April 27, 2011

Farmers seek protection in trade deal with Europe

As published in The Erin Advocate

Do free trade deals allow big businesses to bully the small players in local economies? Or do they create jobs overall, promoting innovation and competitiveness? The answers depend on your political outlook, and the debate is heating up as negotiations continue for a Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Some farmers are feeling vulnerable in this process, since the deal could virtually eliminate the age-old practice of saving, re-using and selling seeds. At the annual meeting of the Wellington & Waterloo local of the National Farmers Union (NFU) last month in Elora, National Women's President Joan Brady said she hoped CETA would become an election issue.

"It's all about Canadians' rights," she said. "For farmers, it's about intellectual property rights and the right to save seeds. For the public, it's about allowing access to water and local food."

It is no surprise, however, that free trade with Europe has not become an election issue. The 1988 federal election was fought over free trade with the U.S. While a majority of Canadians voted for anti-free trade parties, that support was split between the Liberals and New Democrats, and the Mulroney Conservatives scored a clear majority of seats.

Since then, most people seem to have accepted free trade as a fact of life. Fears over foreign domination, a branch plant economy, loss of jobs, the suing of our government by corporations whose interests have been hurt and the continued imposition of softwood lumber duties by the U.S., have not generated significant unrest. Still, opponents are raising similar concerns about CETA.

“We heard all these same arguments when we had the debate on free trade with the United States, and the result of that trade agreement has been outstandingly successful for Canada,” said International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan, in an Epoch Times article last fall, predicting CETA would mean a $12 billion boost for the Canadian economy.

“We’re looking to secure additional access for our farmers to European markets. That’s why there is strong support, for example, among Western grain farmers and beef farmers.”

In a recent press release, NFU National President Terry Boehm said the Europeans are demanding "extreme and offensive" intellectual property rights enforcement.

"The corporate-dominated European Commission is calling for court-sanctioned seizure of property and freezing of bank accounts for alleged infringement of a patent. Any farmer unfortunate enough to be accused of having a patented gene in his/her crop or seed, could see their farm, equipment, grain and crops seized even before they had their day in court. We cannot allow this to happen."

With CETA, Canada would be the only developed economy to have trade agreements with both the U.S. and the EU, the two biggest economies in the world. Unlike the North American deal, however, CETA would reach down to the municipal level, and would disallow governments, schools, hospitals, universities and public utilities from favouring local or Canadian suppliers for contracts, over relatively low thresholds.

Supporters say Canadian firms would benefit from bidding on contracts in Europe, something they could not do in the U.S. during the recent Buy American stimulus funding.

Critics claim CETA could lead to privatization or foreign ownership of public water systems, health care and telecommunications, and undermine environmental protection and the rights of workers. Brent Bouteiller of the Green Party, at the federal election Candidate's Night held in Erin recently, said "fair trade" should be the priority, with protection for water and health care.

"We cannot have situations where one industry bullies another industry, on either side," he said. "We want to make sure that our local communities are resilient to economic activities in other parts of the world."

Barry Peters of the Liberal Party said Canadians should not be afraid to enter trade agreements, but said there should be protection for farmers and small businesses.

"Small businesses are part of the negotiations, but what is not part of the discussion is the protection of our supply management system," said Conservative incumbent Michael Chong. "We will continue to protect our dairy, egg, chicken and turkey farmers from foreign competition. The other aspects of the Canadian economy, outside of telecommunications, cultural sectors and banks, are included in these discussions, and that will include small businesses in other sectors.

"Those businesses I think will benefit from free trade...Unlike trade deals with developing countries, the European Union often has equivalent or higher environmental, health and safety standards than what we have here in Canada. So I think this is an excellent way to liberalize trade, while ensuring that Canada's domestic industries remain competitive. We'd be going toe-to-toe with industries that have very similar rules for protection of workers and the environment.

"I think this is an excellent way to expand global trade and to ensure wealth creation back here at home."

For more information on the concerns of organized labour and environmental activists, go to www.tradejustice.ca. For the government's website, search: CETA Canada EU.

April 20, 2011

Erin Radio boosts power with shift to 88.1 FM

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin Radio has propelled itself into a new era, now broadcasting on 88.1 FM with 250 watts, and a new antenna atop the water tower that delivers its signal beyond the town borders.

Almost a year ago, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved an application from Erin Radio to boost its signal strength from 50 watts to 250 watts and change frequencies.

"With this move, we will get to the entire Town of Erin and a little bit beyond, so this is a big moment in our life," said Station Manager Jay Mowat, just after the new signal was activated on April 11. "We managed to find the one and only frequency that we can broadcast on, higher than 50 watts."

The station is now in a three-week test phase, during which they are simulcasting on both their old and new frequencies. Transmission on 101.5 FM will end in early May.

The jumble of equipment now decorating the Erin water tower consists of the new Bell transmitters, with the Erin Radio hardware attached above – saving the substantial cost of a new mast.

"This is the culmination of two and a half years of work on a lot of people's part. And we still have to pay for it," said Mowat. "We will spend over $30,000 in this move."

Erin Radio is selling rain barrels as a fundraiser, with Scotiabank of Orangeville matching funds dollar for dollar up to $5,000. The barrels are available for $50 at Credit River Motors on Main Street, on Saturdays from 10 am to 3 pm until May 7. The Town of Erin gave the station a $10,000 grant last year and a $10,000 loan to help buy the transmitter and antenna.

The signal is being directed mainly north-east and north-west as required by the CRTC, to avoid intruding on the signal of Ryerson University in Toronto, which also uses the 88.1 frequency. Erin Radio had to buy a special antenna to protect them – custom-built and shipped from Italy at a cost of $10,000.

By coincidence, late last week, Ryerson Radio was forced off the air by the CRTC due to problems in meeting licence conditions. It could be revived, or another station might get the Toronto-based frequency.

Regardless, the Erin Radio signal is weak south of 5 Sideroad, where initially it was blending with Ryerson's. The absence of Ryerson has not improved the reception.

The signal is strong and clear in Erin village, Hillsburgh, west into Eramosa and north to the townline of Orangeville. The headline on the station's website says, "Here we come into Headwaters!", since the signal will extend into Caledon and Dufferin County. People can also listen on the internet, at www.erinradio.ca.

"Our primary motivation was not to get into Orangeville," said Mowat. "If it was and we said that, the CRTC would have made us go through a major public hearing, because that's a whole new audience. All we wanted was to hit clearly the residents of the Town of Erin. People in Orangeville will hear us on a reduced signal, and we will go in and try to connect up with advertisers and community organizations."

Erin Radio is a volunteer-based, not-for-profit group that has been on the air since 2006, providing opportunities for local programming. They are also the official emergency broadcaster in the area. Operating until now at just 50 watts, the signal could only reach homes close to Erin village. As well, their original licence was conditional, meaning they could have been forced to give up their frequency to a commercial station.

That did not happen, but power on 101.5 FM could not be expanded without intruding on other stations in the crowded southern Ontario radio market. With approval to move to 88.1, they not only have 250 watts, but a permanent, protected status.

"We have to go out there and make sure everybody knows the kind of range of what we do. We need to do a lot more advertising based on our programming schedule," said Mowat, who eventually wants to provide podcasts of some shows. "Our whole focus as a station is local voices, local news, local music."

On weekdays, Erin Radio plays mainstream easy listening music, along with news, sports, weather, business, talk radio with the Motts, lunch hour oldies and a spotlight on local performers. Evenings and weekends are more specialized, with shows on various styles of music, plus comedy and selected topics.

"Now that we have the increased power and can be heard in a much larger area, we need a way of taking a look at what our marketing strategy should be and what kind of an audience we can get," said Mowat.

Erin Radio has received a $29,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to develop a five-year marketing plan, including a local audience survey to be conducted by Erin Research.

April 13, 2011

Erin needs to prepare for seniors population boom

As published in The Erin Advocate

A survey of seniors in East Wellington shows the need for improvements in a wide range of services – with demand expected to climb as a higher proportion of the population graduates to the 55+ age group.

The project in Erin and Guelph-Eramosa was started last spring by East Wellington Community Services (EWCS), with the help of a volunteer committee and a grant from the federal government's New Horizons for Seniors program. The long term goal is to create a more senior-friendly community.

Seniors aged 55+ make up about 25 per cent of the population. They number about 7,500 in East Wellington (including 3,570 in Erin) with another 2,300 passing the 55 mark in the next five years.

An analysis of the 320 responses to the survey was to be discussed at a public forum on March 31 at Centre 2000. I went to the meeting thinking I might find a room full of seniors looking for ways to get better facilities and services in this area. Instead, I was the only person there, along with EWCS staff members Sherri Plourde, Manager of Seniors Services and Rick Eller, Committee Administrator.

Statistics may be important, but they are obviously not everyone's idea of an exciting evening out. The report has been presented to all local politicians, including the councils of the Town and the County, and to agencies who make decisions affecting seniors services. It will be used to show local needs when applying for Ministry of Health funding through the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN).

"That data and research is really important for them to be aware of," said Plourde. "We hope to generate discussion."

There is also a need to make more people aware of existing services. For example, 73 per cent of respondents did not know that EWCS offers counselling services in Erin. Almost as many had no idea about local housing options, and among those who did, the rating was overwhelmingly "Poor".

Plourde said that seniors who live alone have lower incomes, are older, are in poorer health, and are more concerned about their future and the services they might need. Urban seniors are more often in poorer health, with lower incomes and living alone, compared to rural seniors.

