Saturday, September 17, 2016

Improving politics: less money, more representation

Less than four months ago, I wrote about ways our election systems were improving. Back then, progress at both provincial and federal fronts was good, but I noted some key drawbacks. Amazingly enough, over the course of an exciting summer, both of those problems were addressed and we are now on an even stronger track to improvement.
At the provincial level, reforms to election finance have leapt beyond what was first floated. The current super-high contribution limits exceed $15,000 per party per donor, double that in an election year. $30,000 can buy a lot of political influence! Reforms floated in the spring would have cut that down to $7,750, still too much. But a recently-announced amendment has cut that in half, and further proposes banning MPPs, candidates, and party leaders from political fundraising events. It also includes per-vote funding for parties and for local riding associations, one of the fairest ways to replace our current wealth-based fundraising model. This new funding is set to diminish and be re-evaluated after 5 years, but I expect it will be maintained and even increased, as people see the benefit of politics funded by votes instead of by big cheques from deep-pocked donors.
At the federal level, things are also progressing well. Rather than wait late into their mandate to act on their “last election under first-past-the-post” promise (an error the McGuinty government made a decade ago, dooming Ontario’s electoral reform hopes), the Liberal government has set things in motion rapidly. The last time I wrote on this issue, I was critical of them for addressing our distorted election results by creating a distorted electoral reform committee, with a Liberal majority that could outvote all the other participants, even though Canadian voters gave over 60% of their support to other parties. But a month after I wrote, the government saw the error of their ways and organized the committee to reflect the preferences expressed by your votes last fall, still with more Liberals but with no single party holding a majority. This means whatever the committee recommends will have to pass muster with at least two of the parties in the House, and hopefully have the support of most or all of them. This radically lessens the chance that the Liberals will try to force through a ranked ballot or instant runoff system, a fairly minor tweak that would give them a major advantage in future elections.
After spending the summer consulting with experts on all aspects of voting systems, the committee has entered a phase of wider public consultation with Canadian citizens. Several town halls have been or are being held in our area to discuss electoral reform, with results forwarded to the committee for consideration. You can also make your views known online at the ERRE website. By the end of November the House will receive their report and start drafting a bill to present next year, in time to make changes before the next election in 2019. As democracies around the world have been moving to more proportional systems, and since the significant failings identified in our own system lie largely with results not proportionally reflecting voter preference, it is fairly likely that some kind of proportionality will be added to our current system of local representation.  
All in all, 2016 may well go down in history as the summer when Canada’s and Ontario’s electoral and political finance systems made great strides toward fairness and better representation. After more than a decade of pushing for these kinds of improvements, I couldn’t be happier to see them finally coming to be.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Electoral system improving"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Still time to add The Sassafras Crossing to your summer reading list

Recently a friend handed me a copy of his recently-published first novel, and I promised to review it here. But as I started reading it, I realized my promise might be harder to keep than I first expected. You see, I have reviewed several books in this column in the past, but all of them were non-fiction. I like to read about history, politics, science, and social movements. When I read fiction, I usually head for the genres, what many might consider escapism. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, action/suspense, political satire, comedy, mystery, even alternate history share my bookshelf. But what my friend wrote doesn’t fall into any of these genres; as far as I can tell, it’s just fiction. So I didn’t know how to approach it.
Lindrith (Lindy) Davies usually writes about economic justice and the fairer, more sustainable society we could have if we funded government with land and resource rents, instead of taxing our wages and productivity. He also teaches courses on the topic and edits the related Georgist Journal. But this is his first foray into writing fiction, as much as it was mine into reading it.
At first, I couldn’t immediately relate to characters who were just regular people, or understand where the narrative was heading. But as pages turned and I dug into the story, I grew truly curious about how or if they would connect or come into conflict. The novel, The Sassafras Crossing, covers about a year in the lives of several young people who are somewhat adrift, post-college but pre-career, trying to find their place in the world. With their unexpressed ambitions and reluctance to dive into the corporate rat race, their semi-dependence on parents while working minimum wage service jobs, they evoke the so-called “millennials” many love to mock today. But this realistic tale set in the early 1980s clearly demonstrates that this so-called new phenomenon of an indeterminate or even shiftless period in the lives of young adults is nothing new. What really matters is the opportunities for fulfillment society ultimately offers.
Another compelling side to this story is the struggle of some of the characters to find their place in a world where their sexuality is not recognized or condoned. While this is still often a challenge today, it was even more so 30 years ago, yet people then were just as likely as now to find themselves not fitting into society’s heterosexual norms. How this plays out for various characters, or even that it is an issue for them, is something that is only gradually exposed and explored through the story.
The lift bridge whose action provides the title is itself a character in the story. This antique yet still-functioning engineering feat facing replacement by a more convenient, newer-style span is both a setting for much of the story and a metaphor for the ways our world is a constant weaving of old into new. In the intersection of road and river, the cars that drive across whose movement is interrupted to allow pleasure craft to navigate the channel below, the need for expert human operators to mediate these conflicting uses, we find metaphors for many of the life changes and decisions negotiated by human characters.
Meanwhile, the story also weaves in a mix of musical styles and cultures, attitudes about work and family, the tug-of-war between succeeding in the rat race or chasing your personal dreams, and the way these decisions may be re-evaluated and reconfigured at later stages in life.
If you enjoy reading fiction, I expect you will enjoy this novel, while if, like me, you aren’t usually a fiction reader, this is an excellent place to start.

