Thursday, December 31, 2009

ARC can't protect downtown from flood of school closures

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Barrie citizens are becoming very familiar with the ARC process. ARC stands for accommodation review committee, a step the public school board must undertake before closing a school.

Recently the Ministry of Education modified the ARC process somewhat. Instead of providing the report to staff, who then make their own recommendation to the board of trustees, ARCs will now report directly to the board. This may help improve direct democracy, but won't solve one of the more serious flaws of the ARC system.

ARCs are triggered by one of two situations. If a region is seeing declining student enrollment, then it will have more classroom spaces than students. Eventually it becomes uneconomical to keep half-empty schools open, and one (or more) must close.

In this case, an ARC is a regional community consultation. Between themselves, affected communities try to find the best combination of schools to accommodate the number and location of students. It can be a frustrating and contentious process, but at least it allows each stakeholder to make their case.

The other situation creating an ARC has serious flaws. When an aging school needs repairs that would cost two-thirds or more of the expense of rebuilding, it can be granted 'prohibitive to repair' (PTR) status.

Once that happens, a certain amount of money per student is set aside by the ministry which could be used to repair, or rebuild, the school. But that's where the problem comes in -- that money could instead be used to expand or upgrade other surrounding schools, by closing the old school and moving the students away.

Why is this inevitable? The ARC comprises parent and stakeholder groups from several schools. If the oldest school is rebuilt, there is no benefit to the other schools. But if the oldest school is closed, money gets spread around to everyone else.

So guess what ends up happening? That's right, the old school gets the axe.

The irony is that this can happen in a situation where student enrollment is not dropping -- or is even expected to grow. A case in point is downtown Barrie.

Although the downtown student population is currently at a low ebb, expectations are that it will turn a corner and start to increase. Overall, our student population is growing with the city; Barrie has one of the youngest populations in Canada.

In this environment, closing downtown schools to bus kids to the fringes makes no sense. It leads to oversized suburban schools and leaves a hole in the heart of downtown. Barrie is trying valiantly to follow orders from Ontario's Ministry of Infrastructure to increase downtown density by attracting more residents.

Yet at the same time, school board procedures, backed by decisions at the Ministry of Education, are taking away a key ingredient to a vibrant downtown community.

The ARCs for King Edward and Prince of Wales elementary schools, Barrie's only downtown public elementary schools, were a foregone conclusion. Schools were made to compete for renovation funds, with the one branded 'prohibitive to repair' sacrificed and cannibalized. Soon the same process will be launched for Barrie Central Collegiate, with the same predictable results.

It doesn't have to be this way. A task force could identify creative solutions to save Central, with better support from the province.

Barrie MPP Aileen Carroll has denied that the Ministry of Education has a role, but that's a cop-out.

True, the ministry can't order the board to keep or close specific schools, but it could provide funding incentives to keep downtown schools open.

Such co-operation between ministries would be sensible, yet it doesn't seem to occur to Carroll or her government.

For shame.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Christmas gift to you, reader

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Here's my Christmas gift to you: $80 in your pocket next year. Read on for details.

I leave my computer on all the time, 24/7. It's an old habit from back when boot-up was slow and conventional wisdom said turning your computer on and off caused more wear on the processor and hard drive than leaving it on.

Nowadays, the jury is out on which approach is better, but boot times are, if anything, slower. I have a computer that I need to access on short notice many times a day, so waiting to start it up each time is not an option. Instead, I just leave it on and let the screen saver turn off the monitor (the largest power draw) after a period of non-use.

But that still means using unnecessary electricity much of the day, and also leaves my computer open to lurking viruses that prey on anyone using Windows. (My Rogers Internet connection is always on, too).

Recently, however, a friend* twigged me to something really useful: a program that puts my computer to 'sleep' when I'm not using it, but 'wakes it up' almost instantly when I need it. Most laptops have something similar as a standard part of their power settings, but it's not standard in a desktop.

My friend is Jim Harris, former leader of the Green Party of Canada and fellow newspaper columnist. Now he's in private consultation helping companies become more profitable by saving energy and reducing waste.

Many companies leave their office computers on all night, so their IT department can do upgrades over the network in the wee hours when workers are gone. But most of the night the computers sit unused, powered up and drawing electricity.

A company can purchase this software for its computers and install it, and the computers will sleep when they're not being updated. Installing this on 10,000 computers saved British Columbia hospitals $232,000 in the first year.

And for you the home user, the software is free. It's called Edison and is available here.

You tell the program when your normal work times are and when you aren't usually on the computer, and it customizes the sleep times. Then, you tell it how much you pay per kilowatt-hour for electricity and it will calculate how much money you'll save in a year.

It will save me $80 annually. If you like to leave your computer on, download and install this (it takes only minutes) and you'll have more pocket money, too. (You're welcome.)

What I especially like is how it proves a bigger point about saving energy, reducing emissions, and economics.

Whenever people talk about preventing climate change or phasing out fossil fuels, they always fret about "the cost." People assume living greener has to cost us money or hinder the economy.

But programs such as Edison prove the opposite: saving energy can be free. In fact, world-famous management consultants McKinsey & Co. studied the costs of reducing carbon emissions. It found that 40% of reduction measures would not only not cost anything, it would actually save money or generate more profits. That balances out most of the measures which would cost money.

The take-away is that reducing our emissions can be done for very little cost - in the long run, benefiting the economy. So instead of avoiding the issue from fear of expense, we should be embracing efficiency and conservation and putting more money in our own pockets.

We should welcome international agreements which spur us to greater efficiency, because they'll make us richer and healthier, too.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

* Special thanks to Jim Harris for alerting me to this program.

Friday, December 18, 2009

You say you want a revolution? Become part of the process

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Back in the late 60s and early 70s student protest about social issues was a constant presence. But by the time I entered high school and university in the 80s and 90s, the protest culture had reached its nadir. Not for my generation the sit-ins, teach-ins, and shutdowns. At Waterloo in the 90s, student focus was on getting good grades, good jobs, and having a good time (in that order). Sure, there was the odd demonstration, but it was not a pervasive part of student culture. I demonstrated against the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but most of the other marchers were from the Chinese community. I marched against the launch of the Gulf War, but it didn't turn into a campaign - just an hour of walking and chanting. As I watched Mulroney and Chr├ętien vote together to send our (former) peacekeepers into a combat role and CF-18s flew bomb raids over Iraq, campus eyes focused on textbooks and computer screens.

Of course, students would occasionally rise to protest direct offence like a tuition hike, loss of a treasured lounge space, or blocking Internet porn from school computers. The LesBiGay community fought valiantly (and successfully) against pervasive homophobia. The "Womyn's Centre" fought the spectre of patriarchal oppression, with less visible effect. A remnant of hard-core leftists dominated national student organizations and campus newspapers and dreamed of socialist revolution. Beyond that, students just weren't involved beyond their own horizons.

Now the pendulum has swung back. The issue, overwhelmingly, is the future and whether it will be livable for human civilization. While entrenched corporate interests and their beholden governments dither and delay (with Canada the ultimate example), the planet lurches towards climatic catastrophe.

Young people, with the most to lose and the least invested in the old ways, are getting angry and getting active.

At a recent manufacturing conference at Ryerson University, this attitude was put into action right in front of me. Veteran union organizer and Ryerson professor Buzz Hargrove introduced a panel including Ontario's Minister of Economic Development & Trade Sandra Pupatello, John Galt, President of Canadian success story Husky Injection Molding, and Gordon Nixon, CEO of RBC. It was the last who drew the protesters' ire. Apparently RBC's green awards and programs don't measure up against $50 billion of RBC financing for tar sands development.

