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Previous post: Ward 2 Votes

Election Day is finally here!

Today finds us in a very different place than November 2010. Mayor Fontana stepped down before completing his first term after being convicted of fraud. Councillor Joni Baechler is now Mayor Baechler after being appointed to the position until the election. Several wards are without an incumbent, with councillors not seeking re-election, and Councillors Swan and Brown vying for the mayor’s chair. On top of that, we’ve had upsets in the mayoral race as Roger Caranci stepped down from the campaign, after the advanced polls had opened, to endorse his once-rival Paul Cheng, a complete unknown who is polling close behind front-runner Matt Brown.

So – a lot of potential for big changes on council! I’m hoping that this election will help renew interest in the electoral and civic process, and I plan to continue blogging and closely following the next council session.

But most importantly – make sure to get out there today and VOTE!!!

If you aren’t sure about any part of the election, there is still time to get acquainted with where to go and who your candidates are:

Not sure which ward you are in? Check out this map on the City’s website.

Not sure who your candidates are? The City’s website lists all candidates here.

Looking for where to vote? The City website will show you where to go.

Looking for more coverage of the campaigns? My friend Thomas Thayer (@talkw3rds) has written excellent posts on the campaigns in his blog.

Looking for an election night event? Check out Election Night at the Convention Centre!

To finish this post, I’ll leave you with this poem “Your Voice, Your Vote” by the amazing Holly Painter (@Hey_MissP), check it out!

 

Next post: London Votes 2014 Recap

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kingmills_2

Proposed Fanshawe College building at Kingsmills.

08/16/2014 12:25pm UPDATE: I’ve added responses received from councillors to the bottom of this post. 

I’ve been following with excitement the Fanshawe College proposal to renovate the historic Kingsmills building downtown into new classroom space for 1,600 students – as a Londoner and alumnus I’m glad to see the rapid expansion of the school. I watched the Fanshawe presentation to the London Advisory Committee on Heritage (LACH) with great interest (in the gallery with Molly, as Sarah is a member of the committee). The committee seemed equally impressed, and felt that the proposal, though extensively renovating and updating the building, took prudent steps to maintain the heritage of the site. A downtown heritage building that is no longer useful is at risk, and this proposal balanced preservation and occupation.

It is then with great disappointment that I watched Council vote down the proposed project and request for $10M investment by the city, despite the $66M being paid by Fanshawe to make this happen. I was especially surprised that one of the reasons cited by Joe Swan was concern about preserving the heritage of the building – why have advisory committees if their recommendations are ignored? Did he think LACH didn’t dig deep enough, or did he simply not read the report? Fanshawe’s pitch made it very clear that they would be undertaking hassle and expense to not just preserve but to restore the historic Dundas Street facade.

A lot of the issue has been chalked up to an election year – voters are scrutinizing how councillors spend their tax dollars, and with a city that elected Joe “0%” Fontana four years ago, many candidates are probably concerned with being perceived as big spenders. In particular, with Ward 3 Councillor Swan taking a run at the big seat, he is trying to channel a similar “friend of the taxpayer” persona.

However, this is foolhardy on two fronts.

First, this makes it seem that the money would have to be levied through higher taxes, when there is already money set aside for exactly this kind of project. The city has funds for investment and the economic prosperity of the city – surely investing in one of city’s largest institutions to purchase and reinvest in one of the historic downtown buildings is exactly the purpose of those funds? The only other project on the horizon that could be a contender is the hotly debated Performing Arts Centre, and there are assurances that should such a project go forward, there are ample funds for both projects.

Second, Swan of all councillors should be supporting this project, with the main Fanshawe College campus in his ward. Beyond the massive investment in the downtown core, it gives Fanshawe much-needing breathing room as their attendance continues to climb as they expand their course offerings, and they stretch the limits of the main property. Already they have expanded to a massive new building at Oxford & Third as well as the first phase of downtown development, across from the now-empty Kingsmills building. Investing in Fanshawe brings more students to the city and higher demand for jobs including faculty, and gives Fanshawe space to bring 1,600 new students to Swan’s ward. This is exactly the kind of innovative and progressive vision we need for our city, the kind of vision Swan is evidently lacking.

The last vote failed with a tie vote, with Henderson not there – he has indicated had he been there, he would have also voted against the proposal. Those that voted against it were Councillors Bud Polhill, Bill Armstrong, Joe Swan, Stephen Orser, Paul Van Meerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White.

Today, the London Downtown Business Association has called an emergency meeting to address what can be done, but there is only a faint hope – to reignite the debate at Council it would take 2/3 to vote for a renewed discussion, meaning several councillors would have to change their vote.

It may seem a slim chance, but if you think this project is what London needs, please take a few minutes to write to Council to express your views. This is the letter I’ve sent to Council, you’re welcome to use it as a template if it would help frame your thoughts on this important issue.

To London City Council,

I’m writing today to ask you to reopen the debate on the proposal by Fanshawe College for $10M towards their investment in the now-vacant Kingmills building downtown, and to support the proposal. Accepting this proposal would show excellent leadership and investment in our city by this Council. Fanshawe is putting forward $66M into this project, noting that they could much more easily build a new building on cheaper property, but they are choosing to move downtown and invest heavily in one of the historic storefronts, and teaching their culinary students while opening a new restaurant downtown. As well, LACH and senior city staff including Martin Hayward and John Fleming support this plan – as Councillor Branscombe has noted, whether to support this project seems to be a “no-brainer”. This project will pay massive dividends for our city, and be one of the shining moments of this Council session, should it go through.

In particular, I ask Councillors Armstrong and Swan to reconsider their position on this proposal, as this plan will greatly impact their wards. Fanshawe is already stretched to the limits of their existing property even as they are continuing to expand their attendance and course offerings, if this project were to go forward 1,600 students would be admitted to the downtown campus, opening space for 1,600 new students at the main campus. London desperately needs new, innovative minds, every effort should be made to bring more students to the city, and retain them after graduating. Investment downtown creates opportunities all over London.

With this proposal, Fanshawe College is showing vision, innovation and leadership. Today I ask that you stand with them, and do the same.

Thank you for your time and consideration, please contact me if you’d like to discuss this issue further.

Sincerely,

Brian Gibson

Ward 2

 

UPDATE: Below are the responses I’ve received from Councillors. 

I received this response from Councillor Matt Brown 3:05pm August 15:

Thank you for taking the time to write this Brian. Best regards, Matt
Matt Brown
City Councillor, Ward 7

I received this response from Dawn MacLean on behalf of Councillor Russell Monteith 3:43pm August 15:

Good afternoon Brian,

On behalf of Councillor Russell Monteith, thank you for your email. Your comments and concerns have been noted and will be taken into consideration.

I received this response from Councillor Joe Swan 5:31pm August 15:

Dear  Brian

Thank you for writing. I know you care about doing the right thing for London,

Here is some excerpts from my letter to the downtown business association in a genuine effort to keep the project moving forward:

I indicated to the Business association  that it is my belief that all city council members  seek a solution that is good for the entire community and is within the existing City of London budget allocation.

The city has committed $20 million to ensure the College locates in the downtown. The College has indicated up to 20 other properties in the downtown that may be available to make their campus a reality without the need for an additional $10 million of local taxpayer support. Those buildings may be a more economical solution, with the same or better economic impact.

I indicated this particular property (Kingsmills)  was from a construction and facility cost point of view too expensive at $660 per square foot basis, (Fanshawe’s own consultant said the price was “exorbitant” school costs are usually about $350 per sq ft.). Also the location of the project meant the College would exceed the approved budget allocation of the City. The proposal will also demolish an important heritage property. The project does not have Provincial government financial support, yet it is a Provincial responsibility to fund Colleges. As Chair of the City Investment (IEPC) committee I have been made aware of at  least two other private sector owners that have indicated they have viable alternatives that do not require additional city funds. I presume they have not contacted Fanshawe or the downtown association yet as the current plan appears to be an intractable position for the benefit of one property owner.

I met with the downtown business association in good faith to suggest how we all might be able to move forward with a plan for Fanshawe downtown. I believe the downtown business association has the mandate and the capacity to take a professional business minded approach to help overcome difficult issues in the interests of all stakeholders.

