Meandering about Jerry

Here is an issue where I just don’t know what to think yet.

It appears that the proposal for redistribution of Federal Electoral Ridings will bring to an end the two ridings New Westminster shares with Burnaby (on one side) and Coquitlam and Port Moody (on the other). This is nothing unusual, something the Federal government does every decade or so, in a quasi-non-partisan way.

The current proposal sees the number of MPs going up to 338, and for New Westminster to comprise its own single Electoral Riding, except for Queensborough, which will be globbed as an after-thought onto the Eastern (and dominantly rural) part of Richmond (more on that below).

For those with short memories, New Westminster has only recently become a two-riding City. It was only 9 years ago (see what I mean by “decade or so”?) that the Burnaby-New Westminster-Coquitlam riding represented by Reform-vaa-Canadian Alliance-vaa-Conservative MP Paul Forseth was split into more manageable bite sizes, opening the door for Peter Julian to take the Burnaby side and (eventually) Dawn Black to take back the Coquitlam side. It wouldn’t be a surprise to most, however, that aside from Forseth’s inexplicable 11 year reign, New Westminster has been mostly federal NDP territory since the burgeoning of the Party itself.

Here is a short summary of New Westminster federal politics over the last 50 years (orange=NDP, Red=Liberal, Reform-Conservative=blue):

For someone more cynical than me, the plan to split New Westminster down the middle in 2003 might have been an attempt to split up the NDP stranglehold on the riding, by splitting the vote in half to be watered down by the more Conservative (or Liberal) Coquitlam and South Burnaby. The same cynic would suggest the re-amalgamation is an admission of defeat, with the hope that all of the NDP support can be concentrated in one Riding. But I’m not that cynic.

My first reaction to the entire redistribution project is that the last thing Canada needs is more MPs stuffed into the current system. The unrepresentative first-past-the-post system, combined with a new era of hyper-partisanship and the morphing of MPs from representatives of their constituents to representatives of the Party, removes any practical or realistic value to having MORE MPs. If there was a 10% increase in MPs related to some sort of proportional representation system, then there may be a cost-benefit issue worth exploring. As it is, we are just entrenching the current system deeper. Alas, maybe I am a cynic.

That said, I think New West is well served by our two MPs. If this change goes through, I suspect that Peter Julian would migrate to the New Westminster riding, as Fin Donnelly is more closely associated with Port Moody (where he was a City Councillor for several terms) and Coquitlam (where he lives and his office is). So my comments below are working on the assumption that it would align that way.

First the good:

• I can vote for Peter Julian! Peter is a great critic, a good representative, and a hell of a nice guy. I have had the opportunity to chat with him a couple of times, socially a few times, and once on a significant issue (Bill C-38 and Fisheries Act changes), and have found him knowledgeable, concerned, and helpful. On the national stage, he has been a force in the Commons and out, one of the most outspoken and well-informed critics of the Harper government. He is not currently my MP- by about 150 feet, but I would vote for him given the chance – and that is nothing against Fin (see “bad” below).

• I can vote against Paul Forseth. During the last federal election, Forseth was the least appealing candidate. A Reform lifer who couldn’t get out of the “us against the socialists” rhetoric long enough to have an actual conversation. His final-week campaign literature, accusing the NDP of facilitating the abduction/rape of children, was disgusting, indefensible, and cynical. I will proudly vote against that type of politics every chance I have.

• Having New Westminster’s interests represented by a single MP, without needing to balance New West’s interests with that of the “other half” of the riding, might mean a constituency office in New West, and a stronger New West-centric voice in Ottawa. I have met with Peter and Fin on issues, and have found both approachable and attentive, so perhaps this not as significant concern, but New West is a relatively cohesive community, it would be nice to have one community Representative in Ottawa, without wondering which side of 8th Street your issue is on.

Now the Bad:

• Less representation for New West. This may be the other side of the last paragraph, but perhaps two MPs from New West is better than just one. Does this “increase our voice” in Ottawa? Provide better access to constituent services? I might be tilting at windmills here.

• Not being able to vote for Fin. He is a bright light in the party: well spoken, likeable, clear on issues. A relative new-comer to the fed politics, he has lead some good campaigns. As an advocate for fisheries ecology and the fishing industry, Fin is a great representative for a City on the banks of the Fraser River. He has also taken an active role in a couple of issues of local interest that are only peripherally “federal”: he met with the NWEP over the UBE issue (trying to “bridge” the communications between his two constituencies), and spoke to the press on the topic of the Pattullo Bridge. Fin may even be in a bit of battle in more conservative Coquitlam without the NDP-friendly New West vote, having only beat Diana Dilworth by 6 points last election, and that would be a loss for Ottawa, not just New West.

• Not being able to vote for Diana Dilworth. She is friendly, smart, personable, and a great listener who seems to have a good grasp of issues and how to relate them to people. I was very impressed with Diana last election, and think she would be a great representative of the riding to any party that actually allows their MPs to represent their constituents (in other words, her talents would be wasted in the current Conservative party). Maybe she should run for the Liberals.

• Fewer Candidates for our Meet & Greet. Last federal election, we had 9 candidates show up for the NWEP – NEXTNewWest meet-and-greet event. With just one riding, that will cut the number in half, making for a less fun event. OK, a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but we just got that format worked out, and want to see it continue!

Notice I did not mention Queensborough in the discussion above. I think the “Queensborough question” needs to be addressed separately from the rest, with its own goods and bads. I would love to hear more from Queensborough residents. It seems they are often feeling separated, “cast off” from the mainlanders, getting the short end of the tax and services stick, and perhaps suffer from a bit of a persecution complex about being off the minds of the “Rest of New West”.

At the risk of paraphrasing an old Liberal slogan “My New Westminster includes Queensborough”.

I wonder if this will further increase the real or inferred rift. It might depend on which way East Richmond goes, as it is likely to have a new Representative (the exisiting MPS going to the other re-adjusted ridings). I can see an argument that in areas of federal jurisdiction (ports, agriculture, fisheries act, etc.) Queensborough may have more in common with East Richmond that it does with the Rest of New West, so perhaps their interests are better served having a more in-tune MP? What happens if East Richmond elects a rep from a different party than the Rest of New West? That might be a good thing, or might deepen the rift. Too many uncertainties here, but I want to make the link between Queensborough and the Rest of New West stronger, not weaker.

I hope many of the regular Queensborough community voices will sign up to comment to Elections Canada about this change, for or against it. The City has taken an official position (against it), but I sometimes wonder how in tune they are with Queensborough, based on the tone of the conversation I hear from over there.

If you have an opinion, and would like to present it officially to the Electoral Boundaries Commission, you will have your opportunity on Wednesday, Sept. 26 (7 pm at the Inn at the Quay) but you need to sign up ahead of time. You have until the end of day tomorrow to submit this form.

I have already signed up, in the event I come up with a coherent position on the issue in the next month.

Apparently, Pipelines have two ends.

We are still a full human gestation from a Provincial Election, but the campaign season is in full swing. The BCLiberals are dropping hints of more landmines they are going to leave for the NDP to deal with next year, the cracks are starting to show in the spackle that is the BC Conservative Party, and the NDP seem to have decided it is time to stop watching Premier McSparkles(tm) bail water onto her own sinking ship, and are starting to speak up on specific topics.

