Learning lessons from skeeters!

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 26, 2014

Fogging trucks at work in the City- Photo c. The Brandon Sun.
Fogging trucks at work in the City- Photo c. The Brandon Sun.

As puddles of stagnant river water begin to pop up throughout the flood zone, the ramping up of a larvicide program and fogging applications will hopefully quash a second groundswell of the pesky bugs before they officially write off the balance of nice summer evenings in Brandon.

Undoubtedly the fogging of nuisance mosquitoes takes its toll on some in the community and the hardline approach from both those for and against malathion, as well as the buffer zone requests, potentially pit neighbour against neighbour.

Having used this column before to discuss the buffer zone debacles, I feel time would be better spent looking at the lessons we as a city can learn from our infamous “summer of mosquitoes.”

Having spent time in areas both controlled by a buffer zone and not, there does seem to be a recognizable difference in the number of mosquitoes on any given night.

Ballooning trap counts forced the city’s hand into a couple of extra unbudgeted-for rounds of fogging.

The flood obviously doesn’t help the issue, but it had come to a point where the city needed to make a concerted effort to spray multiple times to alleviate a growing, very vocal population tired of swatting mosquitoes.

Neighbours at odds over buffer zones was also becoming an ugly and divisive thorn in the community.

And while a few lessons have been learned, solutions for appeasing everyone are not readily at hand.

So, some hardlined thinking might change the way the issue is tackled — a process that may drive the very local opposition a bit … well, buggy.

Richmond Ward Coun. Stephen Montague shared on CBC and Twitter this past week that adding a medical requirement to a buffer-zone request is gaining some traction in the community. The idea would be a doctor’s note would be part of the paperwork submitted to the city requesting the machines be shut off near the resident’s house.

This is a big move and clearly draws a “line in the sand” in the buffer-zone debate.

Buffer-zone rules are still set by the provincial government and the 90-metre rule is based on chemical application guidelines, but Montague at least has residents talking on this issue again — coincidentally enough, right before a fall civic election where policy discussions should come into play.

It should be noted that Montague’s ward encompasses an area where trap counts far eclipsed the recommended fogging triggers, so there is no doubt this would be a place where the councillor’s call would gain support should he choose to seek re-election.

The second lesson encompasses a budgeting question. As I had mused in this column last year, the budget for removal of nuisance mosquitoes must eventually be tackled similar to the budgeting for snow removal.

We don’t often have a budget looking at snow removal as a singular occurrence in the winter; it is based on best guess scenarios.

Mosquito abatement must in future become more comprehensive, and be budgeted as such for multiple rounds of fogging should they become necessary — especially in times where standing water breeds the population explosions like we are currently experiencing.

While this may seem heavy-handed, we have had consecutive years of unallocated applications coming off the bottom line due to planning only for a single application. It appears to be changing times as far as mosquito abatement, and the budgeting process for this line should change, or we’ll face yearly dips into reserves to deal with the issue.

There is no answer that pleases everyone and mosquito fogging is one you can guarantee has clear divisions. But if we as a city are going to get it right, we need to build greater consensus politically, and have an enhanced strategy so we can team up with the province to find a solution.

Otherwise, the community will remain swatting mad at both bugs and neighbours for some time to come.

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Water management plan good for Westman

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 19, 2014

Assiniboine River Basin Commission. c. LarryMaguire.ca
Assiniboine River Basin Commission. c. LarryMaguire.ca

For anyone who reads this column, it is not often I laud the work of the Harper government or its members. For the most part, I find the combative approach of this government over the past decade to be more than a little off-putting.

Canadians have had their doubts at times with the politicians representing them, and our local political scene has not been immune to that ingrained doubt in the actions of politicians as well.

That said, however, it was refreshing to see our Conservative MP, Larry Maguire, championing what some might call a green initiative — the restoration of wetlands for the purpose of better flood management on the Prairies.

It would appear Maguire is bang on in this case, as many in the political and scientific community believe this is just what the region and farmers need to help mitigate some of our flood headaches.

Maguire is no stranger to the plight of the agricultural industry. As a provincial MLA, he cemented his legacy in that very area for his work and experience dealing with the large Manitoba agricultural sector — a group with many concerns pertaining to the current provincial government.