Published as my Root Issued column in the Barrie Examiner as "A Foray into Fiction".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The real reason the Tigers roared

Michael Den Tandt recently opined that Canada’s government should heed the example of Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers’ rapid economic growth, by freeing up trade and pushing through new pipelines.
In some respects, he is right, we should copy some of the economic policies the Four Tigers rode to success. But he misconstrues what those policies really were.
Of course, one key aspect to their early growth was authoritarian governments, run by generals or former generals who engineered their election as “president”. As he noted in another column the same week, Taiwan only began holding free elections in 1996; I add Korea elected its first non-general President around the same time, while Hong Kong has never known truly free elections, and Singapore has been dominated by the same party for the past 57 years, with the same President for 31. Various studies have concluded authoritarian governance played a key role in accelerating economic growth. I expect most Canadians would not rush to give up our democratic freedoms for a few more dollars or jobs, and one consequence of this democracy is that major projects like pipelines must earn their social license by proving their environmental and other bona fides before approval.
Asian "tigers" grew due to land value taxation
Besides that, though, Den Tandt praises the merits of “capitalism” and thus seems to believe the secret to their success is a pro-economic, laissez-faire, low-tax approach. However, this is a bit of a mis-read. It is true these economies mostly had low tax rates on income, profit, and sales. However, they all balanced that with a higher tax on land, as well as instituting land reforms to discourage or break up the large land holdings of rich families and make affordable parcels of land available to farmers or homeowners. It is this key approach that sets the Asian Tigers apart from most Western economies.
You see, the founders of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai-shek, understood that a fair and just economy is based on using value created by nature and the community to fund government. They did this by fully taxing the value of land and any increase in land value. Nature creates land, and the presence of a growing community gives it value; this value is either returned to the community, or else pocketed by private land owners who managed to call “dibs” on it. If the community collects that rent to fund government services, then confiscatory taxes on wages, income, profit or trade aren’t necessary. But if private owners keep the benefit of land values, then government has no choice but to seek other revenue sources: you and your business.
The benefits of land value taxation are many. It is fair, because it only taxes what people take or use for themselves, instead of taxing what they produce for the community. Instead of a value-added tax that punishes enterprise, it serves as a “value-subtracted tax” discouraging waste, hoarding, or living off land and resource rents. People are free to keep what they make for themselves, while passing back to government the wealth created by nature or the community. In this way, land stays in private hands for optimal use, while land values are shared fairly by all.
So yes, Canada could learn about successful economic growth from the Asian Tigers; not through authoritarianism or low taxes, but by replacing unfair taxes on wages or added value with fair taxes on land, resources, government-granted privileges and monopolies. With the dead weight of poor taxation removed, our economy would be free to grow in a fair, efficient and ecologically-sound direction.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Poor taxation needs to be removed in order to let economy grow".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Monday, July 18, 2016

FruitShare program only scratching the surface

“The most natural food is fruit” – Anonymous.
You may not realize it, but our city is full of farmers, and you may be one of them! The number one urban crop is fruit, particularly apples, and you’d be amazed by the amount of apples that grow in our backyards. FruitShare has managed to pick as many as 5,000 pounds in a single season, and we’re just scratching the surface.
The ever-growing FruitShare team
is on the job!
The whole FruitShare team is so excited to be working with our amazing volunteers and tree owners this summer; we know from experience everyone will find it a rewarding experience. Though we are not picking a lot of fruit right now, we are working to get ready for what we anticipate will be a busy season. We want to keep you updated on our planning and preparation activities.
We need more fruit tree owners.
Several tree owners from last year have reported that their trees did not fare well this spring: very few blossoms if any and bleak possibilities of fruit on those trees. But every back yard is its own micro-climate and local ecology; in past years, while some trees did poorly, others thrived. Please consider whether you have friends, family, or neighbors with fruit trees that just need to know about our program so that they can get involved. The Barrie community has hundreds of trees that yet could be a valuable source of fresh, local, healthy food for those who need it. Registration for tree owners is simple and straight forward at our website You can easily sell them on the benefits: we clean up all the fallen fruit, clear as much of the ripe fruit from the tree as we can reach, and have a special deal with a professional arborist who will provide free advice and discounted help improving their trees.
This harvest season, we are going to have 'designated pick days'. Our hope is that this will help to make our planning more efficient, and allow both tree owners and volunteer pickers the ability to anticipate when their efforts might be needed. For this summer/fall we are going to make Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays our pick days, and will plan tree harvests on these days. We always work to give as much notice as possible before the pick date for everyone’s convenience.
Volunteers can also register at and communicate what days they would prefer to pick on. From there, we will plan to have 'teams' of volunteers designated to these specific days.
If you like face-to-face contact, we invite you come meet us at the Barrie Farmers’ Market, this Saturday, July 16th! We are bringing a table display and bushel-baskets full of energy, and will be sharing information about the Barrie FruitShare program to the patrons there.
We wish to thank the community for all the support and work to make this program great. We could not do it without you! And with your help, we can “rescue” even more fruit this year. Our goal is to see not a single tree go unpicked, not a bushel of food wasted, and you can help us meet that goal.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Northern Protocol makes a big bang on the local scene

