Energy: Sources and Uses

By Gary Martens

Our economy, any economy involves work and work requires energy. The human body is a very efficient machine in terms of work. A fuel efficient car might be able to travel 100 kilometres on 5 litres of fuel, but the human body only needs 0.8 litres of fuel (energy equivalents) to travel the same distance. We extend our ability to do work by using machines run on crude oil, natural gas, electricity and other non-human sources of energy.

The energy used to run the Manitoba economy can roughly be divided into thirds. One third of our energy goes into transportation. Over 90% of transportation energy comes from crude oil. The other 10% comes from ethanol additives. One third of our energy is electricity and over 95% of that comes from renewable hydro power (4% from wind, 1% from solar and solid biomass). And one third of our energy goes to heating buildings and for manufacturing. Most of that comes from natural gas.

I will focus here on the one third that goes to transportation. This is almost completely derived from crude oil.

In terms of energy we can look at Canada in two distinct regions: western Canada and eastern Canada. According to the National Energy Board of Canada we produced 217 million cubic metres (mm3) of crude oil in western Canada in 2015. We consumed only 18% of that in western Canada, 39 mm3 . We exported 178 mm3: 17.4 mm3 to the west coast, 50.5 mm3 to the United States and 110 mm3 getting to eastern Canada or to eastern and US exports. The proposed Energy East pipeline could carry 36% of total western exports, that is, 64 mm3 to eastern Canada or to exports off the east coast at St John, New Brunswick.

While western Canada is a net exporter of crude oil, eastern Canada is a net importer. Eastern Canada consumed 64 mm3 in 2015, but produced only 10 mm3, almost all of that off-shore. It imported another 33 mm3 from the US and points east.

It is interesting that the Energy East pipeline proposal has a capacity of 64 mm3 which is exactly the total consumption of eastern Canada.

Manitoba produced 2.7 mm3 of crude oil and consumed 3.5 mm3 in 2015, but we have no refinery capacity so our refined products like gasoline and diesel fuel come from the Cooperative refinery in Regina (capacity 7.5 mm3) and sometimes from Edmonton by the Enbridge mainline which leaves Canada at Gretna. A smaller pipeline takes some of that oil to Winnipeg. Trucks distribute it from Winnipeg to retailers.

It will be very difficult switching the goods and freight transportation sector to an alternative fuel because diesel fuel has no substitutes that are as energy dense. Diesel fuel has 36 MJ/litre compared to the best lithium ion batteries which have 4.3 MJ/litre. This means that we will have to look at reworking the entire supply of goods sector if we want to reduce our dependence on crude oil. How to do that and the opportunities that can arise for southeastern Manitoba will be addressed in a future article.

This the second article in a series focusing on “A Path to a New Energy Economy” where we want to introduce the issues around the proposed Energy East pipeline. This pipeline will pass very close to Isle de Chenes, Landmark and Ste. Anne. The series will conclude with a free public lecture about the proposed pipeline on February 15, 2017 at the Jake Epp Public Library.

A New Energy Economy

By Gary Martens 

We are beginning a series of articles focusing on “A Path to a New Energy Economy” where we want to introduce the issues around the proposed Energy East pipeline. This pipeline will pass very close to Isle de Chenes, Landmark and Ste. Anne. The series will conclude with a free public lecture about the proposed pipeline on February 15, 2017 at the Jake Epp Public Library.

A new energy economy is necessary, attainable and desirable. Our current extensive dependence on fossil fuel energy makes us vulnerable to price and supply changes as well as to weather and climate changes. All this affects our well-being. Inevitably we are reluctant to change to this new energy economy because change is difficult, especially if the status quo is working so well for us. How well do we understand the potential benifits as well as the risks of continuing with the status quo?

There are many reasons for the difficulty with change, I will mention two. First, a change to a new energy economy will take a long time; we need time to build new infrastructure and we time to train ourselves in this new way of powering our economy. Second, the fossil fuel industry is being subsidized to the tune of $1 billion per year making alternatives relatively more expensive and reducing the research and investment into alternative energy sources.

Jeff Rubin in his new book “The Carbon Bubble” says that Canada, in the last 10 years, has pinned its hopes on becoming an energy superpower. We already know that bubble has burst. Jeff Rubin goes on to say that we should look at the opportunities the new energy economy will provide to us. In western Canada that is food production. Many places have the technology to produce food but lack two essential requirements: land and water. These two requirements western Canada has in abundance.

But we just said that the transition to a new energy economy will take a long time. What do we do while we are in this transition?

Do we allow and even promote the proposed Energy East pipeline which according to TransCanada’s website claims will supply eastern Canada with Canadian energy while we transition to a new energy economy? Or do we believe the National Energy Board’s website which claims the project will include marine facilities in St. John, NB that enable access to other markets by ship; that is: exports. If the Energy East pipeline is for the export of oil, do we support that? Is the poster “Our risk, their profits” as the protesters proclaim, accurate?

And then there is the matter of fossil fuel transportation. During this transition period, fossil fuels will for sure need to be transported. What is the safest method of transporting them? Pipeline, rail, highway or sea?

