Monthly Archives: July 2016

The take on clean tech


Assuming my personal pantheon of household gods – including the one that lords over my bank account – continues to gaze affectionately at my ramshackle abode in the west end of Moncton, I can imagine one day installing solar panels on my roof’s southern exposure.

I can even divine a day when a compact, ridiculously efficient wind turbine installed against my back fence feeds power to my smart-grid controller, which, in turn, tells my fridge when to run and my furnace when to start. Meanwhile, my spiffy, new Tesla Model S sits happily in my driveway fully charged until its next trip to the neighbourhood electrical boosting station.

Flights of fancy are the territories of the future. But, in important respects, the future might be just around the corner if certain federal and provincial officials in Atlantic Canada have anything to say.

The extent to which New Brunswick may expect to participate in what’s being billed far and near as the nation’s “clean technology revolution” depends entirely on public and private-sector willingness to get out in front of these developments. That this province – which needs all the innovative economic opportunities it can digest – should not hesitate is an obvious no-brainer.

Not long ago, while making a speech in Alberta, Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, announced more $206 million in funding for 36 clean technology projects across the country.

In a prepared statement, department officials stipulated that “Investing in innovation, supporting clean technology and encouraging sustainable practices will help create jobs, expand access to international markets and make Canadian companies more competitive in the global economy.

“The minister announced the investment in Sustainable Development Technology Canada,” which will, among things, provide “support for clean technology companies at a critical point in the innovation spectrum: it allows innovators to develop and demonstrate their technologies prior to entering the market. . .To stay competitive, Canada must lead the way in innovation and must embrace opportunities to create the clean jobs of the future. The Government of Canada will continue investing in innovative clean technology projects that grow local economies and promote environmental sustainability.”

Minister Bains, himself, stated, “Now is the time for Canadian companies to capture their share of the global market for clean technology. From waste management to biofuels to greener solutions for the oil and gas industry, these Canadian companies are leading the world in intelligent, environmentally responsible and economically sound solutions in a number of key economic sectors. . . Canadians understand that a healthy environment and a strong economy are not competing priorities.”

He’s right. Canadians do understand this – or, at least, they’re getting the picture. A study released last month by the group, Clean Energy Canada, found that spending on this sector in 2015 amounted to $10 billion. That was the second-best performance on record. Said the group’s executive director, Merran Smith, in the report: “We’re living in a new era of political resolve to tackle climate change. . .Spending on clean energy will likely grow again in the years ahead.”

Intriguingly, Clean Energy noted, spending on the sector in Atlantic Canada last year jumped by 58 per cent to just about $1.2 billion. Given the region’s relatively small population, that result compared favourably to Ontario’s $5.3-billion investment in renewable energy in 2015.

The trick, of course, for this region will be learning how to transform its traditional industries even as it embraces new, cutting-edge ones. It’s encouraging that this process seems to be underway.

My hunt for solar panels might not be so whimsical, after all.

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Away in a manger

It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that federal and Atlantic provincial leaders chose to meet in a barn the other day. After all, as any farmer will testify, barns are where the action is.

In fact, this particular barn was more of a renovated convention space located on federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s bucolic property in rural Prince Edward Island, but the significance of the location wasn’t lost on anyone observing the rare conclave of government officials. They had come, ostensibly, to get things done. And, by all accounts, they succeeded.

According to a news release, “The Government of Canada and the governments of the four Atlantic Provinces are working together to build a vibrant economic future for Atlantic Canada by focussing their efforts and resources to stimulate the region’s economy, support the middle class and address both long standing and emerging regional challenges.”

Specifically, the group – which included premiers Stephen McNeil, Brian Gallant, Wade MacLauchlan and Dwight Ball, and federal ministers MacAulay, John McCallum, Scott Brison, Dominic LeBlanc, Navdeep Bains, and Judy Foote – announced a new plan to “stimulate the region’s economy, support both innovative and resource-based industries, and increase job opportunities for Atlantic Canadians.”

High on the list was a commitment to boost immigration to the region. According to the post-meeting communiqué, “The first area of action focuses on skilled workforce and immigration with the introduction of a new three-year immigration pilot project aimed at addressing the unique labour market challenges in Atlantic Canada.

