Calgary doesn’t care about you

Calgary-Dawn-Szmurlo

Photo by Dawn Smzurlo

Back in 2008, a friend of mine lived in a nice apartment with not-so-great neighbours on a bit of a sketchy corner. Still, the two-bedroom, 1950s-era space was big, relatively nice and relatively cheap at $800 per month. Six years later, that same apartment is up for rent, listed on rentfaster.ca for $3,000.

That represents a rise of $26,400 per year compared to six years ago, and I’d be willing to bet that number skyrocketed in one year. It’s a clear indication of just how insane, frustrating and financially debilitating our rental market is. Sure the city fathers/mothers can talk about attracting and retaining the “best and the brightest” from around the world, but what about us? What about those who can’t afford to drop half a million dollars into a mortgage, or pay $1,500 per month to share an apartment on a sketchy corner with the scent of KFC wafting through the windows?

At first glance, this city is maturing and it’s wonderful. There’s better architecture in our skyline and over our rivers, there’s a robust public art program that has mostly survived backlash from a loud and largely ignorant segment of the population, there’s an eclectic and talented arts scene, there are bike lanes coming and there’s a lot of talk about creating the kind of city so many of us want to see.

But those of us who don’t work in oil and gas or trades, those who are responsible for that art scene, for example, are falling behind and getting frustrated. We’re not even talking about those who don’t have a home or deal with subpar living conditions in subsidized housing. Who hasn’t seriously thought of leaving Calgary to find a more hospitable home?

We are bombarded with gushing reports of low unemployment, bursting bank accounts and high GDP. We are bombarded with the notion that the market will sort it out. We are bombarded with the message that interference in the workings of the economy will only hurt us.

At best these arguments centre on the notion that things like rent controls will contract the rental supply because no landlord would want to be in the market if that were the case. Accepting that argument, of course, means ignoring the huge number of cities across North America that get along just fine with rent controls in place. Rent control doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit on a home, it just means you aren’t allowed to be an asshole.

At worst, these arguments come in the form of rants against the unwashed masses — the ne’er-do-well hordes waiting to invade any community as soon as secondary suite zoning is enacted. We hear of how renters will destroy communities. We hear of parking armageddon should renters move into a basement.

We all know this is outsized hyperbole, the kind of empty rhetoric that ignores evidence to the contrary and only serves to demean those who can’t afford a house of their own, or don’t want to be saddled with a massive mortage. More fundamentally, it ignores the very real crisis in housing in the most unequal city in the country.

Some councillors — Ward Sutherland, Joe Magliocca, Jim Stevenson, Sean Chu, Ray Jones, Richard Pootmans, Andre Chabot, Shane Keating and Peter Demong — have consistently knocked down proposals to legalize secondary suites across the city, ignoring their role as leaders and hiding behind the “wishes of constituents.” It’s about as logical as turning off police sirens while racing through intersections because it bothers the neighbours — some things are important and have to be done, no matter what some malcontents have to say.

Even if we could get secondary suites approved throughout the city, there’s no guarantee it will solve our housing crisis. Will there be a flood of people building suites, saturating the market and bringing prices down? Unlikely, at least in the short term. It certainly can’t hurt, but the fact we can’t even get this Band-Aid solution through council demonstrates just how far this city still has to go in order to live up to its hype as a great place to live. Because the truth is, for vast swaths of the population, this isn’t a great place to live; it’s a place to scrape by while praying your landlord doesn’t up the rent. It’s bullshit and we all know it.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Winter on two wheels: an interview with Tom Babin

WG-frostbike lani babin

Long marginalized as mentally unstable radicals, there’s a particular group in Calgary and beyond that is fighting back against stereotypes in an effort to bring more unwitting citizens into their fold. Terrorists? Scientologists? Climate-change deniers? Nah, winter cyclists.

Front and centre in this battle for the minds is Tom Babin, senior tablet producer at the Calgary Herald and author of the new book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

“I think the biggest obstacle to adopting winter cycling is having a healthier relationship with winter and getting over the fear of being cold and the fear of being outside,” says Babin, chatting over a coffee.

His book is geared mostly to people who are considering taking the step of riding year-round, weather be damned, and acts as a sort of guide for how to get started. In it he talks about attitudes and infrastructure around the world, dives into some history and shares information on available gear. He also shares anecdotes of his own journey — from car-dependent, to fair-weather rider, to winter cyclist — in the hopes that others will avoid some of the same mistakes he made, or simply gain the confidence to mount up when the thermometer dips.