I laid out to the association what I believe is a positive process that would move the project forward. I respectfully suggested I and others would welcome an LDBIA task force to look at all options. The LDBIA task force mandate would engage Fanshawe, the City and the Province and the private sector in a problem solving exercise that would achieve the result we all seek which is a vibrant downtown that welcomes education institutions locating in the downtown at an affordable price.

I have been a big supporter of the downtown. The results are clear. I chaired the downtown committee that was recognized internationally as the best in the business. Under my leadership the city committed millions for residential development, public infrastructure, and major destination venues such as the Budweiser Gardens, Covent Garden market and the new library. Much more city investment is on the way with Kilmer, transit, greening the Forks of the Thames and the Dundas flex street to name a few.

It is my view that the opportunity to build a positive and affordable plan for Fanshawe in the Downtown  remains. The city has allocated $20 million dollars to make the Fanshawe downtown campus project happen.

I have done difficult and challenging projects many times. I have done it before and can do it again. The deal with Fanshawe can be done with determined and skilled leadership that gets results.  

I remain confident the Fanshawe campus will be a reality in the downtown. We have the skills and talent we need in London to take a positive leadership role and get the results we all want.  

The College and the business association owe it to taxpayers to look at other viable properties and by doing so taxpayers will get the best value and highest rate of impact in the downtown.   

Regards

Joe

This was my response to Councillor Swan at 10:30pm August 18:

Hi Joe, 

Thanks for sharing your view about the proposal. Having spent the weekend reading about and considering the proposal and speaking to other councillors, I am still convinced that this proposal would be ideal for Fanshawe, the downtown and the entire city. Since you wrote, the LDBA has pledged $1M from their membership towards the proposal, signalling the downtown business community’s support for this specific project. As well, Councillor Denise Brown in speaking to her constituents has indicated that she would be willing to support a $9M loan to Fanshawe instead of a direct investment – is this something you could also support? I think it would at least be a very positive beginning to have partners in the proposal back to the table. 

Also, I noticed that the e-mail I received from Councillor White was very similar to the closing lines of your letter, without citing the source. When I asked her about it she told me that you had “shared his information and gave us permission to use what we found helpful”. Was this information shared with all of Council or just certain members? 

Thanks for your time, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Joe Swan 7:16am August 20:

I am glad to see that the dialogue is still open

I support Fanshawe downtown and am confident the project will move forward, I do not see the need for the City to add another $10 million dollars and I believe the Province has to step up and help fund the school. That is their responsibility.

Further I do not support local taxpayers providing an annual operating subsidy of $150,000 a year to the College every year especially when we have so many local responsibilities to be funded.

Joe

I received this response from Councillor Sandy White 8:21am August 16:

Brian,

Thank you for writing.  I know you care about doing the right thing for London.

 It is my view that the opportunity to build a positive and affordable plan for Fanshawe in the Downtown  remains. The city has allocated $20 million dollars to make the Fanshawe downtown campus project happen.

Council has done difficult and challenging projects many times. We have done it before and can do it again. The deal with Fanshawe can be done with determined and skilled leadership that gets results.  

I remain confident the Fanshawe campus will be a reality in the downtown. We have the skills and talent we need in London to take a positive leadership role and get the results we all want.  

The College and the business association owe it to taxpayers to look at other viable properties and by doing so taxpayers will get the best value and highest rate of impact in the downtown.   

Regards

Sandy

This was my response to Councillor White at 9:47am August 16:

Hi Sandy, thanks for your time and consideration. 

I am glad that you want to see the plan for Fanshawe to expand their campus downtown go forward. I sat in on the presentation to LACH for the Kingmills building and found it a win-win for the college, downtown and a valued heritage site, but understand the concerns about cost and the money requested of Council. 

With the news yesterday that the business association has worked hard to put together $1M over 10 years to help pay for this particular proposal, does it change your views on it at all? I think they’re making a clear statement and commitment to bring Fanshawe specifically to the historic Kingmills building. 

Thanks for your time, all the best.

