Tag Archives: Petitcodiac River

Some kind of wonderful

Given the torrent of nonsense that masquerades as rational debate these days, it’s a miracle that anything useful ever gets done.

After all, when some random troll requires only a Twitter account to convince an alarming number of otherwise reasonable people that a certain U.S. president, who habitually equates lying with statecraft, is a breath of fresh air in a “post-truth” world, it’s tempting to flee the public square and hunker down for the coming dark age.

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost: Not everyone is either running for cover or gorging on low-hanging fruit from the tree of absurdity. Consider a couple of recent and nearby examples.

Decades ago, Moncton’s burgermeisters decided, in their wisdom, to approve the construction of a causeway to join their city with communities on the other side of the Petitcodiac River. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Commuters would love the faster traffic; businesses would appreciate the more reliable and timely delivery of goods for sale. What could go wrong?

Within scant years, the answer was plain to see. The river – once home to dozens of aquatic species, and a recreational fishery worth, according to estimates, as much as $75 million a year – had become a muddy, silt-choked parody of its former self.

Following a quick stop with her family in the 1980s to observe the Petitcodiac’s world-famous tidal bore – historically, a meter-high wall of surf that ran twice a day – American humorist Erma Bombeck stood on the river’s banks and watched a meagre ripple wend its way toward the head pond. “What the heck?” she quipped. “I retain more water than that.”

Over the years, attitudes about the river cleaved and hardened. For one camp – notably, those who had purchased property along the waterway and who, therefore, had skin in the real estate game – the status quo was just fine. For another more progressively minded cohort, the Petitcodiac’s sorry condition was economically embarrassing and environmentally shameful. Tear down the fixed link, this group insisted, and let the water flow the way nature intended.

By the mid-2000s, you could illuminate the dark side of the moon with the degree of daylight that shone between these two factions – thanks, in part, to the use of social media (what else?) as handy platforms for off-the-cuff fulminations.

Then, something happened – something extraordinary.

People actually started talking to one another. In coffee shops and council rooms, they exchanged ideas – real, considered (gasp!) ideas. Eventually, a consensus began to take shape.

What if members of the community compromised? Environmental and economic assessments were clear. Replace a portion of the causeway with a partial bridge that would allow the river to recover. Bank-side properties wouldn’t be negatively affected. If anything, their values would increase.

That was two years ago. Today, with the provincial and federal governments contributing about half, each, to the cost of the $62 million project, the renewal is underway. As for the fish, they’re back, and so is the tidal bore. Since 2013, surfers have come from as far away as California to ride the wave. Thousands gather along the banks to cheer. As for motor traffic, it, too, still flows.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is not as rare as many might lament.

Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library, which opened in 2014, have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

In fact, according to the library’s website, the effort involved “five large public meetings (while) staff and architects met with a number of special focus groups to ensure that (they) heard the voices of a wide cross-section of customers and citizens: African Nova Scotians, cultural organizations, persons with disabilities, First Nations, new Canadians, the literacy and learning community, parents and young children, and teens.”

Of course, the new library never was, and is not now, everyone’s cup of tea. But as a product of rational debate, collaboration and cooperation, it is pretty convincing proof that, despite the nonsense regularly issuing from the meme merchants among us, useful things actually do get done.

Call that wondrous in this fractious age. On the other hand, the finest miracles are still the ones we work together.

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A bridge too far?

0044_Bridge-WalkThese days, when I cross the water between Halifax and Dartmouth, I sometimes find myself denying the existence of bridges, especially during rush hour. This is despite the fact that I am evidently travelling on one and, from my perch in the passenger’s seat, I can see boats in the harbour and buildings on the near horizon – that is, if I care to look.

Naturally, I don’t care to look because my eyes are otherwise occupied by my smart phone, that tiny blinking box about the size of an old-timey dime-store novel from which the “real” news of the world, the “true” nature of reality, froths forth by the microsecond thanks to so-called social media.

“Apparently, some guy has proof that climate change is a hoax,” I mutter.

“Is that so?” my driving companion inquires absently.

“Yup,” I reply. “He also rejects claims that the Earth is spherical, that NASA ever sent men to the moon and that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.”

“Okay,” my friend says, “I’ll bite. Who did build the pyramids?”
“Aliens. . .I suppose you’ll want to know why.”

“Do tell.”

“Interstellar travel lounges.”

Why not? Who are we to begrudge weary Alpha Centaurians en route to Betelgeuse for the biannual lotus festival taking a well-deserved load off their tired dogs in north-Saharan Africa? Not everyone flies first class, you know.

I kid, of course. But there is a point.

In a world where fantasies increasingly supplant facts and rank opinions replace measured judgements, how long before we imagine that the state of things as they actually exist is far less absorbing (and, therefore, less legitimate) than the mechanics of our own tortured hallucinations?

Worse, perhaps, for the health of our public institutions, economy and the democratic rule of law, how long before this type of infantilizing meme-merchandising infects the body politic at the most basic level and in everyday ways?

How long? How does right about now sound?

In a 2016 piece, “Why are people so incredibly gullible?”, David Robson, a feature writer for the web magazine BBC Future, wrote, “Cast your mind back to the attack of the flesh-eating banana. In January 2000, a series of chain emails began reporting that imported bananas were infecting people with ‘necrotizing fasciitis’ – a rare disease in which the skin erupts into livid purple boils before disintegrating and peeling away from muscle and bone.”

The scare was completely. . . well. . .bananas, but that didn’t stop scores of people from rejecting an official report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control debunking the bizarre story. Or, as Robson reported, “Within weeks, the CDC was hearing from so many distressed callers it had to set up a hotline. The facts became so distorted that people eventually started to quote the (Centers) as the source of the rumour.”

Still, you don’t have to be a flesh-eating banana to know how easily and far we are prone to slip. Here in the Canadian Maritimes, we regularly replenish our various silos of stupidity with the cloyingly sweet elixir of self-righteous certitude.

Somebody writing on the Internet declares that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will kill us all – as will, indeed, fossil fuels in general. Somebody else, scribbling in the ethersphere, rejoins that environmentalists are nuts and that there’s nothing wrong with cracking slate to get at the good stuff to power our industrial lifestyle.

They’re both right and wrong – something they would know if they actually chose to talk to one another, rather than bury themselves in the popular “literature” of half-truths.

Fact: The science of climate change says we must reduce our consumption of petroleum products. Another fact: The science of engineering says we still need the junk to intelligently transition to a cleaner, more renewable future. The only question that should remains is: Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?

Fortunately, in many other ways many can and do here.

Consider the enormous amount of consultation, collaboration, tolerance and good will that was required to begin transforming the Petitcodiac River in Moncton, N.B., into a vibrant waterway that is quickly becoming the envy of nature lovers, commercial enterprises and local governments, alike.

While we’re at it, ask the question: Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

Think about the non-stop talking and sometimes-disputatious mediations that paved the way for Moncton’s freshly minted downtown event and cultural centre or the new marine sciences initiative on the Dartmouth waterfront.

These were not bridges too far to cross. And I can only assume that in the rooms where their construction began, all the smart phones were, for once, mercifully silent.

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Bridge over troubled waters


Monctonians, God bless them, sometimes forget their uncanny ability to embrace several municipal development opportunities and simultaneously push for support from higher levels of government.

After all, even provincial and federal office holders occasionally remember how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Liberal MP for Beausejour Dominic LeBlanc – who is also government house leader – managed to raise both hopes and eyebrows the other week when he indicated that Ottawa is completing plans to replace part of the causeway that connects Moncton and Riverview with a bridge.

According to a Moncton Times & Transcript report, “LeBlanc notes that the bridge project, that would allow a freer flow of the Petitcodiac River, has been underway for more than a decade. An ongoing environmental impact assessment analyzing the effects of the permanent opening of the causeway gates started in 2004. The gates were opened so that scientists could study the effect of the partial restoration of the tidal flow of the river in anticipation of some day taking out part of the causeway and building a bridge.”

Said Mr. LeBlanc in an interview: “The province has spent $55 million or $60 million doing a lot of the work to prepare for the removal of the causeway and the installation of a bridge. . .The exciting piece that will capture the public imagination is to restore the full tidal flow to the river. That’s something I was working on when Mr. (Jean) Chretien was prime minister 12 years ago. That’s the piece that, for me, is unfinished.”

Some have interpreted Mr. LeBlanc’s comments to mean that, for now, a much-needed, $90-million upgrade to the municipal sewage treatment system might have to proceed without federal government help. But David Muir, chairman of the Greater Moncton Wastewater Commission, thinks the refurbishment should be the first order of business. So does Riverview Mayor Ann Seamans.

Noted Mr. Muir: “Certainly we’d like to see all MPs support our project as the number one priority.” Added Ms. Seamans: “The deadline of 2020 (for the upgrade) makes the (plant) project foremost. It’s the federal government which imposed that.”

For his part, Mr. LeBlanc hasn’t ruled out providing funding for both causeway and treatment projects. “We’re going to spend a lot of money on green infrastructure, and I know the sewage commission project is very expensive,” he said last week. “It is also needed, and that will be looked at in the context of these other projects. In the normal course of infrastructure investments, the sewage commission project should be looked at as well.”

Still, he says, he doesn’t think the two capital developments “have to be linked.”

Actually, they do or, at least, should be.

In reality, the federal government is both morally and legally obliged to support both projects. Indeed, from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to proceed with one without the other.

A freer-flowing Petitcodiac River fulfills the intent of sections of both the Fisheries and Environment Acts, which seek to protect marine habitats and secure ecological integrity – especially where human agency has caused, or threatens to cause, harm. So does, it could be reasonably argued, a waterway that’s absent of pollution.

The issue, now, should be logistical, not financial.

If both projects are, in fact, designed to improve the health of natural and human environments, what steps are necessary to properly coordinate their execution? The last thing this tri-city area need are the unintended consequences of siloed development along a contiguous waterway.

Coordination might even save some money.

How’s that for walking and chewing gum?

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Bridge over troubled waters


Local activists spent decades twisting the right arms of federal politicians getting approval, five years ago, for a full-time, functioning fish passage through the causeway that connects the communities of Riverview and Moncton across the Petitcodiac River.

Now, it’s time to twist their left ones.

Provincial Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Roger Melanson may be a tad opportunistic (this being an election season, and all) when he asks national party leaders what, if anything, they intend to do about the second phase of the river’s planned restoration – a bridge that will replace a significant chunk of the existing fixed link – but he’s not wrong.

The permanent gate-opening has produced efficacious results that not even the most optimistic of riparian ecologists could have predicted back in 2010: The river is dramatically wider around The Bend; fish species have returned in droves; and the famed tidal bore has never been higher.

As a result, tourists have once again designated the banks of Atlantic Canada’s Big Muddy a choice destination on their calendar of things to do when hanging about southeastern New Brunswick in summertime.

Long-board surfers from California now routinely make the 6,000-kilometre trek, from their sun-bleached bivouacs, to “ride the tide” from the Petitcodiac’s mouth, near Fundy Bay, to the shores of Riverside Park (a 90-minute journey, by some accounts).

One of my sons-in-law – a marine biologist with a masters degree in environmental management, and as avid a surfer as God ever made – had never heard about the river’s “tidal bore, version 2.0” until he saw a lengthy clip on You Tube a couple of years ago.

“Alec,” he told me, “You know, I just have to do that.”

I have no doubt that he will.

All of which points to the obvious truth: When a community heeds, and invests in, the integrity of its natural splendors, the local economic impact can be as substantial as twinning a highway.

According to Parks Canada’s website, nationally protected areas make “a substantial economic contribution to (the country’s) economy. Through the spending of the organization and the visitors to Parks Canada’s National Parks, National Historic Sites and National Marine Conservation Areas, a significant and widespread economic impact is felt throughout the country.

“In 2008/09 Parks Canada’s organizational spending and visitor spending totalled $3.3 billion. Of this amount, visitor spending accounted for $2.7 billion and $587 million was spent by Parks Canada on three program areas. The overall national economic impacts derived from the spending attributed to Parks Canada on the Canadian economy are: Gross Domestic Product, $2,988 million; labour Income, $1,925 million; employment, 41,720 fulltime equivalents; tax revenue, $218 million.”

By my calculation, that’s a four-to-one return on public investment, which renders Parks Canada one of the most successful “businesses” in recent Canadian history.

Why, then, can’t the same logic be applied to the Petticodiac River – surely one of the most deserving heritage sites in this country that has not actually received designation?

It would begin with a bridge over the waterway where the causeway now stands. That edifice, with federal support, would further facilitate the natural flow of the river. Eventually, silt and mud would find their way to the coastal estuary and out into the sea.

Meanwhile, our duly protected riparian banks would become magnets for the environmentally sustainable development of public spaces – especially those that would support and augment a new downtown events centre complex.

In 20 years, or less, we might just well engineer a world-beating river restoration and find, to our astonishment, that we did something right.

Indeed, no arms needed to be twisted.

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Retooling New Brunswick’s economic engine

Resurgo, indeed!

Resurgo, indeed!

This past summer, the Petitcodiac River roared back to life, its tidal bore once more ascendent. Californian surf-boarders came to marvel at its muddy might and frolic in its frothy curl. You Tube went berserk and, for a short, sweet time, Moncton made headlines around the world.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that the city’s largest downtown hotel, the site of the first economic summit for the municipal region in 20 years, should overlook a waterway whose resurgence holds more than metaphorical meaning. After all, it was not fate that brought back the bore after an absence of 40 years; it was us, mere mortals, who opened the causeway flood gates and kept them open.

As 300 of the community’s movers and shakers from all avenues of life prepare to assemble tonight at the Greater Moncton Economic Summit 2014, one wonders: What new gates shall they open?

Not even the event’s organizers can be sure. “We don’t know what they are going to come up with,” Ben Champoux, CEO of Enterprise Greater Moncton, told the Moncton Times & Transcript. “The tangible result is we are going to have a list of great ideas that are realistic, that are tangible, that people agree with.”

Still, why gather and why now? By every possible yardstick, the Greater Moncton  area has exceeded its own and others’ expectations over the years.

Dieppe, Moncton and Riverview currently comprise the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) in Canada. In fact, the region has typically attracted at least three times as many people every year than any other area in New Brunswick.

Since 1990, this CMA has added more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce. The annual unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the Atlantic region and substantially below the national average.

In Moncton, alone, home sales in 2011 reached the fourth-highest level in the city’s history. Yet, with an average house price of $158,561, the municipality remained one of the most affordable housing markets in the country.

Meanwhile, the total value of building permits issued in 2011 reached $184 million, the second highest level on record. What’s more, retail sales reached $2.1 billion in 2011, 17 per cent higher than the Canadian Cities’ average.

Then, of course, consider Greater Moncton’s formidable technology sector: major Canadian customer contact and back office operations with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. It continues to leverage its success with a plan that calls for new partnerships with regional universities to deepen the region’s knowledge economy, diversify the IT economy, and actively promote tech-based entrepreneurship.

Given the broader context of a fiscally imperiled province and a moribund national economy, Greater Moncton is not only punching above its weight class; its punching above just about everyone else’s .

So, again, why bother brainstorming?

The answer is in the question. And it has something to do with an ounce of prevention.

Summits, conventions, conferences are only marginally useful when their conveners are mired in full-blown crises. Adrenaline and cortisol may be handy hormones to have in a fight. But they are not particularly conducive to rational, creative or innovative thinking.

Greater Moncton’s relatively healthy and prosperous economy permits the sort of blue-sky musings that arc out over the horizon to destinations that remain hidden in bad times. And, of course, the whole point of an idea factory, such as Summit 2014, is to figure out how to avoid the bad times altogether.

What new gates shall open, indeed?

What fresh ideas will be brought to bear on a downtown core that has, frankly, seen better days?

What will impel municipal officials and entrepreneurs to transform the concept of a multi-use events centre into actual bricks and mortar, sooner rather than later.

As Mr. Champoux astutely notes, “The dance floor is more crowded than ever before in economic development and business development. Let’s brainstorm and and define who we are now, what we want and how we are going to get there and who is going to lead that.”

Let us, indeed. Let us begin again.

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Catching Moncton’s “chocolate wave”

 Resurgo is action in latin. And that's a dead language. Get 'er done boys and girls

My father, the esteemed writer Harry Bruce, once allowed that while the construction of a causeway, in 1968, through the Petitcodiac River was not “the most monumental blunder in the history of atrocities mankind has inflicted on the environment,” it was, nonetheless, amongst the dumbest.

“By blocking the bore, the causeway forced it back on itself, and the silt that once hurtled upriver settled in the lower reaches of the Petitcodiac,” he wrote in 1995, in a piece for the Montreal Gazette. “It created a huge plain of greasy mud, and turned the river into a sluggish, unnavigable joke. The Tidal Bore deteriorated until the locals called it the Total Bore.”

He noted, pointedly: “American humorist, Erma Bombeck, drove across North America with her family to see what they expected to be a thrilling natural phenomenon. When they reached Moncton, she wrote, ‘A trickle of brown water, barely visible, slowly edged its way up the river toward us with all the excitement of a stopped-up toilet. . .I retained more water than that. . .It was a long time before anyone spoke. About 5,000 miles to be exact.’”

Ms. Bombeck didn’t live long enough to see what became of the river and its bore. But had she been one of the estimated 30,000 happy gawkers, who gathered along the Petty’s banks the other day, she would have sung an altogether different tune as a three-foot high wall of water, bearing a clutch of professional surfers from around the world, coursed upstream. One of them, a bright, young fellow from California, called it a “chocolate wave”. And it was.

Experts had predicted that, following the causeway gates’ permanent opening three years ago, decades might pass before anyone noticed any appreciable change in the river. The experts were wrong, though they weren’t complaining.

Last month, when the first of the new “super bores” arrived, Global News reported, “This is biggest one of the year. Daniel LeBlanc with Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, says it is only going to get more impressive in the coming years. ‘There’s no question that the reason we have a beautiful bore is because of the restoration of the river, (he said).’”

There’s also no question about the fact that nature, when left alone, can be remarkably self-correcting – a certain comfort at a time when the Province is struggling with the environmental implications of onshore oil and gas development.

For Moncton, at any rate, the return of the bore fairly drips with the sort of symbolism that city officials might otherwise pay good money to manufacture. The community’s motto is “resurgo”. What better way to illustrate the efficacious effects of sound planning (in the river’s case, the decision to allow its water to flow freely), than a resurgent tide?

What a stunningly marvelous backdrop to the statistics we routinely deploy to persuade newcomers to settle here: The fact that Moncton’s population growth rate since 2006 is 9.7 per cent, making it the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area in the country; the fact that Westmorland County has typically attracted at least three times as many people every year than any other county in New Brunswick; and the fact that, since 1990, the city has added more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce.

The bore is, of course, a creature of moon and tide, of gravity and specific density. But it is also a testament to change, to renewal, to possibility. Its return to its past glory is a handshake with the future – a future we write with every decision, every move we make today. What else do we imagine for ourselves? What will be the shape of our community 10 or 20 years from now?

The Petitcodiac’s restoration is not yet complete. The “monumental blunder” still stares at us, waiting grimly to be replaced by a partial bridge. Meanwhile, the tidal bore rushes in from the sea, roaring at us to greet all the days the will come with courage, conviction and, most of all, sheer, untrammelled delight.

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