Month Long Heatwave (and counting)

July was the hottest month on record for Ontario. While many parts of Canada have had to deal with lacklustre summer-weather, we’ve had the opposite. We’re just coming off the 6th heat alert of the season and on July 21st Toronto’s temperatures peaked at 37 C with a humidex making it feel like 51. This kind of heat isn’t always easy to deal with; it can be uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous. But it is possible to coexist with it and I don’t mean just moving between air-conditioned spaces. There are lots of little things that Jim and I have started doing this summer that has made the heat easier to tolerate.

  • Windows and Fans: We’ve adopted an old fashioned approach to keeping our apartment cooler. Despite the heat during the days there have been very few nights where the temperate didn’t drop to at least the mid-20s. During the days we keep our windows and blinds closed. And at night we open them up and use a fan to blow the cooler air in. Using this approach means we’ve only had to turn our AC on a handful of times when the nightly temperature didn’t drop.
  • Summer Kitchen: We’ve pretty much stopped cooking inside. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped cooking. Instead, cooking has moved to our back deck by using a barbeque and propane burner. Most of our canning will likely also take place outside this year, which seems like a much better place to have a large pot of boiling water.
  • Early Mornings: The coolest hour of the day is usually 5am and it isn’t a coincidence that it also happens to be around the same time that I run. Since I dislike indoors exercise more that waking up really early, I’ve made the adjustment. Outdoor activity is still possible later in the day, it is just a lot slower and sweatier.
  • Yogurt Pops: Cool and hydrating is a necessity for snacks. My favourite recipe is yogurt pops: 1 cup of in season fruit (berries or peaches usually), 1 cup of yogurt, and a tablespoon of honey mixed in a blender and frozen in pop moulds.

And in the spirit of John Horn’s positivity, here are a few reasons to love the steamy summer days in Ontario:

  1. Smog-less heat – it seams that despite all the heat there really haven’t been that many days where air quality has been an issue (not like a few years ago). I suggest it likely has something to do with the Provincial government’s Green Energy Act and closing coal fired power plants. Regardless, the heat and humidity are a lot easier to take when it isn’t also asthma inducing.
  2. Greenhouse growing conditions – there is very little diversity in my container garden (unless 12 different varieties of tomato plants count as diversity). But the tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and basil that I do grow are thriving in the heat and humidity, which is basically a replication of the conditions found in greenhouses elsewhere.
  3. Siestas – who doesn’t like a good excuse to nap, even if it is heat induced? While my working days are powered by Markham District Energy’s distributed cooling system (basically a community sharing AC), my weekends aren’t and as a result I’ve started to enjoy the occasional nap to get through the worst of the heat.


Simcoe or Bust: Transportation in Rural Canada

Steve Sloot, as a youngster, getting around Simcoe and other parts of rural Ontario

Early 20th century American novelist Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “you can never go home again.”  He was talking about the change in yourself and your birthplace through the passage of time and never being able to recapture what you’d romanticized in your mind as you age.

Today I intended to write about going back to the place I grew up as an adult and how it’s changed and seems smaller.  I was going to write how I judge it and feel wisps of nostalgia, how I see younger versions of myself everywhere.  I wanted to write about the people I used to know in personalized historical scenarios, scenarios that formed me and challenged me.

But I’m not going to write about that at all.

This blog posting is about the bus.

I am sixth or seventh generation Simcoe, Ontario (it could be earlier, but my mother hasn’t gotten around to tracing further back into our genealogical heritage on this bit of soil).  Simcoe is a farming town between deep in southwestern Ontario not too far from Lake Erie.  As kids we would listen to more news from Erie, Pennsylvania than we did from Toronto.  The town hasn’t changed in size much in my three decades.  It’s a hub for the surrounding smaller towns of Delhi, Waterford, Port Dover, and all the hamlets dotted in between.  Simcoe is home to NHL defenseman Rob Clark and The Band’s famed rocker Rick Danko.  It’s a steady place full of tobacco farmers who have weathered the decline of smokers (either through death or smartening up).  There are some 15,000 Simconians who call this place home.

And not one goddamn bus that comes here.

