Tragedy Touches Lac-Mégantic

July 16, 2013 10:20 am
Destruction at ground zero in Lac-Megantic

Just over a week ago, the picturesque Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic entered the public lexicon for all the wrong reasons. On Saturday, July 6, at 1:14 a.m., an unmanned runaway freight train belonging to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway Ltd. derailed in the heart of the town. But this was no ordinary derailment. The train was 1.5 kilometers long and consisted of 73 cars, all but one of which were carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region bound for an oil refinery in New Brunswick. The runaway train entered the town at a speed of 101 km/h without any warning — almost 10 times the maximum safe speed of 10 km/h — and upon reaching the curve in the tracks behind the main business district of Lac-Mégantic, many of its tanker cars and their highly flammable cargo derailed. They piled up like a gigantic iron accordion, exploding into flames on impact and quickly turning the heart of Lac-Mégantic into an unimaginable inferno.

Almost 40 buildings were instantly destroyed and dozens of residents were killed, many of whom were likely vaporized by the extreme heat from the explosions and subsequent fires. To date, 33 bodies have been recovered from the destruction and at least 17 more individuals remain missing and are presumed dead.

The scene was set for tragedy when, around 11 p.m. on Friday, July 5, more than two hours before the accident, the ill-fated train’s engineer parked the train on the mainline for an overnight stopover in Nantes, some 10 kilometers up track and also uphill from Lac-Mégantic. At that time, the engineer’s shift for the night was over. He took a cab to a hotel in Lac-Mégantic to sleep as the train sat on the tracks awaiting his replacement who would guide it further along its way to the New Brunswick refinery. As is the standard (and required) operating procedure, one of the train’s locomotive engines sat idling overnight. However, shortly after the engineer’s departure, smoke from what turned out to be a minor fire caused by a ruptured fuel or oil line in the sole running locomotive caught the attention of nearby residents of Nantes. That fire was promptly extinguished by local firemen. In putting out the fire, the firemen may have turned off the power to the locomotive. This may have been the true starting point for the chain of events that would ultimately result in catastrophe because, in order to keep the entire train’s airbrake system functioning, at least one locomotive must be running at all times. Without that one engine running, there would be no power to provide the pressurized air that maintains the air braking system itself.

That said, it is important to note that the airbrake system is not the sole braking system used to prevent a parked train from moving. All trains still use manually-set handbrakes as well. Each car has a handbrake. And, when a train is left unattended, whether overnight or just momentarily, the train’s crew must apply numerous handbrakes. Herein likely lies the answer to the mystery as to how and why the train began its deadly roll downhill towards its unscheduled final destination in Lac-Mégantic.

The key question in discovering why the accident occurred will likely be the following: did the engineer apply a sufficient number of handbrakes to keep the train stationary on the track’s downhill grade of 1.2%? But before an answer to that question can be found, it must be noted that the phrase “sufficient number of handbrakes” can best be described as subjective. This is because there is no cast-in-stone rule which determines how many handbrakes on any given train could be considered sufficient. While many railroaders use the so-called “10% plus two rule,” which stipulates that a sufficient number of handbrakes to prevent a train from moving can be achieved by applying the handbrakes on 10% of the cars making up the train plus an additional two cars, there are no hard and fast rules on this subject. In other words, what would be deemed a sufficient number of handbrakes on any given train often differs from one railway to another and from one crew to another.

MMA Chairman Edward Burkhardt addresses the media in Lac-Megantic

MMA Chairman Edward Burkhardt addresses the media in Lac-Megantic (Photo: John Kennedy, The Montreal Gazette)

Shortly after the accident, MMA Chairman Edward Burkhardt stressed the fact that, as far as he knew, the engineer had indeed adequately secured the train for its overnight stop, despite the track’s downhill grade of 1.2%. However, Burkhardt has since claimed that a total of 11 handbrakes needed to be activated to prevent the train from starting its deadly descent into Lac-Mégantic, and that the accident itself indicates that the engineer failed to do this before leaving the train unattended overnight. Determining whether or not the engineer did set the required 11 handbrakes will not be an easy task, given the scope and scale of the destruction on the ground in Lac-Mégantic. However, the locomotive’s event data recorder should be able to help clarify one aspect of the handbrake mystery.

The event data recorder will allow investigators to match the locomotive engine’s mechanical and instrumental performance with the timing of events following the train’s being secured for the night and preceding the outbreak of the minor fuel line fire and the engine’s possible powering down by Nantes’ local firemen. The preservation of such information would allow investigators to judge whether or not the engineer took any action indicative of testing the train’s handbrakes prior to turning in for the night. After setting what is deemed to be the appropriate number of handbrakes on a train, engineers are required to test the effectiveness of their handbrakes by trying to start the train and move it either forwards or backwards. Should the train move forwards or backwards while the throttle is depressed, an insufficient number of handbrakes has been set. The engineer must apply more handbrakes and then try the test again. It is only when the train cannot move under power that the test has been passed and the train truly secured. The event data recorder should indicate whether or not the handbrakes (sufficient in number) were tested in this manner before the train’s throttle was placed in its idle position and before the engineer called it a night.

Quite aside from the root cause for the runaway train, the accident itself has drawn public attention to the resurgence of the practice of shipping oil by rail. Because the volume of oil waiting to be brought to market from Canada’s oilsands as well as from the vast shale oil fields in North Dakota and Montana far exceeds the existing pipeline capacity and because the costs (both financial and regulatory) associated with expanding existing pipeline capacity have increased substantially (as has the virulence of organized environmental opposition to such projects),  the volume of oil and petroleum products shipped by rail has increased markedly over the past few years. For instance, according to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadian railcars delivering crude oil or other petroleum products has doubled between April 2012 and April 2013. In April 2012, 7,194 railcars were used to deliver Canadian petroleum products. By April 2013, 14,217 railcars were used to deliver Canadian petroleum products to refineries and, ultimately, to market.

But it is when we look south of the border that we see more clearly the increasing importance of shipping oil by rail. In the United States, during the first half of this year alone, 355,933 carloads of oil were shipped by rail compared to just 5,358 carloads during the first half of 2009. Even so, with a combined Canadian and American oil production of some 11.26 million barrels per day, data reveals that less than 8% of North American oil was brought to market by rail during the first half of 2013.

Sadly, the tragic accident in Lac-Mégantic is now being harnessed by those on both the left and right of the political spectrum in an attempt to further their own political agendas. On the left, environmentalists are urging Canadians to re-examine and ultimately — but unrealistically — abandon fossil fuels not only because of their environmental impact but also their supposedly inherent risks to mankind as witnessed by the trail of destruction left behind in Lac-Mégantic. Also from left of the aisle, Thomas Mulcair, the Leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, has spuriously claimed that the accident could have been related to “public safety-related” spending cuts made by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. On the right, advocates of the seemingly politically-toxic topic of pipeline expansion are claiming that the accident in Lac-Mégantic highlights the pressing need to greenlight present and future pipeline projects, given that shipping oil by pipeline generally results in fewer accidents than shipping oil by rail. However, data has shown that, while oil delivered by pipeline may indeed experience fewer accidents (and therefore spills) than oil delivered by rail, pipeline spills tend to release a greater volume of oil than rail-related spills.

Rhetoric aside, neither the tragic accident in Lac-Mégantic nor its probable regulatory fallout will fully satisfy the vested interests on the left or right of the political spectrum. While the derailment may marginally slow the expansion of shipping oil by rail and usher in the replacement of the widely used, but prone-to-rupture-upon-impact, Class 111A tank cars with safer and stronger tank cars constructed of thicker tank shells, the need for oil to produce everything from gasoline to plastic patio furniture will ensure that the oil trains keep rolling above ground and the pipelines keep flowing below ground.


Top Photo: Bell Media

No More Mudslinging: Deeper Focus on Accountability Needed on the Hill

June 13, 2013 5:39 pm

 Senate spending scandals shouldn’t be an excuse for pointing fingers, but an opportunity to improve accountability across the board in the Canadian government. 

The latest investigations into the expenses of Conservative and Liberal Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin, have proven troubling. After being reviewed by the internal economy committee, it turns out Brazeau owes $48,745.13 in wrongly claimed expenses while Harb owes $231,649.07. While Wallin’s audit is still ongoing, it’s still difficult to believe that she spent over $330,000, more than any other Senator, on “other” travel expenses since 2010. It’s no wonder Canadians are feeling goosed by the Senate.

The scandal with Mike Duffy reaches all the way to Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s former Chief of Staff. It was revealed that Wright wrote a personal cheque to Mike Duffy for $90,000 to help him repay money he owed for wrongly claimed living expenses. News of a million-dollar secret slush fund controlled by Wright for the Conservatives should raise serious concerns about what taxpayer money is truly being put towards. In the meantime, Wright and Duffy refuse to show the cheque or discuss the situation publicly, while the RCMP launches an investigation into the case.

Outside of the Senate, it’s been revealed that Dimitri Soudas failed to pay his taxes while he was Harper’s Communications Director. Given that taxes are sourced deductions from one’s salary while working for the PM, this raises questions about other sources of income Soudas may have had during his time working for Harper. This is a question in the public interest, given that the PM’s aides are all government employees.

There’s no doubt that the rules of governance don’t allow for any of this, but the spotlight shouldn’t be solely placed on Senators or on the Conservative Party. A lack of accountability for personal spending is prevalent throughout the House of Commons and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.

While members of the NDP have been the first to jump at the opportunity to criticize and denigrate the Conservative Party, it may be wise for them to take a look at their own track record.

Recently, two NDP MPs, Hoang Mai and Tyrone Benskin, have revealed they owe thousands of dollars in back taxes to Quebec’s revenue agency. While this isn’t directly related to the expenses they’ve claimed as a part of their positions, they’re still showing a blatant disrespect for their duties as taxpayers and government leaders to the Canadian people.

And yet, these problems aren’t a recent occurrence. A serious lack of accountability has been displayed among the highest echelons of power in recent years.