This was Councillor White’s response at 9:52am August 16:

Brian, the point is best value for dollar and heritage remains a concern. I believe Fanshawe wants to make this happen and they will work hard to find a better deal. Sandy

Noticing that her first e-mail was almost the exact same as the closing line of Councillor Swan’s, I sent this forwarding Swan’s e-mail 5:51pm August 16:

Hi Sandy, I wanted to bring to your attention this e-mail I received yesterday from Councillor Swan, and the similarity in the closing lines to your e-mail to me. Was your response taken from this letter to the downtown business association? If so, you should cite the source. Just wanted to check. 

Thanks, 

Brian 

This was Councillor White’s response with Councillor Swan cc’d at 10:56pm August 16:

Thank you, Brian. Councillor Swan (included here) actually shared his information and gave us permission to use what we found helpful. For me, one very important aspect is the heritage value of the building. It’s not the façade; as much as, the interior of the building. Regretfully the historical significance of this store site has been lost on most of Council and the media. It would be despicable to demo this building rather than preserving the historical value that is far greater than the 10 million. sw

This was my response to Councillor White at 11:00am August 17:

Hi Sandy, thanks for the clarification. Was this information shared with all of Council? 

I agree that the heritage value of the building is extremely important. However, the concerns about the interior will have to be addressed by anyone looking to purchase the Kingsmills property, not just Fanshawe College. From the LACH meeting it was noted that the building is not AODA compliant. To bring it up to code would have to include the installation of a new elevator (the existing Victorian one is not up to code), changing the street entrance including accessible doors and a smoother entryway, to name a few features. There are also structural/safety issues that will have to be addressed. All of these concerns make the site very difficult to work with, yet Fanshawe has taken great pains to address every concern and bring the building entirely up to code. Finally, Fanshawe in their proposal outline how they will save as much of the interior as possible including incorporating original materials into the design. I feel that it would be difficult to find an applicant more sensitive to the heritage of the site than Fanshawe, and should Fanshawe not purchase the property, it will be difficult to find another applicant willing to face the sizable challenges presented by the site. 

Sincerely, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Denise Brown 1:53pm August 16:

Thank you for your email Brian.  Although I do not represent you directly, I feel every decision such as this one affect the entire city.  I am sharing the information below with those who contact me, as I feel the press can be very misleading.  Once you have read this information, I would like to hear from you again.

1.  May 9, 2011 – council approved 20 Million dollars over 10 years for Fanshawe to come downtown with a result of 1000 students.   Today, there are 400 students downtown.  For the record, the Province only gave Fanshawe 6 Million and Fanshawe contributed 14 Million.  So, the municipality paid 1/2 of the total contribution. 

2.  Fanshawe publicly said that they would move forward with the 2nd campus, with or without additional municipal funds. 

3. Fanshawe requested that council give them another 10 Million dollars to bring it to a total of 30 Million which would bring additional 1000 students downtown.  Fanshawe and the press keep referring to 1600 students, but that includes the 600 students that are already part of the 20 Million dollars approved in 2009.  The new proposal would see the City now contributing a total of $30 Million dollars, the Province $25 Million Dollars and Fanshawe $27 Million.  Question:  If Fanshawe already had  an extra 13 Miilion dollars, why did they ask for $20 Million originally.  Why not $10 Miilion.  How much more does Fanshawe have?  

4.  The London Downtown Business Association has now agreed to contribute 1 Million Dollars to this project.  I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but the request from this group for funding from the City submitted March 2014 was over 1 Million Dollars – from the taxpayers.  Question:  Where does the 1 Million Dollars they are contributing really come from?  Is it the merchants reaching in their own pockets or is it the 1 Million Dollars the city gave them for business improvements?

5.  It is to Fanshawe’s benefit to bring as many students in one location as possible. 

6.  Education is a provincial issue.  The province downloads on municipalities on a regular basis and we should be careful not to pay for expenses that clearly fall under the Provincial budget. 

I am speaking to constituents this weekend, and this is the top subject.  I appreciate you taking the time to contact me, I look forward to hearing back from you.
Sincerely,Denise Brown
Councillor – Ward 11

This was my response to Councillor Denise Brown at 7:30pm August 16:

Hi Denise, thank you for the information you have provided. I will try to address each of the points you raised. 

