Image: Torontoist.com

It was while I was bailing out the back yard that I realized that this was quite a rainstorm. Like a lot of people, I was neither expecting nor prepared for the amount of rain we got and what it did to Toronto.

I see the storm as one of those events that makes us realize we are now firmly in a new weather paradigm – one that is shaped by climate change.

For years, I worked in the sustainable energy sector. Occasionally, I would meet someone who insisted that all the evidence on climate change wasn’t in and that there’s not much we can do about the weather in any case. I don’t see much point in debating the science with someone like that, but this week’s storm made me think about what happens even after we acknowledge climate change.

Acceptance is one thing, but action is another. And even if we still can’t put a price on carbon and manage to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, there is still the issue of how to deal with what we face right now. If you thought the storms of the past while (Calgary, Toronto) are outliers, think again. In fact, the city’s Parks and Environment Committee already considered this question, and came up with a report that says our city’s infrastructure is not adequate for Toronto’s new weather paradigm. By the way, the chair of that committee was Councillor Norm Kelly, who suggested we not make a big deal about it, since climate change is still “contentious.” I wonder if Norm’s opinion is shifting after the rainiest day in the city’s recorded history.

We should not balk at answering the hard questions about how we now understand the impact of global warming and extreme weather and our state of preparedness. Part of this is about looking at how we build and develop our city and what mitigation measures we can integrate to protect us and our infrastructure from flooding. Another part is about ensuring the city’s entire ecosystem can absorb water, or simply have it run off concrete and asphalt and flood our basements, backyards, subways, underpasses, hydro system and major highways.

A third part is about how we understand weather forecasts, what they mean and how they impact our decision-making. Monday’s deluge was an excellent example of the entire city getting caught in the rain. Somewhere between the meteorological scientists at Environment Canada and the weather reports you get, something is lost.

I could go on about this, but I would just be getting in the way of you reading this excellent blog post by The Grid’s Ed Keenan about this exact topic.

The storm revealed a lot about how unprepared we are, as individuals and as a city. It almost makes the transit debate looks minor.

Yesterday’s news about evidence disclosed by the RCMP into Mike Duffy’s expenses has raised some sharp questions about both the character of some key players and about Duffy’s strange hold over some high-ranking politicos.

Image: Cbc.ca

I still cannot understand how on earth Duffy, despite decades as a highly-paid broadcaster (with pensions), could successfully sell the line that he couldn’t come up with any money? Was Old Duff’s confusion and despair so overwhelming that the Conservative Fund and then former PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright thought it was possible Duffy couldn’t afford to pay back what he had taken in improper expenses? Is Duffy some sort of master salesman? The Canadian political version of Dale Carnegie?

Then, despite being told repeatedly that Wright is a stand-up guy, we learn that he was willing to write a cheque to essentially cover up Duffy’s expenses mess. He wanted to save taxpayers from being on the hook, according to his lawyers.

Wright will have to explain how he thought that paying Duffy’s debt and “saving taxpayers’ money” was not only the correct thing to do, but also the kind of action that would work to restore the public’s trust in politicians and teach Old Duff a lesson about cheating on his expenses.

But Wright was only put in this position after the Conservative Fund decided that it could not cover Duffy’s debt.

So, for Conservative Fund boss Senator Irving Gerstein, there are questions about why it’s ok to use taxpayer-subsidized political funds to bail out Duffy his bogus expenses. There’s also a question about why, having already crossed that line, he thought that $30,000 was ok, but $90,000 was too much. Is there perhaps some financial threshold that the Fund uses as a moral yardstick?

And one last question for both Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin: In their decades of working in journalism and filing expense claims, when did they get so lazy or so greedy that they stopped taking responsibility for how they spend someone else’s money?

I also have some questions for myself. As a former journalist, I’m worried I might have the same sort of condition that affected Duffy and Wallin. So I’m checking for the following symptoms:

  • Trying to squeeze as much money out of expenses as possible?
  • Trying to dismiss any concerns about whether the expenses were appropriate?
  • Blaming the rules?
  • Pretending to be contrite?
  • Blaming staff?

One must be vigilant, after all.

One of the nice things about having a blog is the ability to share your opinions and start conversations about topics that are of interest to you. It’s also nice to hear back from readers and get their comments and opinions on posts.

