Sam Nabi Kirby Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:04:45 -0400 Sam Nabi's latest blog posts In opposing trans rights, free speech warriors recycle old talking points Sun, 04 Nov 2018 00:00:00 -0400 In June 2017, the Canadian government passed Bill C-16. It’s a law that expands the human rights code to include “gender identity and expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination. This was a significant, if symbolic win for trans rights in Canada.

But to hear a certain U of T psychology professor describe it, the passage of this law would mean a Stasi-style era of “compelled speech”, where simply not calling a trans person by their proper pronouns could get you hauled in front of a judge.

So here we are in late 2018, a year and a half since C-16 was passed. There hasn’t been any real restriction of free speech, and certainly nothing resembling “compelled speech” in Canadian society. This should make perfect sense. Remember that there are a bunch of other grounds protected by the human rights act, like race, age, and sex. That doesn’t mean those forms of bigotry have been eradicated, nor that it’s a criminal act to be offensive toward someone. You have to do a lot more than use the wrong pronoun to be convicted of a hate crime.

But no matter — we’re still talking about this silly debate because Dr. I-Have-A-Book-To-Sell has been going on a speaking tour all summer long and is now touring Europe.

I happen to think the best way to get rid of a toxic garbage fire is to deprive it of oxygen. But I just couldn’t resist doing a little digging after reading a laughable column by Barbara Kay. The column attracted a lot of attention because she opened the piece with an antisemitic quote, misattributed to Voltaire. But it was this part of the article that really got me:

Consider the other grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act: “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.”

Every single one of these grounds is objectively certifiable.

Only gender identity is based entirely in an individual’s subjective feeling and an unproven theory: the concept that a person’s biological sex is in fact a phenomenon separate from his or her gender, and that moreover, our traditional understanding that sex is a binary phenomenon – male/female – is a mere social construct.

How quickly Barbara Kay forgets history! How quickly the right rushes to defend gay rights when they can use it as a weapon against trans rights!

It wasn’t so long ago that Canada was having the exact same debate, only the topic of discussion was sexual orientation. In 1995, Canada strengthened hate crime laws to include sexual orientation. The next year, we added sexual orientation to the protected grounds under the Human Rights Act.

The conservative pushback against these efforts is eerily similar to the current debate around gender identity. The same people who opposed adding sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination are now embracing it, only to turn around and deploy those same arguments against trans rights.

So, what are those arguments, exactly? Let’s take a look at newspaper clippings from 1995. I think you’ll find they bear a striking resemblance to today’s anti-trans rhetoric.

Theme #1: “Special rights”

The fundamental premise that all Canadians are equal under the law is being cast aside. Now some Canadians will be more equal than others, if they belong to a specified minority group.

I, for one, would hope that, were I the victim of an assault, justice would be done without me having to prove that I was a card- carrying member of a registered professional victims’ group.

Norbert H. Maerz, Kitchener. Letter to the Editor. Hamilton Spectator. (January 16, 1995)

Reformers ridiculed the idea that certain groups are targeted for violent attacks, and that Canadian society finds these assaults more repellant than, say, a punching match between drunks outside a tavern. The legislation, to them, was pure lunacy.

“While we are at it, let us add fat people,” said Thompson with tongue in cheek. “It is a shame that I, as a fat person, would be left off this list.”

A hateful debate about a hate law. Edmonton Journal. (June 19, 1995)

The Reform party argues that the best way to ensure equal treatment for all Canadians is to repeal the list of prohibited grounds altogether. The list, Reformers argue, only singles out special groups for protection from discrimination, amounting to special rights for gays and others.

Joan Bryden. Reality check : Federal gay rights bill will not lead to same-sex marriage and adoptions. Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (May 8, 1996)

All Justice Minister Allan Rock’s law does is give the proponents of one view of homosexuality a large club with which to beat the adherents of the opposing view. Anyone who thinks this is good and fair should remember that when the other side eventually takes its turn at governing, the club will still be there to be turned on its creators.

Lorne Gunter. Including gay rights in property rights the best solution. Edmonton Journal. (May 9, 1996)

… suppose the above crime is carried out by two people. One hates gays, as in Example 1. The other hates the rich, as in Example 2. The judge would be obliged under C-41 to give the first a harsher sentence than the second — for precisely the same crime. It is a mighty case of discrimination.

Trevor Lautens. A new tilt to the law. Vancouver Sun. (January 14, 1995)

Theme #2: Degradation of societal norms

… the Chretien government is finally, with well-merited reluctance, caving in to the insistent pressure of the gay lobby (including The Globe and Mail) to include “sexual orientation” among the protections under the Human Rights Act. Homosexuals already have rights to the same degree as everyone else, of course.

It is also bad for free speech and majority rights, not that those same elites show much interest in such matters.

But worst of all is the wicked and repulsive potential of those weasel words “sexual orientation”.

Columnist Michael Coren recently speculated that the government was too cowardly to insert the word “homosexual” in the legislation. So it chose a euphemism that most assuredly will be as big as a barn door, and as open, to those who happen to be “oriented” toward utterly disgusting brands of sexual jollies.

Trevor Lautens. Canada does not need more homosexual rights. Vancouver Sun. (April 27, 1996)

Wappel is, I am sure, conscientiously representing the will of the majority of his constituents, as are the other Liberal MPs with the courage to speak out against the political pandering to the single-issue, militant, gay and lesbian community voting bloc by elements of the hierarchy of the Liberal party.

Sexual orientation is not in the least comparable to skin color or religious beliefs as grounds for protection in law. Sexual orientation is not something inherent like skin color; it is, in the final analysis, a private matter.

Recognition in law of special privileges for homosexuals will inevitably lead to official approval of same-sex marriage, which is an insult to, and a degradation of, the true meaning of “spouse” and “family.”

Peter K. Abels. Letter to the Editor. Toronto Star. (April 25, 1996)

There is a fundamental difference between equality for gays and equality for women or races. Few people, especially gays, want to deal with that. The need to accept women or other races as equal does not affect my moral standard. On the other hand, the desire for gays to be accepted as equal challenges the morals on which our culture and laws are based.

Jerry Frank, Calgary. Letter to the Editor. Calgary Herald. (May 27, 1996)

Last month, the Chretien government rushed through changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act so it now includes sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

Both initiatives were based on blind acceptance of claims by homosexualist ideologues that those who engage in same sex behaivor merit minority status equal to inherent traits such as race, sex or ethnic origin.

This despite the respected, reasoned voices that argue such a comparison is ludicrous — and even deny “sexual orientation” even exists.

Peter Stockland. Blind acceptance: The gay rights debate needs a little balance. Calgary Herald. (June 19, 1996)

Theme #3: Free speech & thought policing

It amazes me how a minute, well-financed portion of the population tries to manipulate the vocabulary to make positions they hold seem more palatable to the greater population. The gay-rights lobby is a perfect example.

If you do not feel that homosexual acts should be condoned or supported by society then you are labelled “homophobic.” This implies that if you think this you have some sort of fear that is not warranted or your way of thinking is somehow wrong. Most people who have a problem with homosexuals are neither afraid of them nor do they have some sort of mental problem.

Jeff Rogers, Calgary. Letter to the Editor. Calgary Herald. (May 13, 1996)

The public, largely unaware of the full consequences of each new piece of gay-rights legislation, will find activists aggressively moving to force Canadians to publicly accept homosexuality, and in some cases, even to celebrate it.

This seems innocent enough, until one realizes that what homosexuals really want is nothing less than a radical change of thinking on the part of Canadians who do not share their views. Anyone who dares to publicly oppose homosexuals in their quest to be viewed as normal must be isolated and labelled a dangerous bigot.

Echoing the pseudo-psychiatric language of totalitarianism, some homosexuals have recently begun to refer to those who oppose homosexuality as suffering from a “pathological” condition.

Robert Eady, Kanata. Letter to the Editor. Ottawa Citizen. (May 12, 1996)

If Bill C-41 is designed, even in part, to prompt Canadians to think twice before they shoot off at the mouth, it is worthy of some applause from all peace-loving people.

Nevertheless, the passage of the bill is not without cause for concern in a society which prizes freedom of speech. Could it be that C-41 runs the risk of judging as hatred that which is not hatred at all? Could its implementation merely result in handicapping the exercise of a fundamental right in a society whose citizens claim to value freedom of speech?

To some extent, Bill C-41 is a revealing commentary on the intellectual immaturity of certain Canadians, MPs among them. What happens to the spirit of democracy in a country when I cannot articulate my feelings about the thinking or behavior of others without running the risk of being judged a hate-monger by entrenched legislation?

Rather than creating an environment of paranoia with legislation that potentially stifles freedom of speech, perhaps we should simply accept the reality that inflammatory rhetoric is an inevitable consequence of the freedoms afforded by a democratic state.

Tim Callaway. Hearty debate not the same as hatred. Calgary Herald. (July 18, 1995)

Legitimate free speech is not viable when those who engage in it have to worry about facing legal sanctions. Moreover, there is no way to know how often people have censored themselves because they feared such sanctions.

In my view, human rights commissions should not try to use their coercive powers against mere expressions of opinion, no matter how offensive those expressions are.

A. Alan Borovoy. Make the distinction between hate words and deeds. Toronto Star. (August 30, 1995)

Certain aspects of the government’s new “hate law” (Bill C-41) will surely serve future historians as a tombstone of sorts, marking a sharp loss of freedom and moral confusion in Canada.

Those old enough may remember large photos in Life Magazine showing hordes of uniformed Chinese of the 1960s waving Mao’s “Red Book.”

Brainwashed youths demanded correctness in all things, and “political re-education” of all those who had a bias or prejudice of any kind against officially promulgated views.

Never mind, either, that this behavior-based thing called “sexual orientation” cannot be defined scientifically or legally, and is repudiated by thousands of able psychiatrists.

It is a political term of the times being used with great effect to secure special legal, social, economic — and now punishment — rights for what is probably Canada’s most educated and economically advantaged group.

Parliament has blinded itself to the fact that all moral communities rely on bias and prejudice — in the healthy sense of pre-judging behavior — in order to remain communities.

William Gairdner. ‘Hate law’ pushes Canada toward tyranny. Calgary Herald. (June 19, 1995)

It’s the same worn-out argument

If you think there’s merit to today’s “free speech” arguments against trans rights and proper pronoun use, ask yourself how different are they from the above arguments against gay rights? The free speech warriors of 1995 were wrong. Even Barbara Kay acknowledges that. Adding sexual orientation to the protected grounds against discrimination hasn’t turned Canada into an authoritarian thought-police culture.

So it’s disingenuous to recycle those same talking points when we debate trans rights. There’s nothing new here.

I’ll leave you with this still-relevant opinion piece from 1995, published in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

People who shout the loudest about “free speech” just want to preserve the current power structure.

We’ve all heard the ruckus coming from the right-wing quarters of the media, governments and university ivory towers about how “political correctness” threatens freedom of speech.

Yet when one analyses their statements and arguments in logical, coherent fashion, one quickly realizes it’s not freedom of speech for everyone that they are defending.

What they’re upset about is that women and members of minority groups are demanding to be treated with equal respect and to have their perspectives, or their version of the story, included in the fabric of any discussion that takes place within these various institutions.

What they are defending is their own freedom to abuse power in order to exclude or intimidate those who don’t agree with them.

Considering this popular Orwellian spin on “freedom of speech,” it is perhaps not surprising to hear a deafening silence whenever there is a real threat.

Simone Rose. Real threat to freedom draws silence. Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (March 21, 1995)

Debriefing the 2018 Ontario Election Wed, 04 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0400 In the 2018 provincial election, the Green Party of Ontario’s goal was to get our leader elected. Mike Schreiner handily won his seat in Guelph, earning 45% of the vote — more than double the votes of his closest rival.

It’s a historic moment for Greens in Ontario, and we should be proud of that accomplishment.

But on average, Green support doesn’t seem to have shifted much between 2014 and 2018. Across the province, our vote total has stayed stuck below 5%.

I feel like that’s the logical result of funnelling all of our resources into Guelph. Hundreds of volunteers knocked on over 60,000 doors and we ended up with our first seat in the Legislature. But most other ridings were still campaigning on a shoestring.

If we’re going to keep up this momentum by electing more Greens, we need to at least double the province-wide popular vote. In British Columbia, for example, Greens had to earn 17% of the vote to elect 3 members.

Here in Waterloo Region, we have a relatively well-organized team compared to most riding associations. The five local campaigns (Waterloo, Kitchener Centre, Kitchener—Conestoga, Kitchener South—Hespeler, and Cambridge) pooled our finances and volunteers to create a central campaign office. We knocked on over a thousand doors, and put out hundreds of lawn signs.

Despite the improved coordination, we got about the same share of votes as in the last election. Would we have achieved those numbers without a concerted local campaign? Does local organizing make a difference?

A closer look at Kitchener Centre

Stacey Danckert, running in Kitchener Centre, got 6.8% of the vote. We had a core team of about 10 volunteers.

At the beginning of the campaign, we pinpointed areas within the riding that were more likely to vote Green, and mostly focused our efforts in those neighbourhoods. Our goal was to convert “soft supporters” into actual votes. With limited resources, that seemed like a better strategy than converting skeptics.

While we did the majority of our campaigning in these “friendly” areas, we also did door-to-door canvassing and literature drops in “hostile” areas.

So how did this strategy play out on election day? I mapped out the detailed voting results to see how specific campaigning efforts affected our vote share.

  • Average vote share: 6.8%
  • “Friendly” areas
    • Canvassing only: 0% to +4%
    • Canvassing & lit drop: +1% to +2%
    • Nothing: -5% to 0%
  • “Hostile” areas
    • Canvassing only: -1% to +3%
    • Lit drop only: -2% to +2%
    • Nothing: -4% to +4%

Canvassing in “friendly” areas increased our vote share by up to 4 percentage points. In hostile areas, it had a similar effect, but we were starting from a lower level of baseline support.

In a few neighbourhoods, we only did literature drops (leaving pamphlets in mailboxes, but not knocking on the door). It didn’t make a noticeable impact for us on voting day.

For both “friendly” and “hostile” areas, doing nothing was the worst thing we could do. We got some good results in a few neighbourhoods without trying, but those gains were cancelled out by all the areas where we got a below-average vote share.

On average, the areas where we did nothing gave us 6% of the vote. Where we did something, we got 8% of the vote.

The moral of this story is that local campaigning does make a difference. When you talk to people in person, they are more likely to vote for you. Of course, the big swings in public perception will happen at the national or provincial level –- but even a small local campaign like ours can move the needle a few percentage points.

What makes a local campaign successful?

Kitchener Centre was identified as a Target to Build riding by Green Party HQ, and as a result got extra funding for personalized signs, pamphlets and swag. (The Target to Build designated was self-selected by ridings that were motivated enough to put in a little more effort. It wasn’t a completely top-down exercise.) We also got some insights from local opinion polls that allowed us to identify those “friendly” and “hostile” areas. Our campaign was nowhere near fully-funded, but certainly had access to more resources than most ridings.

Looking at other Target to Build and Target to Succeed ridings, they all succeeded in getting above-average vote counts:

Target to Succeed

  • 20.02% Parry Sound—Muskoka
  • 12.53% Dufferin—Caledon

Target to Build

  • 6.80% Kitchener Centre
  • 5.37% University—Rosedale
  • 5.33% Kanata—Carleton
  • 4.60% Provincial average

But among our Waterloo Region Greens, Kitchener Centre did not achieve the best result. That distinction goes to Kitchener South—Hespeler, where David Weber earned 7.53% of the vote. That achievement is evidence of David’s strength as a candidate: he has an extremely charismatic personality, he’s a tireless campaigner, he’s a respected former police officer, and his last name happens to be Weber. Despite a very small campaign team and no Target to Build perks, his was the 6th-most successful Green campaign in Ontario.

Greens also had quite successful campaigns in a few other ridings that did not get the Target to Build advantages. Keenan Aylwin started campaigning in February in Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte, and earned 11.72% of the vote. Dave Rodgers in Wellington—Halton Hills earned 8.64%.

It’s clear that a local candidate’s existing reputation and networks make a huge difference to an election campaign. Of course, if you have a strong candidate plus additional resources, that’s even better.

Protect the leader at all costs?

The Guelph campaign won by pouring all of the Party’s resources into a fully staffed, fully funded campaign. It also helped that the incumbent MPP had retired, and that there was a widespread collapse in Liberal support — the conditions were right for a Green victory.

We can’t be sure of the same favourable conditions next time around, but that shouldn’t scare us into limiting our ambition.

The Green Party of Canada got our leader elected in 2011, and then stagnated. 7 years on, the Party still mainly functions as Elizabeth May’s support team. In opinion polls, our popular support has flatlined.

I find that environmental movements in general struggle with passing the torch, and the Green Party is not immune to this trend. David Suzuki is 80 years old. Jane Goodall is 84. They are still tireless in their activism, but where are the household names from this generation?

I don’t want to see the Green Party of Ontario fall into that same pattern. It took all of our resources to get Mike elected in Guelph, but we need to expand our focus now.

Getting 5 or 10 percent of the vote is encouraging, but it’s not enough to win. We’re a political party operating in a flawed First-Past-the-Post system, and our job is to elect Greens.

I’d like to see us choose two or three winnable ridings, and get those future candidates into the media spotlight early and often. We should build our capacity to run several fully-funded campaigns next time around.

Building a movement

To win more seats, we need more members. It really is that simple. Our slogan during the election was “People Powered Change”, and there’s only so much one person can do.

Mike built a following and became Guelph’s MPP by consistently fighting for his community’s interests. Specifically, he built a movement around local issues (water extraction) that overlap with Provincial decision-making power.

Can this model be expanded to other issues? What about championing a universal basic income in Waterloo Region? We could partner with university researchers, Basic Income Waterloo Region, the area’s tech sector, and maybe even connect it somehow to the Region’s affordable housing shortlist.

Another thought: could we form a YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) coalition to support needed development in our urban areas? A campaign like this could connect anti-sprawl activists with those concerned about affordable housing.

One big thing that the Greens have going for us is that people like us. Even if they don’t like our policies, they like our honesty and approach to collaboration. That gives us a good footing for building bridges and networks of support.

But there’s something missing: a sense of urgency. In order to be effective, we need to elevate these local issues to the provincial decision-making level. And we need to make sure we can find some tangible wins.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says this about local organizing: “They have to fight it out with each other, and with officials, on the plane where the effective decisions are made.” If a movement gets caught up in committees and incremental solutions, “This becomes play at self-government, not the real thing.”

From incrementalism to ideological battles

So is there room for cooperation in an ever-more combative political scene?

Sometimes I fear that the Green Party might be too nice for our own good. We’ve just seen Doug Ford elected with a promise to upset the applecart of social progress. Will Mike Schreiner really be able to influence him?

It’s naïve to engage in good-faith conversations with Doug Ford’s conservatives, even though some of our policies might share common ground (like allowing private cannabis retailing).

The Green Party has been pushing various issues for a long time: pipelines, universal pharmacare and dental care, student debt, Indigenous sovereignty, climate change, poverty. Previous governments made token advances in these issues. Now, we’re faced with active resistance. Push has come to shove.

To be honest, if we’re going to be in an ideological war, I’d rather win battles than try to appeal to our opponents. I’m done with soft awareness and education efforts. I’m tired of pouting that the system’s not fair. I want action.

Some might look at this landscape and decide that the left needs to close ranks around the NDP. But I’m not about to play the strategic horse-race game. In both BC and Alberta, NDP governments are worryingly supportive of large industrial fossil fuel projects. Andrea Horwath doesn’t have much enthusiasm for a universal basic income, and would rather keep subsidising expensive nuclear power than transition to low-cost renewables.

There’s a lot that we have in common with the NDP and Liberals, but there’s still enough difference for the Greens to chart our own path. Instead of closing ranks, progressive parties can tackle the same issues from multiple different angles.

Greens will need to set the tone and show leadership on a handful of issues if we want to carve out a reputation for ourselves. That effort will translate to more members, and we’ll elect more MPPs.

I’m happy to see Keenan Aylwin doing this in Barrie. He’s keeping up the pressure on police violence and appearing on TVO to represent the Green perspective in panel discussions.

Greens tend to do well when there is high turnout — we gain support by attracting new voters, people who were turned off by the traditional political system. We don’t siphon votes from other parties. Instead, we earn the trust of folks that distrust politics.

We’ll need to bring that same mindset to the table as we build our base between elections. It may be an uphill battle, but it’s not impossibly steep.

Can commuting patterns explain Waterloo Region's cultural identity? Wed, 17 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500 I moved to Waterloo in 2008 to attend university. Coming from Whitby, quite a homogeneous bedroom community, I was taken in by the incredible diversity of experiences that the tri-cities had to offer.

It was a short trek from campus to downtown Kitchener, where I volunteered with Food Not Bombs and became acquainted with The Working Centre. I remember mountain biking at Chicopee in the fall, and taking a solo excursion on the iXpress to wander around Galt one day. A few friends and I spent a Saturday in St. Jacob’s, amazed at the rural charm such a short distance from our dorms.

Figuring out what to call this brilliant collection of communities is a perennial challenge. Waterloo Region doesn’t have a defined core surrounded by outlying suburbs. Each city and township — and often, areas within those cities and townships — have distinct identities and relationships with each other.

Kitchenerites bristle when Waterloo gets credit for its tech industry’s success. Cambridge is often made to feel like the runt of the litter when it comes to regional politics.

Could this friction be explained, in part, by mapping out where residents live and work? I decided to pull up the 2016 Census figures for commuting. They show some really interesting patterns!

Kitchener residents who commute are most likely to work in Waterloo, Cambridge, or Guelph.
Waterloo residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener, with Cambridge a distant second.

Not surprisingly, Kitchener and Waterloo are tightly bound together. The geographic proximity of their urban centres, and their larger populations compared to the other municipalities, mean they get a lot of cross-pollination. The KW identity also happens to be much more unified than that of Waterloo Region as a whole.

Cambridge residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener, Guelph, Peel Region, or Waterloo.

Cambridge’s stats are especially interesting. People are more likely to commute to Guelph or Brampton/Mississauga (Peel Region) than Waterloo. This could be a contributing factor to Cambridge’s sense of isolation — many of its residents leave the Region for work.

Woolwich residents who commute are most likely to work in Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge, or Guelph
Wilmot residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener, with Waterloo and Cambridge tied for second place
Not many Wellesley residents commute outside of the Township. Those that do work in Waterloo.
North Dumfries residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener or Cambridge.

It’s worth noting that these maps show the number of people who commute outside of their home municipality. People who live and work in the same tend to make up a large slice of the pie.

Municipality Percentage of residents who work where they live
Waterloo 50%
Kitchener 48%
Cambridge 55%
Woolwich 35%
Wilmot 27%
Wellesley 24%
North Dumfries 16%

What do you think? Do commuting patterns match our cultural identities across the region? Do people in Wellesley feel more affinity for Waterloo than for Kitchener?

What other factors can we can look at to better understand Waterloo Region?

Let's unpack this Mon, 12 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 One thing I love about Kitchener-Waterloo is the supportive community that has developed around open mics, house shows, and small-scale concerts. It takes a strong culture of togetherness for hosts to prepare a safe and welcoming venue. It takes dedication and a genuine interest in the art for people to show up to these events. And of course, it takes confidence and trust for performers to take to the stage.

