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What we see from Simcoe North is the same MPP (Garfield Dunlop), the same Legislature, the same (conservative) Liberal Government, and the same unfair electoral system.

It’s as if everything is hunky-dory when in reality a day of reckoning is near. Put in terms Albert Einstein would appreciate: the kind of thinking that produced the problems we face is not the thinking that will likely solve them.

Locally, the voters have affirmed that pork-barrel politics gets one elected. I have observed this at work at all 3 levels of government. The local councillor boasts of the sidewalks he got for his ward; the MPP boasts of a Highway 12 improvement; the MP boasts of money spent on the Trent-Severn Waterway (on which he happens to operate a resort). ‘What have you done for us lately?’ is the question that submerges broader issues.

Locally we see that it will again, or still, be left to the citizens to do battle on important environmental issues like incineration, pesticides, Site 41, and brownfield developments posing unecessary risks to human health and the environment.

Provincially, we see no recognition in the Liberal Government that we are heading for an environmental precipice and that a provincial government can do as much as any federal government to slow down our lemming-like rush or even turn us away. Business as usual is not the way.

We see no recognition that the 39th Legislature is going to come to grips with structural economic weaknesses. A recent auto industry agreement (in the USA) provided for a pay cut for new employees. Ontario cannot insulate itself against the ailing economy in the USA (including suicidal fiscal and monetary policies), which appears headed for a disaster, but it would be comforting to think that our politicians are at least thinking about a plan of action. Another Japanese car assembly plant is not the answer.

On education, the view is just as bleak. The faith-based funding issue has managed to drown any debate about the principle of separation of church and state. The principle is lost and will not be debated. Even more unfortunate is that Liberal labour peace in “education” has diverted attention from fundamental debate about training versus education, the influence of the corporations’ needs for trained and unthinking workers versus society’s need for liberal arts education and thinking about tomorrow’s society, not yesterday’s.

The existence of the Education Quality and Accountability Office EQAO which perpetrates mass testing is a huge issue. Even more important than the cost of diverting teaching and learning resources and dollars, is whether it helps in any way to “educate”. One teacher I know has said that the standardized testing does what it was intended to do, which is to test for literacy and numeracy. It tests for the tools of education, not education itself, and that was never raised in the election campaign. The status quo is not good enough.

Finally, Dalton McGuinty, less than 24 hours after his Party won a large majority of seats with a lower percentage of the popular vote than in 2003, has decreed (I use “decreed” advisedly) that the issue of electoral reform is now dead. His action epitomizes all that is wrong with the present system and the way he set about keeping his promise while making certain that the Citizens’ Assembly would lead to failure. McGuinty has decreed that 8% of the voters (Green Party supporters) can remain without a representative while 42% can have almost 70% of the seats and 100% of the power.

I find it curious that a decision on something as important as fair representation can be left to the vicissitudes of electoral politics. Was it disingenuous to combine the referendum with a general election? When people inured to the old way are asked to vote in the traditional form and handed a ballot to change what they have just done on the other ballot? To say that the question was “yes” or “no” when it wasn’t?

I feel cheated. All my life my vote has been, almost literally, thrown away because I did not happen to vote for the “winner”. Now McGuinty has decreed that my vote will never be counted. Do I join the 50% who don’t see any point in voting? I, and hundreds of thousands like me, will never be represented. That is neither fair nor democratic.

There is a solution. The Government could elevate fairness and representative democracy to the level of fundamental principles. It could do the right thing. It could listen to its conscience. But it won’t, not in the 39th Legislature or any future Legislature in which the first-past-the-post gamble has produced a “majority” government.

Editor’s note: are questions like our energy future (more nuclear it seems) and electoral reform (apparently rejected), dismissed by the election results? What should be read into the growing Greens, the NDP perpetual plateau, the depleted Tories, and Dalton redux?

The issue of “faith-based” school funding remained a hot one throughout the campaign in Simcoe North. PC incumbent, Garfield Dunlop, found it inexpedient at first to follow the Leader. Then came John Tory’s faint heart and free vote offer.

Scene: All-candidates meeting near Orillia Thursday October 4.

