Monthly Archives: December 2015

And the winning N.B. newsmaker is. . .



He’s young in spirit, photogenic, energetic, and the premier of New Brunswick. He’s also old of heart, camera-shy, fundamentally calculating, and the heir to at least 50 years of Liberal Party politics in this province.

Grit Leader Brian Gallant earns his position as provincial newsmaker of the year as much for what he has refused to do over the past 12 months as for what he did.

Faced with a $500-million annual deficit and a $12.5-billion debt, he promised to revamp the public accounts, cutting and slashing, burning and burying, as he went. He did the opposite in 2015 – preferring, instead, to consult and research and “recalibrate” the work his civil servants do in order to “understand”. . .well. . .exactly what his civil servants do on any given day.

Faced with a systemic unemployment rate of between 8.7 and 15 per cent in this province (depending on which region of New Brunswick he was reviewing), Mr. Gallant chose to blame the previous, federal Tory government for local labour-market woes even as he courted the current Liberal administration in Ottawa for financial redress – something he said he would never do should the political winds blow his way.

They did, and now he wants more money from Fat City to help balance the books he once said should be settled through homegrown innovation, competitiveness and entrepreneurship.

At the same time, the youngest premier in Canada (all of 33 years old) has managed to both enrage and engage the oldest voting population in the country. In 2015, he raised taxes on the wealthy and threatened to impose an asset-based means test for seniors care. On the flip side, he asked Ottawa to turn the province into a national “test lab” for geriatric care and conditioning.

As he said the other day, “I have always made it very clear that we need extra support from the federal government because of our aging population. The federal government has an opportunity to test run what programs will work to overcome those challenges.”

Indeed, the subject of dichotomies remained close to Mr. Gallant’s chest in 2015. Somehow, a pipeline, brimming with Alberta oil was an economically and environmentally sound proposition, despite that it would transport some of the dirtiest hydrocarbons in the world into all of our metaphorical backyards. Conversely, New Brunswick’s premier took umbrage at the shale-gas industry’s determination to defend its eminently clean record of development in the province over the past ten years.

On the pipeline, Mr. Gallant had this to say in October: “If we as a country are going to develop our natural resources and energy projects, we need to have a brand and credibility with Canadians and the international community.”

On shale gas development in New Brunswick, the premier had only this to add earlier this week: “I think New Brunswickers on all sides of this issue – people with diverging opinions – would like this subject to be dealt with. Once we see the recommendations (from a three-member, government-appointed panel) we will study and analyze them, take them into consideration and make our decisions.”

Finally, late in 2015, Mr. Gallant sent missionaries to test the waters for a “new approach” to economic development in New Brunswick.

As plans go, theirs’ wasn’t bad – young in spirit, old of heart, camera-shy and fundamentally calculating. The message from the premier was unmistakably familiar: maybe we’ll listen to you, maybe we won’t.

It was just, I dare say, the sort of news making machinery we in New Brunswick appreciate.

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The year of living gob-smacked


I can think of only one other year when circumstances conspired to render “yours truly” utterly speechless.

1995 saw me accidentally sever all the tendons in my right hand, deliberately dismiss my business partner of four years, and unwittingly lose my wherewithal in a reversal inspired (if not actually engineered) by the Halifax-based cadre of one-per-centers for which I worked.

Still, all things properly considered, 2015 was also a tongue-numbing moment in time for most of us on the East Coast.

To begin with, no one imagined that a Christmas holiday in late December 2014, when the temperatures hovered around the 15-degree Celsius mark, would transform into this:

“If you’re feeling like this winter is one of the worst you can remember, you’re probably right,” a CTV report confirmed last February. “A ‘misery index’ released by U.S. National Weather Service meteorologists shows the winter of 2014-15 is one of the most miserable on record. The Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index puts the ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’ of winter in context by looking at daily temperature, snowfall, snow depth or precipitation records to show the season’s severity compared to other years.”

Then again, no one thought to check the science around climate change and how a new phenomenon, the “polar vortex”, might be related to trending warmer temperatures in the Arctic and lower ones in the south.

Oh well, we believe in our political leaders who seem to know exactly what we’re thinking until, of course, they don’t.

When former Prime Minister Stephen Harper told us all to relax and relish the fact that he would balance the federal budget, we assumed he was as good as his word. We assumed, in other words, that oil prices would persist and that most Canadians would, as a result, return him to his perch at 24 Sussex Drive. Most Canadians didn’t.

Now, a scion of political history, Justin Trudeau, is charged with restoring the nation’s international reputation for fairness, environmental responsibility, justice, law, and the rest well in time for his state visit to the White House on March 10, before the cherry blossoms open; before the price of a barrel of oil drops down below thirty bucks.

So, then, what do we do with this economic calculus in New Brunswick? 2015 showed us that a very young premier, only 33 years old, can move in the polls from 45 per cent approval, to 24, and back to 45 within the span of 15 months. He showed us that youth does not beggar age or wisdom.

But where now is that wisdom in a place that needs to reinvent itself in the Canadian context on its own terms?

New Brunswick’s past year has been nothing short of miraculous, if miracles are built on faith, alone. Life, unfortunately, is built on hard, cold reality. And this province has become a place where too many believe in the big, rock candy mountains of government and not enough in the granite and grit that originally made this province and this nation from coast to coast.

What was 2015?

It was the year of living astonished by the climate of our attitudes in New Brunswick; by the weather report that our economy would never improve; by the signs of storm clouds, blizzards and downpours that just never seem to disappear.

A $500-million annual deficit should curb our fat tongues; a $12-billion debt should render us utterly speechless.

Unless, of course, we decide to speak, and do, and make, and build, and create, and turn to conspire to succeed together.

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A hand-out by any other name

Who says I'm not happy?

Premier Brian Gallant’s decision to ask the newly elected Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to pony up new money for seniors’ care in this province is a bold move. But it could also be a very bad one.

In his end-of-the-year interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Mr. Gallant welcomed an $80-million-plus increase to New Brunswick in federal transfers next year. “I am very happy to hear that we are going to have the transfer conversation,” he said, sounding almost dismissive.

Still, he continued, “I have always made it very clear that we need extra support from the federal government because of our aging population. . .New Brunswick is facing an aging population that is more significant than almost any other province in the country. Therefore, the federal government has an opportunity to test run what programs will work to overcome those challenges.”

This is the tried-and-true “canary in the coalmine” argument that one level of government, fiscally subservient to another, routinely makes when it can’t quite figure out how to address the economic and demographic realities it faces.

Newfoundland and Labrador now faces an annual deficit of $2-billion, which dwarfs New Brunswick’s by a factor of four. Canada’s western provinces, reeling under a spot price for oil that barely nudges the $36-per-barrel mark, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Do these jurisdictions – whose populations are, by the way, also aging – deserve any less consideration from Ottawa than does New Brunswick?

Yet, Mr. Gallant, all of 33 years old, persists. This province, he says, could and should become a test lab for federal programs (read: handouts) over and above the Canada Health Transfer that will putatively teach legislators at all levels of government across this great, aging nation how to properly care for old folks in their senescence, in the sunset of their years.

It sounds great, but it feels wrong and for a variety of reasons.

Presently, even the smartest, most perspicacious New Brunswick bureaucrats can’t tell you exactly when, how or why the province’s aging population will compromise the ship of state in these harbours we call home. Some say, doom has already descended. Others insist we have several years before we notice a deleterious difference in our standards of living. Still others declare, optimistically, that septuagenarian baby boomers represent an untapped resource – a resource whose potential is yet to be fully plumbed.

What’s missing in all of this is real, credible research that would justify a broad, multi-million-dollar ask from the feds to address a problem New Brunswick hasn’t actually parsed with any degree of social-policy, let alone scientific, rigour. It feels panicky, precipitous and, in the end, disastrously misaligned.

There’s also something distressingly infantilizing about all of this.

Shall the rest of Canada care for the elderly in New Brunswick over and above the degree they already do simply because an actuarial table over at Statistics Canada shows that the population here is getting older?

