Tom Connors

Out of the Cold with Stompin’ Tom

It was a March evening at the Out of the Cold men’s shelter at Grace Presbyterian Church. The guys were just settling in for the night. Volunteers had given them bedding and pillows for their cots, and served them hot coffee and a warm meal.

As was often the custom, some of them had come to the lobby before bed to chat with volunteers. We had all just learned that Saint John native Stompin’ Tom Connors had died that day.

Some of the men were old enough to remember his early years in the city, and I listened to them swap stories about seeing him in shops and on the streets.In particular I remember them talking about Connors playing guitar and singing on a bench in Queen Square.

Stompin’ Tom grew up poor in Saint John. His family was evicted from apartments for not paying rent, and his teenage mother sometimes stole or begged for food. As a struggling young musician traveling the country, he would sometimes get arrested for vagrancy, and welcome the warm place to sleep at night.

Though Connors eventually became rich and famous, perhaps these guys could relate to a man who had once struggled like they did; or maybe they were they were just like everyone else in Saint John proud of a native son who hit it big. This night was typical of many I’ve spent at the shelter over the last three years.

Yes, volunteers are mainly responsible for things like signing in the men, setting up the cots, and preparing and serving the meals. But it’s a relaxed and social environment. Over coffee and bowls of chili, we’ve talked about everything from religion, politics, good movies and books.

We still take a professional approach to the operation of the shelter, and don’t pry into personal lives of the men who stay there. But this intimate setting helps us – me, anyway – see these men as regular people, in a way that’s often not possible when they’re asking for spare change on street corners.

I don’t mean to gloss over the very real challenges these guys face – mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, severe poverty caused by chronic unemployment or family break up – or suggest that a warm meal and a good night’s sleep in a welcoming, respectful environment will solve all their problems.

They need long-term housing options, mental health and addictions services, a job or education and training programs to help them get one. But getting them out of the cold on a winter night is a good first step.

When Stompin’ Tom Connors died last March, his family asked people across the country to donate to a local food bank or homeless shelter in his name. Out of the Cold takes financial donations, but needs people to give of their time too. It operates seven days a week for three months, and needs dozens of volunteers to cover evening and overnight shifts and prepare food.

Because I enjoyed being at the shelter, I often forgot I was providing a valuable service to someone. One night, as I was on my way out the door, one of the men called out, “Thank you for the work you do.” I didn’t know what to say. I just smiled and said, “No problem. See you next week.”

For more information about volunteering with Out of the Cold, please contact Jillian Driscoll by e-mail: jillian.driscoll@hotmail.com

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4 Reasons Why I Hope Amalgamation Never Happens (Again) in Saint John

Amalgamation of Saint John, Quispamsis, Rothesay, and Grand Bay-Westfield (itself an amalgamation as evidenced by the hyphen) is a bad idea but it keeps coming up as a cure-all for what ails us now.

I understand the logic of its proponents (and used to be one): it will bring all those suburbanites who fled for lower taxes, a monoculture of middle-class socio-economic bliss, and fog-free Junes back into the city to help solve (and pay for) our current urban problems. I think it is a blunt instrument from a Stephen Harper-like tool kit that ignores the nuances of community building and the realities of what that forced marriage would do.

1. Amalgamation is why we’re in the mess we’re now in

Simonds, Loch Lomond, Carleton, Lancaster, Fairville, and Saint John were all separate communities at one time. There may have been more, I don’t know, I’m not a historian. But I do know that our city was never meant to be this big.

Saint John is now one of Canada’s largest municipalities, geographically covering a massive footprint that takes 25 minutes to drive, end to end, at 110km/h. With a shrinking population we were stuck with supporting a sprawling infrastructure while our population shrunk (not anymore – we’re growing again now!).

We plow long rural roads, provide emergency and police services across a huge area with urban, suburban, and rural characteristics, and protect our people from some of the most sophisticated industrial assets in the world. None of these challenges exist for any of our neighbours and it is a result of amalgamation in the past. One city, many challenges thanks to our wise predecessors.

2. Suburbanites don’t seem to understand shared interest

Every second Monday night you can visit City Hall and see a collection of elected people grapple with understanding our urban vs. sprawl issues, poverty, safety, and infrastructure challenges, and above all, how to improve the quality of life for such a diverse group. What benefit would there be to add to that group a bunch of representatives of people who don’t understand the challenges of a diverse population and have not been grappling with what it takes to raise a phoenix from the ashes?

Saint Johners don’t want to isolate and marginalise our poor. We don’t want to expand roads and approve more surface parking and more drive-thrus, and we want to enable and expand our industrial base (albeit in a greener, more neighbourhood-friendly way than in the past). I’m not saying suburbanites are a cold-hearted or simple people, but solutions to city problems are not quick and easy, and the issues are layered.