Olivia_Chow_Photo_Press_Conference_2013-02-22In 2011, Olivia Chow and Jack Layton were named Ottawa’s “million-dollar couple” by the Toronto Star for their lavish personal expenses. While they defended themselves fiercely, claiming they didn’t break any rules, they nonetheless revealed their extravagant living expenses, charging over $42,000 in one year for their Ottawa apartment and per diem expenses. In total, the couple claimed around $1.16 million from taxpayers in just one year. How is this possible and allowable? Why wasn’t a line-by-line listing of these expenses released immediately, in the public interest?

Ironically, the CBC and CTV have had Olivia Chow on their shows as a pundit and spokeswoman for the NDP to comment on the Senate expenses scandal. It is a marvel to watch Chow criticize the Senators when she has yet to release all the documents related to her own expenses in 2011. The accused Senators all argue that they haven’t broken any rules, just as Chow did in 2011. And yet, they’ve still been told they’re in the wrong after being audited. What does this have to say about these Senators, Olivia Chow, and the standards of accountability that all of these politicians maintain for themselves?

The Senate scandal has landed with the same impact on Stephen Harper’s desk as the sponsorship scandal did when Paul Martin was Prime Minister. Harper was going to change all that – but not much has really changed on Parliament Hill.

The only good thing that has come out of all this is that Canadians uniformly seem to want permanent institutional changes to the system and greater oversight. The easiest way to do this would be for the Board of Internal Economy committees of the Senate and the House of Commons to be subject to regular audits by the Auditor General, just as every other government agency is.This would include the AG monitoring the personal expenses of MPs and Senators.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has, in a positive step, called for even further measures, advocating for greater transparency in spending for MPs and Senators. He’s recommended to open up the Board of Internal Economy, making the personal expenses of all MPs and Senators visible to Canadians. He’s also demanded the publication of quarterly, publicly accessible expense reports from each MP and Senator.

While the Conservatives supported Trudeau’s calls, the NDP has refused to do so. It’s time for them to put their partisan differences aside and get on board with Trudeau’s vision. Given their refusal, one can’t help but wonder what they have to hide.

Accountability and transparency to Canadian taxpayers should be the first priority of all Senators and MPs. No party has a clean record – it’s time for government leaders to admit to this and stand up for real change by making themselves accountable to the Auditor General of Canada. After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Time for Toronto’s Media Elites to Take a Look in the Mirror

1:05 pm

By Joanna Plucinska

All journalists should be concerned about recent decisions taken by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail concerning the standard of evidence they require in reporting. In their quest to “investigate” the actions of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his Councilor brother Doug Ford, many in the industry are rightly concerned that the papers have severely damaged their brand with the public and compromised several important ethical standards in journalism.

With recent reports of a video showing Toronto’s mayor smoking crack cocaine, the Canadian media, led by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, has spun itself into a flurry of hearsay, rumors and, at the end of the day, unproven accusations.

News of the video broke with a blog post on Gawker, an online scandal sheet, on May 16, followed by an article in the Toronto Star, the newspaper with the highest circulation in Canada. Reporters for both pieces claimed they had seen a video of Ford smoking crack cocaine. The story soon spread to countless international news sources, including The New York Times and the BBC.

The Globe and Mail continued to feed the fire. A few days after the scandal broke, the Globe published an “in-depth” front-page feature which they positioned as an “investigative piece” on the Ford family’s alleged connections with the Toronto drug community. Specifically, Globe reporters claimed that Doug Ford, Rob Ford’s brother and a Toronto City Councilor, had been a drug dealer while in high school. In publishing the story, the Globe implied that the Ford family, and by association, Rob Ford, had in some way been involved in the Toronto drug trade.

It holds true that Rob Ford has been no stranger to scandal. His indiscretions are frequently splashed across the pages of Canada’s newspapers. Most recently, he was accused by former mayoral candidate Sarah Thompson of being inebriated and of “grabbing her ass” at a social gathering in Toronto. Others at the event said it didn’t happen. Rob Ford vehemently denied it. Nonetheless, the media spotlight was on this he said-she said story for weeks.

With such speculative stories appearing about Ford, it’s important to remind oneself of fundamental standards and ethics in reporting. The duty of journalists is, first and foremost, to provide the public with the truth – verified and publicly verifiable, evidence-based truth. As the Ryerson School of Journalism’s very own Rules of the Game, the student handbook for journalists, outlines, “Not only must the student stand ready to provide verification of each fact, but the audience should, as a general rule, be able to evaluate the reliability of the information.“

It appears this standard has been set aside by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail in their coverage of the Ford brothers. For example, none of the claims against Doug Ford have been verified with even one on-the-record source. The Globe and Mail’s Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse has suggested that readers should not worry about this and “trust them.” It is ironic that Stackhouse’s words seem more like something a politician would say to a reporter, rather than a statement the press would make to the public.

The Star has further contributed to this dismaying behavior. In a race against Gawker to publish the story about the alleged video showing Mayor Rob Ford holding or smoking a crack pipe, the Star seems to have sacrificed accuracy for the sake of expediency. While the Star’s publisher John Cruickshank, and Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke both claimed that their primary motive in running the story was the public interest, they don’t deny that they knew Gawker, an online gossip blog, was going to run the story.

The Star’s leaders felt that, even without irrefutable facts or proof, they should break the news regardless, simply to compete with Gawker. The decision of these two key decision-makers at the Toronto Star, to hold themselves to the same standards of journalism as an online scandal sheet is troubling – it screams that they have lowered the bar simply to sell newspapers.

Michael Cooke, the current Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Star, who’s honed his skills at tabloid newspapers such as the New York Daily News, doesn’t see any problem.

Rob FordIn a recent Toronto Life profile, Cooke said: “I can’t imagine The New York Times running a front-page investigative story full of holes in the hope that someone would phone them up. But when you print what you haven’t got, sometimes people actually give it to you.” Why was the Star not going to hold itself to the higher New York Times standard and instead publish a story full of holes? Evidently, it was in the hopes that the video would then magically appear.

This strategy clearly hasn’t worked for the Star. While Gawker raised $200,000 to purchase the video through a so-called “Crackstarter” campaign online, the Star refused to pay for the video, claiming this would compromise its “ethics.” The video’s apparent owner says it is no longer available, leaving no solid proof that the mayor did in fact smoke crack cocaine. Without Gawker, how does the Star plan to prove its allegations now?

We trust journalists because their role is to provide all the facts – should we believe them when they can’t even meet this basic requirement?

And yet, other media organizations don’t see the problem. In these sorts of situations, shouldn’t journalism schools, considered the bastions of education on the ethics of journalism, be speaking up for the very standards they’ve set?

Their leaders have been doing the opposite. Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, stated in an interview with The Grid TO that the media has done nothing wrong – that the public doesn’t need to see raw evidence in order for something to be true.

The journalism school mavens also failed to point how the media frenzy has wider consequences than one may foresee. These reports have raised questions in the public mind about the Ford family’s role in public office. More seriously, many feel that the excessive coverage has hurt Toronto’s reputation internationally, giving the impression that Canadians allow themselves to be led by unqualified and irresponsible politicians.

Publishers and columnists are saying that Ford is responsible for ruining the city’s good name. But is it solely Ford’s fault? Has the coverage of these issues by The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star not done more to damage the city’s reputation? While columnists and journalists are quick to place the blame on Ford, it may be wise for them to examine their own role in exacerbating the city’s image problem.

It’s time for the Toronto Star and the Globe to reflect on whether their coverage is really worthy of the sacrifices they’ve made to their own reporting standards. With no “crack video” in sight and no one prepared to go on the record to support the Globe’s accusations against Doug Ford, the credibility of both papers in reporting serious stories fairly and accurately is now in question.

Journalism should be about providing a fair, balanced and truthful perspective on multiple facets of many different stories. The Canadian media needs to return to these standards for the sake of Toronto and for the sake of standards-based and principled reporting.

City Must Put Western LRT into Underground Tunnel: Partially Buried Trains Won’t Save Parkway Greenspace

June 10, 2013 11:12 am
Running LRT on Parkway

The City of Ottawa must ensure that the Light Rail Transit (LRT) it proposes for the Western Parkway is moved to an underground tunnel, said Lesley Taylor, president of the community group Underground Solution.  “The City of Ottawa’s proposed trenched LRT route will drastically reduce access to the parkland of the Ottawa River Parkway and impede the use of bike and walking paths,” said Taylor. “While our community favours efficient transit to the Western suburbs, we will not sacrifice Canadians’ open access to, and use of, the green space on the historic Parkway, which is a national treasure.”

LRT on Ottawa River CorridorThe City will unveil measures June 13 that it claims will “mitigate” the dramatically negative impacts of its shortsighted Western Parkway LRT plan. With the apparent support of Mayor Jim Watson and Kitchissippi counselor Katherine Hobbs, the City’s plan would see two trains hurtle in opposite directions, in a trench, through the peaceful green space between Dominion and Cleary Avenues every two to five minutes.

“Deep train trenches, berms and other so-called ‘mitigation measures’ will not do the job,” Taylor said. “The Underground Solution is demanding that the City preserve the neighbourhoods and this green space for everyone by moving the LRT trains fully underground into a tunnel.”

The city’s proposal would destroy more than 1.2 km of irreplaceable public parkland enjoyed by thousands of Ottawa residents and visitors to our capital. The beautiful Westboro-McKellar Woodland Path is used daily for fitness and recreation, including walking, cycling, snowshoeing, birding and cross-country skiing. Seniors with walkers, mothers with baby strollers, and other Ottawans will find it much more difficult to enter what is now the most accessible stretch of Parkway parkland west of Tunney’s Pasture.

LRT Shares Ottawa River Parkway

On Being a Day-Tripper At 24 Sussex

10:50 am

By Jean-Pierre Allard 

“Just watch him”, I heard Maggie tell the nanny one balmy afternoon in September 1972 while I was slowly making my way upstairs at 24 Sussex. Pierre was at work on the Hill, so I knew she had to be referring to her 10-month old baby Justin.

