December 31, 2008

Making Parliament more relevant to Canadians

As published in The Erin Advocate

After my recent musings on the possibility of a coalition government in Ottawa, I received an email from an irate reader. He said if I thought we need a government created by the Bloc and the Liberals, then I was not from Erin.

It is true that I was not born and raised here, and maybe I would be more Conservative in my politics if I had been. Still, there is some value in expressing views that may only be shared by a minority of readers.

To be clear about the coalition, I am a federalist and have no sympathy for the Bloc Québécois. But I do not fear and loathe them, since they operate peacefully, within the law. I have faith in democracy, no matter what it brings us.

Actually, political parties have very little impact on our daily lives. I would be glad to see the current government work successfully, but if a coalition took power by legal means, I say let them have a crack at it. They would probably be no worse than the governments to which we have become accustomed, in which good intentions have been undermined by arrogance, instability, incompetence, wastefulness et cetera.

Politicians often try to whip up public fear of their opponents, but we are wise to take it with a grain of salt. After all, neither Mike Harris nor Bob Rae was able to destroy the province of Ontario, despite the claims of their foes. We have become impervious to our politicians, and they have become irrelevant to us.

As I pondered the irrelevance of Parliament, what should arrive in my mailbox but the Christmas newsletter from MP Michael Chong?

Naturally, the page one message is on the economy, praising the government’s recent Economic Statement. (He does not mention that parts of the statement were so offensive to the majority of MPs that the government almost collapsed.) People may argue about the best strategy, but at least the protection of Canadian jobs and confidence in the financial sector is on the front burner.

More interesting in Chong’s newsletter is an excerpt from a speech he gave this year, calling for reforms to make Parliament more relevant. He has some excellent suggestions, reinforcing his image as an MP willing to express his own views.

He blasts the current Question Period, calling for civilized, reasoned debate instead of yelling and screaming. “It is a place that more resembles a Roman coliseum where gladiators spill blood and fight for the crowd’s emotions,” he said.

He suggests the maximum time for asking or answering a question be increased from 35 seconds to one or two minutes, to allow for more intelligent content. He questions the predictable behaviour of many MPs. “Virtually all questions and answers are followed by clapping and standing ovations,” he said.

He also proposes a rotational schedule for government ministers to be present at Question Period. Currently, the duties surrounding Question Period can knock three hours out of a minister’s day, time that could be spent more productively.

I would not want to see the prime minister appearing only once a week – that would seem a bit too aloof. But two or three times a week would be plenty for all ministers, unless there was a particular crisis that concerned them.

Chong also criticizes the custom of having debate speeches written in leaders’ or ministers’ offices, then read into the record by MPs who have no input into the content. There is a long tradition of frustration among backbenchers, who run for office to make a difference, and then find themselves treated as mindless bolts in a big machine.

Unfortunately, the zeal for reform tends to fade among those who make it into powerful positions. Still, the democratization of Parliament remains a noble pursuit.

“If members know how they are voting before debate begins, then there is no real reason to listen or to participate in debate,” said Chong. “There should be greater latitude for non-cabinet ministers to freely express their views and to vote as they wish on many more issues.”

I think MPs should have sufficient useful information to hold the government accountable for its plans, be involved in initiating research through parliamentary committees and have longer tenures with committees to build up expertise. Influencing public policy is best done before the formal partisan battle lines are drawn.

Chong warns that Parliament is not indestructible: “We must be careful not to ignore it and its problems, for one day the dam of irrelevance and frustration that Canadians feel about this institution may burst. At that juncture one can only guess what the outcome will be.”

December 24, 2008

Let’s increase support for EWAG Food Share

As published in The Erin Advocate

In many ways, our lives are defined by the things we do out of habit. It struck me recently that it has been some time since I donated to the EWAG Food Share program. I used to give on a fairly regular basis, but with various distractions and changes in schedule, I got out of the habit.

Right now, more local people need support. I have started picking a few extra items when I am in the grocery store, and dropping them in the donation bin behind the checkout. I know that many people are already doing a lot for the community, but still more can get involved.

Donations of money are certainly valuable and welcome, but actually buying food and giving it forms a special bond, since the need for food is something we all have in common.

The cost of food is going up much faster than the rate of inflation. The Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit reported in September that the weekly cost of providing healthy meals to a family of four had risen 11.5% in one year, to $149 per week.