For example, when our Mayor recently proposed disbanding all policing services across our region and starting fresh with a new regional force that would provide better services for all at a lower cost for all, he wasn’t just rejected by our neighbours, he was mocked. What a silly idea, they said. Why would the happy communities of the burbs join a (perceived) mismanaged police force of the City? They weren’t listening. The proposal wasn’t to “join” it was to start fresh and collaborate, but that concept was lost on our neighbours who believe our city is just too dysfunctional to be a good partner on a core service. We’re in this together but that notion seems to come quicker to urbanites.

And do you remember the old Qplex debate between Rothesay and Quispamsis a few years ago? I rest my case.

For many suburbanites, the next step beyond leaving the city is to leave the province entirely. The average human lives 80 years and not everyone wants to make the world better in that time, they just want to enjoy it. Fair enough. As any dialogue on the subject will show, the reasons why many suburbanites give for fleeing to the suburbs amount to the negatives simply outweighing the positives for them.

Simply put: renewal and rebuilding is in our DNA and not so much in our neighbours’. Those who live in the suburbs who care for the city and our challenges are here to help us now, thankfully, and don’t need a governmental union to do more.

3. Amalgamation alienates government from the people

Municipal government is the layer of government that should be closest to the people. The bigger we make our city the less familiar our representatives will be with what their constituents need and want. For the small amount that will be saved with less government we will lose other efficiencies that come with real human familiarity and communication advantages. I just don’t buy the argument that amalgamation will save us money.

4. Collaboration is best fostered by empowered parties

People work together when they are given the choice to work together. When parties are forced to work together, unpleasantness follows. Just ask Toronto and Halifax. You can’t force community, you have to foster it.

But here is one thing I am sure of and it should be a warning to all municipalities and their people: amalgamation will be forced on us if the new regional cooperation model fails. It hasn’t been in place long but, so far, who is impressed?

We’re in this together and we need our neighbours’ understanding, cooperation, and patience. The people we have working to make this city better are awesome and we’re going to blow the rest of the region away with what we achieve over the next decade.

We’ll do it with the help of some of our neighbours for sure. But forcing those who don’t care and don’t want to help to carry this weight is unwise. Amalgamation is a bad idea and I hope it never happens again.

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A soundtrack for city living

Over the past few weeks, people have been complaining about the excessive noise coming from the metal recycling facility on the West Side. I agree it got pretty bad, especially for a couple of weeks there. I run a lot so I’m pretty sensitive to the mix of natural and “people-made” sounds in out urban – and suburban – neighbourhoods. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post called Sounds of the City about a run around the city centre. Last week, I recorded a commentary on a similar theme for CBC Radio. It aired September 20th on Information Morning. You can hear the commentary, archived on the CBC site. I’ve also pasted below the text of that piece, but do listen to it if you can for the background sound woven through the piece.

By Mark Leger

I recently went for a long run on a Sunday morning, from the uptown to the east side and back. Just after seven, I passed through Champlain Heights. The streets were empty except for a man walking his dog.

This is usually the time of day I can hear the birds chirp – with no trucks, cars and other sounds of the city to drown them out. But in Champlain Heights, even at the eastern-most edge, I heard a low, but steady rumble of the oil refinery in operation.

I don’t know if this noise is a regular occurrence, or if it bothers anyone who lives there. In the past, the focus has mostly been on air quality issues. But I get a lot of time to think on a two-hour-run, especially on quiet weekend mornings. And listening to the hum of the refinery made me think about the noise from recycling facility on the Lower West Side.

There have been several news stories in recent weeks about residents bothered by the racket.

And it does seem the noise has been especially bad lately. I usually tune it out myself, but couldn’t the last two weeks.

On one afternoon in particular, it was hot and sunny and I was playing with the kids in our uptown backyard. We watched the cruise ship leave the harbour and then had supper on our picnic table underneath the apple tree.

When there’s not much ambient noise, we hear the birds chirp. But that day the crushing and colliding sounds created a metal soundtrack for this otherwise idyllic scene.

A lot people say this is just part of life in an industrial city; that it will eventually become white noise – something we all tune out most of the time.

It’s true that residents have lived amongst industry for generations here. And It’s certainly part of the city’s historic character.

But the city has to think carefully about how to balance new industrial development in the core with the shifting values of the residential population.

In PlanSJ, city leaders identify rebuilding the urban core as a top priority. This can’t happen unless more middle- and upper-income earners move back into the city centre neighbourhoods.

For 50 years now, they have been leaving for the suburbs – in part, to escape the industrial activity in the city centre.

I love my neighbourhood, metal-shredding facility and all. And I’m sure most people in Champlain Heights feel the same way, even with the refinery there.

But many people in the region don’t, and it keeps them from wanting to live here.

Maybe who don’t live in Champlain Heights are ok with the refinery because they’re like me, just passing through on a morning run.

Maybe people who don’t live in the city centre are fine with the metal-shredder because they only hear it on their lunchtime walk on Harbour Passage.

Most of them return to the quiet of the suburbs at the end of the day.

Then again, the suburbs aren’t always the peaceful places I make them out to me. This past Sunday, I went for a long run to Hampton through the Kennebecasis Valley. I didn’t hear many birds chirp with the steady sound of traffic on the Rothesay Road and Old Hampton Highway.

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Webcams Make Public Spaces Permanently Public

Webcams should be posted in public places where valuable community assets exist, where public safety is a concern, and where events that matter to many often occur.

We should bring the public in to watch our neighbourhoods, take in a show, share the energy of a place when they can’t be there, and help to keep us safe by implying that our community cares about this place and people may be watching it any time of the day. Might that deter unwanted offences against our community?

“there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.”

- Jane Jacobs, pioneer of modern thinking around livable cities (emphasis mine)

The Libertarian Argument is a Paranoid One

See the picture above? It was taken by a person with a camera in a public place and shared on a well-known media outlet’s Facebook page. It is unlikely that the individuals in that photo granted verbal or written permission for it to be taken and published and I doubt the news outlet has received any complaints about its publication. Why? Because we have long understood that choosing to visit a public space means fair game for anyone that might want to witness our presence there, live or recorded, and our courts support that understanding.

Furthermore, compared to the cameras in the majority of Canadian’s pockets (74% of us, actually) ready to take pictures in public and private settings, the cams that I feel we should propose, consult with the public on, then install and share open, public live feeds from should be a minor concern for any libertarian. We should all know where public webcams exist and if we don’t like it, in extreme cases we can always make one or two of them a municipal election issue.

A Record of the Mistakes of Youth

People will do stupid things, as we all did, and it will be captured and shared. But it is more likely to be captured and shared by their peers than any camera our community installs in a tree or the side of a building.

One of the basic features of Canada’s controversial Youth Criminal Justice Act is forgiveness. I believe that in the coming years, our society will learn forgiveness like we never have before. As young people continue to challenge their boundaries and make irresponsible choices in public, on camera, and online, we will learn to forgive them because we all know the only difference between us and them is the technology available at the time of our youth.

The Police Should Not Have Exclusive Access

I believe that our installation of webcams should extend the eyes of the public to the online world. I do not believe that surveillance cameras that provide exclusive access to justice authorities would support a community-minded sentiment.

Webcams expose our public spaces and invite everyone in to watch and participate in what happens there. Surveillance cameras breed a paternal, monitored atmosphere in which we are reminded of the power that others may have over us. This is hardly a community building exercise.

Sure, the police should have access to these camera feeds and use them to do their jobs, but their access should not be exclusive to them, it should be shared with the rest of us the way our public spaces truly are.

Protect Precious Investments

With the limited funds we have in our city, we should not be spending public dollars on public assets without giving the public access to watch, enjoy, and protect those assets. King’s Square, the Market Square Boardwalk, Harbour Passage and other places have recently or will soon receive significant investments (private investments and gifts to the community in some cases) and each location should have a plan to bring public eyeballs on them to ensure they continue to be cared for.

Bring the public in to watch our neighbourhoods, take in a show, share the energy of a place when they can’t be there, and keep us safe. It makes complete sense and it is what any self-respecting community does to protect its people and its assets.

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Let’s Charge a Waste Management Fee to Distributors of Unsolicited Garbage

It’s yellowpages garbage spreading day in our neighbourhood! Today the delivery dudes walked down our street and threw (yes threw) big hunks of dead trees on everyone’s doorstep. Did anyone request this? Nope. Will anyone find a use for it? Considering the penetration of high speed internet in our ‘hood I would say not many. retun-to-waster-stamp-to-stop-junk-mail

So how about this: if you are an unenlightened advertiser who sees a marginal bump in sales after distributing costly garbage to the mailboxes and doorsteps of every resident in the land, maybe our community should add an extra expense for you to do that. This would help finance a new waste management system and discourage all but the most disrespectful companies from continuing this silly practice.

Canada Post, Yellow Pages, Rogers and more will all be put out by this rude interruption of their ancient marketing practices. The cost of progress, as they say.

Last month we learned that our waste management protocols, facilities and practices will be reviewed over the next year as we press on toward an expiration date for our current landfill near the middle of the century. Many members of our peoplecity, like me, have made a strong case for the need for region-wide curbside recycling.

But how will we pay for it? We will pay for it by revisiting the issue through the lens of the 21st century not the 20th. So much has changed since the last time our waste management practices were reviewed. There is now community-wide agreement that

1. reusing and recycling what we consume is best for us all,

2. how we seek, find, and distribute products has changed significantly, and

3. smart businesses reach consumers through nurturing communities, not broadcasting messages scattershot.

I’ll admit, I haven’t thought through the mechanics of such a fee (and the current Municipalities Act may hinder us from doing so until it is revised next year). But someone is paying money to produce and distribute this junk and we, as residents, pay to dispose of it. That relationship needs to be adjusted.

It’s actually ILLEGAL in Canada to mass distribute junk email or for contact centres to bother people on the national Do-Not-Call list. How in heck is it legal to deliver this physical spam to everyone’s door?

Let’s upload that expense back on the businesses who still consider this equation worth it to do so and help pay for an efficient waste management system we need to find a way to finance.