alberta

Dear Albertans; an Open Letter to Everyone

Dear Albertans,

A few weeks ago I wrote an open letter to Jim Prentice. It generated a lot of conversation, both from people agreeing with my sentiments and others who hold the opposite view. That’s exactly what it was supposed to do.

The more I thought about the letter and the response to it, the more I realized that we needed to be sparking a different conversation. Not a conversation about Jim Prentice and what he should or shouldn’t do. He is, after all, one man (albeit a powerful one) at the pointy end of the stick. Easy to blame the stick when it whacks the wrong thing, harder to have a conversation with the hand that’s wielding the stick.

And fellow Albertans…we need to have that conversation. We need to ask ourselves if we’re truly pointing that stick in the right direction, and, more importantly, if we even have our hands on it any more. I suggest that we don’t, because if we did we wouldn’t have seen half of the scandals, financial abuses and bad policy decisions that have plagued this province in the past few years and seem to be continuing.

So, in the spirit of the previous letter, here are my Top 5 pieces of advice for Albertans to help get us back on track.

1. You know when you’re driving and you go to merge or change lanes, and someone slows down to let you in? Give them a damn wave. Not only is it courteous, it’s an acknowledgement that there’s someone else on the road. And that someone did something nice for you. They weren’t so absorbed in their own self-importance that they couldn’t see your need to safely continue on your journey, and give their brakes a tap.

2. Speaking of acknowledging other people on the road…we need to talk about taxes. I know, that’s pretty much a 4-letter word in this province. The thing is, we’ve somehow gotten it stuck in our heads that the lower our taxes go, the better off we’ll all be. And although that’s probably true for higher income earners (who worry less about the costs of things like increasing school fees, expensive childcare, post-secondary tuition), Alberta’s 10% flat tax is actually making the poor and working class worse off. There are incredibly reasonable alternatives that would retain Alberta’s relatively low tax environment while providing stable revenues for things like education and healthcare. And yes, our spending can probably be better managed, and we can and should find efficiencies wherever possible. But 40 kids being taught in the gymnasium is not the kind of efficiencies we should be going for.

3. We’ve got a gambling problem. Let’s imagine for a while that Joe Albertan is looking to settle down, buy a house and raise some kids. He’s got a decent salary, but also has a bit of blackjack habit and stops in at the local casino regularly. He’s been on a winning streak for awhile, and starts to think that this winning streak is a permanent fixture in his financial picture. So he buys the biggest house he can, complete with a big truck, a boat, a pair of quads and an RV. Life is good. Of course, as all gambling streaks go, his starts to come to an end. And he’s not even losing money at this point, just not winning any more. Just breaking even. He can’t keep up with the bills, so he has to start making some tough choices. He doesn’t build any new schools. He blows up a hospital. He stops cutting the grass and fixing the little things around the house as they wear out and break down. This goes on for awhile until he starts to win again. Then, instead of fixing things up, he goes on a holiday. He gives all of his friends and relatives 400$ worth of “JoeBucks”. He starts to build a Sky Palace.

I think all of us can agree that Joe has a full-blown financial management problem on his hands, rooted in an over-reliance on speculative income (blackjack) and a penchant for extravagant spending. Sounds strangely familiar…

4. That PC super-majority? In the last provincial election we turned out 57% of eligible voters. The PC’s captured 44% of the popular vote, which is only 28.4% of eligible voters. Which means that Albertan’s either didn’t vote for the PC’s, or voted against them, by an almost 3-1 margin. Let’s talk about the 860,000 of us that didn’t bother to take a few minutes out of our lives to acknowledge that we live in a free and democratic society, and the price we pay for that is a few minutes of our time and some thought about the future, once every couple of years. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed the results. But one day it might.

5.  Politics and taxes aside, if you really want to make a difference in your own life and the lives of people around you, then just start. Do something. Volunteer for a local non-profit. Take your beer money and donate it to a worthwhile cause this month. Join a board of directors. Clean up a stream. Say hi to your neighbour and shovel their walk. Share and comment on this blog post.

And when people slow down to let you in, give them a wave.

Dear Jim; An Open Letter to Alberta’s Premier

Dear Jim,

I like you. I really do. I think that your first couple of months in office, after officially winning a seat in the legislature, have seen some movements in the right direction (#Bill10 notwithstanding). Of course, all you’ve really done is reverse or deal with a lot of the bad decisions made by your predecessors. From selling off the air fleet to reversing the decision on the Michener Center, you’ve had your hands full of messes to clean up.

Of course, along with cleaning up The Party’s act, there have been some political feathers in your cap. Winning the four by-elections and assisting Danielle Smith with the neutering of her own official opposition are certainly a testament to your growing political capital and obvious prowess.

I like you, so here’s some (obviously) unsolicited advice, in the form of a Top 5 Top 6 List.

Number 1: Stop calling me (and every other Albertan) a taxpayer. We’re not cows to be milked. I’m a taxpayer once every two weeks when my paycheque gets cut. Every other moment I’m a father, husband, employee, boss, son, neighbour, volunteer…and most importantly, a concerned citizen of this province. Concerned that every damn conversation boils down to what the “taxpayers” are going to think. Try asking me as a father instead sometime.

Number 2: Don’t just slaughter some sacred cows, fire up the grill. Progressive income tax, revenue neutral carbon taxes, provincial sales tax, oil & gas royalties…you name it, we better be moving on it. Alberta could, and Alberta should.

Number 3: Stick to the laws your own government enacted, particularly the one about the next election being held sometime in the spring of 2016. I (and many fellow Albertans) are pretty much done with your party playing political games and running this place like it’s a little #PCCA fiefdom. It’s not like there’s a shortage of work to be done in the next year.

Number 4: The Environment. You know, that big ol’ place that provides food, water, air, etcetera…it’s suffering. In a big way. For far too long we’ve sacrificed our relationship with our natural spaces in the name of frenetic and unsustainable economic growth. From fracking to clear-cutting, rampant off-highway vehicle use in our headwaters to the oil sands, turning the corner on environmental issues and bringing some reverence back into our relationship with the earth should be a top priority.

Number 5: Last, but definitely not least, get out a little bit more. And I don’t mean down to the Superbowl to stump for the Keystone XL pipeline. Get out of your party’s vested interest in the status quo. Get out of the mindset that Albertan’s won’t tolerate some needed change around here. Get out and talk to people who haven’t spent their entire careers amplifying the issues that we now face.

Number 6: Finally, if you’re hell-bent on balancing the budget through spending cuts, which you seem to be (as opposed to the very good advice in Number 2), don’t do it on the backs of vulnerable people and children. Our educational system is already maxed out. I visited a local elementary school earlier this year and there were classrooms in the hallways. Classrooms in the staff room. Classrooms in the gym. I’ve got a 3 1/2 year old son and I’m more than a little anxious about the quality of his education in the coming years. As for the vulnerable, if there’s one thing that Albertan’s will tolerate less than a tax-system overhaul, it’s the further dismantling and degrading of an already fragmented and incomplete support system for vulnerable people. Albertan’s, as you know, are the kind of people that do what it takes to make sure their neighbours are cared for…look no further than the overwhelming response to the floods of 2013. Speaking of the floods, if you’re looking for something to cut, let’s start with golf courses.

I like you, Jim. I really do. I think you’ve got what it takes to help create a true Alberta Advantage…not one that’s been built on years of over-spending, under-saving and pillaging our natural resources.

I like you…but I’m probably not going to vote for you.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me for 40 years?

5 Reasons why Albertan’s shouldn’t be consulted on Bill 10 (or GSA’s for that matter)

You probably heard a lot about the controversial “Bill 10” that was due to be passed in the Alberta Legislature last week, but was pulled by the Premier before the third reading due to significant public backlash. Good thing too, besides being a bad piece of legislation it was destined to reinforce the Alberta hillbilly complex, according to Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi.

