Save Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes

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Canoeists on Susies Lake, one of several Birch Cove Lakes put in danger by facilitator’s report. Photo by Irwin Barrett. Used with permission.

Here is my open letter to Mayor Mike Savage and Halifax councillors.

Dear Mayor Savage and Councillors,

From the moment I took my first hike in the Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area, I was amazed by the beauty of the landscape. With all the lakes, trees, streams, and rock outcroppings providing stunning views, it was pure Canadiana in all its splendour.

I fear with the recent facilitator’s report that some councillors will forget about the promise that was made by council to create an urban wilderness park in conjunction with the province. I also fear that Council is not fully aware of the tremendous opportunity that will be lost. The Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park is an opportunity to create a mini-Kejimkujik within our city limits.

It would be a tremendous recreational destination that would be accessible to all in Halifax because one could get to it on a city bus. Once there, one could enjoy a quick paddle or rent a canoe. There is a portage route around the lakes that provides the quintessential Canadian experience right in our backyard. We need to preserve this and promote it, not allow more urban sprawl.

No decision to set land aside for parkland is ever regretted. Point Pleasant Park, Shubie Park, Hemlock Ravine, and Fleming Park are just a few of the cherished parks we have in our city.

The recent facilitator’s report failed to achieve its stated objective or even meet the stated terms of reference. Please reject it and do not enter into any secondary planning with the landowners. Instead, I urge Council to purchase these lands and make this park a reality. If you do, it will be your finest accomplishment and a legacy for which future generations will thank you.

Sincerely,

Ryan Van Horne

NOTE: If you would like to learn more about this issue, please go to this link on the city’s webpage and read the facilitator’s report. If you would like to make your own comment, you can e-mail directly to clerks@halifax.ca or use this link provided by CPAWS, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Wishing for peace in the Balkans

Forensics Experts Work On Exhuming And Identifying Srebrenica Victims

Remains at a mass grave in the former Yugoslavia.

For the last six months, I’ve been researching and learning much about the Balkans. I’ve had the pleasure to meet some amazing people who have kindly shared their pleasant memories and bravely shared their painful ones. They say those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it. One thing that I have learned is that people from the former Yugoslavia are keenly aware of their history and, to paraphrase the words of a tearful Serbian woman watching the news in the 1990s, nationalism keeps rearing its ugly head and history keeps repeating itself.

One thing I have learned is that the majority of people in the region want peace. They are still struggling to rebuild 20 years after the civil war ended. Corruption and a grey economy stifle the rebuilding effort, and in Bosnia, a clunky three-headed political system ensures partisan bickering and posturing takes up more energy and thought than progress.

There are a couple of movies coming out about the wars in the region. I haven’t seen them, but I hope that they don’t inflame a fragile peace. For a generation, the people of Yugoslavia lived together in a country where their ethnic differences were either ignored or celebrated — not the justification for cold-blooded killing.

It is impossible to forget what happened to your family. It is important, for your sake, to know the past, but, for the sake of your children, it’s equally important to forgive, and avoid the tragedies of the past.

Ghomeshi should be forced to testify

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Jian Ghomeshi, and others accused of sexual assault, should have to testify and face cross-examination.

It flies in the face of a basic tenet of law, and there’s a section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that will prevent this from happening, but Ghomeshi should really have to go on the hot seat. He is the one on trial, after all.

Instead, the women who have accused him of sexual assault are the ones facing rigorous cross-examination. Some would say they are being grilled by Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein.

It’s all well and good to have a fair trial and make sure you don’t sent an innocent person to jail, but we have a problem in Canada.

An estimated 90 per cent of sexual assaults go unreported and of the 10 per cent that are reported, only 25 per cent lead to a conviction. That’s an alarming failure rate and it’s not because women are imagining they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted.

What can the federal government do to turn the tables? They could pass a law that would force those accused of sexual assault to testify and be cross-examined. Section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would normally prevent someone from being compelled to testify in a case in which they are the accused, but there is a trump card the federal government can play.

If Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government is serious about solving the problem of unsolved and unreported sexual assaults in this country, it should pass a law forcing accused rapists to testify and have their comments and personal histories sifted through and torn apart. The federal government could do this if it invoked Section 33 of the Charter. Also known as the Notwithstanding Clause, it would allow such a law to stand for five years at a time at which time the federal government could let it lapse if it’s not working, or renew it if it is.

When you’re faced with a problem that has reached such epic proportions, you need to get creative and you need to get serious. How much would such a measure help? I don’t know, but it won’t hurt. It would certainly wipe the smug look off a lot of faces and knowing they’ll have to sit in the hot seat could act as a deterrent.

The other solution is to teach men not to rape, but that only works on the nice guys, so let’s roll out the Notwithstanding Clause and use it to fix a problem.

IKEA’s dark secret

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Count me among the group that doesn’t give a tinker’s damn that IKEA is returning to Dartmouth.

