Thursday, December 31, 2015

Arguing for a referendum is arguing for PR

I wonder what will change in 2016: will the year bring any great leaps, other than February 29? Or, as usual, will it be much like the old year, just more of the same?
For once, I expect a lot more difference than usual, and the reasons are purely political. This past fall, our flawed electoral system did what it does best; based on a relatively small swing in votes, it took false majority power away from one party with minority political support and gave it to another, leading to a massive and ongoing reversal of the past decade of Conservative federal policy, at great expense to Canadians. While I do support many of the new directions this government is taking, such as a more human face to our foreign policy and a strong leadership role in international climate action, this radical shift demonstrates the flaws in how we elect governments. It still doesn’t make sense for 39% of voting Canadians to choose a government that has 100% of the power.
Them's electing words!
Yet that, too, may change in the coming year or two. One of Prime Minister Trudeau’s signature election promises was that we have had the last election under first-past-the-post, our thousand-year-old, obsolete electoral system. While many expect the Liberals to simply tinker with the system by adding an element of instant runoff, also known as alternate vote or ranked balloting, the promise to “make every vote count” implies some measure of actual proportionality. Under our current system, or ranked voting, every vote is counted on election day but only the “winners” of a “majority” count toward making policy, while votes for other candidates or parties are effectively discarded. Given constant progress in all technologies, there is no reason not to adopt a 21st-century voting system.
But what’s funny about this likely change are the demands, mainly from supporters of the status quo, that any electoral system reform come only after a successful referendum vote where more than 50% vote for the change. This flies completely in the face of the underlying value of our current electoral system, the one they would have us retain, where decisions aren’t made by a 50%+ majority, but by the “majority” of MPs elected with a mere 39% of votes. Our system didn’t require a referendum to erase the Navigable Waters Act, an important law dating back to 1882. It didn’t take a referendum to cancel the federal long gun registry. Despite a clear majority ofvoters supporting climate action and an investigation into missing and murdered aboriginal women, those actions were snubbed by our former government. Certainly they didn’t put it to a referendum when they tinkered with many key aspects of our voting system in the so-called Fair Elections Act. On many of those files, they invoked closure in the House so there wasn’t even a full debate among MPs before the “majority” government had their way.
The basic principle behind first-past-the-post is that whichever party forms a “majority” based on enough local riding pluralities gets to make (and change) the laws. Anyone who argues that such changes should instead require support of 50%+ of voters in a referendum is, in effect, arguing for proportional representation, because under PR, only laws that have more than 50% voter support will pass. So which do you want, the “powerful, stable” false majority governments that FPP elects, or a proportional system that actually reflects voter desires? Because you can’t use the latter principle to argue for the former.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Tinkering with the voting system"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Canada is back to leading on energy and environment

Everything this week seems to be about energy. On the negative front, Ontario’s electricity system has been mismanaged, causing excess costs, or so Ontario’s Auditor General has reported. While some of this seems to be a misunderstanding, since, as I wrote almost a year ago, having enough electric supply when we need it requires having too much at other times, I have seen other instances where political expediency or rank incompetence has run up the bill. But while renewable energy seems to be the whipping-boy for those, mostly to the right, who despise everything Liberal, there are a couple of other decisions which are going to be far more consequential for our pocketbooks. One is a pending investment in more nuclear power, the most expensive and underwhelming option in Ontario’s power book. Every nuclear build or re-build in Ontario’s history has been way over budget and taken far longer than promised, and there is no reason to assume this will be otherwise.
The other is the cap-and-trade scheme by which Ontario, along with Quebec, Manitoba, and California, will somehow issue emission permits, some for money and others free, requiring all emitters obtain sufficient permits. The potential for gaming this system for private gain is huge, as is the potential for subverting and exceeding the supposed limits. The only thing we can predict for sure, in the absence of more details, is this will be a very expensive way to achieve emission reductions.
Other promised measures hold out more promise. Ontario’s recent promise to install thousands of electric vehicle charging stations is a big move in the right direction. Getting cars off polluting gasoline and onto our relatively clean electric grid can only help reduce climate emissions and improve air quality. Convenient charging stations will allow more people and businesses to make the switch to electric. (Then you just have to remember to plug in! Oops…)
And now there is talk of putting serious money into retrofitting our buildings. These initiatives are a win-win-win, because not only do they reduce energy waste, they also save you money every month on your electric and gas bills, and create lots of good local jobs that can’t be offshored. Only a tiny fraction of our buildings have been retrofitted or built to high energy standards, so there is huge potential on this front.
I don't know the guy standing,
but I know two of the ladies sitting beside him.
And if the word from Paris is anything to go by, we need to find the areas of most potential, and soon. That’s because our own Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catharine McKenna, just called for a global target of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, much safer than the 2 degrees earlier consensed. Finally, Canada is showing strong leadership on the climate file! This target is very ambitious, and will require not just the federal government, but all provinces, cities, businesses, and even families to take concrete steps to cut back their emissions.
Komm vit mir if you vant to liff.
Luckily, with new climate-conscious government in Ottawa and Alberta and with oil patch unions heeding the call, the will may finally be here to transition our nation off fossil fuels entirely. As former California Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger noted this week: “A clean energy future is a wise investment, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either wrong, or lying. Now come with me if you want to live.”

