Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Political Parties in our "Democratic" Electoral System: PEI Greens Stand Up for What's Right

I’ve always had a special interest in emergent political parties. For years, I watched from the sidelines as both the Federal Green Party (GPC) and the Ontario Provincial Green Party (GPO), grew their support. Democracy is also an important issue for me, and I have often lamented that our democratic system has become beholden, to a great extent, to political parties. Elizabeth May, the GPC’s leader, likes to remind Canadians that political parties aren’t mentioned in our Constitution, and she takes exception to Prime Ministers who behave as if Members of Parliament are working for him.

Our current reality is, though, that if you’re running as an Independent, best of luck to you, buddy. Independents rarely have the ability to break into provincial or federal parliaments. Those that do often do so because they were removed or removed themselves from an existing political party while sitting in parliament (Bill Casey and Chuck Cadman come to mind). The successful Independent must have a very high profile amongst the local electorate. Usually, such individuals will already have been wooed by one or two or three political parties anyway.

Political parties can bring resources to bear to assist with winning elections. They have a greater organizational structure than most Independents can bring together, and since parties are constantly fundraising, in theory there will be a revenue stream available between elections to assist with raising one’s local profile. Parties are also subsidized by governments in various ways. It’s different in every province, but Federally Jean Chretien left two things as his legacy: a maximum cap on tax-deductable donations (made by persons only; not corporations or unions; tax-deductable only if you pay income tax, though); and, a per-vote subsidy payable to political parties.

The per-vote subsidy has taken a lot of abuse throughout Canada lately, particularly back at the time of the so-called "Coalition Crisis", as it was Stephen Harper’s desire to remove the per-vote subsidy which some claim drove the NDP, Liberals and Bloc into each other’s arms. Some see the per-vote subsidy as publicly funding political parties. Well, it is that. But a much larger source of public funds for political parties is clearly the tax-deductable personal donation, where an individual who donates, say, $400, will receive $300 of that donation back from the government at tax time. Personal donations can be made up to $1,100 (I believe), and the rebate, while it gets lower in terms of a percentage the higher you go, is still pretty darn healthy. Certainly, your money goes further when given to a political party rather than to a registered charity or a church, because taxpayer’s money actually does most of the giving.

Here in Sudbury, in the last election, the Conservative Party fielded an excellent candidate who had the other candidates here shaking in their boots. With the monetary juggernaut of the Conservative Party behind this educated, intellectual, articulate (in both languages), local Conservatives had high hopes for success. This guy had also been out knocking on doors for months leading up to the election. We Greens in particular were somewhat in awe of this Conservative candidate, because he had probably the greenest personal credentials of any of the candidates. In fact, I know that he inspired some in our Party to look at ways of leaving a lighter ecological footprint in our community. What we couldn’t figure out was why this guy was running as a Stephen Harper Conservative.

Well, all of our fears proved to be collectively unfounded, for on Day 1 of the campaign, this candidate went on CBC Radio and said that he disagreed with the Minister for FedNor’s decision to not fund the Centre for Mining Excellence in Sudbury. The Minister at the time was former Conservative Leadership candidate-now Minister for International Trade, Tony Clement, he of "Sudbury = Valley of Death" fame. Anyway, long story short here, this excellent candidate was muzzled by his Party, and participated only in one local debate (the one hosted by the Chamber of Commerce), and he and his campaign were pretty much eclipsed by the Liberal-NDP mudslinging on the ground. Yes, there remained up a good number of Conservative signs, but on Election Day he finished 10% points back of the winner, and in third place with 25% of the popular vote.

Later, when Pundit’s Guide published the financial metrics for the Sudbury riding from the last election, I was surprised to see that the Conservative Party had spent $85,730 on their campaign in this riding, which was the most of any Party. The winning NDP dumped $71,329 into their campaign here, while the Liberals spent just over $50,000 to contest the results. In contrast, the Green Party spent just a little over $5,000. On a per-vote level, that means that we Greens spent only 7-cents for every vote we received here in Sudbury, while the Conservatives were at $1.15, the NDP at 96-cents and the Liberals at 68-cents. All in all, I think we Greens did pretty well to receive 7.6% of the vote on a small budget.

The point I’m trying to make here is: money talks. Now, I’ve never asked the former Conservative candidate just what it was about Stephen Harper’s party which attracted him, given that to me, at least, he didn’t seem particularly ideologically predisposed to agree with much of what the Conservatives seem to stand for. This guy, though, would have been better off as an Independent, or better yet, a Green candidate. But the fact is, there is no way that an Independent or Green campaign could have spent half of what he did as a Conservative to help get him elected. Maybe he was hoping that the monetary machine of the Cons would help him get elected, and then he could begin changing Conservative minds from a position of authority within his own Party. I don’t know, I’m just speculating. But clearly, if he wanted to be an MP, he had a much better chance of getting himself elected as a Conservative, rather than as an Independent or even a Green.

Our current system is clearly set up to favour the larger, existing parties over Independents and other parties. We Greens know just how hard it is to break into the system. I’m sure that we lose out on a lot of credible candidates, who instead choose to run for other parties. Would recently-elected Provincial Liberal Glen Murray fall into that category? I’m sure that there are others, because, frankly, our Party just doesn’t have the profile and resources to be a viable vehicle for the political aspirations of many who otherwise would embrace our policies and positions.

Sometimes, small parties can come out of nowhere and capture the attention of the public. We saw that recently with the rise of the ADQ in Quebec, and lately with the surging Wildrose Alliance in Alberta, which is now out-polling the existing Progressive Conservative provincial government under Ed Stelmach. Usually, when situations like this occur, it means that a small party, usually a new one, is able to capitalize on two things: a certain zeitgeist, or feel for the times, where a Party’s one or two defining issues is more in tune with the public than what the other Party’s have on offer; and, probably more importantly, money money money. Small parties aren’t going to go anywhere without money, and that’s the reality.

So, our system is set up to favour political parties over Independents, and larger existing political parties over smaller ones, and those which appeal to the wealthy with their policies over those who appeal to the poor. That’s our current political reality, and to me, it’s a crying shame, because it does a disservice to what we believed "democracy" to be. Our system, with its lack of flexibility and with its financial favouritism of the rich over the poor, isn’t about the rule of the people for the people, which is what we thought democracy was supposed to be all about. Instead, our system perpetuates the notion of the vested interests of the rich ruling over everything else. Our system is broken in fundamental ways, yet why would we trust those currently in power to fix it, given that they are the primary beneficiaries?

In this kind of environment, is it any wonder that small political parties with fewer financial resources have a very hard time being heard, despite whether they have a few good ideas or not? Since you pretty much have to belong to a political party nowadays to have any hope of getting elected to office, it can be difficult sometimes to find a "home" in one of the bigger parties given their ideology and/or baggage. Sometimes, this leads like-minded individuals to form a Party of their own, with the hopes of capturing the interest of other like-minded individuals to join them. Of course, it helps a lot if those other like-minded individuals have some good financial resources to assist with getting the message out. Anyway, this is all part of the way that democracy appears to play itself out in Canada.

In Prince Edward Island, though, new political parties apparently face a hurdle unlike anywhere else in Canada. Before an election, a new political party must pony up a $1,000 "registration fee", just to be recognized as a Party. Once recognized, of course, they won’t have to pay again, so existing Parties aren’t affected by this scheme. For a small and new political party, $1,000 can represent a significant financial outlay, and really disadvantages a Party at election time. Clearly, PEI has made the already stilted game of Canadian political democracy that much more egregious with this unnecessary hurdle which only further impedes democratic discourse.

Apparently, back in 2007, the Green Party of PEI paid this fee and went on about their business. Now, though, the Green Party of PEI, under the Leadership of Sharon Labchuk, has gone on record in protest of this undemocratic move by the entrenched parties in her province. Here’s the kicker: Labchuk and the Greens aren’t protesting the fact that they paid this fee back in 2007, they are protesting the fact that a new political party, the Island Party, is now being forced to pay the fee!

That’s what standing up for democracy is all about. Labchuk and PEI Greens see that an injustice is occurring, and they are no longer content to sit by without saying so. As a political party, frankly the Greens have nothing to gain here, and much to lose. They’re giving publicity to a start-up political party which one day might experience success and create issues for the Green Party. No, what’s happening with the PEI Greens is much more altruistic, and certainly demonstrative of Green values in action. Regardless of political gain, Labchuk and the PEI Greens are doing what’s right. They are putting their own values ahead of partisan politics. And that’s something that we don’t see much of in this day and age, given the structure of our political system.

To me, that’s what democracy is all about: doing what’s right. Kudos to the PEI Greens for recognizing that we, as Canadians, benefit from a plurality of voices to be heard from when we go looking for leadership and good government in this country.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why I Support United Steelworkers Local 6500 - And Why Other Greens Should Too

I attended this evening's “Bridging the Gap” rally here in Sudbury, in support of striking United Steel Workers Local 6500, who have been on strike now against their employer, Brazilian-based Vale Inco, for about 8 months now, without an end in sight. To me, it feels as if things are starting to come to a head here in my City, as accusations are flying all over the place. Tonight, I heard that Vale had accused the Union of being racist, because the union had referred to Brazil as a “developing nation”. Say what you will about Local 6500, but they are not racists. It's this kind of pot-stirring, though, which is starting to be problematic for my community.

