Budget a Titanic undertaking

(April 24, 2017)

It is a measure of how bad things have gotten elsewhere that the Pallister government’s recent budget was received by many with relief.

In comparison to Twitter tirades and missile launches, it was measured and thoughtful.

Yet, in comparison to what the province needs at a pivotal point in its economic and environmental history, it accomplished little that was positive and confused inefficiency with problems in systems design.

To use a well-worn Titanic analogy, it sorted out the dinner menu in first-class, reorganized the schedule for shoveling coal, ensured the people in steerage had access to some fresh air and polished the brass. It did nothing to deal with icebergs ahead or ongoing misjudgments about speed, course and design.

Trimming expenditures is a poor way of increasing efficiency. Expectations are never reduced, just the resources for accomplishing them, according to the mantra of “doing more with less.” Reducing program budgets leaves staff nothing to do, which then justifies eliminating staff for not doing anything — undermining the morale that might inspire people to find creative new ways of doing things.

Of course, these cuts also tend to be made by people who are measuring only bottom lines, following through on mandates to cut expenditures or staff such as “by 15 per cent.”

Is there inefficiency in government? Absolutely. Could we get more done by spending less? Certainly. Can it be done by just cutting things? Not a chance — inefficiency is the consequence of poor system design.

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Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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Green vision in short supply at all levels of government

Piles of plastic bags in dumpsite in the Ngong Hills (Nairobi, Kenya) with Roman Catholic cathedral, wind farm and new development in the background

(March 29, 2017)

March 2017 will go into the record books as the month when the only environmental action that took place was turning the lights out for Earth Hour. The rest of the month felt like Throwback Thursday, as governments at all levels seemed in competition to see who could turn back the clock the most.

Starting closest to home, Winnipeg city council set aside its own resolutions on organic waste collection and opted to remain one of the few large cities in North America where composting is a mystery too hard to solve. The composting outcome was effectively determined when the only option was a surcharge for curbside collection — Winnipeggers for some reason don’t like paying extra for something that should be included in the city’s waste management plan.

At the same time, Mayor Brian Bowman made “Winnipeg is the city of the future” comments that were hard not to dismiss as trash talk, because visionary decision-making is notably absent from city hall these days on any file. If city council salaries depended on an extra levy per homeowner, I suspect councillors and mayor would be working for free.

Widening the circle, the provincial government declared a victory over red tape by reducing water regulations, just as overland flood season is about to start. I could have suggested other places to cut, but that wasn’t one of the options on the government’s online survey about a “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan.

Fortunately, the slogan “Make Manitoba Green Again” was not used to pitch that plan, because those cuts to water quality regulations made me think of the colour of our lakes after spring nutrient runoffs have refuelled the algae for another year.

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