The bill has been put on indefinite hold, “pending further consultation with Albertans”. Here’s a few reasons why that consultation should never happen.

Reason #1. People should be consulted on things that both impact them and they have either an informed opinion about or lived experience with. Being an LGBTQ youth in high school is a pretty niche experience. The formation of Gay-Straight Alliances in high school does not impact me, I don’t have lived experience with, nor (until I took the time to do some research), is a topic that I had an informed opinion about. Which leads me to…

Reason #2. If you DID take the time to get informed, you’d learn that, among many other startling statistics;

  1. LGBTQ youth are up to 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.
  2. Students who are harassed due to sexual orientation are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide than a student who has not been harassed.
  3. An estimated 28% of completed suicides are by LGBTQ people.
  4. Substance abuse is estimated at 2-4 times higher in LGBTQ populations than the normal.
  5. 86% of surveyed gay and lesbian students in one study reported being verbally harassed and abused at their high school.

Reason #3. The first two weren’t enough? How about the government’s record on doing timely, meaningful and engaging consultation processes that result in significant action on social issues? Oh. Right. We’ve done so well with, say, child poverty.

Reason #4. Assuming that the government decides to ignore reason #1 and actually does “consult Albertans”…what exactly is that going to look like? What kind of questions would you ask? Below are a few samples.

Q1. True or False: LGBTQ teenagers are people with rights and freedoms. (Hmm. They’re definitely people, but I’m not so sure about them having rights and freedoms. Is there a “Not Sure” option?)

Q2. On a scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), please rate the following statements;

  • That Alberta’s high schools are safe and inclusive environments for all students.
  • That we take reasonable and effective actions to protect LGBTQ youth from harm associated with discrimination.
  • That the Alberta Progressive Conservative party can continue to deny that it is, in fact, 2014.

And, finally, Reason #5. The very fact that the topic of GSA’s is being debated in the legislature instead of…oh, just about anything else…. is a sad commentary on how far we have to travel (approximately 40 years, according to the above cartoon). Sending Bill 10 out for “consultation” reinforces the notion that there’s something to consult about, which, if you’ve been paying attention to reasons 1-4, you probably realize there isn’t. There is no balancing of right’s to be done here. The protection of vulnerable teenagers against suicide, mental illness, substance use, homelessness and discrimination IS NOT something that can be stacked up against a parent’s right to choose if their kid gets exposed to reality while in school, or for certain religious school boards to hold fast to a quickly sinking ship.

I’m not against consultation. In fact, I firmly believe we don’t do enough of it. And there should be a conversation on this issue, starting with students and then probably including their teachers.

Just not with me…or the average Albertan.

Change. Harder than you think.

I manage an addictions treatment centre for youth. I get to see a lot of people struggling to change some pretty significant things about themselves and their circumstances. I also have a Master’s in Environment & Management, which basically means I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about systems, change and communications. It’s an interestingly mixed perspective that doesn’t always give me the most optimistic view on societies ability to respond and adapt to changing circumstances. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts on change.

First, what drives change to occur? Psychologists would suggest that cognitive dissonance drives a lot of change at the personal level. In a nutshell, this involves holding two contradictory beliefs, or believing one thing but doing another. The ensuing mental stress often will evoke someone into changing one of two things…either their expectations (thoughts, feelings, beliefs) or their reality (actions, behaviours, circumstances).

Example: For the first 28 years of my life I thought I was healthy. I ate whatever I wanted and got a bit of exercise. I slowly put on ~40lbs in the decade after graduating from high school. My expectation (being healthy) met my reality (I could do what I wanted). Then I was diagnosed with diabetes. Suddenly my reality (being diagnosed with a chronic disease) was in sharp contrast to my expectations (being healthy)The ensuing mental struggle would force me to do one of two things, adjust either my expectations (decide that being diabetic instead of healthy was OK), or change my reality (actively work on solving the diabetes issue). I chose the latter.

