Saturday, November 14, 2015

2015 means diversity AND merit in Canada's Cabinet

A new prime minister doesn’t walk alone, which, if you truly understand the job, is a good thing. Instead, he or she takes office together with a a few dozen other elected Members of Parliament, each in charge of overseeing a particular ministry of government. Together, this cabinet advises the PM and in many ways, represents our government to us and the world. So naturally we comment on and debate the qualities of those appointed to these key roles.
In decades past, ministries were a power bases, rewards for different factions of the ruling party. But with the centralization of power in the Prime Minister since Pierre Trudeau and his successors, cabinet has instead become an extension of the PM’s philosophy of governing.
Long to reign over us.
Our new Cabinet has been celebrated as the most diverse ever, not least as the first to feature equal numbers of men and women, plus a variety of immigrant or visible minority members. It has been said to “look like Canada”, and to a certain extent, that’s true, although some say it didn’t go far enough.
However, even as these MPs walked up to Rideau Hall to swear in together, some of my Facebook contacts predicted that soon the complaints of diversity at the cost of merit would be heard, from the white male end of society, and sure enough, that came true. I see people complaining that cabinet should not be selected by ticking off demographic boxes, but based on each individual’s resume of training or job experience. Yet those complaining seem too distracted by diversity to actually look into the qualifications of these cabinet appointees, because in many ways, these picks actually seem a better fit with portfolios than has usually been the case.
For example, our Minister of Health is, for the first time ever, an MD. Defense is held by a decorated veteran. The Minister for Sport is a Paralympian, the Minister of Veterans Affairs uses a wheelchair, the Minister of Science is a scientist, the Minister of Transport was an astronaut(!), and so on. So if you are arguing for merit-based appointments, it would be very hard to criticize this list.
However, I will actually argue against the merit case for cabinet. For example, Stephen Harper’s first defense minister was a veteran, yet his tenure was so disastrous he was quickly replaced with longer-serving non-veteran ministers, and Harper’s most prominent Minster of Veteran’s Affairs, a long-time police veteran, was likewise a tone-deaf choice. Government is enacted by our professional civil service, where relevant merit is the primary consideration as people are promoted up to Deputy Minister. But Members of Parliament are elected by popular vote, not merit or suitability for a particular ministry. Their purpose isn’t to be an expert at a specific portfolio, but to advocate for our needs in government, and for their ministry’s needs in cabinet. That role relies on more general skills like communication, integrity, broad-mindedness, the ability to learn quickly and apply perspective to protect the public interest. Let the Deputy Minister be the dispassionate technical expert, while the Minister is the passionate advocate. Further, if MPs and cabinet represent the electorate, then it makes sense that their composition should mirror ours, as much as possible, so that many parts of society have their own voices at the table.
Yet this need not be an either-or situation, merit vs. diversity. Rather, I believe this current cabinet roster proves we can have Ministers who bring great merit and suitability to their posts AND reflect Canada’s true diversity. If you think about it, what would it say if that were not the case in 2015?

A version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "New cabinet ministers appear to have merit"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friday, November 6, 2015