“For me it was, I kept wanting to read something as I was starting winter riding and it was hard, I was just figuring it out on my own and I felt there were no resources,” he says. “So I thought, ‘I went through this whole process, I need to write something to help other people out.’”

One of the main issues with winter cycling is the perception that it is difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable, and while you do have to be more cautious — just as you do in any vehicle in winter — the truth is that winter cycling isn’t such a big deal.

“I also think that’s part of the problem right now, it’s sort of holding it back from being accepted as more of a mainstream thing, this idea that you’ve got to be this super-tough masochist to want to ride in the winter,” says Babin. “A lot of that comes from people who ride in the winter themselves — we like to sort of foster that image, and I admit it feels good to be exceptional, but it’s not that exceptional. If we want it accepted widely, we have to normalize it. We have to get over this idea that we’re doing something unique.”

He uses the example of seeing “grandmas putting their groceries in their basket and riding through the snow” while he was touring around Europe as fodder for his argument. He also highlights better clothing and equipment that make it easier to ride in the cold.

Although Babin is careful to note that you can’t sugarcoat the winter riding experience, and he documents a few wipeouts in his book to drive the point home, he also thinks there’s a critical mass of riders in the city who are looking to ride year-round and who need the support — from current riders and from the city. Maintenance and clearing of pathways is important and so, too, is debating cycling infrastructure, no matter how tiresome it can be.

“It would be nice to see the city get beyond the same arguments we’ve been going over and over and over again,” he says. “It would be nice to have a wider recognition that this is a good thing, but we also have to be reasonable too. Not every street should have a bike lane, and not every idea that comes out of the city is a good one, that’s for sure, and not every idea that comes from a bike advocacy group is a good one, but at least these are conversations that we’re having now and it’s nice to see us moving in the right direction.”

At the end of the day, however, it’s Babin’s lucid descriptions of those special moments, like riding down vacant streets and paths as snow falls and silence envelopes the city, that really capture the imagination and encourage a winter ride. You can argue infrastructure and gear all you want, but one trip like that and you’re bound to be hooked.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

A better response to the Ottawa shooting

Harper post

Photo by Remy Steinegger

If only…

Today, Canada awoke to a new reality, with the government saying it will do everything in its power to support those with mental illness and addictions after a citizen who had fallen through the cracks killed a soldier on Parliament Hill before being shot and killed outside the Library of Parliament.

“Too often those with mental illness and those who suffer from terrible addictions are ignored and left to their own devices in a society that has not provided the necessary care,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the suspect in Wednesday’s shooting, had reportedly been staying at a shelter in Ottawa leading up to the shooting spree. The man had stayed at shelters before and had a lengthy criminal record, but nothing violent, and had reportedly struggled with addictions.

“We have seen this far too often and we will not, as a compassionate society, sit idly by and let our citizens suffer. We will muster the full might of the state and its resources to help our fellow citizens. We will wage war against desperation and struggle within our own borders, no matter the cost,” said Harper, adding it would be futile to respond to the shooting by restricting rights and increasing surveillance on citizens.

“The best way to combat extremists luring Canadian citizens, is to look after our citizens and give hope to those with very little of it,” said Harper.

This is certainly not the first time that a man, struggling with inner demons, has wreaked havoc and shattered lives. In a recent and tragic example from Calgary, Matthew de Grood killed five people at a house party in April.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and family of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the young soldier who was killed far too young yesterday,” said Harper. “Our thoughts also go out to the thousands of Canadians desperately seeking mental health care in a system that has failed them, and to those who are left to struggle with addictions in a society which criminalizes them instead of helping them. While we mourn the loss of one life, we must work as hard as we can to ensure that these kinds of incidents don’t happen again. Herding those who need our help into overcrowded hospitals with little to no psychiatric or addictions care is a true national tragedy.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Capitalism and catastrophe: an interview with Naomi Klein

Photo by Ed Kashi

Photo by Ed Kashi

Let’s start with a question. What seems like a bigger challenge: fixing a flawed economic system, or dealing with the catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled climate change? How about another one: would you rather hand over billions to bail out a bank, or to help ensure the our planet remains liveable?

Extreme, right? No. We’re in the position where our world is collapsing around us, our governments are doing absolutely nothing to stop it and we’re throwing away almost a trillion dollars a year in global subsidies to the companies that are ostensibly killing us. It’s absurd.

