Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 1: Social Media Use So Far

Throughout the 2015 municipal election campaign, I’ll be posting a series of short pieces on items which have caught my attention. In Greater Sudbury, there are already dozens of candidates who have stepped forward to run for Mayor and in the 12 Ward races, yet there has been little talk about some of the issues and ideas which many of these candidates have been discussing – discussions largely limited to just themselves.

Our local mainstream media simply doesn’t have the resources to follow the ward campaigns in any detail – and with only one mainstream candidate, current Ward 5 Councillor Ron Dupuis, having declared for position of Mayor so far, coverage of city-wide election issues has been fairly light (although well-funded ultra-right-wing fringe candidate Dan Melanson, the former talking head of the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association – essentially the Conservative Party at the Municipal level – stirred things up a little bit with last week’s announcement that he’ll be seeking the Mayor’s chair – and stirred up his anonymous right-wing social media minions to publicly abandon our current Mayor, Marianne Matichuk – it was truly a sight to behold as anonymous Con trolls twisted themselves up in pretzel knots to publicly disown Matichuk after years of uncritical support).

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, social media forums have been pretty quiet too, even though a number of candidates are on two of social media’s most popular sites, Facebook and Twitter. It may be that some of the candidates don’t use social media as part of their day-to-day communicating in the real world, and haven’t therefore transitioned into using it as part of their campaign. Or it may be that social media really isn’t the best way of connecting with local residents for municipal ward races, particularly in a City such as Greater Sudbury where ward boundaries don’t make much sense.

Ward 9's Aaron Beaudry

A couple of candidates, however, have been standouts with their use of social media, in my opinion. Ward 9 candidate Aaron Beaudry has been actively trying to engage people through Twitter. From what I’ve seen of Beaudry, he’s using Twitter in a way that the social media tool was meant to be used – yes, a number of his tweets are “broadcast” type tweets, but he intersperses those with engaging tweets that ask questions about local issues. He also provides his followers with personal insights about himself and his family. And Beaudry often engages with other tweeters on the issues. Of all the candidates running for election in Greater Sudbury, Aaron Beaudry is the stand-out Twitter user.

My only complaint about Beaudry’s Twitter use is that, early on in his campaign, he decided to block me, likely because I made a disparaging remark about his refusal to publicly discuss on Twitter some of the ideas that he was broadcasting. I called him out for responding to a couple of tweets with “call me and we’ll discuss” responses, rather than engaging with tweeters on Twitter. Blocking critics probably isn’t the best Twitter strategy to employ – but at least Beaudry has generated enough interest on Twitter to actually have critics. As for the other candidates, Twitter has been a bit of a wasteland – so far.

Robert Kirwan's "Long Game" in Ward 5

Robert Kirwan is the other social media maven stand-out in the election campaign so far – and perhaps an unlikely one. Kirwan’s strategy has been to play the long-game. As a an elected Trustee for the Rainbow District School Board, Kirwan has been through the election campaign ringer before. Kirwan is also the founder of the locally popular “Valley East Today” website – a website which whisks its users back to the pre-amalgamation glory days of Valley East through an interface that screams for 1997’s Netscape Navigator. Kirwan also administers the popular Valley East Today Facebook Group (yes, Facebook still has groups), has over 1,500 subscribers, and a fair bit of active commentary.

After years of building local followers, Kirwan has been using both the Valley East Today website and Facebook group to push his campaign. Indeed, according to information available on the City of Greater Sudbury's website, when Kirwan registered to run for Ward 5, he listed his official campaign site as www.valleyeasttoday.ca – I can’t help but wonder what the local businesses and church groups who sponsor that site think about it having been turned, in part, into a campaign site seemingly overnight – or how Kirwan might be accounting for their financial contributions towards the maintenance of what is now his campaign website – but those are questions for another day.

Today’s point is that through the use of both the Valley East Today website and Facebook group, Kirwan has posted a significant amount of content – including video files of his CKLU radio show, “The Learning Clinic”, on which this year he has been discussing municipal issues with other election candidates. Kirwan has also created a space on this website where he has invited other candidates in Wards 5 and 6 (the two wards which cover the former Town of Valley East) to share their thoughts on local issues. Right now, only candidate Kirwan has uploaded any opinions on the issues – which is good for those who want to find out his thoughts on things such as transit in the Valley or the Barrydowne Extension.

It may be the lack of participation of the other candidates on Kirwan’s site is because, well, why on earth would another candidate choose to post materials to a website under the complete control of one’s opponent? Or for that matter, why would another candidate want to try force their own opinions into narrow boxes as defined by one’s opponent? If I were running a campaign, I would advise my candidate to avoid this kind of pigeon-holing like the plague.

Of course, not participating will provide Kirwan with ammunition that his opponents simply don’t want to engage on the real issues – and what candidate wouldn’t like to go to the voters during a canvass and tell them, “I gave my opponents an opportunity to comment on specific issues. I even created a safe space for them to do so. But they apparently don’t care enough about you to tell you themselves what they think of the issues.” All of this is a brilliant campaign play by Kirwan, no doubt. But it just may simply be that every other candidate in Wards 5 and 6 have such low social media profiles that they simply just haven’t even considered taking up Kirwan on his offer.

So, while Kirwan is using the Valley East Today website as a repository of information about his campaign, he’s been using the Valley East Facebook Group to engage with local area residents – many of whom will be able to cast ballots for him in Ward 5. Kirwan is a regular poster on the group site, and he often discusses issues of importance to the community, some of which likely aren’t election issues. Certainly his posts showcase his commitment to the community – but posts which strategically promote him, his radio show and his campaign website are intermixed throughout. And that's part of a successful social media strategy to use during an election campaign.

Kirwan’s long-game strategy is a brilliant one, in my opinion. Build a loyal base of followers for whatever reason, and then when the election is called, shift gears and use the vehicles you’ve built to promote yourself and your campaign. A lot of politicians do just that – often they do it instinctively, building a base of followers even before they ever think of running for office. Really, there’s nothing wrong with it. One of the tricks here is to remain engaged with your followers at times when the issues you’ve built your base around quiet down.

Transitioning From Real Person to Political Candidate

The other trick is how best to transition from “activist” or “community builder” to “candidate” using the vehicles you’ve constructed. Former popular radio show host John Tory recently went through this conundrum when he announced his bid for Toronto’s Mayor’s chair and stepped down as radio show host. Tory changed his radio-host Twitter handle but retained his followers, rather than starting a brand new political account. No doubt that irked some of his radio-show listeners who were following him on Twitter for that reason – but likely most followers didn’t mind, or were even pleased that he stopped waffling and just got on with the next phase of his own not-exactly-secret long-game election strategy.

Some might consider Tory’s Twitter transition unethical, having amassed followers for one reason (radio show) which he then intended on “exploiting” for another reason (election campaign). But I believe that in today’s day and age, our online presence has become so integrated into our real lives that one need not compromise their Twitter presence (or presence throughout social media) out of a misguided sense of equity. Social media users can abandon an individual with minimal hurt feelings and relative ease. If you don’t like what John Tory is now doing on Twitter, or what Robert Kirwan is doing on Facebook, simply unfollow or unsubscribe.

Twitter and Facebook are one thing, though - what about one's "web presence" on other social media sites, such as the comment pages of mainstream media? If anything, the transition in these realms can be a lot easier because of their transitory nature. One day, you're commenting about cats and beer, and the next you've filed your papers and you're slamming the municipal tax rate - really, it's no biggee. As a candidate, you might find it useful to continue to write about cats and beer, just to add that "personal touch".

Websites, however, might create some problems. Unlike social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, when you register a url for a website, that site is under your exclusive control. You're not boxed in about how you communicate in the same way that you are with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You pay for the privelege of hosting your site, but the privilege lets you control the content to a much greater extent. If you don't like comments made on your website, you can delete them in a way that Aaron Beaudry can't delete my comments about his ideas on Twitter. And of course since candidates pay for maintaining a website, they claim it as a campaign expense.

If you have your own url that you've been using for your personal business or some sort of hobby slash interest, it may be very unnerving to transition that website to a campaign site. Again, if you've got a lot of information about cats and beer on your website, regular traffic is likely to come to expect that and will be surprised to discover your rants about municipal taxes. Of course, replacing an under-utilized website about cats holus bolus with a campaign website at the same url, well, sometimes that makes a lot more sense and no one notices.

When you try to use an existing website for your campaign, look out for the alligators! Ward 5 candidate Robert Kirwan has tried to find some balance on his existing valleyeasttoday.ca website, but I'm not certain that it's working. Campaign links and election materials have filtered onto the main page, giving the site the confused appearance. As far as campaign websites go, it's a strange one, with links to local website sponsors such as "Hanson Family Dentistry", "Heatwave Tanning Salon" and "St. Kevin's Catholic Church". The website also contains a prominent links to a municipal publication, the City of Greater Sudbury's Leisure Guide - a link with a visual that includes the City's corporate logo. Very strange indeed to see something like that on a campaign website.