The protest itself was well-orchestrated. As Nixon began to speak, two students arose behind my left shoulder and unrolled a critical banner, carrying it to the front. Facing the audience and cameras, they made some statements before being escorted out (peacefully) by security. As the panel resumed, two more arose from the back with another banner which they marched to the front. Security again arrived for another peaceful exit, although one shouted that it was Nixon, not himself, who should be removed.

With eyes now peeled for banners, the tactic changed and one after another, students rose from the audience to denounce RBC's enviro-sins, with each waiting incognito until Nixon was due to speak again. The planning and organization were flawless, as everyone tensely waited for the next event to unfold. Even after it was all over the tension remained, and one of the student questioners had her microphone turned off when she mentioned the tar sands and green finance, even though she was not associated with the protest.

Although the event was filmed for Rogers TV and the Business News Network, I doubt that part will ever see broadcast. I also doubt the students won over any new supporters from the audience of economists and industry reps, nor have they changed Gordon Nixon's mind or his plans for RBC. So, the effect of this protest can really only be to inspire and energize the participants to do still more.

On Oct. 24 , tens of thousands of Canadians took part in over 150 events nationwide for the International Day of Climate Action. Three thousand massed on Parliament Hill, 5,000 in Vancouver, thousands at Queen's Park (and a few dozen, including me, in Craighurst). The young, Canada's future, were well represented. But this global event received minimal media attention in Canada. In frustration, some passionate young participants took their message to the House of Commons visitors' gallery and were forcibly ejected, to much ballyhoo. And MPs dither.

More recently in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a series of sit-ins have been staged in the offices of Conservative MPs Jim Prentice, John Baird, Rona Ambrose, Jim Flaherty, Andrew Saxton and Gary Lunn. Peaceful protesters demanding to be heard have been arrested and removed. Greenpeace activists scaled the House of Commons to occupy the roof and hang banners. The lights were on, but was anyone home?

In this day of corporate media ownership and political spin, protest seems to have diminished effectiveness.

What makes MPs really sit up and take notice is the risk of losing their jobs. Those who truly want to change things can continue to demonstrate, but must also get active in electoral politics.

Rather than being thrown out of the House of Commons, get elected in. Elections are no longer a once-in-four-years ritual of re-electing a dictatorial false majority. Today's minority governments and frequent elections can empower a concerned public, if they grasp the opportunity.

On the scale of effective activity, apathy is of course the worst. "Slactivism" -signing online petitions, or joining Facebook groups - is not a whole lot better. Demonstration can certainly raise awareness, but awareness itself doesn't fix the world. The surest way to change society is to find the party or candidates that best reflect your views, then work hard during elections to see that they win.

Your help in volunteer hours or money can make a real difference. Lower contribution limits have helped to level the playing field, while poor voter turnout means that every vote cast counts double. For young people it may seem a slow process, but they have the most time over which to make the greatest impact.

For others, the futility of "strategically" trying to vote someone out of office is exceeded only by that of staying out of the process altogether, so take your cause to the polls and demand to be heard. Positive action to change the faces of power - by putting new people there, not just rotating the same old government and opposition - is within our grasp, if we but reach out for it. By engaging effectively, you not only speak to the government; you become it.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

School closure process a lesson in frustration for parents

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Anyone following the downtown Barrie revitalization will be interested in hearing the woes of Prince of Wales Elementary School supporters. Their story is not encouraging.

You want schools downtown to support revitalization? Not likely.

Only our city council has stood behind them. The Simcoe County District School Board has not. Ontario's Ministry of Education has not.

The school board initiated the closure process, having Prince of Wales declared 'prohibitive to repair', triggering an Accommodation Review Committee (ARC).
This process pits different school communities against each other to scavenge the funds available if older schools are closed. Although many viable options to keep Prince of Wales open were presented, and the myriad community benefits of retaining Barrie's last downtown public elementary school were put forth, it was a foregone conclusion.

Prince of Wales students are to be scattered to other schools, the repair funds following them. Essentially, the downtown community is being cannibalized.

But there were many flaws noted in the ARC process. Per their rights, Prince of Wales parents requested a review of the school board's failure to follow their own policies.

A similar step had been taken when King Edward School was slated for closure a few years ago. A consultant was hired to review whether or not our school board followed policy. According to parents involved, he didn't.

Instead, in their account, he talked about his own qualifications, dismissed the concerns of the people gathered (lawyers, architects, educators, and concerned parents), made misinformed and inappropriate comments and wound up writing a report that merely called for greater communication.

This from someone who failed to communicate with the attendees about the very issue he had been hired to address -- whether or not policy had been followed.

But the board paid him and thanked him for doing this 'work' and, with no regard for the parents' unaddressed process concerns, went ahead and closed King Edward.

When Prince of Wales supporters learned this same consultant had been re-hired as the 'objective' outside reviewer for their school, they immediately wrote the Ministry of Education, formally requesting a different independent reviewer be appointed. They listed the reasons they felt his work was a failure last time and why they didn't trust him.

The Ministry of Education dismissed those concerns and sent him anyway. They also imposed a meeting date on very short notice with no chance to reschedule. 'He's a busy guy', parents heard. And the community members aren't?

So it played out as before. The people around the table felt they had been treated like delinquent children. He again boasted about his own accomplishments. He dismissed the many policy breaches that were supposed to be the focus of his review.

The community again wrote the Ministry of Education regarding the numerous breaches of policy, the board's refusal to provide another consultant and his inability to deal with the concerns raised at the meeting.

Guess what they got back? A form letter saying that our politicians care about us and they trust in their choice. He's an expert consultant, after all.

Parents haven't seen his report. They don't need to. They already know. They've lived this storyline before.

So thanks to Barrie city council for having vision.

Thanks to the Ministry of Infrastructure that has ordered Barrie to revitalize its city core.

Maybe that ministry could talk to the Ministry of Education.

Or maybe our folks at the Ministry of Education need to go back to Grade 1 to learn about manners, and Grade 5 to learn about civics. Maybe the kindergartners could teach them something about the anti-bullying curriculum.

(A special thank you to the parents and community of Prince of Wales who contributed their experiences to the content of this column.)

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Trade is almost Fair in Barrie

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

"Life isn't fair," we hear. Yet from childhood on, we demand fair treatment. Luckily there are things we can do to spread fairness; one is Fair Trade.

A fair trade means each side receives benefit from their exchange. Neither takes advantage of the other, neither loses out, gain is shared equitably. Sadly, in today's globalized "free trade" world, this is too often not the case.

Poor farmers in developing nations are particularly vulnerable. Many switch from growing food to raising export crops to increase income. Then commodity prices drop and they receive lower prices, becoming even poorer than before, but have lost the land, tools, or skills for growing their own food again. Fair Trade ensures exporting helps farmers in developing countries instead of pushing them further into poverty.

At the producer (farmer) end, Fair Trade means they receive a sufficient price to support their families, afford decent health care, educate their children, and invest in their community. They can produce amounts their land can support without depleting water, forest, or soil or using excessive chemicals. (Fair Trade products are often organic or less chemical-intensive than industrially-farmed ones.)

Fair Trade labelling organizations ensure these standards are met. On larger plantations, they ensure workers get a decent, living wage and aren't mistreated, that there is no forced child labour. By reducing exploitation of foreign workers, fair trade also protects wages in our own country from unfair competition.

At the other end, as consumers, we can choose Fair Trade products. The best-known fairly-traded commodity is coffee, but there are also fair trade tea, sugar, cocoa and chocolate, wine, clothing, flowers, bananas, even soccer balls. By buying them, we help protect the earth through support of sustainable farming and avoid taking unfair advantage of the world's poor. Because Fair Trade organizations cut out middlemen, the products are priced similar to premium brands; you need not hurt your wallet for fairness.

