Thursday, December 30, 2010

Be a diligent recycler and reap rewards

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Recycling options are, indeed, plentiful"

A constant thing people proudly tell me is that they recycle. Now a normal part of daily life, there are yet wide differences in how well people truly take advantage of our many recycling opportunities. I often notice people throwing away a huge variety of materials which should go in the blue, grey, or green box. Did you know that used paper plates, paper towels, and tissues go in the green bin? That disposable plastic cutlery, foam plates and cups go in your blue box, and Timmy cups in the green? Many people trash these recyclables.

Separating is also crucial. Christmas may have brought a lot of new items in cardboard-backed plastic blister-packs. Hopefully you peeled those apart, putting plastic in your blue box and cardboard in the grey. (I sure hope you didn’t just chuck them in the trash!) Corrugated cardboard should be bundled flat beside your boxes, not in with paper. And unlike the old days, pretty much all paper recycles, including glossy or colourful wrapping papers and magazines.

Recycling conserves precious resources, but also protects our water and soil from harmful chemicals. Leftover cleaning products and medications should always be delivered to hazardous waste depots, never thrown in landfill to leak their poisons. Batteries must never be trashed – and now are easier than ever to recycle. Most major hardware chains have old battery drop-off bins (in the hopes you’ll buy new ones, of course). Many also take used paint for recycling. Car tires are now free to leave at approved collection points.

The latest wave of waste, but also the newest frontier of recycling, is so-called “e-waste”. No, this isn’t another name for spam emails, but refers to discarded electronic or electric devices. This includes not only computers and cell-phones, but anything with a chip, plug, or batteries. Old lamps, coffee makers, beeping toys, even flashing sneakers qualify as e-waste. All contain metals & plastics very bad to release to the environment but valuable to reclaim.

Disposing of e-waste has become much easier. Only a few years ago you had to pay to leave it; last year it became free; now, you get paid! This past spring, Barrie’s own GreenGo Recycling (“they recycle everything”) at 151 John St. became first in Ontario to pay for e-waste. At 5 cents a pound, it’s not gold, but it beats going out of pocket! And you’d be surprised how quickly e-waste piles up in this world of planned obsolescence. GreenGo also take batteries and paint and pay top dollar for scrap metal.

As you count your Christmas blessings and clear out the old to make room for the new, please reduce waste by getting everything to the right recycling program.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Planning, flexibility key to holiday happiness

Written by Karen Fox & Ruth Blaicher, guest authors for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.

Transition Barrie recently held 'Simplify the Holidays' at the Barrie Public Library, to help folks get through the season with as little stress as possible.

Ideas were shared on gifts, entertaining and plans for activities. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever is being celebrated, is very personal. As we went around the circle hearing about people's traditions and cultures, we learned everyone celebrates in their own way and family traditions are rich. Some follow age-old customs, while others have created their own tradition, special foods and activities that the guests always look forward to.

Many anticipated finding an orange at the bottom of their stocking, and many mentioned some form of Christmas pudding, or other dish traditionally served on their special holiday. Customs ranged from decorating the tree and opening presents Christmas Eve, to large family turkey dinners on Dec. 25. Food seems to be a central theme for all celebrations. The holidays are a time to get together with family and friends to share a meal or exchange gifts.

However you choose to celebrate, planning is key to making your event more enjoyable. Are you having a one-day event, eight days of Hanukkah, or a week of Kwanzaa? Plan each day in respect to what type of food will be prepared, what groceries are needed to prepare those special meals, who will do the cooking, when will it be done or stored. Plan weeks ahead. Consider asking your guests to each contribute a special dish; they may enjoy helping and feel more a part of the celebration.

Presents can be daunting. Simplify gift-giving by drawing names and buying for only one person in your group. Perhaps you could buy everyone on your list the same thing such as a book, movie tickets, a gift certificate or homemade treat. The general rule of thumb is that if it does not feel right, don't do it. You don't have to spend exactly the same amount on each person, you don't have to buy for everyone you know and you don't have to spend your entire day cooking if you don't want.

The most important part of holidays is getting together with loved ones. It does not matter which day they come, just that you see them. Sometimes, everyone can't get together on one day. Be flexible. There's always numerous parties and events to attend. Choose wisely; you can only be in one place at a time. Prioritize and do the things of most interest to you. Talk to your family, share your scheduling concerns. Create your own traditions. Do it your way; people adapt. By delegating duties and being realistic about what you can accomplish you can make it through the holidays with your sanity intact.

Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local realtors and founding members of Transition Barrie with a passion for green issues and are directors of Living Green.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Home retrofit program worth cashing in on

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.

Last spring I wrote about the premature end to the federal ecoENERGY home retrofit grants. A popular and successful program which created good local jobs while helping Canadians save energy and money, there was no good reason to end it. (Unless, of course, to re-introduce it with much fanfare next spring, which is what I suspect and hope will happen.)

But in the meantime, there is still an option. The federal program offered $5,000 in rebates per home; provinces like Ontario matched it, getting you up to $10,000. And although federal funding stopped last spring, provincial grants continue for now. That means you can still get support to increase your home’s energy efficiency. Ontario will even put $150 towards your initial evaluation.

I took advantage of this program last year, accessing federal and provincial grants to replace doors and a furnace and add roof insulation. The rebates were good, but the energy savings are great. Looking forward, I predict our family will save thousands of dollars in heating, gas and water costs. That’s tax-free money in our pockets.

The first step is having your home audited by a certified inspector. They give you a custom report listing things you could do to improve efficiency, and how much each measure will save. Standard are replacing windows and doors with newer, better-insulated ones, or upgrading your furnace to a more efficient model. One of the best ways to use this program is with something you need to do anyway. If your furnace is getting on in years, or you plan to redo your windows, it can’t hurt to have the province pitch in.

Sometimes you can combine grants. Periodically the gas company offers rebates on furnace or water heater upgrades, which can be stacked with the provincial program. We replaced toilets with new low-flow dual-flush models on sale at Home Depot, received a City rebate for installing them, then got federal and Ontario grants on top of that. All told we got back more than the purchase price, so we are ahead from Day One, even before the water savings kick in.

Ontario’s Home Energy Savings Program expires in March and might not be renewed; no-one can predict when a federal program will be re-launched. But the sooner you lock in savings, the more you save. That’s why I recommend getting your home evaluated and doing some of the retrofits now. You have nothing to lose but waste, and that’s something we can all do without.

Update: last week I wrote about the Barrie Free Clothing Centre. They have a particular need for men’s clothing right now, so if you have any to spare, please donate. The Centre is open Thursday to Saturday, 12:30 – 3:30 pm, behind 110 Dunlop St. E.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Volunteering would be a 'Nifty' idea

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.

As we enter the holiday season I’d like to recognize someone who has been making holidays and everydays easier for the needy in Barrie for many years, and is herself now in need of some assistance.

Valerie Scrivner founded the Barrie Free Clothing Centre in 2006. Operating from a surplus portable at Ferris Lane Community Church, she received donated clothing and distributed it to the needy. Like a food bank, the Centre didn’t charge. But after several successful years, the Church needed their portable back for expanded programming.