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Will strong to dump fossil fuels?"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time for Canada to flex its climate-fighting muscles

The tragic Paris attacks sharpened the world’s awareness of the reach of violent struggles in Syria, and cancelled a demonstration in Paris expecting 200,000 marchers the eve of the international climate conference now engaged.
But that’s not the only link between terror attacks and global warming. For a decade, the Pentagon’s official threat assessments have pegged global climate change as a major driver of conflicts and wars around the globe; the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the first and most visible proof.
In 2007-2010, Syria experienced unprecedented drought, surely amplified by a warming climate. With 80% livestock death and 60% farm failure, desperate millions left the land for cities unprepared to accommodate them. Overcrowding, with an influx of Iraqi refugees, created ideal conditions first for uprisings and civil war, then the shocking growth of an evil organization just waiting for the opportunity to pounce and seize power.
For it is no coincidence that out of 1.6 billion or more Muslims around the world, including 50 majority-Muslim nations, the Islamic State targetted this area of extreme instability to birth their new “caliphate”. Their brand of evil and violent politics can only find fertile ground where the real ground has been destroyed by war, weather or both.
Proof of the Pentagon’s dire predictions should sharpen our will to address climate change with a global consensus: the time for dithering has passed, we need binding agreements to reduce emissions, everywhere, sufficiently to limit global warming to what we have already “locked in” with our actions so far. If not, where will be the next drought- or flood-related disaster, driving millions of climate refugees into nations already straining to feed their own populations?
Sadly, there is still a lack of will to do what must be done. The general excuse, as always, is the fear of acting first, or of going further than others, and losing some kind of economic advantage to laggards who ignore the threat or take advantage of other nations’ reductions to delay their own.
There's a line in the sand.
There is only one way to overcome such hesitance: leadership in action. Smaller nations and developing countries always look to larger or more advanced peers for guidance and, even if subconsciously, model behaviour after them. Which means that even if we don’t manage, at the end of the Paris talks, to get sufficient or binding commitments from every nation, we must not give up or shirk our own duty.
Canadians often think of themselves as globally insignificant, an attitude climate deniers like to twist to their own ends. But we are the 10th-largest economy in the world, at the highest general standard of living, with trade ties all over the planet. When we do things, the world notices what we do and how we do it.
Although Prime Minister Trudeau entered the climate talks with the insufficient reduction pledge former Prime Minister Harper wrote, there is still time, between now and when the agreement takes effect in 2020, for Canadians to show that we can do more and better, and on top of that, prove that we can prosper while aggressively reducing emissions. We have the technology, such as our growing clean tech revolution, we have proven policy tools, like BC’s successful carbon tax shift, we need only flex our leadership muscles to move from climate change pariah to hero. Let’s do it!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Friday, November 27, 2015

FruitShare Barrie taking stock of growing season

As the snow threatens to arrive, we gather in the last of the year’s harvest and take stock of our past growing season. And for FruitShare Barrie, our third successful season was a tale of exponential growth.
I don't mind spots on my apples,
save me the birds and the bees - please!
At our Harvest Celebration a few weeks ago, volunteers and supporters gathered to share a meal and watch the film “Just Eat It”, a Canadian documentary about food waste, taking comfort in the knowledge that together we had prevented literally tonnes of food from going to waste in Barrie. In 2015, volunteers harvested 6,050 lbs of food of which 5,005 lbs (80%) went to local charities, the rest being shared by volunteers and tree owners. Over 10,000 pounds of fruit has been harvested since FruitShare started in 2013 when the initiative was launched as a project of Living Green: Environmental Action Barrie in partnership with Transition Barrie and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.
Recipients of fruit this year included the Barrie Food Bank, Hillcrest Public School, and two new partnerships for 2015: the Barrie Native Friendship Centre and the Women & Children’s Shelter of Barrie. A new feature of this year’s program was the donation of homemade preserves to those in need. FruitShare volunteers made and donated jams, jellies, and tarts made from the fruit they harvested.
The FruitShare Steering Committee would like extend a heartfelt thank-you to the volunteers, donors and partners for their enthusiastic support of the program. In numbers, our 2015 season included 65 volunteers, 50 Barrie-area homeowners who let us harvest on their property, and 9 types of local fruit: service berries, sour cherries, mulberries, currants, crab apples, plums, pears, apples, and grapes.
FruitShare is now offering an exclusive benefit for tree owners, who offer up fruit from their trees for volunteers to pick, rather than it going to waste. A local arborist has volunteered to help maintain and prune trees in the program. FruitShare would like to thank James from Timberjack Tree Services for helping homeowners and improving the overall health of Barrie’s tree canopy.
Barrie’s “Food Forest” is also growing! FruitShare is collaborating with the City of Barrie to plant more fruit trees on public land, where anyone can help themselves to free, healthy ripe fruit. Next spring, volunteers will plant 50 fruit tree saplings to add to the dozen planted last year, and more are on the way in future.
FruitShare is still seeking local business sponsors to help fund the program, which is run almost entirely by volunteers and without government funding. Having one or several local businesses adopt FruitShare is key to our sustainability and growth. Businesses can showcase their support within the community with recognition on FruitShare brochures, shirts, lawn signs, public trees, and at our events. Potential sponsors are encouraged to call 705-715-2255 or email FruitShare.Barrie@gmail.com. Donations can also be made through the website at www.fruitsharebarrie.ca.
With the number of local businesses who generously pony up to put their names on team jerseys, park fitness equipment, public buildings, or other worthy social projects, surely there is at least one who believes that rescuing local organic fruit and sharing it among the hungry is worth a few dollars? If you know of a business which might feel that way, please show them this article.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Saturday, November 14, 2015