In Manitoba, where does our energy come from? If the Energy East Pipeline does not happen, what impact would that have on Manitoba? What are the opportunities to produce new energy in Manitoba? How well suited are we to provide affordable, renewable energy?

These fundamental questions need to be addressed for our own long term well-being. Certainly they need to be addressed by the experts, and they will be addressed by our politicians but they also need to be addressed by an interested public. This public has everything to lose if we get it wrong but everything to gain if we get it right.

Respect, Cooperation, Consensus

I’m back in Provencher from Calagry with a well exercised brain and a warmed heart.

The second day of the SGM felt like an exercise in contrasts after Saturday’s hard work. The meeting was far behind schedule because of the complexity of the work on Saturday which left workshops and most of the other policy motions for Sunday.

After a bit of work getting ducks lined up people went off to various workshops of their choosing. The workshops craft the policy motions. Sometimes these motions are already fully prepared, at others, the motions may be being put together from scratch.

While I was very tempted to head to the workshop that was dealing with a package of Indigenous issues, I followed my first instinct to attend the workshop on Electoral Reform. Part of the draw was because I’m passionate about the subject but it was also because this was the only case of a ground-up construction of a policy and I was very interested to see how it worked.

It might sound odd that we had to have this workshop at all but the party only as a very broad policy that electoral reform should include some form of proportional representation. Clearly, with the work of the Electoral Reform Committee wrapped up, more definition was required. This provides people knocking on doors with some concrete information on policy and provides our MPs (Elizabeth May in this case) with direction on party policy.

We had only two hours to build a policy in a room of seventy people. Choosing a prop rep system to get behind is not easy; there are many different forms and variations of forms and there were a variety of opinions in the room. A survey of the room found that most people supported Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) while there was strong support for STV and some for Rural/Urban (which is less well understood).

In a remarkable show of solidarity, a number of supporters of other system, declared that in the interest of having a reliable policy in place they would be willing to move aside.

Remarkably, and only a few minutes late, we crafted a new and meaningful policy on Electoral Reform that included:

  • Supporting MMP as the preferred system of PR with room to accept alternatives such as STV or Rural/Urban.
  • Supporting a referendum if the referendum was only between proportional systems or the referendum were held after two elections under a proportional system
  • Directing the party to create a task force to study public education on electoral reform.


Once done, we headed back to plenary for discussion of the various policy proposals from the workshops. Unlike Saturday, which had a lot of stress surrounding it, Sunday’s proposals were met mostly with consensus and, in some cases, unanimity. The plenary managed to get through most of the motions and wrapped up only about fifteen minutes late and passed policies on:

  • Opposition to the Kinder Morgan and Enbridge Line 3 pipelines
  • Support for implementing recommendations from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report.
  • Rebuilding and Recognition of Original Indigenous Nations.
  • Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery
  • Affirmation of the value of consensus based governance
  • Affirmation of post meeting ratification of policies
  • The electoral reform policies mentioned above.

The spirit of cooperation and respect in the room was palpable and was a great way to wrap up a hard working weekend.


Democracy in Action

It has been an interesting day in Calgary, for this political conference newbie.

The Palestine related issues were the primary focus of the day. This made a lot of sense as, in my opinion, it got the most complex and divisive tasks out of the way. We’ll see if reality proves me wrong again tomorrow, but I think from here forward things become more constructive.

In fact, today was very constructive, despite the potential divisiveness of this issue. While there was considerable discussion, the compromise proposal passed. It did not achieve consensus on the first vote but in the next phase of voting (see yesterday’s post about how the voting works) it passed with an 84% approval. It is effectively policy as of this time but needs to pass a party wide online ratification between Dec 7 and Feb 6.

It speaks volumes about how this party approaches democratic processes. They work hard to make sure people are heard and are respectful. In fact, there is  a “fairness panel” in the room who occasionally step in to remind people to be respectful and they may be called upon to resolve issues of fairness. A great deal of effort is made to make sure people fully understand the issue or procedure before votes are taken (which is another purpose of the yellow vote – to seek clarity).

Some of the most complex parts of the day were procedural. There were a number of policy motions that were related to the compromise proposal and were essentially rendered unnecessary or redundant by the passing of the compromise proposal. It took awhile to sort out just how to handle those.

At the end of the day, the outcome is that a better policy was produced. It was hashed out over the last few months by a number of dedicated individuals. All of them had to make compromises in their position to craft this broadly supportable policy. They should all be congratulated on their achievement.



Hello Calgary

Hello Provencher Friends,

I’m in Calgary this weekend for the Green Party SGM (Special General Meeting). To make a long story short, this meeting came up as a result of the BGM this summer in Ottawa. A policy motion was passed on the topic of BDS – boycott, divest, sanction – movement. This movement has its roots in Palestine but has many Israeli supports and is about numerous issues surrounding Palestinian / Israeli relations. I don’t want to go into too much details on the specifics here as that isn’t the intent of my post. Suffice to say that the original policy created some considerable debate in the party and there has been some determined effort to create a compromise agreement that will satisfy both the original sponsors and the concerns of many of those opposed.