These days news about the economy often seems pretty dreary. With companies offshoring many jobs to places with lower wages or standards, and those that remain being “rightsized” away, it feels like no-one can get a decent salary anymore. Yet some businesses overcome this trend, and demonstrate that innovation is truly the key to success and prosperity, and sometimes a local business leads the way.
Reaching the top of the computer service industry.
Photo: Mark Wanzel
Such is the case with Northern Protocol. Founded by Aaron Weston almost 20 years ago as a one-man jack-of-all-computer-trades outfit, since 2007 this Barrie operation has grown exponentially. That was the year Aaron decided to turn his part-time home-based occupation into a serious concern. A forward-looking landlord offered Weston 6-months rent-free in a vacant office space at Bayfield & Ferris and the gamble paid off, not only succeeding and paying rent but within 3 years upgrading to double the space. Now with fully-operational satellite offices in Stayner and Alliston, and a total payroll of over a dozen full-timers, Northern Protocol has vaulted past their competitors and is on the verge of possible franchising.
But what innovation led to this success? It isn’t some better way to remove viruses, maintain and clean up cloggy old systems, recover lost data, or backup and reload, all services available for PC or Mac at flat rates. It isn’t because NP’s employees have special technical skills other support firms don’t, although they certainly don’t lack talent. And it’s certainly not a colourfully-wrapped compact car with the cheeky promise of smart nerds attending your site. No, the innovation has been in the style and quality of service provided.
I discovered this quite by accident, feeling unsatisfied with the service from another local computer doctor. After paying to have my problem diagnosed, then paying again to fix it, my computer came home and within the week the original problem recurred, despite my depleted wallet. Then I encountered, either on the radio or their billboard, Northern Protocol’s trademarked promise “We fix it or it’s free”. It struck me like a beam from the heavens: that’s what I need, never again paying to “fix” my computer even if it wasn’t fixed. I got that, and more. My home-business laptop frozen, I was in quite a pickle, with work coming in on a 48-hour turnaround. I brought it to NP on a Saturday morning, then spent the rest of the day on family activities. Sleeping in Sunday morning, I was awoken by Weston himself, delivering my computer which he had fixed the night before, with no special delivery or rush charge! The problem was actually fixed and my work reputation was saved.
A new angle on computer repair.
Like many computer repair shops, you can bring in your machine or they can work at your location on an hourly basis. But the added value is free pick-up or drop-off from your home in the Barrie area, which gets you the lower in-shop rates without having to drag your equipment back and forth. You can also trust NP to recommend or sell you new equipment, off-the-shelf or customized to your specs, as they only carry or endorse quality brands you can rely on to do what you need. And with a responsive Facebook page, you can get helpful updates or have your own queries addressed by real people, not faceless bots.
This is a quintessentially Barrie tale. Our community is very supportive to small and growing businesses, and you may have read elsewhere of Aaron’s personal streets-to-entrepreneur story. It’s a love that’s returned, through NP’s support for the David Busby Street Centre, Salvation Army adopt-a-family, COPE Dogs and the Jazz & Blues festival. So next time economic news gets you down, think about thriving, innovative local businesses like Northern Protocol and take heart!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie and Innisfil Examiners as "Some local businesses are very innovative"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the board of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friday, July 8, 2016

Electoral reforms look promising

This is an exciting time for those who want to improve how we fund or vote for political parties. Both the federal and provincial governments are initiating processes for much-needed reforms.
On the national level, one of the Liberal government’s election promises was that 2015 would be the last federal election held under the antiquated “first-past-the-post” (FPP) system. They were joined in pledges for electoral reform by the NDP and Green Party, which together means that almost two-thirds of voters chose a party with electoral reform and ending FPP in the election platform. Therefore, so long as the proposed reforms meet the approval of the elected members from those three parties, the change will have sufficient legitimacy to be implemented in time for the 2019 election, without requiring a referendum or any other such impediment.
Which only makes sense; we’ve never before needed a referendum to make our electoral system more fair, in line with the evolving social and political conscience of Canadian society. We extended the vote to women, Canada’s indigenous peoples, and other ethnic groups who had not previously been allowed to vote (Catholics, Chinese, Japanese) without a referendum, and surely extending the vote from the minority of land-owning white Protestant men to all adult citizens was a far more wide-reaching reform. Voters clearly indicated last fall, in surveys and at the ballot box, that they felt our current system does not adequately grant a fair and equal vote, so it’s time to fix that, without undue delay.
Unfortunately, the governing Liberal party has created a committee to draft this legislation which has a majority of Liberal members, meaning they have the power to push through a reform which no other party supports. And in their promise to “make every vote count”, they have even taken the extreme step of having the Green Party and Bloc on the committee, but as non-voting members! The gall is almost breathtaking. *
However, I still hold out some hope that the consultation process will convince the government that only a proper reform to a system incorporating proportional representation, and having the support of parties representing the majority of voters, can fulfill their election pledge. Fingers crossed!
Meanwhile, at the provincial level, the reforms at hand relate to political funding. There has been widespread and totally justified complaint about the way it seems that individuals and corporations with deep pockets can buy enhanced access to our elected officials, including the Premier and her Cabinet, but also Opposition leaders and parties. Responding to this outcry, the Premier has pledged reforms to be in place before the next election.
In this process, the Premier isn’t forming an all-party committee but at least has been open to consultation and input from other party leaders, including the electorally mature but currently seatless Green Party. For what seem like petty partisan reasons, the NDP chose to forgo this opportunity, but since the Greens have the most developed electoral finance reform policy base, there was no vacuum of good advice.
Measures announced so far will bar corporate and union contributions altogether. Sadly, the proposed individual contribution limit of $7500 is still too high, and restrictions on party spending aren’t sufficient. But one key reform is to replace the forgone corporate/union money with per-vote funding. This system, already present in other jurisdictions like Nova Scotia and Quebec and formerly in place federally, is the fairest way to apportion spending money between political parties. It allows every voter an equal amount of subsidy to direct to the party of their preference, regardless of their personal finances and without direct cost to them. What’s best is that this per-vote subsidy will actually cost the taxpayer less than the existing tax rebates on the contributions being phased out.
So although we’ll have to pay careful attention to this process to make sure the results are fair to all, there is at least reason for optimism on the electoral reform front.