1. Fanshawe currently has 400 students at the new downtown campus, however the facility is still new, and will see expanded use over time. If a brand new facility is at capacity right away, then that facility was built to be too small. Fanshawe have likely left themselves room to grow, and as programs expand there over evenings, weekends, etc we will see more students using that facility.

2. Going ahead with a second campus does not indicate size. Fanshawe could go ahead with a reduced facility that does not meet it’s demand, or allow them to grow. 
 
3. Fanshawe’s ability to raise money is for this project shows their dedication. The additional money they found for this project likely means that something they originally wanted to do will have to wait (that money could have been originally earmarked for something like renovations to main campus, more residences or purchasing property to expand satellite campuses). It is also not prudent to spend everything you have.

4. From the article http://www.am980.ca/2014/08/15/25181/, “The $1 million is a donation from the members of Downtown London, an organization made up of Main Street London and the London Downtown Business Association.” So it seems the business members are contributing their own money towards the project. There may be a misunderstanding about the funding, in speaking to Janette MacDonald of LDBA she told me they don’t receive funding from the city, only approves their budget under the Municipal Act. 

5. I agree that it is to Fanshawe’s benefit to bring as many students in one location as possible. Between the facility that has just opened and the proposed building at Kingsmills, it would create a small campus atmosphere in the middle of downtown, including a new restaurant that showcases the skills and training of culinary students. It also brings many more students to the downtown core during the day, allowing them to experience and spend money at the many excellent businesses in the area. 

6. I agree that education is a provincial issue, and that we should be careful about shouldering any of the provinces’ financial burden. However, the province, through the college, is contributing millions into this proposal. As well, they could build elsewhere at less cost, but they are showing what I think is admirable vision by proposing to renovate a historic and significant London site. I am concerned that if Fanshawe does not purchase Kingsmills whether another buyer could be found for such a unique site before the building begins to show the signs of neglect that put so many of our vacant heritage buildings at risk. 

Please let me know if you’d like to discuss this further. All the best, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Denise Brown 11:59am August 17:

I have had the opportunity of speaking to constituents in my ward, and many do not agree with giving the money to Fanshawe.  Some suggested a loan as we already gave them $20 Million.

What is your stand on this suggestion?

Sincerely,Denise Brown
Councillor – Ward 11
This was my response to Councillor Denise Brown at 2:30pm August 17:
Hi Denise,

I think this is an interesting suggestion, especially if it could see this project move forward. Brantford has used a similar model, using a combination of direct funding and interest free loans to bring post-secondary education to their downtown. 

Would you support the city loaning the remaining $9M to Fanshawe? Would it still be $900,000/year for 10 years, with Fanshawe then beginning to pay it back in that time? With the money already available now and the long timeline (2.5 Council sessions from now) does it make sense to propose such a long-term loan? 

If you were to support it, do you think this proposal would change the minds of other councillors that have voted against the proposal? If this would bring all parties back to the table I think it would be a good idea, especially if it could clear up how the present funds have been/are going to be used. Hopefully an understanding could be made with Fanshawe. With the money the LDBA members are willing to give to the project, it shows that the downtown wants to move forward with this proposal. 

Sincerely, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Denise Brown 4:39pm August 17:

It is something I can support and it is something that I think other councillors may support.  It is worth a try. 

Sincerely,

Denise Brown
Councillor – Ward 11

I received this response from Mayor Joni Baechler 4:30pm August 16:

Thanks Brian. I appreciate you taking the time to email your comments. I will continue to support the project when deliberated on Tue. Aug. 26th.

broken glass

Our home church of First Baptist London has launched a new congregation based on contemporary worship and meaningful community, called Maitland Street Church. It has been a massive undertaking, and since the launch in November has enjoyed a great start.

This should be a major cause to celebrate. In spite of this, I find myself asking – why bother?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been part of online discussions with other Christians/theologians around the church’s stance on LGBT, and have been deeply troubled by what I have encountered – ranging from perspectives such as “what science teaches us about sexuality doesn’t trump the fact the Bible says homosexuality is sinful” to appeals to “natural theology makes it clear homosexuality is wrong”, with one person saying the idea of a homosexual Christian is something they hadn’t even heard of until very recently, and they find very confusing.

Yikes.

