A few year-end thoughts about not being frozen in the dark

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law
As I hastily write this from warm, tropical Cabo San Lucas, there are 14 e-mails in my inbox from friends and colleagues from Toronto telling me about the Great Ice Storm that covered the city and the fact they’ve all been without power for 75 hours. Some checked into nearby hotels for Christmas, presumably hotels with enough power to warm them up, give them light, and cook a turkey. I can only imagine what Stuart McLean will do to update “Dave Cooks A Turkey” when he does his Christmas story for 2014.

Cabo is filled with Torontonians (I include those from the surrounding suburbs). There seem to be more of them than Vancouverites (surprising, actually) and I’ve run into them poolside, beachside, and on the various excursions my family and I have gone on since we’ve been here (including diving with “whale sharks,” where the entire bus was filled with Torontonians). They all talked about the ice storm they missed (or suffered through for a day but made it to the airport anyway). They also talked about their mayor, and describe him more or less the way American late-night talk show hosts describe him.

Two observations come to mind talking to these ice storm refugees, neither of them being particularly legal in nature: first, the importance of local government, (especially in an emergency), and second, the overwhelming and undeniable need for energy (especially in an emergency).

As for the first issue, my old friend Chris Coleman, an alderman in the City of Victoria for decades, once told me nationbuilding in the next 25 years in Canada may be something local governments have to take responsibility for, given the financial and political constraints imposed and self-imposed upon federal and provincial governments.

I read into this comment that if the senior levels of government are either broke, going broke, have other priorities, or, for ideological reasons, want to reduce the power (and expense) of government, it may be left to local and municipal governments to build (or perhaps rebuild) the Canada of the 21st century. Of course, if local government has no money to build this new Canada, then where does that leave us?

Because I mostly agree with Chris, I often suggest over polite conversation the GST (or that portion of the HST that comprises the GST in some provinces) should be returned to its original seven per cent from five per cent, and the additional two per cent we used to pay anyway, be sent back to local governments to fund the capital cost of municipal infrastructure projects — roads, bridges, subways, bike lanes, homeless shelters, power lines, sewer and water upgrades, power upgrades . . . that sort of thing. The tangible things people can touch, walk on, turn on, turn off, drive on, or flush and which need to be replaced every generation or two.

I suppose federal and provincial politicians would still be free to promise infrastructure goodies in exchange for votes, but directly tying local government funding to a bump in the GST may well be worthy of serious debate, given that the overwhelming majority of Canadians live in cash-strapped cities, and those who own their homes or condos are not keen on seeing their property taxes escalate.

I know nothing about municipal finance other than cities and municipalities are where the rubber hits the road. They need better funding mechanisms in place to fix what needs to be fixed and to replace what needs to be replaced.

Related, of course is the need to attract more talent to municipal politics; political talent that would otherwise run provincially, federally, or just not bother with politics at all. You need smart people in local government, not class warriors, not ideologues, not political hacks, not knee-jerk tax reducers or knee-jerk tax raisers, and not, dare I say, people who wreak daily havoc on the reputation of one of North America’s great cities.

I suppose this is a call to members of the legal community to get even more involved in local politics, wherever in Canada they may live.

The second issue that arises from Toronto’s Great Ice Storm is the overwhelming need for reliable, clean, affordable (and uninterrupted ) energy. But perhaps you can’t have it all. I have no grand solutions here. Most options have drawbacks.

For every wind farm supporter, there’s someone else who says wind farms adversely effect birds or elk, or they make too much noise, or they allegedly cause a host of medical conditions that can’t be proved. Or they’re a blight on the landscape. Reality bites here: windmills are clean, but unreliable and add negligible amounts of power to the grid. And they aren’t cheap.

Oil- and gas-fired power generation plants are dirty, and nobody wants one in their neighborhood (or their riding), but everyone still wants electricity and people keep buying products to plug into their walls that use all this power windmills won’t generate but oil, coal, and gas will. Oh, and they keep driving their cars too.

Solar’s a great idea for sunny summer days, but it won’t power my basement’s sump pumps in a nighttime rainstorm. Nuclear gives me the willies, not only because of the disasters at Fukashima and Chernobyl, but because I just don’t trust what happens to those spent fuel rods, radiating carbon 14 for 10,000 years.

Some people oppose pipelines. But as we all know, pipelines are safer than shipping oil by rail, and as long as people keep driving their cars and plugging in their toasters, computers, and TVs they’ll need oil.

Worldwide demand for energy derived from oil products isn’t going away. And oil, like it or not, helps support our high standard of living and the social programs funded by taxes on oil products and oil exports. It’s fine for Al Gore to fly to Canada on a private jet and declare all oil is dirty oil, but none of us want to live in a country where the power is only on four hours a day, either. It’s too cold here.

Arguably, hydro is the cleanest energy on the earth for the amount of power generated, and we in B.C. will be considering the construction of a new dam in northern B.C. called Site C that, when constructed, will add substantial power to the grid for domestic consumption and export.

But of course, you can’t please everyone. Activists, environmentalists, and their lawyers are speaking out against Site C because it will flood a currently dry valley, and may damage fish and other wildlife habitat; despite the fact hydro is cleaner than other forms of energy and does not add to greenhouse gasses.

So there you have my random thoughts for the end of 2013. We need better ways to fund local government so infrastructure can be maintained or rebuilt. We need to realize how important local government is to Canadian society and to ensure smart, talented people step up to the plate to participate, and we need to think long and hard about energy in Canada, to not take it for granted, and to realize how we’re truly frozen in the dark without it. Energy doesn’t simply come from the electrical sockets in our homes.

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