Invest in kids, period

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m banging the drum slowly. What better use of public money is there than spending bucks on early childhood education? After all, the evidence is plastered on the faces of every citizen in this democracy of ours.

New Brunswick is doing its level best to reconcile education with cost. Still, policy makers here have not yet recognized that the price drops later when the investment arrives earlier.

Here’s what a recent Conference Board of Canada report says, according to the nation’s public broadcaster:

“Canada is lagging the world in spending on early childhood education – and it’s going to cost the economy in the long run, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada suggests.

“In a paper published (late last month), the think-tank argues that for every dollar spent on early childhood education programs, the economy gets about $6 worth of economic benefits down the line. Not only do such programs give kids a head start, but they free up parents to work and increase the family’s income, too. ‘The science is unquestioning,’ said Craig Alexander, the group’s chief economist and one of the authors of the report. ‘There’s clear evidence that kids develop better and stronger essential skills,’ he said, ‘and we can basically show that this does act to reduce income inequality.’”

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Does this sound oddly familiar at this time in the recent history of western civilization?

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail two summers ago. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education is teaching empathy to preschoolers: Putting oneself in another person’s shoes; coping with strong emotions; understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

We become what we learn in this province. Let’s make that lesson endure.

Use it or lose it

How do I love thee, federal government? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my bank account can reach, when feeling out of sight for years on end. I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet infrastructure announcement, by sun and candlelight.

My apologies to the late Elizabeth Barrett Browning for butchering one of her finer sonnets, but expediency sometimes trumps good taste (Hey, see what I did there? The words “trump” and “good taste” floated in the same sentence?)

But I digress.

Whenever Ottawa grants money for big builds in Atlantic Canada (and elsewhere in this country), provinces and municipalities are expected to pick up the slack, regardless of their respective economic circumstances. That’s the reality of a three-tiered system of government. Is this fair? Is it even sensible? Does it matter? It’s simply a fact of living and working in what the United Nations terms as one of the top ten jurisdictions on Earth for that ineffable, yet desirable, designation: Best Place Ever!

Now, we learn that New Brunswick simply hasn’t spent enough money in the federal tax pouch. In fact, this province is $30 million shy of its target, and if we don’t use it pronto, we’ll lose it. Or so says a piece this week in the Telegraph-Journal:

“The Gallant government says there is ‘absolutely no risk’ that (the federal money) earmarked for New Brunswick will go unspent before a looming deadline. . .A recent report showing spending from Infrastructure Canada says the federal government has given provinces an territories an ultimatum: Identify projects or all the money left from a 2014 infrastructure program or watch it go elsewhere.”

How delicious and how exquisite this is. We all pay into the Canada Revenue Agency and assume that our contributions will not only compensate national MPs and their senatorial counterparts for their sometimes bullish and oftentimes somnambulant protestations, but also ourselves – in our publicly assented pension plans, in reasonable management of our funds, in sense and sensibility from our public servants.

Yet, there remains this from a Government of Canada website:

“The Gas Tax Fund provides municipalities with a permanent, predictable and indexed source of long-term funding, enabling construction and rehabilitation of core public infrastructure. It offers local communities the flexibility to make strategic investments across 18 different project categories, including roads and bridges, public transit, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and recreational facilities. The fund promotes investments in increased productivity and economic growth, a clean environment, and strong cities and communities. The Gas Tax Fund started in 2005-2006 and is ongoing.”

Then there’s this: The Municipal Asset Management Program (MAMP) delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is a five year, $50 million program that will help Canadian municipalities make informed infrastructure investment decisions based on sound asset management practices. The MAMP was launched in February 2017 and is scheduled to end in 2021-2022.”

And this: “The Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is a five-year, $75 million program that provides funding, training and resources to help Canadian municipalities adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The MCIP was launched in February 2017 and is scheduled to end in 2021-2022.”

Use or lose?

To butcher, again, the prose of the great poet Browning, I will quote: “With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”

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N.B.’s property tax vernacular

What the heck does the word “pictometry” mean? Apparently, it denotes one reason why New Brunswick’s property tax assessments this year were an utter fiasco. After all, when you find human eyes simply blind to good sense, transparency and accountability, look no further than the bafflegab of techno-speak, courtesy of our various levels of government.

