Thursday, September 29, 2011

 

WATER: NOT JUST FOR THE COMMODE

Media personalities, screen actors, winners of the Nobel Prize have been pushing back publicly against the Keystone XL oil pipeline project set for President Obama's final approval any day now.

Demonstrators have recently moved the protests to Ottawa as it has become increasingly obvious that in Washington's politically charged atmosphere, one year out from a Presidential election, green-flagging the pipeline is a "slam-dunk"; or a no-brainer as Stephen Harper described it to Bloomberg News in New York last weekend.

The 2700 Kilometer Keystone XL pipeline will draw unrefined oil from northern Alberta through Saskatchewan to enter the United-States in Montana on its way to the petroleum refineries along the Gulf Coast of southern Texas. The economic impact and the number of jobs created along its multi-states route are simply too overwhelming for the Obama Administration, which is fighting to regain control of America's troubled economy, to ignore.

Moving-on: Every step of the way along the Harper Government's efforts to improve trade relations with the United-States (pipeline included); Canada's strategy for negotiating the enhanced "Perimeter Security" arrangements has butted-heads and been hampered by America's steadfast resolve that homeland security trumps trade. Even when trade is with its neighbourly and overwhelmingly largest international business and trading partner. Though it may be unrelalted, The Government of the United-States has already declared that "water supply" is a national security issue.
A significant element of the problem already affects several states south of our shared 49th parallel. They have now allocated their maximum existing water supplies to farming, industry and urban development. Either they will have to do with less water, or tap large new sources as the North American climate continues to change and erode largely because of our human habits and indiscretions.

Back in 2010, Canada was one of a handful of countries which abstained from a vote at the United-Nations declaring water to be a universal right. Flushed with renewable fresh water resources along with our miniscule population which is less that 0.5% of the planet's, we Canadians are already the world's largest per capita consumers of water. The simmering debate given recent new life by trend spotters, some investment gurus, and conversely little attention by policy makers, seems to suggest: Forget oil and gas -Invest in water! Back in July, the Chief Economist at Citibank, William Buiter, pretty much said so in a memo to investors: "I expect to see in the near future a massive expansion of investment in the water sector, including the production of fresh, clean water from other sources (desalination, purification), storage, shipping and transportation of water. I expect to see pipeline networks that will exceed the capacity of those for oil and gas today." (Quoted from the Alphaville Blog)

An analysis prepared by the Canadian military, and so far (it seems) largely ignored by the escalating level of incompetents responsible for our Department of National Defence, (I digress!) claims that up to 60 countries could fall into a category of water scarcity or stress by 2050. It would place Canada and our abundance of water on the path to "a key source of (political) power" or a "basis for future conflict." Parts of the draft report titled: 'Army 2040 - First Look' were seen by Postmedia News in June, before the Citibank memo was issued by the Chief-Ecnomist.

The draft of the Army report concludes that Canada's path into this hazardous and problamic future depends on the policy decisions made by the government today. Haven't seen any. - Sure hope the planned largely discredited "Law and Order" legislation before the House of Commons isn't a sign-post precursor of the road ahead.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

 

COMMANDER PUTIN IN CHARGE

I don't know what the correct course of action is, much less a solution, to the dilemna Canadians face over Arctic sovereignty. I just know that the one we're on now isn't making us any friends, and in the long term probably won't make much difference over how the rest of the world divides-up the resources of the northern pole's lands and seas.

Prime Minister Harper has made it a priority of his government to increase the nation's presence in the North as the countries of the Arctic Council eye the vast amount of oil and the many other resources in the area. The Council created in 1996, includes Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States. Though Canadians may assume that we hold claim to much of the Arctic continent, check-out this list and it's pretty obvious who the big players are: America, which despite its moribund economic outlook is still a "superpower," and the Russians who with Vladimir Putin soon back in charge expect to regain post Communist bloc superpower status within the next decade or less.

