Don’t forget our marginalized neighbours

When it comes to solving our most complex societal issues — from tackling the roots of violence to promoting greater societal inclusion for our most marginalized neighbours — charitable community institutions are beacons of light.

Research from these groups brings informed solutions to the table and front-line staff interact every day with Canadians who are living on the margins. It is these steadfast organizations that are able to inform the good public policy that promotes economic prosperity in neighbourhoods across the country.

We require earnest leadership and coalitions that can pull together the long-term plans needed to combat our society’s long-term issues.

At its best, government can be a powerful partner alongside charitable institutions, convening organizations and strategizing for the greatest positive impacts. At its worst, government can destabilize efforts and distract from the building of essential social infrastructure.

The political pendulum swings and government priorities shift. Changes can and do create funding gaps across sectors. But it’s important that progress doesn’t stop and start because an election is coming or an election just took place.

At a Canadian Club speech last month, Medhat Mahdy, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Toronto, delivered a rallying cry for interdependence and insight across sectors.

The YMCA has taken a substantial leadership role in ensuring children are properly supported, young adults are getting opportunities that can bring out their full potential and displaced LGBTQ2S+ youth searching for transitional housing supports are lifted.

“Toronto is one of the best places in the world to live, but it doesn’t feel that way for everyone,” Mahdy said. And it’s that belief that guides him.

He has dedicated more than 42 years of his life to delivering front-line services and mapping underserviced communities across the GTA. He is mindful of how our public institutions can alter the trajectory of lives for the better, depending on how attention and resources are focused.

We need more leaders who understand what it means to live on the margins. They make decisions differently. They see through a lens that can understand the wraparound supports needed to not only lift children and families out of poverty but also set them up for long lasting economic stability and personal well-being.

As we aim to ensure those living on the margins are supported and that we are growing healthy communities, research plays a powerful role in course correcting services and improving wraparound supports in community centres.

Beginning in 2010 the YMCA of Greater Toronto partnered on the Black Experience Project alongside the United Way of Toronto and York Region, and Ryerson’s Diversity Institute and made a commitment to ensure actionable findings were incorporated into their internal planning and programming.

The joint report released this year by the YMCA of Greater Toronto and Wellesley Institute Well-Being Monitor is an excellent display of collaborative leadership in measuring impact and adjusting service delivery accordingly.

Of the research, Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, indicated, “It suggests we must foster better mental and physical health, help people feel like they belong, support opportunities to improve levels of education and employment, support immigrants, provide access to more child care programs and increase acceptance for racialized and LGBTQ2S+ community members.”

These types of research collaborations will lead the way in sustainable healthy community development efforts.

Long-term community planning requires long-term financial commitment. Where transitioning governments leave gaps, those gaps must still be filled somehow.

This week, I implore you to ask yourself who may be falling through the cracks. Identify charities that are carrying out work aimed to combat poverty, racism, unemployment, poor health and housing shortages.

Mitigation can be achieved through direction of corporate social responsibility programs, personal philanthropy and a local community culture of volunteerism.

Charities are vital stakeholders in delivering front-line services and also building community capacity for sustainable economic development that can be felt by all.

In order for their work to continue, our steadfast support is a must.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 11, 2018)

U.S. midterm elections put USMCA in jeopardy

Another day, another bump in the road for the Canada-U. S. relationship.

Spare a moment for Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland.

After years of arduous negotiations over a renewed North American trade agreement with a temperamental and fickle President Donald Trump, she had finally come to ground on what the government believed was an acceptable agreement.

The US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) may not have won friends among certain sectors of Canada’s economy but, by and large, Canadians were more than a little relieved to have escaped the renegotiation with just a few bruises and scrapes.

In the name of an assured and dependable trade relationship and the economic benefits that come with that, the country was willing to accept a deal that may not have been perfect.

But just weeks after the three countries declared victory, that fragile achievement may have been shattered.

The midterm results, delivered on Tuesday, bring with them the likelihood of disruption to American political life.

Despite the chaos that surrounds the president himself, the last two years have been a relatively predictable politically due to the Republicans holding both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Pitched partisan policy battles were more or less confined to the media, rather than to the process itself.

That changed on Tuesday.

While the Republicans actually gained ground in the Senate, the House of Representatives fell to the Democrats.

The result? Nancy Pelosi is likely to assume the speaker’s chair. Pelosi is a particularly formidable partisan foe; indeed, she is one of the few Democrats whose steely approach and steady nerves have won her Trump’s respect.

But even if the speaker’s gavel goes to someone else, the flipping of the House will cause major headaches for the president — and by extension, to his legacy projects, including USMCA.