“When in place, the pilot project will help to better match the needs of local employers with the skill sets of immigrants while helping to improve the attraction and retention of newcomers in Atlantic Canada. Through this project the Government ‎will admit up to 2,000 immigrants and accompanying families in 2017, with rising numbers in the following years depending on performance. This is a substantial increase, amounting to almost half the current number of provincial nominees in Atlantic Canada. The federal and provincial governments will continue to undertake cooperative actions that will bring stable and long-term economic prosperity in Atlantic Canada and additional joint actions will be unveiled over the coming months.”

This is eminently good news, and for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, it demonstrates, for the first time in a very long time, that federal and provincial leaders are both able and willing to work together. Gone, one hopes, are the days of table-thumping and hand-wringing that were so unproductively numerous during the years of Conservative reign in Ottawa.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the decision to actively increase immigration to the region – a crucial bulwark of long-term prosperity for each of the Atlantic Provinces – is a clear indication that our elected officials not merely understand the key challenges facing the economy, but are actually equipped to do something about them.

Said Wade MacLauchlan, Premier of Prince Edward Island, in a statement: “To build on our successes and create sustained prosperity for Prince Edward Island, we must grow our workforce and continue to foster an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship. Working together with our Atlantic, federal and community partners, we will grow our population and create economic opportunities for the Atlantic Region.”

This might not sound like much. But consider the rising tide of acrimony, anger and outright hate welling in other parts of the world. The Atlantic region, and Canada as a whole, stands in sharp contrast to the vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States and Europe – a beacon of light, as it were, from a barn by the bay.

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The HST bogeyman


Okay, I get it. Everyone hates taxes. But there are taxes and then there are taxes – a distinction that certain business groups and assorted advocates routinely refuse to make as they stir their various pots of public outrage.

Here’s the background, courtesy of Chris Morris, who works the Legislature Bureau of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal: “According to numbers obtained from the provincial government through a right to information request, the (Canadian Taxpayers Federation) said (last) Monday promised tax credits won’t cover the additional costs for average working families.”

She continued: “The harmonized sales tax in New Brunswick will increase by two percentage points on Friday, Canada Day, to 15 per cent from 13 per cent. Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the taxpayers federation, a not-for-profit citizens group that lobbies for low taxes, said figures obtained from the Finance Department show that of the 331,309 households in the province, 225,361 – or 68 per cent – will pay more tax even after HST credits are factored in.”

As for Mr. Lacey, here’s what he told Ms. Morris in an interview: “If you are an average, middle-class working family, you are still going to pay big dollars under this HST increase. That is on top of income tax increases brought in three years ago. New Brunswick is going in the wrong direction with regard to taxes. Taxpayers are shelling out more and more every year.”

I understand that Mr. Lacey has a job to do, and more power to him. But a couple of things occur.

Firstly, the income-tax hike in New Brunswick came after a sustained period of income-tax reductions. So, as economists like to quip, it’s a zero-sum game. That said, taxes on income must be the most inequitable way possible to separate a middle-class family from its money.

The poor pay little or no taxes on their earnings. The rich have, at their disposal, plethora schemes (legal and otherwise) to avoid levies on their fat hauls. It’s the poor slobs in the middle (meaning, most of us) who bear the brunt of satisfying the taxman.

Secondly, virtually every economist in the world agrees that taxes like the HST, which is a consumption claw-back, is vastly more efficient and fair than an income one, as long as the former is not regressive – that is, it doesn’t hit the poor disproportionately hard, as they tend to spend most of what they earn.

As Laval University economist Stephen Gordon wrote in the Globe and Mail a few years ago, “The basic idea comes down to the role of taxes in determining the rate of return on investment. Higher returns generate higher levels of investment and – as investment accumulates – higher levels of productive capacity. That increased capacity in turn generates higher levels of output, employment and wages.”

On the other hand, he noted, income and corporate taxes reduce rates of return to the point where stuff doesn’t get done and people don’t get employed. Consumption taxes, meanwhile, levels out the playing field: You pay on what you buy. Again, though, they only work fairly if those who have little money to purchase anything qualify for timely rebates.

If the middle class does exist in New Brunswick (and the jury is still deliberating that point), Mr. Lacey and his ilk should advocate for rollbacks in taxes on income, not cuts to a regulated, humanely applied regime of consumption levies.

