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A letter from Alberta to my Quebec friends

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Chers amis québecois,

You may have heard about one of our many recent pro-pipeline rallies, where Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi began to speak to the crowd in French. The crowd quickly interrupted with boos and heckles, until an organizer pleaded for politeness. At the same event, demonstrators jeered a city councillor when he suggested listeners show pro-trade goodwill and buy Quebec dairy products. “Wow. Really? And you guys call yourselves Canadians?” he replied.

It’s a question you may also ask in response—swift hostility by Albertans at the mere mention of Quebec products or its official language. Frankly, it’s jarring for many Albertans to see that, too, reviving the angry redneck stereotype. But there’s been a lot lately that’s jarred Albertans and made residents feel besieged.

Normally, Quebec culture gets much love  in Alberta. Canadiens jerseys come out in force whenever they play our arenas; the Habs were the western favourite before the Oilers and Flames arrived, because somebody had to beat up on the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Montréal bagel shops in Calgary are impressively close to the real thing, and I understand hardcore bagel fans might soon have to venture west for the authentic wood-burning oven variety. Franco-albertain communities dot northern Alberta. Your term, sables bitumeneux (bituminous sands), neatly cuts through the irksome oil sands/tar sands rhetoric squabble.

My personal appreciation for Québec goes beyond drooling at thoughts of squeaky-curd poutine or Schwartz’s smoked meat. My mother grew up in Outremont, much of her anglo family still lives there, and my father worked 50 years in sales for Montréal-based clothing factories. Montréal’s Gibeau julep giant orange is a familiar landmark of my youth; I cherish the five weeks I spent in Quebec City at a Université Laval undergrad French immersion program (but regret I didn’t retain more language); and as I type this, I’m in shirt and pants from La Maison Simons, now with outlets out west.

As a journalist in Calgary, it feels abundantly strange that a practitioner in my long-beleaguered field has lately felt less job security than a petroleum engineer or rig hand. Premier Rachel Notley’s drastic step to mandate a sector-wide oil production cut helped curb a dramatic drop in Alberta oil prices and prevent widespread layoffs. We’ve had busts before, but usually because of global commodity prices; emotions run rawer when we approach an economic cliff because of domestic failings: in this case, the inability to build pipelines, thanks to a flurry of legal/constitutional holdups (Trans Mountain and Keystone XL), political decisions (Northern Gateway), and regulatory/economic issues (Energy East).

If my French was better, I’d have better appreciation for the witty repartee of Tout le monde en parle, but I figure the new Quebec premier’s parries to a recent question on the Energy East pipeline were not TLMEP-grade. The swipes from Quebec’s new premier about “dirty energy” and no “social acceptability” for pipelines were not only clumsy and gratuitous, they also represented the sort of pugnacity Albertans thought we’d fondly waved goodbye to with the electoral defeat of former Montréal mayor Denis Coderre, who advocated loudly against Energy East and called the project’s demise a “major victory.” Then-premier Philippe Couillard was more muted about the pipeline, and we thought François Legault was a supposedly more conservative premier—no Stephen Harper clone, to be sure, but perhaps at least sensitive to the Alberta moment. Nope. It felt like kicking Alberta when we were already down, and in pan-Canadian stereo, after a year of B.C.’s premier and mayors similarly decrying the steel arteries of Alberta’s economic lifeblood. It was wholly unnecessary for Legault to poke Alberta resources when asked about Energy East, which the company TransCanada has no plans to revive. Rookie politicians should know better than to dally with hypothetical questions. Legault also ought to know a provincial premier lacks jurisdiction over interprovincial pipelines—just as B.C.’s premier cannot block Trans Mountain, or, if we’re being honest, as Alberta’s can force it through. There’s no Quebec veto. But it was dismaying to see that the guy with the jurisdiction, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appears to bolster Legault’s ill-advised remark by agreeing on CTV that “there is no support for a pipeline through Quebec.” If public opinion actually determined economic and environmental decisions, Mr. Trudeau, B.C.’s Lower Mainland may want a word with you and that Burnaby-bound pipeline expansion you’ve purchased.

But if we’re talking opinion: polls have routinely shown that most British Columbians support the Trans Mountain expansion, and Quebec is the region most strongly opposed to the westbound pipeline. Support likely has roots in direct benefits from a sturdy, opportunity-providing Alberta oil sector. Many B.C. residents and/or their relatives have long sought work in Alberta’s oilfields as mining and forestry work declined, just as east-coast families arrived on the heels of trouble in fisheries and other industries. Much of Ontario’s financial sector understands too, thanks to oil and gas’ super-sized share of the Canadian stock market: banks and deal-makers ride the ups and downs of oil prices and activity levels. Quebec feels these linkages to a lesser extent, though many manufacturers have oil sands supply deals; and when Fort McMurray burned in the 2016 wildfire, hundreds of Quebecers fled their homes and oil sands jobs, just as Saskatchewan ex-pats and Newfoundlanders did.

As Alec Castonguay of L’Actualité wrote in an earlier letter (received, thanks!), much of Quebec’s oil already comes from Alberta—via rail and the Enbridge Line 9 reversal—and less from overseas. And that’s the way Quebecers prefer it, a recent poll shows. Those in Quebec who told Via Rail to  “Buy Canadian!” as it considered a major contract with Siemens over Bombardier (Siemens won) might get that Albertans want the same thing. However, pipeline hearings and radio call-in shows afford you much greater opportunity to decry future capacity expansions for Canada’s oil, and there’s no real chance to thwart additional oil tankers from Algeria or U.S. supply trains.

Climate change fears, I recognize, drive much of the bad sentiment around pipelines and oil sands. Maybe not enough Albertans share concerns about a warming planet, but our current government and corporate leaders pay attention. The province is phasing out coal power plants and ramping up renewables, and has enacted a carbon tax and pledged to cap oil sands. Imperial Oil’s newly announced bitumen project would cut emissions and water use by 25 per cent. Green transitions take time and aren’t easy, just as the aerospace sector isn’t switching in a blink to plug-in planes instead of fuel-burners—and note how long it took Quebec to wean itself off asbestos mining. “Dirty energy” smears tends to make Albertans feel that no matter their efforts and advancements, old images of oil-soaked ducks and belching smoke stacks are all that anyone sees. Additionally, it can be difficult to focus on a cleaner, brighter future when the province’s present seems so bleak. (Fair warning: next spring’s election will likely bring leadership that pares back Alberta’s climate plan, giving you more to worry about.)

Bleakness, of course, can be relative; even after the recent recession, Albertans remain the wealthiest people in Canada. Because of that industry-driven prosperity, it’s a “have” province, while Quebec’s below-average capacity has made it an equalization-receiving “have-not.” The fresh grumbling must come across as Alberta grousing that your residents are less prosperous than ours, and Quebec should shaddup to keep getting this wealth transfer. Well… fair point. You’re a too-convenient target, getting less per capita than other have-not provinces but more overall because you’re twice as populous as the other provinces combined. There’s too much overheated rhetoric about Alberta deficits and Quebec daycare provisions (which have nothing to do with equalization’s formula) and not enough reasoned discussion about the program’s flaws and distortions, such as how, according to economist Trevor Tombe, each $1 in Quebec natural resource revenue would mean $0.67 less in equalization, creating a disincentive to produce.

At the same time as British Columbia pursues Canada’s most comprehensive climate change plan, it’s proceeding with a $40-billion liquefied natural gas project—not dissimilar to a Saguenay LNG terminal venture in the works, though the western project will take plenty of B.C. natural gas and Quebec’s project will import gas from the west. The province, meanwhile, sits on its own resource bonanza. According to a 2013 study, Quebec’s shale gas sector could produce between 6,000 and 15,000 direct jobs (plus spin-off employment)—enough to replace, several times over, 2,500 jobs cut recently by Bombardier. Quebec could, as B.C. intends to, leverage hydro power to make extraction cleaner, and edge closer to weaning itself off equalization (which Legault professes to want), which the three western gas-producing provinces don’t get or require.