What I do want to do is talk about this weekend in broader strokes. This is my first time at a political party conference and I thought some other people in our riding might like some insight into the inner workings of our party.

I read the SGM program document on the way out here tonight (yes, sadly, on a plane – but I took public transit to the hotel for what it is worth). While most of the document discusses the proposals that are being discussed this weekend, the introduction focuses on how the meeting is run. This gives some great insight into the principles of the Party.

Unlike many organizations, the GPC doesn’t use Robert’s Rules (or, at least, usually doesn’t; it has experimented with them). You all know Robert’s Rules as the “motion, second, all in favour, passed” process. It is fast and efficient but it isn’t particularly good at achieving consensus. Approving something when 49% of the room is opposed to it isn’t a good way to build effective teams.

Instead the GPC uses consensus building tools. Attendees are issued three cards; green, yellow, and red. Green means “yes”, Yellow “Pass”, and Red “Opposed”. Yellow votes have a bit of context depending on when they are used. It may indicate that you want more information or clarity. It can also mean you are standing aside; that you may not agree but do not wish to get in the way of a motion passing.

Edited on Dec 3 as the real world showed me I wasn’t quite accurate. A proposal must achieve full consensus to pass initially. If it doesn’t the plenary (the people) have to decide what to do with the proposal: Table it (save it for later), send it to workshops for more work, or carry out a vote which must achieve a 2/3 majority to pass.(For a motion to pass 66% approval is required to approve a motion. Motions not passed may go to a workshop, which anyone can participate in, to develop a better motion or, if it is decided that consensus can’t be reached, it may be abandoned.)

It will be very interesting to see how this all works in the real world over the next two days. For the most part, as a newbie, I’ll be simply observing what is going on and placing my own votes.

Things start early tomorrow morning so it is time to get some sleep. There are lots of interesting and constructive motions on the table and I’ll post a few comments on how things are going as time goes by.

Blair Mahaffy

Note: Any opinions expressed here are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect GPC party policy or the policy of our EDA.


Carbon Pricing: You’ve Got it Wrong, Mr. Falk

It is with great disappointment that I note that your party has decided to oppose the Liberal Carbon tax by portraying it as a tax grab. The government is saying this tax will be revenue neutral – that is it will not be an increased tax [tax grab] but a tax shift. There is nothing inherently conservative about opposing a tax shift and my hope is that Canadians will see the shallowness of this approach, and reject it even as they rejected your party’s scare mongering about Justin Trudeau’s youth and Islamic immigration in the last election.

Justin Trudeau has said the tax is to revenue neutral. (Note that I am using the word ‘tax’ rather than the term ‘carbon pricing’, because I agree with you: Mr. Trudeau is proposing a tax on carbon.) According to the announcement, the provinces, not the Ottawa government will determine whether the this new tax will in fact be revenue neutral.

We know that BC has had a carbon tax since 2008. This tax has not been a tax grab. It has been revenue neutral. The BC government has reduced corporate and income taxes by an amount equivalent to its carbon tax. BC now has the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada, and one of the lowest corporate rates in North America. Your insistence that this new tax is a tax increase is scare mongering, and is not a service to the Canadian people nor to the conservative cause.

We also now know that the BC tax has affected behaviour (which was its intent). Since the tax came in, fossil fuel use has dropped in BC by 16 percent; in the rest of Canada it has risen by 3 per cent. And this has not been because the BC economy has been sluggish. In fact BC,s GDP has slightly outperformed the rest of Canada since 2008.

It is misleading and a disservice to both the Canadian people and to the conservative cause to assert, as you are, that the carbon tax will take money out of the pockets of Canadian people, thereby killing jobs. Yes, the carbon tax will take money out of the pockets of some Canadians: those Canadians and those Canadian companies using large amounts of fossil fuel, but it will put that same amount of money into the pockets of other Canadians and Canadian companies economizing on fossil fuel. You seem to be suggesting that in order for our country to continue to prosper, we need to continue subsidizing energy guzzlers and penalizing energy economizers. I hope Canadians, including conservative Canadians will see through the shallowness of that argument.

I have referred above to Mr. Trudeau’s carbon plan as a carbon tax. Mr. Trudeau calls it a ‘Price on Carbon’. I think he is also correct Anyone burning fossil fuel, simultaneously does two negative things: he is putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and he is making this valuable fuel unavailable to future generations. But he is not paying for this detrimental activity. Society in general pays and future generations will pay for this. Surely you, as a conservative, agree that this is neither right nor efficient. A price on carbon corrects this injustice, at least up to a point.

I see nothing conservative about the current norm where the primary source of government revenue is a tax on income and a tax on profit. On the other hand, a tax on the consumption of a scarce resource builds on sound conservative values. This is a call for you to return to your conservative roots and embrace a tax shift that would be good for the country now and even better for generations to come.

The True Power of a President (and the real reason to fear a Trump presidency)

From the start of the American presidential primaries last year there has been considerable talk of “establishment” candidates vs “outsiders” or “anti-establishment” candidates, talk that increased with every “establishment” Republican that dropped out of the race leaving Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. On the Democrat side, the “establishment” candidate Hillary Clinton won out over self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, though Bernie shattered all expectations for his campaign and put up a very good fight. Now the presidential race is still largely about “establishment” vs “anti-establishment”, but the polarizing primaries have put things into a different light.

Now people are talking about the fact that neither Hillary, who is described as being “shrill” and “bitchy” (as most women in politics tend to be described, sadly), or Donald, who actually is shrill and bitchy, are likeable. We like to think that the personal likeability of a candidate isn’t all that important to their qualifications to lead a nation, but whatever we think of Obama’s approach to drone warfare, we melt into adoration for his unruffled demeanour, sense of humour, and open displays of fatherly tenderness toward his family. Nobody is looking forward to a White House Press Gala jokes from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – they’re just not likeable personas. Nor are their policies likeable: Donald Trump’s policies are largely morally reprehensible, tapping into deep-seated racism and surging xenophobia to scapegoat virtually everyone, while Hillary Clinton is dogged by investigations into her criminally careless approach to sensitive information as Secretary of State and her voting record on morally questionable policies of the past. There is a general sense that both of these candidates were chosen out of political strategy rather than out of any sense of their real qualifications: Trump’s populist juggernaut wasn’t stopping, so Republican leaders who had mocked him only weeks prior began to endorse him; and Hillary was largely seen as the Democrat who could beat Trump.

Faced with two unlikeable, and potentially even scary, candidates for president, the movement toward a third candidate is gaining steam. There have always been many candidates for President in the US, but never any that garnered enough votes to challenge the supremacy of the two parties and their official candidates. The Green Party in the US is apparently now offering Bernie Sanders their nomination, with presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein saying she’ll run on his ticket as his potential Vice President. Having a nominee who has such a massive profile would undoubtedly be a coup for any third party in the US, and Bernie’s politics are generally very Green-friendly anyway, but it is likely that the fear of splitting the progressive vote and handing Trump the presidency will keep him from accepting.

So we’re still stuck with a very uncomfortable question of which of two cringeworthy candidates will lead the United States, and that has a lot of people questioning what the future might look like. As with every election (including the recent Brexit referendum in the UK), Google reports that the phrase “how do I move to Canada?” is spiking; but others who are less prone to flee across the border are asking out loud how much power the President of the United States really has.

We’re all asking “do we really want Donald Trump with his finger on the button” (of the US nuclear arsenal)? But does even the Commander-In-Chief of the largest military force on the planet have the power to really mess things up? Not really. To remind us of that fact, Freakonomics recently re-broadcast an old episode from 2011 called How Much Does The President Really Matter? The answer is, not nearly as much as we think. The President is only one branch of US government, and needs the approval of the other two branches in order to act on most matters. So not even Yosemite Sam (or Donald Trump) could pick fights on behalf of his nation, screw up the national or global economy, or otherwise damage the US beyond repair. If there’s one thing the US political structure does well, it is limiting the power of any individual.

The real value of the President, as the podcast points out, is not in deciding or implementing policy, but in setting the national agenda and representing the nation abroad. The President’s high status gives so much weight to whatever he (or hopefully someday soon, she) says that the rest of the government, and the people, have to respond. The President’s role is therefore to steer the national conversation in such a way as to address the important issues and inspire the best in their citizens and legislators. This is the real reason why the possibility of a Trump presidency is so scary, and the possibility of a Clinton presidency is so underwhelming and dull.

Hillary, for all of her excellent credentials and experience, has a limited ability to inspire people. This is certainly at least partially because of deep-seated sexism: we are generally prone to not take women seriously as leaders, even today, though I am pleased to see Hillary making big gains in that regard (and kudos to Jill Stein and Elizabeth Warren for their leadership and groundbreaking work too!).

Donald Trump, on the other hand, inspires virtually everyone. This is his only real credential: the ability to capture our attention and dominate our conversations. In that respect, he’s already about as powerful as the President. The problem is the quality of the conversations he inspires. Donald Trump inspires hatred: hatred of him, for those who do not identify with him; and hatred of others (women, and racial and religious minorities and outsiders) for those who do. While Obama ran on a platform of Hope with a capital “H”, Donald Trump’s vision for “Making America Great Again” is based on scapegoating almost every identifiable minority group for all of America’s problems. As much as we’ve never been without racism and xenophobia and division, the wave of white nationalism that is rising across Europe and North America right now almost makes the LA race riots and other incidents of the 1990’s look like a series of blips in an otherwise progressive and tranquil time (I say this with the detached hindsight of someone who wasn’t actually there). The realities right now are frightening, with a massive upswing of racial violence: Britain saw a 50% increase in racist violence since they voted to leave the EU; over 100 unarmed Black men have been shot to death by police in the US in the past year, and yesterday a Black man retaliated, killing five police officers and wounding six or seven more; and even in Canada there is increasing violence and protest targeting Muslims and Black people, often even with reference to “President Trump.”