A local landlord was generous enough to give some downtown retail space, but Valerie needed a registered charity to issue receipts for the donated rent. Living Green, Barrie’s environmental NGO, stepped up and agreed to adopt the Barrie Free Clothing Centre as one of its projects. Redistributing used clothing reduces the waste stream, and providing it to the needy helps maintain an economically sustainable diverse community.

The move created some new costs for the Centre, however, because now there was insurance, and HST on the donated rent. To help cover this, the Centre added a second project, Nifty Thrifty, selling high-end clothing at deep discounts.

Standard items accepted by the Centre for free distribution are clothing which is clean and in good shape and perfectly good for continued wearing. High-end items, such as designer or expensive outfits, are set aside for sale at rock-bottom prices, such as $3 for a $60 blouse or $4 for like-new designer jeans. These prices are even lower than one would find in a standard thrift store, and allow people short of money to acquire decent clothes for work or a job interview.

Overall, Nifty Thrifty has been growing despite hurdles. One major issue has been the extended reconstruction of Toronto Street, which has cut most of the traffic from passing the Centre’s storefront (behind 110 Dunlop St. West, between Toronto and High Streets). The City promises this will soon be completed, and we anxiously await that day. But the greatest need is for reliable volunteers to help the Centre stay open and expand hours. It’s a fairly simple job, keeping clothing sorted on the racks and helping clients find what they need. Anyone with a few hours a week or even a few hours a month could sign on and help keep the Centre running smoothly. Valerie has been a stalwart and reliable volunteer for many years, but can’t do it all on her own. Perhaps this holiday season you can find it in your heart to donate some time to this worthy cause.

You can contact the Centre and Nifty Thrifty by calling Valerie at 252-2179 or emailing, or drop by between 12:30 and 3:30 on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Synchronicity may have led to chocolate

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.

There's a theory called synchronicity, which puts forth that coincidences are actually the universe making necessary connections. I don't know if there's truth to that or if it's just wishful thinking, but lately I've experienced some convenient coincidences.

I'd long been planning a Root Issues food series, and the topics have recently been falling into my lap. A friend is planning to open a local food store. (More on that early next year). Last month, my guest authors sent me a column about global food issues.

Today's coincidence is about chocolate. Not just any chocolate, and certainly not what you buy on impulse as you pass by the checkout counter. No, I've discovered a local (yes!) organic source, and I'm happy to share.

It's called MB Chocolate and it's made this side of Orangeville. It's an artisanal product lovingly crafted in small batches from raw organic cacao. The growing raw food movement recognizes that heat alters or destroys many of the healthiest elements and compounds in food, and seeks instead to preserve them for a healthier diet. This product proves that raw and healthy can also be tasty.

MB augments the natural healthiness of raw cacao with special boosters like an algae called E3Live BrainON, which contains high levels of many very special proteins, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids. But their chocolate doesn't taste at all like algae -- it's lightly sweetened with healthy palm sugar and herbal stevia, then flavoured with organic spices like ginger or cayenne and essential oils such as orange, lemon, or mint.

I say lightly sweetened -- this chocolate is far from the sickly-sweet, over-processed confections we often think of as chocolate bars that really don't deserve the title.

No, this is chocolate as it was first conceived, winning favour and acclaim amongst the ancients. This is truly guilt-free chocolate, without the artificial chemicals or processed sugars so common in modern sweets. Those with dietary restrictions can take comfort that it is free of nuts, soy, gluten and lactose. The creaminess comes from cacao butter rather than dairy products.

But back to synchronicity. I would never have known about MB except that they appeared as guests on Rogers Daytime the same morning I was there to promote a community event. I was very interested to learn about their product, and that they were making it near where I grew up, just down the road from my brother-in-law's home.

After trying some samples, I knew I'd have to pass it along. And the good news is that they are ramping up production to meet growing demand. Look for M & B Alchemy at Barrie's own Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings, or at their website.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Raising our children as a village

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title Co-op nursery school a gem for parents.

My younger daughter is in her second year at Playtime Co-operative Nursery School, which her older sister attended before her.

Established in 1973, Playtime is operated and administered by parent volunteers, the first such non-profit co-op in Barrie. It features an integrated, community-based program with learning, singing, arts & crafts, structured and free playtimes.

Being part of a co-op is an interesting and rewarding experience. For our daughter, I suppose it’s much like any other nursery school, albeit with a few special frills. Once a month, a family member attends as the “duty parent”, assisting the teachers. And there are frequent field trips which include parental participation for rides and supervision.

But for the parents it’s a very special experience. Each family contributes to the supervision and cleaning of the centre and sits on one of the organizing committees. For us this has included preparing the yearbook or planning the year-end BBQ.

This involvement has two key effects. It keeps the fees much lower than with a standard program, which is what first attracted us. But on a deeper level, it constantly and deeply engages us in the life of the organization. We each do our part, and are each part of the decision-making. This is very different from the standard anonymous pay-for-service model which dominates modern society. Instead, it hearkens back to earlier times when schools and other public institutions were truly community endeavors, rather than the preserve of professional administrators whose main interaction with us is accepting payment.

My first experience as a member of a co-op, I see it as a very powerful model for community institutions. Although it requires more of our attention, it rewards us with greater belonging and input. Being similarly involved in more of our institutions would certainly require more time than most of us have available. Yet by saving money, we would need to spend less time working for wages and could “trade up” some of that drudgery for more meaningful activity.

Of course, like any other school, Playtime must fundraise. Coming on Tuesday, December 7 is our most popular event, our Christmas Party & Silent Auction. Running from 6 to 8:30 pm in Jay Hall at Central United Church, it is an exciting night for all. The event, open to the public, features a bake sale, a craft table for children, a clown and face painting and a special visit from Santa himself. Cost is only $3 per child and free to adults with a food bank donation, and the auction tables are open to all, with fantastic deals.

We are also still looking for local businesses to donate items or certificates for our charitable auction. For information about the event or to donate an auction item, contact 734-2147.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I noted that the previous column I wrote wasn't printed due to the potential for perception of conflict of interest. However, the Examiner was willing to let me address the topic in a letter to the editor, which I submitted and they printed on Friday.

Computerized voting not the best

Computerized voting allows you to vote at any convenient Barrie location. But this benefit is from the online voter list, not the touchscreens. We could do it with the electronic voting list and paper ballots. Of course, counting would be slower. Or would it?

This past election's vote-tallying was an embarrassment. Municipalities all around us with paper ballots reported and went home while our computerized results trickled in.

Candidates went to sleep not knowing if they had been elected; newspapers to press with races too close to call. Even places opening mail-in ballot envelopes before sorting and counting were beating us.

The final insult: a trustee result reversed upon manual examination two weeks after the vote. And it wasn't even a close call, the first-and fourth-place contestants were switched by computer error.

If the computer voting results are late and we have to hand-count them anyway to be sure, are they worth the extra cost, or should we consider returning to the tried-and-true pencil on paper?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins

Friday, November 19, 2010

Looming food crisis will take away plenty

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner by guest authors Karen Fox and Ruth Blaicher. This is the introduction to a series of articles about food issues I will be writing over the next few months.

Have you noticed food prices creeping up, especially for items like bread and meat? With the world now one big interconnected marketplace, what we pay at the grocery store relates directly to myriad production issues around the globe. But the real players in this new drama are two old economic buddies called “supply and demand”.

The planet’s population has exploded from around 1.65 billion in 1900 to more than 6.9 billion today and is growing by around 78 million a year. By 2012 it will exceed 7 billion. That’s a lot of mouths to feed: “Demand”.

On the “Supply” front, violent weather has caused havoc on no less than five continents this year. Thailand lost much of the rice crop leaving little to sell, Russia has imposed a ban on wheat exports after severe drought and wildfires, Pakistan lost most of it’s stored grain in the recent flood, India suffered it’s worst drought in 37 years, East Africa is in it’s fifth year of extreme drought, leaving 23 million on the verge of starvation, Australia is being called the “new dustbowl” due to prolonged drought and depletion of aquifers, while Egypt, Ukraine, Romania, China and the Southern US also suffer from severe water shortages. Canada’s own prairies endured storm events and high water levels this summer drastically impacting grain production.

Biofuels add a new twist to the supply side crisis as agricultural lands are swallowed up for ethanol production. We are now growing corn for fuel, cattle feed and fructose additives, instead of food. As over-farming of agricultural land worsens, dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers increases while rising oil prices escalate both the price of fertilizers and the cost of shipping food around the globe. That doesn’t bode well for those Californian or Chilean strawberries in your grocery store in January, not to mention bananas, coffee, tea, sugar, exotic fruits and so on.

On the home front, our local grocers carry only a 2- or 3-day supply of food at any given time. With the majority of it traveling a great distance it’s not hard to see that a disruption in the food chain could lead to stockpiling or hoarding and something we have not experienced in recent memory: empty shelves.

Perhaps it’s time to brush up on some old skills of self-reliance and self -sufficiency. Can you find your local food producers? Could you grow some food in your own yard? Do you remember what Grandmother taught about canning or preserving? Some great resources can be found with the folks at Simcoe County Farm Fresh who have compiled an excellent document on local food growers, Living Green Barrie, who supported Barrie’s first community garden, and Transition Barrie who are initiating “reskilling” courses on food preserving and storage.

Most of the world realizes there is a looming food crisis. Here in our land of plenty we are just waking up.

Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local Realtors and founding members of Transition Barrie with a passion for green issues, and are directors of Living Green. They can be reached at

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Column the Examiner Wouldn't Print

This article was written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, but the paper declined to print it because it might appear to be a conflict of interest for me to write about the voting process of an election in which I was a candidate. I'm not going to argue with my editor, but since the article doesn't have any real relevance to my own campaign, I'm quite happy to post it here and will submit a shorter version as a letter to the editor instead.

Technology Fails our Election Night Test

Barrie pioneered electronic voting in Canada, using touch-screen computers since 1997. People worried about accuracy; some even argued computer voting was invalid or illegal. Over the years objections have faded as more areas adopt some form of computerized ballot. The machines now even print a paper back-up, allowing for manual recount.

Americans have used voting machines for over a century, not because they are more eager to modernize, but due to their wider spectrum elections. On the same day with the same ballot, they mark their choice for president, congress, governor, legislature, mayor, councilor, judge, prosecutor, sheriff, comptroller, etc. at federal, state, and local levels. They also face any number of referenda. With the sheer breadth of categories of votes to be cast and counted, technology was applied very early to speed the process. First lever-machines that counted gear revolutions, then pencil-dot or punch-cards, and finally touch-screens have been common. In the uncertain 2000 election results, all these options suddenly came under scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Canadian provincial and federal elections use pencil on paper, viewed by the human eye and counted by hand. To Americans this may seem quaint, but it’s accurate and surprisingly fast both to vote and to count.

Municipal elections add more complexity as you choose mayor, councilor, and trustee. (Some add deputy mayor, board of control, or regional chair). Yet for a century, pencil voting worked just fine.

The key advantage of Barrie’s electronic system is allowing you to use any poll, instead of being assigned one. Theoretically this raises voter turnout. Yet this benefit is achieved by the online voter list, not the voting machines. We could realize the same benefit with the electronic voting list and paper ballots. The main drawback would be the higher volume of paper ballots to be pre-printed. Counting would also be slower. Or would it?

In this past Barrie election, the speed of vote-counting was an embarrassment. Jurisdictions all around us with paper ballots had reported and gone home while our computerized results trickled in. Candidates went to sleep not knowing if they had been elected; newspapers to press with races too close to call. Even places that had to open mail-in ballot envelopes before sorting and counting were beating us! John Henry won this race and lived to tell of it.

The final insult was this week’s announcement that a trustee result had been reversed upon manual recount. And it wasn’t even a close call – rather, the first- and fourth-place contestants had been switched by computer error!

At this point I wonder if our computer voting system is worth the cost, especially if we have to hand-count them all anyway! Should we return to the tried-and-true pencil on paper?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sanity versus Fear in Canadian politics

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Washington rallies offer important messages"

Last Saturday I attended a unique event in Washington, DC. Featuring Daily Show host John Stewart and the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert, it was a massive counter-rally. Stewart’s plan was the Rally to Restore Sanity, while Colbert’s response was the March to Keep Fear Alive. Billed the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, at over 200,000 it was easily the largest gathering in quite some time, dwarfing the previous Tea Party and Glen Beck rallies it partially mocked.

One highlight was the appearance of Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne singing “Peace Train” and “Crazy Train” against each other. (Both songs are favourites in my household.) MythBusters Jamie and Adam also did some wave, sound, and jumping experiments with the huge crowd and a seismometer.

The event featured music, comedy, parody protest signs and elaborate costumes but surpassed mere entertainment, carrying a serious message: political debate, especially in the media, is dominated by extremists on each side. Not seeing their views presented in civil discourse, the moderate majority disengage. This leaves the levers of control in the hands of extremists and lobbyists. This rally was for “the rest of us”, people who don’t generally make their case through poorly-spelled slogans or loud shouting. Volume does not equal validity, but you wouldn’t know that from how the media covers politics.

Clearly it’s worse in America than Canada, but we are fast catching up. An avowedly right-wing Fox News-style cable news channel is trying to launch here. Political advertising has gone decidedly negative, and in recent years attack ads have appeared even outside election periods.

Attack ads work, but in an insidious way. They don’t inspire people to vote for anyone; rather, they dissuade people from voting at all, a strategy called vote suppression. The trick is that rather than grow your own support, you diminish the base of your opponents. The effect is lower voter turnout and the exclusion of moderates from the process.

It’s hard to know how to address this spreading negativity. Certainly humour is one approach, and Canadian shows like the Mercer Report and 22 Minutes make a good try. But despite their biting satire, the attacks multiply. This week the Green Party of Canada called for a ban on political advertising on television, which is an interesting idea. TV ads are very expensive, driving the high cost of politics, but are rarely used to present meaningful information. Instead, they are the primary tool for emotions and attack ads. Perhaps if parties were banned from the airwaves and had to reach voters through print media they would focus less on painting others with fear and derision and more on presenting ideas.

I think it’s worth a try.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Trustees have sharp learning curve on ARC timing

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "ARC timing will teach new trustees a lesson".

The future of Barrie’s downtown remains imperiled as the threat of Central Collegiate’s closure looms closer.

And for the first time, I retract something from an earlier column. Last April, I criticized MPP Aileen Carroll for securing funding for a secondary school in Essa, yet failing to do the same for Barrie Central. In her defense, Carroll has gone on record that it was the Essa school, not Central, which Simcoe School Board officials asked her to champion, so she did. This created a discrepancy: Board staff and Trustees have consistently maintained that rebuilding Central was their top capital priority during that time.

