Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Importance of Public Art

Recently I returned from Ottawa. Being in that city reinforced something for me that I had always believed in at some level. Cities should endeavour to make themselves engaging visual landscapes. I have long thought that we should return to the practice of erecting statues to honour important individuals and events in our communities.

In Ottawa I saw a number of public parks while I explored the city. Virtually every public space had a piece of art at its heart. My favourite example was Confederation Park. In the middle of the park is a memorial to Native soldiers and their contribution to Canada. It’s a beautiful monument. Surrounding it is verdant greenery and comfortable sitting.

Major’s Hill Park is simple, but I feel underlines the point. The park oversees the Rideau Canal as it spills into the Ottawa River, and Parliament Hill. Despite its wonderful view the park itself is quite simple. It has manicured lawns and narrow paths. Low bushes make each section a private and quiet. The focal point is a statue of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, who used to live on the grounds of the park and was critical in the founding of the city.

What really got me thinking about the importance of public art is when I walked from ByWard Market to the National Galley. Obviously I had art on the mind, but what struck me was the juxtaposition of the Gallery to the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. The Cathedral stands across from a gigantic sculpture in the shape of a spider. But what I realized was that the Cathedral itself was a piece of art. The ornate and glittering building was as much of a draw as any exhibition on the grounds of the Gallery.

I think we as Canadians need to take a greater interest and have more passion for our communities. Part of the way to get to that point is to be proud of where we come from. Part of building a sense of pride is finding beauty in your home. People who feel a connection tend to like where they leave, or even love it reflect it in the maintenance and improvement of their own homes, even when they are rentals.

Whenever discussions of public or community art are raised people object to the use of public moneys on these efforts. “This money could better be used for alleviating poverty,” or “public funds should not support the arts.” This might be right, maybe it is a middle-class conceit that I want to see our public spaces decorated with monuments celebrating our culture and history; a civic luxury.

Still – these pieces of art draw us to our public spaces and enrich our lives. I’m tired of parks with a jungle gym in the centre and big empty lawns sprinkled with trees. These parks dedicated in the name of a John Smith, with no indication of who he (or she) was and what he (or she) looked like. What if we give our local artists opportunities to have their sculptures placed in our open spaces, we could have the public consulted and competitions held. I would like to see the province or federal government create an endowment for the support of the capital costs for these projects.

I don’t know terribly too much about art, but I know how people react to it. We are drawn to it, and it engages our minds in reflection. It also creates a sense of community, and landmarks. It is something I think we should consider more seriously.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Good-Bye Jack

The topic of this week’s entry will come as no surprise to anyone. I wish to briefly share some thoughts on the passing of Leader of the Opposition Jack Layton. I think when we saw Mr. Layton (NDP - Toronto-Danforth) announce he was stepping down we all feared this may happen, but it did not make the news of Monday morning any easier to accept. I felt great shock when I first saw the news coming over Twitter. I did something then I don’t normally do. I stayed away from the television and continued to work at my computer.

Listening to the feed from journalists and politicians, the emotional response was clear. Frankly, I wasn’t ready for that at the time. I did eventually partake in the coverage, but that was only after I read Jack’s Good-Bye Letter. I found the letter deeply stirring and it connected me to the tragedy like nothing else. In fact the second I read the “Friends” at the top of the page I was reminded of the apparent absence of the NDP Leader. I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself if you have not already.

Yesterday we lost one of the giants, one of the great ones. Unlike the American system our system requires an institutional opposition, Canada is weakened and incomplete now with Mr. Layton’s loss. We are hurt as a democracy when Mr. Layton lost his battle to cancer. One of the early news reports wrote that Jack now has supplanted Robert Stanfield as the greatest Prime Minister we never had, and I’m inclined to agree with that.

I saw Jack Layton in person only once, he came to Brock University in 2006 to give a speech. It was a small, and informal event. I regret now not walking up to him and shaking his hand. On July 26, my posting after Mr. Layton announced his second cancer was called “Our Happy Warrior”, well now we have lost our Happy Warrior.

Canada will continue without Jack Layton’s leadership, but in the short-term our country will be a poorer place without his voice. Jack Layton inspired me in my passion and interest in politics, but not only that, as a teacher I saw his campaign this past Spring inspire children and bring them into the process. That’s why it is even more important now than ever before to dedicate ourselves to Canadian democracy, that would be the greatest legacy of all.

Good-bye Jack.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pickering's Take-Off

Edit: A reader pointed out some problems in my initial posting, so I edited it to correct these errors.

In the 1970s a proposal was made of the future of the Greater Toronto Area. In this proposal a strategy was developed to help deal with the lacking success of the eastern sections of the GTA, Scarborough, and Durham Region. One of the key proposals was the introduction of an airport in Pickering, Ontario to stimulate growth.