The Democrats feel they have been given a mandate to fight the president tooth and nail on his agenda. They are diametrically opposed to his ideas almost across the board and have publicly indicated their intention to do everything they can to prevent the implementation of his agenda.

However, one of the only places the president and the Democrats seem to find some common ground is around their suspicion of free-trade agreements.

The Democrats have long eyed such agreements warily, seeing them as a way to undermine sovereignty, empower corporations and surreptitiously attack workers’ rights. While that wariness faded somewhat during the mid-’90s, it has not dissipated entirely. And it is a particular hobby-horse of the left-wing of the Democratic party, which finds itself in the ascendancy after this week’s results.

Add to that the fact it is no secret to anyone that Trump thinks little of the North American trading relationships as they currently stand.

This means that in an environment where the House of Representatives and the president strongly disagree on virtually every issue, trade agreements may be the one area of agreement that can be used to advance other agenda items.

Indeed, the presumptive chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Richard Neal, has publicly pooh-poohed USMCA. He has suggested that in order to garner the support of Democrats (a necessity for the agreement to come into force) there would need to be several additional assurances and he has also implied it may require changes.

Enter a pained Minister Freeland.

It will be up to the minister, who has spent months trekking back and forth to Washington coaxing the president’s team into the deal, to now sell the deal to an equally sceptical audience for wholly different reasons.

The chances that USMCA becomes a casualty of domestic policies are high — so Minister Freeland will need to work quickly to build a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans in the House who would be willing to advance the agreement quickly.

The minister, and her team, have been proven capable of doing that many times before — but it will take another level of adeptness to usher through a controversial deal in an environment as fraught and raucous as this.

But, just as before, her government’s fate depends on their success — and a collapse of the agreement just months before a federal election would almost certainly be a harbinger of more negative news to come.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 11, 2018) 

Stacey Abrams is a special kind of political force

As the American midterm elections come to a close this week, the spotlight is on the race for governor in Georgia.

The southern state has been graced by the heaviest of political hitters over the past few days, to campaign alongside the talented Democratic nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams.

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis danced at her campaign rally Thursday, Barack Obama stumped with her in Atlanta on Friday and Oprah joined her to knock on doors — delivering a rare and moving political endorsement in the process.

Shaken by Oprah’s presence on the campaign trail, Vice President Mike Pence used his campaign speech the same day to remind voters that he is also “kind of a big deal.”

Today should have been the final debate between Abrams and her opponent. But instead, it was cancelled by the Republican candidate in order to accommodate a visit from President Donald Trump, who deemed it necessary to make an appearance in Macon, Ga.

The county of Macon is where my great grandmother lived 112 years of her life — farming and raising a family of 14 through the Jim Crow era and beyond. To see the prospect of a brilliant Black woman serving at the helm of legislative power in a state where my own ancestors were once enslaved is stirring.

Abrams is a special kind of political force.

She is one part political organizer, recognizing that lasting political capacity is built from the ground up. She’s led and supported grassroots voter registration projects, including the New Georgia Project in 2014.

At the same time she is an experienced political communicator, with her political involvement beginning as early as high school where she volunteered as a campaign typist and later a speech writer.

Abrams graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science, economics and sociology from Spelman College, holds a degree in public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and later earned a law degree from Yale.

She’s worked as a tax attorney, served as the youngest deputy city attorney for the city of Atlanta, and served as minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, where she earned a reputation as a solution-focused political leader willing to reach across the aisle to collaborate for the best outcomes.

She famously personally edited a proposed tax bill and, after leaving a copy with her notes in front of every seat in the House for review, successfully blocked the poorly written bill that would have seen taxes rise for Georgia residents.

While opposition has tried to frame her as an “out-of-touch radical liberal,” there is nothing extreme about her agenda. It can only be accurately described as necessary. She’s campaigning with an intimate understanding of state legislative processes and issues.

“If you can engineer the problem at the state level, you can engineer the solution at the state level,” Abrams said of her advocacy this week.

My admiration for Abrams runs deep. Stemming from the daring vulnerability she displayed in sharing openly about her personal financial journey and the debt she continues to carry from her education and role in supporting her family — a story too many know all too well.

She is also (many times over) a published romance and suspense writer under the name Selena Montgomery and the author of a leadership book entitled Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.

Over the next few days, I will be making calls to family and friends in Georgia to encourage them to head to the polls. And Tuesday, I’ll be glued to the television watching for results, in tears of reverence as we witness history in the making.

In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “I’m here today because of the men and because of the women who were lynched, who were humiliated, who were discriminated against, who were suppressed, who were repressed and oppressed … their blood has seeped into my DNA, and I refuse to let their sacrifices be in vain.”