Of course, we need retailers offering Fair Trade products. Helping this happen falls to the Barrie Fair Trade Working Group (BFTWG). Formed in 2005 by Bob Jowett and Bruce Morton, this volunteer group works hard making Barrie a Fair Trade city. To be certified we must reach several goals, and the BFTWG has nearly gotten us there. A city this size needs at least 28 stores and 14 cafes carrying two or more Fair Trade products; at last count we were at 27 and 11 -- almost there.

Certification needs the support of local organizations, and already a number of public and separate schools, churches, service clubs, Georgian College, the library, the MacLaren and RVH are on board. There must be media and public awareness; BFTWG has had newspaper and TV coverage, as well as frequently hosting or attending local public events. They work with Living Green, Georgian's GEAR, and the Simcoe County District School Board to educate on sustainable production and consumption. The YMCA even awarded the BFTWG its annual Peace Medallion last month to show support and recognize their hard work.

The last step for Barrie to be certified a Fair Trade city is the stamp of the city's government. Council passed a motion supporting a Fair Trade and green purchase policy, and, last month, established a task group to look into passing the final hurdle.

We're almost there. Make sure you mention your support for fair trade to your local councillor, and keep buying Fair Trade products. Very soon, thanks to the efforts of Bob and Bruce and their fellow volunteers, you can be proud to live in one of Canada's first Fair Trade cities.

For more information, visit

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Canada must build on rich manufacturing history

(A shorter version of this was published as Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, November 26, 2009.)

Ontario’s job situation is hurting, especially in the manufacturing sector. This doesn’t just reflect the current recession; Barrie has watched manufacturing jobs and companies go bankrupt or leave the city for the past decade, including Allow Wheels, Molson, and Faurecia. This is a long-term trend needing long-term solutions.

Recently I attended a conference at Ted Rogers School of Management (Ryerson) dedicated to examining this problem and finding solutions. The morning panel featured a wide variety of expert voices. Moderator Buzz Hargrove, now a Ryerson professor, hosted CAW economist Jim Stanford speaking from a left/labour perspective, Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May from a policy view, and Jayson Meyers, President & CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, representing industry.

What was most amazing is that these diverse voices substantially agreed on virtually all aspects of the problem and most of the solutions. May immediately established that Canada lacks a national manufacturing strategy. (Sadly, we also lack national energy and transportation strategies – the only developed nation to have this triple gap.) Myers noted that we can’t create value by spinning debt – we have to make products or services people need.

Right now, profit rates and share values in Canada are higher than in the US due to our resource and financial sectors – this is not just accepted, but encouraged by Harper government policies, simultaneously weakening our manufacturing sector. May reminded attendees that last year’s OECD report warned Canada that tar sands exports are skewing our economy, hurting the rest of Canada and even the other energy industries, like natural gas. Oil companies can’t afford to build refineries here, so we export crude oil south. Our east coast offshore oil & gas platforms are being built in Dubai, rather than in our own shipyards. In general, we produce or extract raw resources which we export to other countries, who turn them into products they sell back to us for profit. The OECD recommended using carbon pricing and tax shifting to help address this, but this wise economic advice has yet to gain traction in our minority Parliament.

The effects of this tar sands-first stance are not simply theoretical. Growing oil exports have boosted our real exchange rate, hurting other sectors. Greenbriar shut down the TrentonWorks railcar plant in Nova Scotia last year moving production to Mexico due to the high Canadian dollar. Manufacturers across Ontario are in dire straits. If this continues, I envision a future where we will go to Wal-mart to buy cheap electric cars – made in China.

Stanford noted there is much talk of “moving up the value chain,” which China is doing now via macroeconomic policy, mandatory foreign-domestic partnerships, government procurement, and targeted investment. Meanwhile, Canada is moving down the value chain to export more raw resources (including to China).

This need not be our destiny. After WW2, Canada continually raised labour productivity, eventually reaching 90% of US levels. Then, in the two decades of free trade and NAFTA, it slipped back to 80%, as we returned to a resource-based export focus. We are losing our labour gains in our relapse to being hewers of wood and drawers of water.

As Stanford related, Finlanders transformed their economy from resources to manufacturing rather quickly, and now enjoy higher wages than Canadians. We could use our advantages to do the same. For example, we are good at integrating immigrants, who bring more diverse ideas into play and offer links to potential trade partners. But all players – government, academia, and business – need to strategize together to leverage our assets.

Myers explained that our government policies are still geared towards yesterday’s mass production model, yet the future of manufacturing in Canada is not mass production, but specialization and customized products and services. We need to shift from more volume to more value, making more money with less resources & energy by using more labour.

Ontario and Canada have a proud manufacturing history, and the potential for a strong new future, as well. But this will unfold only if our leaders take their heads out of the tar sands to develop and enact balanced national plans. The Ryerson panel showed we have the bright minds to lead the way, if only our representatives will listen.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Transitioning Barrie to resiliency

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

The only thing constant in Barrie is change, but there is one thing we learn slowly and painfully: change works best when we prepare for it. And preparing is the role of a new local group, Transition Barrie.

Transition Barrie is a local formulation of the Transition Town movement, which began in England just a few years ago; there are now hundreds of Transition Towns around the world. The nearest is Peterborough. But the different towns are not so much part of an organization, as places that have each recognized a local need to build resilience.

What is resilience? Basically, it means the ability of a person, community, or whole economy to survive and function in the face of change or outside shocks. Someone or something resilient can roll with the punches and adapt as needed, absorb disturbance and reorganize, still retaining essentially the same function, structure, and identity despite undergoing change.

For what shocks should we prepare? The city already has plans for various local or temporary emergencies such as tornadoes or floods, but there are signs of wider-scale shocks on the horizon, for which Barrie is not ready. One is climate change, and the radical emission reductions which may be required to reduce it. The inevitable reduction in the amount of cheap oil available is also a concern. As energy cost rises, it will profoundly affect our lifestyle, especially if we aren't prepared for lower-energy living. With so many people commuting a great distance each day by car, how will we cope when regulations, taxes, or shortages make gas more expensive?

Even the current recession shows the need for resilience. If the jobless recovery continues - or worsens - how will our community adjust to unemployment? Can we find ways to keep people occupied and prosperous in a new, resilient local economy? Can we put food on the table and keep our houses if big transnational corporations don't arrive to provide good jobs?

The Transition movement grows out of some key realizations. A lower energy lifestyle is inevitable; it is better to plan for it than be taken by surprise. Towns like Barrie lack the resilience to weather the severe energy shocks the future promises. We have to act collectively, and we have to act now. But by unleashing the collective genius of our community to creatively and proactively design our transition, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and stay within the biological limits of our planet.

This is a positive, solutions-focused approach to meet this shared challenge together. Many of the solutions will come from within, through a process of rediscovering what is already here, rather than from outside experts and consultants. As individuals, what we can do is not enough; if we wait for government to solve the problem it will be too little, too late; but if we act as a community, we just might do enough in time. That's where you come in.

Transition Barrie started forming this past May, but is having its big public launch this Saturday in the Huronia Room at city hall from 1 p. m. to 4 p. m. Groups will form around various initiatives, such as "reskilling" (re-learning traditional skills such as making and mending clothing, cooking and preserving local produce in season, or growing vegetables), alternative energy, efficiency and conservation, cycling, and other aspects of making Barrie more resilient. Groups such as Living Green and Simcoe County Farm Fresh are already partners, but there is lots of room for skilled, knowledgeable, or just plain concerned individuals to make their mark. Some of us can teach; all of us can learn.

Oil and gas are limited resources, and we urgently need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Transition Barrie will explore what our city will actually look like as we deal with this. How will we live? Where will our food come from? What will daily life be like if we aren't driving a car all the time? Come to the meeting and help us explore these questions and start making local answers.

