Monday, August 27, 2007

Greens lead the way on education policy

Liberal Education Minister Kathleen Wynne was in the riding this week to campaign against the PC proposal for extending funding to religiously-based schools and defend the status quo. Local Green candidate Miriam Stucky responded by citing the Green proposal for one public school system, and received coverage for the idea in the Peterborough Examiner.

The Liberals are arguing that it would cost $500 million to extend public fudning to religiously-based schools. The Greens argue that it would save another $500 million to move to a single public system, money which could go into more teachers and specialized programs to improve the quality of service.

Aside from efficiency, one of the immediate benefits of a single public school system in an ever-more multicultural society is the cross-cultural sharing that takes place in school.

In the public system today, students from a wide variety of backgrounds mix in a supported and supportive environment. One of the least represented groups in the public system, by definition, are Catholics. Moreover, the proportion of newcomers to Ontario who profess themselves to be Catholic is only half of that of the existing population. As a result, most newcomers head to the public schools, while the Catholic schools retain a greater cultural homogeneity.

There is also the legal problem of discrimination. Catholic schools are the only public institution allowed to discriminate in its hiring or admission practices on the basis of religion. That this contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is self-evident, and it is only a matter of time before a successful court case obliges the province to move to eliminate this privilege.

As a free-thinking person with strong spiritual and moral views of my own, I’ve been highly aware of potential for the public school system to become a one-size-fits-all education factory which discourages difference and perpetuates a spirtually-vacant, materialist view of the world. I’ve enjoyed my visits to Catholic secondary schools in Peterborough for All-Candidates forums and appreciated the moral focus evident there.

I’ve also been impressed, however, by the equally strong moral focus on what is now called “character education” in the public school system.

I’ve also been impressed by the increased willingness of the public system to accomodate differences of all kinds, from ESL instruction to individual education programs, from French Immersion to integration of the severely disabled. Public schools have come a long way since I was a child, as have the province’s Bachelor of Education programs. I’m convinced that a single public school system would be able to find ways to address the desires of parents to have appropriate moral and religious curricular elements included in their children’s education programs, whether through specialized programs, classes, or individual exceptions.

History has shown that integration of previously divided groups does nothing but good for all involved. I have no doubt that Catholics and non-Catholics would be excellent influences on one another in a single public system.

It’s ironic that a single public system would actually allow for greater diversity than is currently the case – or would be the case under the PC proposal.

It does no good to invest public funds in institutions that insulate cultural groups from one another, as key childhood opportunities for mutual understanding are bypassed, while various forms of elitism are unwittingly encouraged.

PC leader John Tory is running against current Liberal education minister Kathleen Wynne in the Don Valley area of Toronto. His bid to make education reform along religious lines an issue is in part a strategy to put Wynne on the defensive. A personal defeat in the riding for either Tory or Wynne would be a decisive blow against their respective parties and their education funding policies.

GPO leader Frank de Jong is running in the Davenport riding on the west side of Toronto, an area of lower income and more cultural mixing than the Don Valley. The GPO policy of which he has been a long-standing proponent is clearly more in tune with the feelings of Ontario citizens in general than either the Liberals’ favour of the status quo or the PCs opportunistic appeal to non-Christian voters. A plebescite on the issue would likely show support for a single public system in the 70% range if not higher, as polls of parents who send their children to Catholic schools indicate that a significant percentage would likely vote in favour of an amalgamation of the two systems.

It's only a matter of time before the single public school system is implemented - just as it's only a matter of time before proportional representation is implemented. The Greens are ahead of the curve as usual, lobbying to bring 21st century common sense to a province with its head still stuck in the 19th.

On Wednesday I'll attempt to resume my comments on the Trent Rapids hydroelectric project.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Building community and saving $ with one school system

In my last post, I put the Green Party of Ontario’s proposal to move to a single public school system in its political and historical perspective. Today I’ll take a look the advantages of such a system, beginning with simple efficiency and demographics. On Monday I’ll discuss the more complex social dimensions.