Both our provinces excel at having long and often bitter memories—for separate reasons we have harsh recollections of Pierre Trudeau, and those who spit at the thought of Maclean’s after our 2010 Bonhomme cover likely haven’t read down this far. The momentary bitterness toward Quebec and its leader need not endure, just as Alberta hopes its economic logjam doesn’t. You can play a role in accomplishing both those goals: let’s agree that booing Quebec has no social acceptability, just as poorly timed broadsides don’t, either.

Joyeux Noël, Joyeuses Fêtes et bonne année,

Jason

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Dreessen: Ottawa has to shed its image as a town that doesn’t like fun

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Ottawa has long held a reputation as a place that fun forgot. People who live here know that there is a lot to love about the city: its history, the Rideau Canal, proximity to parks and rivers, excellent clubs, museums and galleries all make Ottawa a great place.

More spontaneous fun things are harder to come by. We’ve created a process that makes it hard for small businesses to thrive and where the process is more important than the outcome.

In 2016, a local artist planned to give away free T-shirts celebrating Ottawa 2017 on Sparks Street, until the local Business Improvement Association (BIA) asked him to move, squashing a fun event to bring people together.

In 2017, business proposals to the NCC executive committee made a business case to open cafés at Remic Rapids, Confederation Park and Patterson Creek. In the summer of 2020, two opened; the Patterson Creek location, opposed by neighbours, has yet to see the light of day, though the NCC website indicates it may happen in 2021.

In each case, the cafés are only open for a few brief summer months. Despite the fact that Ottawa celebrates itself as a winter city, we can’t, somehow, imagine how people might want to enjoy a café in the spring or fall, or during winter months while skiing along the river or skating along the canal. Keeping public washrooms open, serving takeout and, yes, using patio heaters, could make these cafés fun additions to our city for most of the year.

More recently, Jerk on Wheels, a food truck with excellent Caribbean chicken and two locations, has run intro trouble. The one on Merivale Road continues, but the Bank Street location in Old Ottawa South has to close. According to social media posts from the owners, despite the business having all permissions in place, local restaurant franchises of Dairy Queen and Tim Hortons have objected to its presence.

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Ottawa businesses frustrated with slower pace of Ontario’s Roadmap to Reopen plan compared to other provinces

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OTTAWA — As Canada plots its roadmap to reopening, each province is choosing their own path to reopen the economy and lift the COVID-19 restrictions.

Some are moving towards loosened restrictions at a faster pace than Ontario, which is frustrating for business owners who say they are ready to receive customers safely.

Patio season is upon the city, and at Banditos Restaurant on Bank Street, owner Matt Loudon is staging the large outdoor dining area to prepare for the summer rush. But the patio will have to remain closed until at least June 14, when it is expected Ontario will move into Step One of the three-step Roadmap to Reopen plan

“I hope they push it up a little bit,” says Loudon. “It’s beyond frustrating all the other provinces are opening up before us, we’ve been locked down longer than anybody else.”

Loudon, who owns two restaurants, says their outdoor seating has always been safe and that they have invested in added measures like sanitization stations and personal protective equipment for the staff. Indoor dining will continue to remain off limits in Ontario until Step Three. When patios do open, tables will be limited to four people. 

Unlike British Columbia’s four-pronged approach that began May 25. Residents in the province are now allowed to dine both inside and out, with a maximum of six per table, not restricted to one household.

Quebec will enter into its first step Friday, where outdoor dining will be available for two adults and their children, who can be from separate addresses per table. This applies to red and orange zones in the province. The curfew will also be lifted. 