Appearing before Parliament's Committee on Defence a year ago in October 2010, the Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, Michael Byers, warned that Canada's planned purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) could cause "angst in Russia" and trigger an arms race over the Arctic.



Before becoming Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister last winter, Nigel Wright was closely associated with a major U.S. aircraft manufacturer (Hawker Beechcraft) that is partnered with Lockheed-Martin with whom Canada has a sole-source multi-billion dollar contract to purchase the F-35 JSF being developed for the American military.

Though Canada's Defence Ministry remains steadfast in its willingness to buy the jet fighters as replacement for our fleet of CF-18's; defence analysts, some Members of Congress, and an ever increasing number of pundits, critics and bloggers south of the border aren't even sure the stealth fighter will ever make it into full production. The F-35's skyrocketing development costs estimated at $1-Trillion have placed the plane at the top of potential military program cuts as the United-States staggers under the weight of uncontrolled spending and debt.

Regardless of the fallout in America, on the other side of the North Pole the Russians it seems aren't waiting any longer to confirm the ominous prediction from U.B.C.'s professor Michael Byers. Pretty much secure in the knowledge that former President Putin, currently Prime Minister Putin, will once more be President Putin by 2012, after the present President (Dmitriy Medvedev)announced this weekend he's bowing-out in favour of Putin's return: The Russians have just announced they are substantially increasing Arctic military presence.

Here at home both the Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, and the Chief of Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, have been chastised for their personal (perhaps frivolous) use of military aircraft. But much more significant of the deteriorating consideration Russians hold for Canada's military and our Arctic plans, their announcement followed within hours a 3-day visit by Natynczyk to Moscow which, according to DND, was to..."gain the Russian perspective on a range of issues to improve and develop Canada's military relationship with Russia." Meantime Putin was in Iceland announcing that the country would be building a total of 9 ice-breakers to expand transportation in the Arctic. The announcement follows a July commitment to establish a 2000 soldier permanent force based in the Arctic, just a month before Canada's three week long fly-in / fly-out "Operation Nanook" in the North. By the way, Russia has permanently staffed Ice Station Borneo (about 40 miles from the North Pole) since 1996 and it's made it clear on several occasions in the recent past that NATO isn't welcomed on the frozen continent. - Which pretty much explains why the course we're on up there is not likely to work to our ultimate favour and advantage.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

 

TOO CHEAP TO FLY

Everyone is looking for a $99 fare, if they don't get it - they don't fly. How would you like to be an investor in a business that has rarely turned a profit in 80 years?

That's the crazy airline business and Air Canada shares with too many others the dubious distinction of its poster child. The Montreal based International Air Transport Association (IATA) notes that the airline industry has lost a total of $50-Billion since the business took a direct hit in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Because of the progressive rise in the cost of jet-fuel even some of the traditional "discount" airlines have found it more difficult to continue to offer low prices. For instance to shave costs, SouthWest in the U.S. has merged with Air Tran, and Ryanair in the United-Kingdom and Europe has grounded about 80 aircraft of its fleet.

Anyone remember "Tango" and "Zip"? A decade ago they were Air Canada's frontline effort to create 'airlines within the airline' to replicate and mimic the look and the feel of its upstart competitors; at that time primarily Calgary based WestJet which copied the successful SouthWest model from the United-States.

Air Canada Express (Sky Regional Airlines) Bombardier DHC-8-402 (Q400) N505LX (msn 4174) YYZ (TMK Photography) (new airline) by Airliners Gallery
Air Canada Express (Sky Regional Airlines) Bombardier DHC-8-402 (Q400) N505LX (msn 4174) YYZ (TMK Photography) (new airline), a photo by Airliners Gallery on Flickr.

Despite the gloomy outlook, or perhaps because of it Canada's legacy flag-carrier claims to be positioning itself to buck the trend. Air Canada announced last spring that it would launch a discount airline that will provide cheap fares to holiday destinations. The surprise announcement seems to figure prominently in the company's labour turmoil which so far has involved customer service agents, flight attendants and which will likely soon also involve the company's pilots.