And now look at him. As Yogi would say – not Sexy Sadie, but the baseball catcher – it’s déjà vu all over again for the Trudeaus.

It seems like it was just yesterday that the Beatles got everybody’s mojo rising in February 1964 and instantly made us forget about Castro, Kruschev and Kennedy. Alas, Beatlemania was all but dead just a few short years later, in what was to be a sober precursor of today’s fleeting fame.

However, unforeseen relief came again, this time, in the unlikely political persona of one Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whose meteoric rise to power culminated in his winning the April 1968 Liberal Convention held at Ottawa’s brand new Civic Centre.  A year before young people literally shook the centennial building with their foot-stomping at concerts, the joint was rocking on that spring Saturday.

Thus began Trudeaumania, in which we all took turns watching this most unorthodox and globe-trotting man who somehow made it cool for youngsters to tune in to politics, at a time when most were dropping out, courtesy of Timothy Leary. In no time, PET became as hip as The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, no doubt aided by his looks which coupled with his bachelor status appealed to women of all ages… but also by his ability to fully grasp and apply Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message.”

The country would never be quite the same. Neither would I, for that matter, after being a day-tripper at the PM’s residence four years later.

Earlier on, repercussions from the Fab Four’s new musical twist on the old beatnik blues had been immediately felt in Ottawa when the legendary Staccatos and Esquires hit the AM charts, which soon led to an eruption of local bands (The Townsmen, The Heart, 5D, Don Norman and The Other Four or Scoundrelz) and happenings (The Roost, The Rib, Parkdale United Church, The Hub and The Oak Door) all over town – a mini-British invasion, if you like.

On Saturday nights, we would hitchhike to far-away Pineland’s Dance Hall on Riverside Drive to dance with the hot west end girls, but instead invariably ended up fighting their boyfriends whom we recognized as the same ones we had just lost to earlier in the day in our Cradle League hockey games at the old Auditorium on Argyle. Pierre’s government may not have had any right to stick its nose in the bedrooms of the nation, but we judiciously decided that hockey grudges had every business to be settled on the dance floors of the national capital. In our world, passion always presided over reason, with all sincere apologies to Trudeau’s mantra.

Another day in 1968, we were at Harvey Glatt’s Treble Clef record store on Rideau Street listening to Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love when we heard that something called The Jimi Hendrix Experience was coming to the grand and lavishly decorated Capitol Theatre on Bank Street, but it hardly sounded like a rock band to me so I passed, idiot wind that I was.  Just as well though, for the Yohawks or Squirrels’ gang members would surely have brass-knuckled us for having the audacity to wear those long, black-caped overcoats, which, when coupled with our mod French haircuts and dernier cri fabrics from Le Château boutique, made girls’ erogenous zones go all gaga, even if les têtes carrées at school were never impressed and sneeringly termed them “queer clothes.”  So when we saw Trudeau at the 1970 Grey Cup in his black cape and matching hat, you’ll understand that we weren’t nearly as impressed with his risqué adornment as the entire with-it generation was, perhaps even becoming the first ones to coin the very blasé expression “been there, done that.”

Two short years later, in April 1970, I was an usher at the old Nelson Theatre on Rideau Street the night that Pierre Trudeau came to the premiere of the Academy Award-winning epic war film Patton. While I was still dazed and confused from attending the seminal Led Zeppelin concert at the Civic Centre just the night before, I do recall that there was quite a buzz that night in the old cinema house. Little did our Prime Minister know that only six months later, he would deliver his most famous quip “Just Watch Me” while being questioned by the CBC’s Tim Ralfe on how far he was willing to go to neutralize Quebec’s FLQ terrorists at the height of the October Crisis, culminating in his government invoking the War Measures Act three days later. During those tense weeks, it was rather creepy to see a bunch of army trucks lining the streets on my way to work at the Nelson where by that time, another war movie was flashing on the marquee, albeit the much lighter Kelly’s Heroes whose lovable Oddball character was played by Canadian actor and Montreal Expos fanatic Donald Sutherland (who I encountered in Olympic Stadium’s underground parking concourse years later, but that’s a story for another day).

By the fall of 1972, one of our high school friends had found employment taking care of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau’s first son, Justin, born on Christmas Day the previous year.  She was never shy about sharing stories from the PM’s residence with her close entourage, which included this skeptical rapporteur. So, on a dare one afternoon, when the Canada-U.S.S.R. Summit Series had resumed in Moscow and caused my buddy Fuzzle and I to miss way too many second-year university classes to even think of ever catching up, she invited us to her nanny’s quarters at 24 Sussex Drive to groove on tunes and tales. I recall that even before we made our way upstairs, we were already walking on air. And in a dream, I caught a glimpse of Maggie with her kid in the hall. All at once, Rod Stewart’s Maggie May resonated in my head “It’s late September and I really should be back at school.

Upon leaving the storied grounds much later, all I could think of was “screw you Andy Warhol and your little 15 minutes of fame for everyone.”  Ours had lasted much longer than that, pal. Anyways, a whole lot longer than it took Team Canada’s Paul Henderson to forever become a Canadian household name when he scored The Goal to beat the Soviets just two days later.

And while there has been nary a time since those halcyon days when we haven`t obsessed over watching someone, one could easily argue that it’s been all rather pointless.

Until now, when Pierre and Margaret’s first born has come of age. Justin Time.


Sinbads of Kazakhstan

May 29, 2013 5:04 pm
The Sinelniks 7

The Sinelniks team request assistance from the Russian Military Forces to sail through the pirate region. The destroyer Admiral Levchenko escorted the Rusich  through the Horn of Africa for three days. (Photo: Eleanor Wilks)


“There’s nothing better to behold

Than for friends to roam around the world

And close friends the hardship do not fear

All the roads they’re sure to find dear.

All of them we always find so dear.


Our carpet is the field of flowers.

Giant pines – they form the walls of ours.

Our roof – the vast blue sky up there

Our joy – one destiny to share!

Yes, to have one destiny to share.”

From Soviet cartoon The Bremen Musicians

(musical version based on the Brothers Grimm tale)


Sinbad’s spirit of adventure will make you sail seas and oceans, cross deserts and climb mountain peaks. On foot, on motorcycles or on boat, twin brothers Sinelnik roam the world, and keep coming up with more adventurous travels. They have just returned from a 2½-year sail from Russia to Australia that they have accomplished on their Viking boat replica, sailing 17 seas and three oceans, circumnavigating 26,000 kilometers on the world’s waters.


Twin brothers Sergey and Alexander Sinelnik dreamt of traveling to faraway lands since childhood. As teenagers, the brothers always packed snacks and went camping on the banks of the Ural River in their home city of Uralsk (in Kazakhstan). In the boys’ minds, they were exploring the unknown lands, crossing barriers and facing challenges. They dreamt that one day they would head off into a real adventure.

Rusich: A Vessel of Dreams

The Sinelniks 1

The Sinelnik brothers driving through the eastern Sahara as part of their Around the World project that lasted 660 days. (Photo: Sinelniks)

Now, the Sinelnik brothers are well-known in their hometown and abroad for their travels. One day, people would read in the newspaper that the Sinelniks were the first to drive around the world on Ural motorcycles, covering 75,000 kilometers. Another day, the twins covered 1,000 kilometres on foot through the Western Sahara Desert. Later, they were the first to drive on IZH motorcycles through the seven largest deserts of the Earth without any escort.

After conquering deserts, the Sinelniks challenged themselves to climb the world’s seven highest mountain peaks. They have already climbed Kilimanjaro (5,895 м), Kosciuszko ( 2,228 м) and Elbrus (5,642 м). These are just a few examples of their many extraordinary travels.

The Sinelniks 2

The world travellers stopped to meet Nilote – a local of Marsabit, Kenya. (Photo: Sinelniks)

When it came to exploring the world’s waters, the brothers decided to build their own boat. The Sinelniks wanted to sail a boat that would tell a beautiful story to the world.

They decided to build a 10th-century rook, a Viking and East Slav replica. In the 10th to 13th centuries, Vikings and Slavs occupied Northern and Eastern Europe. They shared part of the land and culture. Together, they built vessels and committed predatory raids on Byzantium.

Like Vikings and Slavs, the Sinelniks built their coast-dweller of hewn trunks of pine and oak, with oars and square sails. Like Vikings and Slavs who once gave Russia its name, the Sinelniks dubbed their boat Rusich. Built in the Russian city of Petrozavodsk in 2006, the twin brothers’ rook was 15-meters-long, four-meters-wide, and had a capacity of 11 people.

The twin brothers planned their first expedition as a historical experiment: to sail their Viking boat as if they lived in the 10th century. They assembled a team of researchers and chose to sail the ancient Volga trade route. The route went from Northern Russia to Persia (Iran) via the Volga River where it connected with The Great Silk Road.

Once their boat was ready, the Sinelniks’ team set sail and reached the Iranian border. At the time, social unrest in Iran made it dangerous to cross the border, so they returned home.

The Sinelniks 4

The Rusich’s navigation tools: GPS and fathometer (uses sound waves to determine the depth of water) (Photo: Eleanor Wilks)

This trip taught the brothers that they could sail in a 10th-century boat, wearing Viking garments and using Viking tools on the river; but to navigate the world’s waters, they would still need modern technologies like GPS (Global Positioning System).

Soon after returning home, the brothers announced that they would sail again – this time to Australia. Their family and friends were worried: the wooden rook is a coast-dweller, and is not meant to sail high seas. But the Sinelniks were determined.

It took them four years to gather a new team and to raise funds. Sinelniks’ team members were people from all walks of life and different countries, who dreamed of sailing the world. Some of the crew members had never sailed before; some had never even seen an ocean. The crew helped finance the voyage. Boris Filatov, a Ukrainian journalist and lawyer, organized different fundraisings to help Rusich lift anchor and  sail away.