Dartmouth, which is part of Atlantic Canada’s largest metropolitan area, has gone absolutely agog since the giant retailer has announced they’re going to set up shop here again after a 25-year absence.

I wasn’t around in the early 60s when The Beatles first came to North America, but I’ve seen video and pictures. Some people are that excited and I guess that’s their prerogative, but the disappointing thing is how some media outlets are treating this like it’s news.

IKEA is the “least sustainable retailer on the planet” says Wig Zamore,  an urban development expert trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If you look past the thin veneer of their slick marketing campaign, you’ll realize that they are just like Wal-Mart, but without the image problem. That’s right, IKEA is Wal-Mart with a little Scandinavian élan.

The only time I ever shopped at IKEA was when I was a student back in the 80s. I bought a shelf there and I still have it, despite repeated suggestions from people I live with to throw it out. I have refused, a concept which completely undermines their business model that is designed around cheap, throw-away furniture.

My shelf still works. Its pine arms have not gotten tired and it still holds things up in my basement. If I ever need to replace it, I won’t be going back there for a new one after reading this excellent takedown in The Globe and Mail. It’s an excerpt from Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin, 2009).

Read it all the way through, and I hope that it makes you think before you decide to shop at IKEA. It’s a free country and I understand the difficulty of trying to make ends meet, but how we shop shapes the world we live in. When you spend your money, you’re voting on the type of economy you want. There is no such thing as cheap. There are always costs, it’s just that some of them are hidden from your view.

Nova Scotia Power parent company doubles in size

The Nova Scotia power generating station at Tufts Cove on the Dartmouth waterfront.

The Nova Scotia power generating station at Tufts Cove on the Dartmouth waterfront.

While most Nova Scotians were getting ready to celebrate the last long weekend of summer, executives at Emera Inc. were stuck in the office working late on Friday.

Don’t feel too bad, though, the hard-working executives at Emera are richly rewarded. CEO Chris Huskilson earned a cool $4.6 million last year, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to put in a few hours of overtime – even on a Friday before Labour Day weekend.

Emera, which is the parent company of Nova Scotia’s venerable electrical utility, was announcing a bit of a milestone. It had a conference call at 7 p.m. Friday evening, but once that conference call was over, I’m hoping that they popped the cork on a bottle of champagne (or better yet, Nova 7) and celebrated.

On Friday, Emera Inc. doubled in size. It purchased Florida-based TECO Energy Inc. for $10.4 billion, a price that includes $6.5 billion for the company and the assumption of $3.9 billion in debt, according to Bloomberg. TECO investors will receive $27.55 per share – a 48 per cent premium based on the company’s July 15 closing price.

It is Emera’s biggest purchase and means that it will have assets of $20 billion, with U.S. operations making up 71 per cent of its earnings.

Timothy Winter, an analyst at Gabelli & Co. in Rye, N.Y., gave an interesting quote to Bloomberg on Friday.

“It is a healthy price,” he said before adding that Emera, along with other Canadian utilities show a common trait when making foreign acquisitions: They “tend to pay a reasonable price to make shareholders happy.”

Isn’t that nice? Not only does Emera Inc. ensure that its shareholders are happy, they make sure that when they takeover an electrical utility in Florida, their shareholders are happy, too. Print that quote off and when that cold north wind blows this winter, read it to get that nice warm fuzzy feeling you won’t get from your electric baseboard heater.

It’s an amazing move for the once little-holding company that could, so I wondered why they issued their news release at 4:45 p.m. on Friday before a long weekend. This isn’t the sort of deal that gets whipped up in an afternoon or even a week, so I know that the timing of that release was carefully chosen.

Cynical journalists have long suspected that people trying to hide “bad news” always release it on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend. Since I cannot imagine why Emera would want to downplay its purchase of TECO Energy, I am left to assume that this is just another example of Canadian modesty.

Instead of trumpeting their corporate exploit, the demure Emera executives chose to time the announcement for when it would generate the least amount of news coverage. No doubt, they must have been blushing when they still received attention from the CBC, The Chronicle Herald, Bloomberg, and the Tampa Bay Times.

Emera Inc. is an amazing and improbable success story that would make Rumpelstiltskin proud. Rumpelstiltskin, an imp-like creature who could spin straw into gold in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, would admire Huskilson, the genius who orchestrated the latter stages of Nova Scotia Power’s transition from a money-losing Crown corporation that amassed $4 billion in debt to what it is today, just 23 years after privatization.

Thankfully, Nova Scotian taxpayers were off the hook for that debt as it netted about $4 billion from the sale of Nova Scotia Power in 1992, but wouldn’t it be great if instead of a Florida utility’s debt getting paid off, some of Nova Scotia’s $15-billion provincial debt could have been paid? And wouldn’t it also be great if instead of investing in foreign utilities, Emera would invest in Nova Scotia and accelerate Nova Scotia’s Power’s switch to renewable energy?