If you look at a map of the GTA you will quickly notice that the towns to the left (or west) of Toronto are doing better than those on the right (or east). Development in Mississauga, Brampton, and Etobicoke has been spurred on by the business drawn in by quick and easy access to Pearson International Airport. Richer suburbs further along the Golden Horseshoe such as Burlington and Oakville have grown because of the success of the Peel cities and the area west of Toronto.

Mississauga is now a major city of its own rights with a service-centred economy. Meanwhile the cities east of Toronto – Ajax, Whitby, and Oshawa – are industrial towns. It is unfair, and illogical to say that because there’s an airport in the west and not in the east that that has resulted in the differences. The west is also closer to the American border, a major economic driver. Economic policies by both the provincial and federal government have hurt the cities in the Durham Region. Pickering has benefited from being on the edge of Toronto, as have other cities in Durham.

However, the Pickering Airport is no longer a vanity stimulus exercise. Pearson Airport is rated for a capacity of 50 million travellers. Presently we are at 35 million, projections say that by the 2020s the airport will reach capacity. Pearson is maxed out, without levelling parts of Mississauga, or some creative engineering I don’t know about. Therefore something needs to be done if the business capacity of the Toronto region is going to grow.

There are downsides. The Pickering Airport was vocally opposed by community groups in the 1970s. Many of the same people are still around from the fight in the 70s, and they are prepared to do battle again. There seems to be a certain inescapable logic of the Pickering Airport though. The region needs to be able to handle a greater number of flights, an airport needs to be close to centre – downtown Toronto, and it needs the space to be properly developed, which is available in Durham.

I, for one, would support such a proposal. Ultimately, the people of Pickering and Durham must decide if they want an international airport in their backyards. Likewise, they must consider if they want Durham to become like Peel, which would be a likely consequence, airports attract development and more local employment. While Pickering cannot be characterized as a struggling industrial community, cities like Oshawa, dependent on the automotive industry can be. A local major airport would likely stimulate supportive industries to help ease away from an automotive-centered economy.

On a closing note, a bit of personal news, tomorrow I’m heading to Ottawa. It’s the first time I’ll be visiting our nation’s capital. I’m there to do the tourist thing, which I plan to embrace wholeheartedly, possibly at the irritation of locals. It’s a trip I’ve wanted to make a long time and I’m very excited to see the Parliament in person.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Welland NDP Meeting

This Sunday I attended my very first nomination meeting. A nomination meeting is a when members of a political party in a riding/electoral district gather together to select a candidate for an upcoming election. As a resident of the Welland riding and a member of the Ontario New Democratic Party I, and other members of the party, were asked to help select a new candidate. The Welland riding consists of the city of Welland, Port Colborne, Thorold and the southern portion of St. Catharines.

Peter Kormos, the incumbent NDP MPP for Welland, has held that office since 1988. After twenty-three years of public service he has decided to retire, despite still being under sixty years old. With this being the case the Ontario New Democratic Party Welland’s Riding Association called a meeting to nominate a new candidate.

Being one of the safer NDP ridings in the province there was a great deal of interest over the nomination. Only two candidates were left standing at the time of nomination meeting. The meeting was held in a CAW hall in Welland. I estimated the crowd over 200 people. The crowd was large and enthusiastic, and there was only standing room at the back. With over twenty years as a leader in the community many wanted to say good-bye to Mr. Kormos.

To open the meeting was a speech by the provincial NDP leader, Andrea Horwath. I was quite impressed with her stump speech. She gave her audience a great deal of respect, her brief remarks contained what I think most people want to hear from their political leaders – concrete solutions to problems they are concerned about.

She also successfully highlighted the differences between herself and the two other provincial leaders, Dalton McGuinty (Liberals) and Tim Hudak (Progressive Conservatives). The record of the Liberal government has left few Ontarians happy, hence the Liberal weakness in recent polls. On the other hand the negative Tory campaign and some of the policy solutions they are offering is not holding much water for Ontarians.

Horwath, did well overall. I found her humour and straightforward policy proposals the most admirable aspect of her speaking-style, which my fellow Ontarians will get more familiar with over the coming months. Despite polling third in all recent polls she spoke confidently about forming government, and the crowd responded with cheers. The message that things can be better, and we don’t need to hack and slash the social safety net and services is an appealing one.

While he did not speak Malcolm Allen, the MP for Welland (NDP), was also in attendance and received warm, loud applause when introduced. Alongside that was the even more heartfelt cheer for a mention by Leader Horwath for Jack Layton’s speedy and full recovery.

The New Democrats of the Welland riding ultimately chose to select Cindy Forster over Mick Riddle, a former police officer and professor. I myself voted for Ms. Forster, who currently sits as a Councillor in the Niagara Regional Councillor. Forster was also a former mayor of Welland and a city councillor. The NDP candidate has long experience as a nurse and in the leadership of the Ontario Nursing Association.

Peter Kormos is one of my political heroes, and a large part of the reason I usually think of myself as a New Democrat. I was excited to hear that I could vote for him this fall, and then disappointed he chose to retire. I will say that unlike the federal election I am more determined who I would vote for in the fall, and less undecided. That being said I will do my best to provide objective information to my reading audience before offering my endorsements for the October 6 vote.

