Molto News Year

There was more than just Rob Ford in 2013. But still: Rob Ford.

by Gregory Beatty, Paul Dechene, Lisa Johnson and Rick Pollard

Putin Fougere Ford

Regina, Saskatchewan and Canada were news-packed places in 2013. Here are a few of the stories we cared about. Want more? You can have more! Head to www.prairiedogmag.com to read about labour law changes, the feds’ mistreatment of First Nations, the year in homophobia and much more that we couldn’t quite cram into this dead tree version of Prairie Dog.

Onward!

THE BIG STORY: THE WASTE WATER TREATMENT PLANT REFERENDUM

Sewage was on everyone’s lips in 2013. Wait. That came out wrong. I mean, everyone was talking about sewage this year: how we’re going to handle it, who’s going to handle it for us, how we’re going to pay for all that handling of our sewage.

Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that’d turn into the most divisive issue to get dumped on city hall in recent memory, but it was.

The fight started with council’s unanimous decision in the spring to take the federal government up on its offer of $58.8 million to expand our waste water treatment plant so long as we handed the project over for 30 years to a consortium of companies in a public-private partnership arrangement. It ended in October with a referendum on whether to go with the P3 or not. In between, a petition was signed by over 24,000 citizens demanding a referendum on the P3; the city rejected nearly a third of the petition signatures and declared the petition invalid; the mayor called a referendum anyway; there was an eight-week campaign on the merits and failings of the P3 model; there were accusations of dishonest and improper behaviour directed at city hall and accusations of misinformation being circulated by organized labour. Harsh words were thrown from both sides of the issue. Hundreds turned out for debates on the subject. Council meetings degenerated into jeers and heckling. And on Dec. 16, city clerk Joni Swidnicki stepped down to be replaced by Jim Nichol, the city’s executive director of governance. One can’t help but suspect that the many harsh criticisms aimed at Swidnicki over her office’s handling of the petition and referendum (some of which I wrote and stand by) contributed to her departure.

It was an ugly, messy affair. Kind of like sewage. Or democracy. Or something. And in the end, council’s decision to run with a P3 for the sewage plant was confirmed, winning 57 per cent of the vote. It was one heck of a ride. Hard to imagine anything in 2014 topping it. /PD

HOORAY FOR STADIUM SOCIALISM

We called it council’s great socialist adventure. On Jan. 28, council approved their financing plan for the stadium portion of the Regina Revitalization Initiative. Novice councillor and orator-supreme Bob Hawkins declared that this was “a helluva deal” while pointing to the $73 million the city would be contributing to get a $278 million stadium in return. The remaining $205 million would be covered by the province and the Roughriders and a $100 million loan that will be paid off through a ticket fee on football games and other events. Of course, that’s just the construction cost. What Hawkins and others on council were less likely to trumpet from the rooftops is that with debt servicing and operations and maintenance costs included, the stadium is going to drain $405 million out of city coffers over the next 30 years — $261.9 million of which will be covered by annual property tax increases. That dwarfs the private sector’s involvement in the project as it averages out to a $13.5 million investment of public money — every year — into a sports and entertainment facility.

Keeping up with those payments is going to take an awful lot of central planning. And that can only make the ghost of Marx smile. /PD

THE HOUSING CRISIS: A SMIDGE LESS CRISIS-Y

When the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation published their annual rental market report for Regina in December, the city’s renters heard some good news for a change. Regina’s vacancy rate rose to 1.8 per cent in October of 2013, which is up from one per cent in 2012. After ranking at one point as the worst place to find rental accommodation in the country, our city is now much better off than major centres like Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. (Though Saskatoon still has us beat with their 2.7 per cent vacancy rate.) Driving this improvement is developers shifting their attention towards multi-unit housing and purpose-built rental to maximize their returns in a market where land prices have risen dramatically.

And helping that along were grants and tax incentives offered by the city and province to spur rental development.

“When the province implemented their rental construction incentive program and we tied our program to that, I truly believe the combination of the two programs really helped incentivize that,” says Diana Hawryluk, the city’s director of planning and sustainability.