With me so far? Let’s take this idea and apply it to something other than an individual, say, a system of some kind. Given the recent changes in the political landscape of Alberta, let’s talk politics.

What’s the current reality of politics in Alberta? I would suggest that given the PC’s 43-year reign, the current reality is that of a rather large and complacent bureaucracy with deeply embedded power structures designed to preserve the status quo. The question then becomes, what’s your expectation of democracy in this province? Do you expect voter apathy? Do you expect the same party to run this province in perpetuity? Have your expectations of democracy changed in relation to the reality we find ourselves in?

It’s always easier to change our expectations then it is to alter our reality. Changing reality takes work. It takes risks. It’s messy and chaotic. And it’s absolutely essential to avoid the slippery slope of changing our expectations. 40lbs isn’t that overweight. Maybe our water doesn’t have to be that cleanMaybe it’s OK if our democracy isn’t that representative.

So, do your expectations line up with reality? If so…great. If not, what are you going to do about it?

Good to the last drop.

I had the privilege of attending a “Water Conversation” last night here in Cochrane. It brought together a range of interested folks (from normal citizens to town employees and businessman) to chat about 4 key areas related to water, and was facilitated by folks from WaterSmart. There was also representation from Alberta Energy and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB)…not surprising given that one of the areas under discussion was hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I’m not going to be able to encapsulate the whole discussion, but a few interesting things popped out for me.

Water usage: Did you know the average Canadian uses 329 liters of water a day? (The average Albertan uses 350L). Compare this to places like France (150L/day) and Sweden (200L). Same, or better, standard of living…half the water consumption.

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Water cost: How much do those 350L cost you? The answer…not nearly enough.

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So what does this look like for Cochrane? Well, if you’ve been reading the Cochrane Sustainability Plan Progress Reports (which I know you have), you would have noticed that the 2011 average for Cochrane was 203L/person/day! This is thanks in large part to an innovative pricing scheme, where residents and businesses pay a tiered rate for water consumption, along with good educational programs.

For the first 25 cubic meters (25000L!), you pay 1.13/meter ($0.00113/L). For 26-60 cubic meters, you pay $1.51/1000L. Anything over 60,000L/month and you pay $2.25 per 1000L.  This tiered rate is in and of itself pretty innovative, but I argue that it’s still too cheap.

If the goal is to continue to reduce TOTAL water consumption (not just per/capita), then we’re going to have to take things to the next level. The flow of the Bow River doesn’t change, and Cochrane’s population is growing rapidly. This scenario will result in water scarcity issues, regardless of how efficiently we’re currently using water.

A couple of ideas:

  1. Make the first 40L/person/day FREE. Totally free. Water should be a right, just like the air we breathe. 40L should provide for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation. After 40L….charge the hell out of it. Triple or quadruple the current pricing scheme. Make me think about how much water I’m using, and give me an economic incentive to use less. At 1/10th of a cent per liter…I don’t even blink when I flush the toilet. And I drive a truck on vegetable oil.
  2. Create bylaws around grey water recycling. All the water that goes down the sink or the bathtub could be reused to flush toilets, or recycled and used for watering the garden. Using expensive, treated water for EVERYTHING is unsustainable.
  3. Develop a full-cost accounting structure for water, from intake to discharge. Include that price in the consumption of the commodity. Change the tiered structure so that the thresholds are much lower.

There were some interesting conversations around “private management” of water resources here in the province. A lot of us at the table were pretty leery of that idea, although business certainly has a track record of improving efficiency and getting products to markets in the leanest way possible. What about a social business or non profit? Someone tasked with managing the resource, but not standing to make a killing from it?

I highly recommend you get acquainted with what’s going on with water resources in this province, because it’s changing quickly. Check out the water conversation here (you have until FRIDAY APRIL 12th to contribute to the online survey).