and women who run businesses, struggle to make their payrolls and watch their limited financial resources fail to meet their own, and others’, expectations.

But, we have to start somewhere. And where better to begin more visibly than right at the top of the public sector, where ministers of the Crown hold the keys – in more ways than merely symbolic – to everyone’s safety deposit box?

Besides, when was the last time you witnessed a private-sector fat cat, having seen the communitarian light, announce that he (or she) will gladly undergo self-administered liposuction in order to protect at least the appearance of fairness and equity in his or her corner of the corporate steppe?

I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, it does happen, if rarely.

Writing in the February 9 edition of The New Yorker magazine, financial columnist James Surowiecki, reported, “It’s no secret that the years since the Great Recession have been hard on American workers. Though unemployment has finally dipped below six per cent, real wages for most have barely budged since 2007. Indeed, the whole century so far has been tough: wages haven’t grown much since 2000.

“So it was big news when, last month, Aetna’s C.E.O., Mark Bertolini, announced that the company’s lowest-paid workers would get a substantial raise – from twelve to sixteen dollars an hour, in some cases – as well as improved medical coverage.” Indeed, “Bertolini didn’t stop there. He said that it was not ‘fair’ for employees of a Fortune 50 company to be struggling to make ends meet. He explicitly linked the decision to the broader debate about inequality, mentioning that he had given copies of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-first Century’ to all his top executives. ‘Companies are not just money-making machines,’ he told me last week. ‘For the good of the social order, these are the kinds of investments we should be willing to make.’”

So, perhaps, the better question is: When was the last time you heard a corporate fat cat talk like a progressive reformer?

The case of Mark Bertolini may only be the exception that proves the rule.

But, in the New Brunswick government’s case, they, too, seem to have figured out that a public gesture can go a long way – that they’d better be prepared to demonstrate a little personal austerity in the assemblies of decision-making before they start chopping frontline workers’ wages and salaries and raising taxes, as they most surely will.

Apart from anything else, it’s a move they can make without engendering a shred of controversy. (Take that Tory opposition). Fundamentally, though, it stands as a statement of principle – a guiding norm for the tough years ahead.

Sacrifice, it connotes, is no sacrifice at all as long as something durably good causally results: a healthier public balance sheet; a smarter, leaner, nimbler government sector and, by extension, civil service; a province, whose citizens, businesses and institutions are, for once, united in joint service to one another and not divided by the absurd venalities of intra-regional entitlements and juvenile, extraordinarily costly, preoccupations with local oneupmanship.

Governments rarely lead the way, point to the horizon. But when they do – and do it convincingly – their efforts can produce remarkable effects.

Their symbolic gestures, especially the good ones, tend to etch a path of memory in the popular imagination, where reality finally takes root.

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The great elastic travelling band


They go out. They come back. They go out again. They come back again.

In fact, about the only Atlantic Canadian I know who hasn’t, at one time or another, been lured to the sweet, black oil pitches of northern Alberta is Yours Truly (and that’s only because I have absolutely no skills).

Still, in our bones, we who possess a familial connection to the East Coast of this great and wise country understand something about tides – about how they ebb and flow; about how they pull everything not fixed down with steel wire and granite boulders into their backwash; about how they cast it all up again above the high water mark, where it’s treacherously tough to make a living, at least for long.

Or, perhaps we need a new metaphor for this ancient phenomenon.

Call it the “Great Elastic Travelling Band”, in which Maritimers and their confreres in Newfoundland and Labrador are stretched to the limit of their finances, and patience, by the constant pull and snap of the national petro-economy that, in entirely unintuitive ways, wrecks homes, communities, relationships, futures.

Have you seen Fort Mac recently? It’s not a pretty sight – and not for its lack of municipal infrastructure. There and in Calgary and Edmonton, house prices have plummeted by 10, 20, 40 per cent since the beginning of the year. The “for sale” signs have been blooming as fast as oil prices have been bottoming.

Naturally, the market value of this commodity, essential to the elastic traveling band, has been nudging upwards in recent days – from $46 a barrel to $52 on February 5, before settling back to $50 by the close of trading.

But this is a pittance, bought and paid for by those who have left this coast behind. The band snaps back, as much as it can.

“In all likelihood, there will be less employment in Alberta, therefore less people moving out to Alberta, less migrant workers going back and forth,” the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council’s senior policy analyst Fred Bergman announced last week. “Within two years of the previous oil price dip in mid-2008, annual out-migration to Alberta from Atlantic Canada had decreased by about 6,000 persons.”

Now, given the volatile state of oil and gas development out west, the out-migration rate from this region to theirs could be a third of recent years. That’s nothing to say of those who will inevitably choose to flood ‘down home’, where the deficits are as high as a zoo animal’s eye.

All of which is marvelous; just about as much as it is dreadful.

After all, what shall we do with all these returning ex-pats?

New Brunswick has a structural unemployment rate of between 10 and 15 per cent – not because the province’s private sector can’t fill the jobs it produces, but because, in the absence of skilled workers, it’s no longer generating employment opportunities even incrementally, let alone en masse.

As a result, profitable companies here (if they want to remain profitable) retrench, reorganize, and reinvent. Life becomes smaller, less adventurous, more studiously attached to the thinning margins of the bottom line.

Meanwhile, as Atlantic provincial governments attempt to deal with the fiscal consequences of their regional, economic doldrums, their motivation to stimulate commercial opportunities become necessarily muted.

At some point, once the elastic is stretched too far, and for too long, it simply refuses to be pulled or snapped.

We’re not quite at that point, yet, here on the East Coast. But we are heading perilously close to that place of economic perdition where nothing we try, or endure, improves our long-term lot.

This is the first of many columns to come in which I will attempt to articulate a cogent vision of the alternative: a prosperous and socially equitable province; a fair and democratically responsive politic; a vibrant and sustainable economy.

Before, that is, we all go out, and never come back again.

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John Baird’s not-so-hidden agenda


Say what you like about the big, bad boogeyman of Conservative politics (I often do), but no foreign minister in recent Canadian history has marched so perfectly locked in step with his serving prime minister.

John Baird’s pending departure from the Hill (he announced his resignation last week, seven months before Canadians, once again, go to the polls to take the measure of their dwindling electoral options) is only the latest, best-kept secret in a town where true transparency comes under the cover of night, when flashlights and prying eyes are the instruments of choice among the well-fed, overly chatty illuminati.

It seems pretty clear, then, that Mr. Baird could keep his cards tucked close to his vest for just so long, such is the juggernaut of Ottawa’s rumor mill.

And so it was that one of the most important members of Stephen Harper’s Cabinet departed on an appropriate, if sometimes sentimental, note of grace.

“I have seen the stature of this country grow in the eyes of the world,” he told his Commons colleagues last week. “The world has seen the best that Canada has to offer. . . Being foreign minister was a tremendous experience. . .I quickly learned (that) to make a difference you can’t be defined by partisan, nor by ideology. You need to be defined by values.”

As for it all, he said, “I will miss this place very much and all the people in it. . .The time has come to start a new chapter in my life.”

As for his boss, he insisted, “I believed in this prime minister. And I continue to believe him all these years later. He is one of our great leaders.”

The log-rolling commenced on cue.

“John has always been willing to do a lot of heavy lifting in my various cabinets and has assumed daunting new responsibilities with unsurpassed energy, commitment and professionalism, never losing sight of the fact that he was serving the Canadian people,” the prime minister enthused.

And why not? The man was both assiduous and eminently quotable in the execution of his duties over the past decade: the true face of the Harper government when the real McCoy was unavailable or otherwise inclined to face the unblinking eye of the mainstream media’s cameras.

A recent CBC compendium of the outgoing politico’s bon mots reveals the expansive measure of Mr. Baird’s comfort zone with the bully pulpit:

In this: “Let us replace darkness with light, let us replace accountability with corruption.”

This: “We don’t sit around the cabinet table dreaming up ways to increase taxes.”

And this: “I’m not sure we want flash mobs. I don’t know what a flash mob is; it sounds a bit disconcerting. . .I don’t like the context of either word.”

