"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Transit optimization explained

Most of my council colleagues and I just spent the past 90 minutes talking with Translink folks about "service optimization" in Coquitlam. This is the latest step in a months-long process leading up to some significant changes by mid to late 2013.
The biggest sticking point involves service to Burke Mountain. A new direct route linking Coquitlam Centre to the intersection of Coast Meridian and David is being planned. That is good. But concerns were expressed that the service isn't keeping up with the fast pace of growth in the area, and that some better community-bus-type service into the neighbourhoods is needed now.
Apparently, the same general conversation took place at an open house a few weeks ago, and some residents left with the impression that one Translink official had said that if people want front-door service, they should move into existing medium or high density neighbourhoods that are already getting such service, and that they should never expect such service on Burke Mountain. This alleged declaration was repeated at council.
We brought this up at our meeting today, and the official in question issued a mea culpa, saying that his remarks came in the midst of what he considered to be a philosophical discussion, and that he never meant to say that Burke Mountain would never get good transit service.
In fact, as explained by session leader Marisa Espinosa, Translink is working diligently, by way of annual optimization and service performance reviews, to try to keep up with changing and growing population. Apparently, the last time the Tri-Cities area enjoyed an Area Transportation Plan update was 12 years ago. A new one is now in the works, though.
All in all, a good meeting.

Committee and board appointments are set

I am pleased to report that I will be taking on more responsibilities around City Hall in the coming year. That's because, in addition to retaining all my current committee and board appointments, I will also be City Council's representative on the board of the Coquitlam Public Library for 2013. Here's the complete list of my posts:

Coquitlam Public Library: council representative
Coquitlam River Aggregate Committee: chair
City/School Board Liaison Committee: chair
Arts and Culture Advisory Committee: vice-chair
Parcel Tax Review Panel: vice-chair

As well, Council has put my name forward to serve on Metro Vancouver's Regional Culture Committee. And, finally, my turn as Acting Mayor will be May 2-June 10.

Good news about the Coquitlam River

You might remember that, several months ago, an enviro-activist included the Coquitlam River on a list of allegedly "endangered" rivers in B.C., and I responded in council by saying that, in fact, the river was doing very well.

Heavy natural runoff in a Coquitlam stream in
the Westwood Plateau area, Dec. 4. (photo by Terry O)
However, I was challenged by some local residents to explain how I could conclude this when the City itself didn't know what was being discharged into the river from its storm sewers. It turns out that they had a good point.

One thing led to another and, after some meetings with City staff during which I, acting as chair of the Coquitlam River Aggregate Committee, pressed for the sort of testing that the residents were suggesting , I am proud to say that the City has now started a comprehensive testing program.

This should finally be able to determine to what extent any siltation that gets into the river (and much less siltation is taking place in recent years, anyway) is attributable to natural sources, storm-sewer discharges, or the aggregate (gravel) operations alongside the river in the north-central portion of the City.

Here's the text of the press release that the City issued about the testing program this morning:

Coquitlam River Water Quality Monitoring Underway

COQUITLAM, BC, December 4, 2012 – City of Coquitlam has begun water quality monitoring of the Coquitlam River to help build a reliable and current database of water quality information. The resultant data will be a huge tool to inform the community about the watershed's health in its urban environment.

“The City has looked at the monitoring and habitat restoration projects that have been undertaken along the Coquitlam River in recent years by various agencies and the many stewardship groups to see what kind of water quality monitoring data is available. While there's great work being done, consistent monitoring of the lower reaches of the River from the Coquitlam Dam to Colony Farm has not been occurring, so the City has developed a sampling program to help fill that gap," confirms Steffanie Warriner, Manager, Environmental Services.

The program involves a series of five sampling days at seven locations along the length of the Coquitlam River. Sampling will take place in the the late spring and the late fall so that both dry and wet season conditions are captured. The tests were selected on the basis of their importance to fisheries values and as indicators of healthy streams.

“Coquitlam River is a vital local asset, and Coquitlam has been taking the lead on a number of environmental stewardship projects for the river,” says Coquitlam Mayor, Richard Stewart. “One important activity is the role the City plays chairing the Coquitlam River Aggregate Committee, an advisory body with a mandate to monitor responsibility by all levels of government, the aggregate industry and other stakeholders to improve the health of the Coquitlam River. This work is contributing to some of the important improvements we're starting to see in the river."

Other improvements the City will be undertaking in 2013 include upgrading existing culverts on Fulawka Creek that flows into Coquitlam River in order to prevent flooding and debris jams. A larger project includes compiling a repository of information on the activities that the many different groups within the watershed have been involved in as they relate to gathering data or restoring habitat along the River.These groups include: stream keepers, BC Hydro, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Metro Vancouver and representatives of the aggregate industry.

The City of Coquitlam has also played a leadership role in the development of the Coquitlam River Watershed Roundtable. The Roundtable coordinates and implements activities aimed at promoting the long-term sustainability of the Coquitlam River watershed. Now entering its second year, the Roundtable Core Committee began work on new projects including an educational watershed cafe series, and the first steps towards developing a Coquitlam River Watershed Plan. More information about the Roundtable, and opportunities to become involved, can be found on their website, www.coquitlamriverwatershed.ca


For more information, contact:
Steffanie Warriner
Mnager, Environmental Services
P: 604-927-3536

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Eco-terrorism back in the news

Eco-terrorism? I'd bet most people haven't even heard of the expression, let alone of the existence of this brand of criminal. But, with news of the arrest today in Washington State of Rebecca Rubin, a Canadian wanted in connection with the eco-terrorism-linked firebombing of a Colorado ski resort in 1998, eco-terrorism is certainly in the news.

And it was in the news six years ago in Canada too -- at least if you were paying attention. Below is the unedited version of a story I wrote in August, 2006, on a little-covered, little-noticed outbreak of eco-terrorism in Canada. The story was published in the Western Standard.

The malicious ELFs of central Canada
FBI 'Wanted' poster: Rebecca Rubin

Police are stumped as eco-zealots rampage through southern Ontario


Last January, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that a massive police initiative code-named Operation Backfire had resulted in the indictment of 11 members of a radical environmental group known as the Family, an eco-terrorist gang which was aligned with the outlaw Earth Liberation Front* and which had been linked to 16 arson and vandalism attacks in the U.S. West between 1996 and 2001. Six members of the gang, including Canadian Darren Thurston, who was twice convicted of similar crimes in Edmonton in the early 1990s, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson charges in July. The rest, plus two others, are either fugitives or face trial in October.

The criminal proceedings marked an important victory for U.S. law enforcement authorities in their fight against ELF, which the FBI has called the number-one domestic terror threat in the country and which, in conjunction with its ideological fellow travellers in the Animal Liberation Front, has been responsible for attacks causing more than US$110 million in damage over the past two decades.

But even as prison doors were slamming shut on some of the U.S.’s most dangerous eco-zealots, ELF radicals were running riot in southern Ontario, burning partially-built homes and vandalizing construction equipment, all in the name of protecting Mother Earth from human development. Since June of 2005, attacks in Guelph, Brantford, London and Toronto have caused more than $3 million in damage, most of it this past summer [see list below]. No one has been injured in any of the attacks, and the incidents have stayed under the radar of the national media. But that doesn’t mean they’re not extracting a high toll.