There’s absolutely no way to persuade someone if (their interpretation of) Scripture comes before everything else. Modern psychology and genetics teach that sexuality is not a choice, which to me would indicate to me that the entire sexual spectrum is intentional, yet so many in the church continue to refer to it as a “sinful lifestyle”. The longer the church holds onto these beliefs, the further it drifts into irrelevance.

What does this have to do with Maitland? Very little. But as part of the global church it is part of the massive upheavals happening across the world in respect to Christianity, and religion in general. CBC posted an article today called “Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend”, reporting on the rise and fall of churches in Canada and the demographics behind it. As well, NPR posted this article, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam”. CBC reports:

“…in Australia where, in late December, one in five residents identified themselves as non-religious. New Zealand numbers are even more stark. There, two-fifths of citizens identified as non-religious, pushing Christianity out of its longtime spot as the clear majority.

In Canada in 2011, about 7.8 million people — 24 per cent of the population — cite no religious affiliation, up nine per cent from a decade prior.”

I found this interesting, especially reading it in conjunction with the NPR article, which reports how a non-religious church is gaining attention by giving people a place to meet, dance, sing and have fellowship without religion. This is how they describe it:

It sometimes feels like church in the auditorium of the Professional Musicians union in Hollywood. It’s a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are gathered to meditate, sing and listen to inspirational poetry and stories.

But then the live band starts up — performing songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. And instead of a sermon, there’s a lecture by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Jessica Cail about the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.

Churches across North America (and elsewhere) are tackling the massive question of how to keep people interested in going to church, and especially how to draw back the many people that have “strayed” – most churches see about a 1/4 rate of retention from youth to young adults/adult congregants. Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociology professor suggests in the CBC article “…many churches need to rethink their roles and become more family-focused, something evangelical churches have done right for decades, leaving them as one of the few not experiencing substantial drops in attendance. Evangelicals take for granted that they need to have a top-notch Sunday school for kids so the little kids are going to look forward to coming to church,”.

To me, these kinds of suggestions skate over the fundamental issues plaguing the church by making it sound like something as simple as shaking up Sunday School is the solution. As a young adult in the church, I’ve heard many snide remarks from senior congregants ranging from bemoaning “the moral laxness of this generation” to how the entire world is going to Hell via the unbelieving heathens. Not new sentiments, but one that young ears are sharp to pick up, especially when pointing at issues youth tend to care deeply about – issues like LGBT rights/equality and reproductive rights. Why would we put up this?

I know that by stepping away from an organization I am stepping away for opportunity to add my voice, and only contribute to the monoculture with my absence. But, I find myself starting this year wondering if I am really changing anything by being in church, and if it would be better to step away from it, even temporarily. I have been a hesitant Christian/churchgoer ever since I started about 7 years ago, but I seem to be finding especially few reasons to go now.

Not that there hasn’t been liberal movements inside the modern church. Pastor Mark Sandlin has been instrumental in creating The Christian Left and The God Article, which among other movements have provided a liberal perspective in what is otherwise an oppressively conservative culture. Pope Francis has shaken the world since becoming the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Time’s Person of the Year as he has challenged the Catholic Church to move in the world with compassion over condemnation, breathing fresh air into the church. Despite maintaining the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, the Advocate LGBT magazine named Pope Francis their “Person of the Year”. From the CBC article:

The Advocate magazine said it gave Francis the honour because, although he is still against homosexual marriage, his pontificate so far had shown “a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors”. It hailed as a landmark his famous response last July to a reporter who asked about gay people in the Church: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

I’m grateful to have met other liberal Christians through resources like The Christian Left. I shouldn’t expect to surround myself only with like-minded people, but at the same time, it has been an enormous relief to find a wider of community that have similar struggles to me. And they have helped me continue to see the value of being part of a church community, though there are times like this that I still wonder.

So this is what I continue to struggle with. Should I keep with church and attempt to be a progressive voice, or decide that my energy, time and sanity are better invested elsewhere? I hope to remain and to be a positive influence in the church, and to challenge myself to read scripture, research further and work to expand my understanding of different theologies/philosophies in and outside the church. I believe that scientific and spiritual inquiry can and should work together, and I hope to find ways that this can work, and explore methods others use.

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.

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?