Alberta’s uncultured minister

Maureen Kubinec

One could be forgiven for assuming that Alberta’s minister of culture would have some semblance of the arts and the province’s arts community, but by all accounts, that’s not the case. If there were any doubts, this recent interview in the Globe and Mail should remove them.

The fact that Maureen Kubinec hasn’t seen a live performance in over a month (the last night of The Magic Flute in Edmonton was February 5) is troubling for a minister that should be out in the creative community. Scrolling through her Facebook page, the only mention of anything to do with the arts is a condolence message with a link to a Global story on the death of Michael Green. Scattered throughout her feed are snowmobile outings, announcements for upgrades to seniors facilities, flag ceremonies and more.

Now to be fair, Kubinec is responsible for culture and tourism, not the arts, but it’s a sure sign of just how much this government cares about the sector when this is the minister they put in charge. It would be nice to see an urban MLA in this role, rather than a farmer (and no that isn’t a dig against farmers, I’d make a terrible agriculture minister), or at least one that doesn’t favour Reader’s Digest over literature.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the short Globe interview is her final answer, essentially saying the arts are about to be gutted, but it’s okay because of bootstraps and all that blather. “I’m just going to give you a quick example: I’m a farmer; that’s what I do for a living,” she says, apparently forgetting her six-figure cabinet salary. “And when we’ve had a tough year, it’s not easy, but it’s made us stronger.” The arts in this province have long suffered from dismal and unpredictable funding and it hasn’t made the scene stronger. It’s made some — mostly large organizations — better at finding a few alternate sources of funding, but not much and not to many and certainly not stable. It’s an insulting and thoughtless comment and it’s a sign of the carnage that’s to come.

There have been whispers — accompanying those saying Kubinec doesn’t know or understand the arts scene (has anyone in that scene even met her yet?) — that culture will no longer be in its own dual ministry, but will be subsumed by a larger portfolio (Service Alberta?). It’s a paranoid thought, but one that should raise alarms in light of this government’s radical steps to restructure the province and impose austerity for all but the wealthy and the corporate.

Kubinec’s interview certainly does nothing to alleviate those concerns.

It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

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.

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.

Cycling outside of Calgary’s inner city

NEWS Suburban cycling

While cries of social engineering and a war on cars echo off the sides of skyscrapers and condos, the city is busy turning Calgary into a bike-friendly city in newer communities and suburbs without much fuss.

Although there has been at least one councillor bemoaning the separated bike lane being built on Northland Drive in the city’s northwest, there are multiple projects that have been completed or are in the works with little to no opposition. That may change, however, with new “complete street” regulations that will first crop up in committee after the summer.

Complete streets essentially mandate certain features on roadways in order to make them amenable to walking, cycling and driving, rather than focusing on cars alone.

“The stuff that’s going to be greenfield development [new communities], the goal is to have a complete streets policy that says when the developers are building these roads, they provide the right accommodation for cyclists and for pedestrians,” says Tom Thivener, the city’s cycling co-ordinator. “Once that’s in place, if a road is a certain classification, it automatically gets the treatments. So then I don’t have to worry about petitioning, lobbying the developers each time to try and get a facility in. That’s very much a piecemeal approach that we’re trying to avoid, so as soon as we have council’s approval on the complete streets policy, that’ll kind of take care of the greenfield.”

New communities already accommodate cycling, but usually in the form of regional pathways that are more geared towards leisure than commuting. In the southeast community of Mahogany, for example, the developer Hopewell is building 22 kilometres of pathways that will link up to the greenway project — a sort of cycling ring road that will encircle the city with 138 kilometres of pathway.

Darren Bender, a Tuscany resident, cyclist and a former director of Bike Calgary, has nothing but good things to say about the pathways in his suburban northwest community, but takes issue with the connections between communities and the links to the inner-city — and is thankful not to live in the southeast or northeast.

“Yeah, the connections between the communities in the suburbs are not great, especially when you’ve got suburbs that butt up against a major road,” he says, before listing off the veritable car walls that box in Tuscany. “A lot of these communities are quite isolated unless you live by car.”

For Bender, the connections have to be made between communities, and activity centres like the University of Calgary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the downtown network. “You’ve got to get the destinations linked in and then build your way outward,” he says. “The city’s doing that really well, I think.”

Doug Leighton, the vice president of planning and sustainability for Brookfield Residential says they recognize the importance of walking an cycling to ehnhance quality of life.

