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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Northern Ontario MPP eyes election for region's 'turn-around'

Is there a provincial election on the horizon? Hard to tell, but a lot of MPPs think that 2014 needs to bring some sort of change - either a new government, or significant progress on northern issues. 
Northern Ontario MPP eyes election for region's 'turn-around' - CBC News

What is the Future of the National History Curriculum?

Last night, I heard a very interesting discussion on the future of the national history curriculum on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week. You can listen to the episode here, or download the podcast version here. The discussion was centred around Michael Gove, the current Education Secretary in the Cameron/Clegg coalition government mess, who has called for tougher exams and an end to modular GCSEs to make English qualifications more competitive on the world stage. He is not a historian, nor has he studied history, but he wants to rewrite the history curriculum to give students a better understanding of the grand sweep of British history. Joining him on the panel were three acclaimed historians: Simon Schama, Margaret Macmillan and Tom Holland (I'll admit it, I hadn't heard of him before). All three agreed that it is time to overhaul the history curriculum, but they also cautioned about creating a heroic, hagiographic construction of the British past (Gove himself claimed to be a "whig" when it comes to history). The term history was used in its colloquial sense throughout to mean the past, which is really what we teach school children. We tend to shield them from the messy, "muddled" (as Macmillan put it), world that is historical debate. Of course, this means they miss all the fun!

I am a product of two different history curricula during my schooling: Ontario all the way through the end of high school and the English A-Level system. The two have very different approaches, but both miss the mark for making people well-versed in history. Throughout my Ontario learning, I always complained about how shallow the history teaching was, spending only a few hours on what appeared to be immense topics (I think I spent a total of three days studying the Russian Revolution, about 20 minutes on the Tudors and about the same on the Industrial Revolution). Instead, my learning was a whirlwind tour of world history, with the same core Canadian narrative repeated in every grade with little added detail; one textbook and one version of events. Critical analysis and the other techniques that make historians such skilled people were entirely lacking. Conversely, the English A-Level is all about detailed, close analysis; spending weeks on a minute section of the past until you really understand it (even if the final essay answer is considered tediously loyal in its adherence to what was taught). This is closer (except the essay bit!) to what historians do in their day-to-day research, but it lacks a broader picture. I often found myself referring back to the sweeping tour of the past of my Ontario days to see how what I was learning fit into the bigger picture. English students leave with a detailed knowledge of Romans, Tudors, Victorian and Edwardian Social Reform, and Nazis - lots of Nazis. Unfortunately, they don't really know why the French Revolution mattered or why Germany became powerful in the first place. The ideal system is probably a mix of both a sweeping chronology and detailed study. This is how history is generally taught at university level and it seems to work. Even if it works, the emergence of new trends in history, such as transnational, postcolonial and Eastern European histories to name a few, show just how much we are missing out and how immense history really is.

Two things struck me about the discussion. Firstly, the idea of a national curriculum where all students learn the same syllabus and write the same exam. While I disagree with J.L. Granatstein's emphasis on military history in his polemical work Who Killed Canadian History?, he is right to emphasise how fragmented history teaching in Canada is with at least 13 different curricula. You could further fragment the system. For instance, I am a product of French Immersion and I spent much more time on Francophone-Canadian history than most. The other element of the discussion that intrigued me was the repeated notion of patriotism in teaching history. Being a product of North America and a specialist in 20th-century history, the p-word puts me on edge, it being too closely-related to its cousin nationalism. Given, Britain generally lacks North American-style flag-waving, but it is creeping into British society all the time (I really can't get excited that my potato chips have salt from Cheshire and all-British potatoes). It is fine to be quietly proud to live in a country, but this should not cloud all the bad things that happen there. Rather, this pride should push you to fight to rectify the ills. History can help by identifying the root causes of problems and consider how previous reforms have been successful, or not so. To understand how the world around us came to be is critical to living in the present and thinking about the future. Now if only Canada could have a discussion about the future of teaching history on a national radio show...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Loyal Subscribers Keep Hobby Magazines Afloat

It seems that the digital age isn't destroying print media just yet. Many hobby magazines, including Model Railroader and Trains, are doing well in the screen-saturated world of leisure reading. Yes, they have developed digital versions and online content, but people still want the magazines too.
>>>Loyal Subscribers Keep Hobby Magazines Afloat - NYTimes.com<<<

Friday, December 20, 2013

Snow Dust / Neige Poussiéreuse

Via Flickr:
GO 651 pulls train 908 towards Whitby GO Station, 16 December 2013. / GO 651 avec le train 908 approche la gare de Whitby, 16 décembre 2013.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

ONTC fire sale dead or not?