“The unfortunate truth is that is costs construction companies and excavation companies a whole lot of money,” says Nathan Lancaster, a project manager with Lanca Contracting Ltd. of Brantford, one of whose sites was hit in mid-July. “There are so many other serious problems out there, you’d think someone would have better things to do with their time.” Vandals typically put sand into the fuel tanks of heavy machinery.

Police have few leads, but it is known that computers linked to the University of Guelph were used three times to send ELF communiqués taking credit for attacks. As well, on August 1, Guelph police charged University of Guelph environmental activist Matthew Soltys, 23, with mischief after they caught a man spray-painting the image of a red dump truck on a wall in downtown Guelph; he was also in possession of a stencil reading, “Eco-Terrorist.” Sgt. Ron Lord of the Guelph police department says he hopes the public will help solve the vandalism and arson attacks, the most serious of which destroyed the Cutten Club golf course’s clubhouse last October. “We’re at a point now where all the files are active,” Lord says. “Fires of this magnitude, I’m sure somebody will talk somewhere, some time.”

Not necessarily. It was only through undercover police work and extensive surveillance that U.S. authorities were able to crack ELF’s criminal conspiracy. Indeed, Lynn Snowden, a professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, notes that ELF tends to be organized very loosely into independent cells; some lone wolves may even act alone, claiming ELF membership but really just operating on their own. “There’s really nothing to connect them to the movement or anything like that,” she says.

Whether acting alone or in groups, the eco-zealots are usually young, impressionable and believe that civilization is destroying the world, says author Ron Arnold of Bellevue, Washington. Arnold, vice-president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, is one of the continent’s experts on radical environmentalism. He says typical ELF recruits are aged 17 to 22, and begin lawbreaking at least as much as an expression of their generalized anger at authority as in response to their environmental beliefs. “It’s a way to get attention, a way to get even, and revenge is a very powerful motive,” Arnold says.

Motive aside, police in Ontario clearly have a big problem on their hands. Brantford’s Sgt. Lord says his office is sharing information with police departments in other cities hit by the eco-vandals, but the communities have yet to establish a joint task force to tackle the problem. Perhaps they’re hoping the success enjoyed by U.S. authorities will rub off on them.

Ontario’s eco-terrorism hot spots

June 26, 2005. Arson, the Church of Our Lady, Guelph. Cost of damage, $10,000.
June 26, 2005. Arson, Zeller’s department store, Guelph. Cost, $25,000.
October 31, 2005. Arson, the Cutten Club, Guelph. Cost, $400,000.
January 30, 2006. Arson, house under construction, Guelph. Cost, $5,000.
June, 2006. Arson, house under construction, Guelph. Cost, $200,000.
June, 2006. Vandalism, construction machinery, Guelph. Cost unknown.
July 14, 2006. Vandalism, construction equipment, Toronto. Cost, $2 million.
July 18-20, 2006. Vandalism, equipment at five construction sites, Brantford. Cost, unknown.
July 21-27, 2006. Vandalism, equipment at 10 construction sites, London. Cost, $300,000.
July, 2006. Arson, house under construction, Guelph. Cost, $80,000.

*Radical environmentalists belonging to the Earth Liberation Front believe humans are destroying the world. Accordingly, they have pledged to use “direct action in the form of economic sabotage to stop the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment.”
ELF was formed in the United Kingdom in 1992 and has since spread to the U.S., Greece and Canada. Prior to this year’s epidemic of destruction in southern Ontario, ELF’s Canadian activities were mainly limited to B.C., where eco-radicals burned down a wilderness lodge in June 1995 and repeatedly vandalized a Vancouver Island golf course in 2000 and 2001.
A communiqué, issued by ELF following one of its Brantford, Ont. vandalism attacks this July, casts a light on the outlaw group’s warped mindset. It reads: “The day to day lives most of us live are killing our sweet mother earth, that which we all need to survive…Let us RISE UP and fight the machines that destroy the planet. We do not need to fight each other. Working as one we can live lives of LOVE and HARMONY for all humans, animals, plants and the planet.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mainstream media have yet to learn suicide lesson

It's been almost  two weeks now since I wrote my blog urging caution about over-publicizing suicide. I am pleased to report that, since then, Charlie Smith, the editor of the Georgia Straight newspaper, decided the piece was significant enough to merit placement on his website, complete with a new graphic from Shutterstock, which is reproduced to the right.

Furthermore, two insightful readers of this blog added their comments to my original piece, further elaborating on the issue. I urge you to read them.

I hadn't thought I'd need to write about the subject again quite so soon, but I feel that, in light of a new controversy, some additional commentary is warranted. My concerns centre on the pulicity over the alleged "suicide pact" among aboriginal children in east Vancouver. As has now been made clear by Vancouver School Board Chair Patti Bacchus, initial news reports grossly distorted the situation, in which, in reality, only a few youngsters were actually contemplating suicide; the rest were merely involved in online commentary about the issue. A radio report of her comments, which I heard earlier today, also quoted Bacchus as saying the media must be extremely careful in reporting on suicides because of the contagion effect, of which I and, moveover, the Georgia Straight, wrote earlier. Good for Ms. Bacchus!

One would think that, of all types of stories the media cover, they would be most careful in writing about suicides. Instead, it now seems that tabloid values have triumphed..

There was a time, of course, when virtually no reporting of suicides took place. I recall very well that, throughout most of my career, editors were aware not only of the need to respect the privacy of the family of the person who had died (not the least reasons for which were because the family was often overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt) but also because of the recognized negative impact that such reporting has on vulnerable individuals.

Sadly, however, those standards have been eroded. A person who commits suicide is now increasingly portrayed as a victim of external forces rather than as someone who has thrown in the towel or lacked the fortitude to face a difficult time. And, rather than search for the root of the nihilistic malaise which infects all too many troubled youth, activists and politicians rush in to try to grab their five minutes in the media spotlight.

Meanwhile, the televised handwringing and gnashing of teeth ends up having the effect of teaching troubled kids that suicide can guarantee a moment or two of fame for them, too, even if it's postumous.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Personal but not political support from the Minister

It appears that my voter-encouragement idea, which would have seen the provincial government enact legislation to allow communities to more fully publicize the names of citizens who vote, has run into another obstacle.

This is because I've just received a letter (the first page of which is reproduced here) from Bill Bennett, the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, suggesting to me that, while he sees some merit in my voter-encouragement idea, the best route to legislating the change would be for me to persuade Coquitlam council to support the idea and then seek support for the initiative from the Lower Mainland Local Government Association and the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

But, of course, I couldn't persuade my council colleagues this past September, and so my motion went no further. After that council vote, I wrote a letter to Attorney-General Shirley Bond , who had appointed a panel to look into online voting, asking her to look into my idea too. Ms. Bond referred my letter to Mr. Bennett and he has now declined to pursue the matter any further.

But while the matters is stalled now, I'd still like to respond to a few things Mr. Bennett said. He wrote: "My professional advice is that your proposal would present significant challenges in relation to: the cost to local governments of publishing voter names; the absence of a newspaper in many communities in British Columbia and the limited online presence of other municipalities; and, concerns regarding their right to anonymity in the electoral process. I still like the idea, however."

Regarding Mr. Bennett's concerns about the high costs and lack of outlets for publicity, I must point out that my idea would be to allow municipalities to more widely publicize the names of those who vote, not to force them. Communities with no budget to buy newspaper supplements or who have primitive websites would not have to publish the names if they didn't want to.