* This has changed since this column was originally published.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Feeling positive about electoral reform"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Barrie's Food Forest continues to grow

Regular readers of this column will know that one of Barrie’s greatest good-news stories is FruitShare, the organization I helped found 3 years ago to rescue surplus fruit from the many apple, pear, plumb, and cherry trees growing in the yards of Barrie residents. This initiative sends teams of volunteer pickers to pick the crop and clean up the fallen fruit, then divide the harvest between themselves, the tree owner, and a social agency like the Barrie Food Bank. So far, over 5 tons (10,000 pounds) has been rescued and distributed, over half of that in 2015 alone.
However, you may also have read about our other, long-term project: Barrie’s Food Forest. This isn’t one specific location, but rather an approach to making fresh, local, organic fruit available to anyone without charge, by planting hardy locally-adapted fruit trees in parks and other public lands. Like Barrie’s backyard fruit trees, these public mini-orchards will increase Barrie’s tree canopy and provide ecological services to bees and other pollinators and natural species that share our city. But they will also be available for citizens to help themselves to healthy, tasty fruit, free for the picking.
So far, a dozen trees have already been planted north of downtown, and thanks to a “Carrot Cache” grant from The Big Carrot organic co-op in Toronto, fifty more will be planted this Saturday in Barrie’s west end. Planting locations aren’t publicized until the trees have matured enough to withstand picking, but as the Food Forest matures in coming years, we will be posting and sharing locations with free, ripe fruit around Barrie, including near you!
In recognition of this goal and our work towards it, the Rotary Club of Barrie recently presented FruitShare the Charlie Wilson Environmental Award, given each year in recognition of exceptional promotion and commitment to the environment. Over his six decades as a Rotarian, Charlie spearheaded many environmentally-friendly initiatives, including the planting of trees in public spaces along the lakeshore and streets across Barrie, so this award clearly embodies his spirit. A project of Living Green in partnership with Transition Barrie and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, FruitShare continues to expand the fruit-tree resource for our citizens and ecology and thrives on this kind of community recognition and support.
Speaking of support, there are many ways you can get involved with such a worthy project. Every year, we need people with fruit trees to contact us and let us pick their harvest. We need people to volunteer as pickers, and as “ShareBosses”, our pick supervisors. We also need administrative and financial support. Get in touch if you are interested in any of these forms of involvement, and sign up at
Each of our Food Forest locations represents a naming opportunity for a local business sponsor – would you like to have free fruit growing in your name? If so, then contact us!
And a special, unique opportunity to get out and help comes this Saturday, May 14, from 1 – 4 pm, as we plant our latest 50 fruit trees to expand our Food Forest. If you’d like to come out and help, email and we’ll tell you the exact location. Dress for the weather, including appropriate footwear, and bring your own shovel & bucket, if you can. Together we can grow Barrie’s healthy future!
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Food program taking root"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and a founder of FruitShare Barrie.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The (non) Future of Pipelines

Pipelines will soon reach their vanishing point
Despite last year’s Paris climate conference clearly demonstrating most nations are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, some in Canada still insist our economic future rests on building new pipelines, primarily to get oil and gas from the Athabaska sands to tidewater for export. Yet many reports now show pipelines are not only unnecessary, but will be an economic albatross around our necks if we do actually build them.
First, let’s sweep aside a few of the false arguments. One is that new pipelines will make Canada become energy-independent by replacing eastern provinces’ oil imports with domestic supply. This simply isn’t true, as the destination for proposed pipelines isn’t Canadian refineries to turn bitumen into gasoline, but rather deep ocean ports where bitumen can be loaded onto tankers for export. And let’s not fall into the silly trap that pipelines are safer than rail as a way to ship energy. When it comes to bitumen, rail is actually safer; tanks of thick, viscous bitumen are not a risk for explosion, fire, or even significant leaks. Taking that same bitumen and diluting it with toxic fluids to make “dilbit” flow through pipelines is, however, a serious risk, as this dilbit is a far more harmful liquid if (when) it leaks or spills. Of course the silliest argument is that our economy will shut down without new pipelines. Is there some problem with the existing ones that get oil and gas to our homes, businesses, and factories now? Are they all about to fail or shut down? That’s news to me.
But ignoring those red herrings, and even if we ignore our own responsibility to reduce, rather than increase, carbon emissions, dollars and cents argue against the viability of new pipe. For new pipelines to ever pay for themselves, much less turn a profit, they need a corresponding expansion of Alberta bitumen extraction. Putting aside that Alberta’s own greenhouse gas cap promise won’t let this happen, the money isn’t there. Oil must be over $68, even towards $100, to fund the infrastructure to pry oil out of sand. Yet they likely won’t rise above that any time soon. The Saudis, who pump oil freely, have seen this coming and are having a fire sale, liquidating as fast as they can to prepare for the post-oil economy of their “Vision 2030”. Meanwhile, cheap oil and gas from US fracking will keep prices down, regardless of Saudis actions. Without money to expand tar sands operations, there’s nothing to send through new pipes.
And that’s looking at oil alone. The other elephant in the room is the rise in supply, and drop in cost, of renewable energy. Solar technology is improving at a similar rate as microprocessors, with costs dropping steadily as demand increases. Wind is already one of the cheapest new power sources around, while improvements to storage tech are making all clean and renewable sources more competitive. There is widespread agreement that electricity is becoming the dominant global energy, supplanting fossil fuels. As this trend continues, investment in electricity infrastructure is a good bet, while investment in pipelines or fossil extraction is a long shot at best. Even in the auto market, the growth of electric cars in the market is set to be exponential, and by the 2020s buying a new gas vehicle will be like buying a black-and-white TV in the 70s. Affordable long-range electric cars are the colour TV of the future.
So all in all, anyone who still insists that new pipelines are a wise investment, or necessary for Canada’s economic future, simply isn’t paying attention to all the key economic indicators and risks, and shouldn’t be trusted.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "New pipelines are not a very wise investment"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the board of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Family link with ink