When responsibility for education was designated to the provinces way back in the 19th century, formal schooling played a minimal role in Ontario’s overall economy. Formal education in Europe had been largely the initiative of churches, and even in North America schooling was for the elite.

Today, education is a major public business with a $17 billion budget, and the stress is on accessibility for all.

Over the past hundred years, public education, for all its faults, has been an incredible success story. Ontario is one of the best educated societies in history, and the result has been a reduction in class inequity, a luxurious standard of living for most citizens, a rapidly increasing tolerance for social difference, and high expectations for human and civil rights.

Certainly, elitism and cultural intolerance still exist, and our standard of living comes at a horrendous cost of overconsumption of natural resources and environmental toxicity. And our education system isn’t the only factor in driving social progress. Our public education system has plenty of room to improve in many areas, but it would be folly to overlook its potential to play a major role in continued social and economic progress.

Even as the importance of education and the minimum of formal education required to succeed in our high-tech economy are growing, however, the proportion of young people in Ontario is dropping as our population ages.

Ontario’s annual education budget supports a network of English and French Public and Separate School Boards across the province. Many schools and school boards are finding it difficult to maintain financial efficiency with under-used facilities as enrolment falls.

The PC government under Mike Harris tried to address this issue by amalgamating school boards the same way it amalgmated municipalities. Today’s Kawartha-Pine Ridge District Board of Education is a product of those policies - and also a demonstration of the administrative inefficiency brought about by making an administrative structure responsible for too large a geographical area. It’s a two-hour drive from Apsley to Bowmanville, and there’s not much the two areas have in common – but both are now part of the same school board.

What the Harris government didn’t have the guts to do, but which would have made much more sense, was to amalgamate the Public and Separate boards. In Peterborough’s case, for example, it surely makes more sense to have all the local schools under one umbrella, rather than requiring teachers and administrators from both boards to drive all over central Ontario to get to or to do their jobs.

Moreover, the Ministry of Education’s funding formulas compensate boards with lower population densities for providing special services such as ESL instruction, resulting in skewed funding scenarios in which Public and Separate boards in the same area may receive radically different amounts of money for the same services. The costs of duplication in operating school buses have already become prohibitive, and the two systems now operate their transportion jointly in most of Ontario.

The PC proposal, to extend public funding to all religiously-based schools which meet the province’s standards, is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Its detractors argue that this is money taken out of the public system as it currently stands, subsidizing the few at the expense of the many.

If this is the price tag for extension of funding to religious groups making up a much smaller proportion of Ontario’s population than do Catholics, imagine how much more funding could be freed up in administrative savings to hire more teachers, save small schools, and start new programs – all while integrating students with one another in their local communities.

On Monday I'll comment on the other benefits one public education system would bring to Ontario.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Greens, Tories, religion and schools

In my last post ("How unelected officials cause sprawl in your neighborhood") I addressed the problems with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), that nineteenth-century legislative relic that has mutated into a mechanism whereby unaccountable central powers dominate local decision-making in Ontario.

I had intended to discuss the Trent River Rapids hydroelectric project with respect to the OMB, but I'm going to wait until next week. Instead I'll deal with yet another 19th century leftover which has become a hot topic this week - our two provincial education systems.

Ontario, like Canada, was legally born in the 19th century, and its various governing systems are often dominated by 19th century attitudes and circumstances which no longer prevail.

The Mining Act, the OMB, our two public education systems, and our system of disproportional representation are vestigial governing structures which have handicapped Ontario as we try to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.

We are finally having a referendum on electoral reform to address the problem of disproportional representation at Queen's Park. I'll be touting the virtues of voting in favour of "MMP", or mixed-member parliament, in future entries.

Long a proponent of electoral reform, the Green Party of Ontario has now been attracting attention for its policy on education reform. A Toronto Star interview with GPO leader Frank de Jong this past weekend focused on his long-standing support for a single, integrated public school system. The GPO's position has become mainstream news as an alternative to PC leader John Tory's expressed support for extending the current Catholic education funding privilege to other religiously-based groups.

