22 December 2008

21 December 2008

Meeting People

I’ve been very impressed with the people we’ve met here so far. For example: There’s Su, who met me for coffee once and then invited me to two parties - one was at her house, where she made gourmet pizzas (she’s a foodie) but I had to miss that due to snow. And Su’s sister Lee, who made me feel so welcome at the party I did attend. There’s Tracy, who works in marketing and invited me over to share all her job-search contacts. Tracy also lent me her car booster seat on very short notice (I needed it to take some friends and their daughters on a tour of the city). There is Majie, the French psychologist and his roommate, Art, who invited me over for coffee and we chatted for two hours about a very cool new type of art he has developed. There is Cathy, who works in HR and invited me to an HR association meeting to help me start networking. There is Camille, who picked me up at our condo and treated me to coffee, as I grilled her about what it’s like to be an American living here. There is Carol, whom I’ve known since 2005. She’s always on the lookout for possible connections for us (she sent a possible job lead to Kurt). And Rolly and Kathy, whom we haven’t met yet but they’ve already invited us for dinner at their home on nearby Gabriola Island. There’s Beth, another American who has put up with my questions about her transition here. There’s Lisa, the 20-something woman who has offered to help me start a branch of the “Transplants” here (and we’ve already got an article coming up in the local newspaper). There are Tracy and Duncan, the couple from whom we rented a basement apartment on our last two trips. They kindly invited us to their holiday party, which we hope we can attend despite the ongoing snowstorm. And - of course - Karri and Gary, the Oregon couple I met on election night. After only meeting me once, they invited us over for Christmas dinner! Ok, ok, I won’t go on and on here, but there are even more people I haven’t mentioned (Jerry and Jeanne, Sherry, Elly, Gail, Julie, Darlene, Colleen, Pamela and Steve, Dirk, Lexis, Mel, Fitnat and family, Glynis and Jordan, Cathryn, etc.), all of whom I also look forward to getting to know over time. Our luck in the social arena has been very good … now let’s just hope that work can follow, if we decide to stay here! (Why do I feel like I just gave an acceptance speech at the Oscars? “I want to thank some of the people who made this all possible …”)

20 December 2008

Moral Values

Canada’s role continues as a refuge for Americans unhappy, or fearful, enough about their government to become expatriates. In the Nanaimo newspaper this week is the story of 28-year old Clifford Cornell, originally from Mountain Home, Arkansas. Mr. Cornell has lived the past three years on Gabriola Island, a large, autonomous island 20 minutes by ferry from Nanaimo. He’s been working for two years as a clerk at the Village Food Market on Gabriola. With few prospects after graduating from high school in 2002, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Mr. Cornell says he was paid a “$4,000 or $6,000” signing bonus and promised by the recruiter he’d not have to go to war. Not sure what Mr. Cornell thought was the primary purpose of the Army, but he nevertheless accepted what he says was the recruiter’s promise. Cornell fled the U.S. rather than go to war; there’s a U.S. Federal warrant out for his arrest. Though he’s lived in Canada for four years, he now faces a deportation order and must leave the country by December 24th. Sixty-four percent of Canadians say they want U.S. war resisters to be allowed to stay in Canada, on the grounds that the Iraq invasion is unjust, illegal, or immoral. I believe the Canadian government declined to deport Americans resisting the Viet Nam war on similar grounds, but the present government is not so inclined, though seems unenthusiastic. While five American war resisters have been deported, several hundred are estimated to remain in Canada.

Laurie got an email reply from a guy to whom she’d been referred with this in the subject line: “Welcome to Nanaimo, a nuclear-free zone.” The gentleman describes himself thusly:

I have lived in Canada since 1970, when I left Seattle for Toronto to study political theory at the U of Toronto, and to escape the moral burden of the genocidal war against the Vietnamese and Cambodian people. That was after receiving my "Honorable" Discharge from the US Marine Corps. Since moving to Canada I have tried to be a true internationalist and deny that I am "American" or "Canadian." But at age 61, after living in my chosen country for 38 years, I do think of myself as canadian. But I'm still a US citizen, and I went to Seattle on Election Day to vote for Obambi [sic?] and celebrate. But I didn't stay and I have no intention of moving back” (“good,” I’d guess most Americans would answer :-) ).

And Laurie has met an American couple, he a Navy veteran, who moved here from Oregon a couple of years ago, I gather because of moral outrage at goings on in the U.S. We’ll be getting their full story over Christmas dinner at their home.

14 December 2008


After a 4-inch snowfall the past 24 hours, in the late afternoon the clouds ended somewhere over the Georgia Strait to our east, and the sun lit up the tops of the Coastal Mountains on the B.C. mainland, visible here between Newcastle Island (left) and Protection Island (right).

10 December 2008

Paid Employment

I’ve concluded that Vancouver Island’s foremost industries are government, forestry, fishing, and marijuana cultivation, not necessarily in that order. The first, government, exists mainly in the Provincial capital Victoria, as evidenced by the city’s 3.3% unemployment rate (versus 6.3% nationally). Forestry and fishing are in recession, if not depression. The marijuana business, while apparently thriving, carries certain risks. And the sheer number of interesting jobs in Nanaimo--population 80,000--is low compared to a metro area like the Twin Cities, at least during non-meltdown times.

Nevertheless, we’ve made a bit of progress. I've encouraged Laurie to post what she’s learned and accomplished, but as for me:

  • Through a contact of Laurie’s, I met last week with a guy from the Business Development Bank of Canada (www.bdc.ca). The Bank offers to small and medium-sized businesses financing and consulting services. The guy with whom I met--a very interesting Australian who originally came to Vancouver Island to train for an Olympic rowing team--manages all of the Bank’s Vancouver Island business consultants. We discussed the prospects for me qualifying for the Bank’s independent consultant “roster.” He didn’t kick me out the door, so I consider our initial chat a success.
  • Also through contacts made by Laurie, I met yesterday with a friendly and helpful individual who manages a program called Business Works in Nanaimo (www.businessworksse.com). This program aids unemployed people interested in starting a business. It first puts them through a 10-day Business Plan Boot Camp, then signs up survivors with a Business Coach--the role I’m most interested in--who helps clients put together a business plan and guides them through the start-up process. Nothing is open at the moment, but new or expanding programs could change that imminently. Again I wasn’t kicked out the door.
  • Friday I’m scheduled to meet with the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Community Futures (www.cfnanaimo.org).  This organization provides financing, technical support, and counseling to business.
  • I’m meeting in January with the Executive Director of the Nanaimo & Area Land Trust (www.nalt.bc.ca), a nonprofit with the mission “to promote and protect the natural values of land in the Nanaimo area.” NALT’s looking for someone to do a special project: develop a database application to manage its membership and donation information. I did a lot of database application development work at Van Hoven Co. in the mid-1990s so, with a little refreshing, I think I could do a good job on what sounds initially like a fairly simple project. Whether my reward would be more than psychological remains unanswered.
I’m also working on a Money Counselor website idea I’ve had for some time. Its preliminary tagline: “money advice for people who work for a living”. I hope this cohort still exists if and when the site launches.

07 December 2008

A Day in the Park

We’re still getting used to the mild climate here! Today we hiked in Biggs Park, just a "spit" of land reaching out into the straight of Georgia from Nanaimo. It was about 50 degrees and sunny -- sun is a bit rare here during the winter. As we walked, we saw two bald eagles drifting directly overhead and we had a view of Nanaimo--and Mount Benson, behind it--across the water. The trail ended with a little bench on Jack Point where you can sit and watch the ferry come in from Vancouver. 

Next we stopped at an English-style pub just ‘down Island’ from Nanaimo called The Crow & Gate with great views of the Island mountains. Kurt had a Guinness, and we warmed ourselves near the big fireplace. The grounds of the place had a real country feeling -- we definitely plan to return.

We know that snow will arrive sometime (although nothing like the Twin Cities) but right now, we’re enjoying the green grass and mossy rocks.

Progressive Energy Policy

If there is debate among Canadians about whether global warming is real or, as Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe said in a July 2003 Senate floor speech, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” I haven’t detected it. On July 1st of this year British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a consumer-based carbon tax. The tax applies to virtually all fossil fuels, and its sole purpose is to combat global warming by encouraging conservation and fuel-switching by making fossil fuel gradually more costly relative to clean alternatives. The tax initially added about 2.4 cents per liter (about 9 cents per gallon) to the pump cost of gasoline. The Province estimates the incremental cost to consumers for gasoline at about $20/year for Prius owners and $68/year for Dodge Ram pickup owners. The tax will increase annually through 2012. At that time, the tax on gasoline will be 7.2 cents/liter.

The carbon tax is designed to be revenue-neutral. When it began last summer, every British Columbian received a tax rebate of $100 from the Province. Low-income British Columbians will receive annually a “climate action credit” of $100 per adult plus $30 per child. Corporate and personal income taxes will drop to help offset the pocketbook effects of the carbon tax. So the intent--there is debate on whether it will actually turn out this way--is not to increase taxes overall, but to deter, by economic means, fossil fuel consumption. Also the Province is sponsoring an extensive program called LiveSmart BC (www.livesmartbc.ca) which, among other things, helps consumers pay for energy efficiency improvements to their homes.

A commentary: I worry that what I considered to be promising and long overdue progress away from unsustainable energy will be reversed by the dramatic decline in fossil fuel prices since July. Particularly in the U.S., where fossil fuel has long been dirt cheap, favorable trends were underway. These trends developed not because of any government policy but purely because of economics. Consumers were reducing fossil fuel use because its cost was busting their budgets. Mr. Obama plans taxpayer investment in alternative energy, but capital investments alone are doomed to fail--if the objective is inducing consumers to switch to non-fossil fuel sources of energy--unless supported by energy market economics. By and large, Americans are going to tend to favor the cheapest form of energy, period. So I hope Mr. Obama’s near-term plans include a mechanism to, if market forces have not already done so, gradually raise the cost of fossil fuel relative to sustainable alternatives.

To give a concrete example: If a condition of GM’s imminent taxpayer bailout were the company must produce an all-electric vehicle model by 2012, and if gasoline costs $2/gallon in 2012, the government policy forcing electric vehicles to market would accomplish little more than compel GM to lose even more money. A progressive energy policy should focus first on increasing the cost of what we don’t want: burning of carbon-based fuels and reliance on imported oil. Then GM’s all-electric car would be poised to succeed, for GM and for society. Further, if a relatively high cost of fossil fuel in the future were assured (by a carbon tax if need be) thereby reducing alternative energy project capital investment risk, it’s likely that private enterprise would make some--maybe much--of the alternative energy investment perhaps now being contemplated for taxpayer financing by the President-elect. A truly progressive energy policy along these lines is one example of what I’d call the change we need.

01 December 2008

Government, Canadian-Style

We’re getting a fascinating firsthand lesson in Canada’s form of government and political parties as dramatic and, the Canadian media say unprecedented, events are underway.

Five political parties of significance exist in Canada: Conservative, Liberal, New Democrats (NDP), Bloc Quebecois (BQ), and Green. The most recent election, just held on October 14, resulted in the Conservatives retaining the most--but not a majority--of seats in Parliament, though they received just 37% of the total national vote. With the largest number of MPs (Members of Parliament), the Conservatives’ party leader, Stephen Harper (photo), continued as Prime Minister.

But it appears that last week Harper and the Conservatives went too far. First, understand that the Canadian Federal government is in surplus, and has been for some time. Canada went through a period of chronic federal deficit, but through considerable pain reversed that situation and has been in surplus for some time. Avoiding deficit spending seems to be a huge deal here. With the Canadian economy in decline and the Conservatives having reduced taxes in several areas, it’s looking like maintaining the surplus in 2009 is unlikely.

Ostensibly as an austerity measure to help avoid a deficit, the Conservatives proposed eliminating a federal subsidy of political parties of $1.95 per vote. I’m not clear on this, but apparently only the Conservatives do any significant private fund raising, so elections are largely publicly financed. All parties except the Conservatives are highly dependent on the $1.95 subsidy, so eliminating the subsidy would effectively cut off campaign funds for every opposition party. As you might imagine, this really ticked off the opposition, as they I think rightly perceive it as a ruthless power play cynically disguised as an austerity measure by the Conservatives intended simply to put the opposition out of business, at least for a long while until they organize grassroots fundraising.

So, in the face of the Conservative threat to their existence, the Liberals and NDP have just negotiated a “coalition government,” quite an achievement given that the Liberals and NDP differ on many issues. Combined the Liberals, NDP, and BQ have more MPs than do the Conservatives. The BQ will not officially be part of the coalition, but says today it will support the Liberal-NDP coalition for at least a year. Under the coalition agreement, Liberals would hold eighteen cabinet seats and the NDP six seats. Unknown is who would be Prime Minister. Stephane Dion is the Liberal party leader, but announced his resignation--after the Liberals’ dismal showing at the polls in October--effective in the spring and a campaign for a new Liberal leader is already underway.

The plan is for a “confidence vote” in Parliament on December 8th. Only Conservative MPs will vote against the confidence resolution, and since the Conservatives are running a minority government (they have the most, but not a majority, MPs), they will lose that vote. Normally what would then happen is another election, just a few weeks hence. But the Liberals and NDP recognize Canadians are perturbed by growing election frequency (again a national election was just held in mid-October). So instead of asking for an election, the coalition will propose to the Governor General that she approve the formation of the already negotiated, ready-to-go coalition government. The coalition’s letter of proposal to the Governor General is apparently in final draft form.

Now I’m a bit hazy on the Governor General’s role. Officially the Governor General--Michaelle Jean since 2007--is the British “Queen’s representative” in Canada. Canada’s form of government is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada and head of State. I’m trying still to understand exactly what this means in practical terms. Until now I’d thought the Governor General a largely ceremonial position. It is not. Officially she’s (the current Governor General happens to be a woman) the Commander in Chief of Canadian armed forces, and it’s the Governor General’s responsibility to ensure continuity of government, among other responsibilities.

Evidently the Canadian constitution provides for the Governor General to approve, if she so chooses, a coalition government, in lieu of an election, after a Parliamentary vote of “no” on a confidence resolution. Harper is going berserk, calling this a coup and an anti-democratic subversion of the results of the October 14th election. The coalition points out that 63% of Canadians did NOT vote for Conservatives in October, and the strategy the coalition is pursuing is constitutional. Desperate, the Conservatives have backed off the proposed elimination of the political party subsidy, but to no avail. The coalition’s momentum is such they are not about to turn back now, no matter what the Conservative’s say, citing a lack of trust. As I understand it, Harper’s only option now for saving his government is suspending Parliament. I’ve no idea what the ramifications of that would be. Also he can and I gather will propose to the Governor General that another election be held instead of a coalition government being approved. If the Conservatives can gain a Parliamentary majority in a new election, they’re saved for now.

The drama has Canadians riveted, the CBC reported the highest number of views ever of a recent story on its website about the matter. For us it’s been a great opportunity to learn about the intricacies of the Canadian system of government and political parties. Right now it looks like Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are done for, but a lot could happen between now and the December 8 confidence resolution vote.