The closeness of this community overlaps with other spheres of my life — studying, politics, activism, art, entrepreneurship, and community events. Some of the same people tend to pop up in my life, and it’s wonderful to be living in a place where these chance encounters combine to give texture and depth to my relationships.

So I had to stop and reflect when I caught myself descending into a cynical spiral of contempt a few weeks ago. This was at an open mic, and an older woman was singing a boomer-hippie anthem about wanting to “turn on the TV and see peace on Earth”.

Having been primed with a steady diet of anti-Trump thinkpieces, critiques of Indigenous reconciliation, and social justice commentators, I scoffed inwardly. I want to turn on the TV and see peace on Earth? What kind of lazy storybook optimism is this? Do people really think that if they wish hard enough and send enough good vibes to Syria that their civil war will end? Are people really so naïve?

Not to mention, the premise that you could “turn on your TV” as a precursor to world peace plays right into the hands of global capitalism. Can’t they see the corporate influence responsible for widening the wealth gap is the same force that brings us these very TVs?

This performer probably lives in a big old house in Westmount, that they bought back when jobs were good and home ownership was easy to come by. Who are they to sing a happy-go-lucky tune about peace on Earth?

This line of thinking wasn’t helpful. I found myself launching into a righteous attack against someone who should really be a fellow ally. Perhaps, given enough time and other chance encounters around town, they could become a friend. But there’s no way that will happen if I can’t set aside my hostility.

It’s important for allies to hold space for other would-be allies. To empathise and edify at the same time, in a spirit of building a stronger common front against injustice. This doesn’t mean giving dominant and oppressive voices the benefit of the doubt. It means realising that we’re all learning, and passing on the insight I’ve received from others.

So next time I find myself silently fuming about a supposed ally doing things the “wrong” way, I’ll try to follow my own advice.

When is a majority not a majority? Fri, 02 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Proportional representation in Canada has been a long time coming. Yesterday, we crossed yet another milestone on the road to a fairer voting system. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) released its final report [PDF], which includes majority support for proportional representation.

Now, that’s a big deal. Greens and the NDP have been advocating for proportional representation for a long time. This has traditionally been seen as a fringe issue, a cause taken up by sore losers. However, the momentum has definitely picked up with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois throwing their support behind it as well.

The ERRE committee is comprised of 12 members: 5 Liberals, 4 Conservatives, 2 NDPs, 1 Green, and 1 Bloc Québécois. This means no one party has control over the committee, and they needed to work together to reach agreement on a final report.

Miraculously, they did work together. In an inspiring display of cross-party cooperation, the committee reached majority support for proportional representation, along with support for a referendum on the issue. In fact, this is just the kind of cooperation I’d hope to see in a proportional Parliament.

The ERRE majority report gets even more specific: it rules out Party List PR. This is great, because Party Lists tend to favour extremist fringe parties a little too much.

And when it comes to the referendum question, the majority report stakes out some well-considered middle ground. It says yes to a referendum, but also includes specific criteria for the referendum question:

  1. The question should be a clear alternative between First-Past-The-Post and a specific system of proportional representation.
  2. The alternative system needs to closely match the popular vote (measured by a Gallagher index of 5 or less)
  3. The government should prepare comprehensive educational resources about the alternative system, including maps and sample ballots

Fair enough. I don’t think a referendum is necessary, but if that’s what it takes to secure cooperation from the Conservatives, so be it. In return, the Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois have thrown their support behind proportional representation — and that’s no small feat.

Enter the supplementary opinions

So the majority report is a good compromise. It gives some direction for the government to move forward on designing a referendum question and choosing an alternative system based on the criteria.

And it would be this simple, if not for the two “supplementary opinions” attached at the end of the committee’s report.

The first supplementary opinion, written by the committee’s five Liberal members, reads like something directly out of the PMO’s office. It warns against the idea of a referendum, and takes issue with the report’s design criteria for an alternative voting system.

Basically, the Liberal supplementary opinion disagrees with the core recommendations and calls for more study, which would push this decision past 2019. Effectively, they want to break their own campaign promise.

Then we have a second supplementary opinion, jointly authored by Elizabeth May and the NDP members of the committee. It builds on the design criteria of the majority report by fleshing out a couple of specific systems that would meet the requirements for a referendum question. Not bad.

But this second supplementary opinion also argues against a referendum in the first place. Furthermore, it states that if a referendum were to happen, that it should be structured differently than the majority report recommends. It calls for not one, but two alternative systems on the referendum ballot. Oh, and we should lower the voting age to 16.

Muddying the waters

So, I can understand the Liberals’ dissenting opinion. I can only assume that the other four parties weren’t able to reach full consensus. But a Conservative-NDP-Green-Bloc agreement is much to celebrate.

What bothers me more is the NDP-Green supplementary opinion. Why would they flip-flop on the referendum question?

You’ve worked hard for six months to achieve a set of recommendations that can be agreed upon by four parties. How can you, in good faith, turn around and criticize those very recommendations? And in the same document, no less!

We’re now in a situation where a majority of the ERRE committee is against a referendum, despite the “majority report” supporting one. And without a referendum, forget Conservative support for proportional representation.

This is a mess.

Reflections on the 2016 Green Party Convention Wed, 10 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Last weekend, I spent three days in Ottawa’s downtown Delta hotel running on adrenaline and idealism. I was socially, mentally, and intellectually exhausted by the time Julia and I left town on the VIA train Monday morning. And I don’t regret it for a second.

I helped out with the Green Party’s election campaign last summer, and by the time it was all over I had got myself appointed Communications Chair of the Kitchener Centre riding association. I’ve always resonated with Green policy, and Elizabeth May is a powerhouse speaker. I ended up meeting her, and she signed my copy of Frederick Street, a book my father gave me years ago that Elizabeth May co-wrote back when she was with the Sierra Club.

The thing I love most about the Greens as a political party, is its non-hierarchical structure. Elizabeth May is technically our “Chief Spokesperson”, not a top-down authority figure. In an election, she doesn’t hold a veto over individual ridings’ candidate nominations. If someone wants to propose a policy at Convention, all they have to do is gather 20 signatures. And we use a consensus-based decisionmaking model.

Coming out of the Convention, media across the country pounced on our adoption of a motion supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The main narrative is that our party is facing an identity crisis: Elizabeth May doesn’t agree with the policy and there are calls from media figures for her to step down.

But let’s back up for a minute. Remember that consensus-based decisionmaking model?

Yeah, we ditched it as soon as the General Meeting opened on Friday.

The writing was on the wall as 300 mostly-inexperienced Green Party members registered in the Delta lobby. We were given a lanyard and two voting cards: green for yes, red for no. Now that I’ve read our Rules of Procedure a little more closely, it looks like we should have been given a yellow card to indicate that a motion needs more clarification or information. But there were no yellow cards.

Prior to the General Meeting, there was a half-hour orientation session for new members. It focused almost entirely on the technicalities of Robert’s Rules. A member of the executive council told us there was a good chance we would be using Robert’s Rules of Order for this Convention. It seemed like a foregone conclusion, and I was trying so hard to keep up with the details that I didn’t stop to question the underlying assumptions of it all.

The General Meeting opened, and one of the first motions was to use Robert’s Rules in place of our usual procedures. Elizabeth May spoke up against it. She mentioned our principles of cooperation and respect, and didn’t feel comfortable using such an adversarial system in our policymaking, where a simple majority of members could force a decision.

Someone else spoke in favour of Robert’s Rules, saying they were efficient and clear, and that it would help us get through the dozens of policy motions before us this weekend. Apparently our last convention was a mess, where we ran out of time to vote on everything we were supposed to.

After a short debate, Elizabeth gets back up to the microphone. She says she has changed her mind. She’s convinced that Ken Melamed, the Party’s President and Chair of the meeting, will do a good job shepherding us all through the technicalities of Robert’s Rules. She has a lot of faith in Ken.

And with her blessing, the room moved to approve the motion. We rejected the consensus model.

From then on, the Convention felt like trying to find my balance on a lurching ship. We only had one hour of workshop time to refine the 23 proposals that would be voted on. The two proposals concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict got their own workshop; I chose to attend the only other policy workshop, where we had 7 proposals to consider. We did a pretty terrible job of debating four of them; we didn’t have time to get to the remaining three. What more can you expect from a one-hour session?

At the end of the weekend, we passed a lot of great public policy. A hard line on dangerous oil tanker traffic. A targeted tax on sugary drinks to fight diabetes. Universal dental care. These all passed with nary a word of debate, because Green members are in broad agreement on these issues.

For the record, I supported the BDS motion. I also supported the motion to revoke charitable status from organisations that are complicit in human rights violations (I didn’t feel comfortable singling out JNF Canada and would have voted against the original wording).

But I also know that these are polarising topics and that there was not a broad consensus in the room. The debate on the BDS motion dragged on and on. Ken Melamed did a great job moderating and giving time to both sides. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife, and I was soon among the chorus of people shouting “Question! Question!”, i.e. “Everyone shut up and let’s just vote on the question.” Everyone knew the debaters were not going to change anyone’s mind. We wanted to get this over with so we could focus on other policy matters.

So we got it over with. Using an adversarial, simple-majority decisionmaking model. One that we rushed in at the beginning of the Convention.

If we hadn’t adopted Robert’s Rules, and if the workshops had been functional, the Green Party would be in a very different place right now.

Oh, and one more thing: at the next Convention, let’s open up voting rights to those that don’t have the money or free time to spend a weekend in a hotel in a far-flung city. It’s not very grassroots of us to limit participation.

Mapping Green priorities Fri, 05 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Today’s the first day of the Green Party’s biannual convention. Julia and I are in Ottawa and we’re excited to be part of policymaking and seeing what this whole convention business is all about.

Ahead of the actual convention, all the Green Party members were invited to vote on 13 policy resolutions that would be considered at this weekend’s convention. The results of that voting are publicly available, and while they are not binding, they give a good sense of the party’s mood going into this convention.

I’ve done a little data crunching on the results, and created a graph to help better visualize which issues might be most contentious.

A chart showing support and priority for 13 policy resolutions to be presented at the Green Party 2016 Convention. Click here for full-sized image.

The horizontal axis measures the resolution’s average priority, out of a score of 4. The vertical axis measures the resolution’s support, out of a score of 2. The first thing to note is that the axes don’t start at zero. Even the least popular, least important resolution has over 50% support from the broad party membership.

So what does this tell us? There’s a clear grouping of resolutions in the top right that should get passed no problem. Improving parks, waterways, transit, green energy… these are all quintessentially Green policies. Expanding our healthcare system to include dental? Seems like a logical progression. And the limits on tug-barge petroleum tankers is a direct response to the dangers of fossil fuel pipeline expansion.

The resolutions in the bottom left — especially those that wade into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — are bound to be more contentious.

It looks like we’ll have our hands full this weekend. Let’s get into it!

Book review: The Half Has Never Been Told Sun, 28 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Growing up, I never learned much about American history. The event I can most easily recall is probably that we burned down their White House during the War of 1812. I know that a civil war happened. I know that it had something to do with slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.

I had a thin veneer of knowledge — just enough historical backdrop to not seem totally ignorant.

I have relatives in the US. I remember visiting Harpers Ferry (beautiful landscape, great for hiking) and Gettysburg (not as beautiful, but I guess people died here so I’ll be respectful). The whole mess of slavery and colonialism and battles just seemed so archaic and faded.

For the longest time, I thought of slavery in abstract, textbook terms. It happened. It was wrong. In university, I took an Introduction to Jazz course that taught me the earliest blues and jazz music came from songs on the cotton plantations.

That was my passive, disconnected view of slavery: black men in straw hats, out in the beating sun, picking cotton from dawn until dusk, slowly. Whistling, singing, calling-and-answering with each other. I viewed it as dull, agrarian work. It seemed logical that the twin arcs of social progress and industrial innovation would steadily erase this phenomenon. Slavery was clearly unethical, but it came from a simpler time.

I’m reflecting on this because I recently finished reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist, an academic at Cornell University. It’s a burning indictment of the assumptions a lot of Americans (and myself, clearly) have about slavery.

If you’ve read this book, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or frankly any account of slavery that describes what it was actually like, you probably know what I’m about to tell you: slavery was neither dull, nor agrarian, nor destined to fade away in the march of progress.

We were all complicit

Baptist uses an economic lens to show how ruthlessly enslavers used their power to turn people into commodities, leverage credit, and shape world markets. Slavery fed the world’s demand for cotton, so textile mills in Connecticut and Manchester were just as complicit in slavery as plantation owners in Georgia or Louisiana.

Low-wage factory work in the 1800s, which employed mainly women and children in sweatshop conditions, has its own history of labour struggle. But it’s important to acknowledge that even these workers made what little gains they could off the backs of enslaved people.

In 1832 in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, alone, 47 different palm-hat-making firms reported a total of 863,000 hats made, costing 28 cents each wholesale, employing 2,500 women year-round. Although they were paid 30 cents or less a day, these women all earned over a quarter of a million dollars — which, measured differently, was in turn paid by 50,000 person-days of cotton-picking.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 320

Baptist goes on to explain that the ongoing fight for higher wages and better conditions for white workers in the Northeastern United States was possible thanks to efficiencies on the cotton frontier. Southern enslavers found ever more cruel and effective ways to make enslaved people pick cotton faster, and translated those gains into lower cotton prices. Northern factories, then, had more room in their budgets to compensate workers.

Disruption, innovation, torture

The picture of slavery I had before reading this book was almost pastoral, a dusty scene of cotton fields and horse-drawn carts. However, enslavers were not farmers. They were the front-line enforcers of global industrial capitalism, and their main goal was to seek higher and higher production.

To achieve this, they innovated. Just like Europe’s industrial revolution, or Silicon Valley’s techbro-disruption economy, enslavers were just trying to optimise labour and maximise profit. As it happened, nineteenth-century enslavers’ innovation centred on manipulation, intimidation, and torture.

On the cotton frontier, each person was given a unique, individual quota, rather than a limit of work fixed by general custom. […] Learning how to meet one’s quota was difficult, and those who met it before sunset still had to keep picking. (p. 133)

Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term “torture” to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture. (p. 139)

Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world. (p. 140)

The Half Has Never Been Told

And when mechanical innovation did come along, enslavers were happy to make use of it, too.

Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? For once the gin shattered the processing bottleneck, other limits on production and expansion were cast into new relief.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 116

Slavery allowed the United States to ramp up production and keep a firm grip on the world market for cotton, edging out competing industries in Brazil and Egypt. It invited investment from British and Northern US banks, who funded the continual westward expansion of slavery.

Cotton bales were the cheap oil of the nineteenth century. Here their outflow met the influx of credit to yield a new thing: ever-increasing production and thus ever-increasing economic growth.

As hands, Rachel and William were also credit: promissory notes on their sellers’ and buyers’ future possession and use of right-handed power.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 108

Commodified and dehumanised for profit

Not only were enslaved people the foundation for the whole industrial supply chain, they were used as financial assets, collateral for enslavers to borrow more and more money to expand faster and faster.

As debts and mortgages got repackaged and recirculated around the global economy, slave-backed securities played much the same role as the bad mortgages that led to the 2008 financial crisis. And just like the American bank bailouts of 2008, the 1830s saw collusion between enslavers, banks, and governments to prop up slavery’s shaky financial foundations.

What if, Moussier wondered, planters used slaves as collateral to raise capital overseas, from people who needed American cotton and sugar, and then used the capital to build a lending institution that enslavers themselves could control?


If loan repayments from planters failed and the bank could not pay off the bonds, the taxpayers of Louisiana were now obligated to do so. The state’s commitment convinced the European securities market.

The Half Has Never Been Told, pp. 245-246

Kudos & critique

I could go on about the rest of Baptist’s book, but suffice it to say that this is just the tip of the iceberg and I highly recommend reading it. He may be a white professor from Cornell, but he references a lot of original material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — including first-hand accounts from enslaved people.

I also appreciate his decision to use the terms “enslavers” and “enslaved people” throughout the book. This choice of words brings power dynamics into sharp focus, and recognizes that enslaved people still had individual lives and experiences, and shouldn’t be treated by history as a homogenous group.

That said, there are a couple things that rubbed me the wrong way. The first is a short passage describing the plight of people who managed to escape the cotton plantations, often lost in the great American wilderness:

And in between stood thousands of armed white people who would not be their friends. As for the free states, they were even farther away. The number of enslaved migrants who made it from the depths of the cotton and sugar frontiers all the way to the free states probably numbered under a thousand during all the years of slavery. That amounts to one-tenth of 1 percent of all forced migrants. Most of those who did make it got away by hiding on steamboats, oceangoing ships, and later, on railways.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 168

Maybe Baptist is being very careful with his words here, but it’s misleading to ignore the 30,000 enslaved people that came to Canada through the underground railroad.

Baptist’s treatment of aboriginal communities, too, is almost non-existent. He acknowledges that the United States occupied indigenous land, and pushed its inhabitants further west through military conquest. All this was done to facilitate the expansion of slavery. Having acknowledged this fact, Baptist goes through most of the book with nothing more than a passing reference to native people. This seems odd for an account of history on America’s settler frontier.

I recently listened to a This American Life Podcast about the Dakota War of 1862, which explores the dirty, complex politics of native-settler relations on the frontier. It sheds light on a mass execution that has been whitewashed from history textbooks. (Go listen to it.)

So I’m disappointed that Baptist didn’t give more attention to stories like this and how they intersect with nineteenth-century America’s quest for more land, more slaves, more money. Even the anti-slavery northern states were guilty of running roughshod over native people’s rights. It would have been great to see this dimension explored more fully.

As a final note, I’ll mention that before reading Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A novel drawn from real-life experiences and written as slavery was still happening, this book does a good job of framing the context and culture around slavery. It ignited debate at the time, and seems to be a good representation of the debates people were having in different classes of society.

Getting an appreciation for the people, scenes, and attitudes of the time was a really great starting point. It helped me understand the examples in Baptist’s book on a more human level. If you’re like me, and never really got a good education about American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great place to start. Then read The Half Has Never Been Told, and prepare to be blown away.

Strategic voting won't help you Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Strategic voting is a mirage. It’s like gambling, or predicting the stock market — there’s a whole industry of people trying to figure out how to game the system, and most of them fail.

Progressives have been hand-wringing for the last decade about how to unite the left (without actually, you know, uniting all the left-leaning parties). We really really want to kick Harper out this time, and strategic voting seems like our last option in a system where the cards are stacked against us.

Remember when Joyce Murray ran for the Liberal leadership, proposing that progressive parties unite behind one candidate in key ridings? Nathan Cullen, vying for the NDP leadership, also pushed for cooperation to defeat the Conservatives. They both lost.

Now we have Trudeau and Mulcair at the helm of their respective parties, and neither is interested in electoral cooperation. That ship has sailed. A minority NDP or Liberal government may need support from the other party to pass legislation in parliament, but there’s no way they’ll be endorsing each others’ candidates in this election race.

With that door shut, we’ve turned to strategic voting as the next best thing. But it’s not the next best thing. It’s not even a good thing. It’s hardly even a thing.

Polling can’t help you in tight ridings

The aggregate poll results at, run by writer-journalist Éric Grenier, have been an excellent resource over the last three elections. The site dredges through the panoply of polls across the country to come up with an informed outlook of what could happen on election day. It’s more than just an average of polls — Grenier uses a projection model that gives a percentage likelihood of each riding’s winner.

So, that’s great news! We have a smart statistics-man that did all the hard work to tell us who we need to vote for to defeat Harper! Right?


Polls and projection models can be pretty accurate on a nation-wide or regional level, but they lose accuracy fast when you’re trying to predict results for a particular riding. This is the Achilles’ heel of strategic voting — Canadians don’t vote collectively as a country. We’re carved up into 338 ridings, each a world unto itself. And when you get down to the riding level, there’s so much uncertainty that it’s difficult to figure out how to vote strategically.

According to the ThreeHundredEight projections, ridings with tight two- or three-way races have less confident predictions about who will win — and these are the only ones that matter for strategic voting. In my riding of Kitchener-Centre, where the NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives are in a dead heat, the polls are fluctuating between a 50-60% chance of a Liberal victory. That’s the statistical equivalent of throwing up your hands and shrugging your shoulders.

What about Leadnow?

This election, the advocacy group Leadnow has a shiny new campaign called VoteTogether. They hope to mobilize a hivemind of progressive voters in key ridings to tip the scales on voting day and stop Conservatives from getting elected.

I don’t doubt that Leadnow has very smart people working for them, and they’re trying their hardest to give people accurate information. But it didn’t work in 2011, and Leadnow isn’t doing anything substantially different this time around.

In 2011, there were two organizations trying to mobilize the strategic vote. They didn’t do so well:

  1. Project Democracy ended up making the wrong call in 19 swing ridings, were caught off guard by 10 ridings where the Conservatives gained a seat, and failed to make a dent in 33 targeted ridings where Conservative MPs were re-elected.
  2. Catch-22, only endorsed 2 candidates that ended up defeating a Conservative incumbent. 34 of their picks came second, and 8 came third.

But maybe, just maybe, Leadnow has it figured out. The strategic voting movement for #elxn42 has coalesced around VoteTogether and they claim to have identified 72 Conservative swing ridings where a united left can keep the Conservatives out.

I wish them all the best, but the math of strategic voting is working against them. They say the only poll that matters is the one on election day — and the only poll that matters for strategic voting is the one just before election day. Leadnow won’t have any useful polling data until a couple weeks before the election. Hopefully, this gives their on-the-ground teams enough time to collectively choose which candidate to support, get the word out, and finally, cross their fingers in hopes that everyone obeys their pledge.

It’s a tall order. For the strategy to work, the popular vote intention can’t change much in the last stretch of the campaign. If we see another late surge of support, like the NDP enjoyed in 2011, it will be impossible to navigate all those shifting goalposts in each riding.

I don’t want to diminish the real and valid mission behind a coordinated anything-but-Conservative effort. It’s a fantastic display of solidarity against the dismal legacy of Harper’s government. But the strategic vote is like herding cats, and has a dangerous potential to mislead.

Solidarity is not a numbers game Thu, 07 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Apparently, the University of Waterloo doesn’t know what it means to be an ally — but will gladly accept accolades and prestige for kind of thinking about it. Over the last few days, the UW administration has been trumpeting its partnership with HeForShe. It’s a worthy cause and a necessary approach to address systemic sexism, but I can’t find anything to suggest my alma mater is taking the campaign’s purpose seriously.

Launched last year, HeForShe is a great initiative run by UN Women. It recognizes that we need to change the conversation around feminism to engage men and boys, to recognize privilege and male-centredness in our societies, and for males to act in solidarity to dismantle the sexist norms embedded in our culture. It aims to get one billion pledges from men and boys around the world.

HeForShe is gaining steam, and UW has jumped on board as the only Canadian institution to take part in its IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot initiative — a fact it will repeat ad nauseum for the next little while. Good on UW for signal-boosting the excellent work of HeForShe, but I feel like it has missed the point.

In the section of the HeForShe website geared to universities, a helpful framework document is available, complete with action items that are tailored specifically to post-secondary institutions. There’s lots of good, succinct discussion about the problem HeForShe is trying to solve:

The achievement of gender equality requires an inclusive approach that recognizes the crucial role of men and boys as partners for women’s rights, and as having needs of their own in the formulation of that balance.


These principles build upon the agreed conclusions of the 48th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women held in 2004, which urged that men and boys have a greater role and accountability in the achievement of gender equality. Despite this recognition, the enlisting of men and boys as equal partners in the crafting and implementing of a shared vision of gender equality is yet to be fully realized.

