Tuesday, October 13, 2009

NIMBY without the varnish

Downtown Toronto's local paper, the Bulletin, thinks Porter Airlines belongs at Pearson International Airport. No surprise there; they have generally opposed operations at Toronto City Centre Airport. But they make their case for an alternative in unusually bald terms: Porter belongs at Pearson. Their stated reasons have a well-worn ring to them: they refer to air traffic as a "blight", and they term the waterfront "residential" and "tourism oriented".

Calling the waterfront "residential" begs the question: what about the people who live near Pearson? Anyone with access to Google and the Canadian census (now on the web, although you have to work a bit to get the data) knows that 58,000 people live in the neighbourhood directly across the road from Pearson Airport, with houses considerably closer to the Pearson flight paths than any dwelling on the central waterfront comes to the Toronto City Centre Airport flight paths. If people live near Toronto City Centre Airport, which will at most handle 3% of Toronto's air traffic load, and people live near Pearson, which handles the other 97%, what makes imperative that we relieve the downtown neighbourhoods of any burden at all, and shunt it off to the people of Rexdale and Malton? The argument from tourism rings hollow; considering how many tourists get to their destinations, people who live near an airport have something to do with tourism as well. The Bulletin's argument seems to suggest that the downtown deserves all the jobs and the urban beautification that tourism brings, while Rexdale and Malton should get all the noise.

Needless to say, I disagree. I suspect most people who live under the Pearson flight paths would disagree. And I hope the more preceptive of the people who live on the downtown waterfront see they have more to gain from a city that at least tries to share environmental burdens than they have to lose by putting up with 3% of the air traffic that keeps this city wealthy and culturally vibrant.

Monday, October 12, 2009

...how much can you blame them?

The Obama administration would very much like to resettle the Guantanamo detainees their predecessors picked up in error; the innocent people (mostly men) caught in the backwash of the badly misnamed war on terror. In the frantic early days after 9/11, when so many of us thought al Qaeda had the resources to mount a whole campaign of terror against the United States, a terrorist was a terrorist if his uncle, or his tribal leader, or the bounty hunter who showed up with him in Peshawar or Kandahar said so. We all know the result that the Obama Administration wants us to help make up for.

And we ought to. We took part in the war on terror. To the eternal credit of our government and especially of M. Chretian, we wanted to see it waged sensibly, but we had, and have, troops and special forces in Afghanistan and ships in the Indian Ocean. Some of the people taken into custody by our forces almost certainly ended up in Guantanamo or some other, even more secret prisons. We didn't make the mess, but we helped. So why not help do justice now?

Well, for exhibit 'A', meet Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security for the United States, who eight years after 9/11 thinks Mohammed Atta and his fellow evildoers entered the United States over the Canadian border, and who has invoked that misconception in defending the expensive and highly disruptive program to require passports from all travelers at the US/Canada border. For exhibit 'B', consider Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen shipped to Syria by the Americans (with the apparent connivance of Canadian officials). The Americans have banned Mr. Arar from their country and their airspace, and still refuse to tell the Canadian government why. If Canadians have a real problem with the persistence of myths in the American public discussion, and if Canadians find the American government less than transparent in the war on terror, we have reason to.

And thanks to another ideology many leading Americans hold dear, the idea of the global economy, any Canadian government that fails of the border file has a lot to lose. We embraced continental economic integration with the Free Trade Agreement, and later extended it with NAFTA. Whether that made sense or not, we now have a fully integrated North American market. Should some American demagogue take advantage of the presence of the remarkably persistent myths of 9/11 hijackers coming from Canada, compounded by any so-called "gitmo terrorists" we accept to severely restrict the border, both countries will get shot in the foot; but the US, a country ten times as big, will take a lot longer to feel the pain.

So much as I like and admire President Obama, and as much as I consider Steven Harper at best a placeholder in the Prime Minister's office, I still have to admit that our government has real reasons not to want to take any Guantanamo detainees.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How issues work

Recently John Lorinc, a columnist with whom I often agree, raised the possibility that the cycling plan might emerge as one of the decisive issues in the 2010 campaign for the mayor's office. A year before the election, the decisive issue has yet to emerge, but clearly some conservative pundits and prospective candidates have started sniffing at possibility of making cyclists that issue. From time to time, a trial balloon floats by on the breeze; a reference dropped into a speech here, and column or two there. With all of this, John Lorinc fears, and a few people presumably hope, that some conservative will ride (pardon the pun) a denunciation of cyclists straight into the mayor's office.