Visit for more links and information about the movement, including what other Transition Towns have already begun.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a local teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Time to look forward instead of to the Left or Right

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Canada's economy is a many-splendoured thing. It produces huge amounts of wealth, employs millions, feeds, clothes and houses us, while providing energy, materials, and services to customers all over the world.

Yet our system has some failings, too.

There is a widening gap between rich and poor. In a nation which grows and exports wonderful food, some go to bed hungry, while others pollute their bodies with unhealthy foods or chemicals. Our soil, air and water must constantly be defended from toxic effluent, and our natural species disappear at an alarming rate. We work longer hours and spend less time with family, while buying more cheaply-made junk that finds its way to the landfill sooner and sooner.

The burning concern of governments seems to be to "get the economy running again," ignoring that all of these problems existed even when the economy was running fine. Surely, instead of just re-starting the old car, we can come up with something that better meets our needs, and does less ecological harm in the process?

The traditional solutions of the Left (higher taxes for bigger government) and Right (shrink government and solve our own problems individually) have been tried and found lacking, and both still involve eating up the planet just as fast as we can. It's time to look forward, beyond left or right.

One person who has spent decades looking is Canadian author Mike Nickerson. As a director for the Institute for the Study of Cultural Evolution in the 1970s, he helped produce the Guideposts for a Sustainable Future and the book, Change the World I Want to Stay On. In 1993, he followed this up with the paperback Planning for Seven Generations, and, in 2006, released his most comprehensive work, Life, Money & Illusion: Living on Earth as if we want to stay.

Nickerson notes that as children we want to grow bigger, but when we reach adult size, we stop growing and our focus shifts to maintaining ourselves in good health and happiness. Yet our economic structure is not the same. It seeks only perpetual growth. If it pauses, it crashes, like a child riding a bicycle.

Our economy has no concept of "big enough" or what is a healthy, happy size. Instead, our goal seems merely to be bigger than last year, last quarter, last month. Is this a healthy direction on a finite planet? Surely not.

Nickerson has studied all aspects of the human question of direction -- biology, physics, money, religion, and capitalism. He writes about problems with our markets, but also ways we might solve them.

There are indeed many different paths to satisfying our needs and achieving prosperity through meaningful work and exchange. Instead of debt-based money created by private banks, we could have local currencies drawing upon (and returning) community value. Instead of trade goals based solely on maximizing our own benefit, we can have systems which are fair and beneficial to all. Instead of an endless rat race taking more time to make more money to buy more stuff, we can find time for our families, our hobbies, ourselves. We can learn to take pride in the value we create in our communities instead of just higher numbers in a bank account. Most of all, we can live lightly on the Earth, enjoy living, and preserve the planet for generations to come.

Nickerson's work is not prescriptive; it shows that there are diverse ways of dealing with today's tough issues and building something that works better for our community, nation, or world.

Nickerson is returning to Barrie to discuss Life, Money & Illusion, and share ideas about better ways of organizing society. He will be at the Barrie Free Methodist Church (284 Cundles Rd. E.) tomorrow night from 7 p. m. to 9 p. m. to present and discuss some of the ideas he's compiled and sign copies of his book's new second edition.

The public are invited to attend this free event, share refreshments, and ask questions or give feedback. He'd love to meet you, and, I'm sure, you'll enrich each other through the experience. I hope to see you there.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a local teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A day for compassion, the ultimate renewable resource

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Friday, marks Barrie’s first ‘Day of Compassion’, an event bringing the community together in mutual support of those in poverty to help them prepare for winter.

This initiative is organized and hosted by the Barrie chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness, an umbrella group of social agencies, government programs, charities, religious groups, and non-government organizations working to serve the vulnerable in society. As Green Party housing critic, I’ve been an Alliance member for several years.

People helped by Alliance members include the homeless and those lacking suitable or affordable housing, but also people with physical or mental health issues or disabilities, addiction problems, broken family situations, as well as victims of violence, or anyone else who is having trouble coping or thriving on their own.

Not just street people but children, families, and seniors. Taken together, they represent a large segment of our community. It is said that a society can be judged by how it treats its least fortunate. From that perspective, the Alliance partners are on the leading edge of keeping Barrie special, instead of becoming a rather unpleasant place.

But we shouldn’t leave it all to those dedicated few – we can each do our part. The Day of Compassion is a chance for every part of the community to pull together in offering a hand up. It’s an all-day event providing a full spectrum of services to those in need.

There will be free winter clothing, blankets, groceries, toiletries, and other needed items distributed. Free services such as hair cuts will be provided. Professional advice from nurses, dental hygienists, and diabetic specialists will be given, along with support for pregnant women and new mothers. Information on how to receive assistance, or access Ontario Works or disability or other programs will be available. All that plus lunch and dinner served for anyone who is hungry.

Many in the community have already come forward to offer goods, time, or other support; Barrie’s generosity is truly great. But the need is great, too, and there is always room for more caring.

How can you help? You can provide donations of clean, serviceable used clothing to be distributed for re-use. Socks and winter clothes are in highest demand; sleeping bags are a treasure.

You can bring dry goods to refill the shelves at the Grocery Assistance Program, which provides food bank services. You can donate money to help the various programs, or find out how to volunteer your time. If you are a business and can donate clearance items folks would need, we’d love to hear from you – it’s great when the business community can assist the working poor and help prevent poverty. Toiletries like razors, toothbrushes, and toothpaste are in especially high demand. If you are a restaurateur or food preparer, you can bring a pot or tray of food to help us feed some of the attendees and volunteers. We have a kitchen to re-heat or keep warm as necessary.

If you know someone having trouble making ends meet, you can let them know about the event, or even offer them a ride. If you are finding your own finances strained, don’t be shy about coming down. There is no stigma, and we’re not asking anyone to lay out their finances or fill in a form in order to take part; anyone requesting help will be helped. It’s better to get a hand up now to stay on level footing as we enter another Barrie winter.

The event is today from noon to 8 p.m. at the Barrie Community Health Centre and Barrie Young People’s Centre, on Maple Avenue at the corner of Ross Street. With your help, it will be a great success. If you’d like to volunteer, or can bring a meal to serve, please contact 725-0163, ext. 224, or e-mail

Your assistance will be greatly appreciated, by the volunteers and by the needy. What’s more, it will give you a great feeling as you help to share your good fortune with those less fortunate. Donating used clothes is a great way of recycling, but ultimately it is love and compassion which are our greatest renewable resources.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer and politician.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Making green while the Sun shines

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner:

I am about to take a big step into the sunlight. Put another way, the sun's about to become my silent financial partner.

I'm going to be (probably) the first person in Barrie to plug into Ontario's new solar feed-in tariff.

What does that mean? Basically, it means I'll have solar panels installed at my house, the power they generate will be fed directly into the grid (not into my house), and I'll get paid 80.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) they produce as a monthly cheque, made out to me. It will add up to around $4,000 per year, which means they'll be paid off in no time (I'm financing them, so I don't even have to pay anything up front). The rate is guaranteed for 20 years.

I'm just about dancing with joy. I get to help green-up the grid with clean solar power, and instead of paying a penalty, I'll be getting paid to do it. Paid handsomely, I might add.

Let me roll the calendar back a bit. The Ontario government realized a while ago that adding solar power would be a good thing, for many reasons. But they weren't willing to do much to make it happen, and local utilities were another big hurdle.

First there was "net metering." That meant that when your solar (or wind) generator made electricity and put it into the grid, it ran your meter back, and you were "un-billed" for the same amount.

When it was sunny (or windy), your meter ran backwards, and when it was dark (or still), it ran forwards. If you were lucky, you could net your bill to zero, but that was the best you could hope for -- there were no refunds. At this rate, a panel (or turbine) might never earn back the cost of buying it. You were greening the grid, but paying a price to do it.