Yesterday, I published a post about my concerns about e-bikes. It didn’t take long for me to hear back from e-bike riders, some of whom seem to be very vigilant about defending e-bikes from uninformed criticism.

Many of the comments on my post pointed out that I had very few facts and only anecdotes to support my complaints about e-bikes. I can only plead guilty to offering an opinion, based on my observations. I am clearly not equipped with the knowledge and expertise to make technical, fact-based safety comparisons between bicycles and e-bikes.

I got many vigorous comments in defense of e-bikes. I won’t repeat them – they can all be found here. I encourage you to read them.

But I want to put up a video that several of the commenters suggested I view.

My views have softened from reading the comments, but I still think that many e-bikes are closer to motorized scooters than bicycles. On the other hand, I can also say that e-bikes offer a level of mobility to some people that is beneficial to them and to the environment.

Whether you accept my opinion or not, here are a few things I hope we can agree on:

  • Any clean alternative to cars is a good alternative, whether they are e-bikes, bicycles, pedal scooters, unicycles, roller blades or skateboards – as long as they are operated in a safe and legal manner.
  • It’s critical that we teach people how to drive safely, take proper precautions, wear helmets and be aware of those with whom they share the road or bike path. I think it’s safe to say that governments, schools and other institutions could be doing more to ensure that anyone who wants to drive on our roads is as prepared as possible to do so in the safest possible way. And if you want to prioritize, start with drivers education – cars are still the biggest and most dangerous things on the road.

 

I’m all in favour of getting people out of cars and getting more cyclists on the road, but what if your “bicycle” is a 120kg scooter that goes over 30km/h and makes no noise?

I’m not the first person in Toronto who has noticed a growing number of scooter type e-bikes driven dangerously, by people who are not only new to driving but who think that they can drive anywhere, anytime. I’m happy to share the road with anyone, but you must act in a safe manner.

Yesterday, while on a routine bike ride to get groceries, I noticed e-bike drivers riding on sidewalks, not wearing helmets, running stop signs into heavy traffic and generally not showing any awareness of the danger they are posing to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Last week, I was hit by an e-bike that decided, at full speed, to move from the right-hand lane of the street into the bike lane. There was no bell, no horn, no warning.

Image: Now Magazine

Of course, the same behaviours I noticed are the same ones motorists frequently observe among cyclists. The only difference is e-bikes weigh much more, have more velocity and take longer to stop than bicycles. They are essentially motorized scooters that have pedals – which, from what I’ve seen, are merely useless appendages.

The pedals are a convenient loophole. They province’s oversight of e-bikes makes it clear that having pedals means e-bikes are considered bicycles under the law and e-bike drivers do not require a licence. And, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, e-bikes “do not have to meet any federal safety standards.”

I find this odd. If regulations exist in part to ensure the safety of those who operate cars, bikes, motorcycles, scooters and those around them, then why is simply having pedals enough to remove e-bikes from further oversight and regulation? Why not use weight, size or a similar measurement to determine the appropriate safety and regulatory approach?

If there is a bigger debate taking part in Toronto about how to balance the needs of cars, public transit, cyclists and pedestrians, then e-bikes should be added to this list.

New shops selling e-bikes are popping up everywhere, offering mobility to those who are not able to ride a bike – but e-bikes should be treated as what they are: heavy, motorized scooters.

The pessimist in me has accepted that the video will never come out and that Rob Ford isn’t going anywhere. So, my thoughts naturally turn to the next election; who will run against the incumbent and how Toronto’s political organizers are starting the process of assembling a campaign to take on Rob Ford. I’m thinking I want to see more media coverage that looks past Crackgate (which has spurred some of the best journalism in recent years) and to the next election. And I figure I can’t be alone.

I was talking to a friend about this on Sunday; we were discussing how easy it would be to split the progressive vote among several candidates and therefore allow Ford to win again. We figured many Torontonians are looking past the crack video story and hoping – since Ford isn’t giving up office and has left no doubt he will run again – that some media will start to focus on the next election and particularly the effort to unseat Ford, with his seemingly large and unmovable support. The next election is in 16 months — not a ton of time, politically-speaking.