To reconcile this, I filed a Freedom of Information request to see just what the Board had lobbied for through our MPP. Was their messaging ambiguous? This week I got the response, and it confirms Carroll’s statement precisely. In the March 2008 meeting, the Board specifically asked her to lobby for Essa school funding, and only “shared thoughts” about a downtown secondary/elementary school.

It’s become clear over the last year that the Board is committed to closing Central instead of trying to rebuild; this new information indicates the attitude goes back further, to the time when a Central re-do was supposedly Job One.

Which brings us to now. A community consultation process called an accommodation review committee (ARC) began in September and is due to report in March. It may decide to endorse the staff option presented last month which recommends closing Central, sending students to other over-capacity schools in Barrie, hoping the Ministry of Education will then fund a brand new growth school to the south. Or, in theory, the ARC could come up with a plan for repairing or rebuilding Central, delaying the need for new schools until expansion lands are actually developed and populated.

But there’s a serious catch to this theory: the Ministry needs the board’s capital priorities expressed now, not next spring. The request can be revised in January 2011, but the ARC won’t report until March. How can the ARC recommend keeping Central open if the window for capital requests is closed? The staff option, supposedly unofficial and not in effect until the ARC reports and the Trustees decide, is already driving the capital requests which will determine Central’s fate.

At this point I don’t believe it’s enough to attend ARC meetings and let the process run its course. The timing seems to deny the ARC any chance of providing an option to keep all our 5 Barrie high schools open. The newly-elected Trustees must re-examine the ARC timing, provide more complete information, and keep options open with the Ministry rather than prejudicing funding requests against Central’s future.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Economy, Environment can be great friends

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner.

During the 2010 municipal elections in which I am running for school board trustee, guest authors Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are taking over my column.

The Environment has arrived. She showed up alive and well at the ECO mayoral debate on Tuesday night, glided onto centre stage and got very comfortable. This is a new experience for the Environment in Barrie’s political debates. She usually has to sneak in the side door and lurk in the back row, drawing little if any attention. The Economy is usually the showstopper, festooned with shiny visions of growth and jobs. But something felt different this time.

In his text Environmental Economics, D. J. Thampapillai says “Clearly the natural environment is an important component of the economic system, and without the natural environment, the economic system would not be able to function”. Ethan Goffman takes this a step further in his essay, Altering Assumptions, and states: “Ecological economics considers the earth and it’s ecosystems as the larger system of which the human economy is just a sub-set.” Oops…sounds like in the world of human awareness, the environment is getting a kind of job promotion… back up to Head Office.

Hosted by Barrie’s grassroots environmental group Living Green and capably moderated by Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Tuesday’s debate was well equipped to explore eco issues, especially those pertaining to the challenges our city is facing due to growth and intensification. But would the voters show up? Come they did and in surprising numbers. A quick visual scan showed the formidable capacity of the Fisher Auditorium was not wasted.

Of the eight candidates invited only three braved the event, only two stayed to debate, but the depth of information and the quality and variety of questions from the audience was superb. From the questions for the candidates dealing with growth and greenhouse gas emission reductions came a range of solutions.

Rob Hamilton has plans to protect the lake and prepare for heavier storm events, grey water recycling to keep phosphorus out of the lake, creating cost savings through energy efficiency and an energy capital fund. He would create an Environmental Advisory Committee to Council, promote Barrie Central Collegiate partnering with an arts campus, balance the job mix and no longer rezone land from industrial to retail.

Jeff Lehman suggested “putting things we need closer together so we don’t have to drive everywhere,” planning new neighbourhoods for active transportation (walking & cycling) and transit, redesigning transit around arterial routes running every 15 minutes, and running Saturday and Sunday GO trains to encourage tourist traffic from the GTA. He suggests Barrie Central partner with the City for a performing arts facility, and would focus on facilitating growth of existing businesses before attracting new ones.

The Economy and the Environment are getting to know each other a little better in Barrie.

Let’s hope they can be best friends.

Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local realtors and founding members of Transition Barrie with a passion for green issues and are directors of Living Green.

ECO Mayoral debate

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Living Green, Miller set for mayoral debate".

During the 2010 municipal elections in which I am running for school board trustee, guest authors Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are taking over my column.

Has it ever bothered you when politicians promise one thing but do another? We get an endless parade of government announcements about new initiatives to make things better, yet things still seem to get worse. And no-one ever checks to see what was actually done, or what was really accomplished.

There’s an exception in Ontario, where we have a real watchdog to report on how our environmental initiatives are working (or not). Created in 1994 by Bob Rae, almost eliminated under Mike Harris, but renewed and expanded under Dalton McGuinty, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) is an independent officer who reports annually to the Legislative Assembly – not to the governing party. His mandate includes monitoring the workings of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights and has recently expanded to include the use and conservation of electricity, natural resources and fuels.

Each year the ECO produces a report detailing how well the Ontario government has been following its own environmental rules, and provides extra insight into aspects of what is happening in ecological conservation. These reports are a sober and critical look at our government’s activities. Next week ECO Gord Miller, recently appointed to a third 5-year term, comes to Barrie to do something similar. By moderating Living Green’s “ECO Mayoral Debate”, Miller will help to keep the challenges and promises in perspective.

And Barrie certainly faces challenges. Over the next two decades, our population is set to grow another 50%, and we’ve just annexed almost 2300 hectares of “new” lands. Yet we are also tasked to intensify our urban development, reduce our carbon footprint and extend the life of our landfill. How can we do less with more? Certainly our next Mayor and council will have a critical role in crafting a vision and setting the tone.

Which brings us to the most exciting debate of this election, the ECO Mayoral Debate at the Fisher Auditorium (Barrie Central Collegiate) at 6:30 pm on October 19. With 8 candidates vying for the mayoral chain, debates can be repetitive and uninformative. This one will be different! Each candidate will have five minutes to lay out his vision for how to manage growth in Barrie while trying to achieve sustainability. Then, the audience will take charge and decide which candidates they want to hear from further by choosing a “Final Four” to remain for an hour of Q & A grilling and debate. (The other candidates will be asked to leave the stage.)

It’s free and open to the public, and the more who attend the better, so come to the ECO Mayoral Debate this Tuesday. Not only can you hear the candidates and ask your questions, you’ll be able to vote on which ones you feel would best represent Barrie.

For those who’d like more up-close-and-personal contact with Gord Miller, there will be a catered reception at 5 pm. For information, contact Karen Fox at 721-6867 or

Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local realtors and founding members of Transition Barrie with a passion for green issues and are directors of Living Green.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Move past blame to find solutions

This article was written for the PCMH series in the Barrie Examiner.

This summer I took part in a unique workshop put on by the Parents for Children’s Mental Health. Participants were forced into uncomfortable conditions, then ordered to write answers. A normally simple task became impossible, because our seats were awkwardly-placed or uncomfortable, our pencils were sticky and slimy, there was loud static noise being played, the “teacher” was speaking quickly and critically, etc. The intent was to simulate the kinds of challenges people face at school or work when they have a mental illness or learning disability.

