B.C. wine snub leaves foul taste

(February 28, 2018)

To the dismay of comedians across the country, cooler heads have prevailed. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has rescinded her boldly comic move to single-handedly rescue the wine industry in British Columbia by blocking sale of its beverages from her province. Covering herself with the fig leaf of letting the courts rule on B.C.’s right to block the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, she has (for now) escaped further ridicule.

After years of drought, forest fires and uncertainty about who wanted to drink Okanagan anyway, Notley’s boycott of B.C. wines was an answer to a prayer. Only the unfortunate timing of the NDP National Convention, Feb. 16-18, spoiled things. No doubt, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh contemplated the mutually assured destruction of his party’s only two provincial governments, the two leaders were convinced to sit down for a cup of some neutral beverage and talk.

Going back a week, after B.C. Premier John Horgan inexplicably fulfilled an election promise to block the Trans Mountain pipeline, Notley took out her frustration on a handful of Albertans in petulant fashion, banning B.C. wines in Alberta and declaring, “Let them drink beer!”

Speaking as a native-born Albertan and an environmentalist (not the oxymoron Notley seems to think it is), the boycott made no sense. There is no wine bar on Chuckwagon Row at the Calgary Stampede, so most Albertans would not feel the loss.

I suspect the $70-million B.C. winery bill was being paid by ex-pats from other places, people with more money than judgment. The few local Albertan wine-drinkers only drank B.C. vintages because they found it hard to swallow wine (or anything else) from Ontario. They would be the only ones crying in their beer.

In fact, Alberta’s premier has given the B.C. wine industry tons of free advertising (“They seriously make wine in British Columbia?”) and, even more importantly, a huge reason for many Canadians and others to pick some up at their local liquor store.

What better way to twist the lion’s tail than to serve B.C. wine at every Liberal Party function across the country? Serve it guerrilla-style at banquets, get a photo of Prime Minister Trudeau quaffing a glass and then post it on social media next to the B.C. bottle? Tweet that picture to Rachel Notley?

The comic possibilities were endless. After her announcement, I immediately bought my first bottle of B.C. wine in years, a quaintly labelled “Reincarnation” by the Diabolica label, for my initial glass of Liberal red protest.

Since we are only on pause until the courts offer B.C. some vaguely apologetic constitutional refusal, we might as well share the experience with the hashtag #PinotBeforePipelines. Perhaps paparazzi could follow “Minister of Pipelines” Jim Carr around town, hoping to catch a picture of him toasting his own protest against Notley over dinner?

So, it’s game on. Serve a Liberal politician (hey, any federal politician!) wine from B.C. and post it. Pose with your friends and do the same. Rescue the B.C. wine industry from forest fires, drought and the politics of pipeline petulance.

After all, the prime minister himself dismissed B.C.’s objections in Marie Antoinette-ish fashion, saying the pipeline will be built, whatever they say or do, so this is only a momentary reprieve. We might as well get started.

The bitter irony in targeting the B.C. wine industry over the pipeline dispute — Alberta’s best efforts to terminate life on Earth by burning up the tar sands — is that climate change already threatens grape growers in the drier parts of the province.

#PinotBeforePipelines is actually iconic, a symbol of what precisely is at stake in a warming world threatened by governments that insist on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, rather than finding ways to leave it in the ground.

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Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

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Today’s crises call for leaders like Churchill

(February 20, 2018)

There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.

Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.

He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.

In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.

He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.

Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.

Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.

For Churchill, words mattered.

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.

But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.

Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.

Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.

The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.

His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.

Today, we have lost our way.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.

Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.

Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.

We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.

We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.

If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.

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