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I’ve been trying to grapple with everything I heard at the Tamarack Institute gathering in Kitchener, and figure out ways this information can make me a better participant and member in my community and the entire city. One thing that has helped has been reading though books by two of the speakers, “Community Conversations” by Tamarack president Paul Born and “Neighbour Power: Building Community The Seattle Way” by Jim Diers.

Jim’s book in particular has helped me understand what his city of Seattle has done, and dream of what is possible in London. The following quote is quite long, but please take some time to read and consider it, it is a terrific condensing of the spirit of the Tamarack meeting:

Perhaps more important than the financial and other material benefits of civic engagement are the social benefits of a strong sense of community. No amount of public-safety spending can buy the kind of security that comes from neighbours watching out for one another. Similarly, neighbours supporting latchkey children or housebound seniors provide a kind of personal care that social service agencies can’t replicate.

There are other things that communities can do better than government can. Community members have local knowledge and can provide local perspective. At the same time, they think more holistically than governments that tend to specialize in specific functions.

The community is often more innovative than the city bureaucracy and can constitute a powerful force for change. When the City of Seattle planned to build incinerators to deal with its garbage problem, the community demanded a recycling program instead. When electricity rates escalated after the city bought into a nuclear power project, the community pushed for a model conservative program. It was the community that introduced the Seattle Police Department to community policing and insisted on its implementation.

None of this is meant to suggest that there is no role for government. While the community provides a local perspective, government must look citywide to ensure that neighbourhoods are connected and that each is treated equitably.  Community innovation needs to be balanced by a certain amount of government standards and regulations. My point is simply that cities work best when local government and the community are working as partners.

True partnership requires government to move beyond promoting citizen participation to facilitating community empowerment. Citizen participation implies government involving citizens in its own priorities through its own processes (such as public hearings and task forces) and programs (such as block watch and adopt-a-street). Community empowerment, on the other hand, means giving citizens the tools and resources they need to address their own priorities through their own organizations.

In his book, Jim outlines many methods Seattle has used to empower communities across the city, and bring them together in sharing goals, aspirations, dreams, people and projects so that they can move the city together more effectively instead of overlapping.

One particular example that jumped out at me was the city’s Neighbourhood Matching Fund (similar to London’s SPARKS Neighbourhood Matching Fund, though larger in scope), where communities could bring forward proposals to the city with requests for money, resources and city personnel the community have identified as needed to see their project into reality. The projects are ones identified as being high priority by the community, instead of from the tradition where the priorities are identified by the city, often with little or no community consultation. The matching comes from an expectation the community would include in their proposal their “share” in the project, where skilled work by community members and donated materials would be valued and added, making the proposals more accessible to lower-income neighbourhoods.

It also challenged communities to assess their assets, a key component to the community philosophy of the Tamarack Institute. Jim tells countless success stories in his book, highlighting that communities identified as “high-risk” or “struggling” in city assessments were some of the most mobilized by the matching program, allaying initial fears they would be ignored against better presented and argued proposals by affluent neighbourhoods.

The part I’ve been struggling with since returning to London from the conference with a head full of great information about what other communities have been doing is trying to condense it down into easily actionable projects and events in our city.

So what can we do?

Here are 3 online resources that are great starting points:

Urban League of London @ULld

The Urban League describes itself as “an umbrella group whose members include a number of neighbourhood and ratepayer associations in the city of London, as well as a smaller set of (primarily) environmental or heritage community organizations.  Individuals with an interest in urban or civic matters may also become individual members of the League.” Their website provides a number of terrific resources, including a listing of all registered community organizations and neighbourhood associations with a search that points you to the closest association to you, planning notices in the city, information on how to get involved with the League and other helpful links.

The NeighbourGood Guide @LDNeighbourGood

This website allows Londoners to “like” and share their favourite gems in their community, helping communities promote their favourite places and find out the great places to go in others. As an awesome bonus, the community with the favourite gem is eligible for a $5,o00 neighbourhood enhancement project! The website lists all communities (such as Old East Village and Argyle) for easy searching to see the gems by neighbourhood, as well as providing tons of other links, including 2013 community initiatives and community news in London. The site is fun and interactive, allowing anyone to mark new gems not yet identified, so the content is built by users. Spend some time on this website, I guarantee you’ll find new great places to explore all over the city!

Better London @BetterLondon

Better London is a terrific forum for sharing ideas on how to make our great city even better. You can share brief ideas on the site to be discussed by users and given priority based on how popular the concept is. Other social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be used to further the audience reach, often sparking great conversation on the merits and drawbacks of different ideas. Better London allows Londoners to connect with others in their community, dream together what can be done to make our city and communities better, and work out goals and actions that would make these ideas a reality.

And a bonus fourth! Shameless community plug time: Discover Argyle @DiscoverArgyle

Discover Argyle is a summer-long project launched on Canada Day in East Lions Park that highlights events, places and spaces in the community. The program includes a personal “passport” to Argyle that participants can get stamped at the destinations. The website link includes a full list of events in the community, places passports can be picked up and dropped off, and a blog that will be written over the summer on everything happening.