I’m interested in hearing about the conversation in political circles on whether the imperative to pick one progressive candidate to run against Ford will trump the individual ambition of a handful of potential candidates. I’m equally interested in learning about any efforts to mobilize the enormous potential anti-Ford vote. Who is looking to get out new voters? Who is looking to organize the young, the cyclists, the hipsters, the downtown condo dwellers, the anti-crack voters, the ashamed, the embarrassed and even the cynics?

Yes, much of this discussion is taking place behind closed doors. But, has there ever been a situation like this? And given that the business of the city has slowed down somewhat, what better time to turn our attention to what would be possible without a hamstrung mayor?

So I’m hoping to soon see more stories that look past the current issues and toward the next election.

Because as a voter and news consumer, this is what I want to know.

Image: Radio-Canada

Anyone interested in how to ruin a major brand-related announcement should study how Radio-Canada launched Ici and the immediate fallout. Heritage Minister James Moore appears to be quite irritated by the whole thing. It got loads of negative media coverage, including this editorial. It caused many supporters of public broadcasting in Canada to doubt the credibility of CBC/Radio-Canada and of its senior management. Not exactly the impact Ici’s creators were hoping for.

From a communications perspective, here are five questions those managers should have asked before the Ici launch:

  1. Stepping back from the details of the Ici brand, ask yourselves: Do we fully understand the larger context of removing the name Canada from your branding and journalism? Are we prepared accordingly?
  2. Consider your key stakeholders – starting with the federal government that is in the process of defunding and harassing you – and make sure they’re informed, in the right way, at the right time. Are you prepared to explain in a clear and compelling way why Rad-Can will now be known as Ici? What about other groups such as Rad-Can and CBC employees, unions (which are particularly pissed about the cost of at least $400,000 in the midst of budget cuts), Francophone groups, the media, broadcasting support groups, and even the opposition parties?
  3. Consider your specific explanation for why the word “Canada” is no longer necessary for a broadcaster that serves Francophones across Canada? After multiple explanations from CBC VP Bill Chambers, it is still as clear as mud.
  4. Consider the issue environment and factors affecting public broadcasting. Ensure that you’re not making the announcement at the same time as, for example, a Tory Backbencher quit the party caucus over the Conservatives sucking the life out of his accountability and transparency bill that would have affected CBC/Radio-Canada?
  5. Ask yourselves: Hey, is this even a good idea? Why do we need to do this? What is wrong with the Radio Canada brand? What’s the urgency? How is creating Ici going to provide better programming and service to Francophone Canadians? How can we – in the broadest sense – justify this decision?

This whole issue pains me. I used to work at the CBC and I know that its employees don’t need to be reminded again of the ineptitude of senior management in a time when budgets are being cut and a cultural battle is being waged against public broadcasting. As a supporter of public broadcasting, I can only shake my head.

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa was on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday, talking about the spat with Ottawa on funding for the Big Move transit plan. On one side, Ontario – through Metrolinx – has raised the idea of hiking the HST in the GTA to pay for transit expansion. On the other side is the federal government and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s letter to Sousa, which basically says you can’t have different HST rates across regions in Ontario. Sousa had a great opportunity to define the issue, but his approach was the wrong one.

Flaherty’s letter was simply an opportunistic political message (“We did not lower the GST to have it taken away from Ontarians by the Wynne government with a news sales tax hike.”) meant to put the Ontario government on the back foot. Sousa’s response – as manifested during this radio interview and elsewhere – was to engage in the debate on Flaherty’s terms and avoid talking about the bigger imperative: making sure the public understands that taxes are how we’re going to pay for badly-needed transit expansion.

Charles Sousa (Image: National Post)

In taking Flaherty’s bait, Sousa’s strategy seemed to be made up of two key messages:

1. Backing away from Metrolinx’s recommendations and saying “we didn’t ask to raise the HST,” or “That’s not what we’re suggesting,” over and over. This is an understandable minor message, but one that – as it was constantly repeated – started to take on the tenor of a recreational athlete complaining to a referee.  Maybe he was worried about how Ontarians were feeling after media coverage of a list of possible “non-tax revenues” generated by Ontario bureaucrats.