And the document also outlines what role universities should play:

Under the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10, UN Women will partner with at least 10 universities to mobilize university campuses to reshape the global discourse on gender equality. HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 will engage with universities at the administration and student level on gender sensitization and gender-based violence.

The suggested action items in HeForShe’s framework document touch on a bunch of great ways to bring the campaign to life on campus, including inspiring men on campus to join the campaign, addressing assault and misconduct, and training faculty and staff to build gender equality into their day-to-day roles.

However, when I look at UW’s commitments for the HeForShe campaign, It’s like reading another language. Despite the clear intent of HeForShe as a solidarity movement — one where men use their privilege to build upon and move with women’s struggle — UW’s commitments don’t engage men at all:

  1. Attract more female students in STEM programs
  2. Attract more female faculty members
  3. Attract more female leaders in senior academic and administrative positions

Do you notice a pattern? UW has clearly framed the fight against sexism as a pipeline problem — there aren’t enough women in the university, so let’s try to add more. Then we’ll eventually have gender parity and sexism will go away.

But structural sexism is more than just a numbers game. It’s also dangerous to conflate solidarity with numerical parity. And what surprises me most is how UW has erased all mention of social and cultural reform from its commitments. This puts the onus on women to fill the pipeline, and neatly avoids confronting men in positions of privilege.

So what happens when women are encouraged to fill the pipeline in an environment that remains hostile to them? Consider this observation from a UW student on what it’s like to be a woman in the Computer Science program:

There can only be one of us in a group of men, and we need to be exceptional. This is an incredibly limiting and unfulfilling role for women to play in CS. Many of us can’t or don’t want to handle the attendant social and academic pressures, so we end up switching programs or dropping out of school.

From Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline, by Julia Nguyen

So, yes. I’m disappointed and cynical about UW’s approach to the HeForShe campaign. That said, there is some work being done to foster male allies in the broader university community.

The Sigma Chi fraternity released a video last fall urging men to “Break the Silence” around sexual violence and rape culture. It was in the local news cycle for a few days, and laid down a much-needed challenge:

We are shifting our culture by changing ourselves, so we can influence our communities. And through this video, we want you to do the same.

A little further afield, McMaster University recently announced that it would increase the salaries of female faculty to correct a systemic pay gap. This is a great example of a university recognizing injustice and moving swiftly to rectify a structural bias.

Through HeForShe, UW could show some real leadership as an institution and engage men to act in solidarity against deeply-rooted sexism. Instead, it plans to just increase the number of women coming through its doors. Without more robust commitments, the university’s intentions fall flat.

This isn’t to say HeForShe can’t succeed at UW; if you’re a student there, sign the pledge on your own. Join the movement and make your own commitments. The university’s engagement has been lukewarm so far, but don’t let that stop you from doing better.

Faith in the system Thu, 27 Nov 2014 00:00:00 -0500 We want to believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. We want to believe that if we just keep our noses clean, we have nothing to fear. It’s a lie you tell yourself because it’s easier to ignore systemic injustice than to do something about it — that is, unless you’re the one being marginalised. Then it’s impossible to ignore.

There have been a few phenomena over the past six months or so that got me thinking about the relationship between privilege, marginalisation, and cultural norms that perpetuate injustice. Specifically, I’m interested in peoples’ reactions and responses to events that expose these systemic issues.


May 23, 2014. Isla Vista, California. Elliot Rodger kills six university students, then himself, after writing a misogynist manifesto. The typical media narrative — mentally unstable lone wolf goes on a tragic, horrifying shooting spree — is derailed by men’s rights advocates who defend Rodger’s actions and his worldview.

They form an unexpectedly large contingent of sympathisers, and it becomes apparent that a counternarrative needs to happen. So men take to Twitter and begin to defend… themselves. The #NotAllMen stream stumbles awkwardly out of the gate as a collective hand-washing exercise, essentially saying, It’s okay, don’t worry, we’re not all like that. Don’t listen to those guys. As if gender equity will happen by simply ignoring raging misogynists. As if closing your eyes will make the problem go away.

At this point, #YesAllWomen becomes a necessary rebuke to the self-centred non-sequiturs of #NotAllMen. It steers the conversation back to the central issue, back to violence against women and the cultural norms that enable it. We get discussions about rape culture and how rigid gender roles enable the structural oppression of women. It becomes a platform for first-hand accounts of marginalisation, injustice, and abuse. People feel empowered to tell their story.

And I, with my male privilege, lose a little more faith in the system. I learn to believe in victims that speak out. I learn to amplify feminist voices. I learn to think more critically about my role in perpetuating harmful gender norms.


August 9, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri. Darren Wilson shoots Michael Brown dead. When it comes to law enforcement, cynicism runs deep for a lot of people. On the other hand, those that still have faith in the system can have an unshakeable loyalty and respect for police. Which of these worldviews do you lean toward? If you’re not sure, think about your initial reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Whose motives do you question? What about your reaction to the ongoing confrontation between police and protesters in Ferguson?

Residents mobilise against the injustice of Michael Brown’s death, and the Ferguson police respond with force and military equipment. Some of us international onlookers shake our heads in exasperation, thinking, Well, as long as the protesters don’t get violent everything should settle down. As if settling down to the way things were will eradicate police brutality. As if the onus is on unarmed civilians to use restraint when they’re staring down the barrel of a tank. This line of thinking is dangerous — it comes from a place of complacency, of comfort with the system, of privilege. And it invites harmful red herrings like tut-tutting looters and arsonists. When the government turns heavy artillery against its citizens, it’s not time to talk about what some ruffians did to the local pizza shop.

Yes, in times of chaos and mayhem, some people will steal things, damage property, and set stuff on fire. It happened in Ferguson. It happened in the UK riots of 2011. It happened all throughout the Arab Spring. It happened in Toronto during the 2010 G20 summit. It happened in the 2006 youth protests in France. That isn’t news. That isn’t the point. It diverts attention away from the reason people are out in the streets in the first place.

To illustrate: what if all sports reporting failed to mention the score of the game and instead focused on the drunken behaviour of a few fans? Tonight’s showdown between the Leafs and Sens erupted in violence when two men got into an aggressive barroom fight in the arena’s restaurant. What a black mark on the Air Canada Centre. Now with a look at this year’s Grey Cup predictions…

Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby

Let me briefly mention Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, two entertainers that are institutions in and of themselves. Here, the concept of “faith in the system” is more a personal affinity that one feels with a celebrity. Ghomeshi and Cosby have built careers on their personality, with legions of adoring fans.

So when news breaks that they’ve been sexually assaulting women, my very first reaction is one of disappointment and betrayal. Aw man, I liked Jian Ghomeshi. Q won’t be the same with him gone. Or: Thanks Bill Cosby, now my childhood memories of your show are tainted. As if it’s all about me. As if the worst thing about assault is that I can no longer think of the perpetrator as a nice guy.

This kind of reaction is understandable, because public figures like Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby are people who you’re supposed to identify with. But it’s far too easy to keep sympathising and making excuses for them. That’s what you do when you don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth. That’s how you silence their victims and perpetuate the problem.

What next?

That little seed of disappointment you feel when you hear about police brutality, sexual assault allegations, or any kind of injustice, reveals that your faith in the system has just been taken down a notch. Not just police, but the entire legal and justice system benefits from a sense that justice prevails and the rule of law is fair. As if the legal system doesn’t have its own prejudices and habits.

Having faith in the system means valuing the institution over victims of injustice. Once you recognise this worldview, you recognise your privilege. Which is a great first step, as unexamined privilege is the perfect vehicle for maintaining the status quo. So, as a privileged person in an unjust system, it is my responsibility to think, speak, write, and act consciously in ways that push against that balance of power.

Moving forward, I’m keeping these questions in the forefront of my thoughts and putting them into practice:

  • Which marginalised voices can I amplify?
  • Who can I donate to or support?
  • How can I remove or report hate speech?
  • Where is there misguided or misleading discussion happening? Can I identify any red herrings?

I no longer believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. Systemic injustice is pervasive. Here’s hoping my cynicism spurs action rather than complacency.

Peace is too meek for its own good Wed, 06 Aug 2014 01:00:00 -0400 This most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has echoed loudly through the streets of Paris these past few weeks. Among the French media and politicians, there is much hand-wringing over l’importation du conflit — the risk of “importing” the conflict into France. It’s a turn of phrase that intrigues me for a couple reasons:

  1. The notion that a conflict can be “imported” suggests that it exists in its entirety outside our borders; that the French foreign minister isn’t actively involved in diplomacy, and that it doesn’t affect a diverse city full of immigrants such as Paris.

  2. This language frames violent conflict in much the same way as, say, protecting against invasive species. The subtext is clear: we need to beef up security and surveillance to prevent these foreign elements from contaminating our society. The conflict becomes a spectre.

Of course, this frame of mind is like candy for journalists. Coverage (exhibits one, two, three) of the recent demonstrations in Barbès and Sarcelles included breathless commentary about rogue, religion-crazed bands of provocateurs, bent on derailing an otherwise peaceful protest.

Over the next few days, the spectre would get larger and more menacing. Reports of arrests and charges, complete with voyeuristic accounts of who “those people” are. Official statements from the President and Prime Minister, who condemn the violence and want to forbid further demonstrations. All this is happening in the margins, next to the daily front-page photos of absolute hell on earth. Nobody wants to import that conflict.

When tensions are high, peace becomes a footnote. Indeed, the Libération article linked above concludes with a dry, single-sentence paragraph that seems almost as if it was thrown in at the last second to meet the word count:

Samedi, en province, des manifestations propalestiniennes se sont tenues sans heurts, notamment à Lyon, Bordeaux et Montpellier.

Saturday, elsewhere in the country, pro-palestinian demonstrations were held without incident, notably in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier.

As a pacifist, it pains me to see people resort to violence to make a point. It’s important to call out that behaviour and condemn it. But we have gone past that; we’re fetishising it. The successful, peaceful demonstrations in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier deserved in-depth analysis and follow-up articles. They deserved to be more than a token silver lining on the cloud of fear that has settled over this country.

* * *

This past Sunday, I learned that a pro-peace rally was to be held that afternoon at the Place du Louvre. I went to lend my voice and see what it was all about. In response to the violence, hate speech, and polarizing climate of the previous weeks, the organisers sought to push a simple message of coexistence. They went to great lengths to cooperate with the authorities, including changing the location at the last minute.

To prevent any potential flare-ups, Palestinian and Israeli flags were banned from the gathering — only the French flag was permitted. Pre-authorised signs were distributed among the crowd, bearing one-word messages: “Peace”, “Fraternity”, “Equality”, “Coexistence”. We sang the Marseillaise to kick things off, patted each others’ backs for not being bigots, and finished the hour-long ceremony with All You Need is Love. It was perfectly peaceful, staid, and forgettable. It’s as if all the passion had been squeezed out by bureaucracy.

Near the end of the ceremony, one of the organisers challenged the crowd: “Extremists will always be vocal. We, the silent majority, must continue to give peace a voice.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. I was waiting to hear about next steps. Maybe these rallies would become a weekly thing? Should we attend the next tense political march as a contingent for peace? How can we build momentum?

No next steps materialised. The microphone cut out, the crowd dissipated, and I was left wanting. I asked an organiser when the next rally would be. “Oh, maybe in September when school’s back in session,” she replied.

* * *

If I’m painting a bleak picture of the movement for peace, know that this rally did get picked up by the media — AFP and France Inter were there with cameras and microphones. Libération published a story about it in Monday’s newspaper. So it wasn’t fruitless. But there certainly won’t be any follow-up articles.

Sadly, I think that we’ve been telling ghost stories for so long that we’ve forgotten how to imagine a happy ending. But if we can keep promoting peace, especially on the ground at future demonstrations, we just might be able to scare away the spectre.

I’d love to make a dent in this importation du conflit boogeyman. And who knows — in the process, we might end up with something worth exporting.

Imagining a more walkable Abu Dhabi Sun, 06 Jul 2014 23:55:00 -0400 In June, I spent a couple weeks travelling around the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Of course, Dubai is far and away the poster child of the region, with its gee-whiz projects like The World and the 209-storey Burj Khalifa — but neighbourhing Abu Dhabi, where I spent most of my time, is just as ambitious, if less flashy. In fact, the whole country (made up of 7 semi-autonomous Emirates, each with its own ruling Sheikh) is soaked in oil wealth and foreign investment, which the Sheihks spend with varying degrees of extravagance.

To infinity and beyond

Having sprung up out of the desert in the mid-1900s, Abu Dhabi has grown at an astronomical pace and isn’t slowing down. Its main island is more or less built out. Master plans for the neighbouring Al Reem island and Saadiyat island are going full steam ahead. But at the same time, the city has entered the second life cycle of its infrastructure. Sooner or later, Abu Dhabi will have to divert its energies away from chasing the Next Big Thing and invest in maintaining its existing neighbourhoods.

Al Reem and Saadiyat islands, to the city’s northeast, are on the cusp of a greenfield development boom. Will it come at the expense of the central city?

Unsurprisingly, restraint and maintenance are the last things people want to talk about here. Abu Dhabi is not content to stop at the status quo. Everyone I met had a glimmer in their eye about the city’s future. Checking into a hotel, the concierge exhorted me to visit the newly-built Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. “It’s a world wonder! Ten stars! People will be coming from all over to see it!”

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, photo by Andrew Xu

This is a city relentlessly looking forward. Once-decent apartments built in the 80s are being demolished — too short, too old, out of fashion. Why restore and upgrade outdated infrastructure when you can build a new gleaming steel-and-glass masterpiece in its place?

Even the old medina has been razed and forgotten. In its place stands Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Center. Of course, they’ve incorporated a contemporary souk to honour the traditional market: roomy, air-conditioned, with all the old-world charm of a theme park.

High curbs and wide roads

For such an ambitious place, Abu Dhabi (like the other Emirates) has taken quite a lax approach to active transportation. Walking and cycling is not just inconvenient, but often downright impossible. When I first arrived at the central bus terminal in Abu Dhabi, my destination was only two blocks away. I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to walk, despite the 40-degree weather and a suitcase to pull.

Poor pedestrian infrastructure on Old Airport Road.

Boy, was I wrong. Sidewalks and pedestrian crossings are an afterthought, if included at all. Curb cuts are almost non-existent, so people with strollers, wheelchairs, luggage, or carts simply can’t get around safely. Sidewalks zigzag at ninety-degree angles to accommodate parking stalls. If you’re not travelling on four wheels in Abu Dhabi, you are indeed a second-class citizen.

Abu Dhabi is planned along a strong grid pattern, with four-lane urban highways slicing the city up into neighbourhood units. These major roads usually have a landscaped median with fences, making jaywalking and mid-block left turns impossible. Many car trips start by heading in the wrong direction until you can make a u-turn.

No jaywalking over this barrier… nevermind the 3 lanes of high-speed traffic each way

Within the neighbourhood units, though, communities are surprisingly complete. In the places I visited, there were all sorts of independent businesses on the ground floors of every building. Supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, tailors, laundry services, hair salons, doctors’ offices, housewares stores, even the odd karaoke bar or covert nightclub. Each neighbourhood certainly had a mosque. All that’s missing are schools within walking distance.

The standard setup within neighbourhood units: this building is home to two hair salons, a travel agency, a fish market, and what looks to be an office supply store.

The bones of livability

These neighbourhoods are dense, with almost everything you need for day-to-day life — that’s two points on the urbanist scorecard. But I wouldn’t say they are walkable. Why not? Let’s take a look at some aerial photos of the Tourist Club neighbourhood. Despite the name, it’s not a haven for tourists; just a working-class neighbourhood nestled between Abu Dhabi’s emerging financial district and the beachfront Corniche area.

The northern part of Tourist Club. A neighbourhood unit is outlined in green.
Zooming in, we see that there’s no continuous pedestrian network. The space between buildings is almost entirely taken over by parking.
Here’s the view from street level. Not very pedestrian-friendly, is it?

I call this “towers in the parking lot”. It’s a shame that the area feels so hostile on foot, because you’ve got all this mixed-use density, you’ve got buildings in a more-or-less grid pattern, but what fills the spaces between them? A parking lot with little regard for active transportation. Sidewalks hug the edges of each building, but there is no connectivity for pedestrians to move around the neighbourhood comfortably.

Abu Dhabi’s Walking and Cycling Master Plan

It’s with great interest, then, that I came across Abu Dhabi’s recently-announced Walking and Cycling Master Plan. Could it be that they’ve got a plan in motion to address this issue?

The Plan starts with some strong rhetoric, declaring that “walking and cycling will be accessible, safe, convenient and enjoyable for all.” Among the challenges to a walkable city, it lists “Car oriented urban areas – large blocks, very wide streets with very fast traffic, huge parking lots and unorganized parking.” ()

The Safety section says, “The urban environment will be safer and more accessible, no longer dominated by motor vehicles at the expense of all other users.”

Abu Dhabi has done great work on its Corniche by building a widely-used cycle track and recreational pathway.

All good policy. Abu Dhabi clearly recognises the problems with car-dominant cities and wants to do something about it. So how do they plan on getting there?

Achieving broad and far reaching change inevitably draws on multiple stakeholders, necessitating involvement and close collaboration across a number of sectors – transport, police, health, industry, civil society and special interest groups. To have the greatest impact, it is essential that comprehensive institutional buy-in is achieved so a coordinated response can be effectively delivered. — WCMP Highlights, page 18

Re-read that last bit. Comprehensive institutional buy-in: this approach excludes incremental, lighter-quicker-cheaper interventions at the local level. Instead, the Emirate’s way forward is to garner everyone’s support for the already-finalised Master Plan, which the relevant authorities will fund, coordinate, and effectively deliver.

Unfortunately, the Master Plan says nothing about retrofitting the “towers in the parking lot” phenomenon in neighbourhoods like Tourist Club. Either the Planners aren’t aware that it’s a walkability nightmare, or it’s just not a priority.

And if neighbourhoods acted on their own?

Hypothetically, then, what could happen if neighbourhoods — say, under the structure of local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) or property owners’ associations — were given the authority to plan, fund, and implement their own solutions?

What if instead of lilypads among a sea of parking, the buildings in Tourist Club were connected by proper walkways?

What if a parking structure — generating revenue for the local BIA — freed up some of that scarce asphalt for a basketball court?

What if restaurants and cafes had enough sidewalk space for patio seating?

Maybe Tourist Club could look a little more like this:

Or maybe it would look completely different. And that’s okay. But if Abu Dhabi is going to maintain a resilient urban core, it can’t ignore the infrastructure improvements needed within neighbourhood units. Maybe the neighbourhoods themselves are the best entities to carry out this work, since high-level government seems ever-focused on the big and shiny and new.

“Towers in the parking lot” have no place in a walkable city. So if the Walking and Cycling Master Plan won’t do anything directly to reverse this destructive pattern, local-level associations should be empowered to take the reins.

It’s hard to believe that radical local empowerment could happen in an authoritarian monarchy… but I prefer to sell it as another leap forward for Abu Dhabi’s ever-ambitious society.

Identity politics Thu, 08 May 2014 02:30:00 -0400 On April 24, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) made a radical change to the way its members are represented. Gone are the directors representing faculties and colleges. Instead, a lone at-large director will accompany ten representatives for various identity groups that are not divided along faculty lines:

  • LGBTQ students,
  • racialized students,
  • indigenous students,
  • international students,
  • mature students,
  • students with disabilities,
  • commuters,
  • athletes,
  • women, and
  • first-year students.

To quote Robyn Urback’s scathing opinion piece on the matter, “This plan doesn’t include any council representation for the white, male, second-year student who lives on campus and doesn’t play sports — but he has his privilege, right?”

The UTSU board has brought in this overhaul in order to “better represent students”, but by defining which identity groups get special treatment, it has set up a starkly divided class system. Some groups get a special representative. Everyone else will have to clamour for the attention of that single at-large director.

Make no mistake: this is the worst kind of misguided tokenism. But at the same time, the tradition of faculty representation is not neutral; there are over- and under-represented interests embedded in the status quo, too. They’re just arranged differently.

Looking at the latest minutes available on UTSU’s website (which unfortunately are five months out of date), some topics of discussion in the board meeting include:

  • a rumoured new pricing strategy for tuition fees,
  • updating bylaws to meet federal legislation,
  • how to respond to private tutoring companies soliciting on campus, and
  • a proposed student residence.

Now, if you had to bring a group of people together to discuss these kinds of issues, would your ideal system be to split up their constituencies based on what subject they’re studying? Nonsense. These issues transcend faculty lines and have nothing to do with the differences between academic programs.

So what would a more reasonable constituency look like? Well, it depends on the issue. If you’re talking tuition fees, it might be a good idea to get proportional representation from each income bracket. Whether a student is rich or poor will surely impact their views on tuition more strongly than whether they study Political Science or Biology.

What I really want to talk about, though, is how this concept translates to the wider world of politics. In every level of government, elections are organized in geographic ridings. Naturally. Obviously. How else would we do it? You vote for a councillor, MPP, or MP to represent your neighbourhood, your city. It just makes sense.

Does it?

Are most policy issues geographic in nature? At the municipal level, they probably are. But at higher levels of government, constituency groups are more likely to be divided along lines of income, family structure, age, ability, and cultural values. A 75-year-old with arthritis living in Guelph is likely to have similar views on healthcare as would a 75-year-old with arthritis living in Sudbury. More so than the average Guelph resident, at least.

Ontario is in the opening stages of an election campaign right now. Imagine if, instead of deciding who should represent your neighbourhood or city, you had to decide who will represent your age bracket. I identify as an 18-25 year old much more than as a resident of Durham Region. I’d argue that the needs and interests of 18-25 year olds across Ontario are more cohesive than those of all residents in Durham Region.

Of course, I’m revealing a bit of personal bias here. I have never found much identity in geography. I was born in Ottawa, spent my childhood hopping between Whitby and Port Perry, went away to school in Kitchener-Waterloo, worked in Toronto and Hamilton for a spell, and now I live in Paris, France. I have family in the USA, UK, Sweden, Germany, Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. My co-workers are six timezones to either side of me. I do not find my identity in geography.

Like the faculty division of student unions, geographic ridings seem like the natural default option for representing citizens. But the way these geographic boundaries are formed are steeped in social identity. For example, I agree that it makes sense to have different representatives for rural and urban areas — but not because of geography. There are cultural and social differences between city life and country life, and those differences are what’s really important.

Another reason to abandon geographic representation is just to call a spade a spade. Gerrymandering, the process of manipulating electoral boundaries, is a perennial problem in politics. But it’s really just a way to define constituencies by their social identities. Currently, it’s done in a sneaky piecemeal way to the advantage of incumbent parties. Why not remove the question of geography from electoral districts and let people vote based on their social or demographic identities rather than a geographic one?

Some would say I’m adopting a segregationist argument here, but nothing could be further than the truth. In the current system, politicians can say whatever they damn well please and claim to be acting on behalf of their constituents. But they’re really only acting for the continents that align with their values. And in Canada’s winner-takes-all electoral system, the majority of voters go without any representation until the next election.

We can do better. And as misguided as the UTSU’s restructuring plan is, they’ve done one commendable thing: they recognized that certain interests were being underrepresented, then turned the tables. Their list is incomplete and doesn’t account for the fluid, multifaceted nature of identity; the implementation was rushed; UTSU isn’t keen on taking criticism seriously. But this doesn’t mean that the status quo of faculties and colleges is the best way to represent students’ interests.