2015 means diversity AND merit in Canada's Cabinet

A new prime minister doesn’t walk alone, which, if you truly understand the job, is a good thing. Instead, he or she takes office together with a a few dozen other elected Members of Parliament, each in charge of overseeing a particular ministry of government. Together, this cabinet advises the PM and in many ways, represents our government to us and the world. So naturally we comment on and debate the qualities of those appointed to these key roles.
In decades past, ministries were a power bases, rewards for different factions of the ruling party. But with the centralization of power in the Prime Minister since Pierre Trudeau and his successors, cabinet has instead become an extension of the PM’s philosophy of governing.
Long to reign over us.
Our new Cabinet has been celebrated as the most diverse ever, not least as the first to feature equal numbers of men and women, plus a variety of immigrant or visible minority members. It has been said to “look like Canada”, and to a certain extent, that’s true, although some say it didn’t go far enough.
However, even as these MPs walked up to Rideau Hall to swear in together, some of my Facebook contacts predicted that soon the complaints of diversity at the cost of merit would be heard, from the white male end of society, and sure enough, that came true. I see people complaining that cabinet should not be selected by ticking off demographic boxes, but based on each individual’s resume of training or job experience. Yet those complaining seem too distracted by diversity to actually look into the qualifications of these cabinet appointees, because in many ways, these picks actually seem a better fit with portfolios than has usually been the case.
For example, our Minister of Health is, for the first time ever, an MD. Defense is held by a decorated veteran. The Minister for Sport is a Paralympian, the Minister of Veterans Affairs uses a wheelchair, the Minister of Science is a scientist, the Minister of Transport was an astronaut(!), and so on. So if you are arguing for merit-based appointments, it would be very hard to criticize this list.
However, I will actually argue against the merit case for cabinet. For example, Stephen Harper’s first defense minister was a veteran, yet his tenure was so disastrous he was quickly replaced with longer-serving non-veteran ministers, and Harper’s most prominent Minster of Veteran’s Affairs, a long-time police veteran, was likewise a tone-deaf choice. Government is enacted by our professional civil service, where relevant merit is the primary consideration as people are promoted up to Deputy Minister. But Members of Parliament are elected by popular vote, not merit or suitability for a particular ministry. Their purpose isn’t to be an expert at a specific portfolio, but to advocate for our needs in government, and for their ministry’s needs in cabinet. That role relies on more general skills like communication, integrity, broad-mindedness, the ability to learn quickly and apply perspective to protect the public interest. Let the Deputy Minister be the dispassionate technical expert, while the Minister is the passionate advocate. Further, if MPs and cabinet represent the electorate, then it makes sense that their composition should mirror ours, as much as possible, so that many parts of society have their own voices at the table.
Yet this need not be an either-or situation, merit vs. diversity. Rather, I believe this current cabinet roster proves we can have Ministers who bring great merit and suitability to their posts AND reflect Canada’s true diversity. If you think about it, what would it say if that were not the case in 2015?

A version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "New cabinet ministers appear to have merit"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friday, November 6, 2015

Homeless need help, not hate

At last February’s Barrie Film Festival Reel Stories, I watched a powerful documentary called The Overnighters about a church in North Dakota providing housing to homeless men who had come looking for oil boom jobs, only to find a community with no housing for them. Church volunteers gave over space for the men to sleep at night, provided meals, helped them access community services and find work, and otherwise bent over backwards to provide caring and support.
While the lack of housing, struggle for jobs, and general economic malaise plaguing the Land of the Free was one tragedy in the film, another was the hostility of the ostensibly Christian neighbours to the act of Christian charity the church felt compelled to undertake. A significant amount of conflict ensued, but rather than stemming from any criminal or anti-social actions by the homeless men housed at the church, it arose from neighbourhood fears about what might happen, in their worst-case darkest imaginations. Those who took part in the program or got to know the participants had their fears alleviated, but the general attitude of fear and mistrust toward those fallen on hard times remained a pervasive obstacle and always threatened to shut the program down and cast the men back into the streets.
A developing situation in North Carolina is similar, although even more disappointing. This time, a church has been housing four homeless families for the past year and a half, but now as they renovate to accommodate four more, neighbours have suddenly come forward to object to the supposed harms of something they didn’t even notice all that time. Perhaps they think that zero problems, doubled, becomes a lot of problems?
Luckily, here in Barrie, our Out of the Cold program doesn’t seem to have drawn the same kind of groundless fear of the destitute. Perhaps because the program launched in the wake of death-by-freezing of a homeless person, or perhaps because the multi-church partnership means the homeless sleep in a different neighbourhood church basement each night, for whatever reason this program was given the chance to launch. After almost two decades, it has proven that providing a minimum standard of compassionate care to those most in need doesn’t degrade our community or threaten our safety.
Which is not to say we are immune to the negative sentiments we see south of the border. Every application for a zoning change or amendment to allow multi-residential housing (apartments or townhomes) near single-family neighbourhoods draws predictable opposition, and behind the various pretexts of traffic or sightlines or environmental objections, one can usually read the coded language of hostility toward anyone too poor to purchase their own standalone house. About as often as not, such objections are overruled and the result is generally a number of new residents whose presence contributes to the community.
But despite lack of opposition, Barrie’s Out of the Cold still needs help. The greatest need is for volunteers to chaperone the guests in the evening, morning, or overnight, and within that, the need for female volunteers is greatest. So if you can find it in your heart to help out with just one shift a month, November to April, then please visit BarrieOutoftheCold.org/apply.php or call 705-331-1396 in time for training this Saturday morning.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Push on to help Out of the Cold"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Canada's climate delegation looks more like Canada