A broadly smiling Dunlop exuded obvious relief at his freedom to say that if the issue of extending public funding to faith-based schools came up in the Legislature he would vote against it. The core of PC supporters – all-candidate meetings are notorious for being ‘packed’ with partisans – applauded loudly. But Dunlop could not leave well enough alone. He went on to say that he still agreed with John Tory’s school funding proposal because it’s a basic question of fairness. Now was not the time to press the issue, he said, because there were other more important issues to discuss and, besides, the public wasn’t ready.

As I remarked to a friend sitting next to me, fairness becomes optional in a so-called “free” vote scenario. Who knows what’s happened to principle?

As to Dunlop’s assertion that the people are not ready for fairness, that’s just plain insulting.

The Liberal candidate, Laura Domsy, was described by one audience member as looking like a “rabbitt-caught-in-the-headlights” all evening. I could not disagree. Like her Leader, Domsy has not been able to react to Tory’s tactical shift. She stuck to the line about taking $500 million away from the public schools, etc. It was a straw man even before Tory’s shift, but now it makes no sense as a campaign strategy–unless the Liberal plan from the beginning was to divert discussion away from the principle of separation of church and state.

The NDP candidate, Andrew Hill, seemed to be following a prepared script. In fact, he and his handlers had written answers to every likely question in advance. Hill then roboticaly ran a live “search” for the right one to read out on cue.

Wayne Varcoe, of the Green Party, repeated his Party’s position on one publicly funded school system, and that led to a touché moment later on. In response to a question from the audience which tried to elicit the candidates’ views on ending funding for all faith-based schools (specifically mentioning Roman Catholic schools), Dunlop stated confidently that “no political Party would ever have the courage” to end such funding. Varcoe’s turn was next and he said, “I guess Garfield doesn’t think the Green Party will ever form the Government.” Even Dunlop had a good laugh at that retort.

But I wonder, in the end, how many in the audience thought, as I do, that politics can still be, as the adage goes, the art of the possible. In the context of our local all-candidates debate, principle is a fleeting concern. Courage is defined in terms of following rather than leading. And fairness is nice, but not essential.

In my two-part series about highway construction in the Cambridge and Kitchener-Guelph areas, I complained about difficulty in reaching the various candidates. In particular I mentioned the Conservative incumbent Gerry Martiniuk and his Liberal challenger, Kathryn McGarry. After publication, I was contacted by the Kathryn McGarry campaign office, eager to talk. Ms. McGarry herself contacted me by phone on Sunday and we talked about highways in Cambridge and North Dumfries.

JB: What is the Highway 424 proposal?

KM: The proposal is not a 400 series highway…The Highway 24 corridor proposal was identified in the Cambridge Area Route Selection Study as a ring road or bypass around the Cambridge area, and the need for that road was identified fairly hotly by Cambridge residents who felt there was a lot of congestion on Highway 24 through the city, especially in downtown Galt.

That study covered a lot of different concerns about traffic congestion, but we were able to treat environmentally sensitive areas and heritage districts with care. For instance, there were calls for dealing with the Shantz Hill light (at the time an unlit T-intersection at the base of a steep hill, between two major roads constrained by the local topography and a source of lengthy backups —jb). Some people said we needed a bypass, with another bridge over the Grand River, around the village of Blair, and past several significant wetlands, and I said, “why don’t you just put a stoplight on the intersection?” They came back at me and said that the intersection was at the bottom of a hill and trucks wouldn’t be able to stop and I said, “listen, I visited Wellington, New Zealand and it’s built on the side of a mountain and all of their intersections have lights.” Eventually, the light was installed instead of the Highway 8 bypass, and I think that worked well.

The study identified a number of interim solutions that could improve traffic flow on Highway 24 through the city, such as a grade separation for a busy railroad track near the Babcock and Wilcox plant. This project is due to go ahead in the next couple of years. But while these measures will help, there is still some call for some means to bypass downtown Galt.”

JB: Why are there demands for a major highway along the highway 24 corridor?

KM: From what I understand, when they were looking at a 24 bypass, they’ve done some other studies around the area to see where some of the trips start from and end, to try and take some of the trucking firms and car trips off of the streets of downtown Galt, especially when many of these trucks are going from highway to highway.

I have been involved in the process, reading about it and going to the public meetings, so I have some of the initial reports. I also sit on the municipal heritage committee for the Township of North Dumfries, and we’re looking at another bypass, along Trussler Road, connecting to Highway 401, which might be used instead of or in lieu of the Highway 24 bypass.”