Again, how many of these people live below the poverty line? How many live well above it? Answer these questions, and then, perhaps, have a useful, evidence-based chat with Ottawa.

Fundamentally, no government anywhere in this nation has money to burn. Our grown kids can’t find the sort of work we once hoped they would. They can’t locate affordable, high-quality childcare. They can no longer expect to be better off, more prosperous or happier than their parents.

Building the base for their futures seems, to me, a better use of public money than securing the dwindling years of people like me.

Trust me, I ain’t near rich enough to afford a government-backed handout to myself.


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The hitchhiker’s guide to marriage

When, from time to time, people of my acquaintance ask me how we’ve managed to do it – that is, to stay together for three-and-a-half decades without observable scars, psychic injuries, or durable mental anguish, I invariably answer in one, or both, of two ways:

“A sense of humour helps. . .So does a truly bad memory.”

Today, my wife and I celebrate our 35th anniversary of wedded bliss; twenty years of this span, we’ve spent in Moncton. And, as a recipe for marriage nothing beats the time-tested strategy of bad jokes and selective amnesia.

“Do you remember when we first arrived here?” I asked her just the other day in the midst of a binge-viewing session of the Star Wars franchise. (We had reserved seating for the newest one, you see, so boning up on the mythology was Job # 1).

“I remember that you never could shut up while we were watching our favorite shows,” she barbed.

“Hah! That’s a good one, my dear.”

“Yeah, here’s a better one: Why don’t you shovel the walk like you said you would before it freezes over?”

That’s an even better one, I thought. (As if I would ever perform a household chore before it became utterly intractable.) Of course, that’s one reason why I love her so: She’s a truly funny lady.

I am, on the other hand, a truly forgetful man.

I remember my daughters’ birthdays and, lately, those of my grandkids. But ask me what date my own occurs, and I’m likely to mumble something about November, towards the end of the month. (In fact, I rely on Facebook to tell me these things).

On the other hand, I rarely remember what I ate last night, what show I watched, what book I read, or which newscast threw me into an apoplectic fit of self-righteous indignation.

Did I walk four miles or merely three today? Did I work out on the floor mat for 30 or 45 minutes today? Do my pants make me look fat?

“Yes, actually. . .your pants make you look fat,” my beloved confirms. “But that’s only because you buy them from the little-boy section of Gap.”

Funny stuff. She should go on the road, she’s so fine; get herself a Netflix stand-up gig. I would be her manager, parsing out bottles of water and running interference between her and her legion of fans. I would give up everything to see her tell the big, wide world exactly what’s on her superb, incisive mind.

Of course, these are the moments of which I have perfect recall: The look on her face when she laughed in the summer of 1977, having seen a wild lily in a broken ditch along Hollis Street in Halifax; the way the setting sun steamed the waves at Crystal Crescent Beach on the South Shore of Nova Scotia as she searched in vain for her missing hiking boot in the winter of 1978; the old, grumbling roar of the rollers crashing onto the shore of Chedebucto Bay as we walked silently to the tip of Ragged Head and then back again in the fall of 1984.

How do you stay together for 35 years? It’s a good question. No pat answer serves. A sense of humour is crucial, yes; so is a convenient memory. Most of all, though, the recipe involves a daily dose of imagination, empathy and forgiveness.

And isn’t that that the reason for any of us to get up each morning?

Aren’t we all hitchhikers on the road to love?

How goes the battle for truth?


In the language of triumphalism that always graces a newly elected leader’s   speech to an international audience, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared, last week, that “Canada is back”. On the subject of climate change, he insisted, there can be no “laggards”.

The lightly veiled insinuation, of course, was that this once great nation has been brought to its knees, over the past 10 years, by a cynical and zealous crop of intellectual poseurs masquerading as legislators, and, through them, by an especially virulent form of “sciencitis”.

This particular malady is not new. It periodically sweeps across various bodies politic, persuading anyone who will listen that evidence is simply a matter of opinion; that research is a poor substitute for good, old common sense; and that standing in the middle of the tracks as a locomotive bears down on you is a perfectly reasonable posture given that the engineer behind the stick will surely hit the brakes before he turns you into an unrecognizable smudge.