Homeless need help, not hate

At last February’s Barrie Film Festival Reel Stories, I watched a powerful documentary called The Overnighters about a church in North Dakota providing housing to homeless men who had come looking for oil boom jobs, only to find a community with no housing for them. Church volunteers gave over space for the men to sleep at night, provided meals, helped them access community services and find work, and otherwise bent over backwards to provide caring and support.
While the lack of housing, struggle for jobs, and general economic malaise plaguing the Land of the Free was one tragedy in the film, another was the hostility of the ostensibly Christian neighbours to the act of Christian charity the church felt compelled to undertake. A significant amount of conflict ensued, but rather than stemming from any criminal or anti-social actions by the homeless men housed at the church, it arose from neighbourhood fears about what might happen, in their worst-case darkest imaginations. Those who took part in the program or got to know the participants had their fears alleviated, but the general attitude of fear and mistrust toward those fallen on hard times remained a pervasive obstacle and always threatened to shut the program down and cast the men back into the streets.
A developing situation in North Carolina is similar, although even more disappointing. This time, a church has been housing four homeless families for the past year and a half, but now as they renovate to accommodate four more, neighbours have suddenly come forward to object to the supposed harms of something they didn’t even notice all that time. Perhaps they think that zero problems, doubled, becomes a lot of problems?
Luckily, here in Barrie, our Out of the Cold program doesn’t seem to have drawn the same kind of groundless fear of the destitute. Perhaps because the program launched in the wake of death-by-freezing of a homeless person, or perhaps because the multi-church partnership means the homeless sleep in a different neighbourhood church basement each night, for whatever reason this program was given the chance to launch. After almost two decades, it has proven that providing a minimum standard of compassionate care to those most in need doesn’t degrade our community or threaten our safety.
Which is not to say we are immune to the negative sentiments we see south of the border. Every application for a zoning change or amendment to allow multi-residential housing (apartments or townhomes) near single-family neighbourhoods draws predictable opposition, and behind the various pretexts of traffic or sightlines or environmental objections, one can usually read the coded language of hostility toward anyone too poor to purchase their own standalone house. About as often as not, such objections are overruled and the result is generally a number of new residents whose presence contributes to the community.
But despite lack of opposition, Barrie’s Out of the Cold still needs help. The greatest need is for volunteers to chaperone the guests in the evening, morning, or overnight, and within that, the need for female volunteers is greatest. So if you can find it in your heart to help out with just one shift a month, November to April, then please visit or call 705-331-1396 in time for training this Saturday morning.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Push on to help Out of the Cold"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Canada's climate delegation looks more like Canada

Last week I suggested the leadership style of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (whom I didn’t vote for, I should note) might be better-suited to Canada’s governing tradition than was the style of outgoing PM Stephen Harper.
Now, will he listen?
One of PM-designate Trudeau’s first announcements indicates I was right. In December Paris hosts an extremely important climate conference. Approximately 25,000 delegates from 196 countries representing nations, sub-national units, NGOs, inter-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders will meet to seek consensus on an overall climate change agreement as well as many smaller agreements or initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by industry, sector, or region. And Trudeau has announced that, in addition to official negotiators sent by Canada’s federal government, he will also be accrediting provincial premiers and leaders of opposition parties, or their designates. This even goes as far as the leader of the official opposition party with the fewest seats, Elizabeth May of the Green Party, who despite her small footprint in the House, has more experience at these conferences than all of the other party leaders combined.
Already on the comment pages of national newspapers I have seen bizarre complaints about this action. Some people, not clear on the concept of how our elected government works, deem it pointless to send any opposition MPs, since they don’t control the House or write and pass legislation. This assumption is wrong both specifically and in general. It is, of course, the prerogative of any MP to write and submit legislation, and bills by opposition members (including Ms. May) can and have been passed by the House, sometimes unanimously under majority Conservative government. Even climate bills originating with the opposition have passed. So there is no reason to exclude MPs, as PM Harper did, just because they aren’t in the governing party. All MPs were elected by Canadians to represent us on national matters, and that includes international discussions.
The inclusion of provincial premiers is also a promising development, as it indicates a shift from the previous government’s disinterest in consulting or even talking with leaders of our provinces. Under Harper, provinces were expected either to get in line behind federal initiatives, or stick to their own business and stay quiet on the federal scene. But since addressing climate change will perforce require the involvement of provincial governments, as well as municipalities, First Nations, and every individual, family, and business in Canada, it only makes sense to include as many as possible in the negotiation process instead of returning to Canada with some commitment derived from a narrow view and imposed from the top down, no questions asked or answered. We need wider input on what we can and are willing to do, beyond the usual suspects of the PMO’s negotiators and their fossil industry friends.
So as Stephen Harper’s unparalleled collection of five consecutive Fossil-of-the-Year Awards is packed up from 24 Sussex and shipped off for permanent display in Calgary (perhaps Harper will sponsor a US-style presidential library in his own name?), a new approach is moving in just across the street in the Trudeau’s temporary residence. This approach will declare to the world, on the Paris stage, that Canada has shaken off the decade of darkness when she followed the dictates of a single chant denying our role on climate action and is ready to take full responsibility, and leadership, under a diverse chorus who can offer many solutions and forge many connections with the other sincere delegates who share a dream, if not a plan, of preserving the friendly climate which has fostered all human prosperity so far. Our delegates may not all sing from the same songbook, but they will all have the best interests of their constituents, Canada, and the world at heart.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Green leader has valuable experience at conferences" and online as "Climate change top of mind for Trudeau"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Where emotional intelligence beats micro-managing