There’s no doubt in my mind that unless it was freed from bureaucratic shackles, Nova Scotia Power would not have become the revenue-generating entity that it is today. There is also no doubt in my mind that were it not for legal requirements to generate renewable energy, the utility would have continued burning coal – or whatever fuel was cheapest – regardless of the consequences to the environment and the climate.

So, while global warming forces people in Florida to either crank up their air conditioners or run sump pumps to empty their flooded basements after yet another hurricane, be confident in the knowledge that a Nova Scotia-based company is making money for Emera shareholders off of that. Remember, too, that while Nova Scotia Power’s rate of return is regulated, the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not and that global warming continues unabated. While ocean levels are rising, the water in the ocean is getting more acidic because it is absorbing more carbon, and glaciers are melting, the switch to renewable energy lags behind where it needs to be.

Finally, when you get that disconnection notice in the mail this winter, don’t seethe with anger. Suck it up and pay it off, even if it means going hungry or not buying warm winter coats for your kids.

You are supporting that once-little holding company that could. Channel your inner jingoist and revel in the fact that a Canadian-based company has bought a big American utility like TECO Energy and is now one of the 20 largest energy utilities in North America.

I’m sure Emera won’t stop there, either. It is building an empire that could potentially span the globe, or at least the parts of it that don’t have salty fog.

Scotland bans genetically modified crops

Barley growing in a field in Scotland.

Barley growing in a field in Scotland.

I just visited Scotland and thought it was a beautiful country. There was lots of lush farmland and clean water. I was glad to hear that they recently banned genetically modified crops, but some people weren’t. Read this link for a sampling of that.

When it comes to genetically modified crops, they are fully understood by most and misrepresented by a few and I think misrepresentation comes from both sides of the debate, which is part of the problem for people trying to find facts.

So, who is doing the misrepresenting? That’s the million-dollar question, which I confess, I do not have the definitive answer to. I do have some pretty strong suspicions, though. First of all, let’s take a look at what genetically modified crops means. It can be anything from creating a hybrid variety of cherry known as the Bing cherry to creating a seed that is patented and must be used only a with a patented chemical herbicide. Bing cherries are named after the Chinese cherry farmer in Oregon who worked on the creation of the hybrid tree. (Look it up). They’re pretty innocuous, as long as you wash any chemical residue off them. The main problem that I have with GM crops is that they create a reliance on mechanization, chemicals and favour agribusiness over agriculture. (To solve hunger, I think we need more of the latter, BTW.) A GM crop designed to withstand glyphosates found in herbicides such as Roundup is not a food that I feel comfortable eating. Why? Because I don’t trust Monsanto, the makers of Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs. They said they were safe. They said they were tested, and eventually they were proven to be liars by real science, not the kind of science that is funded by a big company so they can market a product and claim it’s safe. There are two types of “science” and until I see a report from impartial, independent scientists that says GM crops, and all that they entail, are safe, I remain skeptical. I don’t like when anybody misrepresents the facts to try to get me to think a certain way. This article examines the struggle that is going on to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s not fear-mongering, but it also explains why the IARC cannot accept industry submitted studies in its review. It’s like believing the fox when he tells you he’s perfectly safe around your hens and that you should just let him into the yard.

Further recommended reading.

There’s a lesson to be learned from B.C.’s water deal with Nestlé

Hand reaching for a Nestle Pure Life water bottle in refrigerator door.

Nestlé is the 27th largest company in the world and made $14 billion in profits last year – as well generating tons of plastic waste.

The British Columbia government looks like it’s run by a bunch of hayseeds because they’re letting Nestlé pump groundwater for a pittance.

When you consider that Saskatchewan charges 20 times more, Quebec 31 times more, and Nova really soaks the Swiss multinational by charging 62 times more than British Columbia, it makes the government in my home province look really shrewd compared to those bumpkins in British Columbia.

But, when you look at the price B.C. is charging, you realize that nobody is charging what water is worth. B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act, which will come into effect in January, only calls for Nestlé to pay a mere $2.25 per million litres. (See link.)

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak boasted how B.C. was charging Nestlé its “highest industrial rate” and wins the award for most fatuous remark by a politician. For pumping 265 million litres of water per year, Nestlé will pay the government $596.25. That’s not a typo. Let’s make a conservative estimate that Nestlé will charge 50 cents per litre (wholesale) for that water. That means this giant corporation is going to rake in $132.5 million for plundering B.C.’s groundwater resource.

By the way, British Columbia has a provincial debt of $64 billion. Nestlé, on the other hand, announced record profits of $14 billion in February.

Canadian politicians take note: we have the largest freshwater resource in the world and every province save Alberta has a significant debt problem. Make any company that wants to profit from this pay a much higher price, one that reflects the resale value of bottled water and takes into the account the environmental impact of putting water in millions of tiny plastic bottles.

In other words, make the slick bastards pay through the nose.