And on Mr. Bennett's expression of concern about voters' "right to anonymity in the electoral process," I must point out that no such right exists. The names of people who voted are already published after each election, and are available for public viewing for six weeks; however, the publicity is very limited, as it is restricted to a printed list and is available only to those who have the time and ability to visit City Hall in person. And, even then, the list cannot be reproduced mechanically.

To me, this represents something from the Dark Ages. Surely, if publicity is good in principle (as it clearly is, otherwise we wouldn't have the limited publicity that is in place now), then steps should be taken to apply it equitably, and not to limit the exposure--of the names of those who voted--to those who can spend several hours a day for weeks on end viewing and transcribing the names at City Hall.

Nevertheless, I thank Mr. Bennett for his response and for his personal support of my idea.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Youth suicide calls for careful response

Graphic from teensuicideprevention.org
Amanda Todd’s suicide touched many in our community, and rightly so. If it’s true that the death of even one person represents a loss to all humanity, then the death of a young person such as Amanda amid such troubling circumstances might be seen as an even greater loss.

That being said, we must be careful in how we respond to this case. Yes, it should serve as a clarion call for greater awareness of the impact of cyber-bullying. On this point, and on the related issue of what can be done to stem the tide of cyber-bullying, everyone seems to agree.

At least as important, however, is the overall issue of youth suicide for whatever reason. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens after motor-vehicle accidents, according to this online source. Furthermore, this page from the Canadian Children’s Rights Council’s website has some important information about how common the phenomenon is and what can be done about it.

Interestingly, another page from the same site contains the following declaration: “Curriculum or school-based programs which focus on increasing awareness, risk identification and community resources are not effective, and may, in fact, stimulate imitative suicidal behavior…”

This statement leads directly to an event of some interest that took place in Vancouver earlier this week, and that was the provincial government’s Erase Bullying conference—the reporting of which tended to focus on the fact that officials with the Ministry of Education had not invited Amanda Todd’s mother to attend “over fears her presence might upset some of the event’s young speakers.”

I think the ministry made a good decision. Not to diminish the sadness associated with Amanda’s death, I am worried that there has been altogether too much publicity surrounding her suicide. Talk-show hosts, politicians, community leaders and legions of social-science experts have all weighed in, as is their right. But it is also their responsibility to weigh their statements and actions carefully, with their primary concern being the effect of those statements and actions on young people. The “contagion” aspect of suicide is real and everyone in a leadership position must recognize this.

My thoughts regarding this are also guided by something the great American essayist Peggy Noonan once noted when discussing unmarried mothers: “That which we celebrate, we encourage.”

With this in mind, I think we need to be cautious about this Sunday’s memorial and birthday tribute for Amanda. Yes, her family and friends have every right to mourn her passing. Nevertheless, such an event has the potential to add fuel to a fire which, I fear, has already grown far too hot.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why Canada went into Afghanistan

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, veterans of the wars in which our country has fought visited many schools and community organizations to describe their experiences. I've learned that, in at least one of those presentations, participants expressed considerable confusion about exactly why Canada entered the fray in Afghanistan. To clear things up, here's the edited text of a feature story I wrote for the Western Standard's March 13, 2006 issue. (DND photo at right shows Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay meeting with Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, in November 2007.)


Shhhh....we're nation building: Canada has assumed a critical role in rescuing one of desperate parts of the world. So why is Ottawa keeping so quiet about it?

By Terry O’Neill

Western Standard Senior Writer
[Page 41-44, March 13, 2006 issue of the Western Standard]

Within a week of winning the Jan. 23 general election, Stephen Harper talked with Peter Harder, the country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and, as Harder recalled in a speech a week later, told him “to stay the course” in Afghanistan. Coming from a politician who had pledged to beef up the Canadian military so it could better “project Canadian values abroad,” Harper’s expression of support for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was not surprising. A reversal of the former Liberal government’s strategy in the violence- and problem-plagued country would have been unthinkable given Canada’s international commitments and the Conservatives’ robust defence and foreign affairs policies.

Nevertheless, while it seems that there’s currently broad political support across all party lines for Canada’s Afghan strategy, Ottawa has so far been fairly taciturn about why exactly our troops are there —especially compared to the kind of cheerleading we’ve seen from the White House when it reminds U.S. voters, almost daily, why American troops are far away and in danger. By comparison, how many Canadians can claim to be aware of the full nature of the country’s multi-pronged approach to the strife-ridden state—an approach that involves far more than the 2,000 Canadian troops now being deployed in the dangerous Kandahar region?

It’s a role that easily can be described as nation building—though it’s somewhat understandable that, given the imperialist connotations the phrase carries these days, politicians have been reticent to call it that. While Canada’s burgeoning military presence—and the attendant risk to our soldiers—deserves a high profile, we’re also spending hundreds of millions of dollars on development assistance to Afghanistan. The country is now our largest aid recipient, and Ottawa has launched scores of other programs designed to help rebuild what is commonly referred to as a failed state.

The engagement embodies Ottawa’s relatively new “3-D” approach to international engagements—diplomacy, defence and development. The approach was formally enunciated in the former Liberal government’s International Policy Statement, made public April 19, 2005. You might have missed the announcement that day, since it was the same day the Vatican elected the new pope, overwhelming all other news coverage. But the policy, and its Afghan manifestation, are of paramount importance to Canadian foreign policy. Indeed, the Afghan mission, and a similar 3-D engagement with Haiti, mark the first big tests of an international policy that, if successful, will set an expensive and risky template that could last for decades.

The lack of public awareness notwithstanding, Canada’s role in Afghanistan has been growing since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Canadian troops (most famously, members of the elite Joint Task Force 2) fought in the American-led war to oust the al Qaeda–friendly Taliban from power. Canada was also a signatory to the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, designed to help reconstitute a government in Afghanistan. Ottawa ramped up its development aid, increased its military presence, opened an embassy in Kabul, and launched programs aimed at, among other things, fostering democracy and rebuilding the economy.

On Feb. 1 of this year, Canada signed the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to Bonn. The new accord establishes a framework for “international community engagement” in Afghanistan over the next five years. The conference at which the agreement was reached took place in London, and it was there that bureaucrat Harder revealed details of his chat with politician Harper. Harder’s little-publicized speech also reminded the international community of the extensive role Canada has played in Afghanistan for more than four years and of its vital goal. “None of us can afford to allow terrorists to ever again find haven in Afghanistan,” he said. “None of us can afford to ignore the desire of the Afghan people to rebuild their country.”

Harder reminded the international audience that nine Canadians have died in pursuit of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, including eight soldiers and one non-combatant, Glyn Berry, the political director of the Canadian provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Kandahar, who was killed by a suicide bomber on Jan. 15. “Three Canadian soldiers were seriously injured in that heinous attack,” Harder said. “Canada is not, however, a fair-weather friend. Kandahar remains for us, in Glyn Berry’s own words, ‘the right place to be.’” The reconstruction team of which Berry was a part is an important manifestation of Canada’s 3-D strategy. The PRT comprises about 250 soldiers who work with civilian police, diplomats and aid workers to reinforce the authority of the Afghan government in and around Kandahar, and to stabilize the region. “To achieve these goals, the PRT conducts security patrols, contributes labour and resources to local reconstruction efforts, supports local governance institutions, and facilitates reforms in the security sector,” according to National Defence documents.