This wasn't getting much interest, so Ontario upped the stakes with the "standard offer contract". Recognizing that solar power comes at the time of peak demand -- and peak price -- the province offered a premium, paying 42 cents per kWh of solar electricity (11 cents for wind). But this was also too meagre, as it meant you might break even after 20 years -- or you might not. Too much depended on the fees charged by your local utility, and there were bureaucratic hurdles.

Uptake was ... underwhelming.

Finally Ontario looked around the world to see what actually worked, and has adopted a successful system from Europe. To jump-start the benefits of local renewable generation, the price has been almost doubled, to a proposed 80.2 cents.

Local utility obstacles were swept away. On top of that, the federal government lets you write off half the purchase price in the first year, and half what's left each year thereafter -- potentially saving you thousands in taxes. It's called an accelerated capital cost allowance.

You can also write off some of your home maintenance costs each year. Combined, that means you can pay the system off in as few as four to five years. You are then getting pure profit (and still some write-offs) for the rest of your 20-year contract. Even if you borrow money to get started, the net expected profit over 20 years could be over $50,000. That's a lot of green for going green.

What happens when the contract expires after 20 years? Then the system switches to net-metering, which means that for every kWh I put into the grid, I get a free one back when I need it. Nowadays, that's not much of a deal, but the projected electricity cost 20 years from now is about $1 per kWh, so it will be similar to what the feed-in tariff was paying.

Through pioneering approaches like this, Germany created hundreds of thousands of jobs in renewable energy. Ontario is now poised to do the same -- with my (and your) help.

I'll be hosting an open house once the panels go up, so watch for news of that in this paper. I'd be thrilled if you came out to see how it works, and perhaps you'll leave with plans for your own solar income.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Short films a glimpse into the future of cinema

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner:

While people may dismiss short films as a juvenile or insignificant pastime, to me they represent nothing less than the past and future of cinema.

The first films ever made were shorts, as the medium's inventors experimented with technology and audiences. Many all-time classic cartoons, now considered children's fare, premiered as shorts in adult screenings not originally aimed at children.

My own introduction to repertory cinema was through shorts. Studying at the University of Waterloo, I was peripherally aware of the Princess Cinema, which screened foreign and independent "art" films -- not something I ever expected to follow. But classmates dragged me to a shorts showcase and I was hooked. It was the Sick & Twisted Animation Festival, or something similar -- lots of cartoons that were hilarious and a bit too much (or a lot too much) for TV. (This was long before the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, of course.)

It was exactly what thrilled rowdy students. A similar attraction was a compilation of the year's best commercials from around the world. If you think TV ads are boring, you should see the amazingly funny (and risque) ads that run in Europe. We also saw very moving, even shocking, public service announcements. If all ads were this great, we'd prefer them over the shows.

Before you know it, I was a Princess Cinema member and expanding my horizons beyond the short and silly. But I still hold a soft place for them in my heart, and upon moving here and learning of Barrie's annual film festival, what drew me in was the shorts program.

Shorts also represent the future of cinema. Many famous directors got their start with a popular or critically-acclaimed short. Remember the hopping desk lamp and other characters of early Pixar work? Pixar now has dozens of Oscars, billions in sales.

This summer's sci-fiand social commentary hitDistrict 9began as a six-minute short film which so impressed Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Ringsfame) that he bankrolled a $30 million full production. Disney shorts screened before black-and-white movies paved the way for the colourful feature-length productions that spawned an entertainment empire.

After falling from prominence in the 80s and 90s, short film has seen a massive resurgence with the ability to upload your work to the world on YouTube-type sites.

One of my favourite volunteer roles is with the Short Film Competition of the Barrie Film Festival. Although I help here and there with the organization, my chief task is taking part in judging the films submitted. It's an amazing experience. I get to see all of the dozens of films sent in by budding young cinematographers, or lifetime hobbyists.

There's good, there's bad, there's certainly ugly, but each expresses ideas and feelings. Sometimes the judges quickly agree on a film (whether great or ghastly), but other times we are sharply divided. Humour that seems fresh or clever to one, is a groaner to another. Luckily, we have a complex grading system to systematize our reactions and create a numeric ranking.

The result is quite a showcase of talent. As many as half the films screened are produced by Simcoe County residents. And about half are by high school or college students. These give a window into the amazing artistic sensitivity and technical skills that our youth have, and show that our area produces artists with a compelling vision. We also get submissions from around the world.

Most important, you too can be a part of this. If you (or someone you know) has produced a short film -- submit it. You could win a prize, or an audience. The Short Film Competition is taking submissions right up until Sept. 25. Visit contest information. If you're worried about the postman missing the deadline, they can be dropped off in person with Julinda at Bandito Video (in the Wellington Plaza) right up to the 25th. Don't be shy -- we look beyond technical merit to the value of expression.

Even if you aren't a filmmaker, you will certainly enjoy attending the Shorts screening at the Imperial on Oct. 17, voting for your favourite film, and meeting the filmmakers at our special reception afterwards.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's election fire


(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

Deja vu as my phone rings: it's A Channel needing footage for a story about preparing for a potential fall election. Pull out the signs, pose for the camera. The cycle repeats; election-calling begins in earnest.

Another fall, another election? That would be four federal elections in just over five years. At $300 million each, what a waste of public money. There's your billion- dollar boondoggle.
Being a Green Party politician, I'm constantly asked, "Will there be an election?" and "When will it be?" Well, it's not up to me or my party, so I can't answer categorically. But since I pay more attention to this than most people, I can watch the smoke signals and speculate if smoke means fire.

Much of this election talk misses a key point, focusing on whether Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will trigger it or not. Often forgotten is that it's not Ignatieff's call. He doesn't have enough MPs to vote down Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government. That requires the near-unanimous support of all three opposition parties. So if Iggy wants an election, he'll need New Democrat Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois boss Gilles Duceppe on his side.

Are they?

On one side are those who see MPs guided by principles, with motives broadcast in public statements. These messages say: Election. The NDP have long opposed Harper's government and voted against it (inconsequentially) at every turn. The Bloc's sovereigntist sentiment is repeatedly slapped in the face by Harper's messaging, not to mention many slights against Quebec overall. For them to prop him up seems unimaginable. Furthermore, both parties risk alienating their base supporters if they even give Harper the time of day.

Yet this ignores a critical factor: polling. Right now, the Bloc and NDP are each polling around 10% below their support in the last election. They would have to increase their vote just to hold on to current seats, and have little hope of real gains. Even treading water will mean spending millions of dollars of money they don't have, still paying off last year's debt. When it comes to a conflict of noble principle versus partisan advantage, which do you think wins out? The ambiguity or life-lines we've seen both parties throw toward Harper in the last week should answer that question.

Then add Iggy's first consequential act as leader, unilaterally ripping up the coalition agreement he'd signed just the month before. Since then his attitude towards them has been . . . less than collegial. On what basis does he assume they'll happily hand him the election he wants? More likely they'll make him wait powerlessly, for a few weeks or months at least, just to even up the score. Maybe they'll take a page from former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's book, and skip the vote. That way they aren't directly supporting Harper, but won't trigger an election, either. That they criticized Dion for doing the same last year is problematic, but not insurmountable.

Conservative mouthpieces have been set loose, so Harper takes the situation seriously. Minister John Baird and columnist Monte Solberg have both been recently quoted in this paper criticizing Ignatieff for selfish posturing. Rather than following the will of Canadians who want government to focus on the economy, Iggy wants to trigger an unnecessary election merely to increase his party's power. They're right.

