Monday, December 25, 2006

Saskatoon City Council rejects proper process, refuses to hold administration accountable; fears accessibility committee

“I stand for a responsible, accountable city government that will work in partnership with the community.”
(Don Atchison, 2003 mayoralty campaign brochure)

Not once, but twice City of Saskatoon administrators failed to comply with a directive it was given by the Planning and Operations Committee, a standing committee comprised of five city councillors. No one has yet been held accountable.

In October 2005, the City of Saskatoon’s Access Transit Advisory Committee (ATAC) identified a need for an Accessibility Committee to deal with accessibility issues in Saskatoon other than transit. In their report to the Executive Committee of City Council dated October 17, 2005, ATAC indicated that “there are many areas in the community that continue to fall short of enabling persons requiring access accommodations to have equitable opportunities to participate in the community.” The committee recommended that an Accessibility Committee be established, with a mandate as determined by City Council.

Many cities across Canada have established a committee that advises on accessibility issues. They include: Whitehorse, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie, London, Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Halifax and St. John’s.

If implemented, the Accessibility Committee would be a major step toward addressing the needs of Saskatoon citizens with disabilities on all issues.

At its November 7, 2005, meeting the Executive Committee referred the matter of the Accessibility Committee to the Planning and Operations Committee.

On November 22, 2005, the Planning and Operations Committee referred the matter to the Administration for “a report on what the Terms of Reference for an Accessibility Committee could look like.”

The Administration did not comply with the directive.

At the June 20, 2006, Planning and Operations Committee meeting, rather than provide the committee with what it had asked for, the corporate services general manager instead tabled a report, dated June 5, 2006, detailing the current activities and expenditures undertaken by the City to increase access. It was similar to a September 10, 2001, report on the same issue that Administration had submitted to the Executive Committee.

Administration justified its actions saying:

“Accessibility issues are being dealt with both through planning and on a complaint basis. Based on this, your Administration has not identified terms of reference for an Accessibility Committee. However, a communication strategy may be required to ensure the public is aware of the process for bringing forward accessibility concerns. The City has a limited scope of responsibility for accessibility issues and believes it would be more appropriate for a provincial body to be established to provide an advocacy role.”

Ms. Sandy Preston, Chair of the Access Transit Advisory Committee, advised the committee that Administration had not complied with the directive it was given on November 22, 2005.

The committee agreed and resolved – for a second time:

“That the matter be referred back to the Administration for a report on what the terms of reference for an Accessibility Committee could look like.”

The report was never tabled. In fact, it appears Administration had no intention of preparing one.

According to the Office of the City Clerk: “The (Planning and Operations) Committee is responsible for policy advice and overall supervision of all land use, leisure services, protective services, infrastructure and utility services as well as overall supervision of various civic departments including Fire and Protective Services, Community Services, Utility Services and Infrastructure Services.”

The City would soon circumvent the committee and reject its own proper process.

The agenda for the November 28, 2006, Planning and Operations Committee meeting included a list of outstanding matters currently before the committee. Page eight shows that the issue of the Accessibility Committee was removed from the committee’s responsibility and given to the Executive Committee. The city manager would submit a report. No explanation for the change was given.

The Executive Committee, which is chaired by the mayor, conducted a closed-door meeting on November 27, 2006. The purpose, in part, was to make appointments to the various civic boards and committees. It was at this meeting that City Council dealt with the matter of the Accessibility Committee.

On December 18, 2006, City Council received a report from the Executive Committee, essentially itself. Item #1 – Proposed Accessibility Committee states:

“Your committee is satisfied that accessibility issues are being dealt with appropriately both through planning and on a complaint basis, and does not support the establishment of an Accessibility Committee.”

With those words Council supported and endorsed its Administration's conduct. Council clearly had no interest in holding anyone accountable for this travesty – including itself.

Speaking on behalf of the Access Transit Advisory Committee, Chairperson Sandy Preston asked Council: “When Executive Committee passes on a resolution to Planning and Operations and Planning & Operations gives directive to Administration and Administration doesn't comply with the resolution not just once but twice, whose responsibility is it?

There was no response. Not one member of City Council or Administration had the courage to stand and address the question. It was a disgrace and an insult to its advisory committee.

