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thames

I’m feeling very disconnected.

This has been a very strange, exciting and nerve-wracking year. My work flow has been a rollercoaster of busyness and quiet, changing massively as I’ve moved from trying to manage my own business to becoming an employee of the company I’ve been an associate with. Our family life has changed greatly as Sarah is now 5 months pregnant, and we ready our home, lives, minds and hearts for our first child. Our priorities and perspectives have shifted as we work to find balance to our lives as many things change, and I find myself struggling to stay both sane and living a life I can be happy with. I find myself dropping a lot of things I usually enjoy, hardly reading or writing in the past few months as I often find my mind terribly blank by the end of the day (my RPG gaming is however doing extremely well).

It was a hard decision to make, but as work and life has changed I’ve decided to step back from being on the boards of the Argyle Community Association and Strengthening Argyle. I am proud to have participated in these groups and to meet/work with the amazing people there, and am disappointed to have to step back from these responsibilities.

It also leaves me trying to find my place in our community of Argyle, and in the greater collective community of London. I’m so glad to have met (and continue to meet) so many people across the city working to make it even better, and it leaves me wondering where my place in that community is. I want to continue to participate, yet often find myself wiped out by the end of the day just taking care of home needs, wants and responsibilities. There are no words for how much I appreciate those that do as much or more than I do and yet manage to do so much for our communities over and above this.

So as I’ve stepped back from these responsibilities (while continuing to help manage the Argyle social media accounts) I try to imagine where I may fit, and continue to help even in my limited ability. If nothing else I’m hoping to re-connect with the Citizen Corps community through events like Pints and Politics (especially before our energy and time are devoured with our new arrival!). I am elated to see that this community seems to continue to grow and spread, each time I am sent a digital invitation the guest list seems to be even larger, and to be more names of people I’ve never met, and expansion groups have been meeting in other communities across the city.

So as I imagine what I can do and where I may fit, I have spent more and more of my time following the news from home, unfortunately without being able to gauge what people are thinking and saying except through digital interactions. I hope that it may be the peculiar amplification of moods and thoughts created through a digital medium that inhibits nuance, but what I am hearing is far less than hopeful, even from some of the brightest stars of engagement I know.

Even as I consider greater involvement and attention to events and politics, it seems that things are breaking down in our country at every level. Between the constantly changing narrative in Ottawa over the Wright/Duffy Senate/PMO scandal, the ongoing Ontario Liberal controversies or the daily international headlines over Rob Ford, something is rotten in the state of Canadian politics. And we’re all getting tired of it.

I think it is partially the deep need to be involved reawakening in me as I find a new normal as I prepare for my new life, but I am realizing that issues like this oddly energize me as I come to realize how badly all government needs to be closely monitored and corrected. Completely understandably, the more things go off the rails (especially at all levels, simultaneously!) so many Canadians are turning our backs on politics. Sadly, the more things like this happens, the more credibility there seems to be to attitudes like “they’re all the same”.

So, what is to be done?

This is the question I am nowhere near answering. I hope as I get back into writing, and being involved in the London community and beyond, I can read and think and share and discover solutions to this killer, poisonous politics atmosphere we seem so completely surrounded by.

Because the more things like this happen, the more we need to assess our choices as the electorate. We need to examine all possible candidates in all positions, and perhaps more so, we need to continue to hold those elected officials to account between elections. Every person we elect has a duty to represent us in their positions of authority, but we are also responsible for holding them to account.

In times like this, with politicians seemingly making up the rules as they go along, it can be far too easy to give up. But it is in times like this that we are more needed than ever, every one of us, to hold their feet to the fire.

In his latest blog post, Glen Pearson notes:

The simple reality is this: it’s not really about Rob Ford and his ilk; it’s about us, and how much incompetence we are willing to endure.  We got what we voted for and now we’re paying for it.  We need better politicians, but our only way of achieving that target is to be better citizens.

One week ago, as the allegations and RCMP investigation against Mayor Joe Fontana unfolded, I started a change.org petition asking the mayor to temporarily step down.

This is what the petition says:

Mayor Joe Fontana, please temporarily step down as Mayor of London until the allegations against you have been resolved. I do not believe that you can effectively lead London under these current circumstances.

We ask you to consider the same standards our community holds for other similar positions that rely on public trust such as police officers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Stepping down, much like paid suspension, is not a declaration of guilt, but ensures the highest level of confidence in public office.

I didn’t know what to expect, but had no idea the reaction would be so immediate, and strong.

The night I started the petition, I was contacted by am980 to discuss why I started it, and what I hoped to accomplish. The next few days, I was approached by the Londoner, London Community News, Fanshawe’s radio station 106.9 the X, The Western Gazette, CJBK and CBC’s Ontario Morning. The London Free Press, Metro News London, Yahoo! News Politics and National News Watch also ran stories.

And the petition itself grew steadily. By Friday the petition had over 750 signatures, currently sitting at 797.

I am grateful for how much discussion there has been about this important issue. On Friday I decided the next step was to encourage everyone that feels strongly about this issue to contact the mayor and council to voice their opinion, and to send a letter of my own. If you’d like to contact the mayor and council, you’re completely welcome to use this as a template.

This is the letter I submitted to Council:

To the mayor and city council,

I feel that the serious allegations against the mayor and the ongoing RCMP investigation into his conduct have cast a cloud over City Council and the City of London. I support the online petition asking the mayor to temporarily step down in his duties as mayor until the issue is resolved. This petition has been supported by 759 people to date, and the numbers are increasing.