Of course, valleyeasttoday.ca wasn't developed as a campaign site, but rather a community services site, in part to promote local businesses and in part to promote some of Robert Kirwan's own local initiatives, such as his radio show, "Concussion Management Partners Inc." and "the Sudbury Wellness Group", both of which are business ventures Kirwan is involved with. The current mix of campaigning and community information is a curious one, and may ultimately provide some headaches for Kirwan the candidate when he files his financials after the election, and for Kirwan the business person when local businesses start to realize that they've been funding a candidate's campaign site in preference to other local individuals who are seeking office.

Social Media - How Effective?

All of this brings me back to my earlier point, though: just how effective is social media for running as a candidate in a municipal election campaign? Given the large number of candidates in Greater Sudbury’s election so far, and given that many of them are on both Twitter and Facebook, we could expect to see a level of engagement happening amongst the candidates and voters, or even just amongst candidates themselves. So far, there has been little evidence of either occurring – and that may have a lot to do with the ways in which the candidates are using these social media tools.

That might change somewhat with Dan Melanson – who brings with him a team of Conservative Party-trained social media minions who have no problems talking about the issues amongst themselves, either anonymously on MSM websites, or as real people on Facebook (they’ve yet to prove themselves on Twitter, though). I fully expect that these minions will start engaging one another and flinging the mud around – and it might start to get noticed a little by the broader public. But a lot of time and effort will no doubt be expended, with questionable results achieved.

At the end of the day, I can’t help but feel that social media will largely remain a sideshow in this year’s municipal election. Sure, anonymous trolls might drive some mainstream media coverage of particular issues, but for candidates the tried and true ways of building support remain the best options: knock on doors, talk to people face-to-face, and put up a lot of election signs to attract the attention of passers-by (who will equate the number of signs they see with relative popularity).

Sure, I agree with a recent Sudbury Star column that an online presence is a basic requirement for any political candidate (see, “Social media a political must-have”, the Sudbury Star, April 3, 2014), but it becomes a less efficient tool for communicating when you scale down the potential number of voters. In municipal ward races, where the number of potential voters is counted in the thousands, not the 10s of thousands, and where voter turn-out is often less than 60%, and where older people who are less likely to be social media users are more likely to cast ballots than younger social media users, social media just isn’t as important – yet. And candidates simply can’t do it alone – they need to develop teams of users (or at least multiple aliases) who can retweet and engage with their social media accounts, in order to create the perception of popularity.

Of course, just as the number of lawn signs really isn’t indicative of real popularity, nor is the number of Twitter followers. But both lawn signs and Twitter followers can create the sense of popularity. By way of example, Ward 12 candidate Tay Butt has 1,149 followers on Twitter (the most of any Greater Sudbury municipal election candidate), and his opponent, Councillor Josceylne Landry-Altmann isn’t even on Twitter – which is the more popular?

Of course, if you deconstruct Butt’s Twitter account, it quickly becomes apparent that those “following” Butt aren’t going to be able to cast a ballot for him because they don’t reside in his Ward (or the City for that matter, and many aren’t actually “real people” at all anyway) – but 1,149 followers! Wow! Certainly makes me jealous (I currently have only 530 – but I’m not running for anything).

Amassing followers and “Likes” is both important and unimportant – which is why social media should play a role in any successful election campaign, but it's only one part of a communications strategy. If you’re going to use it, though, use it well - playing the social media engagement game is more complicated than firing off the occasional tweet, and requires more than just one personal Twitter account or Facebook page. So sure, social media is important, but it certainly ought not to be relied on by a candidate as the primary means of getting the message out. Unless you’ve already made an investment in the social media long-game like Bob Kirwan or John Tory, your reach on social media isn’t going to take you far – even if you, like Aaron Beaudry, are able to use it well.

Better just to start knocking on doors – now.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

As NDP Old Guard Takes Over, Division Between "browns" and "greens" Starting to Show

If there’s one thing this week’s release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Report ("Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities") tells me, it’s that it’s time for the New Democratic Party of Canada to tear itself apart – for the good of our nation, and for the good of the global economy. And the NDP may actually be in the process of doing just that.

Events happening around Canada – and around the globe – this week must make NDP members and supporters who value sensible economic and environmental policies feel rather ostracized. Indeed, for those NDP supporters, many of them younger Canadians, who understand the significance of the climate crisis and the threat it poses to to future of this nation and the world, they must be feeling very demoralized indeed. For NDP members who have longed championed putting a price on carbon as one of many actions available to elected officials to help stave off the climate crisis, I can’t help but wonder whether they’ve started to feel that the Party that they thought they knew has morphed into something else all together.

NDP: A Failure of Leadership on Climate Change

Look, I understand that the NDP talks a decent game on climate change – and credit where it’s due, at least Tom Mulcair and the NDP aren’t afraid to mention “climate change” in discussions with the media, with voters, whomever. But the internally inconsistent policies which the NDP has decided to champion show quite clearly that when push comes to shove, the NDP really is all talk – and if they form government (a very big “if” right now, given their stagnant polling numbers), all that Canada will get from the NDP is more of the same.

For my readers who comment to me that I seem to be much harder on the NDP than I am on the Conservatives or Liberals, I feel once again that I should point out that if this is the case, it’s only because I have always expected more from the NDP than I have from the other parties – precisely because they appear to talk a good game, as well as appearing to be somewhat sincere about their desire to protect low-income Canadians. I do not feel that way about the Conservatives, for whom I have little but contempt when it comes to the climate crisis. Nor do I feel that way about the Liberals, a party which has chosen to address the climate crisis much as a diner in a lunchroom cafeteria decides to order a vegetarian meal by opting for the salmon instead of the prime rib.

The Browns Take Over

The problem for the NDP is, quite clearly, too many of their old guard remain in positions of power and influence within the Party, both nationally and provincially. These “browns” running the show are comprised of backroom political operatives who’ve never seen a focus group they didn’t want to spin, and old-style labour organizers and socialists. Together, the browns continue to trump the aspirations of the greens – to the detriment of consistent climate change policy, and to the detriment of Canada.

Late last year, I held out some hope that NDP leader Tom Mulcair (who is clearly not a “brown”) would be able to get a grip on his Party and pull it into the 21st Century. I wrote about his December, 2013 speech on energy issues to the Economic Club of Canada in relatively glowing terms (see, “NDP ups its Game: One Green’s Take on Mulcair’s Energy Vision”, December 5, 2013). Since then, though, it’s rapidly becoming clear that the browns are the ones calling the shots in the NDP.

B.C. NDP Browns Lead the Way into the 19th Century

British Columbia will be a battle-ground province for the NDP in the next federal election. After B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix bungled the provincial election, the NDP on the left coast have been doing a fair bit of soul searching. Former federal leadership candidate and brown backroom boy Brian Topp prepared a fairly candid analysis of what can only be described as one of the worst electoral failures in Canada’s history. I critiqued Topp’s critique extensively in a blogpost from last year (see, “Brian Topp Reveals How NDP Plays Cynical Partisan Games with the Environmental Issues”, September 24, 2013). In short, Topp, in typical brown fashion, cited the NDP’s position on the environment as problematic, particularly because a real “Green” Party exists in B.C. to call them out on inconsistencies (I’m clearly paraphrasing here) and due to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain flip-flop. Both issues remain relevant to this discussion. Let’s explore the second first.

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline

Mid-way through the election, Dix announced that the NDP was reversing its position on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, which would see diluted Alberta bitumen flow from the tar sands to the Port of Vancouver in an amount more than 1 and a half times greater than Enbridge’s Northern Gateway (890,000 barrels per day vs. 525,000. See, “Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain: how two pipeline projects compare”, the Globe & Mail, December 22, 2013). Up until Earth Day, 2013, the NDP maintained that it would take a “wait and see” approach with Trans Mountain in a way that they weren’t taking with Northern Gateway. To some, this seemed like a politically sensible approach to a difficult issue for the NDP, who have long been tarred by their opponents as opposing any and all economic initiatives.

Unfortunately for the NDP, it’s absolutely inconsistent to adopt a “wait and see” approach to a pipeline which will facilitate the runaway expansion of the Alberta tar sands enterprise, and allow some of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuels to be exported (without upgrading) to Asia, where it will be burned and significantly contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Knowing as we do that we must keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and having as a nation committed to doing so in Copenhagen in 2009, there is absolutely zero economic or environmental case which can be made to justify the Trans Mountain pipeline.

