CBRM district 5 candidates panel

CBC Information Morning held a debate with the candidates for district 5. Listen here:

Municipal Candidates’ Panel – District 5

Here are some of the issues that we discussed:

Creating a vibrant downtown core

Marketing our world-class artistic talent

Debt and equalization

Port development

Community Engagement

Kids and their families

Youth & Early Years

Council should rightly focus on long-term sustainability. And that has to include a strong focus on kids. Child poverty is at an alarmingly high level in CBRM (roughly 20-25%). When kids fall behind, it can be very hard for them to catch up. And as long as our kids are falling behind, our communities will always be at a disadvantage. That’s our future right there.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of how local government can deal with these and other big picture issues. After all, we’re not in a position to throw money at the problem, or pass legislation at the provincial or federal level. We don’t have what CBU political scientist Tom Urbaniak calls “hard power.”

But we do have “soft power.” Municipalities have access to data, information, resources, and expertise. And council wields “convener status”, which it can use to bring the senior levels of government to the table — to meet with representatives from the community, young people themselves, and organizations already working on youth issues. Together we can address the needs of kids and their families.

Early Years (0-4 year olds)

With the help of this network, council should work to develop and strengthen existing supports for early childhood development.

For families struggling to make ends meet, affordable child care can mean the difference between getting by and falling through the cracks. Especially when, in Cape Breton, a common snow day can result in lost wages for a working family.

But it’s not just about babysitting, which is a service more for parents than for kids. Early Years programming is about helping kids become confident, secure, responsible individuals, and celebrating childhood along the way.

And the case to government is clear: research shows that investment in the early years results in — forgive the technocratic term — improved “outcomes”. Meaning that while creating a nurturing environment for children and their families is an end in itself, it also comes with a very real Return On Investment, namely a reduction in costs later in life related to health, crime, employability, addictions, and poverty.

Kids & Teens (5-15)

No need to reinvent the wheel: the Whitney Pier Youth Club is consistently pointed to as a model of success. Council should find ways to replicate that success in other neighbourhoods and communities.

Young Adults

Both Cecil Clarke and Rankin MacSween have recommended creating a Mayor’s Advisory Council on the Economy. There are just as many issues affecting young people and their families as there are issues around the economy — and many are interconnected. Council should create a Youth Advisory Committee, made up of people who work with kids, CBRM recreation, police services, and — the real experts — young people themselves!

Tackling these issues isn’t supposed to be easy. But identifying and building on our successes and potential, and involving youth in the process, is a good start. It’s ambitious, necessary, and possible.

Alex Sheppard – “How Cape Breton Attitudes Shape the Decisions of our Youth”

Alex Sheppard is my wife’s 18 year old cousin. He’s currently attending Dalhousie.

Here’s the introductory remarks I wrote for his “Ideas Powered By Passion” talk:

Alex’s volunteer work — with Junior Achievement, all-ages shows, and most recently Lumiere — is a testament to the saying: “Do what you love, and try to find ways to make it matter more.” When Alex started playing in bands — often as the only under-age bass player in a band full of 19+’s — he needed adult accompaniment when playing at Bunkers. Rather than accept this as an inconvenience, or even allow it to become an impediment, he saw it as an injustice that there weren’t more all-ages venues and all-ages shows. So he started organizing some, combining his passion for the arts with the guts to take a risk. Rather than complaining about the youth out-migration problem — or simply saying “This town sucks” and moving on — he looks for ways to make music matter more, treating music and the arts in general as a downtown revitalization effort, a community development initiative, and a youth retention and attraction strategy.

In his talk, Alex identifies a tension in the life of Cape Breton youth — one which has far-reaching implications for both youth “retention” & outmigration, as well as immigration in general. Young people are brought up believing their only hope is to leave… but when they do leave (even if only to attend university elsewhere) they’re characterized as traitors. What a conflict! (“Should I stay or should I go?“)

Young people should be encouraged to pursue their dreams, wherever in the world those dreams take them. And they should be encouraged to return, with their degrees, their experiences, their expectations, and their entitlements.

We have a responsibility and obligation to make it a viable place to live, work, raise a family, and retire. So that when faced with the decision of where to set down roots, that Cape Breton is on the list.

Who Owns This Town? Responses to New Dawn’s Public Meeting

When the money was announced for the harbour dredge I tweeted the following:

1965. (Today is the beginning of the closure of the container terminal.)

Referring of course to the year that marked the beginning of the end for the steel plant. I figure forty-odd years from now we’ll look back on the container terminal as just another relic from the fossil-fuel age. (A friend replied that since we’re living in a more environmentally friendly era, we’re bound not to make the same mistakes. I refer you to Alberta’s tar sands.)

I’ve already stated my ambivalence about the actual form any port development will take. But here’s the thing: however the port gets developed, the community should have the final say, and the community should be the primary beneficiary. For better or for worse, the community will have to deal with the consequences.

New Dawn — at an open community meeting last night — just goes that one step further and reminds us that self-determination is not a gift. It is a responsibility. If our right to self-determination is withheld, it must be taken back. But this is not to repeat the familiar refrain of victimhood. What we truly lack is not self-determination, but self-confidence.

For anyone who continues to doubt the community’s ability to determine its own future, have some faith: capacity, if and where it’s lacking, will come. But it requires us owning our resources — rather than having them liquidated — and then reinvesting the capital. In what? How about a diversified local economy? Imagine Creative Economies in arts & culture; Knowledge Economies in innovation and technology; Green-Collar Economies in agriculture and energy. Now we’re talking capacity.

