Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sask. Party gov’t sets ‘absolute’ minimum age of employment at 14, CFIB complains it’s not lower; labour shortage main reason for change

Looking out of place dressed in a suit on a hot summer day, Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister Rob Norris was at a Burger Baron restaurant in Regina on July 22 to announce that the province was setting the general minimum age of employment at 16 and the ‘absolute’ minimum age at 14, provided those 14 and 15 year old workers fulfill certain requirements. The only thing missing from the cheesy photo-op were disposable gloves and a hairnet.

(The Burger Baron, by the way, is listed in Saskatchewan Party financial records as having contributed $809.47 to the political party last year.)

“These changes to the minimum age of employment are the result of consultations we conducted with stakeholders and the public,” Norris said in a government news release. “Establishing an absolute minimum age of employment in Saskatchewan will ensure that young peoples’ education is not compromised while at the same time allowing them to gain employment experience.”

The government did not release a report summarizing the feedback it received or identify the stakeholders consulted.

According to the news release 14 and 15 year olds who wish to work are subject to the following restrictions:

– obtain the consent of their parent or guardian;

– complete a certificate focusing on occupational health and safety and employment standards;

– not work after 10 p.m. on a day preceding a school day or before the time that school starts on any school day; and

– work no more than a maximum of 16 hours of work during a school week.

Prior to this, only five sectors had a minimum age of employment: hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes.

On December 23, 2008, the government announced that the minimum age of employment in these sectors would be lowered in mid-January from 16 to 15 – with the stipulation that 15 year olds could not work more than 16 hours per week.

That restriction was reviewed in May 2009, following a consultation process which began in January.

The December decision was made without public debate or discussion continuing the Saskatchewan Party government’s backward tradition of announcing changes first then seeking input later. The tactic was used to introduce essential services legislation and make amendments to The Trade Union Act and more recently The Construction Industry Labour Relations Act.

In June, Norris was recognized as one of Premier Brad Wall’s worst cabinet minister’s. Leader-Post political columnist Murray Mandryk slapped the minister with a D grade in his annual cabinet report card saying Norris “was supposed to put a more reasoned, intelligent face on the government. Well, relations with labour are still bad (or worse than expected) and it’s because of unfavourable legislation. Part of it is because of a minister who still neither communicates nor listens particularly well.” [Grading the Class of ’09 (Leader-Post, June 27, 2009)]

Mandryk said labour is “critical to the government right now,” which is probably why Norris kept his job following Wall’s cabinet shuffle in May. Replacing him would admit mistakes were made and that’s something the premier won’t do on this particular file. Wall clearly despises labour. When he was the leader of the opposition he once said on a local talk radio show that he was willing to go to “war with unions.”

On January 23, when the government launched consultations on an absolute minimum age of employment in Saskatchewan, Norris said in a news release that “our highest priorities are the health and safety, education and overall well-being of Saskatchewan young people.”

A discussion paper accompanying the news release notes: “In 2007, 740 young people 17 years of age and under experienced workplace injuries.” In 2008, the total was 780.

In fact, according to Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board statistics, injuries in this age group have risen each year since 2003 and have doubled since 2001, when a low of 368 was reported. The Wall government’s opening of the flood gates to allow more young teens into the workforce will more than likely lead to even higher injury numbers.

One thing the media did not report about the new regulations is that according to a government fact sheet released on July 22: “The hours of work restrictions do not apply during school holidays. As a result, during holidays, 14 and 15 year olds can work the same hours as other people in the workforce.”

This means that for at least two months during the summer young workers can be exploited by employers to the fullest extent. Presumably, it also means that the hours of work restriction won’t apply during the spring and Christmas breaks either.

How about statutory holidays that fall during a school week? Will any time worked on those days count towards the maximum 16 hours that a young person can work per week?

What if, for whatever reason, a 14 or 15 year old is not attending school, would only two of the four restrictions then apply (i.e. must have parental consent; and, complete a certificate program)?

In the article Sask. sets new labour rules (Leader-Post, July 23, 2009) Norris said the new changes will allow for a balance between success in school, workplace safety, and gaining employment experience. What he failed to mention is that the changes will also fill gaps in the labour market, which is what he told the public in December.

This, more than anything else, is the reason for the changes. This fact was made clear by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in its submission to Norris’s ministry during the minimum age of employment consultation process.

In a letter dated May 1 to the then AEEL deputy minister, Wynne Young, Marilyn Braun-Pollon, Saskatchewan vice-president of the CFIB, said, “While CFIB agrees work safety and a focus on education is extremely important, we believe it is also important to provide young people with opportunities to gain valuable work experience.

“It is our understanding that an absolute minimum age of employment exists in other jurisdictions under specific conditions: Alberta – 12 years of age; Manitoba – 12 years of age except in special circumstances; British Columbia – 12 years of age except with Director’s permission.”

Braun-Pollon told Young that 76 per cent of CFIB Saskatchewan members surveyed “agreed youth between the ages of 12 and 14 who wish to work should be required to provide proof of parental permission and complete an employment readiness program prior to being eligible for employment.”