My family has a multi-generational relationship with newsprint. If you are reading this, you may have realized I write a (mostly) weekly column in our local daily paper-of-record, which I also post as a blog – usually the same or next day, sometimes a bit later. (If you’re reading this online – how was your summer?) I’m not paid for it, but I get to write what I feel is important or overlooked, without being assigned topics or edited (much). But this is just the culmination of what turns out to have been a long, close relationship with print news.
It all started when I was perhaps 11 years old, delivering the local news-and-shopper to about a dozen blocks of my hometown thrice a week. A couple of years later, I moved to the big leagues, delivering a national daily 7 days a week. What I now can’t believe is that I used to deliver it in the morning before going to school! (People who know me now will declare that I’m lying, but that’s how I remember it.) The paper at hand, I also began reading the news at that young age, perhaps sparking my later interest in local and national politics.
As a teen, paper routes gave way to more lucrative after-school jobs. But attending the University of Waterloo, I soon enough found myself volunteering to proofread, write, and eventually co-edit the fortnightly faculty student publication mathNEWS (our name explained by the humorous yet true slogan “the paper with a little math, and even less news”), a post I held for several years.
Even though my days as a reporter and editor were pretty mild, other than some tussles over content deemed too shocking by the powers-that-be, I nonetheless developed a feeling of kinship to news media, such that the most moving monument I ever visited was a monument honouring war correspondents killed in the Korean War.
Moving to Barrie, I came full circle. With two home-based flex-time part-time jobs, I took on delivering the local shopper on my street as a way to get some exercise, some pocket money, and meet the new neighbours. For some reason I quit after a year – probably when the Christmas season turned every paper into phone book and the job lost its shine. A few years later I was back, yet on the pages instead of carrying them.
But now my daughter is carrying on this family tradition. Not as a writer, not yet, although her photograph has graced the pages reporting on many community events. No, she’s taken up the mantle of delivering the weekly shopper, a job that’s changed somewhat since I put down the bag. Back then, there were just a dozen or so flyers, and I went out thrice a week. Now it only runs once a week, but the inserts often number 40 or more. So while it seems print media is shrinking, at least in the news aspect, with fewer or thinner editions, the amount of print advertising remains or grows. As a result, every Thursday wee Brianna gamely delivers over twice her weight in newsprint. At 3 pounds per paper, I’m at least glad Barrie has a good recycling program, and people use it!
And since I help her with the huge task of pre-assembling the papers, I get to educate her on the magic of classic music, because I control the stereo. But the real education is in the responsibility of employment, which she takes very seriously, out there in any weather and subcontracting her own substitutes during family vacations. Will she follow in my footsteps and end up with her own byline in print? Will print newspapers still exist? It’s hard to say, but given her strong, informed opinions and willingness to share, it’s not impossible to imagine. Perhaps someday this column, like delivering the paper, will become a family tradition, too.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Family tradition wrapped in newsprint"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and a founder of FruitShare Barrie.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