"Ontario is becoming a more and more secular province day by day, and we need to modernize our educational system and be fair to everyone," de Jong told the Star. "It's not fair to fund only one religion and so the status quo is untenable and it has to change. Either we go to funding all religions – which of course is a can of worms – or we go like Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland and switch to just funding one school system for each language."

In the 19th century, the French and English colonial governments attempted a merger which would create the entity of Canada. As part of confederation agreements, provinces were obliged to protect education rights for both cultural groups.

At the time, language, ethnic heritage and religion were tightly intertwined with one another, and divided cultural groups from one another much more so than they do in Canada today. Schools were originally operated by churches, and so guaranteeing the rights of le francophonie meant guaranteeing the rights of Catholic churches to run Catholic schools.

The plan didn't last long in Manitoba. As non-French settlers from Ontario and Europe rapidly outnumbered those from Quebec, the government moved to eliminate the Catholic schools, causing a national controversy which eventually led to the election of the Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier.

In Quebec, the Catholic church ran almost all the schools in the province right up until the 1960's. Since that time the organization of public education has continued to evolve, with the complete secularization of the system not yet complete. The right to Catholic and Protestant educational classes within the public schools continues, to the exclusion of other religions, but only via Premier Jean Charest's invocation of the notwithstanding clause - a situation which will not hold indefinitely.

In Newfoundland, most Catholics are not of French background but of Irish. The Catholic churches ran the education system right up until ten years ago, when Premier Brian Tobin, himself a Catholic, successfully promoted a referendum on moving to a single publicly run school system. The referendum passed with 73% support - considerably more than the 52% which supported Newfoundland's joining of confederation in the first place. Interestingly, 37% of Newfoundland residents consider themselves Catholic, suggesting that a sizeable portion of Catholics probably voted in favour of the reform or didn't bother to vote at all.

Ontario's case is very different. Churches have not had a role in public education for a long time. The Catholic school system has served not people of French background only, but also those of Italian, Irish, Dutch, Eastern European and Latin American. Funding policies have varied over the years, with full public funding for the Catholic school boards finally achieved in 1985 as one of Premier Bill Davis's final acts.

Davis, who led Ontario's PC party through its years of political dominance in the 70s and 80s, had earlier been against full funding for Catholic schools. It was widely speculated that the extension of full funding was a political ploy to secure the support of Catholic voters in the upcoming election. Davis, who was set to retire, may have wanted to leave some political momentum to his successor, Frank Miller.

Who was Davis's principal secretary in his last years in office? None other than current PC leader John Tory.

Davis's attempt to bequeath solid electoral standing to Miller did not produce the desired results. Some small-town Protestant voters were alienated, and Miller's team were quickly replaced at Queen's Park by David Peterson's Liberal party - ending 42 successive years of PC governance in Ontario.

Just over one-third of Ontario residents consider themselves Catholic. Roughly the same amount consider themselves Protestants. The third largest group, at 16%. reports "no religion", while other religious groups together make up the remaining 14%.

What were at one time Protestant school boards evolved over the course of the late twentieth century to absorb most of Ontario's new ethnic and religious diversity, finally becoming fully secularized in the last generation. Over this same period, immigration replaced childbirth as the driver of population growth in Ontario.

We have far fewer children in our society today than we did in the 19th century and early 20th, and many more old people. As a result, many schools and school boards in areas of low population density are not able to maintain enough student enrolment to warrant the cost of their facilities. Moves toward the merger of the Public and Catholic board transportation management have already been made across the province, and some schools and school boards have initiated their own mini-mergers in order to make ends meet.

The economic efficiency argument is only one rationale for a single public system. Another is the issue of religious discrimination. Ontario has been cited by the United Nations several times for failing to reform the current discriminatory system.

The issue is likely to become an emotional one through the provincial election campaign. Tory is clearly taking a page out of his former boss's book of tricks. He's obviously hoping that support for funding for a multiplicity of religious schools will draw some of the electoral support of recent non-Christian immigrants to Ontario, which traditionally has gone to the Liberal party. So far, the polls haven't shown much change in support for the PCs, and it may be worth Tory's while to give another review of the downfalls of Sir John A. Macdonald's and Frank Miller's Conservative governments over the issue.

