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Michael Wernick should’ve thought twice before serving up his ‘Cicero moment’

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Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick waits on Thursday to appear before the Justice Committee (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

While much of the country is going about its day-to-day business, the SNC-Lavalin/Jody Wilson-Raybould affair has overtaken Ottawa and the front pages of newspapers throughout Canada. A complicated matter of ethics and law, of dates and times and personalities, of partisan games and media speculation, the knotty issue has become a matter in the public interest that must be unraveled as soon as possible. To that end, the House of Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights is investigating the government’s consideration of a deferred prosecution agreement for the engineering firm.

On Thursday, the committee called Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick—the nation’s top bureaucrat, deputy minister to the prime minister, and secretary to the cabinet—to testify about who said what to whom about SNC-Lavalin, when they said it, and why. That makes sense. Wernick is a longtime, respected public servant whose time in government stretches back decades and includes service under Liberal and Conservative prime ministers. And as the chief of the Privy Council Office, which acts as the civil service support organization for the prime minister and cabinet, he would have been a part of discussions about what the attorney general can and cannot do in such matters as a deferred prosecution agreement and, equally, what Trudeau and his office can and cannot ask her to do. So far, nothing to see here.

In the 4th century AD, Aristotle talked about phronesis. It means wisdom, more or less. But the ancient Greek philosopher built out the concept in a particular way, casting it as what we call practical wisdom, or doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons. You might say that practical wisdom is concerned with how to act in good ways. It’s a useful concept and one we’d do well to apply in our personal and professional lives as much as possible. In fact, the health of our democratic institutions and the public sphere might depend on it.

RELATED: As debate darkens, Canada’s top bureaucrat warns of violence

Wernick’s testimony included references to extreme partisanship, the dangers of shouting treason and incitation to violence, and the decline of democratic institutions at home and abroad. He even worried aloud that someone might be shot as aggravating political rhetoric pierces our civic discourse. He’s not wrong. Nor is he a partisan, as some are suggesting, despite unnecessary and over-the-top praise for the current government. Moreover, it seems that his point is that these concerns may be related to the SNC-Lavalin affair through the cynical and hyperbolic politicization of the matter. But here’s where things turn.

To the extent that Canadians are even aware of Wernick and the position of clerk of the Privy Council, they tend to think that the duties of that office should be carried out quietly and without great drama. Ditto for other officials and public servants. Thankfully, in Canada, the public service is professional and it is typically non-partisan. It’s also world-class. But if public servants or officials are in the news, then there’s probably something wrong. The consensus seems to be that we ought to let politicians grandstand, to let members of Parliament be the story, to let the folks we vote for act as our pace cars or guides, and—finally—to let elected representatives be held accountable. Wernick’s testimony seemed to violate that expectation at very much the wrong time, thus adding fuel to what’s already a raging national dumpster fire.

As correct and important as Wernick’s opening statement to the committee and subsequent testimony was, his Cicero act—heavy rhetorical flourishes in the stately spirit of the ancient politician and orator—while both understandable and laudable in its presumed ends, didn’t live up to the standard of practical wisdom that our officials and public servants should keep. What Canadians need right now is facts. Boring. Dry. Plain. Direct. Facts. As much as those in the public spotlight might want to cry, with justification, O tempora o mores! (Oh the times! Oh the customs!) in observation of the SNC-Lavalin mess, a committee investigation into a sensitive and complicated matter is neither the time nor the place. Once more, it isn’t that such observations are wrong; it’s that they’re not helpful and they probably won’t achieve their desired ends—and they risk making matters worse by sowing confusion and misplaced suspicions of partisan motivation that undermine the goals of their speaker.

Even as Wernick spoke, his words were already becoming a Rorschach test for partisans and others following his testimony who saw the worst—or the most tactically advantageous—in what he said. Sadly, that fact is evidence that what he laments is indeed a problem. But wise officials and public servants ought to take a moment to consider the best way for them to support healthier public discourse and a safe and productive public sphere—and that’s by locking it down and choosing their words with extraordinary but essential care.

MORE ABOUT JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD:

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Ottawa Book Expo Author Boot Camp: What’s in it For You?

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Would you love to attend a writers’ book camp? If yes, then check out this upcoming boot camp on meetup.com organized in conjunction with the Ottawa Book Expo. The boot camp seeks to boost the commercial success of authors while providing a convivial atmosphere for social networking among authors. There you would learn what you need to do to boost the sale of your book. The goal of the group asides social networking is to empower authors to make money while also saving money.

What’s in it for you?

Whether you are a new writer who hasn’t published any books yetor you are a veteran writer who has been publishing for decades, a writers boot camp could still be extremely beneficial to you in a couple of ways. There, you would get to meet other writers, you would be motivated to start up your book or continue your writing journey. Ways you can benefit from a writers boot camp include:

  • You get to ask questions and have your questions answered.

The book camp is not just a place to make new friends and link up with old ones; you also get to learn new ideas. You could ask questions about any topic on writing and have these questions answered by professionals. You would also get to see other writers ask their questions, and learn from them. Your questionsare more likely to be answered directly by someone who knows their onion in the field.

  • Network with other writers

At the boot camp, you would get to make friends with other writers who would be in attendance. A lot of writers are introverts who would rather not make small talk; however, you have to remember that putting yourself out there, is what’s going to help you sell your books. You could also come along with a business card that has your name, what kind of author you are, and the links to your social media. Networking with other writers is definitely worth the time and money you’re spending at the Expo.

  • One last thing

There’s no better way to gain some exposure as a writer than starting local. The boot camp would feature experts on all types of writing. This is one of the most efficient ways to connect with other local writers who would are likely to keep in touch with you through social media or in person, you can also connect with your fans and readers who would be likely to purchase your books. If you’re thinking about attending a writers’ festival, start local, with the Ottawa Book Expo.

The event is open to all writers and publishers locally and internationally. The Expo is a grassroots-oriented author, publisher, bookseller and literary services festival which supports authors and publishers who seek to promote marginalized voices such as those of different cultural backgrounds, gender and LGBTQ communities.The Expo would hold at the Horticulture Building in Lansdowne Park on the 20th of October 2019.

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Virtual farmer’s market comes to Ottawa

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Ottawa first-ever virtual farmer’s market has begun delivering food from local farms straight to people’s homes.

Farm to Hand is making it easier for people who cannot access their local farmer’s markets to find local, fresh organic food by bringing ordered food right to their doors. 

“The difference between us and the farmers market is really just the convenience and the on-demandness,” Sean Mallia, the co-founder of the business, told CBC Radio’s In Town and Out.

“[Often times a] person wants to make the purchase but they don’t have the time on Saturdays to go to the farmers market. Everyone wants to eat local … so when it’s easy for them to do it, it just happens.” In Town and Out No time to drive to the farmer’s market but really want to eat local?

Connecting farmers with people 

The online platform allows farmers to list all their own products, and buyers can have the goods delivered. 

“What we really are trying to do is build that connection between farmer and consumer,” Mallia said. “When people fill up a cart … they’re not just filling a cart full of food, they’re filling a cart full of farmers and farms and their stories.”

Mallia said the aim is to connect people to the “vibrant food ecosystem” around them, and to local support farmers.

The virtual market is currently limited to the Ottawa area as a pilot project, but Mallia, 21, said the company is looking to expand.

“[We chose Ottawa because] Ottawa really cares. Ottawa really thinks about local [food] and thinks about sustainability,” he said. “It just made sense to come out of Ottawa.”

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Denley: Stonebridge and Mattamy show compromise is possible over development in Ottawa

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In Ottawa, development proposals too often end up in acrimony and trips to the provincial planning tribunal. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Mattamy Homes and residents of the south Nepean suburb of Stonebridge work together to resolve a dispute in a way that’s likely to lead to a victory for both sides.

A little over a year ago, Mattamy created an uproar in the golf course community when it announced a plan to build 158 new homes on golf course lands and alter the Stonebridge course to make it shorter and less attractive to golfers. To residents, it looked like the first step in a plan to turn most, or all, of the course into housing.

It’s easy to see why residents were upset. When people pay a premium for a lot backing onto a golf course, there is certainly an implication that the lot will continue to back onto a golf course, but without a legally binding guarantee, it’s no sure thing.

Mattamy’s situation was understandable, too. This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive, doubly so when the golf course is owned by a development company.

This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive.

In the face of the local opposition, Mattamy withdrew its development application. When things cooled down, the company, the neighbours and the city started to work together on finding a solution that would satisfy everyone.

With the city-sponsored help of veteran planning consultant Jack Stirling, they came up with an unusual idea that will still let Mattamy develop its desired number of homes, in exchange for a promise to operate the course for at least 10 years and redesign it so that it remains attractive to golfers.

At the end of the 10 years, Mattamy can sell the course to the community for $6 million. To raise the money, the community working group is proposing a special levy to be paid by Stonebridge homeowners starting in 2021. The amount will range from $175 a year to $475 a year, depending on property values.

If the deal is approved by a majority of homeowners, Mattamy gets its development and a way out of the money-losing golf business. Homeowners get certainty about no future development. They can choose to keep the course going or retain the 198 acres as green space. It’s not a cheap solution, but it keeps their community as it is and preserves property values.

If a majority of homeowners backs the deal, both the levy and redevelopment will still need to be approved by the city, something scheduled for late this fall.

Stonebridge Community Association president Jay McLean was part of the working group that prepared the proposal and he’s pleased with the outcome. The community’s number one goal was preserving green space, and the deal will accomplish that, he says. Mattamy division president Kevin O’Shea says the deal “gives the community the certainty they are looking for.”

As useful as this deal could be for Stonebridge residents, it doesn’t provide a template to resolve a somewhat similar dispute in Kanata North, where the owner of the Kanata Lakes golf course wants to work with a group of local developers to replace the course with housing. In Kanata, a longstanding legal agreement saying the community has to have 40 per cent open space strengthens residents’ situation. In Stonebridge, there was no legal impediment to developing the whole course.

Golf course communities have become an anachronism in a city intent on intensifying within the urban boundary. Redeveloping those lands for housing is in sync with the city’s planning goals, but it’s not politically saleable to homeowners who thought they had a deal. If it goes ahead, the Stonebridge plan shows there is a reasonable middle ground.

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