Speculating about forming a new company may have had more to do with pensions and work rules than lower ticket prices for customers. Which leads some pundits to speculate that the announcement was part of a scheme to advance the corporate agenda to negotiate different work rules, as it has since with the customer service agents where the salary scale for new hires was reduced by 20%; while the Federal Government's back-to-work legislation (which ended their June strike in less than 3 days) sent pension roll-back issues to binding arbitration.

Deep in the throes of its financial agony and bankruptcy reorganization in 2001 Air Canada split-off and downloaded regional operations by creating JAZZ, a company based in Halifax whose 5000 employees are represented by different unions and less lucrative wage scales. JAZZ has just started rebranding itself as "Air Canada Express" (see photo) to streamline operations with Sky Regional Airlines. Sky Regional is a non-unionized operator contracted to compete with Porter Airlines on the lucrative Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal routes operated from Toronto's downtown island airport. Lest I digress...Porter's response has been to open a new crew hub in Halifax leading to speculation that it will increase flights into Atlantic Canada and into the United-States through Boston, New York and Newark.

Following the threat of more back-to-work legislation from the Harper Government, this week's last minute agreement reached with Air Canada's 6000 flight attendants likely involves terms similar to those ordered in June for the customer service reps. It may force (at least strongly encourage) the company's pilots to follow the lead when their turn comes-up most any day now.

With a willing government and back-to-work orders at the ready: If Air Canada can achieve what it wants on labour and pension costs, then you may pretty well forget about their plan to create another discount airline altogether.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

 

WHAT WOULD JESUS CUT?

It is increasingly apparent as the un-official campaigning for the 2012 run at the Presidency ramps-up in the United States that evangelical Protestantism and extreme fiscal conservatism have somehow become entangled. The front-runner in the current round of Republican Party candidates seeking the party's nomination, the Governor of Texas Rick Perry, has been focussing on politics, prayer and redemption from his one pulpit.

Pundits denounce this brand of  Christianity as focussed on fear, and in Governor Perry's case an abuse of power.  Harsh critics say this most fundamentalist of born-again credo seems so strict that if the alternative to raising taxes involves gutting services such as umemployment benefits in a time of severe joblessness, basic medical care, food stamps or shelter for the homeless - well, so be it!

Perhaps there were elements of truth; certainly an air of surrealism on Monday during the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Florida when the moderator, Wolf Blitzer, asked a hypothetical question about whether a man without health insurance should be provided medical care in the event of an accident - "Are you saying that society ahould just let him die?" Blitzer asked. - Before the candidate could reply several shouts of "yeah!" came from the audience.

Reporting on the Tea-Party sponsored Tampa debate, the Canadian Press  noted: "It was the second Republican debate in less than a week to feature such a show-stopper from the audience. Last week in California, Rick Perry got the most boisterous cheers of the night when he noted proudly that 234 people had been executed in Texas in the 11 years he's been governor."  Tongue set firmly in cheek, a liberal commentor Tweeted: "Given all the applause for death in the last two GOP debates, the Grim Reaper would be a very strong candidate.

The politics of the United States are clearly divided, poisoned and increasingly strident. A discord which doesn't bode well in dealing with the myriad of multiplying issues and problems the country is facing. Mobilizing a nation in prayer, quiet contemplation and reflection  to seek the legislative wisdom to make the right choices and decisions is one thing. - Throwing God into the middle of this poisoned debate is a whole other matter which (I am frankly not sure) even He in His infinite wisdom would approve.

Canada isn't immune to the creepism of extreme-right fundamentalism disguised as evangelical fervour. The divisions and debates south of the border in the name of, and which invoke Jesus and a singular interpretation of The Bible, can easily be imported into our own legislative process. For instance the "National House of Prayers" based in Ottawa claims that it has an on-going..."presence of praying people in the halls of our Federal Government." The group formed about 10 years ago now maintains an "Embassy of Prayer" in Ottawa from which it sends (it says) "intercessors" to attend Question Period, sit-in on sesssions of the Senate, position themselves in Committee meetings and make appointments with individual Parliamentarians.  It's founder, Rob Parker, claims to have received Divine direction to this mission after crying-out to God that Canada had become a "Godless Nation."

The precept of division of State and the worship and practice of religion is fundamental to the healthy process of democracy. Otherwise the danger is in getting the government you've been praying for.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

 

...SNOW WHAT?

As sure as the sun will rise in the morning, the snow too will soon fly over the Great White North. Though hardly a surprise, still it's a tiny bit disconcerting when by late month each September the overnight temperature in many parts of the country dips below freezing.

So too, for many as well begins the thought process to seek a place of refuge from the harshness of the winter months, even if only for just a few days once in a while, at a welcoming, warm, sun drenched escape from our Canadian reality.


There are in excess of 26-million cross-border trips by Canadians into the United States each year. Fueled by our strong currency against the United-States "greenback" and despite the tightening border security measures imposed by various U.S. Homeland  initiatives, the flow of northern visitors south of the border dipped in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; but has steadied and grown in recent years. More than 60% of Canadians hold valid passports which are essential to crossing the border, compared to roughly 20% of U.S. citizens with valid documentation.

Security became the top priority at the border following the terrorist attacks of 2001. When combined with the economic downturn in the United-States since 2008, the free-flow of trade has been significantly impacted. But the American economic malaise has also pushed many more individual Canadian shoppers and tourists across the border. Seeking refuge from  winter, from November 2010 to March 2011, Canadians made 5.6 Million "winter leisure trips" to the United States. Florida's tourism bureau reports a significant increase in visits so far in 2011. Canadians lead the increase. The number of Canadian visitors to Florida in 2011 is up 18.4% over last year.

About one million visitors are "Canadian Snowbirds" who spend a month or more (sometimes much more) each year below the Snowbelt. There too, Florida is a destination of choice. It's home-away-from-home for about 360,000 of us each winter. Arizona (83,000) and Hawaii (21,000) follow in the ranking.

From the perspective of the business and trade community which has been buffeted by a weakened economy and the trauma of 9/11, it is abundantly clear that the security guidelines of the past 10 years have been harmful, and clearly no longer sufficient. To that end, there are ongoing talks between Federal Government officials from both sides to construct a detailed plan to secure the border while allowing the free flow of trade and commerce which both countries believe essential to the economic well-being of the continent. There's been speculation in fact that by month's end, President Obama and Prime Minister Harper will announce thirty or more elements of the "Perimeter Security" arrangement they spoke about last February in Washington.

Doubtless the business community will applaud this deal. The challenge for the Obama Administration, and to a lesser degree (perhaps) for Mr. Harper will be to convince their respective Legislatures that it's good for the country. While it is clearly understood that privacy is not an unconditional entitlement, the question for the millions of individual Canadians who commute across the border for business, pleasure or leisure each year should be that the greater pursuit of business is not achieved at the expense of their personal guaranteed rights.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

 

ISLAND OF THE ADVENTURE

Given the number of idled and idling shipyards and boat building enterprises along the eastern Canadian shore, one might pause to ponder why a previous Government of New Brunswick chose a Florida company to build its car ferry to the Island of Grand Manan.

Lest I digress; President Barack Obama's summer tour of several midwestern American jurisdictions was virtually derailed because he chose to travel in a state-of-the-art private coach manufactured in Quebec.

As for the Florida manufactured 400 passenger / 82 car, sixty-eight million dollar ferry "Grand Manan Adventure": No one doubts that it too is a state-of-the-art vessel. In fact it's precisely its onboard technology which has kept it tied-up at port for much of its short life. The ship was already several months behind schedule when it was delivered in August (Because it failed initial sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico) and it had operated for just 3 days before the bow thrusters failed on August 15.

The "Grand Manan Adventure" is going back into dry-dock in Florida later this week.

