Archive | March 2015

PEI has discovered the limits of growth

By Jim Brown
Another day, another damning Globe & Mail epic investigative story (The Incredible Shrinking Region, Saturday, March 21) slagging PEI and the rest of the Maritimes.
Why can’t tiny PEI (population less than 145,000) and the rest of Maritimes just pull up their bootstraps? seems to be the underlying message.
The bottom line is we have an aging, dwindling population and a growing dependency on Ottawa to pay the bills. And, by the way, our economy sucks.
Well, it’s time to fight back.
So we should be more like Calgary, Toronto, or Vancouver? Sure, only many families who live there can’t afford even a shoebox of a home in one of those world-class cities, because beaten-down fixer-ups are selling for well north of a million dollars.
For less than a fifth of that that an Island family can still purchase a sturdy farmhouse with a decent piece of land and a trout stream running through it.
How is it I know so many Islanders who haven’t seen a $50,000 salary, ever, owning beachfront cottages?
Electricity may cost more here than most places in the country, but if you include the price of everything else that makes up the cost of living, we’re not doing so badly.
In fact, I would wager many Island families are in better shape than many of their counterparts in oil rich Alberta, which is now experiencing the “bust” part of the economic cycle.
Islanders who live here make a conscious choice to put down deep roots. They know the economy rests on three basic pillars – fishing, farming and tourism. And because of that there will never really be a boom on the Island. Restaurants, water parks, cottages and other seasonal operations that are packed to overflowing in the summer months will only draw crickets once the Labour Day weekend passes.
Islanders have made allowances for that cycle and learn to live modest but rewarding lives with much less.
Islanders, and Maritimers, may be aging and the population may be dwindling and too many of us make little more than minimum wage, but we don’t ask for three car garages in Tony mansions by the sea. Islanders have what they need in well-kept, century-old farm homes and in more modest dwellings in larger centres.
We get by.
We have two well-regarded hospitals and four sub-hospitals and access to top-notch specialized medical facilities across the Confederation Bridge in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that are often easier to get to than comparable medical facilities Canadians in towns, villages and even cities across the country rely on.
Though we like to grumble about our taxes they are often lower than much of the rest of the country, reflecting much lower mortgage costs.
I’d hate to be oil worker living in Fort MacMurray or anywhere in the oil patch right now and facing an uncertain future after investing heavily in a new home costing in excess of a million dollars. I’d hate to be wage-slave living in Calgary or Red Deer when large oil companies are slashing their workforces as oil continues to hover around $40 a barrel, far lower than what is needed to make many drilling projects profitable.
I have a feeling it won’t be much longer before PEI’s secret is out. We’ll be flooded with new residents, mainly seniors, who want a quieter, more relaxed pace of life with some basic cultural amenities in the form of five-star restaurants, theatres, golf courses and luxury condos, without the outrageous property taxes.
PEI’s Chinese community is one of fastest growing segments of the population and many new residents are from wealthy backgrounds. They’ve made their fortunes and the last thing they want is to retire in a part of the world that is smog-filled, congested and over-built. Rolling farmland and beautiful meadows, streams, woodlots and sand dunes are just the ticket.
Of course, if the entrepreneurial classes have their way we’ll soon be overwhelmed with high rises, incubator malls and golf courses around every corner. Those beautiful old farmhouses that blend into the landscape will be torn down to make way for gated communities.
I recently read a bestselling non-fiction work that describes what happens when small communities over-reach, when they try to position themselves as world-beaters. For instance, one unforeseen consequence is vastly over-built infrastructure in the form of roads, bridges and sewage systems – all constructed to accommodate burgeoning population growth. And then property taxes have to shoot way up to pay for all those new toys.
Many in the national media like to tee off on Islanders for consuming half a billion dollars worth of federal revenues for less than 145,000 people. Well, guess what? PEI doesn’t have the problems associated with major centres experiencing white-hot growth. We don’t have to spend billions on infrastructure and still play catch-up. We don’t have the social problems of mining and oil and gas dependent communities. Families remain intact, not torn apart by the lust for more of everything.
I’d say $500 million, all things considered, is really quite cheap for what has been accomplished in this peaceable dominion.
PEI, of course, still has big problems to deal with – mediocre to poor environmental regulations, control of the agricultural sector by multi-national corporations and a staggering high unemployment rate. But the problems are manageable and through innovation and hard work at the community level, improvements to the quality of life can be made.
We have the time and space on our enchanted little Island to make this part of the world a true paradise. We only have to build on the foundation of what we already have in abundance – strong communities and a willingness on the part of Islanders who have made their home here for generations to work and play together.
The Island isn’t dying. We have discovered what others have paid a heavy price to learn. There are limits to growth.

Snowed in canine

Dogs throughout PEI, including this German Shepherd, golden retriever mix in Stanley Bridge,  were left with few places to play outdoors after a series of March storms dumped record snowfall 025over much of the Island.