Yet these exact same criticisms applied to Harper himself when he unilaterally pulled the plug last fall, breaking his own promise and law to do it -- just to gain some seats. I'm not sure who's the pot and who's the kettle, but blue and red call each other black with breathtaking hypocrisy.
But my view of Ottawa is second-hand and from afar. I know another person with a much closer viewpoint, and she'll be at the Southshore Community Centre in Barrie, today.

Although Green Party leader Elizabeth May has no vote in the House, she has decades of connections with the people -- elected and appointed -- who will be making these decisions. And unlike any other party leader, she actually takes audience questions -- and answers them.
So if you want the real lowdown, come out and meet Elizabeth at this public event, and bring your old electronics for the E-waste drive by PALS Computer Tech & Training in support of the Seasons Centre for Grieving Children.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Barrie's first Car-Free Sunday

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

As gas prices rise and climate crises mount, one thing is becoming certain – we really need to pry ourselves from our cars. Driving everywhere is bad for our health, our environment, our economy, and our children. Obesity rates rise; smog is a perennial issue. Constant road repairs and widenings mean tax hikes. Kids shuttled everywhere lose out in many ways – they don’t get enough exercise, and miss out on the freedom and independence to choose their own times, routes and destinations. The cost of owning and operating a car is a significant expense – the equivalent of hundreds of hours, or several months, of work each year. If you could get by without, you’d be saving all that money and could bank it or spend it on something more rewarding.

But the general feeling is one can’t live in Barrie without a car. Of course, that’s an overgeneralization, but it certainly can be hard to get around in this city, or from here to other cities, without driving. Yet there are growing opportunities for transit and “Active Transportation”, and the more we use them, the more they will grow.

What is Active Transportation? Pretty much anything besides driving. Obviously walking or cycling. If you’re coordinated, skateboarding and rollerblading also qualify. Even taking the bus counts, since very rarely does it stop at your door and right at your destination; most bus trips include a walk to and from the bus stop at each end. Buses create far less traffic and pollution than multiple cars, so using them helps everyone.

Unfortunately, Barrie Transit isn’t always a convenient option. Many trips require changing buses and going out of your way, and even if there is a direct route, buses may be a half hour or hour between. Frequency and convenience need to be increased to attract more riders – but that can only be done as ridership increases. It’s a Catch-22.

Barrie has some bike lanes, but more are sorely needed. The existing ones often end suddenly, or don’t match up with others, putting you back in the street with the cars before you get where you’re going. With all the road work going on, it’s a crying shame that more of these re-built roads aren’t getting bike lanes as part of their upgrades. We need to pressure our councillors to keep improving bike lanes and transit routes. We also need public spaces and workplaces to provide secure bike parking.

Getting out of Barrie without a car can also be a challenge. There is bus service to various cities, but you have to start from the downtown terminal or, if you’re lucky, you can catch the bus on the way out of town. The GO Train is the big story in this respect. Very convenient – if it’s going to the right place at the right time. This is a service which would be better if it had trains going in both directions all day. At least the new Allandale station will increase access for those who don’t live in the south end.

So show that you care and come out to Barrie’s first Car-free event this Sunday, from 9 am to 1 pm. Our most scenic road – Lakeshore Drive from Tiffin to Minet’s Point – will be closed to cars and open to everything else. There will be bike rodeos and buskers, exhibits at Southshore Centre, entertainment, and fun family activities. Free skateboard and rollerblading workshops will be provided, along with bike inspections. You can learn how to set up a walking school bus – the healthiest and safest way for kids to get to school.

If it’s too far for you to walk or wheel, you can print your own free Barrie Transit passes on the web – go to or and use the Walk or Wheel quicklink. A free shuttle bus will be running from the Transit Centre to the event.

By coming to this event, not only can you have a great time in beautiful surroundings, you can also learn new things. Most important, you can show Barrie that we care about Active Transportation and want more – more bike lanes, more walkable communities, better transit. And more Car-free Days!

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Green was my stimulus? (Not very)

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

After more than a year of economic bad news, it seems the worst may be over. Some are even saying the recession is past, although somehow that means job losses will continue for a while yet. Apparently the much-debated economic stimulus did its work. Or did it?

If the economy is like a moving car, then a recession is like the engine stalling, and government stimulus a jump-start to get it running again. The problem is, when your engine dies, it is a sign of something seriously wrong -- something that should be fixed lest it break down again. To re-start your car and just hope for the best isn't very prudent -- yet that's precisely what our governments have done.

Of course, our economy isn't just like a car on the road, it's more like a car in a race -- against the other nations competing in global markets. The global recession was a shared pit stop. The big difference is how the other teams -- other governments -- responded. Rather than replace failing tires with another set from the same stack like us, they've been rapidly upgrading to newer, better equipment. As the race resumes, we'll fall further and further behind in our obsolete jalopy.

HSBC published a study in the Financial Times analyzing how much of each nation's stimulus spending was "green" -- directed to improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions, going renewable, boosting transit, etc. The Obama budget to our south dedicated 12 per cent. Germany put in 13 per cent, France 21 per cent, and powerhouse China a whole 38 per cent -- more than a third of their stimulus.

Yet even they were exceeded by the European Union at 59 per cent and South Korea at a whopping 81 per cent green stimulus. Japan's share seems low at three per cent, but they have already spent decades crafting one of the most energy-efficient, low-emission economies in the developed world.

Where does Canada's stimulus fall on this curve? Down with the laggards, at a measly eight per cent. Not even one tenth of our massive dive into deficit and debt went into greening our economy. And of even that little spending, much targeted measures of dubious long-term benefit: more money for the nuclear money-pit of AECL and subsidies to help obscenely profitable fossil fuel companies try to capture and store a fraction of their CO2.

In Ontario, we have spurned both environmental and economic common sense in bailing out the worst performers.

By market capitalization, Toyota and Honda are the world's largest automakers, each by itself more than the size of Ford, Chrysler, and GM combined. They also have the highest fleet fuel efficiencies - far better than GM or Ford. The market has clearly spoken: the most efficient companies are sought after, while guzzler-makers are dropped. Yet we taxpayers are now proud owners of the worst, a company which actually promises fewer jobs in Ontario over the next decade. Premier Dalton McGuinty even promises huge grants to buyers of more Detroit steel, provided it's the untested Chevy Volt.

When it comes to energy inefficiency, Canada is a world leader. Of developed nations, none use more energy than us to produce a dollar of income. Even neighbouring New York state produces twice as many dollars per unit of energy as Ontario. We are gold-medal energy-wasters, not a title we should happily accept.

There is still time, as the world crawls out of the recession, to retool our economic race car to challenge the best, but time is swiftly running out. Specific numbers are hard to predict, but there is little doubt resurgent demand will soon pull oil above $100 per barrel, and likely $200 before the decade ends. Are we ready for this? Can your lifestyle handle $3 a litre gasoline? How about $4? How will your business cope when electricity prices double and oil quadruples? Will your job or pension be safe?

Keep in mind that Japan and the EU -- and even the U. S. -- will be able to produce the same good or service with half or less the expensive energy -- passing their savings on to their global customers. These are the people who used to be our customers.

Word to the wise (and our leaders): Never waste a good crisis.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Update: Reuters today has a story that shows how Canada's lack of green stimulus is not only preventing us from keeping up, it is putting us even further behind as green industry is drawn south to Obamaland:

Keeping it out of sight, or out of Site 41?

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

The struggle continues to prevent what may be a colossal mistake in Tiny Township. Protesters warn of the costs, risks and likely failures if dump Site 41 is created, while local government, backed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, rely on studies and reports to defend it.

Certainly, this is a decision that should be based on science -- along with a healthy dose of prudence and skepticism. Yet is that being done? It seems that the science is being kept out of sight. This is never a good sign.