At least the BCliberals are getting over their six months of mock outrage that Adrian Dix had not provided a campaign platform for them to critique, fully a year before the election. It wasn’t fair, they whinged, for him to criticize us and not give us anything with which to criticize him back. This seems a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Opposition, as there’s no compelling reason for the NDP to offer a platform if they are not the Government, have no power to implement their mandate, and are not even going to the voters asking to be made Government. If the Premier wants to see the NDP platform, then she is free to drop the writ.

However, sometimes the opposition has to strike when the iron is hot, and the iron is very, very hot around the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline right now. The Federal Conservatives keep bouncing between unabashed support and calling for careful scientific review (while concurrently laying off the very scientists who would do that review), the Premier of Alberta sees any pipeline anywhere as her Constitutional Right, and the Premier of BC is rattling something she must think are sabres: trying to look tough, pragmatic and “leaderish” around the issue.

It was a good time, apparently, for Adrian Dix to make his alternate viewpoint on the Pipeline clear.

So John Rustad (who?) responded with vigour. According to Google, the pipeline runs through his backyard, and he is one of the few BCLiberal MLAs who has confirmed he will return to contest his seat in May, so I guess he is a logical voice for the Government on this issue, I just wish his criticism contained more logic. You can read his statement here, and it is an incredible pile of wrong. Either Rustad is unfamiliar with the BC Environmental Assessment Act that he is talking about, or he is purposely misleading people about what it means. Hanlon’s Razor suggests the former, so let’s stick to that.

The BC Environmental Assessment process is not a “unilateral” hearing, nor would the Premier’s expressed opinion about the project mean the project could be “killed” by applying a Provincial Process. In contrast, since the recent Federal omnibus budget bill C-38, the Federal Environmental Assessment process is much less informed by science, as the Prime Minister’s Office or the Minister of Raping and Pillaging can now override any recommendation coming out of the review; including the recommendation of the specific Ministry running the scientific review or the scientists providing the data. The BC EA process does not include any such provision. Simply put, the BC EA process is now the much less political, more science-based process cmpared to the “sham process” (to borrow Rustad’s words) the Federal Government has created.

Here, let me pick one of his paragraphs apart:

“By prejudging the project and the federal environmental review process, the NDP have sent a dangerous message to investors. The NDP are, in essence, saying future resource development should be determined by popular opinion – not scientific review. This begs the question, what other resource projects would they try to halt prior to diligent review processes?”

It is clear that the Federal Government (who are running the current EA) have pre-judged the process; is Mr. Rustad assuming the Feds can run a fair, scientific process despite the bias they have already expressed, the specific language in new Federal EA Act that provides political override of the scientific conclusion of the EA process, and the ongoing gutting of the very scientific jobs that would provide the understanding of the environmental impacts – yet (breath) – the Province under Dix can’t, where there is no legislated ability to subvert the Provincial process? Read the BC EA legislation, does that look like the aforementioned “public opinion” poll? Not at all.

Aren’t the Federal Government and the Government of Alberta saying that all resource development should be approved, regardless of the present or future environmental impacts? what does that say to resource industries hoping to set up shop in BC? Come, pollute our streams, as long as we get a few jobs or royalties as crumbs, not need to assess the cost-benefit!

Finally, could someone in the BC Liberals communication department, the people writing these speeches for Rustad and other announcements, look up what the expression “begging the question” means? Or is it being used ironically here, as he is rather begging the question (in the logical fallacy sense)…

If Rustad had bothered to read Adrian Dix’s actual statement, he might have taken the hint and actually read (or had his communications staff read) the cited parts of the BC Environmental Assessment Act and the changed Canadian Envrionmental Assessment Act before he commented on it. The “new” Federal Act is no longer independent, science-based, or accountable, and therefore no longer in the same spirit as the Federal Act that was part of the 2010 Environmental Assessment Equivalency Agreement (which brought he two acts into harmony). If BC wants to have a legitimate Environmental Assessment of the Enbridge pipeline, it will have to hold its own.

The approach outline by Dix is clear, and completely within the spirit and the letter of the Act while representing BCs interests before the interests of Enbridge, unlike the silly approach proffered so far by the BC Government. Rustad trots out BC’s strange “five minimum requirements” approach for any proposed “heavy oil” projects in BC (that term poorly defined, but clearly not including liquified natural gas or refined oil products) to receive “potential” provincial support, although not outright approval. If the remarkable glut of weasel words in the preamble is not enough to reassure you, just review what those 5 conditions are, the 5-headed hydra of Premier McSparkles’(tm) “principled” position:

1. Successful completion of the environmental review process. This “condition” is actually required by Federal Law, and no-one is expecting the pipeline to go forward without this approval – which raises (but doesn’t beg) the question of just what the hell the Premier thought we have been talking about for the last 2 years!?

2. World-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.’s coastline and ocean to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines and shipments; A completely nonsensical and unmeasurable requirement. What does “World-Leading” mean? Does every aspect need to be better than everyone else’s? Or just a cumulative? Does she require an insurance scheme and on-board navigation systems more comprehensive than International Law? Would any tanker company agree to that? Why? Who will measure, if it was even measurable?

3. World-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines; Again, completely unmeasurable. A standard that is not measurable is not standard at all (see the recent Auditor General’s report on the BC Environmental Assessment Office, and assuring conditions are attainable and measurable with rational metrics). Perhaps we can have a spill-response Olympics, to prove our systems are better than those in Azerbaijan and Zaire…

4. Legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed, and First Nations are provided with the opportunities, information and resources necessary to participate in and benefit from a heavy-oil project; OH, Ok, we are making compliance with the CONSTITUTION a condition of approval? Wow, that’s bold. Why again is no-one taking this person seriously?

5. British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy oil project that reflects the level, degree and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers. Translate: show me the money. Here is the heart of the “principled stand”. Act tough, hold out for more cash, a mob-style security shakedown.

The BCLiberal approach to the Enbridge Pipeline has been confused, self-contradictory, tone-deaf, a day late and a dollar short. It has lacked in both vision and in understanding of law, from Provincial and Federal EA statutes to the Constitution Act of 1982. It has been an embarrassment for the Premier, and she has, in turn, has been and embarrassment to the Province.In contrast, Adrian Dix has make a clear, definitive statement, citing the specific existing legislation he would invoke, and how he would invoke it. The BC Liberal response is to have some junior MLA ridicule him, avoiding any points of fact, or any specific flaw in his statement, just suggesting he might be “scary” to Enbridge.

Suddenly, the NDP are looking like a Government, the BCLiberals are looking like a desperate opposition.

Its not about the dope

I’m going to start this off by saying I am not a Lance Armstrong Fan. Never have been. As impressed as I am by his life story and his ability to win Tours de France, his making plastic bracelets a fundraising phenom, and his raising of more than half a Billion dollars for cancer victims, I didn’t like his cycling style, his team tactics, or his attitude. He made bike racing boring and predictable, and created world where people will pay $10,000 for a Trek. Worse, the type of fan he created irritates the hell out of me – the type who knows nothing of the sport except that Lance (based on 7 Tour wins) is the “greatest cycler ever”. Most have never heard of Eddy Merckx , never mind Fausto Coppi or the Milan-San Remo.