To Sergey’s disappointment, his twin brother Alexander could not start the journey with him. He had a contract job in Ukraine – he was painting a cathedral in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. But Alexander would eventually join the Rusich crew in their sail around Australia.

The Sinelniks 6

The Viking boat replica Rusich sailed 26,000 kilometers across the world, crossing 17 seas, passing three oceans. (Photo: Eleanor Wilks)

Life at Sea

At last, after lengthy preparations, Sergey Sinelnik raised Rusich‘s sails on the Volga River. It was August 10, 2010. The Volga River took the boat to the Black Sea. Then, Rusich sailed the Marmara Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

The team lived on deck and slept on planks. They had GPS, maps and a small motor that was used when passing through steep channels; but most of the time, they sailed by catching winds and monsoons.

Sergey Sinelnik taught every team member how to operate the ship and how to sail. Day and night, each team member carried out a four-hour shift on the rook. The boat had one designated cook. Mostly, the crew ate canned and imperishable food; sometimes, they bought fresh vegetables at ports. Their shower represented a barrel with holes that came with a rule: wash yourself with sea water and rinse with less than two litres of fresh water.

The Sinelniks 3

Almost everyone who sailed the Rusich had a 10th century garment. (Photo: Eleanor Wilks)

After sailing 7,400 kilometres, Rusich reached Djibouti, a dangerous pirate region in the Horn of Africa. Sinelniks’ friend, the famous Russian traveler Fyodor Konyukhov, advised them to take a military escort while passing Somalia.

Dangerous situation in Djibouti, piracy threats and uncertainty – the crew was falling apart. Six of them left the ship.

Not knowing what to do, Sergey Sinelnik – with help from the Russian Embassy in Djibouti – sent a telegram to Russian Forces’ headquarters asking for a military escort. While waiting for the support to arrive, the Rusich crew received some help and protection from NATO soldiers, who provided them with food and water.

The escort came in a week. A large destroyer – the Admiral Levchenko with 400 sailors on board – was ready to accompany the rook. The destroyer was part of the Russian operations to combat piracy off the Somalia coast. The ship escorted them for three days.

“Imagine such a big high-speed ship traveling with our slow dragging boat for three days, in waters where every small fishing boat could be a pirate boat,” Sergey Sinelnik remembers.

When Rusich safely reached the Sultanate of Oman, the team could not obtain visas for a long time. They had to leave the boat in Salalah and return home. After five months, Sergey Sinelnik returned to Oman with a new team. The only problem was that their pine vessel had dried up under the scorching sun. The flatboat’s planks drifted apart, and it was sinking into the water. The crew had to rinse the rook with 20,000 tons of sea water before they could sail it again.

On May 1, 2011, Rusich sailed into the Indian Ocean. After sailing for 6,000 kilometres, it reached Thailand. In the shipyard there, the crew replaced 12 planks and made a few repairs. Rusich resumed course to the shores of Australia.

In less than six weeks, the sailors reached Darwin where the media and the public were excited to welcome them. By that time, Alexander Sinelnik finished painting the cathedral and rejoined his brother on their dream vessel.

“I am a Celt. This adventure is my heritage.”

Meanwhile, Andy Gray – an old friend of the Sinelniks – was waiting for the Viking boat to arrive at its next destination in Brisbane. Like the Sinelniks, Gray is also a craftsman and an artist. He designs jewelry, sculpts in clay, carves in wood, creates works from leather and metal. Passion for art and travel allowed him to stay friends with the Sinelniks for nine years. Gray was about to join the Rusich expedition.

But Gray’s intention to sail around Australia made his family and friends uncomfortable. They well knew the waters of Australia and the dangers they represented.

“I had a lot of people worried and expressing their concerns of the dangers of this voyage, but I knew this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that should not be missed,” Gray says. “I am a Celt. This adventure is my heritage.”

Gray and two other Australians boarded the rook in Brisbane, but only Gray was brave enough to sail with the Sinelniks through the Bass Strait to Tasmania.

The Bass Strait is a sea strait that separates Tasmania from the south of the Australian mainland. Like the Bermuda Triangle, the strait is known as a Devourer of Ships – a treacherous combination of wind and sea conditions, semi-submerged rocks and reefs that wrecked many vessels, small and large. Over the past 200 years, more than 400 ships sank in these treacherous reefs.

Together with the brothers Sinelnik, Gray sailed around Australia, through the Arafura, the Coral, the Tasman seas, passing by the Antarctic and the Pacific oceans. Movement along the east coast of Australia required great skill, but the Sinelniks and their team made their way, rounding their trip to 26,000 kilometres. The ancient flat-bottomed Rusich sailed 17 seas and crossed three oceans.

The Rusich adventure changed Gray’s life. The Australian says he learned that language has no barriers and humour is universal; that time at sea broadens the mind and nothing beats fresh fish, eaten raw off the deck. But most importantly, the journey brought him lifelong friends.

“I felt welcomed and a part of a family,” Gray says. “I don’t know if it’s the communist influence or that they are orthodox, but the attitude towards sharing is much more in depth than I have ever seen or experienced. It was quite refreshing to see and be a part of.”

The Sinelniks 5

The Rusich team members in Darwin, Australia. (Photo: Eleanor Wilks)

Gray says he is honoured and proud to call the Sinelniks his friends, and trusts them with his life: “They are true adventurers and explorers. They have so much respect for everyone and everything. I am humbled by their attitude towards life.”

What was the biggest challenge during their voyage? Sergey Sinelnik answers: people.

“One of the main difficulties were not winds and storms, but compatibility of different personalities in the team. Members of the team didn’t know each other. Some of them had never been to sea. Some got seasick and were disappointed that they spent money on the journey. But from the very beginning, I would tell them: if you are seeking pleasure, you have to take a cruise!”

What Dreams May Come

The brothers agree they have a much harder time adjusting to life on land than at sea. The Sinelniks say every time they return home from their travels, they become disenchanted with reality, finding that people are obsessed with buying things, taking credits, and then buying more. It’s easy to lose a dream in such a world, according to the Sinelniks. Sergey observes: “There was a Soviet song with the lyrics: ‘Don’t let the heart stop beating.’ I think it is very important to keep the fire burning inside your heart. And more important is to carry it into adult life.”

Alexander Sinelnik says since childhood, their dreams helped them at work and in life. “Our dreams do not give us rest, and our imagination is always illuminating a new path. This gives us strength in difficult life problems.”

“I am happy to have a twin brother,” Sergey says. “When it gets hard in life – we meet and we dream, and the fire keeps burning.”

The twins plan a special anthropological art project – to create sculptures of major world cultures and peoples. The brothers want their project to celebrate and cherish the beauty of the world’s diversity.

Also, the Sinelniks plan to rebuild Rusich, so that next time, they can sail the world with their families. Both brothers are happily married with children.

At the end of the interview, the twin brothers asked for the inland waterways map of Canada. So don’t be surprised if one day, you see the Viking boat Rusich on the Rideau Canal!

Democracy Watch Unloads on Harper Government for Chronic Lack of Accountability in Series of Cover-ups

May 22, 2013 12:58 pm
Democracy Watch logo 1

According to Democracy Watch, “biased, lapdog investigations mean cover-up of Senate scandal most likely outcome and public inquiry will be needed – Wright, Duffy should be found guilty of violating ethics rules, and possibly other laws

“Ethics Commissioner has covered up twice already for Nigel Wright, Senate Ethics Officer is controlled by a Senate committee, Auditor General is failing to do audit, Elections Canada has secret, questionable enforcement record, and even the RCMP’s independence is questionable”

Today (May 22) in Ottawa, Democracy Watch set out the details of why biased, lapdog investigations mean that a cover-up of the Senate expenses scandal is the most likely outcome, and why a public inquiry will likely be needed to ensure a full investigation.

Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy should be found guilty of violating federal ethics rules, but the fact that the same secretive, Conservative-controlled Senate Committee of Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration that watered down the conclusions in its initial report is still controlling the review of expenses is just the tip of the iceberg of investigation problems.

“The Conservatives caused the Senate scandal, but they and the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois are all to blame for the weak, biased or ineffective lapdogs who are investigating the scandal because they all failed during recent minority governments to choose strong watchdogs, and to pass measures to close loopholes and strengthen enforcement powers and requirements,” said Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch.  “As a result, no one should be surprised if all the investigations cover up the scandal, and if there is any evidence that this is happening, an independent public inquiry will clearly be needed.”

Democracy Watch logo 2

Ethics Commissioner

Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is investigating Nigel Wright’s role in the scandal, but she has had a very weak enforcement record since 2007, including letting dozens of Conservatives off the hook for very questionable actions, and making more than 80 secret rulings.  Commissioner Dawson has already covered up twice for Nigel Wright and could, as she has many times in the past, abandon her investigation secretly without issuing a public ruling.

Because of section 66 added to the new Act by the Conservatives in 2006, the Ethics Commissioner’s rulings cannot be challenged in court if she has factual or legal errors in her rulings. There are no mandatory penalties for violating the ethics rules in the Act. As well, if Prime Minister Harper approves it, Commissioner Dawson’s term in office can be renewed for another seven years in 2014 so she has an incentive to please him.

Overall, there is no reason to trust that Ethics Commissioner Dawson will do a full investigation or rule correctly, even though there is already enough clear, public evidence for her to find Nigel Wright guilty of violating at least one or more of sections 4, 5, 6(1), 8 of the Conflict of Interest Act because he used inside information to make the secret, clearly improper payment that furthered the interests of his (maybe) friend Mike Duffy during the audit of Senator Duffy’s expenses.

Senate Ethics Officer

The Senate Ethics Officer may investigate Senator Duffy’s role in the scandal, but the Ethics Officer is even more of a lapdog than the Ethics Commissioner because the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators puts the Officer under the control of a secretive, Conservative-controlled committee of senators who have the power to decide what the Code’s rules mean, how the rules will be applied, whether an investigation can even happen, and (along with the whole Senate) what the final ruling, and penalties, will be.