FruitShare and Good Food Box cross-pollinate a Trillium

As spring belatedly arrives, thoughts turn to the fruits of nature: vegetables from our gardens, berries from the bushes, the wonderful bounty growing all around us. But for many, access to fresh fruit and veggies is precarious at best. Luckily, some local programs address food insecurity: the Barrie Food Bank (more on this in a future column), the Barrie Good Food Box, and FruitShare Barrie. The latter two will be joining forces this year in a new collaborative venture, named (for now) the Urban Pantry Project, supported by new funds from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
I have written of FruitShare before, so you’ll recall it sends teams of volunteer pickers to glean the fruit from homeowners’ backyard trees and share it between the owner, the pickers, and social agencies like the Food Bank. The Good Food Box is a bulk-buy cooperative, allowing many people to pool their money for fresh produce at wholesale prices. People sign up for the $12 small box or $17 large box and then each month, the program shops and fills the boxes with fresh fruit and vegetables at a significant discount from retail cost. Both programs make a healthy diet more affordable and accessible for families struggling to put food on the table among other bills and expenses, but are open to anyone who wants to hook into the local food movement, regardless of income. Participation from across the community makes it work, and nothing brings your family more joy than fresh, local, healthy food!
While these programs have been successful, they were both in need of a boost. You see, both the Good Food Box and FruitShare are run mainly by volunteers, with minimal paid staff. Yet both need significant oversight, a secure location for storing equipment and distributing food, and access to a truck for site visits and collecting and distributing food. However, neither was large enough to provide any of these for itself, and neither needed any of these full-time. But what if they were to share?
Out of that idea came the Urban Pantry Project, a proposal that has now received a first-year “seed money” grant of $66,800 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Announced this Tuesday by Barrie MPP Ann Hoggarth and Michael Coteau, Ontario’s Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport (and Trillium), this grant will put both projects on solid footing with a shared coordinator, truck, and depot, hopefully expanding over time to several depots bringing food resources, and hope, directly into more Barrie neighbourhoods.
This stable funding and staffing means both programs will be able to expand in scope. FruitShare will provide seminars and discounts on care for fruit trees, including pruning, and continue to plant Barrie’s “Food Forest”, fruit-bearing trees in parks or other public spaces. Together, the projects will offer workshops on food preparation and preserving, where people can re-learn the lost arts of cooking from scratch or canning jams and sauces.  
This grant will also bring greater visibility. FruitShare is still seeking local business sponsors to help with program costs, and now is the perfect opportunity for enterprising businesspeople to get their brand a prominent position in our media and promotional materials. (Yes, that’s a big hint). The public, the media, and the government all love projects like FruitShare and the Good Food Box, so this is your chance to get in on the ground floor and show the community that your business cares about food security. Contact to find out more about sponsorship, volunteering, or having your fruit picked for you; to sign up for the Good Food Box email

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Food security given a boost"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and a founder of FruitShare Barrie.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Two Cents on Political Finance

The latest political scandal is high-priced political fundraisers held by Ontario’s premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal Party, where deep-pocketed investors and cash-flush companies pay thousands of dollars to spend an evening with the top decision-makers. Most other parties haven’t said much about this, either, since they, too, depend on multi-thousand-dollar contributions from the usual suspects: the rich, corporations, and unions. Only the Green Party has notably stood apart, having advocated for years for a total ban on corporate & union contributions and a reduction in the individual maximum contribution limit.
So saith Uncle Pennybags!
This goes for the municipal level, too, where studies show corporations and developers provide the lion’s share of campaign contributions, while mayors and councillors are mainly funded with money from outside their own jurisdictions. Although some cities have ruled out some classes of contributions, and some candidates (like our own Mayor Jeff Lehman) pledge not to accept developer money, what is truly needed is a comprehensive reform, not just a patchwork of local or personal measures. Otherwise, nothing contradicts a clear picture of democracy for sale to the highest bidder.
But getting the big money interests out of politics solves one problem at the risk of creating another. If parties can’t accept big cheques, they will need to get a lot of little ones instead. Yet with fewer than one in 500 people willing to give more than $100 to a political candidate, there are limits to this revenue. Starving parties of money isn’t a good idea, either, because presenting a clear, researched platform to the public in a way they will take notice isn’t cheap.
Inexpensive tools like email or social media are handy, but they work by connecting to contacts you already have, or to people willing to pay attention to political posts (if their ad blockers aren’t engaged). They can’t reach those who aren’t already engaged. Distributing literature and putting up signs are still crucial elements of campaigning. In their absence, as those with a small budget and ecological conscience have found with online-only “virtual campaigns”, means most voters will never even know you exist or learn your positions. In fact, without election signs and a heavy amount of mass advertising by parties, a shockingly large percent of the electorate won’t even realize there’s an election on, much less who the parties or candidates are. Political apathy can’t simply be ignored; campaigns must push back with costly in-your-face tactics. So if Mr. Moneybags can’t help, what shall we do instead?
One clear answer is per-vote funding for political parties. This used to be in place federally, replacing big cheques when contribution limits were first tightened in 2004. Since then, half of our provinces have also adopted some form of per-vote funding. Arguments that this is an unwarranted taxpayer subsidy are completely disingenuous, as they come from parties benefitting from rich public subsidies through contribution tax credits and election spending rebates. Those are actually the subsidies that should have been reduced, since they favour big-spending parties or those with deep-pocketed supporters.
And since per-vote funding won’t work municipally, where candidates don’t represent parties, we also need a shift from generous donor tax credits to public matching, like in Quebec where the first $20,000 raised per candidate, and $200,000 per party, receives matching funds. This would help even the playing field between larger, more established parties and newer, smaller ones.
Most importantly, reforms like this must be implemented soon, definitely before the next municipal and provincial elections, so that we will never again have an election cycle dominated by big corporate, union, or developer interests.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Reforms needed to discourage elections from being dominated by corporations, unions, or developers"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Monday, April 18, 2016

My old friend Technology: why have you forsaken me?