Still, the rental market has a ways to go before we can declare it recovered, as the CMHC says three per cent is what counts as a healthy vacancy rate. And Peter Gilmer of Regina’s Anti-Poverty Ministry calls the improved numbers cold comfort for people who’re looking for affordable housing right now.

“What we see with the CMHC numbers is while there has been improvements in terms of the vacancy rate, the increases in rental costs are not slowing down,” he says. /PD

AND THEN, THERE WAS THIS FOOTBALL GAME

Prairie Dog’s office is on the Scarth St. Mall in downtown Regina. Along with the adjacent plaza and Victoria Park, the Mall hosted the downtown portion of the Grey Cup Festival, which ran Wednesday through game-time on Sunday Nov. 24.

Not only do I work on the mall, I live there — so I was at ground zero for a huge chunk of the festival. At least, that was the organizers’ original intention. It still turned out okay, especially the big party tent on the plaza, but the weather was uber-shitty, with temps in the minus-20s and wind chills to boot, which made participating in outdoor activities painful.

Still, people made the best of it. And the influx of revelers into the downtown in the days leading up to the game was definitely noticeable (and welcome). On Friday afternoon, we even saw a Stampeder fan ride a horse into a restaurant across the mall for a party (and, we heard later, the horse promptly pooped).

I did have a feeling it could be a blow-out. With Durant and Sheets leading the way, the Riders had rediscovered their early-season mojo — while Hamilton had been streaky all year, and were young and inexperienced compared to the Riders.

The first practice Hamilton had when they got to Regina was outdoors, in the aforementioned uber-shitty weather. Many players were visibly shocked (not to mention frost-bitten — for real). You knew then that the Ti-Cats were in tough. And to have to run out the tunnel at Mosaic Stadium to face the battle-hardened Riders and 44,000 rabid fans… well, the end result was a 45-23 victory for the Green & White, and their fourth Grey Cup in their 103-year history. And to top it off: no looting/rioting/major douchebaggery after the game! /GB

BOUNDARY COMMISSION: SUCK IT, FORCES OF EVIL

For several elections now, Regina and Saskatoon have been drawn and quartered into eight seats with large rural populations. With their rural power base, that’s been politically advantageous for the Conservatives. (Last election, for example, they won 13 of 14 seats with just over half of the popular vote, while the NDP, with one-third the vote, was shut out.)

Until the late ’60s, Regina and Saskatoon had dedicated MPs. That’s the model that prevails in other Canadian cities too, in recognition that the lifestyles of rural and urban Canadians are sufficiently different to warrant their own MPs.

Based on revised census figures, the three-person commission tasked with reviewing the province’s electoral boundaries (a process that occurs every 10 years) recommended that dedicated urban seats be re-established: three in Saskatoon and two in Regina, with one blended riding remaining.

The Conservatives fought the recommendation tooth and nail. Saskatchewan was a unique province, they argued, where rural and urban interests were so closely entwined that it made sense to have blended ridings. The campaign was relentless, and even extended to one commissioner issuing an unprecedented minority report and MPs testifying before a Parliamentary committee about the threat the changes posed to Saskatchewan.

Fortunately, no one outside of the Cons (and their base) bought the self-serving spin. And come next election in 2015, Saskatchewan voters will elect dedicated rural and urban MPs just like every other province. /GB

I SWEAR I DIDN’T KNOW!

It’s been a bad year for Stephen Harper but the real ugliness is yet to come. Criminal charges might be laid for improperly claimed expenses against (former) Conservatives that Harper personally appointed to the Senate. All three Senators — suspended from the Senate by their colleagues in November — subsequently turned on Dear Leader. Patrick Brazeau (also charged with sexual assault) confessed to what everybody already knew: that he was hired as an aboriginal mouthpiece for Harper’s First Nations-unfriendly platforms. On top of that, few are buying Harper’s claim that he was none the wiser about his chief of staff Nigel Wright’s payoff to Mike Duffy — especially when emails suggesting the opposite were released by the RCMP. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has been grilling Harper in the House of Commons, suggesting that the Conservative government’s protocol is to “deny until you get caught, and then change your story.” And finally, Pamela Wallin fought back to accuse the Conservative Party of ignoring the rule of law by moving to suspend her before any criminal charges were laid.