Naomi Klein, who always causes a stir with her books, argues in her latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, that the time of small fixes to avoid catastrophic climate change has long since come and gone and that we need to radically rethink the way we live and structure our societies in order to affect positive change.

Needless to say, the book is daunting, but it still manages to convey a sense of hope that it is possible to overcome the hurdles and to fix our world.

“I think that I believe it’s still possible. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s likely. I mean, I’ve been meeting people on the road who have really given up all hope, and just feel like we are in hospice and should just enjoy the scenery on the way down. I’m not at that point. I think being hopeful against these odds is a choice,” says Klein over the phone.

“I both don’t want to be in despair and I also believe that even if the chances are slim, that there is a moral responsibility to fight to better those chances.”

Her book is an elegant argument against the unbridled capitalism unleashed on the world in this era of global free trade, and its effects on the climate. As Klein describes it, our timing was terrible, with climate conferences starting work on treaties at the same time as international trade deals reshaped governance, regulations and the economy. Unsurprisingly, the trade deals rushed forward with strong monitoring and punishments for transgressors, while climate deals faltered and were ignored. Our global emissions in 2013 were 61 per cent higher than 1990, when the first climate treaty talks began.

“It’s a two-pronged issue. One is… we can’t regulate and that’s why we have failed to respond to this crisis, and then there’s the growth issue that I think cuts beyond deregulated capitalism,” say Klein, addressing the need of our current economy to constantly expand.

A longtime critic of international trade and the sort of unrestricted pillaging that comes with it, even Klein wasn’t prepared for what she found while working on this book.

“When I started the book, I did understand this clash between the sort of extreme free-market fundamentalism and what we need to do to respond to climate change, but I didn’t have my head wrapped around those numbers, those sort of terrifying numbers around how quickly we need to cut our emissions and what a challenge that represents to economic growth,” she says.

This Changes Everything isn’t just a screed against capitalism, though. Klein argues effectively for new ways forward and highlights the kind of resistance that is springing up around the world to fight extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration — particularly heavy oil and fracking operations. We meet Alberta’s Beaver Lake Cree, as well as protestors in Greece and beyond, all joined by an opposition to building infrastructure that will lock us in dependence on these destructive industries for years. She calls this loose gathering of pockets of resistance Blockadia, and lauds the role of indigenous communities in driving and aiding the fight.

Klein’s solutions lie in the need to rein in the economic system, allowing for public, small-scale control of utilities to force green solutions, funding green developments in the developing world and increasing taxation on consumption and death-dealing industries. We need job training in low-income communities and countries to help lead to a new world where those left behind today can survive and grow in a new economy that respects the environment. As she puts it, we need equitable sacrifice, with industry and the wealthy taking just as much, or more, of a hit than those lower down the line.

She even outlines ways to pay for all of this, with a large chunk coming from existing oil and gas subsidies.

Needless to say, Alberta doesn’t come out looking all that good in this book, and for good reason. Not only is this province home to one of the more destructive enterprises on the planet, it’s also home to the gilded towers where decisions are made on Canada’s oil and gas industry and its planned pipelines.

So how does she feel about reading here?

“You know, the last time I went to Calgary with The Shock Doctrine, I thought it was going to be really controversial, and I found that it was one of my most receptive audiences,” says Klein. “I think progressives in Calgary are some of the most progressive people in Canada, because it just takes such fortitude to stand up to such a powerful…. You have to be such a powerful counter-culture.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

The empty Postmedia empire

Postmedia/newspapers

Photo by Drew Anderson

This morning, the face of Canada’s newspaper industry changed, and it’s not for the best. Postmedia, owner of daily papers across the country and the National Post, announced it is buying Quebecor’s English-language papers, all 175 of them, including the Sun papers, for $316 million.

It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that the industry is struggling. Declining ad revenues, competition from the web, and on and on. We’ve all heard the issues and the challenges and we’ve all witnessed the painfully slow acceptance of a new order and the cut-and-slash response that has done nothing to improve matters.

What we haven’t seen until this morning is the wholesale consolidation of newspaper ownership across the country — depending, of course, on a ruling from the Competition Bureau.

That sounds like hyperbole, and it sort of is. There are still other players across the country, but not many. The Globe and Mail is still alive as Canada’s national paper and the Toronto Star still does great work out east as it struggles with restructuring. Metro is active in several markets, including Calgary, but hardly fills the void left by large dailies.

There are also countless community papers, though they are often owned by chains, and Postmedia now owns a dizzying amount of them. This paper, Fast Forward Weekly, is owned by Great West Newspapers, which owns 24 publications throughout Alberta, including us. Great West will now be facing off against Postmedia papers in small markets across the province if this deal goes through.