No matter what happens, some of us won’t be happy with the results. That’s life. But we’re adults. We’ll deal. The distinguishing feature of an adult conversation is not that it resolves every contradiction, but that it contains them.

Below are some commentaries from friends who attended last night’s meeting.

Port Development: We Contain Multitudes

As read on CBC’s Information Morning Cape Breton and published at whatsgoinon.ca

I’m skeptical about the potential environmental impact of dredging the harbour, to say nothing of a container terminal itself. I’m apprehensive about the potential economic spin-off of the container terminal, namely the crime associated with this sort of infrastructure. I’m cynical about the political motivations and maneuverings surrounding the funding announcement.

That said, I acknowledge the work that has gone into raising the funds and building the consensus needed to bring this vision closer to fruition. It is a hallmark of environmental movements of the past to be only against something, while not bringing forward an alternative – or at least no alternative that the community is willing to get behind. Whether or not the current consensus around port development has been arrived at wholesale simply for lack of alternatives is irrelevant. Building consensus takes time and effort, and while work has and is being done with respect to economic and environmental alternatives, it has not gained popular support. (Yet?)

We’ve heard a lot about how a container terminal will be game changing. A real game changer would be a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment in a creative economy, a knowledge economy, and a green energy economy. It would spur innovation, make Cape Breton an even more attractive place to live, and – in these times of instability and uncertainty – make the island more resilient and adaptive to change: both of the climate and global economic varieties. (See my talk on resilient and adaptive communities.)

But such investment would require the bigger game to change first – thinking outside the current socio-economic box to provide well-paying, meaningful, fulfilling, and sustainable livelihoods for people.

I’m not against the terminal. I am for something else. But alongside my ambivalence is the belief – the knowledge – that Cape Breton and Cape Bretoners themselves contain multitudes. And so despite my cynicism, I’m hopeful about the possibility – and the possibilities – of community ownership of the project. Despite my apprehensiveness, I’m excited about the surprises that lay ahead. And despite my skepticism, I’m optimistic about the potential for creative, knowledge and “green-collar” economies to sprout up, if not instead of, then alongside the things to come.

IDEAS: Powered By Passion

I was honoured to be invited to kick off the 2011 season of IDEAS: Powered By Passion series, put on by New Dawn. Modelled as Cape Breton’s version of the TED talks, the events “aim to encourage new thinking through speech and music, by uncovering the passions of our people through the sharing of their stories.”

The series began last year and while purposely flying under the radar nonetheless attracted a sizeable and loyal following with the likes of speeches from Tom Urbaniak, Jim Mustard, Chris Milburn, Annette Wolf, Joella Foulds, Jeanette MacDonald and Gary Walsh.

Marcie MacKay led off the evening with a note-perfect presentation on the ABCS of Building Neighbourhoods, a project focused on improving developmental assets in the community; and Carolyn Lionais delivered her unique blend of hilarious sonic soul-searching.

NextGen 2010: Designing Cape Breton

Reprinted in the Cape Breton Post, Saturday print edition for June 19; and whatsgoingon.ca

Cape Breton’s ‘next generation’ came together at a recent day-long conference organized by the Cape Breton Partnership to discuss ways to “attract and retain the younger generations to work, live, play and start families” in the region.

From listening to the panelists and discussing the issues with some of the attendees, it was easy to perceive a dynamic split between, on the one hand, those who believe Cape Breton needs to become more ‘international’ to compete in a globalized market; and, on the other, those whose vision for Cape Breton’s future involves promoting and developing its existing assets, particularly in culture (including agriculture). In short, go global vs. go local.

The ‘global’ case

A young professional who teaches business at Dalhousie reported that out of an entire cohort of 20 students, every last one planned to leave Halifax. In order to compete, then, Sydney (if not Cape Breton) must become more like the places for which kids are even leaving Halifax.

Recommendation: direct flights to London; dredge the harbour.

The ‘local’ case

Many in attendance agreed that – notwithstanding the hokeyness of the sentiment – Cape Breton’s greatest asset is its people, followed by the scenery in close second. The combination of people and place has produced a culture of love of family, community and nature; not to mention a distinct, even world-renowned artistic culture. Young people can certainly benefit from experiencing more of what the world has to offer before returning home to Cape Breton, which they will, pulled by these forces.

Recommendation: instill values in the very young; cross your fingers.

Splitting the Difference?

We can’t – nor should we – make it hard for youth to leave. Important experiences await them, ‘out there’. But we must make it easier for them (and others) to come back – with their degrees, their experiences, their expectations, and their entitlements.

The trick to attracting and ‘retracting’ (as opposed to retaining) young people can’t be to try to become like somewhere else. After all, if today’s radically mobile youth can live anywhere in the world, what would make them choose this anywhere over anywhere else?

Nor can the answer to that question be to take for granted that family and community ties will be enough to make youth stay put when their employment options often consist of an imaginary container port and some very real call centres. Not to mention this totally ignores the problem of how to attract the ‘come from aways’. Like it or not, with its rapidly dwindling and aging population, attraction will overtake retention as a priority for the region.

All of this means, yes, promoting Cape Breton’s unique assets – its people, scenery and culture. But it also means developing those assets: investing in the arts, transportation, and housing.

Cape Breton already is a place where artists and innovators, professionals and entrepreneurs, farmers and homesteaders can make a life and a living – surrounded by wonderful people, beautiful scenery, and fiddle music (kidding, sort of). With a little planning – equal parts vision and gusto – it could be world-class local.

Recommendation: Cape Breton doesn’t need to become like somewhere else; Cape Breton needs to become more like itself.