That’s right.  None.  Not a train either.  Greyhound boasts 3,100 locations across North America, but has somehow skipped over Simcoe, Ontario.  I know this because I have been victim to the lack of public transportation more than once in my life.  I’ve rented cars and taken expensive airport shuttles; I’ve begged rides and coordinated carpools.  Getting to Simcoe, Ontario, requires driving yourself or driving yourself nuts finding affordable transportation.  So hire a van or set of mules, procure a chopper or you stick out your thumb and hope that small town Canada doesn’t let you down on lonely highway #24.  But no bus or train will bring you here.

When I tell this to Europeans they don’t believe me.  My friends from Asian countries scoff at the possibility.

As Canadians know, this is how most of us get around the rural parts of the country. Unless it's winter (September to July), then we just stay inside and watch hockey.

South Americans I’ve met don’t trust my account either: “there must be a bus or van or something that takes people…maybe you just don’t know about it?”  Oh, I know.  I know very well.  I’ve never owned a car of my own and have relied on friends and family to cart me around every time I come to visit.  My mother, never having a licence in her life (my Dad always did the driving before he died fifteen years ago), relies on my mid-80s grandfather or a lift to get groceries from her home in the even more rural hamlet of Port Ryerse.  What is wrong with rural Canada?  Is it the same everywhere?

You’re damn right.

Simcoe is not alone.  It’s not even Simcoe’s fault.  In my university days there was a 15-passenger van that drove from Brantford to Simcoe twice a day for about $15 one-way.  Not bad.  But it was almost always empty.  Just before it shut down I remember the driver, a very chatty man in his fifties, telling me, “there just aren’t enough people who use the service.”  There you had it.  Not economically viable.  Not really environmental either, having a half-empty van driving up and down highway #24.  The train had folded decades before, even the tracks removed and a bike-path put in its place.  But a bike path won’t get you from A to B in the dead of an Ontario winter.  And I’m a (self-described) hardcore cyclist!

I was told a story once about Henry Ford.  I’m not sure it’s true.  Supposedly once he got enough capital from his car company he bought the Detroit trolley and shut it down.  Thus, more people had to buy cars.  A great business move, but also a dick move.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Canadian communities that are not reachable by public transit.  Newfoundland outports, wee communities nestled along the southern coast, are dying because it’s too expensive to keep those ferries running for the villages of 80 people, like Grey River, a small community I visited a decade ago that had no roads and was only accessible by boat.  People were waiting for the government buy-out to leave.  It was cheaper to give them money to leave than it was to keep that diesel boat cruising up and down all year round.

In Saskatchewan there used to be a grain elevator every mile.  Now you’ll be lucky to have one every hundred along the highway.  Towns there are dying.  My time in Eastend would have been nearly impossible if I didn’t have that big white van supplied to me by the organization I worked for, Katimavik.  We would go and visit the ghost towns around Eastend – creepy places with abandoned schools and restaurants.  Simcoe is probably not in any great peril of dying any time soon like Grey River, Newfoundland or a Dollard, Saskatchewan.  Public transportation once flooded rural Canada, but now it’s dried up in the worst public transit drought we’ve ever had.

Wolfe wrote about the changing of a place and never being able to revisit that which is gone.  In Simcoe “you can never go home again” because you simply can’t get there.

La Communauté & Infiltrating Quebec

As I sit in my warm, cozy Vancouver apartment I am followed by the thought of the bitter cold that awaits me.  I’m not talking only about the physical chill that will shiver down my spine in a few weeks, but the breathy peering in from the frozen streets as an outsider.

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Who’s Your Farmer? Part 1

On the surface, the food landscape of Canada looks pretty good. There is an abundance of food in our grocery stores. We now have more selection and year round availability. And for that food we’re now paying the smallest percentage of our household expenditure (just under 10%) that we’ve ever spent and North Americans spend one of the smallest percentages of our income on food in the world. The current food system seems to generally be working for the retailers and even sometimes for consumers, but what about farmers?