It’s been ugly for Canadians and hideous for democracy. By and large, Canadians don’t trust the Senate anymore, and despite Harper’s old campaign promises to reform the Senate, it doesn’t seem like there’s any realistic solution in sight. /LJ

YOU’VE GOT NO MAIL

Remember when Stephen Harper legislated striking postal workers back to work in 2011? His excuse at the time for such drastic action: the “growing damage to the Canadian economy and Canadians.” Postal service was so essential that the Conservatives wanted it restored as fast as humanly possible, due process and workers’ rights be damned.

Fast forward 30 months to the day after the fall session of Parliament… and postal service is suddenly not so crucial. On Dec. 11, Canada Post announced it was phasing out door-to-door home delivery over the next five years. The justification for its decision? A decline in traditional letter delivery.

Now there’s a straw man if I ever saw one. The fact is that Canada Post returned over $1.5 billion in profit over the last decade, thanks to a massive increase in parcel delivery fueled by the increased willingness of Canadians to order online. Canada Post’s profit centre has shifted away from traditional letter mail. But our national postal service is thriving.

Crown corporations have operated in this way in the past, using one profit centre to subsidize essential, but unprofitable, services. What’s wrong with using the profits from parcel delivery to subsidize door-to-door mail delivery for Canadians who need it? What’s wrong with adding other profitable services — like banking, as some people have suggested?

Apparently a lot, if you’re a Conservative. If you’re a Conservative, the fact that some suburban and rural Canadians don’t receive door-to-door mail delivery is reason enough to take it away from everyone else. So instead of restoring postal service to the suburbs, it’s easier to make those lazy inner-city hippy grandmas get some exercise by walking to the local super-mailbox. Instead of improving pension security for everyone, it’s easier to paint a target on the backs of those greedy postal workers who have the nerve to expect Canada Post to make good on the pensions they AGREED TO IN A CONTRACT. Instead of using the profits from parcel service and other potential profit centres to maintain home delivery, slash service to people who are still crazy enough to believe government-owned institutions like Canada Post are there to provide a service.

It’s Page One from the Conservative playbook: cut services to some, then deflect the blame to those who are still getting it. /RP

ROB FORD: ‘NUFF SAID

I confess: I became completely addicted to the Rob Ford story. How could I not? I’m a city politics nut and a fan of The Wire, so the appeal of the whole sorry saga of Toronto’s mayor should be obvious — I could easily imagine it being written by David Simon while he was… well, smoking crack.

There was a period there where every time I refreshed my browser I was rewarded with some new, alarming plot twist: the chief of police admits a video of Ford smoking crack exists; Ford admits to smoking crack during a “drunken stupor”; police documents reveal Ford’s staff worried about the mayor’s drinking and driving; Ford tells the Toronto media how much cunnilingus he performs on his wife (answer: “plenty”).

By the time Ford was hip-checking Councillor Pam McConnell out of his way so he could jeer at spectators in the council hall gallery, I was ready to declare that Toronto as a whole had jumped the shark. I think most people had already gotten so bored or disgusted they’d wandered off to worry over Justin Bieber’s adventures in the South American sex trade, but I kept watching because — as bizarre and crass as the story became — it was important news.

Rob Ford is an object lesson in what happens when people stop paying attention to their city hall and let their votes be swayed by simple-minded slogans, empty platitudes, promises of tax cuts and outright lies. If your comprehension of what’s going on with your municipal government stops at lines like “civil servant fat cats riding the taxpayer gravy train,” then you’re guaranteed to wind up with rich, dim-witted and entitled clowns like Rob Ford running your affairs.

And with each new shameful incident I cringed, not because I worried over the reputation of Toronto the Good, but because of how Ford’s antics degraded politics in this country — and made my job harder. The little Saskatchewan dramas that I cover on a weekly basis pale by comparison to the grotesqueries the Ford family make commonplace. Our local politicians will have to work extremely hard to look a fraction as bad Toronto’s chortling kingpin. And that means for the next few years, your city council and your legislature will be free to say “yes” to a whole lot of bonkers nonsense — stadiums, sprawl, standardized testing, monorails — and voters will shrug and say, “Meh, at least they’re not smoking crack.” /PD

2014-01-09