The stinginess goes on and on and on

“Big changes considered for Ontario workplaces,” said one headline on the CBC News Toronto web site this past February, after it had been revealed that, among other things, Ontario’s provincial government was considering raising the minimum annual holiday required by the province’s Employment Standards legislation from two weeks to three.

As far as annual holidays goes, however, what was ultimately proposed by Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s government at the end of May certainly could not be described as “big”. Even to describe the proposed changes as “modest” could be considered an exaggeration.

The Ontario government is indeed proposing to raise minimum annual holidays from two weeks to three weeks. Here’s the catch, however: it only applies to those who have worked for the same employer continuously for at least five years. Anyone with less than five years’ service could still legally be offered only two weeks per year under the proposed change.

“We have fallen behind,” Wynne said as the proposed change was revealed.

“And we don’t really feel like catching up,” she might as well have added.

Even by Canadian standards, Ontario’s “two weeks for the first five years, then three weeks” plan represents an insignificant change. Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Quebec have all had the same conditions in their employment laws for years, while most other provinces and the federal Labour Code offer a third week after longer periods of service, ranging from three weeks after six years at the federal level to three weeks after 15 years in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ontario and P.E.I. remain the only provinces without a third-week provision.

Saskatchewan is the only province to have broken the two-week baseline. Their laws provide for three weeks annual holiday to start, rising to four weeks after 10 years.

By international standards, Ontario’s not-so-big change looks even less impressive. In 1970, signatories to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Holidays with Pay Convention each pledged to provide for annual holidays that would be “in no case . . . less than three working weeks for one year of service.” Canada, however, was never among the signatories.

The list of advanced economies offering less than three weeks (or 15 working days) per year is small, and has been shrinking in recent years. The United States provides no legal minimum. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan each provide for seven days off. Japan and Israel are more or less on par with Canada at 10 to 12 working days. Then, that’s about it, except for a gaggle of smaller or less thoroughly developed economies.

Now, compare that to Australia. Australians first won the right to two weeks annual holiday with the Annual Holidays Act in 1945. This was raised to a three-week minimum — still unheard of in Canada outside of Saskatchewan — in 1963. That country further increased the legal minimum to four weeks in 1974.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand — a country which dislikes being compared to Australia, but I’ll do it here anyway — was a little more restrained. They won two weeks annual leave in 1944, threw in a third week 30 years later, and finally raised their legal minimum to four weeks per year in 2007.

Surely to God a modest boost from two weeks to three weeks annual holiday per year, merely meeting the ILO’s recommended rock-bottom minimum and matching what New Zealanders had from 1974 to 2007, would not make a dent in any province’s economy. It might even provide a very mild stimulus as people used the time to spend money on things that they don’t normally spend money on during the typical work day or weekend. It would be an easy and fairly equitable crowd-pleaser, too.

It was a risk that Kathleen Wynne’s nearly 14-year-old (i.e., geriatric, in political terms) Liberal government could have afforded to take. Instead, they reinforced a penurious status quo, only a little bit more generous than Japan’s legendarily limited allowances — although even Japan has slowly started to come around to the idea of taking holidays in the face of a persistent economic and quality-of-life malaise.

Meanwhile in Canada, the stinginess on annual holiday provisions goes on and on and on.

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Toronto’s Pickering Problem

Hi, neighbour! British Airways jet on approach to London Heathrow, May 2010 © Don McDougall

Hi, neighbour! (© Don McDougall / From Flickr)

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Toronto Pickering, where the current local time is 7:35 p.m. For your safety and comfort, please remain seated with your seatbelts fastened until the aircraft has arrived at the terminal building and the seatbelt signs have been switched off.”

Huh? Toronto Pickering?

Indeed, those are the words you might hear someday on arrival in Toronto, now that there’s talk of reviving the long-dormant Toronto Pickering Airport project.

Plans for an airport on government-owned land between Markham and Pickering, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) by car northeast of downtown Toronto, dates back to the early ’70s when the Trudeau government expropriated land to build a second airport serving Canada’s largest city.

Local opposition, and the refusal of Bill Davis’s Progressive Conservative provincial government to build the infrastructure needed to service a new airport, forced the feds to back down in 1975.

The Pickering idea wasn’t dead, however. Just dormant.

Thirty-six years later, there’s talk that Trudeau’s controversial airport plan might be revived by, of all people, Stephen Harper.

With Metro Toronto’s population expected to surpass 8 million by the 2030s, it’s not surprising to see renewed pressure to build another airport.

It will meet resistance, however, from area residents and environmentalists who would sooner not have airplanes circling above and an airport’s various wastes, from de-icing fluid to jet fuel, seeping into the ground below.

Frequent fliers will balk at the fact that the new airport, 50 kilometres from downtown Toronto, will be one of North America’s most far-flung — considerably further from downtown than even today’s most notoriously distant airports, such as Edmonton (34 kms.), Dallas (37 kms.) or Denver (40 kms.)

Imagine if Winnipeg Airport were to be relocated to Ste. Anne, and you’ll get an idea of the distance involved.

Then there are the airlines.

Unless the old Pearson airport is closed, who will want to fly to and from Pickering? Given a free choice, the airlines would sooner use Pearson, which is about 23 kilometres (14 miles) closer to downtown Toronto than the proposed Pickering site.

There are several ways this could unfold:

Use Pickering for international flights, Pearson for domestic flights. The Trudeau government tried this in the ’70s when it opened Mirabel Airport as Montreal’s international long-haul airport, and kept the closer-in Dorval Airport open as the city’s domestic and U.S. airport. The effect was to gravely undermine Montreal’s viability as an airline hub.

Imagine flying from Winnipeg to Montreal Dorval, collecting your bags, and taking a shuttle bus dozens of kilometres out into the Quebec countryside to check in again for your international flights. Now you’ll understand why virtually no one wanted to connect between domestic and international flights in Montreal for many years until all flights were eventually consolidated again at Dorval (ironically re-named Montreal Trudeau in recent years, after the prime minister who undermined its viability as a hub 30 years earlier).

The passengers are mostly gone now, with Mirabel continuing to operate as a base for cargo and medevac flights — a role not likely envisaged for an expensive new Toronto airport.

Restrict Pearson to short-haul flights. This would be similar to what the U.S. has done in other two-airport markets such as Dallas and Washington, D.C. When the enormous Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) opened in the mid-’70s, a small upstart discount carrier called Southwest Airlines was allowed to continue using Dallas’s old airport, Love Field, only for flights within Texas and its neighbouring states. This worked for a while, though there was continuing pressure to either close Love Field and consolidate everything at DFW or let Love Field compete head-on with DFW.

Such a policy in Toronto would be controversial, and would not be compatible with either Air Canada’s global network or WestJet’s growing number of alliances with foreign carriers, such as KLM and Air France.

Develop Pickering as an upscale, business-friendly airport and turn Pearson into a discounts-and-charters airport. This would be similar to what has taken place in London, where the difference between Heathrow’s, Gatwick’s and Stansted’s clienteles is something like the difference between The Bay, Zellers and Dollarama. This is probably the most realistic plan for Toronto to emulate if it builds a second big airport.

It still faces a challenge, however: Britain has a strong discount airline culture thanks to its proximity to a multitude of diverse European neighbours and generous labour laws that provide workers with four weeks’ paid holiday every year. Canadians have to travel twice as far to get half the diversity, and are only assured of a mere two weeks’ paid holiday per year, so there isn’t as much room for discount carriers to grow here and fill the gates with aircraft.

It is interesting, though, to speculate on what you could do with a totally new, business-oriented Toronto airport. A train station in the basement that would whisk arriving passengers to downtown Toronto in 40 minutes? A secure transit lounge which would allow passengers to fly from the U.S. and Latin America to Europe via Toronto, and vice-versa, without having to clear Canadian border formalities?  A hotel within the secure area of the airport for the benefit of flight crews and long-stopover passengers?

Have just one airport. If the Dutch really use just one big airport in Amsterdam to serve a country of 16 million, and Hong Kong just needs one airport to serve a population of 7 million, is a second Toronto airport really that necessary? Why not just upgrade Pearson, or do what Denver did: build a new airport way out in the countryside and shut down Pearson?

Since new airports take years to plan and build, and are welcome virtually nowhere, watch for this to become a controversial issue for years to come in Toronto, Ontario and federal politics.

Ontarians: Do you really want your kids to learn about sex from Google, YouTube and Yahoo Answers?

Sometimes in a democracy, it’s tempting to think that every major policy change comes about because of a government’s ideological bias or because the government of the day has friends it wants to reward.

Such a view, however, underestimates the extent to which policy changes originate in this country not from the politicians or their supporters, but from analyses and consultations that started in a certain government department and eventually resulted in a set of recommendations being presented to the minister in charge.

Policy changes that originate from within a department are usually based on solid research, and might have involved looking at what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other jurisdictions — the type of research that politicians and their office staff lack the time and expertise to do.

That kind of process was almost certainly what was behind the controversial changes to Ontario’s sexual education curriculum, which were supposed to take effect in the fall of 2010, that premier Dalton McGuinty’s government shelved today amid controversy. As the Globe and Mail reported today (April 22, 2010):

The new curriculum, outlined in 208 pages that were quietly posted on the Ministry of Education’s website in January, would for the first time have taught Grade 3 pupils about such topics as sexual identity and orientation, and introduce terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication” to children in Grades 6 and 7. The new curriculum was set to begin in Grade 1 with lessons about the proper names of body parts.
The changes were part of a regular review of Ontario’s physical education and health curriculum, which hasn’t been updated since 1998. They went nearly unnoticed until a Christian group, led by evangelist Charles McVety, threatened to pull its children from school.

Only Ontario’s education ministry can confirm or deny this, but these changes — the first to Ontario’s sex ed program since 1998 — are likely due to a need to combat the use of the Internet as a source of misinformation.

Based on my own recollections, the timing seems about right: it probably was about Grade 3 or so that we started telling dirty jokes and using crude terms in the playground, and we knew a heck of a lot more detail by Grade 6, regardless of whether or not it was in the curriculum. (The Internet boom was a decade into the future at that time.)

Some of those more colourful details will continue to be officially unspeakable in the Ontario educational curriculum. With the exception of those kids who lack both friends and an Internet connection at home, those details will continue to be available for Ontario’s young men and women here…

Source #1: Google

Here…

Source #2: YouTube

And here…

Source #3: Yahoo! Answers