On Earth Day, 2013, Adrian Dix changed his Party’s position on Trans Mountain (dubbed by the media as Dix’s “Kinder Surprise”). He came out firmly against the project, saying that an NDP government would do what it can to prevent the pipeline from expanding, in order to protect the shallow Burrard Inlet from increased oil tanker traffic. There was little mention of climate change, but for what it was, it was a good decision. A decision which many of the old-guard browns came to lay at Dix’s feet as the primary reason that Dix lost the election.

Back-up to April, 2013 though, and let’s take a closer look at what was really going on with the BC NDP. Dix’s party had been polling far ahead of the incumbent Liberal Party for months, but when BC Premier Christy Clark pulled the plug and the real election campaigning began, the Liberals stole all of the momentum. Importantly for this narrative, the BC Green Party was also starting to steal a little thunder from both the Liberals and the NDP. Dix, feeling squeezed by the Greens in a few strategic ridings on the lower mainland and Vancouver Island, had to find some way of eating into just enough of the Green’s vote to win those seats. In short, Dix’s flip-flop on Trans Mountain had far more to do with niche electoral politicking than it did climate change.

Partisan Electoral Game Playing Driving NDP Policy Decisions

Dix’s decision on Trans Mountain exemplifies everything that is wrong with the NDP. Even when a good policy decision is made, it’s often made for the wrong reasons. Rather than doing what’s right, the NDP is focused on winning elections and obtaining power. They will abandon any long-held beliefs to capitalize on partisan gains. They simply can’t be trusted to stand behind what they say they’ll do. Look no further than to the NDP’s continued insistence that the Party supports moving to a proportional representation electoral system, and ditching the archaic first-past-the-post fiasco in place throughout Canada. NDP provincial government after NDP provincial government have failed spectacularly to take any action on this important issue at all.

(As an aside, and before anybody suggests that the sins of the NDP’s provincial parties should not reflect on the federal party, I must remind my readers that provincial and federal New Democratic parties are integrated in a way beyond all other federal/provincial parties operate. You, as an individual, cannot purchase a membership in the federal party without also purchasing a membership in your province’s provincial party – unless you live in Quebec, where the NDP has no provincial party. Although policy development processes take place independently, the NDP has always had a keen eye to marrying federal and provincial policies. And like most political parties, including my own, the people that operate provincially are also involved federally – but the difference with the NDP being that you, as a member, don’t have a choice in the matter – you must do both. Not only is the NDP’s approach anti-democratic, it values free-thinking individualism far less than it does mindless partisan game playing, in my opinion).

Also importantly, the NDP appears to be completely devoid of vision and is floundering around – which strangely is also a part of the NDP’s electoral strategy. Rather than approaching voters in B.C., Nova Scotia or nationally with some sort of comprehensive vision for a truly 21st Century Canada, the NDP throughout our nation have instead chosen to focus on small-scale boutique issues. Here in Sudbury, our MP, Glenn Thibeault (a classy man whom I admire), the NDP’s critic for small business, tourism and consumer affairs, has been leading the NDP’s charge into “retail politics”, by knocking on doors and telling voters to get behind the NDP’s strategy to reduce ATM fees. I guess that’s fine for it’s worth – I think ATM fees are too high, too – but at the end of the day, if issues like these are what the NDP is going to trot out to voters in 2015 – forget it. For all that I admire Mr. Thibeault, he and his party are proving to be a waste of Canadian’s time.

A Waste of Time Canada Can't Afford

For time really is of the essence. The IPCC says that we have to get our act together on reducing carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2100. If we're going to give ourselves and our children an opportunity to inhabit a livable planet, between 65% and 80% of known carbon reserves must stay in the ground. On greenhouse gas emissions, Environment Canada has already pretty much admitted that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has abysmally failed to plan to meet our weak Copenhagen reduction targets.

While the world burns, the NDP fiddles.

The Wrong Carbon Pricing Scheme

Browns like Brian Topp are in charge of moving the NDP away from tackling the climate crisis. In the lead-up to the NDP’s policy convention in 2013, the NDP had the opportunity to ditch its bank-friendly Cap & Trade carbon pricing scheme for a much more straight-forward and effective Carbon Fee & Dividend approach to carbon pricing. While Cap & Trade might work on paper, it seems that when politicians get involved in implementation, it’s gone horribly wrong (witness the collapse of the European trading scheme due to low-price carbon credits, and the complete failure of the Chicago trading market). Further, it’s unclear why the NDP, which professes to be champions of “the little guy” would support a carbon pricing scheme which will make it more difficult for small, local businesses to compete against giant multi-national corporations.

Yet in the NDP there remain dinosaur elements who think that they’re economists and insist that any and all “consumption taxes” are somehow “regressive” and therefore not appropriate to burden low-income earners with. And that’s patently nonsense. If a low-income earner isn’t consuming a particular product, such as gasoline, because they can’t afford to own a car, a carbon tax on the price of gas isn’t going to be regressive to them. And while it’s true that carbon taxes on fossil goods and services will make consumption more expensive – that’s exactly the point: we need to reduce consumption, along with investing in sustainable alternatives for people who are impacted - like providing them with a gauranteed livable income.

But instead of acknowledging this reality, the NDP throughout Canada (and especially here in Ontario) continue to go on about making gasoline less expensive so that those who aren’t low income earners can drive their cars more and contribute to changing our climate, which will directly impact the health and well-being of everybody, and especially of low-income earners who won’t be able to cushion themselves from the economic fall-out in the same way that the rich will.

There is frankly no reconciling the position that a Party which advocates cheap gasoline, or projects which facilitate the runaway development of the tar sands, really gives a damn about the climate crisis.

NDP Flip-Flop-Flip on Kinder Morgan Reveals Hypocrisy on Climate

It’s increasingly looking like Tom Mulcair's brave words to the Economic Club of Canada back in December were really nothing more than hot air. Mulciar almost immediately followed up his “energy vision” speech with a low-key announcement that the NDP had, once again, flip-flopped on its Trans Mountain pipeline position. In a piece published in Canada.com, Mulcair confirmed that the NDP isn’t going to oppose Trans Mountain and “get caught making the same mistake as Dix did when he announced midcampaign that a provincial NDP government would oppose the $5.4 billion Kinder Morgan pipeline project to the B.C. coast.” (the quotation here is from the journalist at Canada.com, and not Tom Mulcair. See, "Mulcair confident in the face of sinking polls", Canada.com, December 23, 2013)

NDP Embraces Energy East

Further, Mulcair has long been on record supporting with few caveats TransCanada’s “Energy East” pipeline, which will see diluted Alberta bitumen flow to ports on Canada’s east coast. Mulcair believes that existing refineries in Saint John, New Brunswick, and Montreal and Quebec City, Quebec, will be able to add value to the dirty bitumen, creating jobs for Canadians. Unfortunately, the NDP continue to cling to this notion, even in the face of recent reports which suggest that the vast majority of raw bitumen will have to be exported, due to a lack of refinery capacity and the price-tag of upgrading oil refineries to handle the tarry bitumen (see, “Energy East pipeline no boom for refineries because most oil will go overseas: Report”, the Financial Post, March 18, 2014)

The basis for Mulcair embracing bitumen pipelines has a lot to do with jobs, and the idea that exploiting our non-renewable fossil resources as quickly as possible will create well-paying Canadian jobs. Clearly, he’s not off-base with that assumption. Mining and pumping even more bitumen will certainly create some very well-paying jobs, and if you could figure out a way to refine the bitumen here in Canada, well, we’d get a good number of more jobs out of that. Everybody likes jobs, right?

Supporting the Right Job Creators

Yes, everybody likes jobs. But it’s the kind of jobs that Mulcair is championing, and how job creation in the fossil fuel sector will hamper job creation in Canada’s renewable energy sector – the very sector which is currently the world’s fastest growing industrial sector. By putting the majority of our eggs into the non-renewable resource basket, as the brown brain-trust behind the NDP seems to want us to do, Canada risks missing out on the economic boom which is taking place throughout the globe – and importantly, we risk missing out on opportunities to build a stronger, more competitive national economy based on inexpensive renewable energy, rather than increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

This is yet another example of the NDP’s dumb economics. But wait – it gets worse.

Former B.C. NDP Premier Harcourt's Hypocrisy

This week in B.C, former Premier Mike Harcourt had a very public spat with the Party, and announced that he was leaving, largely because of Dix’s “20 seat losing” decision to flip-flop on Trans Mountain (see, “Former Premier Mike Harcourt quits BC NDP in nasty public split”, the Globe & Mail, April 1, 2014). Despite now being involved with “sustainability issues”, it’s pretty clear that Harcourt, an old-school brown, doesn’t have a clue about climate change – or worse, he’s another focus-group hand-holder who values winning over doing what’s right. By publicly leaving his Party, Harcourt has essentially thrown down the gauntlet to the B.C. NDP – telling them they must choose brown policies over green ones in an attempt to save resource sector jobs (rather than cashing in on the renewable clean-tech sector).