The changing of the guard in Ottawa has already brought much hand-wringing from the right-wing press about whether new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the “stuff” to run Canada effectively.
Separated at birth? (No.)
Critics measure him against his immediate predecessor, Stephen Harper, noting that Trudeau has much less background in policy, particularly economic, and seems to view governance from a higher altitude rather than the nuts-and-bolts angle. They then lament that this will bring policy error or at least confusion, to the detriment of Canada’s economic and general well-being.
But what all of those pundits get wrong is their basic understanding of Canada’s governance. Unlike some nations, we don’t elect one person to lead the nation in all aspects; in fact, we don’t elect the Prime Minister at all! Rather, we elect 338 individual Members of Parliament, each to represent the interests of their particular electoral district in Ottawa and, on our behalf, oversee the operation of Canada’s civil service. They choose one among themselves as “first among equals” serving as PM, who then nominates other elected Members to serve in the Cabinet which provides governing advice to our Head of State, the Queen as represented by her Governor General.
Our system was never meant to be run by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) via hands-on management of all government departments, much less micro-management at the level we saw under Mr. Harper. That level of political interference in Canada’s day-to-day government operations is not only unconstitutional, it’s grossly inefficient and violates the key concepts of transparency and accountability designed into our system. Government policy is to be generated by Cabinet, accepted and amended, as the case may be, by the rest of the elected MPs of all parties, and then carried out in a non-partisan manner by our professional, merit-based civil service. To centralize decision-making in the opaque and unaccountable PMO, and to mandate all communications between government offices or scientists and the public to flow through the PMO, is deeply dysfunctional.
Likewise, to cut out the role of our directly-elected MPs in the crafting of policy and oversight of government is a perversion of our system. Blocking MPs, in particular opposition MPs, from access to key government information is essentially locking Canadians out of our own national governance. And turning MPs into heckling vote-puppets, as both the governing and main opposition parties have done, robs every citizen of their only voice in government and turns our nation into a virtual dictatorship by party leaders.
Simply put, the role of Prime Minister is to choose the best possible Cabinet, ensure that Cabinet works together effectively to oversee the government and translate the vision of the election platform into policy, while ensuring that all MPs have an appropriate level of input into legislation and access to all necessary details of how it is being carried out. The PM doesn’t even create the budget, that’s the prerogative of the Finance Minister, and our economy is guided by that Minister and some other Cabinet members, in consultation with appointed experts like the Governor of the Bank of Canada.
Given that role, a visionary type with the ability to form a qualified team and defer to the wisdom of that team, and of the expert non-partisan civil service they lead, fits our system of governance much better than a detail-oriented technocrat determined to make all key decisions himself, dominating Cabinet, the House, and the civil service based on personal loyalty rather than competence or character.
Technocrats make great Deputy Ministers; they don’t make great Prime Ministers. Can a former drama teacher do a better job as PM than a former economist or lobbyist? I would certainly not rule that out.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Trudeau may have the right stuff"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and Vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thanks to FruitShare, you can watch Just Eat It for free!