In addition, there are all the programs funded by the foreign aid that Canada has been pouring into Afghanistan since 2001. Prior to that year, Canada typically sent about $10 million annually to Afghanistan for basic human needs. Before the Taliban’s ouster, there were rampant shortages of food and medicine (made worse by the Taliban’s blockage of aid workers who were Christian or female).

Since then, Canada has spent or committed a total of $616.5 million, until 2009. The money means, according to CIDA statements, that Canada has taken “a lead role” in several initiatives, including: helping the Afghan government collect and store 10,000 heavy weapons; providing savings and micro-loan services to 140,000 clients; and helping with the destruction of landmines and ammunition stockpiles.

And there’s the Mounties. Supt. Philip Campbell at the RCMP’s headquarters in Ottawa says there are three Mounties in Afghanistan, two serving with PRTs and one involved with the UN mission in the country. “We’re a small cog in a big wheel,” Campbell says humbly.

And it is big—and expensive. In addition to the $616 million in funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Canadian Forces say they spent $1.34 billion on Afghan operations to the end of last year, and estimate they will spend an additional $374 million on operations Athena and Archer by the end of this year, for a total of more than $1.7 billion. National Defence spokesperson Cathy Huth explains these figures are “incremental costs” that are above what the Department of National Defence would have spent for personnel and equipment had they stayed in Canada, rather than being deployed to Afghanistan.

The Department of Foreign Affairs was not able to provide any figures for what it has spent on its diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan. But spokesperson Kim Girtel says the department increased the size of its diplomatic presence in Kabul by almost 50 per cent last September, to a total of 20 Canadians. “Strengthening our presence in Kabul reflects an economy of effort and a consolidation of expertise that enables effective Canadian leadership,” Girtel states. “Why are they there? They are there for the same reason [the soldiers, the PRT and CIDA are]. They are there to help Afghanistan become stable, democratic and self-sustaining. It’s the same goal and purpose.”

So, while the soldiers may get most of the public notice, Canada’s personnel deployment in Afghanistan involves much more than uniformed troops. “Our diplomats, our development officers and our civilian police have helped Afghanistan rebuild, retrain, restart,” Harder said in his speech. “These unheralded men and women are on the front lines of the future of Afghanistan. Their dedication to service merits our utmost respect.”

They clearly have a big job ahead. Although its economic outlook has improved markedly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the country is still, for the time being, a basket case. “Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan remains extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, farming, and trade with neighboring countries,” according to an annual assessment by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. “It will probably take the remainder of the decade and continuing donor aid and attention to significantly raise Afghanistan living standards from its current status, among the lowest in the world.” Indeed, the CIA calculates the country’s unemployment rate at 40 per cent, with 53 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line.

Still, Canada’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have provoked detractors on the left. For instance, researcher and analyst Anthony Fenton of Vancouver, whose work has appeared in several left-wing journals, including Regina’s Briarpatch magazine, says Canada should pull all its troops and end development projects that, he argues, are designed less to help indigenous people rise above poverty than to
“foster better conditions for neo-liberalism and the type of globalization that powerful countries are pursuing.” Fenton believes Canada’s image as a benevolent peacekeeper is a lie; the truth, he believes, is that Canada is creating conditions that will leave Afghanistan open to being exploited by multinational corporations.

Douglas Goold, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of International Affairs, rejects the arguments, and believes they come only from the far-left political fringes. But, he admits, it’s hard to make any broad claims about Canadian public opinion since there has been “very little” in the way of public debate over Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. “So, does that mean we should have a debate about this in Parliament?” he asks. “It absolutely does. We need to explain to Canadians and to debate in Parliament why we’re there with such a presence.”

In the end, Goold is convinced that the case for being there will win out. “This is a country of strategic importance that is tremendously unstable, that can cause a lot of damage to the rest of the world through terrorism or other means,” he explains. “To the extent that we can help it establish a better infrastructure, establish more stable institutions, end the drug trade, which directly or indirectly affects all of us, then I think that’s a good thing.” (Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium.) “My sense of when I was there was, regrettably, that Afghanistan is a failed state that is going to keep on failing. The problems are so vast. They’ve had 30 years of warfare, the country’s basically ruined. The illiteracy rate is as high as 75 per cent. They’ve got drug lords. They have very limited control of outlying areas beyond Kabul. For all the will in the world, and all the money in the world, it’s going to be very hard to turn that around.”

In other words, Harper may inevitably find himself faced with some hard choices as both our funding and our troop commitments are scheduled to sunset over the next few years—funding commitments are good to 2009, and Canada’s command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kandahar is good for about nine months. And without a clear understanding from voters of why we’re there and what the plan is, his options may be limited by public ignorance.

If Canada relents, says Goold, it’s proof that our work in Afghanistan was less about actually trying to rebuild the country, and strictly about offering a make-good gesture to an ally, the U.S., which was disappointed in Canada’s failure to join the “coalition of the willing” in the invasion of Iraq. There are some who believe Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance. Sima Samar, an Afghan doctor who served as the country’s deputy prime minister after the Taliban fell, is urging Canadians to stay for the long term. “Helping Afghanistan is not just about helping the Afghan people,” she said, on a visit to Canada in February. “It is helping humanity, including Canadians. If we have problems in Afghanistan, the other parts of the world will not be safe also.”

That’s how Canada’s top soldier, Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier, put it to the Western Standard in a November interview. When western countries, such as Canada, neglect the opportunity to rebuild failed states, such as Afghanistan, Hillier said, “the instability that results will cause the growth of all those things that we see all the time in failed states: organized crime; the potential for pandemics to develop; refugee columns that pour out of those countries; and a place where terrorism can grow. [Those] results will indirectly affect our nation because of the impact it has on international stability.”

For now, that seems to be the view in Ottawa, too. Our current military presence in Afghanistan is larger than any deployment since the Korean War, our aid package is our most generous, and our overall diplomatic and development commitment unprecedented. Peter Harder said in his speech that Canada will continue “moving forward” and will not be dissuaded by difficulties and deaths. “The struggle for stability is not a choice,” he declared.

That may be. But if Canadians aren’t fully on board when the going gets tough—even if it’s just because they’re unaware of the depth of our commitments in Afghanistan—who’s going to tell them it isn’t?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Doing what comes naturally

If a completely natural event like an earthquake disturbs the completely natural habitat of a rare animal, is it something we humans should care about, or should we simply stand idly by and observe nature unfolding?

A story now appearing on the CBC's website (about a bat's birthing habitat that has been adversely affected by the Haida Gwaii earthquake) implies that we should be concerned. But I'm wondering about the grounds this concern is based on.

After all, to listen to most of the mainstream talk these days, the "natural order" is sacred. If so, then we definitely should not be disturbed by one part of nature (an earthquake) affecting another part (the bat's habitat).

But if we are supposed to be concerned, are we then to believe that the earthquake was some sort of mistake made by Gaia? But how could that be in a belief system that holds that all "nature" simply "is."

A better way of thinking about this is that the "natural order" should not be the ultimate standard by which we judge our planet's affairs. And, this being the case, if we humans value the diversity of species, and if one of those species is now more endangered because of an earthquake, then we have every right to to be concerned.

Funny thing: such compassionate concern for little critters seems to be an entirely natural characteristic of the most successful creature here on Earth--we humans.

