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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Comical nostalgia: force for progress or stagnation?

Perhaps you might find yourself in the comics section
Nostalgia can be a powerful force, for good or for ill. Sometimes it can boost a new project, while other times it sucks up all the oxygen and stifles innovation. In today’s comics we see examples of both situations.
Turn to the comics page in this paper and you’ll find 4 daily strips. Three are fresh and new, while the fourth, For Better or for Worse, is a re-run. Created by Collingwood native Lynn Johnston, this strip was a ground-breaking pioneer in many ways during its original 30-year run. Drawing humourous insight from realistic situations of everyday life, it was and remains one of few strips whose characters aged in real time, going from toddler to adult before our eyes. While most days brought a smile or a giggle, the strip didn’t shy away from handling some very serious topics like divorce, youth coming out, or the heroic death of a beloved family pet. I would never want to diminish the amazing things accomplished by Johnston’s true-to-life characters and their family-next-door storylines.
However, this strip had its day and should have retired when Johnston stopped creating it. Instead, it plods on in repeat. The storylines, fresh when first penned, are now as hopelessly dated as the plotlines of Three’s Company or Family Ties. Stories of a mother and housewife working outside the home, people living together out of wedlock, or a woman getting impatient with her beau and considering popping the question he never gets around to, just aren’t cutting edge anymore, and to have them re-played today only diminishes the power they had in their original context. What’s more, by taking up 25% of the real estate on the comics page, FBoFW crowds out the opportunity for newer, younger artists make a living expressing their own ideas in a tough business. It’s time for this strip to retire before its glory is forever tarnished, and let a new cartoonist take her place on the printed page, before the medium itself implodes.
Contrast that with the case of Captain Canuck. This Maple Leaf-draped superhero who had his original 15-issue run from 1975 – 1981, with a few short re-appearances or re-interpretations over ensuing decades, is now back full force with three ongoing comic book series. One is a completely new modern day re-envisioning of the character, another continues the original storyline, while the third is a reprint of the original 15 issues. But even the reprints are updated, with new covers by current artists and all-new stories occupying the back 5 pages where the originals featured other, less memorable characters. Published by Chapterhouse, it’s the flagship for a stable of totally new titles and characters, providing great opportunities for talented up-and-coming writers and artists. In this way, nostalgia can propel new creativity.
Whether your tastes tend to old stalwarts or new styles, if you have kids, report card time is a great opportunity to encourage reading through the Free Comics for A’s promotion at Big B Comics. Bring in an official K to 12 report card and for each subject area with an A, get a comic from the back issue bins for free! Even if they didn’t do so well this term, Big B sends kids home with something great to read, starting them down the path to the nostalgia of tomorrow.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Comics can help kids appreciate reading"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Our Piece of Train Going Off the Rails would be Crazy

Railways symbolize many things in our culture
Railways play a large role in our civilization. Historically, a rail line made Canada’s confederation 149 years ago possible and durable. Trains loom large in popular culture, as a setting for murder mysteries, thrillers, romances, even a symbol of fantastical future cities. At the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC in 2010, I watched two of the major guests, Ozzy Osbourne and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), perform a mash-up of their respective chart-topping hits “Crazy Train” and “Peace Train”. Despite coming from wildly different music genres and different decades, both wistful songs about a war-free future use trains as a metaphor for society moving forward together.
Two singers, one crazy peace train.
For a young child in eastern Ontario, the train was a convenient way for me to visit grandparents in Toronto or Montreal. Two decades later, my wife and I honeymooned by rail across Canada, Vancouver to Halifax, thanks to my mother’s gift of a VIA pass. Through wide coach windows we viewed amazing sights like the Rockies’ Pyramid Falls, and Quebec City’s night skyline while refueling at Lévis across the St. Lawrence. At the time, the main passenger line passed through Barrie but did not stop here, but we gazed upon the old, run-down Allandale station as we rolled around Kempenfelt Bay and south to Toronto.
An amazing view from the train refeulling yard in Lévis
Rail also has economic significance, as the most energy-efficient way to ship freight or people across land, requiring far less space and energy than roads. Due to our society’s massive open and hidden road subsidies, rail travel and freight don’t seem as price competitive as they should, but there are still instances where they win out; on a level playing field, they win hands-down.
Sadly, rail struggles to survive in our car- and truck-obsessed society; every step forward brings a step back. While big cities add subways or LRT for transit, historic lines linking small communities are decommissioned or torn up.
Soon KW's riders will fly on the Ion.
When CPR dropped the line running up through Barrie to parts north, Barrie’s council made the stunningly uncharacteristic forward-looking decision to purchase the tracks between Newmarket and Utopia (Collingwood owning the track from there). Somehow the automobile-serving, sprawl-happy council of the day found the wisdom, funds and courage to preserve the tracks in the hope of future restoration of passenger rail and to give our industrial lands advantageous rail freight access.
The passenger dream came true; GO trains returned in 2007 and keep expanding, bringing trains back to Allandale and moving ever-increasing numbers of people off our crowded roadways and into comfortable coach seats, with talk of electrifying the line in the next decade. But the freight side has not fared so well, to the point that Collingwood decommissioned their branch in 2011 (although parts of it seem open to temporary use) and Barrie now faces questions about how to finance the lines connecting our industrial lands, crucial wealth creators, to rail freight.
It will be a horrible shame if Council can’t find a way to keep these tracks viable. There is no question, in a world committed to sustainability and reversing climate change, that we must become a nation based on walkable communities linked by rail transit, with personal vehicle use a distant second choice. Getting there will be swifter, smoother and cheaper if we re-use existing historical infrastructure instead of starting all over. Given where we must go, it would indeed be crazy for our piece of train to go off the rails now.

Published as my Root Issued column in the Barrie Examiner as "Not the time to derail our railways"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation