Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – Parsing the Slate

Last Monday, the Guelph Progressive Conservative Riding Association had their nomination meeting and selected local businessman Greg Schirk as their candidate for this Fall’s Provincial Election. With that belated selection, the slate of four main party candidates was complete for the riding of Guelph, which means the election season is unofficially underway, at least until the writ is dropped at the end of summer.

So with about a month to spare till the campaign begins in earnest, lets take a look at the names we’ll be seeing on the ballot, their strengths and weaknesses, and maybe what the political landscape, provincially-speaking, is going to look like on October 6th.

Liz Sandals – Liberal
Incumbent Candidate
2007 Election: Won by 20,346 votes; 40.92 per cent

Sandals is a quality candidate: stalwart, loyal and a background of committed public service to the community she represents. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of love out there for her boss, Premier Dalton McGuinty. A recent opinion poll put PC leader Tim Hudak up 11 percentage points on McGuinty, with people citing issues like the HST and hydro prices as reasons for backing the Official Opposition, but since they literally rebelled against the HST in BC, how bad could we hate it here? Still, Sandals may be the nice, safe choice. She works hard, she does her job, and the only press she makes has to do with funding announcements and facility openings. Plus, if the comments in the blogosphere are to be believed, a lot of people in the city are on her side with the whole Health Unit drama. Maybe that’s enough for a hat trick.

Greg Schirk – Progressive Conservative
2007 Election: PC candidate Bob Senechal received 12,180 votes; 24.49 per cent

Schirk is an accomplished entrepreneur and a life-long Guelph resident, and in this business they call that cache. But in all seriousness, Schirk is going to be tough competition for Sandals, especially if the poll numbers continue to hold up in Hudak’s favour. But ay, there’s the rub. Who’s preoccupied with politics in the middle of a heat wave? Well, except you and me, of course. Still, Sandals should not be underestimated, and neither should the people of Guelph and their affinity for our Liberal representatives. In her last election, the people and the press were junk piling on Brenda Chamberlain for things like voting against same sex marriage. Yet, she still won her final election in 2006 by a healthy margin, and against a very attractive Conservative candidate. Sometimes, the odds go out the window.

Steve Dyck – Green Party of Ontario
2007 Election: Green candidate Ben Polley received 9,750 votes; 19.61 per cent

On paper, Dyck has got it going on. He’s a local businessman (he’s President of Guelph Solar Mechanical Inc., a solar heating solutions company), he’s a trained mediator, and he knows how to socialize (he’s the inventor of Green Drinks, a regular Green Party social). The man has definitely got his Green credentials down, but the question is if Dyck will be able to capitalize on Polley’s gains in 2007? That’s a tough one if you consider the results of the recent Federal election. Like Polley, Mike Nagy ran before and was able to capitalize on previous gains. In 2011, John Lawson wasn’t able to keep pace, and perhaps lost ground to the resurgent Liberal. Could Steve Dyck be looking at a similar fate in his own 2011 race?

James Gordon – New Democratic Party
2007 Election: NDP candidate Karan Mann-Bowers received 6,880 votes; 13.84 per cent

While it seems unlikely that an Orange Revolution will sweep Ontario, the ascension of Andrea Horwath to the leadership of the party means good news for the NDP, and the same can be said of Gordon’s nomination locally. Advantage one: name cache. People know the name James Gordon, and if they don’t like his politics, they might surely appreciate his unique brand of folk music. Advantage two: Gordon is no fly by night politico. He knows the issues and has been engaged in local politics for some time. In short, he’s accomplished. The problem? The NDP don’t have a lot of success with local celebrities, but maybe this time it’ll be different.

Stay tuned, because it’s countdown to Election Day. Well, again. Election Day 2! “The Wrath of Hudak.” “The Search for Dalton.” “The Voyage Horwath.” Whatever you want to call it. We’ll see you in September with more election news, and see you next week with more editorializing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – We Used to Be Friends, A Long Time Ago

With July nearing its end, thoughts turn ever so lightly to the offerings of Fall. It won’t be too long till those Back to School commercials start filling the airwaves, and stacks of spiral notebooks and printer paper start taking up the real estate once held by lawn chairs and barbeques (can you tell I once worked in retail?). But when September hits, it won’t just be school some of us are heading back to, but the polls as well.

The Ontario Provincial Election will unfurl over the six weeks leading up to the October 6th polling date. Locally, Liberal Liz Sandals will attempt to defend her seat from the NDP’s James Gordon, the Green’s Steven Dyck and either Robert Demille, Greg Schirk and Bob Senechal for the Progressive Conservative Party. (NOTE: My Echo deadline was before this past Monday’s PC nomination meeting, so to find out which of the three is the one, head over to my blog at

You’ll notice that ‘P’ word in front of the Conservative. That’s important because the leaders and organizers of the Guelph-branch of the Ontario PCs want you to know they’re different. “One piece of information that’s important to know is that the PC Party of Ontario and the federal Conservative Party are not the same thing,” wrote Guelph PC President Allan Boynton to the Guelph Mercury’s managing editor Phil Andrews. Andrews posted the letter from Boynton on the “From the Editors” blog on the Mercury website.