This was the former Conservative Government of Canada’s approach to “public outreach”. Under Stephen Harper, climate science was, at best, a theoretical construct that handy, populist rhetoric could deconstruct in an instant; Environment Canada was a nest of liberal bugs, better swatted than tolerated; and Statistics Canada was a den of uncooperative eggheads who needed to be curtailed, abused and, in the end, fired.

Still, on a trip to Europe in advance of the Paris climate change conference, Mr. Trudeau was unequivocal about the intent of his government: It will look nothing like that of his predecessor’s.

Specifically, he instructed, “Indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. . .The rest of us have a lot to learn. . .Canadians) want to know that what they’re doing fits into a bigger picture, because there is no point in bending over backwards if your neighbour or your government is not also doing its part to ensure that we all have the maximum impact together.”

He added: “Every single one of us can and should be much more conscious of the ways we can act to reduce our carbon footprint. . .By working together, we will deliver real benefits for our environment while also strengthening our economy, including the creation of more middle class jobs.”

The words are nice, even credible. And yet, the devil is in the details and the details remain demonic.

In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, federally funded science initiatives have been eliminated over the past decade with systematic efficiency.

Virtually nothing remains of Fisheries and Oceans, the National Research Council or the Department of Environment in this craggy corner of the Steppe. Where once this region’s scientists and researchers contributed to the national policy agenda, they now perform perfunctory duties teaching their fellow bureaucrats the difference between a green and a blue bag on garbage day. That is the truth of the battle among those who have decided to stick around.

Recent reports from university scholars of my acquaintance suggest that, over the past 15 years, no fewer than 10,000 top-flight thinkers on everything from fluid dynamics to environmental engineering in this region have fled to friendlier and more remunerative locales around the world. They aren’t coming back and their ilk won’t be replaced anytime soon.

So is, as Mr. Trudeau says, “Canada back” as he attempts to sign on to a new climate deal with the rest of world?

Let us attend to the laggards in our own public policy.

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Don’t fear the reaper


Sooner or later, the horseman with the scythe was always coming to New Brunswick, brandishing his blade to cut down the high and low among us. Still, who knew he would materialize in the form of a 33-year-old lawyer-cum-politician from a Sleepy Hollow known as Shediac Bridge?

Premier Brian Gallant, and his operatives in government, are deadly serious about reducing the province’s annual spending load by $600 million, hoping, in turn, to replenish the public accounts and avoid structural bankruptcy before bond-holders on Wall and Bay Streets get wise to the fact that we haven’t known, for years, what we’ve been doing (economically and fiscally, at least) to Canada’s picture-perfect province.

We know now; and it boils down to this: With a $600-million deficit, a $12-billion debt, a population tipping 750,000 on a good day, and an out-migration rate that rivals historical exoduses in almost biblical terms, we simply can’t afford ourselves. Under these circumstances, who could?

Of course, we may know this, deep in our East Coast bones, but do we accept the consequences of our perennial profligacy? Do we actually “get” the fact that we are the authors of our own misfortune? After all, to paraphrase the inimitable Bob Dylan, the hour is late and all along the watchtower, princes keep the view. . .Outside in the distance a wildcat does growl. Two riders are approaching, and the wind begins to howl.

That’s winter for you in southeastern New Brunswick; but one of the riders who now visits us is an all-season, equal-opportunity reaper and nothing, it seems, will distract him from his appointed rounds.

Here’s the latest on the issue from the editorial desk of the CBC last week:

“The New Brunswick government is proposing a long list of cuts, measures to boost revenue and ways to overhaul the delivery of government services to eliminate the province’s $600-million structural deficit. Health Minister Victor Boudreau, the minister responsible for the strategic program review, announced the report at a news conference on Friday.”

Specifically, the minister said, “We want to provide for more opportunity for New Brunswickers to comment on the report. But it is not necessary (to conduct)another round of public consultation, like I did before.”

