Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Missing Link


The announcement this week that the U.S. had given approval to proceed with the Alaska2Alberta railroad has once again ignited hopes for a railroad that would open up the North and complete the transcontinental rail system between Canada and the United States. Since 1899 when the first railroad connecting Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon (known as the White Pass & Yukon line) was completed during the Klondike gold rush there have been numerous attempts to piece it all together. In 1903 the Alaska Railroad started laying track in Seward and by 1923 it was connected via Anchorage all the way to Fairbanks and has been running a combination freight and passenger rail service ever since. The White Pass & Yukon railroad is also still running.

In 1912 the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later to become BC Rail) started building a line that would go from Vancouver to Prince George and from there connect to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway being built across Canada to compete with Canadian Pacific (CP Rail) and Canadian National (CN Rail). By 1919 both rail companies were broke and there was only a stretch of line going from Squamish to Clinton. It wasn't until 1949 when the government stepped in that construction resumed and by 1952 the line to Prince George was completed and connected with CN Rail. By 1958 BC Rail had expanded to Dawson Creek and Fort St. John and by 1971 it was extended to Fort Nelson less than 100 miles south of the Yukon border.

Another route north towards Dease Lake had also been partially completed but, by the 1980's, it was closed due to lack of freight and profitability. The push northwards had come tantalizingly close. Even though an Alaska state study suggested a connection would be financially feasible, the BC government had lost its appetite for further financing and suggested it was up to the American and Alaskan governments to bankroll the expansion. Unfortunately the post war momentum had been lost and, while a railroad bill had been passed in the U.S. to negotiate an agreement with Canada, nothing further was ever done.

In 2003 BC Rail was eventually sold to CN which had also purchased the Mackenzie Northern Railway that connects Edmonton, Alberta to Hay River, Northwest Territories, the northernmost trackage of the contiguous North American railway network. A map of the North American Railway Network shows that while most of the continent is well connected, there is an obvious gap in the northwest corner that a connection from Fairbanks to either Fort Nelson or Hay River would complete but it would be at a $22 billion cost. In 2006, a U.S. released study validated the financial viability of a railroad connecting Alaska to the Yukon and N.W.T. as did a 2016 Canadian study, so once again the push is on to build a trans-national railway. 

Besides moving Alberta oil and other products through to the American port of Anchorage, and speeding up the delivery of Asian containers into the various corners of North America, this section of railway would also be able to carry passengers which, in turn, would be a tremendous boost for northern tourism. Between all the jobs created in the construction and maintenance of this railway, and the attendant stimulus for the communities in both the Yukon and N.W.T., the plan also calls for First Nations people to be stakeholders in the enterprise. Another welcome development.

Not to be outdone by the visionaries at A2A Rail, there are those who have even more ambitious plans for opening up the north. In this case they see the expansion of the railway going from Alaska to Russia via an underground tunnel in the Bering Sea, where a track could then be laid that would connect to the Trans-Siberian Railway system. So many possibilities for the north that are only limited by our imagination, but it all depends on completing the missing link we have been waiting on for over 100 years. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What The World Needs Now

When I look out my window and see the ocean in front of me I often think about those days a few hundred years ago when people thought the world was flat and sailing into the unknown would lead to falling off the edge. It was common sense after all just like night and day was because the Sun god rode across the sky by day and through the Underworld by night. It was also common sense to accept that the Sun and all the planets revolved around the Earth and to suggest otherwise could have you imprisoned or put to death. There was no such thing as bacteria because common sense said if you couldn't see something with the naked eye it didn't exist. 

Slowly but surely observations were made that confirmed the world was in fact a sphere, night and day was because every 24 hours the Earth rotates on its axis while facing the Sun, and all the planets including Earth rotate around the Sun. Inventions like the telescope and microscope expanded the limits of what we could see and allowed us to make all kinds of important discoveries even if at first they were disbelieved. And, as science took control over common sense and superstition, we started making rapid technological progress in all sorts of fields, particularly in health and sanitation.

However, this hasn't prevented groups of people from still believing in a flat Earth, the voyage to the Moon was a hoax, and that vaccinations are harmful. Spurred on by conspiracy theorists and social media, false rumours are being spread that link the COVID outbreak to a plot by Bill Gates and others to control the world or that the electromagnetic fields of 5G technology have caused COVID. No matter how modern we become the willingness of people to believe in common sense ideas never ends.

But, while we have made so much progress in the fields such as health & medicine, transportation, and consumer goods there is still much to be done in the field of economics where we live in a world where 2% of the population controls 90% of the wealth. Common sense myths continue to constrain any meaningful change and they range from a belief in the gold standard, to cliches that anyone can make it if they just work hard enough and unemployment is a poor work attitude, all the way to the notion that a household's finances can be compared to that of a sovereign nation. Fortunately these myths are being challenged by a new school of economic thought, though they are facing the same sort of criticism from the establishment that Galileo did from the Church.

Just because a household should live within its means doesn't mean a government has to be constrained by the amount of tax money it has to spend. This is an old common sense argument and a false analogy because, while a household has to borrow to cover any monetary shortage, a government can simply print more money to purchase what it needs. As long as the government issues and controls the money it taxes and spends it can never run out or go bankrupt so it doesn't even need to issue bonds or debt. To avoid inflation, if there is too much money in the economy, it can simply raise taxes to cool things down. It also controls the interest rate.

Modern monetary theory or MMT as this is called offers governments a chance to create programs that will offer full employment to its citizens, upgrade its infrastructure, and improve the social health and safety net with little or no concern for the cost. Rather than try to dismiss this new thinking with old common sense arguments that are perpetuating a system benefiting the wealthy, perhaps a more scientific approach should be taken. Japan for example has the highest public debt ratio in the world yet it also has a zero interest rate, no inflation, 2.5% unemployment, and a very healthy public bond market.

Debunking common sense myths allowed those early explorers to find new lands and ultimately connect the world. Maybe it's time we started to examine some of our modern myths around economics and took a chance on making the world a little less unequal. We never know what we might find but our continued progress depends on it. It's what the world needs now.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Time Has Come Today

The 25 land-locked Inuit communities of Nunavut have a number of problems in common including, high food costs, a shortage of housing, and a reliance on diesel generators for power. Solving these problems would greatly improve their living conditions. If we could do it with a made-in-Canada solution that would be even better because it would allow us to demonstrate technological expertise that could be exported elsewhere. Fortunately we have this opportunity.

The first thing lacking in these northern communities is a way of growing fresh vegetables and, as a result, they have to pay exorbitant prices to have everything flown in. One obvious solution would be to build greenhouses and take advantage of the latest in hydroponic technology. With 24 hour sunlight in the summer months the crops could be growing day and night and in winter grow lights could be used instead. Mastering the challenges of operating a greenhouse in the north would also offer employment to its residents. A greenhouse in every community should be a priority.

A greenhouse also requires heat to operate and here is where reverse refrigeration/heat pumps come in. Instead of using warm air to cool a room you use cool air to heat it. These air-source heat pumps are already in use throughout Canadian homes and now there are also geothermal heat pumps that operate on the same principle by drawing heat from the ground. The extra cold air of these northern communities will put a strain on conventional heat pumps but refining this technology is where the opportunity lies for Canada. Refined heat pump technology could also be used to provide better heating for the homes of these residents who are suffering from poor ventilation and the effects of fuel oil and propane heating issues.

Even more serious than a lack of fresh produce is the lack of housing in the north where 36% of the population is waiting for housing, 34% of the housing is in need of major repairs, and more than 50% are living in overcrowded conditions which are contributing to shocking levels of tuberculosis. Yes it costs more to build in the north and there may be a lack of skilled trades so the most obvious solution would be to use pre-fabricated homes that could be constructed elsewhere and simply shipped to these communities for installation. Any time a mining company wants to set up an operation that's exactly what they do so why can't the government simply coordinate things? Each of these communities is accessible by ship during the summer when the ice breaks up so it isn't that difficult to deliver these pre-fab homes and there are numerous Canadian companies who already have the experience of building them. 