To be clear, pictometry means this: “It is the name of a patented aerial image capture process that produces imagery showing the fronts and sides of buildings and locations on the ground. Images are captured by low-flying airplanes, depicting up to 12 oblique perspectives (shot from a 40 degree angle) as well asan orthogonal (overhead) view of every location flown. These perspectives can then be stitched together to create composite aerial maps that seamlessly span many miles of terrain. Because they are taken from an angle, the pixels associated with pictometry images are trapezoidal, rather than rectangular. This necessitates special software and algorithms to accurately determine objects’ size and position on the maps.”

That’s from Wikipedia. And what I have to say about this is “Oh grand”. Send in the drones. It’s not as if we suffer enough intrusion of our private lives. Can one of these low-flying planes hover and land, pick up my grandkids’ toys, rake my leaves, paint my house before the snow flies? Yes, yes, can it also hang around and shovel my driveway?

Strangely, pictometry spectacularly failed the Gallant government this year. Said a report by the public broadcaster last week: “An internal Service New Brunswick document obtained by CBC News shows senior civil servants who were asked to explain what went wrong with a new property assessment system this year put Premier Brian Gallant at the ‘genesis of a decision to fast track the project. The document, obtained by a right to information request, was drafted in early April for a Service New Brunswick board of directors meeting and was released to CBC News late last month.”

Oh yes, this report goes on as you might expect: “The paper, titled ‘Fast track project Genesis moments’ claims the decision to abandon a multi-year implementation plan for a new property assessment system in favour of quick deployment was initiated on the afternoon of May 6, 2016, the same day Gallant was shown the new technology, known as pictometry.

“The term, fast track, was born following a pictometry presentation to the Premier during the Open House at the new created Digital Lab,” reads the briefing paper prepared for the board. “In the afternoon, the CEO of the time requested to accelerate this initiative.”

Again, “Gallant has denied any role in pushing for the accelerated adoption of the troubled new assessment system and on Tuesday his office questioned the accuracy of the newly released document, saying the premier and Gordon Gilman, the CEO of Service New Brunswick at the time, had no discussions with each other at all that day.”

Here’s what pictomtery means to me: surveillance, stupidity and incoherence. It also means incredibly bad English, diversion and a young premier’s hope that his vision weighs more heavily on the current generation than it does on history. Pictometry? Here’s the scoop: Pictometry technology was created and is owned by Pictometry International Corporation, which licenses the technology to companies across the globe. It is protected under US law, including Patent Ser. No. 60,425,275, filed Nov. 8, 2002.

Good to know. That still doesn’t explain why human eyes were blind to their evident failings, to their own hubris, to their own faith in words that make no sense.

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Scheer hope for local Tories

If browbeaten New Brunswick Tories were looking for some daylight in the political wilderness, they may have found it in the affable, perpetually smiling, slightly pudgy visage of 38-year-old Andrew Scheer.

Last weekend, the youthful Member of Parliament for Regina – Qu’Appelle and former Speaker of the House of Commons between 2011 and 2015, squeaked out what most pundits believed was impossible: He became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada at a convention in Mississauga.

The chattering classes were aflutter (or, perhaps, the correct word is ‘atwitter’) about the result as they slipped all over their tongues to confirm that, of course, they actually saw it coming.

Wrote esteemed Globe and Mail political columnist John Ibbitson during the hangover of a long political night of short knives: “Yowser. Conservative voters concluded, by the narrowest of margins, that Andrew Scheer’s sensible conservatism was a safer choice than the dogmatic libertarianism of Maxime Bernier. They are probably right. The genial former Speaker of the House of Commons, despite a seasoning of socially conservative policies, is likely to be more saleable against Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the next election – much more a Stephen Harper 2.0, but with a smile. Common sense won out over ideology, organization and fundraising. In a mature party, it usually does.”

Naturally, the question is whether this is a mature party. It wasn’t that long ago when Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay shook hands and effectively sacrificed the Progressive Conservative traditions of Eastern Canada’s Red Tory machine (Robert Stanfield, Brian Mulroney) at the alter of the hard-right social predilections of Western Canada’s Reform movement (Preston Manning, Stockwell Day).

By every account (including the one that issues from Mr. Scheer’s own mouth), nothing has changed to alter that agenda. In his victory speech on Saturday, the new kid in town had this to say: “We all know what it looks like when Conservatives are divided; we will not let that happen again. . .I’m here to tell you that the pain and hardship that the Trudeau liberals are causing Canadians is just temporary. . .We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders. . .One of the things that has motivated me is the belief that I cannot allow Justin Trudeau to do the same thing to my five children that his father did to my generation.”

