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.