Even more useful might be pushing for a system that does not slip into regressive HST charges on the very people the Taxpayers Federation represents.

After all, some taxes are better than others.

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Yes we can


As a callow politico early in his career, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper once lambasted the Maritimes as a place where brooding mopes go to thrive. In fact, his exact words were: “There is a dependence in the region that breeds a culture of defeatism.”

He figured that his rebuke of the birthplace of Confederation – where he, himself, could trace a family connection – would play well among members of his archly conservative western base of voters.

In the end, of course, he paid the political price for his remark. Atlantic Canadians never forgot or forgave the criticism, though it took them more than eight years to help the rest of Canada show the good fellow the door.

On the other hand, was he altogether wrong?

Reflecting on this, some years later, I wrote that we, in this corner of the country, are most animated when others are picking on us. On these occasions, we stir from our Equalization-induced torpor and proclaim with one voice, and regardless of our internecine rivalries, “You, sir, are a cad.”

I observed how we love to foam and fulminate. We write letters to newspapers, post angry ripostes online and grant our premiers the right to defend our honour on the nightly news, as if we were so many swooning debutantes. And when we’ve had our fill, we return to our chambers to do what we do surpassingly well: Wait for things to happen to us.

Of course, I noted, it would be nice if the federal government didn’t cut us off at the knees whenever we managed to achieve something productive for ourselves. The history of this country has been a litany of taking from those who “have” and giving to those who “have not”. So many westerners remain deaf to the irrefutable argument that this nation was built, in tangible and evident ways, on Maritime ingenuity and wealth.

Still, in the end, I concluded, we mustn’t continue to blame Fat City for the structural weaknesses of our regional economy. This is all on us. And it’s time we do something; something extraordinary.

Times change, and oftentimes for the better. Over the past few years, I have detected a gradual, yet palpable, shift in attitudes in many parts of the Maritimes, where an almost fierce sense of cheerfulness in the face of continuing economic adversity prevails. This isn’t quite reflected in the condition of our various governments’ finances.

But in many communities, optimism has replaced pessimism and the dreadful word, “defeatism”, is rarely, if ever, uttered. Conclaves of leaders from all walks of life routinely gather to forge their joint futures together. Moncton is famous for this – constantly reinventing itself to anticipate the challenges and opportunities it faces. Yet, Fredericton does it, too. So does Saint John. So does Halifax and Charlottetown.

Meanwhile, the entrepreneurial class has, to my mind, never been stronger, never more vibrant.

I think of Malley Industries, which, it says, “manufactures ambulances, wheelchair accessible vehicles, specialized commercial fleets and plastic products for a wide range of industrial clients.” I think of Innovatia, a knowledge development company, which, it says, “is connected by passion for developing strategic solutions, and commitment to collaboration and teamwork. It’s all with the intention of delivery best-in-class client service.”

To be sure, we, in this region, still face obstacles. And we’re still prickly when people call us names and assume the worst about us.

But the mood is changing. Though we sometimes cleave to that tired trope, “No we can’t”, these days, we’re more often inclined to agree: Yes, we can.

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The sleep-walking cure

Oh to be a bluenoser now that the three-minute-long spring becomes us

It is one of those nights that occasionally afflict a man over a certain age when Morpheus refuses to show his drowsy face. I cannot get to sleep. Nothing works. Not chamomile tea. Not hot lemon water. Not even my regular go-to sedative: a good, stiff belt of New Brunswick’s very own gin thuya.

I think I’ll go for a walk.

One of my favorite observations about putting one foot in front of the other comes from American comic, Steven Wright: “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have time.”

Which is another way of saying the first rule of ambulating is to avoid destinations. If you know where you’re going, you’re not walking; you’re beating a deadline.

U.S. President Barack Obama once said, “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress,” which might have been a rejoinder to 20th Century author C.S. Lewis’s point that “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

Personally, I’m not all that interested in the progressive nature of my temperament. I’m going for a walk, and I’m going nowhere.

At 2 o’clock in the morning, my street is empty, and the air is as clear as my mind is cluttered. A mild breeze blows from the southwest, carrying on it the sweet scent of apple and cherry blossoms. I move down to the corner of Moncton’s Main West drag and Vaughan Harvey boulevard and head towards the new downtown event centre, rising lazily from the rubble.