Boynton’s sentiments were echoed in an e-mail we exchanged the week before. “I want you to know that this process is important to the City of Guelph, and it is our job as the local riding association to not guard our candidates but to make them available to you, and the people that vote here,” he wrote. Perhaps it should go without saying, but Boynton, who has some experience putting his name on a ballot after running for city council last year, knows that one can’t get elected in a vacuum of silence.

What’s strange is that Boynton has to make such assurances to begin with. It should be a foregone conclusion that a political candidate of any party should be available to reporters looking to talk to them. At some point a certain segment of the political discourse decided that the press was the enemy, and while some members of the press sometimes behave in a manner unbefitting of our noble profession (*cough*News of the World*cough*), the truth is that “gotcha journalism” is something made up by Sarah Palin to explain why she didn’t know stuff. We’re just asking questions.

That’s a shame because no matter the division that separates us in our politics, there’s always stuff we can come together and celebrate. For instance, I salute Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his appearance this week as a day player on the turn-of-the-20th-century crime procedural Murdoch Mysteries. The Prime Minister is a big fan, and says he’s never missed an episode of the show. After a nudge from his daughter, he reached out to the show’s producers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like a number of Canadian politicians, Harper has, in the past, shown no qualms about appearing on sketch comedy shows like The Rick Mercer Report, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and The Royal Canadian Air Farce. It always amuses me when American politicians laud their own humorousness by appearing on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, while in Canada the interim leader of one of our major political parties once dived into a lake naked with a CBC TV host.

I’ve ranted and raved a lot in recent months about the cone of silence that the Conservative Party perpetuated during the last election, and I don’t just mean locally with a certain candidate that will remain nameless. To be clear, elections are about engagement, and included in that are press interviews and debate appearances. But even if there’s something not self-evident in that, Can’t we at least believe that we all mean well, and that we probably have a lot in common once we get past our political alignments.

You see, I, like the Prime Minister, also enjoy the intrepid Inspector Murdoch, who uses up-to-the-date scientific techniques, the then ever burgeoning field of forensics, to solve crimes in Victorian Toronto. It’s like a steampunk CSI. Now do you think that the stars and producers of Murdoch Mysteries were vetted for their politics before Harper arrived on set to play the bit part of a desk sergeant? I hardly think so. Why can’t the same be said for average citizens and journalists?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – The Pinko Commie Manifesto

“Actually I'm wearing pink for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything.” That’s what Don Cherry told the gathered politicians, reporters and general public in December at the swearing in of Mayor Rob Ford. Undoubtedly, this admission was prompted by the audible gasps heard form the crowd when Cherry stood up in a hot pink sports coat that would even make Barbie call gauche on the Hockey Night in Canada commentator.

The “pinkos” Cherry was referring to were people vocally opposed to Mayor Ford’s “roads are for cars only” policy. “Grapes” then went on to compare Ford favourably to former OPP Chief Julian Fantino, and lauded both men for their honesty before wrapping up his address with a hearty “put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.” Don Cherry, class act.

But this editorial’s not about Cherry, or even Ford for that matter (he’s suffered enough… for now). But Cherry’s comment is the harsh reaction that encapsulates a growing feeling of negativity towards bikes and bike riders. In Guelph, the philosophy of a city being bike friendly was tested again recently with the introduction of a bike box at the intersection of Stone Road and Chancellor’s Way.

For the uninitiated, a bike box is a space reserved for bikes at an intersection where a bicyclist can pull up in front of a line of cars and thus get to turn the corner before the car traffic. The use and implementation of the bike box falls in a kind of grey area so far as traffic law is concerned, but some are wondering why the city’s squandering so much time and effort to accommodate bike riders when many of them either a) don’t obey traffic rules to begin with, or b) are a nuisance and the city should be more occupied with improving traffic flow. CAR TRAFFIC.

Others have mentioned that a lot of bicyclists don’t use the roads, and still use sidewalks when perfectly good bike lanes are already there. A reasonable point, but speaking as a bike rider myself – not to mention the fact that I’m also a frequent pedestrian – car drivers in the City of Guelph are scary as hell. Scary. As. Hell.

I have been at an intersection, crossing with the light, walking at a reasonable pace, and have seen out of the corner of my eye some car creeping around the corner so that they literally don’t have to stop for me. There’s something so sinister in this. A tacit implication that maybe if you don’t start moving faster then this car driver will lower the boom on the gas petal and just mow you out of the way. And then there are the ones that don’t slow down at all. The ones that take the corner and miss you by inches. You can literally feel that breath of wind as the car just zoomed around the corner behind you.