Dalton McGuinty, himself a Catholic, supports the status quo, as does NDP leader Howard Hampton.

In Peterborough the issue is likely to be high profile, as we have large proportions of both Irish Catholics and conservatively-minded Protestants, as well as rapidly-growing support for the Green Party.

That's the history so far. I'll discuss the single public system model and possibilities for the future on Friday.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

How unelected officials create sprawl in your neighbourhood

In last Friday's entry ("What's behind our own private Iraq") I discussed the ongoing social and ecological problems caused by obsolete 19th century provincial legislation that gives the government automatic control over everything underground in Ontario. The Mining Act gives the province the right to overide any existing land use, no matter how ecologically sound, if it means that metals can be dug up for private profit.

The Ontario Municipal Board is another 19th century relic which permits private developers to do what they like with property - whether or not the municipalities or local residents like it, and in some cases whether or not the proposed development is consistent with Ontario's own Planning Act.

Few people in the province even know the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) exists. The name gives one the impression that it's some kind of association of municipalities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The OMB was set up in the late 19th century as a quasi-independent, government-appointed body designed to resolve disputes between local landowners and municipal governments.

What it has become is an unelected, unaccountable body which any government can stack with whomever it likes, and whose principal purpose is to overrule municipal planning decisions made by elected city councils and let developers go ahead with projects regardless of their integrity, usefulness, or suitability.

Under the Harris PC government, the OMB was filled with pro-development Board members, and Ontario municipalities found that they would lose their cases to developers twice as often as they'd win.

The City of Toronto found itself having to assign thousands of hours of staff time and huge amounts of money to fight developers who would ultimately win the right to put up 50 storey highrises in areas zoned for 5 stories. The cities of Guelph and London found that their plans for sustainable growth and liveable neighbourhoods were useless in the face of developers' desire for more strip malls, big box stores, and parking lots.

The pattern of OMB decisions led directly to the unchecked suburban sprawl and land speculation. There was little to stop developers from buying up relatively cheap property zoned for industrial or low-density residential use and use the OMB to force municipalities to let them turn the sites into high-profit commercial or high-density residential use.

Worse still, muncipalities became afraid to say no to developers applications in the first place, for fear of tying up scarce resources and wasting money in a losing OMB battle.

"Taking action against urban sprawl begins with overhauling the OMB," said Dalton McGuinty in 2002, when he was seeking election as Ontario's Premier. "These changes are necessary to ensure that Ontario’s planning rules benefit Ontario’s families, not just big developers."

What's happened since? The Liberal government didn't implement any reforms to the OMB until 2007. Developers lobbied the Minister for Municipal Affairs, John Gerretsen, to preserve the status quo as far as possible. The long-awaited "reform" consisted of mere tinkering with the existing setup, making it easier for citizens to appeal to the OMB, and requiring the OMB to "consider" municipal planning decisions when making their rulings.

Undaunted, the OMB continues to work its black magic. This summer, the city of Toronto was hit with an OMB ruling on a proposed development in the Queen and Dufferin area which was so egregious in its discounting of planning principles, including the province's own Planning Act, that the city was forced to take it to a regular Ontario courtroom. The judge ruled that the OMB had given virtually no consideration to existing laws in making its decision.

Right here in Peterborough we can see the chilling effects the OMB has had on local planning. The city had designated Lansdowne East for commercial expansion. Walmart, however, wanted to build a big new store on Chemong, right beside where they hope the Parkway extension will eventually be built. What was the city's response? To let Walmart go ahead with the Chemong development, in spite of serious problems with encroachment on nearby residential neighbourhoods and disruption of the north Peterborough watershed.

Walmart was allowed to build on an absurdly steep slope, creating the current "wall of litter" which now decorates the south end of the Chemong property. Neighbouring residents were subject to artificial light from the parking lot pouring into their backyards 24 hours a day, and the sound of trucks loading and unloading at 3 am. The city was obliged to build huge new retention ponds along the Parkway trail to deal with the disruption of the natural water runoff.

