Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Harper’s ecoUNCERTAINTY and EnerConfusion all over again

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "PM's eco-uncertainty adding to the ener-confusion ")

For those in the home energy efficiency retrofit industry, it’s deja-vu all over again: another kick in the teeth.

Launched under the Liberals in 1998, the EnerGuide for Houses program subsidized homeowners retrofitting to reduce energy waste. An energy auditor would evaluate your home’s energy efficiency through inspection and a blower-door test, fed into complicated computerized calculations. Your report would include an EnerGuide rating for your house (just like new appliances) and suggested improvements. If you did retrofits and had a follow-up inspection, you received federal grant money to reimburse some of your costs. By 2005, 2% of Canadian homes had been audited and about 1 in 5 of those had done retrofits; program spending was $189 million a year.

This approach had many benefits. It cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduced air pollution, and lowered energy demand. It saved homeowners money: participants’ energy bills dropped by one fifth to one third. It also stimulated important job segments: skilled tradespeople and local small businesses. Energy retrofitting is one job which cannot be offshored. Each dollar of grant generated six dollars of local economic growth; with GST and income tax on all $7, the program was essentially free or even a net revenue generator.

Then, shortly after being elected, the Conservative government suddenly and without notice killed the program. This was catastrophic for small businesses that had purchased expensive equipment & software and incurred training, startup or expansion costs. Their industry essentially faced overnight collapse.

A year later, a new 4-year initiative was launched: ecoENERGY Retrofit - Homes. Basically the same as the old program, it had two main differences (besides the name): the grant process was a lot clearer and more predictable, and the funding was drastically cut, to only $39 million per year.

Many provinces joined in to help fund and promote the program; Ontario, for example, matched the federal grants, doubling your rebate.

So the reformed program went forward. Besides being touted as energy conservation, it served as economic stimulus to create local, green-collar jobs. But last Wednesday, again suddenly and without warning (even to the partner provinces), the program closed a year early. The government announced that anyone who had not already booked their audit would not receive grants. This despite an $80 million top-up in last month’s federal budget. Once more the audit and retrofit industries face collapse, even as many people are just completing expensive federally-subsidized training programs to enter it.

In response to a major outcry, the government is insisting the program is suspended and “just resting” rather than dead. But no matter how it’s described, the money has been cut off.

Is our government not capable of reviewing this popular and effective program while underway? Most other major developed countries are ramping up such programs with long-term plans and budgets, not cutting them off. This kind of on-again, off-again approach without notice is stunningly bad management, both economically and environmentally. Green jobs of the future will be lost, right here in Barrie.
On a related note, I am considering forming a solar panel buyer group to get a bulk discount. Thinking of installing solar panels on your home to take advantage of Ontario’s generous feed-in tariff program? If so, email me at and we’ll see if a bunch of us can get a better price together.

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

Barrie's Earth Hour disappointment

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "City needs to power down its Earth Hour festivities")

Two years in a row now, Barrie’s Earth Hour electricity reduction has disappointed. I have a theory why.

First, the background: launched by the World Wildlife Fund in Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour went global in 2008, with Barrie among participating cities. Lights went off at City Hall, businesses and schools joined in, people was engaged. Barrie’s 8% reduction handily beat the provincial average.

Then in 2009, the City ramped things up with a massive downtown concert. Promotion greatly increased over 2008. Yet our reduction dropped by half – to a measly 4%. Despite the hype, we showed the poorest result among Powerstream’s nine municipalities.

Ditto this year. Although rebounding somewhat to 6.8% savings, we were still behind the pack, second-worst of Powerstream’s nine. What happened? Why, despite great efforts, do we fail to even meet the average?

As the only municipality hosting such an event, I suspect the culprit is the Earth Hour concert itself. No, I don’t think the party sucks up enough juice to cancel out the rest of us. Rather, it sucks up people. Allow me to explain.

Every neighbourhood has its green leaders: individuals or families most aware of environmental challenges and household responses to meet them. 30 years ago they reminded everyone on the block to save & bundle newsprint for the Boy Scout paper drive, 20 years ago turned us on to backyard composting & rain barrels, 10 years ago spurred us to bring “non-recyclable” plastics to the monthly Environmental Action Barrie alternative recycling depot. These local “activators” remind, cajole, or persuade the rest of us to do our part.