The season of giving thanks for the harvest and all our other blessings is special for me this year, because I am very thankful for all the successes of the FruitShare project.
Years ago, when I first heard of Toronto’s Not Far From The Tree fruit gleaning organization, whose volunteers picked fruit from people’s backyard trees and divided it between themselves, the tree owners, and local food banks, I dreamt that such a sensible thing might exist in Barrie someday. Knowing it was beyond anything I could accomplish myself, I am very thankful that, only a year or two later, the Food Security Workshop made it possible. I put forward the idea and other attendees came forward, willing to share my dream and help make it reality.
That reality has blossomed! In our pilot season we managed to pick and donate a full tonne of fruit, exceeding our expectations and leaving many tree owners thankful for our help, pickers for the chance to harvest fresh, organic fruit right in their own community for free, and hungry families whose visits to the Barrie Food Bank returned fresh produce as well as the standard canned goods. I am still grateful to the people who joined our steering committee to launch this project, especially those who have stayed for the duration. Together we demonstrated enough resilience and longevity to have our “food forest” written into the City’s official plan.
I am thankful to grant agencies like TD Friends of the Environment and the Big Carrot for providing funding to pay a coordinator to run our second season and plant new fruit trees. Even though bad growing weather reduced somewhat the number of producing trees, our increased efficiency let us maintain and even grow our total harvest that season. I also thank businesses for providing equipment and location support that year, and volunteers at Hillcrest for partnering to get fresh local apples into their school breakfast program.
Thanksgiving is a time for family, so I would be remiss not to thank my own family for being enthusiastic pickers themselves, especially my mother and brother who have helped with so much of this year’s harvest. I also thank the family that has grown around the project – Living Green, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, and Transition Barrie which have provided volunteer and logistical support to organize FruitShare and keep it running. And our coordinator Jenna, who in her second year trusted the FruitShare family to somehow come up with the money to pay her, and dived headfirst into the work. (We’ll get you that money soon, we promise!) Under her direction, we have managed to double our harvest, picking and donating over two tonnes of fruit this year alone!
As we look forward, I imagine myself thanking the individual donors (there’s a donate button on our website) and business sponsors who will step forward and make our program financially sustainable. I’m looking at you!
Yes, we have no bananas.
To celebrate this season, we are holding a special celebration at 5:30 PM on Sunday, October 25th at the (by then former) election office of Marty Lancaster at 75 Bradford Street, featuring flavours of the season and a special Green Screen presentation of the film “Just Eat It”, about food waste issues around the world and how one family found a way to eliminate all waste from their diet. Join us on that day to give thanks, together, or visit to sign up your tree or yourself for next season or join our administrative team. And watch our website for updates on our season wrap-up event.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and Vice-President of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Canadian citizens: learn, vote!

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election happening right now, to determine our next federal government. Every Canadian who cares at all about the future needs to learn about their options and make an informed vote on October 19th (or sooner – you can vote in advance polls soon, or at your local Returning Office any day). Make sure you know what you’ll need to vote under new ID rules so you don’t have problems casting your ballot, having made your careful choice. At, right on the front page, you can check to see if you are on the voter’s list, find out when and where to vote, learn what ID you will need to bring, and what alternative voting processes are open to you, in case getting to your regular poll on October 19 will be an issue for you.
But on to making an informed vote. I have seen complaints, right here in the local paper, from people who don’t know what the parties stand for or how their candidates feel, and some even suggest that the parties should be doing more to inform them. Guess what? Parties are already doing everything they possibly and legally can (and in some cases, more) to get their message out to receptive voters. But a riding has tens of thousands of homes, knocking on every door is a challenge for any party, and if you aren’t there when they come by, they may not be by again. Even putting something in every mailbox, or ads in the media, is very expensive. Have you contributed lately to a political party, or volunteered on a campaign? If not, then you certainly can’t complain if they don’t have the money or manpower to push their message in front of your face!
Don't let this be you!
Luckily, each of the parties also puts information on the web, about their candidates, leader, and platform. A simple web search (or even just typing the party’s name into your browser address) will get you to the starting point, and from there you can read, or send an email or feedback question, or find a phone number to call a candidate or their office.  It costs thousands of dollars to have an office and staff the phones, so do your part to make that worthwhile by calling a candidate with your questions.
But if you prefer the face-to-face human touch, don’t wait for candidates to come to your door and hope you’re home and not busy when they do. Many civic-minded local community organizations set up all-candidates meetings where voters can interact with candidates directly, or see them all answer the same set of questions. CARP and the Chamber of Commerce have held local meetings already, with the latter being broadcast repeatedly on RogersTV. Next week will be two events for voters in Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte. On Tuesday October 6 at 7:30 pm, the Community Wholeness Centre is hosting a “meet the candidates” event at their downtown location (59 Maple Avenue). Then on Thursday October 8 at 7 pm, the Barrie chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness is running an all-candidates meeting hosted by Grace United Church at 350 Grove St. E. Although the overall theme of that debate will be poverty and homelessness issues, members of the public can forward suggested questions to Get informed, get out and vote!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Voters need to educate themselves"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Barrie makes some suite improvements to the housing picture

