February 25, 2009

Bill Smiley was a welcome guest

As published in The Erin Advocate

Bill Smiley was a newspaper columnist who barged his way into the lives of millions of Canadians by the sheer force of his personality.

I have been reading old issues of The Erin Advocate at the library (back to 1974) and they draw a fascinating sketch of this area, even for someone who did not grow up here. Bill did not write about Erin, but he was our guest almost every week for some 22 years.

Known as Sugar and Spice, the column appeared in weeklies across Canada. It was in 18 papers when Erin picked it up in 1957, and the customer list grew to more than 130 with syndication by The Toronto Telegram, as editors and readers learned to love his small-town wit and wisdom.

He was honored as most outstanding columnist in 1974 by the Canadian Community Newspaper Association (CCNA). According to the CCNA website, he became Canada's most-read columnist and continued writing until two years before his death in 1987, at the age of 67.

Bill's column was very personal. He spoke of his father's depression and his mother's frantic work to support five kids in the 1930s. "There was no way we were going on relief. It was shameful. Somehow we staggered through." He predicted another economic depression, though it has been slow to arrive.

He often talked of being shot down during the Second World War and his time in a prison camp. He did not care for the annual gatherings of POWs who wanted to relive the experience after the war.

For 11 years, he was the editor and publisher of The Wiarton Echo. Later, he worked on "the assembly line at the pupil-factory," as head of English at the high school in Midland, and did not mince words about the quality of some of the finished product. "Some of the rottenest people, physically, morally and emotionally, whom I have ever met, have been honour students. With no sense of honour."

His grandson, however, was a great source of joy. "The existence of so much delight and charm and laughter and love, all wrapped up in one perfectly formed nine-month old creation, restores my faith, which at times becomes a little tattered around the edges, in God."

His wife Sue became well-known, though I doubt she appreciated the attention. He was calling her "old trouble and strife" in 1957. Their fighting and making-up continued as column topics for decades. In 1974, he described his feelings when she went away for a weekend: "When I put the old battleaxe on the bus, or see the car drive off, I try to look mournful. Then I give a great sigh of relief, and feel like a fellow who has just walked out the jailhouse gates."

It appears that The Advocate stopped carrying the column when the paper was sold to a new owner in 1979. A new column appeared, called The Way I See It, by James Burnett.

For all his crankiness, Bill Smiley had a wonderful way with words: "There's a certain sadness in the knowledge that summer is over, but it only lasts a day or so. Any red-blooded Canadian knows deep in his boots that summer is merely an unreal state of mind that has no more substance, no more staying power, than a pleasant dream."

I wish I had written that. Maybe I will write that, or something like it. After all, there are no new ideas waiting to be discovered – just old ones that need to be polished up.

February 18, 2009

Exploring Erin's maze of trails

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was a warm, sunny winter morning, so I decided to take a little hike along the rail trail at the north end of Erin village. The scenery is always better when you get out of your car.

It is the Elora Cataract Trailway, where the tracks put Hillsburgh and Erin on the map back in 1879. It is also a segment of the Trans-Canada Trail, a 21,500-kilometre recreational trail system (the world's longest).

When it is complete, we'll be able to hike, or bike, or ride a horse to Mount Pearl on the eastern tip of Newfoundland, to Victoria on Vancouver Island, or up to the Arctic Ocean.

The Trans-Canada Trail (www.tctrail.ca) is not a spectacular tourist attraction, but it is a feature of national interest. Currently there is only a small sign along the road to tell people it is there – we should do more to promote it.

Setting out westward on the trail from Main Street towards Hillsburgh, the view is anything but scenic at first. There's the idle Guardian Fiberglass plant. I know it is tough for the guys at the gate, now in their second winter of picket duty, and I hope the conflict can be resolved. But in the meantime, no one is missing the foul odour that comes from that place when it is operating.

After you get past the mountains of mulch and topsoil, and the graveyard of recyclable old trucks, the terrain is much greener. The trail is still very flat and straight, though, so I naturally looked for a side route, to make a loop. (Whenever there is an opportunity to go off on a tangent, I will usually take it.)

I cut to the left on the first snowmobile trail I saw, through a dense cedar grove. The great thing about winter hiking is that swampland is frozen solid and mosquitoes are fast asleep. I cut left again at the first opportunity and slid my way across a narrow section of the West Credit River, where the snowmobiles had packed down a nice, thick ice bridge.

I thought by then I was headed back east and would soon arrive at Stanley Park, close to my car. That never did happen, so it is a good thing that I had not set out late in the day. I was into an intricate maze of snowmobile trails, through open fields and wooded areas.

I cannot quite think of the right word to describe my situation – unable to figure out exactly where I was, or where I would end up. I wasn't going in circles, and I knew that civilization would be encountered if I just kept walking.

It is very quiet out there, except for the birds in the trees, and a pheasant I scared up on the ground. I encountered Everett and his hound, and we spent 20 minutes talking about bird dog training, so it became an educational outing as well.

By then, I was well south of my destination. A bit to the west were the fairways of Erin Heights Golf Club, or so I discovered when I got home and checked the Google Maps satellite view. My mistake was crossing the river, which winds north and then south as it gets closer to the village.

I emerged from the woods near the corner of Erin Heights Drive and Dundas Street, and faced a good long walk back to Main and up to the trailway parking lot at Ross and Daniel. It was a much longer loop than planned, but one of the most enjoyable excursions I have had this winter.

February 11, 2009

Erin needs more affordable housing

As published in The Erin Advocate

When I am ready to retire, I would like to have the option of buying a smaller home in Erin. Is it too much to expect? Should we be able to stay close to our community when we have no need of a larger home?