Vic Fedeli believes that the Auditor General's report hasn't changed anything and that the divestment process continues regardless.
>>>ONTC fire sale dead or not? | Kapuskasing Times<<<

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Selling Off ONTC is Still a Good Deal for Ontarians

It isn't often that you come across a dissenting opinion in the ONTC debate. You are either against divestment - or you are the government. That is why this opinion piece was so interesting. While he doesn't deny that divestment would cost a lot of money, Lafleur argues that there would be cost savings in the long term. He also advocates for competitive bidding for services in the north. While this model does work (and suits some political persuasions better than others), it doesn't address the core concerns of those against divestment, notably that the Northlander is no longer running and that they don't want private-sector involvement. Personally, I still believe that divestment is a mistake and that a restructured ONTC is the best solution. However, Lafleur's arguments merit consideration as another possible path to follow.
>>>Why Selling Off ONTC is Still a Good Deal for Ontarians | Steve Lafleur<<<

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Unpacking the Auditor General's ONTC Report

I have now read the newly-released Ontario Auditor General's report into the divestment of the ONTC. The full report can be accessed here. While much of the report deals with numbers (many of which have been grabbing the headlines), it also sheds valuable light onto the divestment process as a whole. While the Auditor General (AG) is an impartial body, the government is accused of poor planning and communication, which calls the validity of the divestment into question. Given the revelations, it is hard not to criticise the government.

The media has latched onto the two key numbers from the report: the government's initial claim of a $265.9 million saving over three years and the projected $820 million cost calculated by the AG. The initial savings claim, which was released as part of the information on March 23, 2012 when divestment was announced, is seen as incomplete and ambiguous. The figure does not consider potential liabilities, such as severance and environmental cleanup and it was not clearly defined in the government announcement, leading to different interpretations and confusion. The projected costs have been rising steadily since March 2012 and are now estimated to exceed $820 million excluding environmental cleanup, Aboriginal negotiations and other costs deemed too "sensitive" to publish. Despite the high costs, the AG does conclude that divestment may still lead to cost-savings in the long term, especially if the alternative is to continue the ONTC in its current form.

Of greater interest to me was the analysis of divestment, a process which the government has clearly screwed-up spectacularly. Interestingly, the AG contextualises the divestment as a continuation of every financial decision surrounding the ONTC since Mike Harris' failed divestment plan in 2000. The current divestment was announced on March 23, 2012, less than 24 hours after much of the process was implemented. In fact, the President of the ONTC was only notified once much of the restructuring had already happened. The report details a culture of mistrust and poor communication between the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the ONTC, two groups which it appears could not understand each other. The ONTC was seen as a politically-sensitive issue, so any attempts to restructure it were blocked to avoid conflict. As a result, the financial problems at the ONTC continued to get worse as losses continued without any apparent solution. This poor working relationship has been exacerbated by the government's de-facto ban on the ONTC seeking new business and the continued lack of consultation of the ONTC about its own future.

The most damning revelation in the report is the government's complete lack of due diligence on the issue. Investigations into the potential cost of divestment, pension and severance liabilities were only begun after divestment was announced in the first place. The government had never tried to divest something as large as the ONTC and was clearly stumbling around in the dark trying to make a complex reality fit their goal of cost savings. The highest cost, liabilities as a result of the ONTC's  collective agreements (which cover 90% of employees) was not even considered until well after the divestment was announced.