They are a community that obviously plays a major role in feeding us, but the way the food system is currently set up farmers have been marginalized and may even been teetering on exstinction. There are a lot of professionals out there where we get to make personal connections with like doctors, teachers, accountants and even Daily Gumboot correspondents. But do you have someone that you can put a face to that grows your food? And that you can trust is providing you with food that is safe, healthy, nutritious and delicious? The rest of this post is going to help you get to know Canadian farmers and a few of the challenges that they are up against (and then my next post will be a more positive one on farming innovation and what you can eat to help).

First off, there aren’t that many farmers in Canada anymore. Only 2.4 percent of us are farmers and this is the fewest farmers we’ve ever had (we peaked at 32 percent in the 1930s). And the farmers that we do have overwhelmingly fit into a very specific demographic profile: aging (the average age is over 50 now), caucasian and male. Almost half of farm operators are reporting non-farm income (basically they need to have a second job). In terms of farms, there are fewer of them and they are bigger. 98 percent of the farms are still family businesses but they are under fairly serious threat, whether it is from land being bought up, farmer debt or corporate financing of farm inputs. Farmers are increasingly moving toward corporate control and as a result farmers are losing the ability to do even basic things like save seed from year to year.

The food system has also been changing in a way that is making it harder for a lot of farmers to distribute or process their goods. There are a lot of examples out there. The last fruit cannery closed in Niagara a couple of years ago and a lot of farmers had nowhere to sell their fruit. The result was perfectly productive fruit orchards being uprooted and farmers having to scramble to move to new crops. There is also an abattoir crisis in Ontario. 15 years ago there were 900 businesses to process meat and poultry and now there are about 130.  The main cause of the closers has been a dramatic change in the standards, where small and medium sized abattoirs need to meet the same standards as the large scale ones (even if the small and medium ones don’t have the same safety issues as the large ones). Even the standardization of grocery store produce is a roadblock for farmers to get their goods into grocery stores. A farmer now needs to grow and package their lettuce in the same way that California does or many grocery stores and restaurants won’t buy it. Most farmers don’t have the resources to set up on site processing and when they do they struggle to navigate local land use planning to get it set up and if they are lucky enought to get that far they have their taxes go through the roof because they now have a commercial property (at least inOntario this is the case).

Canada’s farming community is facing significant pressures from a number of directions. But despite these challenges, I’ve met a lot of farmers, who want to continue farming and their kids, who want to stay in the family business. And with the raising awareness about local food, there already are opportunities for the farming community to move into new niches, new farmers to get their start and for innovative new businesses to bridge the gaps that exist in the middle of the food system between producers and consumers. Part 2 of “Who’s Your Farmer?” (to be posted 2 weeks) will have ideas on how you can get to better know your farmers and help farming in Canada become viable once again.

Peanut Butter and Tuna: Sometimes gimmicks do the trick

There are a lot of really bad things in the world that deserve our attention. A lot of causes that we could be dedicating our time. Charities that we could be donating our money. Change that we could be advocating for. At a recent BCAMA event focused on sustainable marketing, a speaker from the Vancouver-based marketing firm Octopus Strategies discussed how with such an array of causes and corresponding public appeals, passion alone isn’t enough to drive your personal cause – something more is needed to engage the public. But what exactly is this “something more”? Is there a formula where you can plunk in your cause, your goal, and your audience and the perfect engagement tactic will spit out? Unfortunately, this is not the case (well – not yet at least – socially responsible mathematicians get to work!)

Recent scientific findings (and no, these are not related to most of the “recent findings” cited by John Horn on the popularity of Johnism) have shown that us humans have a physiological response to inequality – namely, the human brain, upon confronting an inequitable situation, reacts more positively and strongly when those in an inequitable or unfair situation are given more equitable or fair treatment. We all know this pretty innately – nobody likes to see others suffer. But the breadth of appeals that confront us can be overwhelming, and when we don’t actually see or experience these inequalities in our daily lives, it can be difficult to become engaged. Stats don’t lie, as they say, but they certainly make it easy to remain far removed.

An amazing public awareness campaign in Toronto recently caught my eye, and made me think about some possible solutions to these frighteningly overwhelming questions about engaging the masses. The Stop Community Food Centre has just wrapped up it’s Do the Math Campaign, which aimed to raise awareness about the dismally inadequate social assistance program in Ontario. I encourage you all to take a moment, go to the site, and Do the Math. Trust me, when you do you’ll find that a person attempting to live off of social assistance does not receive enough income to live with health and dignity.

This campaign caught my eye because it engaged Torontonians in a clever and unique way towards a very specific goal. Popular and influential Torontonians, including Naomi Klein, city councilor Joe Miheyc and Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown, stepped up to the (mostly empty) plate to raise awareness about how difficult it is for a person living on social assistance to live in health and with dignity. Relying on food hampers and drop-in lunches for a week, they blogged about their experiences living off drastically limited choices and encouraged others to become involved. This campaign succeeded in getting people involved because it used prominent public figures as a bridge between worlds – between the haves and have-nots – that is seldom crossed. It took advantage of technology to reach young adults, a particularly hard group to reach. It sucked readers in with curiosity and kept them there with personal stories from people they respected and trusted. It made people think … would I be able to survive if I only had $30.00 – $60.00/month for all of the food I consume? If I had to plan and stick to a budget so tight that every single penny was accounted for (check out this blog by a Vancouver Island resident living on a very limited budge for more on this)? Participants and organizers alike were quick to recognize that in no way was the experience of these participants anything like those of someone actually living in poverty, but statistics can only go so far and gimmicks and theatre often work to engage otherwise desensitized citizens.

There are a lot of friends and family in my life who work tirelessly for causes, who ooze passion from their pores and work every day to make this world a better place. Finding this balance between passion and clever tactics is never easy, but so necessary in order to make the changes we hope to see a reality.

What have we done since the last Earth Hour?

This Saturday is Earth Hour. For the fourth year the World Wildlife Fund is leading a campaign asking households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights and other electrical appliances for one hour to raise awareness for the need to take action on climate change. This year, Earth Hour is expected to be the biggest one yet, with an expected 1 billion participants from around the world. If participation numbers are any indication, this campaign has been a runaway success. However, the hour-long gesture of turning off your lights is the easy part. The real challenge with electricity generated GHGs is the other 364 days and 23 hours of the year.

Our federal government hasn’t shown much leadership when it comes to climate change. So that means the provincial and local levels of government have to step up to the plate. In Ontario, we have our work cut out for us. We’re the most populous province and the second highest producer of GHGs in Canada after Alberta.  Electricity is one area where we have opportunity to make significant GHG reductions. Unlike BC, which produces a significant majority of electricity from hydro (around 90%), Ontario is producing about 20% of its energy through coal-fired power plants, about 8% through natural gas-fired power plants (set to rise as we phase-out coal) and over 50% through nuclear power plants. The remainder is mainly from hydro with a tiny percentage from small scale renewables.

When it comes to electricity, there are 2 sides of the GHG reduction equation that need to be considered – production and consumption. And the Green Energy Act, still less than a year old, is how our provincial government is empowering (and in some cases coercing) us to reduce GHGs that come from the electricity sector.

On the production side there are now major incentives for small scale renewable energy production and that is opening up the opportunities for a whole range of community based renewable energy projects. The feed-in tariff means that if you produce small scale renewable energy (less than a 10 kilowatts) and feed it into the grid you are guaranteed a set price for the power you produce. There are also feed-in tariffs for larger projects (but rates aren’t as lucrative). The Green Energy Act also made the process of setting up renewable energy projects more streamlined and consistent throughout the province. The early results are promising. Small businesses are starting up and looking for creative ways to use the feed-in tariff, like leasing rooftops from residents for solar installations. Plus municipalities are now looking at how to get into renewable energy production. The result could be more secure funding for municipal programs in addition to the obvious environmental benefits.

On the consumption side, the Green Energy Act, is promising to create a “culture of conservation.” The biggest change most of us will see is time-of-use pricing on our electricity bills. Basically, we now get charged different rates depending on the time of day we use electricity. This is one of the best cases I’ve seen of community-based social marketing in action. The province did the groundwork of understanding the psychology around the barriers and benefits people perceive related to conserving energy. And then the local energy distribution companies are delivering the program, relying mainly on the incentive of saving money to get people to shift the time they use electricity. They are also offering tools, like smart meters, to help understand energy use. It is a significantly different program than the information heavy, brochure driven campaigns of the past and I expect that it will have much better results.

So as Earth Hour comes and goes this year, it looks like Ontario has done quite a bit over the last year to complement the hour of darkness. The province has set out a framework for green energy production and energy conservation that individuals and communities are starting to embrace. It means that the energy I use is gradually going to become greener and that I now think more about when during the day I use energy.  That’s not a bad start.

Growing Pains

Greenbelt_mapIn the GTA the question of whether an individual municipality should continue population and economic growth isn’t up for debate. That question has already been decided. But what really needs to be considered is how to grow and the decisions that GTA municipalities are in the process of making now will shape our communities for decades to come.

To provide some context, other than Lake Ontario, there are no natural barriers to constrain the GTA’s outward growth. And since Lake Ontario has been subject to infilling, even it to a small extent has been encroached upon. And the result of no natural boundaries, supportive provincial policy, demand for single family homes, cheap fuel for our cars, big pipes and roads, etc. has been decades of unconstrained growth and sprawling suburban municipalities. (It’s a lot more complicated than that, so check out Frances Frisken’s The Public Metropolis: The Political Dynamics of Urban Expansion in the Toronto Region, 1924-2003 or John Sewell’s Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl).

The pace of outward growth is now being disrupted by two pieces of provincial legislation: “The Greenbelt Act” and “The Places to Grow Act”. In short, the Greenbelt protects 1.8 million acres of land from development in 2005 and is based on supporting the environment, recreation and agriculture. Greenbelts aren’t a new concept. BC has an Agricultural Land Reserve and Ottawa also has a Greenbelt.

The companion piece of legislation is “The Places to Grow Act”. It charts out growth in the GTA until 2031 and expects an additional 3.7 million people to move to the GTA by then, bringing the total population to around 11.5 million. Plus, the plan includes the forecast for 1.8 million new jobs. On the maps it includes land designated between the Greenbelt and the developed area that has the potential for further outward development (it is commonly called the Whitebelt). Since Places to Grow was enacted in 2005 the province has given growth targets to regional municipalities and the regional municipalities are now in turn setting growth targets for their local municipalities (most suburban municipalities in the GTA are two tiered).

For most GTA municipalities it took around 5 years to get to the point where there is a clearer picture of what kind of growth targets they actually have to deal with. And now the question they all have to grapple with is how to grow. Between last year and this year most municipalities will be deciding how much of that growth will be intensification (within the current built up area) and how much will be in the Whitebelt (a lot of that is still being farmed). Some are toying with the idea of growing the Greenbelt, so the province now has guidelines for municipalities to follow. Markham, one of where I work, has yet to determine its intensification and is having a public meeting on Tuesday, February 16th.

The Greenbelt and Places to Grow have the potential and intention to move the GTA’s municipalities towards being more sustainable, livable, walkable, bikeable, transit oriented, compact and complete communities. But getting it right isn’t going to be easy. There are divided opinions within the suburbs; residents who want their community to stay suburban and others that want to urbanize, developers who want to continue building low density single family homes and others who are interested in density and condos, and farmers who want to sell their land to the highest bidder regardless of their intended land use and others who are desperately seeking long-term security to keep their farm where it is. It is complicated to say the least and no municipality is having an easy time with the decisions that they have to make.

Katie Burns – Community Foodie

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to an ongoing segment here at The Daily Gumboot. It’s called “Get to Know Your Community” and, basically, it goes like this: each and every Sunday we will profile someone from a community somewhere. Each person is asked the same five questions (see below as well as in the “Ideas from Everywhere” page). At the end of the profile, the Gumbooteer (member of this blog’s Editorial Board) who found the person will list their three favourite things about the highlighted community member. Savvy?

Here are some ideas from everywhere. Here is one way that we try to build community. Have fun with it!

Katie Burns: Sustainability Coordinator and Badass Bride!

Katie Burns: Sustainability Coordinator and Badass Bride!

Who are you?

My card says “Katie Burns, Sustainability Coordinator”.  I grew up in Maitland, Nova Scotia (once a prosperous shipbuilding community but now a village of fewer than 200 people).  After collecting a few university degrees in history and environmental studies, I’ve found my niche in the field of community sustainability.  I now work for the Town of Markham, a suburb of Toronto, and spend my time on the community sustainability plan, local food strategy, community indicators and climate action plan.

What do you do for fun?

I like to get outside and move, including running, cycling, walking and the occasional race.  I also have a green thumb and grow a wide variety of tomatoes and basil on my back deck.  I find almost everything about food and beer fun and especially like visiting farmers’ markets, picking up our weekly CSA share, describing delicious beers and having our beer guys turn them into reality, spending a couple of weeks canning a year’s worth of tomatoes, and of course sharing food and drinks with friends and family.

What’s your favorite community and why?

I love Toronto and that so many communities can coexist within one city.  A few of my favourites include:

-          The Stop Community Food Centre ( which is one of Canada’s first food banks.  They are doing innovative work in increasing access to food.  I’ve researched the development of their new location, volunteered for their food bank and met our CSA farmers at their Green Barns Farmers’ Market.

-          Fermentations (, which is a small business where a group of us make beer, wine and the occasional cider.  It is fun, delicious and has been the starting point for many great evenings with friends.

-          The Junction, which is the neighbourhood where Jim and I first lived when we moved to Toronto, named for the 3 railways that meet there.  It is home to a great arts festival (  Unfortunately, it is gentrifying fast but hopefully it will be able to keep some of the grit which I think makes it so great.

What is your superpower?

I’m a generalist.  I’ve always had a hard time focusing on a single issue or topic.  For a long time I thought this was a weakness, especially when I was studying history and everyone around me started to happily narrow their focus.  I preferred to dabble in new topics and couldn’t imagine ever spending more than a term on anything.  But I found my niche in sustainability, which is often described as “everything and nothing” because of how broad and general it can seem.

How does your power help you build community?

I’m now working on Markham’s community sustainability plan.  It will establish a vision and goals for a sustainable future and set targets for 2050 and beyond.  The plan is addressing social equity, identity and culture, individual health, shelter, food security, access and mobility, education and skills, economic vibrancy, material management, water efficiency, ecosystem integrity, and energy and climate.  It is a pretty ambitious plan and we have a fairly small team working on it.  Being a generalist helps me to not only understand each of these areas in isolation but also how they can potentially work together to make Markham a better place to live.   I really enjoy the diversity of subjects that I get to explore everyday and hope that it will have a positive impact on one of Toronto’s largest and most diverse suburbs.

My three favourite things about Katie Burns are…

1. Maitland, Nova Scotia is exactly like Merville, BC. Well, maybe not “exactly” the same, but Katie and I had very, very similar upbringings. Canada is great for that. Whether in Nova Scotia or on Vancouver Island, two folks can share entirely different and similar upbringings – my childhood in Merville probably involved a little more “hippy-spiritualism” than “christian-traditionalism” and Judy Burns can sew clothes in a way that Janet Horn, well, my mom can’t sew clothes (she has an infinite number of creative talents, though). Anyway, whenever Katie and I get together we always shake our heads and smile at the seemingly impossible parallels and synergies regarding our Maitland/Merville upbringings.

2. She makes everything from scratch. Everything. Break, pizza dough, cookies, shoes, computers, bicycles, tomato plants. Everything. Sure, I made some of this up, but only with the purpose of driving home the point of just how organic Ms. Burns really and truly is.

3. Markham, Ontario will be sustainable by 2012. Pretty much. The role of a Sustainability Coordinator in an interconnected (community-wise and transportation-wise and culturally-speaking) urban centre is one thing – people kinda sorta get it. But taking on such a role in the suburbs, well, becomes a challenge not unlike the daunting task of the Maple Leafs making the playoffs. Making Markham sustainable takes gumption, creativity, intelligence, uncompromising vision, and the capacity for a myriad kind of community-building. And Katie Burns has it in spades. Good luck, Katie. Only two years to go!

As told by John Horn…