For heaven’s sake, young fellow, you got the job. Let’s start hearing about substantive matters of policy that truly differentiate you and your ostensibly ‘unified’ party from Stephen Harper’s past and Justin Trudeau’s present.

Still, for his part, New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs couldn’t be happier about the outcome.

“His (Scheer’s) views aligned with issues we have,” he told The Telegraph-Journal earlier this week. “I think he resonated with the province. I think he’s recognizing the importance of different industries within the Atlantic region and how devastating massive changes can be. We can’t take the status quo as the only solution but I think he demonstrated a real willingness and desire to make sure that New Brunswick was looked after.”

Oh, sure. I am indefatigably certain that this province’s best economic and social issues figured prominently in this young man’s startlingly successful rise to power. Indeed, I believe I heard the fine, family-oriented fellow mention “New Brunswick” exactly. . .oh, I don’t know. . .zero times.

Brian Gallant has his Justin Trudeau. Now, it appears, Blaine Higgs has his Andrew Scheer.

How’s it all working out for the rest of us?

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The meaning of leadership

You can find them in all walks of life, in all fields of endeavour. They seem to walk taller, though not necessarily speak louder, than the rest of us. They rarely shout, but they always inspire through their deeds and words.

They are the leaders among us.

I was reminded of this while reading a short piece in the Telegraph-Journal about Scott McCain, owner of the Saint John Sea Dogs, who addressed his team before a recent play-off game in Windsor, Ontario.

According to team forward Bokondji Imama, “He told us that he was already proud of us and that we’ve had a hell of a season, so that kind of gave us back our confidence. He said that whatever happens, he’s always going to be proud of us and he’s always going to love us.”

Added team captain Spencer Smallman: “He came in and just wanted to reassure us that from a organization standpoint, he had full confidence in us. He definitely psyched the boys up. It means so much. He’s a powerful guy. He’s right at the top, and none of this would be possible without him. We’re very grateful for him, and to hear those words and see it in his eyes how confident he is us, I think the confidence spread through the room.”

I know Scott McCain personally, and he has always struck me as a natural leader. But are leaders born or made? As U.S. business consultant Erica Andersen wrote in Forbes Magazine a few years ago, “What I’ve learned by observing thousands of people in business over the past 30 years, though, is that – like most things – leadership capability falls along a bell curve.  Some people are, indeed, born leaders.These folks at the top of the leadership bell curve start out very good, and tend to get even better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve: that bottom 10-15 per cent of people who, no matter how hard they try, simply aren’t ever going to be very good leaders. They just don’t have the innate wiring.

“Then there’s the big middle of the curve, where the vast majority of us live. And that’s where the real potential for ‘made’ leaders lies. It’s what most of my interviewers assume isn’t true – when, in fact, it is: Most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.”

This must be indisputably good news for New Brunswick and the rest of the Atlantic Provinces. It’s doubtful there’s ever been a time in the recent past of this region when good leaders have been in heavier demand. And the possibility that most of us, given the chance and under the right circumstances, can become the heroes of our lives is, frankly, comforting.

So then, what shall our leadership qualities look like? Think about Donald Trump’s nest of psychological predilections and reverse them.

Good leaders are not narcissists. They are empathizers, because to motivate people, they must understand what makes others tick.

Good leaders are not bullies. They are negotiators, because to get anything done well, they must inspire, not threaten or cajole.

Then there’s the usual shopping list of characteristics business magazines and related websites are fond of trotting out: honesty, confidence, the ability to delegate chores, passion, a sense of innovation, integrity, authenticity, patience, open-mindedness, determination, decisiveness.

We can observe genuine leaders in all sectors of our society – government, education, health care, the arts, business.

Just take some time and look closely.

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The ‘Big Smoke’ – Part II

IMAG0604We walk down to the municipal park, my grandkids and I, past the garbage bins and recycle containers and into the broad, well-tended expanse of splash pools and basketball courts. These recreational areas are everywhere in some parts of Toronto. In a city of this monumental size, the idea is to get the kits and pups out of their tiny, fractional backyards.

It’s a downtown development strategy no one talks about in the burg that Drake named. Here, in Moncton, maybe that’s a conversation we should have. In every other respect, though, we don’t know how lucky we have it.

Late last month, the CBC reported, “All three levels of government (will) meet Tuesday in Toronto to figure out ways to cool the red-hot real estate market in the region, where average home prices have shot up 33 per cent in a year.