That out of the way, I am on Lance’s side here. It is time for USADA to end this ridiculous witch hunt against Lance and cycling in general. Lance never failed a drug test in his career. Did Lance use banned substances? Possibly. Did he break the rules? Not likely. Did he gain an unfair advantage? No. Does this action do anything to get the scourge of doping out of sports? Definitely not. Here is where my (constantly evolving) opinion is now, as a life-long fan of cycling:

I’m going to come right out and suggest no-one wins the Tour de France eating peanut butter sandwiches. The Tour is, unquestionably, the most gruelling major sporting event in the world. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a comparative walk in the park. These guys spend more than three weeks riding their bikes an average of 4 1/2 hours a day, racing against the fastest guys in the world. That is twice as much time as it takes a world champion to run a marathon, yet these guys do it every day for three weeks. They average 40km/h for three weeks, over hills, through rain sleet and snow, with someone always on the attack. If they lose concentration for a moment, their tour can end. They crash, they break bones, they get saddle sores, they pull muscles, they get dehydrated, they are challenged even getting the 5,000 calories a day down their gullet to keep from going hypoglycemic. They don’t stop to eat, they don’t stop get stitches put in. They don’t stop.

To survive this event, never mind dominate it, cyclists need to take a scientific approach to eating, drinking, vitamins, pain control, and metabolism. Everything they take in is accounted, the team doctors will know if a rider is not taking in enough calories or water. There are also, no doubt, nutritional supplements as part of the routine. There may also be antihistamines, analgesics, anti-inflammatory medicine, antacids, antibiotics, probiotics, vitamin cocktails, and all number of things those of us not on the cutting edge of sport nutrition don’t even know exist.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Cycling Union (UCI) know this, and they produce and regularly update a list of banned and controlled substances. The rule is you cannot take these substances, and the way that rule is enforced is through doping controls. Cycling, being the historic source of all doping controls in sport (Google “The Convicts of the Road”, “History of 6-day races”, or “Tom Simpson” if you doubt that statement) has the most aggressive anti-doping controls of any professional sport, with athletes subject to random in-competition and out-of-competition tests, regardless of their level of success, reinforced by mandatory testing off all top finishers on major events.

So put those last two paragraphs together, and the inevitable result is “performance enhancing drugs” becoming a loaded statement. In theory, there is a strict definition: if it is on the banned list, and it is found in your body, you have broken the rules (let’s avoid the Silken Laumann defence for the moment). In reality, that line is much fuzzier. There are, no doubt, performance enhancing substances that are not on the list, and there are ways to apply banned substances such that their use may or may not be in contravention, or provide no advantage. I suspect that all professional cyclists use something other than peanut butter sandwiches and Gatorade during the tour, and for many of them, there are substances involved at one time or another that tread on that fuzzy line of legal, be they complex vitamin cocktails, new drugs, protein shakes or pain killers. Does that mean they are all “doping”?

Ultimately, we are talking about the rules of a sport here, and rules need a strict definition, but also need a rational, predictable enforcement mechanism. Look at baseball: the “rule” says that the strike zone is over the plate between the nipples and the knees. In reality, the strike zone changes with the batter, pitcher and catcher, totally at the whim of the Umpire: the strike zone is wherever the Umpire says it is. So the pitcher, the batters and the catcher spend the first part of the game discovering what the limits of that zone are, and adapt. Similarly, WADA creates banned substances lists and creates testing protocols, and the athletes and coaches adapt to that. Knowing they cannot hope to catch every non-peanut-butter-sandwich substance on the market, WADA constantly updates its banned list and its testing protocols, as they should. The goal is to, as far as possible, create a level playing field and limit the use of substances that will harm the athletes (see Tom Simpson). However, the ultimate measure of whether an athlete cheated is whether he got caught by the protocols doing something that is banned. That is the predictable, fair, level-playing-field rule that the athletes live by – the ever-evolving strike zone.

Lance never failed a test and never violated a testing protocol: therefore, he never broke the rules. Yet here he is, two years after retirement, defending accusations from 13 years ago.

This is Canada, so I’m going to use a Hockey allegory. 1999 (the year of Lance’s first Tour win) is also the year that Dallas beat Buffalo in Game 6 overtime to win the Stanley Cup. Imagine if the World Hockey Federation (who have no authority over the Cup, just as the US Anti-doping Agency- USADA – has no authority over the Tour) decided this summer to hold a hearing to decide whether Brett Hull’s foot was in the crease on the final goal. Brett Hull would (appropriately) tell them to get bent, and not take part. Imagine if then the WHF “stripped” Hull of this Stanley Cup ring. That is what is happening to Lance. Why not go back and see if the sticks Brett’s father used to win the 1961 Stanley Cup have legal curves? Surely using video technology we can measure them now? Or maybe some of his 1960s teamamtes will testify against him?

Lance never failed a drug test in his career. I keep repeating this, because Lance Armstrong is likely the most tested athlete in the history of sports. Literally hundreds of urine and blood samples were collected from Lance (more than 500 according to him): before races, after races, and during the offseason. There was no “off season” for his testing. The WADA could show up at his door, anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night, and ask him to produce a sample. And they did, even getting him out of the shower while on vacation one day, in a famous case. As the North American media talks up this case (while getting most of the facts wrong), and as the AM Sports Radio Jocks talk about how all cycling is doped and how they finally got the cheater-in-chief, keep this in mind:. Lance, in his career, took and passed more random drug tests during his career than all of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League players combined. How many members of the Boston Bruins or the LA Kings have ever provided a drug sample, before, during, or after their Stanley Cup win?

So why is the USADA spending all this energy chasing Lance Armstrong, two years after his retirement? Is it any wonder he might see this as being a little vindictive? Lance Armstrong as a victim is not an easy thing for me to rationalize, but the case is pretty compelling.

As an aside, what does “stripping “ Lance of his 7 tour wins achieve? First off, USADA does not have that authority, the UCI has been clear about that, so strike one for every headline you read today on the topic. But say it happened. Who won those tours? Here are the results of Lance’s 7 wins:

Year         Winner           2nd         3rd
1999         Armstrong       Zulle       Escartin-Coti
2000         Armstrong       Ullrich    Beloki
2001         Armstrong       Ullrich    Beloki
2002         Armstrong       Beloki     Rumsas
2003         Armstrong       Ullrich    Vinokourov
2004         Armstrong       Kloden    Basso
2005         Armstrong       Basso      Ullrich

Zulle failed a drug test, for Haematocrit, was suspended along with the rest of his team from a Tour, and admitted to using EPO.

Escartin-Coti is untainted – which is why no-one remembers who he is.

Ullrich failed an out-of-competition drug test for amphetamines, and was involved in the Operation Puerto doping scandal, eventually being sanctioned.

Beloki is relatively untainted, as he was named in Operation Puerto, but was cleared of any wrong doing and never failed a test: essentially the same as Lance.

Rumsas tested positive for EPO, and was arrested for possessing a drug store of substances while driving around Europe.

Vinokourov failed a doping test and was given a 2-year suspension, came back to win this year’s Olympic gold Medal.

Kloeden never failed a test, but was “alleged” to have doped in the 2006 Tour. Nothing proven, so we’ll put him in the same category as Lance.

Basso served a 2-year suspension for his involvement in the Operation Puerto blood doping scandal, after admitting to illegal doping.

So to whom do we give Lance’s victories? How far down the tested-positive-allegation rabbit hole do we need to go? What is the end game here, and what is the USADA trying to achieve? Cycling has a long record of doping offences, because unlike almost every sport you watch on TV every day: they test their athletes, and have real sanctions for those who are caught breaking the rules.

Perhaps it is time for the USADA to start spending this energy and money doing things that will reduce the use of illegal and unsafe substances in sport (like, say, getting steroids out of High School football and junior hockey?) and leave Lance the hell alone.