Last week I suggested the leadership style of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (whom I didn’t vote for, I should note) might be better-suited to Canada’s governing tradition than was the style of outgoing PM Stephen Harper.
Now, will he listen?
One of PM-designate Trudeau’s first announcements indicates I was right. In December Paris hosts an extremely important climate conference. Approximately 25,000 delegates from 196 countries representing nations, sub-national units, NGOs, inter-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders will meet to seek consensus on an overall climate change agreement as well as many smaller agreements or initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by industry, sector, or region. And Trudeau has announced that, in addition to official negotiators sent by Canada’s federal government, he will also be accrediting provincial premiers and leaders of opposition parties, or their designates. This even goes as far as the leader of the official opposition party with the fewest seats, Elizabeth May of the Green Party, who despite her small footprint in the House, has more experience at these conferences than all of the other party leaders combined.
Already on the comment pages of national newspapers I have seen bizarre complaints about this action. Some people, not clear on the concept of how our elected government works, deem it pointless to send any opposition MPs, since they don’t control the House or write and pass legislation. This assumption is wrong both specifically and in general. It is, of course, the prerogative of any MP to write and submit legislation, and bills by opposition members (including Ms. May) can and have been passed by the House, sometimes unanimously under majority Conservative government. Even climate bills originating with the opposition have passed. So there is no reason to exclude MPs, as PM Harper did, just because they aren’t in the governing party. All MPs were elected by Canadians to represent us on national matters, and that includes international discussions.
The inclusion of provincial premiers is also a promising development, as it indicates a shift from the previous government’s disinterest in consulting or even talking with leaders of our provinces. Under Harper, provinces were expected either to get in line behind federal initiatives, or stick to their own business and stay quiet on the federal scene. But since addressing climate change will perforce require the involvement of provincial governments, as well as municipalities, First Nations, and every individual, family, and business in Canada, it only makes sense to include as many as possible in the negotiation process instead of returning to Canada with some commitment derived from a narrow view and imposed from the top down, no questions asked or answered. We need wider input on what we can and are willing to do, beyond the usual suspects of the PMO’s negotiators and their fossil industry friends.
So as Stephen Harper’s unparalleled collection of five consecutive Fossil-of-the-Year Awards is packed up from 24 Sussex and shipped off for permanent display in Calgary (perhaps Harper will sponsor a US-style presidential library in his own name?), a new approach is moving in just across the street in the Trudeau’s temporary residence. This approach will declare to the world, on the Paris stage, that Canada has shaken off the decade of darkness when she followed the dictates of a single chant denying our role on climate action and is ready to take full responsibility, and leadership, under a diverse chorus who can offer many solutions and forge many connections with the other sincere delegates who share a dream, if not a plan, of preserving the friendly climate which has fostered all human prosperity so far. Our delegates may not all sing from the same songbook, but they will all have the best interests of their constituents, Canada, and the world at heart.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Green leader has valuable experience at conferences" and online as "Climate change top of mind for Trudeau"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Where emotional intelligence beats micro-managing

The changing of the guard in Ottawa has already brought much hand-wringing from the right-wing press about whether new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the “stuff” to run Canada effectively.
Separated at birth? (No.)
Critics measure him against his immediate predecessor, Stephen Harper, noting that Trudeau has much less background in policy, particularly economic, and seems to view governance from a higher altitude rather than the nuts-and-bolts angle. They then lament that this will bring policy error or at least confusion, to the detriment of Canada’s economic and general well-being.
But what all of those pundits get wrong is their basic understanding of Canada’s governance. Unlike some nations, we don’t elect one person to lead the nation in all aspects; in fact, we don’t elect the Prime Minister at all! Rather, we elect 338 individual Members of Parliament, each to represent the interests of their particular electoral district in Ottawa and, on our behalf, oversee the operation of Canada’s civil service. They choose one among themselves as “first among equals” serving as PM, who then nominates other elected Members to serve in the Cabinet which provides governing advice to our Head of State, the Queen as represented by her Governor General.
Our system was never meant to be run by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) via hands-on management of all government departments, much less micro-management at the level we saw under Mr. Harper. That level of political interference in Canada’s day-to-day government operations is not only unconstitutional, it’s grossly inefficient and violates the key concepts of transparency and accountability designed into our system. Government policy is to be generated by Cabinet, accepted and amended, as the case may be, by the rest of the elected MPs of all parties, and then carried out in a non-partisan manner by our professional, merit-based civil service. To centralize decision-making in the opaque and unaccountable PMO, and to mandate all communications between government offices or scientists and the public to flow through the PMO, is deeply dysfunctional.
Likewise, to cut out the role of our directly-elected MPs in the crafting of policy and oversight of government is a perversion of our system. Blocking MPs, in particular opposition MPs, from access to key government information is essentially locking Canadians out of our own national governance. And turning MPs into heckling vote-puppets, as both the governing and main opposition parties have done, robs every citizen of their only voice in government and turns our nation into a virtual dictatorship by party leaders.
Simply put, the role of Prime Minister is to choose the best possible Cabinet, ensure that Cabinet works together effectively to oversee the government and translate the vision of the election platform into policy, while ensuring that all MPs have an appropriate level of input into legislation and access to all necessary details of how it is being carried out. The PM doesn’t even create the budget, that’s the prerogative of the Finance Minister, and our economy is guided by that Minister and some other Cabinet members, in consultation with appointed experts like the Governor of the Bank of Canada.
Given that role, a visionary type with the ability to form a qualified team and defer to the wisdom of that team, and of the expert non-partisan civil service they lead, fits our system of governance much better than a detail-oriented technocrat determined to make all key decisions himself, dominating Cabinet, the House, and the civil service based on personal loyalty rather than competence or character.
Technocrats make great Deputy Ministers; they don’t make great Prime Ministers. Can a former drama teacher do a better job as PM than a former economist or lobbyist? I would certainly not rule that out.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Trudeau may have the right stuff"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and Vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thanks to FruitShare, you can watch Just Eat It for free!