Fear of losing at the OMB is also likely what is keeping the city from removing the Parkway extension from its Official Plan. Residents voted 55-45 in a 2003 referendum against building the Parkway extension. The proposed road would be prohibitively expensive, and the city's own studies show that it could never pay for itself in any tangible benefit. It would drastically interfere with the city's complex north-end watershed and cut into much-needed greenspace. But local citizens who have tried to get councillors to put forth motions to remove the Parkway from the Official Plan have been stonewalled. The City does not want to remove the Parkway from the Official Plan and then have Walmart and the developers behind the Carnegie housing development take them to the OMB and force them to put it back in.

The OMB has made it virtually impossible for municipalities to plan for the realities of the 21st century. It also gives the Ontario government something to hide behind. Politicians can publically talk about limiting urban sprawl and preserving greenspace even while the OMB allows unsustainable development to continue unabated.

Currently under review at the OMB is the proposed Trent Rapids hydro-electric project on the Otonabee north of Trent University. I'll write more about that project, and more about the OMB, on Wednesday.

Friday, August 17, 2007

What's behind our own private Iraq

My previous entry ("The Sharbot Lake standoff and economic faith") made the connection between our general societal expectations of perpetual economic growth and the current dispute between the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and a private mining firm that wants to prospect for uranium on land the Ontario government considers "crown land" but that the Algonquin argue has always been theirs.

The Sharbot Lake standoff provides an excellent example of how habitual overconsumption leads not only to needless pollution but also to social unrest and physical conflict. We don't need to look as far as the oil war in Iraq - our own seemingly banal desire for air conditioning and electronic gadgetry is creating major problems right in our own backyard.

The Liberal government's proposed $46 billion expansion of Ontario nuclear facilities isn't the only reason that the private mining firm Frontenac Ventures is looking to mine eastern Ontario, of course. Industrial and nuclear expansion worldwide has created a seller's market for mining products, and uranium prices in particular are through the roof. Frontenac had been planning to invest over $70 million in the contentious project, and have launched a lawsuit against the area's First Nations for an equal amount in lost business should the project be prevented from going ahead. Prior to launching the lawsuit, Frontenac had offered the bands $10,000 as compensation, a tiny fraction of their potential profits - a proposal which was quickly rejected.

Frontenac had asked the Superior Court of Ontario to order the Algonquin people off their access area, but two weeks later the judge has yet to make a decision on the case. A full hearing is scheduled to begin Sept. 20, but this week the Algonquins issued a press release stating that they are withdrawing from the legal proceedings and appealing directly to the Premier to step in and resolve the situation.

The Liberal management of the Ontario energy sector isn't looking much better than the previous PC government's. The botched handling of the regulation and degregulation of electricity prices discredited the Harris/Eves government and played a large part in the Liberals' winning of a majority in 2003. This week it was revealed that John Beck, top executive at Canada's largest construction firm, Aecon, has been elected chair of the Ontario Power Authority. Aecon has already been contracted for $75 million worth of power construction projects and has $100 million more lined up, including operations at the Bruce Nuclear facility. Aecon's profits are up 30% over last year, according to recent business reports.

The same sorts of conflicts-of-interest can be found behind the scenes in the Sharbot Lake standoff. The market for uranium isn't just power plants - it also fuels nuclear weaponry. The Sharbot Lake area is also home to a facility run by a company called Mining Resources Engineering Limited (MREL) which tests explosives for both mining and military use. Its clients include major players in the weapons industry, such as Canadian weapons manufacturer Allen-Vanguard, which sells to not only the RCMP but to the FBI, the US Army, and to military operations worldwide. Peter Deane, the OPP officer who shot and killed First Nations protestor Dudley George in 1995 at Ipperwash, ended up working as a sales manager for Allen-Vanguard after being obliged to resign from the OPP in 1997. The OPP and the Province are handling the Sharbot Lake situation delicately to avoid a repeat of the Ipperwash tragedy.