We saw that with Earth Hour 2008. Folks had neighbours over to share a glass by candlelight, tell ghost stories in a darkened room, or stargaze from the deck. They strolled down the street, stopping at lit porch lights and politely spreading the word. Or like the Hunt and Craig families of Rose St., they held massive block parties and got everyone involved.

But in 2009 & 2010, those local enthusiasts flocked downtown for the festivities, leaving no-one on their block to remind or remonstrate the recalcitrant. No checking the lights down the street, no shared Earth Hour vigils. The absent-minded or unaware sat undisturbed on the couch watching TV, lights ablaze.

Of course, Earth Hour isn’t about the actual savings, a mere drop in the bucket of electricity use. It’s about raising awareness of the folly of waste, the wisdom of conservation. If a concert creates more awareness, perhaps it’s worth the lackluster reductions. Yet, to me, the power of Earth Hour isn’t in the mega-media event, it’s in forging links within our own corners of the community, sharing our caring with those who live near. Building that kind of energy is as important as conserving the other kind.

So perhaps Barrie should skip the Earth Hour concert next year – or have it on Earth Day instead. Express our civic pride on our own home streets instead of at City Hall. Instead of big bands on a big stage, let the garage bands move out to the driveway for an hour. Have a wee shindig in every local park. Looking around at family, friends, and neighbours, we’ll gain a better understanding of just why Earth Hour matters so much.

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

Columnist is in the dark about Earth Hour message

(The following is a letter to the editor I wrote in response to a ridiculous column by former Sun editor Lorrie Goldstein. His syndicated column ran in the Barrie Examiner, but also at least 16 other Sun Media papers, so I sent my response to all of them. Four of those papers (plus the Examiner) ran versions of my letter.)

Dear Editor:

I’m amazed columnist Lorrie Goldstein can’t comprehend the theme of Earth Hour. (March 25: “Earth Hour: Lights off, nobody home”)

He seems to believe it some kind of anti-electricity protest, by people who hate electric energy. What a crock!

Earth Hour is not about spurning electrification, turning off refrigeration or life-saving medical equipment to return to a romantic Dark Ages or any such thing. It’s about avoiding unnecessary electrical uses for a single hour of the year, to raise awareness of conservation and waste.

Electricity is indeed a blessing of civilization, something developing nations desperately need. Yet worshipping needless waste will not improve our life or theirs. Sure, there are trade-offs in burning coal to power hospitals or industry. But what’s to be gained burning coal to light rooms we’re not even in, or power TVs no-one is watching?

Earth Hour educates us to the value and convenience of electricity – something we can better access and share if we conserve, rather than squander it.

Will that wisdom light Goldstein’s house for 60 minutes Saturday night, or will his home be a shining beacon of contrarian ignorance along his darkened street that hour?

(Note: on the same day that the Barrie Examiner ran my letter, they ran one with a similar theme by my friend, Don McNeil. Neither of us were aware of the other's letter.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 5: Minister against Agriculture

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Agriculture minister out of touch with area farmers")

Today: Minister against Agriculture, Gerry Ritz, whose actions and statements cause stress and frustration to Canadian farmers.

You may remember Minister Ritz for the callous remarks he made during the listeriosis crisis. The humour in “death from a thousand cold cuts” and hoping that the PEI fatality was Liberal MP Wayne Easter was lost on those sick from the outbreak, including this writer. And the recent listeriosis outbreak at Siena Foods shows that Ritz’s response hasn’t been very effective.

A recent gaffe was his November statement to Chinese officials, worried about the possible transmission of the blackleg fungus endemic to Canadian canola, that they need not worry since “all our seeds had Terminator genes in them”. This is distressing on several accounts, most of all because there are NO seeds being marketed or used in Canada with these genes (which prevent sprouting). One would hope the Minister would be aware of that, since Terminator seeds are very controversial and there is even an international moratorium on this technology. Since the Chinese are already restricting Canadian canola imports, it’s hard to see how spreading such misinformation could help. Canada is free of foot-and-mouth disease right now, but our Ag Minister seems to suffer from foot-IN-mouth disease.