“Given these results, CFIB believes changes are required to help address the continued labour shortages experienced by Saskatchewan employers across the province. Positive economic growth in Saskatchewan has brought new challenges, such as the growing concern over the shortage of qualified labour. In fact, the number of members identifying labour shortages as a concern has increased 53 per cent in the last six years, from 43 per cent in 2002 to 66 per cent today. Our demographics suggest the shortage of qualified labour is a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon,” she said.

“The long-term vacancy rate among Canada’s small businesses also continues to grow with Saskatchewan reporting the highest rate in 2007, taking the lead from Alberta. CFIB estimates 18,000 of these unfilled positions in small- and medium-sized firms were in Saskatchewan. By sector, the hospitality sector had the second highest long-term vacancy rate in Saskatchewan.”

What better way to address the problem than with kids just out of public school who likely lack the capacity to question authority and assert their rights.

The CFIB’s claim that it “agrees with the provincial government that the highest priorities, when reviewing the minimum age of employment, must be the health and safety, education and overall well-being of Saskatchewan young people” sounds just as phony as Norris’s spiel.

In fact, following the minister’s announcement on July 22, Braun-Pollon complained that the changes ‘aren’t in line with the other prairie provinces, where there are established parameters for 12-to-14-year olds to work.’ [Sask. sets new labour rules (Leader-Post, July 23, 2009)]

None of the government’s news releases on the subject give clear reasons why the changes are necessary. Fortunately, because of a freedom of information request to Enterprise Saskatchewan earlier this year, one document has been disclosed that provides this information.

The Regulatory Modernization Council (RMC), at its March 6, 2009, meeting, received a copy of a PowerPoint presentation by AEEL on the consultations for minimum age regulations. One of the slides titled ‘Why Change? gives the following reasons:

– Response to feedback from employers and workers
– Saskatchewan’s talent challenge or labour shortage
– Out-of-step with other provinces and territories in Canada

(It should be noted that Braun-Pollon serves on the RMC, which the government established on September 17, 2008. The RMC is mandated to recommend regulatory reform and business services priorities and forward them to the Enterprise Saskatchewan Board.)

The first reason requires further clarification. Which specific employers and workers is the government referring to and under what circumstances was the ‘feedback’ obtained? Was it in response to the consultations that were underway at the time or was it received prior to the changes that were announced in December 2008?

The third reason is a red herring and should be eliminated right off the bat. The Wall government has not provided any evidence to show that the province’s competitiveness is suffering greatly by not having a general or ‘absolute’ minimum age of employment for all sectors. It’s not as if hordes of Saskatchewan families are packing up and moving to Alberta, Manitoba or British Columbia because their 12 and 13 year old children can’t work in burger joints and retail stores here.

That leaves one reason for the new regulations: labour shortage.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mendel expansion and renovation ‘worthy and important’: Atchison & Knight; Infrastructure Canada violates federal law; MVA won’t release CEO reports

The expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery is a “worthy and important project” that “will be successful.” That’s what Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight told Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport (TPCS) Minister Christine Tell in a letter dated January 8, 2009.

Signed by Atchison and Knight and sent on the mayor’s letterhead, the letter is the most convincing evidence yet that there is nothing wrong with the gallery’s long-held renovation plans.

However, at a press conference just twelve weeks later on April 3, 2009, Atchison and Knight announced plans to change the gallery’s name and move it to a proposed new $55 million building to be located at River Landing. The expansion and renovation of the current facility would be abandoned. One reason given for the sudden change in direction was that both the city and art gallery had somehow, almost overnight, outgrown those plans. This ignores the fact that the city’s 2009 capital budget, which was approved December 15, 2008, states, “The Mendel’s ten-year capital plan addresses both the existing facility needs and the required capacity to see it through the next 30 to 40 years of operation.”

In the letter to Tell, which was obtained from TPCS under the province’s freedom of information legislation, Atchison and Knight requested a one year extension of the existing Building Communities Program agreement between the province and the Mendel for the gallery’s renovation and expansion project.

The letter states that the agreement includes “a provision that funds provided become immediately repayable by the Recipient if “construction contract award and/or project construction does not occur or begin before April 1, 2009.””

Atchison and Knight asked for an extension of the deadline to April 1, 2010.

“While we are confident that this worthy and important project will be successful, it is clear that the contract deadline cannot be met and it is for this reason that a one-year extension is requested,” they said.

The letter is also important because it confirms that the $4,092,877 the city received from the province on July 18, 2007, was specifically for the expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery and not for a new gallery to be located at River Landing.

Gerald Beaton, a senior policy analyst with TCPS, responded to the request for an extension with an email to Mendel executive director Vincent Varga on February 13, 2009, asking for more information.

“In order to allow us to review this request based on the best information available, we would like to get a current project status update. I’ve therefore attached a form that I’d ask you to complete and return to me. This will help us better understand the status of your project and the most likely scenario in terms of how it will proceed.

Once this is done, we will review the information and proceed accordingly,” Beaton said.

Varga replied shortly after saying the Mendel would respond to the request as soon as possible.

On the morning of April 20, 2009, TPCS received a phone call from Atchison’s office concerned that the city hadn’t received a reply to the January 8 letter to Minister Tell.