Harcourt’s condemnation of his former Party’s opposition to the B.C. carbon tax does little to build credibility in my mind, despite being warranted. If anything, it simply exposes him as a just another NDP hypocrite on climate change who wants to talk the talk, but will never walk the walk.

Division is Real, and Starting to Show

Yesterday, the Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughan Palmer, writing in Canada.com, seems to suggest that Harcourt’s challenge needs to be taken up by an NDP struggling with appearing to be “anti-growth” (see, “B.C. NDP caught between a rock and a green place”, Canada.com, April 2, 2014). Palmer, although misguided in his notion about economic policy, hits the nail on the head, though, by exposing the division within the NDP. Anecdotally, I continue to hear about this division between the “browns” and the “greens” here in the Sudbury and Nickel Belt ridings, and throughout Canada. The division is real – and the browns are winning the day.

Palmer goes on to report that both provincial NDP leadership contenders, John Horgan and Mike Farnsworth, have called for the development of B.C.’s non-renewable fossil resources. Farnsworth has embraced Mulcair’s position of “neutrality” on Trans Mountain, while Horgan is insisting that an NDP government would buy into what must be one of the dumbest economic development proposals of all-time: the fracking of natural gas in northern B.C. for liquefied export (LNG). Not only is B.C. LNG proposal economically suspect on its own merits, given that there is no proven long-term Asian market which justifies such a massive investment of public dollars, a rethink appears to be in order. Whatever B.C. decides to invest to get the LNG dog barking runs the risk of becoming yet another fossil fuel stranded asset – a sinkhole for all investors when the carbon bubble bursts.

Linda McQuaig - Still Welcome in the New NDP?

This division within the NDP between the old-guard browns and the greens isn’t sustainable. Contrast all of the above with an excellent article by former NDP candidate Linda McQuaig (who ran for the NDP unsuccessfully in the recent by-election in Toronto Centre, losing out to Liberal Chrystia Freeland by a healthy margin) appearing yesterday in iPolitics (see, “Death, denial and the toxic politics of climate change”, iPolitics.com, April 2, 2014). McQuaig’s position on climate change has been well-known for a long while now, but even for her, the iPolitics article ramps up the urgency of dealing with the climate crisis.

At the time of the Toronto Centre by-election, the NDP was still being cagey with its policy approach to the climate crisis, and the Trans Mountain behemoth was one of the pipelines that the NDP opposed. Sure, Mulcair had embraced Energy East, but the talk of refineries and the benefits of job creation hadn’t been seriously analyzed yet (to recap, it appears that Energy East will create very few jobs, and refineries won’t be profitable, so they won’t get built). Since running for the NDP, McQuaig’s party has now reversed itself on Trans Mountain, embraced LNG in B.C. (but at least not on the basis of the B.C. Liberals’ foolish notion of allowing the project to be proceed based on the use of temporary foreign workers), and are demanding cheaper gasoline and cuts to energy prices in Ontario. It’s absolutely not clear to me that the NDP could be considered the same Party that it was when McQuaig ran under its banner just a few months ago.

NDP's Middle Class Buffet Approach Abandons Canadians in Need

McQuaig, who like Naomi Klein, understands a thing or two about poverty and the distribution of wealth, is clearly on the green (losing) side of the NDP divide. Her iPolitics article charts new territory for someone in the NDP, by first acknowledging that the fossil fuel industry (and our “lickspittle governments”) are the real enemies of the climate – and ergo of our economy, and of people. Can you imagine Thomas Mulcair daring to declare war on the fossil fuel industry?

Wait a minute – didn’t he try to half-heartedly do just that a few years ago when he started to talk about “Dutch Disease”? Thanks to a few clearly biased media reports by journalists who think that they’re economists (and by economists who shill for the fossil fuel industry and its government supporters), Mulcair quickly clamped his mouth shut, and never the phrase “Dutch Disease” has been uttered again. The brown spin-doctors must have went ballistic with Mulcair's implication that the West’s fossil fuel industry was somehow culpable for a loss of jobs in Central Canada – along with being a major contributor to climate change. Canadians are, after all, used to hearing about what a benefit the Alberta tar sands brings to each and every one of us, and to our children. The brown-stained spin doctors surely didn't want to rock that boat, truth be damned.

McQuaig’s no-holds barred piece in iPolitics certainly would not have seen the light of day if she were currently the nominated candidate for the NDP in a Toronto riding. When you're on the NDP Team, you pretty much have to leave behind all critical thinking and subscribe to the orange group-think. Transgressors will be punished. McQuaig, by acknowledging the 2 degree Celsius threshold which warming must held to, has gone much further than Tom Mulcair or Megan Leslie have ever dared, lest they further alienate the browns in their own party. She writes about the threat to investors and the economy of having to leave fossil assets stranded, sequestered safely in the ground, lest the bursting of the carbon bubble wipe out pension plans and savings.

McQuaig’s of off-message dissent would be entirely out of place in today’s NDP (although the NDP does have a habit of saying one thing in one part of Canada, and the exact opposite in another part of Canada, so it might be within the realm of possibility). Maybe McQuaig sees the writing on the wall within her own Party, acknowledging that the division is irreconcilable.

Maybe that’s why McQuaig has started to write like a Green.

NDP: No Longer Part of the Solution

As much as I had hoped, for the sake of my nation, that the NDP would one day get its act together and champion action on climate change, I can see now that my hopes have been misplaced. All around the nation, the NDP is stepping back from the challenges posed by the most important economic issue of our times. The lack of trust which today’s NDP has instilled in voters due to repeated inaction on numerous matters, many of which the NDP considered their own priorities, has led me to conclude that my hopes for change have come to naught.

Rather than the NDP being a part of the solution to the climate crisis, that party has willfully decided to be a part of the problem. And woe be to Canada.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Who Speaks For Woodland Caribou?

When new development is being considered in Northern Ontario, who speaks for threatened animal species like woodland caribou? You may believe that our elected governments are looking after the interests of dwindling herds, but changes to federal and provincial rules have essentially left caribou to fend for themselves.

A December, 2013 study, “Population Critical: How are caribou faring?”, released by the Canadian Parks and Wildlands Society and the David Suzuki Foundation, evaluated the caribou conservation efforts of our governments and found them wanting. While no province scored a high grade in this study, Ontario was identified as one of the worst jurisdictions for caribou conservation. In part, Ontario’s low score comes thanks to changes made to rules in 2013 which exempt conservation efforts from provincial oversight.

Gord Miller, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, in a special report to the province, referred to these changes as “an attack on Ontario’s species at risk”. Miller and other conservationists had initially praised Ontario’s cutting-edge 2007 Endangered Species Act, which called for meaningful habitat protection and the production of recovery plans for species at risk. The Endangered Species Act had been the subject of significant public consultation before being enacted by parliament.

In 2009, the province released its caribou conservation plan, which called for a recovery strategy to bring caribou back to parts of Northern Ontario where they once roamed. Caribou are very skittish animals, and generally avoid human habitation. It’s estimated that almost 40% of the habitat of woodland caribou has been lost, in part due to fragmentation as a result of resource development activities such as forestry, mining, roads and pipelines.

The recovery strategy found detractors in resource industries, northern businesses and municipal and provincial politicians, who feared that preserving caribou habitat could lead to a loss of jobs in the forestry, mining and energy sectors - all sectors which some economic analysts expect to grow in the coming decade. Planning to protect caribou came into direct conflict with planning to protect jobs.

In July, 2013, the Minister of Natural Resources quietly published regulations that exempted a broad range of development from provincial oversight. In the past, industries looking to develop within the habitat of threatened and endangered species were required to obtain a permit from the ministry after working together to identify opportunities to minimize risk. Now, as long as developers follow generic compliance rules, developments can generally proceed.

Not only has the province abandoned its traditional role of oversight, it’s deprived itself of the ability to say “No” to any development project.

“In effect, every place, no matter how unique or important, will be open to activities with the potential to adversely affect species at risk,” wrote Miller “No place is untouchable or special. (see: "Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence”, Section 6, Page 31, inset box)

The province’s rule change prompted Ecojustice, Ontario Nature and the Wildlands League to file a lawsuit against the province (see: "EcoJustice sues to save endangered species", Environmental Law and Litigation, Diane Saxe, September 16, 2013), based in part on the idea that the government cannot make policy decisions which increase the danger to species the government had originally set out to protect.

