Whither the wind

I like John Tory. I voted for John Tory. And I sure am happy to see the backside of Rob Ford. But I wonder: do we know who we're getting as mayor with John Tory? A breath of fresh air or same old same old.

In his first few weeks in office, Tory has sent both signals. He's talked about getting rid of gridlock, working with all members of council, helping the homeless, in fact there's no matter too small for John Tory to tackle. On the big issues, however, I sense backsliding, a direction you don't like to see in someone this early in their elected term.

(I hereby declare a conflict of interest. Maybe ten years ago he and I talked about my helping him as a ghost writer on his memoirs. The idea went nowhere and he still hasn't written them. He would say that he's added several interesting chapters in the intervening time.)

In the seven weeks since John Tory was sworn in, he's already broken two of his major election promises: no hike in TTC fares and keeping property tax increases under the rate of inflation. In both cases, the infraction is minor. Fares are up 10 cents, and the tax hike is only 0.15 per cent above inflation. Still, there's a principle involved, and he at least bent it.

Moreover, Tory's much vaunted support among Liberals at Queen's Park is doing him little good. Provincial funding for Toronto is falling at the same pace as ever. Backstopping low interest rates on a loan hardly qualifies as a big boost.

No one, certainly not a politician, is ever what they seem. The question for the days ahead is this: How far will John Tory stray from the man we thought he was?

Unnatural gas

Everyone has been enjoying the fall in the pump price of gasoline. I saw signs in Hamilton today for 81.9 cents a litre, down 34 percent from $1.24 a year ago for regular. The price of a barrel of oil has fallen even further, from US$110 a year ago to US$50 today, down 55 percent. The full extent of the drop in the world price has not yet reached the consumer but at least it's heading in the right direction.

Natural gas prices have not been behaving in the same friendly manner. My Enbridge bill arrived today with a notice saying there had been a change in price. I fully expected a reduction, given all that I'd been reading, but no, it was yet another increase. I'm now paying 36 percent more per cubic meter than I did last year at this time despite the fact that natural gas inventories are at a 28-month high and wholesale prices are have fallen 36 percent during the last twelve months. 

According to the U.S. Energy Administration Information, American households will see their natural gas bills drop this winter compared to last winter. Not in Canada, at least not in my house. My consumption hasn't markedly changed but my total payments to date are up 24 percent year-over-year.

What the explanation is I do not know except to say that the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) must be a spineless, non-functioning entity. The OEB appears to blindly approve whatever increase the natural gas distribution companies request. Doesn't the OEB do any of its own research about the market? The whole thing is reminiscent of the cozy relationship between lobbyists and Members of Congress where each side is integral to the other when it comes to legislation.

The gas companies claim that they don't make any money on the gas, the profits come only on the $20 monthly customer charge. Don't make any money on the gas? How can that be when they buy low and sell high? 

 

The problem with Canadian retailing …

... is Canadian retailing, not price disparity with the U.S. Ottawa has ordered a study of price differentials on consumer products between the two countries. I've spent the last 10 days in the U.S. and I can't say I notice much difference on food or pharmacy products, two large categories. To be sure, gasoline in the U.S. is 20 per cent cheaper and the savings are even greater on beer and wine. Twelve bottles of Corona cost $14.99 in the U.S. versus $24.95 at The Beer Store. But higher gas and alcohol prices are caused by government taxes.

Of course, the collapse of the Canadian dollar is playing hob with some prices. For this we can blame Stephen Poloz, who left the Export Development Corporation to become Governor of the Bank of Canada, then promptly drove down the dollar to help Canadian exporters at the expense of Canadian consumers.

For me, price is not the problem. The major difference between the two countries when it comes to retail is service. I was in Staples a few days ago looking for a composition book. The one I wanted was not available in the store but they said they could ship it to me. I ordered three for a total cost of less than $9. They arrived next day via UPS. Who in Canada is going to ship by courier for free, so fast, on such a modest purchase?

Or how about Macy's where there was no apparent discount but the clerk took 15 per cent off my purchase then found a coupon for a further 10 per cent. Got a furniture delivery? There will be the day-before phone reminder, a call 30 minutes in advance of the expected arrival, then a day-after 'How was everything?' follow-up.

I watch prices, of course, but I love service more. I had emailed Clarks consumer service department in Canada a month before Christmas asking where in Toronto I could buy a specific winter boot. I finally got a response today. If I'd been living in the U.S. I can almost imagine the sales rep showing up at my door the day after my query with several choices in my size.

Keystone kops

After six years of debate, rulings, protests and pronouncements, the Keystone XL pipeline proposal is finally coming up for a decision. The Republican-dominated U.S. Congress will approve the pipeline carrying bitumen from Canada's oil sands to the gulf coast of Texas. And President Barack Obama has already said he will veto the bill. The consensus is that there aren't enough votes to override the veto so that's it – Keystone is kaput.

To be sure, there's a saying in Washington, nothing is ever over, so it's entirely possible this issue will come to life again, but the likelihood of getting it built in my lifetime is slim. I blame Stephen Harper for this come-uppance. He never established the kind of relationship a prime minister should have with the U.S. president. Canada's message did not get through. All Canada did was sent premiers and other lesser lights to deliver speeches at Washington events where Canadians made up the majority of the audience. There was no full-tilt selling job directed from the top.

But there is a wider message in all of this. The days of building new pipelines may be gone. Energy East, the latest proposal to ship oil from Alberta to a port on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is meeting stiff opposition from politicians and protesters alike. Pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific seem equally improbable given the native land claims involved.

All of this presents Canada with an opportunity. Why not stop trying to sell our natural resources to foreign lands? Such thinking is reminiscent of the "hewers of wood, drawers of water" syndrome that has plagued our economic history. Instead, let's build refineries in Alberta and Saskatchewan where the resources are found. Refineries mean jobs, products that require more effort, chemicals and plastics that are in demand, all kinds of goods that are further along the production chain than the stuff that oozes out of the ground. With the demise of Keystone, Canada has its last best chance to become an economic powerhouse with industrial activity across a broad number of fronts. Let's grab it.

Live and let die

The Alex Colville retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario is spectacular. It is huge, half a dozen rooms worth, all of his best works. Everyone knows at least one: the horse racing toward the train, the woman staring through binoculars, Colville with a pistol on the table. Like any good art, his individual pieces get engraved into your mind. 

Colville seems like a modern painter because of his realistic style, but in fact he is from another era. He was a war artist during the Second World War, painting in The Netherlands with Canadian troops and rendering horrific scenes from Belsen concentration camp. When he was teaching at Mount Allison University in the 1950s and 1960s his work was already so renowned that the National Gallery of Canada acquired half a dozen of his canvases. The country supported artists in those days to an extent it no longer does, and we are the lesser for it.

To be sure, Alex Colville was a unique talent. Colville's work in 1940 when he was a student at the Ontario College of Art was already fluid and powerful. Few students since have matched Colville's God-given gift. 

But some aspects of the exhibit are wrong-headed. For reasons best known to the curators, they decided his work could not simply stand on its own. As a result, there's a video discussing writer Alice Munro, prose panels about Colville paintings that appear in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and strangest of all, an attempt to tie Colville's interest in guns to the Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men. Here we have a superstar and feel a need to bolster his genius by aligning him with others. So Canadian; so unnecessary.