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.

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?

Masquerading as a newspaper

It looks like the political season is starting to ramp up here in Cochrane, with municipal elections looming in the fall. It was nice to see that, despite being on holidays for the past two weeks, I still managed to sneak into an editorial about outgoing mayor Truper McBride.

The editor of the Cochrane Eagle attempts to paint McBride as less than conservative, given his informed and rational opinions on such hot-topic items as transit, wetland policy and urban growth in general. Where it gets a little dicey is his attempt to use me “one of McBride’s most ardent political supporters” as further evidence of his “un”conservatism (by cherry picking the following two tweets from my twitter account…2 out of 1338).

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 2.02.01 PM

Now, what you should notice about this first tweet is that it’s what’s known as a “retweet”. Most twitter users understand that just because someone has “retweeted” something, that doesn’t make it their opinion. It might just be interesting, absurd, amusing or a host of other things. In this case, if you read the original article, it’s about how privatization has failed Americans in some pretty key areas, in pretty big ways. Interesting stuff, but full of that horrid thing known as “information”, that tends to be an annoyance when it goes against “ideology”.

The other tweet that is commented on as further evidence that I’m obviously not the kind of guy that would support a real conservative candidate is found below.

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 2.07.26 PM Since when is consumerism and obesity highly charged political territory? Liberal, Green, PC or NDP…I’m hard pressed to find someone who supports us promoting much more of either of those things. And next time you’re at the mall, sit in the food court for awhile and just observe. I should have made the comparison to East Hasting’s street, given how much dopamine and oxytocin are flowing in people’s brains as they eat refined carbs and spend money.

What’s really at issue here is the following;

1. The need for municipal politicians to be labelled according to political party. This is terrible for communities. The role of a municipal politician is to weigh information and make rational decisions for the long term health and well being of an entire community, not some portion of it that shares broader ideological bents.

2. The characterization of conservatives as ill-informed, anti-environment, anti-transit, etc. (you know, the opposite of Truper McBride). IF I was a conservative (I’ve actually voted for a different party in every provincial and federal election, including a vote for the PC party on the last round), I’d be mildly pissed at the inferences that the editor is making in his attempts to discredit Truper (and by extension, Joann Churchill).  I know lots of smart, ambitious and politically motivated conservatives. And Liberals. And NDP candidates.

I will give the editor some credit in his observation that politics is changing, and that your “grandfather’s conservatives” are no longer as well represented. He points out that it’s been awhile since a premier made a rude gesture at an environmentalist, or dismissed another parties work as “crap”.  Because, apparently, those are very desirable characteristics in a conservative politician. Rude and dismissive. Nothing beats reinforcing stereotypes while simultaneously trying to create your own.

I don’t know who I’m voting for in the upcoming election, but I think I’ve figured out my system: vote for the candidate that the Cochrane Eagle tries to discredit the most.

So far it’s one point for Joann Churchill.



I’m not a tragedy blogger. Thoughts on Boston.

And yet, sometimes I feel compelled to use the space created by a tragedy to discuss important topics. It seems that the only time these topics come up is in response to tragic events. My post on the Connecticut shooting is still the most popular post on this blog, many months later. Which disheartens me a little bit, because I’ve written on a lot of other things, some equally or more important.

I got into it a little bit today on Twitter with someone on the topic of Justin Trudeau’s initial comments, of the need to examine “root causes” behind these kinds of tragedies, be they terror attacks or lone school gunmen. Apparently a lot of people (government’s included) are content to offer condolences to the victims, condemnation of the perpetrators, and move on as quickly as possible.

I firmly believe that there are no acts of violence, aggression or “evil” without first there being oppression. Whether this oppression is intentional or consequential, it has to be present in these kinds of circumstances. Why else would someone kill another human being? What drives that? The opposite view on this would be that evil is simply inherent in the world, and that some people are going to do crazy, evil and inhumane things for no reason.

Believing the latter is incredibly convenient, for it lets society off the hook. It couldn’t have been something I did (or didn’t do). Be it foreign policy, religious persecution, child abuse, neglect, or marginalizing mental illness (or a host of other oppressive acts)….pretending that there are people in the world that aren’t oppressed, and don’t react to that oppression, is misguided and perpetuates cycles of oppression and reaction.

I’m not suggesting all of our tragedies are a result of racism, but this definition does a nice job of capturing “systemized oppression”.

A common response to questions around “root causes” is that it then justifies the actions of the perpetrator. As if understanding and justifying are synonymous. As if having the real information, the kind of information that can lead to better systems that are less oppressive, is a bad thing.

Unquestionably we need to console the victims, and condemn the acts. But that can’t be the end of the conversation. We can’t shrug our shoulders and say “geez, wish there was something we could have done” and walk on. What if there was? What if there is?

Of course we don’t want to ask questions about root causes of oppression. We might not like the answers.