And may Lance, for all he has had to deal with and for his spectacular fundraising for a good cause, never have to buy his own drink again. I don’t like him, and wouldn’t relish sharing beers with him, but I’ll buy him one from across the room.

Signs of Protest

I was driving along Highway 3 this past weekend, along one of my favourite roads. I have driven and cycled this road more than a hundred of times in my life, the 600km from my first Home to my adopted Home. It seems I know every curve, every hill, every summit (can name them off the top of my head, and picture each clearly: Allison, Sunday, Richter, Anarchist, Phoenix, Paulson), every place where the Police hand out tickets.

One of the spectacular stretches for a geologist is west of Richter Pass, as you drop into the wide, flat Similkameen Valley, bounded by the vertical wall of the Catherdal Range of the Okanagan Mountains. The valley floor has a classic underfit meandering river flanked by the shallow drapes of alluvial fans leading up to much steeper scree slopes of colluvium. Traditional ranching and hay fields on the slopes are increasingly being turned over to viniculture, while the orchards of Keremeos continue to pound out unreasonably good cherries, apples, and stone fruit.

Aside from the human uses, these grasslands represent a rare ecosystem in British Columbia: A sagebrush desert. With rapid development up the mountains in the adjacent Okanagan Valley, these ecosystems are under a lot of pressure. To call it a desert makes it sound, well, deserted, but this area has the highest concentration of threatened or endangered species of any similar-sized region in Canada; at least 23 different listed species, from Pacific rattlesnakes to Flammulated owls, and one-third of the red-listed species in the Province. Protection is spotty, development is encroaching, and the ecosystem is threatened.

With this in mind, the (Liberal) Federal Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the (Liberal) Provincial Government in 2003, to do the appropriate feasibility studies towards developing a National Park or National Reserve Lands (the first in the Okanagan). The MOU includes the statement:

“On February 11, 2003, the Government of British Columbia announced in its Speech from the Throne its interest in exploring the potential for establishing a new National Park Reserve in the Okanagan area, and its “Heartlands Economic Strategy” by which economic development plans will open up new opportunities for tourism, resort development and recreation, among other things, in the Province of British Columbia”
Sounds good; a Park plan which will balance out economic growth in an area of intense tourist interest and very unique geography and ecology (currently unprotected by any National Parks), to provide recreation opportunities while limiting impacts. In a region full of seasonal hotels, campsites, fruit stands, and tourists, who could possibly oppose?

People who like to shoot things and burn hydrocarbons for entertainment. That’s who.

A local “No National Park” movement began, led by a small but determined group of hunters and ATV enthusiasts out of Oliver, BC, who were offended that their chosen recreation activities may be even slightly encroached upon in the name of protecting ecological lands or endangered species.

Long story short, after 9 years of consultation, the Province caved. With her characteristic ability to solve problems, bring people together, and provide leadership you can believe in, our Premier was unable to voice support for a Park that had broad local and First Nations support, with backing from a broad range of people and groups across the country. Apparently recreational lead-shooters and gasoline-burners have a lot of voice in one of the last remaining BCLiberal strongholds in the Province. The Federal Conservative Government, citing a lack of interest on the part of the BC Liberals announced this spring that they would no longer explore the Park. Even while they announce a big park up North that will apparently feature spectacular mining expanses.

The fight may be over (or not…), but the signs are still up all through the Similkameen Valley. To me, this entire story has been about a 9-year sign war played out across the Cawston countryside. That small, organized group did a good job plastering Highway 3 with red-on-white signs, stating “No National Park”, confusing the hell out of thousands of RVs from Alberta and Germans in rental cars every year. Really, it does not present the most inviting message to passing drivers: “Wer ist gegen einen Nationalpark?!?”

It has only been the last year or so that a counter-protest sign campaign has started, using much more positive, if derivative, imagery:

And even some more creative approaches:

And now, with the entire thing in limbo, maybe the time was right for the ultimate modern slacktivist movement:

Now there is a protest I can believe in.


Personal Stuff

I was in the West Kootenay last weekend: visiting family, hiking mountains, quick vacation. The primary reason for my visit, however, is a long story.

My parents grew up in Montreal, my Dad in Anglophone Lachine, my Mom originally in Verdun, but moving to Lachine as a school girl. My Dad tells the story of he and his 14-year-old pals hanging around in the neighbourhood one day when he noticed a cute, dark-haired girl wearing a bomber jacket. Soon enough, he was hanging out with that cute girl in the bomber jacket more than his pals.

Neither of my parents had easy traditional childhoods. My Maternal Grandfather came back from WW2 with scars that affected the entire family. My Paternal Grandmother raised a son and two daughters on a teacher’s salary after her marriage broke up. My parents talk of growing up without much luxury, but also growing up not needing or expecting much. They did seem to have some excess affection for each other, though.

Both were academically and athletically inclined. My father a track star winning significant running races on Quebec, but also playing football, baseball, and seemingly whatever came his way; my mom a gymnast and swimmer. She went on to study Phys-Ed at MacDonald college and he went on to and Engineering Degree with academic honours at McGill. Along with all this, he had two little sisters at home, and was “the man of the house”, so his Mother was reluctant to see him getting married until he grew up. To her, that meant being 21.

My parents were married, after a 7-year courtship, the very day after his 21st birthday. Nine months to the day after, they had a son, with three more kids to follow over the next 8 years. As my father built an engineering career, they bounced from town to town in Ontario and Quebec (La Tuque, Burlington, Timiskaming) until they decided to stake out west.

There are two, not necessarily contradictory, family legends about the move the Castlegar, both around the theme of my Father’s renowned dislike for cold weather. One was that Castlegar was meant to be a stopping point to work a few years before grander adventures in Australia. The other that the only thing my father knew about Castlegar before moving there is that it had a new state-of-the-art Kraft Pulp mill (where he would work), and that it was the “Warmest City in Canada”.

The story (as family legend goes) is that Castlegar, being the host of the regional airport, had a weather station in the 60s, long before places like Lytton or Cache Creek or even Osoyoos. Castlegar also has hot, dry summers, typically above 30 degrees for days or weeks on end, but the winters were comparatively mild, due to the open sunny valley, proximity to the US border, and the moderating effect of the Columbia River, which is virtually wrapped around the town. Therefore, when counting up annual averages through all the seasons, it was the “warmest” overall City in the Country.

Whether this is true or not, it didn’t change the fact that the winter my parents arrived, three kids in arms, will always e remembered as the snowiest in Castlegar history. That year it started snowing in December and didn’t stop until March. My father’s first winter in this “Warmest City” involved a lot of shovelling pathways through 6′ snow drifts to get his air-cooled Volkswagen started in the morning.

After that inglorious start, they stuck it out. Child #4 arrived the next winter, and Castlegar’s charms began to show. There was a better golf course than one would expect, a solid Curling Club, a good school system, and lots of sports for the kids, from figure skating to swimming to skiing. It was still the sort of small town where you opened your door in the morning and kicked the kids outside to play, telling them to be home for dinner. My mom did some substitute teaching, then as the kids got older and less attention-grubbing, they bought a sporting goods store. The Store was where my mom worked the customary retail-owner 60 hour weeks, with my dad commonly putting in an extra 20 over his 9-5 job at The Mill.

The Kids grew up, got educated, moved on, got good jobs: two accountants, a software tech expert, and whatever I am. There is a smattering of Grandkids to keep things interesting. Two of the kids even moved back to that “Warmest City in Canada” to raise their kids and advance their careers.

Parents stayed more or less athletically inclined, both coming down to Burnaby next week to compete in the Seniors games: he in track events, she in swimming (how many 70 year olds do you know who can still do 50m of butterfly?!) They have been fortunate with their health, and that their kids all turned out happy and healthy. After many years of hard work, they aren’t rich, but are financially comfortable enough that my Dad can avoid the worst of the cold weather, seeking sunnier climes in the winter (including, last year, finally getting to explore Australia!)

But mostly, they have been fortunate that they found each other in that Lachine neighbourhood in 1955, and fell in love some time over the next 7 years. This last weekend, they had close to 100 family and friends get together to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Guests came from as far away as Alaska and Arizona, including 5 of the 8 members of their original wedding party, people from the Lachine neighbourhood, people who they met on that first snowy winter in Castlegar, and people they have more recently befriended.

It is hard to imagine for most of us, 50 years of marriage. A half century of joy and sorrow, arguments minor and major, successes and failures, dreams and disappointments, an entire lifetime shared. And they are still doing it, making each other laugh and making each other dinner. Marrying young and good health means they have many more years to prove the cynics wrong. Love can last a lifetime.

Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!

Making Friends of Bridges and Bikes

I ride my bike across the Queensborough Bridge several times a week; during the summer my weekly crossing pattern exceeds “several”, verging upon “numerous” territory. All things considered, it is a pretty good crossing. Not as plush as the bike lane affixed to the new Canada Line Bridge, and I have already whinged on about the wayfinding signage, but it is a safe, serviceable combined pedestrian-bike route, at least in comparison with some other crossings, like the Pattullo.

In fact, improving bike and pedestrian facilities is always mentioned as a big benefit of replacing the Pattullo. TransLink suggests that a modern bike path hung on both sides of a new 6-lane bridge would increase cyclist and pedestrian use of the bridge by some 3500%, which is a ridiculously ambitious number considering the current paucity of destinations attractive to cyclists and pedestrians on the Surrey side of the bridge. However, let’s skip over that and talk about how a 6-lane Pattullo will help cycling in general, and what the best way to help cyclist might be on this crossing.

It is pretty clear from TransLink’s Phase 3 “consultation” that the “Upstream Option A” is the preferred option for TransLink’s technical reasoning, and the least offensive of a bad lot for the public. The problem being that the spaghetti-patterns of lanes look like they will severely complicate the bike routes and pedestrian routes through the corridors at both ends, where right now, the connections are simple, safe, and effective.

The current configuration for the Pattullo connects very well to the Central Valley Greenway in New West, and also provides a relatively safe connection to the upper parts of New West across Royal Ave via First Street. The path that loops under the bridge could be improved (a longer, looping ramp where there are now stairs would improve things immeasurably), but we are talking a few metres of pavement here, not a major infrastructure work. The connections on the Surrey side are also super-friendly, dropping cyclists onto a traffic-calm 111A Avenue, with dedicated bike lanes connecting to the SkyTrain station and points east, and to Brownsville Bar Park. It seems to me that the changes proposed at each end could actually make cycling access worse!

As a bit of an aside, TransLink explained to me again and again that there would be bike paths on both sides of the new bridge. I kept asking why, and they countered with the idea that more bike lanes the better. I, for one, would rather have one good, serviceable bike lane than two sub-optimal ones (no need for a second one on the Canada Line Bridge!). Two lanes doubles the complicated connection routes, and raises costs where one lane would suffice.

To look at this problem from another angle, compare the Pattullo to the Queensborough, and it becomes clear the only problem with Pattullo’s current bike/pedestrian infrastructure is the absence of a barrier between the sidewalk and the cars. Here is the current (acceptable to most, including the BC Ministry of Transportation) bike path on the Queensborough Bridge, with a measurement of the space between the rails I took on a recent ride:

And here is a photo I took of the Pattullo sidewalk, with a measure of the sidewalk width:

Presumably, a 4 or 5 foot high metal barrier, similar to the one on the Queensborough, could be installed on the Pattullo, similar to the one suggested in the 2011 Options Analysis for the Pattullo. If the entire structure were 5” thick, the resultant pathway would only be an inch or two narrower than the Queensborough bike path, for a fraction of the cost of a new bridge; even a fraction of the cost of the “Bicycle Infrastructure” part of a new bridge.

Maybe this is the secret reason they are closing the Pattullo this weekend? They are installing barriers to make cyclists safe?

I’m not suggesting that this would result in the best bike path in the Lower Mainland, I’m just saying that the bike infrastructure on the Pattullo Bridge can be easily and cost-effectively improved in a substantial way, to safely accommodate the practical number of cyclists who will use the bridge, without impacting traffic flows for all them trucks, and without the need for an all-new bridge.

When you add in the $Billion cost of the new bridge, and the significant problems it will cause by bringing more traffic into New Westminster (with resultant worsening of the bike and pedestrian experience), and the potential worsening of the connections at each end to the existing cycling network, I am compelled to argue that the “repair and restore” option (Rather like another recent example with good cycling and pedestrian infrastructure) might be the the result with the best new benefit for pedestrians and cyclists.

Oh, and while we are at it, if we can get just a bit of the $700 million saved on bridge replacement for other bike improvements in the region, say just 10% of the savings, then we are talking serious imporvements to the system elsewhere. Let’s hope we don’t go through the same experience as they did with the Canada Line Bridge. For those with short memories: that $10Million bike and pedestrian bridge I was glowing about back at the beginning of this post? It was not part of the Canada Line’s $2Billion budget. The Province and Feds wouldn’t agree to pay for such a vital piece of infrastructure to include ped and bike access (hey, no-one was going to ride their bikes to the Olympics!), so TransLink was left to dig up $10 Million from their bicycle capital program and other sources, to connect cycling and pedestrian access to a major piece of infrastructure. A sad testament to our regional planning, when for want of ½ of 1% of the Canada Line budget, TransLink had to scramble to find more money equal to 3000% of their annual budgeted system-wide Bicycle Capital Programs.

That was not, however, TransLink’s fault (remember, they are the ones who did cough up the extra dough when it was needed), it was the Senior Government “Partners” and PPP profiteers who built the Canada Line. Much like the FalconGates, TransLink was forced to shoe-horn bad policy making from above into an already cash-strapped situation on the ground. This is why I don’t see the Pattullo issue as “New Westminster vs. TransLink”, but as the TransLink-funding public giving TransLink the political backing required for them to follow their own Transport 2040 Plan, in face of relenting pressure from… well, the “from” part is another post altogether. 

Helmets are at least 7% of the solution.

This is a tragic story. Cyclist falls off his bike, hits his head, and dies. No less tragic than the driver who is momentarily distracted, causing an accident or death (something that occurs dozens of times a year in Toronto, and causes over 500 deaths a year in Ontario) or a pedestrian slipping and falling causing fatal injuries (more common than you think!), or even a pedestrian being killed by a car (which happens more than 100 times a year in Ontario), but tragic and probably completely avoidable.

Of course, the immediate reaction reading this (especially amongst non-cyclists) is the presumption that a helmet would have saved the cyclist’s life, and ergo: helmet laws. We don’t know if that is true, but it fits the current narrative in the media (bicycles are dangerous, nothing we can do about it but drive cars instead just to be safe, or at least put styrofoam beer coolers on the cyclist’s heads!). In this story, that is further reinforced by the last paragraph:

“About two months ago, Ontario’s deputy chief coroner released a report on more than a hundred cycling deaths that said helmet use by all cyclists can decrease fatal head injuries.”