"Making healthy food choices is essential for normal growth and development, and to prevent disease,” said WDG Public Health Dietitian, Jane Bellman. “The survey results reinforce the need to assess the adequacy of social assistance in the province as well as increase the support of local initiatives to assist individuals and groups with limited incomes."

Illness or family break-up can put people in need of help. Families where both parents work at low-paying jobs are also vulnerable to financial emergencies, especially if they have to maintain a vehicle. A report to the Canadian senate this fall on rural poverty identified lack of public transportation as huge problem, with no easy solutions.

With the current turmoil in the economy, even more people are in distress. During one week recently, EWAG took on three new clients due to layoffs, said Food Share Coordinator Kelly Stockdale.

“The community has been very generous,” she said. Most of the food is donated through schools, churches, service clubs and businesses. Foodland in Hillsburgh and ValuMart in Erin village provide help, including bins for individual donations. You can also drop non-perishable food off at the EWAG offices: Erin - 45 Main Street, or Rockwood - 106 Church Street.

The major food collections are at Thanksgiving and Christmas, creating a stock that has to last through much of next year. Regular donations will help replenish the supply, to help it go further. Overall, in 2007, EWAG provided 3,928 bags of groceries to 291 families.

Erin Firefighters recently held a barbecue, gathering donations of food, money and toys. That has helped EWAG provide Christmas packages to about 55 families.

Deciding to seek help from a food bank can be very difficult, and people often put it off until their situation becomes serious, said Kelly.

“We treat everyone with respect, and provide confidentiality,” she said. If you are in need of food, call Kelly at 519-833-9696, ext. 222.

People need to apply, showing evidence of their current income and expenses. Once approved, they can get some groceries once a month, with a private appointment at the food distribution site.

If you are in a position to donate bulk supplies, call Kelly to find out what is particularly needed, and what they can handle.
Sometimes, it seems that there are so many charities out there and so many needs that it can be overwhelming. Perhaps the best strategy is to pick a few positive, concrete actions, then actually do them.

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December 17, 2008

New push for rural garbage collection

As published in The Erin Advocate

I am tired of driving to the dump.

Of course, I know it is not really a dump, just a transfer station on top of a old dump, where I dump my trash into dumpsters, so big trucks can take it to Guelph and dump it into a modern sanitary landfill site.

The Hillsburgh Transfer Station really is a bit of a dump – crowded, inefficient and often very muddy. Wellington County quite properly treats it as a temporary location, since it sits atop an old landfill site that must eventually be properly capped and sealed off. But surely we could afford a layer of crushed stone, so people would not have to slide around in the muck.

I have made the 30-kilometre round trip every almost every Saturday for the last 23 years, and though now it is down to once every two weeks, I have still wasted a lot of gas and time. I would be willing to pay slightly more in taxes or fees to have my garbage picked up at the end of my driveway.

County Councillor Lou Maieron, who hosted a public meeting in Erin last week on waste issues, says I should not have to pay any more in taxes. He argues it would be possible to provide roadside collection of household waste and recyclables every two weeks to rural residents and maintain weekly collection for urban residents, by cutting back the functions of transfer stations.

They could be converted to recycling centres, open only one day a week, with a lot less staff. Regular trash would go direct to the landfill, while the local centres would accept bulky items, household hazardous waste and useable goods that could be re-sold at low cost.

“If you make it convenient, people will produce less garbage,” said Maieron. “Space in our landfills is precious – we can’t just fill them up.”

Several years ago, the County bought up the land surrounding the old Hillsburgh Landfill Site because of pollutants seeping underground. Recently, it sold the southern 41 acres of that land to the Town of Erin for $300,000, so the Barbour recreational complex can be expanded.

Maieron says the County-owned lands just to the north of the existing transfer station would be perfect for a new recycling centre or transfer station, since that type of land use is already accepted in the area.

He seems to have support in Erin, but the majority of county councillors do not agree with him on the cost-effectiveness rural pick-up. The County had hoped to serve both Erin and Guelph-Eramosa with a large transfer station near Ospringe, but opposition in Erin has put that plan on hold.

Alan McGeary of Erin, who last year organized a 1,400-name petition to keep the Hillsburgh Transfer Station open for now, applauded Maieron’s efforts to promote curbside collection and improve recycling.