A couple of weeks ago, Vale took an offer directly to the employees, and a vote was held. 89% of striking Steelworkers voted to reject Vale's offer. You have to understand, these people are hurting (who wouldn't be after 8 months on a picket line?), yet still they rejected the offer, claiming that there was little new in the deal. Negotiations broke down. Now, the Steelworkers are claiming that temporary workers being housed on Vale property are being done so in defiance of municipal by-laws, and the City is investigating. More temporary workers are expected to be put on the payroll. Striking Steelworkers have been fired, in some cases without explanation, and without the benefit of union representation through the agreed-upon labour dispute mechanisms, which aren't in place, because the union is on strike. It's downright Orwellian here at times.

“Greater Sudbury is a wounded community,” stated Mayor John Rodriguez tonight. I believe it. Rodriguez told the crowd that those on strike are losing their homes. Families are under stress. Yes, that's for sure. The strike, though, is affecting our community in other ways, too. My wife and I used to go to this great little restaurant in the downtown; in fact, it's where we got engaged. It was just a small operation, but the food was great, the service was wonderful. It was the kind of place where it was always a pleasure to go. It closed down on St. Valentine's weekend. Not enough business. Another little place which I didn't visit enough, a little tea shop nestled amongst the Artists on Elgin, gone. One after another, little businesses are disappearing. This recession is wearing enough on our community. Having thousands of miners receiving only strike pay is hurting us even more.

And the company doesn't really give a damn. To them, the strike is a nuisance, at best. They're so big, they can continue to absorb the losses from idle facilities here in Sudbury. It's not as if the ore body is going anywhere. Nickel prices have started to climb, though, so maybe they're feeling a bit more of a pinch right now, and they've begun to salivate a touch thinking about the profits they're not making. But it's not as if they're hurting. In fact, Vale continues to make huge profits. The problem with their operation here in Sudbury (and in Port Colborne, Ontario, and Voisey's Bay in Labrador) is that with wages, pensions and benefits previously negotiated by the workers, Vale isn't going to make enough profit for their liking. So they sideline a whole community in the process.

I believe that's what's called “corporate greed”. Frankly, it's not sustainable. When our governments let these massive international corporations call the shots in our communities, based not on profitability, but on profit margins, it's a problem. I've heard this kind of internationalization of our resources referred to as “branch planting”. The decision makers, who used to be located in the same communities as the workers, have left, and sold the shop to a faceless corporation based somewhere else in the world, with no ties to the communities which they operate in. Local businesses which were once used to service the industry can't renew their contracts, and are cast aside in favour of other businesses from outside which have pre-existing relationships which the corporate giant. What was once a community building endeavour between local capital and local labour becomes simple exploitation in the name in profit. Sure, with a few sops thrown our way every now and then to be sure, so that the multinational can keep up the appearances of being a community builder, rather than a pillager of our natural resources.

NDP Leader Jack Layton was back in town. He's a favourite of the Steelworkers, and why not? The NDP has done a very good job supporting the position of the union. They've been asking questions in Parliament of Stephen Harper and especially Industry Minister Tony Clement. You see, a deal was made to allow the Canadian company INCO to be sold to the Brazilian Vale a few years ago. When the deal was made, the Conservatives told Canadians that this sale of a Canadian asset was in the interests of Canada, that there would be a net gain for Canadians as a result. With layoffs occurring early in 2008, with middle managers being let go for redundancies now that their jobs can be handled out of corporate offices in Sao Paolo, and now with an 8 month strike, it's difficult for us here in Sudbury to see what the net benefit of this sale has been. And it's even more difficult because the agreement Vale made with the Canadian government is secret; Clement won't release it. Says that there are laws prohibiting him from doing so. But trust him, Sudbury would have been a “valley of death” had not Vale stepped up to the plate and purchased INCO.

So we have a secret agreement which the Conservatives claim was made in the interests of Canada, but they can't tell us how, so we have to trust them on this. Did I mention that at times, things around here seem a little Orwellian?

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Provincial NDP was also here. She, too, has been a voice for Steelworkers, although I think that her singular focus on the Ontario NDP's anti-scab legislation could use a bit of a makeover. Not that I'm against anti-scab legislation, which is a good thing, given that the Green Party of Canada is also in favour of such legislation, at least as it would apply to Federal workers. Otherwise, this is largely a provincial issue. And that's why the Liberal MPP for Sudbury, Rick Bartolucci, who is usually the first announced winner on election nights in this province, will be in a world of trouble should he run again. Although Horwath lacks Layton's ability to rile up a crowd, the NDP will have a ready-made machine to fight the Liberals in the 2011 election here. The rumour-mill says that Bartolucci might step down from McGuinty's cabinet, and maybe even toss his hat into the ring for Mayor in time for this coming fall's election. His lack of position on the strike will be problematic for him to overcome against Rodriguez, who has been a strong supporter of USW 6500, and who has successfully bootstrapped most of his Council into taking the same position as his. Of course, it is an election year, and opposing the Steelworkers doesn't appear to be a smart move in this community.

Local businesses and even residences have begun sprouting “I support USW 6500” signs. One local business I frequent was threatened by an anonymous letter, told to remove their sign. The local press found out about it. The next day, the business ran out of food at lunch time, with Steelworkers lining up to show their support.

Sure, not everybody supports the striking Steelworkers here, but I believe that most do. Even those who believe that the Steelworkers are over-compensated for the job they do (a view I don't share, given how dangerous a job mining can be; if you don't believe me, you should come to Sudbury and see the Miner's Memorial in Bell Park) have a hard time siding with Vale on this one, given their corporate greed. Even if you don't believe in the greed, when you look around and see what's happening to our community as a result of the strike, well, it's very hard not to get worked up about these things.

Look, I'm the furthest thing from a union activist as there is. Sure, I belong to a union, and yes, I participated in a strike back during the Mike Harris years, and walked a picket line for 7 weeks. I remember how hard a time that was for me. I can't imagine what the members of USW 6500 are going through, though, being out for 8 months. At today's rally, an Australian union announced that they had passed a hat out to their members to collect donations for Canadian Steelworkers, and as a result, they'd be donating $50,000. Every little bit helps, but there are over 3,000 workers out on strike here, and hundreds more in Port Colborne and Voisey's Bay. Even $50,000 can only be stretched so far.

In the past when I've written about this strike, or about labour issues in general, I've made some Greens uncomfortable. Yes, I agree, labour issues are pretty much owned by the NDP, given that the NDP itself is largely a creature of organized labour. Plus, many Greens are simply uncomfortable with a labour/company dynamic. We'd prefer to work with small-ish business owners to achieve the results we call for. The reality is, though, we live in a world where there is friction between labour and capital, and that's not likely going to go away any time soon. In fact, if what's going on in Sudbury proves to be the tip of the iceberg which so many involved in the labour movement believe it to be, we can expect even more problems in the future. As corporations merge and power is consolidated into the hands of a few truly giant international corporations who are able to dictate their own terms to national governments who have either an ideological predisposition to go along with the Corporation's dictates, or else have little other choice, we can truly expect to see more friction. Corporations will naturally want to maximize their profits, and that will mean renegotiating wages, benefits, pensions, any external costs. And if they don't get what they want, well, they'll be big enough to find other ways of managing costs. Clearly, unions are going to be targets. Remember what happened to those Wal-Mart employees in Quebec who voted to form a union so that they could collectively bargain with their employer? Wal-Mart got around Quebec's stringent labour laws by declaring that the store which certified the union was unprofitable, and closed it, throwing everyone out of work. And if you believe that a Wal-Mart wasn't turning a profit, than maybe you'd believe that Vale can't profit either in Sudbury by paying their workers the wages they had previously negotiated.

Although the NDP have owned this issue, they have done so by looking at the capital/labour dichotomy through their own “left-right” lens. But there is so much more to it. I heard Jack Layton say a few things this evening about labour, and what collective bargaining has accomplished. He said that when miners were dying, they went together to their employer, and those dangerous practices stopped. He said that when the worker's working days were done, they retired to live in poverty, and collectively the workers told the companies that wasn't right, and retiring workers received pensions. Layton said that when the workers went to the companies and said you're destroying the environment in which we live, collective bargaining helped get things back on track. Here in Sudbury there is clear evidence of that. Inco and Falconbridge both contributed quite heavily to the on-going re-greening initiative which is one of the biggest success stories that Sudbury has to tell. The number of trees planted on previously devastated lands is fantastic. This isn't your grandparent's Sudbury.

But Layton and the NDP don't get the full story. Layton went on to say that in Parliament today, he invited Minister Tony Clement to join him on a Bearskin Airlines flight to Sudbury, so that he could speak at this evening's rally. Clement declined, rightly in Layton's opinion, for the crowd might have torn him apart.