Just for fun, you can read the Deputy Chief Coroner’s report right here. Proving that the CBC got the report pretty much right, while fitting the current media narrative, the DCC did indeed recommend a provincial helmet law. Down there on Page 30, we find Recommendation #11:

The Highway Traffic Act should be amended to make helmets mandatory for cyclists of all ages in Ontario. This should occur in conjunction with an evaluation of the impact of mandatory helmet legislation on cycling activity in Ontario.

The DCC is suggesting a helmet law, and that the impact of that helmet law on bicycle use be evaluated after it is implemented. This reads to me like some acknowledgement of data from various jurisdictions that helmet laws actually dissuade people from riding bikes. See the experience with bike share programs in cities with mandatory helmet laws vs. cities without them. There is an argument to be made that the public health risk posed by helmetless bicycle use may be outweighed by the public health benefits of more people riding bikes. The data ia ambiguous at best, so the DCC is just asking the Government of Ontario to collect this data, allowing the policy change can be fairly evaluated. Sounds reasonable.

You know what is missing from much of the reporting on the DCC report recommending a helmet law? The other 13 recommendations!

I am pretty agnostic towards helmet laws (although I wear one 95% of the time while riding), but wouldn’t mind them so much if there was an equal push from non-cyclists so concerned about the health and well being of cyclists to implement the other changes the DCC suggests (excerpted here) :

Recommendation #1: A “complete streets” approach to guide the development of existing communities and the creation of new communities…require that any (re-)development give consideration to enhancing safety for all road users, and should include: Creation of cycling networks (incorporating strategies such as connected cycling lanes, separated bike lanes, bike paths and other models appropriate to the community.) and Designation of community safety zones in residential areas, with reduced posted maximum speeds and increased fines for speeding.

More info on “complete streets” is available here, but basically, we have to stop designing roads to just move cars as quickly and efficiently as possible while treating sidewalks, bike paths, and crosswalks as inconvenient things shoehorned into an established car-moving network.

Recommendation #2: An Ontario Cycling Plan should be developed [to] establish a vision for cycling in Ontario, and guide the development of policy, legislation and regulations and commitment of necessary infrastructure funding pertaining to cycling in Ontario.

My translation: make planning for bicycles on the public roads a Provincial policy, not just leaving it up to local governments, and make the Province provide the funding to build the appropriate infrastructure.

Recommendation #3: The Ministry of Transportation should identify the development of paved shoulders on provincial highways as a high priority initiative.

Makes sense: fix the damn roads.

Recommendation #4: A comprehensive public education program should be developed to promote safer sharing of the road by all users [including] a targeted public awareness campaign, in the spring/summer months, with key messages around cycling safety; education targeted at professional truck drivers regarding awareness and avoidance of cycling dangers; education / regulation directed towards Beginning Driver Education (BDE) courses and driving instructors to include sharing the road and bicycle safety; public safety campaigns around the dangers of distracted and impaired cycling.

Of course education would help, but I love how the target for this education is not just cyclists, but also professional and learning drivers. The very sad recent story in New Westminster where a Professional Driver was found not at fault for the death of a young cyclist that he “just didn’t see” before delivering the right hook demonstrates part of the problem.

Recommendation #5: It should be a requirement that important bicycle safety information (such as rules of the road and helmet information) be provided to purchasers of any new or used bicycle. Such information could be included in a “hang tag” information card attached to the handlebar of every bicycle at the time of purchase which would include critical information and a reference to the Ministry of Transportation website and Service Ontario for additional bicycle safety information and publications.

OK, here is one I am less fond of. Putting a label on a bike that says “this thing is dangerous” irritates the hell out of me. I can go into Home Depot and buy an axe without having to sift through a bunch of warning labels about the ways I can hurt myself or others with it. But I buy a barbeque and am provided 400 pages of nonsensical warnings about burning myself or immolating my neighbourhood. This seems an onerous burden to put on bicycle manufacturers and sellers, with little actual gain. But maybe it is my life in a retail bike shop coming back to influence my opinion here…

Recommendation #6: Cycling and road safety education should be incorporated into the public school curriculum.

Boom! Yes! Mandatory bike safety training of the youth would go a long way towards correcting bicycle behavior, and normalizing the use of bicycles amongst youth. Right now, organizations like BEST and HUB scramble to get grant money and volunteers to put on education programs, and (as far as I know- can anyone in the school system correct me here?) there is no formal training in school for kids. Maybe I’m engaging in used-to-be-ism, but when I was in grade 3 or 4, our school had an annual bike rodeo, where the RCMP would set up a training course in the school parking lot and teach us basic rules of the road, hand signal, and how to safely get to and from school. Just teaching kids to see the bike as not just a toy, but as a tool they need to be aware of using safely. Does this happen anymore?

Recommendation #7: The Official Driver’s Handbooks should be updated to provide expanded information around sharing the road with cyclists, and include cycling-related scenarios in driver examinations.

All part of the education model, and normalizing the idea of bicycles being part of the traffic system. This might even reduce the number of young drivers yelling at me to get on the sidewalk or honking at me to get out of the way when I am occupying a lane for safety.

Recommendation #8: A comprehensive review and revision of the Highway Traffic Act should be conducted to ensure that it is consistent and understandable with respect to cycling and cyclists and therefore easier to promote and enforce.

Makes sense: fix the damn laws to make riding legally understandable and sensible. I can’t imagine how a new cyclist deals with drivers telling them to “get on the sidewalk” and pedestrians telling them to “get off the sidewalk” when the law is inconsistent and unclear. In New Westminster, it is legal to ride a bike on the sidewalk in some places, and not in others, anyone out there willing to guess where? Think there is signage to indicate this, or are visitors and residents expected to go to the City’s website and search the bylaws? Is riding two abreast illegal? Should it be? How do you define “complete stop” on a bike? Do I have to put my foot down? The laws are written for motor vehicles, and bikes are expected to behave like them, unless strictly forbidden to do so. We need to update out BC Motor Vehicle Act to the modern reality of bikes on roads.

Recommendation #9: A comprehensive review and revision of the Municipal Act, the City of Toronto Act and relevant Municipal By‐Laws should be conducted to ensure that they are consistent and understandable with respect to cycling and cyclists and therefore easier to promote and enforce.

See my comments on #8.

Recommendation #10: The use of helmets by cyclists of all ages should be promoted and supported [including] financial incentives, such as removal of tax on bicycle helmets and helmet rebate program; promotion of helmet use through public awareness campaigns; enforcement of existing legislation regarding helmet use in cyclists under the age of 18.

Like I said, I am agnostic about bike helmet laws, but I almost always wear a helmet, and was wearing a helmet for years before the BC Helmet Law was introduced. This is through public awareness, and no small amount of social pressure from the people I rode bikes with: there was a time in the early 90’s when attitudes changed about bike helmet use amongst serious road riders, and I followed that trend like the obedient sheep I am. It helped that I was a mountain biker first, and mountain bikers were quick to adopt helmets, mostly because we fell off our bikes and went over the handlebars a LOT in those early days.

Recommendation #11: The Highway Traffic Act should be amended to make helmets mandatory for cyclists of all ages in Ontario. This should occur in conjunction with an evaluation of the impact of mandatory helmet legislation on cycling activity in Ontario.

See above.

Recommendation #12: The Highway Traffic Act should be amended to include a one (1) meter / three (3) foot passing rule for vehicles when passing cyclists. This change in legislation should be reflected in the Ontario Driver’s Handbook, Beginning Driver Education curricula and the driver’s licence examination process.