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 4, 2018) 

How a Democratic victory Tuesday may help Trump’s re-election

On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls to elect a third of the Senate and all the members of the House of Representatives in what’s known as the mid-term elections.

It is an American political tradition that the sitting President’s party is punished during these elections, with most tending to lose seats in Congress.

Today, the smart money says that President Trump, despite a vicious and divisive campaign against the Democrats, will experience a particularly sharp rebuke. Due to an electoral map that tilts heavily to rural, traditionally Republican parts of the country, his party looks set to hold the Senate. But the House of Representatives will likely return to Democratic control, under the leadership of one of the most formidable and longest-serving American legislators, Nancy Pelosi.

It will mark the Democrats return to power after being swept out resoundingly during former president Obama’s first term in 2010.

The Democrats are on a roll; they have found their voice. They’ve raised an astonishing amount of money. They have swung significantly to the left and adopted white-hot rhetoric that echoes the frustration felt by their supporters.

They are supported by an energized base furious at Trump and his supporters; a base who sees such a takeover as the only way to effectively stymy the president’s agenda.

And they just might be right — in the short term. After all, Pelosi has made a career of thwarting conservative ambitions.

Winning the House would let the Democrats use process to tangle up regulatory changes, vote down legislation and open investigations into the president and his team. It would allow them to distract the administration from its policy agenda and would expose them to major legal risks.

But, from the department of unintended consequences, it just may be that in doing all of these things to undermine the president, the Democrats will end up making Trump’s re-election case for him.

For the last two years, when it comes to national policy, the president has been the only show in town. With a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and Republicans holding a record number of governorships, the spotlight has been solely focused on the president’s party, as has the criticism that comes with it.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have been in the enviable position of being able to criticize with little requirement to present their own solutions.

And that has proven a tough place for the president to be. Indeed, the presidential approval rating almost always declines when voters don’t have an alternative against which to compare them. As a wise elder once said, “I don’t need to be perfect. I just need to be better than my opponent.”

As a result, the torrent of critical coverage of Trump over the last two years has taken its toll. His approval rating is significantly lower than his predecessors at this point in his presidency.

But those numbers may be deceiving. While, according to polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight.com, polls show around 50-53 per cent of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump, those same polls also show an unshakable core of roughly 40-42 per cent of Americans who approve of him.

That is no small number. Consider those results in a Canadian context: according to the CBC’s comparable polling aggregator, in the last 10 polls, Justin Trudeau averaged approval of 40 per cent of Canadians, while 49 per cent disapproved of his performance — numbers that are, within the margin of error, the same as the president’s.

So, while polarizing, and perhaps even unusual, those numbers still provide a respectable base from which to launch a re-election campaign.

If the Democrats do indeed take the House, they will be able to hinder the implementation of Trump’s agenda but they won’t have been handed a silver bullet.

The president’s base will be energized, his fundraising turbocharged and, crucially, the contrast of ideas that he needs to win will be set up.

It just might turn out that the moment the speaker’s gavel is placed in Pelosi’s hands may one day be known as the day that Trump ensured his re-election.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 4, 2018) 

A Plan for the Conservative Party

With less than a year to go before the next federal election, Don Newman looks at the choices that Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party of Canada are faced with; emulate southern politics or build credible policies?

Don Newman

Canadians should be getting ready for a “rough” campaign leading up to next October’s Federal General Election, according to two people who should know of what they speak.

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer have predicted that is the way the campaign will be leading up to the vote on October 21st.  And since they will be the main protagonists, you can argue that if that is the way they want the campaign to be — that is the way it will be.

We can only hope the “rough” campaign will be “Canadian rough” and not seek to replicate the kind of mud-slinging, character assassination and outright lies into which politics in the United States have degenerated in recent decades. However, I am not sure that we can be confident that will be the case.

Because it is disconcerting to see reports that Scheer recently said that in the coming campaign the Conservatives will be running against the “elites” and the liberal media. Who does that sound like? Why of course, President Donald Trump, the man who has done more to debase politics, public debate and civilized norms in the United States than anyone in living memory. Trump ran his successful Presidential campaign in 2016 by seizing on those targets, plus a heavy dose of maligning and denigrating everyone and anything that opposed him.

Now there is no indication that Scheer has any plans to go anywhere near as far as Trump in adopting those kind of tactics, but once a road is started down it can be difficult to stop. Particularly if a campaign is not going well. But even if he is never tempted to go there, it is difficult to understand why the Conservative leader would want to do anything that mirrors Donald Trump.

The American President is amongst the most controversial and unpopular political personalities in Canada. Public opinion polls taken as recently as this past September show Trump has the approval of no more than 20% of Canadians. Even amongst people who identify as Conservative, his Canadian support is only 39%. A campaign emulating even part of the Trump modis operandi would seem unlikely to have much chance of success.

In the last 30 years as Conservative politics in this country has moved from the centre to the right, many in the Conservative Party have come to admire and sometimes emulate Conservative personalities in the Unites States, adopting their rhetoric and sometimes their tactics. Now it seems the even tempered Andrew Scheer— he was after all Speaker of the House of Commons in the last Stephen Harper Government — with his likeable but bland personality and looks, is contemplating emulating the abrasive, bombastic, egomaniacal American President.

The thought of the friendly, low key Scheer trying to emulate the consummate show off Trump almost boggles the mind. But even if he can’t match the performance, it would not stop Scheer repeating the distorted messages of envy and anger. In fact, with his more reasonable approach, the messages might at one level at least be even more effective.

However it is unlikely that such a message would be effective enough in Canada to get anyone to vote Conservative that wasn’t committed to doing so anyway. More likely, it would remind uncommitted voters, the kind that go between parties in every election and determine who gets to form the government, of the reviled Trump and get them to cast votes for other parties.

Instead of parroting the attack lines from south of the border there is a much better strategy for the Conservatives to adopt in the coming election campaign. After almost four years in office, the Trudeau Liberals have a record of things that they have done and things that they have left undone.

If the Conservatives are serious about forming a government that can address contemporary Canada and the issues Canadians face, they should let everyone know how they plan to proceed with getting the Trans Mountain Pipeline built, instead of complaining the Trudeau Government spent $4.6 billion to buy the pipeline from its private sector owners to keep the project alive.

The Conservatives should also explain how they would have negotiated with President Trump to get a better trade deal than the USMCA that is replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, and whether they will sign the current deal if they were to form government and it remained unsigned. And if it is signed, would a Conservative Government honour the new agreement or abort it.

Canadians could also be impressed if the Conservative Party unveiled a plan to deal with climate change, since they have already dismissed the Liberal plan to put a price on carbon emissions as a useless “tax grab,” but so far have offered no alternative on an issue polls show most Canadians think is an important one.

Two other issues the Conservatives should also address are how they as a government would address the deficit that is much greater than the Liberals promised in the last election campaign. And to do the Liberals one better, they should offer a credible plan to bring the federal books back into balance.

And then there is the question of marijuana. Depending on how the roll out of the legalization and sale of the drug for recreational use proceeds, the Conservatives will need to have a credible plan to deal with the fallout.

There are other issues as well, plus unforeseen matters that will come up between now and election day that the Conservatives will have to deal with – as will all the other parties.

But ultimately, if the Conservatives could do the work to come up with credible policies on all of those issues, they would have a much better chance of forming the next government, than if they decide to parrot discredited campaign rhetoric from a discredited American President.

The choice is up to them.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Mayor Tory can drive real, long-lasting change to better Toronto

This past Monday, John Tory won big at the polls.

To say it was a resounding victory doesn’t do the mayor’s win justice. He crushed his opponents: he won every ward in the city, capturing a plurality in each and a majority in most. He earned 63.5 per cent of the vote, 301,446 votes more than his closest competitor.

He now holds the record as the politician more Canadians have cast a ballot for than any other.

Tory’s achievement would be remarkable anywhere but, given how diverse Toronto is, it stands out as a seminal political achievement.

And more than just win at the polls, he earned a massive amount of that most precious of all political resources: political capital.

Today, he has a city united behind him. He has a successful, managerial first term under his belt. He has, thanks to Premier Ford, a more streamlined and manageable city council with which to work. He has a commitment to retire in four years.

In short, he has a very real opportunity to be a truly transformative leader, a leader whose mayorship will shape the city for decades to come. He has an opportunity to tangibly show just why it is he has committed himself to both public service and public life.

More than coincidentally, Toronto finds itself in a moment that sorely requires just that kind of leadership.

While many scoff at the insecurities that cause us to chase the dream of being an actual “world-class city,” it’s obvious Toronto is in the middle of major change. We are a city on the move, with a swiftly developing tech sector and a booming population. But we also have the problems that come with change as well. Increasing congestion. Decreasing social cohesion. Growing unaffordability.

Awkward teenagers, if you will.

John Tory has the chance to lead the city as it grows out of its current gangly, uncomfortable phase into an adult.

There is no shortage of challenges that face our city. Our public transportation infrastructure pales when compared with cities of our size. We lack many of the cultural hubs that support the development of the technology sector and attract the young professionals who feed that industry. Nightlife regulations and building restrictions seem as if they stem from decades ago — and indeed, they do.

Our current situation is not one that calls for tinkering around the edges, like allowing drinking in parks during the summer or raccoon-resistant green bins.

Rather it calls for a mayor who will spend the political capital he has worked so hard to earn.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney often quoted James MacGregor Burns on the difference between “transactional” leaders and “transformative” ones. Burns wrote that transformative leaders “respond to fundamental hopes and expectations and may transcend and even seek to reconstruct the political system rather than operate within it.”

Mulroney would go on to say that transformative leaders spend the political capital they have earned in the great causes of their country.

And spend political capital Mulroney did. The Goods and Services Tax (now the HST), NAFTA, the Acid Rain Treaty with the United States and the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.

Four big, bold ideas that were ahead of their time. Four ideas that were not at all popular when first introduced. But four ideas that changed both Canada and the world for the better.

Can we imagine what things would be like today if prime minister Mulroney worried more about short-term popularity than long-term achievement?

Today, many of those who were Mulroney’s fiercest critics at the time have come to see the wisdom of his vision and to admire the courage of his convictions.

Mayor Tory has a very special opportunity in front of him. He has earned the opportunity to become a truly transformational leader. He has earned the opportunity to discard the short-term vicissitudes of political calculation in favour of driving real and long-lasting change in a city that desperately needs strong leadership. Let’s all, as a city in all our diverse glory, unite behind him and help him do it.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 28, 2018)

Pot legalization a lesson in savvy political timing

In politics, there are two factors — over which you have no control — that determine your fate: timing and luck.

In running for office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to have taken his father’s advice that “the essential ingredient of politics is timing” to heart.

Promises, which were the foundation of his 2015 campaign, were each cleverly timed to catch the changing mood of Canadians.

A tax cut for the middle class and those aspiring to join it, deficit spending to fund renewal of our aging infrastructure, the welcoming of 25,000 Syrian refugees, and the legalization of marijuana.

All were easy to promise at a campaign stop. Each would have its difficulties and obstacles when it came to implementation.

In particular, the legalization of marijuana, an issue that at first blush seemed straightforward turned out to be, upon a deeper look, fraught with challenges.

But on the marijuana file, in spite of those challenges, the Liberals forecast exceptionally well.

Political capital is, after all, fleeting. The view of voters, at best, unstable. Those on top one day can find themselves at the bottom just a year later.

That’s why leaders try to use timing to beat the need for luck. That’s why prime ministers often try to accomplish their most challenging political objectives at the start of their mandates.

Trudeau’s Liberals knew they needed to have legalization sorted before 2019. They also knew they had a better chance to bring skittish Canadians along if they did so before the government got into the nitty-gritty business of cannabis.

By starting down this road early, the Liberals were able to establish a thoughtful process for legalization: they afforded significant time for consultation with business, third-party organizations and the provinces. The result was that they were able to accomplish their goal with a year to spare before the next election.

By Oct. 17, the day pot became legal, this endlessly talked about, “earth-shattering” moment in Canadian politics unfolded as just another dry day in the House of Commons. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer did not even mention legalization during question period that day.

The Liberals know, however, that a chunk of Canadians remain firmly against their policy initiative. To mitigate the electoral impact of this, the Liberals are counting on voters to have become distracted by other issues of a new day.

And what about the 30 per cent of Canadians who enjoy marijuana regularly? Here the Liberals hope they will be rewarded for legalizing cannabis when these voters get to the ballot box.

But timing isn’t the only thing. When asked what he feared the most, Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” And this is where luck comes into play. American football great Vince Lombardi once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

And the Liberals found themselves with no shortage of luck on this file.

At the time of his election in 2015, Trudeau faced a very different slate of premiers than he does today. Then, more than 80 per cent of Canadians lived in a province with a progressive-leaning premier who favoured legalization.

Since that time, the political climate in the provinces has changed dramatically and, if the pollsters are correct in Alberta, will continue to change.

The prime minister faced very little scrutiny from the provinces regarding marijuana when he launched his initiative. Manitoba was the only jurisdiction that attempted to derail the legalization process.

More recently, however, premiers who have grown united against Trudeau on several other policy files have begun to make noise about challenges to the rollout of marijuana legalization and the federal government’s supervision (or lack thereof) of the process.

Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford fired his first warning shot on Wednesday. Don’t expect it to be his last.

Imagine if Ford had been there since the beginning, rallying those Canadians who opposed the legalization — and pointing out the flaws in the Liberal plans.

Timing or luck? Why choose?

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 21, 2018) 

Day One Of Legal Cannabis For Canada

Yes, We Can-nabis

You can’t have missed it. The Government of Canada’s Cannabis Act came into legal force midnight last night.

Canada has become the first G20 country to legalize and regulate the substance for recreational purposes, and the second country in the world to nationally legalize.  This development builds on almost two decades of experience in the medical cannabis sphere.

The legal age will be between 18 and 21, depending on where you live. The legal maximum to possess and purchase will be 30 grams. There are rules as well around growing, sharing, taxing, importing, tampering, and making into other things. This new regime coming into place has many facets.

Whether or not you choose to consume it now that it’s legal – this change will have wide-ranging impacts and its trajectory forward will be closely watched.

Liberal-izing Cannabis

For a political play – the Liberals bet big on legalizing cannabis in Canada when they ran in 2015. For delivering on their commitment that, most seriously, started in 2012 – they will be credited with boldness and taking advantage of this majority consensus in public opinion. Public opinion has ebbed and flowed, but in recent years has trended towards widespread public support.

For example, some polls show that as many as 7 in 10 Canadians are in support of the plan. However, recent surveys have shown that almost 8 in 10 Canadians are still not interesting in consuming, and 7 in 10 aren’t interested in investing in the industry.

In 2019, it is certain that voters will remember this as being a signature achievement and delivered promise. The Liberals politically sold this on some key premises:

  • This was a public health approach that would keep cannabis out of the hands of children, improve the quality of the product, and educate Canadians;
  • This was a public safety approach that would starve the illegal market of profits;
  • This was consulted on for over three years so that no one could say it was rushed;
  • This was not aimed to be a financial boost that would pad the government’s coffers;
  • The approach would be incremental and decisions would be tested based on evidence;

This policy became synonymous with the Justin Trudeau Liberals and his youthful, progressive brand as leader, especially when he made his commitment public in 2013.

The Liberals may be blamed by those who do not follow politics day-to-day for “promoting cannabis,” but observers know they did this while consistently notendorsing the use of the product.

Questions Remain

Workplace rules: Employers, lawyers, labour groups, and employees must all figure out appropriate responses to cannabis legalization.

  • It bears repeating due to confusion around this point: just because something is legal doesn’t mean that employers have to condone its use at work or let personal use affect someone’s work. However, testing employees can end up in a sticky legal situation – so get solid advice before proceeding. Federally regulated sectors and provincially regulated sectors may have to set different rules, but there are best practices that Ensight can point you toward.

Borders: Particularly with our southerly neighbour, cannabis remains federally illegal. There remains significant anxiety about what a border guard may ask you and if that may force you to turn back.

  • The U.S. has clarified that, if the Canadian travellers purpose is not cannabis related, they will likely be able to travel, but obviously not with any cannabis on-hand. The U.S. border authorities have tried to allay concerns of hunting for people who have cannabis stocks or admitted past use on social media, although those remain concerns. On the other hand, even with pardons, particularly for those who work in the cannabis industry – there are risks with some border guards, there may be situations or stories where some Canadians are getting turned around. However, this was possible before legalization as well.

Marketing and Packaging: Brands in all sectors rely on differentiating and promoting themselves to succeed, however, with restrictive rules around brand promotion, sponsorship, and packaging – this has brands either playing in a legal gray area or hoping for organic, unpaid buzz about their product’s benefits.

Pardons: Those promoting Cannabis Amnesty were answered by the government today who outlined that they would soon introduce legislation to allow for those with past, simple cannabis possession convictions. Those who have served sentences would, under this law, pay no fee and have no wait period for pardons. This does not go as far as expungement, which still have possible impacts on border crossing.

Roadside Testing: The Drager roadside impairment testing device approved recently has been roundly rejected by several police officials across the country who will not be using it. While impairment on the roads is not new or unique to cannabis when there are alcohol, distractions, and other drugs to factor in, but police being equipped is something the government committed to. Despite new money for training, many remain more concerned and are more aware than ever of impairment on the roads.

Tax and cost: Governments have introduced excise taxes, sales taxes, annual regulatory fees, and service fees. All of these on top of shipping costs have not made cannabis sales as cheap as what was common on the illegal market. And the illegal market can always go lower, considering they have no such costs. If the government can’t keep the cost down, people may just go back to their illegal market suppliers.

  • Medical Stream: We cannot forget about medical cannabis users. They have their own stream still open. Recent taxation changes have kept excise taxes on medical cannabis, although patients would argue that their medical need means they should be getting the best quality at the lowest possible cost. Further, some wonder if production will be an issue for Licensed Producers who produce both medical and recreational cannabis.

Product Choice: Within a year, the government has committed to regulating and bringing in edible products and concentrated cannabis products (e.g. vape pens). How will those consultations shape up? Will people still buy from the illegal market in the meantime? People will probably just take oils and dried-flower options on the market now, and find ways to get vape pens they can use as well as things that they can bake it into. In U.S. jurisdictions, they have products like “shatters” that the government has sent signals they will continue to ban legal sales of. Is the government in an election year really ready to bring in these new products that may again cause a bit of “reefer madness” fear by those who were only tentatively aboard?

Moreover, these questions have been thoroughly debated and discussed, however, there are things still on the horizon and in other jurisdictions yet to fully come to the fore:

  • Will the federal government eventually introduce a new private-sector tracking system instead of the internal system they have now?
  • Will the provincial governments frustrate the purpose of the law, by seeking to prevent home grow cannabis, and will this end up in the courts?
  • How will we factor in personal responsibility for parents in keeping cannabis away from their kids when more stories arise of them getting ahold of cannabis-infused gummy bears?
  • Or will this all play out in localized anecdotes of friends deciding to consume cannabis instead of drinking at events? How much of a split will that be?
  • Will scientific health effects, condo board rules, and municipal zoning become the biggest questions among Canadians once this is more normalized?

This is not the end of cannabis policy and work with government. This is the entry point for an industry that has elements of alcohol and elements of pharmaceuticals. It is an industry that may quickly grow many billions of dollarswithin the Canadian economy. Having a GR partner with experience from the outset like Ensight is a vital part of this supply chain moving forward.

What’s Next?

The Justin Trudeau Liberals will be congratulating themselves, but cautiously watching this roll-out in order to mitigate any issues that arise. The political and polling boon to come from legalization day is yet to pan out.

The concentrates and edibles review processes will be significant for industry as new product classes come to market. This will move Canada from legalization 1.0 to legalization 2.0.

The publicly-traded companies in the stock market has been a rollercoaster thus far, and it’s not over yet. Shortages of product and new deals yet to be signed will continue to impact upon this.

Globally, Canada is making headlines for this cannabis shift. This story will continue to develop, and Ensight is here for your questions along the way.

Where’s Your Climate Plan, Andrew Scheer?

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“Of course… I will unveil a plan,” remarked Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in April 2018 when asked about the whereabouts of an alternative Conservative climate plan that will meet the Paris agreement targets.

We’re still waiting.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has turned the tables on Scheer many times in the past. She uses Question Period to ask the Opposition leader questions, such as, “Where are the Conservatives hiding their climate plan?… Where is the climate plan?”

Scheer is playing defence after months upon months of having the spotlight turned back on him.

He has shirked every opportunity as a leader, instead leaning on his title as ‘Opposition’ leader – with emphasis on opposing.

“[Scheer’s] problem is that, unless he can persuade voters he cares about the environment and has a plan for tackling climate change, he will still be the Opposition leader after the next election.”

– John Ivison, February 12, 2018

What he’s masking is a dilemma many politicians have wrestled with in opposition – when do you propose something instead of just criticizing?

Since being elected Conservative leader last May, he has said he would reverse, reject or reduce almost every proposal made by the Liberal government.

He has mastered the conservative art of being a consistent contrarian.

He has suggested, if his party was elected, that they would end carbon pricinglimit so-called “birth tourism”quash measures aiming to reduce illegal firearms, and would not support expanded safe consumption sites to deal with the opioid crisis.

He has not made serious proposals of his own to address any public policy issue.

To be fair, he proposed a non-refundable income tax credit on EI parental leave benefits. Critics have panned this so-called plan saying it does not help low-income people, those with adopted children, and people with newborns who lack benefits.

“The results show that at almost all income levels and for almost all family types, families and households would receive more money back in carbon dividends than they would pay out in carbon taxes or indirect costs.”

– Dave Sawyer, EnviroEconomics & Canadians for Clean Prosperity

During the Conservative Leadership race in 2017, Scheer outlined a platform that has gone all but dormant. In fact, it was removed from his website right before becoming leader.

Scheer can tell you what he would not do, including opposing the Quebec ban on religious symbols.

I understand that the Conservative approach is to entrust power to lower levels of government, but he is presently defined by a singular approach: inaction.

Past leaders have changed tone and posture when they moved from opposing to proposing.

Arguably, Justin Trudeau got on a lot of Canadians’ radar as an opposition leader when he moved to supporting legalization and regulation of recreational cannabis — a policy coming to fruition this week.

This happened almost two years out from the 2015 election. It was reiterated, developed, and questioned regularly — a test that Trudeau passed until opinion polls increasingly got onside with his plan.

“I’m still waiting for Andrew Scheer’s promised comprehensive detailed plan to fight climate change that won’t include a price on carbon. I think we are all waiting for that, but I think none of us should hold our breath.”

– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, September 17, 2018

Andrew Scheer sits almost exactly one year from the 2019 election, and there’s not one policy that most Canadians consider him synonymous with. They still don’t know what he stands for and what he’s about.

The question “What’s your climate plan?” is a poignant one because–beyond a stark difference between the Liberal and Conservative environmental approach — he has yet to answer most policy questions.

Provide an alternative. Suggest something. Anything.

If you do not define yourself, your opponents will. That’s something that Stephen Harper famously took advantage of in the 2008 and 2011 elections.

When the government benches make comments like Andrew Scheer would “make pollution free again” — he is evading the opportunity to respond. It defines him.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives sit one year from an election rudderless and sniping from social media with memes.

Minister McKenna has repeatedly said “They have no plan.” And they cannot shy away from the fact that it’s true at the moment.

“Action on climate change should not be a partisan issue. It will affect all of us. Whether you’re rich, or you’re poor, whether you live in the north or the south. Whether you vote on the left of the spectrum or vote right on the spectrum, urban or rural. We’re all in this total and we need to come together.”

– Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKennain the House of Commons, October 15, 2018

So, asking again, for the sake of our earth’s health: what’s your climate plan? Asking for 7 billion friends.

Having a good Opposition party willing to step up to the plate with ideas is essential.

It can’t wait.

The surprise for Scheer when he finally releases an unambitious, untested, visionless platform much closer to the 2019 election will be that Canadians won’t warm to environmentally blind, bland politics.

Scheer should give proposing ideas a try by looking directly into voters’ eyes and answering the question.

Shane Mackenzie, Ensight consultant and Liberal strategist. 

(Published in HuffPost Canada on Tuesday, October 16, 2018) 

It is time to polish our humanitarian brand in Canada

In an age of social media and intense global competition, “brand” has become more important than ever. While it was once the exclusive domain of consumer-focused companies, now individuals, organizations and nations alike have become acutely aware of the image they project and the benefits that come with successfully building brand equity.

Whatever you may be selling, branding is the alchemy that transforms a kernel of truth and a dash of exaggeration into gold.

Intellectually, we all understand that a certain toothpaste will not transform our social lives, but on a crowded shelf the brand that’s promoted will still be the one we reach for.

The same phenomenon applies to countries. Branding has become an important way to promote that same shelf appeal, to attract foreign capital, top talent, jobs and corporate offices and tourists. If you happen to have a jaunty red maple leaf as a national logo, all the better.

The Trudeau Liberals have been, since their election, exceptionally savvy about national and international branding. They shrewdly played to the deep-rooted belief among Canadian voters that we are a kinder, gentler and more moral society than many others. They championed environmental standards, they spoke fervently about human rights, they pronounced on the imperative for gender equality.

Not only that, they generously gave other countries pointers on how to hold themselves to that Canadian standard of conduct.

One of the most obvious examples of that moral brand extension came in August when Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland used Twitter — in Arabic – to support Saudi activists at odds with the ruling monarchy. As tensions grew, the Canadian ambassador was withdrawn. Public demands by the Saudis for an apology were made and rejected. And the Liberals burnished Canada’s brand as a plucky and high-minded nation that punched above its weight.

All that has come to the fore again, as the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Saudi journalist — and critic of the monarchy — has deepened. On Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to complete some routine paperwork. He has not been seen since.

The international concern about his fate and the outrage at the likelihood that he is a victim of dire retribution, has certainly vindicated Canada’s early stand against an increasingly bold autocracy.

But here’s where the varnish starts to chip: The values that underpin our national brand are not consistent with finger-wagging diplomacy and impassioned rhetoric about the importance of human rights.

Indeed, our own sense of our brand is at odds with reality — and with the perceptions of others. When the Canadian government — first the Conservatives and then the Liberals — agreed to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, they unequivocally forfeited the moral high ground. Sure, they were described first as “trucks” by former prime minister Stephen Harper and later as “jeeps” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but that deliberate trivialization only makes it worse. The Saudis know that perfectly well and, frankly, so does everyone else.

This is not going to be a one-time news story. Rather it is going to be an issue as Canada’s campaign to join the 2021 UN Security Council ramps up. The effort is already underway, skilfully led by Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Marc-André Blanchard. Given our sense of own brand, Canada should be a strong contender. But remember what happened last time we tried for this prize. Portugal left us in their dust.

And now, we’re competing for a coveted spot with Norway and Ireland, two smaller and quieter countries with less brand equity but perhaps more authentic clout. For all our posturing, the reality is that Norway is a far more generous foreign aid donor (spending one percent of GDP compared with Canada’s 0.26 per cent) and Ireland has twice as many peacekeepers in the field as Canada.

Just another example of the complexities that middle powers face when trying to give life to their brand and their values in a big, old, complicated and cross pressured world.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Monday, October 15, 2018)