As I said earlier, Layton, Horwath and the NDP have done a good job for standing up for striking Steelworkers here in Sudbury, and in Port Colborne and Voisey's Bay. But, on a few things, the NDP still don't quite get it. Yes, collective bargaining has clearly accomplished so very much for workers, and for their communities. But, the missing piece of the puzzle for the NDP is the one which makes the puzzle whole. As the NDP continues to compartmentalize the environment as a discrete issue in and of itself, which is what it must be if viewed through a left-right lens, then it will only ever be treated as an externality. It can never become a core issue.

We Greens understand that environmental, social and economic matters are rolled together into an inseparable whole. And although labour issues may not resonate with some Greens, I'm here to tell you that they are a part of that whole which we can not ignore. The solutions to the problems which our society is facing must consider the balance between labour and capital, despite this being seen as an “NDP issue”. Our Party gets this, although it makes some Members uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, we need to move out of our personal comfort zones.

We Greens would certainly see the irony in the Leader of a national political party praising the environmental successes achieved through collective bargaining in one breath, while with the very next breath chastising the opposition for not joining him on an airplane to fly to a rally.

At tonight's rally, a Steelworker turned to me and said that he was surprised to see someone from the Green Party in attendance. He asked if I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I confessed that I did, a little bit, not being a union activist. I told him that I was here tonight, though, because it was the right place for me to be.

I hope that other Greens start coming to the same conclusion, given what is at stake.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Steal This Idea: Take It With You, Sudbury!

I’ve heard it said by those in the Green Party that we are quite happy when the other Parties steal our ideas, because there’s a better chance for implementation. It’s in that spirit that I wish to share the following idea with you. I hope that someone will steal this idea, run with it, and turn it into a reality.

Now, I’m not much of an ideas person myself, and the truth is, I can’t claim to take credit for this one either. You see, when I first met my wife Sarah, I was intrigued by this habit she had in bringing home her recyclables from work, and putting them in the blue box. This was despite the fact that her workplace had a recycling program in effect. Asking her about this, she told me that she’s seen what goes on behind the scenes in a few workplaces, where recyclables are collected, but are often disposed of with the regular trash and end up in a landfill. She told me that there are several reasons for this, but mostly it’s because people end up contaminating recyclables by mixing in their garbage with them.

The fact is, we’ve likely all seen this situation in fast food restaurants. We ask ourselves how the restaurant is going to sort through the recyclables and the garbage, and we lament that patrons aren’t a little more considerate in separating garbage from recyclables. And when we leave, we often don’t think much of it again. But often, restaurants just can’t afford to have someone sift through the day’s garbage to pull out the good from the bad. Hence, it ends up in the dump.

It was, and remains, important to Sarah to ensure that the waste she produces ends up going where it should. To that end, she always takes her recyclables with her when we’re shopping or eating out at a restaurant, or doing whatever. For the past several years, I’ve been doing it as well, stuffing pop cans into my jacket pocket, to take them home and fill up our blue box. I’ve always felt good about the cans in particular, knowing that the municipal recycling program makes more from aluminum cans than from other materials. But even with paper, the recycling truck is going to be stopping in front of my house anyway, so if there is some extra packaging in the blue box as a result of my downtown lunch, well, even that in a small way is a good thing. Not only do these materials not end up in the landfill, they generate a little bit of income for my community.

The other day I was at a local pizza place, having lunch. One of the employees came by and helpfully offered to dispose of the tray of waste product that I had generated. I told her not to worry about it as I was going to be taking most of it with me: a pop can, a cardboard pizza container and a cardboard box for onion rings. She looked at me with surprise and told me that there was a recycling program in the restaurant. I indicated to her that it’s great that they recycle, but it looks like it’s just aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Since more than half of my waste was cardboard, if I were to dispose of it at the restaurant, it would end up in the landfill. I told her that I’d rather take it all with me and put it in my blue box. On my way out, I noticed that the restaurant had set out some bags of trash beside the store. These see-through bags were filled with cardboard, and a number of pop cans and plastic bottles as well.

I thought that if more people did what Sarah does, how much more waste can my community end up diverting from landfills? As a result, I came up with the following concept, which I would very much like for someone in my community to steal, run with, and turn into a reality. Maybe you can do the same in your community.


Take It With You, Sudbury!


This is a voluntary program which encourages Sudbury residents to take recyclable materials home, rather than to rely on business recycling initiatives to ensure that recyclable materials don’t end up in our municipal landfill.

The success of this program will need buy-in from local businesses to encourage residents to retain their recyclable waste materials through the use of posters and other messaging (perhaps to be located on business waste bins) on the premises of the businesses. Specifically, small posters will be affixed to waste bins, encouraging those about to use the bins to reconsider, and to take their recyclable materials home.

Take It With You, Sudbury! posters would:

-Identify that participation in this program is voluntary;
-Direct people to take recyclable materials with them when they leave a business;
-Identify what types of recyclable materials can be removed after use;
-Encourage the deposit of recyclables into residential blue boxes or municipal blue bins
-Identify benefits to the community through voluntary participation;
-Provide contact information for residents to obtain more info about the program

Pros and Cons of Program:


For Businesses

-Reduced waste would lead to lower waste removal fees;
-Less garbage for employees to handle;
-Civic pride with participation in program and enhancement of public image.

For Residents

-Increased civic pride in participating in a green initiative;
-Increased awareness of the lifecycle of garbage and recyclable materials;
-Increased pride in participating in a municipal revenue creation opportunity.

For the City

-Increased public awareness in waste management issues;
-Increased revenues generated from additional recyclable materials being deposited in municipal blue boxes;
-Potential to be a municipal success story to be shared with others;
-Fewer private waste removal vehicles on the road, as demand for business waste removal decreases.


For Businesses

-Reduced recyclable materials may lead to smaller fees collected from waste recyclers;
-Posters and other public messaging in places of business may detract from business’ desired image, or may look too "busy";
-Businesses may confuse residents regarding what level of participation is required (optional vs. you must take your recyclables home).

For Residents

-Have to carry waste materials around with them for deposit in blue boxes;
-May need to put more blue boxes on the curb.

For the City

-May lead to increased calls for additional blue-box infrastructure and waste removal in high-traffic public areas, such as the downtown;
-May experience increased costs with residential blue-box pick-up as more recyclables deposited in blue boxes may lead to additional demand for waste removal.

Pilot Program

In order to demonstrate that the voluntary participation of Sudbury residents in this program can lead to the successful diversion of wastes which may otherwise end up in landfill sites, one area of the City should pilot this program for 6-9 months. Businesses, residents and municipal officials responsible for waste management should then provide feedback in order to ascertain whether the pilot has been successful, and whether the program warrants expansion throughout the City.

A logical location for piloting this program is the City’s downtown, which contains numerous restaurants and a mall. As well, the downtown currently has some municipal blue boxes available for the disposal of recyclable materials. Further, downtown businesses tend to be smaller operations, and which by and large enjoy taking the lead with green initiatives.

A prototype poster and waste bin sticker will be produced, and businesses will be approached with regards to their participation in the program. The Sudbury Downtown Development Corporation could be asked to make their members aware of this initiative, or perhaps act as a partner, champion or leader. Municipal Council will also be approached, and asked to support this initiative, through a Resolution, and potentially through the request of start-up costs, which should be minimal (poster and sticker reproduction). Volunteers associated with a lead agency, such as the Development Corporation, could be used to identify willing business participants. A website containing information on the program would need to be designed and maintained, however a basic-format website would likely suffice.

Media releases and information being made available at public events (such as the Blueberry Festival or the Garlic Festival, or at Market Square or City Hall) would be used to generate exposure for the program. There are many good ways to market an initiative of this sort, and a lead agency will likely know which ones would work best for them.

So, there it is. You can thank Sarah May for this idea. Now, take it and run with it!

Expelling Toronto from Ontario: What Passes for a Progressive Conservative Solution to Rural Issues in Ontario

The Toronto Star reports that Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Murdoch’s recent suggestion that the City of Toronto secede from Ontario and become its own Province. Murdoch suggests this because he believes that the rest of Ontario would be better off without Toronto, citing a "Toronto-centric" bias in provincial decision making which he believes is negatively impacting issues important to Rural Ontario. Of course, he doesn’t mention that getting rid of all of those red and orange MPP’s Toronto typically sends to Queens Park would greatly assist his bunch of blues in forming government.

Taking Toronto out of Ontario makes about as much sense as suggesting that providing family planning and contraception to women living in poverty won’t help save lives. Oh, wait a moment. That was some other Conservative nob.

Does Murdoch really believe that this sort of nonsense represents a viable solution for addressing rural issues in this province? Is this his answer, the best that he can come up with? Let’s get rid of Toronto and everything will be all right?

Through the use of Murdoch’s logic, if you remove Toronto from the decision-making equation, presto-change-o, the rest of the Province can convince itself that Toronto doesn’t exist and get on with its own, more important business.

Look, I know first hand that there are tensions within the provincial system based on geography. It’s hard not to appreciate those dynamics as a Northern Ontarian. But wanting to expel the main economic engine of our Province, the heartland to our hinterland, just so that there can be more of a focus on rural issues? Sounds to me like a bone-headed desire to try to take the "easy way out", rather than working within the existing structure for the betterment of all. Of course, that’s also the Conservative way: they’ll always try to do what’s best for their core constituents, and screw anybody else who might stand in their way. If others benefit as a result, well, great, but it was purely happenstance. Or a vote-buying exercise.

