George Maclaren, my friend and mentor

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TOP George and Anne at their Mahone Bay, N.S. home in August 2016. ABOVE March 15, 1988: George and I scan one of the first copies of the Montreal Daily News.
My friend and mentor George Maclaren died August 30, aged 79. George had been in failing health but when I called his wife Anne at their Mahone Bay, N.S. home the week before he passed, she said he’d gotten up that morning and asked for breakfast.

Phil Authier’s Gazette obituary lists the milestones in George’s life — born in Bondville in 1939, Sherbrooke lawyer, Sherbrooke Record publisher, active Progressive Conservative, Montreal Daily News publisher, Jean Charest’s advisor and confidant, Quebec Delegate-General, philanthropist. What it doesn’t do is talk about what it was like to work with George Maclaren, gentleman adventurer, wise counsellor, hands-off publisher, colleague and friend.

I met George in the summer of 1977. He and several partners had just purchased the Sherbrooke Record from Conrad Black, Peter White and David Radler, all of whom were ready to move on to bigger things. George was looking for an editor looking for a challenge. A mutual friend, Gazette columnist Glen Allen, told George to give me a call. I was a former Gazette reporter and desker then employed as an assistant city editor at the Montreal Star and looking for escape options. Everyone at the Star knew the pressmen were headed for a strike. What we didn’t know was the strike would kill Montreal’s largest newspaper and leave the Gazette with a monopoly that George and I would challenge 10 years later. 

Our initial conversation wasn’t auspicious. Maclaren, a parsimonious Townships Scot if ever there was one, proposed to pay me half of what I was making at the Star. But I’d be the editor of Quebec’s third-largest English daily newspaper, with a car and expenses — and I could sign my own editorials. “Jamie, come on down for a visit,” he drawled.

In 1977, the Record occupied a former fishing tackle factory in an industrial park. The Goss press occupied a quarter of the building. The production department took up another big whack of space. Sales had the front office. The newsroom was jammed into the southwest corner against a back wall. It was walled off from the rest of the building with sheets of plywood. The desks were ancient refugees from the Record’s posh Wellington Street home during the Bassett era. A bank of Teletype machines churned out wirecopy, most of which we reversed and wound into spools hung on clothes-hanger holders so we could use the blank side to hammer out our stories on ex-government typewriters. 

It was a low-cost operation. I’d heard stories about just how knife-edge from Record alumni Hugh Doherty, Paul Waters, Hubert Bauch and Scott Abbott. George knew how to get to me. “You decide what stories to chase, what goes on front, what photos to run — everything. It’s your newsroom.”

That was the clincher for me.

George and I had three wonderful years running the Record. We broke national stories — Gerald Bull’s big guns, Charles Marion’s bogus kidnap, Saad Gabr’s attempt to buy North Hatley — with the same signed local editorials George vowed when he bought the Record. I’m sure some of the stories we broke cost us advertising, but to his eternal credit, George never brought it up. His only grumble was with John McCaughey’s court reporting from Sweetsburg Ward. “Why must we run the names of people convicted of drunk driving,” he asked me. “If we did it everywhere we cover, it would be one thing. But we’re not. Therefore it’s not fair.” He could have ordered me to stop running the names. Instead he made his lawyer’s pitch for fairness and convinced me to stop.

George and I shared a reverence for what the Record represented — an essential component of the Townships English community. We both read the ‘bush notes,’ the dismissive term used by generations of apprentice journalists to refer to the files from correspondents in far-flung corners of what was once a vast English community stretching from Philipsburg on Mississquoi Bay to Inverness, a hamlet 70 miles from Quebec City. Correspondence editor Helen Evans oversaw and co-ordinated a dozen or more contributors and George would admonish me to find space for their unpaid submissions. “Jamie, they’re important to people,” he’d say when Helen complained about insufficient space. 

He also convinced me to meet face to face with longtime scribes like Ivy Hatch, Carl Mayhew and Charles McVety. “Your visit would mean a lot,” he added. “Take the time to go see them.” So once a week, I’d head my fire engine red Record-issue Fort Pinto to one of these far-flung outposts of the Record’s empire. In the process, I discovered wonderful places I never would have visited — the Gosford Settler’s Road, Knowlton’s Old Stagecoach road, Lawrence Colony, Ruiter Brook, Mont Hereford, Leadville — and moving experiences, like sitting on Charlie McVety’s front porch in Inverness as he reminisced about the English Townships.

People came first for George and Anne. Between the two of them, they knew people all over the country and made it their duty to bring them together. We dined with Conrad Black (I dimly recall a wine-fuelled argument), with Prime Minister Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer and with ordinary people from all walks of life. We drove to Ottawa to watch Kim Campbell win the Tory leadership from George’s candidate Jean Charest and to Quebec City to lobby for the English community in the National Assembly dining room. He and I got involved in the association representing Quebec’s English-language weeklies, driving to the Gaspé to work with Sharon McCully and the hard-working group that created the SPEC, the Coast’s English voice.