A related issue of even more economic concern is before the House right now. A new law, Bill C-474, will be debated March 29th. It would create the requirement that export market analysis be done before allowing use of any new genetically engineered (GE) seeds. Canadian farmers are reeling from the collapse of our flax market due to contamination with GE seeds. Although GE flax has not yet been proven harmful, it is banned in Europe and most of our other export markets. Therefore, because of the contamination, we can’t sell ours. Although we removed GE flax from the market in 2001, apparently GE contamination is very difficult (and expensive) to eradicate, once released. The exact same thing could easily happen with proposed GE varieties of wheat and alfalfa. Without this bill, the only testing required is to prove the seeds aren’t biologically harmful – ignoring the effect they will have on farm incomes and export markets.

Sadly, instead of championing this prudent measure, our government is siding with the transnational agri-corporations intent on pushing GE on the market. C-474 is a private member’s bill with no support from the Minister who should be protecting our farmers.

In general, Ritz's focus on exports has been a complete failure in the face of the high Canadian dollar resulting from Harper government policies. Just as it hurts our Ontario manufacturers, our high petro-dollar hurts our farmers, too. Ritz encouraged over-growth in hog production, which is also collapsing under the high dollar. His response? To offer these farmers loan programs, so they can go even deeper into unpayable debt.

For purely ideological reasons, the Minister has opposed the farmer-run monopoly-buying power of the Canadian Wheat Board, even as he enables private consolidation in the beef market.

Ritz’s own market sense is displayed by his move into the ostrich farming fad just before it collapsed. This, and his strong continued support for grain biofuels, show that he and his government are out of touch with global trends and need to recalibrate if they want to actually help and protect the farmers under their charge.

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

p.s. This article generated a couple of intersting letters to the editor, posted here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Triple Action Line: the Earth Hour Super-Drive

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Earth Hour event designed to paint the town green ")

Politics can lead us in unexpected directions.

Mike Schreiner, new leader of the Green Party of Ontario, is touring all the province’s ridings, including Barrie. Which is normal political behaviour; new PC leader Tim Hudak has been here recently, and presumably new NDP head Andrea Horwath isn’t far behind.

But when Mike contacted us about visiting, he had an unusual request. He wanted us to set up an event for him, but not a press conference. Not a rally or a canvass. Not a political event at all. Instead, he wanted to roll up his sleeves and do something good for our community alongside us. All we had to do was create the activity. (Is that all?)

So we scratched our heads, then noticed that his visit on March 27th would coincide with Earth Hour, when everyone is thinking about conserving energy. Somehow we should link to that. Gradually the idea evolved to help people conveniently dispose of broken, obsolete, or just plain out-of-date electronics. What a great way to make Earth Hour permanent – instead of just unplugging something for an hour, get rid of it altogether!

Thus it began. And since it’s not always convenient for people to load and carry away cast-off electronics, we’ll drive to their homes and pick it up for them. Everything will end up at GreenGo Recycling Solutions on Morrow Road, where it will be re-used or broken down and recycled. And not only computers, printers, or monitors – they accept anything with a plug, battery, or circuit board. We’ll collect old blenders, coffeemakers, lamps, power tools, cell phones, whatever.

But with an activity like that going on, it’s easy to piggy-back more good works. So we’re also doing a clothing drive for Nifty Thrifty, Barrie’s free clothing centre. They’re always in need of jeans, especially for boys, teens, and men. They go through baby and children’s clothing quickly, and plus-size clothing is always in high demand. Nifty Thrifty is an amazing project, completely volunteer-driven without any government assistance. But they can only deal in clean, wearable clothing – nothing torn, broken, or worn-out. They provide good clothes people can wear to work, school, or a job interview.

Finally, there’s an agency in Barrie filling a special role, the Grocery Assistance Program (GAP). They are a second food bank supporting anyone in need without restriction, and are always in danger of running low on supplies. So we’re asking people to include a canned good or toiletry for the GAP alongside whatever old clothes or e-waste we pick up.

Mike’s humble request has spawned the first “Earth Hour Super Drive”. If you have any e-waste to discard or clothing to donate, please contact and we’ll make arrangements. We’re trying to get it all the morning of Saturday, March 27th. We’ll also have a drop-off location at the same time (9 – noon) outside Nifty Thrifty, which is behind 110 Dunlop St. West, off the private parking lot. While you’re there, donate something for the GAP and watch GPO leader Mike break a sweat pitching in.