We also shouldn’t forget about our independent alt-weekly brethren like The Georgia Straight, The Coast, NOW and Vue.

But the announcement today that Postmedia is gobbling up the a chunk of the Quebecor empire and effectively creating a daily paper monopoly in almost every major English-speaking centre in Canada is troubling (Quebecor, which owns the Sun brand, is keeping its Quebec properties).

We now have a situation where the pretense of diversity — Postmedia says it intends to keep two papers running in markets where it was competing with the Sun, including the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun — passes for a strong print media sector. There is one owner and one ultimate arbiter of what gets said and how it gets said governing almost all the major papers across the country, but pretending like there’s an option.

So why would they do that? Well, it allows them to control the market in a way they couldn’t with only one publication. By creating the illusion of choice and dominating the market with two papers, it creates an even larger barrier for any competitor entering the market than if you just had one. Of course, it would be crazy to open a new paper in today’s day and age, right? Not necessarily. But with Postmedia holding a monopoly it sure is.

It also allows them to sell into all the daily print publications, offering choice to their advertisers that doesn’t really exist for their readers.

Also troubling in all of this is the fact that a company that struggles to balance the books is using some financial wizardry (offering $140 million of new debt to an existing creditor, for example) to fork over $316 million for the Quebecor properties.

This comes at a time when newsrooms have been decimated and there are apparently no new hires on the horizon for places like the Herald. There’s no money, after all. A once mighty newsroom has been reduced to a fraction of the size, morale is low and now the company is essentially saying it would rather consolidate the media landscape than invest in the people that are required to commit good journalism.

It’s a hollow empire, one built on the backs of journalists expected to do more with less in hulking buildings now mostly empty or rented out to others all in the name of budgets and bottom lines. The purpose of the papers in the chain and the people who work for them long since discarded in a race to the bottom that is disastrous for the state of our national dialogue and our democracy.

To really invest in a paper, Postmedia should be putting more attention to creating work that people scramble to read. The announcement today is a repudiation of that strategy and stands  in stark contrast with a recent column from the New York Times’ David Carr, writing about the rebirth of the Washington Post after it was sold to Jeff Bezos, thanks mostly to investments in good journalists and good journalism.

It’s too bad that in this country, the majority of our news will now come from an organization whose actions are dictated by shareholders and debtors and which shows no interest in saving its business by investing in its actual business — journalism.

Click here a full list of what Postmedia will own, depending on a review from the Competition Bureau.

Click here for a statement from the Commissioner of Competition.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Jim Prentice’s flood of words

Jim Prentice

Although the calendar reads September 2014, some Calgarians would be forgiven for thinking it was June 2013.

Since Jim Prentice was anointed as this province’s new leader, the latest in the 43-year Conservative dynasty, there has been a flood of promises and policies, including sudden decisions on flood mitigation itself.

The government is going to work on a water management agreement with TransAlta and is planning to dam a section of Springbank for a dry reservoir, which has residents a little miffed and garnered one hell of a passive-aggressive response from Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “With respect to the two flood mitigation measures for Calgary that were announced by Premier Prentice today — namely the dry reservoir in Springbank and the direction to negotiate a permanent water management agreement with TransAlta — it is difficult for us to comment in detail since the City of Calgary has not yet been consulted with respect to either proposal and our experts have not yet seen any engineering studies,” wrote the mayor.

In addition to pointing out the possible failings of the plan, due in large part to other elements and agreements not being in place, Nenshi’s posting highlighted the continued maltreatment of cities by a paternalistic provincial government that still governs as though we’re an agrarian society. This does not bode well for the much-discussed city charters that I’ve heard are effectively dead.

But the flood of words isn’t just about shoring up the banks of Alison Redford’s old riding of Calgary-Elbow, where residents are still fighting with the government for flood relief, and where Gordon Dirks, the so-far unelected minister of education, is running for a seat.

The torrent from the premier’s office is reaching biblical proportions — something preacher Dirks can understand — with Prentice desperately trying to prove to a skeptical public that the PC party has changed and that all those promises of accountability and openness will totally happen this time. Swear. Starting with not giving away sole-source contracts to friends to deal with communications during events like the flood.