Now that’s not to say that bicyclists are victimless. Certainly there are a number of riders who are rude, they ride too fast, they don’t observe basic safety, they don’t signal and they switch from sidewalk to road with reckless abandon. But for the cautious majority, I can understand perfectly the nagging fear that riding on roads, especially ones with no clear bike lane, can lead to potential doom. To coin a phrase, in the battle of car versus bike, the car always wins.

There was a headline lately that Guelph Police had fined 36 bicyclists in a safety blitz, mostly for riding on the sidewalk and disobeying traffic lights and stop signs. I bet the amount collected from 36 bike riders will be a tidy sum, maybe enough for the Chief of Police to buy everyone at the precinct a donut and coffee. But as I pointed out last week, it was reported in April that the City has yet to collect $5.2 million in overdue fines going back six years for offenses like speeding and careless driving. I predict that any rider defaulting on his ticket will have the court system on him faster than by-law on Led Zeppelin.

This isn’t a call for bicyclist anarchy in the Royal City, but an appeal for rationalization. Bikes are fun, they encourage exercise and they’re part of a more sustainable, liveable community. And while people on bikes may occasionally skirt the law out of indifference or ignorance, the same can be said for car drivers, and the potential negative effects can be much more severe. For years, the term “pedal to metal” was associated with driving fast in your car. Let’s change that. Let’s make bike riding gangsta, and leave commie comments to the guy in the pink sports coat.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Part the Third: The Song Remains the Same

My original thought for this week’s column was to write about the growing gulf of disgruntlement between the city’s car drivers and its bike riders, but then something unusual happened: 1969 broke out downtown. In an effort to peacefully protest the going-on five year construct-a-thon on upper-Carden Street, Kris and Adrian Raso, brother/owners of Little Shop of Guitars fought fire with “Kashmir” and other great hits from the Zepplin catalogue.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it didn’t long for by-law to get suited and (jack)booted, marching over to the Raso’s shop to tell them to stop pumping up the jams. You see, the Little Shop is just across the road from both City Hall and the courthouse, and people in those buildings complained that the music was an irritant and disruptive. Just to be clear, do you mean to tell me that a little Zep is more of a nuisance than some 40 tonnes or more of construction machinery moving in and out of the area?

What’s especially impressive is the response time. Granted, by-law officers could walk, saunter if you will, from City Hall to the guitar store, but the music started playing Wednesday afternoon, and the first visit by by-law was shortly there after. Now that is service. God knows that whenever I’ve called by-law, the only way I could get a response that quick is with a four-leaf clover, three rabbits’ feet and a purple horse shoe. But all the lucky charms in the world are worthless when it comes to certain occasions in my neighbourhood where the parking is limited, but the laziness of drivers is not.

The stage of today’s little drama is Margaret Green Park off Westwood Rd. in the city’s west end. It was a Sunday in November, and members of my family were taking my sister to a birthday breakfast at a popular Guelph eatery. Like idiots, we take the bus and so gathered at the bus stop along Westwood. Now typically, as per city by-law, there’s no parking in front of or around city bus stops. But today there was a cross-country activity in the park, and thus a lot of people coming to enjoy the greenery at Margaret Green. So to everyone’s surprise, and nobody’s knowledge, parking in front of the bus stop, and up Westwood, and on the bridge over the Hanlon Parkway had been allowed.

Try to tell any of these scofflaws that parking’s not allowed in these areas and they’ll complain that it’s the only place they can park. Apparently, there’s some little used amendment in the Highway Traffic Act that says parking laws can be ignored in the event of parking running out. Wait a minute. No there isn’t! They just wish there was. And to add insult to injury, just a year earlier, the city shuffled around the playground equipment in Margaret Green Park, so as to create a new 20-space lot. They literally paved paradise and put up a parking lot and there was still not enough parking to suit people.

But where was by-law enforcement? I don’t know, but two hours later, coming home from breakfast, there was only a hapless City of Guelph employee trying to tell people that they couldn’t park on the two lane bridge over the Hanlon because it’s against the law, AND ONLY TWO LANES WIDE. (Sorry about the caps, but Hulk’s ready to smash over here.) I talked to this man, not as a reporter, but as a neighbourhood resident, and though he seemed a little out of his depth, he was doing the best he could do.

The one thing he could have used was by-law enforcement out in, you know, force. I heard once that the city has about $5 million in uncollected fines for speeding and careless driving. If the city went after these people with the same zeal as they took on the Raso Brothers, we could go a year without hearing the words “budget crunch.”

Which brings us full circle. And while no one outside Kevin Arnold’s dad would consider the music of Led Zepplin tunes of the Devil’s choice, the Raso’s simple and elegant protest has brought something real to the forefront. Construction can cost in more than one way, and for the merchants in that part of downtown, the half decade renovations across the street may be near a breaking point. And now that the tension is broke, perhaps relations between City Hall and the Little Shop of Guitars can be a little less “When the Levee Breaks” and a little more “Stairway to Heaven.”

Yes, I just wrote that. You’re welcome.