Violent and hateful rhetoric inspires violence and hate. That’s why we have hate speech laws in Canada – because we recognize that words have consequences, and even free speech carries responsibility. America has no such law, and Donald Trump’s ability to inspire people to greater and greater fear and hatred of others is far scarier than the notion that he might have limited access to “the button.” Because if he is given the biggest platform in the world, he might create conditions in which he’ll have the social license he needs to actually push that button. Even short of starting wars, his ability to create division around the world, between people groups within nations, has the capacity for chaos.

So don’t fear the damage that Trump could directly do as President; there are checks and balances that will prevent him from doing any real harm. But fear the power of the platform he may be given, and guard against the polarizing rhetoric such a platform will send around the world.

Innovation in an Information Economy: An Open Letter to Navdeep Bains

To the Honourable Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development,

Thank you for your commitment to serve Canadians by helping our economy to grow and develop.

In accordance with your ministerial mandate, I’d like to offer you some feedback about a much needed area of innovation and development: the pay sources of cultural and informational labour.

Canadians have been hearing for years that we are transitioning away from a manufacturing and resource economy and toward an information economy. Mr Trudeau famously appealed to the world to look at the value between our ears and not just under our feet. This is an excellent desire, and there are tens of thousands of highly trained Canadian university graduates who share it. Unfortunately, many of those graduates are trained in fields that will pay them poorly, or may not provide them with more than precarious work.

Cultural labour has always been undervalued by most societies. The “starving artist” cliche is rooted in the reality that subjective cultural artifacts and experiences do not command a strong market value. Canadian governments have a history of supporting the arts through cultural grants, and Canada has maintained a strong arts scene because of it, but it is no longer just artists that need support. Numerous other fields in the humanities and social sciences have little to no job prospects, and SSHRCC grants can only go so far to supporting the continued development of society.

There are many factors involved, but I would suggest that the incredible openness of the internet has reshaped society’s expectations of the cost of information and culture, and therefore of the value of information and culture. Information is a right, but it is not free: people need to make a living in order to continue producing and communicating information. But the reality is that I make more money working as a casual labourer at a cheese packing plant, literally just putting cheese into boxes, than I would as an on-air radio broadcaster in some of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in Canada. The field of journalism in general is an excellent case study for the information economy, not only because it is explicitly and directly about communicating information, but also because it is very visibly struggling. Newspapers across the country have shut down, radio stations pay little better than minimum wage, and larger media companies gobble up smaller ones as journalists compete with bloggers who offer their views on current events for free.

The information economy has adapted to the openness and freedom of the internet by shifting revenue streams to rely almost exclusively on advertising, and this also has become a problem. We are inundated with ads, which are worth just pennies per click and are easily blocked by software, which means that they do not actually deliver sufficient economic benefit to allow for decent wages in information and cultural fields. It seems that the only people who are making decent money in this information economy we’re shifting to are Facebook and Google, who control a shocking amount of advertising revenue by mining our metadata to deliver targeted advertising. The true cost of information these days is privacy, not money, and consumers of information have no real metric for the value of the privacy they are exchanging. Advertising revenue, in various ways, is highly exploitative.

Journalism is just one example of a field that needs a new revenue stream. The arts, cultural studies, theology, philosophy, ethics, history, social sciences – all of these fields help us to understand ourselves as human beings, as Canadians, as global citizens. Study in these fields also prepares us for a wide variety of jobs, delivering in spades the “soft skills” employers value so highly, but with little recognition. Jobs that utilize information and project management skills often have hundreds of Arts graduates competing for them, and still I’m currently making more money packing cheese than I used to as the Registrar of a small university. The students I work with now, at the cheese plant, are lukewarm about their areas of study; I expect that several of them will give up their studies if they can turn their summer job into a permanent placement, because a decent wage in a unionized environment with no educational requirements actually makes more sense than paying to attend school for several years in order to be qualified for very few jobs that are likely dependent on grant funding and will therefore be temporary and pay little. We’re approaching a situation in which some of the most highly educated people in the country are among the most precarious workers, which does not bode well for our participation in an information economy.

So I ask you, as Minister of Innovation, that significant effort and attention be given to the problem of addressing the value of information. Otherwise, any attempts to further transition to an information economy will either fall flat or will promote only the STEM fields, impoverishing the social, cultural, and education sectors. One way that I believe we can address this issue is through the implementation of a Guaranteed Livable Income, or “Mincome.” Allow me to explain.

Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in history, funded and developed by volunteers and operating on donations. It serves as an example of the reality that people want to be productive even when there is no revenue stream attached to it. Some of the greatest inventions have come from people tinkering in garages, and in the information age this often means posting content online. Many people who are highly productive in the information and cultural fields are hampered in this productivity by the fact that they can’t afford to do their work full-time, because it simply doesn’t pay well or paying jobs in their field aren’t available. They compete for low-wage low-skill jobs in order to pay bills, while their education and skills languish. Often their passion produces more income for advertising companies than it does for them, but they’re not in it for the money. They are creating value, and that value is generating wealth (for someone), but they do it for its intrinsic rewards.