For woodland caribou, the writing may be on the wall. A lower Canadian dollar and a housing boom in the United States is already boosting Ontario’s forestry sector (see: "Rise in profit hint at forestry sector turnaround", PwC press release, March 24, 2014). Mineral development in the Ring of Fire, and transportation and energy corridors to service the new mines will lead to ever more fragmentation of critical caribou habitat.

There may very well be opportunities to facilitate development while protecting caribou. However, with rules that so heavily favour development over conservation, it seems pretty clear that our elected governments are not speaking for Northern Ontario’s threatened species. Perhaps it will be left to the courts to take on that role.


(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, March 29, 2014 (online: “May: Who is looking after the woodland caribou?", March 28, 2014), without hyperlinks.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Finance Minister Joe Oliver Is an "Embarrassment to Canada" as Tom Mulcair Suggests

I read a CBC report this evening in which NDP & Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair used some very strong and incredibly divisive language about Canada's new Finance Minister, Joe Oliver (see, "Joe Oliver 'an embarrassment' as finance minister Tom Mulcair says", CBC, March 19, 2014). Mulcair referred to Oliver as "an embarrassing nomination as finance minister for a G7 country", who "has denied global warming as a scientific reality" and suggested that Oliver's "attacks" on First Nations go beyond paternalism and are "tinted by racism".

Whoa. That's not the sort of language that I'm used to seeing parliamentarians use to describe each other, much less the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Look, I'm no Joe Oliver fan, but it seemed to me that Mulcair went over the top. Mulcair even took aim at the "cult"-like secret swearing-in ceremony.

War on Environmentalists

I've known for a while now that Oliver, when he was Natural Resources Minister, waged a propaganda war against environmental proponents, by equating them with terrorists by calling them "foreign-funded radicals". Much of his invective was directed at pipeline opponents in B.C. - activists, organizations and common citizens who oppose the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan bitumen pipelines.

Climate Change Denial

Famously, Minister Oliver, in an interview with Montreal's La Presse, publicly doubted the science of climate change - choosing to cite well-worn climate denier arguments as evidence that global warming has slowed down and won't be much of an issue (see, "Joe Oliver casts doubt on climate science in defence of oil sands", Canada.com, April 12, 2013). When called out by the opposition, environmentalists - just about every rational person who understands the grave and pressing crisis which is climate change - Oliver even stumbled with his clarification, choosing to suggest that it was well-known climate denier journalist who had provided him with phony information about climate change, even though he is the Minister of Natural Resources. It remains unclear to this day whether Oliver believes that climate change is real - he's never to my knowledge stated that he believes in the scientific validity of anthropogenic global warming.

So, Mulcair's suggestion that Oliver's "information on global warming has consistently proven to be fanciful" appears to be pretty accurate. But Oliver likely isn't the only climate change denier in cabinet. Nevertheless, having a denier head the quest to dig up Canada's natural resource wealth as fast as possible and essentially give it away to foreign corporations without the benefit of rents for Canadian shareholders (for more information on how "rents" work, see this excellent article from Laurentian University Professor Dr. David Robinson, "Not paying the rent", Northern Ontario Business, January 29, 2014 - it's a Northern Ontario context, but Robinson explains the economic principle of resource rents in a very easy to understand way) was problematic enough. But now, as Finance Minister, with all of the nation's economic resources at his disposal, Oliver can do some real and serious damage to our future.

Non-Evidence Based Reality

You see, if you don't recognize climate change as the economic issue of the 21st Century because you don't actually believe it exists, you're not going to formulate policies to address it. Indeed, the economic policies which you do formulate are more than likely going to be exactly the wrong ones - and we've seen this from Conservatives already, and we can expect more of it from Oliver. Runaway expansion of the tar sands industrial enterprise with little benefit to present or future Canadians is exactly the sort of wrong-headed economic policy which can expect Oliver to pursue - with renewed vigour.

Being labelled a climate change denier might be egregious to many, but some Conservatives wear that shameful moniker with pride. Oliver may deny his denial, but likely many of those in his corner are proud that he doesn't subscribe to reality. Real conservatives understand that we must take action to avoid an economic catastrophe from a changing climate, and do what we can to hand down to our children a modicum of global economic stability. It's the bizarre fantasy-land conservatives (of which Oliver may be one) whose refusal to acknowledge reality imperils our medium-term economic, social and environmental health. Long-term, if their policies continue to be embraced, we will probably be doomed.

Owning One's Words

So, what about Mulcair's suggestion that Oliver is a racist? Well, what Mulcair actually said was, "And as one of the chiefs in British Columbia who was the object of his invective said, his attacks on First Nations go beyond mere paternalism. They're tinted by racism." Technically, those aren't Mulcair's words. He's simply repeating what has been said of Joe Oliver by somebody else.

But by repeating those words, Mulcair can't help but take ownership of them. I mean, why else state them for public consumption - especially in a very personal and contrived diatribe. There's something to be said for nuance, I suppose - but this isn't the time to say it. Mulcair is clearly suggesting that Oliver is a bit of a racist.

Paternalism and Racism

All of this comes from an episode dating back to March, 2012, when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver referred to B.C. First Nations as being "socially dysfunctional". Grand Chief Stewart Philip was quoted in the Vancouver Observer as saying, "It goes beyond paternalism – there's definitely a colour of racism in a lot of his remarks towards Indigenous or Aboriginal or First Nations people," (see, "Joe Olivers speech coloured by racism: First Nations Grand Chief", Vancouver Observer, March 21, 2012). Oliver, again lamely trying to clarify his remarks, simply added fuel to the fire when he stated in his defense that First Nations have to take responsibility themselves to "preserve what they believe is truly worth preserving" and that pipeline projects bring "an enhanced opportunity which doesn't have to be inconsistent with some of their core values."

Hmmm...that's certainly clearly paternalistic. I mean, c'mon - telling First Nations that it's up to them to preserve their own cultural values? This guy is a Minister of the Crown and should at least be aware that the Crown as manifested by the Government of Canada has done considerable harm to First Nation's cultural values, in part through an orchestrated attempt to destroy First Nations culture itself. By ignoring the past role of the government in the destruction of First Nations culture and identity, and some would say by continuing to ignore the very real power imbalance which exists between First Nations and the Canadian government, Oliver clearly demonstrated that he fails to understand how the relationship between First Nations and the Crown has been poisoned. Frankly, his attitude was very paternalistic. But were his comments "tinted" or "coloured" by racism as suggested by the Grand Chief and repeated by Mulcair?

Adopting a paternalistic attitude toward an entire culture could be considered a form of racism - should be considered. When one places one's own culture in a position of superiority, particularly a position of moral superiority, above that of another culture, well it stands to reason that every action will be viewed through that lens of superiority. We're not talking about individual people here, remember - we're talking about all aboriginal peoples in Canada, as per Oliver's own remarks.

By suggesting that First Nations will benefit from resource development which they don't want, and which will in his own admission only impact some of the cultural core values of First Nations communities, Oliver's ignorance and paternalism was clearly on display back in 2012. By lumping all First Nations together and refusing to recognize their individual needs, wants, desires, pursuits - and instead calling for them to adopt the goals and objectives of the Conservative Government of Canada in place of their own cultural values - well, that's a pretty racist idea. That's racism.

So is Joe Oliver a racist? Neither the Grand Chief or Mulcair went so far as to outright call Oliver a racist - likely because one could anticipate a slander suit being filed if they did. Instead, they've both suggested that Oliver's remarks are somehow "racist" as if words can take on human traits such as hatred. Whatever the nuance is, the objective was to draw attention to Oliver's remarks and in the process paint the man with the moniker - racist.

Tom Mulcair - On the Mark

Motivated by similar reasons to those I've ascribed to Grand Chief Stewart and Thomas Mulcair, I'll leave it for the reader to decide whether Minister Oliver is a racist. For the purpose of my blog tonight, let me now return to Thomas Mulcair's remarks, which I had initially thought were "over the top".

Upon further examination and reflection, it appears quite clearly that there is an underlying substance to the explosive remarks made this evening by the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Based on Minister Oliver's continued denial of the science of anthropogenic global warming, and his reliance on the views of noted climate change deniers to shape his own opinions on the topic, Oliver is disastrously prepared to head our government's financial portfolio. Further, Oliver's lack of appreciation of the historic relationship between the government and First Nations, his paternalism, his ignorance, and his propensity to make remarks imbued with racist overtones, even while trying to defend earlier derisive comments - when taken all together, it's clear that Oliver is far from being up to this job, or frankly any other job in cabinet. This guy should have been booted from cabinet long ago, but instead, for his ignorance and combativeness, he's been awarded with a tier one portfolio.