In 1980 CBC Television offered me a job and I headed back to Montreal. George hired Townships Sun editor Charles Bury to replace me. The CBC went on strike for what was to be a year. Instead of dumping one of us, George kept me on for the year as the editor-at-large while Charlie got comfortable with the daily routine. It’s a measure of the man that he kept us both at the cost of an extra salary in an operation that couldn’t afford it. It was never mentioned.

Fast forward to the autumn of ’87. Québecor approached George Maclaren with an offer. Pierre Péladeau had it in his head to launch an English-language version of the Journal de Montréal, heavy on police and court news, gossip and sports. Part of the motivation came from Gazette publisher Clark Davey’s abortive try at launching an upscale French-language tabloid. Le Matin lasted just 42 issues but Péladeau sought revenge. Québecor would buy the Record in exchange for Maclaren agreeing to launch the new daily. 

Seven years after our first meeting, George called me with another challenge he knew I couldn’t refuse. “How would you like to help me launch a new English-language daily in Montreal?” My family and friends were aghast. “You’d quit the CBC to launch a startup?” How does one explain one’s love for print journalism, the feel of holding one’s own daily miracle hot off the press? George and I met with Péladeau and somehow, we convinced each other it would work. I handed in my notice at the CBC, where I was hosting Daybreak. A week later, George and I were back working together, this time in Québecor’s headquarters just off the Main.  

The Montreal Daily News began 1988 with nothing — no offices, no production facility, no staff. All we had  was a March start date and vague plans for an electronic newsroom in the heart of downtown and a remote production facility in Lasalle — Québecor wanted to test cost-cutting technologies and the Daily News was to be their guinea pig for pagination, asymmetric modems and a funny-looking little computer called a MacIntosh. This is where I saw the other side of George as he found ways to work with an eccentric entrepreneur and Québecor’s old-school senior management. There was enormous pressure on him to get the new paper up and running in less that three months, but I never saw him slacken the insane pace that kept the project moving forward. George saw the launch of a new daily as an adventure and he made sure we did too. There was something of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton in George, the ability to motivate others to attempt the impossible. 

There isn’t a lot written about how to launch a newspaper. Our bible was Peter Pritchard’s The Making of McPaper: The inside Story of USA Today. I kept borrowing George’s copy until he presented me with my own, complete with a frontspiece note in George’s trademark scrawl:

Jamie,

Here’s your very own copy. Can I have mine back.

George

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From left, George Maclaren, Robert Maxwell, Jim Duff
Our critics — and they continue to surface 30 years later — faulted us for compromising on things beyond our control — the format, the lack of home delivery until it was too late, 50-cent newsstand price, Quebecor-style cronyism and a byzantine internal-economy structure — but I never saw George cave on principles. When Péladeau proposed to sell half his stake in the Daily News to British press baron Robert Maxwell, George reminded his boss the Kent Commission had recommended a 25 per cent maximum for foreign ownership. Péladeau’s proposal was quickly forgotten in the flurry of bigger news about Maxwell’s troubles.

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At the launch party for the Montreal Daily News: Pierre Péladeau, George Maclaren, Jim Duff
Throughout the Daily News’s short life, internal debates raged in the newsroom and advertising department over the paper’s target market. Upmarket? Downmarket? Old-stock Anglos? New Quebeckers? Businesspeople? Public transit commuters? Throughout, George stuck to his Record hands-off credo, refraining from meddling in Daily News editorial decisions. The paper was sued for revealing that a popular Tory MP had a two-year lapse in his Parliamentary CV. We reported that he’d spent those two years in prison for the attempted murder of a Montreal cop during a bank holdup. We were sued for telling the truth about a dead mobster. For two years, George protected us from Quebecor’s meddling and protected Quebecor from our angry counterblasts. It was private-sector statesmanship of the highest order.

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March 15, 1988: George Maclaren, centre, with a young Pierre-Karl Péladeau and Québecor executives at the first press run of the Montreal Daily News at Imprimerie Dumont in Lasalle. We’re celebrating a Canadian first — a newspaper produced at downtown offices and printed in a remote location.
Québecor and I parted ways in 1990 as Péladeau’s son Pierre-Karl took over the task of trying to find a winning formula for the Daily News. George, who helped negotiate my exit, was philosophical. “What these guys don’t want is another walking wounded,” he explained. “Some of their ventures are successes, others were failures, but the worst case for them is a Daily News, hemorrhaging cash with no clear sense of where it’s headed.” 