I grew up as a nerd, usually with a better handle on digital technology than my elders, sometimes even a resource to peers. Sadly, that era has passed; now I find technology more frustrating as time passes, or as I age.
The first big issue is my lack of a smart phone. Self-employed and working from home, with wifi at my desk and lap, I really can’t justify the expense of a data plan. Unlike some, I don’t have an employer to pay it for me; theoretically I could write it off as a business expense, but that’s still not free. So it peeves me to no end that, in this modern world, most handy new software tools exist as “apps” for phones rather than software for real computers.
Except I do put apps on my computer, to help family. My daughter saved birthday, Christmas, and allowance money to buy an older iPod we then discovered can’t handle the current version of iOS most apps need. If she’s lucky, the app she wants run an older version, but only if I first visit the AppStore from my computer and “get” the app there. So now I have an AppStore account, but even this work-around tragically only works around half the time, earning my endless enmity for all things Apple.
My other daughter has a tablet originally obtained for educational games like Plants vs. Zombies or Minecraft. Instead, she spends every online moment watching videos of other people playing games, a pastime her parents find incomprehensible and annoying. Worse, she has taken to watching videos during car rides, which we discovered halfway to Grandma’s Easter dinner had rapidly burned through the data allowance of our car’s wifi, preventing me from working online on long drives, the whole reason we had the plan!
Barrie’s Public Library is on the bleeding edge of new tech. They only had a recent bestseller I really wanted in electronic formats. I don’t own an e-reader and don’t enjoy lengthy reads on a computer screen, but with an old mp3 player gathering dust I consented to “signing out” the book-on-tape version (read by Wil Wheaton). Easier said than done. The first file to arrive was EPUB, apparently an e-book. I downloaded and installed software to “read” it, only to find all I had was a 33-page sample! So then I had to sign up for, download and install OverDrive to access the actual recording, which turned out to be 15 hours long! With the sound file now in my computer, I connected my mp3 player for something to enjoy on my daily walks. Surprise! Even with the files on my device and playable from it through my laptop, the mp3 player itself can’t “see” the files unless I install them with Sony’s special software. After 45 minutes of installation and a full system reboot, then a 20-minute Google search to overcome a known bug, and another 10 minutes to re-transfer, I finally have a listenable book in my pocket. Now all I need are better headphones to block traffic noise. At this point I suspect I could have read the hardcover in less time than it took to find, install, and use all the software to download it!
Meanwhile, the smartphone world continues to insult my cheap burner cellphone (mainly for emergencies) by forcing me to constantly send or receive text messages using a horribly unhelpful interface. I suspect it’s all a plot to enslave me to the smart phone data plan rip-off…

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Tech world tough to navigate"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Religion and Politics, oh my.

They say to avoid discussing religion and politics. Well, I’m not afraid to write about politics, and now and then address religion, especially when they intersect.
These days, religion seems very political, unfortunately for mostly negative reasons. Media pays much attention to the influence of radical Islam in some terrorist movements, or as inspiration to lone lunatics. Sadly, this fear spills over to the wider mass of non-violent Muslims desiring nothing more than to live their lives in peace, who see their religion not as a call to dominate those of other faiths, but merely a path to connect with a higher power. It worsens when members of a competing faith, such as Christianity, try to assert religious superiority not only in spiritual realms but in the domestic political arena, with policies such as shunning our duties toward refugees fleeing violence, or trying to ban all Muslims from entry, as suggested by a leading American presidential candidate.

Once on the cross, more than enough.
But your crucifixion goes on today
In killings, rapes, and war devastation,
Innocent ones maimed and abused,
Martyred ones speaking out for justice,
Brave ones protecting the defenseless,
All those men and women who die
Working tirelessly for the good of others.
When will your crucifixion end?
Not until everyone is a person of love
Today: I live as a person of love
 © Joyce Rupp in "Fragments of Your Ancient Name", Sorin Books

Therefore, it is encouraging that local Christians, working together through Simcoe County KAIROS, embrace their faith in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner. This Easter will mark Barrie’s third annual Good Friday Ecumenical Walk for Justice. Beginning and ending (with soup & bun) at City Hall 1 – 2:30 pm on March 25, marchers will visit many “stations of the cross” in Barrie, each relating to the struggles of dealing with poverty, homelessness, or marginalization. Some places are where the vulnerable risk feeling voiceless or oppressed, such as City Hall, a police station, or the courthouse/jail, while others are places they receive support, like the David Busby Street Centre, Elizabeth Fry Society, or a church participating in the Out of the Cold program. I am encouraged that Spirit Catcher is one of the stations, recognizing our First Nations and their faiths which faced great repression over the centuries. At each station, the walk will emphasize ways that “Christ is crucified today”, relating scriptural accounts to modern-day social injustices Christ would speak to, were He among us now.
Yet while some use faith to justify compassion and others to justify hatred, there are also those who feel people can be ethical, moral and compassionate without faith, relying instead on reason. Known as Humanists, they can be good without God. The Central Ontario Humanists Association (COHA) has spearheaded a great opportunity to learn more about that concept with “#GodDebate: Does God Exist?” at 7 pm on March 30. Respectfully debating on the “No” side will be COHA’s president Shawn Conroy, while arguing God’s existence will be the Rev. William Haughton of Collier Street United Church, which is hosting the event (thus giving God the home-field advantage). This isn’t a knockdown winner-take-all fight, no-one will be crowned winner; instead, it will be an opportunity for people of traditional or eclectic faiths, or no faith at all, to explore, share and discuss their own ideas and those of others. Visit event site to submit questions.
While I am not a believer, and don’t think scripture is divinely inspired, much less infallible, I do believe that great moral writings persist through history when they offer enduring insight on the human condition, whether that be the plight of the homeless or how to show compassion toward refugees from another land. With that in mind, I look forward to both of these upcoming faith-based local events.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Faith-based events will spark talk"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ontario Liberals mess up Green policies again