The season of giving thanks for the harvest and all our other blessings is special for me this year, because I am very thankful for all the successes of the FruitShare project.
Years ago, when I first heard of Toronto’s Not Far From The Tree fruit gleaning organization, whose volunteers picked fruit from people’s backyard trees and divided it between themselves, the tree owners, and local food banks, I dreamt that such a sensible thing might exist in Barrie someday. Knowing it was beyond anything I could accomplish myself, I am very thankful that, only a year or two later, the Food Security Workshop made it possible. I put forward the idea and other attendees came forward, willing to share my dream and help make it reality.
That reality has blossomed! In our pilot season we managed to pick and donate a full tonne of fruit, exceeding our expectations and leaving many tree owners thankful for our help, pickers for the chance to harvest fresh, organic fruit right in their own community for free, and hungry families whose visits to the Barrie Food Bank returned fresh produce as well as the standard canned goods. I am still grateful to the people who joined our steering committee to launch this project, especially those who have stayed for the duration. Together we demonstrated enough resilience and longevity to have our “food forest” written into the City’s official plan.
I am thankful to grant agencies like TD Friends of the Environment and the Big Carrot for providing funding to pay a coordinator to run our second season and plant new fruit trees. Even though bad growing weather reduced somewhat the number of producing trees, our increased efficiency let us maintain and even grow our total harvest that season. I also thank businesses for providing equipment and location support that year, and volunteers at Hillcrest for partnering to get fresh local apples into their school breakfast program.
Thanksgiving is a time for family, so I would be remiss not to thank my own family for being enthusiastic pickers themselves, especially my mother and brother who have helped with so much of this year’s harvest. I also thank the family that has grown around the project – Living Green, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, and Transition Barrie which have provided volunteer and logistical support to organize FruitShare and keep it running. And our coordinator Jenna, who in her second year trusted the FruitShare family to somehow come up with the money to pay her, and dived headfirst into the work. (We’ll get you that money soon, we promise!) Under her direction, we have managed to double our harvest, picking and donating over two tonnes of fruit this year alone!
As we look forward, I imagine myself thanking the individual donors (there’s a donate button on our website) and business sponsors who will step forward and make our program financially sustainable. I’m looking at you!
Yes, we have no bananas.
To celebrate this season, we are holding a special celebration at 5:30 PM on Sunday, October 25th at the (by then former) election office of Marty Lancaster at 75 Bradford Street, featuring flavours of the season and a special Green Screen presentation of the film “Just Eat It”, about food waste issues around the world and how one family found a way to eliminate all waste from their diet. Join us on that day to give thanks, together, or visit FruitShareBarrie.ca to sign up your tree or yourself for next season or join our administrative team. And watch our website for updates on our season wrap-up event.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "FruitShare in Barrie ends another successful season on a high note"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and Vice-President of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Canadian citizens: learn, vote!

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election happening right now, to determine our next federal government. Every Canadian who cares at all about the future needs to learn about their options and make an informed vote on October 19th (or sooner – you can vote in advance polls soon, or at your local Returning Office any day). Make sure you know what you’ll need to vote under new ID rules so you don’t have problems casting your ballot, having made your careful choice. At www.elections.ca, right on the front page, you can check to see if you are on the voter’s list, find out when and where to vote, learn what ID you will need to bring, and what alternative voting processes are open to you, in case getting to your regular poll on October 19 will be an issue for you.
But on to making an informed vote. I have seen complaints, right here in the local paper, from people who don’t know what the parties stand for or how their candidates feel, and some even suggest that the parties should be doing more to inform them. Guess what? Parties are already doing everything they possibly and legally can (and in some cases, more) to get their message out to receptive voters. But a riding has tens of thousands of homes, knocking on every door is a challenge for any party, and if you aren’t there when they come by, they may not be by again. Even putting something in every mailbox, or ads in the media, is very expensive. Have you contributed lately to a political party, or volunteered on a campaign? If not, then you certainly can’t complain if they don’t have the money or manpower to push their message in front of your face!
Don't let this be you!
Luckily, each of the parties also puts information on the web, about their candidates, leader, and platform. A simple web search (or even just typing the party’s name into your browser address) will get you to the starting point, and from there you can read, or send an email or feedback question, or find a phone number to call a candidate or their office.  It costs thousands of dollars to have an office and staff the phones, so do your part to make that worthwhile by calling a candidate with your questions.
But if you prefer the face-to-face human touch, don’t wait for candidates to come to your door and hope you’re home and not busy when they do. Many civic-minded local community organizations set up all-candidates meetings where voters can interact with candidates directly, or see them all answer the same set of questions. CARP and the Chamber of Commerce have held local meetings already, with the latter being broadcast repeatedly on RogersTV. Next week will be two events for voters in Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte. On Tuesday October 6 at 7:30 pm, the Community Wholeness Centre is hosting a “meet the candidates” event at their downtown location (59 Maple Avenue). Then on Thursday October 8 at 7 pm, the Barrie chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness is running an all-candidates meeting hosted by Grace United Church at 350 Grove St. E. Although the overall theme of that debate will be poverty and homelessness issues, members of the public can forward suggested questions to info@scateh.com. Get informed, get out and vote!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Voters need to educate themselves"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Barrie makes some suite improvements to the housing picture