What is at issue is water. Located atop some of the world's cleanest water, Site 41 could threaten drinking water for humans and natural species. The engineering of the site, held up as the way to prevent such harm, is based on measurements and predictions of water flows. The only way this operation could possibly be safe is if those measurements and predictions are accurate.
The standard way to test the accuracy of science is through reproducibility. Other experts must be able to make the same measurements and tests and come up with the same results, or at least review the measurements and raw data.

If computer modelling is used to make predictions, then that model must be subject to examination, comment, criticism, and modification where necessary. Yet in this case, the information is being held secret, despite an order from the Information and Privacy Commissioner that it be revealed. This is a red flag.

This study was not done by the government, it was done by private consultants. Both local and provincial governments are now relying on those results -- even though the details remain confidential, unproven and untested. There is always a tendency for consultants to produce reports that favour the needs of the client.

The consulting firm, Jagger Hims, is now owned by Genivar, a company hired to support Site 41. This makes a clear conflict of interest -- they won't want any contrary information to get out. The "proprietary information" excuse for refusing to release the data is rather flimsy, since the MODFLOW software is in wide use in the industry. If there truly is demonstrable harm to the contractor, would it not be worth compensating them in order to get access to this data? Surely that's much cheaper than the cost of a toxic dump failure.

There are indications that the measurements and data may be flawed -- which would create a flawed result. These must be addressed, not swept under the rug.

In a modern era of information, science and the Internet, when we should expect more transparency, we get less. Local officials have even tried to cancel meetings of the Community Monitoring Committee (CMC) mandated to discuss issues around Site 41 and gone so far as to sue one of the members for $160,000. Yet she is clearly doing her job -- representing the community her committee is accountable to. If anything, she is representing them better than some of their elected representatives are.

The continuing attempts by the county and now province to prevent the release and proper, independent study of this information is reprehensible, but, sadly, not surprising.

At the federal level, such obfuscation has become standard. Over the past three years, our federal government has removed information from public view, sought to suppress scientific reports which contradict partisan messages, and muzzled government experts.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that our provincial and local governments are now following suit. The feds ignore "inconvenient" facts and fire scientific advisors, the province ignores their own Environment and Information Commissioners, and the county ignores (and sues) the CMC. Consistent from top to bottom.

Our tax dollars paid for this information; we have a right to see it. We must continue to pressure our elected representatives to follow due diligence and put a one-year moratorium on completing Site 41 until all these issues can be resolved. We must make them know (and remind them often) that anything less will get them thrown out of office come the 2010 and 2011 elections.

The era of zero waste is in sight, when dumps will be unnecessary. Government must recognize that now and wind up existing dumps, not build new ones.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Barrie should grow up, not out.

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

In a two-sided spat like the one between Barrie and Innisfil/Simcoe County about growth, we assume one side is right and the other wrong, and once one wins, the issue is settled. But sometimes it’s not so simple – sometimes both sides are wrong, no matter who “wins”.

Barrie’s stated need for southern expansion is for new industry, so-called “employment land”, to offset existing residential development. Certainly Barrie must re-balance employment and assessment. Quite simply, we need more jobs in Barrie. But will the Bill 196 border change meet that need?

The face of Ontario’s economy is changing. The era of huge sprawling new manufacturing complexes is over. Industry in Ontario is in retreat – moving south or overseas, or just shutting down. Barrie has seen employer after employer leave; industrial-zoned land sits idle or is flipped to commercial use. Rising oil prices will eventually bring industry back to Ontario, but on a smaller scale to serve local rather than global markets. Newer industry is cleaner and quieter than before, so need not be banished to the far fringes of the city. Most of it will fit smaller land parcels like those already available, and may prefer locations close to existing employee homes and amenities. In that light, Barrie already has the land for the industrial needs of a future localizing economy. This would precisely suit the intensification promoted by the City and Ontario’s Places to Grow.

Even stranger, the eastern block of annexation is clearly intended for more residential development, undermining the whole exercise of re-balancing. Barrie’s perceived shortage of residential land is of one type: single-family detached housing. Existing vacant, idle, or under-used land within Barrie’s current borders offers huge potential for a variety of denser uses like apartments (high- or low-rise), condos, townhouses, and especially residential-over-commercial. Barrie is chock-a-block with one-story strip malls or plazas that could very easily be upgraded with affordable housing above stores or offices. This may not meet our current building patterns or zoning, but those are man-made rules, less harmful to change than the facts on the ground: the fields and forests to be destroyed to build yet more south-end subdivisions.

With spirited effort, we could accommodate necessary industrial and residential growth within our existing borders. Or, if Barrie hasn’t room enough for new residents, why are we breaking new ground to the south instead of filling in the blank spaces in Midhurst, just to Barrie’s north? That’s a settlement area already integrated into greater Barrie. With its adopted secondary plan, it would avoid the planning delays involved with the southern moratorium lands. If we intend new residents to work in Barrie instead of commute to the GTA, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to live to the north than the south? That would also relieve pressure on the Lake Simcoe watershed, as the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan urges. The Conservation Authority’s own report bluntly states that this expansion is premature, as it is sure to increase, rather than reduce, harm to the Lake.

So, if Barrie is wrong, does that mean that Innisfil and Simcoe County are right? Actually, no. Their plan, euphemistically calling for “a community of communities”, is a recipe for more unsustainable growth – rural sprawl. The County plan sprinkles population growth to just about every town or village, yet none of these are likely to become denser as a result; in fact, quite the opposite. Most or all of that “planned” growth is aimed at communities with no transit, some without even municipal sewage treatment. The province is fully justified to reject this plan and re-distribute the majority of planned growth to Barrie, Orillia, and the larger towns of Alliston, Bradford and Collingwood in its Strategic Vision for Growth.

Having been assigned that growth, I challenge those “target” cities and towns to do everything in their powers to fit it into current settlement areas. In fact, they should look at seeking additional powers from the province to remove unnecessary barriers to healthy and sustainable density and intensification. We must learn to live sustainably and stop sprawling; there is no better time to begin than today. Re-think annexation.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alternatives should be explored before closing Prince of Wales

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

A serious mistake is being made. The Simcoe County District School Board is in the process of closing Prince of Wales elementary and redistributing its students to three other schools.

Public schools provide a number of important community benefits. Obviously they prepare our children with the foundations of society’s knowledge and ideas. But they are far more than that – they are also key and irreplaceable parts of our community. They serve as a place for both children and adults to gather – during school hours and outside – and even when empty, are a powerful symbol of the identity of a community.

Earlier in the past century, before the automobile became the primary method of transportation, we walked. In the countryside, one-room schools could be found every few miles. In cities, each neighbourhood competed with the next to see who could support the best facility to anchor their community.

Nowadays, of course, it is impractical for rural children to walk miles. Our education system isn’t suited to one-room, all-ages education, and rural roads may not be safe year-round for long walks, so busing is the standard. But cities provide density and the safety of sidewalks, allowing most children to walk to a public school. The reason we live in cities – rather than Ontario’s beautiful countryside – is to be closer to community functions, like schools. To live in a city, yet be unable to walk to school, runs contrary to the raison d’etre of urban life. For this to happen because the Board has decided to close an existing school – for reasons unfathomable – is perverse.

In the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity, kids spend more time in front of televisions, computers, or game screens than you can imagine (until you witness it). For many, their only exercise takes place at school. Schools try to provide as much physical activity as possible, but it must compete in a very tight schedule with the critical “three R’s” and for funding of teachers and facilities. Extra-curricular activity also contributes, but is much more haphazard and depends largely upon aptitude, funding, and available time. Walking to school, by itself, can add hours of healthy exercise to each child’s week. Presenting no staff or facility cost to the Board, it applies to all of the students in the area, regardless of their personal or family situation. If the default is to walk to school, parents have to make a conscious decision to drive their children instead, losing this health benefit.