A Mincome would help thousands of highly trained, creative, innovative, and passionate Canadians pursue their passions and create more value in the information economy by reducing the necessity of day jobs. With this freedom, more Canadians could develop their hobby work into potential revenue streams of their own, or not; either way, they would continue to generate valuable content that enriches the lives of Canadians and people around the world, and increase innovation and advancement in the information and cultural sectors.

As traditional jobs that produce concrete goods are becoming increasingly automated, human labour is coming to be defined by what we can do that machines cannot. This is why the information economy is so important, and it is also how we can afford to provide the leisure – the self-determined productivity – that we need to flourish. Research into our ability to pay for a Mincome is already well-documented, and there are numerous studies and pilot projects underway from a variety of jurisdictions. Please devote significant resources and attention to this solution so that we can free up thousands of under-employed but highly trained Canadians to increase their contribution to society and the information economy.

Sincerely yours,

Jeff Wheeldon
Brighton, Ontario


Update: Just hours after posting this, CBC’s radio show Spark interviewed a tech writer about a Mincome-style pilot project being run in Oakland by Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup incubator. They’re interested in it for the same reasons I’ve outlined above: with so much labour being outsourced to machines and so much potential for people to improve their education and start innovative new companies if only they had the income to sustain them, a guaranteed income seems almost necessary moving forward. Let’s not let private tech firms beat us to the punch.

Brexit and the Resurrection of Nationalism

Yesterday marks the end of an era.

In World War II the world came together, but in brutal opposition and violence. Since then, or for the last 70 or so years, we’ve been very deliberately coming together in peace and trade. The League of Nations became the United Nations, and provided a new forum for international relations and potentially the foundation for world government. NATO, while still being a military alliance, has operated (at least ostensibly) on the premise of promoting and safeguarding peace and democracy in the world. The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have overseen the globalization of trade, weaving the economic activities of nations around the world together to not only increase prosperity (again, ostensibly for the whole world) but also stability. The European Union marked an even greater integration, effectively dissolving borders between nation states (in most respects) and pooling the political and economic futures of member nations into a single body. For the past 70 years we’ve been on a global path away from nationalistic division and toward a global community.

Until yesterday, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

To be clear, this is not the first sign that the trend toward fewer barriers between nations was coming to an end. It’s just the first big, official step by one of the most powerful nations in the world. and the first time that a privileged/colonizing nation has claimed “independence” from a body of the less powerful. While the world in general, led by powerful nations, has been moving toward more unity, at the exact same time small nations or people groups have been seeking a national identity and international recognition, and I want to draw a sharp distinction between that and what happened yesterday.

The 20th century included the creation of dozens of “new” nations, and several unsuccessful attempts. The new nations arose from Western colonies, largely in Africa, as those people reclaimed and reforged their national identities after being suppressed by typically racist colonial regimes. Even in Western nations, there have been attempts at independence: Ireland won freedom from Britain, but lost Northern Ireland in the process; and Quebec has tried and failed a few times to gain independence from Canada. As recently as 2014, Scotland held a referendum on the question of leaving the United Kingdom, a bid that lost with a vote of just 55% in favour of staying. In all of these situations, oppressed or historically conquered people were seeking to re-establish their identity as a people, distinct from their conquerors and colonizers. That is not what Britain has just done.

Britain has always been the conqueror, the colonizer. They’ve always only had one foot in the EU as it is, wanting to maintain their own currency and border controls, and they command enough international respect and economic and military power that they can decide for themselves just how committed they will be to an international body. Even in the EU they are a privileged nation, somewhat distinct from the rest in ways that many other member nations are not. Their national identity as a people is strong, even globally dominant (behind the US), as more of the world speaks English than any other language.

There are many issues involved in the Brexit, and I don’t want to be reductive, but I do want to draw attention to a pattern or trend that I’ve been seeing over the past few years related to the rise of nationalism: racism and xenophobia.

It’s only been about a week since British MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street as she met with constituents. She was known for her passionate work serving her constituents, many of whom are immigrants, and for her championing of immigrant and refugee rights. The man who killed her, when brought to court, refused to give his real name, saying his name was “Death to traitors, and freedom for Britain.” His real name isn’t worth reprinting, in my opinion, and his sentiments echo a shockingly large movement in Europe that see welcoming immigrants as a form of treason. The logic behind this movement is that people believe that immigrants are “taking over” their nation, and fear being pushed out culturally and politically. All of this is patently false, as Doug Saunders makes very clear in his excellent Myth of the Muslim Tide, but it taps into very real fears for uninformed and xenophobic people. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian so-called Christian, killed over 70 people, mostly children at a liberal-political themed summer camp, because he viewed them as the children of traitors (as the liberal government of his country had allowed immigration at levels he believed to be treasonous). If this sounds like the work of a few madmen, consider that one of the biggest political parties in the UK right now is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader spews this kind of xenophobic rhetoric on a regular basis and spearheaded the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum; and the second biggest party in the Netherlands is an anti-immigrant party led by Geert Wilders, who is known for his heavily racist and xenophobic comments, particularly against Muslims. Then also consider that the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States of America is Donald Trump, who is known for his policies of banning all Muslims from entering the US, building a wall to keep Mexican migrants out (whom he characterizes as rapists) and making Mexico pay for it, and accepting the endorsement of the KKK. It seems that the rise in nationalism in western democracies is largely in direct response to the influx of immigrants and refugees from poorer nations with very different (and mostly Muslim) cultures.