This is the most stunning recommendation, and of course, the most likely to not be followed. Three-foot rules are not uncommon though, and have a lot of implications. First, it means that any road with less than 3 feet of shoulder, a car is required, by law, to change lanes to pass a cyclist, like if they were passing any other vehicle. It also puts an extra onus on drivers in the event of car-bike collisions, right hooks and brush-offs (when a car passes you so closely, that they effectively push you off the road without touching you). Any bike-car contact where the car was passing the bike in the same lane would become the car’s fault automatically. If this one law was passed and enforced, it would probably do more to prevent highway cyclist deaths than any other recommendation above.

Recommendation #13: Side-guards should be made mandatory for heavy trucks in Canada. In addition, consideration should also be given to requiring additional safety equipment (such as blind spot mirrors and blind spot warning signs) to make cyclists more visible to trucks and decrease the chance of a collision, especially during right-hand turns.

Again, “I just didn’t see him” is the too-common excuse for right-hook crashes, and the result when the right-hook is performed by a large truck is usually fatal. This is not about blaming truckers, they have a lot to deal with in complicated traffic situations, but giving them the tools (actually, forcing them to have the tools) to improve the safety of those around them makes perfect sense.

Recommendation #14: Municipalities and police services (municipal/regional/provincial) should review local data related to cycling injuries and fatalities in order to identify and address opportunities for targeted education, public safety interventions and enforcement activities.

Makes sense: keep track of what is actually causing the accidents and fatalities, and direct your energy towards mitigating those causes, through education, enforcement, and/or infrastructure changes. Often, the Police and ICBC are reluctant to share accident info when bicyclesand pedestrians are involved, as it violates privace rights or is “before the courts”. They cannot even share it with those charged with designing and maintaining the road traffic system. Therefore, their knowledge of what does and doesn’t work in the pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is incomplete.
Overall, it is an excellent set of recommendations. We don’t know if a helmet law would have saved the life of the guy in the story above, nor do we know if any of the other 13 recommendations would have. The problem with the CBC story (and the general media narrative it supports) is how it sets up the helmet as the simple solution to a complex problem; one few jurisdictions are willing to address as comprehensively as the coroner suggests. The result will be more preventable “accidental” deaths, and too much irrational attention paid to helmet laws

From the jaws of defeat

It appears, as many suspected, that the campaign to collect signatures and force a referendum on a controversial borrowing bylaw failed to get the numbers required. Initial reports are that they didn’t even get half the number of signatures required.

Contrary to what some may say, I think this demonstrates, more powerfully than a successful campaign would, that the Alternative Approval Process is seriously flawed.

Remember, this process was started when the City decided to request authorization to loan up to $59Million from the Municipal Finance Authority. To do that, they were required to pass a Bylaw, and because of the nature of the loan authorisation, the City was required by the Community Charter to get approval from the electorate to pass that Bylaw. As a referendum is potentially expensive and time-consuming, the Alternative Approval Process allows the City to just send the idea out to the community without the hassle of a full referendum, and see if there is even any appetite for having a referendum about the issue. If no appetite is found (by not getting enough people to sign their disapproval) then a referendum can be skipped and approval is presumed.

Except in this case, the alarm was raised on what is usually a dull procedural process, and there was a coordinated campaign to force the referendum, a campaign that clearly struck a chord.

James Crosty is a hell of an organizer, and proved again that he can raise a ruckus like no-one else in this town. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes don’t, but I’ll always respect his ability to rally the troops and get the media attention when needed. He makes me think of the Woody Guthrie lyric:

“I ain’t the world’s best writer nor the world’s best speller,
But when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller

So when Crosty took the charge in this campaign, he managed to put an organizing team together in short order, dominate the local media and editorial pages, create an ongoing Twitterstorm, and gain radio time on CBC and CKNW, all about a little local bylaw issue in New Westminster. The volunteer team no doubt invested lots of time and some donated money to make the campaign happen, including buying ads in the local newspapers. When City Hall would not provide enough ballots or long enough hours for people to collect them, Crosty first shamed them into putting the forms online, then opened his office space to serve as a proxy City Hall.

The way the campaign framed the issue, it was broad enough to encompass people who hated the Tower idea on the face of it, those who had a distrust of the current Council verging on conspiracy theory, those who were concerned about the sustainability of local government debt and the impact on Taxes, and those who just thought referenda were a better way to make decisions like this. A former Mayor and several former Councillors spoke in favour of the campaign, as did current and past School Board Trustees and business leaders in the community. FOI requests were generated, casting more suspicion around details of the Tower and the pull-out of the private partner. Even the Canadian Taxpayers Federation got their unaccountable two bits in on the topic.

So I ask you, if this campaign was unable to hit half the minimum amount of signatures, will any campaign ever hit the mark? Does anyone seriously think an overwhelming majority of the people in this City are happy with this process? Or is the bar set too high, with too many restrictions in place to make it achievable?

Talking to people on either side of this campaign, no-one thought that 4500+ signatures was possible, (note: I never actually asked Crosty if he thought it was possible, so don’t include him or his team in this generalization) and no-one thought that if a referendum was actually called, the Bylaw would be approved by the populace. People were not going to line up to vote “for” the City borrowing $59 Million on behalf of the Taxpayers on a business venture, but a hell of a lot would line up to stop it. In other words, the Alternative Approval Process seemed almost guaranteed to get the opposite result that a referendum would have. That isn’t right, and we can thank Crosty’s campaign for making that obvious.

It is legal, completely legitimate, and something that has happened before in the City. The Community Charter and the Local Government Act allow this process to happen and set the terms for it. The City, I have to emphasise, did nothing illegal or outside of its rights as a Local Government. Maybe the result is for the better good and all is well, but I still hate this process, as it seems by design or by chance, it was set up to fail.

So what can we change? The City could just step up and take accountability on its own behalf and review whether the AAP process should be used in future, and if so, how it might be adapted to get a fairer poll of the populace (remember, the Community Charter only sets minimum standards for the AAP, the City is free to exceed those standards in quest for greater accountability). Perhaps a better idea would be for the Provincial Government (who writes and administers the Community Charter) to acknowledge that this is an accountability problem, and change the Charter to reflect that problem. Perhaps this is a better task for the Municipal Auditor General to undertake than the nitpicking of library or recreation facility accounts.

I don’t know the solution. Hopefully, now that it is out in the light, we can have a rational discussion about what this process means, and how to balance the need for public input and consultation with the need for a Municipal government to operate efficiently and effectively.

The Campaign is over, let the conversation begin.


As the days count down for the Alternative Approval process, and the citizenry of New Westminster sits in a cat-like state of readiness, anticipating what comes next, it seems as good a time as any for me to noodle on about what we’ve learned, and haven’t.

It has been an interesting campaign to watch for many reasons – almost as many reasons as there have been given for the campaign itself – because no two people seem to agree on what the campaign is even about.

Ultimately, it is all about the Office Tower that the City wants to built atop the New Multi-Use Civic Facility. Since the Uptown Property Group bowed out last winter and the City decided to charge ahead, everyone has been Monday-morning quarterbacking the decision. People bully about the future of the City, including a lot of Real Estate types I have talked to, think it is a good idea, a sound business decision that shows confidence in the downtown revitalization. Others have questioned whether a Municipal Government should be taking business risks with taxpayers’ money.