The good news was that our disability was temporary, the discomfort brief. And since it was just an exercise, not a real job or class, we had the option to wait it out, knowing there would be no repercussions. But earlier this year I experienced a similar situation which was not so brief, and could not be escaped at will.

Back in March, just before leaving on a family vacation, an ear infection became a ruptured ear drum. My left ear was in excruciating pain and I could not hear from it; worse, the roaring sound made it hard to hear from my other ear. I couldn’t see a family doctor before we left, so I didn’t know what to expect, how long it might last, or what problems it might cause.

It was really bad for a few days, and took weeks to heal. During that time I experienced the challenges of an invisible disability, just like we experienced in the exercise. Often I could not understand people, especially if they had an accent. I might not even know they were talking to me, unless I was looking at them. My “phone ear” was blown, so taking notes on the phone became harder. Any background noise was amplified, making it hard to hear with my good ear. I couldn’t tell if I was speaking too quietly or too loudly.

The worst was that no-one could see the problem. They would not realize I hadn’t heard, or didn’t understand what they were saying. Simple tasks like ordering food or getting directions became fraught with peril, as a critical point was miscommunicated. I would come across as rude or inattentive, and not even know I was offending someone.

This experience deeply affected me, and repeating those struggles at the PCMH workshop really put it into focus. For people with an illness or disability affecting their perception, concentration, or communication, the standard classroom (or office) situation won’t work. What is normal and easy for us is for them a strain at best, an insurmountable challenge at worst.

While our classroom and work situations are designed to satisfy the average person’s needs, many people are outside this “average”. If the setup does not work for them, they will probably get stressed, frustrated, and upset, and those feelings will influence their reactions. Students with classroom problems may anger and misbehave, or detach and ignore their lessons. Then we blame them for it, without understanding that it’s not of their choice. Before condemning someone as “stupid”, “disobedient”, or a “troublemaker”, we really need to understand what is going on. It may be a normal human reaction to an intolerable situation.

Understanding different needs and learning styles is critical for a successful education system. Teachers can do this, but only if we give them the space. When you have too many students, you can’t give each the time it takes to find their right path. And when frustration leads to misbehaviour, that takes away even more time, in a vicious circle. When students with behavioural issues are dumped with those who have an identified learning disability, problems only worsen for everyone.

An education system for all our children must be able to know each of them, to find their special needs, and provide suitable systems or routines. It must be tolerant when things go wrong, understanding that most of us really want success but face obstacles or feelings that can get in our way. Whenever I see a situation of miscommunication or dispute, I recall my temporary invisible disability and remember how problems arose through no-one’s fault. We must move past blame to understanding and solutions.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician. Building a Global Movement

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Climate crisis movement gaining strength".
During the 2010 municipal elections in which I am running for school board trustee, guest authors Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are taking over my column.
350. It’s just a number, but according to activist Bill McKibben and climate scientist James Hansen it may be the most important number you will ever know.
350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) is what is believed to be the safe level of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, or the damage we are already seeing from global warming will accelerate. The problem is, we are already past it. Atmospheric CO2 is now at 390 ppm and raising at 2 ppm per year. Paleoclimate data indicates that life as we experience it developed and thrived in times of much lower carbon dioxide levels, around 280 ppm, and we need to head back in that direction. Now!
The troublemaker in all of this is our huge reliance on fossil fuels to drive our way of life: the burning of coal, oil and gas which releases CO2 into the atmosphere. In the summer of 2007 with the rapid melt of Arctic ice, it became clear that we had already crossed serious thresholds. Other signs point in the same direction – a spike in methane emissions, the melt of high altitude glacier systems and the rapid and unexpected acidification of seawater. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Space Centre has determined “350 ppm is the upper level of CO2 in the atmosphere if we wish to have a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed, and to which life on earth adapted.” Serious Stuff!
This is a global problem needing global solutions. Governments, businesses, citizens all must understand the nature of this crisis and pull together to not only halt the increase of carbon in the atmosphere but reverse it. Big Stuff!
Enter Using the number 350 as a symbol to raise awareness and a rallying cry to call all citizens of the planet to action, Bill McKibben, James Hansen and a team of colleagues founded the movement called Through their website and social media they are working hard to organize in a new way – everywhere at once. In October last year they coordinated 5,200 simultaneous rallies and demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”. This year on October 10, 2010 or “10/10/10” as they call it, there will be a “global work party”. Thousands of projects will take place such as putting up solar panels, digging community gardens and even an enterprising Canadian family hosting a “carbon neutral Thanksgiving”. The intent is to send a strong message to our leaders: “if we can get to work, so can you”.
To view this incredible program or even better, to register your own initiative go to the website.
Founding members of Transition Barrie, Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local Realtors with a passion for Green issues and are directors of Living Green.

City's growth the most important election issue

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Impending growth an opportunity for us all".
During the 2010 municipal elections in which I am running for school board trustee, guest authors Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are taking over my column.
Working in the city of Barrie for over 20 years as Real Estate Sales Representatives, both Karen Fox and Ruth Blaicher have seen the city evolve from a relatively tight-knit community setting in the 60s to a growing metropolis in recent years.
In 1991 Barrie’s population was 62,728. By 2011 we’ll reach 157,000 residents and in 2031 we are projected to have a population of 210,000. Our city has been designated by the province as a Growth area. There are two initiatives that will accomplish this mandate. The first will be to increase the population in a few areas within the city, what planners refer to as intensification. The second strategy is to develop the recently annexed 2293 hectare parcel of land to the south of Barrie. As this growth unfolds, we also need to recognize that our city will be expected to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint from our current levels. So the challenge is to produce less waste with a bigger population.
How these two approaches to growth are rolled out should be a major concern to every citizen now living in the original city limits, in the annexed area or those planning to move to our city. Over the next four years, our city council will play a major role in deciding the direction our city will take. With a municipal election now under way, the focus should be on how the newly elected politicians plan to address the growth. We need to use design principles right from the start that promote municipal sustainability.
At Transition Barrie, we look at ways to make our community more people-friendly. We consistently hear comments from Barrie residents about the lack of bike paths in the city. Interconnecting bike paths should be an integral part of every new development as well as all existing road rework. Active transportation and effective public transit are ongoing issues. Rising energy costs will soon encourage use and availability of affordable and efficient alternative transportation. All new development should demand the best in energy conservation practices and design and require eco-friendly building practices. We don’t need more urban sprawl where you have to use your car for everything that you do. Residents in new communities should have access to local amenities and schools within walking distance and perhaps even community gardens in each ward. We are far behind our European counterparts in our transportation systems, alternative energy programs and housing standards. We tear down our heritage buildings. 100 years is old in Barrie; in Amsterdam homes built in the 1600’s still stand.
Take the time to discover what your politicians are all about. Living Green is hosting a Mayoral debate that will be focused on sustainability issues. Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, will be the moderator. Plan to attend the Fischer Auditorium on October 19th from 6:30 to 9 pm to hear the vision of each Mayoral candidate.
Founding members of Transition Barrie, Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local Realtors with a passion for Green issues and are directors of Living Green.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Candidates Night Out in the Cold

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Candidates invited to tackle poverty issues".

During the 2010 municipal elections in which I am running for school board trustee, guest authors Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are taking over my column.
Our key concern is sustainability. That’s far more than just an environmental issue: a community or society must at once be ecologically, socially and economically sustainable. When some people aren’t treated fairly, aren’t given opportunities, or are left out of prosperity, it has negative consequences for all. Therefore, we always seek a “big picture” view and look at what’s affecting each segment of the community so we can move forward together.