Sometimes, he was funny (though rarely to lefties outside Parliament, of course).

New Democrat Pat Martin once inquired, jokingly, how the federal government planned to avert an attack by brain-eating zombies. Mr. Baird dutifully deadpanned: 

“I am dead-icated to ensuring that this never happens. I want to say categorically to this member and through him to all Canadians that under the leadership of this Prime Minister Canada will never become a safe haven for zombies, ever!. . .If there is a zombie attack, Canadians need to be well prepared. They should stock up on first aid kits, monster trucks, canned food and water. . .And I am not going to stand in this place and not warn Canadians that if the NDP had its way, Canadians would have to pay a carbon tax on each and every one of those.”

The future is now John Baird’s oyster. At a mere 45 years young, he can, and likely will, write any ticket that pleases him.

But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the one he truly wants lies some years down the road: as Prime Minister of Canada, when he may walk in lock-step with no one but himself.

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Clucking all the way to the knowledge(less) bank


Chickens come home to roost in surprising numbers, even when the coop has been closed and the barn doors have been bolted. Any farmer will tell you this.

Of course, we don’t listen to farmers, or barn builders or coop-tenders, anymore. We no longer regard the expert opinions of teachers, economists, writers, artists, scientists, urban planners, and early childhood developers.

And when we talk to our neighbours, who may have something cogent to say about the way we live now, we’re apt to smile lamely as we dismiss their pontifications as rarified opinions. . .Nothing to do with us.

Evidence is, after all, just a matter of conjecture – is it not?

That, at any rate, is what certain federal politicians want us to embrace and hold close to our hearts, as, thanks to them, we have been without a mandatory long-form census at Statistics Canada for nearly five years.

But, wait, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

According to a Globe and Mail story this week, “planners” insist that the cancellation, in 2010, of this worthy instrument of public and social policy – on nothing more than a whim to warm the backbenches of certain Conservative office holders in Ottawa – has “damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.”

How? The answer is: We literally don’t know.

We don’t know enough to ask the right questions, sculpt the right surveys, obtain the right data.

What we suspect, however, is that the preponderance of evidence we do have strongly indicates that our federal government, in its move from a formal census to a voluntary question-and-answer sheet, actively wants to keep Canadians in the dark about themselves and their communities.

Worse, the new-normal actually costs taxpayers more money. “The last census in 2011 cost a total of $652-million, including an extra $22-million due to the change to the voluntary National Household Survey, “ the Globe reports. “The total budget for the 2016 census won’t be decided until February or March, Statscan has said. But the current plan is to hold another voluntary survey. All told, 35,000 people will be hired for this effort.”

Says Charles Beach, a Queen’s University professor of economics, in the Globe piece: “It has certainly impacted my own work on what has been happening to middle-class earnings in Canada.”

Indeed, he says, it has “inhibited research into inequality and identifying winners and losers in economic growth, research into understanding the national problems of the have-nots in the economy, and research into how best to provision local government services.”

Adds Harvey Low, Toronto’s man in charge of social research for that city: “It has definitely had an impact in the way we plan for services. . .We are less sure. . .We definitely have to spend extra dollars on pursuing other sources of data. . .and the staff time to assess whether we can use it to compare over time.”

Meanwhile, complains Sara Mayo of the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, Ontario: “In terms of fiscal prudence, this made no sense. Why would any government want to pay more for worse-quality data?”

As the group, Evidence for Democracy astutely notes: “Voluntary surveys receive lower response rates when compared to mandatory ones. Typically, vulnerable populations [new immigrants, Aboriginals, low-income, single parents] and those with the highest income have lower response rates; thus, data about their demographics is poorly represented in voluntary surveys. This lack of robust information about important groups leads to skewed data sets, poor decision-making, and costly government policy mistakes.”

Shall we count the ways in which governments make poor policy decisions even when presented with good, countable evidence?

After all, the price of oil was supposed to soar forever, pundits insisted, despite the fact that, historically, it has always plunged.

Cluck, cluck. Something scratching this way comes.

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