While the NDP has filed a complaint, in fact the Senate Ethics Officer can only investigate if the committee directs the Officer to investigate on its own or prompted by a complaint from a senator.

Overall, there is no reason to trust that the Senate committee will allow a full investigation, let alone a legally correct ruling, even though there is already enough clear public evidence to find Senator Duffy guilty of violating section 17.1 of the Code for taking the clearly prohibited gift of the payment of money from Nigel Wright.

The Ethics Officer does not have to issue a public ruling if the Officer’s conclusion is that no Code violations occurred.  Also, if Senator Duffy or any other senator resigns, any investigation is suspended forever unless the committee decides to continue it.

Auditor General

The Auditor General has full powers to audit Senate expenses under the Auditor General Act, should have exercised those powers already, and should begin an audit immediately of all senators’ expenses, and of all MPs’ expenses.

Elections Canada

The NDP has filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Canada Elections concerning the possibility that Senator Duffy’s claims of Senate expenses during the 2011 federal election may have covered costs that should have been covered by the Conservative Party, in violation of the Canada Elections Act.

The problem is that the Commissioner, in conjunction with the Director of Public Prosecutions, has a very secretive and questionable enforcement record, with more than 3,000 secret rulings since 1997, and many weak actions including a deal with the Conservative Party that let senators who participated in the Conservatives’ illegal in-and-out ad spending scheme during the 2006 federal election off the hook with no penalty.


There are measures in the Parliament of Canada Act (s.16), and in the Criminal Code (s.119) that prohibit offering or giving any kind of benefit to a senator or other federal or provincial politician in return for any action or inaction by the politician.

There are media reports that allege that the payment by Nigel Wright to Senator Duffy was in return for cooperation by the senator, and the Senate committee reviewing Senator Duffy’s expenses, and the NDP has filed a request for investigation with the RCMP.

There are also media reports that the RCMP is looking into the Senate expenses violations generally to determine if any laws were broken.

The problem is that, in a widely criticized new policy, the RCMP Commissioner has aligned his office with the office of the Minister of Public Safety in all communications about the RCMP’s actions.  Many commentators have raised concerns about how this policy affects the ability of the RCMP to make independent law enforcement decisions.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT: Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, Tel: (613) 241-5179;

Ottawa-based Democracy Watch is a national non-profit, non-partisan organization, and Canada’s leading citizen group advocating democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility.

“Look at me, not my chair”

May 21, 2013 4:33 pm
Chair-Leader 2010 Ottawa

Peter Mackay, Justin Trudeau and Martha Hall-Finley participating in Chair-Leaders, a nationwide campaign with events taking place all across Canada.

Life isn’t easy for people living with spinal cord injuries. One of the main issues has been and remains to be their mobility. Several things in today’s society make it harder for someone who uses a wheelchair. Think about the state of our sidewalks after a snowstorm, or the way facilities are built, with staircases, doorways and the height of certain things, such as cupboards and coat racks. Thanks to Spinal Cord Injury Canada, the leading community-based service provider to persons living with spinal cord injuries in Canada, and awareness events like the Chair-Leaders campaign, more and more people are opening their eyes to these realities. Progress has been made but more needs to be done.

 Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, President of Spinal Cord Injury Canada, with Justin Trudeau and Peter Stoffer

Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, President of Spinal Cord Injury Canada, with Justin Trudeau and Peter Stoffer

Chair-Leaders is meant to do just that. It’s an annual event where Canadians come together and spend a day in a wheelchair. The event, along with the fundraising campaign that goes with it is meant to raise money and awareness for Spinal Cord Injury Canada and the 86,000 people living with spinal cord injury nationwide.

“The Chair-Leaders event is extremely important to get exposure for people in a chair,” said Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, president of Spinal Cord Injury Canada. “We want people to see the obstacles they face and that they are ordinary people like the rest of us.”

It all started 68 years ago when approximately 250 veterans returned from World War II with spinal cord injuries. Placed in Veterans Affairs hospitals, they were anxious to return to the life they once knew. Unfortunately, they couldn’t access the services they needed.

Improved medical and rehabilitation services were required. This is why John Gibbons Counsell, a Lieutenant wounded in Dieppe in 1942, founded the Canadian Paraplegic Association. It provided services for veterans, and eventually civilians, living with spinal cord injuries.

It was called the Canadian Paraplegic Association because, at the time, the survival rate for Quadriplegia was basically nil. But the times have changed. There are now approximately 86,000 Canadians living with spinal cord injuries, including over 37,000 cases of Quadriplegia.

Today, Spinal Cord Injury Canada and its affiliated provinces continue to assist persons with spinal cord injuries achieve independence, self-reliance and full community participation.

In 2005, Ron Swan, Board Member of the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Nova-Scotia) and President of Home Safe Living, came up with an idea. The concept was simple – get people to spend the day in a wheelchair and see first-hand what accessibility really means.

This is how the Chair-Leaders event was born. Today, it’s a nationwide campaign with events taking place on Parliament Hill and in many other cities across Canada.

In 2006, Michael Savage, who was the Member of Parliament for Dartmouth and now is the Mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality, was invited to participate in the event. He wasn’t available because he had to be on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, so they arranged to send him a wheelchair and he participated by himself on the Hill.

Other MPs noticed Savage and wanted to get involved. This is how the expansion started. A committee was formed and a national event was born. Ever since, parliamentarians from all different political parties have been coming together every year to participate in the event.

“Awareness is huge for this organization,” said Jenkins-Smith. “We need to continue to show that people in chairs can live successful lives.”

Peter Stoffer and Laurie Hawn racing in front of eternal flame

Peter Stoffer and Laurie Hawn racing in front of Parliament Hill

This year, the national committee, comprised of MP Laurie Hawn, MP Peter Stoffer, MP Sean Casey and Senator Jim Munson, is hoping to recruit parliamentarians to participate in the event scheduled for Wednesday, May 22 on Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, affiliated provinces are organizing their own Chair-Leaders events across the country.

People around the country are able to register as Virtual Chair-Leaders and raise money and awareness for Spinal Cord Injury Canada or the affiliated province of their choice. At the end of May a seven day cruise to Alaska will be awarded to one lucky Virtual Chair-Leader, so don’t forget to register.

“Fundraising is very important because we will never get enough money to advance the cause otherwise,” said Jenkins-Smith.

Be sure to tune in at or



Canadian Red Cross Celebrates World Red Cross Day

May 13, 2013 10:23 am
2013 Open House Red Cross Red Crescent Day (7)

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson helped celebrate World Red Cross Day by officially proclaiming May 8 as World Red Cross Day in Ottawa. Also in the photo is David Fraser, chair of the Ottawa Branch Council of the Canadian Red Cross.

The Canadian Red Cross hosted its 2nd Annual Open House on May 8 to celebrate World Red Cross Red Crescent Day! All local programs were showcased, including RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention.

“Education is the key to prevention of abuse, bullying, violence and sexual exploitation,” said Paulette Hammell, Coordinator, Health Equipment Loan Program, Canadian Red Cross, Ontario Zone. “For 25 years, in communities across Canada, the Canadian Red Cross has been helping to break the cycle of hurt. RespectED: Violence and Abuse Prevention programs promote healthier relations and safer communities through education and partnerships.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson helped celebrate World Red Cross Day by officially proclaiming May 8 as World Red Cross Day in Ottawa. The keynote speaker at the proclamation ceremony was Nestor Shartun, RespectED Trainer.



Ontario: Is This a Wynne-ing or a Losing Budget?

May 3, 2013 10:21 am

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s 2013 budget was tabled on May 2. Premier Wynne’s minority Liberals have delivered an Ontario budget full of NDP proposals, but it’s unclear whether the New Democrats will support it.The coming days will decide if Premier Wynne’s government stays in power or is forced into a summer election.

Ottawa Life Magazine is providing a number of links to associations, news-gathering services and think tanks that have provided some excellent analysis of Premier Wynne’s budget.

Among them, the Conference Board of Canada –

A Tough Spot … and a Difficult Road Ahead

by Matthew Stewart and David Rosé 

At first glance, Ontario’s fiscal situation seems much improved from what we saw in last year’s budget. But much of the improvement from last year’s headline deficit number reflects one-time adjustments and will not carry forward to future years. As such, there is little doubt that unless economic conditions prove better than current expectations, Ontario will continue to face a stark fiscal challenge. Over the next three years, the government plans to tightly constrain spending, with projected increases averaging just 1.5 per cent annually. The most difficult restraint will have to wait until the final two years of the plan, when an outright cut to spending will be required to balance the books as targeted in fiscal 2017–18.

Despite the seriousness of Ontario’s economic and fiscal situation, this was not a budget filled with major announcements. That said, the budget includes a few conciliatory measures aimed at garnering support from the opposition parties.

One important (and positive) measure in our view is the Youth Jobs Strategy. The youth unemployment rate in Ontario remains above its pre-recession level, and it is certainly an area where improvement would be beneficial. This two-year, $295-million initiative aims to improve the employment outcomes for Ontario’s young people. The bulk of the funding ($195 million) will be directed toward incentives for hiring young Ontarians. The remaining funds will be directed toward entrepreneurship initiatives, such as mentorship and seed capital, as well as fostering entrepreneurial activities and commercialization of research at post-secondary institutions in the province.

The budget sets its aim on decreasing automobile insurance premiums by an average of 15 per cent. A specific date for meeting this target is not yet set; instead, it will be achieved “within a period of time to be prescribed by [future] regulation.” The government’s strategy is to limit fraudulent claims and the overcharging of insurers by service providers. (This will be done by introducing sanctions.) Pursuing those who file unjustified claims for benefit payments is an appropriate course of action, as these payments drive up the cost of insurance premiums for legitimate claimants. However, interfering with the market price mechanism by legislating a reduction in insurance rates could have unintended consequences, such as reduced benefit payments (perhaps simply through greater scrutiny of claims) or a change in the mix of insurance products—developments that could negatively impact all potential claimants.