For some, politics is a route to power and prestige; for others, a way to serve and better the community. So perhaps this isn’t such a strange direction after all.

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

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 4: Minister Against Finance

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Reckless tax cuts and spending add to tough times")

My series on ministers against portfolio continues with the Minister Against Finance, Jim Flaherty.

The Minister of Finance has two key jobs: keep the federal government’s budget in order, and use the regulatory system to protect Canada from harmful boom-bust cycles. Sadly, our current Minister seems intent on ignoring both of these duties in pursuit of political ideology.

What does one expect from a Conservative budget? Lower taxes, lower spending, balanced budget, paying down debt. Yet under Flaherty the only thing we’ve seen is the tax cuts. By following a political promise but ignoring economic advice, his drop of two points from the GST threw us into a structural deficit. And this was before the recession hit. He had a good chance to reverse this course with last week’s budget, and a number of economic experts and think-tanks, from both the right and the left, advised him to raise the GST to balance the books. Too wedded to his ideology, he refused. Instead he continues with a raft of other tax cuts going forward, dashing dreams of a balanced budget under his watch. I like tax relief as much as the next person, and don’t object to needed government spending. But I don’t like turning a surplus into a deficit outside of a recession while we still have a sizable debt to pay down. It’s just not responsible. Contrary to voter expectations, government spending has continued to rise under Flaherty at unprecedented rates.

Despite promises not to raise taxes to balance the budget, the Minister’s future budget plans include a major tax hike of the worst sort: EI premiums. As he stated himself in 2006 and 2007, lowering EI premiums creates jobs. Logically, raising them kills jobs, and that’s the last thing Canada needs right now. And the minister, like his predecessors of other governments, is ignoring the huge $57 billion EI surplus. That money belonged to workers to pay for unemployment benefits, but was used by the previous government to pay down general debt. Instead of raising rates, we should have an EI payment holiday until this debt is repaid. Not only is that fair, it would spur major job creation, something we very much need.

So after mismanaging government finances, how has Flaherty approached our national system? Recklessly.

In 2006-7 he threw open our mortgage market to foreign competitors like the infamous AIG, allowing such things as zero money down, 40-year amortization, and interest-only payments. Spurred by private lender competition and loosened regulations, our government-owned Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation dived into the sub-prime mortgage business. The problem? The taxpayer is on the hook for any CMHC mortgage meltdown.

Luckily this risky deregulation came late enough that little damage was done before the American housing collapse. Flaherty realized his mistake and start backing out the changes. In every announcement, he took credit for his prudence without admitting it was his own tinkering which had brought us to the brink.

Balancing a budget in a recession is tough, perhaps impossible. But it’s a lot tougher when reckless tax cuts and spending increases turn a $13 billion surplus into a $19 billion structural deficit. Even the end of the recession won’t save us. And we still face the terrifying prospect of a taxpayer-backed housing bubble.

I hereby award Jim Flaherty the title of Minister against Finance.

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

Ecofest a chance to show off your shade of green

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Almost 5 years ago, my family attended a fun event in Newmarket hosted by the Windfall Ecology Centre called (naturally) the Windfall Ecology Festival. It was great fun. They had vendors selling all kinds of “green” products, from compostable paper & plastic dishes, to healthy foods and eco-friendly household products, right up to wind turbines and solar panels. We ate a very wholesome meal sitting on the grass at the outdoor food court, and bought some wonderful organic jams to take home. They also had a stage with interesting speakers and presentations all weekend.

I thought it would be fun to be able to do all that in Barrie instead of driving to Newmarket. This year, that wish is coming true. Saturday June 12 will see the first annual Ecofest Barrie, a free one-day event with booths and activities stretching from the Farmers’ Market to Heritage Park. It is a partnership between the City and Doug Pettigrew, past organizer of the Newmarket events, with support from many community organizations including Transition Barrie. A highlight of the day will be the Trashfusion fashion competition, where designers create stylish outfits from what would otherwise be discarded. (If you have a great idea, submit your own design – you might win a $1000 prize!) Hands-on activities will be the order of the day.