I’ve written before on the benefits of allowing second suites (basement or attic apartments) in Barrie homes. Something I’ve long advocated, I was very happy to see them finally legalized city-wide this year, and am confident they will at least partly address current local pressures of low rental housing availability and sprawl development.
However, myths persist about second suites, who lives in them, and their effect on the neighbourhood. Recently news reported a resident’s worries that second suites would cram 4 to 6 more people per home, which is not my experience at all.
That's one suite apartment
You see, on my street are many basement apartments, some registered, some not. And about 15 years ago, I (well, really, the bank) bought three other houses in Barrie, each with a second unit. One of them was already registered, the other two I was able to register under the grandfathering allowance, since they existed pre-1996. Over that period I have learned, firsthand, the reality of this housing type.
One myth is that adding a second suite suddenly doubles the number of people living in the house, and the number of cars parked in front. But that’s not the case, as studies and my own experience attest. The reality is that a large family will occupy a whole house themselves, while a house with two units will house two smaller families. A second suite does not add to the size of a house, it merely re-arranges the space within it from one large unit into two smaller ones. A 4- or 5-bedroom house is built for a family of 6 or more, while a house with 3- and 2-bedroom units will typically house one family of 3-4 and one family of 2-3. It’s the same number of people, just divided differently.
As to the parking concern, my neighbours are a professional couple, each with a car, and when we moved in, had two children in their late teens who also soon got their own cars. (If you’re keeping track, that’s four cars to cram in a 2-car driveway). This family of four expanded as the adult children each acquired a live-in spouse; at one point, there were essentially three families all living there together in this undivided single-family home, needing to park 5-6 cars.
By comparison, my other neighbour, a single woman, rents her basement to another single woman; for 16 years, that 2-unit home has housed only two people with two cars. In my own 2-unit houses, each family generally has only one car; sometimes one family has two and the other has none. Rarely do we need to accommodate a third vehicle, and of course tenants are made aware, when they rent, how many parking spaces they get.
So the idea that second suites double the number of people and cars at the house is a myth, and the concern that whole neighbourhoods will suddenly overflow ignores that only 10-15% of single-family houses ever add second units. Perhaps the strangest fear, espoused by some of our councillors, is that second suites are inappropriate near Georgian College, in areas already overpopulated with student-rented rooms. But if a landlord is maximizing the number of students in a house, adding a second suite actually reduces capacity, because the second kitchen and bathroom (and usually, living room) mean 2-3 extra rooms can’t be let as bedrooms. A 2-unit house thus holds fewer student renters than the same house undivided.
People naturally fear the worst-case scenario, but Barrie’s overall experience with second suites is that they allow our neighbourhoods to maintain population in the face of shrinking family size. The support this provides for transit and local business is key to keeping our communities sustainable and complete.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Second suites make sense in Barrie"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What would Jesus do about Syria?


The Syrian war and general unrest in the Middle East, and the related wave of refugees, has spawned debate here in Canada about how much help we can or should provide. Canada seems like a natural participant, given our rich history of welcoming huge waves of refugees from past conflicts. Yet some arguments I have seen on social media against providing that help strike me as deeply un-Canadian in their lack of compassion. I certainly hope I can debunk some of those ideas, so we can put them behind us and step up the way we can and should.
And it's time to go.
One line often spouted in recent weeks is that we should look after our own first, and if we can’t care for veterans or homeless here, then obviously we can’t accommodate refugees. Yet this is a false choice. As shown many times in the past, when we accepted tens of thousands of Ugandan or Vietnamese refugees in the early and late 70s, tough economic times is no barrier to helping those in dire need. We are, per capita, one of the richest nations on earth and in all of human history; if we can’t afford to provide help now, what was the point of years, decades, and centuries of economic growth at the expense of our planet? But if (or when) we fail our veterans or homeless, it’s not truly for lack of wealth, but lack of priorities. When compassion guides our hand, we find we can actually help our own as well as many from foreign lands.
Another silly argument is that this should all fall on Islamic nations to solve. This starts by ignoring that the majority of the Syrian refugees are so far being accommodated in Syria’s Islamic neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. But even if there are some rich Arab nations perhaps not doing their share, since when has the poor behaviour of other nations been an excuse for us not to act?
Some state, facetiously, that there are tens of millions of refugees and we can’t absorb them all. Of course we can’t; no-one has suggested we should. Rather, we are asked to be part of an international solution that settles some refugees in each host nation, while trying to get many of them back home, once peace permits.
A parable even an atheist can love
But the strangest argument is that we should only take in Christian, not Muslim, refugees to protect our “traditional culture”. Have these people not actually read their Bibles? Perhaps Christ’s most famous parable is of the Good Samaritan, told to demonstrate that God commands Christians to love and help other people, even those of a different, despised faith. The idea that Christians should only, or preferentially, aid other Christians contradicts basic compassion as Christ himself defined it.
But if you still believe we must “help our own first”, then you are in luck: Barrie’s Out of the Cold program is in need of volunteers to look after the homeless right here in our own community. So if accepting Syrian refugees is a bridge too far for you to cross, how about stepping up one shift each month this winter, to serve those most in need right here? You might even come to a new understanding of compassion. (To sign up for Barrie’s Out of the Cold program, visit barrieoutofthecold.org)
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "There are many ways to help Syrian refugees"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Your choices can improve the world market