It is this second group who have been most vocal about the referendum campaign. Most of the talk around this campaign, and the balance of Letters to the Editors, have been of the opinion that the City should not be building the Tower. Many of these opinionists wrongly think that 4528 signatures will stop the Tower from being built, after the hole had been dug, the foundation has been poured, and $12 Million has already been spent on the building. Some go so far as to call the City’s refusing to stop building now regardless of referendum is a display of “arrogance”. This is silly, as the only way the City is sure to lose is if they stop building now…

However, the campaign is not really about the Tower, it is about the $59 Million long-term loan guarantee for which the City is seeking approval, in order to finance construction of the Tower, MUCF, and attached parking garage. Some say this is too much debt for a City the size of New Westminster to take on, and may cause us to go bankrupt if the Tower business model (gamble?) doesn’t work out.

Except, again, it isn’t really a $59 Million loan. It is asking for pre-approved financing for up to $59 Million over the next three years, if required. It is more like a $59 Million line of credit at 1.7%, there if we need it, no obligation to use it. Some of this money will be used to finance things for which we are guaranteed a return on a known schedule (i.e. the DAC funding we are going to get in 2013, but we must spend before we can get reimbursed for it). Some we may spend on the risky stuff, and we are very likely to get some (if not all) in return based on the value built into the Tower.

It is certainly not “risk free”, but the City is securing $59 Million at 1.7% to build an asset that will be worth $100 Million when completed. I imagine there would be a line of developers who would line up to take that risk (but of course, they do not have access to the MFA loan rates). The City has money and assets elsewhere (some, notably, earning more than 3% interest) that by far outstrip this Tower in value. I suspect that is where the City’s financial folks are saying, I paraphrase, “we don’t need the loan to move ahead”. Even after (when) (if) this loan is drawn, the City will only be using less than a third of the total credit available to them from the MFA. the City can make money here for taxpayer, or they can lose some money, but the risk of bankruptcy, even if this tower is hit by a meteor the day after it is built, is so low as to be indistinguishable from zero.

Borrowing from the MFA to build an asset seems like a strategic investment to me, not a dangerous debt.

There is a third thing this campaign is about, besides the Tower and the Loan. James Crosty has taken pains to point it out (although it just isn’t as compelling to most of the Twitteridiots and letter-to-the-Editor-writers as Towers and $59 Million numbers): and that is the Alternative Approval Process itself. Crosty has said several times that this is all about getting the discussion out into the open; bringing democracy out of the shadows, to make it accountable.

The AAP is perfectly legal, and something the City of New West and other Cities have done numerous times before, but it stinks like a flattened skunk on East Columbia. It is effectively “reverse-billing”, by assuming people are happy with a big decision if they don’t line up to oppose it. To ask people to voluntarily engage in that process in the middle of summer, then not make the process as open, transparent, easy, and accountable as possible is to not respect the democratic purpose or the spirit of the Community Charter.

Crosty has said he just wants to call attention to this process, and I have to say he has been pretty damn successful. The unanticipated side of it was that it drew attention to some of the bigger issues behind the Tower, the deals signed (or apparently not signed) between UPG and the City, and the timely disclosure of when the deal started to go sour. Ugly questions are arising about election timing…

Regardless of how this referendum campaign comes out, the City needs to start talking about this. New Westminster is a small town, with many active rumour mills. There are too many people who are willing to publicly fill gaps in their own knowledge or understanding of a process with assumed corruption or malfeasance. The only way to quash that is to fill those gaps with defensible data. And a new building surrounded by rumour, innuendo, and suspicion is going to be a lot harder to sell when that time comes, effectively increasing the “risk”.

Now, I’m not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I know a fair amount about the Community Charter and how Municipal Governments operate. I have been reading all of the City-provided info about this project, including Council reports around the financing and the loan. I have read the FOI-released info acquired by Chris Bryan at the Newsleader, and the other news and opinion in the papers. I even attended the Downtown Residents Association meeting where the Mayor talked about this project, and listened to his comments on CKNW. After all of these attempts at information gathering, I still have a lot of questions about this topic. What went wrong with UPG? Where is the business plan? While there may be good business reasons to keep some info proprietary, there must be a balance to be struck while giving the voting public some idea of what their business plan is like for is tower – the rationale that had most Councillors vote for moving ahead, yet cause Chuck Puchmayr to say no.

I have a lot of confidence in this Council being able to do good for the City (and see a decade of steady improvement in the City as proof of this confidence), but blind trust in their perfection is just as irresponsible as presuming that they’re doomed to screw everything up.

One untrue thing I have heard during this is “this is not about politics”. To that I can only say bullshit. This is all about politics.

The usual Wayne Wright critics have surfaced in the Letters section of the Record and NewsLeader, the local Twitterati (including the @59million sock-puppet handle) has been filling their own gaps in knowledge about the tower with suspicion and suggesting a referendum was the only way to get to whatever you wanted (be it stopping the loan, stopping the tower, finding the “truth”, whatever) while listing off political allies from former Councils, current school boards, and citizens groups. People like me, who have been asking questions, challenging ideas, or pointing out that maybe, just perhaps, everyone at City hall isn’t corrupt to the core, have been called Astroturfers and Goons (which is strange, as I have never had a conversation with Wayne Wright in my life, other then the couple of times I have delegated to council).

Right from the start, this campaign has been pure politics. That is not necessarily a bad thing; you can’t have an effective democracy without politics. Politics is just the art of convincing people that what you want to give them is what they want.

To that end, the City played the politics here rather passively, and if, by some miracle, James Crosty gets his 4500+ signatures, the City will have to look back at how they may have communicated better through this all. If the campaign is not successful, then maybe the City played it right. Maybe.

I was with a group of friends talking about this last week over beers, and there was quite a variety of opinions about the Tower, the Loan, the referendum. We couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or not – is this just making chaos for the purpose of making chaos? Is there’s higher ideal here we can get behind? What are the outcomes? A friend shut me up with a simple question: “what do you want out of this?” I couldn’t answer, which is probably why I hadn’t yet given James my signature on a form. I need to have some idea what the outcomes will be of my actions, I don’t like to act first and ask questions later, just not my style in life.

Over the last two weeks, I have decided that all I want out of this process is for that light to be cast on the process: on the Community Charter and the Alternative Approval Process. It is the same thing I wanted last year when the New West electrical utility used the same process to get your approval for a $25 Million loan to support a new deal that guaranteed revenues to BC Hydro at the Risk of New Westminster utility users. We agreed to that deal through the Alternative process, even if most of us didn’t even know it happened.

I’m OK with the Tower (and the inherent risk), because I’m bully about the future of Downtown and like the path we are taking in this City. I’m OK with the creative financing that allows the City to leverage a 1.7% lending rate to its maximum advantage, because I want the City to use it’s financial advantages like a good business would. I’m OK that the City needs to have the ability to negotiate the terms of complicated construction and cost-sharing contracts, and that those negotiations sometimes go sideways. What I don’t like is that the City (in complete compliance with the law) attempted to push through the largest loan in its history through a reverse-billing option on a short timeline in the middle of the summer with the minimum of notice to the public, and apparently hoped and prayed that no-one would notice.

They didn’t count on James Crosty, and his remarkable campaign skills.

They got caught out, and now the process, if nothing else, is in the light. So in a way, it doesn’t matter if James gets his 4500+ signatures. He has already won. And the electorate of New Westminster is better for him having put up the fight, regardless of whether you agree with his position.

If there is a referendum, I am voting FOR the Bylaw.