Any person holding a position of public power or influence who has been publicly accused of the misuse of such a position for any means has effectively compromised their own personal image, the integrity of their leadership capabilities, and the way visitors and residents alike view London as a place to live, work, and play.

I want to thank those members of Council that voted for allowing Councillor Branscombe’s motion to be heard before Council Tuesday night.

I am deeply concerned that so many council members voted against even hearing the motion. It is, of course, each council member’s prerogative to decide how they will vote on any given motion, but it is irresponsible to shut down debate before it has even begun, especially when it is a concern that affects all Londoners. Further, the fact that Mayor Fontana voted for this motion, even though it directly concerns him, represents a clear conflict of interest and further tarnishes citizens’ trust in the integrity of council.

Councillor Branscombe’s motion would have been an excellent opportunity for the entire Council to debate the issue with so many Londoners viewing. I hope that those that voted against the motion will reconsider, and allow a debate if the motion comes before Council again.

I ask Mayor Fontana to do the right thing and step down during the investigation process, and work to restore public faith.

Over the weekend, I received respectful and considerate replies from Councillors D. Brown, Swan and Bryant.

Councillor Stephen Orser also sent this reply, within 5 minutes of my e-mail:

I had no idea how to respond.

We deserve respect and consideration from our elected officials. When a member of our council gives a flippant and abusive response to our concerns, it only degrades faith in our local government still further. How much worse, when the abuse is from someone defending the integrity of the mayor under a cloud of investigation.

Coming back to it in the evening, I sent an e-mail to Councillor Orser with City Clerk Cathy Saunders cc’d asking for an apology and explanation. I also e-mailed Cathy to ask what I could do about it.

I have yet to receive a response from Councillor Orser.

Cathy Saunders was extremely helpful in her answers, though she apologized for not being able to do more. She told me that under section D of the current Code of Conduct, the only avenue for complaint is to the Human Rights Commission, and that’s only if there are concerns of a human rights violation.

I then asked her if Council had appointed an integrity commissioner, if that person could investigate complaints like this. She replied “If Council were to adopt a new or revised Code of Conduct, it may include a provision for an integrity commissioner to investigate, but Council will need to consider this as they review their Code of Conduct in the near future.

We may just have the worst council ever.

What do we do now?

What do we do when our council can’t police themselves, but a majority won’t appoint someone who can police them?

Wait and see what happens, or demand answers and respect from all members of Council?

In early June, I wrote this post about the loss of the long-form census and what it means for those that produce and analyze census data to better understand demographics and plan for Canadians. We’re now finding just how destructive the decision to stop the long-form mandatory census was.

In my last post, I examined the Sun Media op-ed “Census cry was all elitist paranoia”, and how the author uses the roughest of population migration data to argue the data is unsullied, without offering any examination of the deeper issues the cancellation presented. Instead of examining skew and how the under- or over-representation different people groups makes the data utterly unreliable, he takes clumsy swipes at so-called “elites”, the only people that apparently care about the change.

Unfortunately this is only one example of insulting and uninformed opinion pieces on the issue. Another is this Sun editorial from February of this year, “Senseless census spluttering ceased”. In particular, this observation by the author:

Notice there are no screaming legions today trying to sell the notion that the census is now meaningless.

No, instead of carrying on with their condemnation of the mandatory long-form census’ departure, they are gleaning the important information the census continues to deliver.

As details of the census findings begin to roll out, there appears to be nothing of great significance lost for the marketers and the analysts to digest and, for governments, NGOs and the non-profits to formulate workable strategies for the future.

All that teeth gnashing was all for naught.

The author also argues that statisticians are quietly moving on with their business as usual with data that is as reliable as ever. Everything now being presented by Statistics Canada as they roll out the first set of data since the decision was made to scrap the traditional census completely contradicts such statements. Such editorials are now proving to be premature at best and at worst, purposefully misleading.

This weekend, these news reports came out, stating that the long-form census cancellation is rendering new StatsCan data unreliable and questionable. Halifax’s ChronicleHerald put it this way:

Data users are advised to exercise caution when evaluating trends related to mother tongue and home language that compare 2011 census data to those of previous censuses,” Statistics Canada states bluntly in a box included in its census material.

Those are strong words for a statistical agency, since they raise profound questions about how the data can be used reliably to come to conclusions about language trends. Officials have undertaken a thorough investigation, with a report to be published shortly.

As a student of information technology, I find the language StatsCan chose striking. It may not read as a glaring condemnation of the new methodology, but as the article observed, what has been said is very strong words for a statistics agency. For now, it seems that with some guessing (a word no statician should ever be found using!) and analysis of contextual evidence from past censuses, some approximation of reality can be gleaned. However, this in itself is a completely invalid method of producing data, and we will only be moving further into the wilderness of guesswork and supposition the more information comes out using this new voluntary method. As the Globe and Mail article stated,

…the method of gathering the new data makes it difficult to assess where Canada is going in comparison to where it has been. Experts say these questions will only grow more complicated as results from the voluntary survey start to roll in next year.

At the highest levels, this information will still be fairly reliable. As the Sun editorials observed, we can still see movement across the provinces and understand where growth is and isn’t happening. But this is far from a complete picture, and is far from the most valuable data. Professionals including urban planners, sociologists and community organizations rely on much finer, community-level data to do their jobs effectively, something that will become much more difficult as time goes on. Observations by Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician of StatsCan until 2008 in this CBC article put it perfectly:

Even if big cities have high response rates, the swings in the data within smaller communities suggest to him that there may well be similar swings within certain groups in urban centres. Good data for the City of Toronto as a whole says little about how the Chinese population is faring, or whether low-income groups in the downtown core have enough daycare facilities.

