Saturday, March 17, 2007

Dion Does Milton

Today was the big day. Stephane Dion arrived in lovely Milton, Ontario - the "Sprawl Capital Fastest Growing Municipality in Canada" (more on that dubious distinction later) - to attend the ‘Halton EcoSummit’, hosted by our very own Garth Turner.

Note to self: next time, show up an hour early. I was only half an hour early and I had to stand in the back. Still, at least I was standing inside the room - there were a couple of dozen who had to listen from the hallway. I hate to say it, but I suspect they may have intentionally overbooked the rather small room just so they could say that it was 'filled to overflowing'.

But I'm not that cynical. Really.

I honestly had no idea what to expect from this event, but as it turned out it was very much like one of Garth’s Town Hall meetings, only shorter and with more speechifying. Garth was introduced by some local guy who ran through the list of his accomplishments from his ‘Turner Report’ days right through to his election as a Conservative MP… and then kinda skated over the whole messiness between that and his becoming a Liberal. Rather deftly, I thought.

Turner spoke briefly, listing environmental issues specifically relating to Halton: controlled growth vs. sprawl, green space, etc. He did the usual deference to Our Lord Mayor (who is considerably less of a Liberal than Turner) and then it was Dion’s turn.

Dion was mainly there to promote the big Liberal green plan he unveiled this morning, which principally calls for a Canadian "Carbon Budget". Under this plan, large emitters would have to pay $20 a tonne for the greenhouse gases they emit over their ‘budget’. If they clean up their act they get the money back. If not, this money would go into a green fund which would pay for the development of green technologies within the province (just to alleviate Albertan paranoia about us Commie Easterners trying to steal all their oil money).

Yeah, I can get behind that.

Dion made a joke about the Conservatives being welcome to steal the plan, change the name and present it as theirs, as long as it gets implemented. Got a good laugh, too. He actually made several cracks about Harper’s ‘rebranding’ of Liberal programs, which was nice to hear. I think mocking sarcasm plays way better than indignation when dealing with this sort of nonsense.

At this point, Turner grabbed the mike and started taking questions from the audience, Phil Donahue-style. Interestingly, he also read a few questions from people online in other parts of the country. Nice touch.

Most of the questions and comments centred around two issues: land use / sprawl, and the role of agriculture in reducing greenhouse gases. This second issue was something I hadn’t thought a great deal about, and apparently neither had Dion. He didn’t seem to have a ready answer as to whether this ‘green fund’ of his would reward farmers for sequestering huge amounts of carbon in the crops themselves, as well as heat absorption, water filtration, and other beneficial effects of agriculture. He responded instead with talk of incentives for organic farming and converting tractors to biodiesel, which didn’t seem to satisfy the farmers at all.

A related point point only lightly touched on was that creating financial incentives for farmers to keep farming instead of selling their land to developers would have the added benefit of curbing sprawl. I think this is something that needs to be looked at much more seriously.

A particularly amusing moment came when Turner outed a fellow blogger from The Wingnutterer. He was typing away on his Crackberry or laptop or whatever the hell he had when he suddenly found himself with a microphone in his face being asked to explain what he was doing. Of course Garth knew exactly who he was and what he was doing, but it was still pretty funny.

Mmmm... live blogging. And all I had was my lousy pen and notepad. Sigh.

Other questions and comments dealt with specific solutions and technologies: electric cars (someone saw the movie), solar and wind retrofits, concrete vs. asphalt for paving (I suppose with Global Warming we won't have to worry about frost heave wrecking the concrete), tree planting, etc. Dion’s best answer to these types of questions was that it is not the government’s job to decide which specific technology or approach is the best answer - only to create a level playing field and an economically favourable environment where industry and technology can develop solutions that work best.

The ‘Most Appalling Question of the Day’ award went to a fellow from Georgetown, who talked about how public transit is a political issue in Halton because there is a perception that having an efficient, low-cost alternative to everyone having two or three cars will somehow attract ‘lesser class people’ to the area. There was a kind of stunned silence after that one and I think some people assumed that they had heard him wrong. But then he specifically asked how Dion would reassure people who were worried about accessible transit attracting ‘undesirable people’.


In his defence, it seemed like this guy was talking about other people’s attitudes and not his own, although it was hard to tell. And I wish I could say that this sort of attitude was restricted to those crazy people in Georgetown, but I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed here in Milton. These are the same people who regularly balk at proposals for more rental units and low-cost housing. I don’t know if it’s racism or classism or a bit of both, but someone needs to tell these people that the ‘undesirables’ they are trying to keep out of their town include both their young adult children and their parents. Students and seniors frequently don’t or can’t afford to drive, and they are certainly not in the market for any of those new development houses.

The conversations I overheard as we were all filing out were almost as interesting as the questions asked. Several people started critiquing Dion’s English - some favourably, some not - and I must say I’m finding that whole subject increasingly tedious. Seriously, how many languages do you speak, asshole? The guy is French Canadian. Get over it. His accent is strong but perfectly understandable, and it’s certainly more melodious than Chretien’s.

You remember what happened when the Conservatives tried to make fun of Chretien’s accent, don’t you?

The thing that amazed me the most was the number of animated and intelligent conversations going on about environmental issues even after the meeting was over. Most of these people are not scientists or environmentalists. They are farmers and business people and home owners with a wide range of interests and educational backgrounds, and yet terms like ‘carbon trading’ and ‘sequestration’ were being bandied about like we were groupies on David Suzuki’s tour bus.

Next time someone asks Dion why the Liberals never brought in serious environmental legislation while they were in power, he should just say "Because you guys never really wanted it before".

What a difference a few warm years and an Oscar winning documentary make.


"Understanding Sprawl: A Citizen’s Guide" from the David Suzuki Foundation. I’m thinking of sending copies to every member of Milton Town Council.


Garth Turner is developing a serious man crush on Stephane Dion. It's really rather sweet.


  1. Great coverage of the EcoSummit, Ms Runestone Smith. From an admirer in Burlington. I like your comments, though they were very concise in regard to 'combien Anglais est-ce que compétent sont dans Le français?' When you're about to say, 'damned if I know.' 'Je ne sais pas,' serves equally well. My profession, which appears to be the same as yours, requires that I pull out my slide tray each morning for re-orientation. If I see, "the debit is on the side nearest the window, when facing East," I have my fix.


  2. Hey Rune,

    Good coverage, as for me, I was going for the nutty side of the equation, although I do have one follow up post to make.