JB: How much of an issue do you believe this is with the voters of Cambridge?

KM: This is a big issue with the community, not the bypass itself, but the wider issue of traffic congestion, environmental preservation and heritage preservation in Cambridge and North Dumfries. Indeed, at one public meeting at the Armenian Centre on Dunbar Street, we overfilled the hall, so we had to hastily move people into the parking lot and run to the music store across the street to set up extra audio visual equipment. However, the concerns vary depending on where you live.

I spend a lot of my time working in Cambridge, but I live in North Dumfries. We have some concerns about environmental protection and heritage preservation, but I’m waiting to see what the environmental assessment has to say. Going door-to-door in Cambridge, I’d have to say that the only ones who are really talking about it, in terms of not liking the idea of having another road out there, are people living on the east side of Cambridge, who would be closest to that road. Other urban voters in Cambridge are worried about congestion and trucks barrelling through downtown Cambridge. They worry about walking along the Galt Market, with the trucks so close. So it’s different in whichever area you live in.”

JB: What is your position on this and other area highway proposals?

KM: In terms of my position on it, I’m willing to wait and see what the environmental assessment has to say. I strongly favour environmental and heritage preservation and I know that when I look at the swath of land that they are studying, they’ll have to do the full assessment on what they’re doing and what the options are. I really think it’s interesting sitting where I do that the urban population wants to get the truck traffic off this road and the truckers want to be out of downtown Galt too.”

At the Algonquin College all candidates’ meeting, nurses dissected the politicians’ platforms on funding for their profession. The prognosis, though, still appears critical for working nurses in Ontario.

Among the candidates vying for student votes were Jim Watson (Liberal), Mike Patton (PC), Lynn Hamilton (NDP) and Martin Hyde (Green). The Algonquin Students’ Association hosted event was on behalf of a student population that numbers 14,000

Nursing students make up about 150 of that total. Some 25 of them showed up at last week’s gathering armed with questions on their future in Ontario’s ailing health care system.

Selena Hebig, a fourth-year nursing student, asked how much funding each party planned to allocate for nursing. She wanted specifics on what each is pledging for both temporary and full-time permanent positions.

Patton, the PC candidate, confirmed his understanding of the plight of Ontario nursing students: “A large number of the nurses that have been hired recently… are not hired in full-time jobs.” He characterized hiring them on a short-term contract basis as, “some kind of indentured servitude.”

Although Patton agrees that full time jobs should be available to nurses upon graduation, he gave no details about his party’s plan to guarantee that.

The incumbent, Jim Watson, blamed the mistreatment of nurses on the previous Conservative government. Then he took credit for his government’s increasing the number of working nurses. But he missed his chance to assure the audience that the trend towards contract nursing would soon end.

All four candidates promised more funding for nurses, but none committed to providing for more full time nursing jobs.

The nursing students also queried candidates on community health centres, home care and long-term care funding. All candidates had dollar figures at the ready but specifics were lacking on what those amounts mean for Ontario nurses.

At the close of the candidates presentation, Hebig said she felt the candidates “danced around the question.” She remained dissatisfied that those asking for her vote were unable to provide straight answers to genuine concerns.

As Patton put it during the panel discussion, many nurses seek jobs in the United States because of their frustration at home. Many Algonquin grads, hoping for careers in nursing, may very well consider that among their better options after the October 10 election.

At the North Simcoe all-candidates meeting last week, environmental questions came up surprisingly often.

Incineration of waste is on many people’s mind, lately. A waste management company has been shopping the idea of burning garbage around Orillia city council. All provincial candidates were generally opposed to incineration, although the NDP’s Andrew Hill was most prepared to accept that waste disposal is “a fact of life”. Wayne Varcoe of the Green Party, applies the 3-R approach to the goal of eliminating waste and obviating disposal problems.

None, however, spoke about the role of the provincial government in waste management. In 1991 the Rae Government had banned incineration, but the Harris Government rescinded the ban, restoring the vacuum and leaving it up to municipalities.

Site 41 in Tiny Township (northwest corner of Simcoe North) is another example of an issue directly addressed. Site 41 is the proposed site of a County landfill. It just happens to be on top of aquifers of “the purest water in the world” as local advocates have asserted.