In the case of expelling Toronto from Ontario, others will not benefit. Due to Murdoch’s idiotic musing the other day, we’ve already seen all sorts of numbers being bandied about with regards to how much Toronto contributes to the Province (and to the feds) in terms of real dollars, and how little it gets back. I’m not going to explore those numbers, because they are quite volatile and dependent on who put them together (and for what reason), but most agree that Toronto is a net contributor to provincial wealth. So Murdoch wants to go and open up the Constitution of Canada in order to...impoverish the rest of the province? I guess he’s not yet satisfied with Ontario’s "have-not" status within confederation, and would like to see us plunge even further down that list.

Of course, it’s no real secret that Murdoch is musing out loud here in an attempt to gain political points in his riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. Murdoch, who was thrown out of Queen’s Park during the last session of provincial parliament, along with fellow Conservative (I just can’t bring myself to refer to him as a "Progressive" Conservative) Randy Hillier, over their contempt for parliament’s democratic processes, needs to start raising his profile again before the 2011 election. Greens will recall that it was GPO candidate Shane Jolley who gave Murdoch a run for his money in 2007, and no doubt Murdoch believes that he’ll face stiff competition from the provincial Greens again, who appear to be shifting somewhat to the right politically, potentially undercutting his support.

Bashing Toronto makes sense just about everywhere in Canada, if the goal is to gain political points. It’s easy, it doesn’t cost anything, and it can get your name in the papers as Murdoch has shown. Heck, Toronto-bashing is almost considered a national past-time, part of our Canadian identity. Despite the bit of fun we might have in poking Toronto in the eye, everyone knows that Murdoch’s "big idea" isn’t going to go anywhere. What should be a non-issue, or joke-issue at best, provides a great deal of personal publicity for the maverick Murdoch, who clearly subscribes to Oscar Wilde’s assertion that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Murdoch is popular in BGOS. He embodies the kind of no-nonsense, speak your mind attitude that appeals to many of his rural constituents, who no doubt share his views that Toronto-centrism has negatively impacted their rural way of life. Many in BGOS might also go so far as to suggest that they would be better off without Toronto in Ontario, until they stop and think about how our rural and urban economies are inextricably linked to one another.

Really, though, Murdoch represents nothing but populist clap-trap. He knows full well that Toronto won’t be leaving the province any time soon, given the Constitutional amendment that would be required, yet he puts this "idea" (a term I use loosely here) forward to the people as a solution to the needs of Rural Ontario.

Far better solutions for many of the issues facing Rural Ontario are offered by the Green Party, Murdoch’s chief competition in BGOS. Greens want to ensure that family farmers have all of the resources they need to carry out their jobs while earning a healthy living. Greens acknowledge that an agricultural lifestyle has been a very difficult one to sustain, despite its preeminent importance to all Ontarians. Greens have come up with many solutions for the betterment of Rural Ontario, in which they’ve actually invested a lot of time and critical thinking, unlike Murdoch and his asinine proposal.

No doubt, Murdoch, Hillier and other Conservatives will continue to appeal to Rural Ontarians, many of whom do feel threatened by the changes we all we have to face up to very soon, due to climate change, peak oil, and global recession. Policies of Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats which favour the factory farm over the family farm, haven’t helped instill a lot of confidence that governments are looking out for the interests of rural communities. I sincerely hope that rural voters explore the excellent policies of the Green Party and vote to send Greens to Queens Park in the next election. Green representation from Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound will be of significant benefit to rural residents, and not just because they’d be getting ridding of Bill Murdoch in process.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Crazy Talk: How the U.S. has been Planning for the World of Tomorrow

Question: Is it a sound financial strategy for governments to “spend like there’s no tomorrow” if “tomorrow” is never going to come? In other words, why not accumulate massive debts if we know that there won’t be anyone left around to repay these debts to, or at least anyone who we’ll allow to try to collect them?

I’m not talking about a Christian-fundamentalist “end times” viewpoint which might inform government decision-making (although under former President Bush, and the debt he racked up, I could be). Instead, I’m referring to more of a "survival of the fittest" argument, one which favours the perpetuation of an American way of life. Or perhaps, more correctly stated, a way of life in which America will continue to be the dominant player.

I can not and will not succumb to the idea that our governments are foolish, and the policies which they are pursuing are not carefully thought out. You know, I wish very much that I could subscribe to that way of thinking, because it would be so much better for humanity if the actions of our governments were based merely on incompetence. But I don’t believe that those making the big decisions in our government, or in the government of the United States, are ill-informed at all. Instead, I think they know exactly what they are doing, and their decisions are leading in a direction which will prove to be problematic in the extreme for most of us.

The challenges facing our global community are not new. In fact, they’ve been predicted by many for quite some time now. Last year, I read journalist Gwyn Dyer's sobering “Climate Wars”, in which he details that national military forces are planning for the coming crisis. Governments are aware of these threats.

It's all been discussed for some time now: Peak oil and a looming energy crisis, climate change, food shortages, water shortages, overpopulation: We’ve been talking about these issues for decades now, and we’ve been decrying a lack of action on the part of our governments to do much of anything meaningful to address them.

But what if, instead of ignoring these perils looming on the horizon, our governments have instead been planning to meet these crises, only in such ways as to benefit and perpetuate the existing power base? What I mean here is that we have all seen how democracy has been co-opted by the powerful corporate elites, who are best able to finance the campaigns of decision-makers of whatever convenient political stripe. While there may be some suggestion that the Canadian version of democracy hasn’t been completely tainted by corporate buy-off, we need look only to the United States to show just how loudly money talks in the halls of their government.

My Personal Bias

I’ll lay my own cards on the table here: I sincerely believe that the George Bush Jr. bought the 2000 election out from under Al Gore. I would not go so far as to suggest that this was a coup of some sort, because Bush used the legal tools at his disposal to accomplish the result. What I will suggest is that it is quite clear to anyone who was paying attention (or even anyone who wants to know more about it now, 10 years after the fact) that the notion that “every vote counts” in American democracy was proved to be an outright lie. All of the votes were never counted. Bush made sure of that. And there are similarities in our Canadian system, of course, as Liberal voters in Alberta surely know (and Green voters everywhere!).

While buying an election is a pretty egregious action in my books, what’s even more problematic from a democratic standpoint is the corporate influence pedalling which the business elites engage in through the every-day lobbying and election financing of decision makers at all levels throughout the U.S. With financial support comes an expectation that a favour will be returned. I believe that many elected U.S. officials remain beholden to the interests of big business above those of the actual constituents which cast the ballots to put them into office. As elections become more like high school popularity contests, those with the best financed campaigns are going to be the winners. And with the U.S Supreme Court's decision to treat corporations as real persons for the purposes of election financing, we can only expect increased influence from corporations in U.S elections.

And finally, I fail to see much of a difference between the Republican and Democratic parties in terms of their overall pursuit of policies, especially on the big-ticket items. Successive governments of both stripes have continued to largely pursue the same goals, and where new initiatives are entered into by one Party, those initiatives are largely not scrapped with a change in government. To use an extreme example, for those of you who thought that Obama would become the President of Peace upon his election to the Oval Office, that he would lead the U.S. out of Iraq pronto, close down the prisons at Guantanamo and elsewhere, and lead Americans out of the darkness and into a period of enlightenment, well, I simply ask: how’s that working out for us all so far?

Yes, yes, there are checks and balances in play which prevent any American President from being truly transformative. Instead, incremental change must be the order of the day. Again, though, I have to ask, how is that working out for us, given the significant crises which we are looming on the horizon?

Corporate Democracy

Well, while it all might not be working out for “us”, I would suggest that maybe things are working out quite well for the corporate power structure to which the U.S. government has become beholden.

If you haven’t already done this, try for a moment to change your way of thinking about democratic decision-making in the United States. Suspend your belief for a moment that decisions made by U.S. decision makers are altruistic, and for the benefit of the American people. It’s really not so easy for many of us to do, weaned as we have been on television which advertises a just “American” way of life. Americans, we believe, elect their governments to look out for the American people. Yes, we see that sometimes the U.S. government appears to be stepping into it big time on matters such as health care or oil drilling in the Arctic, but we continue to believe that the decision makers have what they believe to be the “best interests of Americans” at heart, even when making bone-headed decisions. We believe that they may be “misguided”. But deliberately making decisions which aren’t of benefit to the Americans who elected them? Does that make any sense?

I mean, why would they do this? Especially since they rely on voters to elect them periodically? How could they ever get away with it?

The answer here is, of course, the corporate interests who back their plays will do one of the following: provide enough financial support to ensure re-election, or, failing re-election, co-opt the new incumbent whose policy positions likely aren’t all that different from the old incumbents, at least not on the important questions. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

In Whose Interests are Decisions Made?

Back to the notion that decisions being made ostensibly for the benefit of the American people are not, in fact, actually for their benefit. If not for the people, then, for whose benefit? Why, the corporate elites who finance the campaigns.