In Gatineau, hair salons opened their doors to customers last week. Ten minutes away at Salon Bliss in Ottawa, all owner Sarah Cross can do is hope she can reopen sometime in July.

“Most people think that government funding covers all the bills but it’s far from it,” says Cross. Her upscale salon has nine chairs and over the course of the pandemic, in order to comply with regulations and keep staff and patrons, safe, only three chairs can now be filled. She says the hardest part is that the rules constantly change and vary in each region, adding it doesn’t make sense how one is better than the other.

“Our livelihood is dependent on what the decisions are made and if they were aligned with one belief system then I think they would have the trust of the public to follow these protocols.”

Many Ontario business owners say it’s not only a matter of necessity they open, but can do so safely. Infectious disease physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti agrees, and says the province needs to expedite its timeline.

“Especially with the fact that we are in the post vaccine era,” says Chakrabarti.

“It’s important for us to remember that we have been following this case count very closely for the last year and certainly we’ve had some experiences with opening things, especially with the second and third waves we have to remember that as we go forward now vaccines are a huge difference maker to the situation. Cases may go up but that doesn’t mean the most important thing will go up which is hospitalizations.”

Chakrabarti says while people will still get infected with COVID-19, with the reduced risk of hospitalization in large numbers there is no reason to restrict the community. He says while it’s not time for packed stadiums, it’s also not time for lockdowns and Ontario should re-think its strategy.

“We have to faith in the vaccines. We have seen in the other parts of the world like Israel, the U.K.,and the U.S. our neighbours to the south,” says Chakrabarti. “They are very safe and effective and our ticket out of this pandemic. We really should be taking that.”

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$2.9 million tax break for Ottawa Porsche dealership receives the green ligh

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OTTAWA — Ottawa city council has given the green light to a $2.9 million tax break for a new Porsche dealership in Vanier.

Council voted 15 to 9 to approve a grant under the Community Improvement Plan initiative to build a Porsche dealership at the corner of Montreal Road and St. Laurent Boulevard.  The project by Mrak Holdings Inc., a.k.a. Mark Motors of Ottawa, would be built at 458 Montreal Road.

Under the Community Improvement Plan approved by Council, business owners can apply for a grant equal to 75 per cent of the municipal tax increase attributable to the redevelopment. A report says the goal of the Montreal Road Community Improvement Plan is to “stimulate business investment, urban renewal and property upgrades in the area.”

Coun. Catherine McKenney was one of nine councillors who opposed the tax break for the Porsche dealership.

“I agree with the Community Improvement Plan, but I know and what people see here is that this application does not meet the criteria,” said McKenney about the CIP proposal for the Porsche dealership.

“A car dealership, no matter whether it’s Honda, or a Porsche or a Volkswagen, it does not first off belong on a traditional main street. This does not the meet the criteria of a CIP, it will do nothing for urban renewal.”

Approximately 70 people gathered at the site of the proposed Porsche dealership Tuesday evening to oppose the tax grant.

Coun. Diane Deans told Council she doubted any councillors who supported the Community Improvement Plan when it was developed in 2019 thought it would support a luxury car dealership.

“I don’t think it fits. I don’t think a clear case has been made that this incentive is required for the Mark Motors project to move forward at all,” said Deans. “I don’t believe there’s a clear community benefit.”

Coun. Riley Brockington, Deans, Jeff Leiper, Carol Anne Meehan, Rick Chiarelli, Theresa Kavanagh, Keith Egli, McKenney and Shawn Menard voted against the tax break for the Porsche dealership.

“It will lead to a $17 million investment on Montreal Road, it will create about 20 jobs in that neigthborhood,” said Mayor Jim Watson.

Watson noted auto dealerships were not excluded from the Community Improvement Plan when approved by committee and Council.

A motion introduced by Watson was approved to use property tax revenue generated by the redevelopment for affordable housing.

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