To understand whether this will happen, and for cyclists to prevent it from happening, it might help to look carefully at the way issues work; how people make decisions based on particular political promises. David Miller did get elected mayor in 2003 largely on the strength of his promise to cancel the bridge to Toronto City Centre Airport, but why did that promise work for him? The common description of the bridge as a "wedge" issue doesn't fit very well. A wedge issue, according to the usual definition, splits your opponent's supporters. In Canadian politics, the gun registry functions as a wedge issue: it separates the worried urban middle class, that likes tough on crime policies but doesn't like guns, away from rural conservatives. For years, the gun registry made it politically impossible for conservatives like Stockwell Day to make common cause with anti-crime activists like Priscilla deVilliers. You have a wedge issue when two halves of your opponent's coalition (or potential coalition) will die on opposite sides of the same hill. But few people in the coalition behind Barbara Hall or, as far as I know, John Tory coalition wanted their candidate to persist in supporting the bridge if it meant defeat.

His stance on the bridge did not so much split David Miller's opponents as attract supporters to him. But how did opposition to the bridge work for him? Looking back on that year, I think the bridge and the airport brought David Miller's campaign two things: an issue that influential segments of civil society coalesced around, and a symbol. The idea of a bridge over the Western Gap offended boaters, an influential group in Toronto politics and society. Meanwhile, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health had concerns about the effects of aviation-related emissions on the waterfront. As a result, at least two large, elite groups came together in opposition to the proposed bridge, and their support had nowhere to go but David Miller's campaign.

Meanwhile, the coalition campaigning against the airport and the campaign to elect David Miller, both together and separately, worked to paint the bridge as a holdover from the Lastman years, and a product of corrupt lobbying by an unaccountable financial elite and a remote and uncaring Federal government. They worked to portray opposition to the airport and the bridge as a symbol of commitment to a livable city as opposed to a profitable business community.

The symbolism had a darker flip side, whether David Miller and his supporters intended it or not. Since the 1970s, a basically conservative elite governed Toronto by consensus. They had a positive influence on the city, exemplified by the "tiny perfect mayor", and later Conservative MP David Crombie. As immigration reshaped Toronto culturally, racialized communities, with their own issues and needs, migrated to the ring of suburbs around the city. The concentration on an issue of greatest interest to the central waterfront neighbourhoods signaled that the wealthy, educationally privileged "creative class" that dominated Toronto politics for thirty years would continue to shape city politics for some time to come.

What does this mean for cyclists?

For one thing, it suggests we do not need to panic. Most of the conditions that made stopping the bridge into a winning issue for David Miller do not apply to the attempts to make cyclists an issue. The well organized segments of civil society that opposed the airport bridge do not oppose cycling, and we may actually count on support from some of them. That leaves the risk that some demagogue may try to harness the inarticulate resentment some motorists feel against cyclists by attaching a meaning to it. While I do not like to underestimate risks to the cycling community, very few politicians have the talent to harness inarticulate resentment. Certainly, David Miller never did: he had strong and solid community groups pressing for a clear and limited measure. Nor have David Miller's failures turned the whole population of Toronto into clones of Mike Harris. The city as a whole remains progressive, concerned about livability, and receptive to anti-pollution measures. As a cyclist, I believe in staying engaged and concerned, but I do not expect opposition to my bicycle to emerge as anyone's winning issue.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Today, CTV News put the headline "American legislator calls Canada 'parasitic'", with the attached story, on their front page. Clicking into the story, I discovered that Dr. Carolyn Bennett, a Liberal MP and medical doctor, had testified before an American house committee, and one of the minority (Republican) members had regaled  her with codswallop about how the US does all the world's medical innovation. He didn't even single out Canada; he threw France in with his list of so-called "parasites" as well, although I seriously doubt the French media will take much note of what he said.

Why do we? Why do Canadian media seem to highlight negative comments about Canada by American Senators and members of the House, no matter how minor or marginal? I remember once CBC had an aide to Senator Helms trashing Canada's engagement with Cuba. I remember thinking that it would surprise me very much if any American network would give a second of air time to this ranting minion of the most controversial (read widely disliked) member of the American senate. Yet our national network duly gave him time and attention.

I think Canadians should pay serious attention to informed, intelligent criticism of our national policies. I do not think we should pay attention to comments just because a US legislator utters them. We should definitely have a conversation about Canada's contribution, both historical and ongoing, to medical innovation world-wide. If we discover that we don't contribute enough, we should increase our funding, and find ways to improve the incentives we offer to innovators. We have had this conversation before, in many respects, it goes on all the time. But we don't need to define ourselves by what other people say, particularly when those people have their own agenda: in this case, a health system that siphons 16% of the wealth produced by the world's largest and most productive economy, and delivers no more than medicre results.