Immediately after figures revealed the average home in the Greater Toronto Area cost $916,567 in March, Finance Minister Bill Morneau called for the meeting with his Ontario counterpart Charles Sousa, and Toronto Mayor John Tory.”

As Mr. Morneau fretted that he is “concerned that dramatic price increases will have long-term implications for housing affordability and housing market stability,” Mr. Sousa added that he was almost scornful of those with “deep pockets. . .crowding out families who are trying to put down roots.”

Indeed, as the Globe and Mail reported in February, “Bank of Montreal is not backing down from a call that residential real estate prices in the Toronto area are moving too fast: economists at the bank are comparing prices to a runaway train. BMO recently urged market watchers to drop the pretense and acknowledge that Toronto’s housing market is in a bubble.”

The piece continued: “Chief economist Douglas Porter explains he made the bold call to reinforce the message that the market has lost contact with economic fundamentals and has the potential to become dangerously overheated. ‘This is not a near-term call on the market,’ he stresses, “in fact, given the outlook for interest rates and an improving underlying economy, there’s nothing obvious to meaningfully slow the market at this point,’ Mr. Porter says in a note to clients.”

Of course, for big cities around the developed world, there’s nothing new in any of this. Vancouver has, for years, been hobbled by absurdly high house prices. Rental markets have also been squeezed to the point where some reasonably paid workers have been forced to bivouac – if only temporarily – in their cars and trucks.

Still, affordability is one social measure of income and labour market stability, and it speaks directly to the equitable distribution of wealth. According to a Statistics Canada report, based on 2011 data, for example, “the population of Moncton census metropolitan area (CMA) was 138,644, representing a percentage change of 9.7 per cent from 2006. This compares to the national growth of 5.9 per cent and to the average growth among all CMAs of 7.4 per cent. . . In total, there were 58,294 private dwellings occupied by usual residents in Moncton in 2011. The change in private dwellings occupied by usual residents from 2006 was 13 per cent. For Canada as a whole, the number of private dwellings occupied by usual residents increased 7.1 per cent.”

Moncton is not yet in any credible danger of travelling down Toronto’s path. But safe, affordable housing is an issue that’s becoming urgent in almost every urban area of Canada. Wise political moves and intelligent social policy should mitigate the effects of runaway market forces – if we have enough foresight.

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Compelled by joy

FullSizeRenderWith the world the way it is, that simple and sweet feeling under the sun is elusive and almost unnameable. What is it? Walk down any street in Moncton as the season turns and it comes to you: a fleeting moment of actual joy.

Keep walking, and it grows in your breast. If only we could bottle it. Is the suggestion that this should be the organizing principle buttressing Moncton’s economic and social development too naive, too radical?

‘Joy’ is one of those funny words in the English language. Often, people assume it is a permanent state of being – something to which we must aspire. Some link it, exclusively, to a theistic condition of thought. Consider, for example, this excerpt from 20th-Century scholar C.S. Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy: Top of Form

“You must picture me alone. . .night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

He continued: “I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words ‘compelle intrare,’ compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Nicely said, though I lean towards secular rather than scriptural salves. When U.S. President Donald Trump floods the Twitterverse with his absurd, xenophobic epistles, I go for long, meandering strolls.

Moments of joy: Listening, on my IPhone, to the Bare Naked Ladies and The Persuasions jam with complete, hopeful abandon; listening to anything by The Strumbellas; listening to Neil Young trill ‘Old Man’ now that he his just that guy; listening to Leonard Cohen’s last album, because, yes, I want it darker; listening to K.D. Lang sing ‘Hallelujah’.

Moments of joy: Watching, again on my IPhone, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie eviscerate establishment predicaments.

“Hugh: Underneath the bellied skies, where dust and rain find space to fall, to fall and lie and change again, without a care or mind at all for art and life and things above; in that, there, look just there. No right, left, up, down, past, or future, we have but ourselves to fear.

“Stephen: Hugh, you chose that poem; for God’s sake why?

“Hugh: I chose it for a number of reasons.

“Stephen: I see, the most important one being?

“Hugh: because it was short.”

Time is, indeed, short. But, somehow, it gets deliciously longer when we begin to rebuild the world one community’s brick at a time. That simple and sweet feeling under the sun – as often fleeting as it might be – is ours to recognize and embrace.