Most of us realize our society has to make some serious adjustments to avoid chewing up what’s left of our planetary biosystem for the sake of convenience and a better lifestyle at a lower price. We can’t make it an all-or-nothing battle, because then too many will feel that total change is too hard and instead choose nothing. Instead, each of us, whether an individual, family, government or company, needs to start moving in the right direction of lowering our ecological impact. But where to start, and how do we afford these changes?
One simple choice for consumers is to seek out organic and free trade food products, like coffee. Years ago I switched to fair trade organic coffee, and so far it hasn’t been too hard to find. Even if I can only find one on the shelf that is certified organic or fair trade, but not both, I generally figure that’s good enough, because both approaches have enough significant overlap that if you achieve one, you pretty much do the other.
Trust the three-legged tree frog.
But occasionally when shopping, the store is short of our usual brands. On one such occasion, I found a major brand product sporting a frog-shaped seal declaring that 30% of their product was Rainforest Alliance certified. I decided to give it a try, and to look up the certification to see if it was real or just a greenwash.
It turned out to be a real, independent organization, not something Nabob had cooked up to put on their own label. It’s an NGO with a number of programs aimed at protection and conservation of rainforests, including certification of tourism and forest-grown foods that meet standards of environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
Although some criticize Rainforest Alliance, since they don’t insist on 100% organic and don’t set a minimum price the way Fair Trade certifications do, or because they’ll allow their seal on a product that only contains 30% certified content, I believe there is a genuine role for this kind of program, particularly in helping large organizations gradually shift the market.
You see, although some call for places like Tim Horton’s or McDonalds to serve Fair Trade coffee, the problem is there simply isn’t enough supply in the world for them to do so. If they made such a commitment, they’d find that the world had run out of Fair Trade coffee just a few weeks into the year. What’s more, they would be buying up all the global fair trade supply to the effect that there would be none left on shelves for those of us who prefer to make our own cup of java. A direct jump from business-as-usual to fully sustainable simply isn’t possible.
However, a company like Tim's or the Arches can make a commitment to source a certain percentage of their supply from fair trade (or organic) sources, and then commit to increasing that amount over time, as supply increases in response to their demand. Any improvement beats doing nothing.
And in fact that is what has happened with Nabob’s Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, which now features 60% certified content, instead of the original 30%. As they near 100%, I hope it puts pressure on other brands to start including, and increasing, their own sustainable supply. Your choices at the grocery store can help this process.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Grocery store choices can help rainforest"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Living at a sustainable pace

Last week I became a moving speed bump. Perhaps some had already marked me in that category, but now it’s official.
Actually, I signed on as a “Neighbourhood Pace Car Driver.” This means I have a caution sign in the back window of my car, and have pledged to keep to the speed limit on all municipal roads. So if you’re behind me and want to speed, you’ll have to change lanes, or follow me at the limit until we part ways. The street receives the same traffic-calming benefit as a speed hump, without the unnecessary braking or wear on your suspension, and without cost to the taxpayer.
This program is sponsored by Parachute Canada, a national charity formed in 2012 through the amalgamation of four existing programs, each of which dealt with some aspect of injury prevention: Safe Communities Canada, Safe Kids Canada, ThinkFirst Canada and SMARTRISK. Realizing the similarity and overlap of their goals, they combined their experience and expertise as Parachute so they can achieve greater impact in awareness, advocacy, and action in the vital cause of injury prevention. Pace Cars are a program that combines all three elements by raising public awareness, advocating for safer road use, and acting directly to slow down speeders.
Nova Scotian Pace Car drivers start young,
according to the Truro Daily News
I recognize that my driving impacts the livability of other residents’ streets, just as theirs impacts mine. As a neighbourhood pace car driver, I agree to drive the posted speed limit, stop to let pedestrians cross, and generally be courteous to other road users, like cyclists. I also minimize my own car use by combining trips, using transit or car pooling, and walking or cycling (active transportation) whenever possible.
My Pace Car sticker on the back of the car lets other drivers know why I am not exceeding the posted limit, and hopefully helps them understand why I am setting a more leisurely pace on the streets where we and our families live, work, and play. More generally, it indicates that I care for others by keeping courtesy and safety in mind as I drive. In some ways it’s akin to neighbourhood watch or block parent programs, as I take part directly in helping improve the safety of those around me.
I assumed it would be simple, as I have never been a leadfoot on city streets. (We won’t speak of expressways here). Nevertheless, now more speed-conscious, I notice many roads where my natural or “comfortable” speed is 5-10 km above the posted limit, so I must actively ensure I dial it back a bit. Luckily, the cruise control function largely takes care of this for me.
One side benefit is that, through slower and more aware driving, I get even further on each battery charge (or litre of gas) in my Volt, so I’m also helping reduce energy demand, smog, and greenhouse gas emissions.
If you like the sound of this, and are interested in becoming a Neighbourhood Pace Car driver yourself, contact local community coordinator Sherrie Osmond (slosmond@sympatico.ca ) to sign up in Barrie, or if you want to start up or connect with the program in another community, contact Julie Taylor (jtaylor@ParachuteCanada.org) at the national office. It’s time to rally around the safety of our families and our neighbourhoods as we walk, wheel, cycle or drive!
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Keeping pace can keep us all safer on the roads"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Nothing ethical about any oil