I want to make clear that there are very good reasons for a measure of nationalism. Establishing and maintaining a national identity as a people group is important; but most of these nations have been cosmopolitan for so long that any cultural narrative tied to race is either long gone or long since integrated.  (A British woman commented last year (in a sermon in church, no less!) that Britain used to be about fish and chips, and now it’s about curry (like that’s a bad thing!), completely missing the fact that fish and chips was brought to Britain by eastern European immigrants just a hundred years ago while curry as we know it (as a specific dish rather than as a spice more generally) was adopted and adapted by Brits in colonial India.) Economic concerns about the European Union are very logical in a time when Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, but the UK kept its own currency, and has such close trade relations with the EU that it would be affected by a Greek default anyway. Concerns about sovereignty are certainly understandable, but as I said above, Britain is a strong player in the EU and does not bow to anyone. While I am not British, or an expert on European political economy, the reasons for Britain reasserting nationalism in today’s world all seem pretty weak in comparison to the deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept the West as fast as the refugees have marched across Europe. I sincerely hope that I’m just missing some reasons for nationalist sentiments, or that there are better arguments that strengthen those other reasons I’ve mentioned.

But we’ll see. The implications of the UK leaving the European Union are enormous: scads of policy will have to be re-written on both sides of this divorce, and with David Cameron stepping down there will also be new leadership. What emerges in the coming year will confirm the real motivation for this renewed nationalist movement. So, UK leadership: impress us. Show the world, with your innovative policies and new take on diplomacy, that this wasn’t about anti-immigrant xenophobia. Set a new standard for engaging with your neighbours in this new world that, with this Brexit, you’ve created – a world where globalization, individualism, and inclusivity as the standards of foreign relations are being replaced with nationalism yet again. Make sure this is a new direction for global relations, because we’ve been down the road of hyper-nationalism before, too many times, and we know that we don’t like where it leads.

Vote No to a Referendum on Democratic Reform

Update: CBC’s The Current interviewed some experts on the subject of referendums in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. They cover all of the same territory. You can hear the episode here.

There’s a certain logic to the idea that the issue of electoral reform should be settled by a referendum. After all, if we’re deciding how to best empower the people as they choose a government, why not empower them to choose the method of doing so? It seems un-democratic to change a democratic system without asking the people.

But all of that is wrong, and a referendum is possibly the worst way to decide the issue of electoral reform. Here’s why.

1.The Nature of a Referendum

A referendum is an excellent tool in the right circumstances, but outside of those circumstances it’s a terrible tool. This is because it can only really work with a very simple question on a matter of deep conviction that only has two possible answers: yes or no. If you had a referendum with three or more possible answers, the likelihood of getting a clear decision is slim. This is actually one of the reasons electoral reform makes sense in a multi-party system like ours: most of the time in our elections, large numbers of people vote for one of three major parties, with many others voting for other smaller parties, and true majority governments are very rare. Since we only use a referendum when we need a clear decision, it has to be boiled down to two options. That’s difficult to do in this case, because there are many possible options for how our electoral system could work, and then there’s always the option of not changing it at all. The options cannot easily be reduced to a yes/no question unless someone else already does all of the work of choosing which type is best for us and then gives us the ability to approve a change or not – but then we’re left with the same question, namely, how can it be democratic if someone else has chosen it for us? Which brings us to the next point:

  1. The Nature of the Electorate

The electorate (you and I) are busy people, and most of us do not hold degrees in political science, so the idea that we can make an informed decision about something as complex as electoral reform is a bit daunting. People in general tend to be resistant to change, first of all, so we have an automatic bias in favour of the status quo even when there are better options. Further, most of us will not find the time to attend informational meetings or do extensive research on the issue in the lead-up to a referendum, and even if we do, we’re going to find a lot of conflicting information and opinions that will be difficult to navigate. That’s because of the nature of a campaign.

  1. The Nature of a Campaign

Elections and referendums both have campaigns. A campaign is supposed to be a chance for the different sides of the issues to present their case and win over as much of the electorate as possible. Unfortunately, most campaigns end up utilizing a lot of social psychology to manipulate people rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves. Referendums are usually the worst for this, as politicians play on the fear of change and attempt to demonize the other side. This is the kind of thing that has made our political system so toxic, and a big reason why I believe that electoral reform is only one step toward a healthier system; we also need campaign reform in a big way.