The MP for the area is none other than Gordon O'Connor, the man who was removed from his post as Minister for Defence in the latest federal cabinet shuffle, and has never lived in the riding. O'Connor spent most of his career as an officer in the Canadian military and was first elected to represent the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills in 2004. In between he worked for the infamous and unscrupulous public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, the very firm employed by Kuwait and the US government to persuade the American citizens to back the first invasion of Iraq in 1990. O'Connor has also been a lobbyist for the arms industry, and in the eighteen months he spent with the Defence portfolio the Canadian government spent $17 billion on big-ticket military hardware.

Predictably, the politically inexperienced minister proved incompetent at the helm and became a public relations headache for the Prime Minister's office, and this week was replaced as Defence Minister by Peter MacKay. MacKay, who was the final leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada before it was swallowed by the Alliance to create the current Conservative Party, is MP for the Antigonish-area federal riding in Nova Scotia, and will be challenged in the next federal election by none other than Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May. The general dissatisfaction with the way Canada's mission in Afghanistan has unfolded may make MacKay a lightning rod for criticism and help May's chances of being the first Green MP in Canadian history. Hopefully their campaigns will draw attention to the many ties between armed conflict, ecological destruction, and our relentless desire for economic expansion.

The Algonquin have never ceded their ancestral land to the Crown, and as such claim to be its governing authority. The Province of Ontario has not only historically claimed ownership of all non-privately-held lands, but also has been held to have ownership of all subsurface mining rights across the province, and the power to grant exploration and mining privileges to private corporations at its discretion. This power is based on the idea that mining overrides any other possible use of the land. Non-native private land owners in the area have no ability to prevent Frontenac from coming onto their land and drilling holes for uranium 500 feet deep. Only the Algonquin have a legal privilege which may supersede the power of the Mining Act.

Thus the conflict here is not only between a local community and a private corporation looking to make big profits, but between the 19th century belief that digging up metals is always the best use of land and the 21st century knowledge that virtually everything we pull up from the depths of the earth is poisonous to what lives on the surface. The outcome of this case may well be precedent-setting, not only in the area of First Nations self-governance, but also with regard to mining and ecological integrity.

Now that the onus is on Premier McGuinty, it will be interesting to see which side he chooses. Will he decide in favour of short-term profits for the nuclear, weapons and construction industry whose many players have no doubt been generous in making campaign contributions to the Liberal party? Or will he decide in favour of preserving the well-being of the citizens of Eastern Ontario, including the Algonquin, today and into the distant future?

The conflict between local communities and private developers can be seen across the province on various levels. On Monday I'll discuss the way that the Ontario Municipal Board, supposedly an independent judicial body which rules on disputes between the two, has created an environment in which municipalities are actually afraid to say no to development they don't want for fear of losing at the OMB.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Sharbot Lake standoff and economic faith

Of all the "green" ideas that I've tried to promote, the idea that economic growth is not equivalent to economic progress has been the most difficult to get across.

The basic philosophy that virtually every citizen adheres to is that more is better.

As a result, we live in a system that seeks always to maximize "output" - the total value of goods and services circulating in the society.

Unfortunately, large outputs require large inputs - which is why our system has been chewing up our natural resources at a rate which will very shortly reduce our planet to a desert.

A much better system would be one that maximizes efficiency - that actually minimizes the natural resources required to fuel a healthy degree of economic activity.

This would seem little more than common sense. At its simplest, it's what shoppers base their shopping decisions on: how can we get the best deals for our dollars?

Yet our desire for vast amounts of cheap goods and services leads us to put massive demands on our natural resources, demands which are obviously unsustainable and which drive governments to foolish policies like the energy policy currently being followed by Ontario's Liberal government.

It's a surprisingly little-known fact that more than half of Ontario's electricity comes from nuclear reactors. This dependence on nuclear energy is masked by our habitual use of the word "hydro" to refer to electricity. In fact, hydro-electricity, which derives from harnessing the power of our waterways, makes up only a small fraction of our consumption.