Sailing into hot water in the Pacific

It's likely that most folks wouldn't have heard of the controversial idea of seeding water with iron filings (to boost the growth of plankton, thus helping feed fish and also capturing carbon) until the recent news about the scheme involving the waters around Haida Gwaii.
However, I wrote about this fascinating issue in one of the last pieces I filed for the now-defunct Western Standard in the summer of 2007. Here's the text, as I submitted it to the editor:


Pumping up Pacific plankton

By Terry O’Neill

Canwest News Service photo of Haida Gwaii
Somewhere off the shores of the Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, a lowly phytoplankton needs a boost of iron. But, according to Planktos Corp. of San Francisco, plankton living in this environmentally important area of the sea can’t get enough of their daily iron dose, a problem that’s causing the population of the minuscule sea organism to collapse, adversely effecting all sea life in turn. But Planktos, a publicly traded company that employs controversial Vancouver financier Nelson Skalbania, has a solution: dump 45 tons of iron filings into the ocean, thus not only pumping up the carbon-dioxide-gobbling phytoplankton but also reducing global warming in the process.

Save the seas and cut global warming at the same time? Planktos says it’s feasible, but its plan hinges on eco-sensitive corporations, individuals and governments paying the company to spread the iron dust in the ocean to offset their greenhouse-gas producing activities elsewhere. But while the company and its European subsidiary, KlimaFa (which specializes in reforestation), churn out press releases promoting their carbon-offset work, critics say the company’s science and business plan are both questionable.

Shares of the company were trading on the risky OTC Bulletin Board in the (US) $1.30 range in mid-July, compared to eight cents last fall. Critics have noted that Skalbania was charged in 1997 and ultimately found guilty of stealing $100,000 from an investor. He was also involved in several stock-market ventures of dubious integrity.

The centerpiece of Planktos’ activities is a ship called the Weatherbird II, which sailed from Washington, D.C. last spring but by mid-summer was still in Florida taking on 10 tons of iron, along with supplies and scientific equipment to ready itself its test-run “voyage of recovery” to the South Pacific. “Our real goal this year, more than any of the business experiments,” spokesman David Kubiak says, “is to try to get some public awareness, to put plankton right up their with penguins and polar bears, the poster kids of planetary distress.”

Stirring words, but they’re largely falling on deaf ears among environmentalists. "This is an irresponsible and unpredictable venture by purely profit-driven individuals," Elizabeth Bravo, of Accion Ecologica of Ecuador, said earlier this year. "It threatens our climate, our marine environment and the sovereignty of our fisherfolk and it should be stopped."

Nevertheless, the acting leader of the B.C. Green Party, Christopher Bennett, says he is intrigued by the Planktos plan. “My gut reaction is that polluting the ocean can’t be the way to clean the ocean or the planet,” he says. “But I’m open to new ideas.” In the meantime, he’s calling for the formation of a voluntary association to assess all companies’ environmental claims.

“Based on my own experience over the last two to three years,” says the former corporate public-relations consultant, “30-40 per cent of businesses are making claims about their environmental record that are false, that are probably not entirely accurate at all.”

Will Planktos end up in this group? Only the plankton know for sure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In praise of the Coquitlam Foundation

I've just finished writing, editing and laying out a four-page pamphlet promoting one of my favourite charities, the Coquitlam Foundation, on whose board I've sat for five years now. Page one of the pamphlet is shown, to the right. And the entire publication can be seen by clicking here.

If everything goes according to plan, the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce will be putting the little publication into its November mail-out to its 850 members. We'll also be distributing it at the foundation's 20th anniversary party on Nov. 15 at the Red Robinson Show Theatre.

The main reason I'm mentioning all this now because only a bit more than two weeks remain before that birthday party, and tickets are still available. Clicking here will take you to the page on the foundation's website where you can order tickets. I hope to see you there!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Popular fundraising device is illegal

I am involved with a few non-profit charities such as The Coquitlam Foundation and regularly attend their and other non-profits' fundraising events. These often include silent- and/or live-auction items of one or more bottles of wine or liquor. The Hospice Society's annual Treasurers of Christmas gala features a live auction of a "wall of wine," as I recall. And last week's PoCoMo Youth Services anniversary event featured a silent auction of an expensive bottle of Scotch Whiskey. But according to a new B.C. government press release (below), this popular fundraising device is currently illegal. I hope the government acts quickly to change the law.

(photo by Terry O'Neill)

For Immediate Release
Oct. 26, 2012

Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas
and Minister Responsible for Liquor

Liquor laws clarified to help non-profit organizations

VICTORIA - Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas Rich Coleman today confirmed the Province will take a "common sense" approach that will allow non-profit organizations to conduct fundraising using gift
baskets or similar items that have liquor as one of its components.
The law will be permanently clarified by legislative changes at a
later date.
The approach enables charities and non-profits to conduct certain
types of fundraising, such as auctions, using liquor provided it is a
part of a gift basket or an equivalent basket of goods. The liquor
must have been commercially produced and must not be consumed at the
Presently, B.C. law requires anyone who sells liquor to be licensed
and for the liquor sold under that licence to be purchased from the
Liquor Distribution Branch or another approved outlet, such as a B.C.
Charities that wish to fundraise using only liquor, without other
items as a primary component of a basket, will have to wait until new
legislation is in place. For those organizations, a special occasion
licence will continue to be required and the liquor will have to be
purchased through the Liquor Distribution Branch.

Rich Coleman, Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas and Minister
Responsible for Liquor -
"From time to time, we find outdated liquor policies that may have
been relevant at a particular time in history but don't work today.
Our goal is to get rid of these outdated liquor laws that
unnecessarily restrict British Columbians and to regulate alcohol
responsibly in the process."

Quick Facts:
The B.C. government is modernizing liquor laws in B.C. because many
federal and provincial liquor laws have been around since
Prohibition. Changes made since February include:
* Liquor in Theatres
- Provides flexibility to live-event venues and revises liquor laws
for movie theatres.
* Corkage - Bring Your Own Bottle
- Provides opportunities for restaurant customers that want to bring
their own wine into a licensed dining establishment.
* Penalties for Bootlegging
- Police and liquor inspectors now have the ability to issue $575
tickets to people found giving or serving liquor to anyone under the
age of 19.
* Personal Importation of Liquor into B.C.
- Allows B.C. residents to bring back an unlimited amount of 100 per
cent Canadian wine if it is for personal consumption and purchased
from a recognized winery in another province, or choose to have it
shipped from the winery directly to their home.
- Allows B.C. residents returning from another Canadian province to
bring back on-their-person up to nine litres of wine, three litres of
spirits, and a combined total of 25.6 litres of beer, cider or
coolers for personal consumption.

Learn More:
To learn more about the rules for liquor licensing in the British
Columbia, visit: http://www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/lclb/LLinBC/index.htm

Media contacts:
Cindy Stephenson
Liquor Control and Licensing
250 952-5761

Sandra Steilo
Energy, Mines and Natural Gas
250 952-0617

Connect with the government of B.C. at: www.gov.bc.ca/connect

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

City should stay out of pet-cemetery business

Photo of pet cemetery from cbc.ca.

A report on the issue of pet cemeteries came to council eight days ago, but was deferred for consideration until last night to allow councillor Mae Reid, council's most ardent animal lover, to take part in the discussion, because she was sick eight days ago.

The staff report basically surveyed the landscape surrounding the issue and made no recommendations. Apparently, the report was sparked by a request from a councillor last year, but even the apparent requester--Ms. Reid suggested that it might have been her--seemed to have a difficult time recollecting the exact reason for the request.

Anyway, there was some discussion by Ms. Reid and others about such things as memorial walls or columbaria for deceased pets in or around existing or new city cemeteries, but I helped bring the discussion to an end by informing my colleagues that many cultures and religions would find such a set-up to be very offensive. Lou Sekora also evinced little sympathy for any such project, and suggested that one rather major obstacle would be the definition of "pet." He wondered whether a civic facility be open to a snake, for example.

If such objections hadn't had the desired effect of ending discussion on the subject (a subject that, I am aware, can be very emotional), I would have debated against taking any action on the grounds that this properly should be a private matter, left to private individuals and/or companies to work out. In short, I believe the city has no rightful place in providing this sort of service.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Honouring a North American aboriginal saint

I thought I'd do something different for the blog today, and pass along this heartening news release from the office of the Prime Minister:

Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada recognizing the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha

October 21, 2012
From Archdiocese of Ottawa
Ottawa, Ontario
Prime Minister Stephen Harper today issued the following statement recognizing the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha:
“Today in Vatican City, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was declared a Saint by Pope Benedict XVI, making her North America’s first Aboriginal Saint.
“Saint Kateri – also known as ‘Lily of the Mohawks’ – was bestowed the highest honour of the Catholic Church in recognition of her remarkable virtue and determination, and her unwavering devotion to God.
“Born in 1656 in what is now New York State, Saint Kateri was persecuted for the faith she held so tenaciously and relocated to a Christian Mohawk village in what is now Kahnawake, Quebec, where she perished at the tender age of 24.
“Throughout her short life, Saint Kateri never abandoned her faith. She taught prayers to children, cared for the sick and the elderly, and often attended mass both at sunrise and sunset.
“Today, a number of shrines in both Canada and the U.S. are dedicated to Saint Kateri, including the site of her burial at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, Quebec.
“The canonization of Saint Kateri is a great honour and joyous occasion for the many North Americans and Aboriginal peoples who cherish her witness of faith and strength of character. The Government of Canada stands with those who are celebrating her life on this day in Canada, the United States and throughout the world.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aiming for clarity in the Riverview discussion

We had a long and somewhat convoluted discussion about the Riverview lands at last night’s council meeting—and I have to admit that I was chief reason for the discussion. It all centred on a three-part recommendation from staff that we: 1) affirm council’s 2005 position on Riverview; 2) support the new Heritage Conservation Plan recently released by the Province; and 3) reiterate that council should have a role in future planning.

The major part of the debate was on whether we wanted to re-affirm the 2005 position. To my mind, that position was badly in need of revision. In the end, it became apparent that the summary of that position, in the report before us, did not really capture the fullness of the position, and so we deferred any decision until we could get clarification. We passed recommendations two and three with minor amendments.

The following represents my speaking notes on the issue, prepared before the meeting. If you read them, I hope you’ll understand where I was coming from in my opposition to the first recommendation.
Riverview heritage building. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)

Council has been asked to affirm the city’s key priorities for the Riverview lands and to indicate support for the provincial government’s Heritage Conservation Plan’s proposed strategies to preserve the heritage-defining elements of the site, and to declare once again that the city should have an integral role in in the forthcoming land-use plan for the site.

There is no question that this is a major issue. The Riverview precinct is a treasure-house of not only invaluable natural wonders and historical riches, but also of much social-utility and economic potential. After all, it comprises 244 acres of land in the heart of the Tri-Cities, one of the most vibrant and fastest-growing areas not only in the Lower Mainland but in the entire country. Getting its future use right could be key to the future of the whole region.

With this in mind, it is important that we examine carefully the three actions we have been asked to take. Let’s deal with them one by one.

Regarding the first question, of reaffirming our three “key priorities” for the site, we must first look at what those priorities are, which were identified in early 2005:

According to the report before us, those three priorities are: “A) Riverview should provide a place for mental health and wellness; support research, education and innovation; preserve the botanical heritage and ecology of the lands; and promote heritage, arts and culture.” These are all laudable aspirations, of course, but I am wondering whether, with seven years having now passed since that declaration was made, we might now want to refine it.

The way it now reads, the city is on the record saying that Riverview must include a huge variety of future uses, everything from serving as a research centre to an art-and-culture hub. Do we really mean this? Are we really asking for the provincial government to do ALL of this on the site? I don’t think so. I think council and the public is actually saying that future uses should be limited to one or more of the stated uses, not necessarily ALL of them.

Next, we have, “B) Riverview’s heritage buildings, landscapes and arboretum should be protected and preserved.” What exactly do we mean by this? Do we really expect any future user of Riverview to “protect and preserve” all the buildings, without changing one little thing? Any anyway, do we really want all those buildings to be protected and preserved? Do we really expect any or all of the potential future users, as identified in “a”, to move into buildings that have been perfectly protected and preserved?
A magnificent tree on the Riverview grounds. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)

Remember, just last year, the previous council unanimously passed a motion calling for Royal Columbian Hospital to be rebuilt on the Riverview lands, instead of undergoing a costly renovation at its present site in New Westminster. I can imagine how this massive construction project could take place without impacting the world-famous arboretum, but I cannot fathom how it would transpire without, at the very least, changing Riverview’s landscape. And do we really expect the provincial government to construct a billion-dollar hospital at Riverview while also spending how many untold tens or hundreds of millions, “protecting and preserving” every single one of the heritage buildings on the site – a demand that , as it reads now, is so severe as to preclude even-small scale interior alterations of the buildings?

Remember what momma said: You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Difficult decisions have to be made, and I believe that if we simply re-affirm this, we would be failing to show the leadership that is demanded of us.

Public tour during Treefest. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)
And one last thing on the subject of preserving and protecting, one need only look to pages 83-85 of the heritage report to see that there are actually 15 – FIFTEEN – types of conservation approaches one can take to the Riverview site, not just the two, protecting and preserving, called for in this statement. Without further refinement of what buildings should be conserved, and how far that conservation should go – that is, everything ranging from preserving and restoring the buildings in their entirety to simply preserving an historic façade and integrating it into a new building – statement ‘b’ is virtually meaningless.

On the whole then, I would say that council should NOT re-affirm its commitment to statement “b” without significant refinement.

And then we come to statement C, which says the Riverview lands should remain publicly owned and not developed for market housing. Is council still in agreement with this? Personally, I view this statement as aspirational and not practical. That is, in a perfect world, it would be nice to have it as public land, but I’m wondering if this is a practical goal, given economic realities. Nevertheless, I am prepared to re-support “c” as an aspiration statement at this time.

And so, that deals with the first of the three recommended actions we take. Number two asks us to support the HCP’s strategies to preserve the heritage defining elements of the site. This would appear to be a no-brainer, but I would be shirking my duties if I didn’t point out that the HCP contains one rather large weakness, and that is that it does not prioritize the heritage values that have been identified. That is, it considers strategies for protecting everything from the invaluable trees to the mundane and confusing road network on the site – and appears to make no attempt to judge which is more important to protect.

Remember: When everything is a priority, NOTHING is a priority. Without a prioritization exercise, it may be that the province will be overwhelmed at the huge conservation task at hand. I would suggest, then, that the CITY not blindly follow in the footsteps of the report, but, as I suggested earlier, show some leadership, and make some decisions about what we feel are the most important components of Riverview to protect. To not do so would be to invite inaction.

Finally, three: To reiterate council’s interest in having an integral role in the forthcoming land use plan for the site. I do not have a single quibble with this.

Trying a new type of Townhall Meeting

My previous attempt to gain council support to engage more citizen involvement in the democratic process didn't get any traction. So, last night, I tried again and introduced a Notice of Motion calling for Electronic Town Hall Meetings. The idea seems to have widespread support, and we'll formally discuss the motion at the next council meeting. I'm hoping it will receive unanimous backing. Here's the text of my motion, which was seconded by Councillor Selina Robinson:

Motion to Encourage Citizen Engagement in Town Hall Meetings

Whereas the Council of the City of Coquitlam holds at least two public Town Hall Meetings a year with the intention of engaging citizen input into a variety of important local issues, and

Whereas, the number of people attending those meetings, such as the one held Oct. 3, 2012 at the Centennial Pavilion, is sometimes so low as to be matched by the number of City staff and Councillors in attendance, and,

Whereas, communications technologies, including but not limited to webcasts, Twitter feeds, and email and telephone linkages exist that have the potential to broaden the engagement process of Town Hall Meetings,

Be it resolved that Council direct staff to examine the possibility of, and to report back on, the staging of future Town Hall Meetings which are webcasted and, for the benefit of those citizens who are watching the webcast, that such meetings also employ communications technologies allowing, but not limited to, the receipt and display of emailed and Twittered comments and questions, and also allows citizens to communicate their questions and comments by phone in a way that their calls can be broadcast within the meeting site.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader?

With Justin Trudeau set to announce that he intends to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, I thought the time was right for me to reproduce the Cover Story I wrote on him for the Western Standard's March 26, 2007 issue. (NB: The following is the unedited version of the article that I submitted to the editor; I do not have e-access to the published version. Finally, I did not write the coverlines and headlines.)

He's 35 going on 25: Justin Trudeau has the name and the buzz.

But is he an empty suit?

By Terry O'Neill

Justin Trudeau strolls through the front entrance of the posh clubhouse at the Nicklaus North golf course in Whistler, B.C. just before dusk on February 23. There’s no fanfare, no entourage, and no paparazzi in tow, which is surprising, considering that Trudeau’s dreamy mug is all over the front pages of the morning’s newspapers in recognition of the fact he announced his official entry into federal politics the day previous in Montreal, just before he jetted off to Vancouver. Yes, Trudeau had finally ended months of speculation by declaring his intention to represent the Liberal Party of Canada in the Montreal riding of Papineau. This meant, of course, that Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son had at long last made the big decision to try follow in his late father’s famous and controversial footsteps.

Justin Trudeau was at the upscale ski resort to raise money for the Canadian Avalanche Foundation, with which he became involved as a director shortly after the death of his brother Michel in an avalanche in 1998. The dress code was advertised as “mountain evening,” which the invitation explained should reflect something alpine. Many guests arrived in ski sweaters and crisply-pressed slacks, but Trudeau didn’t follow the script. Instead, he showed up in blue jeans with a designer rip in the left knee, a sports coat and a striped shirt—its wide-open neck revealing an almost-hairless chest.

Revellers at the $175-a-plate event wouldn’t necessarily have known it, but his get-up was virtually the same outfit Trudeau wore to many of his numerous public outings over the last several months, whether it was to announce his candidacy or to address members of a Chamber of Commerce, like he did in February in London. Trudeau even embraced the tie-free, two-buttons-open look at a more-formal avalanche-fundraising gig in Calgary on Feb. 24, although he did ditch the jeans and jacket for a natty sand-brown suit.

The look is definitely a youthful one. But then, even at the age of 35, if Justin Trudeau is known for anything, it’s for his youth and the promise he holds for a Liberal Party of Canada desperately seeking some vitality. A press agent couldn’t have put it any better than did Glen Pearson last November, when Trudeau attended a rally to support Pearson’s ultimately successful bid to win the London-North Centre by-election. “We have someone in our midst who some day may be prime minister,” Pearson gushed about the Trudeau prince. “We are in the presence of royalty.”

But while much is being expected of the nearly middle-aged Trudeau, he seems to be the very embodiment of someone 10 years his junior. And it’s not just the way he dresses. Consider this: while many other men of his age and privileged background are married with kids, well established in their careers, and settling into their lives, Justin Trudeau is childless, has flitted from job to avocation to cause to acting gig with little apparent impact in any area in which he has alighted, and has only now settled on attempting to find a place for himself in the House of Commons. And even then, politics is a profession for which, despite the many figurehead positions he has held, he actually has few legitimate qualifications—other than his famous last name, of course, and the celebrity that accompanies it.

Yes, he’s been a teacher, but so have hundreds of thousands of other Canadians. And yes, he’s sat in the board of Katimavik, the youth-volunteer organization, but he clearly got the job through family and political connections. Yes, he’s working on a master’s degree in environmental geography at McGill University, but being a 35-year-old grad student isn’t exactly an accomplishment to write home about. And, yes, he hosted last year’s televised Giller Prize to honor the country’s literary set, but he’s never written a book, let alone a major policy paper.

In other words, he’s a lightweight, but at least a well-known and apparently youthful one. “He’s not taken very seriously,” political commentator and recently retired Liberal MP Jean Lapierre said upon learning of Trudeau’s decision to try to run for office. “So he will have to show that he has something in his belly. We don’t know that yet.” Lapierre also revealed that Trudeau hadn’t even been a member of the Liberal party until last fall. “I sold him his first membership card about four months ago,” Lapierre said, “so he never really cared about the party before.” Ouch.

Nevertheless, the fact that Justin Trudeau is a Peter Pan-ish 35 going on 25 may explain why the Liberal Party of Canada chose him to head its youth task force last year, even though he was nine years older than the official age limit of 25 for membership in the Young Liberals of Canada. In fact, that youth task force is as good a place as any to begin a consideration of the young Mr. Trudeau’s record, which in recent years seems to have been designed to give him maximum possible publicity with the minimum of actual accomplishment.

The “task force on youth and civil engagement” was one of several such study groups the Liberals established in an attempt to “renew” itself following its defeat at the hands of the Conservatives in January 2006. Two things are immediately evident about the youth task force’s interim report, which was made public late last year. The first is that, despite his name being on its cover page, Trudeau was not actually its primary author; a reader has to turn to the inside to discover the report’s “lead writers” were actually two other individuals, Chris Holcroft and Danielle Kotras. Exactly how much work Trudeau did on the report is not clear.

The second notable aspect of the report is its vacuous but still ominous findings: vacuous in that the paper’s most important specific recommendation seems to be that Elections Canada “work with school boards across the country to hold comprehensive mock elections in high schools” to help young people understand the electoral process; ominous in that the paper declares that the young Canadians with whom the task force met “want a return to activist government.”

The paper doesn’t spell it out, but to anyone who lived through the governments of Pierre Trudeau, “activist” clearly means a high-spending, high-debt, interventionist government. It’s nothing to worry about if you’re a left-winger, but it’s cause for great concern if you’re on the right or even a main-street centrist. Moreover, this type of government is anathema to the West, especially Alberta, which bore the full brunt of the elder Trudeau’s “activist” government in 1980 when the Grits imposed the National Energy Program, which is estimated to have sucked $100 billion out of the province’s economy.

But Justin Trudeau’s expression of this sort of interventionist sentiment, especially in relation to the need for government to take action to “save” the environment, shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has been listening to what he has been talking about in his many public appearances and interviews over the past half year. In fact, Trudeau has become something of rich man’s David Suzuki, the environmental Jeremiah who preaches global-warming doom, and big-government salvation.

Consider this collection of his musings of late:

*“Canada actually isn’t doing so well environmentally. We’re falling behind. Were not taking care of things and a large part of the responsibility is on its citizens.” (Owen Sound Sun Times, Oct. 2, 2006)

*“We are completely misunderstanding the fundamental relationship we have with this planet that sustains us. Our relationship with the natural world needs to fundamentally inform, shape and guide our lifestyles from the simplest element to the biggest.” (Victoria Times Colonist, Oct. 19)

*“All of our advances in science and everything have led us to this point, and now we’re going to have to do something that no civilization has ever been able to do, which is to have certain behaviours, to reach the top, and then suddenly change direction, change our habits, and change our ways away from the very things that brought us here.” (National Post, Nov. 8)

*“We have achieved tremendous success with this civilization, but it has come at a cost. We’re at a point where the behaviour and habits that got us here are the very same ones that will ruin us. They will cause total collapse.” (Montreal Gazette, Feb. 15, 2007)

Sound like something Suzuki would espouse? It’s not a coincidence: Trudeau has said he admires the Vancouver geneticist and broadcaster, and was even seen assiduously taking notes at one of the environmentalists’ recent lectures.
As evidenced by Lapierre’s less-than-laudatory comments about Trudeau’s decision to seek the Liberal nomination, his entry into politics hasn’t exactly been cheered, even by fellow Liberals. In fact, he was criticized within the party for making his headline-grabbing announcement on the same day as leader Stephane Dion was delivering a major speech about Afghanistan. Nevertheless, criticisms from both within and outside the party have centred more on his lack of experience than on his public pronouncements. Clearly, though, his calamitous predictions bear scrutiny too. The Western Standard sent a selection of his quotations, including the ones above, to two expert observers. Their reactions were less than positive.

Jason Clemens, director of fiscal studies at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, says Trudeau is just plain wrong when he says the environment in Canada is getting worse. Measurements consistently show that water and air quality are actually improving in this country, Clemens says. Moreover, he argues that Trudeau shows a basic misunderstanding of the free-market economy when he argues that big government should intervene, through such mechanisms as subsidies and taxes, to improve the environment.

“So I guess my challenge to him would be, name me the situation where that approach has actually solved the problem. I mean, historically, I just can’t think of any major problem where the government took that activist approach and actually made things better.” On the other hand, Clemens says that one thing going in Trudeau’s favour is that, unlike Dion, he actually seems to recognize that there will be hefty price tag attached to green initiatives.

Environmental consultant Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, believes Trudeau “is certainly apocalyptic” in his worldview. “I had many of the same sentiments at that age,” Moore says, “now I believe it is wise to remain calm at all times, especially if a sink is sinking.” Moore has hope that new energy technologies will reduce fossil-fuel consumption and that the Earth’s population will stabilize. “[Trudeau] sounds like a bit of a dreamer and is too pessimistic for me,” Moore concludes, “but like so many people today, probably just buys into Suzuki, [former U.S. vice-president Al] Gore, and [environmentalist James] Lovelock.”

There are always two sides to politics, of course: style and substance. Moore and Clemens don’t think much of the substance. What about the style? Political scientist Faron Ellis of Lethbridge College thinks Trudeau’s celebrity may actually backfire on him. “People who are looking for the second coming of the old man,” he says, “are probably going to be sorely disappointed.” Once one looks past all the hype surrounding Justin Trudeau, it’s evident, “This is just a rich kid who has done nothing,” Ellis continues. “He was supposed to be a teacher, but didn’t stick with that. He’s got the celebrity. You know, the most important thing that brought him celebrity was the deaths of family members, right? His dad and his brother. You know, you’ve only got so many family members to keep that going.” Double ouch.

(Trudeau’s first big media splash came when he delivered a eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000. He won wide praise for the speech, but it’s a little known fact that his long-time buddy Gerald Butts, currently an assistant to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, helped write the eulogy. Moreover, in retrospect, the speech seems sophomoric, especially in its use of an inappropriate quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—as an opening line. As any literate English-speaker knows, the line following that, which Trudeau didn’t cite, is “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Had Justin come only to bury his father, and not to praise him? Of course not, but that is what one might have been led to believe by the strange opening citation.)

B.C. political analyst and broadcaster Bill Tieleman uses the “D” word to describe Trudeau: “dilettante.” “I think that he has not distinguished himself with actually having done anything,” Tieleman says. “You can’t even say he’s written some interesting papers on politics, has been involved as a door knocker or organizer. He’s a media creation at the moment.” This doesn’t mean he won’t get elected though, even though “Justin Trudeau’s political weight seems to come more from his mother’s side than his father’s.” Triple ouch. (That’s a reference to Justin’s mother, Margaret, whose bizarre and scandalous behaviour while still married to Pierre Trudeau was to the Canada of the 1970s what Britney Spears’ current shenanigans are to the world today.)

Of course, Justin Trudeau need not be disqualified from politics simply because he is the son of a famous politician. U.S. president George W. Bush is the son of a former U.S. president, of course. And in Canada, former prime minister Paul Martin’s father was a prominent Liberal cabinet minister. Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis’s father, David, was a national NDP leader.

Justin Trudeau refused to be interviewed by the Western Standard for this piece, although he did give a brief comment about his candidacy when approached at the Whistler event. “For me, being involved with communities, like the mountain community, like the avalanche community, has allowed me to connect with Canadians, and understand some of the real priorities they have,” he said. “My life has been, over the past decade or so, being involved with a number or organizations, and this is one of the organizations that I have learned and grown an awful lot though, and understood a lot of the way that society needs to take on its responsibilities, involving education, involving funding of particular organizations and programs, and that is all sort of an amount of experience that I will bring with me to Parliament.”

Asked how important it would be for him to carve out his own reputation, distinct from his father’s, Trudeau was straightforward: “Well, listen, everyone already has their minds largely made up about me from the outset. My challenge is going to be to have them discover who I really am and what I really stand for at the base. And no amount of me telling them what I am and what I stand for is enough. I need to get to work and show them that. And the first way to do that is what I do very well, and is to connect with people and listen to people and learn how to present, particularly the constituents in Papineau.”

Not exactly stirring stuff, except, that is, if you’re a member of “the avalanche community.” Trudeau had nothing to say about everyday concerns involving employment, taxes, education, the economy and childcare; in fact, he didn’t even offer any concrete ideas about how he’d implement his environmental agenda.

It was the same the day before when he announced his attempt to win the Grit nomination in Papineau, a riding currently held by the Bloc Quebecois. True to form, Trudeau talked style, not substance, saying he wants “to change the way the game is played, to a certain extent, try to bring back a certain amount of nobility and reduce some of the cynicism there is around politics these days…Canadians need to hear a different message. Canadians need to start believing in something noble about politics and I’d like to be a part of that.”

Trudeau’s evocation of nobility implies, of course, that he believes he, himself, is noble. Maybe he actually thinks he is. After all, the first definition of the word, in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is “belonging by rank, title, or birth to the aristocracy.” But that’s the easy part for a fellow with such a famous and successful father. It’s the second definition—“of excellent character; having lofty ideals; free from pettiness and meanness, magnanimous”—which is the real challenge.