The premier has outlined five priorities that someone should fact check to make sure they weren’t plagiarized from any of the hundreds of conservative campaigns fought across North America in a given year. Conservative fiscal policies? Check. End entitlements and restore public trust? Roger that. Maximize value for our natural resources and respect property rights? Yup. Quality of life, including leading in health care, education and skills training (but not something silly like social sciences)? That’s there too. And then down at the bottom, hey what’s that? Oh, “establish our province as an environmental leader.”

It’s worth digging into that last outlier. Fortunately, it’s just a click on the Prentice website before we read: “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.” That’s under the “environmental leader” banner. His whole rationale for environmental protection is to get more oil to market. Other harmful activities appear not to exist in Prentice’s world.

Like a tailings pond breach spewing its toxins into a waterway, we can expect a strong push from Prentice to get our oil out the door. He mimics his old boss Stephen Harper, calling for Alberta to be a global superpower in energy, which should prove challenging given rising global stockpiles, U.S. supply increasing exponentially, forecasted increases in Mexico, and no efficient way for our glut of production to reach the markets.

Prentice’s first weeks in office have produced the same flood of words we hear whenever a new Progressive Conservative takes the provincial reins, and all these years later people are starting to tire of the debris built up from the empty words. Our access to information is a joke, and so too is the treatment of our cities. Dissent is considered dirtier than a barrel of bitumen and there’s never really been a plan to wean us off the oily teat. We’re wholly dependent, locked in to a volatile market at a time of profound societal shift. Just look to the treatment of our colleges and universities if you want any indication of how the government views education outside of science and technology.

But here’s the thing: floods aren’t all bad; they flush a system. Last year’s flood cleansed the Elbow and the Bow of the rock snot clinging to our waterways’ pebbles and stones, providing a hopeful metaphor for the upcoming byelections and eventual provincial contest. There’s no telling just how a flood will play out, but we all know there’s plenty of muck to get rid of in this province, and after 43 years it’s pretty easy to see who’s to blame.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Rewriting the narrative: Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country

BOOKS-Fire-in-the

It’s difficult to know where to start on a review of Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The book is a thing apart. It’s a unique entity without direct comparison, although maybe a collaboration between Jose Saramago, Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka would come close. Islam’s tale breaks every rule you can think of, in terms of grammar, syntax and storytelling structure — not to mention the bounds of reality — and produces something that can draw gasps from a reader. It is, in short, a wholly remarkable and beautiful book.

The story is set in a fictional land marked by intrigue and revolution and dictatorships and war. It starts in the past, when spider silk fields covered the land and there was relative peace. In time, surveillance descended onto every corner of the country and there were no more secrets. Something called the The Mirror, a sort of Hollywood surveillance/reality television system, fights with the state for snooping dominance in a world devoid of privacy. In this land we follow Hedayat, the central character, as he navigates the hidden corridors of the country — working as a smuggler and a caretaker of ghosts — falling in love and recounting his family’s history. It’s a sometimes confusing timeline, going back to the founding of the unnameable country, and made even more so by the surreal happenings within this surreal land.

It’s a land where Hedayat’s father worked in the bowels of the bureaucracy, dealing with thoughtreels, which contain the minds of the country’s inhabitants. A land where Americans invade to destroy the spider silk fields which can weave armour. Where Hedayat, and his father before him, use glossolalia as a weapon and a means of influence.

Both the story and the writing are challenging, and the initial pages pass slowly as your mind adjusts to Islam’s structure and cadence. Once fully immersed in the tale, however, this is a captivating read. Belief is suspeneded as you’re taken on a fantastic ride of flying carpets and rebels and giants and underground caverns and neverending bureaucracy. Islam’s writing is so incredible you will occassionally find yourself breathless.

It’s all made even more remarkable by the fact that this is Islam’s first published novel. First-time novelists are not supposed to come out of the gate with such a forceful challenge to the status quo. This isn’t simply a new kind of story, but a new kind of storytelling that would be almost impossible to duplicate. It layers metaphor upon metaphor and ideally should be revisited more than once to catch all the nuance. It’s the kind of book that leaves you wondering just how much of it you missed at the end, or whether the author was simply messing with you for half of it. Your own theories on certain aspects of the book would likely fill pages.

Hidden amongst the magic and the scattered words and phrases, however, are real world messages about torture, abuse, dictatorship, colonialism and war. This is a magic land beset by the horrors of the contemporary world and Islam doesn’t hold back, letting his poetic writing batter the inequities.

This is a staggering work by a writer that it sure to one day loom large in our consciousness. If you’re up for a challenge, this is a must-read.

Fire in the Unnameable Country, by Ghalib Islam, Hamish Hamilton, 448 pp.