As the provincial Tory critic for conservation and water stewardship, he’s honed his skills as well in seeking solutions to water management, a bread-and-butter issue for voters in this region, especially rurally.

Manitoba, Saskatchewan and, for that matter, North Dakota need a new plan for water management, something Maguire identified through various media channels this week.

Over the past few decades, many dugouts, sloughs, reservoirs and wetlands were pumped out to build on farming and housing opportunities.

The idea at the time seemed to remedy some of the struggles for farmers and developers — and in dry seasons, there seemed to be no problem with this practice.

However, in wet seasons such as this, floods that were once considered to happen decades apart might now become the new norm.

The continued removal of wetland areas across the Prairies — especially in Saskatchewan where regulations had been eased — has led to mega-flows of water through places such as the Shellmouth Dam, flows that in some cases have doubled in the last half-century.

It is astounding the level of water that is now common as a result of the reduction of a natural wetland environment.

Maguire’s call to action at a meeting of the Keystone Agricultural Producers this past week in Brandon came at the right time. It drew praise from both political friend and foe on social media as well as through regular media channels.

His hope is for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota to collectively come to the table with a plan to better manage the flood situations in the three regions, and mitigate the potential loss to property and livelihoods.

His call for the establishment of an Assiniboine River Basin Commission, a think-tank concept that will include politicians and hopefully those from the scientific community, is the right one.

As Maguire put it in his speech, “the time is now.”

Manitoba is going to dig itself deeper into debt with the recent flood — something it can ill afford — while Saskatchewan and North Dakota routinely battle massive storms that wreak havoc on cities and farm land throughout the region.

Rightfully so, the time to come to the table is upon us.

Some of the numbers floating around out there point to a restoration of wetlands in the area reducing peak flows by up to 30 per cent in many cases. The science is there — now we need the political will to match.

Maguire’s party and policy may not sit well with some residents around here, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would be against the restoration of wetlands for the protection of properties and assets of Manitobans.

Now, as with anything else in government, the biggest hope is that Maguire will not only speak about the action but work hard to put it in place.

Residents of this region need and deserve that type of leadership from elected officials and Maguire, if he can go beyond just words, will have done plenty in providing that very leadership this region is looking for.

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Brandon answers the call

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 11, 2014

Downtown Brandon in Flood

“City at its best during difficult time…”

As another storm ripped through Brandon last weekend, many weather-weary city staff and residents once again took up the charge to protect the city.

The hammering our region has taken over the past three weeks is unprecedented, but the reaction by residents and civic officials is a true show of the character present in this community.

To say the least, the last few weeks have proved trying, as many of us spent more than a few nights mopping up basements and cleaning up debris.

Through it all, however, the most rewarding observation was the unprecedented number of residents in this city stepping up to help a neighbour. Sometimes it was a neighbour they have known for years, others — as in the case of Dave Barnes — a neighbour they may never have met.

A week has passed now since I, like many in this community, ventured out for a morning’s worth of sandbagging at Barnes’ low-lying Rosser Avenue East residence, and was met by a flood (no pun intended) of other Brandonites down there to support a neighbour in need.

I took this opportunity to chat with some of the other sandbaggers on the line, wanting to find out what brought them there if it was someone they possibly didn’t even know.

Answers ranged from “we were just bored and wanted something to do” to being part of a church group, workplace or team, to one group of young folks who noted with a smile that it was a good “workout.”

As the morning drew on, the camaraderie on the line was tremendous and the people who turned up throughout the day to spell others slipped into that line as if to be another piece in a fairly intricately designed clock.

That particular morning also saw a couple of local elected officials join in the fight. It is a delicate balance publicly for any elected official in a community to not be seen as politicking or grandstanding for the camera when assisting in relief efforts.

The refreshing point that morning — and from these past few weeks, for that matter — is, for the most part, the wise ones helped where the need was the greatest, shared the most pertinent information and stayed quiet on the party line or civic politicking front.

Even a quick visit from Prime Minister Stephen Harper would not draw a great deal of criticism save for what could be considered a few misplaced tweets from those on the periphery of the political loop in Westman.

Party politics or personalities aside, it would be hoped a visit by a prime minister should signal relief efforts and much-needed financial assistance is front of mind for the federal government — something reiterated by our Conservative member of Parliament, Larry Maguire, through various channels.

With another crest on the swollen Assiniboine, we are not out of the woods yet, and the cleanup following the flood for some may take an entire season — if they can clean up at all.

There will be many in our community and surrounding areas who still need support and assistance in the coming weeks, both preparing for the future and mitigating the loss from this year’s flood.

So, if the opportunity presents itself again, please consider supporting a neighbour in his or her struggle.

It isn’t always a big event that brings this community together — it just puts it out on display. There are plenty of little opportunities to show we care as well.

I wanted to take the space in this week’s paper to say I, for one, am glad for the camaraderie that is shown on a daily basis and knowing the idea of helping a neighbour is woven tightly into this city’s fabric.

As much as we are often our own worst enemies, when the call comes in and the need is great, this city has and will continue to deliver — something Brandonites should take great pride in.

There are always opportunities out there to build on the idea of community and this flood will, much like the flood of 2011, stand as one of those moments when city officials, residents, workers, neighbours and friends alike stood up to be counted as supporting one another when the need was the greatest.

For some stunning raw video of this flood check out the link here. Video compliments of the Brandon Sun.

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The games are about to begin

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 5, 2014 

Brandon City Council. Photo compliments of the Brandon Sun.
Brandon City Council. Photo compliments of the Brandon Sun.

The names continue to trickle in as potential candidates register for the big run.

Having been there myself, both at a civic level and then provincially, it is an exciting time and as a candidate you want to instantly go madly off in a plethora of different directions.

Pamphlets are designed, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts begin to pop up, and buzzwords such as “transparency” and “accountability” become an everyday part of your newfound political vernacular.

These are exciting times indeed, with candidates full of vigour to take on the world and hopefully, if you are a candidate in the right headspace, a drive to serve the community that would elect you.

There is little argument the current council, save for a handful of civic “old-timers,” was relatively green when they entered the political realm.

The next council is poised to be even greener should the tides change. At the very least, there will be three new councillors around the table, as Victoria Coun. Murray Blight and South Centre Coun. Garth Rice are hanging ’em up, along with Riverview Coun. Len Isleifson, who is poised to cut his teeth provincially with the Tories in Brandon East next go around.

In the departure of Rice and Blight, council loses some of that “stay-the-course” voice of reason around the table. In losing Isleifson, the next council is sure to have a different flavour as the whip-smart Riverview councillor was well-liked in his ward, and did an admirable job handling the unenviable task of filling the shoes of a civic legend, the late Errol Black.

When you examine the balance of power currently, other seats around the council table may end up being in jeopardy should some of the incumbents face an eager challenger.

On that front at least, my plan is to wait until the full slate of names comes forward before consulting the old decision desk on how the votes may shake down.

It has been a tumultuous time for this council the last four years, with moments of cohesion being hit and miss at best. But it appears the defining moment that united them and solidified them in the psyche of Brandonites may end up being a sad case of history repeating itself.

The rise of potential floodwaters in the city has surely caused a feeling of déjà vu for residents, with the 2011 flood undoubtedly being the big moment for this council. It is a shame that this may end up being the bookends of their time around the table, with their legacy resting on rising water and frustrated and tired flooded-out residents.

As much as the chatter has begun to build around potential new names at city council, across town the sounds of crickets can be heard as there’s been little talk as to who will vie for trustee positions in the Brandon School Division.

Aside from first-term member Kevan Sumner, who took to his Facebook account in May to announce his intentions, the room has remained rather silent. That said, there is little doubt that in due time, the usual suspects will begin to prepare for the silly season, as it has been dubbed.

In either case, we hope the next group of councillors and trustees have a vision and a plan for where this community should and could go.

If they can avoid the platitudes that plague politics and the buzzword-laden statements that our neighbours to the east in Winnipeg have borne witness to in the mayoral race there, all the better.

What this council, and this city for that matter, needs is decisive and effective leadership from all elected officials.

The past round of civic leaders at times showed an uncanny ability for this, and if some are given a second mandate, they may grow on the strengths their rookie season taught them.

There is little doubt that anyone who presents a vision for this city or a ward will win a vote or two when residents go to the polls this October.

Finally, and on a heavier note, my heart goes out to those who have lost so much already in this high water event. I’m sure many Westman residents would join me in wishing for a speedy resolution to something citizens of this great region should not have to tackle again in such short order.

Stay strong, Westman. That resilience and courage you showed in 2011 saved us before, and it is that same determination that will carry us through once again.

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City could have cashed in on casino project

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 28, 2014

Image courtesy of the Brandon Sun- Tim Smith.
Image courtesy of the Brandon Sun- Tim Smith.

As politicians, gamers and investors alike clamoured for photo opportunities at the new Sand Hills Casino near Carberry, many back in Brandon were left wondering about an opportunity lost — an opportunity that at times seemed like a sure bet and at times like a distant possibility.

The Sand Hills project finally coming to fruition brings to a close the story a decade in the making, and in all likelihood seals the outside chance Brandon had in landing a gaming centre as a potential downtown anchor.

Although officially the Manitoba government has remained on the record that a somewhat barren stretch of land along Highway 5 was the best location for the centre, off the record I’m sure many were left shaking their heads at this city’s reluctance to embrace a gaming centre, regardless of ownership groups.

Past plebiscite questions aside, there is little doubt there will be an economic spinoff for the area closest to the gaming centre. However, the region further afield, as well as Brandon, may not see the spinoff most in economic development offices are hoping for.

Sand Hills Casino officials, playing the good neighbour role, were quick to note Brandon would see economic benefit as a result of the gaming centre.

But it could be argued that the benefit for Brandon will be similar to the city’s benefit from places such as Belcourt, N.D., where the odd tour bus heads from here but the balance of the money, and the potential earnings, are spent there.

The actual economic impact for Brandon and, for that matter, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is yet to be determined.

But what was once thought to be an economic driver for the region may prove more to be a driver for the management group in place.

The hefty price paid to finally close the deal may eventually be its Achilles heel as the monetary benefit to the region and Manitoba’s First Nations will undoubtedly end up smaller than anticipated.

Locally, the casino question has been debated ad nauseum, and twice our citizenry voiced their concerns and opposition through somewhat loaded plebiscites.

However, when looked at through the tourism lens and the perspective of an anchoring ability in areas such as the downtown core, there’s little to question.

The resulting growth around an anchor tenant like a casino has never been an issue in this province. The vitality of an area benefits from people spending prolonged periods of time and money in and around the anchor.

That said, there is a hope that the opening of the Sand Hills Casino will do one of two things for Brandon.

It will finally put the casino question to rest, allowing the city to focus on other opportunities.

On the flip side, however, it may allow the dialogue to begin on getting a provincially run gaming centre, similar to Winnipeg’s McPhillips Station Casino or Club Regent Casino, for this city.

Perhaps it may even be a plank for the upcoming civic election or even more so, the next provincial election.

Our mayoral hopefuls undoubtedly have, or should have, a stance on gaming and we know that provincially there is a taste for investment if the stars align.

So it might be time for the city and province to step up to the table again, this time with a new offer for a provincially governed casino in the Wheat City.

There is a will to spend some dough in Brandon and the NDP will need all the positive press they can garner, so the drive to proceed down this road with talks may be a little more palpable as we approach the next provincial election.

From a tourism standpoint, the potential also exists to couple in tours throughout the region and work hand in hand with Sand Hills to build on greater opportunities.

Brandon is big enough to sustain a venture such as this, and much like the Sand Hills example, if the will exists, in time successes can be found.

Brandon has always struggled with where it fits in terms of big-town or small-city mentality. The potential revenue a gaming centre would generate can be invested in arts spaces, entertainment and recreation — all of which signals an upward trend for most cities.

If this isn’t going to be the case, then it appears that all the chips have been spent at another table. For Brandon and its surrounding area, that is an unfortunate loss for something that was nearly ours.

Shaun Cameron Political Columnist