“It is time for the county council to listen to the people who pay their salaries,” he said, earning a round of applause at the meeting.

I like Maieron’s plan, both for the convenience and the environmental benefits, but I think some rural people may object to only getting pickup only every two weeks, and may actually prefer to drive to the transfer station.

“Maybe municipalities should have a choice of service levels,” he said. “Living in the higher-assessed areas, we’re paying the ticket.”

The recently-ended rural collection pilot project found most residents in Minto were not interested in pick-up, since they have an excellent transfer station nearby, while those in Guelph-Eramosa appreciated the service, and will continue to get it, since they have no transfer station.

“The ice is cracked, with Guelph-Eramosa getting collection,” he said.

About 20 people attended the meeting, which was broadcast live on Erin Radio, and many said the waste service in Wellington County is very poor compared to neighboring regions. Some were skeptical that universal pick-up could be provided without an increase in taxes, especially since Maieron said he has been trying for years, without success, to find out the exact costs of running transfer stations.

Erin homeowners already pay an average of $4.50 per week through their property taxes for county waste services. Rural residents then pay $1 per bag at the transfer station (no charge for recyclables). Urban residents can pay $1.75 per bag for curbside pickup, but each week, hundreds of them opt to drive to the transfer station, saving 75 cents per bag.

You can let Maieron and other county officials know your opinion on current waste services, and what you hope to see in the future, by filling out a survey. Have it sent to you by contacting him at, or check the Town website,, where Mayor Rod Finnie hopes to have it available soon.

December 10, 2008

Are we too cautious to accept a coalition?

As published in The Erin Advocate

The upheaval on Parliament Hill last week has launched a furious debate about the type of government Canadians are willing to accept. The debate is long overdue, but it occurs at a time when politicians should be taking action to preserve our quality of life.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has convinced the Governor General to suspend parliament, delaying a non-confidence motion that would remove his minority government from office. The Liberals and New Democrats, with the backing of the Bloc Québécois, may still form an unprecedented coalition government after parliament resumes next month.

The delay of government business during an economic crisis is alarming, but it will give Canadians a chance to consider their options. Could a coalition provide stability, broad representation and effective action? In an interview last week, Wellington-Halton Hills Conservative MP Michael Chong said the coalition would not be good for Canada.

“It is time to set aside the political games, and focus on the real concerns of Canadians, like jobs, and people’s savings,” he said. “I am appalled that the Liberals would enter into an agreement with the separatists.”

The Bloc Québécois would not be a coalition member, but has promised not to defeat it for 18 months. Chong said while a coalition would be legal, it would put the Bloc too close to the executive powers of cabinet. He urged the opposition to “step back from the brink” since they have already forced the government to retract parts of its economic statement. “We were wise to remove the partisan elements,” he said.

Too bad the wisdom did not kick in a little sooner, because now it looks like sheer panic. With the backing of only 37 per cent of voters and minority of seats, Stephen Harper had an obligation to forge enough of an alliance with at least one other party to keep parliament working.

He not only failed to consult, but took provocative action to damage the opposition. Then, in a desperate effort to save his job, he has offended the nation by trying to whip up false fears about Quebec separation. He was always glad to have Bloc Quebecois support when they voted with him, and he even plotted with them, hoping to replace a Liberal minority government.

Harper is also wrong when he labels the coalition “undemocratic”, considering that the MPs who have agreed to cooperate represent a majority of Canadian voters. It is true that Canadians did not vote specifically for a coalition, and have every right to be skeptical of such a break with tradition. But since we live in a fractured society, we should learn more about coalitions. They are recognized throughout the world as valid democratic forms of government. The situation may be risky and unstable, but it is not undemocratic.

As for the Liberals, perhaps they were in power for so long that they forgot one of the primary responsibilities of the opposition: to have a leader in place who is competent to take over as prime minister if the need arises. Instead of choosing one of their top contenders, they compromised on Stéphane Dion, a man incapable of communicating effectively with the public. The Liberals need a leadership convention in January, not in May.

I would be willing to give the coalition an opportunity to govern, but I do not think it will happen. The Conservatives will launch a massive public relations campaign, and alter their economic plan to include most of the opposition demands. The Liberals are likely to splinter under the pressure and the coalition will fall apart, to be remembered as an experiment that Canadians were too cautious to even attempt. The next election will be soon.