2. Avoiding any mention of transit and instead promoting partnership between levels of government, getting everyone at the table – Flaherty in particular – and having a conversation about making the lives of Ontarians better. In fact, Sousa did not once mention the word “transit” and only made one passing reference to the Big Move. Instead, he threw out the words “gridlock” and “competitiveness” and talked relentlessly about “capital infrastructure”. He sounded less like a smart guy trying to explain to a mostly liberal and urban radio audience why we need to consider all possible sources of revenue for transit, and more like a typical politician regurgitating his talking points. He even used the term “going forward”.

I was left with the impression that Ontario’s finance minister was more interested in making nice with Jim Flaherty (low odds on that succeeding) than he was in reinforcing the idea that we need to find a way of paying for transit. Too bad Sousa missed the opportunity to more clearly explain what he was asking for, and what benefits citizens would get in return.

Sure, getting voters to understand and engage on taxes for better transit and less gridlock is not an easy task. It carries political risks, but the alternative path – shying away from any mention of taxes and benefits and letting growth overwhelm us – is the same path to nowhere we’ve been on for decades. And isn’t that what Kathleen Wynne has been saying for months?

I know there are plenty of safe, responsible and aware drivers out there, but it takes just one driver who is on the opposite side of the spectrum to ruin your day. I use my bike daily to get around Toronto. And I’ve tried, but I still have a problem trusting most motorists. And this has nothing to do with cycling advocacy or the war between cars and bikes – it is just the observation of a normal cyclist in Toronto.

It doesn’t matter if a cyclist is wearing a helmet, bright-coloured clothes, using reflective surfaces, lights and other safety accessories – a driver who is not aware of how to drive around cyclists or who is not looking out for them will eventually come into conflict with one.

A recent first-person piece in the Star by an adult cyclist on such a conflict made quite an impression on me. The author, a ordinary guys and a new father who goes to great lengths to be the safest and most prudent cyclists he can be, loses it on a driver who apparently didn’t bother to notice him – even as he was driving across a bike path. I have been in that situation multiple times, and there is nothing like a close shave to get the blood boiling. Even motorists – like the one in the article – who apologize to cyclists don’t do enough to merit the forgiveness of cyclists because of the high stakes involved.

Image: Montreal Gazette

Sometimes, more minor conflicts between cyclists and drivers often seems to come down to each side being representative of a larger debate about sustainability; drivers are part of the mindless march of suburban sprawl, swallowing up land and resources and insisting on dominating their environment. On the other side, cyclists are, as Don Cherry put it, pinkos who impose their alternative lifestyle on others.

But even if disputes between cyclists and motorists often boil down to this level, we shouldn’t forget the most important element of the conflict: safety. So whether you think that the dominance of cars poses a threat to our environment or cyclists are annoying pests who break the rules of the road while delivering sanctimonious lectures, both sides should agree that the reason this conflict is so heated and so emotional is because there are literally lives at stake.

As a cyclist, I am clearly not on the fence. I get into disputes with drivers on a regular basis because some of them do very unsafe things. Many of them are obviously not willing to acknowledge that they share the road with cyclists, nor are they equipped with the necessary competence to drive with cyclists around them. During some of these tense interchanges with drivers, I often ask them to imagine that I am their child and ask them to reconsider their approach to driving. It usually gets them to thinking, which is all I can hope for.

And that leads me to what I hope will eventually become the best solution to this problem is to focus on education – both for those learning how to drive a car and those kids who are starting to cycle on our roads. Cyclists are people — normal people, not lifestyle advocates waiting to get into an argument.

Brian Johnston confronts the inevitable media scrum as he leaves his job (Image: Toronto Star)

Normally, the departures of political staff are of little interest to most people; only hard-core political junkies, insiders and observers can take any real meaning from staffing changes.

But these are hardly normal times. As the exodus of staffers from Rob Ford’s office continues, the amount of media attention given to the issue will only increase. Since Rob and Doug Ford are still in blanket denial mode, and since their credibility is in free fall, the media must look elsewhere for clues to what is going on in the mayor’s office. Hence today’s media focus on the exit of advisor Brian Johnston and EA Kia Nejatian. Expect continued media focus on the mayor’s staff and expect those remaining staff members to be asking themselves some critical questions about how to balance their job responsibilities and obligations with other considerations.

I’ve been a political staffer on several occasions, as well as having covered politics as journalist, and I can say that the decision to leave that type of work is often more complex and emotional than a more conventional job, even more so when the heat is on your boss and the media are camped outside your office every day.

Choosing the political life means you need to have certain characteristics. Political staffers must be loyal. That is particularly the case for those with bosses who may try the patience of their staffers. Staffers also must be appropriately deferential. They must be discreet, especially when your boss is accused of drug abuse. Ideally, the staffer should be able to speak truth to power and be able to do it on a regular basis without appearing obstinate and disloyal.

The benefits of working in politics – the network and connections, the understanding of the political process, the knowledge of how to get things done – are partly meant to position staffers for interesting and lucrative work later on. But it’s a trade-off; the hours are long, the tempo is unrelenting, the crises are frequent, the compromises can be uncomfortable.

But there may come a point when you are asked to do something you think is wrong or harmful to the larger political interests of your boss. Or maybe you’re expected to sit by silently as disastrous decisions are being made (decisions that you must help clean up).  Are you more loyal than self-interested? Can you be discreet about the choice you are facing? What if other staff departures might create opportunity for you to advance? You might consider running away in order to limit the damage to your career, but what if potential employers perceive you as being disloyal?

And then, even if you decide to leave, there are questions about how to do it. Not many staffers could imagine doing a media scrum in the City Hall parking garage on their way out, moving box in hand, saying that your former boss is batshit crazy, or has substance abuse problems, or is putting the city and its reputation at risk. But what if that’s the reason you decided to leave? What if you felt that your concern about the city (or your career) outweighs your loyalty to the mayor? What if you felt the only reasonable strategy is to put more pressure on the mayor to step down?

In the case of Rob Ford’s office, I suspect that once Mark Towhey was fired, most of the staffers started asking themselves some of these questions and calculating the costs of hanging around – despite the sudden opportunities for promotion. Part of this calculation would involve a wondering how effective one can be when the office is in 24/7 damage control mode, when the mayor and his family are circling the wagons and denying everything and when the Chief of Staff is seemingly tossed overboard without a second thought?

And once your colleagues start running out the door, everyone accelerates the cost/benefit analysis of staying. The trickle then inevitably becomes a stampede and the reasons for remaining become few in number and harder to defend. Then comes the decision about what to say to the media as security escorts me out. Do I speak diplomatically, or do I – out of concern for the mayor and the city – offer some real insight into what’s going on?

Expect more parking garage scrums to come, and expect more cautious media statements covering up the frantic “Should I stay or should I go?” questions being asked inside the mayor’s office.

Image: Cannabisculture.net

I grew up in the 80s and – full disclosure here – didn’t deal hash.

But there were always drugs around, as it to be expected when you have the necessary ingredients of bored young people with spare cash and free time. I’m not suggesting that every Canadian in their teens and early 20s consumes drugs, but there are compelling statistics to show that it’s not unusual.

Unless, of course, you are Rob or Doug Ford. Everything we have learned about the Fords (even before Saturday’s Globe and Mail story on Doug’s hash-dealing days) suggests that they are familiar with drugs and alcohol. So it wasn’t such a surprise to learn about Rob’s alleged crack use and Doug’s history as a hash dealer.

Yet, the Fords continue their damaging and inexplicable denials of any and all allegations. I won’t even bother to list the names they have used to label any reporter or media outlet that dares to report on their encounters with drugs and alcohol.

I suspect the Fords, coming from a wealthy and conservative family, do not allow themselves the freedom to actually acknowledge that they had a childhood that – like many other of the same generation – includes using drugs and alcohol. Barack Obama, on the other hand, openly admitted his use of grass and cocaine before he was president. It is this enormous and obvious hypocrisy on the part of the Fords that is helping Toronto voters decide who to believe. It also shows that the Fords are so blinkered in their approach to these issues that they refuse to accept any reasonable advice from their own staffers on how to communicate to the people who elected them.

It’s a shame that the Fords can’t see that every blanket denial on drug or alcohol use only makes them look more and foolish, stubborn and self-defeating. This is a perfect case of how to prolong the story, destroy your credibility and ensure that the media dig more cases out of the shadows.