A great chance to achieve that takes place at 7 pm next Friday evening, October 1. It’s a special event called “A Night Out in the Cold”. No, this isn’t Barrie’s “Out of the Cold” program for the homeless to spend the night in a church basement. Rather, it’s an election debate designed to force candidates to confront poverty issues head-on. It’s been held at all election levels: 2006 municipal, 2007 provincial, 2008 federal, and now we’re back to municipal.

This event is unique in several ways. First, it is the only event to include candidates for mayor and all council wards. All candidates are invited, but not all take part, which right off the bat gives some indication about who does (or doesn’t) care about poverty in Barrie. (Candidates have had plenty of warning, enough to make sure they don’t have a conflict that evening). This year features something new: candidates have been asked to contribute at least $25 to a local support agency in order to participate. When they introduce themselves, they can say which agency they chose and why, to demonstrate how they perceive the poverty challenge in Barrie. And like the homeless, the candidates will have to take part sitting outdoors, despite hot sun, cold snow, or heavy rain. Whatever the day brings will be their lot.

The event is preceded by a march starting at 5 pm from Queen’s Park to Fred Grant Square to raise visibility. Then at 6:15 a free dinner is served at the Square. Finally, at 7 pm, the candidates will face two hours of questions from the moderator and the audience. The event (and parade & dinner) are open and free to all.

As always, this event is hosted by the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH), a coalition of organizations supporting the homeless, poor or at-risk. Each member of the Barrie chapter is helping with the event, by providing food, a stage, a sound system, dishes & cutlery, coordination, etc. For more information, visit

Founding members of Transition Barrie, Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local Realtors with a passion for Green issues and are directors of Living Green.

Transition Barrie’s Grand Unleashing Event and Family Harvest Festival

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Transition Barrie's unleashing at harvest fest"

During the 2010 municipal elections in which I am running for school board trustee, guest authors Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are taking over my column.

Climate change, depleting fossil fuels, and economic instability are daunting issues for a local volunteer group to tackle but these topics are attracting a diverse and growing group of participants to “Transition Barrie”.

Growing very quickly from a UK initiative in 2006, the Transition movement has circled the globe engaging communities at the grassroots level to talk, learn and take action on building resilience through re-localization of the services and resources we will need to survive and thrive in a world of depletion and increasing instability.

In “What can communities do?” Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins says, “Community matters when we are looking for responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change because of the power that emerges from working together and creating meaningful change through shared action … If we see these issues as purely environmental and something that someone else will fix, we give away our potential to create change and end up feeling powerless.”

That feeling of powerlessness in the face of big change brought a group of Barrie residents together in the spring of 2009 to explore local Transition opportunities. Through awareness-raising events such as Eco-fest, presentations to local groups, open space forums, informal meet-ups and film screenings Transition Barrie is moving toward the next stage of community engagement, developing hands-on projects. Local focus groups are working on diverse topics such as urban food production, seed saving, food preservation & root cellars, local & alternative energy sources, electric cars, car-sharing, and housing alternatives, all of these to culminate in the grand vision of an “Energy Descent Action Plan” for Barrie.

To celebrate this development of a shared vision, festivities are in order. It’s our Grand Unleashing, a coming-out party in the timely form of a Family Harvest Festival at Chappell Farms on Saturday, Sept. 25th, from 1 pm to 7:30. There will be fun farm activities such as wagon rides, corn maze, pick your own pumpkin and a Haunted Barn for the kids.

The event features presentations on the following topics: Barrie’s Energy and Greenhouse Gas Mapping Project; Economic Relocation, Strengthening your Local Economy; Orion O3, Transition Ontario’s Collaborative Project; “Growing Hope” Farm Share & Biodiesel Co-Op; and Building Bridges to Local Government. These talks will be followed by an Open Forum round-table discussion and corn roast & chili dinner.

This is an Ontario-wide event open to all Transition initiatives in the province and allows these diverse groups to interact and catch up on all of the great projects underway.

For more information call Karen Fox at 705-721-6867 or visit

Founding members of Transition Barrie, Ruth Blaicher and Karen Fox are local Realtors with a passion for Green issues and are directors of Living Green.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Many Meanings of Back-to-School

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Education is truly timeless for all of us")

School bells ring! Over 14 years I’ve worked in a wide variety of teaching situations. Education, in all forms, is key to any society. It’s a growing industry in Barrie, and with low energy and material inputs this growth is very sustainable, creating social and economic benefits with minimal drawbacks.

“Education” calls to mind children’s public schooling, yet that represents only part of the process. Kids transcend “the three R’s” with extra-curricular sports, dance, swimming, martial arts, or crafts. Our boards offer them free foreign language classes, but in many countries such learning isn’t free. In Korea where I began teaching, a major industry is private English institutes building on the basic grammar & vocabulary taught in public schools. Supervised by native speakers, children and adults practice listening and expressing their own ideas, instead of preset answers. They see the economic value of international language and happily pay a premium to learn.

In Barrie, one can study almost any subject. Georgian College is a leader for careers, and a variety of private institutes offer accelerated work-skill programs. Like myself, many of their teachers find themselves in a classroom role based on life experience or communication skills rather than having gone the standard teacher’s college route. But this continues the age-old cultural tradition of people from all walks of life sharing and passing along their skills and knowledge.

The classroom is no longer the only site for learning; what was previously called correspondence study is a rapidly-growing field. Replacing mail, the swift and powerful Internet has driven the “distance learning” explosion of the past decade. For ten years since settling in Barrie, I have continued teaching Korean students English online. Distance education erases many barriers of traditional classroom studies like geography, scheduling or cost.

But back-to-school always means costs. Beyond clothes-shopping traditions of dubious educational value, a perennial expense is textbooks. While many suspect the driver of new editions is publishing profits – which I can’t deny is a factor – it’s a rare text which doesn’t need improvement or updating. In recent years I’ve been writing and editing English texts for foreign and Canadian markets. Students may find reading textbooks a chore; they can take solace knowing that writing them can be a chore, too!

Another growing influence is co-operative education, where students put classroom learning to use in the workplace. I benefited immensely from my 6 Waterloo co-op work terms, and over the past year the Barrie Green Party has in turn enjoyed the contributions of three Georgian co-ops, helping them learn by doing. Although a “new wave”, co-op is really a partial return to traditional non-classroom learning of past centuries.

And of course education isn’t limited to long-term enrollment. I’ve been invited to educate service clubs, NGOs, and business groups in Barrie and the US, addressing environmental & economic topics like carbon pricing. Audiences are still very interested in lecture-based learning; not just a dream, life-long education is a reality for many. So I guess we never outgrow that back-to-school feeling.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Electing to pay attention to education in Barrie

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Education questions linger around election")

This is an important fall for education in Barrie. Our Trustees must address many critical issues, right as they go into an election period and face either being returned to their seats or replaced.