Many of us take this to be self-evident, including Americans, who may cynically cast their ballots with the hopes that, in at least some small ways, their preferred candidate of choice might share some of the crumbs with the voters who sent him to Congress. Many more realize that the power structure in the U.S. is broken, and do not vote. Since their votes don’t really count anyway, and since there is little true difference between the two ruling parties, what’s the point?

Sadly, there isn’t any point. The U.S. system is lost to the U.S. voter. The notion upon which the United States was founded upon, that all men are created equal and should be allowed equality under the law to pursue life, liberty and happiness, doesn't work when there are no real alternative choices to choose from. This, one of the most noble ideals ever advanced by humanity, is quite lacking on the implementation side of the ledger.

U.S. Decision Makers Not Incompetent

Getting back to these significant crises I mentioned earlier, and my notion that the U.S. government has not been incompetent in its approaches to dealing with them. Remember, these are the same people who successfully navigated the geopolitical land mines of the Cold War and emerged victorious against an opponent armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. The fact that they did so in a very machiavellian manner should not detract from their successes. And the fact that they did so while at the same time enriching themselves in the effort should not come as a surprise, either, given the very nature of the capitalist system which they were defending.

So, if the U.S. government knows, and has known for a while now, about the coming energy shortages, food shortages, water shortages, and human catastrophes to be brought on by these shortages and exacerbated by climate change, why haven’t they been doing a whole lot to address these issues? If they’re so smart, why have they been so reluctant to start planning for the future?

I believe that the U.S. government has been planning for the future for quite some time now, and that they have been doing so carefully, and perhaps even on terms which will be favorable to many Americans, although likely not to all. They’ve just been making plans which you and I might not agree with (well, I know that I don’t like what I’m seeing; I can’t really speak for you, though, but since you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you also might not like where the future takes us).

Knowing that these crises are out there on the horizon, and knowing that these crises are going to be a threat to the established system, I sincerely believe that our governments have been engaged in planning to address these issues. Recall the success experienced by America with regards to the Cold War, particularly under Reagan. Many believed that the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was brought on because the Soviets simply could not keep up with U.S. military spending, especially after Reagan announced the “Star Wars” strategic defence initiative. In one very real sense, winning the Cold War amounted to the U.S. outlasting its opponent.

The Outlast Strategy

Might it be that the U.S. is continuing to employ this strategy of outlasting its opponents in the face of the coming global crises? By “outlast” I don't just mean holding tight and waiting for others to fall victim to the crises, so that when the time comes, America can somehow claim victory. No, not quite like that. Instead, America would want to create terms favorable for its continued economic dominance in the new order which might emerge after a collapse. And rest assured, collapse is inevitable, because the Earth can not sustain our current population without inexpensive energy resources.

Knowing that collapse is inevitable, then, and that goal of the game is emerge from a collapse in a dominant position vis a vis any other opponents, what might the U.S have to do? What strategies might it employ in an effort to “outlast” the opposition? Clearly, the protection of powerful corporations which will continue to generate wealth, which in turn leads to the projection of power on a global scale, needs to be a priority. Therefore, at all costs, the government must protect the economic system and the major players of that system if it is going to emerge on-top.
Even in a world beset by global crises, there will be opportunities for the biggest corporations to grow, mainly by picking off smaller competitors and exerting their dominance further. If things go bad in Europe, say, what's to stop a well-financed American-based multi-national from picking up a few new companies there, and start calling the shots from headquarters in New York or Boston, rather than from London or Paris? Such assets will continue to generate wealth for America, whether they are in Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere.

The outlasting strategy may be how global domination is ultimately achieved. Not through international co-operation, but instead through the domination of foreign states and peoples who may have found themselves in a reduced state of readiness to fend off corporate and cultural take-overs. In short, the U.S .may again try to outspend its competition. Certainly, America's past investments in military might have given it a pretty big stick with which to wield influence.

Emerging From Collapse

If the goal is ultimately to emerge from a global collapse in a better situation than one's opponents, what might it matter now how much debt is accumulated now, given the inevitability of a global collapse occurring? Isn't it more important to spend money now, in order to corner the market on valuable resources which are about to be in very short supply? Isn't it better to invest in security forces in order to provide protection for one's assets across the globe, to ensure that the resources are available for your use, in preference to that of your competitors?

Yes, certainly in this scenario, the U.S. will experience its own issues internally, as it will still be impacted by a global collapse, but if those effects can be minimized, the current economic system has a very good chance of staying in place, and those who currently wield power will continue to do so. In fact, there will likely be significant opportunities for future growth once the collapse plays itself out, if things go as planned and America emerges in a position of increased hegemony.

What This Might Mean For Us In the Coming Long Emergency

What does this mean for us? Again, I'll put my cards on the table: I believe that a general collapse is likely inevitable, as our global economy is structured on the exploitation of cheap energy resources. Currently, there are no viable replacement options for fossil fuels, and we are entering the time of peak oil. The next decade is likely to be a very unstable one for nations and individuals, as states compete for increasingly expensive scarce resources. This will lead to human problems on a significant scale: unemployment, hunger, war, famine. Of course, not all will be affected equally, but there is a very good chance that even in Canada, most of us will experience a continued reduction in the quality of life which we had come to expect in the earlier parts of the Oil Age.

U.S decision makers know what the future holds. They are already planning for it. For them, it is a sound financial strategy to spend like there's no tomorrow, because for most of the world, there likely won't be much of a tomorrow. What we can do as individuals is try to best prepare ourselves and our communities for the upcoming era of instability, what author Howard Kuntsler referred to as “The Long Emergency”. The gains we have made in human rights, and the advances we have made in so many areas, these are things which we must struggle to preserve as best we can. We must try to influence the outcomes in a constructive way, and take back our democracy from those corporate players which are looking towards the coming collapse as a further opportunity for exploitation of the environment, scarce resources, capital and labour.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Coming Energy Shortage, Part 5: Peak Oil and Northern Ontario - Changing the Dynamic Between North and South

In a world where our economy has been humbled by rising energy prices, leading to global depression, we can expect a collapse of our interdependent global society. Whether the collapse occurs all at once or is spread out over time, the quality of life which most of us are currently experiencing here in Canada today is sure to be a thing of the past. While the richest amongst us may be relatively as well off as they are today, certainly the middle class and the least well-off amongst us are in for negative changes, brought on by crumbling social safety nets and the loss of other governmental resources.

In Northern Ontario, we can expect higher food prices, due to the long distances which our food must travel. We can expect greater levels of unemployment, as the forestry and mining sectors are particularly vulnerable to negative impacts from global economic downturns. And, because of higher unemployment, we can expect more people to lose their homes. Unemployment, homelessness and hunger are a very dangerous mix.

I’m not suggesting that we’re all going to find ourselves in these sorts of situations in the immediate future as a result of the coming energy shortage, nor am I suggesting that it’s going to happen to everyone all at once. As I’ve indicated in previous blogs, the next economic downturn will also drive energy prices back down, just as the recession of ‘08-09 did. These lower energy prices may assist in leading to a recovery of sorts after the next downturn. What will be different the next time, however, is that our governments will not be able to afford to inject stimulus money into the economy in the same way they did the last time, due to sky-high debts.

What we can expect, though, over the next decade or so, is a general trend towards higher unemployment, homelessness, and hunger. Even those who can hang on to employment will find that inflation driven up by higher energy prices has reduced their real spending power. Energy demands, however, due to global pressures, are likely to remain high, and eventually we’ll find ourselves in a downturn where energy prices do not plummet, because there simply isn’t enough oil to go around.

We can expect increasing pressures put on our governments to resolve these imminent economic issues, but it seems to me that our governments will be ill-equipped to respond. Indeed, our federal and provincial levels of government, ham-strung by debt and decreasing revenues generated during times of economic downturns, will have to make some stark choices regarding what services they provide to the public and where. This may result in the reduction or elimination of some public services which Canadians have come to expect, such as health care, or the upkeep of infrastructure.

In Ontario, we can expect the Province to look towards municipalities to provide even more local services, without the requisite transfer of resources to deliver those services. In Northern Ontario, this has already been a bone of contention between municipal and provincial levels of government, due in part to the way in which revenues are collected by the Provincial level of government from natural resources. Northerners have always seen resource revenues end up in Toronto’s coffers, to be redistributed (or not) from a senior to junior level of government. In the future, if the province opts out of service delivery to the North because it can no longer afford to pay the bills, and if it expects municipalities to step in, one of two things are going to have to happen. Either we will need to revisit how resource-driven revenues are shared (which will likely further impoverish the Province), or there will be an alternative political response.

Growing up in Southern Ontario, I didn’t have quite the appreciation for the Northern part of my province as those born here do. Neither did I possess and understand that there are at least two Ontarios which really should be considered when we discuss this provincial territory. If you think of Ontario as a unified whole, you’re not getting the entire picture of the way things actually work.

From a Southern Ontario perspective, Northern Ontario is an economic backwater, behind the times in so many areas. Population is small, and strung out. Primary industries rule, and the Northern economy is very vulnerable to even small fluctuations in the health of the natural resource sector. Further, from a Southern Ontario perspective, the North represents either an economic hinterland to be exploited, or a vast park to be protected; sometimes both.