Green legislation from other parties
is never quite as good as promised.
It’s great when governments finally do the right thing, yet frustrating when they try but screw it up. Over a decade of Green Party policy, I’ve seen many Green ideas migrate into the platforms of other parties and even enacted by governments, who rarely carry it through the way Greens would.
For example, the Ontario Liberal government started out with the best way to increase the use of clean renewable energy like solar, wind and biogas: a feed-in tariff. Basically, it guarantees that producers of clean energy can sell their product at a reasonable markup, which gets individuals and businesses the necessary start-up financing. It’s nothing unique to renewables, of course; nuclear, gas, and other electric producers also get guaranteed rates. By extending this mechanism to renewables, the playing field is levelled.
Unfortunately, the McGuinty government screwed this up a few ways. At the smallest level, they keep adding more and more restrictions on the microFIT program: they limit the size of a solar installation to 10 kilowatts, they won’t allow installation on a second property, whether it’s a business, cottage, or rental house, and farmers with panels on poles or frames, instead of existing farmhouses or barns, get lower prices. It’s like they can’t decide if more solar production is a good thing to foster, or a bad thing to restrict! At the mega-level, they gave initial preference to major corporate producers, including a multi-billion dollar deal with Samsung. Only many years later did they partially address this through preferential opportunities for local community co-ops, which should have been the norm in the first place. The end result of these blunders was to unfairly stain the whole idea of renewable energy among the public.
Similar problems are recurring around carbon pricing. As most environmentalists and just about every economist will tell you, the best way to reduce climate destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions is putting a price on carbon pollution, so reduction becomes part of every economic decision at the business, institutional, or family level. Even Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown now endorses that approach. Yet as he notes, but as our Premier Kathleen Wynne seems to have missed, the best carbon price is revenue neutral, returning all monies paid to pollute back to the economy through a tax shift or a dividend. Although a carbon tax can be a “price on everything” (although not on many things that are carbon neutral), it can also fund a “tax cut on everything” or a poverty-fighting rebate to everyone.
British Columbia showed the way; their carbon tax shift reduced pollution while economic growth continued without financial pain. Ontario and the rest of Canada should follow suit. Instead, though, Ontario is setting up a cap-and-trade carbon regime. Experience in other parts of the world predict this system will be complex, expensive, and hand unearned profits to the traditional polluters who got us into this mess in the first place, because they get free or discounted credits to use or sell. And as far as we can tell, the revenue will mainly be used to balance the budget, with some of it directed to emission-reducing projects like transit or efficiency.
By making the carbon price a burden on the economy, instead of a boost to innovation and efficiency, the government besmirches climate action like it did renewable energy. And with a federal Liberal government that seems unwilling to provide any better direction (2008’s Green Tax Shift plan apparently wholly forgotten), it looks like the best we can hope for on climate policy is half-measures and unnecessary pain.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Pain associated with climate policy"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Milking the 2% contribution

Sometimes our CF-18 bombers are really in tents.

When is 2% a thing, and when is it not? The right-wing media in Canada can’t seem to agree; while the rest of us happily accept 2% milk as real milk, pundits seem to either exalt or dismiss Canada’s 2% contribution.
In the war of words over the war we are waging against our atmosphere, Sun and Post columnists have consistently dismissed Canada’s role as insignificant: we only contribute 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the fact that we are only .5% of the world’s population and are thus polluting at 4 times the global rate, our “small contribution” is their justification to deny the influence we might have by cleaning up our act.
Yet this week, it turns out that our 2% contribution is a significant factor in another air war: bombing raids on terror group Daesh (not their self-styled title of “Islamic state”, as they neither represent a religion nor deserve statehood). Canada’s six CF-18 fighter jets comprised a whole 2% of the air strikes; if, as we have been told for years, 2% isn’t enough to matter, then how is it such a wanton act to withdraw from this campaign? If the point is that our participation is more symbolic than numerical, that doing our part matters more than how big our part is, why doesn’t this same logic apply to other dire global threats, like climate change? It would seem that 2%, statistically 4 times our share of population, is either punching over our weight or it isn’t, in both cases.
So let’s assume that our role matters, in both ways. We must then ask whether our actions can truly improve things or are just futile. While those pundits have argued that climate action is a waste of our effort and instead urge us to boost a tar sands industry that itself is less than 2% of Canada’s GDP, they insist we will be judged by the world on our contribution (or not) of 2% of the bombing raids going on over Iraq and Syria. While they are patently wrong on the first point, I must agree they are right on the second, yet that leads me to support the opposite policy.
You see, Canada should play our role in international military actions, when the mission is both legal and just. We luckily stayed out of the illegal invasion of Iraq, which created the failed state that spawned Daesh. We shamefully took part in the illegal war in Libya, moving beyond protecting civilians and instead taking sides in a civil war, leading to another failed state providing support and weapons to Daesh. Now we are part of a bombing campaign that has killed over 1300 civilians in Iraq and Syria, deaths which are a key recruiting tool for Daesh to refill their ranks and raise funds.
Are we taking the side of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, who only a few years ago we condemned for using chemical weapons against his own citizens, who is now propped up by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia? He has already murdered more Syrians than Daesh ever has. Or are we siding with the Kurds, who have reportedly been ethnically cleansing the areas they capture from Daesh, to expand their own land base? Or with our NATO ally Turkey, whose interest in the area seems mainly to suppress the Kurds rather than Daesh? As Russia’s contribution to the bombing campaign destroys hospitals and schools, how could our own role be clear to the victims on the ground? All they will know is that foreign jets are bringing death from above, and Canada is part of that campaign. Or were – our 2%, significant or not, was in the wrong place and has been rightfully withdrawn. We can find better ways to address conflict and terror than by fanning the flames of someone else’s sectarian violence.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "There are better ways to battle conflict and terror"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation