Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ignatieff To Fellow Canadians: We Need Shovels In The Ground NOW...

The current "downturn", come "recession", come "depression", is a "great opportunity" (to quote a recent Prime Minister with the last name Harper). How is it an opportunity? Not quite the stock purchasing spree that our "Sub-Prime Minister" envisions...

With the global recession in full swing we have a very real need to employ Canadians in meaningful ventures, and in long-term positions. We also need to lay down the groundwork for the economy of tomorrow. This recession is an opportunity for us to build towards the new economy - with the required public willingness to spend money - something the recent culture of rabid consumerism driven by corporate fascism would not allow (taxes were a sin, better not mentioned by those who aspired to elected office, and spending was a "no-no").

What is this much talked about "economy of tomorrow"? Well... there will be a few clear aspects:

A Focus On "Green" Technology and Environmentally Friendly Ideas: The world is looking for leadership in this area. Developing economies like India and China are already weaning themselves off oil - even though they continue to use more of it. Researchers (working for peanuts) in these countries are developing new technologies and techniques for age old processes.

Affordable Technologies: The developing world (read: the REST of the world) needs cost effective products geared to their citizens. Not providing these can lead to unrest and strife. Computers that a poor farmer in India (earning pennies a day) can afford with the rest of his village. Mini-solar batteries and portable electricity generating systems to bring light and power where there was none. The global AIDS epidemic shed new light on the greedy corporate fascism which was leading the West. Generic drug manufacturers are springing up, offering drugs at much lower cost than what the West can produce (or wants to produce). Our drugs are priced according to the US "user pays" health system, driven by a vicious profit motive. The world is passing us by, while we feed our consumerist culture - at the behest of the MegaCorps.

A Focus On Intellectual Property and Ideas (the Knowledge Economy) - To have the ideas it will take to bring us through recession/depression, it will take a knowledge-driven work force, and millions of bright, questioning, inquiring minds. The Harper government, thus far, has focused on "dumbing everything down" (criticizing "intellectuals", attacking experts - scientists and economists, cut funding for community groups, schools, and universities). Their immigration efforts have been towards temporary "skilled workers", rather than on attracting the great minds of the world to Canada. During America and Britain's hey-days, they took the best and brightest scientists from other lands - from India, China, Southern Africa, The Americas, and SouthEast Asia. American Universities are still awash with foreign "experts". The Conservative immigration plan, AND their lack of focus on education has curbed the immigration of highly intellectual types in favor of laborers for the Alberta Tar Sands. This has left brilliant minds to go to other countries, and left some of our great minds driving taxis.

Planning For Tomorrow (Infrastructure) - The economy of tomorrow needs planning today. Infrastructure is required if our cities are to support more citizens with the quality of life we are used to. Infrastructure is needed if we are to move our intellectual and natural resource assets from city to city, and from Province to Province. We need the electronic infrastructure to allow our scientists to share ideas. We need the colleges and universities to house the scientists, economists, and teachers we will need to grow our intellectual workforce. We need the alternative fuel sources to drive the factories of the future, and to provide fuel for the alternative fuel (hydrogen fuel cells, electric, nuclear) vehicles of the future. We need rail lines to connect our people and our resources.

We need better links between provinces. We often talk about intra-Provincial trade barriers... there are no barriers like natural barriers. This past winter, blizzards and avalanches in moutain passes effectively shut off the 2 busiest sea-port on the West Coast of North America (Vancouver) from the rest of Canada. Effectively, Canada has 1 highway and 2 rail links tying East and West together. Better transport between Provinces will encourage the Provinces to talk more, and to lower the artificial trade barriers that exist.

Our existing infrastructure needs help. Bridges - built between 1900 and 1960 are crumbling (and collapsing). The national highway - the Trans Canada - is a death-trap at many locations. We brag about "OUR" North, yet have not ever constructed a solid rail or road link to the Beaufort Sea, and our Northern coast. Travellers still need to ride ferry boats to get to some of our provincial capitals. Transport trucks have to stop at red lights across the country, costing operators untold millions daily, and killing the environment.

The recent fire on the Pattullo Bridge in Surrey (connecting communities South of the Fraser to New Westminister and communities North of the Fraser) showed what occurs when old infrastructure falls apart, with no alternatives on the way. For years, some activists argued more bridges connecting the fast-growing communities South of the Fraser to Vancouver would increase traffic and pollution. They never considered that the traffic would come anyways. An environmental scientist on CBC today discussed how bad the air quality has become in just the couple of days the bridge has been closed. Apparently air quality has become much, much worse with all the new traffic congestion. This in no way helps the local economy. For years, community leaders like Mayor Dianne Watts of Surrey have argued for a new bridge and twinning of existing bridges. For years governments have not been forthcoming with funds. Surrey will surpass Vancouver in population in less than 10 years and the South Fraser is growing much faster than the rest of the Metro area. Time has come for major infrastructure work in the area.

Another immediate need in many cities is light rail transit and better public transit. The Pattullo Bridge incident above illustrates the need for REAL transit solutions for people in Canada's cities, AND in rural areas. An efficient rail link between Calgary and Edmonton would serve all the communities in-between. Rail links across the prairies would save millions in road repairs, save lives during harsh winter driving conditions, and bring cities and towns closer together. Currently, one cannot ride a train from Regina to Winnipeg - you drive, fly, or take a bus. Small city transit systems are limited, which dissuades ridership. This causes cities to cut back services further (citing low ridership) - it's a viscious cycle.

During the Great Depression, the USA undertook a massive infrastructure program. A twinkle in FDR's eyes at the time, was the construction of a system of "superhighways" linking every state and major city. World War 2 interfered with the work, but after the war - with the election of Eisenhower - the work continued. Ike understood what a great system the German Autobahn was (having served in the German theater in WW2), and how it tied the country together. In contrast, Canada has the ancient Trans Canada Highway - a dangerous (sometimes fatally so), often 2-way, strand that proports to tie the nation together.

University, college, and research funding MUST be part of any infrastructure program. When we look around Canada, we sadly find that we can't rely on our resource exports, we watch our manufacturing sector flatten out, and we see our best and brightest go far afield to find work, and to stimulate their intellect. One thing we CAN export during these hard times are trained experts, and knowledge. We need to expand our university infrastructure to become an education exporter.

At the height of their empires, the US and Great Britain exported education at a massive scale. Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard grads are among the leaders of every nation on earth. They form the backbone of the world's economies as leaders, industrialists and entrepreneurs. Canada has some of the best universities in the world. It would be folly for us not to take advantage of this fact. We can bring the world's brightest here, to schools like McGill, U of Toronto, U of Sask., U of Alberta, UBC, SFU, Queens, Dalhousie, etc. If they wish to stay, we would have great research and teaching jobs for them here, and they would add much to our economy. If they wish to return, they will take the Canadian experience with them to their homelands - sending back the new trade links and new business.

Research in these centers of excellence can focus on the technologies the world will need to fight climate change, empower the poor and disadvantaged, and to feed the world.

If WE as a nation, pull together and accomplish these ambitious tasks - as Mr. Trudeau, and Mssrs. Pearson and Laurier did before him - we can pave the way for the economies of tomorrow, and the world of tomorrow. We can have the infrastructure in place to BE the crossroads of the learned world - a kind of modern day Alexandria or Babylon. A place where the best and brightest formulate ways to ensure the survival of human culture, and, effectively, the human race. Canada can be a beacon to the rest of the world through these difficult times...

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