Here, as I stroll, Moncton wants to rebuild its downtown even as it strives to welcome newcomers from strife-riddled parts of the world. Keep trying.

Joy is just around the corner.

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Blowing in the wind

DSC_0007If, as New Brunswick’s ombud suspects, certain government officials have been oblivious to their own whistleblower law, the question remains: How surprising is that? After all, emperors always adore their nice, new clothes; they almost never appreciate learning that they aren’t wearing any.

According to a CBC report the other week, “Charles Murray says the five-year-old legislation is rarely used, but it’s taking on new importance in the property-assessment (issue), given that Premier Brian Gallant says he learned key details after they were leaked to the media. ‘I think it’s relevant every day in terms of all kinds of discussions,’ Murray said. ‘But it’s become specifically relevant in this case because the indication from the premier is that even top members of government were unaware of certain facts until someone had stepped forward.’”

In fact, the Public Interest Disclosure Act is straightforward, and its protections are clear. “The purpose of this Act is to facilitate the disclosure and investigation of significant and serious matters in or relating to the public service, that are potentially unlawful, dangerous to the public or injurious to the public interest, and to protect persons who make those disclosures.”

On that last point, the legislation specifically states, “No person shall take a reprisal against an employee or direct that one be taken against an employee because the employee has, in good faith, sought advice about making a disclosure from his or her supervisor, designated officer or chief executive, made a disclosure, or cooperated in an investigation under this Act.”

Regardless of who said what to whom – and who knew what and when they knew it – in the property-assessment fracas, governments have always maintained complicated postures regarding matters involving potentially embarrassing disclosures. Even a cursory examination of recent dealings with some of the province’s legislative watchdogs will tell you that.

Take the aforementioned Mr. Murray and his colleague, the province’s child and youth advocate Norman Bosse. Less that two years ago, the Telegraph-Journal carried their joint commentary, which amounted to a stern rebuke of the apparently common practice of staying any and all investigations into potential conflicts of interest by elected members of the Assembly who have, for whichever reasons, ceased to sit as functioning MLAs.

They noted: “When allegations of misconduct are made against our elected representatives, all New Brunswickers have an interest in the result. If an MLA has been unfairly accused, that Member deserves to be exonerated by a completed process, rather than have their reputation permanently marked by the accusation. Where the Member has erred, they deserve the censure appropriate to their misconduct and all Members can learn from the guidance the investigation provides.”

What’s more, they stated, “Requiring investigations to end when a Member resigns or is defeated gives an incentive for trivial complaints and encourages delay and non-co-operation on the part of the investigated – a problem Conflict of Interest Commissioners past and present have noted in their reports.”

All of which prompted Premier Gallant to respond thusly: “I’m not 100 per cent sure exactly why they (Messrs. Murray and Bosse) felt it was their place to make (a) comment. This is the conflict of interest commissioner’s role and we will certainly speak to him to see how we can improve the rules. . .I’m not sure how the child and youth advocate has a role to play when it comes to conflict of interest with politicians.”

Is it any wonder then that whistleblowing within the public service is, at the best of times, rare? That it should become commonplace would be the real surprise.

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Surviving ‘The Big Smoke’

DSC_0153Toronto was, once upon a fanciful time, one of the least assuming major cities in the western world. Affordable, polite, even deferential, it stood there on the North American landscape with nothing to offer but its reputation for blurting to the world: “Sorry, eh?”

Times have changed. I now walk through the neighbourhoods of my youth and witness the full-scale transformation of tiny shacks, which may have cost hopeful, young couples all of $12,000 to buy in the early 1960s; today they’ll set you back about a million bucks.

How do I, a Toronto boy, reconcile my kid memories, growing up in the city’s once-gritty, amazingly fun Yorkville district with the recent news?

“The average selling price of all homes in the Greater Toronto Area skyrocketed last month, climbing 33.2 per cent from a year ago to $916,567,” blared the Toronto Star last week. “The latest data from the Toronto Real Estate Board comes as policy-makers mull potential measures to slow the rapid pace of price growth. Here are some of the factors believed to be playing a role in the upward trajectory of house prices in Canada’s largest city:

The arrival of newcomers to the city is a frequently cited reason for rising prices. Roughly 120,000 people immigrated from outside of Canada into Ontario from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, according to Statistics Canada, with a sizable portion of them landing in the Toronto area. ‘(The city) is a magnet for both other Canadians and for people from other countries, and it’s the economic engine of the entire country,’ said Dianne Usher, senior vice-president at Johnston and Daniel, a division of Royal LePage.”

