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.