My hope is that either the current federal government realizes just how damaging the decision to cancel the long-form census was for professionals working to understand the people they serve with the best possible data, or that the next government will reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

If you have an opinion on bringing back the mandatory long form census don’t forget to inform your MP, you can find their contact information here.

As the Ontario Liberal Party has battled through several political scandals in the past months (including Ornge, the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Bentley, and now the resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty), I’ve stood by unsure what to think. Opinions of support/condemnation have been flowing quickly along party lines, leaving me unsure what to think and believe. Discomfort led to confusion and questioning, especially about the validity of the contempt accusations and the surprise resignation/prorogation situation. That news broke out last Tuesday, and Thursday night I published this post.

Little did I know that even as I was publishing it, another political story was breaking very close to home.

The London Free Press broke a story Thursday night that Mayor Joe Fontana may have used federal money to pay for a son’s wedding in London in 2005. That isssue is alone more than enough to fill a blog post, with City Council left to wonder if the mayor should step aside while he is being investigated by the RCMP. However, I want to focus on the issue of partisanship, something that plagues even this issue.

The next day, the issue was addressed in the House of Commons by London North-Centre Conservative MP Susan Truppe. Many Londoners decried the fact that, instead of addressing only the issue, she chose to use the opportunity to attack the federal Liberal Party that Mayor Fontana was a member of at the time. This is her statement.

MP Truppe: “Mr. Speaker, I know families in London, and in fact all Canadians, are worried about the very serious allegations that have been made against their former Liberal MP…The Liberals have not been in government since 2005 and if these allegations are true, then they are still stealing.”

We have seen many examples of partisanship in City Hall, including Councillor Branscombe being slammed for being an Ontario PC candidate, and even a dig at Councillor Armstrong for his marriage to London-Fanshawe NDP MPP Theresa Armstrong. I find this deeply troubling, as I had at one time hoped that municipal politics could be the one arena where issues of party affiliation could be avoided.

The question is, with partisanship creeping into City Hall, how do we reverse the flow? And how do we push back, discouraging it at the local level and lowering the rancour at the higher levels.

Because something definitely needs to be done – this political comic covers the where things stand pretty well. Although it’s American, with the logos changed on the cannons it could describe Canadian politics very well.

Thankfully, things here aren’t quite so extreme. At least yet.

Concern is growing that, as American politics become more caustic, the partisanship and animosity here could increase as well. Pundits have pointed to the rise of Canadian attack ads as an example of the political discourse worsening, and argued it is contributing to growing voter apathy as more voters are turned off from the entire process. Green Party leader Elizabeth May makes a strong case for this in her book “Losing Confidence”.

As someone interested both in politics and encouraging others to participate as well, I concluded my last post with a lot more questions than answers. I was left asking myself “How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?”

I ask this as someone as partisan as anyone else. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and tend to fall most in line ideologically with their values and policies. I’ve been on the London-Fanshawe riding association board, and have considered being involved with the party in different capacities. I’ve talked with others in and out of the party, and was convinced that the partisan arena of politics is to be encouraged to give rise to strong policies and ideas, while overlooking the more distasteful byproducts, diviseness and distrust.

It is from this partisanship that I write this. I write to vow to myself and others that I will look critically at what is said, and attempt to use equal discernment regardless of who has said it. All too often I have been willing to agree with or dismiss a statement only because of the person who said it, or what their party affiliation is. I know that I will try and fail at this, but I want to be better about this, and encourage others to do so as well.

Examining my own practices as well as those of others, I’ve become confused, disillusioned and disinterested over conflicting reports about events from different partisan and non-partisan groups and media. If we’re going to truly work to foster greater citizen engagement, all need to be willing to work harder to give the honest truth of a situation, no matter how good or bad it makes us look. And we must be as willing to call out bad behavior by someone we support as someone we don’t.

No matter how high or low we place people in our estimation, they’re neither angels or demons. They’re human just like us, and although we may disagree with their policies, their attitude or even character, it’s important for all of us to remember.

I had a strong reminder of this last March. Despite the fact that I had been very critical of her handling of the Electro-Motive lockout situation in London’s east end in January, when my Uncle Ross passed away from cancer, MP Susan Truppe sent me a kind message on Facebook with her condolences.

So – where do we go from here? I think that we must each examine ourselves and decide what our conscience dictates. For me, I think I’ll leave party politics at least for now and focus primarily on what is happening at City Hall. All levels of government are important and by becoming involved in party politics in a reasonable way we can hopefully elevate the conversation, but at least for now that isn’t my place.

On Tuesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty stunned everyone by stepping down from his position as Liberal Party leader, and calling for the prorogation of Queen’s Park until a party leadership convention could be held. In an e-mail sent to supporters, he said:

“I feel very good about where we are as a party and a province. But as Liberals, we’re always driving forward. The opposition’s political games are holding Ontario back.”

“We’re also going to consult with the opposition about what they would support to freeze wages. To this end, I’ve asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature to allow those discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature. And when the legislature returns, we will either have negotiated agreements in hand or a firm sense of what the opposition will support.”