It is a sad reality that many people have faced this issue and have decided to move away. It seems to be the price of living close to the Greater Toronto Area, and of living in a town with no sanitary sewer system.

The housing market in Erin has gone soft in recent months, along with the rest of Canada, but a quick scan of real estate listings shows plenty of houses selling for over $350,000, and a limited selection below that amount. New subdivisions in recent years have featured large lots and relatively expensive homes.

The main reason, says Erin Mayor Rod Finnie, is that large lots are required for individual septic systems. To justify the cost of large lots, large homes are built.

"When we do get sewage, I expect that development would include smaller homes," he said. In 2007, Erin decided to freeze new housing development while it works on its Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP).

The plan will guide development for decades, and public input will soon be requested. It involves not only sewage systems for the urban areas of Hillsburgh and Erin village, but a vision of the type of community we want. Current projections show the town's rural population declining slightly to 58 per cent by 2031, assuming a sewage solution is found.

The SSMP process will take until the end of 2010 – a long time for housing development to be tied up, said Councillor Josie Wintersinger. "I had hoped to be able to do more for seniors, so they wouldn't have to move to Guelph or Orangeville where they don't know anybody," she said. The mayor said the SSMP process "is taking a lot longer than I had hoped for".

Current homeowners should not be overly concerned about the slightly lower value of their properties during this recession, according to John Cook, of McEnery Real Estate in Erin.

"Our market seems to hold its value – it is a very desirable area," he said. "Some people are sitting on their hands, to see if they have a job next month, but the market has not fallen through the floor. It is still a safe place to invest."

Of course, smaller homes do come on the market, but there does not seem to be enough choice to meet the needs of buyers. For some, a home in Stanley Park is an attractive option. But others would prefer a townhouse to a mobile home, and or would like to own their own land.

Cook said a balanced approach, with a mix of different levels of housing, would be a benefit to the community. "We need more entry and exit type properties," he said, referring to younger and older home buyers.

The Canadian Real Estate Association reports that the average price of Multiple Listing Service homes in Canada in December was down 11 per cent compared to December, 2007. Sales as a percentage of new listings in the fourth quarter of 2008 fell to the lowest level since the mid-1990s.

The Royal LePage 2009 Market Survey predicts a price decline across Canada of 3.0 per cent this year, to an average of $295,000, though there are major variations by local market. Toronto is expected to be down 4.0 per cent. Regions dependent on manufacturing jobs will have sharper price declines. Prices will still be higher than three years ago, due to a surge in 2007.

Strong growth in the first half of 2008 was reversed by bad economic news in the second half, creating a buyer's market, according to recent analysis by RE/MAX.

"The situation is not expected to be remedied until consumer confidence is restored," said RE/MAX VP Michael Polzler. "We could see a bounce back as early as spring – if inventory levels remain stable, pent-up demand kicks into gear, and lower interest rates stimulate home-buying activity."

February 04, 2009

White canes help blind live more independently

As published in The Erin Advocate

A white cane has helped give Doreen Cormier the confidence to go out walking in Erin village – but she has been surprised to discover that many people do not know what the cane signifies.

Only able to see shapes, she must often rely on others for help, especially when shopping.

“If I ask someone the price of something, they may say, ‘The price is right up there’. They don’t recognize me as being blind,” she said. “People are very helpful once you tell them you are blind.”

The first week of February is White Cane Week, a time not only to increase awareness of the cane, but also to celebrate the capabilities and talents of the blind and vision-impaired. The Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB), started by blind war veterans, has promoted White Cane Week since 1946. This year’s theme is: “Help promote accessibility…measure me by my capabilities, not my disabilities.”

There are three main types of white canes. Identification canes are lightweight and often can be folded up to fit in a purse or knapsack. They alert others to a person’s blindness and help them with depth perception, and finding things like curbs and stairs. Some people prefer to use longer “probe” canes, especially if they are traveling in an unfamiliar area.

The support cane is thicker and looks more like a regular cane used by non-blind people to help them walk – except that it is white. That is the type that Cormier uses. She says the meaning of the white colour should be taught in school.

The white cane as a symbol of blindness started in England in 1921, and was introduced and promoted in North America by Lions Clubs International, starting in 1931. One of the goals was to make the cane visible to motorists, improving safety for blind pedestrians.

The other major promoter of White Cane Week is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), which provides many services, including mobility training to help people learn how to use the cane effectively. About 90 per cent of CNIB clients have partial vision.

Cormier benefits from the CNIB Talking Books service. She also has a magnifier so she can read The Advocate and other important documents.

The crosswalk at the corner of Church and Main in Erin village is equipped with speakers that emit a loud “cuckoo” sound when the walk signal is active for crossing the busy road. This was done particularly for the benefit of Cormier – and others with limited vision.

Now she does not have to wait for someone to come along to help her cross the road, though she is always appreciative when someone offers to help.

More than 600,000 Canadians are blind or vision-impaired. As seniors account for an increasing share of the population, issues of vision loss are likely to get more attention. Each year, 78,000 Canadians are diagnosed with Age-Related Macular Degeneration, which attacks a person’s central field of vision, leaving only peripheral vision. That number is expected to triple within the next 25 years, according to the CCB.

The blind community has lower income compared with other groups of disabled persons; 75 per cent are unemployed, compared with 49 per cent for other disabled groups, the CCB reports.

The CCB raises funds to help provide computers and computer training for the blind, along with workplace training, a legal assistance program and social support to help deal with the emotional impact of blindness.