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Monday, October 24, 2011

5-Wing Goose may be on Chopping Block

Concerned over the upcoming closure of the Search and Rescue (SAR) sub-station in St. John’s?

Worried about the cutbacks to DFO science and the closure of the Fisheries Resource Centre?

Wondering how cutbacks to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) will impact local economic growth?

If you live in Newfoundland and Labrador you should be worried about the federal cuts coming our way but as if you didn’t have enough to consider here’s one more to add to the list: The closure of 5-Wing Goose Bay.

That’s right after years of lobbying Ottawa and after Stephen Harper promised -in writing - that he would once again make the strategically located base an integral part of the Canadian forces, documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen show that the Department of National Defence (DND) is looking at “fewer operational sites” in an effort to cut costs.

The documents reveal that DND will develop a national plan for property holdings with an eye to keeping only those sites that support operations.

“We will…reduce portfolio size, footprint and associated overhead costs by consolidating defence operations and programs to fewer operational sites and ensuring maximum usage of all facilities in an affordable and sustainable manner…(and)…where able, divest of legacy real property providing limited operational utility”

With the Harper government pushing departments to reduce costs the reaction of DND shouldn’t be surprising. Nor should it be surprising that after turning his back on his promises around 5-Wing that the Prime Minister is likely to give DND a green  light to manage the process without his intervention, unless of course the decisions impact specific bases inside the boundaries of more vote rich provinces like Alberta, BC, Ontario or Quebec.

We can rest assured the province will not find an ally in the PM on this and if you expect at least a token resistance from the opposition benches you might have a long wait as well.

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, former chairman of the Senate’s defence committee, responded to the news saying: “…Up to 25 per cent of DND’s facilities, some of which date back to the Second World War, could be sold or shut down”.

He went on to say, “Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador is a good example of a site that has become redundant to military needs. It’s been kept alive by political pressure, and its costing millions to keep operating.”

Perhaps someone should inform the former defence committee chair that in order for Air force CF-18s, stationed in Quebec, to respond to threats over the North Atlantic they need to stop and refuel at 5-Wing or they’ll crash into the ocean. It’s a minor detail but one that we should expect the Senator to be aware of.

How that little problem will be mitigated after the closure of the base remains to be seen but the folks at DND and in Parliament are nothing if not “creative”.

With this latest approach to cost cutting now in the media spotlight voters will have an opportunity to see how effective Newfoundland and Labrador’s only Conseravative MP (and cabinet minister) Peter Penashue can be in Ottawa.

Before being elected Mr. Penashue, who hails from Labrador, was a strong defender of the need to grow the role of 5 Wing Goose Bay. It’s clear that any comments from him in response to these reports will be of great interest in the region.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Election 2011 - Sharing Provincial Wealth

With the provincial election in full swing, and especially after the leader’s debate (argument) it occurred to me that it might do us all some good to step back from the political rhetoric for a moment and consider our future without the political spin.

I realize I’ll probably get plenty of nasty on this article. I also suspect I’ll be branded a “typical townie” or told my political leanings are overriding my common sense. So be it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of being a Tory, a Liberal or an NDP (depending on the time of day and subject at hand). None of it is true of course.

The truth is that the only things I hate more than politicians who are willing to say anything to win is keeping my mouth shut or sitting in front of an idle keyboard. In this case all three of these pet peeves have combined to lead me to type this commentary rather fast and furiously, even for me.

So, lets start with a question: Has anyone living in, or who recently visited, the St. John’s area noticed that on nearly every major road there are numerous signs practically begging people to apply for a job?

I drove down Torbay Road a few weeks ago and counted no less than 11 such signs in a 1-kilometer stretch. It was inspiring.

Granted most of those jobs are in the service sector, but with the high demand for employees these days those companies are now offering everything from medical and dental plans to flexible shifts, above market wages and a myriad of other perks.

A quick scan of newspaper or online job postings reveals that employment opportunities in the metro area have skyrocketed and are growing all the time. Most often those jobs are for higher paying professional positions.

At this point you may be wondering if I’m bragging about how good things are this side of the overpass and what any of it has to do with the current election campaign. Well, it has a great deal to do with the election because while this new reality, where there are more jobs than applicants, might exist in the St. John’s area, once you move into rural parts of the province the picture gets much more bleak.

The unemployment rate across the rest of the province is staggering and it is this reality, our “dual economy” which is providing fodder for politicians, especially for Liberal leader, Kevin Aylward in this election. In fact I’d argue Mr. Aylward has hung the future of his party on perpetuating the myth that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been forgotten.

Well folks, that position may make for good political spin and it may sway some voters, but is it true?

I don’t believe it is, not for a second, no matter how often I hear it repeated.

It wasn’t true under the Williams government, it isn’t true under the Dunderdale government and for that matter it wasn’t true under the Liberal and PC governments of the past either. In fact, I’d argue that a great deal of focus has been placed on rural areas for a very, very long time. Unfortunately, most of that attention wasn’t focused on what really mattered.

It wasn’t, for example, focused on protecting the fish stocks before they were destroyed. Rather it was more often directed at opening yet another unneeded processing plant to help ensure some candidate’s election victory. That’s just one example of course but one very reflective of the current election rhetoric by the Liberal leader.

No matter what any politician might say over the next couple of weeks, it is not the job of government to make work, beyond perhaps creating a job for themselves.

The point is that governments shouldn’t be in the business of creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs. I believe that’s where the misconception that rural Newfoundland and Labrador is being ignored comes from. It comes from those who see government as something it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

The place of government is to make sure that essential services are delivered in the best way possible, that the public is safe on the streets and to foster an environment conducive to business growth. It’s business that should create employment, not government. Government can, and should, set the table, but its business that must pull up a chair and sit down. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

A responsible government should, and usually does, encourage business growth. They do this by offering tax breaks or other incentives for business to set up shop in strategic areas. They also try to court investment and market the benefits of the places they govern. That doesn’t mean, no matter what any candidate might say, that government can, or even should, throw money at any particular industry or region simply to “make work” there.

I moved around the province and the country for years before finally settling in the St. John’s area. Essentially, I went where the work took me. I didn’t want to leave my home town and I still hope to return there when the opportunity arises. I did what I had to do and I’m still doing it every day.

It’s no secret that many people want to stay where they grew up, where they have family and where they are the most comfortable in their own skin, but most of us can’t do that. That isn’t government’s fault and it isn’t something unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s happening across Canada and around the world.

Major companies generally locate in larger urban areas where they can more easily find suppliers, are close customers and have a bigger pool of potential employees (including those in outlying rural areas) to choose from. This is as true for oil industry employers as it is for secondary industries like IT companies, retail stores, restaurants, hotels, taxi services and the rest. It isn’t some sort of conspiracy or plot to deny jobs to those in rural areas it’s just the way business operates.

Why is it then that so many people believe because there isn’t a job for them in their small town they are being neglected or forgotten by government?

How can anyone expect government to spend millions to “make work” in places where there is none and where business itself does not, for whatever reason, want to set up shop?

No matter how much oil or how much gas is produced, and no matter what politicians promise on the campaign trail, most of the direct business spin off from the oil industry will continue land in the St. John’s area. That’s something government, of any stripe, has very little control over, but that doesn’t mean rural Newfoundland and Labrador is not benefiting from the improved economy.

Think about what it would truly mean if government actually responded to the expectation of creating employment in every town or propping up failing businesses enterprises with provincial revenues.

In today’s reality, it would mean that tax dollars desperately needed for infrastructure, schools and hospitals right across Newfoundland and Labrador would be eaten up trying to find ways to make employment in one part of the province while, as previously mentioned, just a few hundred kilometres away, in another part of the province, employers are screaming for workers.

Does that make any sense?

When it comes to certain industries like fishing, aquaculture, wind farms, smelters and the like there are valid reasons why those are built outside of the urban centers, and there is no doubt that this sort of development will continue to be supported as profitable opportunities arise. It’s doubtful however that those developments will grow fast enough to make a serious dent in the unemployment rate in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Neither will pumping millions of dollars into fish plants unable to turn a profit from ever decreasing fish stocks. That is also a reality.

Spending millions to try to create or prop up work in rural areas at the same time there is a severe shortage of workers in urban areas is a recipe for economic disaster.

So why are there still those who believe that because there is a dual economy in the province, rural Newfoundland and Labrador is getting nothing from the oil boom?

I come from a small rural town in the province but I work in St. John’s and now live just outside the city. Do you want to know a little secret? I get the same benefit from the oil industry and the resulting government revenues as anyone else in the province, urban or rural.

I don’t get a cheque from the oil companies in my mail box each week. I don’t glide to work on gold paved streets, and I don’t spend my days sipping champagne at taxpayer’s expense while fairies cut my grass or shovel my driveway in winter.

I left my home town and moved to where the work was located like countless others. Each day I drive to and from my job over the same sort of pot hole filled roads many people in rural areas would recognize in their own towns.

On the other hand, I occasionally notice improvements in our highways when I travel across the island to visit family. (It’s here that the folks in Labrador may have a far better argument than most about being forgotten or neglected).

I sometimes read about new dialysis equipment, cancer clinics or seniors’ care facilities being built in different parts of the province.

I see attention being paid to refurbishing schools or to improving government services.

I see more or different medications being covered for lower income families through the government funded drug program. (Though not nearly enough)

I see provincial debt slowly being paid down and I see the amount of provincial taxes I pay slowly reduced thanks to the improved economy.

It’s these things that are all made possible by an increase in provincial revenues, much of it oil generated, and it is these things that are used to spread the wealth around the entire province.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not praising the current government for these things. It’s simply a fact that there is more money in provincial coffers today than there has been in the past and as a result more can be done to make life a little better for everyone.

I don’t doubt that more will be done as time goes by, no matter which party wins the election on October11. Though the specific spending priorities may change depending on who is in power the general way the wealth is distributed will not change, or at least it shouldn’t.

If it does change, if “Make work” replaces “Take work” (where ever you have to move to get it) then heaven help us all.

Don’t for a minute believe that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been forgotten simply because unemployment is higher or because a particular mill or fish plant has shut down. You can blame that on a lot of things, the global economy, declining fish stocks, a limited need for newsprint, but it isn’t government that closed those industries and it isn’t government that can re-open them, at least not if they are to be profitable rather than a drain on taxpayers.

If the next government opts to spread the wealth, or worse yet, drive us all deeper into debt, by artificially creating work in areas where private industry is unable to turn a profit then we will all pay the price for their short sighted approach.

The future of our province and the full benefit of our economic growth can only be ensured if we recognize the most beneficial role of government and if we “take work” not “make work”.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does the Atlantic Gateway Really Exist?

In October of 2007 the federal Conservative government announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Atlantic Provinces. The agreement was hailed as a landmark partnership that would allow for the creation of an Atlantic Gateway helping to ensure improved trade, economic growth and prosperity for the entire region.

The Atlantic Gateway Initiative, it was said, would allow for, “…leveraging our most important transportation systems to better connect Canada with the world”.

Four years later, how much do any of us know about what’s been done to make the Atlantic Gateway a reality and what economic benefits have we seen as a result of the initiative?

A few months after the agreement was signed, a handful of official announcements were made touting the importance of the MOU and boasting of a $2.1 billion national fund. It was said that a portion of that fund could be leveraged to finance partner projects as part of the Atlantic Gateway. The exact proportion of funds available in Atlantic Canada was not identified.

After the initial media blitz the Atlantic Gateway website reveals no further press releases or announcements for an extended period of time.

The next public statements out of Ottawa regarding the Atlantic Gateway don’t appear until February of 2011, more than two and a half years after the MOU was signed.

At that time, and for a few short weeks, releases again began to appear. These identified a hodgepodge of funding for small projects under the Atlantic Gateway banner, everything from small wharf improvements to airport lighting. The announced projects had a combined value of less than $50 million dollars, were spread across the four Atlantic Provinces and came in the 3 months leading up to the last federal election.

Since the election last May silence has once again descended on the Gateway.

The Atlantic Gateway site shows no comprehensive list of project funding and no accounting of the money spent. No identification of Gateway related policies or planning activities can be found there either. In fact the site provides little substance beyond the posting of the handful of intermittent political press releases previously identified.

Compare this with the official site for the Pacific Gateway, a similar program on the West Coast of Canada, which was initiated just 12 months prior to the Atlantic MOU being signed.

A visit to that site reveals a number of informational links on everything from federal investments to security activity, marine and air policies, environmental information and more. Visitors can even access an interactive map identifying exactly where and how much funding has been provided and what was accomplished with the dollars spent.

The map shows that nearly a billion dollars has been spent in Lower BC alone. That figure is in addition to more than $600 million allocated to other projects throughout the West, all tagged as part of the Pacific Gateway initiative.

Since the Atlantic Gateway, like its Pacific counterpart, is intended to boost trade by enhancing transportation infrastructure it might be expected that the Harper government would try to “brand” any and all federal funding for air, sea or ground transportation projects as part of the Atlantic Gateway Initiative. No doubt that tactic accounts for at least a portion of the funding identified out West but when compared to the low level of spending in the Atlantic region the numbers are no less staggering.

It would be easy to announce funding for bridge work, highways or even the new ferries for Marine Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador as a part of the initiative, even though they are all part of the normal activities of government. It’s exactly the sort of thing politicians are so efficient at doing but in this case they don’t even appear interested enough in the Atlantic Gateway concept to muddy the waters that way.

When it comes to the dollars specifically identified for Gateway initiatives in Canada it appears that the Atlantic Initiative has garnered only 3% of the funds spent on the Pacific coast, hardly indicative of a federal priority.

Granted Canada’s largest trading partner, the U.S. is easily accessible overland or through the Great Lakes. Granted as well, a high volume of trade between Canada and China is a valid reason to improve transport infrastructure in BC. That said, an enormous trade deal is about to be signed with the European Union. It seems rather short sighted that more emphasis has not been placed on ensuring Europe’s closest ports of call, in Atlantic Canada, are able to fully take advantage of that reality.

If the Atlantic Gateway Initiative is intended to improve transportation infrastructure for trade imports and exports the jury is still out on how effective it will be. If the intent is to promote a gateway for Atlantic Canadian workers to head west in search of employment the concept may be very effective.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Call for Federal Inquiry Falls on Deaf Ears

On Monday federal MP, Ryan Cleary, announced plans to introduce a private members bill during the next sitting of the House of Commons. The bill would call on government to begin an official inquiry into fisheries management off the East Coast.

In 1992, under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the federal government enacted a complete moratorium on the fishing of northern cod. The region, long recognized as having the best fishing grounds in the world, was dramatically impacted by the collapse of the stocks and the decision to shut down the industry. The fishery there had been the biggest in Canada and the mainstay of the local economy for centuries.

Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the cod stocks very little recovery has been seen and many questions remain unanswered.

Cleary, the NDP representative in the federal district of St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, championed the cause of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery long before entering the political arena and during the most recent federal election made the call for an inquiry a central part of his campaign message.

When speaking with reporters this week Cleary said he believes the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is responsible for mismanagement of stocks and for political pandering. Cleary said quotas have been issued based on political agendas rather than sound science.

He indicated that he has had off the record conversations with DFO staff who say the science branch of the agency has been reduced to a skeleton crew, morale is horrible and science vessels are aging and in disrepair.

"Our future is threatened. It is threatened by a lack of vision. It is threatened by the absence of a rebuilding plan. It is threatened by apathy in all quarters” Cleary said.

The rookie MP is calling for a commission of inquiry to investigate the effectiveness of current management processes, the state of fisheries science, quota allocation practices and regulation enforcement.

The closure of the northern cod fishery came just 40 years after the federal government assumed control of the industry. That collapse put thousands of people out of work effectively destroying a way of life that had existed in the province for nearly 500 years. It decimated small towns and villages and sent the provincial economy into a downward spiral. In the end it was the biggest single loss of employment ever seen in Canada.

What followed was the largest out-migration from any province in Canadian history. Ten’s of thousands of residents left to seek employment, essentially crippling the economy of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, a blow from which it has never fully recovered. To this day, even as oil revenues boost the overall economy, unemployment rates in the province stubbornly remain the highest in the Country.

Fisheries activists from around the province are applauding Mr. Cleary’s demand for an inquiry saying it’s necessary and long overdue.

During his press conference Cleary pointed to a similar inquiry called by the Harper Conservatives into the decline of BC salmon stocks. He questioned why, after nearly 20 years and with little sign of recovery, a similar inquiry into the East Coast fishery cannot be undertaken.

Local speculation abounds about the reasons for this inaction by officials. Although most suspicions have never been proven, it’s widely believed that the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) which includes Canada, Russia, Spain, Portugal and others has too much influence on Canadian decisions affecting the industry. It is also broadly believed that there are far too many “skeletons” in the closet of the federal bureaucracy and of elected representatives, both past and present, to ever allow the facts to be become public.

Evidence of mismanagement and political interference will be difficult to uncover without a full inquiry.

Mr. Cleary, when working as a journalist during his pre-political career, indicated many times that requests for information, especially regarding foreign fishing in Canadian waters, were consistently blocked by officials. The reason often given for withholding this information from Canadian citizens was that it might prove “embarrassing” to the nations involved and could have a negative impact on foreign relations and trade.

Even though fish stocks have not rebounded and the effects are still being felt throughout Newfoundland and Labrador a full inquiry has never been held and it doesn’t appear that Mr. Cleary’s attempt to force one will be successful either.

Without an inquiry it’s unlikely the truth will ever be known and the recovery of stocks could forever remain in doubt.

In a press release issued immediately after Cleary’s press conference Conservative Fisheries Minister, Keith Ashfield, quickly dismissed the announcement saying there will be, “…no inquiry…(because)…a judicial inquiry represents a costly and duplicative exercise into decisions made over 20 years ago”.

When informed of the Minster’s quick and dismissive response Cleary said he couldn’t believe the reaction.

The MP cannot understand how the federal government can investigate management policies in one end of the country through the BC inquiry and not at the other end when they have so clearly failed everywhere. He said he sees Ashfield’s reaction as evidence that the Conservative government has written off the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery.

As an example of continued mismanagement Cleary said he believes the reason DFO has not publicized the issuing of nine fishing citations to foreign vessels in the past year alone is because Ottawa doesn’t want to jeopardize ongoing Free Trade talks with the European Union. Talks that have the potential to lead to even further European influence on fisheries decisions in Canada.

As to the cost of an inquiry, Cleary asked the public to consider how much the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador has lost and will continue to lose in the future as a result of mismanagement in the fishery.

Mr. Cleary indicated that regardless of the expected outcome in the Commons, or the position taken by the Harper government and the Minister of Fisheries, he will proceed with the presentation of his bill during the fall session.

Chad Banana to Sue Local Reporter.

With election fever about to take hold here in Newfoundland and Labrador I thought it might be a good time to look at the light side of politics.  I hope you get a chuckle or two.


Chad Banana to Sue Local Reporter

Local political hopeful, Chad Banana, announced today that he is in discussions with his legal team – Dewey, Cheetham and Howe – about moving forward with a lawsuit against freelance reporter, Jimmy Dingle.

Alleging defamation of character Mr. Banana claims that in an August 30th interview and subsequent article Mr. Dingle defamed his character by referring to his political career as “15 minutes of fame”.

Banana says he takes issue with that characterization. He says he has personally done the math and determined that his time in the spotlight is far closer to 20 minutes.

“Nearly double the time indicated by Mr. Dingle” Banana told reporters.

Mr. Banana admits that his estimates may not be 100% accurate as he couldn’t decide between a Conservative or Liberal estimate, but he believes that doesn’t matter because, “Dingle is an idiot anyway”.

During today’s press conference, held near dumpster number 6 at Robin Hood Bay, Banana told those attending, “I’m sick and tired of reporters smiling sarcastically every time I put myself out there on the political stage”.

“I just don’t get it. I used to be the Mayor of my home town you know. My time there, managing the affairs those 90 residents, makes me far more qualified to lead this province than either Dunderdale or Yvonne Jones.”

Upon being reminded by one media representative that Ms. Jones is no longer the leader of the Liberal Party Banana appeared puzzled and said that if this were true he might consider leading the Liberals himself since the NDP didn’t accept his nomination papers when he tried to assume the leadership of that party.

At this point reporters in the attendance began to whisper among themselves then, smiling sarcastically, one stood to inform Banana that it was actually the PC party which had rejected him and that he had already tried to win the leadership of the Liberal party but lost his bid to Kelvin Awkward.

Mr. Banana then appeared to become quite agitated and began yelling at reporters to stop acting so superior.

“I’ll sue you all”, he shouted, “each and every one of you will pay for this if it’s the last thing I do today”.

Banana then pulled a golf pencil and a Loony-Tunes notebook from his jacket pocket and began demanding the names of every person in the area, including Robin Hood Bay staff, who just happened to be sweeping up some discarded Tim Horton’s coffee cups at the time.

Those in attendance then began to disperse while diligently avoiding eye contact with Mr Banana.

When last seen Banana was furiously writing in his notebook and muttering to himself, “Damn Karen Appleyard anyway, I should be the new leader, not her. It’s just not fair! Where are my lawyers”!

There was no report of what became of the discarded Tim's cups.

By Lex Smurphy (name changed to protect the libel)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An Open Letter to Premier Dunderdale and NALCOR’s Ed Martin

An Open Letter to Premier Dunderdale and NALCOR’s Ed Martin

Let me begin by saying that I am completely non-partisan. In fact I would go as far as to say that I find any political party or candidate who would politicize something as important to the public as development of the Lower Churchill utterly reprehensible.

I write this letter as a concerned citizen of Newfoundland and Labrador and for no other reason.

I’ve noticed that since the release of the Lower Churchill environmental assessment the response from official circles have been rife with adjectives such as “Shocked”, “Surprised” and “Disappointed”. I’m confident that after all the hard work having been put into this project these words likely reflect the honest reaction of those involved. In reality however the concerns of the public are not with the feelings of those involved in the project nor are those concerns being addressed through such personal commentary.

What people want are unvarnished facts and details in response to the questions raised by the panel and by the public at large.

In many ways communication is an art form and while government and NALCOR have already expended a great deal of effort and energy in responding to countless questions it’s clear that the answers provided have not been enough to satisfy the population.

In the end it is the public who will pay the cost of development through a combination of their taxes and power rates. They are also on the hook for the social and historical costs if the project is ultimately unsuccessful.

The stakes are extremely high and everyone in the province realizes this, not just the proponents of the project. That’s why, when questions are asked, those posing the queries expect and deserve clear, detailed and comprehensive answers. Responding to the general “gist” of a question or supplying the “broad strokes” isn’t going to alleviate concerns and may in fact amplify them. On this particular project the sharing of as much information as possible must be the order of the day.

Regardless of whether or not it may seem fair to those working on the project, the Lower Churchill is by its very nature tainted by the legacy of the Upper Churchill. They are inextricably bound to one another in the psyche of the population.

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador were led into that particular project by a government bent on a chosen direction and all of us have borne the cultural scars ever since. Make no mistake, this time the people of the province are demanding, and will continue to demand, answers. If those answers are considered inadequate then the project simply will not go ahead, regardless of what anyone says to the contrary.

It may be difficult for those directly involved to understand the broad level of concern being expressed by so many, especially with the quantity of information that has no doubt been gathered, analyzed and modeled internally, but remember that the public is not directly connected to the nuts and bolts of the project and as such require clarity, and perhaps even a little comforting, when it comes to many of the issues.

Those involved should always remember that it isn’t the job of government or NALCOR to sell this project to the public. It was exactly that sort of misguided approach which led to the ouster of the Liberal government in New Brunswick when it tried to market NB Power to Hydro-Quebec. The job at hand is to ensure that the people of the province have all the information necessary to make an informed decision about their collective future.

As an example, when concerns are raised about the viability of the project if Gull Island does not proceed on schedule, or at all, it isn’t good enough to simply say that Gull Island will proceed or that Muskrat Falls can stand on its own.

A more complete answer should include an explanation of the financials and rate projections involved in both scenarios and must identify a plan B for Gull Island, if one exists, should Quebec remain unwilling to allow access to its grid.

It doesn’t cut it when someone like Mr. Martin responds to questions about wheeling Gull Island power through Quebec by saying, "Quebec is bound by the regulatory body in the United States to provide the same open access they enjoy there to others who wish to enjoy it”.

With all due respect, it may not have been the intention but based on our past history with Hydro-Quebec I personally find that sort of response either totally naive or summarily dismissive.

When the Upper Churchill was developed Newfoundland and Labrador was denied access to the Quebec grid. The end result was one of the most lopsided contracts in history. Regulations may exist today requiring Hydro-Quebec to allow access but that same access was recently blocked for this very project. What is the likelihood that Quebec will suddenly decide to open its borders on schedule for the start of the Gull Island development and what if they don’t?

What if we still can’t access the Quebec grid when and if Gull Island is ready to proceed? Is there a backup plan to ensure that the Gull Island project can still be completed? If so, what is plan B and what are the financial implications for the province, NALCOR and rate payers?

If there isn’t a plan B what happens? Could we find ourselves with another Upper Churchill on our hands? Is it possible we might end up with Gull Island nearing completion and still waiting on a commitment from Quebec? If so might the outcome be the same as it was decades ago: bankruptcy or another lopsided agreement.

On the subject of whether or not this truly is the lowest cost solution for our province’s energy needs, again the panel raises some good questions the public deserves to have answered.

Why isn’t lower cost power from Gull Island being developed up front? If it was, would that result in lower rates for rate payers? If not, why not?

Why did the information provided to the review panel suggest that NALCOR simply looked at one side of the equation when it comes to future demand - finding new sources of energy - instead of also considering ways to reduce that demand?

If a cost effective means can be found to stabilize current demand or slow its growth through energy efficiency programs would that allow one of the other power options previously dismissed by NALCOR to satisfy our needs at a lower cost than Muskrat Falls?

Perhaps the analysis has already been done internally on these issues but that information was never put before the panel. If so then it should be made public now. If not then the analysis should be completed as the panel recommended.

One of the power source options noted by the panel is the Upper Churchill itself. NALCOR’s projections go out well past 2060 but appear to completely ignore power from the Upper Churchill. Some of that energy may be available now through recall and all of it is expected to be available in 2041, just over 20 years after the Lower Churchill’s planned completion. Yes there would be costs involved in linking the power to the island portion of the province but why was this, essentially free power, not identified as a potential source to meet future demand?

Perhaps consideration was indeed given to the Upper Churchill but dismissed for some reason. If so what was the reason and if it wasn’t considered why wasn’t it and shouldn’t it be?

Is there some reason we will not be able to access that power in 2041? If so, that’s something everybody absolutely, without question, deserves to know.

As you can see questions abound and with our history of power development in this province, no matter how outlandish any particular question may seem, it deserves a complete answer.

There may be legitimate responses to all of these questions and the many others being asked. I’m sure everyone hopes there are, but it simply isn’t good enough for government or NALCOR to provide cursory or limited responses and say that the project is proceeding regardless of what the panel or public has to say.

As Naive as Mr. Martin’s comments on Quebec registered with me I can’t help sensing a tone of arrogance in the Premier’s position that the project is going forward regardless. That may not have been the intended spirit of the words chosen but it is surely the impression left behind for me.

The public doesn’t simply have a right to ask questions but the historic obligation to demand clear and complete answers.

If additional reviews, beyond those already underway, are necessary then they should happen. Whatever it takes to give the public a comfort level with this development must be done before any project is given final approval.

This is not to say, as the opposition parties have suggested, that all efforts should immediately halt pending those answers.

Politics needs to be removed from the equation completely and I firmly believe any party that plays politics with this issue during the upcoming campaign will pay the ultimate price for taking such a callous approach.

I’m sure the public understands that there are likely hundreds of resources working full speed to gather information, analyze findings, develop project plans and answer thousands of questions. Stopping such a monumental effort isn’t like flipping a switch. Once it’s halted it may be very difficult if not impossible to get it moving forward again. I don’t believe that is what the public wants. As previously stated, I believe what we want are clear, detailed, comprehensive answers.

They say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. It’s an adage Newfoundlanders and Labradorians take very seriously and with good reason. Thankfully, in this respect at least, the legacy of the Upper Churchill is still there to ensure that we remember all too clearly.

While the public as a whole should not condemn the Lower Churchill project out of hand we also shouldn’t let anyone ram the project through unless and until the taxpayers, rate payers and voters of the province - each and every one of us - are comfortable that it is indeed the right thing to do.

I truly believe that all of our elected officials and the head of our Crown Corporation, NALCOR, should expect no less from each of us and that they owe it to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to show their respect for our concerns by responding fully to each and every one of them.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Vision - A Casualty of Drive by Politics

The most common definitions of “Vision” include:

1. The faculty of sight;
2. Intelligent foresight;
3. The manner in which one sees or conceives of something;
4. A mental image produced by the imagination.

That’s something every Newfoundlander and Labradorian would be within their rights to jot down, seal in an envelope (or place in an email) and send directly to every candidate running in October’s provincial election.

History tells us the world’s most respected leaders aren’t remembered for their ability to win office or hang onto power but for being visionaries and for their ability to engage the public in making their dream a reality.

Where are the visionaries in Newfoundland and Labrador today?

Talk to the average politician and you’ll discover most can’t see past the next poll, next election or next fiscal year. Vision, true vision, extends beyond those false parameters. It reaches far into the future, perhaps to the next generation, the generation after that, or even beyond.

Visionaries recognize the present for what it is, the future for what it can be and are capable of laying the building blocks that inspire others.

As a people why are we so easily accepting of announcements about “slightly lower” unemployment rates or achieving an “average” Canadian wage? Instead we ought to aspire to having the lowest unemployment and the highest wages in the Country.

It goes without saying that we won’t reach such lofty heights overnight, in fact we may never get there, but if we don’t aim for the target we’ll never come close to hitting it.

Take our natural resource, the province, regardless of which party is in power, has always developed those resources in exchange for the direct revenues (royalties / taxes) they produce and for the limited number of jobs extracting them creates. Why?

Why hasn’t government ensured that every ounce of benefit is squeezed from the resources around us and why haven’t our leaders, past and present, been able to understand that those resources are a diverse package of interrelated opportunities rather than a series of independent revenue streams?

Maximizing benefits doesn’t have to involve a heavy handed approach that might scare investment away and the benefits reaped don’t have to flow directly from selling the resource itself.

Legislation forcing industry into a position where profitability is unduly limited or which unfairly places social obligations on them isn’t the answer either. A far better approach is to create an environment where industry itself can see the economic advantages of increasing its presence in the province. This would require a government that understands how the different pieces of the puzzle are interconnected and can be leveraged.

As an example, based on public statements by NALCOR it would seem that rising oil prices will continue to drive up power rates until such time as Muskrat Falls energy is available. At that time rates will stabilize. They won’t fall mind you, but stabilize.

Based on this it appears higher rates charged (due to the cost of oil) will remain in effect even after the oil is no longer needed, ultimately providing additional revenues to NALCOR when Holyrood closes. After all, when those costly oil purchases are no longer necessary the revenue has to go somewhere.

Likely those hundreds of millions of dollars, along with earnings from selling power outside the province, will be used to repay the development costs of the project and provide a healthy return for NALCOR and the province.

This might seem reasonable enough from a traditional business perspective but NALCOR isn’t an independent business and the power they sell is directly linked to the local economy and to every individual and business in the province.

Newfoundland and Labrador, compared with other Canadian jurisdictions, is somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to power rates. According to NALCOR our province isn’t the only place rates are rising and after Muskrat is complete, even with the higher rates, we will continue to sit somewhere in the middle of that pack. This makes me wonder, why is that good enough?

Why are we willing to settle for being “average”?

As part of a longer term view, considering the size of the investment - and its associated risks - perhaps a more visionary approach to Churchill power should be considered.

There’s a difference between thinking inside the box and thinking outside it. In fact it’s been said visionaries don’t even recognize a box exists.

Might the province be better served by cutting power rates as much as possible once the expense of Holyrood oil disappears? This is not to say taxpayers should subsidize power rates, that NALCOR shouldn’t make a profit, or that the loans shouldn’t be repaid, the question is how high those profits need to be and what the plan is for paying down the debt.
We may have a unique opportunity here since NALCOR isn’t developing the project as a privately owned company or publicly traded corporation. As such it shouldn’t have the sole goal of maximizing profits. Its owners are the taxpayers of the province. Ultimately any corporation is responsible for achieving the long term objectives of its shareholders, in this case the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador.

When it comes to the Lower Churchill, perhaps we should ask ourselves if our primary intent, beyond keeping the lights on, is to reduce debt quickly, increase profits for NALCOR and government, grow the economy and related employment or pursue some combination of the above.

Perhaps the answer is to eliminate the debt quickly and then drop power rates as low as possible while ensuring the future viability of the corporation. Perhaps not. Who knows, but if we examine all our options, including the eventual repatriation of the Upper Churchill , might we be able to focus our efforts on one day making Newfoundland and Labrador the lowest cost jurisdiction in Canada, hell why not in all of North America, for access to clean power?

If we could eventually reach that target what might it mean?

Clearly it would be a welcome reprieve for rate payers in the province and would go a long way toward easing the burden of the less fortunate among us, but what about the bigger picture?

Low rates would obviously reduce the cost of doing business here. If the costs were low enough that alone would increase the profitability of existing enterprises and improve their ability to expand, hire new employees and even increase wages.

With less focus placed on direct profit from our energy reserves and more on offering the lowest possible rates, major industrial players now content to harvest resources and ship them elsewhere for processing might find themselves able to do that processing here at a lower cost and for increased profit thus creating more employment and provincial tax revenue.

It’s often been said that our remote location and distance from world markets is a barrier to developing a manufacturing based economy. There may be some merit in that but with the Northwest Passage, the most sought after shipping route in the world, beginning to open up could our location at its Eastern gateway actually benefit to us in the future? When it does open up, if the infrastructure necessary to take full advantage of low cost renewable energy were put in place, including for the use of Upper Churchill power, what might it mean to the province 30 years from now?

Secondary processors who use our iron, copper, oil or other valuable resources to produce consumer goods around the world might eventually come to recognize the province as a unique location with abundant resources and cheaper power than they can find elsewhere. How many jobs would that create?

Perhaps stimulating industry and employment in this way would generate provincial revenues far beyond existing levels. This broadening of the provincial tax base might even enable a visionary government to lower personal and business taxes. It might result in us becoming one of the lowest cost places to live in Canada while ensuring we are even more attractive to business, guaranteeing the cycle of growth continues to expand.

In the long run such an approach has the potential to be far more lucrative for the people of the province and for government coffers than the status quo.

Picture a future where Newfoundland and Labrador is recognized as a strategically situated treasure trove of raw materials that has the lowest cost power in North America and perhaps even the lowest tax regime. A place with a diversified economy where well paying jobs are abundant and the provincial treasury is flush with cash.

Of course this might sound like a pipe dream and in reality the entire idea is nothing more than rambling on my part. I wouldn’t pretend to know if such a scenario is viable or not but at least it’s a concept, the germ of a direction, the seeds of a vision that extend beyond the next few months or years or even my own lifetime and certainly beyond the next election. In other words it’s far more than any of the parties are putting forward.

With an election on the way we should all question where the long term vision is for our province. What about the fishery or the forestry sector. Where do we want to see our health care system and our schools a generation or two from now and how do we plan to get there? All of these components are intertwined and need to be part of an overall vision.

We may have a small population in Newfoundland and Labrador but we are also blessed with a vast array of renewable and non-renewable resources and a population that I truly believe is willing to work for a brighter future. In fact I’d argue that any government unable to satisfy the needs of our small population, while surrounded by such vast wealth, doesn’t deserve to hold office.

At this point in our history what we need is a visionary leader bold enough to set aside political expediency and take the reins firmly in hand. Unfortunately the closest thing to vision we’ve seen from any of the political parties are promises likely to expire the morning after the polls close. Hardly inspirational.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Politics of Arctic Sovereignty

It’s time Canadians demand to know how long Stephen Harper plans to continue playing the Arctic sovereignty card without actually doing anything to ensure that sovereignty.

Stump speeches, campaign rhetoric and photo-ops serve the imperative of rallying Canadians around the flag while scoring political points but they do nothing to ensure the protection of Canada’s Northern region.

During the 2006 election campaign the Harper Conservatives promised to increase Canada’s military presence in the Arctic by deploying icebreakers and installing a remote sensing network in Northern waters.

In 2007 Stephen Harper announced that he would build eight Polar Class 5 Offshore Patrol Ships and establish deep water port facilities in the far North. Construction of those vessels, which are in fact a major downsizing from ships already on the drawing board prior to the Conservatives taking office, has yet to begin and where’s the port facility? Apparently it’s still contained in a cabinet briefing document stuffed into some filing cabinet on Parliament Hill.

During that much publicized announcement, at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, Harper said, “Canada has a choice when it comes to our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it and make no mistake this government intends to use it because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity and our future”.

Perhaps closer to the truth is liklihood that talking about Arctic sovereignty has been central to his campaign success and he plans to use it for what it’s worth as long as possible.

We’ve all heard media reports about Arctic exercises by the Canadian military, in fact one is underway as I write this, but a week or two of patrols, once a year (during summer months only) isn’t going scare away any nation bent on claiming part of the Canadian Arctic.

If local police in your community staged a parade, no matter how impressive, before high tailing it out of town for the rest of the year just how protected would you feel knowing you’re completely on your own for the next 11+ months?

With the Arctic opening up more and more to shipping traffic, with multiple nations scrambling to stake a claim to its borders and riches, and with nations around the world far more unstable today than most of us can remember in recent years, national security is not a subject to be taken lightly. Nor is it something that should be used for political gain and then quickly tossed aside until the next election.

A perfect example of the low regard the federal government has for Arctic sovereignty is the Canadian Forces air base at Happy Valley – Goose Bay.

For years advocates have done everything in their limited power to convince Ottawa that the base needs to once again become an integral part of Canada’s military defences.

Situated in Labrador, 5-Wing Goose Bay is ideally positioned at the gateway to the Eastern Arctic. In fact Canadian Forces aircraft are using it to stage this year’s Arctic exercises. Unfortunately, as with Arctic sovereignty, once those exercises are complete the base will again be forgotten until it serves somebody’s political ambitions.
The Conservative government promised three elections ago to re-activate the base, which was a key component in North America’s defences during WWII. They spoke of making it an “operational requirement”, of stationing a 650 person rapid response battalion there and of using it as a base for a long-range unmanned aerial squadron.

As with other commitments to Arctic sovereignty nothing has happened during the years since those promises were made other than to restate them during each election cycle.

Just last week the Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Peter Penashue, who hails from Labrador and was a long time supporter of 5-Wing Goose Bay prior to joining  the Conservative caucus, cancelled a planned trip to the base. Their visit was to have provided them with a photo-op regarding the remediation of some long standing environmental issues. The visit has now been rescheduled for early September however there is no expectation of any announcements regarding the future of the base.

Stephen Harper may talk the talk but when it comes to Arctic sovereignty there’s precious little evidence he ever actually intends to walk the walk.

At the PMO political expediency, not territorial security, appear to be the driving force behind Arctic sovereignty.

No new patrol vessels have yet to materialize. The promise of a Northern deepwater port exists on paper only and 5-Wing Goose Bay, Canada’s closest airbase to the Arctic’s Eastern approaches, continues to collect dust except for rare occasion when an Arctic exercise is staged or when some unidentified aircraft unexpectedly enters Canadian airspace. When that happens CF-18s fighters are scrambled from the nearest operational base in Bagotville Quebec but, due to the vast distance between Bagotville and the coast, those jets are forced to land at the neglected Goose Bay facility in order to refuel before continuing with their Intercept mission.

Apparently it’s a defence system that works well on the political stage but I’m not so sure it would do much for Canada’s security should anything faster than a box kite made an approach.

When it comes to Arctic sovereignty the Harper government may not have done anything to protect our Northern border but at least we can all stop wondering if some foreign nation will try to encroach on our territory there. It’s all but guaranteed. In fact with the current level of security available we’ll be lucky if a rogue Boy Scout troop brandishing Swiss army knives doesn’t seize control of the area.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Equality Has Little to do with Equalization

It’s probably a psychological side effect of the foggy weather around many parts of Newfoundland and Labrador this summer but lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (and very little lawn maintenance). Call it day dreaming if you will but I like prefer to think of it as a “vacation of the mind”. It may sound corny but when life gives you lemons (or in this case incessant pea soup fog) you do whatever you can to turn it into lemonade.

These mental excursions have lately led me to consider perception. How perception can, and often does, create a form of false reality and how even though perceptions can sometimes change they often stubbornly refuses to do so.

I wonder, for example, how perceptions about Newfoundland and Labrador have or haven’t changed among Canadians in the past few years. It’s not that I spend a lot of time concerned about that particular subject, in fact, though it may sound trite, I’ve learned over nearly 50 years that what matters most is how you perceive yourself, not what others think of you. Never the less, knowing quite well how Newfoundland and Labrador has been viewed by many Canadians for a long time I find myself curious about the current state of affairs.

In a recent unrelated article I mentioned that through my travels I've seen for myself how our oil driven economy and new attitude have helped alter perceptions far and wide, both inside the province and in other parts of the world, but when it comes to the old stereotypes across Canada I wonder if reality has finally begun to replace age old fallacies that have existed since 1949 or if those misperceptions remain as widespread as ever?

One of the oldest bugaboos that has plagued Newfoundland and Labrador for decades is the idea that the province is a financial drain on Canadian taxpayers. “Living off my tax dollars” was, and I’d argue still is, the prevailing attitude in places like Ontario where equalization payments to “the rock” have been seen as a form of federal welfare. Never mind that the tax dollars funding equalization come from citizens inside Newfoundland and Labrador just as well as they do from those in other parts of Canada, the perception remains.

Never mind as well that Newfoundland and Labrador hasn’t received one penny of equalization for a number of years now. And ignore the fact that a media driven cost/benefit analysis some time ago showed the province has contributed more to Canada financially than it received in all forms of federal transfers (equalization, health transfers, jobs, etc.) during its history. Regardless of any of that, the perception of a bottomless money pit where every Mother’s son is looking for a hand out has existed for a long time and it’s a hard image to shake.

Nobody ever said it was a requirement that perception have any basis in reality.

Those misperceptions are why today I found myself gazing into the ever present fog and pondering what people in other parts of Canada now believe. How much reality has managed to get through to the average man or woman on the streets of Ontario, Quebec or elsewhere in Canada?

Although accurate numbers are hard to find, due to holes in available public data, during the 62 years since Newfoundland and Labrador entered the Canadian federation, in 1949, my best estimates indicate the province received somewhere between 20 – 25 billion dollars in equalization payments.

By comparison, Quebec currently receives nearly 8 billion each and every year from the fund. In other words, over the next 3 years alone Quebec will receive as much, or more, in equalization as Newfoundland and Labrador saw during more than 60 years of Confederation. How much Quebec has benefitted from the program over those same 60 years is something I’ll leave to the imagination of the reader.

Add Ontario, Canada’s newest “have not” province to the mix and reality takes yet another turn away from some long held perceptions.

This fiscal year alone Ontario will receive 2.2 billion in federal equalization payments and that number is rising with each passing year. When you factor in the equalization payments Ontario has already received over the past two years, even if transfers remain at their current rate, in 10 short years Ontario will have collected as much in equalization as Newfoundland and Labrador did throughout its entire history.

Before everyone in Ontario suddenly emails me to remind me (in colourful language) that Ontario contributes more far more to equalization than any other province please stop, take a deep breath and try to get yourself get past that false perception as well. (our email server will thank you)

In reality Ontario doesn’t pay anything into equalization, no province does. Equalization is paid for by federal tax dollars collected from your paycheque and mine whether you live in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta or Newfoundland and Labrador. The “federal tax” item you see on your weekly pay stub is what pays for it along with other forms of federal taxation. The province doesn’t pay a penny into the pot no matter what any politician running for the premier’s seat might have to say about it.

Equalization payments are indeed issued to the provincial government but it’s individuals like you and me who foot the bill. I pay as much as you do when it comes to funding equalization so let’s not go there.
That aside, generally speaking I suspect equalization is a sore point for the people of Ontario who have long seen themselves as Canada’s economic engine but I don’t quote these numbers in an effort to belittle or thumb my nose at them or the people of Quebec or anywhere else for that matter. Many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would likely feel well within their rights to do exactly that after having been looked down upon for so long but that’s not what this is about. Rather I quote the numbers precisely because they are not misguided or misinformed perceptions. They are facts, plain and simple.

I also quote them in an effort to lay a solid ground work for a personal request.

As I stated earlier, I’m curious about current attitudes across the Country so if any of our readers in Ontario, Quebec or elsewhere in Canada would like to comment on attitudes toward Newfoundland and Labrador where they reside I’d love to hear from you. Let me know if perceptions are indeed changing in your neck of the woods or if, as I suspect, old attitudes toward the province remain a Canadian reality.

I’d love nothing more than to have my own perceptions proven wrong.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Perpetual E-motion

Physicists say that perpetual motion is a scientific impossibility so let me be blunt when I say I’m not completely convinced, in fact here in Newfoundland and Labrador we may be on the verge of proving that particular perception, among many others, absolutely false.

In general terms perpetual motion refers to the ability of something to put out as much, or more, energy than required to sustain itself. In other words it can continue to be active indefinitely, perhaps even gaining momentum, simply by feeding off its own energy output. Scientific principles tell us this is not possible but then again scientists aren’t known for their romantic views of the world and it seems to me that romanticism might be the fuel required to feed perpetual motion.

I may sound as if I’ve lost that last lonely marble rolling around in my hat holder but I can assure you I haven’t, and no I’m not referring to a romance between two lovers, though the concepts are similar. I’m speaking of the romance of a special time and place.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the perfect example. There have always been those who bemoan their life today while happily romanticizing the past. How many of us have heard someone speak, with a gleam in their eye, of the time when small fishing boats dotted the coastline, when everyone knew their neighbours and when even city dwellers felt no need to lock their doors at night. I freely admit that those were romantic days indeed but unfortunately, due to the often ignored realities of the time, most of us couldn’t appreciate them as they unfolded around us. Only in retrospect have we been able to recognize their appeal.

Most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have always known how special this place is. A hidden treasure at the edge of North America, but it’s often been difficult for us to appreciate it, let alone convince others of the fact, while struggling to put food on the table or a roof over our heads.

Today, for a larger portion of our population than in the past, things are different.

Over the past several years Newfoundland and Labrador has changed, or perhaps more accurately, the attitudes of the people living here have begun to change and in doing so have helped alter the attitude of those outside our borders. It didn’t happen overnight and it’s by no means complete, but it has happened is continuing with each passing day.

When searching for a catalyst behind this change there isn’t one single thing you can put your finger on but rather a series of intangibles that together have conspired to encourage a monumental shift of attitude and a renewed sense of pride.

Our new found economic prosperity, higher level of educated citizens and lower (at least by NL standards) unemployment rates are by no means a barometer of our romantic status but those realities, along with many other factors, may well have served as the means by which more people than ever before have the “breathing room” necessary to nourish a romantic spirit.

With the daily scramble for survival taking a back seat, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are now finding the time to look around them at the amazing place in which we live. It’s a mindset that appears to be contagious and is leading us on an exciting journey of long overdue self-discovery.

If you scratch beneath the surface of any romantic period you’ll find it marred with a less than ideal reality. The same is as true today as it was in centuries past, with some in the province continuing to struggle, but while we find it so easy to romanticize our past, warts and all, our present, while different is no less romantic and that’s something many here and abroad are finally able to grasp.

For decades provincial tourism ads have struggled to shine a spotlight on the beauty and wonder of Newfoundland and Labrador. More often than not it’s been an uphill battle just to overcome the misconceptions of an uninformed audience around the globe, but not these days. Today Newfoundland and Labrador practically sells itself. It’s as if we’ve reached a tipping point where shear momentum has taken over, and when that happens, progress becomes almost self- sustaining, the perpetual motion of which I speak.

Our pride in this place, our positive attitude and our newly discovered self assurance allow us to blow our own horn in a way we’ve never felt comfortable doing in the past. This new attitude has sparked a keen interest and curiosity from afar. Those who visit here to quench that curiosity are seeing us through fresh eyes. They share their amazement with us and with others when they return to their homes. In doing so these visitors serve to reinforce our positive attitude in ourselves and our province which then stimulates even more interest from abroad and the cycle repeats itself again and again gaining momentum all the while. Perpetual motion, as described by physicists, was never as beautiful.

No longer is Newfoundland and Labrador seen from the outside as a “quaint” yet poverty stricken outpost struggling for survival in the cold North Atlantic. No longer do our unique accents and dialects lead people to mistakenly look down upon us as uneducated peasants worthy of little more than punch lines or pity.

Visitors today generally pay us the ultimate compliment of seeing us for what we are, a thriving and energetic people who have struck a delicate balance between the conveniences of modern life and a rare old world charm.

Where once we were seen as a dejected people we are now recognized as a friendly but dynamic and resourceful population. Visitors in recent years have also come to understand that we are a people who have the great fortune to live in a scenic setting worthy of poem and song. A people who are part of a distinct culture found nowhere else on the continent.

It’s this attitude shift, both at home and away, that bodes well for Newfoundland and Labrador as more and more people yearn for precisely those qualities in their own less idyllic lives.

On my recent travels, upon informing others of where I live, I was overjoyed to be met with excitement and amazement rather than the smirks and jokes of the past, or thankfully, by the old standard, “Newfoundland, where’s that?”

This shift in perception is palpable and it’s becoming more and more widespread.

These days the average response ranges from “Oh, that’s where the Titanic sank. I’d love to see the icebergs there”, to “I’ve read so much about it, it seems so wonderful.”

When high profile personalities like Russell Crowe, for example, spend their time “Tweeting” to the world about waking to the sound of seagulls, the fog shrouding Signal Hill or even saying St. John’s tap water is the best water in the world, who can help but stop and reconsider the most mundane aspects of their daily life here. And remember, for every Russell Crowe there are tens of thousands of “ordinary mortals” who visit Newfoundland and Labrador each year and share their stories around the world.

Locally our perceptions are changing as well, for while most of us are accustomed to complaining about foggy days, even the heaviest of fog and drizzle, when viewed in a new way, can take on a romantic hue.

Nobody would argue the romance of Rome, Paris or Venice, but remember, even in those great destinations someone has to pick up the trash every night or sweep the floors of the museums. With that slight change in perspective in mind, consider whether any of those destinations is truly more romantic than a leisurely evening stroll along the foggy coastline, hand in hand with the one you love, only to pause on a grassy outcrop and witness the ghostly shape of an iceberg emerging through the mist, all the while being serenaded by seagulls swirling effortlessly overhead.

Hell, throw in a humpback slapping the water and even Toronto columnist and social gadfly Margaret Wente would be forced sit in stunned silence, something many of us would pay good money to witness.

This place is truly one of a kind. Something many of us are finally willing to admit, not only to ourselves but to the world thanks to our broadening perspective and our own version of perpetual e-motion that’s growing stronger with each passing year.

Yes, there’s a bank of fog outside my window as I write this today yet I somehow still feel the brightness of sunshine surrounding me just the same.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NL Fisheries – 500 Years of Turmoil

Turmoil in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery has been around since John Cabot dipped his basket over the side and pulled up that first startled cod fish. 500 years later little has changed.

This year once again processors complain that they can’t make a decent profit if they have to pay fishers a reasonable price for their catch. Fishers say they’re being robbed blind by processors and can’t afford to keep their boats in the water. Plant workers are caught in a vicious cycle of low wage, dead end, part time employment and countless small towns are dependent on worker salaries and EI subsidies to support economies offering little hope for the future.

Isn’t 500 years of turmoil long enough?

The Province has no authority to issue licenses or set fishing quotas. That authority rests with the federal government. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can lobby, yell, protest and scream but in the end quota decisions will be made in Ottawa.

Processing and labor regulations are a different story and since the Province controls these it makes them the most logical catalyst for change without ending up in a perpetual game of hot potato with Ottawa.

At the risk of being stoned to death the next time I walk down the street I’m going to suggest that it’s time for our provincial leaders use their powers to cut the B.S. and treat the fishery like an actual business instead of a social program.

Unlike many urban dwellers I’m well aware of how much larger towns in this Province benefit from the fishery. It isn’t just small fishing communities that depend on it. Car dealerships, big box stores and grocery stores alike all profit thanks to the industry. Any upheaval will affect the entire provincial economy.

I’m also aware that most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would love to see the historical small town way of life we’re all so proud of thrive, but thriving is one thing, surviving on infinite life support is another.

The fishing industry, in fact the entire province, is in need of a large dose of reality. It won’t be easy for anyone to go through but it’s a necessity.

When you’ve worn a band-aid for a long time just the thought of pulling it off can almost as traumatic than actually doing it. Sometimes it’s best to simply pull it off quickly and put up with the blinding pain that follows. There’s no doubt it will hurt like hell but at least it will be over and the healing can begin.

We could start by getting a firm grip on one corner of that band-aid. This would require the provincial government telling the FFAW to pick a side and stick with it or they’ll no longer be recognized as an official union.

Where else could a single union represent both harvesters and plant workers? Talk about a conflict of interest. If the FFAW forces higher wages for plant workers it means processors have less revenue to pay harvesters. Forcing a higher price for harvesters leaves less for plant workers. The entire situation is insanity on a grand scale and the FFAW only serves to muddy some of the muddiest waters in the business world.

Plant workers and Harvesters need separate and effective representation, not a middle man sitting on both sides of the fence at the same time and collecting union dues from each.

With the bandage firmly in hand we need to pull quickly and forcefully until it breaks free.

Legislation currently requires fish landed in the province to be processed (at least partially) here. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact it’s the only hope plant workers have of remaining in the industry at all. The measure also ensures that the province sees some benefit from the resources.

Over the years there have been exceptions to the local processing rule, such as in the case of OCI and yellow tail flounder. Those exceptions should stop and reasonable incentives for industry to undertake additional value added processing need to be brought forward.

While we’re at it, let’s update the legislation to be more reflective of the real world most of us live in.

We want fish to be landed and processed here, no problem. But if that’s the law then we need to be fair about it. Let’s ensure harvesters are free to sell their catch directly to anyone in the province they wish, whether to processors, middlemen, stores, restaurants or individuals. Let’s also ensure that processors are not obligated to process fish only in areas where it’s landed. It isn’t the government’s role to pick which towns should be winners or losers. As long as the fish is processed or sold inside the province that should be good enough.

These changes alone would do a lot to level the playing field.

With the bandage now removed government should get out of the way and let nature take its course.

Yes there’ll be a great deal of pain and suffering but anyone who believes a solution will ever come without pain is living in a dream world.

Allowing fishers to freely market to customers will give them more say in how much they get for their catch and force processors to pay a reasonable price if they want to remain in business. If that means some processors have to close smaller plants and consolidate into fewer, more efficient ones, then so be it. If it means some plants simply can’t afford to operate then they’ll have to shut down and move on.

The same holds true for harvesters.

If harvesters are permitted to sell at a profit, either to processors or the public, then they’ll have the final say in how much they are willing to accept. If, on the other hand, they price themselves out of the market and their fish is left to rot on the wharves then they’ll have to sell their boats and get out of the business as well.

No bail outs, no work programs, no provincial or federal subsidies for unprofitable plants or harvesters, just the same business reality everyone else lives with in the real world.

Plant workers will be the largest group of casualties but what else is new. It’s the same for employees in any industry undergoing change and, as with harvesters and processors, reality needs to be injected here as well.

As employees, plant workers have no control over what happens around them but neither do cashiers at Walmart, workers at paper mills or waiters in restaurants. Such is the life of a wage slave like yours truly.

Workers who qualify for EI will take advantage of it while they can and those who don’t will end up on social assistance or find work elsewhere, either in their own home town, somewhere else in the province or even outside it. That’s how the world works outside the fishery.

It’s a painful proposition but in the end fishers and processors will wind up on an equal footing. If either of them can sell their product for a profit then they will do it, if they can’t then they will go out of business. That’s free enterprise.

If a business isn’t viable then it shouldn’t be in business. Artificially propping it up in an effort to ensure low paid seasonal employment and EI benefits for remote communities isn’t a valid business model, it’s a recipe for disaster where nobody wins.

Even the towns involved suffer. The artificial industrial environment set up to keep them alive makes them dependent. It lessens the urgency to find new opportunities and novel approaches to diversification. In the end it might be far more humane to pull that band-aid off and let these towns either sink or swim. Leaving things the way they are is only causing communities to slowly bleed to death as the younger generations depart for greener pastures and older residents die out.

When the youth are gone who’ll work in the fish plants and who’ll catch the fish? Where will the industry be then?

If, as a result of introducing reality into the fishery, some towns are unable to survive then that’s what has to happen. Whether they try to attract new industry to their towns or compete with each other to attract the more efficient fish plants that remain, there will be winners and losers. At least they’ll have the opportunity to work toward their own future and those that survive will be far better places to live in the long run

Towns around the world have suffered similar fates in the past just as they will in future. When faced with the closure of key industries towns normally face two options. Either they diversify (find another industry to sustain them) or they disappear into the mists of history. That’s been the natural order of things since time began but in Newfoundland and Labrador we’ve denied this reality by introducing the cultural custom of long term life support.

As things stand processors are encouraged to keep barely viable plants open with limited profit margins. This leads to a dependence on seasonal workers supplemented by EI funding. Those workers have no hope of ever improving their lot in life and the generations coming behind them are faced with a bleak future.

Because of a limited ability to grow efficiencies in their businesses processors also push down the price they pay to fishers in an effort to improve profitability and viability. Those harvesters in don’t have a lot of options for where they can sell their fish leaving them at the mercy of the plants and faced with an ongoing battle for survival.

Under the status quo the processors, fishers and plant workers are never going to be happy with their lot in life thanks to the artificial environment that’s been created around them.

A more realistic fisheries model may bring with it uncertainty but it can also bring innovation.

Perhaps there will be fewer but bigger plants. It might mean fewer but larger fishing vessels or it could even lead to a return to more small boat community based fishing. Who knows, but whatever the outcome at least it will be a natural result born of reality rather than from the virtual reality that exists today.

Free enterprise can have unexpected outcomes and not all of them are bad, just ask the people involved in “Community Sustainable Fisheries” in Maine or Nova Scotia. Closer to home the the Fogo Island and Labrador Cooperatives prove that new models can make a difference.

Newfoundland and Labrador needs to come to terms with is a daunting future. Either we have the stomach to pull off that band-aid and suffer the pain or we can continue ignoring the problem while hoping the infection beneath it doesn’t get worse as we keep treating the symptoms.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Newfoundland & Labrador Fills Federal Void

In 2010 the government of Newfoundland & Labrador, under then premier Danny Williams, made a decision that might one day prove to be a turning point for the Atlantic fishery. It decided that the province could no longer trust the federal government, or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), as the sole source of fisheries science data.

Thanks to an initial $14 million allocation by the province’s taxpayers, research began this year into the state of North Atlantic fish stocks.

The Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research (CFER) was created by the provincial government in partnership with Memorial University and the Marine Institute. Their mandate is to study fish stocks and the environmental conditions that affect them.

Under the direction of noted marine biologist, Dr George Rose, the Centre will provide research data on groundfish, finfish, pelagics and shellfish through the use of acoustic surveys and satellite tracking.

As the first steps in this effort, the CFER has chartered an Irish research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer, as the platform for this season’s research. The team hopes future funding will make it possible to purchase a dedicated vessel going forward.

Fisheries science is of critical importance to the province. The wide spread moratorium that followed the collapse of groundfish stocks in the early nineties left the province’s economy in tatters. Little recovery has been seen in those stocks and while the provincial economy has grown, largely through non-renewable resource revenues, many small towns directly affected by the closure continue to struggle for survival.

Ottawa and DFO are often singled out for their mismanagement of the industry and for the quality of their scientific information before and since the moratorium came into effect.

The initial closure of the fishery in 1992 led to the loss of employment and way of life for 10’s of thousands of people. This resulted in the biggest out-migration from any province in Canadian history with some estimates placing the mass exodus at more than 65,000, or about 15% of the population.

To provide some perspective on the scale of the personal and economic disaster involved consider a comparison to the province of Ontario.

Ontario has a population of 12 – 13 million people. Now imagine if you can that every single person, without exception, in the cities of Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton and Windsor suddenly lost their jobs without warning. Every business there is shut down and every family has left those cities completely. Now imagine that those 1.8 million people don’t just move somewhere else in Ontario and continue to work, go to school or pay taxes, but instead leave the province completely.

The scale of the disaster is difficult to comprehend by most of the Canadian public.

When the moratorium was first announced by Federal Fisheries Minister, John Crosby, those who lost the livelihood their families had practiced for generations were told it was a temporary measure that would last only a few years. In the intervening 19 years since that announcement stocks have failed to recover in any significant way and DFO has provided few answers to when, if ever, the situation might improve.

While fisheries management is a federal responsibility, years of sustained budget cuts at DFO and few answers finally led to the province take action if even in this small way.

The creation of the CFER isn’t the first time Newfoundland & Labrador has been forced to unilaterally take responsibility by shouldering the costs associated with poorly managed federal programs.

A number of years back the province hired its own inland fisheries officers to ensure the protection of salmon stocks. The limited number of federal officers provided for the province had led high levels of poaching forcing the province to hire its own officers and fund local programs to protect the stocks.

Just this year Ottawa, as part of its current cost cutting measures, announced the upcoming closure of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in St. John’s. That announcement led to massive protests in the province, where a high incidence of marine emergencies each year has the public worried the closure will lead to slower response times for search and rescue missions.

During a conversation with the Prime Minister recently Premier, Kathy Dunderdale, put forth the public’s concerns and offered to cost share the $1.2 million dollar budget for the Centre. Her offer was flatly refused by Prime Minister Harper.

While the future of the Rescue Coordination Centre remains up in the air (scheduled closure date is the spring 2012) the province’s inland fisheries management officers have had great success in reducing poaching activities through direct enforcement and public awareness campaigns. And now, in addition to its ongoing research efforts, the new CFER team is in the process of setting up an advisory committee to assist in prioritizing research activities for the province going forward.

While Ottawa continues to misallocate fishing quotas and turns a blind eye toward illegal fishing practices by foreign vessels it’s hoped that data gathered by the team will at least help the province in understanding the environmental impacts affecting stocks. It’s a small step but a step none the less.

The fact that such a vibrant and sustainable fishery, the backbone of the province’s economy for 500 years, could be decimated after only 50 years of federal mismanagement is disheartening. Perhaps just as discouraging are Ottawa’s ongoing spending cuts in the area of fisheries science, enforcement ensuring the safety of those who work on the Atlantic. None of that appears to have dampened the determination of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians however when it comes to protecting their province.

The responsibility for managing and maintaining a number of services throughout Canada still rests with Ottawa, at least on paper, but in the case of Newfoundland & Labrador that hasn’t stopped the provincial government from taking action or provincial taxpayers from footing the bill for those federal programs.

It would seem that Ottawa’s abdication of responsibilities has left few other options for Newfoundland & Labrador if it is to have any hope at all of undoing the damage inflicted under the watchful eye of federal agencies and decision makers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

July 1 - Beaumont-Hamel, Beyond the Wire

With Canada Day approaching I’d like to beg the indulgence of our readers for a moment by asking, during this time of celebration, that we take a moment to remember how that day also marks one of the most solemn in Newfoundland and Labrador’s pre-confederation history.

When people today consider Newfoundland and Labrador’s military legacy they’re likely to think of the men and women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Few think of the time before the province’s Confederation with Canada when, in 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment faced the bloodiest day in its history.

The Regiment was comprised of some of the best and brightest Newfoundland and Labrador had at its disposal. Many were athletes, scholars and aspiring business leaders. All were determined to fight for the Dominion of Newfoundland.

By the end of 1915 the war was going badly for the Allies. The Eastern Front was in disarray, the Gallipoli campaign had failed and Allied commanders desperately wanted a major success. To this end they concentrated their efforts on the Western Front. Beaumont-Hamel sprang from that plan.

German forces had been deeply entrenched at Beaumont-Hamel for some time and although an Allied assault there had been planned for an earlier start, bad weather postponed the offensive until July first of 1916. This delay gave the Germans plenty of time to re-enforce their defenses and prepare for the assault.

At 9:00 p.m. on June 30, the Newfoundland Regiment turned out for roll call with a head count of 25 officers and 776 NCOs or other ranks, 801 in total.

The plan of the British command was to penetrate a section of enemy lines that had previously been targeted by a week-long artillery barrage. As a result there was expectation among the ranks of limited resistance, but all was not as the men hoped.

A 10 minute delay in advancing took place after the suspension of artillery fire. Such a short period of time might seem insignificant to a civilian but for many on the battlefield that day it turned out to be a lifetime. The extra 10 minutes allowed the enemy the time they needed to evaluate the situation at hand and make ready for battle.

Of the delay, Private John Ryan would later recall thinking, “That’s it, we’re licked”.

He was right.

In reality the week-long “softening” of the lines had been largely unsuccessful and most of the German defenses remained intact. With the enemy aware of the upcoming ground assault the odds were stacked against the men of the Regiment.

It was a recipe for disaster most of them could not have been aware of as they dutifully followed orders to leave the relative safety of the trenches.

The men, each carrying nearly 70 pounds of gear, spilled over the side and advanced across more than 500 metres of open grassy slope, in broad daylight, with no artillery cover and in full view of the enemy.

As they moved down the exposed slope towards “no man’s land” a murderous cross-fire cut through their ranks. Almost immediately men began to drop, at first slowly but then in larger numbers as they approached the first gaps in their own wire. Many fell while they were still behind their own line of defense.

Private Anthony Stacey, who watched the carnage from a forward trench, later said, “The men were mown down in waves.” The gaps cut the night before were “a proper trap for our boys as the enemy just set the sights of the machine guns on the gaps in the barbed wire and fired”.
With Dogged determination the survivors continued onward, many stumbling or stepping over the bodies of fallen friends.

Ahead lay the German front lines, a three-tiered system of forward trenches, well dug in and protected by expanses of barbed wire. Past the first line of defense, at ranges between 2,000 and 5,000 metres, the Germans had constructed a second line of trenches and were working farther back on yet a third.

The German lines were manned by tough and experienced soldiers who had turned a natural Y-shaped ravine into one of the strongest positions on the entire western front. The network of heavily protected lines presented a formidable obstacle to any attacking force as the fighting Newfoundlanders learned the hard way.

As the only large body of troops moving across the battlefield that morning the men of the Regiment were clearly visible to the enemy who subjected them to the full brunt of their weaponry.

Most of those who succeeded in escaping the volley of fire concentrated on the gaps in their own wire made it no further than the now infamous “danger tree”, a landmark between the two sets of enemy combatants that had served artillery commanders as a landmark.

The few who eventually reached the German lines were horrified to discover that the week-long artillery barrage had failed in opening up the German barbed wire. As a consequence the majority of the soldiers who reached their objective were killed as they became entangled.

The condition of the enemy wire had been known by commanders the night before the attack, thanks to a report by a Newfoundland reconnaissance team, but that report was dismissed as little more than “nervousness” by men “facing battle…” It was a decision by British Commanders that amounted to a death sentence.

In the end the Regiment was decimated.

Beaumont-Hamel turned out to be more of a slaughter than a battle. In less than 20 minutes most of the men were either dead or wounded. It was all over in under half an hour.

Of the 801 men who had charged the German lines most were killed or seriously wounded and only 68 were able to make roll call the next day, a casualty rate of over 90%.

In time the Regiment rebuilt its ranks and through its actions at Beaumont-Hamel and in other campaigns the soldiers ensured their place in military history.

During the war the Regiment earned no less than 280 separate decorations, 77 of which were awarded to original members of the “first 500” who set sail from St. John’s in 1914. In fact, one in every seven men among the original force received some sort of military honor.

For their bravery and sacrifices, in September of 1917, King George the Fifth bestowed upon them a “Royal” prefix that would continue to be used from that day onward. This was just the third time in British military history that such an honor was awarded during a time of conflict, the last occasion having been more than a hundred years earlier.

Of course all of those men who served at Beaumont-Hamel are long gone now but their fighting spirit lives on to this day in the men and women from Newfoundland and Labrador who serve with Canada’s forces.

We may not be able to express our gratitude directly to those who gave so much on that dark day but we can certainly honour their legacy. On July first and throughout the year take a few minutes to visit a local legion or war memorial, stop and chat with an aging veteran and offer a simple thank-you for the sacrifices they’ve made on our behalf.

It only takes a few minutes to shake a veteran’s hand or buy one a cold beer. And, as we go about our celebrations this Canada Day weekend it only takes a few seconds to quietly remember those who suffered on that faraway battlefield on July first 1916.

Beyond the Wire

The big guns cease and silence falls,
My heartbeat sounds to fill the void.
Just ten short strokes upon life’s clock
‘Till I am ordered o’er the side.

The smoke has cleared above the field,
I wonder who will tell our tale.
I fear my best is not enough
But fear still more that I might fail.

For Country I must fight or die
Like countless others gone before.
Eight hundred others face my fate,
Young blood to spill on foreign shores.

As one we rise and find our feet.
The trenches fall behind us fast.
The wire cuts we hope to breach
As one by one our fate is cast.

Blood rushes through our beating hearts
Like bullets coursing through the air
Laying low our charging ranks,
My heart beats yet, but some no more.

Wire gates make targets clear
We blindly charge toward them still
Trampling men for whom we care
Cast away upon the till.

Blood and mire are as one.
Angry hornets mow us down.
Charging hard my only hope
Upon this hell of earthly ground.

Stealing glances left to right
As near the ragged tree I draw
Where once eight hundred souls advanced
So few have made it out this far.

Yet on I race toward the fire
Across the field where corpses grow,
If I can reach that tangled line
My safety I might then secure.

Cries of anguish hard at hand
My breath grows ragged, strained and raw,
My mind is numbed with blinding fear,
My boots are now in full command.

Ahead the wire barbed and sharp,
Standing strong, no way inside.
My charge is such I cannot halt,
The bastards at command have lied.

Leggings snared within its grasp,
Struggles fail to set me free.
With desperate rage I fight for life
But fate has different plans for me.

My body feels the first report.
I know no pain, just anger now.
The second turns the sky to red,
And darkness falls forever more.

On next day’s dawn they’ll take the call.
Those sixty-eight remember me.
I gave my best until I fell.
No voyage home across the sea.