Recent studies have shown a very clear link between walking to school and improved student health. Once you put students on a bus and take them out of area, this benefit can not be retrieved. A neighbourhood school also makes it far easier for children to participate in healthy extra-curricular activities because they can go home and return more easily, or don’t have to arrange a ride to or from school to take part.

Being able to walk to school is not merely a factor in students’ physical health. Parental involvement has measurable educational benefits. Families are far more likely to be involved in school life during the day or evening if they can walk there. Forcing parents to drive creates barriers to those who don’t have a car, or don’t have one available while one spouse is at work.

Since the dawn of civilization, schools have served a wider role than simply presenting the curriculum. They are a community meeting hall, a rallying point, a place for children of all ages to play outside of class time. Many worthy initiatives began as a few citizens meeting after hours in an empty classroom. Ontario’s Good Places to Learn report recognizes these critical qualities, but our Board’s own valuation process merely paid lip service to them.

Given the love, care and hope we have for our children’s future, schools serve as the beating heart of the community, a physical repository of neighbourhood identity and pride. To cut out this heart for the mere sake of expediency strains credulity. Before the doors of Prince of Wales close forever, the Board needs to reconsider ALL of the alternatives that have been identified to keep this heart beating.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Site 41 - our burden for all time?

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner)

There is strong opposition to Simcoe County's new North Simcoe landfill, formerly known as Site 41, now under construction. We know it sits above aquifers connected to water sources far and wide, containing remarkably pure water. No wonder many worry that this clean water could be contaminated by leachate from the landfill.

County Warden Tony Guergis and other defenders of Site 41 have repeatedly cited the engineering plan as rebuttal to this worry. But what does that plan actually promise, and why are activist Danny Beaton, the UN's Maude Barlow, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop, Ontario's Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller, even Dale Goldhawk all so concerned?

Site 41 features what is called an inward hydraulic gradient. Simply put, this means water naturally flows upward into the site, instead of draining down into the ground. If it leaked, water would leak in, rather than out. This is exploited to help prevent groundwater contamination. The plan is thus to draw water into the site, then treat it and release it into a stream or river.

If the plan is carefully designed and carried out flawlessly, this should work - but for how long, and at what cost? The useful life of the landfill would be at most 70 years, perhaps only half that, but the leachate is expected to be a hazard for well over a century. That means maintaining, operating, and most of all paying for pumping ("dewatering") and treating that water long after the landfill has closed. How happy will our great-grandchildren be paying to treat garbage we threw out before they were even born?

This duration is only a guess, however. Scientific models indicate that, after a century (or maybe two), the harm will have passed.

But no modern landfills have been around long enough to test these theories. We know that ancient garbage dumps - from centuries or even millennia ago - are still contaminating water today. Can we be so sure that ours will fade in a shorter time? What if we're still pumping in clean water for the dump to dirty, then treating it at the other end, a thousand years from now?

One thing we do know is our climate will be changing in unpredictable ways. Yet we can't be sure if it will get wetter or drier - if we'll have floods or droughts (or both). Climate change could affect groundwater flows - perhaps even to the extent of reversing the inward gradient. What then? (Answer: much more pumping).

But, most of all, how can we be certain that governments a century or millennium from today will be stable and wealthy enough to handle this? Very few governments - or even civilizations - have ever lasted for periods this long. In times of war, pandemic, economic or ecological collapse - will we still have resources to dedicate to this task, or will other priorities come first?

It would take only a few years of inattention for this site to turn into an environmental catastrophe - contaminating drinking water upon which thousands of people depend. Already we seem unable to keep roads in good repair, or preserve heritage buildings, at the peak of our economic growth.

Any engineering "solution" that relies on constant monitoring, interpretation and operation is vulnerable to future unknowns. It assumes the human component will always be present and up to the task - dangerous assumptions to rely upon.

The only things that reliably persist over such long times don't require constant maintenance. Take the Great Pyramids, for example. They need no workers or budgets to keep them standing because they are already in the natural shape of a hill of stone. It's actually much harder to knock them down than leave them up, so they stand even as their creators fade into myth.

Last fall, we were assured Canada would avoid recession and even have surplus budgets. We all know how that went. Now we're being sold a system that depends on having money, resources, and expertise on hand to constantly monitor and operate this landfill for the next century, or longer.

Can we trust our situation won't ever take a turn for the worse? That's a gamble I'd prefer we not take.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a community activist on poverty issues, environmentalist with Living Green Barrie and founder of the Barrie Green Party.

A better style of politics in the North

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner)

A recently-leaked quote from Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt has made headlines, but the real issue is being missed. Speaking about Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Raitt said, "She's such a capable woman, but it's hard for her to come out of a co-operative government into this rough-and-tumble. She had a question in the House ... that planked. I really hope she never gets anything hot."

What has been made of this by Opposition and pundits is the lack of full confidence Raitt seems to express in her cabinet colleague. But that kind of thing is natural in politics. The greater tragedy is the unquestioned acceptance that "rough-andtumble" is the natural state of things, and co-operative government is something to be put behind when moving to the national scene.

If anything, the opposite should be the case.

For those who (understandably) aren't familiar with Nunavut politics, here's some background: their territorial legislature is composed of 19 members who are each elected from districts in a first-past-the-post style, but without representing political parties. Once elected, they all serve together in the legislature -- no government vs. opposition benches. Together, they choose the premier and seven ministers of the Executive Council (cabinet) by secret ballot -- so that even if there were parties, there would be no way to "whip" the vote or force voting along party lines.

The Nunavut legislature uses consensus government (as does the Northwest Territories). Although the executive run the government, they are outnumbered by the rest of the members, so they cannot act alone. The premier does not appoint the ministers, so he or she cannot command their actions. Instead, each member works in the best interest of their constituents, portfolio, and the public.

Contrast this with how the House governs Canada. We now have four sitting parties, none of whom has held a majority of seats since 2004 and none of whom has had a majority of votes since 1984. Each treats Question Period as a chance to score points, rather than a way to raise important issues or share key information.

Committees, where much of the multi-partisan policy work used to be done, have been subverted through obstructionism and filibuster. Collaboration or compromise have become things of the past; each party stakes out their own position independently and follows a "my way or the highway" approach. Each motion that passes or fails is seen as a "win" or a "loss" for various parties; the public need, if considered, comes a distant second.

Can a large, populous or diverse nation be governed in a cooperative manner? I would wonder the converse -- does it make any sense for such a diverse country to be run by a single party, a one-party cabinet, or just a prime minister? Most democracies around the world, large and small, are in fact run by multi-party majority coalitions who share cabinet, reach consensus among themselves, and represent a wide spectrum of their electorate.

Does Nunavut's lack of "rough-and- tumble" politics lead to a lack of public interest? Quite the opposite. Voter turnout in 2008 was 71 per cent -- far greater than our own provincial or federal elections. (And this among one of the world's most spread-out populations). It would seem that people prefer to vote for co-operative, consensus government -- and are turned off (and away from the polls) by partisanship.

I dream that our current House could see Minister Aglukkaq's capable experience as something to draw upon and emulate, rather than something to disparage. Canada would be well served by a Parliament that put governing ahead of partisan advantage or electioneering.
Money squandered on attack ads could instead be used informing the public. "Secret" documents describing government spending could be turned into information that feeds discussion, not just something to be withheld or exposed for political advantage. Parties could come together on improving EI, instead of jockeying to see which competing plan "wins."

I think the True North has something to teach us all.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a community activist on poverty issues, environmentalist with Living Green Barrie and founder of the Barrie Green Party.
Special thanks to Eric Walton for inspiring this article.