The crisis also shines a spotlight on a serious flaw in Canada’s constitution – our attachment to the British monarchy. Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, represents Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s head of state.

Of course, elected politicians handle almost every aspect of government. But when there is a crisis, we must turn to the Governor General, who is suddenly faced with serious decisions. Jean will be guided by law, tradition and concern for the interests of Canadians. She was not, however, chosen by Canadians, only appointed by a prime minister. Governors General can never earn the authority that they hold.

The time has come to cut the final colonial cord and set our own course as a grown-up nation. Canadian politics should be none of Britain’s business – as the British themselves would agree. We have our own constitution and the power to amend it. We should do so, and take full control of our affairs.

December 03, 2008

Proper etiquette helps fight the flu

As published in The Erin Advocate

Now that the flu season is upon us, are you following the proper etiquette for coughing and sneezing?

From a young age, we are trained to cover our mouths, to avoid spraying germ-laden water droplets into the air. When we cough or sneeze into our hands, however, we then spread germs when we touch doorknobs, phones and computer keyboards.

Public health officials are campaigning to re-train everyone to cough or sneeze into their upper sleeves, if no tissue is available, and to wash their hands if they forget.

The Ontario Ministry of Health runs a website called, where you can get information, and see an instructional video on sleeve-coughing.

Are you following the ministry guideline of washing your hands properly, at least five times a day? It is not rocket science, but it can be difficult to get into the habit: 15 seconds of lathering with soap, rinsing with warm water, then a thorough drying. You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Avoiding the flu is important, even for generally healthy people who could easily withstand a bout of it. There is the risk that you could transmit the virus to someone who is more vulnerable.

“The most effective way to protect yourself from flu is to be vaccinated yearly,” said Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Nicola Mercer.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health is hosting a Flu Clinic next Tuesday, November 9, from 3 pm to 7 pm, at Centre 2000. It is a walk-in clinic only – no appointments.

Flu shots are free to everyone in Ontario who wants one, a policy that has saved lives, especially among the elderly. Flu immunization decreases physician visits, hospitalization and the incidence of pneumonia.

Free flu shots are also available from your family doctor. If you don’t have a doctor, and cannot make it to the Erin clinic, call the health unit at 1-800-265-7293, ext. 4624, to book an appointment in Guelph, Fergus, Orangeville or Shelburne.

A new formula for the vaccine is created each year, so people need to be re-vaccinated. It takes about two weeks for the protection to take effect. You can still catch the disease, but it is likely to be less severe if you have had the shot. The vaccine does not contain any live virus, so you cannot get the flu from the flu shot.

The only people who should not get the shot are children under six months of age, people allergic to eggs, and those who have had a serious reaction to a previous flu vaccine. It is most beneficial to those at risk of complications if they get the flu: young children, pregnant women, those over 65 and those with asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

Some people do not like getting a needle. There is a nasal spray flu vaccine, but it is not available in Canada, said Susan Otten, manager of the local immunization program. She suggests that three seconds of discomfort with a flu shot is better than three weeks in bed with the flu. Anti-viral medication for those with the flu is usually held in reserve to fight serious outbreaks, she said.

Some are concerned about possible side effects. Mild seffects such as swelling at the injection spot are rare. Cases of red eyes with respiratory distress are extremely rare. Also extremely rare, with an uncertain connection to the flu shot, are cases of a nerve disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). The risk of illness and death due to influenza is far greater than the risk of serious side effects.

Some do not trust the mainstream advice of doctors, and consider the flu shot an overly-aggressive intrusion into the immune system. They may turn to alternative treatments, such as those offered by Homeopath Stephanie Marwood, through the Kulhay Wellness Centre, at 165 Main Street in Erin – (519) 833-0031.

She is offering free treatments with Influenzinum, a oral remedy that is an extreme dilution of this year’s regular flu vaccine. It does not contain the material substance of the vaccine, just its healing energy and essence, she said. Manufacturer Homeocan says it can help prevent flu and its symptoms, but like the regular flu shot, there are no guarantees.

“It works with the energy of the body,” said Marwood. “It is very gentle and there are no side effects.”

I do not know if the homeopathic method is effective – I would probably be too skeptical to benefit from it. However, I do believe that people have a right to make choices, and the responsibility to educate themselves, when it comes to health care.