From this, you get the sense that he is taking a much-needed step back, putting the government back in order and ready to tackle the important business of governing our province. And there is no doubt that partisanship at Queen’s Park is at a fever pitch, however, there is a lot of ongoing business that Premier McGuinity needs to answer for, including the ongoing investigation of Ornge and Health Minister Deb Matthews, and the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Chris Bentley. He has now added to these (and past) scandals by proroguing our provincial legislature while his energy minister is under investigation for withholding documents, which could ultimately lead to the government being found in contempt.

What bothers me most about these circumstances is the partisanship behind it. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and a supporter of the Ontario Liberals, yet I’ve watched as scandal after scandal has happened in our province. There always seems to be an excuse, mostly that the opposition are out for blood and entirely unreasonable. Not that these complaints are entirely without merit, some sessions of Question Period do look more like a political circus than serious discourse on how to serve us, their constituents. However, the purpose of the opposition parties are to hold the government accountable, especially in a minority situations where less than a majority of the citizens of Ontario have confidence enough to support the Liberal Party.

I’m also greatly concerned to watch excuses being made for actions that are deplorable, as long as they’re being performed by the federal Conservative Party of Canada.

I’m also greatly concerned about the double-standards that seem to be appearing in the way our governments do business. When the provincial Liberals do things that we condemned in the federal Conservatives (e.g. prorogue to avoid trouble, omnibus bills) I am hearing the same excuses from the Liberal supporters that I heard last time from the Conservative supporters. Those excuses didn’t convince me under the blue banner, and I’m still not convinced hearing them coming from the red banner.

This excellent Macleans article by Mark Jarvis covers the prorogation:

Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.

Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration.

This most recent prorogation terminates an ongoing investigation of contempt against one of McGuinty’s ministers and effectively precludes anticipated motions of contempt against an additional minister and McGuinty himself until a new session of the legislature, when McGuinty will no longer be premier.

There is also the contempt situation. With prorogation, “all bills and committees from this short session — such as the committee investigating Energy Minister Chris Bentley for withholding documents on cancelled power plants — die on the vine.” Many are questioning the motives of the premier proroguing this session, when it nullifies the contempt investigation of his energy minister.

And there is the matter of the contempt investigation itself. I have encountered many partisans that are calling the contempt motion an “opposition witch hunt”; yet, when the federal Conservative Party was under investigation for withholding documents on Afghan detainees and prorogued parliament December 30 2009, opposition parties argued the Harper Government was attempting to shut down democracy in Canada. In response, protests were organized across Canada (Sarah and I participated in the one here in London). The arguments I encountered is that the two situations are entirely different. However, I had this conversation with CBC’s Kady O’Malley (an excellent authority on parliamentary procedure) October 2 over Twitter:

Kady: It’s fun to watch Liberals who decried the Conservatives’ refusal to turn over Afghan detainee docs defend the ON Liberals’ contempt.

Me: I’ve been trying to untangle this issue, many have told me this issue is *completely different* than CPC doing it. I had my doubts.

Kady: Yeah, that’s crap.

Me: That was my suspicion, thanks Kady.

Kady: The power of parliament to order the production of papers, people and records is sublimely simple, and absolute.

Me: Makes sense. What I encountered was: documents were produced on time, document request interferred with business in progress etc. etc.

Kady: No, if the documents were produced in time, there wouldn’t have been a prima facie contempt ruling.

Kady: Also, documents are expected to be produced in original, non-redacted format.

Me: Good to know, to me it seemed exactly the same as CPC situation. So what is really different? Just partisanship?

Kady: Yup.

Finally, there is also the practice of passing omnibus budget bills. On this issue I was also reassured that when the Ontario Liberals did it, phrases like “an unfortunate but necessary tactic for a dysfunctional minority situation” were used. They didn’t want to do it, but it was the only way business was going to pass with such a ridiculous opposition.

Meanwhile, with the marathon passage of the last federal omnibus budget bill, the progressive consensus seemed to be something along these lines:

A second federal budget bill is being tabled today, with opposition parties already scrumming to discuss how these kinds of budget bills, crammed with government business that has no business being there, have no place in democratic discourse.

So what do we do with this? How do we move forward?

I understand the importance of parties in the political process. I understand that it is through parties that policy is built, and ultimately influenced in parliament. It is by joining a party that citizens can make their voice heard; sharing ideas, shaping policy and helping to choose candidates and the party leader. Ontario Liberals currently have the unique opportunity to help choose both the next provincial and federal leader of the party.

Yet, we’re frustrated with the partisanship of the party system. Facts become muddied when party loyalty trumps the truth. What should be strategy to best represent constituents becomes a race to forward ideology, with the worthiness of an idea often measured by merely who said it. Voter apathy is high at all levels of government, with only about 60% of Canadians able to vote actually casting a ballot.

How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?

Last Friday, I found out about the “new” abortion caravan organized by a group called the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) traveling the country from Vancouver to Ottawa to push for the re-criminalization of abortion in Canada. I heard about this because I found out it will be stopping in London tomorrow (Monday June 25).

Since learning this, I started to read about the original abortion caravan that also traveled from Vancouver to Ottawa in 1970, pressing for the legalization of abortion in our country. This caravan was started by a group called the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC), and traveled across the country making many stops as they went, holding public meetings and listening to concerns they would aim to address in Ottawa.