Then, there’s this from the same news source: “One of the culprits often fingered for soaring prices in the GTA is the lack of developable land. In 2005, the Ontario government introduced the Places to Grow Act, a piece of legislation aimed at protecting the Greenbelt and curbing urban sprawl. However, the legislation is often also blamed for escalating real estate prices, as some argue there isn’t enough land to build homes. Usher says the two land transfer taxes that Torontonians have to pay have also discouraged many from selling their homes, further exacerbating the supply problem. ‘It’s stopping people from moving up,’ says Usher. ‘They’re renovating and adding on instead of moving.’”

As we endure another round of ‘he-said-they-said’ nonsense in New Brunswick’s everlasting controversy broiling over property-tax assessments, we might remember that other municipalities in this grand nation of ours remain absurdly overpriced. That shouldn’t render us sanguine about our own circumstances, but nor should we jump to conclusions about the putative land of milk and honey that Toronto – ‘The Big Smoke’, ‘The Six’ – has always represented.

A place is only as accommodating as its citizens decide it must be. For my money – both figurative and literal coin – Moncton has been the most welcoming burg in my getting-younger life. It routinely opens its hearts and minds to newcomers. It may struggle with the condition of its downtown, its cultural cohesion, its frequently challenging school system and educational amenities, but it has never failed to improve, evolve and remain essentially liveable.

Sadly, I can no longer say that about the city where I was born, some 1,000 kilometres due west, up the track.

Shortly, my better half and I will board a plane to visit our daughter, son-in-law and their two beautiful kids in the gritty heart of TO.

You can bet that city won’t be blurting: “Sorry, eh?”

A new feeding frenzy

DSC_0028It can’t just be my fevered imagination, but are governments practically everywhere, for their own unique and inexplicable reasons, providing major media with the most succulent red meat they’ve served in years?

Carefully measured gruel of the thinnest possible variety was once the specialty of the day in the communications departments and press offices that tend to the elected class even as they cater to the Fourth Estate. Not anymore. Chow’s up boys and girls. Come and get it.

According to a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy issued late last year, coverage of Donald Trump during the election campaign that ultimately elevated him to President of the United States, “was negative from the start and never came close to entering positive territory. During his best weeks, the coverage ran 2-to-1 negative over positive. In his worst weeks, the ratio was more than 10-to-1. If there was a silver lining for Trump, it was that his two best weeks were the ones just preceding the November balloting.”

Not that any of this actually hurt the man in the final outcome. But, closer to home, what are we to make of the fortunes of certain members of New Brunswick’s government tied up in what should properly be an exquisitely boring subject: property tax assessments?

An exclusive penned for Brunswick News Inc. by Adam Huras last month reported that “a decision to fast-track the implementation of a new property assessment system was presented to the premier’s office as a move that could bring in $5.7 million in new revenue for government in 2017, according to documents obtained by the Telegraph-Journal.”

What’s more, “emails suggest that the premier’s office knew how lucrative this plan would be and agreed that it should move ahead. But an email from (the premier’s chief of staff) Jordan O’Brien to Service New Brunswick also anticipated public backlash, suggesting ‘that media be advised that people being assessed weren’t being gouged but had been getting a break in the past.’”

Apparently, that particular point failed to grab the attention of the general public as the story quickly shifted to the plight of many property owners whose annual taxes rose, in some cases, by 30, 40, even 60 per cent.

All of which prompted New Brunswick Union president Susie Proulx-Daigle to state, “Assessors had nothing to do with the development and deployment of the formula. The New Brunswick Union is deeply troubled by the statements made recently by premier Gallant in regards to the property tax situation. First and foremost, the blame for this problem does not sit with the assessors, it rests with the elected officials. They need to take responsibility for their actions in this matter.”

In fairness, the premier has indeed apologized to property owners in the province and appointed a retired judge to determine precisely how all of this happened in the first place.

Still, this is an unmitigated disaster for the spin rooms of the province. On the bright side, it fairly demonstrates the potency and social currency of a responsible press, confidence in which has been eroding in this country and others for some time. “No one needs to tell me about the importance of the free press in a democratic society or about the essential role a newspaper can play in its community.” The late Robert Kennedy said that. But the sentiment could fairly apply anywhere.

Of course, the question for government types to answer is: When did they start making the media’s jobs so easy? Ring that dinner bell. The troops are hungry.

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