First off, the expansion to full-day kindergarten. Some schools launch this next week, a major change which will undoubtedly generate unforeseen consequences requiring careful response. Experienced or new, trustees will need to pay close attention and act in a timely manner. The first round of schools to go full-time are the easiest, because they have spare classrooms available. Future rounds won’t be so easy, as they will require either expensive additions or dreaded portables. With Barrie’s continued downtown growth and revitalization (see mayoral platforms for details), the public board will likely regret closing and selling off the only two downtown elementary schools (King Edward and Prince of Wales). The suspension of Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) E in Clearview township preserved several under-populated schools from potential closure. Those schools are now providing needed extra kindergarten classrooms and receiving upgrade funding. Could Prince of Wales see a similar reprieve?

While on the topic of potential school closures, Barrie Central Collegiate needs major infrastructure upgrades or risks forced shutdown. Although the public board emphasizes they have not predetermined BCC’s fate, their choices on how to proceed haven’t been encouraging. Despite mentioning BCC repairs as a top capital priority, that apparently wasn’t formally expressed to Barrie MPP Aileen Carroll and so has not been heard at the provincial level, which has the money to make it happen. MPP Carroll has stated that she’ll lobby for the board’s priorities, but not until they have been conveyed through the right channels. I hope they do so in a timely manner.

In the meantime, the board has put BCC’s future in the hands of an ARC with other Barrie public high schools. Such a measure is not necessary to refurbish a school, but is required before closing one. So what signal does that broadcast? Intentional or not, it isn’t reassuring to those who hope to see Barrie Central survive & thrive. This ARC works under an odd mandate: created under one board, it will operate through the election period, and then report to the new board. Who will be held accountable if the resulting decisions are unpopular?

A final question is the ability of the board to provide affordable before- and after-school care. This is mandated by the Education Ministry, yet seems to cost far in excess of similar community programs, like those the YMCA provides. Since parents must pay the price, few will choose to pay more at schools, leaving the programs without enough enrollees to exist. The board has higher staffing costs but the same charity powers as the YMCA and the advantage of far more public infrastructure funding. Can the incoming trustees find a way to offer these programs at equal or lower cost than what is already available? That’s another good question for candidates.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Critical Mass rides promoting pedal power

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner

Last month I thrilled to take part in Barrie’s first Critical Mass ride. And next Friday, I’ll be at it again – with many of you, I hope.

Critical Mass is a fun, active, family-friendly way to build confidence in cycling and awareness in the community, especially amongst drivers. Too many citizens are afraid to ride their bikes on our streets because drivers don’t pay them enough respect. Those that do ride face unacceptable risks.

Bike lanes are part of the solution, but we already spend billions of dollars building roads; why can’t we share them safely with other modes of transportation? I believe we can, and that’s what Critical Mass is about. Neither a protest nor a demonstration, it’s a celebration of cycling as a mode of community transportation.

Here’s how it works. On the last Friday of each month, participants meet at a central location and then just go for a ride together, wherever their whim takes them. Last month we had close to 100 participants, and this month we expect more. There really is nothing to match the exhilarating feeling of being part of a huge, supportive cycling group instead of facing hostile or indifferent traffic alone. Bikes fill the whole lane and spread over a block or more, and cars simply have to respect them as fellow vehicles and wait their turn. For a few short minutes, one day a month, the car is no longer king on our public streets. We, too, are traffic!

This event has special meaning for me. Almost two years ago, my cousin Sam was biking home in London from classes at Fanshawe College. While waiting to make a legal left turn, he was struck from behind by a full-speed SUV whose driver apparently didn’t notice him despite his reflectors. Bike helmets can’t protect against this kind of impact and he was killed instantly. I hadn’t ridden my bike since, until last month.

Sam’s death didn’t have to happen. Drivers need to know that cyclists are part of traffic and watch for them. Cyclists should be able to trust drivers to see and respect them. We all deserve to share the roads that we all pay to build and maintain. That’s a big part of what Critical Mass promotes. Cycling is a healthy, fun, and environmentally friendly way to travel, but it can’t catch on if we live in fear of being cut down by our fellow traffic. Cycling together lets us overcome those fears through safety in numbers, and creates the visibility to change attitudes.

On the last Friday of each month, Barrie’s Critical Mass meets at the Spirit Catcher from 5:30 pm, then hits the streets at 6 to ride joyfully for about 90 minutes. The ride is suitable for all levels of cyclist – you don’t need to be a Lance Armstrong to come along. We adjust speed to suit the participants, and try to respect the rules of the road.

I really hope to see you there.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sharing the power of knowledge a must for democracy

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Census data should be available to all"

We all know that knowledge is power. This is especially true in politics. Democracy rests on the ideal that all citizens have an equal right to influence government and decisions affecting their lives. When knowledge is distributed unfairly, we lose our equal rights.

The current debate over the census is thus an issue of democracy and fairness. The power of Statistics Canada’s output is not just that it is unbiased, but that it’s available to all. It isn’t free; businesses and even local governments have to pay for detailed info. But because the data is gathered under federal powers and covers a huge sample, it is much more reliable than what private studies provide, and at far lower cost. This information source is a real advantage for Canadian businesses and employers, and very important for good planning at all levels of government. Our future economic growth depends heavily on entrepreneurs and independent local businesses, whose access to cheap, accurate census data helps them compete against the corporate giants.

If the census database is weakened, such as by dropping the mandatory long form, this advantage fades. Instead, knowledge-power will shift to those corporations or entities with the most money to spend on private research.

Sure, there are other ways to gather similar data, such as “mining” existing databases or doing targetted studies. But each method has its own built-in biases and errors. StatsCan’s census is a yardstick, making other studies more accurate and vice versa. And using data mining is actually more intrusive into privacy than the self-filled forms, because it happens secretly and requires access to information that you expect to be held private.

Not only is census data better than privately-gathered data in this manner, it is even better than other government studies. While we are familiar with the ballooning federal deficits, fewer are aware that the government’s spending on market research and opinion surveys is also rising rapidly. Yet results of those studies, paid for with our tax dollars, are often kept hidden from us. They are for the eyes only of the ruling party, giving them significant political advantage.

With accurate census data available to all parties, at least they are on equal information footing for elections. Without it, the advantage falls to he with the deepest pockets. Right now, there is one federal political party which is the most successful at fundraising, allowing it to outspend all the rest on polling and research. That creates a feedback loop which ensures it can better spin messaging to connect with citizen voters, leading to more fundraising, research, and political power. And if you can’t guess which party it is, I’ll give you two more hints: it’s the one that currently controls “non-partisan” but secret government research, and it’s the one that is trying to weaken the census data which is now fairly available to all the other parties.

It’s not too late to tell that party how you feel about knowledge, power, and fairness in our Canadian democracy.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lacking Greens, Ontario makes many eco-missteps

(Written for the Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "Green measures are great when properly delivered")

I’ve long observed the effect on governments of the growing Green movement. However, in the absence of elected Greens, other governing parties seem to stumble when enacting green measures.

Let’s look at Ontario. The Green Party of Ontario ran a full slate in 2007, won 8% of the vote, and almost took Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound’s “safe” Conservative seat. This surge was noticed by Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, who swiftly followed up on green election promises like banning cosmetic pesticides. He then launched several new green initiatives, the most obvious being the “Green Energy and Green Economy Act” which name-checks the g-word twice!