  1. The Nature of Canadian Democratic Representation

Thankfully, we’ve already had an election: we elected a new Liberal government last year, and one of the big planks in their platform was democratic reform. It was also a big plank in the platforms of the Green Party and the NDP, so we should have a general sense that this is an issue that most of the electorate can get behind. But the reason that we even had an election last year was to choose people who can do the legwork for us, who have access to the best experts and can make decisions on our behalf. The role of an MP is to keep their constituents informed, ask their opinions, and then choose on their behalf. Resorting to a referendum cuts out the MPs and all of their resources, putting the important decision on the shoulders of average folks who have little time to consider these options and cut through the political rhetoric.

  1. The Nature of the Electoral System

A big point about electoral reform is that it is not actually a matter of opinion. The goal of electoral reform is to create a system that actually serves the values and aims of our democratic society – that is, we need a system that accurately reflects the votes of the people in the makeup of Parliament. We’re not deciding on whether or not to be a democracy; that would be a good question for a referendum, because it’s asking what we want. But we already know that we want to live in a democracy; what’s at stake here is whether or not the current system is doing a good job of serving that democracy. It’s not a matter of opinion: First Past the Post is a voting system that does not result in a Parliament that accurately represents the votes that were cast. Choosing between the options to replace FPTP is also not a matter of opinion; every other system represents the choices of the people better than the current system, but they vary in the way that they do so, and it will take a panel of experts to determine which will result in the makeup of Parliament most accurately reflecting the votes cast. This is a matter of political science, not one of the will of the people.

Consider the example of energy and climate: scientists know that the oil industry is directly contributing to anthropogenic climate change which results in natural disasters of enormous scale, ongoing mass extinctions, and the destabilization of global climate which will ultimately result in the destabilization of the global economy; and yet we continually make it a political issue, and in politics short-term concerns almost always outweigh facts and projections. If it were up to the people who actually know what is happening to the climate we would leave the oil in the ground and transition as quickly as possible to renewable energy, even at great economic cost, knowing that doing so would save lives and jobs in the long run. Instead it is an issue that has divided the country, and we’ve seen no action from politicians for fear of the political and economic backlash. Like climate change, electoral reform is not an issue that should be left solely up to the people OR solely up to politicians – which is why it is important that there is a transparent committee process.

  1. The Nature of Committees

Maryam Monsef, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, has proposed that this issue be decided by a non-partisan committee that includes members from all five parties that currently have members in Parliament. Representation on the committee is roughly analogous to the makeup of the House of Commons, with most of the committee being Liberal MPs, then Conservatives, then NDP, and with token representatives for the Bloc and Green Party (who are unable to vote, presumably because they have so few members in the House; I’m thankful they’re included at all). This committee is tasked with weighing the options and deciding which is best. Let’s be clear: they are not just going to chat about it over coffee. The process must include extensive consultation, both with the public (so we get a chance to have our say) and with experts on the issue. While the committee will make the final call on it, they must take the word of experts into account. If the process is transparent, then we will all know if they have ignored the testimony of experts.

A quick note on the way that committees worked under the last government. There were numerous situations in which the Harper government sent issues to committees who engaged in the consultation process and then ignored the facts and ideas presented by the experts in order to institute what the government wanted in the first place. This is how we got our new anti-terrorism laws, for example. The government has the power to ignore the consultation process, but they don’t have the power to hide that they’ve done so. If the process isn’t transparent, call your MP. If the advice of experts is ignored, call your MP. The consultation and committee process is not perfect, but it is the best and most accountable system we can get for making a solid decision on this issue, especially if we take steps to hold our MPs to account.

  1. We’ve been here before.

BC and Ontario have both had referendums on democratic reform. I was living in BC when they had their referendum, but I wasn’t even aware that it was going on. I know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t participate, or even know that it was going on: 50% of Ontario residents polled just a few months before the referendum didn’t even know it was happening. Just days before the 2005 BC referendum, “two-thirds of British Columbians admitted to knowing ‘nothing/very little’ about the proposed STV system.”  We know that people in both places were largely confused about the voting system, but “they were strongly inclined towards proportionality, choice among multiple parties, and even coalition governments,” all things that are made more difficult or even impossible in a First Past the Post system. Yet they voted down any changes to the electoral system in both provinces, twice in BC with a second referendum in 2009 resulting in a 60% No vote.

Recent history shows that even though we want a democratic system that represents us proportionately and encourages cooperation in a multi-party Parliament, we will still vote against reforms that would make that system better when they are presented to us in a referendum. The very system of a referendum makes it very difficult to enact any change, whether because of our status-quo bias, political fear campaigns, confusion because complex issues have been reduced to a too-simple question, voter apathy, etc. With all of those influences stacked in the “No” column, it’s difficult to tell if people are voting “No” to change because they actually think our current system is serving them well. And no matter which way a referendum goes, that kind of uncertainty will allow politicians from both sides of the issue to continue to make hay about it well beyond the next election. Which is why referendums tend to come around more than once.

For all of those reasons, a referendum is exactly the wrong mechanism to decide on democratic reform. The important decision of whether or not to be a democracy has already been decided; let’s leave the mechanism that best serves that system up to the experts, and keep tabs on our MPs to make sure they do too.