Globe & Mail’s coming out party for PEI’s power players

I’ve just finished reading Robyn Doolittle and Jane Taber’s massive expose on PEI’s ill-fated venture into online gambling for the third time. It’s a sprawling investigative story, breathtaking in its scope and thoroughness – a great white shark of a feature devouring the better part of three full pages in the Feb 28 issue of the Globe & Mail.
I’ve rarely seen so many people named in a feature or an article and it actually got me thinking –  was anyone left out?
Just think about all of those political insiders and business big shots who have close, almost incestuous connections to the provincial government.
This is going to sound weird, but dare I say the Globe expose might be compared to what passes for the Island’s society pages, a coming out moment for those lucky few on their way to the top and who know how to turn Province House into their own personal ATM.
I was also wondering about the Islanders from privileged positions who were left out. Did they feel relief? Or perhaps a profound sense of disquiet?
They weren’t named, so does that mean their influence in powerful government circles is on the wane? Would it seem to them as if their very existence went unacknowledged?
If Robyn Doolittle or Jane Taber called you and got a quote over the phone or they talked to a close friend or colleague about you – why you were important – dare I say, a “player.”
I keep thinking of the Frank Underwood character in House of Cards, a world class conniver and schemer with nary shred of human decency. But he’s a player and everyone listens to what he has to say. Didn’t he kill to become president? He’s the sort of Washington mover the media ignores at their peril.
When they’re out shopping and people are talking with hushed breaths about those lucky souls who were quoted in the Globe, did the unchosen feel like slinking away, or maybe making a nasty call to the Globe’s editor and threatening legal action unless they were named in a followup story? And, if they really wanted to push it they could demand to be quoted above the fold.
And spare a tear for that poor soul, if in fact there was one, whose name was misspelled.
Talk about a special kind of purgatory.

Gigantic snow mountain

This Kensington area business was buried under a mountain of snow in late February. It was a record-smashing month for snowfall on the Island, with records from as far back as 1970 falling like tenpins. On the far left is a shoveller trying to dig his way through the snow.010

Keeping warm on the trail

Even dogs need booties, especially on a hike through the Winter RIver trail system during a bitterly cold morning in mid-February.025

Russia dying on Ukrainian soil

So how’s that invasion working for you Vladimir?
Was it really worth it, to beggar the country’s finances in a reckless bid to expand Russian territory?
All the Russian Federation President has achieved with his stealth annexation of Crimea, through a sham “referendum” recognized by not a single country in Europe or the West, is to bring more misery to the Russian homeland and to Crimea.
On a cost benefit analysis alone it was a complete bust. Crimea is broke and getting poorer by the day. It’s population is heavily reliant on tourism, but far fewer tourists are travelling there these days (for obvious reasons). Its population is aging and many are chronically ill.
The infrastructure – roads, bridges, sewage systems, industrial plant – is in terrible shape and won’t get any better without billions of dollars in investments. Are western banks going to be there to help when Russia (and by extension Crimea) are suffering under the lash of harsh sanctions?
And to make matters worse, Putin has decided to throw his support, in war equipment and military personnel, behind rag-tag rebel forces trying to occupy large swaths of eastern Ukraine. He succeeded, but the rebel strongholds are in no better shape than Crimea.
It’s simply not working and an 80 per cent domestic approval rating based on 24-7 diet of propaganda fed to a compliant population by state-owned media outlets won’t change the grim economic calculus.
Russia is bleeding hundreds of billions of dollars in lost capital, not to mention the terrible damage done to its currency, which has led to double digit rate hikes, which has hurt businesses and consumers alike.
Russia’s leader has his prize, Crimea and a big chunk of eastern Ukraine, but 145 million Russians will pay the price. Even if sanctions were lifted tomorrow it’s unlikely investment will flood back into the country. And Russia will almost certainly lose many of its markets in Western Europe for oil and gas exports (it’s only real source of revenues).
It will take decades to restore the trust that has been lost in the rest of the industrialized world.
The real tragedy, from Russia’s perspective, is that Crimea was there for the taking all along. Referendums have been held in several countries in Europe over the past couple of decades and twice in Quebec since 1980. The former Czechoslovakia actually split into two countries in the 1990s, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, through a civilized, peaceful process called “the velvet divorce.”
A binding vote was held, meeting all democratic and legal conventions, and the result could not be disputed.
Crimea has been a part of Russia’s soul for hundreds of years, until the 1950s, when it was handed on a silver platter by the then USSR’s leaders to Ukraine. Most Crimeans never accepted that loss of their Russian heritage. And if a fair and transparent referendum had been held there is little chance Crimeans would have rejected the opportunity to return to Mother Russia.
But Russia’s president couldn’t wait. He over-reached and all the principles of fairness, transparency and legitimacy were tossed out the window. There was no chance for those opposed to Crimea’s succession to make their case and the “vote” was held over a period a couple of weeks. It might as well have been held under gunpoint, since no observers were allowed to monitor the process.
Putin could have had the support of the international community if only Russia had allowed the process to unfold as Quebec’s and Scotland’s and Czechoslovakia’s had.
Now his country will pay a heavy price for his reckless gamble in lost blood and treasure.