Jakriborg, the medieval suburb Fri, 17 Jan 2014 01:00:00 -0500 After turning off the highway, we travelled for a couple of minutes down a dirt sideroad and arrived at the entrance. A man in a neon green vest waved us through a set of gates. It sure didn’t look like a medieval town — all I could see were large sheet-metal storage sheds and, as we cleared the gates, a vast parking lot. However, past the sea of vehicles I could make out a jumble of pointed wooden roofs, typical of northern German architecture. So, I thought to myself, Welcome to Jakriborg.

The parking-lot entrance to Jakriborg, the medieval city guarded by a chain-link wall.

Entering the town was much like arriving at a theme park. Having left our car several hundred metres back, we walked across the pavement to a gap in the chain-link fence that separates Jakriborg from the parking lot. Guided by the smell of carnival food, we ventured forth into the bustling, festive atmosphere of an old-timey Christmas market — or at least a current-day incarnation of one.

Jakriborg is a small town in the south of Sweden, planned and built from scratch in the 1990s. Nestled next to the sleepy town of Hjärup, halfway between Lund and Malmö, it is the brainchild of Jan and Kristian Berggren. These brothers decided to develop a town with a small-scale medieval aesthetic as a response to the construction boom of soulless towers in the 1960s and 70s. It’s worth noting that Jakriborg is built entirely on private land. The Berggren brothers own everything, which allows them to have tight control over everything from the design of buildings to who is allowed to hold demonstrations in the “public” square.

Taking its cues from Hanseatic architecture, Jakriborg is a nice place to visit — a quaint, nostalgic, master-planned oasis. Of course, true medieval towns had no such planning to guide their development, but they also had bubonic plague and feudalism, so I’m glad Jakriborg isn’t attempting a completely accurate historical representation.

Jakriborg from the air. The rail line in the bottom-right corner separates it from neighbouring Hjärup.

The Jakriborg Christmas market runs on the second and third weekends of December, attracting visitors from the surrounding metropolitan areas of Lund and Malmö. Thousands of people visit every year to buy Christmas gifts, admire the faux-German architecture, and entertain the kids. It makes for a fun day trip, wandering the cobblestone streets and cute little boutiques with the spirit of Christmas in the air.

As a viable town, though, I can’t help but think that Jakriborg is failing. The first phase of construction covered an area of 11 hectares and brought in about 1,000 people. Although it has good train service to Lund and there are plans to open up better pedestrian connections to Hjärup, there just aren’t enough jobs within Jakriborg proper to sustain a community.

Since cars are relegated to beyond the city walls, Jakriborg is a completely pedestrian-oriented community. This means it needs a critical mass of people, shops, offices, and industry in high enough densities to be economically self-sufficient. Sadly, it’s not there yet. Without a solid core of people living and working in this town, it will forever rely on the boom-and-bust cycle of the Christmas market and summertime tourists.

Small business turnover is a large problem in Jakriborg. Although it wants to maintain a small-town, pre-industrial image, the town is too small and isolated for independent businesses to risk investing. A supermarket chain has taken over the role of butcher, baker, dairy, and greengrocer on the main commercial strip, Köpmannagatan. Although the architectural heritage of the building has been preserved to a degree, Jakriborg can’t avoid the same retail giants as every other suburb — only this time, there’s a different coat of paint.

A Tempo supermarket has taken over the ground floor of this building for nearly an entire block. There’s not much opportunity for independent retailers to compete.

I actually decided to get my hair cut on the day we went to Jakriborg. The salon was located just at the south end of Köpmannagatan, close to the train tracks that divide Jakriborg from Hjärup. My hairdresser turned out to be quite talkative, so I peppered her with questions about life and business in Jakriborg. As it turns out, she and a friend started this business together less than a year ago, though they wouldn’t be surprised if it went under in another six months. And her reason for starting a business here is the first place? She grew up in the area. Aside from childhood nostalgia, there’s nothing tying her to Jakriborg, nor does it seem there’s much incentive to invest in a business that isn’t geared towards tourists.

Köpmannsgatan, Jakriborg’s main commercial street, is lined with lovely little restaurants and arts & crafts shops.

So how does a town like Jakriborg survive financially? It is endowed (or rather, endebted) with beautiful cobblestone streets and immaculate plaster-and-timber buildings. Its reputation as a Christmas tourism hotspot depends on this cheery, clean atmosphere — nobody wants to walk into a Dickens novel.

So far, the Berggren brothers have succeeded in developing a tourist attraction. But for Jakriborg to be successful in the long term, their task will be to plan a town that’s big enough to sustain itself economically (without plunging into debt on the up-front infrastructure costs). Can they achieve this while maintaining private ownership of all the land? If a return to the medieval city is what they’re after, perhaps feudalism is on the horizon after all…

Rabat conference notes — Part 2 Mon, 28 Oct 2013 00:00:00 -0400 See my previous post, Rabat conference notes — Part 1, for my notes from the Les Ateliers de la Terre conference.

The second conference I went to in Rabat was hosted by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global association of municpal policymakers, academics, and political figures. Held on October 1-4, this conference was branded as a “World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders”, with the motto Imagine society, build democracy. Here are some recaps of the most memorable discussions:

Making Africa’s cities more attractive

The first event I went to was a panel discussion about making African cities more attractive [PDF] hosted jointly by the Africa chapter of UCLG and Jeune Afrique, a news magazine. It was held at the offices of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I was subject to a passport check at the door — good thing I decided to bring mine with me, just in case!

Cost of living

One of the topics of discussion was about the comparatively low cost of living in African countries. Even if a household living in Rabat could make twice as much money in Europe, they can afford to live a wealthier lifestyle by staying in Morocco. The panelists agreed that this is a great comparative advantage that African cities should promote to attract wealthy immigrants.

There are two points that I want to make about this, both of which were not addressed in the panel discussion. First, the cost of living in African cities is an advantage right now, but how long will that last? As economies grow (and
Africa’s economy will grow at a faster rate than Europe’s in the next generation), the cost of living will necessarily increase. I’m not convinced that there is anything intrinsically different about Africa that will allow middle-income Europeans to live here like royalty forever.

My second point is that the comparatively low cost of living in African cities is built upon a system of gross inequality and government lassitude. Case in point: there is a huge megablock redevelopment under construction near where we live in Casablanca — the Roudani Center. It will soon be upscale apartments and offices, but the living quarters for the construction crews are absolute squalor. On the edge of the muddy building site is a row of shacks, built with stacked cinder blocks and corrugated tin sheets for roofing. Walking past one day, I could see rats scampering about and bare lightblubs hanging from the ceilings, the wiring exposed and tangled. A mattress was tucked int he corner of one shack. There was no sign of plumbing. So what’s more important — that Morocco keeps attracting welathy Europeans, or that all Moroccans get an acceptable standard of living?

Construction is underway on the Roudani Center.

Big data

Charbel Fakhoury, representing Microsoft’s CityNext initiative, gave an overview of his company’s efforts to bring the power of big data to cities. By way of introduction, he declared: “By 2016, smartphones and tablets will put power in the pockets of a billion global citizens.” That’s powerful stuff.

He went on to argue that analytics and real-time information can help eliminate silos in public administration and help governments to make more informed decisions about service delivery and political priorities. He also noted that big data makes effective citizen engagement and two-way dialogue possible, and allows cities to provide personalised services for residents and businesses alike.

Most importantly, this all relies on a backbone of smart infrastructure. Every new piece of infrastructre should be equipped to provide feedback to the city — traffic lights that measure automobile and pedestrian volumes, garbage trucks that map out how much waste is generated by each city block, you name it.

Going back to Mr. Fakhoury’s opening statement, the million-dollar question will be how Microsoft can actually convince governments to use this data to empower citizens, and not keep this information confined to city hall. That requires a culture shift in many administrations, not just new technology.

Infographic from Microsoft’s CityNext marketing materials. Governments connected via the cloud, while citizens… talk to each other?


Chief Tokunbo Omisore, President of the African Union of Architects, spoke about how economic growth and investment shouldn’t leave future generations indebted. Affordability — for citizens and cities alike — is key. Solving our short-term needs by scrambling to fund large infrastructure projects does nothing for long-term sustainability.

These sentiments were echoed by Louis-Jacques Vaillant, executive director for external relations of the Agence Française du Développement. He cautioned Africa’s local leaders to avoid making the same mistakes that Europe did. In other words, don’t dig a financial hole to finance development. He pointed out that reaching out to the private sector for financing is one solution, but the key hurdle with that approach is that there is an imbalance
between the financing cycle (short-term interests) and the project cycle (long-term interests).

Sustainable development

Kenza Abbad Andaloussi from OCP group, Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company, highlighted a new urban development being undertaken by OCP, called Ville Verte Mohammed VI. Located in Benguérir, this city is the poster child for OCP’s efforts to add complex, value-added, integrated planning to its mining operations.

A model of OCP’s master plan for Ville Verte Mohammed VI

Ville Verte is 1000 hectares, with a projected population of 100,000 people within 25 years. Every single building will be LEED certified. The few existing neighbourhoods around the phosphorus mine are going to be incorporated into the Ville Verte’s master plan, which includes polycentric nodes loosely arranged along a rapid transit corridor. A linear park forms part of the transit corridor, making the spine of the city a haven for active transportation. The city also includes a major university and research centre, which is already in operation.

While I am generally averse to large-scale master planned developments (especially those with little to no involvement from the local municipality), it’s worth noting that OCP isn’t actually doing all of the construction itself. It has a list of building typologies that it want to see built in certain parts of the city, and other private firms will bid on a block-by-block basis to construct them, adhering to certain conditions such as LEED certification.

Citizen engagement

While I was at the UCLG conference, I happened to read an editorial in L’Économiste, a major national newspaper in Morocco. It lamented the fact that most Moroccans struggle to name their own mayor, but they are intimately familiar with the real urban issues of the day — the deplorable condition of streets and sidewalks, for starters. Among residents, there is a general feeling of powerlessness in the face of the great administrative machine which is city hall.

Outside one of the conference venues, the sidewalk extends one block before fading into a dirt path. In the downtowns of Morocco, broken-up sidewalks are the norm.

The editors of l’Économiste suggested that before hosting big showy conferences, Morocco’s leaders ought to focus on transparency and accessibility in their own municipal affairs.

This awareness was alive and well at a panel discussion on citizen engagement that I attended (if you’ll excuse the irony). With speakers from Sweden, Chile, Brazil, East Africa, and France, I got a good appreciation for the issues in different parts of the world. And with so many languages firing about, I was very grateful for the translators!

Anders Knape, president of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, opened the discussion by saying that bureaucrats and politicians who are “in the system”, so to speak, often think that democracy has strong roots, that we can depend on policies and process, but that’s not the case. The system is sluggish, and it’s slow to respond to the unique needs of citizens. When it comes to public participation, people don’t want to be part of “politics” per se, but they want to be able to influence politics in very specific ways and on very specific issues. Rather than forcing them to work within the framework we have, governments need to adapt. And if they don’t, they can expect a deep-seated cynicism to take hold in their constituents. In many places, it already has.

Professor Jassy Kwesiga, representing a group of East African local government leaders, insisted that we think of public participation in terms of power balance. It’s important to treat citizens as the experts of their domains and really listen to what they have to say, rather than looking at them as simply the passive recipient of a service. Citizens aren’t experts in the political process — they do need legal backup and institutional support — but their concerns should be at the centre of decision-making. Especially in East Africa, this means accommodating the myriad local languages and engaging people who are illiterate or geographically isolated.

Jean-Claude Frécon, a French Senator, declared that a loss of confidence in governments has been bolstered by the economic crisis. There is no faith in public institutions anymore, and governments aren’t taking the initiative to turn this around — they’re disconnected. Which is understandable, since the political class is a woefully inadequate representation of the population. This situation breeds both apathy and extremism — two logical reactions to a government that doesn’t respond to the needs of the people.

Maria Lorena Zárate, president of Habitat International Coalition, talked about government’s tendency to want to control and formalise decision-making at the local level. She sees this as a wrongheaded move, especially when politicians try to manage so-called illegal slums on the edge of cities. These people are empowered. They have community. Improve their standard of living by harnessing that connection, not by bringing authority down on them. Furthermore, participation can happen without the involvement of official authorities. People have a right to the city; they also have the right to freely associate and self-organise. Government should not see itself as the master of this process, but as an equal participant alongside organised labour, civil society, and neighbourhood associations.

Silvio Caccia Bava, founder of the Pólis Institute, a think-tank in São Paulo, closed things off with a recap of the recent protests in Brazil. Two million people in 400 cities took to the streets. Who were they? Young adults. 80% of them had never protested before. 70% of them had no political affiliation. But they were united in protest largely because the creeping privatisation of common goods had made urban life unbearable. The retreat of government in Brazil had made the public sector not just irrelevant, but traitorous in the eyes of the people. The protests were largely a rebellion against the commodification of life.

Mr. Bava echoed the other panelists in urging governments to envelop themselves in culture of their citizens, not demand that the citizens learn how bureaucracy works. Protests are not simply fires to be quelled. They point to structural problems that need to be fixed from the bottom up.

Urban mobility and accessibility

Jean-Noel Guillossou of the Africa Transport Policy Program gave a very interesting talk in a small lecture hall about the current transportation issues facing many African cities. Current urban transportation patterns prioritize the fastest, heaviest, wealthiest, and most polluting forms of travel — that is, private automobiles. This mentality is at the root of inaccessibility in our cities.

He went on to talk about the importance of the informal sector in the public transit system. Common in many African cities, these are usually minibuses that straddle the line between a taxi and a city bus. They are affordable, easy for private operators to maintain, and hard for central governments to regulate. Each operator may have a schedule in place for its fleet, but a central scheduling system is immensely difficult to implement. So too are across-the-board improvements such as emissions standards.

As cities grow and invest in more large-scale rapid transit systems, what is the role of these informal minibuses? It’s important to recognise their legitimate position in the hierarchy of transportation modes and make sure that rapid transit doesn’t completely alienate the industry. This could mean opting for bus rapid transit instead of light rail, since the skills of the minibus industry are more readily transferable to a bus rapid transit system. This way, you can hire more local people and keep money flowing within the local economy. A jump straight to light rail may result in high unemployment and leave a whole section of the population in the lurch.

Rabat’s LRT system is a success, but in other cities where minibuses are more popular, perhaps BRT is a better solution?

Disasters and risk management

Margareta Wahlström, head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), opened the panel discussion about disasters and risk management by talking about access to information. Actively monitoring disaster risk is increasingly necessary and viable as new technologies become more affordable. Access doesn’t just mean “it’s out there somewhere” — information needs to be easy to access by citizens, and it needs to be easy to manage by those who are responsible.

Claudia Schneider, also from UNISDR, emphasised that the principle of resilience begins by knowing more. Knowing more about how disasters can affect a city’s infrastructure; about what resources are in place now; about what deficiencies the system has; about when a disaster is likely to occur; about who will be notified, when, and by which methods; and about how citizens can feed information back into the system.

When it comes to risk assessment, national averages mean nothing. We need to be able to drill down the data to a scale that makes sense. Furthermore, cooperation between cities is necessary — disasters don’t respect administrative boundaries.

Many of the conference events were held here, at the National Centre for Research and Technology in Rabat.

Land development

Lydec, the company in charge of service delivery for utilities and waste management in Casablanca, presented a discussion about infrastructure financing. Honestly, the details of financing models were not all that interesting to me, but what I really got out of this session was an appreciation for the massive role that the private sector plays in Moroccan land development.

Development on the periphery of Casablanca is happening in complete absence of a master plan. That said, Casablanca does not only exist as an administrative body. Just because there is no master plan doesn’t mean that there is no planning going on. The current trend is “strategic urbanism”, based around large projects that have enough private financing to stand on their own.

Strategic urbanism presents a challenge for government — since it doesn’t have any rigourous policy in place to judge a project’s vision, the city is unwilling to raise objections lest they lose the investment. What this really means is more sprawl with little regard for affordability or complete communities. An ineffective property tax system further exacerbates the irrelevance of the state. If government is not involved in planning, financing, or taxing development, why bother regulating it?

A map of Casablanca in 1942. The Maârif neighbourhood, now considered to be “downtown”, is on the urban fringe.

That’s all, folks

These notes cover most, but not all, of what I saw and heard at the UCLG conference, and there were a lot of other sessions that I didn’t get a chance to see. The conference was a four-day affair with loads of simultaeous debates, lectures, cocktail receptions, and ceremonies. And I haven’t even touched on the trade show that was happening at the same time!

The full programme is on the UCLG website, so if there’s a topic you see there that I haven’t talked about, leave a comment and I’ll let you know if I remember anything about it.

Rabat conference notes — Part 1 Sun, 20 Oct 2013 22:00:00 -0400 In mid-September and early October, I attended two conferences in Rabat, a short train ride from Casablanca. As Morocco’s political capital, it’s a comparatively sleepy government town where lots of important people decide important things.

Playing host to dignitaries and heads of state certainly gives Rabat an edge in the cleanliness department. The comfortable, tree-lined streets are a welcome change from Casablanca’s gritty concrete. It is said that Rabat has 20 square metres of green space per resident — plenty of room to breathe. And boy, are people are willing to pay to live here. The King recently sold off a portion of the royal palace grounds in Rabat — an orange grove, to be precise — for private development. The villas that are going to be built there are, as one might expect, palatial.

Against this backdrop, I spent a few days in swanky hotel conference rooms, government buildings, and auditoriums. I listened to discussion panels, participated in plenary sessions, and chatted with all kinds of people from around the world.

The Sofitel Hotel, surrounded by lush greenery in Rabat’s Agdal district

This post is part 1 of my notes and reactions, covering the most memorable points of the first conference I attended. Enjoy, reflect, and share your reaction in the comments! I’d love to discuss any of these topics further if you want more detail.

Les Ateliers de la Terre — Global Conference, Rabat Round

The first conference I went to was hosted by an organisation called Les Ateliers de la Terre (Planet Workshops in English) at the Sofitel Hotel on 18-19 September. Being a free conference, there were a lot of students in the crowd. The theme was Morocco: leveraging green growth between Europe and Africa.

The programming of the conference mostly consisted of panel discussions, with some time at the end for audience questions. Unfortunately, the moderation wasn’t as good as I had hoped, and nearly all the sessions ran late. Nonetheless, it was a worthwhile experience and I was excited to hear some Moroccan and European percpectives about big-picture sustainability thinking.

Reversing growth

In the introductory plenary session, a student in the audience questioned Morocco’s aspirations for growth as a matter of principle. Looking at the unsustainable levels of waste and resource use in rich countries, is it really reasonable for African cities to aspire to the same fate? Should our efforts not instead be focused on making better use of what we have, and not pursuing a model of economic growth that will bankrupt future generations? The introductory plenary was about the ways that corporate social responsibility (CSR) can enhance private sector growth, so the question was quite appropriate.

Mme. Christine Bargain, Director of CSR for La Poste, the pseudo-monopoly postal service in Europe and Morocco, responded first. She gave an expertly vague answer, noting that the definition of growth need not be the same as in the past. She rightly called the GDP an outdated method for measuring growth and suggested that society could adjust it to make something more meaningful. Whichever way we define growth, she remained convinced that private enterprise will continue to play a central role in achieving it.

I’m not surprised that the representative for a multinational corporation can’t imagine a sustainable future without big business. But it’s a pretty weak vision of the future, if you ask me. Europe’s finances are in shambles, yet governments still give massive tax breaks to profitable companies. Under the guise of creating wealth, these companies take public money and use it for executive bonuses. Meanwhile, countries like Spain and Greece are at 27% unemployment. The need for fundamental economic reform has never been greater.

The second panelist to respond was Mr. Lionel Zinzou, President of the Benin branch of PAI Partners, a global investment firm. He responded quite bluntly, saying that the urgent needs of today trump the possibility of risk to future generations. The consequences of growth, he said, are for your grandchildren to deal with. For now, we need to feed people, we need to reduce illiteracy, we need to invest in shelter, and all of these depend on economic growth. I’ll say I was impressed by Mr. Zinzou’s candour, if not the substance of his argument.

Agriculture and food security

In a discussion about which agricultural model should be pursued to ensure food security, Mr. Abdelfettah Derouiche, President of the Association Terre et Humanisme (a Moroccan NGO), stressed the need for universities to become partners in sustainable agriculture. We need to link academic knowledge and research with the know-how of rural populations. Working together will allow for new techniques and approaches to food security that are tailored to the local context, not copied and pasted from the best practices of some other region.

Mohammed V University is one of many postsecondary institutions that could partner with local farmers to enhance food security in Morocco.

Curiously, peak phosphorus was not discussed. I thought that it would be the topic of discussion for food security, seeing as phosphorus makes agricultural fertiliser, and Morocco controls 85% of the world’s supply. With several decades of reserves left, it’s not an immediate concern for the daily lives of Moroccans, but the phosphorus mines will one day cease to be productive and I’m sure it’s on the radar of the researchers, business leaders, and students that were at the conference.

Creating smart cities

Smart infrastructure, big data, and new communications technologies are big news, and discussions about what’s next are always bound to be interesting. In this panel discussion, two stories struck me most. They both involve specific technology examples in African cities, and they were both recounted by Mr. Lionel Zinzou, the Presdient of PAI Partners that I mentioned earlier.

The first story is set in Nairobi, where a cashless economy is more than a dream — it’s been reality for a long time. Let’s say someone wants to take a taxi to his hotel, but forgot his wallet. He texts his brother, who sends him some credit via text message. Our tech-savvy protagonist can then transfer funds to the taxi driver to pay the fare, and again at the hotel, all via text message. In this regard, Kenya is miles ahead of Canada in terms of smart mobile infrastructure.

The second story highlights a surprising constraint for a city seeking to invest in renewable energy. In Bamako, the air pollution is so bad that the sun is often blotted out by constant smog. This is bad news for solar energy — no direct sunlight means reduced effectiveness of solar panels, which drives up the price of renewable energy. Affordability concerns hamper the adoption of green technology, and people continue to rely on fossil fuels, further exacerbating the pollution… it’s a vicious cycle indeed.

Part 2, covering the 4th Congress of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), will be up soon!

A tramway's transformative influence Thu, 03 Oct 2013 14:18:00 -0400 Jeune Afrique, a weekly magazine that covers current affairs and politics across Africa, has published an excellent article chronicling the success of Casablanca’s tramway system. The trams have been rolling for less than a year, but they’re already absorbed into the city’s daily life.

As Waterloo Region prepares for ION (and as other Ontario municipalities march toward some kind of mass transit), I thought I’d translate a few excerpts from the Jeune Afrique article that illustrate the tangible impact Casablanca’s tramway has had for its citizens.

More than just a transportation solution, the tramway has brought benefits for heritage preservation, economic development, public safety, and pedestrianisation. Some of the evidence is certainly anecdotal, but cities in earlier stages of the planning process can definitely learn — or, at the very least, gain some courage — from Casablanca’s experience.

Take, for example, the attidudes of Casablancans as the tramway was being built — it’ll never get done on time, it costs too much, construction is causing traffic headaches, we don’t want this — opposition which quickly dissipated as soon as the trains actually started running. In fact, a second tramway line is already in the works.

Without further ado, here’s my translation of the article’s most salient points:

For four long years of construction, Casablancans cursed this tramway that was supposed to revolutionise transportation, but seemed to bring only dust, traffic snarls, and parking headaches. Although opposition to the project never reached the fever pitch of the Stop TGV movement (which railed against a high-speed train from Tangier to Rabat), it was still viewed with deep scepticism. […] Even as late as June 2012, most citizens thought that it would never be finished on time. Despite this pessimism, the project was completed on schedule and an inauguration ceremony was held as planned on the symbolic date of 12/12/12 by King Mohammed VI.


Less than a week after the tramway’s inauguration, it confronted its first big test: the biannual football derby between bitter rivals Wydad and Raja. Marred by violence in the past, would this match sully the reputation of Casablanca’s new tramway system as a clean, quiet, and civilised mode of transport? Would the hordes of hooligans descending upon downtown Casablanca make quick work of the brand new trains?

As if by miracle, the tramway functioned normally that day. “Nothing happened,” remembers Réda, a sports journalist. Surveillance cameras in the trams and on the platforms, as well as police officers patrolling the stations, proved to be enough to maintain peace and order on the tramway during the football derby.


In reality, the tramway is already part of the scenery. The long period of construction included road realignments, over 200 kilometres of reconstructed sidewalks, and the installation of new signalisation infrastructure – and Casablancans are now comfortable and familiar with the tramway. In some places, the change is spectacular. One part of Mohammed V Boulevard has been completely pedestrianised. In fact, an old tramway circulated along this same artery until the 1950s. Building facades, some in Art Deco style, have been revitalised. The tramway has spurred property owners to take ownership of the city’s architectural heritage, which had been threatened by decades of neglect.


The 31-kilometre tramway line, stretching from the Sidi Moumen neighbourhood to the beach at Ain Diab, reunites urban neighbourhoods that had been segregated by the city’s erratic street network. This summer, beachgoers took to the tramway en masse, tolerating the long, winding route for the comfort of an air-conditioned train.


Even if it hasn’t yet replaced other modes of transport, the tramway is the best choice for travelling along certain routes which have traditionally been very congested. To get to the Derb Ghallef market, the city’s hub for buying and selling electronics, the tramway is unbeatable. Same goes for Hassan II Avenue, which houses the city’s financial district. For students seeking an affordable commute, it’s also the best way to get to the universities in the South end of town.


Perhaps the most striking transformation that the tramway has brought about is in Sidi Moumen – once known as the neighbourhood that raised the terrorists who carried out the 2003 bombings, it is now home to the tramway’s maintenance facility, which employs 1,200 people.

Freeing Toronto from the clutches of the OMB Wed, 01 May 2013 18:19:00 -0400 Last week, I wrote an article explaining my reservations with the Ontario Municipal Board’s disregard for democratic policymaking. What’s worse than its sweeping power is the fact that it justifies its decisions so poorly.

I was happy, then, to learn that Bill 20 is making its way through the Ontario Legislature. If passed into law, it will mark the first step in giving municipalities authority and independence in land-use planning matters. Currently, it’s just a lowly private member’s bill aimed at the City of Toronto. But Bill 20 seems to be gaining steam, and will hopefully serve as a blueprint for a broader bill that includes all municipalities. Catherine Fife, the MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo, recently wrote an op-ed in favour of OMB reform. It’s clear that there is an appetite for change outside the Toronto area, too.

Bill 20 is a tedious, technical document. However, the explanatory note gives a good overview of the proposed changes:

Currently, under various statutes that govern land use planning, certain municipal decisions can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. Amendments eliminate those rights of appeal with respect to decisions of the City of Toronto. Amendments also eliminate a right to make certain other types of applications to the Board with respect to the City.

The City is authorized to establish one or more appeal bodies to hear any of these matters and to hear such other matters as the City considers appropriate.

I’m no lawyer, so it was difficult for me to understand what exactly the “default” authority will be under this new legislation. If the City of Toronto chooses not to establish its own appeal body, does the authority for appeals go to the OMB? Or will the buck stop with City Council?

Hopefully these questions will be cleared up as the bill is discussed in the coming weeks and months. But all in all, I think Bill 20 is a good blueprint for municipal autonomy going forward. It’s about time cities started to push back against the undemocratic practices of the OMB.

Edit: I received an email response from the office of Rosario Marchese, the MPP who initiated Bill 20:

The bill ultimately seeks to remove the City of Toronto from the oversight of the OMB altogether. This would leave the municipality responsible for the establishment of its own appeals process, meaning that the municipality would decide if they would create their own tribunal or other body to hear appeals.  The other possibility is that the municipality may decide not to create a body to hear appeals.

[…] Bill 20 leaves the full responsibility of dealing with development and planning issues under the jurisdiction of the City of Toronto.

Well, that clears things up. Looks like more municipal autonomy is on the horizon!

Welcome to the OMB, where everything’s made up and the rationale doesn’t matter Thu, 25 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Throughout my undergrad degree in planning, I was taught to take pride in the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). My professors lauded the virtues of this independent, arm’s-length body that rises above petty politics in the name of ‘good planning’. Supported by provincial legislation that gives it the power to overturn city council decisions, the OMB is a safety net for our profession’s integrity.

That’s the typical rose-coloured perception, anyway. Viewed in another light, OMB Chairs are quasi-judges with immense decision-making power, no accountability, and a modicum of transparency. Personally, I think the OMB demeans our democratically-elected municipal councils and encourages them to slough off tough decisions. More worryingly, it gives status-quo developers a way to dig in their heels against change.

Take, for example, the Region of Waterloo’s efforts to limit suburban sprawl. The Region’s new Official Plan directs future growth to already built-up areas, in line with Provincial policies that set targets for intensification by 2031. Only 85 hectares (210 acres) of farmland on the edge of town has been permitted for development expansion. The rest of the growth will have to come through intensification.

The Red Condominiums, currently under construction in Uptown Waterloo, are a great example of the Region’s vision to build up, not out.

Some developers that had bought up land on the outskirts of the urban boundary don’t like this vision for more compact urban growth. So they took the Region to the OMB, arguing for an additional 1,053 hectares (2,602 acres) of developable land. And they won.

The OMB’s rulings on land use are final; they are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes ‘good planning’ in Ontario. The only way to reverse an OMB decision is to appeal to the courts on narrow legal grounds. This is what the Region did. It is encouraging to see them stand their ground, and it is even more encouraging that the Province (which appoints OMB Chairs in the first place) is siding with the Region as the case goes to Divisional Court. I’m hopeful that this will be a pivotal moment for planning in Ontario, and that it will begin to expose the cracks in the OMB’s foundation.

Dissecting the OMB’s decision

So with a court challenge looming, I thought I’d do a little armchair analysis of my own. What does the OMB’s decision look like, and how does it justify the continued expansion of our urban areas into some of the country’s best farmland?

To be honest, I was taken aback by the utter lack of rigour in this decision, the full text of which you can read here: Case No. PL110080 [PDF]. The OMB Chair seems to have picked a few straw men rather than taking a comprehensive look at the implications of endless greenfield development.

We do not intend, in the course of these reasons, to address or detail each argument advanced and calculation made, but rather, refer to those matters (“Determining Factors”) which influenced our decision as to which land budget was most appropriate in this case. These Determining Factors are Aging in Place, Range and Mix of Housing, Land Inventory, Additional Apartment Units and Conflict with PPS.

— Para. 49

That’s a pretty short list of ‘Determining Factors’. What about the unsupportable cost of building and maintaining suburban infrastructure? What about the increased transportation options that compact cities provide? What about the importance of protecting our farmland for regional food security? These are all important factors not only in the Region’s new Official Plan, but also in the Province’s Growth Plan.

What irks me more than the OMB’s selective choice of ‘Determining Factors’ is that there is no rationale to explain why they were chosen in the first place! The decision seems to be stacked against the Region from the start.

If the OMB’s list of ‘Determining Factors’ befuddled me, I was stunned beyond belief to read that it considers the Province’s time-bound intensification targets to be mere guidelines. This has huge repercussions not just for the future of growth planning in Waterloo Region, but for any municipality that is trying to rein in sprawl.

The Region argues that, based on the language of s. of the Growth Plan, the requisite density target must be achieved by the year 2031 and, as a result, the Landowners’ Land Budget is fatally flawed. We do not agree.

[…] The section clearly states that the density target “will be planned to be achieved” as opposed to “will be achieved”. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, no date is specifically mentioned. The language used is simply not as demanding as what the Region suggests.

— Paras. 69 & 70

Why don’t we go through the Growth Plan and look at how often it reiterates the importance of a 2031 target.

In the Growth Plan’s introduction, section 1.1 starts off by explaining the Plan’s purpose:

“It is a framework for implementing the Government of Ontario’s vision for building stronger, prosperous communities by better managing growth in this region to 2031.”

Section 1.4, bluntly titled How to Read this Plan, spells it out again:

“This Plan informs decision-making regarding growth management in the GGH. It contains a set of policies for managing growth and development to the year 2031. While certain policies have specific target dates, the goals and policies of this Plan are intended to be achieved within the life of this Plan.”

Section gives the reader some forecasts to inform municipal decision-making. These forecasts stop at 2031:

“Population and employment forecasts contained in Schedule 3 for all upper- and single-tier municipalities will be used for planning and managing growth in the GGH.”

This brings us back to Section, which the OMB claims is free from the 2031 target that permeates the rest of the Growth Plan:

“The designated greenfield area of each upper- or single-tier municipality will be planned to achieve a minimum density target that is not less than 50 residents and jobs combined per hectare.”

Looking back to Section 1.4, How to Read this Plan, tells us that “the goals and policies of this Plan are intended to be achieved within the life of this Plan”. What is the lifetime of the Plan? Until 2031.

When you actually read the Growth Plan, it’s clear that a 2031 density target matters. Democratically-elected Provincial and Regional governments have put an immense amount of work into planning for compact, vibrant, sustainable communities, and we can’t get there without a real deadline to limit sprawl.

This OMB decision unravels the last 10 years of progress, and we simply can’t let that happen. To the Region of Waterloo and the Province of Ontario, I wish you all the best at Divisional Court.

Raw data for the 2013 Liberal leadership results: you're welcome Wed, 17 Apr 2013 04:42:00 -0400 Good on the Liberal Party of Canada for releasing riding-by-riding results as soon as the leadership vote was over. The website they used was decent enough for drilling down to a particular riding, but unfortunately they didn’t publish machine-readable data that can be parsed and analysed with any depth.

This wasn’t a close race by any stretch of the definition, with Justin Trudeau snagging just over 80% of the points and 79% of the popular vote. But even the most landslidey of landslide victories (I’m serious, I think there are only two ridings in BC that he didn’t win) is no reason to avoid digging into the numbers.

Edit: Matthew Carroll has released data in a similar format as I did, and his methods of collection were more reliable than mine. So I’ll take mine offline, leave the rest of this post up for posterity, and urge you to check out his version. Best not to have too many different copies floating around. Well done Matthew.

Without the option to download a raw data file of the riding-by-riding results, I went ahead and created one (well, a few in different formats). Copy and pasting values from the website was actually not too onerous once I got a system going. So for the benefit of all you curious political enthusiasts out there, here are the complete results in a few different formats:

  1. Google Spreadsheet: View the riding-by-riding data in your browser. Includes a couple pivot tables to summarize the results by province.
  2. CSV File: Open this in Excel and go nuts. Includes calculated vote counts alongside the vote percentages for each riding.
  3. JSON File (Flat): Standard machine-readable format. Formatted like so: { "Province or territory": "Alberta", "Riding": "Fort McMurray-Athabasca", "Eligible voters": "105", "Blank ballots": "1", "Ballots cast": "77", "Turnout": "73.33%", "Cauchon": "2.63157", "Coyne": "1.31578", "Hall Findlay": "5.26315", "McCrimmon": "1.31578", "Murray": "13.15789", "Trudeau": "76.31578" }
  4. JSON File (Multidimensional): Standard machine-readable format. Formatted like so: { "Province or territory": "Alberta", "Riding": "Fort McMurray-Athabasca", "Eligible voters": "105", "Blank ballots": "1", "Ballots cast": "77", "Turnout": "73.33%", "Vote percentage": { "Cauchon": "2.63157", "Coyne": "1.31578", "Hall Findlay": "5.26315", "McCrimmon": "1.31578", "Murray": "13.15789", "Trudeau": "76.31578" } }

I didn’t include vote counts in the JSON files because they were not explicitly reported. However, it’s pretty simple to calculate the number of votes cast for each candidate by multiplying their vote percentage by the total ballots cast.

Obligatory disclaimer: I copy and pasted this data on 17 April 2013 from the Liberal Party’s results page at Human error is always a possibility (but I tried really hard to avoid mistakes). Let me know if you find any problems.

Imprint: The Trials of International Development Thu, 17 May 2012 23:05:00 -0400 For those who haven’t read it yet, my piece on the University of Waterloo International Development program is finally up on the Imprint website. It’s been out in paper format for a couple weeks now, but for those who haven’t been around campus, here you go:

INDEV students are a tight-knit group. Most of them spent their first year together at St. Paul’s University College, and with a class size of 23, it’s not hard to get to know everyone. But some students have found that being guinea pigs in a new program has its downsides as well. […] “It felt like they were telling me, ‘If you can’t survive this, you shouldn’t work in the field,’” said Allison. After six weeks of further discussion, INDEV staff urged her to come home on account of her pressing health concerns. But, four months away from graduation, they would not provide her with an alternate way to complete the degree requirements. This question was left hanging, and only added to Allison’s burden. Read the full article

Word on the street is that the INDEV administration is looking to beef up their contingency plans in response to this article, so hopefully they go through with substantial changes and include students in the decision-making process.

Politically Correct: 2011 redux Sun, 04 Dec 2011 18:59:00 -0500 In May of this year, I started writing a political commentary column in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s student newspaper. In June, I came on board The Opposition, a new start-up website dedicated to fostering intellectual debate about Canadian and international politics.

With Imprint taking a break until the new year, I thought now would be a good time to take a look back over what I’ve written in the past year outside of this blog. It’s been a tumultuous time on the world stage, not to mention two elections and some major policy debates at home.

Without further ado, here’s a list of all the articles I wrote this year. I’m looking forward, anxiously, to what 2012 will bring.

20 May - Apathetic students or a pathetic system?

It is a common tautology that students, and young people in general, don’t participate in the political system because we’re apathetic about politics. This reasoning, as convenient and ubiquitous as it may be, is false.

3 June - Realizing the Tunisian dream

Tunisia is in a state of flux. Ben Ali is gone. Elections are approaching. A bright future is on the horizon. And we’re in this in-between place where Tunisians are taking an active role in shaping the kind of country they want to live in.

17 June - A new deal for first nations

The Auditor General’s report makes it clear that the centralized programs of the past decade haven’t done much and are certainly not the way forward. To be frank, what the government can offer is money.

26 June - Make no little plans

We need an unorthodox alternative to the current Senate system that involves more than just scrapping the institution completely. If it’s regional equality we need, Harper and his reformists are thinking too small. If we’re going to reform the Senate, let’s do something wild. Something so crazy, it just might work.

30 June - Let the games begin

Now that the NDP — a party with significant ideological differences from the Conservatives — is the official opposition, we can expect more standoffs like this in the years to come.

3 July - The political schizophrenia of the Melancthon mega-quarry

Ontario doesn’t put an additional tax on aggregate, as some jurisdictions do, which makes sprawling subdivisions more lucrative for developers than inner-city redevelopment or infill projects. This project goes against the very kind of compact, vibrant cities that Ontario says it wants to have.

15 July - Has climate change become taboo?

Shh — don’t mention the elephant in the room. Perhaps it’s better that way. More comfortable, I suppose. If we don’t use the c-word, it’s easy to portray the icebergs as rogue wonders of nature, imposing themselves for a moment upon civilization. The reality, of course, is 200 years in the making.

17 July - Why let a good election go to waste?

It’s a disturbing trend to see the pre-election jostling play out more like an elaborate game of Risk than a real political contest. The focus is not political; it’s territorial.

19 July - Improving healthcare doesn’t have to be so difficult

Our dead-last rankings on timeliness and quality of care are certainly cause for concern. And the current C. Difficile outbreaks illustrate the need for a new model of healthcare in this country.

29 July - Campus politics revisited

Academic institutions have a reputation in modern history as hotbeds for political change. The best example is probably the May 1968 protests in France. Similarly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood emerged out of universities in the 1970s to become a dominant political force. The list goes on. In Canada, however, the reverse seems to be happening.

6 September - What does Ontario’s election mean for our cities?

The most important issues in this election will be about more than education, healthcare, and HST. Many of the public services that Ontarians use every day are provided by municipal governments. So what will this election mean for Ontario’s cities?

12 September - Jack’s dream lives on

Jack Layton’s legacy isn’t wholly his own — nobody’s ever is. He was continuing the work that a great leader before him had started, and Layton was proud to carry on that tradition. And now he has passed the torch once again. This end is only somebody else’s beginning.

20 September - Towards an effective environmental lobby

It’s one thing to piss off the government, but when mainstream media won’t get onside either, the party’s over. At this point we’re left with a few fringe media organizations lauding the CYCC in a show of self-congratulatory hyperbole. This gives the government more reason to write off the hoax as hippie angst, not worth addressing seriously.

20 September - Vote with your heart and avoid a one-night stand at the ballot box

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—election season! Yes folks, once again, your candidates (the provincial ones this time) are knocking on doors and burning up photocopiers all over town just to get your attention. Doesn’t it feel nice?

22 September - Tough on crime? Not by a long shot

At the end of the day, this new crime legislation doesn’t mean much for the federal government—all the real work is outsourced to the provinces. Maybe that’s why Harper seems so happy about it. If crime continues its declining trend, he can take credit for the success. If judicial efficiency doesn’t improve, he can blame the provincial leaders.

30 September - We need a new way of doing politics

Much of my political activism has centred around the process of voting. I’m more comfortable encouraging people to vote and advocating for electoral reform than I am talking about actual policy. But for this election, I feel the need to highlight one K-W candidate who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and whose vision for our community is frank, honest, and achievable.

11 October - Breaking the glass ceiling in Alberta

Kevin Libin zeroes in on the preferential voting system that the party uses to elect its leaders, throwing suspicion on the process as if it were a black box full of voodoo. In reality, this system injects a measure of proportionality that made Alison Redford’s victory more legitimate.

14 October - Sixth Decade Plan: what about us?

Political leadership is about having a vision for how a community should evolve. But the administration seems to have made up its mind about what direction to take, so it’s worth asking, why is it feigning interest in what students have to say?

21 October - Punch-card politics in the digital age

In politics it’s far too easy to criticize policies that I don’t agree with. So when I see something worth congratulating, I make a point of saying something about it. My friends, it is with great excitement that I present to you the Senate of Canada’s Twitter account — in both official languages.

28 October - Occupy all streets: part one

I knew of Anonymous’s amoebic leadership structure, its non-centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. And on Sep. 17, I watched that system in action for the first time.

4 November - Occupy all streets: part two

So, where do we go from here? If the Occupy movement is going to continue gaining momentum, protesters in individual cities will have to coalesce around specific demands.

11 November - Eurozone solutions should come from the people

Put simply, the European Union is united no more. Where there are unifying forces, they are spurred by fear, uncertainty, and preservation of self-interest.

18 November - Why the cold feet on Syria, Conservatives?

As the international community moves swiftly to rein in Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the Government of Canada is dragging its heels on the issue.

25 November - Stimulus funding won’t save student life

The stimulus programs, responsible for so much of the construction on campus in the last few years, focused largely on academic and administrative space, ignoring the other infrastructure necessary for student life - study space, lounges, performance venues, and all the other things that connect students to their campus on a social level.

2 December - Our visceral civic duty

Since last May’s election, the political dynamics have changed, and those of us on the left are struggling to keep wind in our sails. The opposition parties cannot band together to block legislation anymore, but that doesn’t mean the wheels of democracy stop turning.

Occupy All Streets Fri, 04 Nov 2011 13:38:00 -0400 This post first appeared as a 2-part article in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s official newspaper.

On Sep. 17, I was poking around the Internet when I came across news of a protest organized by Anonymous, the hacktivist collective known for circumventing state censorship to help the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. I was led to a video — a call to action, really — calling on New Yorkers to set up camp in Wall Street to protest the corporate dominance of American politics.

The video opened with this observation about Barack Obama: “People say things when they are running because they don’t know the powers that really control the house they are going to live in.”

Anonymous is an organization (if you can call it that) that I had heard plenty about, but I didn’t quite know how it functioned. I knew of its amoebic leadership structure, its non-centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. And on Sep. 17, I watched that system in action for the first time.

A self-organized movement

What amazed me most in the early days of Occupy Wall Street was the consensus-based general assemblies. The crowd numbered in the hundreds that first night, and it was difficult to hear who was speaking. So the demonstrators used a call-and-answer format, complete with hand gestures, where each sentence the speaker said was echoed back in unison by hundreds of voices. In this way, people at the very rear of the crowd were still able to hear what was going on.

Hearing the multitude of voices, young, old, male, and female, all shouting the same thing, gave me goosebumps. It was the voice of revolution:

— “I propose,”
— “I propose,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.

I watched the first hours of the occupation unfold on a live streaming video site, where someone was broadcasting from their camera phone. After a while, the phone battery was about to die and he (or she) directed viewers to another demonstrator’s video channel, where the broadcasting resumed from someone else’s phone. This is self-organization at its finest.

Expansion and loss of focus

The first few days of Occupy Wall Street were remarkably focused on the issue of corporate control. Protesters rallied against the injustices carried out by American banks that led to the recession.

Since then, support for the movement has exploded — along with the number of issues people are protesting about. With the massive amount of people that have joined the movement in just about every major city in the world, the original message has fallen apart. No clear demands are evident anymore, aside from a general feeling of leftist discontent. I heard a protestor in Washington, D.C. clamouring for “a crowdsourced rainstorm of slogans.”

As support for the protest went global, Oct. 15 was agreed upon for the launch of the international Occupy movement. By this time, there were far too many issues on the table. A New York occupier said, “We have about three times as many agendas as there are people here!”

In Toronto, the Canadian Auto Workers union, along with other representatives of organized labour, threw their support behind the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, this provided an easy way for critics to write off the movement. With the hand of big unions seemingly behind the scenes, Occupy’s credibility as a bottom-up people-power movement was diminished.

It wasn’t just big labour diluting the message. In New Mexico, advocates for aboriginal rights changed the name of their protest to (Un)occupy, to acknowledge that the U.S. is actually stolen indigenous land that was “occupied” by settlers.

This movement didn’t start out as a rallying cry about income inequality or unemployment or aboriginal rights. As far as I can tell, an end to corporate dominance was the original goal. But this movement evolved rapidly and is now going in a thousand directions at once.

Easily misunderstood

Without a central rallying point (except for perhaps the vague notion of “the 99 per cent”), critics of the Occupy movement are able to see what they want to see in these protests. “Stop protesting and get a job,” has been a common refrain. The National Post published an editorial deriding the movement for complaining about inequality in one of the richest countries.

The problem with the vastness of Occupy is that it allows people to protest whatever they want, and it allows the critics to pick whatever easy targets they want. In the mainstream media’s analysis of Occupy, different narratives can breeze right past each other without actually trying to justify their arguments or address what’s really happening. Bill O’Reilly, a political commentator for Fox News, even managed to conjure up a scary storyline about the anti-semitic intent of Occupy Wall Street.

This knee-jerk reaction from right-wing media outlets is actually more disorganized and ridiculous than the Occupy protests themselves. For the first time since the Cold War, free-market capitalism is being challenged en masse. The conservative establishment  has been caught off guard and it’s not quite sure what to do as the protests gain momentum.

What’s most disappointing is that the reactionary comments by the likes of Bill O’Reilly confuses the issue for people that are trying to figure out what Occupy is all about.

So where do we go from here? Amid the misconceptions and lack of focus, I believe that real change is brewing. But it’s not the kind of change you’d expect. This isn’t the rise of the New Left. Rather, it’s the start of a new political paradigm.

Moving towards concrete change

If the Occupy movement is going to continue gaining momentum, protesters in individual cities will have to coalesce around specific rallying points. In Canada, for example, we could demand corporate lobbyists be prohibited from contacting Members of Parliament. There is a specific law, the Lobbying Act, that governs such behaviour in Canada and could be easily amended to explicitly prohibit certain actions.

And this is really my crucial argument: ideally, the Occupy movement will drive real change. But to get there, we need to formulate concrete demands that the media and our politicians can understand.

I would even go so far as to specifically target a single MP (say Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics frontman) and petition them to put forward a private member’s bill to limit the power of lobbyists in Ottawa.

Herein lies the difficulty: It’s easy to rally around big ideas like “corporate welfare.” But when you start getting into specifics, people lose interest. I’ve seen it first-hand when I was advocating for a change to our voting system during the last two elections. People’s eyes glaze over trying to get their heads around the Schulze method of the Single-Transferable Vote, even if it would be fairer than the current electoral system.

I’m not saying that everybody on the front line needs to be an expert — there isn’t an effective protest in all of history that has accomplished that. But I am saying that the Occupy movement needs to start getting more specific if it wants to make a difference.

Not one movement, but many

As I look back to the first weekend of Occupy Wall Street, I can see that consensus-based decision-making was effective and focused because of the relatively small number of demonstrators. And while it was a stunningly impressive display of getting things done, that model doesn’t scale well to a global movement with tens of thousands of supporters.

But why should it? The issues in New York are different than those in Toronto, Rome, or London. Perhaps Occupy should not be seen as one massive, aimless, confused protest. Perhaps the multiplicity of views is just a reflection of unique local issues.

This is why I say Occupy is not the rise of the New Left. This isn’t a binary reaction to conservatism per se. It’s safe to say that people are generally distrustful of The Man and have very different ideas of how to change things for the better.

If there’s anything the Occupy protesters don’t want, it’s to be labelled and categorized. In a New York City General Assembly on Oct. 23, Occupy Wall street participants rejected the idea of “aligning ourselves with an ideological Left.” So when journalists speak of Occupy as a springboard for the resurgence of left wing politics, I’m not buying it.

The start of something new

The issues that protesters have been dealing with over the past month and a bit have been very pragmatic: finding places to sleep, getting food, cooperating with police, organizing marches. I think that the real social solutions coming out of the Occupy movement will be equally practical and locally-focused.

This is not the Arab Spring 2.0. There are no clear calls for constitutional reform, no demands for leaders to step down. Occupy is not a protest against dictators. A radical overhaul of civic institutions will not materialize from this movement. At least, not right away.

Occupy has given people a reason to self-organize. It has formed a foundation for progressive social change. The movement is made up of lawyers, musicians, students, tradespeople, activists, optimists, pessimists, and anarchists. These people have created a common language that cuts across cultures and allows people from different walks of life to work together for a brighter future.

The seeds of revolution have been planted. Expect those ideas to bloom and mature in their own way, from the bottom up.

Interview with Peter Davis Tue, 27 Sep 2011 02:53:00 -0400 Peter Davis is running as an independent candidate in the October 6 election. He’s no stranger to politics - his mother ran for Ward 6 councillor in the last municipal election.  Don’t let his soft-spoken demeanour fool you, though - he’s got big plans for Kitchener-Waterloo. On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, we met in a cafe in uptown Waterloo to discuss his campaign and his vision for this community.

What follows is an unedited transcript of our conversation.

Sam: So why don’t we just start with introducing what your campaign is all about?

Peter: I’m running a campaign that is designed to try to change the way that people see politics, change the way that people get engaged and involved in politics as well. I have more drive and ambition - I mean, I don’t think I can change a community the size of Kitchener-Waterloo in 30 days, but it’s still an opportunity to talk to people, it’s an opportunity to make positive changes.

I’m most interested in the way that people behave to each other, and the way that we have boundaries between each other.

So you’re trying to break down the barriers between people and their community?

Yeah, and just increase the number of interactions, really. For instance, I’m going door-to-door, I’m knocking on doors, trying to talk to people about politics and society and community. I’m trying to encourage politicians to do the same. To get everybody meeting strangers more often, and struggling against that resistance.

The thing that I’ve noticed through this process is that I become more sensitive to other people by knocking on a thousand doors. At first, when I was running I would see somebody who’s younger, and I’d ask them “Oh, are you planning on voting?” As though they would almost be less likely to do so.

I went to a debate at WCI and every single question was on education. A student is a student and will be interested in student things. But is there not a connecting thread between the student, the immigrant, the elderly person? Every person is human, so is there not a common interest that we can talk about that transcends those issues?

Who is Peter Davis? How did you get into politics and what’s your motivation for doing this?

Well, I’ve always been interested in politics, even as a young kid. I took politics in high school and got a C-minus. I took politics again in high school to try to bring up my mark and got a C-minus. And then I took politics in first-year university and I got another C-minus. So I switched into economics. [Laughs] I got a BA in economics and did very well with the BA. Then I spent a year teaching English in Japan. I then got into a master’s program in Switzerland in International Affairs.

In Switzerland, the tuition was so much lower - even for international students! The first year of the two-year program, I was getting paid $1800 a month to study, and then the second year I had to pay $5000 in tuition for the whole year, as an international student.

Do you see that as an education model that Ontario could learn a lot from?

Sure, I mean, these things grow out of a particular history and culture. So I’m not about to run and change anything, but I definitely see the possibility that you could have a much better system.

You organized some events at the polling booths during the last federal election. Could you speak a little bit about what you did?

I’ve been following movements in cultures, and seeing a big growth in the sort of social movements through free association. So movements that don’t necessarily need any kind of funding or government support to just do something positive. So I wanted to see if I could get people to vote in a more social way. I decided to have a picnic at one of the advanced polling stations to try to get people to come out and share a meal at the same time as casting a ballot. So it was trying to draw a connection between the community meal and community voting.

I went around campus and got a bunch of people to sign up, but only about three people ended up coming to the event. So I’m not quite sure that picnics are the way to revolution.

You talk a lot about the ability of local businesses to make decisions for themselves, to make some sort of voluntary positive change.

On policy I’m really not a typical politician. I’m actually probably really a libertarian. I would love to see a society without government. I think there’s a responsibility of people to help people. But unlike most libertarians, I don’t think we should cut services to the poor and then hope that people cover each others’ backs.

So more of a realist libertarian?

Yeah, we need to solve problems together first, then we won’t need government programs, then we can cut taxes.

A lot of libertarians would say “cut taxes first, and then people will self-organize”.

That’s not very compassionate, I don’t think.

Some people have taken a look at what you’re running on and thy accuse you of not having a “real” or full platform. What do you say to that? Do you think it’s a fair judgment?

I think that traditionally, policy has become the objective of politics. So you elect a politician to pass legislation to force your neighbour to treat you with respect. And now, I think we’re entering into a very different time, where policy is no longer the objective of politics.

Politics is now almost about circumventing policy and finding ways that we can change society without actually changing any legislation. I see the successful movements of the future being volunteer-based, charity-based, these kinds of things I have a lot of hope for.

I think that we always underestimate what we are able to achieve ourselves. Imagining an all-powerful government to solve our problems, I think that’s unrealistic. that’s imaginary. Especially in a society where half the voters are conservative and we’re going to keep electing governments that aren’t going to be solving these problems.

You have to make the people more compassionate if you want a more compassionate government. It’s not about protesting, it’s not about lobbying, because we have a government that reflects the people. That’s the beauty of democracy, which makes social change sometimes more difficult, but in other ways, much more possible.

Do you think that people have become less compassionate over history?

I think that before the industrial revolution, say 200 years ago, people lived in communities. They had an historical connection to communities. Then with the industrial revolution, they moved out of their communities, they moved in search of jobs and prosperity and personal ambition. And desperation, too, because these were extremely tough economic times.

But then they lost the ancestral connection to community. they lost the value of community-specific knowledge from ten generations passed down. And we developed an entirely new education system based on this. And it’s an education system that teaches people knowledge, but not ethics. Not how to relate to each other.

I think there’s a lot of arrogance that’s built into our economic system that encourages us to look down on the past. To look down on the poor. To look down on developing countries. To say, “Look at what we have, look at all of our cars, look at the wonders of our society,” when really, we’re no happier. And if you start to look at other countries, other people, and you start to look at what they have that we don’t, look at their festivals! Look at how they celebrate together! Look at how their community comes together and how they support each other! Maybe they eat less than us, but we’re fat!

Just a few months ago, when the conflict in Libya was beginning, I found an article in the New York Times about Libyan refugees that were pouring across the border into Tunisia. Thousands, tens of thousands, even. But there are no refugee camps. Where do the refugees go? They are taken into the homes of the Tunisians. It’s possible. In Waterloo, could we support twenty thousand refugees? We have trouble supporting a hundred, two hundred. I’m not sure of the exact number, there are a lot of refugees in Waterloo actually that we don’t see.

So is this a case where institutionalisation, making refugee camps, would actually be making the problem worse?

I don’t want to say that, because just to take away the refugee camps and tell them to depend on the hospitality of others? No. I think that if a community wanted to get rid of refugee camps, they could welcome them into their homes. In Arabic cultures, there’s that concept of hospitality that says “If we have bread, we can eat it together. And if we don’t, we can be hungry together.” That’s such a strong idea for community, but try applying that here, and it’s a lot more difficult.

How have you been reaching out to the student population, given the large part it plays in society here?

Well, I’ve been involved in two election before this. Both times, trying to organize a student vote campaign. In the federal election I organized the picnic, and I was involved with vote mobs and LeadNow - different organizations trying to mobilize students. And, it was just really frustrating. If you look at the turnout, I don’t think the turnout at the federal election was that much different, despite all this Rick Mercer stuff and despite all the excitement about how students are “becoming” more engaged.

So in this election, I decided to try something a little different. I’m volunteering at Supportive Housing of Waterloo, and the policy of SHOW is “Housing first”. Right? So you don’t ask people to make changes to their lifestyle before you give them a house. You’re not telling them you can’t drink and live here. You’re not telling them you can’t do narcotics and live here. There are some rules that you have to abide by, but basically we’ll accept you as you are and support you in any changes that you wish to make.

So I thought about applying that concept to students. I think that students are under a lot of pressure to constantly be having fun, and going out and partying, and that is probably, for some students, 90 per cent of their mentality. Ten per cent is like, “Okay, I’ve got to do the work to get this grade,” but the majority of students are really focused on enjoying themselves. So I decided that I would campaign at night, wandering around parties and bars, and finding students who are having a good time. I talk to them about voting, talk to them about a balance in their lives between dissipation, having fun, and doing something for a greater cause, a greater good.

And it comes to the idea that it’s not a big commitment to vote. It’s a very small sacrifice, it’s one hour. It’s like going to church once. It’s a very small commitment. But after you do it once, you reflect on it. So even if you vote with no knowledge of any candidates, and you just toss out a ballot, then after the fact maybe you’ll reflect on it and I think that you’re likely to vote in the next election, and maybe even learn something about the candidates. And then later on down the road, maybe you’re thinking “Maybe I can get involved”.

So what’s been the response generally from people when you walk up to them outside a bar on King Street on a Friday night?

I was expecting to get hit [laughs]. I was expecting that students would have no time for me. But I was totally surprised when it went in the opposite direction. They were excited to talk to me, they were really happy that I’m talking to them. And over time, I realize that I was never involved in politics when I was in university. I was never involved in anything to do with the province or the federal government. I spent three years out of the country. But if somebody had talked to me in first year, and said “Guys, come on, vote for me”, then I probably would have said “Well, sure, I’ll try it.” And now I’m that guy.

Do you think being an independent candidate makes you more approachable than if you were representing one of the other big parties?

I think that there are barriers to participation in politics for a lot of students. I think that knowledge is a really big barrier. When you’re a student, you’re sort of quite young, and you imagine that everybody knows what’s going on in the world. And then you hear this policy stuff, like “What’s your stance on education, what’s your stance on hospitals?” And nobody really knows what is the best mix of these programs. We want some of this, some of this, and some of that, right? That’s the mix, and it’s chaotic. It’s different, if you go to France, if you go to Switzerland, if you go to Germany, it’s different in every country. There’s no right answer for foreign policy. I think the idea that you have to have knowledge about all these policy areas, that’s a myth. And I think that’s preventing a lot of students. So running as an independent candidate helps, but I think that running as a candidate without trying to tell people to support such-and-such a cause, I think that helps as well, not trying to ram policy down people’s throats.

I noticed in the debate on Monday, there were some questions where you just said “that’s not an area where I have a lot of knowledge and I’ll just decline to comment”. Was that part of a strategy, to show your honesty?

To be honest, in the debates I get fatigued. Because, I mean, you try standing in front of 200 people, having compassion for these people, and they’re asking you questions about HST over and over again, and I mean, I’m not going to say that the HST is good or bad. But I am going to say that the HST is not a strong enough reason for me to give up a month of my time to help you. That’s not my objective, that’s not why I’m here. And to say that over and over again, I don’t like to anger people. I don’t like to piss people off by telling them that the thing they care about isn’t important to me, but it’s not the most important thing to me. I think we could all work towards something bigger than cutting the HST!

Voter apathy is a chronic problem for students. If you had 30 seconds to get someone’s attention and convince them to vote, what would you say?

I would ask them to think realistically about the sacrifice that it is. So first of all, start thinking: how many years of your life are you going to live? Probably about 80 years. 12 months in a year. About 30 days in a month. 24 hours in a day. So how many hours in a life? You’ve got a heck of a lot of hours. And, yes, it’s good to have fun. I go out and I have fun myself. But to vote, it’s one of those hours. Do you have that much control over yourself that you can take an hour out of your day to do something? And if it’s something that you’ve never done before, I think that’s a choice. That’s an exercise of freedom, and that’s saying something about your life and the fact that you have control over yourself.

I mean, going out and having fun is good, and you can do that a lot. And if you think about how many hours you do that for, I don’t want to say it’s a waste of time, but I think that you could spare one hour.

What do you offer that the other parties don’t, and why did you choose to run as an independent?

I think that I’m talking about something that is very different from what the other parties are talking about. The other parties are trying to use politics and policy to get votes. I’m trying to talk about the real things, the process, the canvassing, the volunteering, these kinds of things to get votes. And to some that may seem more cynical, but to me that’s more honest.

It’s about building an organization of people that support each other to make positive social change. There’s no detail more necessary than that. I think that the more that you talk about party policy, the more you take away from your own individual power to make change.

And if you’re going to talk about policy, I think you should talk about policy outside of an election. There’s the whole process of creating policy that goes on inside the party structure. So if policy is important to you, I think you should join a party, and then you should develop the policies democratically within the party.

To find out more about Peter Davis, check out his website. And don’t forget to vote!

Love at First Vote Sun, 18 Sep 2011 20:01:00 -0400 It’s the most wonderful time of the year - election season! Yes folks, once again, your candidates (the provincial ones this time) are knocking on doors and burning up photocopiers all over town just to get your attention. Doesn’t it feel nice to be doted on by politicians?

Of course, these people and their minions are going to be courting us relentlessly for the next few weeks, so it’s important not to give it up too easily. Your vote, I mean. As nice as it may feel to hold the fate of their careers in our collective hands, be assured that these people are doing some pretty clever strategizing of their own.

It’s all about a return on one’s investment. How many votes can I get for a minimum time committment? Should I spend 3 hours at a fundraising gala? Only if TV cameras will be there. Door-knocking takes longer than a phone call, but most people hang up the phone, whereas I can stick my foot in the door if they try to shoo me off their front porch.

But have no fear, average student voter. In the face of such cold, calculated politicking, remember that you want a return on your investment, too. If you’re going to spend an hour lining up to vote, you’d better get some satisfaction out of it.

Remember this when you go to vote on October 6th. (You are going to vote, right?) It’s always more satisfying to choose the candidate you like best, instead of settling for a “lesser evil” that has a better chance at winning. This kind of strategic voting - the kind driven by fear - isn’t what you want in a political relationship. It’s like trying to convince yourself that it’s okay to date a drug dealer because, well, at least he doesn’t hit you.

Left-leaning voters sometimes cling to strategic voting for dear life in places like Kitchener-Waterloo, with the hope that it’ll bring about a sliver of progressive social policy. But what it really does is make you lie to yourself and dismiss your ideals as unachievable. What a sad, pale optimism to hang your hat on.

With the re-election of Peter Braid in May, the pitfalls of strategic voting became painfully clear. In Kitchener-Waterloo, as in ridings across the country, strategic voting advocates made wrong predictions that ended up wasting the time and the votes of everyone involved. This screw-up helped bring the Conservatives to a majority, which was probably not their intention. This speaks less to the incompetence of the organizers than it does to the inherent fallibility of strategic voting, and the difficulty of predicting election results before they happen.

This is why it’s so important to find The One. And for all you virgin voters out there, make the first time count. Don’t waste it on some so-called champion unless, of course, so-called champions are your thing. Find your perfect match. Mark your ballot. Seal it with a kiss. And walk away happy in the knowledge that your vote mattered.

This article was originally published in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s official student newspaper.

Uniting the left is a bogus idea Mon, 12 Sep 2011 16:17:00 -0400 A Liberal-NDP merger is the story that just won’t die, so I might as well weigh in with my thoughts. My thoughts are that it’s a terrible idea, in case you were wondering.

Arguments in favour of a merger can be boiled down to this: Power is better than ideological purity, and we need to unite the left, because the right already did it and now they’ve won a majority government.

There are a few reasons why I think a merger will bring along more regrets than solutions.

  1. It’s a shortcut that doesn’t solve the greater problem: proportional representation. A Liberal-NDP merger would just perpetuate the reality that only “the big parties” have a chance at actually getting elected.

  2. Rather than being a bigger tent, a merged party would alienate voters from both sides. Many NDP voters would defect further left, probably to the Greens, and right-of centre Liberals would defect to the Conservatives. A Liberal-NDP merger wouldn’t “unite the left” at all.

  3. There are irreconcilable policy differences between the two. Think about corporate tax cuts, for example. Of course, compromise is a fine thing, but if the Liberals and the NDP merge then the CCF might as well start up again, because there would certainly be room in the political spectrum for more parties.

  4. An outright merger is an extreme jump that’s hard to reverse. Liberals and Dippers have worked together in parliament well over the years, but why not run as a coalition first, to test the waters? Despite the knee-jerk hysteria whenever coalitions are mentioned in Canadian politics, the majority of Liberal and NDP supporters were in favour of the move in 2008 - and that’s when the Bloc Québécois was still in on the deal.

Like I always say, more parties is always better, because then voters have actual choices. Rather than letting parties dissolve into one another, let’s work on cooperation across party lines and short-term, pragmatic alliances.

Winning battles feels good. Fri, 02 Sep 2011 22:30:00 -0400 It’s a good day to be an environmentalist in Ontario.

As you may know, a giant quarry one-third the size of Toronto is proposed to be dug in the heart of our best agricultural land. I’ve written about this before. It would have devastating impacts to local vegetable production, water quality, and suburban sprawl.

I was stopped yesterday by a woman at the farmer’s market who was collecting signatures for a petition against this quarry, sponsored by David Tilson, the Federal MP for Dufferin-Caledon. This was interesting, because up until now the issue has been provincial in scope. I was relieved that a federal member of parliament was willing to step in to ensure a full environmental assessment.

And so I was delightfully surprised to hear this morning that the Ontario government had changed its mind. I don’t know if this decision came about as a result of citizen protest, the upcoming election, pressure from the feds, or a combination of all these. But one thing’s for sure: this quarry will not pass an environmental assessment in its current proposed form, and that’s good news for all Ontarians.

The cherry on top of all this is an announcement that came today from Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda. For the lead-up to the Ontario election, the Green Party will be included in all debates on TVO. It’s about time. Though the Greens haven’t yet got a seat at Queen’s Park, they are most certainly a legitimate political party, increasing their vote share every election since 1999 and even beating one of the traditional parties in 18 ridings.

Our energy future is certain to be a hot topic this election, and I’m excited to hear a Green voice at the table on this and many other issues as the debate heats up.

Indeed, it’s been a good day for the environment. I’m going to celebrate with some organic soy milk and fresh, local produce.


Good politicians don't need imaginary friends Thu, 11 Aug 2011 01:30:00 -0400 The term “silent majority” is often used as a cop-out by politicians that don’t want to address the concerns of those opposed to them. It’s an illegitimate tool used to artificially inflate the importance of one’s ideology. Inflated, in fact, by nothing more than hot air.

Wikipedia tells me the phrase was popularized by Nixon to justify his support of the Vietnam War in the face of immense opposition from the American people. It’s such a convenient term to use, because this “silent majority” cannot be identified, questioned, or verified. And yet, it lends such weight to empty arguments.

There’s a reason that the majority of people are publicly silent on most issues. Simply, they don’t care. At least, not as much as those who make their opinions known. What gives politicians the right to appropriate these peoples’ value systems for their own, like some maladroit conquistador?

If politicians can’t count on the support of the “silent majority” to bolster their unpopular policies, then are they reduced to mere mouthpieces of the most vocal citizens? Heavens no. All I ask is that they take ownership and responsibility for their ideas. Visionary leadership often runs counter to popular opinion; but that’s no reason to hide behind the veil of the “silent majority”. Politicians should not be afraid to go to uncomfortable lengths if it’s for a cause they believe to be for the common good. As Trudeau said, “Just watch me.”

It is with frustration, then, that I read Giorgio Mammoliti’s reaction to the hundreds of delegates who came to city hall to speak against the City of Toronto’s proposed service cuts. According to him, their concerns aren’t valid because a “silent majority” of people who support the cuts were too busy working to attend. Regardless of your political convictions, it’s a gutless, cowardly move by Mammoliti. If he had said, “Despite the opposition, these service cuts are essential for the City to be fiscally stable and I intend to pursue them,” I’d have more respect for the man. But he chose instead to deflect responsibility.

The term “silent majority” used to have a different meaning. It was used in the 19th century to refer to those who had died, and, euphemistically, “joined the silent majority”. It’s about time we brought that meaning back and laid the silent majority to rest.

Speak now, or forever hold your peace Sun, 10 Jul 2011 16:44:00 -0400 If you’ve heard about the Melancthon mega-quarry in the last few weeks, no doubt you’ve been asked to sign a petition or watch a YouTube video explaining what’s going on. Essentially, some of the most fertile vegetable farms in Ontario will be dug up to make a strip-mine. Unless public opinion convinces her otherwise, the Minister of Natural Resources, Linda Jeffrey, will approve the project.

But the time window for official comments is closing fast. Midnight tonight is the last chance to voice your opposition. If you do so through the government’s official submission form, that gives you the right to appeal decisions further along in the process (for example, if the decision goes before the Ontario Municipal Board). Basically, if you don’t act now, you don’t have the right to speak up later on.

This is more than just a petition. If you submit a comment on the government’s environmental registry, Minister Jeffrey is required to consider it as part of the formal consultation process for this development application.

So here’s the call to action. You have until midnight tonight (Sunday, July 10) to submit comments to Minister Jeffrey. Use the submission form on the government’s website.

This is what I wrote. Feel free to copy it, or write down your own reasons for opposing the mega-quarry.

Though I respect the right of private enterprise to conduct its business freely, government has a responsibility to encourage the kind of economic development and urban growth that is consistent with the policies laid out in the Provincial Policy Statement, Greenbelt Plan, Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan. Each of these documents encourage compact, intensified urban growth in southern Ontario by limiting sprawl. The suburban growth model of the last fifty years has produced inefficient infrastructure, environmental degradation, and the encroachment of residential neighbourhoods on fertile farmland. The aforementioned policy documents recognize this and set out policies to prevent it from worsening. The availability of cheap aggregate for greenfield construction has been a major factor encouraging suburban sprawl in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The Melancthon mega-quarry would perpetuate this unsustainable development model, and would reduce the incentive for Ontario’s municpalities to meet their intensification targets. The approval of the Melancthon mega-quarry would be a step backwards for Ontario’s urban growth. Please heed the government’s own policy documents, and refuse this application.
Like headless chickens Thu, 23 Jun 2011 00:09:00 -0400 It was a painful experience, watching the media frenzy amid today’s detainee document dump. The pre-dump anticipation was building on Twitter. Everyone wanted their hot little hands on one of those USB keys, packed with 4,200 pages of mostly-still-redacted documents. Tweets started to stream in with snippets of information, sensational, attention-grabbing, and out of context. justin_ling: “Most security detainees appear to have their legs shackled…at all times. This is inconsistent with international standards.” #afdocs No references. No further explanation. Just a stream of the most headline-ready phrases that could be found while skimming the documents. Which, to be honest, is to be expected from Twitter. I flip to CTV’s PowerPlay, where two journalists are squaring off on a debate about the significance of the just-released documents. Which is all fine and good, except neither of them had even read the documents. It’s not like they had the chance; 4,200 pages takes a little while to sift through. Nevertheless, Malorie Beauchemin made the bold comment that there’s still a lot of black marker in these documents. Robert Fife, not to be outdone, wisely reminds viewers that we can all have faith in the decisionmaking skills of former Supreme Court Justices. As can be expected, the lack of substance forces these journalists to get into a debate about what they think might have happened in Afghanistan - which is to say, not much of a debate at all. It’s stories like these that make the age of instant communication frustrating. There’s nothing to communicate yet, but that won’t stop the media from spewing whatever nonsense it can! With the fit of madness mostly over now, I think Kady O’Malley put it best: kady: Alright, that’s it for the #afdocs briefing — I’ll recap of what we learned when I get back to my desk. Spoiler Alert: Not much more. But hey, at least they didn’t take the Sarah Palin route and release the 4,200 pages of documents in hardcopy only.]]> Prologue: Apathetic Students or a Pathetic System? Sun, 22 May 2011 22:41:00 -0400 On Friday, the first installment of my new biweekly column was published in Imprint. Broadly, I’m going to write about politics on a local, national, and global level - and how political issues impact students. Or, more to the point, why we should care about the way we’re governed.

My first column highlighted the rise of new media and open data in the political realm, and how it might best be used to engage students today. (Spoiler: politicians have a lot of catching up to do.) I don’t pretend to be the first to think of this idea, but I was astounded when, after firing off the final copy to my editor, I came across my exact argument in a book by Pierre Berton called The Smug Minority.

It was published in 1968.

Pierre Berton was talking about TV in this particular instance, but his words are uncannily relevant today.

Nobody can expect the politicians to give any sort of a lead here since the politicians, least of all, understand the new medium. When they use it at all, which is rarely, they use it atrociously, and they have made a law which prevents them, specifically, from using it dramatically. It is a measure of our political perception that most candidates for office continue to use the Nineteenth Century medium of the public meeting during election campaigns … One would think Sir John A. Macdonald were still running for office.

Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, I guess.

Change is gonna come Tue, 03 May 2011 03:36:00 -0400 I have to admit, a few weeks ago I believed that this election would result in a parliament very much like the last one. Liberal, Tory, same old story.

How wrong was I.

The NDP are on track to nearly triple their 2008 seat count. The Bloc Québécois has been crushed to just 3 seats. And Elizabeth May looks poised to win Saanich-Gulf Islands. There are, of course, lots more newsworthy stories coming out of this election, but I want to focus on these three.

I’ve got the election updates from Sun TV playing in the background, and they don’t even have pictures of many of the NDP candidates. David Akin, upon seeing that “default avatar” was in the lead for a significant number of Québec ridings, exclaimed with a baffled tone, “Who are these kung-fu-karate-socialist-commie-separatists!?” I think it’s safe to say nobody was expecting the NDP’s late-campaign surge to be quite so big. All I can think of is Ignatieff’s snarky comment during the English leaders’ debates that Layton would never be in government. And now Ignatieff is probably going to lose his riding.

As for the BQ, most of their support drifted to the NDP once Layton promised to reopen the constitution. For the past 20 years, the nagging question of separatism has dogged federal politics in Canada. That threat has now lost a lot of its bite. The Bloc will not even be recognized formally as a party (you need 12 seats to do that). That means they get no time to ask questions during Question Period, no formal recognition in the proceedings of parliament. That in itself is a shocker.

That brings me to Elizabeth May. I was a little let down when the first poll results started rolling out, because the Green popular vote is hovering around 3.5% nationally - about half of what it was in the 2008 election. The NDP surge has served to unite the left in a way, at the expense of smaller parties. So it’s remarkable that Elizabeth May is staying ahead of Gary Lunn in Saanich-Gulf Islands. What this means is legitimacy for the Green Party. Representation in the House of Commons, no matter how small, is the first step in our new multi-party reality. We need to be prepared for more Canadians to vote with their hearts and to elect representatives from smaller parties. And of course, more MPs coming from smaller parties, elected by people who really believe in them, is my political fantasyland.

A parting thought: what with all this change, I don’t expect parliament to become more respectful or civil. But I do expect fewer circular arguments and more fiery, divisive, policy-driven debate. I have the feeling we’re going to start talking about real issues in this country. And I think that’s a good thing.

Students want something to vote for - where is it? Fri, 29 Apr 2011 21:37:00 -0400 I’ve already raised the issue of the inability of Canada’s political parties to resonate with people’s concerns. Now, the Canadian Education Project has released a report about the voting intentions of students across the country. Check out the report itself (PDF) for all the nitty-gritty, but what I find most interesting is the last section, where they break down the respondents’ reasons for not voting (see the chart above).

The chart doesn’t add up to 100% because respondents could choose more than one answer. It’s clear that apathy does take a big chunk of the pie, but I’m not sure it’s the most important obstacle. It’s impossible to be certain without more detailed data, but I’m convinced that the “I’m just not interested” slice is a result of some of the other, more fundamental reasons for not voting.

Take a look at some of the other answers: 24% of non-voters don’t like any of the candidates. 31% don’t see any relevant issues being discussed in the campaign. And even if they like the idea of voting, 28% don’t think their ballot will matter. All of these issues can fuel disinterest in the election. The fact is that many students feel they are not being represented by the current political options out there.

The solution to this is to vote with your heart and allow fringe parties to flourish. Some, like the Pirate Party of Canada, have already risen up to address an issue that the traditional parties have largely ignored. I firmly believe that this trend will be a long-lasting benefit to our democracy, but it requires a couple things to survive. First, an overhaul of our voting system that makes representation in the house of commons reflect the popular vote. And second, a culture of cooperation on Parliament Hill where it isn’t taboo to make short-term alliances across party lines.

The puzzling question for me in all of this is how to go about making such a seismic change in Canadian politics. Do a flurry of new fringe parties need to crop up in order to force a change in political culture? Or do we need to reform the voting system first, sending the message that a vote for a fringe party isn’t a wasted one?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Want politicians to work together? Vote with your heart. Sun, 10 Apr 2011 23:10:00 -0400 I went to see Elizabeth May today as she stopped by the Kitchener-Waterloo Green Party campaign office to deliver a pep talk. One of her catchphrases this election season has been “The problem isn’t vote splitting, it’s vote abandonment.” She mentioned this the other night while being interviewed by Peter Mansbridge, and I expect she’ll bring it up again tonight when she’s interviewed by CHCH TV in Hamilton.

That got me thinking, because I’ve advocated in the past for left-leaning voters to vote strategically if they’re in a riding where the frontrunners are neck and neck. I have to admit that now I’ve changed my mind.

So what is vote abandonment? Well, 41% of eligible voters decided to stay home in the last federal election. That’s a larger chunk of votes than for any individual party. Heck, all those abandoned votes could have formed a majority in the house of commons! So you see, this is a block of voters who have huge potential to influence the outcome of an election. But they just don’t feel like it.

The Liberal party has tried to position itself as “the big red tent in the centre” that left-leaning voters should vote for if they want their vote to count. Because, sure, it’s good and noble to vote with your heart, but in the end, the Liberals are the only left-of-centre party with a real shot at forming a government. That logic doesn’t work anymore, and here’s why.

  1. A coalition by any other name would smell as sweet… As Andrew Coyne points out, “[Ignatieff] has ruled out a coalition; he has not ruled out a minority government of some other kind. Nor should he.” The 2008 coalition left a bitter taste in our mouths, but that certainly won’t prevent a power-sharing deal between the Liberals and the NDP, should they get enough seats to command parliament. For left-leaning voters, this means we can freely vote NDP because the Liberals will have to rely on New Democrat MPs to have a stable minority government. In fact, a vote for the NDP would just give them more bargaining power when it comes to negotiating a power-sharing deal with the Liberals.
  2. Vote abandonment. If people think voting with their heart won’t make a difference, they’re more likely not to vote at all. Votes for smaller left-wing parties don’t cannibalize the Liberals’ numbers. The rise in popular support for the Green Party, for example, didn’t come at the expense of the other parties. It came from people who finally cared enough to go and drop a ballot in a box for the first time.

These two issues - vote abandonment and coalitions - are going to shape the future of Canadian democracy. The only way to increase voter turnout is for parties to put forth platforms that actually resonate with people. And that could well mean a number of new, smaller parties entering the political arena. I’d love to see the Wildrose Alliance step up to the federal scene and give right-of-centre voters some real choice. By increasing the number of parties, cooperation across party lines will become even more necessary than it is now. Short-term, issue-specific “coalitions” between parties will not be vilified, but rather celebrated as our MPs find common ground.

To conclude, a call to action: on May 2nd, vote. But don’t just vote for the lesser evil that you think might have a good chance of winning. Vote with your heart. Take a close look at all your candidates and be true to yourself when you approach the ballot box. If you don’t like any of the candidates, deface your ballot. It’ll get counted by Elections Canada as a rejected ballot - a sign that we need better political candidates who have something to offer the 41% of voters who are dissatisfied with the current political options.

/ End rant.

Our generation will reform politics Fri, 01 Apr 2011 00:17:00 -0400 This is a message to Generation Y. The Millenials. The Echo Boomers. This is a message to all of us who grew up listening to the Backstreet Boys on cassette tapes. This is a message to all of us who spent our childhood playing with Crazy Bones and Pokémon cards.

We are the generation that will slowly dismantle and rebuild politics in Canada. We are the ones who will rescue the public service from its big-tent, populist, homogenous, polarizing culture.

Let me explain.

In 1990, I was born into a brand new world order; one where the divisive and polarizing decades of the Cold War had come to an abrupt end. In my infancy, world leaders came together in Rio to discuss how humanity should care for our precious Earth. When I was old enough to have an awareness of the world around me, I was flooded with the rhetoric of inclusion, tolerance, and the celebration of diversity. I remember learning sign language from Sesame Street in preschool, and realising that deaf people were people too. I remember the talks about racism and bullying in school. I remember the narrative of the global village, and the need for all of us - all of humanity - to stand together in solidarity.

My generation hasn’t had to fight for our rights. That groundwork had already been laid down by the passionate, dedicated activists of the sixties and seventies. From civil rights to environmental activism, the time was right to enjoy the benefits of our predecessors’ labour.

What does this have to do with politics? Well, our generation hasn’t grown up with a cultural scapegoat. We didn’t have that narrative of the “other” - slaves, Jews, whalers, commies, “the Man” - that permeated previous generations. We didn’t grow up with a system to rebel against or a group of people to victimise. We don’t buy the “us against them” argument that so often crops up in political debate. We’ve been bred to welcome diverse opinions and build consensus. We’ve been indoctrinated on the power of the individual and the importance of subjectivity. Everyone is special.

Generation Y has eschewed the rigid labels of our parents and grandparents’ generations. We see this in religion: despite a general acceptance of personal spirituality, Canadians aged 15-29 are the least likely to have a religious affiliation. In politics, young adults’ voting intentions are pretty evenly split across all parties.

We have grown up in a culture that celebrates our differences. This is our social narrative. And we know that this is the way things should be.

So here’s the problem: our elected representatives are stuck in the old social narrative of political dualism. Our voting system favours the two big parties, squeezing out other political views from the debate. It’s our job to change that.

This election season, grill your candidates on electoral reform. Send them emails and attend debates, demanding that they support a fair voting system (like the Single Transferable Vote).

Gen Y has had a pretty easy life so far. Now it’s our turn to shape the system.

Find out where federal parties stand on key issues Sun, 27 Mar 2011 18:39:00 -0400 I should warn you that there will be a lot of election-related posts in the next few weeks. I’ll try to keep them short and to the point.

The CBC has put together a wonderful survey that lets you compare your opinions with that of all five major federal parties. Questions are broken down into subjects like Defence, Economy, Immigration, Environment, etc. so you can see where you agree and disagree on certain issues.

Tools like these are a huge help in trying to figure out how to vote. There are lots of political compass surveys online, but this one is great because it looks at all the major Canadian parties so you can make a practical conclusion. You might be surprised - in the picture above, you can see that I don’t disagree with everything the Conservatives say!

Take the survey here:

The cure for Jaded Voter Syndrome Sun, 27 Mar 2011 04:50:00 -0400 It’s often touted in news reports and government talking points that “Canadians don’t want an election”. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, this statement is often accepted as canon. The question then becomes: why are Canadians opposed to an election? The usual reasons have been bandied about forever: it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money; politicians are all corrupt; what happens on Parliament Hill doesn’t affect the daily lives of regular people… the list goes on.

I want to touch on one of these perceived issues: the resigned, jaded attitude many voters have towards elections. Especially with this coming election, many people don’t think much will change in the political landscape. We don’t entertain the thought of progressive political change because we’re hammered down by the first-past-the-post system, a crude approximation of fair representation. Individual votes are often cast not for a candidate we support, but for a party that “has a chance of winning”.

This is telling - more and more, voters are realising that the ballot box doesn’t do a good job of representing all Canadians. Apathy is on the rise, but apathy is not the root problem. This infection has nestled itself deeper. It’s a systemic rot that’s eating away our democracy from the inside.

It’s time for electoral reform.

I grew up in the Whitby-Oshawa riding, stronghold of the Flaherty family. Our current finance minister, Jim Flaherty, is a local celebrity in my hometown. His house, atop a hill at the corner of Manning Road and Garden Street, is enclosed by a thick hedge and surrounded by a big green lawn. A Canadian flag flies proudly above his pseudo-mansion, proclaiming the Flaherty legacy like a royal standard. Every time I pass by his house or his ivy-covered law office in downtown Whitby, I’m reminded that I’m in the minority and that my voice doesn’t count.

For this reason, I’ve never voted in my home riding. I know Flaherty will continue to win there as long as he’s in politics, so my votes are better spent elsewhere. But not everyone can pick another riding to vote in. This election season, we need to bring electoral reform to the forefront of the debate. Because every Canadian deserves to have their voice heard.

So, this election season, I’m going to be volunteering with FairVote, a citizen’s campaign for voting reform. It’s not easy to make structural changes to a centuries-old electoral system, but it’s absolutely essential to the future of Canadian democracy. This is what we need to do:

  1. Educate yourself. Find out for yourself why our system is broken and how other countries do democracy better.
  2. Sign the declaration of voter’s rights. Add your name to thousands of other Canadians that want fair representation.
  3. Attend meetings, town halls, and rallies. Ask the candidates tough questions and figure out where they stand on these issues.
  4. Discuss with peers. Get your friends interested and involved. Make it personal.
  5. Go to the polls. On May 2nd, make your voice heard and vote. We can’t boycott the system that we’re trying to improve.
Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends. Mon, 14 Mar 2011 02:33:00 -0400 The title of this post, a famous quote from Lewis Mumford, just about sums up my feelings after attending an information session about the City of Waterloo’s new proposed rental bylaw.

If you’re a resident of Waterloo and haven’t heard of the proposed bylaw changes, read up on it here and then send the city staff an email with your feedback. We need as many people as possible engaged in this issue.

While I agree with most of the proposed changes, there’s one part of the report that I’m not happy about. The proposed bylaw will require anyone who rents out a room to get a license. I’m fine with that, but one of the prerequisites for this license (as I understand it) is to provide at least 1 parking spot for each unit on the premises.

At the consultation meeting I went to, Director of Bylaw Enforcement Jim Barry held a wonderful Q&A session where I asked why the provision of parking is necessary in a rental bylaw. The way I see it, the city and the region are both encouraging dense, intensified development and investing heavily in our public transit systems. My concern was that these parking spaces might become gaping holes in the urban fabric along future transit corridors, such as Erb Street.

Mr. Barry’s response was that the demand for parking is actually increasing, not decreasing, and that this requirement would prevent people from parking willy-nilly on their front lawns for example, which would be a bylaw violation. Fair enough points, but I have some further concerns after having mulled this issue over in my head for a few days.

In my mind, the parking requirement should have nothing to do with the rental bylaw. A rental bylaw is not the appropriate place to lay out traffic policy. What is relevant in the rental bylaw is issues that directly affect the well-being of tenants (such as the fire code). But this parking requirement seems superfluous, considering a large chunk of renters in Waterloo are students who don’t own cars.

I would advocate for leaving the parking issue up to the discretion of landlords. Not all renters require a parking space, and for some tenants, that space may be more attractive as an outdoor amenity space for barbecues or patio parties.

Mr. Barry says that the demand for parking space is rising. But I have the feeling that it will decline in a few years once the region’s rapid transit grid starts to mature. This part of the proposed bylaw will become obsolete when there are more transportation options available.

For this reason, I would keep traffic policy separate from rental policy. The city’s zoning and traffic laws are better-suited to respond to the parking issue than a rental bylaw. The worst case down the road would be to have a redevelopment project stymied by an archaic clause in the rental bylaw that requires a slab of bare concrete on every rental property.

To sum up, this parking requirement doesn’t belong in the rental bylaw, and it contradicts the city’s progressive work towards better mobility for all its inhabitants.

The numbers don't lie Fri, 11 Mar 2011 15:50:00 -0500 Take a look at these three statements. They’re conclusions that myself and others have made about the results of a survey that asked students, among other things, if they support the incorporation of a Starbucks franchise into the new EV3 building.

“Majority of respondents don’t support Starbucks in EV3”

“Majority of respondents are in favour of or ambivalent to Starbucks in EV3”

“Student opinion is split on Starbucks in EV3”

You really can use statistics to prove anything. For clarity’s sake, here’s the actual breakdown of responses:

How do you feel about having a Starbucks franchise in EV3? Number of respondents Percentage of total*
I support it 250 42.5%
I don’t support it 236 40.1%
I don’t care 99 16.8%
No response 3 0.5%

*adds to 99.9% due to rounding

Now that you know the numbers, which statement from above is the most fair? I would say the third one best represents the numbers. It’s clear that no one opinion has a majority. So the first two statements above are misleading because they co-opt the “don’t care” category by implying that it supports one of the first two responses.

It’s inappropriate to add the “don’t care” category with one of the other responses and say that the majority of students “support or are ambivalent to Starbucks”. By the same token, saying that the majority “don’t support Starbucks” because the three last responses are not explicitly in support of Starbucks is equally inappropriate.

So when drawing conclusions from this, or from any poll where there is a large block of undecideds, only make statements about the people that have actually made up their minds. So it’s most appropriate to calculate the results as a percentage of decided respondents. This way, it becomes 51% for “I support it”, and 49% for “I don’t support it”. That’s a very different picture than declaring victory for one side or the other.

Side note: this particular set of questions is flawed from the start because the responses are not mutually exclusive. I can not care and at the same time not support a Starbucks in EV3. A better set of responses would be “Support”, “Oppose”, or “Don’t Care”. That way, “oppose” is equally forceful as “support”.

Amn Dawla: Is Egypt another France, Russia, or Germany? Tue, 08 Mar 2011 01:48:00 -0500 The accounts from bloggers and tweeters out of Egypt today are absolutely fascinating. Thousands of protestors have converged on the Amn Dawla (State
Security) Headquarters in Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood:

“Tonight Egyptian protesters managed not to only to encircle the fearful building by thousands but they have also entered it for the first time not as detainees blindfolded but actually as victorious revolutionaries who had enough from that castle of terrorists.” - Egyptian Chronicles

I won’t waste my breath telling you what’s happening, as there are already lots of on-the-ground accounts, first-hand videos, and news stories. What I want to focus on is where this could be going.

When I heard the news and saw a couple of the first-hand videos, I was amazed at how peaceful everyone seemed to be. Sure, there was lots of yelling and people running about, but that seemed to be more a case of excitement than aimless looting and plundering. After all, if you were suddenly inside the secret police headquarters, with free access to secret files, videotapes, and equipment, wouldn’t you be excited? In fact, the only destructive behaviour I saw in these videos was the forcing open of doors into offices where documents were held. Check it out:

But, back to my original question, where is this going? I haven’t the faintest clue, but a few possibilities have popped up in my head. This moment - the storming of a formerly repressive institution - has been a turning point for many a revolution. Let’s take a look at some examples from history.

First, France. In July 1789, the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris was ransacked by protestors who stocked up on weapons. This led to the storming of the Bastille, which, speaking broadly, ended in bloodshed. Needless to say, I don’t want another Robespierre followed by Napoleon in Egypt.

Second, Russia. The Bolsheviks’ looting of the Tsar’s Winter Palace in 1917 didn’t cause much bloodshed (compared to the French example), but it was definitely intended as a violent confrontation. Had the cossacks not handed over the palace so easily, many more would have died. This day was a defining point in Soviet history, laying the groundwork for the murderous, autocratic reign of Stalin.

Third, Germany. On January 15, 1990, protestors broke into the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin and basically started trashing the place. The destruction was short-lived, as peaceful protestors gradually convinced their fellow dissenters to stay peaceful and keep a cool head. As in Egypt, much of the documentation had already been shredded by the secret police.

Of these three examples, I think Germany’s most closely resembles Egypt’s situation. And I hope the Egyptian revolution will come to a similar conclusion. Twenty years later, Germany is widely regarded as a global leader in their economy, manufacturing, and alternative energy, and standard of living. Egypt was once the centre of the world’s innovation in art, science, religion, and culture. Let’s hope Egypt gets restored to its former glory from the bottom up.

The anarcho-libertarian paradox Thu, 03 Mar 2011 17:02:00 -0500 Our Canadian parliamentary democracy is a slow, crippled, corrupt beast. It’s a threadbare patchwork of centuries-old traditions and bureaucratic roadblocks. But, to quote Churchill, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

The content of this post will be a mashup of one of my videoblogs and a letter to the editor I wrote last year. I haven’t been writing much in the past few weeks, since I was on vacation and then moving into my new place in Waterloo. I’m recording some new tunes so I’ll have some music stuff to share with you soon!

The anarchist-libertarian political identity is appealing, even fashionable, among youths and young adults because it lets you oppose everything without having to actually come up with a better alternative.

Max Weber, the German economist and sociologist, first coined the term “monopoly on violence” to define a state’s raison d’être. Though Weber intended this statement as purely an observation, anarcho-libertarians have used this concept to argue that there is a universal systematic oppression by governments upon their own citizens and foreign countries through the military and police force. Though it may be true is some cases, the simple existence of government doesn’t mean that it will use force to oppress its people.

Anarchy in a nutshell is this: whatever the government does, private citizens can do better. I don’t agree, because in my mind, such a system would implode fantastically. The privatization of public services necessitates a profit motive. This profit motive could be currency, but my illustration works under a barter system too. So when you combine a profit motive with zero regulation, there’s no way ordinary people can get transparent information.

Let’s take health care as an example. If you go to your family doctor, or the emergency room, you can be fairly confident that the clinic or hospital has passed a set of publicly-available health regulations. You can look at your doctor’s licence and be satisfied that she went through the appropriate training to be an expert in medicine (the requirements of which are publicly available). You may not agree with the regulations that the government imposes on the medical profession, but at least you can know exactly what they are and vote to change them.

In the anarcho-libertarian system, you have two options: blind trust in your doctor (whose motive is profit and not your well-being), or, if you yourself are a medical expert, you can ably discern where to go for good treatment. Therein lies the problem of anarchy: you must become an expert at everything. All the responsibilities taken on by 308 Members of Parliament working full-time have to be internalised by each and every individual in a purely libertarian economy. Frankly, I don’t think that’s desirable nor possible. The only logical result is that lots of people will get swindled and taken advantage of by profit-seeking businesses masquerading as social services.

One more anecdote: when Stephen Harper prorogued parliament in 2008 and 2010, there was a cry of jubilation from the libertarian segment of the right wing. Obviously, less government seemed to be a good thing. But the irony is, there wasn’t actually less government during the prorogations. Parliament was prorogued, not Harper’s government staff. What this means is the Conservative party was able to work unfettered by such trivialities as defending their decisions in question period or seeking approval from the opposition parties. Far from diminishing government, prorogation allowed the work of government to steamroll ahead without any checks and balances.

As fashionable as it is to rebel against “the man”, I seriously doubt Canada needs a revolution. What we do need is an evolution of our democracy, changes to our constitution, and a truly representative parliament.

Frankly, what we need most of all is for young people to actually give a damn and vote. But more on that in a later post.

Liveblogging the EV3 Town Hall Discussion Wed, 16 Feb 2011 23:01:00 -0500 At 12:00 noon on Wednesday February 16th, Interim Dean Mark Seasons held a town hall meeting to discuss developments in issues that affect the Faculty of Environment. I live-tweeted the event, but here is a more detailed (and structured) account of what happened.

People starting filling up the empty seats in the EV1 courtyard at around 11:45, but not everyone was there for the Town Hall. Most people were eating lunch or working on their assignments, oblivious to the Town Hall meeting about to take place. This turnout was a marked departure from the last town hall I attended (regarding changes to the Environment degree programs), when the room was filled to the brim with concerned students.

Flyers were strewn around the courtyard, highlighting Howard Schultz’s connection with pro-Israeli political groups. The message was basically that buying Starbucks coffee contributes to the occupation of Palestine and the egregious human rights abuses that the Palestinian people suffer. The flyers reminded me of Bogdan Caradima’s opinion peice that appeared in the Imprint a couple weeks ago.

Three issues were on the agenda: space allocation for researchers and grad students, the proposed Starbucks location in EV3, and details of the EV3 building itself. Mark Seasons tackled space allocation first, saying “space is a big political issue for us, internally.” A space committee will be formed with representatives from undergrad and grad students to allocate the scarce space fairly. The final decision on space allocation stays with the Dean though.

There was no further debate on space allocation, so we moved on to Starbucks. UW Food Services is in the process of hammering out an agreement with Starbucks. However, Starbucks is taking issue with a couple clauses regarding competition. It doesn’t want anyone else selling food in EV3, and is stalling negotiations. Apparently it is normal for large corporations like Starbucks to have non-compete clauses in their agreements with institutions.

Because of this rigmarole, UW Food services is looking for alternatives to Starbucks. Which is shocking to hear, because we were led to believe months ago that the selection committee had done its job and Starbucks won the contract. Other options are now being considered. One suggestion is to have a cafe similar to the Eco Fresh fairtrade cafe in the accounting building. However, such a cafe would compete directly with ESS coffeeshop. Mark Seasons is clear on this point: ”The bottom line is, we don’t want to compromise the ESS coffeeshop viability.”

At this point, debate from the pro-Palestinian lobby starts to heat up. Seasons understands their opposition to Howard Schultz, but sees it as a separate issue from Starbucks’ corporate policy. “Do you hold CEOs accountable for how they spend their own money?” He goes on to explain that all corporations come with some political baggage.

The concerns about Starbucks’ implicit affiliation with Israel persist. The pro-Palestinian attendees say that by boycotting Starbucks, we can encourage corporate policy changes and prevent Starbucks’ profit from being funnelled to human rights abusers.

Seasons reiterates that we can find fault with all corporate franchises. “If we think American companies are ghastly imperialists rampaging around the world, how do we deal with American companies? The bottom line is that people will choose what they want to consume.” Basically, if you don’t agree with Starbucks’ involvement with Israel, don’t buy from there. “There are different constituencies that I have to listen to,” says Seasons. “I’m not going to roll over and concede to special interest groups, because that’s no way to run an administration.”

The pro-Palestinian attendees continued to push for a Starbucks boycott: “Think about the added value at the end of stopping this occupation,” said one. Another added, “If the Faculty accepts Starbucks, we are showing our support for oppressive regimes.”

So far, the discussion has been a back-and forth between the pro-palestinian attendees and Seasons. He explains again that the Israeli issue is not about Starbucks corporate policy, but about the private investment of its CEO. “If Howard Schultz sold his shares, would you still oppose Starbucks?” Seasons contends that the issue is not with the corporation as a whole. Furthermore,”we don’t want to be seen as anti-corporate, because the University needs corporate money to survive.”

Finally, some counter-debate from another attendee, who was involved with the Food Services selection committee. He pointed out that a less environmentally sustainable franchise like Second Cup or Timothy’s would cause more of an uproar with the Faculty of Environment. The truth is, Starbucks has the best enviromental record of any major coffee chain. And environmental sustainability is, by definition, a core value of this faculty.

It’s good to see the debate move away from the Israel/Palestine issue. Another attendee says that Starbucks has created their own fair trade label that competes with established fairtrade-organic standards, so there are ethical concerns with this kind of smokescreen. We shouldn’t just take Starbucks at its word that it’s doing a good job.

Others have mentioned that we shouldn’t even be considering a corporate franchise if we want to stay true to the values of environmentalism. But painful as it is, Starbucks is the best option right now. We need a food outlet ready to go by September. Another independent coffeeshop would put the ESS coffeeshop out of business. And there is no better alternative as of yet. That’s why Mark Seasons has ordered a broader search for alternative food outlets.

The discussion moves on to the negotiations. Food Services tried to get the EV3 Starbucks to serve exclusively fair trade products. Starbucks has promised that they will always have a fair trade option, but not exclusively. For example, the espresso beans that they use for North America are not fair trade, and neither is their signature coffee. But Starbucks refuses not to sell those products. Other concessions like using china dishes and implementing a composting system were accepted by Starbucks. As it stands, 40% of the product line will be fair trade.

A GLOW director who was following my updates on Twitter asked for me to put forth a question about the EV3 building itself. We had been talking about Starbucks for the better part of an hour and I was glad to introduce a new topic. The question was whether or not EV3 would include gender-neutral bathrooms. This is a huge issue for the transgender community, and one that is extremely important in light of the proposed changes to Canada’s Human Rights Act to include explicit protection against discrimination of transgender and transsexual people. Mark Seasons replied that EV3 will not have gender neutral bathrooms, nor is it possible to put it on the negotiating table “at this stage”.

After some redundant debate about Israel-Palestine, one executive from the ESS coffeeshop pointed out that while there are human rights concerns about Starbucks’ support for Israel, most people “won’t have it on their radar” and just think that the coffee tastes good. Similarly, Seasons summed up the feelings of a large chunk of the people in attendance by stating that ”this has become a divisive issue that is taking up more time than it’s worth.”

We were almost out of time when another issue was raised about the Starbucks negotiations: do we even need more coffee shops? How about actual food outlets? Come to think of it, I’d much rather a Booster Juice or pita shop or sushi bar than another coffeeshop in EV3. We already have the ESS coffeeshop, multiple Tim Horton’s, and all the other faculty-run coffeeshops on campus. Why not try something different? Seasons replied that UW Food Services thinks that the Starbucks is viable, and that it’ll do a lot of business seeing as it’s right on Ring Road and lots of people will be walking through the building to and from the Colleges. However, Seasons said he would consider broadening the search for alternative establishments so it’s more than just coffeeshops.

At 1:15 PM, Mark Seasons adjourned the meeting. “I’m hungry, so I’m going to leave.” It’s a pity he can’t go to a sushi bar in EV3 to have his lunch. Hopefully that’ll change.

Bikes and buses: friends or foes? Sun, 16 Jan 2011 21:01:00 -0500 I had some time to kill at the Lausanne metro station today, so like a good planning student I read the fine print of the Lausanne Public Transit bike policy (they had a poster on the wall). It is astonishingly different from what I had expected. Here’s the relevant part, translated from French (original here).

Cyclists already have one method of transportation at their disposal; therefore, public transit is an alternate form of transport for them … At morning and evening rush hour, it is nearly impossible to board our vehicles with a bicycle. Cyclists must be conscious of these constraints.

Compare that to the policy of Grand River Transit, which has installed bike racks on the front of all its buses:

Combine the energizing activity of cycling with the convenience of GRT. You will find a bike rack on every GRT bus. Each rack holds two bikes of most sizes and styles. If the bike rack is full you may board the bus with your bike. Make bus ‘n’ bike your convenient choice - for your health, your pocketbook and your environment!

Notice the diametrically opposed ideology of the two transit operators. Lausanne sees cycling as an isolated method of travel, parallel to (and incompatible with) the bus and metro network. GRT, on the other hand, recognizes that cycling is not always a substitute for a long bus ride - and that the bus network can mesh seamlessly with the bike network to give travelers continuity between modes of transportation.

I find this particularly astonishing because Lausanne has such good coordination between other modes of public transportation - bus, light rail, and commuter train - with concentrated nodes that make it easy to transfer and get where you need to go. It even has a city-wide bike sharing program; one would think the cycling network should be built into its overall transit strategy a little better.

Silos suck. Fri, 07 Jan 2011 17:34:00 -0500 It’s common knowledge that one can do a job well, or do it quick, but rarely is it possible to do both. And in the glacial pace of government policymaking, often neither criteria is satisfied. Such is the case with the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Thursday’s Globe and Mail featured an excellent editorial by Maude Barlow that points out some of the environmental consequences of CETA (spoiler alert: it doesn’t look good). If CETA is brand new to you, peruse this backgrounder from Paul Wells. The negotiations have been going on for a long time - talks of cooperation between Canada and The Old Continent date back to at least 1998. It’s basically NAFTA, but on an intercontinental scale.

Canadian and European representatives are still in the thick of negotiations, so I’d like to chime in with my thoughts and observations in the hope that they will, in some small way, push our delegates in Brussels to think of the big picture.

In the article linked to above, Maude Barlow says that “… this deal is a bid for unprecedented and uncontrolled European access to Canadian resources.” In the same way, Canadian companies will have greater access to Europe’s natural resources once the CETA is implemented. This is a problem because more actors are competing over the same scarce resources, but more importantly, Canadian firms see Europe as an untapped market and nothing more. The farther removed a company is from its operations, the less it cares about the social and environmental impacts of its economic activity.

If you follow my logic, it’s like a slightly tweaked Tragedy of the Commons. Canadian firms feel more connected to and responsible for Canadian resources. We have a national identity (however fragmented it may be) that ties us symbolically to our forests, rivers, mineral deposits and groundwater. Europe’s resources don’t evoke the same kind of emotional attachment because  we feel further removed from them (and therefore, less guilty about extracting them to turn a profit). The same situation happens in the opposite direction with European investment in the oil sands because, hey, it’s not their oil sands, right? They don’t have to answer for the destruction of Alberta’s forests. In fact, they can sue the Canadian government if environmental regulations are too strict!

And that’s the crux of the problem. Social and environmental responsibility are nowhere to be seen in this trade agreement. In a questionnaire that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to gather public opinion from firms and industry associations, environmental regulations are presented as “Technical Barriers to Trade” and included in a long list of “issues” that would restrict the trade of goods.

The ministry is siloing itself. Its focus in these talks is purely on economics and trade, but CETA will have repercussions that reach much further. The rights of indigenous peoples, protection of the environment, and sovereignty over our resources are some of the areas that need to be discussed openly in these ongoing discussions. And to get there, we need to have more ministries at the negotiating table. Why is the Ministry of Environment not a part of these discussions? It’s plain to see that CETA will encourage heavier investment and development of the oil sands by European firms. Surely this agreement falls beyond the scope of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

The provincial governments are having their say at the negotiating table, too. I worked for Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade last summer, and the water-cooler talk about the CETA negotiations was very centred around economic technicalities. Compatibility of certain Canadian business models in European markets, that sort of thing.

On my desk that summer I had a mousepad in the shape of a big red circle with the word SILOS crossed out. No silos. It’s an attempt to facilitate cross-communication between departments and ministries. To actively seek the big picture, to see the forest despite all the trees. It’s a noble goal.

Unfortunately, silos seem well-established in Canada’s provincial and federal governments. It’ll take some serious political will to break these barriers and broaden the debate around free trade. This is my challenge to all our Canadian delegates around the negotiating table to think bigger. There is more at stake than GDP or government procurement procedures or industry revenues. CETA is a sweeping change to the way international trade works, and all affected parties should have a meaningful voice in the decisionmaking process.

Have we turned the corner yet? Fri, 10 Dec 2010 18:14:00 -0500 It’s been disappointing to read the coverage of COP16 in Cancún, but I can’t say our Canadian delegation’s attitude is surprising. It’s the same old myopic strategy of hiding behind our economic ties with the USA to justify inaction. Canada has now taken home five Fossil of the Day awards (three in the first day!) for such accomplishments as touting our non-existent regulations to ban coal power, and pushing for a new Kyoto with no actual targets. Well done!

In Minister John Baird’s talking points, I found the following gems:

“Countries that have signed on to the [Copenhagen] Accord are responsible for more than 85 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

That’s lovely, Minister Baird. It’s too bad that none of those countries are actually legally bound to do anything about their emissions. But give yourself a pat on the back for talking about it, at least.

“Success in the fight against global warming will only come with everyone aboard, everyone with an oar in the water and everyone rowing together.”

Since you and Japan seem to be the only ones not ready to board the second phase of Kyoto, I can only assume you’re talking about the delegation’s travel plans for the trip back to Canada. Bravo, I do say! I was wondering why you only bought a one way plane ticket, you sly fox! This is a wonderful concrete example of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“This year, Canada finalized standards for regulating emissions from passenger vehicles and light trucks that are aligned with those of the U.S. We are also working towards doing the same for heavy-duty vehicles.”

Well, no wonder this government still thinks the oil sands are a good idea - your negotiations happen slower than geological cycles.

“We are striking out on our own as we work to regulate coal-fired electricity generation…”

Oh really? Because that is the most waffling, unverifiable statement I’ve heard so far. You’re working towards regulating coal plants, which probably means nothing at all. We’re working towards cold fusion and world peace, too. This is hardly “striking out on our own”. More like just striking out.

“Our provinces and territories demonstrate a real leadership and will contribute significantly to greenhouse gas reduction. For example, Quebec has done its part with green energy.”

Well, at least you got something right, Minister Baird. I knew there was a reason you got appointed to House Leader! While the federal government has been Turning the Corner for three years, Quebec took the inside track and has been setting measurable, verifiable greenhouse gas targets in its policy documents. Seriously, feel free to copy-paste their greenhouse gas reduction targets - it’s what you’re doing with the USA’s policies anyway.

I recommend checking out the Canadian Youth Delegation’s blog for on-the-ground reporting of what has been going on this week in Cancún.

They don't teach this in PLAN 103 Sat, 27 Nov 2010 00:26:00 -0500 When you present information in an unconventional way, people listen. So I’ve got an idea. It involves a group of poets who take an active interest in municipal politics. Sounds interesting, no? Read on.

Here’s what I’m thinking. All of us lyrically-inclined politicos will get together and look at the agenda for council’s next meeting. A cursory glance through the agenda for Waterloo’s November 29th council meeting reveals some hot-button issues that will be discussed: zoning changes on Regina street, a proposed extension of GRT route 4, parking issues around the hockey rink in the park, and new tax exemptions for veterans’ organizations.

I think it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. We’ll find an issue that interests each of us, write poetry about it, and show up to the council meeting to express our views. It’s not a joke; it’s not satire. It’s about students getting involved in the political process and getting the attention of the decision-makers.  There’s always allotted time for the public to address council with their concerns or questions. I’m betting that the student demographic is a tad underrepresented in the sea of white hair that makes up a typical council meeting audience.

The best thing about this political poetry club would be having rap battles with each other during council meetings. I can just picture it happening with the LRT…

Good evening, your Worship, I’m here to defend
The idea of light rail, now I know we gon’ spend
Many millions before it’s complete, but the end
Will be worth the means if it means bucking the trend
Of our car-centric suburbs and all their dead ends
Where I don’t feel at ease as a pedestrian
This here streetcar will bring life to Uptown again
Watch as cafés and third places invest and then
You’ll see people like me and my friends at events
Near that brand new town square where they’re jacking the rents
Because property values tend to represent
The most dynamic, vibrant places - it makes sense.

Ha! That was fun. The ending was a little weak, but hey, it’s late and I’m tired.

So basically I want to start this up as a student club when I get back on campus. Who’s with me?

Forget senate reform, showing up to work is hard enough Thu, 18 Nov 2010 00:01:00 -0500 Bill C-311, with the punchy title “An Act to ensure Canada resumes its responsibilities in preventing dangerous climate change”, is the closest thing Canada had to meaningful climate change targets. I say had, past tense, because the bill is no more. It got voted down today in the senate, more than a year and a half after it was introduced — the first reading was in February 2009. Delaying tactics much?

I’m not going to talk about how this is a Conservative conspiracy orchestrated by the PMO (Elizabeth May and The Globe already did that). What interests me is the fact that this bill would have been passed on to committee if all the Liberal senators actually showed up to work that day.

This is what was written in the Globe article mentioned above:

The absence of more than 15 Liberals from the Senate allowed the bill to be defeated by a margin of 43 to 32.

Seriously? How can the second-highest decision-making body in our political system have such an embarrassing rate of truancy? If your job is to serve as a check and balance against the partisanship of the House of Commons, the least you can do is show up to work. This happens a lot with MPs in the House of Commons too. What’s the point of a representative democracy if your elected representative doesn’t even show up to vote?

What saddens me more than this, though, is the tired rhetoric that gets thrown back and forth in the senate (full transcript here):

Debates of the Senate, 16 November 2010

Senator Mitchell: Honourable senators, when I asked the leader (Senator LeBreton) a question some months ago about how much of the stimulus funding had gone to green projects, she rose with a triumphant flourish and listed projects that she said had received funding from the green tech fund that applied to green technology, greenhouse gas emissions reduction and so on.

As it turns out, we now see that only 3 per cent of that fund of $200 million has actually been allocated. Would the leader stand in the Senate today and apologize … or will she just remain part of that spin strategy out of the PMO that cannot distinguish between announcing something and actually doing it?

Senator Comeau: Do it with a triumphant flourish!

Senator Di Nino: At least we do it.

Senator Mitchell: You do not do it; you just announce it.

Senator LeBreton: The Honourable Senator Lapointe has accused me of being a good skater and a good tap dancer, but I have never been told that I have done it with a triumphant flourish.

Senator LeBreton: We are taking action to make Canada a clean energy superpower. We have committed to reducing our emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Senator Mitchell: Could the leader (Senator LeBreton) indicate to me … exactly how much greenhouse gas reduction will be attributed to each one of those projects and how that will relate to the 2020 objective that was set so we can see whether the government has any chance on God’s earth of doing it?

Senator LeBreton: (Avoiding the question, Senator LeBreton rambles on about how Jim Prentice was a good Environment minister and she hates to see him go.)

Is it too much to ask that our elected (and unelected) decision-makers actually try and get stuff done, rather than getting in partisan catfights?

Side note: the Conservatives’ 2020 emissions target is just pathetic. Elizabeth May breaks it down in a blog post… 17% below 2005 levels is actually aiming to be above our 1990 levels in 2020!

We'll salute you, dilute you, then mute you. Sun, 11 Jul 2010 16:41:00 -0400 A summer videoblog! I’m so excited! No, it’s not about the G20. I wouldn’t know where to start.

Our dear old Queen came to visit last week, so I spent some time thinking about the monarchy. How it shaped our politics, how it affects us as citizens, and what influence it still has. Here are my thoughts, summed up by a new song at the end of the video! :)

Sam’s Soapbox #6 – When in Afghanistan, Do as the Afghans Do Wed, 21 Apr 2010 13:17:00 -0400 About time! Sorry it’s been so long since I did a videoblog… I know you’re just waiting for me to rant about the government’s latest screw-up. But there’s a twist! This time, I’m talking about what our MPs are doing right on parliament hill! For the first few minutes, anyway.


Sam’s Soapbox #5 – My Political Christmas Wishlist Sun, 06 Dec 2009 03:02:00 -0500 This year, rather than wish for world peace, I decided to try something a little more tangible.

Here are 5 simple things Canada should do to make government work better and get people excited about politics…

Sam’s Soapbox #4 – Social Classes, Elites and the Masses. Fri, 06 Nov 2009 15:30:00 -0500 You gotta see this one… Possibly my foray into the hip-hop scene? :)

Not likely. But it was still fun!

Sam’s Soapbox #3 – Voting for change Sat, 10 Oct 2009 22:31:00 -0400 Here’s a new video blog for y’all.

Ah, voting. For those of us who care, it an be an excruciatingly tough decision. Do I vote according to my ideology, or should I place my vote strategically for a party I don’t like as much?

What kind of change can I create with my vote?

Watch this video blog about strategic voting, and go to aftwerward to check out your riding’s voting history, and decide whether or not you should vote strategically.

Sam’s Soapbox #2 – Question Period Sat, 30 May 2009 19:11:00 -0400 More political musings and satirical songwriting from yours truly. This one’s about Question period. Warning: contains footage of Stéphane Dion trying to act tough.

Sam’s Soapbox #1 – Canwest is in bed with the auto industry! Mon, 20 Apr 2009 19:23:00 -0400 Well, this is my foray into videoblogging territory, because I figure that Music+Politics=Awesome! After I hop up on my soapbox and finish criticising Canwest, you’ll get to hear a new, yet-tobe-released song that i’ve been working on called “the city of lovers and friends”. Happy viewing!