“We’re currently designing several new neighbourhoods to plug into the Seton town centre, health campus, regional park, schools and recreation facilities,” he says over email. “These will feature an inter-connected grid of pathways that will make it very easy to get around on foot or by bike.”

For the older communities stuck between the inner city and the outlying communities, cycling infrastructure mostly comes as roads are repaired and rebuilt, or tied into major projects. For example, the West LRT brought bike lanes and a new pathway to its surrounding area, and this summer, Northland’s painted lanes for buses and bikes are being replaced with the aforementioned separated lane during asphalt repair.

In Bowness, the main thoroughfare is going on a diet during construction, reducing four lanes to three and adding bike lanes. The road was large considering the 13,000 cars travelling its route on a daily basis. The project has the support of the community and the area’s councillor, Ward Sutherland, who opposed the cycle track network.

Thivener says his department is busy planning what they’re going to do once the downtown pilot wraps up, and co-ordinating with the roads department on construction projects and how they might line up with cycling routes.

So why don’t these projects elicit the same level of contempt as the downtown lanes?

“I mean, we do a good job of engaging the public — much improved, I would say, from some of the early projects that Calgary went through,” says Thivener. “We make sure that the community’s aware that these projects are coming and aware of the benefits and trade-offs before we proceed. But by and large, yeah, they don’t get as much interest because they’re isolated on corridors that probably not everyone sees — it’s more neighbourhood type concerns that we deal with. There’s some good projects that are going to be installed this summer that are going to be exciting.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Ric McIver and the extremists

Ric McIver

When the Peace Bridge opened in March of 2012, crowds gathered to celebrate. Politicians and citizens all swarmed both ends of the controversial bridge, eager to be amongst the first to cross. Just prior to cutting the ribbon, there was a blessing by a First Nations elder — recognition that Calgary sits on traditional Blackfoot territory.

I was at the opening, perched on the rocks at the south entrance to the bridge where the dignitaries had gathered. Unfortunately, I was also perched beside Artur Pawlowski, known to many as the man behind Calgary’s Street Church.

As the blessing started, Pawlowski began to loudly mock and condemn the Siksika elder. I called him out on his lack of respect. For those who’ve had any experience with the man and the fervent believers from his church, it will come as no surprise that he did not relent. This is a man blinded by a religious ideology steeped in intolerance and intransigence. He said that First Nations were the interlopers in this land, and so was their heathen religion. He told me to learn my history.

This is what happens when ignorance takes hold and shackles any semblance of rational discussion. What do you say to a man who thinks Christian Europeans setttled this land before the Blackfoot? What do you say to a man who gathers in public and at ceremonies (including infiltrating last year’s Stampede parade) just to court controversy and offend those around him?

What makes this story relevant is the recent controversy over Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ric McIver’s participation in the Street Church’s March for Jesus on Sunday, June 15. Many have called out McIver for supporting this group, focusing on its rabid homophobia. The Street Church claims, among other things, that gays and lesbians are agents of Satan who participate in perversion.

These are extreme people. They villify anything that does not match their outdated, and often strange, points of view. They shun First Nations beliefs, they shun homosexuality, they shun everything that does not pigeonhole into a narrow vision of the world. There is no sense in engaging with them, and there’s no redemption for a politician who supports them.

The questions around McIver’s support of their activities is indeed troubling. Why would he participate in this event? (His excuse that he was celebrating his Catholic beliefs rings hollow.) What are his views on human rights in Alberta? Does he believe that LGBTQ rights should be curtailed based on the extreme religious views of groups like the Street Church? This is not a group we want our leaders to be involved with, if even just by association.

Just days prior to McIver’s participation in the March for Jesus, he stressed his strong support for a controversial section of Alberta’s Human Rights Act which allows parents to pull their children from classes where topics, including homosexuality, will be discussed. “We defend parents’ rights to make a decision about the moral ground and education that they raise their children with. To me, that’s what is in the legislation now,” he told the Calgary Herald the following day.

McIver posted a defence of his participation in the March for Jesus to his Facebook page, which claimed that he supports diversity. Apparently, this includes those who would discriminate against others. Without a hint of irony, McIver says he will “continue to attend events celebrating the diversity of Alberta.”

Much of what he says in his defence reeks of the abandoned and much-maligned Wildrose policy supporting so-called conscience rights, which essentially says that people should have the right to discriminate against others based on their religious convictions. That policy was largely responsible for the defeat of the Wildrose in the last provincial election and was eventually disowned by the party. Albertans rightly rejected a government-in-waiting that would discriminate under the guise of inclusion and tolerance. If that’s what McIver stands for, then PC voters should do the same with him.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.