Later that day Beaton sent an email to TPCS assistant deputy minister Scott Langen outlining a proposed response to the city. Beaton also provided Langen with a “summary of events for TPCS background information only.”

“We did receive the January 8, 2009 letter from Mayor Donald Atchison and Dr. Arthur Knight requesting a contract extension,” Beaton said.

“On February 13, 2009, after discussion with Howard Janzen of the Mendel, we contacted the Mendel (Vincent Varga & Howard Janzen) and copied Art Knight, asking them to provide a project update that would allow to better understand their project and determine the best course of action.

“On March 24, 2009, TPCS received this information (dated March 16, 2009).

“On March 27, 2009, Mendel clarified one item from March 24 package. No mention was made of the newly proposed Art Gallery of Saskatchewan project in the project update received.”

Unfortunately, the next two paragraphs of Beaton’s email were blacked out by TPCS officials.

It almost seems as if the city and Mendel management were moving on two fronts simultaneously: the expansion and renovation plans; and, the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

In the article New canvas for gallery (StarPhoenix, Apr. 4, 2009) it was reported that the Mendel board of trustees on March 14, 2009, “approved in principle” pursuing the construction of a new art gallery at River Landing. It appears this important information was omitted from the project update that Mendel management sent to TPCS on March 16 and March 27, 2009. It begs the question, why did Mendel management not want to talk about the new gallery with TPCS officials?

Another week went by before TPCS finally responded to Atchison and Knight’s January 8 request for an extension.

In a letter to Mendel board chair Art Knight dated April 28, 2009, TPCS deputy minister Scott Langen officially acknowledges that “the public ceremony on April 3, 2009 announcing the city’s intention to pursue the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan at River Landing has put the status of the original project in question.”

Langen continues: “The existing BCP contract does not explicitly end on April 1, 2009; rather, it provides the ministry the ability to, ‘at its option’, have funds returned if the contract award and/or project construction does not occur or begin before April 1, 2009. At this time, the ministry does not intend to exercise its option to have these funds returned.

“Given the current status of the potential Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, TPCS will wait until further information is received regarding the direction and financial status of the Mendel Art Gallery project before pursuing any potential amendments or formal extension to the existing contract.”

Langen’s non-committal tone seems to be at odds with an undated briefing note prepared for Minister Tell outlining the ministry’s “Key Messages” on the proposed new art gallery.

The briefing note, released by TPCS under an earlier freedom of information request, states: “The Government of Saskatchewan appreciates the long-standing need for better facilities for Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery and sees the advantages of this proposal to build a new permanent home for the gallery.”

As of July 20, 2009, neither the ministry nor the city has publicly stated whether the Building Communities Program agreement will be amended or extended.

Beaton’s emails and the Atchison-Knight and Langen letters described above are the extent of the records that were disclosed by TPCS in response to an access to information request submitted to the ministry on May 1, 2009.

On July 7, 2009, TPCS advised further that four records totaling approximately 17-pages are being withheld from release in their entirety.

The refusal by the Mendel, the city, and the provincial government to release critical information is creating a situation where it’s becoming difficult, if not impossible, to piece together a complete picture of this ugly and disturbing story.

Then there is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about: the federal government. As the biggest potential funding source federal officials have not said one word publicly on the subject. In fact, one department’s silence has already broken the law.

On April 15, 2009, an access to information request was submitted to Infrastructure Canada (IC) for copies of any records from January 1, 2009, to April 15, 2009, regarding or relating to the Mendel Art Gallery. IC received the request on April 23, 2009.

On May 15, 2009, IC advised that a 30-day extension was applied to the request in order to conduct external consultations. Under federal law IC had until June 23, 2009, to complete the request. As of July 20, 2009, that requirement has not been met. IC has broken the law but does not seem to care. Several attempts have been made to ascertain the status of the request but the only response from the department was on July 3, 2009, when IC’s access to information and privacy coordinator, Sylvie Plourde, said in an email that the request was “in the final approval process stage and hopefully will be completed shortly.” That was nearly three weeks ago.

A similar request was sent to Canadian Heritage on June 24, 2009. The department received the request on June 29, 2009. There has been no further response.

It’s interesting to note that another request made to TPCS in June has yielded a copy of a third-party notification letter sent by the City of Saskatoon to TPCS deputy minister S.P. Isman asking that a letter from Mayor Atchison to Minister Tell “not be released.”

In the letter dated May 7, 2009, the city argues that releasing the correspondence “could jeopardize on-going negotiations with the Provincial and Federal Governments regarding funding for the proposed Art Gallery of Saskatchewan on River Landing. Once discussions are finished, and a decision made regarding funding, (which will likely occur before the end of June) we would have no problem in releasing this document.”

The record in question appears to be a March 18, 2009, letter from Atchison to Tell summarizing information regarding the proposed new gallery. TPCS is refusing to release the letter.

What’s interesting is the stunning revelation that the city was expecting a federal funding decision by the end of June! Nearly three weeks into July, however, no announcements have been made. This could be the reason why Infrastructure Canada is stalling on finalizing the aforementioned freedom of information request.

But that’s not all. There’s another player in this sorry tale that is refusing to disclose various records as well.

On June 16, 2009, an access to information request was made to the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) for copies of CEO Susan Lamb’s reports to the board for its April 3 and May 1, 2009, meetings. The request also asked for copies of any correspondence between Meewasin and the federal government from April 5, 2009, to June 16, 2009, regarding or relating to the options being considered for a new MVA centre, including the Mendel Art Gallery site.

On July 16, 2009, Meewasin advised that access to Lamb’s reports was denied. The two records total 17-pages of information. According to the minutes of the April & May MVA board meetings the Mendel issue was discussed at both.

As for the correspondence between Meewasin and the federal government two records were disclosed: an April 6, 2009, email from the MVA to Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) advising that the Meewasin board had decided to investigate the option “of renovating the Mendel Art Gallery” for a new Meewasin Valley Centre; and an April 9, 2009, letter from WD Minister Lynne Yelich to CEO Susan Lamb concerning the eligibility of the MVA project to renovate its current building under the Building Canada Plan.

On July 16, 2009, Meewasin’s director of operations, Gwen Charman, confirmed that there was no correspondence between the MVA and the federal government from April 10, 2009, to June 16, 2009, on the issue.

“As we reported to the media at the time, Meewasin did preliminary investigations on the feasibility of a Mendel option, which turned out favourably in terms of the capacity of that building to meet Meewasin program requirements. We have not made further application to the federal government in that regard. It is my understanding, as a staff person here, that it is premature for Meewasin to pursue the Mendel site option further until the Mendel makes its own decisions about the building they now occupy. To date the Mendel announced a project in progress to move out of that building, but there are still many additional decisions required by the Mendel and the City before the old Mendel building would actually be available to Meewasin,” Charman said in an email.

The Mendel, the city, and the provincial and federal governments are remaining silent about the project. The strategy has and continues to be near total secrecy. One thing is certain, though. And that is the public is being asked to believe the Mendel’s long-standing expansion and renovation plans are no good, when in fact both the mayor and board chair said just three months ago it’s a “worthy and important project” that “will be successful.” It’s time for the parties involved to stop playing politics and get the Mendel project going.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wall’s pursuit of nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes sidesteps public consultation process; ES officials reviewing submissions, not Perrins

Premier Brad Wall’s announcement on July 8, 2009, that the Saskatchewan Party government and the University of Saskatchewan have formed a partnership to pursue and fast track bringing a nuclear research reactor that will produce medical isotopes to Saskatoon has effectively bankrupt the future of uranium in Saskatchewan public consultations process currently underway of any remaining credibility.

For the past month Wall has been shamelessly using the power of his position, and the current shortage of medical isotopes, to promote and justify submitting a proposal to the federal government before the consultation process is completed.

The premier is also continuing to peddle the false notion that his party campaigned on adding value (i.e. nuclear power) to the uranium the province produces.

The story begins on May 28, 2009, when Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that the Government of Canada was establishing an expert panel to review proposals from the private and public sectors for new sources of key medical isotopes for Canada. Proposals will be accepted until July 31, 2009 and the Expert Review Panel will produce a final report for the Minister of Natural Resources by November 30, 2009.

The federal government said in a backgrounder that it had “received a number of ideas from the private sector, universities and research organizations concerning alternative production of key isotopes for the Canadian market over the longer term. Some of the ideas put forward, if fully developed, could provide a basis for longer term supply.” The document doesn’t say whether any of those ideas came from Saskatchewan.

It should be noted that CBC News reported on July 8, 2009, that Richard Florizone, a vice-president of the University of Saskatchewan, said that the institution has been examining the feasibility of building a research reactor for the past year. [Saskatchewan to make federal bid for isotope facility, premier confirms (CBC News, July 8, 2009)]

Florizone was also the chair of the pro-nuclear Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) that the Wall government appointed to identify, evaluate and make recommendations on Saskatchewan-based, value added opportunities in the uranium industry. The panel’s report, Capturing the full potential of the uranium value chain in Saskatchewan, concluded that, “Although medical isotope production provides an attractive source of revenue for a research reactor, the economics of a stand-alone isotope reactor are not attractive.”

However, recommendation number 20 states that the province should: “Partner with the Federal Government to pursue the construction of a research reactor in the Province as a complement to synergies with existing research infrastructure and capabilities, and to better position the Province to participate in multiple areas of study. Pursue medical isotope production as part of the reactor’s mandate.” How convenient for Florizone and the U of S!

The optics got even worse on July 9, 2009, when The StarPhoenix reported that the research reactor working group formed by the government, the university and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency is being co-chaired by Florizone and Crown Investments Corporation vice-president and longtime Saskatchewan Party insider Iain Harry. [Reactor partnership reached (StarPhoenix, July 9, 2009)]

The federal lobbyists’ registry in Ottawa shows University of Saskatchewan president Peter Mackinnon to be one of the more active lobbyists having met or communicated with various federal officials, including the prime minister, 57 times from January 13, 2009, to June 25, 2009.

On June 10, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a news conference that Canada was abandoning the isotope business. Harper said the government would keep the problem plagued Chalk River reactor, closed since May 14, operating until 2016 when “other sources of the isotopes around the world come online.” [Canada to get out of isotope business, PM says (Globe and Mail, June 11, 2009)]

It was at this point Wall began hinting at the role Saskatchewan could play in addressing the medical isotope shortage.

In the article Wall eyes role for Sask. in nuclear medicine (StarPhoenix, June 12, 2009) the premier said the province could “provide real answers to the world on the medical isotopes issue.”

“I’m waiting to hear from the Saskatchewan people, but I would say I have an interest in it, very much so,” Wall told reporters at a press conference on June 11, 2009.

“I’m not going to preclude what we hear from the people of this province and from (consultation chair Dan) Perrins and from the process we have with the Uranium Development Partnership,” said Wall.

“It is the view of the government, not to the exclusion of the input we’ll receive, but it is the view of the government -- we campaigned on the view -- that we should add value to the uranium at some level.”

Wall’s claim that the Saskatchewan Party campaigned “on the view” appears to be false. The party’s 2007 election platform states on page 18 that “Enterprise Saskatchewan will act as the lead agency for enhancing the value-added potential of Saskatchewan’s natural resources. Enterprise Saskatchewan will… Explore and identify uranium value-added opportunities.” That’s it, nothing more.

The platform does not mention nuclear reactors, the storage of nuclear waste or medical isotopes. Furthermore, a search of The StarPhoenix and Leader-Post archive shows that during the 2007 election Wall did not once mention any of these things. No articles could be found. The same goes for Saskatchewan Party news releases.

Wall has been peddling this nonsense since December 2007 when the aging Chalk River reactor was in the news then, too.

In the article Nuclear medicine tests a go (StarPhoenix, Dec. 8, 2007) Wall said he was mulling whether Saskatchewan should have its own nuclear reactor.

“Right now the country is talking about what's happening in Chalk River, and I know there is some capacity there with two other AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada) facilities,” Wall said. “The world will need more medical isotopes in the future, not less. So would the government of Saskatchewan, this new government of Saskatchewan, be interested in the (research and development) side of nuclear medicine, of the potential of a research reactor? Yes we would be.”

He said Saskatchewan is fortunate to house the head office of Cameco Corp. and have Areva’s largest presence in Canada. (Both companies were represented on the UDP).

“There are some opportunities here, I think, to work with those companies and other interests to see how we can fully develop the uranium value-added chain within the context of what we have talked about in policy and in the campaign,” Wall said.

Wall’s plans appear to have laid dormant until the recent isotope crisis and the federal government’s request for proposals, which seem to be providing the premier with an adequate cover story to deflect criticisms that he’s sidestepping the consultations process.

On June 20, 2009, the Globe and Mail published a story quoting Wall as saying he wants to launch a full-speed effort to build a research reactor within two to three years, likely at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. He said it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and that the province would pay part of it.

Wall said he discussed the issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but that the federal government has not yet made any commitments. The date of the conversation was not given.

The article notes, “Wall is looking to act quickly on a research reactor: A final decision will come as soon as August, after consultation with the public. He stressed that public reaction will be key to how he proceeds. But he said he believes there is more support for nuclear power in Saskatchewan than in other jurisdictions, in part because uranium mining has created some familiarity with the nuclear industry.” [Premier wants isotopes reactor in Prairies (Globe and Mail, June 20, 2009)]

On June 22, 2009, Wall added a new level of absurdity to the situation suggesting that the province could always withdraw any proposal submitted if the public doesn’t support it.

In a telephone interview with The StarPhoenix the premier said, “The challenge that we have is the federal government’s terms of reference for this review, or for (accepting) some proposals on isotopes, takes us to about the end of July so we may be in the position of presenting a ‘subject to’ proposal -- subject to the people’s input.” [Wall will listen first on isotopes (StarPhoenix, June 23, 2009)]

On July 8, 2009, Wall told reporters that “We can always opt out of the process,” adding that he believed there was an opportunity for Saskatchewan to take a leading role in nuclear medicine. “I think Saskatchewan should be exploring the opportunity to be a leader, a world leader.” [Saskatchewan to make federal bid for isotope facility, premier confirms (CBC News, July 8, 2009)]

Thus far Wall has failed to state categorically that the province will withdraw any proposal submitted if the public does not support the building of a nuclear reactor regardless of what it’s used for.

The premier’s comments over the past month raise a few questions:

– Why was the possibility of a proposal not revealed earlier? Clearly, the government and U of S have been working on this issue for some time.

– Will Wall let the public see the complete proposal after it is submitted, or is going to make excuses on why it can’t be released?

– Does Wall think the people of Saskatchewan are dumb enough to believe the government would actually withdraw a proposal after spending so much time working on it behind closed doors with the U of S?

– Would the federal government take seriously a proposal that comes with a warning saying it might be pulled off the table?

Finally, what effect will the premier’s current behaviour have on the outcome of the public consultations process? Will it skew the results? The deadline for individual and stakeholder submissions for that process is also July 31.

One thing the public does not realize is that Perrins might not be personally reading everything sent to him.

According to a May 25, 2009, briefing note obtained from Enterprise Saskatchewan under the province’s freedom of information legislation, three officials from Enterprise Saskatchewan are assigned to work with Mr. Perrins on a full-time basis. Two of the individuals “manage all the input that is received from the public via phone, e-mail and letters” and report “to Mr. Perrins on a weekly basis on what the people of Saskatchewan are saying in their correspondence about the UDP report and any future uranium development in Saskatchewan.”

This could mean that what Perrins has been getting each week is the Readers Digest version of what’s been said. It will be difficult to know if he’s being told everything.

The public wasn’t told that the job of reading and/or summarizing the submissions would be delegated to government officials. This could come back to haunt Perrins and the Wall government if complaints start coming in after the final report is released from people that don’t see their comments included.

The names of the people helping Perrins have not been revealed.

One thing is for sure, though, Premier Brad Wall’s shameless end run around the consultations process has made the whole exercise twice the sham than it already is.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty shill for new right wing think tank the Macdonald-Laurier Institute; Brian Lee Crowley paid $17,524 for roundtable work

The last thing Canada needs is yet another right-wing think tank spewing propaganda supporting more damaging tax cuts, smaller government, fewer unions, deregulation and privatization.

But there was Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last month using his office to shill for Brian Lee Crowley — currently the president of the far right public policy think tank Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) — and his latest endeavour, a conservative think tank in the nation’s capital called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

The Globe and Mail reported that Flaherty hosted a private dinner at the exclusive Albany Club in Toronto on June 19 to “raise support” for Crowley’s new venture.

In the article Flaherty a big fan of a new think tank (Globe and Mail, June 18, 2009) Crowley said he hopes to launch the Ottawa-based organization in the fall and has already raised $1-million.

Flaherty reportedly circulated a letter inviting rich Bay Street types to the event saying he was giving it “my personal backing… and I hope that you will consider doing the same.” The minister said bringing change to Ottawa is difficult.

“There are powerful actors in Ottawa, within the civil service, Parliament, the media and in many non-governmental organizations, that actively resist progress. ... Although I have always felt very well supported by friends and colleagues, I have clearly felt the need for independent research, support and promotion of these ideals,” which, The Globe notes, he enumerates as smaller government, lower taxes and greater personal responsibility.

Flaherty continues: “That is why I strongly support Brian Crowley’s project to create a national, non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa.”

The minister concludes his pitch to potential backers of the new think tank by saying: “I’d like to see him return with a strong, independent and well-financed organization behind him to help transform Ottawa for the better, regardless of who is in power. This important national initiative deserves to succeed. Please join me in ensuring that it does. My office will follow up with you.”

This certainly sounds like the finance minister using his office to fund raise for Crowley’s new project.

It’s interesting to note that the Albany Club, founded in 1882, bills itself as “the last political club in Canada” and “the secret to its longevity lies in its Conservative roots.”

“The Club’s history,” the website states “is reflected not just in its building and archives, but in many events. The contributions of past and current members starting with founding member Sir John A. Macdonald and including each subsequent Conservative Prime Minister are celebrated within the walls of the Club.”

The Albany Club is affiliated with over 90 private clubs around the world including the Calgary Petroleum Club and Saskatoon Club.

On November 7, 2006, Rob Wright, Deputy Minister of Finance, announced that Crowley had been appointed the 2006-2007 Clifford Clark Visiting Economist in the Department of Finance.

The post, established in 1983, honours the late Dr. Clifford Clark, who served as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1932 until his death in 1952. Occupants of the position advise the Department on emerging economic issues and take part in policy development at the highest level. They are recruited from the ranks of prominent Canadian professionals who deal with economic, financial and monetary issues in the business and academic communities, the Finance Department news release said.

Crowley, by the way, appears to be a steady contributor to the Conservative Party of Canada. According to the party’s financial records filed with Elections Canada the right-wing economist has donated at least $3,892.89 since 2004.

Crowley’s stint with the Finance Department ended last spring. A Mar. 20, 2008, AIMS news release announced his return to the think tank noting, “During his time in Ottawa, Crowley worked on a broad range of policy files and redesigned the pre-budget consultation process.”

Corporations Canada records show that the Macdonald-Laurier Institute was incorporated under the Canada Corporations Act - Part II on March 12, 2007. The directors at the time of incorporation or as indicated on the last annual summary as of March 31 of the year of filing were: Brian Lee Crowley, David McD. Mann, and Allan Gotlieb.

Mann is counsel for the Halifax law firm Cox & Palmer. Gotlieb was Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1981 to 1989. He is also the current chairman of the Donner Canadian Foundation which donated $48,000 last year to Crowley’s new think tank.

It’s obvious that during his time with the Finance Department, Crowley was busy setting up the new organization. And it wasn’t long before he was back working for the Harper government.

Records obtained from Finance Canada under freedom of information legislation show that Crowley played a significant role in the pre-budget consultation process leading up to the federal budget that was tabled on January 27, 2009.

In late 2008, Finance Canada contracted BCSG Enterprises Ltd., a company owned by Crowley, to assist in the 2008-09 pre-budget consultations. The term of the agreement was from November 26, 2008, to March 31, 2009.

The Statement of Work indicates that the department was “seeking the services of an individual to act as an advisor and moderator for a series of six pre-budget consultations roundtables that the Minister of Finance will be hosting between the month of December 2008 and mid-February 2009.”

The advisor/moderator was expected to perform the following tasks:

– In consultations with the Department and the Minister’s Office, provide advice on roundtable participants and event organization;

– Supplement departmental efforts in recruiting participants;

– Moderate six pre-budget roundtables, in the presence of the Minister and departmental senior officials.

“The individual must be fully conversant with the government’s economic and fiscal priorities, as well with the wide range of policy issues to be discussed at these roundtables. He/she must also possess a thorough knowledge of the key stakeholder organizations across the country, in addition to having the ability to facilitate a budget policy trade-off exercise, in both official languages,” the document states.

The proposal submitted by Crowley’s company notes that roundtables “will be modeled on the 2007-08 PBC process, and will involve five national roundtables to be held in Victoria, Saskatoon, Thornhill, Montreal and Saint John, NB, with a national wrap-up roundtable to be held in Ottawa.” The total cost of the project was pegged at $24,831.00.

An invoice dated January 24, 2009, was submitted by BCSG to Finance Canada in the amount of $16,611.00. According to an April 7, 2009, email from David Gamble, the director of Finance Canada’s public affairs and operations division, Crowley’s total actual expenses was $17,524.37. Gamble said Crowley “was heavily involved in the organization of the pre-budget consultations meetings” and “very hands on.”

It’s interesting to note that Crowley’s invoice shows that his services also included the invitation lists and preparing the questions to be asked at the pre-budget consultation roundtables.

The summary reports prepared by Finance Canada for the five national roundtables show that participants at the discussions were asked to debate two questions and provide the Minister with their top five priorities for Budget 2009. Additionally, they were asked to consider which of the five priorities would provide the most effective stimulus. The two questions, presumably Crowley’s, were:

1) What would provide the most effective and immediate stimulus to the economy? How would you rank and give suggestions on the following areas in terms of priority for the Government providing a stimulus:

– Access to credit
– Investing in the housing market
– Accelerating infrastructure spending
– Strong sustainable labour markets and training initiatives
– Traditional and emerging industrial sectors

2) Beyond the question of short-term stimulus, what steps should the Government take to ensure that the Canadian economy remains internationally competitive, continues to attract investment and create jobs?

The structure of the first question makes it clear that Crowley and the government’s objective was to try and frame the discussion around the fives pre-determined areas of priority. The summary reports though seems to show that this strategy wasn’t overly successful as the recommendations from participants at the meetings often went beyond what the Harper government seemed willing to consider.

A good example of this was the closed-door roundtable in Saskatoon on December 18, 2008. Some of the recommendations from that meeting included:

– Be cautious about further subsidizing the oil sands sector;

– Social housing needs to be a priority and aboriginal housing should be part of the stimulus;

– Keep people on EI, to allow them to keep their jobs. Supplement EI for part of their week;

– Implement micro-financing (re: Winnipeg has a poverty reduction council);

– Provide stress-relief for civil servants;

– Encourage bio-fuel development as an alternative to fossil fuels;

– Invest in solar energy (i.e. Germany is the world-leader of solar energy) and make people aware of renewable energy;

– Provide multi-year funding for the non-profit sector, a sector that is important to the entire economy.

Incidentally, the controversial subject of spending billions of dollars on nuclear reactors or nuclear waste storage facilities apparently wasn’t mentioned.

In the end the federal government was really only interested in seeing how roundtable participants ranked the list of pre-determined priorities they were given.

“When asked to rank their number one priority from the list of five in Question 1, participants voted 12 for access to credit and 12 for infrastructure spending (tally confirmed by Ted Menzies),” the summary report states.

Canadians should be concerned that its federal budget consultation process was essentially turned over to the head of an unaccountable right-wing think tank; and that the finance minister, perhaps the second most powerful position in the government, is openly using his office to promote and drum up support for a new organization that will no doubt espouse the same right-wing economic policies that the Conservative government still hold dear.

Friday, July 03, 2009

River Landing Village: Delays and excuses continue as Lake Placid Developments (Saskatchewan) Inc. granted one-year extension

It was on September 4, 2007, that the city announced it had received a request for proposal submission from Lake Placid Investments Inc. for Parcel “Y” at River Landing. The $200-million plus hotel, condo, retail and office project was approved by city council at its meeting on September 17, 2007. Twenty-two months later and the developer still haven’t broken ground.

On January 19, 2009, Lake Placid missed a deadline to purchase the site. According to The StarPhoenix the company had until then to pay the $4.55 million outstanding for the city-owned site. Lake Placid made two down payments totalling $250,000 late last year.

The sale agreement between the city and Lake Placid allows for the developer to delay the purchase as long as it pays interest, which the company has agreed to do.

Richard Lobsinger, vice-president of sales for Lake Placid, said at the time that the delay was due to over-consolidating five separate land titles for the property. Once the company has the consolidated title, it can close its purchase of the land, he said.

Chris Dekker, then the city’s manager of special projects, said in the article that the developer has an excavation permit but isn’t allowed to do any work until it completes the site purchase. Financing was not yet officially in place.

The city’s manager of building standards, Bob Baran, has estimated digging up the site will take four to six months. But Lobsinger said work would start in spring and be complete by the deadline. [Lake Placid misses purchase deadline (StarPhoenix, Jan. 20, 2009)]

Lake Placid
had until June 30, 2009, to complete the excavation but missed that deadline, too.

In a letter dated June 15, 2009, to city manager Murray Totland, the solicitors for Lake Placid Developments (Saskatchewan) Inc. requested an extension of the time limit for completion of the excavation required for the development.

“Due to the various delays encountered to date, including the required amendments to the appropriate provincial legislation which was needed to facilitate the project, the commencement of construction has been delayed from that contemplated in the initial plans of our client and it is impossible to meet the specified deadline. Accordingly, we would request an extension of this deadline from the specified date to June 30, 2010 for completion of excavation. That time frame will provide our client with sufficient time to commence the work shortly and complete the work through the winter season. This should provide a sufficient buffer to deal with the usual weather related delays,” said William J. Shaw, a partner with McDougall Gauley LLP in Saskatoon.

In a report to city council on June 22, 2009, Totland recommended “that the time limit for completion of the Construction Requirement in the Sale Agreement for Parcel “Y”, River Landing Phase I, be extended to June 30, 2010 provided that payment in full for Parcel “Y “is received no later than 5:00 p.m., Monday, August 17, 2009.”

Totland noted that Lake Placid “has agreed” to the purchase deadline. He said the legislative amendments in question are changes to The Condominium Property Act and The Land Titles Act, 2000 which were required to allow multiple condominium corporations on the site.

“As of the date of this report, payment of the balance due under the Sale Agreement for Parcel “Y” has not been received. Interest is accruing on the balance pursuant to the provisions of the Agreement,” he said.

Mayor Don Atchison told The StarPhoenix in March that the developer has assured city administration it has financing in place for the project and is awaiting the change in legislation. [Construction delay (StarPhoenix, March 12, 2009)]

Neither Lake Placid’s letter nor Totland’s report mentions the status of the financing or gives a date when construction might start. The city manager didn’t say what will happen if the August deadline is missed.

Lake Placid said work will commence “shortly” and the city says excavation can take as little as four months to complete so it’s puzzling why the developer requested another year to get it done. Even if digging started August 1 it should finish by November or December. The story doesn’t seem to make sense.

Then again just because a developer purchases land doesn’t mean something will get built. The previous developer that owned the site, Remai Ventures Inc., pulled the plug on its plans in February 2007 due to high costs and the shortage of skilled labour. The City eventually purchased back the land.

The two pieces of legislation Lake Placid was waiting on were passed by the provincial government a few months ago.

Crown Corporations Minister Ken Cheveldayoff introduced The Land Titles Amendment Act in the legislature on November 13, 2008. The bill was passed April 1, 2009.

The Condominium Property Amendment Act, 2009 was introduced on April 28, 2009, by Justice Minister Don Morgan and was passed on April 29, 2009. Both bills received royal assent on May 14, 2009.

The following week Lake Placid sent out invitations for a groundbreaking ceremony to be held at the site on May 26 at 11:30 a.m. It was cancelled a few days later.

On May 22, a Saskatoon resident with the username ‘Jerry’ posted a message at an online community called SkyscraperPage Forum with information that apparently came from Lake Placid explaining why the ceremony was called off:

“We have decided to postpone the ground breaking ceremony for a short period of time. Given the scale of this event, we were unable to coordinate the various schedules of dignitaries that we believe are critical to this project. Lake Placid believes that it is important that all of those people that have assisted in the approval in this project, allowing it to become a reality, should be in attendance and that we should celebrate in this achievement together. We thank you for your patience and look forward to rescheduling this event in the coming weeks.”

As excuses go this one seems bizarre. Why on earth would the developer send out invitations if it didn’t have everything organized?

The list of dignitaries should be a short one. Only two governing bodies were involved in approving the project – city council and the Meewasin Valley Authority. At most only Mayor Don Atchison and the Meewasin board chair should be present at any ground breaking ceremony. This is likely too much to ask though. You can bet there will be a long line of people looking to shamelessly weasel their way into this photo-op. The list includes federal Conservative MPs, Saskatchewan Party MLAs, and so-called local business leaders.

Lake Placid said the postponement would be for a “short period of time.” That was five weeks ago. What’s the hold-up now? It can’t possibly still be the scheduling of dignitaries.

The article Developer seeks extension on deal to begin River Landing complex (StarPhoenix, June 20, 2009) might hold an answer. In it, city manager Murray Totland noted that the world credit markets have changed substantially over the last six months.

“There are financing difficulties that weren’t anticipated. . . . I can’t imagine how difficult it is to get financing right now.”

Speaking broadly about the effect of the economic crisis and tightening credit market, Totland said lenders are being “very, very careful in what they get into.”

Perhaps Lake Placid’s financing collapsed. If that’s the case the developer doesn’t seem to be talking. The StarPhoenix said the company couldn’t be reached for comment when contacted on June 19.