The travels of the caravan culminated in the group’s arrival in Ottawa, where several protests were held. These protests weren’t without controversy, as the group carried a black coffin on Parliament Hill, and burned an effigy of then-PM Pierre Trudeau outside of 24 Sussex Drive. “The coffin represented pregnant women who’d died from back-alley procedures or their own horrific attempts with knitting needles or coat hangers” (as told in this story).

Most dramatically, on May 11, 1970 about 3 dozen women took seats in the galleries circling the House of Commons, and quietly chained themselves to their seats. Once ready, they began to read a speech the group had prepared. One article tells it this way:

Just before 3 p.m., one of the women stood up and started giving the group’s speech. As the guards closed in on her, another stood up in another gallery and continued. One guard told The Globe and Mail’s Clyde Sanger that the women were “popping up all over the place.” They shut down the House of Commons, and the Vancouver Sun reported it was the first adjournment provoked by a gallery disturbance in its 103-year history.

The caravan was also Canada’s first national feminist protest. It laid the path for the decriminalization of abortion in Canada in 1988, and marks an important part of Canadian history.

The new caravan aims to parody the original caravan, hijacking its associations and creating new ones. It too is doing a series of speaking engagements across the country, but the vehicles they’re using feature disturbing images of aborted fetuses (as does their website). The CCBR argue that the images force people to think about the issue and sparks conversation, while opponents to the caravan argue the images are being used irresponsibly to evoke emotion and stop people from thinking about the issue sensibly.

Tomorrow evening the new abortion caravan will be in London, at 254 Adelaide St S., London Youth for Christ. A group of activists that feel strongly about a woman’s right to safe abortion will be there to form a counter-protest, as has been happening across the country at every stop the CCBR has made.

Many people are getting involved. Among those that will be there to speak are Irene Mathyssen, NDP MP for London-Fanshawe and Megan Walker, the Executive Director of London Abused Women’s Centre. For more information, the Facebook page for the event is here.

This is a deeply complex and emotional issue. There is a time and a place for open dialogue and debate, but I believe it is irresponsible to use such traumatizing imagery, especially on vehicles where all members of the public will see it whether they wish to or not. As well, for my part, I believe in a woman’s fundamental right to have the option of safe abortion medically available to them.

For these reasons, I will be there to observe and take part in the counter-protest. I ask anyone who feels strongly about this issue and is able to be there to please come.

Two years ago, the Harper Government scrapped the mandatory long form census. Shortly after, the then-head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned in protest.

This leaves us as the only first-world country without a reliable census of our population. Unfortunately this is only one strand in a much larger narrative, as the Harper Government reduces and/or removes sources of information and protection. This is marked most recently by Bill-38, the 425-page budget omnibus bill (and the online protests happening today against it).

Why should we care?

One reason: there are many different professional groups that depend on reliable long-form census data.

My undergrad thesis, “Estimating Population: A Case Study of Accessibility to Outdoor Pools in London, Ontario, Canada”, relied entirely on Statistics Canada. The data was at the dissemination area level, broken down into neighbourhood-sized blocks, the smallest level Statistics Canada data is broken down into, to protect privacy. I studied the theory behind how we understand population and how people move in their environment, developing a new method of doing so in the process. I performed my research by studying how accessible London public pools are to young people but with application to other amenities like schools, grocery stores etc. The research goal was to develop a better understanding of our populations and plan for them.

The Harper Government has demonstrated it doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t confirm their beliefs. As Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird explains, fact should suit government opinion:

Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected? That is a message the Liberal Party just will not accept. It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government. No discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families. [Emphasis mine]

But in striking down the mandatory long-form census, the government went even further. Instead of disregarding unbiased research and suggesting government-funded work should twist fact to suit opinion, Statistics Canada should no longer be in the business of gathering reliable data on the Canadian population at all. This would eliminate the possibility of further credible Canadian social studies entirely.

Those in support of the change made it a case of personal liberty (although there are only a handful of complaints each time the census is distributed, and no one has been prosecuted for refusing to complete the census). They are assured that it is only “elitist” hand-wringing, whose precious data will be perfectly fine.

In fact, those in support of eliminating the mandatory census point out that the number of people that fill it out may very well go up as more people have the opportunity to opt-in, completely ignoring how skew is produced in data. Without a truly random sample of the population, the data becomes worthless as it cannot be verified that it produces a fair representation of the Canadian population. As people groups (be it by income level, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.) become over- or under-represented, the data no longer presents an accurate picture, and makes the work of professionals like planners that much more difficult.

I’ve been frustrated by this since it happened, but have left it alone since the initial outrage. Until this Sun article, published this weekend, “Census cry was all elitist paranoia”, re-opened the wound.

The article describes how the government is still receiving a rough image of the country via Statistics Canada data (a lot of the information cited is available from the mandatory short-form census that every household fills out), and says therefore there was never a problem, just a lot of elites complaining.

First of all, what is an “elite”? There isn’t further mention in the article except stating that the concern over the value of future census data is just “elitist paranoia”, and as an irregular reader of Sun media I can only gather it means professionals, i.e. eggheads.

I guess I fit into that mold. As a student of planning and statistics, I am deeply concerned about research of the kind I performed in school, the kind my professors continue to do. I’m concerned about the work of every type of professional that relies on this data (planners, statisticians, social services etc.), who will no longer be able to say without doubt that the data they rely on isn’t corrupted, casting the value of their work into question. The article states that:

Editorialists opined that the government’s assault on the purity of the census would undermine public policy formation and “hamper Ottawa’s ability to solve social problems.”

Those editorialists would be right, though this ignores the larger (or perhaps smaller) picture. Ottawa relies on this data, but likely the provinces and municipalities far more so. The work our cities and provinces do at the micro scale to understand the people they work to serve rely heavily on the kind of data now rendered highly questionable, at best.

This attitude is unfortunately similar to the one repeatedly shown of late in London’s City Hall as city staff recommendations have been ignored by Council; despite stacks of evidence Council is pushing through decisions against the public interest. I’ve unfortunately been reminded more than once by those who think that they know better (present and past members of Council) that we elected our Council to do the thinking and to rely too heavily on the opinion of the unelected experts would be devastatingly undemocratic.

As an “elite”, I am offended both by the author arrogantly stating this is a non-issue without doing any kind of analysis of how the data is/isn’t compromised (“we’re still getting data, therefore everything is fine” is not a valid argument), and by the lack of respect for those that do the analysis. Planners use this data to understand the people they work to plan for and to serve them most effectively and efficiently. When knee-jerk, uninformed decisions like this happen, it only makes their jobs much more difficult.

As written in my previous post, water conservation advocate Maude Barlow spoke at London’s Aeolian Hall Wednesday night, joined by two local water, habitat and ecosystem conservation advocates. I was glad to be there for the talks, as well as the great performance that kicked off the event.

There was an enjoyable surprise start to the evening in the form of a performance by the El Sistema Aeolian, and a brief introduction to the program. The introduction included a video briefly explaining the El Sistema project’s beginnings in Venezuela, available to watch here. I was delighted by the skill of the young performers, and was interested to learn more about them, having seen the group open a City Council meeting a couple months ago. The main source of their talent is the neighbourhood surrounding the Aeolian, specifically students from Lorne Ave. Public School. The program began in London November 2011 and is already flourishing, I look forward to seeing it continue to grow and spread.

After the performance, a traditional native elder of the London region’s Chippewas of the Thames performed a traditional ceremony celebrating the natural world, and specifically the water we all depend on for survival.

Thom McClenaghan, the President of the conservation group Friends of the Coves Subwatershed then started the night’s talks. He spoke about their group as well as work happening throughout London to protect, preserve and educate about the Coves and the other subwatersheds in the city. He explained how subwatersheds such as the Coves connect to larger watersheds like the Thames River, which eventually drain into large bodies of water, in our case, the Great Lakes. This message tied in well with the other two presentations.

Patrick Donnelly, Urban Watershed Program Manager City of London spoke next. His talk echoed Thom’s message about connectivity, and also discussed London’s deep connection with the Great Lakes. As we became very aware of last week, London draws its municipal water both from Lake Erie and Lake Huron, a very unique water collection method, and one that kept the city receiving at least some new water to bolster reserves while the Lake Huron pipe was unusable. He outlines how people in every watershed depend on those upstream of them to preserve the quality of the water for those below them, and how the water ultimately returns to the sources we draw from, reminding us that we must be very careful of what we dump in our streams and rivers, as well as directly into the Great Lakes. He also outlined some of the ways the city is working to take care of our section of the Thames, including working with and encouraging neighbourhood projects to adopt and protect watercourses such as the Friends of the Coves.

This talk led well into Maude Barlow’s message. She spoke passionately about the Canadian, North American and global importance of the Great Lakes, as the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth making up 21% of the planet’s surface fresh water. She talked of how there are many trade and protection agreements between Canada and the U.S. outlining the protection of the Great Lakes, but voiced concerns that as American water sources such as the California Coastal Basin aquifer is depleted and threatens U.S. food security, fresh water such as the Lakes may become too tempting as the next major water source to adequately protect it.

Her message was a strong reminder of just how amazing the Lakes are, and how fortunate we are to have them to enjoy. She spoke about different perspectives/philosophies about water resources such as the Great Lakes (and the global environment in general), ranging from preservation/conservation-led beliefs that see resources both as a gift and a responsibility to be protected for future generations, and much more human-centric views that see the natural environment as available firstly for our use and as an economy driver. She said that it doesn’t have to be a case of the economy vs. the environment, but encourages all citizens and businesses to strive for creative methods to both boost our economy and preserve our natural world for future generations.

As Maude noted, this talk came at a very relevant time for our city, as we were under an outdoor water ban last week, and this article was published yesterday. It states “With a meager 21 millimetres of precipitation falling in May, it was the second driest May since the record was set for London in May 1954 at 13.8 millimetres, according to Environment Canada.”. As well, May was another month in what has been an exceptionally dry spring, with the Upper Thames Conservation Authority issuing alerts that the low precipitation levels is causing low river levels which in turn may harm water and habitat quality (though we were fortunate today to get a great deal of much-needed rain, which will hopefully reduce the impact of the spring drought).

I was glad to have been present for the talk, but was left somewhat at a loss. We can each work to lower our water consumption, but there seems to be many elements entirely out of our control or influence. As well, Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians are a polarizing group in Canadian advocacy/politics, and one of a diverse group of voices on the subject. I hope to continue thinking and learning about the subject of water conservation, and writing about it periodically here.

I was struck by her message, but it is something she said after that has really stuck with me. As she met with the audience, she said “We only have one chance here, so should make the very most of this time”.

As we try to balance the various elements of our lives and attempt to live out our beliefs even as they continue to be shaped, we can easily be bogged down. This message is a fresh reminder that we have only one chance in this world, we should continue to work and do all we can, while we can.

I’ve been reflecting on citizen engagement, all the forms that it can take, and what has compelled me to be involved.

I believe this conviction has been built steadily over time through many experiences and a need I see for all citizens to step forward and participate in their communities. However, there is one specific set of experiences I had when I was a teenager that I think set me on this path.

I participated in something called the Bronte Creek Project. For one semester of high school, I left the conventional classroom and joined 14 other students, 3 co-op students (that graduated from the program the semester before), a TA and a teacher at an outdoor education centre at the Kelso Conservation Area outside of Milton. I learned and earned 4 grade 11/12 credits in English, outdoor education, environmental geography and interdisciplinary studies, and spent a month of that time teaching basic ecology and environmental conservation to grade 4 and 5 students. I shared in leadership and team building exercises, learned winter survival training skills, and completed the semester with a 5-day winter camping trip near Temagami.

I’m glad that I participated in the project, for many reasons. Though I continue to be shy, I think the program helped me come to a much greater acceptance of who I am, and discover the types of leadership I’m capable of. It taught me a great deal about our local ecology as well as about our entire planet, and taught me how to in turn share that knowledge with others, including how to teach grades 4 and 5 students in the outdoor education centre environment. I learned a great deal about how to prepare healthy meals and about personal fitness/wellness, as well as outdoor survival training that we as a group used in our trip in mid-January to Temagami.

The project is all about stepping out of our comfort zones, building life and leadership skills, and challenging ourselves to do and be more. I continue to look back at this time as I struggle to become more active in my community against shyness and reservation. What Bronte Creek taught me is that we’re all leaders in our own way.

With these thoughts, I was deeply saddened to hear yesterday that part of the 2012 federal budget was eliminating funding to the Katimavik program (as posted here). The organization’s mission statement is/was “Engage youth in volunteer service and foster sustainable communities through challenging national youth learning programs.” Although I didn’t go through the program, I had the pleasure of working with students from all over the country during high school in Wiarton, an experience that helped shape who I am, and in time helped to lead me to enroll in Bronte Creek. As well, the experience of seeing and experiencing different parts of Canada and assisting vulnerable members of those communities helped build future leaders, while the students that joined our community through Katimavik volunteered for many of our community and charity groups. My concern is that, through saving short-term by cutting the funding to this program, it is depriving both the students that would have continued to benefit from the program, as well as the communities that work with them and would benefit from their future leadership.

However, the discussion continues. If you have experiences with the Katimavik program, you can share them here. As well, the organization is asking for their supporters to contact their local MPs to push for a reversal of this decision. This article features some of the social media reaction to the announcement, while the organization’s plea to be spared the budget ax is also covered here. The article includes a statement by a former participant about the formative experience he had with Katimavik:

Halifax resident Calvin Horne, who grew up in Calgary, said he was grateful that Katimavik gave him a chance, as a 17-year-old participant in 2005, to live and do volunteer work in small towns like Wawa, Ont., Trois-Rivières, Que., and Deer Lake, Newfoundland.“I wasn’t too sure about what I wanted to do with myself. It gave me great insights,” Mr. Horne said. “I am really disappointed with this decision. It deprives communities and young people of an opportunity to grow and build something together.”

I believe that we as a country should continue to support organizations like Katimavik, Bronte Creek and any others that help train our youth to become our next leaders through personal growth as well as outreach and support for their communities – the more connected we are with our communities and our entire nation, the better.

Ultimately this is a citizen engagement issue for me – I continue to struggle to find my place in my community, and where I want to focus my time and energy. We should encourage and promote programs that support our youth and empower them to step out and grow their leadership skills while working in communities across the country. We should also work to step out of our own comfort zones, try something new and different and connect with those around us. I’m still on that journey, but have been very glad for the experience this far – I’ve met many amazing people in our city, re-connected with our civic process and learned about many of the terrific art and culture projects happening in our community. I firmly believe the more we talk, debate, learn from and encourage one another, the more differing opinions we take in, the more we sharpen ourselves and our beliefs while working in our communities, the stronger those communities will be. We are all unique with our own talents and beliefs; where we live, work and play can benefit from all of our input.

The simple motto of the program that really started me on this path of citizen engagement, City Symposium, is “Be Curious. Do Good.” While I and everyone else involved continue to ask what this means and discover/live out that truth in their own way, I can say the journey so far has been deeply rewarding. I hope we can all continue it together.

*This post is stemming from my earlier posts “Life & Death” and “It’s All Politics”.

As I wrote the last post and continue to read different perspectives about the robocall suspicions and everything else happening at all levels of politics, I continue to drift back to previous thoughts and posts I’ve written.

This week has been a keen reminder about the frailty of life and has made me think more about myself and who I want to be/what I want to accomplish, and the type of life I want to lead. I want to be a more connected and engaged citizen and person, to live as the best possible person I can be even as I continue to struggle to find what that could possibly mean. So, muddling through life the way we all are, more or less.

Arguably on the other end of the spectrum, we see politics. Over the ages we’ve worked to construct the best system to have governance over people that manages to represent all people fairly and somehow manage to have their voice and perspective heard while not trampling all others. Or at least pretend to, with many of the uglier aspects of human nature leading to all kinds of abuse and corruption.

In the process humanity has struggled through many different forms of government from all over the political and philosophical spectrum, and we’re still struggling. Through it all, instead of having the epicenter of our government being an arena of intelligent debate and sound reasoning, it often dissolves into nothing more than bitter personal disputes and vendettas publicly funded. In Taiwan, the Legislature has been cleared by all-out brawls. In the United States, it wasn’t too long ago the country faced a budget crisis where members of the House wanted to vote on their principles of smaller government and not raise the ceiling, despite the fact it could plunge the country into bankruptcy (a sword of Damocles that only continues to hover overhead). Here in Canada, name calling, bitter positioning and even allegations of voter suppression win out over representation of the public’s interest.

Tempers flair and personal interest takes over. This is all very human, but it can be argued that instead of creating a culture and atmosphere of mutual cooperation, government can create situations where members are more willing to make a poor decision than to admit wrong, and more willing to damage the public and public perception than accept defeat.

For a little while, all of it fell into the background for me this week.

I received many kind condolences for our family’s loss this week, I’m so grateful for them all. One I received on facebook did surprise me though, received from London-North Centre Conservative MP Susan Truppe (@susantruppe). I wasn’t at all surprised because of how I understand her character, but because we’ve never met, and I have often commented on her facebook posts since she was elected to give (I hope fair) criticism of her posts. I was very touched by her thoughtfulness, and we’ve since talked over facebook. What struck me most is the pure humanness of it – despite our differences she knows what it’s like to lose a loved one and expressed her sympathy. She has also encouraged I and others to provide feedback regardless of if it is in agreement or disagreement with what has been said. Although I’d like to be wrong I believe this kind of quality is very rare in politics, I hope we may see more. I often disagree with her/the federal government on policy, but to know that she is listening means a lot. We should all be able to expect as much from every member (MP, MPP, City Councillor etc.) representing us in the different public spheres, but that just isn’t the case.

Andrew Coyne (@acoyne) wrote this excellent article this week, titled “Robocalls and the moral wasteland of politics in Canada”. In it he describes the difference between amateur and professional athletes, where the higher you get in a sport the more allure there is to take an win-at-all-costs attitude. He argues the same goes for politics, and it’s what has produced the murky reality we now face, where strategies like voter suppression may become very tempting. This is disturbing though unfortunately less than surprising, as Canadians continue to leave interest in politics of all levels in droves as statistics like our abysmal polling numbers continue to show. He also observes how parties tend to object and attack on issues where they are most similar, meaning that the bluster is geared to produce an inflated idea of difference instead of accepting and encouraging mutual strategy and understanding. In short, instead of cooperation where it seems most possible, partisan politics wins out. Andrew concludes the article with the words

Watching the Tories defend themselves today, with their characteristic mixture of bluster and spite, it seems more of a piece with the behaviour of which they are accused than a refutation. Scandal may be the symptom, but partisanship is the disease.

In response to Andrew’s article and the sharing/conversation that followed online after, Chris Loblaw wrote this blog post, “In defense of Partisans”, offering clarification on the word partisans, reminding us that “‘partisan’ isn’t a dirty word”, and a partisan by definition is “a supporter of a person, party, group, or cause”. To continue the sports analogy, it can be like the fan base of any team, with a wide range of people and ideas within any pool. Some may be blindly partisan, but others cheer for their “team” because they truly believe they are the best and will be all too happy and qualified to tell you why. However, for those that are devoted to the game as well as those that play it, it’s all about being the best while playing fair. Here, some common ground can be found with Andrew’s article – we shouldn’t be ready to accept everything our team does as just when there is proof to the contrary, despite the fact we don’t want to hear our team has behaved badly. We should demand a group willing to both fairly represent us and to get into/maintain power fairly. Have we and will we ever truly see such a group of people? Perhaps not, but I hope we still strive for that goal.

Finally, Glen Pearson (@glenpearson) wrote this terrific blog piece this week, “We Found Love In A Hopeless Place”. In it, Glen describes his reasons for not seeking re-election nor other political positions, and why his place is with his community. He describes how he was able to have some leniency from his party during his time in politics to speak with members from other parties, and how he had moments of quiet to speak with Conservative members that, like him, wanted to see compromise and cooperation in the House. Although the current PMO could never permit such cooperation and the atmosphere in the House suffers for it, times will continue to change. He says:

There will come a time when the present PM will move along and the war games will be pared down. Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc and Green alike will suddenly sense that the windows to the place have been opened. The bars on Sparks Street will again be filled with MPs of various stripes supping together. Committees will find compromise and a sense of personal responsibility and dignity will quietly take their seat in the Chamber.

So where does this leave us? For me, at least, with hope. I struggle with political affiliations and how I want to be civilly engaged, especially in these times of political pessimism and cynicism. I will hold out hope that we may in future see more examples like Susan’s and Glen’s, where members of our government reach out to those opposite them in compassion, humanity and understanding. We need more people willing to come across the real and perceived barriers that divide us and find real solutions that find that almost mythical place between individual need and compromise. Politics has been likened to sport, but I believe a situation that encourages any one group to “win” doesn’t reflect the fact that they are working on behalf of all Canadians, including those that have not and may never avow to be in their fan base.

How do we do this? I still believe our answers lie in alternative election methods like proportional representation, but I will continue to read and learn about it and the different forms it can take – as well as brainstorm what can be done in the meantime. Even if we were to move to another election method, it would take a great deal of time and it would seem an active and informed electorate – which is the ultimate goal regardless.

As always I complete this with more questions than answers, but I hope that we as members of a community, province, nation and world can all start and continue meaningful conversations. May we all live boldly and break barriers as others have done. We need to find affirmation and support in those that agree with us, but even more so, we need to find genuine conversation with those that don’t.