Transition Barrie is going to host the Transition Oasis, a place for you to relax, discover, and celebrate healthier and more sustainable lifestyles with light “unplugged” music, refreshments, and reskilling classes.

What is “reskilling”, you ask? Basically, it’s re-learning the basic household skills our ancestors practiced before automation and the consumer culture took over. The kinds of things our grandparents knew and did, like canning your own jams, making or mending your own clothes, growing your own vegetables. Sure, you can read about these in books, but there’s nothing like hands-on training from an experienced elder. From them we can also learn how to waste less energy, water, or other precious resources. There was a time not so long ago when wasting was almost a crime (and certainly a sin), yet now we almost seem proud of how much we can waste or throw away. It’s not too late to re-learn how to be truly conservative by conserving. (Not to mention how much fun it is!)

The whole thing is coming together pretty quickly, but now is your chance to help make this the best event possible. If you or someone you know would like to provide light music, this is a great venue. If you have a skill you can share, something sustainable or holistic, by all means sign on for reskilling. If you’d like to watch budding artists create beauty, the kids’ corner is your place. Like to help plan and organize? There are tasks for you. Even if you can just help set up or decorate tents and booths.

Or, if you are a business with a shade of green and want to reach new customers, you can rent a booth. This will be a great time to introduce yourself to Barrie’s caring families; it would be a shame to miss it (or leave it to your competitors).

To learn more or help out, visit

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

A couple tips of the hat and one big wag of the finger

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

One of my favourite TV shows is the Colbert Report. A recurring feature is the “Tip of the Hat / Wag of the Finger” where the host describes people deserving praise or criticism. I adopt his terminology today to discuss the future of Barrie Central Collegiate Institute, Barrie’s only downtown high school, and how local politicians have approached the issue.

First, a tip of my hat to MP Patrick Brown, who has taken a strong interest in this issue, and set two positive examples. First, he looked carefully at the planning laws and guidelines set out by the government of Ontario. As I had written earlier, the provincial goals for Barrie include downtown growth in a complete urban community. As Brown notes, there are numerous references in Places to Grow and Simcoe Area: a Strategic Vision for Growth to schools and education as a key factor. It should be clear to any reader that the province urges Barrie to maintain or improve downtown education facilities, not see them disappear.

Furthermore, Brown has indicated his willingness to see how the federal government can partner up to help save Central. Although education is not a federal portfolio, federal grants are always welcome. Local watersheds are neither a federal responsibility, but we accept $30 million in federal money to help Lake Simcoe; Barrie has been lucky to receive matching federal funding for a downtown theatre. So there is a possibility that some kind of federal partnership could also be found for our downtown schools.

The key word here is partnership. At a special meeting earlier this month, the Simcoe County District School Board passed a motion seeking partnerships for Barrie Central. Throughout this process, Barrie city councillor (now mayoral candidate) Jeff Lehman has also indicated the City’s willingness to explore partnerships to save this critical school. So I tip my hat to Councillor Lehman, too.

But now I must wag my finger. Our MPP Aileen Carroll has been the missing partner at the table. To date she has proffered only excuses as to why her government cannot help. She states that it is entirely up to the trustees to decide where to build or re-build schools without provincial interference, meanwhile taking credit for meeting the Board’s 2008 request to fund a new school southwest of Barrie and expand Bear Creek. New schools don’t get built unless the Ministry of Education provides its share of the funding, so the province has a major influence on these matters. In 2008, the Board’s needs were met but in 2009, when the top priority capital request to rebuild Central was denied, where was Carroll?

What’s more, in Carroll’s article earlier this week, there was a breathtaking oversight. The Board, and Central’s supporters, have spoken at length about the need for partnerships. On February 11th, the Ministry of Education released a new set of guidelines for school boards “to assist boards in establishing more facility partnerships with community partners”. Why did Carroll not draw our attention to this? Is it possible that MP Brown is actually more familiar with the goings-on at the provincial ministries than our MPP?

Patrick and Jeff, I tip my hat to you both. Aileen, I wag my finger.

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

Post-script: After this was published, I received a call from Aileen Carroll's assistant challenging the statements made in this article. However, I stand by them, and statements echoing what I expressed in this colum have since been made by letter writers, the Barrie Examiner's editorial board, and Barrie City Council.