The budget also notes that new revenue-raising tools to pay for transit infrastructure are being considered. One concrete action being taken to alleviate congestion in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (the main geographic focus of the government’s transit funding concerns) is a conversion of certain high-occupancy highway lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes—carpooling drivers would still be able to use them without charge, but drivers of single-occupant cars could also use them as long as they pay a toll. Among other smaller measures, the budget sets aside $45 million over three years for a new Ontario Music Fund, which will support and promote Ontario’s music industry. Although this is a miniscule amount in terms of the overall budget envelope, the justification for this manner of expenditure in the current fiscal climate is unclear.

Fiscal Outlook

At a quick glance, the fiscal situation has improved significantly from last year. Estimated at $9.8 billion, the deficit for 2012–13 is $5 billion better than had been projected. However, much of this improvement was the result of one-time measures that will not carry forward into future years. A detailed analysis of the budget leaves little doubt that the fiscal situation in Ontario remains critical. The government’s fiscal austerity program is back-end loaded, with each year of restraint being more ambitious than the last. Next year, the deficit is expected to rise by $1.9 billion to $11.7 billion as program spending rises by 3 per cent. In the following two years, the deficit will improve slowly as the government attempts to hold program spending growth to 1.1 per cent and 0.4 per cent. In fiscal 2015–16 (the final year of the government’s detailed fiscal plan), Ontario will still have a $7.2 billion deficit. To balance its books in 2017–18 as promised, the government will have to freeze program spending in 2016–17 and cut spending by almost 1 per cent in 2017–18—a difficult task, for which few details are provided. (See chart.)

chart 1

Of the $5-billion improvement in the deficit in 2012–13, $1 billion is attributed to the elimination of the contingency reserve that went unused and to other one-time savings that will not carry forward to future years. The elimination of banked sick days for teachers reduced education spending by $1.1 billion, as the government booked the unneeded liability against this year’s numbers. Corporate income taxes were also $1.2 billion higher than expected due to one-time assessments for years prior to 2011 and a higher tax base in 2011. Outside of these one-time factors, revenues and expenditures were only slightly better than in the 2012 budget’s projections. Ontario Power and Hydro One together generated an additional $313 million in profits, thanks to lower costs and higher transmission revenues. On the expenditure side, health spending came in almost $600 million below budget, thanks to a tightly restrained hospital sector. Interest payments were also $234 million lower due to the impact of lower interest rates.

This year, the government plans to increase program spending by 3 per cent. Adjusting for the effects of the sick day liability removal, which reduced spending in 2012–13, program spending is slated to increase by just 2 per cent in fiscal year 2013–14. This will mark the third year of significant spending restraint, and it stands in stark contrast to average annual increases of 6.1 per cent between 2000 and 2008. The most difficult challenge facing the government is its plan to constrain spending on health care. Health spending consumes 42.2 cents of every dollar in revenue and is slated to grow by just 2.3 per cent in fiscal year 2013–14, compared with average growth of 7.4 per cent annually between 2000 and 2008. Although growth in health spending was held to just 2.8 per cent last year, much of this was achieved through a wage freeze. Moving forward, more structural changes will be required—especially given the increasing demand for health care from the province’s aging population. The budget has listed some good ideas for efficiency improvements in health care, such as moving hospitals from a lump-sum payment model to a pay-for-patient-and-activity funding model and increasing investments in home care. Another measure included in the budget is the introduction of means testing for prescription drug payments, under which higher-income seniors will pay a greater share of their drug costs. Despite these proposed measures, achieving the required degree of spending restraint without overly affecting the quality of care will be a challenge.

Outside of health care, spending will be similarly restrained. Social services will see the highest growth this year due to a promised increase in social assistance rates. Excluding the liability adjustment, spending in education (including post-secondary) will rise by 2.9 per cent, an increase that includes the cost to complete the rollout for full-day kindergarten. The only other major recipient that will see any growth will be the justice department, which is slated to see its spending grow by 2.5 per cent. Excluding health, education, social services, and justice, spending will be cut by 2.7 per cent.

Unfortunately, unless revenues surprise on the upside, the government will be forced to tighten its belt even more in 2014–15 and 2015–16. Health and education will see below-inflation increases, spending on justice will be frozen, and all spending outside of health, education, and social services will be reduced by an average of almost 5 per cent per year. The only spending category slated to receive any meaningful growth in funding will be social services, reflecting the government’s planned increases to social assistance and its plan to increase the Ontario Child Benefit in 2013 and 2014. These tightly constrained spending numbers leave the government with no new funding available for any public sector wage increases over the life of the plan.

If the government sticks to its current plan, the province’s net debt, which includes operating and capital expenses, is projected to rise by $51.1 billion over the next three years. As a result, debt-servicing costs will rise from $10.4 billion in 2012–13 to $12.2 billion in 2015–16. In 2017–18, when the government is scheduled to balance its books, debt-servicing costs will be $14.5 billion, consuming 10.8 cents of every dollar in revenue.

Economic Outlook

The economic assumptions used by the Ontario Ministry of Finance for its budgetary projections are based largely on the consensus of private sector forecasters. The Conference Board of Canada’s most recent economic outlook is more or less in line with the ministry’s, but we are slightly more optimistic about Ontario’s prospects in 2014 and beyond. In our view, there exists some upside potential to the budget’s fiscal outlook.

In 2012, Ontario’s economy did not perform as strongly as expected. Concerns about the U.S. federal government’s sequester-related spending cuts and the ability of Congress to agree on a deficit-reduction plan for the medium term, along with continued uncertainty about the European debt crisis, weighed on business confidence. This resulted in sluggish business investment, which, coupled with fiscal restraint, pulled down real GDP growth to just 1.3 per cent. One bright spot last year was the strength in auto production and exports, which were pulled up by a solid recovery in U.S. vehicle sales. However, gains in this sector will be modest at best in 2013.

The Conference Board expects Ontario’s real GDP growth to be 1.4 per cent this year and 2.5 per cent in 2014. That compares with the budget’s slightly stronger projection of 1.5 per cent this year but a weaker forecast of 2.3 per cent in 2014. Our outlook for nominal GDP—the broadest measure of the tax base—matches that contained in the budget. The Conference Board’s more restrained growth assumption (in real terms) for this year is based on a weaker investment profile than the Ontario Ministry of Finance is assuming. Results from our most recent Survey of Business Confidence suggests that uncertainty over the direction of the economy and a buildup of excess capacity will cause business investment to be a laggard again this year.

Beyond 2014, our forecast for real GDP growth is somewhat higher than that contained in the budget, due largely to a better U.S. performance. In the wake of the 2008–09 recession, U.S. households deleveraged impressively. This, combined with the nascent recovery in the housing market and a brighter employment outlook, should help the U.S. economy gain traction over the medium term.

Still, risks to the outlook remain unusually high. Geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, Korea, Iran, and elsewhere could easily escalate. And the situation surrounding the sovereign debt crisis in the European Union is far from resolved and continues to keep investors on edge—especially in light of the bungled negotiations for a bailout of Cypriot banks. Finally, the weakening of commodity prices (especially gold) this year has had a negative impact on Canadian equities and is causing mining and exploration companies to pause when considering new investments in Northern Ontario and elsewhere.

In light of these risks, the economic assumptions adopted in the budget provide a prudent approach to the fiscal plan. However, we remain concerned about the government’s capacity to sustain the requisite level of restraint over the next five years—particularly in the final years of the deficit-reduction plan.


For more information online, visit:

From LCBO to Ring of Fire: Everything you need to know about the Ontario budget – National Post

Ontario Budget Delivers Infrastructure Investment; Silent on Tools to Manage Costs (Association of Municipalities of Ontario)

Ontario Liberals’ fate over budget hangs on NDP – Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Ontario unveils budget, opposition support not clear – Reuters

Highlights of the 2013-2014 Ontario budget – Yahoo! Finance Canada / The Canadian Press


Top Photo:

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne applauds as Finance Minister Charles Sousa tables the 2013 provincial budget at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Thursday, May 2, 2013.

Fixing the Unfixable: Queen Street “Beautification” Project Is Absurd

April 30, 2013 10:55 am
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson unveils artists’ renderings of the Confederation Line that will run under Queen Street.

The City of Ottawa is now studying design proposals for the transformation of Queen Street into a new “Showcase Street” and pedestrian route.

Why do these well-paid planners live in such a dream world? Everyone knows Queen Street is wretchedly ugly (save for a very few architectural triumphs) and the usual mundane solution of wider sidewalks, trees in buckets and oily benches isn’t going to turn this dumpy, crumbling thoroughfare into the Champs-Élysées.

Ottawa has one of the most blighted downtowns of any city in the country – full of cheap civil service hives, glass boxes reflecting each other, and utter architectural banality so spiritually arid as to bring on clinical depression.

But Ottawa’s planners, engineering consultants and traffic experts refuse to accept this grim, intractable reality. So why are such big plans in store for Queen Street? Well, because the Light Rail Transit route (aka the Confederation Line) will run right under Queen Street by the time it is completed in 2018. With two of the three major downtown stops to be located on Queen, tens of thousands of pedestrians are expected to be added to the foot traffic mix every day.

The Queen Street revamp is the first project under Downtown Moves, Ottawa’s new plan for the central business district.

Downtown Moves has dubbed Queen as Ottawa’s “Showcase Street” of the urban core, with “more space for culture, community and vitality.” (What rot, when Queen Street is dead as the proverbial doornail.)Queen Street Ottawa

According to a Downtown Moves report, “Queen Street will have enormous demands to carry pedestrians to the Confederation Line station entrances along it and will do so by the construction of generous wide sidewalks, amenities to provide safe and comfortable walking, and buildings that will eventually become more street-oriented.”

The new plan for Queen Street should be finished within a year.