All of the hoopla surrounding the misadventures of the "Adventure" has
eclipsed what should have been a record setting tourism season for this island community sandwiched in the Bay of Fundy between the United-States and Canada. The "Bay of Fundy" itself is on the short list of finalists for the 21st Century's choice of the "Seven-Wonders of the Modern World" which will be announced early next year.

And...the well read international magazine "Reader's Digest" surprised islanders this past spring by naming Grand Manan third in its list of "World's Seven Best Small Islands."
(Ferry Dock / Not exactly as shown)

Grand Manan has long been known for its picturesque cliff faces, postcard perfect lighthouses, fresh seafoods and quaint villages. In the "Reader's Digest" poll it was ranked behind Santorini (Greece), and Key West, Florida. The locals, surely along with New Brunswick tourism officials, had hoped that having the island community on the international radar of the magazine's readers could enhance the economic outlook for the area, including much of southwestern mainland New Brunwick.

In nearby St. Andrews-By-The-Sea, the future of the Algonquin Hotel, since 1889 the historic mainstay of the once thriving resort community, is unclear as its operator, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, has told the government that it's pulling-out in December.

While it's good to have others recognize what a terrific destination the Fundy Coast of New Brunswick really is...if travellers can hardly get there; they are most likely to choose more hospital destinations.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

 

LINKED BY RAIL...

....Perhaps to digress: It's been suggested, tongue in cheek, that high-profile Hollywood personalities recently arrested at the White House protesting the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico did not travel cross-country on "electric" airplanes.

President Obama is scheduled once again to address the American people in a few days this time about major job creation initiatives, as the economy of the United-States remains mired in an endless and semingly bottomless recession. Pundits expect he will call on Congress to implement additional tax credits and bolster infrastructure spending to get the U.S. economy out of the doldrums.

Just a few months after Obama's swearing-in as President in 2009 he was in Tampa, Florida annoucing a cornerstone measure of his new administration plans to modernize transportation, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and create badly needed employment opportunities. Mr. Obama had earmarked more than $2-Billion for the construction of a "show piece" bullet train linking Tampa Bay and Orlando which would open a new chapter in modern, efficient rail transportation. The Tea-Party backed State Governor, Rick Scott, elected in the follow-up 2010 (mid-term) Gubernatorial face-off flatly rejected the deal. Some of the Florida money,to be specific $404-Million, is now headed to Amtrak in an effort to increase average speed on its rail service from Detroit to Chicago to about 110-miles per hour from the current 90 MPH.

Regardless of the environmental benefits, the plain reality both in the United-States and in Canada is that high-speed (downtown to downtown) train corridors make sense because they are substantially more efficient and less expensive than airplanes along short to mid-range routes...

VIA Rail Train #76 by t47360
VIA Rail Train #76, a photo by t47360 on Flickr.

...An argument of course which rings familiar to Canadians who have been advocating for a number of years seeking improved, faster and more efficient rail links along VIA Rail's lucrative Windor / Quebec City corridor. In light of the Amtrak project about to get underway thanks to the Obama "jobs" inititatives, some forward thinkers see an opportunity for a direct Chicago to Montreal rail corridor by way of Detroit and Windsor. Really a "no-brainer," for which the potential would be easily recognized both in Europe and in Asia where most developed countries are light-years ahead of the North American model for rail transportation.

Alas! That's not quite the perception at Via Rail which has received almost $925-Million in Federal stimulus funding to upgrade infrastructure and rail stations. It claims to be hamstrung by its "conventional" service because:"Any plan to move forward with high-speed rail would be a government prerogative."

Still, despite the Federal government's faltering initiative towards a "perimeter security" deal with our U. S. neighbour and, along with a deadlocked Michigan Legislative Assembly, 'Transport Canada' remains committed to, and adamant about, advancing funds to the Americans to build a second bridge over the Detroit River. It seems a rail-link could be a seamless logical extension and a substantial opportunity for this proposal. Since Denis Lebel the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities is "The" minister with responsibilities for every element of the file(s), he should be inclined (Nay!Encouraged) to reconsider.

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