I link my fingers through the fence and wonder what strange new structure will encompass the dinosaur bones of iron girders and cement foundation there. Will it be something the city’s citizens embrace, patronize, use? Or will it be another hockey arena? I begin to worry, so I move on. I am walking again.

I travel past the derelict storefronts just beyond the subway underpass, where restaurants and boutiques once delighted the urban core. Old signs about moving to new locations still festoon one window. I remember that time when, years ago, my wife and I entertained relatives at an early August lunch in that tiny, perfect district, and how we skipped home up Robinson Court, thinking about the little things that make life in a small city precious.

I trudge past the Capitol Theatre and stop, remembering my good friend, the late, great Marc Chouinard. As the General Manager there for many years, he was, in every important respect, “Mr. Downtown”.

I recall his acerbic wit and wisdom. Sometimes, he would turn to a patron of one of the city’s outdoor cafes and instruct: “Those pigeons up there aren’t going anywhere. I’m sure you don’t want poop in your soup. Tell the owner to clean up his act. We’ll all be happier for it.”

I laugh and head toward the river and remember the great effort to restore the mighty Petitcodiac to its former self – before the causeway of 1968. I conjure the image of California surfers riding the newly refreshed tidal bore 90 miles up from the estuary and into downtown Moncton.

As I walk home, I realize that I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere – longer than the place of my birth and the place of my upbringing.

I crawl into bed, careful not to wake my wife, and as I drift into sleep, I realize that this nowhere is everywhere.


Canada Day in Mariexit


It is July 1, 2036, ten years after Maritime economic union prompted the full political amalgamation of Canada’s former east-coast provinces.

The regional nation still maintains what its political leaders insist is a strong and productive relationship with the Great White North, though tensions over energy agreements with the newly formed Republic of Newfoundland and Labrador occasionally flare.

Overall, however, the consensus in this sea-bound jurisdiction is that life is pretty good. Since the Mariexit from Confederation, the area has become a dynamic tourism destination for people who actually have money. It’s one of North America’s leading purveyors of geriatric care. Its manufacturing industries – dominated by artisanal outfits specializing in bespoke booze, recreational marijuana, all-weather outdoor clothing, and ceramics (lots and lots of ceramics) – generate almost enough tax dollars to pay off a fraction of the government’s debt every year.

Who cares that it hasn’t been able to afford its universities and colleges in years, or that its export trade in homegrown technology has all but ground to a halt, or that virtually no one under the age of 45 lives there anymore?

It cherishes its independence above all things.

Now, if it could only figure out where to locate its national capital region.

A good flight of fancy is always a useful way to address the question, “Where are they now?” In this case, whatever happened to Maritime Union?

Not too many years ago, a version of it cropped up on the convention floors of vision conferences. The assembled participants called it Atlantica, a crucial feature of which would be a cross-border partnership with New England. Writing recently in Progressmedia, Perry B. Newman, the president of an international business development and consulting firm based in Portland, Maine, reflected on those heady days.

“More than a decade has passed, and much has been done to advance the notion of a cross-border region whose economies are linked, and whose assets might take their place (in) the world” he wrote. “But it’s clear that more needs to be done, and it’s equally clear that we need our vision to evolve.”

He added: “Of course, it must be said that we’re not working (or thinking) in a vacuum. Even as we advocated for better connectivity and the reduction of barriers to trade and the movement of goods, during the intervening years the world turned upside down in ways that directly affected the vision and realization of a cross-border economic region.”

Indeed, it did. In fact, it’s still turning. Brexit is proof of that. And this raises an interesting paradox. At what point does successful economic integration among like-minded nations, states and provinces lead to their political separation from existing arrangements, such as, for the sake of argument, Canadian Confederation?

Most experts insist that this extrapolation is absurd. Still, most experts were fatally wrong about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union last week. Admittedly, that move was the reverse of migrating from economic tethers among countries to a single political entity incorporating all. (No United States of Europe is ever likely to emerge). But the principle is the same. When people are invited to think about their economic fortunes and conditions, they are prone to consider their political ones as well.

At its heart, though, the tenets of economic union in the Maritimes are sound – even if they only extend to a full examination of the often-pernicious effects of inter-provincial trade barriers.

We need not worry about a dystopian Mariexit as we forge ways to band together in our joint interest along the East Coast of Canada.

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