Energy use in the north is very different from the rest of the country in that it is completely dependent on refined oil that has to be imported from provinces in the south. 100% of the communities in Nunavut have to use diesel powered plants to generate their electricity. While some renewable options are being reviewed the biggest breakthrough for meeting its energy needs could come from nuclear power, specifically the new technology referred to as Small Modular Reactors or SMRs. Small enough to fit on the back of a truck or in a shipping container, and using new technologies that incorporate liquid salt or helium for cooling and passive built-in safety features, these nuclear reactors produce between 5 - 100 megawatts of electricity which is easily enough to power any of these communities that average only 2,000 inhabitants. 

Micro Modular Reactor Energy System

A partnership between Global First Power, an energy provider specializing in the project development of small nuclear power plants, Ultra Safe Nuclear, a company that has developed the Micro Modular Reactor technology, and Ontario Power Generation, a Crown corporation which produces half the power Ontario uses and operates both the Pickering and Darlington nuclear generating stations, is preparing to build a demonstration plant at an Atomic Energy Canada site. Nuclear energy is a clean, reliable, energy source and a key component to reducing greenhouse gas, something the environmental movement is finally starting to realize. Canada has long been a leader in this field and, with all the challenges in the North that SMRs could solve, this could be our opportunity to demonstrate leadership in an exciting new technology.

With the railway to Churchill now repaired and operating again and the Port re-opened, this strategically positioned city is perfectly positioned to be the delivery gateway to all these northern communities. Pre-fab housing, greenhouses, and SMRs could all be assembled and stored in Churchill during the winter and spring months and then loaded onto ships for delivery during the summer break-up. With global warming adding to the number of ice-free days in Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean it becomes even more cost effective. Solving the critical issues of the North offers so much potential for the people living there and the rest of Canada. The time has come today, let's seize the opportunity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Pity The Poor Immigrant

COVID has certainly shown how dependent we are on all the recent immigrants and would-be immigrants in this country but whether or not we wish to show our gratitude towards them is a completely different story. Usually employed in the low-paying jobs that most Canadians shy away from, little thought is ever given to how we would manage without them until suddenly they aren't there any longer. And instead of trying to make things a little easier for these folks doing all these thankless tasks, we come up with rules and procedures that make their lives even harder. 

Take for example the medical workers. All those nurses aides struggling to earn a living and having to juggle part-time work at a variety of nursing homes and hospitals because they couldn't get a permanent position which would also have provided them with benefits we all take for granted. We're happy to let these people wipe our bums, bathe and feed us and otherwise put our lives in their hands but we don't want to pay them one penny over minimum wage. And this doesn't even begin to address the issue of qualified doctors and nurses who have emigrated here only to find out we won't recognize their qualifications or the restrictions we put on nannies and aides who aren't allowed to bring in their husbands and children. 

Then there are the poor temporary farm workers. Housed in disgusting, overcrowded bunkhouses with substandard communal washroom conditions and separated from their families for months at a time while they work long hours planting, tilling, and harvesting the food essential to our existence. Once again this is a group doing it for minimum wage or less while still having to feed and clothe their families back home. We don't offer these hard working folks an opportunity to emigrate here even though it's clear they aren't taking away jobs from anyone. There isn't a Canadian prepared to do this work even for the $2,000.00 monthly Emergency Response Benefit and yet we let the unemployed just sit at home.

And then we have the grocery store folks, especially the ones at the checkout. Here they are putting themselves in the most dangerous position of all by potentially breathing in everyone's germs as we cough, sneeze, and chatter away without wearing any face masks ourselves. Immigrants again, working for minimum wage to ensure we get all the food and toiletries we need. 

Of course the reason we are paying these essential workers such a low wage is because we don't want to pay anything other than the lowest possible price for our health care and groceries even though there is really nothing more important.  By turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of these people we have been able to live in splendid ignorance but, thanks to COVID, we now have to acknowledge it's time to make some changes. As another Canada Day rolls around better wages, working & living conditions, and a clear path to becoming a Canadian citizen are the minimum we can do. Rather than pity them we need to welcome the poor immigrant with a more generous spirit that recognizes how important they are to this country.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Looking Out My Back Door

Stanley Park
One of the unexpected benefits of the Covid lock-down is having the chance to really get acquainted with your own backyard. In my case, living on the edge of English Bay, I'm particularly fortunate as I can go for my morning swim in the ocean and then later go for a hike in my backyard, otherwise known as Stanley Park. The jewel of Vancouver, this 1,000 acre peninsula bordering the downtown and surrounded by the waters of English Bay and Burrard Inlet, is home to an amazingly diverse collection of attractions offering something for everyone.

In spite of countless walks along the seawall, visits to the Aquarium, attending concerts & plays at Malkin Bowl, dining at the various restaurants, watching cricket and rugby games at Brockton Oval, riding the miniature train, going on photo expeditions in Lost Lagoon and Beaver Lake, playing tennis and golf, swimming at 2nd Beach Pool, and being a member of the Vancouver Rowing Club, I had never seriously explored the more than 27 km of beautifully groomed trails running through the Park but now I had the perfect opportunity.

The original skid roads for the selective logging that took place in the Park in the 1860's-1880's later formed the basis of the trail system in use today. While the Park is still densely forested with a mixture of Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar trees, there is plenty of evidence of trees that were cut down with the old hand logging methods using springboards that were notched into what is now the stump of the tree. The ghosts of these mighty trees can be found throughout the Park.

The Park supports a wide range of creatures including elusive coyotes and beavers, fearsome squirrels, and mysterious lions. Canada geese that don't seem to fly north or south, various species of ducks, owls and bald eagles, and one of the largest colonies of blue herons in North America are some of the birds that also make the Park their home. There's even room for horses. And, like parks everywhere, it also provides shelter for various homeless individuals.

Beaver lodge in Beaver Lake
Fearsome Gray Squirrel - photo by Junie Quiroga

Mysterious Stanley Park Lion

Blue Heron - photo by Junie Quiroga

Homeless Crib
From the beautifully appointed rose garden, to water lilies and other plants around Beaver Lake, and the rhododendron garden on the edge of Lost Lagoon, it's the flowers that make it for some while, for others, its just the cool shaded ferns and trees in the forest.

When the City of Vancouver was incorporated in 1886 the first order of business was to secure the park from the dominion government (who had been using it as a military reserve) and in 1888 it was officially named Stanley Park after Lord Stanley, the country's governor general, who also donated the Stanley Cup that was later given to the NHL. In 1938 the Lions Gate Bridge, a suspension bridge connecting Vancouver to the North Shore through the middle of Stanley Park, was opened and included a pair of cast concrete lions in reference to the pair of north shore mountain peaks known as The Lions. A trail to the start of the bridge enables one to get up close and personal with the lions, get their autograph, and even go underneath the bridge itself to get to the other side.

Nelson and The Lions
Lions Gate Lion

The trails not only offer good exercise and a cardio workout as you climb in elevation from Lost Lagoon to Prospect Point they also provide stunning views of the ocean and other natural attractions like Siwash Rock. According to various coastal first nations legends a man was transformed into the rock either as punishment for some evil deed or as a reward for unselfishness. 

Of course after all that exercise the first thing that comes to mind is a nice cold beer and something to eat. While the pubs and restaurants in the City are all closed at least the newly opened Stanley Park Brewpub is offering takeout which can then be discreetly consumed on a nearby bench.

Mark & Nelson
And even if the swimming pools are closed, the ocean is always open and all you need is a wetsuit to be able to enjoy a pleasant morning swim in English Bay. Stanley Park has allowed me to keep fit and stay active no matter what is going on in the world and, thanks to this temporary health crisis, I've had the opportunity to appreciate and explore things I've never seen before. All I had to do was take a look out my own back door.

Ian, Peter & Nelson