From a Northern Ontario perspective, the North represents a major contributor to the economic health of the Province, with wealth leaving the North greatly disproportionate to investments made here by senior levels of government. The frontier spirit and joie de vivre are something to be celebrated, and Northern culture is deserving of respect and support from governments. The perception of disparity is very real. And it is that perception which will be exacerbated during the upcoming energy crisis.

Ontario’s North, unlike Quebec’s, has not been developed in any significant way to harness the abundant hydro-electric resources of our major rivers. This might have happened, however the Province has historically opted for a more balanced mix of energy production: coal, hydro, nuclear, natural gas. Lately, the Province has tried adding renewable energy (wind; solar; and, wood-burning) to the mix. In short, investment dollars often went elsewhere (such as nuclear), and Northern Ontario’s rivers remain largely free of the massive hydro-electric projects we see across the border in Northern Quebec.

Say what you want about the environmental issues associated with hydro-electric generation (and I know that there are many). When push comes to shove in the future, and we find ourselves in an energy crisis here in Ontario, particularly after we’ve shut down our coal burning plants (or have replaced coal with wood pellets), there may be little choice but to look at damming the Abitibi, the Moose, the Mattagami, the Albany, or some of the other great rivers which flow to James Bay. When push comes to shove, and cheaper energy is needed in order to maintain even a semblance of economic status quo, do you really think that the majority of Ontarians are going to care much about impacts on an environment far away from any population centre? If the past offers any guidance on this, the answer is no.

Already in the North, there is talk about the need for upgrading our electrical transmission grid, ostensibly for the delivery of wind and solar electricity generated here, in order to power the South’s industrial engines. For Northerners, this is but another example of the way in which the South exploits the resources of the North. Without a provincial or national energy plan in place, though, it seems to me that Northerners can expect these upgraded transmission lines to carry more than wind and solar energy to the south: they will also carry hydro-electric energy derived from massive new projects.

We here in Ontario know that we’re heading towards an energy crunch, even without having peak oil to worry about. Our coal fired generating plants are scheduled to shut down, and our nuclear plants never seem to be up and running at anything more than half capacity. There had been talk about building more nuclear, but that seems to be off-again, and although there may yet be more talk about nuclear, the longer we wait, the more of a problem our energy needs become. And while economic recession is sure to reduce our needs, pretty soon some provincial government is going to have to tackle the inevitable question of just where we’re going to find more energy for the province. If conservation isn’t the answer (and the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives who typically form governments here will tell you that conservation alone is not the answer, that additional capacity is needed), than what choices are left? Build more renewable energy projects, sure, but that’s expensive (and will remain expensive given the generous feed-in tariff); build nuclear (very expensive and takes a lot of time); build small regional natural gas centres (cheaper but problematic, because communities don’t want them...just look at what’s going on in Oakville right now); or dam up the North’s rivers where nobody lives and very few people care.

Energy exploitation, coupled with decreasing investments in public services from a provincial government focussed on its larger population centres, coupled with an already existent perception that the North has been marginalized, exploited, and not receiving its fair share, is almost certainly going to lead to a change to the Northern-Southern dynamic. That change will manifest itself either through the North’s demands being recognized and acted upon by the South, or, well, by not being acted upon.

I expect to see a growing political movement in the North, calling for separation from the South. At various times in the past, there have already been half-hearted movements started to do just that. Things haven’t been as bad here, though, as they are likely to get when recession and/or depression driven by rising energy costs washes over us again another one or two times. As our Federal and Provincial governments are forced to turn inward, we can expect to see regional and municipal governments move to fill some of the vacuum left behind.

In the face of rising energy costs, the centre can not hold. This is likely going to be a global phenomena and not just limited to Canada. The rise of localism in Northern Ontario, however, may lead to a redefinition of what Ontario really means as a political entity. Of course, we here in Northern Ontario might just simply find ourselves part of a national trend, wherein the very federal-provincial structures we’ve come to know in Canada undergo stress, and in some cases, may break apart. A general economic collapse will likely have that kind of impact right across Canada.

Think it can’t happen? Just because we’ve come to expect Canada to be Canada, whole and united? I don’t buy it. Our federation is already very regionalized in many respects. If the federal level of government appears to become unnecessary, as providing international security becomes less important due to strife here at home, and international diplomacy less important still, because our domestic situation will require those resources too, then what? Why send our taxes to Ottawa when there’s a more urgent need for them, and social benefit to be received in turn from them, when sent to Toronto? Or, for that matter, when they are sent to Sudbury or Timmins or Thunder Bay? If taxes are going to be paid, we’re going to want to see the results of their wise use. If Ottawa can’t deliver, what will be the point of Ottawa? If Toronto can’t deliver to Northern Ontario, what will be the point of Toronto?

I have to expect that, over the next decade, and due in part to the coming energy shortage, the relationship between Northern and Southern Ontario is going to have to change. The trick will be whether the change is planned for and agreed upon, or whether it is reactionary. While I remain optimistic that Northern Ontarians and our Southern Ontario government will be able to renegotiate in good faith, I remain concerned that the speed of events just might overtake us all.

Now, there’s one significant element to this discussion which I’ve not yet touched on, and it has the potential all on its own to be a complete game-changer. And that has to do with how First Nation communities in Northern Ontario react to the coming energy crisis. First Nations have really begun to exert their influence throughout Canada, and I expect that they will continue to do so. This evolving relationship between First Nations and Ontarians is likely to add to the stresses felt in the North during difficult economic times, and ultimately First Nations issues may have a significant impact on Northern autonomy. Those dams and hydro-lines will be located on the traditional territories of many First Nations. If First Nations perceive that they are being shut-out of deriving attendant benefits, there will be further difficulties.

Northern Ontario is not currently ready to meet the challenges presented by the coming energy shortage. There are many reasons for this state of unpreparedness. Due to our geography, economic base, and relationships with federal and provincial governments, the North may be more significantly impacted by the coming energy shortage than the South will be. Unless there is more consideration for the unique needs of the North, including the needs of First Nations, there will be additional and increasing tensions between North and South. What we can expect, however, is that the North will be called upon to meet the energy needs of the whole of Ontario. What should be expected in return, then, is greater autonomy and decision-making authority for Northern communities, along with economic benefit. The balance we have become used to is bound to change, and that should not be surprising given that the coming collapse will redefine so many of the things we have taken for granted over the past 60 or so years.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Coming Energy Shortage, Part 4: Peak Oil and Northern Ontario - Setting the Scene

A Quick News Report from the Future:

"Today, one of Ontario’s mining giants announced that they will be closing down their refining operation in one of Northern Ontario’s larger urban centres. Mining company executives, commenting from their international headquarters outside of Canada, cited the increasing costs of energy as one of the primary reasons why refining operations will be shifted to Quebec. Around 700 high-paying jobs are expected to be lost when the refinery closes down within the next few months.

"‘Value added business is important in any mining community," the international mining exec commented. "But with rising energy costs, our value added business in Ontario is no longer sustainable. We’ll still take all of the ore we can extract, but we’ll add value to it through refining elsewhere, where it is more affordable to do so. If there isn’t the capacity available in Quebec, or union labour costs prove to be too high, well maybe China will have some spare capacity. Since they’re building all of those economically-efficient coal plants there, rather than investing in expensive wind and solar energy, I’m sure that we’ll find more agreeable terms.

Since Ontario has no laws which require products mined in this province to be processed here, there is no way of saving these 700 jobs unless the provincial government steps in with an economic bail-out package."


Rising energy prices are a threat to all Ontario industries, however not equally so. Disproportionately, industries in Northern Ontario are far more vulnerable to increased energy pricing, due in part to the vast distances to markets for products, but due also in part to the significant amount of energy required by the mining and forestry sectors, which are two of the driving engines of our Northern economy.

We can expect very soon to inhabit the world of Peak Oil, where the demand for energy rises through international competition, but where energy production can not increase to keep pace with demand. The result will be higher prices. If this happens slowly, we here in Canada may be able to bring more renewable energy sources on-stream prior to cushion the blow (although we don’t seem to be making it a priority to do so).

If energy prices rise quickly, we can expect some sort of economic collapse, as some industries find that it makes more economic sense to cease operating, rather than to lose out on their bottom lines. "Loss" here might not just mean losing a return on investment, an actual "loss"; it could simply mean that it’s just no longer as profitable to operate in that economic environment; if an industry believes that energy prices might go down, it may opt to lay off people now and wait to reap higher profits in the future. That approach won’t work for all industries, but it can easily work in the mining sector, where you can leave the rocks in the ground and dig them out later when bigger profits can be made.

As we recently re-discovered here in Northern Ontario, when the waves of recession hit, demand for our products goes down. In Sudbury, when the value of nickel nose-dived, the mining giants started laying people off, or locking them out of their jobs. Is it now any wonder that, as the price of nickel begins to creep back up, Vale Inco has finally begun expressing a smidgen of interest in moving to resolve their 8-month long dispute with striking USW Local 1600?

Getting back to the point I was trying to make, though, is that if energy prices rise quickly, we can expect to find ourselves in a similar situation to where we were at back at the end of 2008 and throughout most of 2009. You will recall that a lot of jobs were lost, and many of them still haven’t been replaced. Many more jobs were saved through massive infusions of public money industries considered too important to fail (such as the auto sector).

In Northern Ontario, however, not very many jobs were salvaged through the economic stimulus. Indeed, the City of Toronto and Thunder Bay’s Bombardier didn’t initially qualify for stimulus spending to cover Toronto’s order for streetcars built in T-Bay, until the Feds finally got creative with their program. As for the forestry and mining sectors? Well, I guess those jobs just weren’t as important as those Southern Ontario auto-sector jobs.

Keep in mind that with Northern Ontario’s much smaller population, the ultimate impact of a lost job in the north is considerably greater than the loss of a job in the south, as the community supports into which the formerly employed individual was paying into will suffer disproportionately. This translates into bigger hits on municipal property tax levies, as homes for which mortgage payments can’t be made are sold or are foreclosed on by the bank, and businesses which used to rely on patronage of the formerly employed are forced to close because their service or product is no longer in demand, thus putting more people out of work.

And keep in mind what I wrote earlier: not all jobs lost here during the recession were as a result of a company losing money on their investment, but rather because they weren’t going to make as much money as they might when times are better. If that’s not contempt for one’s community, I’m not sure what is, however in our current economic system, CEO’s of business aren’t just simply required to turn a profit. Instead, they are charged to make decisions which will generate the maximum amount of profit for their shareholders. So if that means shutting down still-profitable operations in the short term, in order to maximize gains later on, so be it, and don’t worry too much about those employees who have been turfed from their jobs, or how the community will suffer. It’s just not their concern.

I scratch my head sometimes and wonder what kind of Canada we actually find ourselves living in. I don’t seem to recall learning about this place in school when I was growing up. To me, it seems absurd that we would let a multinational company control our natural resources in this kind of way. Especially when their decisions, based on profit motive, are hurting Canadians.

As higher energy prices return us to a recession of the sort which we found ourselves in during the latter part of 2008, what might be the big difference between the next time and the last time? If prices rise quickly, the big difference is going to be that our governments will not have had time to deal with the debt which we’ve accumulated over the past two years, not to mention having begun tackling the structural deficit. Unlike the last recession, when the next one hits, the cupboards will be bare.

Will this tie the hands of our governments, or will they opt to just print more money by mortgaging our children’s future that much further? It’s hard to say, but I think that governments everywhere have started to get nervous about the bills they’re racking up. I just can’t see a 2011 economic stimulus program designed to bail out more failing companies, should various bubbles burst and should energy prices push industries over the edge.

In Northern Ontario, clearly we’ll be at even more of a disadvantage, as none of the primary decision makers have a particular stake in ensuring that our communities here remain healthy. Governmental decisions for the North are made in Toronto and Ottawa, by governments who are largely composed of different political colours than those prevalent in the North (red and blue, as opposed to orange), and where other constituencies receive greater attention, due largely to the number of votes they can carry (there are more federal and provincial electoral districts just within the City of Toronto than throughout all of Northern Ontario; and when you throw those Greater Toronto Area ridings in the mix, well, there’s really no comparison).

On the business side, most of the North’s largest employers aren’t headquartered in the North, or even in Canada. Falconbridge was sold to Xstrata, a Swiss corporation, while Inco was gobbled up by the giant Brazilian mega-miner Vale.

I foresee significant danger ahead for Northern Ontarians, should we continue to carry on in a business-as-usual fashion. What may end up happening, however, may prove to be anything but "business as usual", but it will mean that we Northerners will have to be jarred out of our complacency. With more and more Northerners unemployed, losing their homes, and potentially going hungry, there is a very real chance that we’ll experience the sort of jarring impacts necessary to change our circumstances. Unfortunately, this also might not be for the better.

One last thing before I move along to my next post where I’ll discuss further some of these potentially unsettling impacts we can expect unless we begin planning for the future will be upon us very soon. That "News Report from the Future" I opened this post with. Well, in fact it’s from today (albeit in my own words). The price of energy in Ontario has driven Xstrata to make a decision to ship their product, which is taken out of the ground in Timmins, to Quebec for refining. About 700 people in Timmins will be out of jobs as a result. What does Quebec have that Ontario doesn’t? Might that be less-expensive electricity, largely generated through hydro power? Ontario has chosen to make its past investments largely in cheap coal and expensive nuclear (and has now begun phasing out the cheap coal). With Ontario’s "Feed In Tariff" for renewable energy projects expected to create even higher energy prices in the near future, you can see why Xstrata, concerned about maximizing profits, might want to flee the jurisdiction, and pack as much as they can into their getaway-car (actually their "getaway car" will be a significant number of transport trailers loaded with ore trundling across Northern Ontario’s highways, leaving even more pot-holes behind). Since Ontario’s Mining Act allows a company to process our natural resources elsewhere, why wouldn’t Xstrata take advantage of this opportunity to do so, and make more money?

Of course, that’s little comfort to the people of Timmins who will continue to feel the impact of these lost jobs for decades to come.

(To be continued in Part 5...)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Promoting Ignorance and Applying Human Rights Selectively: Gay-Bashing Canadian-Style

So, the truth has finally come out with regards to the relative silence on gay rights in Canada in the government's recently revised Citizen's Guide. The Toronto Star is reporting today (from documents obtained by CP) that it was the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney himself, who stroked key wording from the document prior to publication. This despite recommendations from head public servants who requested the re-insertion of key text boxes to explain to new immigrants that homosexuality has been decriminalized in Canada since 1969. Gay rights were also tossed off of a list Canadian rights, and all references to “gay marriage” being legal in Canada were given the heave-ho.

With the removal of these key concepts from the New Citizen's guide to Canada, new citizen's must be left to wonder whether or not there are any gays in Canada, other than maybe Mark Tewksbury, who is identified as a “gay activist”. While it's true that a Citizen's Guide isn't expected to be the defining document of Canadian identity, it appears to me to be irresponsible for the Guide to have overlooked this very important aspect of the Canadian community. Well, I guess it turns out that it wasn't irresponsible after all, and instead was done maliciously by a Minister who is on record in support of gays marrying...but only when they marry members of the opposite sex.

The Toronto Star article comes hot on the heels of another editorial I read earlier today, authored by Peter Worthington of Sun Media: "Hard to see what's wrong with 'don't ask, don't tell". Worthington laments that he doesn't see anything wrong with the United State's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy for homosexuals in the media. After indicating that those who are openly gay are allowed as of right to serve in the Canadian military, Worthington opines of the American system, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”. He references concerns about straight men being “sized up” by gay men in the barracks shower, and suggests that gays could try to opt out of going to war, although he acknowledges that such logic (not sure what logic) would never be able to happen in Canada. Finally, Worthington notes that gays may file harassment claims against particularly vulgar and incendiary comments made by drill sergeants during basic training, with an overall deleterious effect on traditional training methods (presumably those involving personal degradation and hate speech).

The selective application of human rights, of course, never occurs to Worthington, or if it does, clearly he must be all for it, because homosexuals make some people nervous. I guess in his world, it's ok to afford protection to some, but deny it to others. I'm not sure that's the kind of Canada that I look forward to living in. Of course, if this is the most burning issue that a dinosaur like Worthington could find to comment on to the Canadian public during this particular week, it need not be said that perhaps it's time for Sun media to put this guy out to pasture...unless of course the animals on the farm make him nervous too.

Holy cow, people. It's 2010 for crying out loud. It's past time to get over ourselves on this issue. Last time I checked, the gender preference for one's bed-mate didn't make anybody somehow less human. The kind of Canada that Kenney and Worthington want us all to inhabit disgusts me. It's a Canada where in theory all people are equal, but in practice some are more equal than others. Their pig-ruled animal farm is one we must continue to strive against. No more of this apologetic drivel pretending to hide motivations. Perhaps a little more judicious use of one's moral compass is in order for Kenney and Worthington, as clearly they don't have a good comprehension of right and wrong.

We can no longer tolerate this intolerant behaviour. In the spirit of patriotism which has swept across Canada over the past few weeks, I believe that it's time for Canadians to stand up for what is right. Clearly, the selective application of human rights and pretending that certain rights don't exist is very, very wrong. As a Canadian, I'm sorry that this is happening, and I will do what I can to make this right for all of us. I hope that you will do the same.

The Coming Energy Shortage, Part 3: Sudbury at the Dusk of the Oil Age

On some nights, after the sun has set but before all light has fled the sky, in the gloaming of the evening as I walk through my neighbourhood retiring from my workplace for another day, the shadows falling on the houses play tricks on my imagination. For fleeting moments, I sense the future in the rising hairs on the back of my neck, and in the shuddering chill brought on with each footstep. I can almost see the boarded-up abandoned houses no longer homes, in my once vibrant neighbourhood. Gone are the cars, the porch lights, and the smell of dinner cooking, replaced with structures falling apart and weeks poking up through the snow.

Is the future I can expect for my neighbourhood? Will Sudbury endure a hollowing-out along the lines of what other North American cities such as Buffalo and St. Louis have experienced? Despite all of the optimism I feel daily in my community, I am concerned that the coming energy crisis will shrink my City in many significant ways. Yes, there may still be time to head off these dark visions, but we'll need to harness our resources for the betterment of our community very soon if we're going to succeed.