The final thing I’d like to add is that if we want our democracy we have to get active. We live in a participatory democracy. The more involved we are the more effective our democracy will be. We don’t all have to be members of political parties, but if we are, we can help ensure that the strongest candidates win the nomination processes. Then the electorate is presented with strong candidates that represent the local population well. The stronger the candidates the more faith people will have in the election and the process. Democracy is a foundational institution, the stronger the very basic elements – local government, and riding associations – the healthier the overall democracy. Something to think about.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

100 Million Canadians?

On June 14 an article appeared in Global Brief, a global affairs magazine published in Canada that focuses on international relations. One article in that issue highlighted an interesting idea from a recent study, What if Canada had a population of 100 million people?

I saw an interview with Irvin Studin, the author of the above article on The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVO. The interview can be seen here, and is about 15 minutes long.

Studin argues the following: Canada is stuck in the middle on a global level. We are not a great power but we are not a small power either. Much of the time we behave as though we are Belgium, perhaps a slightly tougher Belgium, so the Netherlands. We can’t provide the type of military support we should, or may like without severely overtaxing our resources. We cannot even keep control over our own territory. Issues of Arctic Sovereignty consistently come up because we have very little population there! If Canadians lived on the Arctic Ocean it would tougher for the Russians, Danes, Norwegians and Americans to push us around.

I don’t know how much of an effect a larger population would have. Canada has 34 million people in a world of 6.5 billion, would Canada of 100 million in a world of 9 billion make a dramatically different impact?

To be honest, I don’t know much about international relations, I just haven’t taken much time to educate myself on them. What’s fascinating to me is the domestic potential. Canada’s population is about 34 million today. That means to get to 100 million would be tripling our population. Studin argues for the 100 million goal to be set for the year 2100. Strangely enough to reach that goal means increasing immigration from 260,000 per year to about 325,000 per year. I don’t know if the study realized that a country with 80 million can take more immigration than a country of 34 million.

I think it’s pretty clear Canada needs more people. Russia, a country of comparable size and resources to Canada has a population of 140 million and is pushing for more people. It’s not as though we have a deficit in space, here in the second largest country in the world. Today immigration mostly centres in our urban centres, but that’s not where people are needed. As mentioned above in the North, in the Maritimes, and in the Prairies. Studin puts it better than I could:

The Canada of 100 million has a far larger national market and the attendant economies of scale and scope – for ideas, for debate, for books, for newspapers, for magazines (print and online), for all species of goods and services. It poses a far more impressive cultural counterweight to the US – now only three or four times larger, instead of ten or eleven times. It has many large, dynamic, global cities – more than just Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, or perhaps even Calgary – that, superior division of labour oblige, serve as incubators and competitive arenas for innovation, productivity and creative ambition – all derivatives, as it were, of humans rubbing up against humans. Provided that there is proactive distribution of this increased population (the province principally of the federal government, and an area in which it is currently underperforming) – meaning more people and larger cities everywhere, but particularly in the Maritimes (the East), the Prairies (the Midwest) and, indeed, the Canadian North, all grossly underpopulated regions – the Canada of 100 million also has increased, highly productive inter-civic rivalry between these complex metropolises, and more social and economic experimentation and invention at the local level (sub-state units as laboratories, as it were) to drive overall national performance. There are sufficient numbers across the country to populate large applied research institutions (partisan and non-partisan) to aid the generation of policy ideas; to create bona fide national institutions of higher culture in the musical, visual and theatrical arts; to justify national sports leagues where today, in Canada, there is, to many outside observers’ surprise, perhaps one at most. At 100 million, Canada has cutting-edge, world-beating companies that are far larger and more numerous across the sectors; and, to be sure, it has far more aggregate wealth – profit-seeking and philanthropic alike – to regularly provide the said institutions and structures with liquidity; this, manifestly, on top of the public liquidity that over time comes with a far more substantial tax base. In short, at 100 million, the internal energy of Canadian society is transformed.

In short, Canada would not have to depend on exports as much, our national institutions would be stronger, and our economy would be far larger, more powerful and more resilient. Perhaps most interesting – our culture would be stronger. Canada could produce more of its own art, music and film and have a real market in Canada to make it survive.

Canada will likely reach 100 million people inevitably, even if it takes another 100 years, it’ll happen. Studin’s argument was not just that Canada should have a 100 million people, but that we should have a national vision of our future. A journalist at the Globe and Mail suggest that this might be a way for the Liberal Party to move forward. The first person to suggest a 100-million Canada was Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

The opportunity to strengthen Canada as a cultural power, as an economic power, as a military power and a growing voice in the world is awfully tempting. The vision of bustling million-person cities in Atlantic Canada, the Prairies and even the North is quite attractive. If the world needs more Canada, maybe we should start building a bigger, more effective Canada.