Near the end of the all-candidates meeting I got to ask my question about the mirage of environmental protection. I asked if the candidate “supported the creation of a politically independent Environmental Authority equipped with real power to make development subservient to human health and the environment, i.e. to require development to be sustainable by planet Earth.”

The Liberal, Laura Domsy, did not address the question in the least. The Green, Wayne Varcoe, referred to the strong environmental planks in his Party’s platform; he understood the question but was “not sure” such an Authority would work. The NDP, Andrew Hill, evaded my question, repeating instead his answer to an earlier question on pesticides; his Party would adopt a “right to know” law, he said. The PC, Garfield Dunlop, seemed genuinely intrigued by the question, as though it struck him as a novel concept. He did not commit himself beyond saying that he thought the question deserved careful consideration. I spoke to him afterwards to make sure he understood that I was talking about seeing all decisions about growth and development through the lens of the environment.

The question seemed to resonate with the audience, too. One unidentified person commended me for raising it, and the Conservative MP, Bruce Stanton, took the trouble to discuss the “lens” concept with me. He agreed with what I was saying. It would be nice to think he will carry the idea to Ottawa. I’m sure Stanton can’t be deaf to the criticism of the Harper Government’s own record on the environment. That government provided environmental protection is a mirage also applies at the federal level.

In Simcoe North advocacy for human health and the environment has been given voice by many citizens in their attempts to ensure the political system provides proper protections.

When we vote on October 10, will our choice be for candidates who’ll do the same?

Yesterday I talked about the frustrating task of hunting down candidates in Cambridge to get their opinion on a proposed 400-series highway between Cambridge and Brantford. While it would be paranoid of me to suggest that the candidates were avoiding me, it made me wonder when the Minister of Transportation Donna Cansfield announced provincial approval for the construction of a 400-series-style-highway between Kitchener and Guelph.

The upgrade of Highway 7 (currently a two-lane road between the two centres) would be a four-lane divided highway running north of the current highway, from a new Wellington/Conestoga Parkway interchange in east Kitchener to the northern end of the Hanlan Expressway in northwestern Guelph. The 18 kilometre long project, expected to cost $400 million by 2014 (the earliest projected completion date), was first proposed in 1989, and sustains spirited opposition due to the fact that it bisects a significant wetland, it addresses congestion that only exists during rush hour, it bolsters a single link between two major centres rather than opening up new links, and ignores public transit alternatives.

But once Cansfield made the announcement, local candidates for the three major parties lined up to express support. The following are quotes taken by a reporter for the local newspaper, The Record:

  • Rick Moffat (NDP candidate for Kitchener-Centre): “It’s not only a good idea, it is a good idea that’s 19 years overdue.”
  • Michael Harris (PC candidate for Kitchener-Conestoga): “We’ve studied it to death. Let’s get on with it.”
  • Leeanna Pendergast (Liberal candidate for Kitchener-Conestoga): “(The new highway) will reduce our stress levels, which is a good thing for all of us.”

The new highway will cut travel times between Kitchener and Guelph by 11 minutes, but requires the displacement of 5 businesses and 11 private homes, not to mention paving over about 114 hectares of viable farmland affecting a dozen farms. Apparently the option of widening the current highway from two lanes to four was dismissed by planners, because it could not meet expected demand beyond 2028.

Only the Green Party maintains strong opposition to this project. Judy Greenwood-Speers, candidate in Kitchener-Waterloo, was blunt: “To build a new highway, through the wetlands and the agricultural land, is a foolish waste of money, and does not meet our transportation needs.”

The debate has raged for such a long while, it might be a relief to finally come to a decision, one way or the other, but politicians and planners aren’t looking at the big picture. The Liberal government is proposing spending $12 billion over the next twelve years to launch Move Ontario 2020 — a plan to dramatically increase public transportation infrastructure throughout the Greater Toronto Area, largely because the roads there are at capacity, and there is little room to build more.

Under Move Ontario 2020, the Liberals are proposing to support Waterloo Region’s plans for an LRT between Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, but little has been committed to improve public transportation connections between Waterloo Region, Guelph and Brantford or between Waterloo Region and Toronto. Currently even Intercity bus services have pulled out of serving the market between Guelph, Cambridge and Brantford, leaving people with no choice but to drive along the proposed route for Highway 424. Current estimates suggest that train service between London and Toronto can be bolstered by seven peak-direction trains per day for less than $84 million. That’s a fraction of the projected cost to upgrade Highway 7.