Thomas Mulcair is right: Joe Oliver, Finance Minister, is an embarrassment to Canada.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Microfacture from 3-D Printing Part of the Solution to Carbon


At times in history, new technologies have profoundly changed the course of society. The development of the printing press allowed the mass distribution of books, which led to increased literacy and the development of a knowledge-based workforce. The steam engine led to the centralization of labour in factories, the mass production of goods, and the creation of our modern industrial society. The microprocessor led to the information revolution, providing massive computing power to businesses and individuals, and led to the rise of financial capitalism as the dominant global economic system.

It will become increasingly clear that 3-D printing technology will be one of the truly transformational innovations of the 21st Century, reverberating throughout our economic system. It will change the way in which goods are produced, marketed and purchased. 3-D printing will also significantly impact our social and environmental systems, ultimately becoming a part of the solution needed to reduce carbon pollution and address climate change.

Using digital models, 3-D printers construct objects by building them one tiny layer at a time. Similar to ink-jet printers, but able to use various materials as part of the printing process, 3-D printers have been around since the 1980s, but have only recently become affordable to small businesses and individuals. 3-D printers have already been used to create everything from customized medical devices (like hip replacement joints) to bikinis and, more controversially, guns.

Almost one quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. Carbon-emitting fossil fuels are the primary power source of our globalized economy – a system built on the trade of raw materials and finished goods. There is a growing international recognition that reducing emissions from transportation must be a priority for the world if warming is to be held at the internationally agreed on threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. Already, Canada, the United States and other nations are acting on vehicle fuel efficiency standards in an effort to reduce carbon pollution.

But what if a technology allowed us to make many of the goods we use much closer to home, on demand? 3-D printing will revolutionize international trade – potentially ending the forward march of corporate globalization and replacing it with people-centred local economies. When the people control the means of production in their own communities, there isn't any longer the need for thousand-mile long supply chains to bring goods to market.

The on-demand microfacture* of customizable consumer goods will start to replace assembly line manufacturing. This will impact everything from the nature of the products we purchase to consumer shopping habits. With 3-D printing microfacture hubs, at the community or neighbourhood level, consumers will be able to order customized products from an internet catalogue and pick them up directly from the microfacturer, cutting out the middle man and attendant costs.

Coupled with local renewable energy systems and a truly smart energy grid, locally-produced goods are sure to be favoured by consumers concerned about prices. With 3-D printers, local businesses and even neighbourhood co-ops will be able to offer consumers competitive choices. The traditional consumer costs associated with labour, energy inputs, supply chain management, advertising, storage and product display will all be negligible and have a downward impact on price.

Large corporations may be at the most risk from shifting to a localized economic model – particularly in a world of higher transport costs as a result of putting a price on carbon emissions. Planning ahead for this shift should be a priority of our governments, but little attention is being given to how 3-D printing technology will transform our economy and our society.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, March 1, 2014 (online: “May: 3-D Printing part of the solution to carbon pollution”, February 28, 2014).

*microfacture – I don’t know when this term was first coined, but I came across it the first time (in the context in which I’ve used it in this post) in the novel “Great North Road”, written by Peter F. Hamilton. In that novel, 3-D printers are fuelled by “raw” – interchangeable mixes of resources needed to print out a wide range of products from engine parts to coats and hats. If anybody has a more complete history of this word, I urge them to share it here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Scratching the Surface: 21st Century Realities Can’t be Ignored by Ring of Fire Developers - Part 2

For the Ring of Fire, the good news is that the Provincial government and First Nations are now on a better course to figure out what, if any, development in the region makes sense, and how that development will impact and benefit aboriginal communities. Presuming that negotiations with First Nations lead to agreement, the next questions for development in the Ring of Fire must be whether and how it will make sense for the people of Ontario and Canada. And that’s a question of long-term sustainability.

Triple Bottom Line Cost Benefit Analysis

There are a lot of opinions about how development of the ROF will impact Ontarians and Canadians – and from where I’m sitting, most of those opinions range from “positive” to “glowing”. The Chamber of Commerce’s "Beneath the Surface" positions itself somewhere between those two terms. Certainly, the economic benefits of resource development can’t be ignored, and with every report like the Chamber’s which comes out in support of development, the public is sure to be convinced that this is an opportunity to which our governments just can’t say no to. Certainly, after having looked closely at information that is available, that’s how I currently feel about the Ring of Fire – and until other information enters the public realm which might change my opinion, I can’t help but be a booster for the ROF.

However, an analysis of projected benefits must also include an analysis of projected costs – and that’s where “Beneath the Surface” falls short. The costs of developing this industrial enterprise are barely addressed – and where there is talk of costs (for example, the costs of building a transportation corridor), those discussion are more about how costs will be shared between governments and industry. Quite frankly, with the significant level of analysis which the report delves into regarding economic benefit, the appalling lack of analysis on costs is, in my opinion, a glaring omission.

A real triple bottom line analysis of costs and benefits should have been a priority of governments and industry in order to determine whether this massive new industrial enterprise is really in the public interest. Although people like myself may have a hunch that the public interest is being served by development, it really is just a hunch. A careful analysis of benefits and costs (both direct and indirect) is needed. Badly.

Putting the Benefit Cart Before the Cost Horse

Back during the 2011 provincial election campaign, the four candidates here in the Sudbury riding had an opportunity to speak about the Ring of Fire and the development of a proposed chromite processing facility on lands outside of Capreol. Candidates for the 3 old line parties were eager to embrace the projects, and used information provided by the company, Cliffs, regarding jobs and economic benefit in support of their position. It was left to the Green Party of Ontario’s candidate, Pat Rogerson, to ask the tough questions about cost – only to find out that while some good work had been done around the economic benefits of the project, costs had been hardly addressed at all. As a result, the media in part portrayed Pat and the Green Party as anti-development, all because she wasn’t as eager to embrace a mega-project entailing significant (read: billions of dollars) of government investments for an unknown total return on that investment. While the other political parties might have been eager to embrace the project in the absence of data, it’s clear that those positions are irresponsible ones to adopt – especially for those seeking to become the protector of the public purse.

Fast-forward three years later, and we still have politicians from the old-line parties talking up the significant benefits of developing the Ring of Fire with little or no additional information about costs provided. We know that there will be costs, and we even know what some of those costs might pertain to. We also know that there will be costs that we don’t yet know about. Yet, the triumphal championing of the project continues – often followed by laments, such as those made by the Chamber of Commerce, that the project just isn’t moving forward fast enough, continue.

Transportation Corridor – Technical Data Must Inform Choice

Let’s take a quick look at some of the costs that we know about. Building a transportation and utilities corridor is sure to be one of those costs in which the government is going to be on the hook for at least part of the tab (if not all of it). Cliffs and NorOnt Resources are, after all, in the business of mining, not road or rail building. The very first decisions related to transportation will involve looking at roads vs. rail, and which corridor makes the most sense.

To inform decisions related to the transportation and utilities corridor, one might think that it would make sense to have baseline data about natural features, including heritage and hazard features. Any corridor will surely have to traverse a number of river systems and floodplains, for example. Further, we know that this area of the James Bay Lowlands includes significant woodland caribou habitat. Technical studies which assess impacts on natural heritage and hazards should inform any decisions about the location and type of transport and utilities corridor.

But wait, there’s more. As part of any triple bottom line analysis of costs and benefits, and in keeping with the realities of the 21st Century, a carbon assessment must also form part of any analysis. Burning carbon comes with a cost – not just the direct cost of vehicle transport fuels, but the cost of contributing pollution to our atmosphere. We know that globally, we can only put so much carbon into our atmosphere before enough accumulates to guarantee that we will blow through the internationally agreed on threshold of 2 degrees C. Enter the carbon budget.

Where Does the Ring of Fire Fit in Canada’s Carbon Budget?

Our Conservative federal government has decided to take a back seat to ROF development in a way that it hasn’t with the Alberta tar sands. Annual Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are not on target to meet our Copenhagen commitments, and indeed are expected to rise. All of the rise in Canadian emissions has to do with the expansion of the tar sands enterprise. Provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia have done their part (in Ontario’s case, more than its part) in reducing emissions, but all of those reductions are offset by the tar sands. Although there have been modest steps in reducing the intensity of emissions, the fact of the matter is that overall amount of carbon Canada pollutes our atmosphere with is going up, thanks to the tar sands.

Where does that leave other emissions-intensive industries, particularly new start-ups like the Ring of Fire (and B.C.’s liquid natural gas enterprise, for that matter)? If Canada decides that it must get serious to meet our Copenhagen commitments (which may happen under a different federal government, but clearly isn’t a concern of this government), tough decisions are going to have to be made regarding emissions. Along with deciding how best to put a price on carbon, discussions will surely revolve around who gets to pollute and how much. While negotiations between the federal and provincial governments are sure to be acrimonious, if we are to have a viable plan to do our national part to hold warming at 2 degrees C, there will be no option but to look at carbon budgeting.

With this in mind, the costs of carbon for a development enterprise such as the Ring of Fire will not be trivial, and indeed, they may form one of the fundamental overall costs associated with the project. Using our earlier example of a transportation corridor, it’s unavoidable to think that factoring carbon costs into the decision matrix isn’t a sensible way to proceed. Yet, I strongly suspect that our business and government leaders aren’t thinking carbon in this way.

That Matter of Electricity

And then there’s electricity. Ontario has one of the highest prices per kilowatt hour for electrical energy, thanks to previous government’s support of expensive nuclear power. Ontario ratepayers are still paying for the poor investment decisions made to build expensive nuclear infrastructure, and then to privatize some of that infrastructure. Today, the provincial government continues to intervene in the marketplace by subsidizing ratepayers with taxpayer dollars.

(Continued from Part 1...)

ROF businesses are right to be concerned about the costs of electricity, particularly when it comes to the value-added part of their proposals. Cliffs Natural Resources estimates that the processing facility they propose to locate near Capreol will use the same amount of power of a city of 300,000 inhabitants. That’s the energy price-tag of keeping value-added jobs in this province, however, and someone is going to have to pick up that tab.

Calls for Intervention in the Marketplace

In “Beneath the Surface”, the Chamber of Commerce calls for the Province to explore a cost-benefit analysis of a special electricity incentive so that value-added processing facilities can locate in Ontario. Besides finding it somewhat strange that an organization which purports to embrace capitalist economic practices calling on governmental intervention in the marketplace, it’s astounding to me that any organization would leap to the conclusion that cheap electricity must be the driving force behind locating processing facilities in the Province. There are other options which make more sense.

Special electricity rates for ROF developers mean that the actual costs of electricity will be picked up by other electrical ratepayers, or by taxpayers if the reduced rate is in the form of a government subsidy. Since ratepayers and taxpayers tend to be largely the same people (ie. you and me), that ultimately means that you and I are going to be paying for the electricity used by Cliffs and potentially other companies. Yes, there are sure to be economic benefits in the form of jobs and other spin-off activities, but I’d very much like to know more about the “how much?”. Indeed, should anybody bother to compile the data, it’s within the realm of possibility that ratepayers and taxpayers might actually be on the losing end of this electrical proposition.

Innovation, Not Subsidization

At a time when the calls for energy conservation are becoming all the more urgent, subsidized electrical rates really can’t be justified from an economic point of view. They must be considered the cost of doing business, and as a cost, they will drive business and industry to innovate (whereas there is certainly less of a need to change one’s habits when you’re receiving a subsidy). If there are concerns that no economic case can be made for establishing processing facilities in Ontario as a result of the cost of electricity (which the Chamber’s Report suggests), so be it – because first, I very much doubt that’s actually the case, and second, because the Province can still chip in and help in other ways (such as with the transport corridor).

Processing Our Resources Here

And finally, if there is such a concern that multinational companies will choose to process raw resources in other jurisdictions, there are changes which the Province can make to legislation to require that our natural resources be processed here. The Green Party, and to its credit, the NDP, have long championed changing the law so that what’s taken out of the ground in Ontario is processed here. Why the NDP failed to act on this policy plank of theirs over the 5 years that it governed the province back in the early 1990s, I don’t know. But the NDP surely does talk about this a lot, and good for them. It’s the right approach to keep well-paying value-added jobs in Ontario.

“Business as Usual” Doesn’t Work

Sustainability and social license must be at the heart of the new Ring of Fire industrial enterprise. Although business and industry, and some in the political world, have decried the pace of development, the fact is that “getting it right” takes some time – and if anything, the time which we have lost has been largely the result of the federal government moving the project in the wrong direction at the outset. Rather than initiating meaningful nation-to-nation dialogue with First Nations, the feds choose to sideline them, ensuring that the way forward would not include a social license for development, unless everything were to first to come to a halt – and even then, the ill-will created between governments and First Nations would need to be overcome.

The environmental assessment process required by the federal government was also a problem, due to its lack of comprehensive focus. Unlike the matter of social licence and First Nations, the environmental assessment issue is one which is still not being addressed, as companies are still following the same individual processes which look at only their own pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. No one is assessing the entirety of the puzzle. It’s a pretty sure bet that questions of sustainability and triple bottom line cost/benefits won’t be answered through this approach. Why the provincial government isn’t taking a bigger-picture look at these issues, which include climate change impacts, probably has a lot to do with how the old line political parties continue to refuse to acknowledge 21st Century realities.

In their “business as usual” approach, our governments are supported by organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, which for some strange reason thought that it was ok in the year 2014 to produce an economic analysis of the Ring of Fire which fails to even mention “climate change”. Ignoring the economic realities of climate change is, frankly, absurd. And, if implemented, the Chamber’s plan will put ROF development on a path which goes nowhere quickly.

Chamber Report Scratches the Surface

While providing some good information and ideas (along with one or two very bad ideas – see hovercraft, below), it’s fair to say that the Chamber of Commerce’s “Beneath the Surface” is an epic waste of time and effort which may ultimately do more damage to developing the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire Action plan proposed by the Chamber starts in the wrong place, fails to consider the current economic and social environment, and advocates for a plan which is certainly doomed to fail – one which already has failed.

I will say it again: the starting point to any development proposal for the Ring of Fire must be real nation-to-nation negotiations. Until agreement can be reached between First Nations and the governments of Ontario and Canada, there is little to be gained by barging forward in the way the Chamber suggests. Yet, the Chamber urges the provincial government to move forward with infrastructure planning and subsidizing electricity as its priorities to getting the ROF back on track. First Nations agreement will only be afterwards, through some sort of needs-based assessment. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that mutually beneficial agreements between First Nations communities and industry will prove to be good things – but the role in which First Nations are expected to take in the Chamber’s analysis does not fit the nation-to-nation reality, and can only be considered as a mechanism to further sideline First Nations.

The federal government tried that approach, was called out on it by First Nations, and ultimately it has led to failure and lost time. We can’t afford to go down that road again. But instead of urging governments and First Nations to come to an agreement as a first step, we have instead the Chamber of Commerce suggesting that short term infrastructure can be developed on mine sites deep in the James Bay Lowlands using hovercraft to ferry construction materials!

Sustainable Development vs. The Wild West Approach

And that brings us back to the notion of sustainable development – the other 21st Century economic reality which “Beneath the Surface” massively misses. Not only is there no discussion around carbon costs (or much discussion about costs of any kind), the natural environment is largely treated as an obstacle to be overcome by development – something which, along with the red-tape of environmental regulations and the Far North Act, stands in the way of moving forward now. This type of attitude might have been commonplace in the 20th Century (although certainly not in the latter part of that century, as “Beneath the Surface” seems to acknowledge in its call for the removal of environmental regulations which made sense “20 years ago” but apparently don’t today), but it has no place in developing a truly sustainable economy – which is what we must do if we are going to hold warming at 2 degrees C.

I sincerely hope that the Provincial government does not heed the advice offered by the Chamber of Commerce on a way forward for the development of the Ring of Fire. The current government, which has finally got serious about negotiating with First Nations and obtaining a social license for at least part of the development proposal, probably won’t. But with an election on the horizon, and a possible change in government, it’s not at all clear that the Chamber’s suggestions might not find resonance with at least one other political party. Certainly Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives have called for a similar plan of action for the ROF – and have even called the ROF “Ontario’s oil sands” because somehow they believe that’s a good thing.

If the plan to develop the ROF proceeds the same way that the tar sands enterprise has, woe be to Ontario, and woe be to Canada – for there has been very little in the way of planning in Alberta at all. That might have been a little more accepted not long ago, but in the new realities of the 21st Century, we simply can’t afford a “wild west” development scenario for the ROF. We can’t let it happen because such a development scenario will ultimately cost us more and doom the ROF because it lacks a social license with First Nations. It should not be pursued because in pursuing runaway development, choices will be made which ignore carbon economics and which will ultimately add unsustainable long-term costs to the enterprise – costs which will likely be borne by the public purse for generations.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)


Scratching the Surface: 21st Century Realities Can’t be Ignored by Ring of Fire Developers - Part 1

As we find ourselves getting deeper into the 21st Century, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the old ways of doing business just aren’t workable in the “new” realities of today. Yet, business and industry leaders, along with governments, continue to muddle through, largely clinging to economic models which are starting to be unworkable. Here in Canada, this is becoming glaringly obvious to all who are closely watching developments of resource extractive industries. The 21st Century challenges to tar sands industrial expansion may be the best known, but certainly other non-renewable resource-based industries are also finding traditional ways forward to be increasingly difficult, in part due to a lack of desire to acknowledge or address new realities.