In the end, Council resolved “That consideration of the (Accessibility Committee) be deferred until after the Corporate Accessibility Project (Capital Project 1963) has been completed.”

The matter of Capital Project 1963 (Corporate Accessibility Policy) is not scheduled to be dealt with until Spring 2007 when the City finalizes its 2007 Capital Budget. There is no guarantee that the $75,000 required to undertake the project will be approved.

November 7, 2005, resolution by the Executive Committee referring the matter of the Accessibility Committee to the Planning and Operations Committee.

November 22, 2005, resolution by the Planning and Operations Committee directing Administration to report on what the Terms of Reference for an Accessibility Committee could look like.

June 20, 2006, resolution by the Planning and Operations Committee directing Administration a second time for a report on what the Terms of Reference for an Accessibility Committee could look like.

November 28, 2006, Planning and Operations Committee agenda item showing the matter of the Accessibility Committee being moved to the Executive Committee.

December 18, 2006, City Council agenda item showing the Executive Committee's support of its Administration and the non-support of establishing an Accessibility Committee. The committee's decision took place at a closed-door meeting on November 27, 2006.


Accessibility committee needed, city told

Darren Bernhardt
The StarPhoenix

Friday, December 22, 2006

The City of Saskatoon claims to shine, but citizens with disabilities have been relegated to the shadows, says an organization representing the rights of the physically challenged.

The North Saskatchewan Independent Living Centre (NSILC) has been lobbying the city to create an accessibility committee to consult with those who live with mobility issues and face barriers other people may not notice.

The committee would then report to administration so the issues are raised with council and "we would finally have a voice within the city," NSILC executive director Georgie Davis said at press conference calling for action from the city.

No one from the city or mayor's office could be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon.

Simply getting through doorways or crossing the street are often major obstacles for the disabled, Davis has repeatedly stated. Wheelchairs are forced to cut dangerously through traffic to find a low curb or alley access to get on or off the sidewalk. The sidewalk is not practical if snow hasn't been removed and many buildings still have stairs with no ramp access.

In October 2005, the Access Transit Advisory Committee (ATAC) first identified the need for an accessibility committee and reported that to city council's executive committee. The mandate of ATAC is transportation issues, but the committee members saw the need to address the gap that exists in other areas.

The issue was shuffled around various city committees before landing on the desk of administration to report on the terms of reference that would define such a committee's functions and makeup.

Nothing happened.

In June 2006, the issue was raised again and sent through another series of committees before going back to administration one more time. Earlier this month, council decided to include a Corporate Accessibility Project (CAP) in the draft budget for funding consideration.

The CAP would study the issue, consult with stakeholders and develop an outline of the city's role, but it says nothing of a specific accessibility committee, NSILC noted.

Davis is worried the formation of committee will be pushed back a number of years. She is urging the city to revisit the issue in January.

Her concerns have been backed by letters of support from the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living, Saskatchewan Abilities Council, Saskatchewan Association for the Rehabilitation of the Brain Injured, Saskatchewan Association of Rehabilitation Centres, Canadian Paraplegic Association (Saskatchewan) and Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities.

"This city should shine for everyone," Davis said.

©The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners: Political interference and the culture of secrecy

Former Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioner Eleanor Shia’s recent letter to city council was not included in council’s December 18, 2006, meeting agenda.

On December 15, 2006, I contacted the Office of the City Clerk inquiring about public access to Ms. Shia’s letter. I was advised by e-mail that: “The letter was submitted to the Executive Committee, in camera.”

As of now, for the time being anyway, the public is being denied access to Ms. Shia’s letter.

This is ironic given some of Shia’s concerns were about secrecy and lack of transparency.

The StarPhoenix was notified about this latest development. They said they’d “look into it” but nothing further has been reported.

Political interference and the police board's culture of secrecy continues.

Eleanor Shia's letter of resignation from the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners was included in the Board's October 19, 2006, public agenda package.

Former city police board member blasts secrecy, political interference
Longtime commissioner says Sabo firing not unanimous

Darren Bernhardt
The StarPhoenix

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Politics and personal feelings, rather than the overall welfare of the city, too often influence decisions made by the board of police commissioners, says a former member.

In a two-page letter sent this week to city council, Eleanor Shia expressed concern over several issues she thinks are hampering the board's ability to function at its best. In addition to political interference, the board suffers from a lack of openness, Shia said in an interview.