In the future I’ve only glimpsed in shadows during an evening walk, I don’t believe that Sudbury will be particularly unique in Canada. I believe that the end of cheap energy is a threat to the prosperity of all Canadians, no matter how one defines prosperity. As a nation, we will find ourselves living in reduced circumstances. For many Canadians, simply surviving will pose a far-greater challenge.

The specific circumstances of my community, however, will likely have an impact on the way things play themselves out. Sudbury still has not entered into "recovery" from the latest recession, as jobs continue to be lost here, and as the strike at my City’s biggest employer, Vale Inco, drags on now into its 8th month with no end in site. Although Sudbury has been diversifying its economy in the past several decades, what happens in the mining sector continues to significantly impact my City’s health.

And in the future, the mining sector in Canada will be in for a very rough ride. Already we are seeing energy-driven decisions being made in that sector, with Xstrata shuttering its state-of-the-art refinery in Timmins, citing the high cost of energy in Ontario. Now, refining of materials taken from the ground in Northern Ontario will occur elsewhere, perhaps in Quebec, where electricity produced from hydro power is cheaper than Ontario’s coal/natural gas/nuclear mix (and where proposed renewable energy initiatives and feed-in tariffs, may increase the cost of electricity even more), or potentially overseas.

The mining sector in Sudbury, now anchored by two global giants, Brazilian-based Vale Inco and Swiss-based Xstrata (formerly the Canadian-based companies Inco and Falconbridge), will also be affected by rising energy costs in Ontario. Already, many of the jobs which were being performed by local Sudburians in middle and upper management have been lost through "smartsizing" initiatives; locally, the independent mining supply sector has already taken a huge hit, as the international giants have displayed a preferences for their own contractors rather than deal with the locals. All of this will continue to be a drag on Sudbury’s economic health.

A high Canadian petrol-dollar, too, will make Sudbury industries that much more uncompetitive internationally. Sudbury already sits a good ways away from major international markets (although we are serviced well by both CN and CP rail networks, and with the four-laning of Highway 400 expected to be complete around 2020 or so, the highway connection to Southern Ontario will have greatly improved for trucking...if we can afford to maintain the highways and put gas in the trucks).

Since we can expect that a future where energy prices are much higher than they are today to cause international economic havoc, leading to recession and depression, most communities will not escape unscathed, and Sudbury is no exception. In times of recession, as we continue to witness, demand for minerals goes down as fewer industries operate which rely on our metal resources. As demand falls, so too does price, which leads to reductions in capacity, lay-offs, etc. In short, an international recession/depression will be very bad news to Sudbury’s mining sector.

And it is a reasonable assumption to believe that rising energy prices will lead to economic chaos. In North America, the health of our largest industries is predicated on cheap energy. And it’s not just our industries that will be affected. Our agricultural sector, reliant as it is on factory farms and petroleum-based fertilizers to produce cheap junk-food crops is also very vulnerable to rising fuel prices. And this is really bad news for Sudbury, as very little food is grown here locally, and as we are 3 to 4 hours away from the prime agricultural centres of Southern Ontario.

Along with the loss of industrial and mining jobs, Sudburians can expect higher food prices, due to the rising costs of food production, and also due to increased transportation costs. No doubt we can also expect to see many more urban gardens, as struggling Sudburians try to eke out produce production from our thin soils, possibly in the very locations where I foresaw the houses abandoned in my neighbourhood.

I expect that there will be a greater sense of community spirit as a result of these changes, as Sudburians will increasingly be forced to turn to one another for assistance, as services once delivered by governments and the private sector can no longer be relied on. Community gardens are just one possibility; community business co-ops which specialize in recycling, re-use and repair of goods are also likely to spring up. Potentially, barter and trade could replace more of our monetary transactions.

Expect more poverty and homelessness, and all of the issues which accompany that. As the provincial and federal governments’ resources are stretched even more thinly, expect them to look for innovative ways of delivering services. User fees, potentially including toll roads, and privatization of health care services will have to occur. The current debt we’ve racked up through stimulus spending, along with the needs of an aging demographic, will hurt future spending opportunities.

In Ontario, for municipal governments, this could initially be a good thing, as I expect that there will be increased autonomy for these "creatures of the province", including taxation and other monetary powers currently reserved for senior levels of government. Of course, with increased power should come increased accountability. A lack of oversight is a concern of mine, particularly as local media operations continue to fold or be folded into national conglomerates. Already, we’re seeing less and less coverage of issues important to Sudburians in this community, replaced by national editorials written in Toronto, Calgary or Ottawa. Expect that trend to continue. Low voter turn-out at municipal elections also leads to increased citizen disengagement.

With new abilities to raise revenues, and little in the way of formal oversight processes, the prospects for a healthy local democracy are likely to decrease over time, especially when more and more people will be focussing on simple survival. Already, the volunteer sector is stretched thinly; in the future, although the need will be greater, it’s not clear to me that the existing formal networks will continue to hold on. And this spells really bad news for my community.

Sudbury, with a population aging a greater rate than Canada in general, and with a built infrastructure centred around the car rather than the community, will be faced with making difficult economic decisions. I expect our municipal decision makers to continue to largely opt for the status quo in the face of these problems. After all, those engaged voters who primarily elect municipal politicians tend to be older and better-off financially, so the expectation will continue to be that decisions will be made in the interests of these people. And unfortunately that’s not going to help shape my community for the coming crisis. Roads will continue to win out over transit; property tax freezes and increased user fees will go hand in hand, which the rich can afford but which will negatively effect the middle class and the poor more significantly.

I expect increased investments in police resources, as crime and security become more important to the wealthy. Where the wealthy congregate, I expect to see gated communities, even in locations which are now currently open to the public. If we can privatize health-care, and services such as water, why not privatize the streetscape and the commons as well, especially if money can be made through the sale of public lands.

In part to address an expected growing lack of accountability, and in part to engage more citizens, I fully expect that political parties will begin to operate at municipal levels in Ontario in the near future. However, I don’t know that the outcomes of increasing accountability and engaging citizens will follow in the long run, even if it makes voting for a local councillor an easier choice, as the electorate will be able to cast their ballots for their favourite political colour. This could lead to some change, though, as sitting incumbents may face real opposition from organized municipal political parties who run candidates in each ward.

I believe, though, that Sudbury will be overwhelmed by the coming crisis, which will hit hard globally, relent for a while in the face of recession and falling prices, and then sweep us all up again like waves crashing against a rocky embankment. We’ve already experienced the first energy-fuelled recession wave, which we’re just now coming out of. We can continue to expect this wave-cycle for a few more years yet. All recoveries will be temporary, and with each crash of the wave against the rocks, an increasing number of citizens in my community, and around the world, will be pummelled by forces beyond their control. They simply won’t be able to hold on to their current economic circumstances, or their current lifestyles. And as a result, our local, provincial and national prosperity will erode over time, until there comes a point that the last wave simply washes away the understructure holding everything up.

In Sudbury, our prosperity has already begun to wash away. A temporary recovery which increases base metal prices (and an end to the current labour disruption) might lead to good times again for a short while. However, Sudbury has not invested significantly in its own future, and is, in my opinion, very vulnerable to the forces about to be unleashed in the coming energy crisis.

The abandoned homes and streets emptied of cars are likely to be the haunts of those forced to live, at least in part, outside of the boundaries of "civil society". Access to health care and public services will suffer, and you can forget about expensive environmental initiatives. When the economy begins to falter, you can expect coal and natural gas to experience a temporary resurgence, as we scramble just as the Easter Islanders did, to burn that last tree.

As you can see, I’m not at all optimistic that we, as a Society, will get our act together in time to make the necessary adjustments to our economy before the waves crash into us and carry us away. The problem, as I see it, is that those who benefit disproportionately from our current economic system can continue to thrive even during a time of collapse, as there will continue to be opportunities for those who can afford to profit (remember when the Prime Minister said that a recession was a good time for investors?). As those who can afford to profit will experience the least in terms of personal disruption during a collapse, they likely stand to gain more should things fall apart. It sounds like an absurd situation, but that’s the reality of our current capitalist system. We must begin to make decisions to modify the current economic system so that the system is more sustainable, and flexible enough to deal with the coming energy crisis. We can do this, but their needs to be the will to move towards bettering our system. Practical decisions on resource allocation which benefit our communities and create local prosperity need to be the priority, and not treated as an afterthought.

We must understand that tomorrow will not be like today, and we need to start making better decisions for our communities with regards to how we spend our resources. While I am skeptical that we’ll come to our senses, I will continue to raise the alarm as best as I can. In the face of ever-concentrating power, though, it’s not clear to me that I’m going to make much difference in the long run. But at least I’ll be able to tell my daughter who is not yet born that I tried the best that I could to change the darkening world she’ll inherit. We must try.

It’s no wonder that I shudder when I catch a glimpse of these shadows while walking home at the dusk of the oil age.

(In Part 4, I'll look at what Peak Oil might mean for all of Northern Ontario)