First Nations

These “new” 21st Century realities include a change in relationships between governments and First Nations. Decisions made by the Supreme Court of Canada reasserted the rights of First Nations to be treated on a “nation to nation” basis with regards to negotiations with the federal and provincial governments. What we have seen has been a fundamental shift in the starting point of any discussion regarding resource extraction in Canada. Yet, largely, this new reality hasn’t yet sunk in with industry and government representatives, who continue to want to dive into business opportunities without first consulting with nations on whose traditional territory the resource is located.

Industries are used to dealing with one or two governments, and have little or no experience in dealing directly with aboriginal peoples as “nations”. Our governments, too, are used to telling First Nations what’s best for them, and at most, sitting down to draw up agreements about how the benefits of resource extraction will be shared. What is new is the notion that Frist Nations might have their own idea about the starting point – whether extracting the resource makes sense from their point of view. Recently, the Elsipogotog First Nation in New Brunswick made national headlines when members came together in a decision to tell the provincial government and industry that they were not interested in having resources fracked within their traditional territory, and no number of benefit-sharing agreements were going to change their mind.

Carbon Economics

Another new reality of the 21st Century has to do with the economics of carbon, and fossil fuels which are the primary power source for much of our global industrial infrastructure. The international community, through the Copenhagen Accord, has committed to holding global warming at a 2 degrees Celsius threshold. Maintaining this commitment will require substantial carbon reserves to stay safely sequestered in the ground. Coal, bitumen and natural gas reserves cannot be exploited to their full potential – not if we are to keep warming below the 2 degree C threshold.

Yet, even with conservation measures, our energy needs will still be significant. In the new reality, it is essential that we begin building the infrastructure which transitions our economy from polluting fossil fuels to clean renewables. This isn’t just a semantic argument about the need to meet an international obligation – it’s a necessary initiative in order to stave off long-term economic collapse. The costs of ignoring climate change will be a burden which our children won’t be able to afford to pay.

In broader terms, these two 21st Century realities form part of larger pictures around “social license” and “sustainability” – two concepts which development of any sort must address if it is to be successful.

The Ring of Fire

Here in Ontario, a large deposit of chromite exists in the remote James Bay Lowlands, in an area known as the Ring of Fire (ROF). Chromite is the primary ingredient of steel, and while chromite itself is not a fossil fuel, significant amounts of energy are required to mine and process it so that it can be used to make stainless steel. The remote location of the ROF also means that there are significant infrastructure challenges to resource extraction, as transportation and utility connections don’t currently exist. And of course, First Nations in the area have their own ideas about what resource extraction might mean for their interests.

Ontario’s Liberal provincial government has been the subject of a lot of criticism by opposition Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties regarding what appears to be the glacial pace of development in the ROF. Yet, calls for putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, are not going to assist with moving this important development project along. Too often, political and business leaders have fallen into the trap of ignoring the 21st Century realities we are currently living with. Their proposed solutions appear to be mined from policy papers written decades ago, at a time when First Nations weren’t empowered, and climate change was a fringe issue.

“Beneath the Surface”

Last week, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, released with much fanfare a proposed “way forward” for development of the Ring of Fire. Entitled, “Beneath the Surface: Uncovering the Economic Potential of Ontario’s Ring of Fire”, the report has been long in the making. In developing the report, the Chambers of Commerce consulted with industry experts, government officials, business leaders, First Nations and mining experts. The report is written in a very accessible format, and highlights the importance that this industrial enterprise represents to all of Ontario (and not just the north).

The report’s economic analysis leads to the conclusion that development of the ROF will generate up to $9.4 billion for Ontario’s GDP in the first 10 years, along with nearly $2 billion in government revenues. Over a 32 year period, the report indicates that the ROF may contribute as much as $27 billion to GDP, and generate as much as $6.7 billion in tax revenue for governments. The report looked at two scenarios, one labelled “conservative” which assessed the impacts of only the two projects which have been leading the way (Cliff’s Chromite Project, and NorOnt Resource’s Eagle’s Nest), and the other “optimistic”, which included a number of other currently identified commercially viable projects. However, it may very well be that even the “optimistic” scenario might not prove optimistic enough, should investments in infrastructure mean that additional deposits can be commercially exploited.

In short, there is clearly a lot of money lying dormant beneath the surface of the lowlands.

I’m not an economist, so I’ll accept the Chambers findings related to direct, indirect and induced economic activity and the multiplier effect they’ve used to calculate their figures. Generally speaking, the Chamber’s analysis appears to be in keeping with other projections regarding economic benefit which have been floating around out there in the media (and if anything, the Chamber’s numbers might be on the low side). That there is a tremendous amount of wealth residing in the ROF is clear, and that the extraction of this wealth could lead to significant economic benefit for First Nations, Ontario and Canada.

Finding a Way Forward

Yet, for the past several years, the development of this industrial enterprise has gone badly wrong, and little progress has been made to move the ball forward. One of the major players, Cliffs Natural Resources, has even suspended operations in the ROF, leaving their project in limbo. While Cliffs has been quick to cite a lack of action on the part of the government for idling its chromite project, there may be more at play internally with Cliffs own economic situation. Nevertheless, Cliffs is certainly not alone in suggesting that governments, and particularly Ontario’s Liberal government, instead of carrying the ball forward, has fumbled it significantly.

Things have started to change, though. Last year, the government of Ontario appointed former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci to work with the Matawa First Nations negotiator, former Federal Liberal Interim Leader and MP Bob Rae. Why it has taken so long for serious nation-to-nation consultations to occur remains a bit of a mystery to me, but I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the notions of the past continuing to influence the actions of stakeholders, rather than acknowledging the realities of the present.

The Conservative Federal Government and the Lost Years

Development of the ROF really was off the rails from the moment it began. While the Province of Ontario might have been taking steps towards facilitating resource development through the adoption of the Far North Act (which lays out the specifics for regional planning and development), the Conservative government of Canada’s intransigence towards working with First Nations and the environmental community led Cliffs down a windy, tortured passage where they eventually ended up in front of a court, listening to lawyers argue the merits of one process over another.

Cliffs Chromite project is subject to a federal Environmental Assessment process which, thanks in part to anti-environmental omnibus budget legislation passed by the Conservatives during the first years of their majority mandate, has proved to be a disruptive endeavour. The EA process has never been inclusive when it comes to First Nations – and indeed, it was the wrong place to start for that very reason. Further, the EA process as authorized by an anti-environment government, allowed Cliffs’ project to proceed in isolation of other planned ROF projects, which has meant that the overall cumulative environmental impacts from ROF development would never be comprehensively assessed.

What the Conservatives did was to choose a puzzle off the shelf (without first consulting First Nations partners as to whether the puzzle itself was a good choice, or even if they wanted to help put it together), and then commit to looking at individual puzzle pieces only, rather than the picture that those pieces would create when put together. This kind of backward-thinking on the part of our federal government was the primary reason that years were lost to the development of the ROF industrial enterprise.

What’s the Problem with Wealth-Creating Development?

In our 21st Century reality, nation-to-nation consultation ought to have been the starting point of any discussion around the Ring of Fire. Up until recently, First Nations have largely been treated as an important afterthought – a primary stakeholder for the project’s success, beyond doubt, but still a secondary consideration for the project. But the question of whether or not the project itself was a worthy one to pursue was just never one that was asked by industry and government. The assumption has always been that if a case can be made for economic growth, any resource extractive opportunity must, therefore, be a benefit. Why would anybody not want to create wealth?

And those same parochial points of view continue to be held by many in government and business. Whether it’s pushing a pipeline through an area to facilitate the transport of raw bitumen, or the development of fracked natural gas wells, as long as base environmental issues can be addressed, the question about “what’s the problem?” is never asked, time and again.

But whether wealth-generating development really makes sense in the context of 21st Century realities is the fundamental question that the developers of all non-renewable resource extraction initiatives should be asking themselves. Importantly, they should be asking First Nations as well in the form of nation-to-nation negotiations. Sometimes, making money in the short term simply isn’t a good enough reason for a project to move forward – at least not for all impacted parties. The failure to recognize both the economic value of natural capital and the will of indigenous peoples to play a significant role in the decision-making affecting their traditional lands and resources located within has led to many of the issues today being experienced by extractive resource industries. Whether it’s Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, fracking in New Brunswick, or Ontario’s Ring of Fire, these issues are coming up time and again. Why not try to address them rather than to pretend that they aren’t legitimate issues?

(continued in Part 2…)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)