That’s code for: “Yeah, we’ve talked to New Brunswickers till we’ve gone blue in the face; so, dear citizens, deploy the public porto-potty of open opinion, or. . .well, vacate the pot forthwith.”

Here’s what’s heading towards the political abattoir over the next few months: The idea that drivers get to ride the roads in this province for free (some form of tolls for casual and industrial wheel-men and women are practically inevitable); the notion that smokers and drinkers will be saved from another hike in the cost of their so-called vices (of course, we’d quit, if we didn’t understand how valuable our shekels are to the provincial economy); and the long-standing, utterly absurd protest against a prudent hike in the Harmonized Sales Tax.

As for this last measure, a two per cent increase (from 13 to 15 per cent), accompanied by reasonable exemptions for low-income New Brunswickers, would generate an additional $250-million a year for this province.

Regardless, the horseman comes, brandishing the tools of his trade.

Now, it remains for us to duck his scythe by building the innovative, inventive, productive private sector that will prevent us from ever again laying down our heads on the chopping blocks of economic necessity. 

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The name game


In principle, I do not object to the notion of selling the naming rights to public infrastructure in New Brunswick.

But Tory Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch makes a fair point when he says the scheme, proposed by the Gallant government to raise badly needed cash, risks ignoring citizens who simply don’t possess the wherewithal to ensure that their names live on in splendid glory, affixed to the side of a bridge in the middle of Hicksville, Nowhere County.

“There’s a lot of people that have contributed significantly to the province of New Brunswick,” he told the Telegraph-Journal last week, “yet they maybe aren’t of great means or haven’t been able to donate hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to a capital campaign.”

Hear, hear!

Why, I, myself, have spent an inordinate amount of time pitching and boosting a mixed-used, multi-purpose downtown events center for Moncton. Let’s call that my contribution to the moral and spiritual health of the locality and dub the facility appropriately: “The Brucesplex”.

Of course, there’s also the contiguous system of pot-hole-riddled roads that my wife and I have travelled faithfully from Moncton to the Confederation Bridge, across the Abegweit Passage of the Northumberland Strait, and into Charlottetown, to visit our grand-kids and their parents. Henceforth, let us know these byways and highways collectively as “The Bruceway”.

Still, paupers like myself (even, unlike myself, genuinely influential ones) do nothing for the provincial budget by having their names gratuitously slapped on the odd park bench. As Victor Boudreau, the provincial minister responsible for the government’s strategic program review, told reporters last week, “If we can generate a million or two that doesn’t have to come out of the pockets of New Brunswickers to help us address the fiscal challenge we’re facing in the province, then maybe it’s a option worth considering.”

Clearly, then, this particular name game is reserved for the playgrounds of the rich and influential, where participants don’t mind forking over sizeable sums in return for designated immortality etched into the edifices of the province’s public works. This, naturally, raises other concerns among the hoi polloi; chief among them is the danger of branding New Brunswick according to the increasingly narrow constraints of those in possession of real money.

Last month, Barrie Examiner ran a piece touching on a similar issue in its neck of the woods. “Councillors heard the pitch about a plan to sell naming rights of city facilities and sponsorship of programs, events and other community initiatives,” reporter Bob Bruton wrote. “It could generate a net income of almost $850,000 during its first five years, after staff, marketing and servicing costs are paid. ‘Barrie is like a lot of municipalities. They are looking for new and innovative ways to find revenue,’ said Bernie Colterman, Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing, who’s been in the business for 20 years. ‘The timing is right for sponsorship. You have to look at this as a positive thing.’”

On the other hand, Councillor Bonnie Ainsworth worried that the community’s Eastview Arena, for example, might suffer from an inappropriate proximity to filthy lucre. “We don’t want someone to look up and have it named Jimmy’s Tow Truck Arena,” she said.

All of this, however, could be moot. As Marvin Ryder, a marketing professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, recently told The National Post, the name game may not be as remunerative as government officials hope.

“The only place where this has worked well is in sports facilities,” he said.

Indeed, in New Brunswick, a highway or a bridge by any other name would still be as harrowing.

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