Another common misconception is that nuclear power is "clean" - that it doesn't contribute significant amounts of pollution to our ecosystems. This overlooks dozens of environmental problems with nuclear energy development, right from uranium mining through its processing into nuclear fuel, to the immense amounts of energy required to build and maintain the massive nuclear power plants, to the problem of dealing with radioactive spent fuel.

Most scientists and policy-makers who are in the know agree that we must reduce our energy consumption by at least 50% over the next generation to even approach sustainable levels. Energy efficiency technologies abound in the marketplace. A large portion of our current electricity consumption goes to waste or to activity that is unnecessary or utterly unproductive in the real economic sense.

In other words, Ontario could phase out its nuclear operations entirely without significantly affecting the high standard of living we currently enjoy. It would just mean that our economy would "slow down".

The problem is that in a hyper-competitive global economy dominated by corporations under obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits, the Ontario government is afraid to let the economy "slow down" for fear of losing investment to other countries or provinces.

The Liberal government and the nuclear industry want taxpayers to subsidize nuclear development in Ontario to provide still more electricity supply, even though we are already consuming twice as much as we should be.

As a result, businesses like General Electric in Peterborough and the mining company Frontenac Ventures are seeing dollar signs. GE has applied for a licence to process more nuclear fuel at its Peterborough location, right in the heart of the city's residential and commercial areas. Frontenac Ventures, meanwhile, have made extensive plans to prospect for uranium in the Sharbot Lake area two hours east of Peterborough.

Neither Frontenac Ventures nor the government ministry which granted permission to the company to look for uranium on what they considered "crown land" paid much attention to the people who have been living in that area for hundreds of years at the very least - the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.

Members of the nation, along with their neighbours from Alderville, Hiawatha, Curve Lake and other First Nations in the area, have occupied the gateway to the lands Frontenac intends to mine. They refuse to let the miners in, arguing that even prospecting for uranium poses a serious danger to the watershed and to the short and long-term health of their community, and indeed that of everyone living in Eastern Ontario.

Frontenac has sued the First Nation, and is currently seeking a court order to remove the demonstrators. A Kingston judge has reserved his decision on the request for over a week now, indicating the particularly messy legal situation he finds himself in. If he grants the order, the OPP will be reluctant to enforce it, and moreover it does not seem possible to force a First Nation to vacate land which its members live on.

The Canadian constitution requires governments to negotiate with First Nations fairly and respectfully in such matters, yet neither the Ontario government nor Frontenac made any attempt to consult with the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation before setting up a multi-million dollar mining plan that is potentially illegal and certainly immoral.

Beyond the legality and immorality of the individual situation, however, lies its absurdity.

There is no real need for nuclear expansion in Ontario - in fact, there's no real need for nuclear power at all - except the impatience of individuals and businesses who continue to demand vast amounts of electricity to fuel a wasteful economic system.

At Sharbot Lake we see a classic case in which our reluctance to change our most basic assumptions about what it means to have a healthy economy has created an unnecessary and potentially damaging social conflict, one which will itself consume massive amounts of people's time and energy that could be far better spent working together toward sustainability.

I'll discuss Sharbot Lake and the nuclear industry further on Friday.

Check the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation website at for more information on the people and the struggle.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The campaign begins

The provincial election campaign doesn't begin until the writ is dropped on September 10, but already we've seen plenty of unofficial campaigning.

PC leader John Tory has stirred the pot with his attempt to lure religiously-minded non-Chrisitians to his party by promising full funding for "faith-based" schools in Ontario.

Locally, the dying carp in the Kawartha Lakes has become a prominent issue, as has GE Peterborough's bid to expand its processing of nuclear fuel to feed the two new nuclear reactors the Liberal government is planning to spend $46 billion on. Meanwhile, just east of here in Sharbot Lake, First Nations communities are occupying their land to prevent potentially dangerous and illegal uranium prospecting.

I'll be commenting in detail on these issues and many more over the next 10 weeks. Please visit this blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from mid-August until after the campaing to find out more.

Take care -