Over the summer, many community associations are on a break to participate in and enjoy the many events happening in their communities and throughout the city. Events are a terrific way to meet with others, get to know your neighbours, and sew the seeds of further participation. This summer I hope to be in the city as much as possible, hear and see what others are working towards and hoping for. I ask that this summer you may do the same, learn about some of the great things happening in our city, and dream with others of what can be while looking for ways to make it happen!

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This is another topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I deeply love hockey, and yet am dismayed by the amount of violence associated with the sport, and the argument that it is an accepted (and often encouraged) component of this great game. This topic has been often on my mind, but has been slowly gaining greater prominence. Some of the elements that have shaped these thoughts is the sidelining of many players including Sidney Crosby due to repeat concussions, a book I recently read on the subject by Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) of the Hockey News titled “Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing the Sport”, and as the hockey movie “Goon” was released in theatres last weekend. I’ll touch on each of these elements in detail below, but I want to start by describing my introduction to hockey.

I was introduced to hockey at a young age and have always enjoyed it. Growing up in a small town, there were few things to do even in the middle of summer, and the town seemed to shrink even further as each long winter set in. I tobogganed, snowmobiled with my dad and made snow forts. But what I loved most was hockey, and seemed perpetually drawn back to it. Roch Carrier captured this Canadian childhood so perfectly in his famous story “Le Chandail de Hockey”, or, “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating-rink – but our real life was on the skating-rink. Real battles were won on the skating-rink. Real strength appeared on the skating-rink. The real leaders showed themselves on the skating-rink.

There were few places to spend time in town and few things to do, and it seemed that we were often either watching or playing hockey. Every quiet roadway and every spare parking lot and driveway could be in an instant transformed into the next road hockey game. And when we weren’t playing, we were likely found at the local arena to watch the Wiarton Wolves Junior C team play. And this is where I got my first taste and my lifelong distaste for hockey violence.

We were proud growing up that our small town had their own team (no longer, they collectively put up their skates in 2003). After school or on weekends we were likely to be found huddled on the concrete bleachers of the arena to watch our team, and it is there that I watched the first (though sparse) flashes of speed and skill that has since drawn me to watch first the OHL and eventually the NHL. There were moments of brilliance on that ice, but as it was Junior C it was very scrappy hockey, and often very violent. The last minutes of the game were especially fierce, especially if one of the teams were losing badly – the game itself would basically dissolve into all-out brawls between the opposing sides.

Many of my friends cheered these fights which often drew blood, but I always disliked it. Between this characteristic and my small size (I was usually one of the smallest of my class) I became known by many names stemming from “wimp”. I struggled with this, because I never believed my love of the game was diminished by my lack of willingness to watch two men bludgeon each other on the ice.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand the passion and fury that can come very suddenly in any game. In our games we often had to break up fights that would erupt when school-yard rivals found themselves facing off against each other in the grocery store parking lot. I’m ashamed to admit that I got in a few fights myself when I lost control, once after a personal tormentor struck me in the face with his stick – which added the label hypocrite to the list of names. But some saw it as me “coming to grips” with the fact that fighting and hockey just go together. It’s an aggressive sport full of personal grudges, and fighting is a legitimate outlet, they’d say, although after the moment was over I regretted my actions.

This leads me to Adam Protreau’s book. He talks about the culture of professional hockey, and the personal animosity as well as the manufactured rage that the NHL produces, including the acknowledged part the “enforcer” plays (which is the focus of the movie Goon, more on that after). His argument is that the NHL, like any sports marketing machine, attempts to sell to all possible customers, including those that come for violence. I can’t get into all of the points covered by the book, but will attempt to highlight a few of them here. He persuasively argues that:

  • The world of hockey is in a sad state. It has a long legacy of damage done – and it is only getting worse, for a variety of reasons, from the overall player culture to the improvements being made to protective equipment which is increasingly used not for defense but offense
  • Some of the best hockey in the world is also the cleanest (more on that below)
  • Despite the agreed-upon NHL rulebook, there is an unwritten code that is also adhered to (I would compare it to Barney Stinson’s “Bro Code”). It is a code of ethics, but it also makes players above the “law”. This assumption comes with the expectation enforcers will step in to “police”.
  • We are only now learning the full medical cost brain damage is having on our athletes. As medical advances are made and players are being subjected to further scrutiny for damage, we are coming closer to understanding the true cost of every “head shot” that occurs.
  • Professionals from career hockey players (including both players that have been sidelined by head injury and ex-enforcers) and referees to medical experts are coming forward to speak out against what’s happening in the NHL and demand meaningful changes.

The overall message I received was there is obviously a problem, but the NHL is reluctant to make real changes, partially in fear that it may alienate some of its customers. This leads to the question of showing leadership. This article published yesterday seems to point to the fact that without proper leadership from the NHL, junior hockey leagues are considering going forward with their own rule changes. Specifically, it seems they may fall into step with European leagues and eject fighting players from the game immediately, sending a much stronger signal that fighting doesn’t have a place in the game. From the article: “Branch, who’s also OHL commissioner, said the sport doesn’t need violence to sell.” He says:

I believe that there is more and more recognition that our game does not need fighting to survive, to be part of the entertainment package, you might say, because of the concerns of injuries and other concerns that could very well be a byproduct of fighting.