This report offers startling new information into what has happened over the past two years and how much of a mess the government has made. That said, it is also important to draw a line between the McGuinty era and the Wynne era. While McGuinty's tenure was marked by closed-door decisions (which the report suggests were short-sighted and unwise), Wynne's government has made the process more transparent, notably by creating the Minister's Advisory Committee and backing away from complete divestment. While it is unclear how much of this change was provoked by the revelations in the AG's report, what matters is that there has been change. The contents of the report show irresponsible government practices and decisions, but this also offers a chance to change the situation for the better. Now is a chance to open up discussion, be more transparent, recognise the needs of northern Ontario and of responsible fiscal policy while actually helping the ONTC to adapt to a changing world. This should not be a partisan or a political issue. The core of the ONTC has always been service to people and to Ontario. This must not be forgotten.

This is my take on the report. I encourage you to read the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions as well. There is a comprehensive article in the Timmins Press which outlines some high-profile reactions to the report.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Auditor General's Report is Released

The Ontario Auditor General has released the long-awaited report into the government's divestment plan for the ONTC. You can read the report at the Auditor General's website. I have not yet read the full contents of the report and I will not be commenting until I have done so. Watch this space!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Runaway Trains

The Canadian media has been full of stories of runaway trains of late. After the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic during the summer, railway safety has once again been a key issue. The latest chapter revolves around runaway trains, which appear to be defined as any train that moves when it shouldn't. The CBC has uncovered hundreds of such incidents over the past decade and has made a map charting every incident. Puting things in perspective, most of the reported incidents appear to be freight cars moving in yards, but there are other incidents that are more worrying, such as CN 450 which left a large portion of its train on the Newmarket Sub near Huntsville. The CBC map is very detailed and there is plenty of information to keep any railway fan interested. I was especially interested to see that neither GO Transit nor Ontario Northland have any reported incidents: a cut above the rest?
CBC Map: Runaway Trains in Canada

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

As I was settling down to sleep last night, BBC Radio 4 interrupted programming to bring listeners the news that Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, had died at the age of 95.

The sad news was not unexpected, his health had been failing for several years and a series of scares during the summer had brought his mortality into the forefront of the South African conscious, but it still came as a shock which will continue to be felt for the considerable future.

While I have never visited South Africa, I do feel a connection to the country. My grandfather was born and grew up in Johannesburg and I still have relatives near Cape Town. Since the end of Apartheid, much has changed in South Africa and it is undeniably a much fairer society. However, much remains to be done.

Mandela was the figurehead of so many movements to improve the situation in South Africa. Yes, there was violence on both sides of the conflict, but the international pressure and boycotts are an example of when peaceful pressure actually gets results.

Throughout history, there have been many great world leaders, but there have been very few great world leaders. Mandela's influence reached far beyond South Africa's borders and he was respected around the world as an advocate for peace, democracy, fairness and the fight against poverty. While he is now gone, his ideas and legacy are here to stay.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Auditor General report on ONTC imminent

It has been a busy week on the ONTC front and it appears that change really is in the air. Dialogue between the government and the unions is about to increase, the Auditor General's report will be released, and the government's tone has changed significantly.
>>>Auditor General report on ONTC imminent<<<

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Light at end of ONTC tunnel? (Text of Gravelle's Statement)

Michael Gravelle's statement on Monday appears to show a change in direction regarding the ONTC. His words are generally vague, but the shift away from divestment is very clear. I think the most important passage is that
Ultimately, both our government and the Minister’s Advisory Committee, recognize the importance of a resilient, prosperous regional economy that attracts people and investments to Northern Ontario.
In light of the recent problem with the Ring of Fire, I think the government has decided to stop tampering with the ONTC and develop a concrete plan in order to protect the economic development of northern Ontario.
>>>Light at end of ONTC tunnel? | Kapuskasing Times<<<

Focus on transformation, not sell-off, of ONTC

It's all over... sort of.
In an announcement on Monday, Minister Michael Gravelle changed the wording of the ONTC issue from 'divestment' to 'transformation,' although divestment does remain one of multiple possibilities. If I had to make a prediction now, based on limited information, I would say that the ONTC will remain in provincial hands. I do not think that the government can hope to push forward with divestment while retaining support. Here's to a new beginning.
>>>Focus on transformation, not sell-off, of ONTC | Timmins Press<<<