Mayor Don Atchison, who chairs the commission, said Shia is entitled to her viewpoints, but he disagrees with them. Board members "have the concerns of all citizens at heart," he said.

Shia served five years with the commission before resigning on Oct. 1. In her resignation letter, she cited "personal reasons," but told The StarPhoenix the board's faulty processes made it difficult and frustrating for her to properly contribute any longer.

Shia said she felt compelled to speak out because of her responsibility to the public.

"I made a commitment to this position and I believe council should know my observations," she said.

Although she described commissioners as "truly committed" to the job, political matters get in the way.

"I felt elected members sometimes represented their wards more than the city as a whole," she said. "I felt external forces, like the media and a volatile public, tried to pressure the board into making hasty or overly political decisions that calmed public outbursts but did little to, if not work entirely against, the well-being of the police service." Elected members of the board are there to serve as liaisons between the police service and the municipal government, not as representatives of their specific wards, she wrote in her letter.

There are many citizens who, "through lack of privilege, education or access, are unable to vote but need our help nonetheless. In fact, it is this latter demographic that the police service spends the majority of its time interacting with," she wrote.

To that end, she believes board members should have limited terms "to ensure fresh voices and opinions." She also believes the ratio of elected members and members at large should be adjusted so nonelected members form the majority.

That would be irresponsible to the public, said Atchison. With a police service operating budget of $43 million, there needs to be elected officials to be held accountable, he said.

Some of his rivals in the recent civic election also touted changes to the board makeup, but Atchison held firm.

The voting public's overwhelming choice to reelect him as mayor is proof they agree, he said.

But Shia noted Toronto's police commission, overseeing Canada's largest municipal police service, is a seven-member civilian board, while Vancouver's consists of six non-elected members and the mayor.

During election time in Saskatoon, certain things can't be discussed to avoid the appearance of campaigning, so issues are set on the back burner until the election is over, Shia said.

"That's not a fair way to govern the police and it's not fair to the public, either," she said.

Shia also encouraged the board to be more transparent.

It has never provided an explanation for dumping former police Chief Russell Sabo. Shia revealed the board was not in full agreement on the matter and she questions the secretiveness.

"When there is dissenting opinion within the board, the public should know about it -- they should even encourage it as an example of democratic process," she said.

"As long as we respect that the majority rules, that's the main thing." "I guess that's where we differ the most," said Atchison.

"We don't talk about votes and we don't discuss human resources issues in public. I'm certainly not going to dissuade her from her opinions, but if you look at the police service right now, there are exciting things happening.

"More officers are going to be on the street in the new year and there is a renewed energy. Things are very positive and that only serves to make sure our citizens are safe."

©The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

Merits of keeping downtown Legion building never debated by Saskatoon City Council; developer Remai Ventures wants to demolish historic hall

Criticism of heritage group in editorial lacks credibility

The StarPhoenix

Friday, December 22, 2006

In the editorial, Heritage group needs to choose targets wisely (SP, Dec. 11), The SP seems to think it knows what's best for everyone else regarding heritage matters in Saskatoon.

The Saskatoon Heritage Society was accused of picking the wrong targets to defend while it allows "true treasures to pass virtually unchallenged" but the editorial didn't identify what those treasures were.

I tend to trust the opinions of those with heritage backgrounds ahead of The SP, whose main interest is Saskatoon remaining business friendly at any cost.

Contrary to what The SP would like people to believe, there was no public debate on the merits of keeping the historic downtown Legion building. Council made sure of that two years ago when it decided behind closed-doors not to pursue establishing a Veterans' Museum within the hall and didn't tell anyone.

According to The SP, citizens should stick to worrying about Saskatoon's old castle school buildings and leave the downtown for developers to decide. This is disrespectful of heritage advocates and to local veterans who built the legion. It's an insult to imply that the building has "minor architectural value" and "stands in the way" of progress.

In the Dec. 6 Planet S, Terry Scaddan of The Partnership said: "I think everybody's catching on to the fact that heritage and cultural tourism is the fastest rising tourism market in North America," and that "people crave the authenticity" of old buildings in the downtown as opposed to big box power centres and the "faux storefronts that are made to look like heritage buildings."

If that's the case, then someone forgot to tell council and developer Remai Ventures, who are determined to destroy the last of our built heritage in the south downtown.

Jack W. Nankivell

©The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006

Heritage group needs to choose targets wisely

The StarPhoenix

Monday, December 11, 2006

Across North America cities are belatedly realizing the value of protecting their heritage -- particularly when it comes to the architecture from critical periods of their development.

This is no less true in Saskatoon, where the loss of the Capitol Theatre more than a quarter century ago awakened citizens to the importance of preserving the city's legacy.

It's from that loss that the Saskatoon Heritage Society sprung, and for years it has struggled to bring a measure of reflection to any redevelopment in the city.

Too often, however, the organization has picked the wrong targets to defend while it allowed true treasures to pass virtually unchallenged. The latest of these is the society's defence of the old Northern Paints building on Broadway Avenue.

Despite pressures on Saskatoon's three central business districts (the downtown, Broadway and Riversdale), the city has done an admirable job of maintaining or restoring their viability. Much of that can be attributed to the determination of some to preserve the historic character of these three diverse areas.

But crucial to survival of these areas will be their ability to attract more residents. As with all North American cities, this is a major challenge for civic planners. Saskatoon is in the process of expanding out in three directions through four different suburban neighbourhoods.

City planners say the demand is caused by a two separate but simultaneous pressures. The first is Saskatoon's steady population growth. As senior planner Bill Holden says, it may not be as strong as Calgary's, but it's steady and growing faster now than it has in quite a while.

Getting a handle on exact population numbers is difficult because neither census figures nor health-card data include everyone. However, the planning department's best guess based on these sources is that Saskatoon's population is between 207,000 and 211,000.

The second factor is the trend for fewer people to live in each unit. Whereas a household may have had, on average, three or four people a few years ago, the estimated average now is only 2.4 or 2.5 people per home. With more than 90,000 housing units in Saskatoon, this could mean a population higher than 220,000, Holden said.

To accommodate this growth, the city must provide more units on the outskirts of town, have greater density in its core neighbourhoods, or a combination of the two.

If the character and historic values of those core neighbourhoods are to be preserved, they must provide real economic value as well. If a building with minor architectural value stands in the way of creating the population base needed to ensure the viability of a district, the city risks having its core crumble.

In the downtown, several former warehouses and retail stores are being converted to higher density residences. This is important if amenities such as the King George Hotel is to be saved.

But if a building is saved without a corresponding contribution to the economic viability of its neighbours, it can do more harm than good. Buildings whose reduced functionality outweighs their contribution must be treated differently from those whose reuse creates greater economic activity.

One hopes that is what will be done with the facade of the Legion building in River Landing -- a facility that is expected to be torn down to make room for a hotel-spa development along the riverfront. And one hopes something can be done to save, adapt or at least preserve aspects of the old castle school buildings.

Some of these facilities will need a lot of work if they are to be preserved in their current form, and some may stand in the way of socially responsible urban renewal programs.

These are facilities on which the heritage society and Saskatoon citizens should be concentrating their efforts.

By continually battling to save buildings of marginal value at the expense of maintaining the economic viability of Saskatoon's original business districts, the heritage group risks becoming marginalized in the debate.

If that happens, Saskatoon will be much poorer for it.

©The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Saskatoon Snow & Ice Management Audit Report offers little hope for improved conditions of city sidewalks for seniors and persons with disabilities

December 18, 2006

His Worship the Mayor
And Members of City Council
City Hall
Saskatoon, SK S7K 0J5

Dear Mayor Atchison and Members of Council:

RE: Snow and Ice Management Audit Report (December 2006)

As a resident of Caswell in Ward 1 I am writing to express my disappointment with the Snow and Ice Management Audit Report prepared by Robert Prosser & Associates.

For persons with mobility difficulties the report offers no hope of improved snow clearing and removal service for city sidewalks (including residential), ramps, crosswalks, lane crossings and bus stop areas. It seems the same miserable level of service that has plagued and embarrassed the city for many years will continue.

The deplorable state of city sidewalks and the negative impact this has on seniors and people that use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, and canes appears to have been given little to no consideration.

How the auditor can conclude that the current level of service is “appropriate” and “reasonable” is beyond comprehension.