Does hockey need violence to survive? I don’t think so. I agree with Adam Proteau’s assessment that this type of violence was only easily accessible through hockey in past eras, but there are now ever-increasing choices for violent sports on TV from many forms of boxing to UFC . People watch something because of the unique value it possesses. I believe the NHL should sell their true product – the best hockey in the world. I’m not saying that violence in hockey will or should ever be completely banned, but it should hold much stiffer penalties that always stick. It’s still early in Brendan Shanahan’s new role as NHL director of player safety, but he has sent signals that is the direction he aims to take. I hope it happens.

Another point that captured my attention was his comparison of the argument “fighting and hockey just go together” vs. the best hockey games that have ever happened. World championships, Olympic gold metal games – they are all remarkably devoid of fighting. This is because no one wants to be the player that cost their team the ultimate prize by drawing a penalty and putting their team at the disadvantage, and because there isn’t a place on these stellar teams for goons. In these games, pure speed, skill and grace win out on the ice, and we see the sport in its ultimate form. To me, this is actual hockey, and something the league should aspire to. Will it? Hard to say, especially when many that watch still come to the game hoping for violence.

I won’t comment too much on the movie Goon as I have yet to see it, but understand it is in the same spirit as 1977’s Slap Shot. I’ve read several commentaries and criticisms of the film, with comments over a great range, from those that believe the movie was a just a good movie to see with the guys and turn your brain off, to surprisingly thoughtful and insightful into the world of violence in hockey, to an unapologetic celebration of bone-crunching violence (it currently sits at an approval rating of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes). I’m curious about the timing of this film what with the sidelining of its current brightest star and motions by the NHL to change the way the game is played, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see it myself. If nothing else, the creation of this movie proves that the apparent connection between hockey and violence isn’t likely to break anytime soon – in my opinion, to the detriment of the game.

*This post is a slight departure from the small series I’ve been writing on current London and Canadian politics, but I will likely return to it in future posts.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for some time, but haven’t considered in as much depth as I could. The more I learn, the more I am sincerely convinced this is something every Canadian should be thinking and talking about.

I do have to admit that I am very biased on subjects about the environment. Please ask me about the high school semester I spent at a conservation area/natural education centre learning as well as teaching basic ecology. I kid you not.

I want to learn more about this subject. As an Ontarian I will be the first to admit I haven’t been to the prairies let alone to the oil sands – despite being to both coasts I have yet to visit much of the country in between, unfortunately. But I am deeply interested in this subject, especially as it keeps coming up in the news – from seeing our PM Stephen Harper campaigned to sell our “dirty oil” to the States and fail (or at least be set back), visited China in a good-will/trade mission as an alternative source for our oil (as discussed here), and watching the EU as it has debated the designation to place on our oil, and whether they should give it a special designation apart from other oil because of the high environmental cost associated with its manufacture (discussed here, here and here).

I’ve started to read the book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” by Andrew Nikiforuk. I’ve found the entire book interesting, but a passage from Chapter 5: The Water Barons has really stuck with me:

Just about every damn agency in the country has expressed alarm about water use in the tar sands. The Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, for example, a Calgary-based nonprofit research group, declares water use and reuse to be the region’s biggest issue, because “bitumen production can be much more fresh water intensive than other oil production operations.” The National Energy Board, no radical group, has questioned the sustainability of water withdrawals for bitumen mining.

It reminded me of another book I read some time ago by Maude Barlow, former Senior Adviser on Water to the UN GA, Blue Gold: The global water crisis and the commodification of the world’s water supply”. In it Maude makes the compelling case for our dwindling water resources across the world as our populations continue to explode. In particular, she predicts world tensions will increase as water resources including ground water are tapped at alarming rates, and alliances between Canada and the U.S. will become more crucial/contentious as our shared Great Lakes gain even greater prominence in the world as other fresh water resources are depleted. As well, water sources in the prairies will be taxed as the incredibly wasteful tar sands consume water to produce refinable oil.

So what is the answer? These discoveries encourage me that we should continue green energy initiatives occurring across our province, in part because of the guidance of London-West MPP and Minister of Energy Chris Bentley. I understand some of the province’s methods of implementing wind energy projects are perceived as heavy-handed, but I believe they are key if we are going to move towards healthier methods of producing energy. But a greater problem persists – we are deeply dependent on oil to live our lives. What can we possibly do to lessen this burden when so many of the machines we rely on are powered by this dirty source of energy?

Here’s a few of the books I’ve read recently:

  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Fighting the Good Fight by Adam Proteau
  • Tar Sands by Andrew Nikiforuk
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Losing Confidence by Elizabeth May

Books I’m currently reading/have in the pile:

  • A Red Herring Without Mustard, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Speaking Out Louder by Jack Layton
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox
  • How The Scots Invented Canada by Ken McGoogan
  • Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky

I’m thinking  I need to add a bit more fiction to my reading pile. Any suggestions?