I’ve written before on the benefits of allowing second suites (basement or attic apartments) in Barrie homes. Something I’ve long advocated, I was very happy to see them finally legalized city-wide this year, and am confident they will at least partly address current local pressures of low rental housing availability and sprawl development.
However, myths persist about second suites, who lives in them, and their effect on the neighbourhood. Recently news reported a resident’s worries that second suites would cram 4 to 6 more people per home, which is not my experience at all.
That's one suite apartment
You see, on my street are many basement apartments, some registered, some not. And about 15 years ago, I (well, really, the bank) bought three other houses in Barrie, each with a second unit. One of them was already registered, the other two I was able to register under the grandfathering allowance, since they existed pre-1996. Over that period I have learned, firsthand, the reality of this housing type.
One myth is that adding a second suite suddenly doubles the number of people living in the house, and the number of cars parked in front. But that’s not the case, as studies and my own experience attest. The reality is that a large family will occupy a whole house themselves, while a house with two units will house two smaller families. A second suite does not add to the size of a house, it merely re-arranges the space within it from one large unit into two smaller ones. A 4- or 5-bedroom house is built for a family of 6 or more, while a house with 3- and 2-bedroom units will typically house one family of 3-4 and one family of 2-3. It’s the same number of people, just divided differently.
As to the parking concern, my neighbours are a professional couple, each with a car, and when we moved in, had two children in their late teens who also soon got their own cars. (If you’re keeping track, that’s four cars to cram in a 2-car driveway). This family of four expanded as the adult children each acquired a live-in spouse; at one point, there were essentially three families all living there together in this undivided single-family home, needing to park 5-6 cars.
By comparison, my other neighbour, a single woman, rents her basement to another single woman; for 16 years, that 2-unit home has housed only two people with two cars. In my own 2-unit houses, each family generally has only one car; sometimes one family has two and the other has none. Rarely do we need to accommodate a third vehicle, and of course tenants are made aware, when they rent, how many parking spaces they get.
So the idea that second suites double the number of people and cars at the house is a myth, and the concern that whole neighbourhoods will suddenly overflow ignores that only 10-15% of single-family houses ever add second units. Perhaps the strangest fear, espoused by some of our councillors, is that second suites are inappropriate near Georgian College, in areas already overpopulated with student-rented rooms. But if a landlord is maximizing the number of students in a house, adding a second suite actually reduces capacity, because the second kitchen and bathroom (and usually, living room) mean 2-3 extra rooms can’t be let as bedrooms. A 2-unit house thus holds fewer student renters than the same house undivided.
People naturally fear the worst-case scenario, but Barrie’s overall experience with second suites is that they allow our neighbourhoods to maintain population in the face of shrinking family size. The support this provides for transit and local business is key to keeping our communities sustainable and complete.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Second suites make sense in Barrie"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.