That Act included a number of daring but sensible measures, like voiding senseless bans on outdoor clotheslines. Most significantly, it set an above-market price for new renewable energy (solar, wind, or biomass) to jump-start Ontario’s clean energy industry and create good “green-collar” jobs. Based on successful programs overseas and suggested in the Greens’ 2007 platform (but not McGuinty’s), these higher rates seem to be working to boost solar and wind industries. But implementation of this renewable push has been inconsistent. First, the province issued a massive $7 billion no-bid contract to Korea’s Samsung. Buying more wind energy is a good policy, but bypassing our own domestic firms in the process insults our Ontario businesses who deserve at least a fair chance to compete.

Now, a recent action is undermining the launch of solar. Although the MicroFIT ("Feed-In Tariff") contract promised a fixed rate for solar until the 2011program review, the province recently announced it will prematurely cut back the rate for ground-mounted projects. Just as our Ontario solar industry was gaining a foothold, they face having the rug pulled out from under them.

Energy issues dog McGuinty, and the next is local. The province decided it needed a new natural-gas “peaker” plant, and that it must be built in the Holland Marsh. While gas plants are a part of greening our grid, it is disappointing that the province has chosen a low-efficiency single-cycle model, and even worse that they are dropping it on one of our most productive farming areas. They’ve even exempted it from review under the Planning Act, much to the chagrin of the communities being forced to host it. Actions like this stain the green cloak McGuinty is so eager to wear.

Meanwhile, the new eco-fees from Stewardship Ontario remain a disaster-in-progress. The concept of fees on polluting products is sound, but only if properly implemented. Surprises at the cash register and applying the same fees to products regardless of how ecologically harmful, they actually undermine the moral and economic effectiveness of true pollution penalties, not to mention making them politically unpopular. (More on this in a future column.)

If, like me, you support green measures by government, contact your MPP and demand that the MicroFIT promises be honoured and that the proposed Holland Marsh peaker plant have a full, proper review. Don’t quietly accept two-steps-forward-one-step-back instead of real progress toward a sustainable economy. Ontario can do better.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Follow-up action links:
  • Lots more on the foolish premature changes to the microFIT program here.
  • Campaign to save Holland Marsh from ill-considered peaker plant here.

This article was re-posted at the Green Party of Ontario site, and from there it made its way to Clear Politics.

Victory! - well, partial at least

Under pressure from the GPO and other groups, the province has decided to honour the full contract rate for anyone who had already applied for a contract under the microFIT, which means a lot of people who were facing potential losses will be able to meet their original solar investment plans.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Public is the key partner in Caribfest's green success

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "You can help make Caribfest even greener")

Caribfest 2010 aims to be the world’s greenest Caribbean festival, and Barrie’s greenest summer event. The organizers have put a lot of thought, planning, and effort into this, but can’t do it alone. To succeed, both in expanding Barrie’s cultural scene and reducing ecological footprint, will take many partnerships.

Caribfest is partnering with the City and community organizations like Living Green. But the most important partnership is with the public. Without your support, the event can’t meet its goals.

The first thing Caribfest needs is volunteers. While many are already signed on, there’s always room for more. By volunteering, you not only make this wonderful event possible, you get perks like free food, access to mainstage events, and a post-event BBQ. There are even prizes for recruiting friends and family to help!

Whatever your skill or background, you can help. Those licensed to drive or tend bar are needed. Setup and cleanup, event security, or marshalling the parade beckon any able-bodied helper. If you must sit, you can collect tickets or supervise a “greening centre” for total waste diversion. Interested in the arts? You can assemble parade floats or work as a stage hand.

High school students get hourly credit, and all volunteers are sure to have a rewarding experience. Contact volunteer coordinator Heidi Hoell at or 705-252-6822.

But volunteering is just one important community partnership. Caribfest hopes to be our greenest festival, but can only do that if the attendees also do their part.

The first step is getting there. Downtown is busy enough, but with event traffic and parade road closures, driving and parking may get hairy. So don’t drive! If you live close enough, walk. If you’re a bit further, take your bicycle. There will be free, supervised bike corrals so you can park your ride worry-free. You could even arrive by rollerblade or skateboard, if that’s your style.

If walking or wheeling don’t work, Barrie Transit can do the job. Most bus routes take you right downtown, near the event site and directly to the parade route. Or, if you must drive, consider sharing a ride with a friend or neighbour instead of coming separately.

A big source of waste at many festivals is bottled water. Clearing crowds often leave mounds of empty bottles in their wake. Even if recycled, the energy waste is significant, yet bottled water is no cleaner than tap water anyway. Caribfest and the City are working hard to ensure there will be plentiful fresh water on site, so you can help by bringing your own canteen, thermos, or refillable sports bottle instead of using throwaways.

The food vendors will all be using special compostable dishes, but that only works if they go into the right receptacles. So please be sure to take your food waste to the greening centres for composting, instead of littering or throwing it into trash cans that go to landfill.

With your participation, Caribfest can indeed be a green inspiration for other festivals, here and everywhere.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

$18 for 68 cents of gas: minimum charges must go

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner under the title "It's time to place the onus on the energy user"; the print version was incorrectly published without the critical first two paragraphs)

Last month I got a rather odd bill from Enbridge. It was for a modest $18.68 (plus tax), but according to the breakdown, I used 68 cents worth of natural gas, for the privilege of receiving which I paid $18. Actual gas was less than 4% of my bill; I paid 26 times more just to be a customer. This can’t be right, can it?

I can explain but not justify this discrepancy. I have an extremely efficient furnace and solar water heating, so we don’t use much gas, especially in summer. But the real reason the bill was so far out of whack is because Enbridge only checks my meter every second month, and estimates for their monthly bills between. Yet despite having had this furnace/heater combination for 4 years, they still can’t estimate right. On the months they guess, they bill me far too much; when they check the meter, the bill is either low or even negative. It seems their system can’t comprehend a conserving customer. If they went to two-month billing like PowerStream, or if their computer got smarter, that problem at least would go away. But it would still leave the problem of minimum billing.

Our gas, electric, and water billing all share a common flaw: a minimum or basic charge you have to pay every month regardless of how much you use. That amount is fixed and mandatory, no matter how much you conserve. As a result, the harder you work to save, the more of your bill is fixed charges. Sure, those who use more pay more, but their customer charge pales next to their consumption fees.

A better, fairer way to bill would be to eliminate customer charges, and raise usage fees slightly to make up for the loss. That way, your bill would simply be a multiple of how much you used, and you’d save more by conserving (or pay more for wasting). When you tank up your car, do you pay a fixed station customer fee on top of the gasoline price? No, those costs are rolled into the price of each litre. So why pay more at home? Although there are infrastructure costs to hook us up, the major bills these days come from upgrading and upsizing our supply to meet growing demand. We must build new power and water treatment plants and drill more gas wells, at great financial and environmental cost. We all end up paying those costs, whether we conserve or waste. And that’s not fair.

Last year Barrie City staff proposed lowering the sliding volume-based water fees and making up for it with higher fixed customer charges. Luckily our Council saw the wisdom in making wasters paying for waste, and kept the sliding rate fee structure. Kudos to them, and let’s see if that same attitude can be used to further lower fixed fees and put the staggering costs of new infrastructure where they belong – on the shoulders of those who use and waste the most water, gas, or electricity.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Note: although writing this column was sparked by the surreal gas bill I received, the conclusion is inspired by conversations with friend and colleague Dr. Peter Bursztyn of Living Green.