Please note the following:

– The Snow & Ice Management Program maintains only 20% of the City’s 1,200 kilometers of sidewalks.

– Table 1: Contracted Service Comparison on page seven shows that figures for Actual Contracted Expenditures for Sidewalk Plowing and Clearing for 2003, 2004 & 2005 were not available to the auditor. No explanation is given why.

– Table 6: Productivity Trends on page sixteen shows that a significant amount of information pertaining to sidewalks (i.e. operating cost per km maintained; % of sidewalk kms maintained; and kms maintained per FTE) was not available to the auditor. No explanation is given why.

– The auditor examined current systems, practices and controls for minimizing the risk of public injury caused by snow, ice or slush on sidewalks. Public injury can result in associated liability claims being filed against the City. Per management, the City invests very little in sidewalk snow clearing and sanding – i.e. budgets were $138,835, $124,474, $122,436, and $181,434 in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 respectively. There was no recommendation, however, to increase this budget.

– Property owners in the Central Business District and the Broadway, 20th Street , 33rd Street and Central Avenue Business areas are required, by bylaw, to clear snow and ice from adjacent City sidewalks. Bylaw No.8463, replacing Bylaw No.2780 on January 23, 2006, is enforced on a complaint basis only. The city has just one bylaw inspector to handle snow related bylaw complaints.

– There is no snow clearing or sanding on residential sidewalks or walkways except where conditions are expected to cause spring drainage problems. Snow and ice initiatives in residential areas are left up to residents in these areas. Apparently this is acceptable.

– Two to three operators are currently assigned to operate the sidewalk plows. These individuals are often pulled from sidewalk duty for sanding or snow clearing operations, as required. Sidewalk maintenance is given a low priority in overall snow and ice management in order to meet other service levels associated with snow clearing, snow removal and ice control. This appears to be acceptable as well.

– A service level objective is currently in place and priority routes drafted for sidewalks that are cleared and sanded by the City – i.e. clearing all priority sidewalks within 5 days following a winter storm. The current service level for sidewalks (i.e.) is based on what management feels can be accomplished given existing staffing levels. Where weather conditions are extreme, equipment breaks down or other unknown factors play a role, service levels can become difficult, if not impossible, to meet. No recommendations were made to improve the service level objective.

– Saskatoon and Regina do not clear residential sidewalks. Calgary and Edmonton has a bylaw requiring residents to clear snow from adjacent sidewalks. The City of Winnipeg clears the entire network of sidewalks, including those in residential areas. The merits of expanding the bylaw coverage on a city-wide basis in Saskatoon are not discussed in the audit.

– Supervisors conduct inspections of sidewalks in areas designated in Bylaw No. 8463, in conjunction with complaints that are issued by the public. There are no routine inspections in place to ensure that property owners are complying with service levels prescribed in the Bylaw. The auditor recommends “that a system be put into place for measuring, monitoring and reporting on the extent of compliance with sidewalk snow clearing service levels.” Timely and effective enforcement is not included, however.

The following information is from various administrative reports. It is not clear whether the auditor consulted such records.

A June 1, 2006, report from the general manager, infrastructure services to the planning and operations committee states:

“To clean all bus stops would take up to 4 days following a snowstorm. To clean them within 24 hours would take up to four times the existing resources, and a corresponding budget increase would be required.

Transit Services have expressed concerns with safety in regard to the way the bus stop is left after snow is cleared. The only way to resolve their concerns is to have the bus stop manually cleaned.

If a bylaw was implemented that required all owners, occupants, or controllers of property adjoining a public sidewalk to clean the area within a designated time, this would eliminate the majority of the concerns regarding bus stops and accessibility of sidewalks during the winter.”

Yet this is not discussed in the audit. Why?

In Rough terrain equals back pain for Saskatoon transit drivers (StarPhoenix, Dec. 15, 2006) Dan Bichel, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, local 615 and Saskatoon 's transit manager Jeff Balon reportedly said more money is needed in the snow removal budget. They would like to see all bus routes included as Priority 1 streets to be cleared within 12 hours after snowfall ends. Clearing snow from the city's 1,600 bus stops also needs to become a higher priority, says Bichel. In a couple of instances this winter, people have fallen as they tried to climb over a snowbank at a bus stop and have slid under the bus. The drivers realized what had happened and didn't pull away from the stop. Bichel worries someone will eventually get hurt.

The May 17, 2006, report from the general manager of infrastructure services to the Administration and Finance Committee included a March 9, 2006, letter from Roadways Superintendent of Operations Paul Bracken to resident Jamie McKenzie that states:

“As far as the clearing of the sidewalks around the bus stops, Public Works simply does not have the manpower or equipment to clear all sidewalks around all bus stops. If we picked a few areas to do, others would make the same complaint and pretty soon we would have to be doing the entire city, which is just not possible.”

There appears to be nothing in the audit report that will help alleviate the transit department's concerns. In fact, transit is barely mentioned. One wonders if transit staff and management were even consulted.

The audit included the “collection and review of relevant information and documents provided by City staff,” and “interviews with management and staff involved in the program.”

The auditor’s contact with persons outside of management and staff directly involved in the program appears to have been quite limited. This audit would have benefited from interviews with community associations, disability groups and other civic departments.

Thank you for your time.


Joe Kuchta
Saskatoon, SK


Janice Mann, City Clerk
Robert Prosser, Robert Prosser & Associates
Dan Bichel, President, ATU Local 615
Jeff Balon, Transit Manager
Gaston Gourdeau, Roadways Manager
Doug Drever, Public Work Branch Manager
Lori Coolican, The StarPhoenix
Dorothy Johnstone, Caswell Community Association

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Saskatchewan's Conservative MPs Embarrass Province

"Harper became the first post-war Prime Minister to ask the Commons to consider taking away the rights of a Canadian minority."

David Anderson, Dave Batters, Garry Breitkreuz

Brian Fitzpatrick, Ed Komarnicki, Tom Lukiwski

Gerry Ritz, Andrew Scheer, Hon. Carol Skelton

Brad Trost, Maurice Vellacott, Lynne Yelich

MPs vote party lines on same-sex

Lana Haight
The StarPhoenix

Friday, December 08, 2006

Saskatchewan MPs sided with their party lines in a vote to re-open the samesex marriage debate.

The province's 12
Conservative members voted in favour of the motion "to call on government to introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage without affecting civil unions and while respecting existing same-sex marriages." The motion was defeated with the support of Saskatchewan's two Liberal members.

"To cherry-pick and roll back (rights) is a very slippery slope," said Gary Merasty, Liberal MP for Desnethe-Missinippi- Churchill River.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is designed to protect the rights of minorities, people with disabilities and women and ensures individuals can advance their rights through the courts, says Merasty. With his constituency split on the definition of marriage, Merasty decided to vote according to his own convictions.

Saskatoon-Humboldt MP Brad Trost says his vote in favour of re-opening the debate reflects his personal view, but also that of the majority of his constituents.

While some city neighbourhoods favour the new defi nition of marriage passed by Parliament in June 2005, other areas are decidedly against it, according to Trost's polling of several thousand households a couple of years ago.

"I believe in the traditional definition of marriage, no ifs, ands, buts, hesitations or equivocations," said Trost.

While Merasty hopes Thursday's vote signals the end to the same-sex debate, Trost expects the issue will be raised down the road when the implications of the vote become apparent.

He's concerned religious leaders and teachers will eventually be prevented from expressing their views on same-sex marriage.

©The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006

Minority rights ugly subtext in same-sex debate

Dec. 8, 2006. 01:00 AM


With Charter rights in the balance this week, the Prime Minister and the brand new leader of the official opposition took the easy way out.

Stephen Harper and Stéphane Dion both got themselves off the hook of the same-sex marriage issue with minimal political fallout yesterday. But neither man can claim to have taken the high road to get there.

The decisive defeat of a Conservative motion to reopen the debate on the legal definition of civil marriage — 175 to 123 — should bring an end to parliamentary efforts to turn the clock back on the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

If the fate of other morally divisive issues such as abortion and the death penalty is any indication, the outcome of yesterday's vote is unlikely to be reversed or even revisited by another Parliament.

That has to be a relief for Dion. To say that the Liberal party has consistently not practised what it preaches over the lengthy course of the same-sex marriage saga is an understatement.

Under Dion's two predecessors, a federal party that takes pride of ownership of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has treated it like a pull-down menu, allowing its MPs to pick and choose where they stood on gay rights.

Now, history will record that on the first occasion when Dion was called upon to lead his party in a major vote, he had to adjust his principles to realpolitik and use the fig leaf of an argument to cover up his embarrassment.

Over the course of his leadership campaign, Dion had argued that the Liberal approach of allowing rights to be subject to free votes was unacceptable.

But faced this week with a choice between backing off and enduring the first internal crisis of his short leadership tenure, Dion opted to once again leave his members free to choose, explaining that a motion did not require the same dose of party discipline as a full-fledged piece of legislation.

Yesterday, a dozen Liberals bucked their leader's wishes. But that number would have been higher if the Commons had been seized with a bill rather than a resolution.

Not that the government had much of a legislative road map to follow in the unlikely event that it won the vote.

This week, Harper led the House of Commons on a dubious road to a legal nowhere.

Short of breaking his commitment not to use the notwithstanding clause to bar same-sex couples from obtaining civil marriages for five years, there was no way the Prime Minister could have introduced a constitutionally bulletproof law to have Canada revert to the former man/woman definition of the institution.
At the very least, the government would have had a lengthy legal battle on its hands, one most experts expected it to lose eventually. The plan to offer gays the fallback option of civil unions had already been described by some courts as a breach of the Charter rights of same-sex couples.

Besides, civil unions fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces. They are outside the legal purview of the federal government; the Prime Minister does not have the power to offer them as a substitute for civil marriages.

Still, Harper has earned a place in the history books for his efforts this week.

The bottom line in the latest instalment of this debate was not whether the federal government could end same-sex marriage without having to shelter a ban on them from the Charter. Nor was it whether the notwithstanding clause was a legitimate recourse for governments to use to have the last word on court decisions.

With same-sex marriage on the books since 2005, the debate had moved on to a more fundamental terrain: This week, Harper became the first post-war Prime Minister to ask the Commons to consider taking away the rights of a Canadian minority.

That he failed to garner sufficient support to press on with the plan does not mitigate the fact that he was willing to ask.

Let it also be noted that the vast majority of Conservative MPs, along with a happy dozen of their Liberal colleagues, were willing to wade in what is a much greater moral quagmire than the notion that gay and lesbian Canadians are entitled to enjoy equal access to the civil institutions of their country.

Chantal Hébert
's national affairs column appears
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Using religion to spread hate is repugnant

by Linda McQuaig

October 9, 2006

A black man and a white woman stand before a justice of the peace, eager to exchange their wedding vows.

But as they look lovingly into each other's eyes, the justice of the peace refuses to proceed — because he disapproves of interracial marriage.

This sort of discrimination would be repugnant to most Canadians. It's also not allowed in Canada. So if the JP, whose salary is paid by taxpayers, refused to do his job and marry the interracial couple, he would be fired.

Last year, Parliament passed legislation confirming the right of same-sex couples to be married by a JP, so they enjoy the same legal rights to marry as an interracial couple.

Stephen Harper wants to change this. He's apparently ordered legislation to be prepared that would, among other things, allow a JP to refuse to marry same-sex couples. In other words, the legislation would permit JPs to discriminate against same-sex couples in a way that they are not allowed to discriminate against interracial couples.

It should be noted that Canadian law already protects religious groups from being compelled to marry same-sex couples. But, according to a report in The Globe and Mail last week, Harper's new law is also expected to deal with some remaining areas of uncertainty, such as “the rights of individuals to publicly criticize homosexual behaviour, to take out advertisements that quote scripture demanding that homosexuals be put to death ...”

That homosexuals be put to death!

Hard as it is to believe, Canadian law currently provides not a whit of protection for those who hate gays so much they might want to take out an ad quoting a scripture passage calling for gays to be killed.

It seems the Harper government wants to remedy this oversight.

This is astonishing. Imagine the reaction if the government were preparing a law to protect those quoting a passage advocating the death of Jews or the disabled.

The proposed Defence of Religions Act, which the government dismisses as speculation, would be brought forward only if the Conservatives lose a motion this fall to reopen the debate on same-sex marriage.

“All indications are that the motion, which would authorize the government to introduce legislation to repeal the same-sex marriage law passed by Parliament last year, will be defeated by a combination of opposition MPs supported by a few Conservatives,” the Globe reported.

That this new law is even being considered points to the influence the Christian evangelical right has on Harper — an influence he has tried to conceal from the tolerant Canadian public.

Behind the scenes, however, Harper has worked tirelessly to build a coalition of evangelicals, Catholics and conservative Jews, as award-winning journalist Marci McDonald documents in the cover story of the current issue of the Walrus magazine.

Last spring, when the Prime Minister was too busy to meet Premier Dalton McGuinty, McDonald notes that “Harper made time for dozens of faith groups, including a five-woman delegation from the Catholic Women's League which hadn't managed to snare a sit-down with any prime minister in 24 years.”

The religious right may well be ecstatic. But my guess is that most Canadians would recoil at the notion of special protections for people expressing hatred — even calling for murder — no matter whether they present these views in the guise of “religion.”

Originally published by The Toronto Star Linda McQuaig's column usually appears every Monday.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Saskatoon snow bylaw a disgrace – StarPhoenix – December 7, 2006

Mobility impaired citizens left in rut by snow bylaw

The StarPhoenix

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Saskatoon's capital and operating budgets have risen by a combined $151 million since 2003.

This does not include the city's recent recordbreaking preliminary capital budget for 2007.

How much of this increased spending has gone to provide better snow removal? The answer is, zero. Each year, the city adds just enough money to maintain the previous level of service.

Saskatoon's snow removal program is a disgrace. We have one sidewalk clearing bylaw inspector to cover the entire city. The bylaw is enforced only on a complaint basis and not one business has ever been charged. Go figure.

The city invested a lot of time and money to overhaul the transit system. It added fancy new low-floor buses, yet the bus stops they serve are rarely, if ever, cleared of snow. If they do get cleared, which is rare, the sidewalks leading to them usually aren't, which defeats the purpose.

Curb ramps, if and when cleared, are routinely rendered useless because the sidewalks between them aren't.

For persons with mobility difficulties, it's nothing short of a nightmare. People who use wheelchairs and scooters often must travel on the road because the sidewalks are inaccessible. I know, because I'm one of them. This is dangerous but it's permitted to happen every year.

The city spent two years reviewing its snow bylaw, which was last modified in 1942. In 2005, it was expanded to include suburban centres. All this did was add to the list of sidewalks that get ignored and led to a bylaw which the city won't, or can't, enforce.

We continue to build new roads and neighbourhoods but the snow removal remains relatively the same. In fact, it probably hasn't changed much in a generation. When is city council and administration going to seriously address this issue rather than continue to make excuses?

Georgie Davis

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mendel Art Gallery hosed by governments and media – Saskatoon StarPhoenix letter to the editor – December 1, 2006

Mendel treatment unfair by governments, media

The StarPhoenix

Friday, December 1, 2006

In Cultural union opportunity missed (SP, Nov. 22) civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein beat up on the Mendel, hoping to revive interest in the desperate idea of relocating it to the city’s ill-fated River Landing development.

Given what transpired last year, the Mendel has good reason to be concerned. Local media didn’t seem eager to investigate the bias and unfairness that plagued the federal government’s centennial funding fiasco.

To meet eligibility criteria, the Mendel apparently was required to confirm provincial funding. This even though the submission guidelines did not say provincial funding was an eligibility requirement.

Why was the Mendel required to secure provincial funding and Prairieland Park not? Western Economic Diversification (WD) is funding 80 per cent of that centennial project.

Why did WD hold the Mendel to a higher standard in requiring it to confirm 30 per cent of its funding when the guidelines said 20 per cent?

Why was River Landing Phase I Riverfront Park chosen ahead of the Mendel, which was higher on the city’s priority list to WD? Why did WD not ask the Mendel to provide confirmation letters for gifts?

In December 2005, the city included Persephone on its list of proposals, even though it doesn’t own the Persephone. Why did WD accept this? Even with the cost of its project soaring to $11 million from $6.5 million, Persephone’s funding never seemed in doubt.

In November 2005, the Saskatchewan legislature approved $3.03 million for culture operations support, $2.5 million of which was targeted toward Saskatoon ’s centennial legacy capital project. This was the same amount Persephone requested from the province in July 2005. Coincidence?

The Mendel had asked the province for $4.5 million. It seems it never stood a chance.

Joe Kuchta

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006