According to the City of Ottawa’s LRT website: “We have reached the limit. We can no longer add buses to accommodate increasing ridership through the downtown core. During peak hours, buses are often bumper-to-bumper, moving slowly as they navigate 14 traffic lights, and compete with pedestrian, bicycle and car traffic. The Confederation Line graduates Ottawa to a traffic-separated downtown tunnel, following the success of major cities around the world.

“The largest single undertaking of the light rail project, the downtown tunnel will be 2.5 kilometers long with three stations—Downtown West, Downtown East and Rideau Station. During construction, day-to-day life will continue as normal, as state-of-the-art mining techniques will minimize impacts on residents and businesses.”

Confederation Line

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson unveils artists’ renderings of the Confederation Line that will run under Queen Street.

The precise locations of the Confederation Line stations are now determined:

Downtown West is the first underground station. Entrances will be located on Queen Street in front of the Delta Hotel, and integrated into the Place de Ville complex across the street. (The subway entrance, I assume, will be built on land currently used as a parking lot at the corner of Lyon and Queen.)

Other station features include:

  • A train platform located 17.5 metres underground
  • Convenient access to underground north-south pedestrian route from Albert Street to Sparks Street

Ottawa_Queen_StreetWhat’s nearby?

  • National Archives
  • Supreme Court of Canada
  • Major hotels and corporate office towers
  • Shops and restaurants of Sparks Street

Downtown East is the second underground station on Queen Street – just steps from Parliament Hill and at the center of Ottawa’s downtown business district. This new station supports the highest projected use on the Confederation Line. Entrances will be situated at the corner of O’Connor and Queen Street, and through the atrium of the Sun Life Building. (In this built-up area, where can they possibly squeeze the subway entrances?)

Other station features include:

  • A design that will accommodate intense peak volumes
  • A Grand Hall Concourse 15 metres underground
  • A platform located 19 metres underground

What’s nearby?

  • Parliament Hill and Confederation Square
  • The shops of Bank Street and the Sparks Street Mall
  • The World Exchange Plaza and many corporate office towers

The tunnel will then continue under Confederation Square to Rideau Station. Entrances will be located adjacent to the William Street Plaza pedestrian mall and in the northwest corner of the Rideau Centre at Rideau Street and Colonel By. (Sounds like another tight fit.)

The Downtown Tunnel is an idea whose time is way past due. But how Queen Street can be miraculously transformed into a grand boulevard that will comfortably accommodate two busy LRT stations remains an unsolved mystery.

As veteran columnist Charles Gordon caustically observes in the April 11, 2013 edition of EMC, “The mysterious part: how could anyone think that Queen Street can be improved in any way other than blowing it up and starting over again?”


Light Rail Transit Western Extension: Either Build It Right or Don’t Build It at all

April 27, 2013 5:13 pm
Light Rail Transit Bayview Station

When one thinks of all the money spent on foolishness by the City of Ottawa, their efforts to keep a lid on LRT costs are baffling. To reduce costs, the City wants to build the western extension of the LRT through an area west of Tunney’s Pasture where few people live and work.

No matter where the LRT is built, the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) syndrome sets in, so the City’s solution is to wander far afield and place the rail line beside a Transitway route (otherwise known as the Ottawa River Parkway).

Even though the National Capital Commission is a porkbarrel agency that serves no useful purpose, it is to be commended for opposing the City of Ottawa at every turn in its futile efforts to provide a duplicate transit service right beside a parkway that is already overserviced by OC Transpo buses.

For a megaproject as important as the LRT, either build it right or don’t build it at all. So damn the cost. Build the LRT cut-and-cover style under a major thoroughfare where people actually live and work (preferably Richmond Road). Think big and think bold, or forget about it. We will resign ourselves to living in a capital city without a decent rail transit system.

History is repeating itself. Thirty-odd years ago, the bus-only Transitway was built on parcels of vacant land strung together across the city, and not where commuters wanted to go. The intensive development promised by then OC Transpo general manager John Bonsall failed to materialize along much of the Transitway, and vast stretches of the bus-only system still pass through vacant land. The same fate awaits the LRT’s western extension if the march of folly at Ottawa City Hall continues.

So I say to the City of Ottawa: either go big or shelve the project. Be daring or scrap the western extension of the LRT. If you really want to save pennies, then save the $2 billion it will cost to build an LRT to nowhere. Better to ram it through a crowded neighborhood and damn the consequences, because no matter where the LRT is built, it’s going to cost plenty and upset a lot of people. When the dust settles, Ottawa could actually end up with an LRT system it can be proud of, one that relieves traffic congestion and takes commuters to places they need to get to.

So enough with the public consultation, because it is pointless and leads to prolonged inertia. City council, you have been elected to govern, so govern – and let the chips fall where they may.

The Boston Bombings

April 22, 2013 11:30 am

Today, as runners and Members of Parliament gather at the Centennial Flame to march in solidarity to the American Embassy, it is hard to believe that only a week has passed since the Boston Marathon.  This time last week I was running the marathon, overwhelmed by the excitement of being there and just taking it all in. The Boston Marathon is a huge party from beginning to end as spectators line the streets of the 42.2-km route.  Some drink beer to celebrate as they scream encouraging slogans, while others blast uplifting beats from their car stereos, each with his or her own way to cheer you on.  It is festive and instead of people whining about street closures (sorry, Toronto, but you need to relax), Bostonians have street parties all along the route as they hand out food to runners.  I was struck by the hospitality, generosity, fun-loving atmosphere and community support for the event.  It is incredible.  And the marathon organizers are absolutely phenomenal.  Why anyone would want to mess with that for mindless, hideous sick glory is completely mindboggling.

When that first bomb went off, I was sipping water past the finish line in the athletes’ recovery area, chatting with another runner.  He was disappointed with his finishing time. He ran slower from low sodium levels.  (If only I could run that fast to be worried about such things.) I complained about my time which admittedly was pretty bad, but I sucked because of missing a few too many hill training sessions and my inability to refuse free food along the route, or was slowed down by hand-slapping little hands offering support along the way.

When the bomb went off, we figured it was maybe a speaker blowing up, or an incident at a nearby construction site. Then, seconds later, the second bomb burst.  The other runner and did not realize exactly what happened but we knew something felt horribly wrong.  We continued walking for a bit, and then I sat down on the stairs of a hotel when a man ran out screaming “It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb!”  And then the pandemonium erupted. I came out physically unscathed.  I only wish I had stayed to help.  I wish I could have done something then and now.

There is something horrific about experiencing the kind of terror that shakes you to your core, stripping you of the safety you take for granted in public spaces.  The sound of police cars or emergency crews sent me into fits of panic.  I can’t imagine the trauma those who were closer to the action must be experiencing.  Last weekend, as I stepped onto a closed Colonel By Drive to run, I was paralyzed by fear of what could possibly lie ahead.  This apprehension was completely irrational.  But that fear, that insecurity passed and it will eventually disappear.  We must never forget what happened on that beautiful spring day in Boston that changed the lives of so many.  We must never forget the loss.  But we must also move on and not allow the horror of these attacks to overtake our lives.  To not do so would make every terrorist smile in victory.  We cannot let them win.  It sounds so clichéd but it is true. So let’s line those streets, Ottawa and cheer on the runners in May and celebrate LIFE.

Kevin Page: A Hero for Our Time

April 10, 2013 1:04 pm

When Kevin Page, Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer, steps down next month after five years on the job, he’ll do so with a respect and admiration accorded few professional public servants – not because he went above and beyond the call of duty (many do) or because he has been particularly outspoken on public matters (many are, especially whistleblowers), but because, like most professionals in the public service, he doggedly maintains that government should tell the truth, even when it refuses to do so.

The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was created following the 2006 federal election, in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. It has not been an easy ride for Page, the public service and the people of Canada. Although the PBO should be independent, it serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. In effect, the PBO watches over the spending of the person who created it. That in a nutshell is the problem.

On the matter of the government’s annual deficit, the government claimed it would be $30 billion. Page said it was $56 billion. Page was right. War, never an inexpensive proposition. The government claimed the Afghanistan mission would cost $2.8 billion. Page said it was closer to $9 billion. Page was right. Who can forget those F-35 jets? The government said the jets would cost $15 billion. The PBO, after exposing some financial finagling by the government that conveniently left out decades of maintenance costs, said the jets would cost $40 billion. Once again, Page was right.

None of these attempts to speak truth to power have endeared Page to the Prime Minister who hired him, and who likely expected he would, if not toe the party line, at least not rock the ship of state.

But the real test of honesty and integrity has come with the implementation of the Harper government’s austerity cuts. Can’t afford to maintain Old Age Security benefits for 65-year-olds? Well, actually, yes we can, said Page.

Throughout the past year, the government has insisted that the cuts will affect only “the back office.” Frontline services, presumably health, safety and protection of the environment, won’t be touched. Page’s assessment of the government’s own numbers has repeatedly thrown cold water on these claims. In return, he has received the kind of chill the Conservatives reserve for their worst enemies. His requests for more information have gone unanswered or faced interminable delay. His calculations have been dismissed out of hand or publicly called into question. His role and reputation as a watchdog were attacked with an intensity usually reserved for environmentalists. Even taking the government to court to reveal details of its proposed cuts and expenses has met mostly with a deafening silence.

It’s not just the numbers, it’s what the numbers say. Their consequences speak to the value of Page’s contribution to current debates.

In November 2012, seven months after the government introduced its austerity budget, the PBO could still find specific information on only 500 of the 19,200 jobs to be eliminated (7,000 are supposed to be lost through attrition). How, for example, will the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ensure compliance with federal regulations on food safety while crash dieting on $19 million in cuts? How will the $46 million cut from Aboriginal Affairs address the concerns of communities now responding to the Idle No More movement? How will Health Canada triage the enormous cuts to its own programs? The government waves these worries away with the easy phrase “operational efficiencies.”

Some things no longer exist simply because, to Conservatives if to no one else, they have ceased to matter. Science and the environment have come in for particular attention. The Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned freshwater research facility that proved the effects of acid rain and has been instrumental in developing environmental policy, is eliminated. Environment Canada labs dedicated to studying cancer-causing pollution emissions from smokestacks are shut down. Nor should anyone forget the loss of Statistics Canada’s long-form census to current and future knowledge. Evidence is the new enemy.

It says something about the times we live in that a government can be elected to power on the promise of greater accountability, appoint a watchdog to ensure that accountability, and then delay, debate and discredit that watchdog’s attempts to ensure accountability at every turn. But if Parliament and the people of Canada never learn the true cost to taxpayers and to the country of the Harper government’s austerity cuts, it won’t be the fault or on the watch of Kevin Page. To his credit, Page has done what the job demanded. And that should leave us worried about his replacement, if indeed a replacement is ever found. Unsurprisingly, the process is delayed.

George Orwell once wrote: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Kevin Page is not a revolutionary, but if telling truth to power and, more importantly, insisting that powerful elected governments tell the truth to those who elect them are heroic acts, then Kevin Page is a national hero.

Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

Photo Credit: Digital Journal

Decoding Gas Prices: Is the Gas Gouge Real? Part 2

April 9, 2013 12:12 pm

Continued from Part I

According to the Canadian Fuels Association, Canadians pump 75 billion litres of petroleum fuels annually (more than 200 million litres every day) to travel a total of 325 billion kilometres a year. That is the equivalent of eight million trips around the world. That’s a lot of travelling. It’s no wonder then that we pay close attention to gasoline prices.

Does what you pay get your back up every time you hit the pumps? Given the amount of travel and gas consumption in Canada, the average Canadian could be forgiven for thinking that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes, that the gas companies get together to ensure that Canadians are ripped off at the pump. After all, this time last year, retail gasoline prices had jumped substantially over the span of two months, setting off consumer alarm bells. But, as is the case with many situations, it is more complicated than merely jacking up the price of gas at will. Many factors go into that number you see on the sign before filling up.

The CFA identifies four main factors that affect the price at the pump. There is the cost of crude oil, wholesale price of gasoline, local market dynamics and taxes.

Crude oil is a globally-traded commodity whose price is influenced by what happens around the world. Things like supply and demand, international geopolitical factors and inventory levels all impact the price. It’s kind of like what happens when California gets hit with bad weather and it affects the cost of strawberries. It’s a similar kind of thing. While there are many perceptions on how big the industry in Canada actually is, we’re really only the 7th largest crude oil producers, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The result is that prices for Canadian crude oil follow world prices. We don’t make them.

 As demand for energy increases, chances are the cost of gas will increase. The Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates that global demand for energy is expected to rise by 35 per cent by 2035 as economies in both developed and emerging countries continue to grow and the standard of living improves in the developing world. On top of that, while we may be a big producer, the fact of the matter is for Canadian and international oil and gas companies, access to conventional petroleum reserves is declining, which makes the commodity more valuable.  Bad news there is that it is unlikely gas prices will go down.

So that’s at the global level. But there is a bit of a domino effect because the price of crude oil affects the wholesale price of gasoline, which is the price that gasoline retailers pay. The wholesale price comes from oil refineries. They set their own wholesale prices daily, based on levels set by commodity trading, the continental market for refined petroleum products and distribution charges.

Throw into the mix marketing costs, operational expenses and competitive forces at the retail level that drive local market dynamics. What exactly are they? Marketing and operational expenses include such things as wages, property taxes, utilities, and local promotional costs. Retail prices are also a function of competitive forces in each local market and of what other services and prices are available at the site to attract customers and generate additional revenue.

And then there are taxes. Those are complicated. Taxes on gasoline can vary from province to province and occasionally from city to city (especially in British Columbia). Transportation costs vary and, according to the CFA, the volume of gasoline sold at gas stations can affect pricing.

That may all be true, but being so close to the U.S., it is hard not to notice that when you cross the border, the price of gas drops significantly. Presumably, all of those same factors affect their pumps, so why the difference? It all boils down to taxes. Other than that, the average price of a litre of gasoline in Canada is quite similar to the price in the United States.

That’s compared to the States. Internationally, historical data shows that Canadians pay less for gasoline than consumers in many industrialized countries. For example, looking at prices in January 2010, Canada paid significantly less per litre than Germany, Italy, France, UK, Spain and Japan.

When you see that number at the gas pump and see that it varies very little from gas station to station, it’s easy to jump on the “we get hosed” bandwagon but when you look at it, many factors do explain gas pricing. That said, with so few real players in the industry, could there be lower gas prices if the major gas companies were in true competition? Probably. And that’s the frustrating part. While there are many factors involved, one still is left with the feeling that there could be better transparency and possibly more savings that could be passed on to consumers. But at the end of the day, when you compare Canada with other countries, the price of gas really isn’t that bad.

Where Investing in Transit Can Take Us

April 8, 2013 6:34 pm
Ottawa's OTrain

Earlier today, Premier Kathleen Wynne spoke to the Toronto Region Board of Trade about the need to make investments in transit.

By Premier Kathleen Wynne

The first subway line in Toronto opened in 1954, the year after I was born. I still remember riding the subway with my grandmother as a little girl. I was wearing my white gloves because it was a special occasion. Everyone was so excited, so proud.

Today, in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, the average commute time is 82 minutes a day. Gridlock is a major issue affecting our province’s productivity.

This is not just an issue of commute times for people in one region. Congestion in the GTHA hurts farmers who want to move food through the region quickly, truck drivers trying to get to the US border, tourists trying to visit and countless families who want to move from one side of the city to the other, without getting stuck in endless traffic

Fixing transportation infrastructure will improve our lifestyle and our economy. It will also have a positive impact on our tourism, our natural environment and on the health of the millions of people who call this region home.

That’s why I know we have to move forward on this conversation.

But I don’t want anyone to think that transit or the GTHA is getting unfair attention or disproportionate investment.

And so it’s important to note that for the past 20 years, transit investment in Ontario has lagged well behind the funding we have put into the province’s road network, our bridges and underpasses.

That part of our transportation puzzle has received hundreds of millions a year; and in the past nine years, billions.

In contrast, there have been several years in that time period when the provincial government’s capital expenditure on transit was exactly zero.

There is a pressing need for change. That is not up for debate.

But when I listen to the rhetoric around transportation investment, I believe some politicians have made a short-sighted decision to avoid real solutions.

I know improving our daily commute is not about scoring political points. It’s about ensuring Ontario’s success. And that is my core responsibility as the Premier of this province.

People are ready to get moving. But to develop real momentum we have to change the way we talk about these investments.

We need to bring excitement back to the discussion of transportation infrastructure, and where it can take us, our children and grandchildren.

We have to talk about what we DO want. We want every part of this province to move quickly, safely and efficiently so that we can all benefit.

When it comes down to it, transportation investments will need tens of billions of dollars over the next twenty years. Our whole provincial budget each year is about $125B. 

And our spending on programs including education and health care is already tightly constrained, the lowest of any province.

We need to find dedicated revenue for these projects, because the money cannot be found elsewhere.

I  believe that any new funds must be directly tied to a measurable result. People need to know what they are paying for; they need to see where the money is going.

Whether the need is for new transit in the GTHA, light-rail lines in Ottawa, bridge repairs in Kenora or highway refurbishing in Huron County, we need to get this done.

We need to get Ontario moving.

So I will keep talking about what we can achieve for this great province. I will focus on the positive impact we can make through smart, fair investment.

But I need your help. Let’s tap into the desire for a safer drives, a better commute, cleaner air, a stronger economy. I know the will is there.  I know the support exists. And progress will be made.

Together we can get this done.


Public workers earn 12% more than private counterparts: report

April 5, 2013 11:48 am

Fraser Institute study says gap drops to nine per cent when unionization included in analysis

BY Canadian Manufacturing Daily Staff ON April 04, 2013 9:01am 

VANCOUVER—Public sector workers at the federal, provincial and municipal levels across Canada earned substantially higher wages than their private sector counterparts in 2011, according to a new Fraser Institute report.

The study, Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation in Canada, found public employees from all levels of government earned an average wage 12 per cent higher than those in the private sector working comparable jobs.

“At a time when Canadian governments are drowning in debt and deficits, it’s important to look at the compensation packages that government workers have long enjoyed,” Fraser Institute executive vice-president Jason Clemens said in a statement.

“A system that pays a premium to government workers is not only economically unsustainable but also unfair to taxpayers.”

When unionization is included in the analysis, the national public sector wage premium—the amount in which public sector wages exceed those in the private sector—drops to nine per cent from 12 per cent.

Aside from higher wages, the study also found strong indications that Canada’s government workers enjoy more generous non-wage benefits than those in the private sector, including pensions, job security and early retirement.

When it comes to pensions, the study found 88.2 per cent of Canadian government workers were covered by a registered pension plan in 2011 compared to just 26.4 per cent of private-sector employees.

Government employees retired two-and-a-half years earlier, on average, than private-sector workers between 2007 and 2011.

The study also found that in 2011, 0.6 per cent of government employees lost their jobs—less than one sixth the job-loss rate in the private sector, which saw cuts of 3.8 per cent.

To ensure public-sector compensation is fair to both taxpayers and government workers, the report argues that better data collection is needed and suggests that Statistics Canada should gather data on wages and non-wage benefits more regularly and systemically than it does now.

In addition, comparisons between the public and private sectors should focus on total compensation, not just wages or specific benefits such as pensions.

The study also offers recommendations for setting appropriate levels of government compensation, using the private sector as a guide.

“Public sector wages and benefits are largely determined by political factors, while in the private sector the process is guided by competition between firms,” Clemens said.

“These differences are amplified by the monopoly environment of government compared to the competitive world of private enterprise.”

The report shows that in 2011, the public sector employed 3.6-million—approximately one in five Canadians—compared to 11.1 million workers in the private sector.

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