There is more that can be done to serve our growing region without adding asphalt, but unfortunately the politicians from our three leading parties do not seem to have the imagination to consider it.

Editor’s note: if major party candidates are of a single mind on government spending priorities, like highway building, how then are voters, who favour strategies different than any of their likely representatives, to find satisfaction with the election outcome?

Our decision on Oct. 10 ought to be about whether politicians walk their talk when it comes to the environment.

In Simcoe North there’s considerable doubt, and the electoral choices appear slim.

Ask Colleen Cooney. She’s a retired educator who describes herself as “an ordinary person who cares about children and the life support systems – air, water, and earth – we are bequeathing to them.” She says she sees no point in raising questions on our poisoned systems during an election “because I’ve learned not to trust what politicians say.”

I met Colleen, from the Coldwater area, and others, like Kelly Clune from Orillia, in the course of the “brownfield battle” (a TVO documentary on the subject first aired on Studio 2 in January 2005). To us the City of Orillia seemed to be playing fast and loose with human health and the environment in its rush to build a recreation complex on a wetland. The downtown brown field was known by many citizens to be heavily contaminated from its 65-year history of foundry and metal machinery and fabrication operations. Appeals to the Ministry of the Environment (MoE), the Minister, and even the Premier seemed to fall on deaf ears. Worse, local MoE officials appeared to us to be in cahoots with the City as political interest in development seemed to constantly overshadow citizens’ environmental concerns.

Kelly, whose expertise is waste diversion and reduction, took particular interest in Orillia’s landfill being used to dump over 40,000 tonnes of seriously contaminated soil and muck. Both Kelly and Colleen have been involved for years with one of Lake Simcoe’s greatest mysteries, namely, how did Orillia ever get permission to place a landfill on the shore of the Lake?

Fifteen years ago Colleen had gained “standing” as an expert witness when the Environmental Assessment Board (later abolished by the Harris Government) heard the case and set strict conditions on the use of the lakeside landfill. Colleen and Kelly have done more to raise awareness of environmental issues than any local politician.

When I came to be associated with their struggle they had already concluded that the MoE was a toothless tabby. They also believed that it was deliberate political choice at the highest levels of government. Not an unreasonable conclusion considering the Harris Government fired approx. 40% of the Ministry of the Environment staff, including most of the field officers and all of the enforcement staff, and merged the MoE with the Ministry of Energy. The environment became the ugly step-sister in the MoEE. (The Minister was John Baird, now the Minister of the Environment in the Harper Government.) To us the message was loud and clear: human health and the environment played second fiddle to development.

Two local examples: (1) Colleen, Kelly, another concerned citizen and I met with 3 officials of the MoE over the proposed revision of the Certificate of Approval (CA) for Orillia’s lakeside landfill. That site was not permitted to receive any contaminated materials, but landfill officials, as required, had kept a good record of repeated and extensive receipt of contaminated materials. We asked the Ministry to enforce the existing CA and strengthen the new one. The officials said the MoE can set standards and require Orillia to draw up things like a waste reduction plan, but it can do nothing about enforcement of standards or compliance with approved plans because it does not have any power to do so. We suggested that, as government officials, they go to their political masters and get that power. Regulations, after, all, are drawn up by officials and approved by Cabinet as Orders-in-Council. There was no indication – and we did keep track of this – that they ever sought appropriate regulatory power. Instead, they watered down the CA.

(2) Regulation 153/04 under the EPA is the so-called “brownfield” regulation. It took effect on October 1, 2004, under the McGuinty Government. It would appear to be more concerned with re-developing old industrial sites than with impacts on human health and the environment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . Orillia’s brownfield battle over the proposed recreation centre became the most-talked about local issue. The municipal officials inadvertently drew attention to the mirage of environmental protection by saying that they were following the rules. For the most part, they were. Then it dawned on many people that if the rules and the MoE permitted indoor and outdoor recreation facilities to be built on top of one of the most toxic sites in all of North America, there must be a problem with the environmental framework.

In Ontario’s Environmental Mirage, Part 2: Will politicians seeking voters’ support commit to putting protection and enforcement at the top of MoE’s mandate?

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