Lack of access to transportation was identified as a key barrier to independence, along with the need for light housekeeping and snow removal help. About 40 per cent (and 57 per cent in the 75+ age group) said they would be interested in a fee-based transportation system.

"There are lots of seniors who want to stay independent and stay in their homes as long as they can," said Eller. Of course, many 55+ people don't consider themselves in need of "seniors" programs.

"For those who feel they are too young to need the service, why not volunteer to help," said Plourde. She said it is important to start expanding services now, since the current level of services will not be adequate once the senior population boom really gets going. "The numbers will increase and there could be waiting lists."

The EWCS website enables you to download a copy of the survey report, a shorter summary or their current newsletter. The site has details on seniors transportation, day trips and programs, and this year's Seniors Wellness Expo.

Do not go to www.ewcs.com, which is the site for Easy Web Computer Solutions in Argentina, or to www.ewcs.ca, the home of Electronic Warfare Consulting Services in Ottawa, or www.ewcs.net, the Earlswood Window Cleaning Services in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Instead, go to www.ew-cs.com, and bookmark it.

April 06, 2011

Filling those blue boxes is just not good enough

As published in The Erin Advocate

If your proficiency at diverting paper, glass, cans and plastic into blue boxes every week has you feeling like a proud environmentalist, maybe it's time to check the bar. It was raised, quite a while ago, and now some are suggesting that the Blue Box Habit is doing more harm than good.

The issue is illustrated in the "3 R's" slogan, proclaimed by governments and activists seeking to change how people deal with trash. "Reduce, reuse and recycle" has been etched on the public blackboard, but only the third part has really sunk in.

The idea was to first reduce the amount of waste we buy and create, then reuse whatever we can, and only then put material into recycling programs. Of course, it is still better to fill blue boxes than to ship it all to the dump, but it is still an expensive pile of stuff to process – a cost borne by taxpayers, not the companies that manufacture the waste.

There were some interesting comments on the topic after last month's showing of the film Tapped, about the bottled water industry. It was part of the Fast Forward Film Festival, presented by Credit Valley Conservation and the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE), which opposes the trend to single-use plastic containers.

The prime target is Nestlé, of course, getting its water virtually for free from high capacity wells in Aberfoyle, Hillsburgh and other small towns in Canada and the US. Should the provincial government simply charge high fees for water extraction, like they would for oil? Would that further legitimize the practice?

The Town of Erin might not mind a slice of that revenue – it would be like having a casino in your territory. Environmental benefits could flow from a huge increase in the price of bottled water: less consumption, less harmful plastic, fewer tanker trucks and less need to recycle.

Nestlé will seek renewal of its Hillsburgh license next year and there will be lots of opposition. If you want to get in on it, or help make bottled water an election issue, contact Liz Armstrong of CCAGE at liz@ican.net, Wellington Water Watchers at 519-780-5030, or go to www.wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca.

Nestlé has tried to purchase some good will in Erin and Aberfoyle with major donations to parks and recreation facilities, and the world's largest food processor makes much of its recycling efforts.

"Recycling is garbage," said Mike Nagy, one of the driving forces at Water Wachers, during the forum after the film. "It's a way of making you feel you're doing something good for the environment. You are not. Refuse, reduce, reuse. Because if you go by the theory that recycling is better, and I have 50 blue boxes in my driveway, I'm 50 times better than you, because I am recycling more. It's the reverse.

"We need to remove profiteering. If they get the water, and you want to buy it, it should be your right. But it should cost a lot of money. And it should be in returnable glass that you take back, not recycle. Fifteen years ago, we bought pop in this province in returnable bottles, and it's gone.

"The best thing that ever happened to the environmental movement was the blue box, and the absolute single worst thing that ever happened to the environmental movement was the blue box. It was a convenient way for industry to make you dispose of their products...and it costs the taxpayers a ton of money."

He said that since the blue box was introduced, we have not just recycled more, but the number of packaged products has increased dramatically.

Doug Hodgson, a farmer and environmental lawyer who operates Uphill Farm Organics at Third Line and County Road 50 in Erin, sponsored the film night and had the last word.

"Bottled water is a small piece of a much larger picture on water," he said, noting that 70 per cent of the fresh water in the world is used for agriculture. "Bottled water is really the low hanging fruit. If we want to do something about climate change, start with the easy stuff. Bottled water is a product we just don't need. Just drop it.

"The enemy isn't really Nestlé. The enemy is us. They're selling it to us for a buck and a half, but we're paying a buck and a half.

"If you want to change human behaviour, look at our tax laws. We need carbon taxes. We have to de-carbonize our economy. If you look at the bottled water industry, they're not paying for the damned stuff. All the costs are energy costs... So vote for carbon taxes. Double the cost of bottled water."