The “ethical oil” brand, dreamt up by Canadian fossil fuel apologists, promotes the concept that bitumen extracted from the tar sands is superior to all foreign oil. Although pitched as a matter of informed consumer choice, it really serves as an obstacle to efforts aimed at energy conservation and the transition to a sustainable, renewable energy paradigm.
The brand evokes the campaign to reduce the purchase of “conflict”or “blood” diamonds whose extraction or distribution supports violent warlords or repressive governments. The response was a system whereby diamonds are certified as “conflict-free”, coming from an upstream supply chain that doesn’t rest on or support massive human rights abuses.
There are movements in many other commodity markets for ethical or sustainable supply, whether organic or fair trade foods like coffee, chocolate, and bananas, or certified forest-friendly paper products, or sustainable fisheries. The key to each such initiative is that for suppliers to certify as ethical, sustainable, organic, or fair, they must continually act to improve their operations and reduce ancillary harms, and have those actions independently audited.
However, there is no such drive behind “ethical oil”. Tar sands companies have made no binding commitments to clean up their act and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste or spills. Instead, their only claim to being “ethical” is to point to other oil-exporting nations, branding their product as “conflict oil” and saying “well, they’re worse than us!” They make much of the sexist, violent, terrorist-sponsoring governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the socialist Chinese or Venezuelan regimes, and contrast them with how enlightened and ethical (and free-market) Canadians feel, in contrast. Besides the blatant xenophobia of such an approach, what should offend Canadians is how the tar sands are basically riding on our coat-tails in boasting of being “ethical” based not on their own record, but the virtue of the rest of Canada. But how does this industry fit within our own ethical system?
Filthy lucre
In all ways that matter, the bitumen industry is a drag on the rest of Canada’s ethical values. This industry has opposed environmental regulations and pushed to remove protections from the lakes, rivers, or species their operations threaten. Rather than create sustainable communities of workers, they separate men from their families and communities, mostly in the Maritimes, for weeks at a time, and pour money into their wallets. This is a recipe for domestic violence, prostitution, substance abuse, a widening rich-poor gap, and all kinds of other social ills. It is no coincidence that Edmonton, Calgary, and Saskatoon, the 3 major cities serving the oil patch, are among the 5 worst Canadian cities for women to live, according to a recent report. While demonizing a few million dollars from foreign environmental charities, “ethical oil” ignores the billions of foreign dollars whose investment in our tar sands leaves our governments captured by foreign interests.
If these are the ethics our oil offers, then this industry is a corrupting influence on Canada as a whole, and rather than pretend that propping it up is somehow the ethical choice, we should put aside such silly distractions and concentrate on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels entirely, regardless of the source. Because when it comes to destroying our planet, damage is damage, regardless of how hard a destructive industry tries to pass itself off as “ethical”.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as " ' Ethical oil' brand doesn't exist"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Friday, July 3, 2015

March for Jobs, Justice and Climate this weekend

We seem to be at an impasse in the climate crisis. Rich nations like Canada, having already used fossil fuels to create a prosperous lifestyle but polluted our atmosphere in the process, are making unfair demands at international climate talks. We ask that other, poorer nations commit to matching cuts, even though they had little hand in creating our current overload of atmospheric carbon. Compounding the unfairness is that we can afford to sit back and dither, growing rich and spewing more waste while poorer nations are already suffering catastrophic effects of sea rise, drought, and violent storms.
Greens for Jobs, Justice and the Climate
Well, this Sunday, Canadians from all walks of life come together in Toronto to promote a different vision at the March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate; a new partnership between environmentalists and labour, providing voice for First Nations, migrant workers, youth, faith communities, and other stakeholders struggling for justice and a sustainable future.
This event targets the myth that moving toward a sustainable environment will cost jobs. Quite the opposite: decarbonizing our economy is a huge economic opportunity. A better, stronger, fairer economy will create billions of jobs, but we must ensure those jobs include a fair wage and livable conditions, and that all will benefit from the prosperity of the green energy revolution.
Climate justice means a more inclusive conversation. This year, over 300,000 people in the global south will die from violent, chaotic climate weather-related events. Yet Canada is well-placed to show leadership. Millions of our first-generation citizens have direct experience with climate chaos, such as the Filipino and Caribbean communities and people with ties to India. They link us directly to both the problems and the global solutions.
Many demonstrations are about the “NO”: against tar sands, pipelines, fracking, or new nukes, but this march is about the “YES”, about building a fair, just, sustainable economy for the whole planet. We have the solutions: clean energy, better transit, localized agriculture, fair labour standards; we just need to come together and apply them. For one specific idea, Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte Green Party candidate Marty Lancaster proposes that Barrie become a hub for new research, technology and production of next-generation batteries and energy storage. The growing popularity of electric cars like my Chevy Volt, and the pairing of clean renewable energy with storage to create on-demand electric supply, means this is sure to be a growing and high-paying industry. (More on this in a future column).
For a healthy, sustainable, just world for our children, our grandchildren, and their children, we must stop digging a deeper carbon hole and start building a stairway to an economy that provides for us without robbing future generations or disadvantaging other nations. This march is all about building that “stairway to heaven”, if you will.
Marching Marty Lancaster
And Barrie will be there! You can join Marty Lancaster and local activists Climate Action Now at the Allandale GO station Sunday morning to catch the 9:40 train, arriving at Queen’s Park before the 1 PM rally and march to the Allan Gardens. Find more information and connect with Barrie’s contingent via Facebook.com/ClimateActionBarrie or if you are coming from elsewhere, visit JobsJusticeClimate.ca/Transportation to find charter buses or ride-shares. Let’s set Canada on a just, sustainable path of climate leadership and prosperity!

A politically expurgated version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation