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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.

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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.