George and I went our separate ways, he to his posting as Quebec’s Delegate-General in London, me back into talk radio and print. Whenever I’d run into Jean Charest, we’d talk about George, Anne and the family. Charest, I grew to learn, places people before politics much as George did. 

Louise and I last saw George in August 2016, during a road trip through the Maritimes that included a stop in Mahone Bay, where their stunning heritage home straddles a ridge high above the harbour. He was less interested in current events than in talking about his latest reading on Canadian history. Knowing that he had once served as the mayor of Ogden, I told him I was thinking of running for a council seat. “Don’t do it Jamie,” he cautioned me. “It will drive you crazy.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I wish I had heeded his advice. 

As word spread among his circle of friends that his health was deteriorating, I wanted to tell him how much his mentorship and confidence meant to me. We had that conversation late this summer. It was uncharacteristically emotional for both of us, a reminder of that human need to give thanks and say goodbye before it’s too late. 

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A Tale of Two Cities

(with apologies to Charles Dickens)

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Gananoque, Ontario: Welcome to a parallel universe, where caucus meetings are illegal and all but a handful of council decisions must be reached in public.

Walking through the front door of Gananoque, Ontario’s 187-year-old town hall last week, we unknowingly entered a parallel universe where it’s illegal for a town council to reach a decision behind closed doors.

A universe where every file is simultaneously available to the public and council members.

A universe where, if four council members happen to show up anywhere, even to the local Tim Horton’s, one has to leave to avoid an unauthorized quorum.

A universe where anyone, even a visiting Quebec councillor, can get detailed financial information simply by asking.

A universe where half of all advisory committee members are unelected citizens with unobstructed access to any data they require to assist council in reaching informed decisions.

Welcoming us to the land of the Ontario Municipal Act was Melanie Kirkby, Gananoque’s treasurer. We had no appointment and she had things to do, but she took the time to answer our questions:

Gananoque’s OPEX? $8.5 million (Hudson’s is $12M.)
Revenues? $15M, including $1.4M from the OLG casino (Hudson hopes to take in $13.46M in 2018.)
Budgeted surplus? $500,000 (Hudson has no defined budget surplus.)
Accumulated surplus? $8M, half of which will be spent on a Town Hall annex to make the entire structure accessible. (Hudson has no accumulated surplus.)
Long-term debt? Zero! (Hudson’s long-term debt as of 2016 was $24.4M.)

Off the main hall was a council chamber that looked as if Sir John A. Macdonald had banged the gavel on the rickety desk. I asked Kirkby if caucus meetings were still held there.

She recoiled in horror. “Caucus meetings? They’re illegal in Ontario!” By law, all meetings are open to the public. In order to close a meeting to the public, council must pass a resolution that a closed meeting will be held, stating the nature of the topic under consideration. Only meetings dealing with public security, human resources, the purchase or sale of municipal land, litigation, training and matters covered by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act can be closed to the public.

The Municipal Act goes further, imposing certain restrictions on any other meeting held without the public present by requiring that no vote be taken unless for a procedural matter or the giving of instructions or directions to municipal employees.

Kirkby explained the Ontario system in terms of Gananoque’s schedule. Regular council meetings take place on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of each month. The June 19 council meeting began at 5:05 p.m. with a closed session that ended at 5:55. One item dealing with an HR issue was discussed.

At 6 sharp, the regular council meeting began voting on resolutions stemming from the previous meeting of the Committee of the Whole (COW), a public working table which includes members of council and town staff. It was over by 6:10, including question period.

At 6:11, that week’s COW got underway with Kirkby, fire chief Steve Tiernan and supervisors or and managers from public works, community development, public utilities and parks and recreation in attendance. The town’s external auditors presented the 2107 audited financial statements, thereby releasing them to the public for discussion to a final vote to table them at the next regular council meeting. COW discussed half a dozen other ongoing files before adjourning for the night at 6:55. Those files will be turned into motions for presentation at the next council meeting after having spent two weeks in public circulation.

Kirkby explained how they used to leave the closed sessions to the end of the meetings but moved them to the front of the line so meetings wouldn’t drag on. And to think we’re happy with 10 p.m.

According to the 2016 census, Hudson and Gananoque are remarkably similar in some ways, polar opposites in others. Population-wise, Gan has six more residents than Hudson — 5,194 to 5,188. Hudson’s residents average four months older — 47.7 years versus 47.2.

Both towns are having to deal with aging infrastructure and whether growth and densification guarantee sustainability. Both wrestle with zoning issues.

Hudson faces a chronic water shortage, a $6 million roads infrastructure deficit and an uncertain future as an off-island bedroom community. The weekend-home, pied-a-terre market appears to be Hudson’s best bet — if it can find a sustainable infrastructure solution and redevelop itself as a destination by freeing its commercial core from zoning constraints.

Once Canada’s rivet capital, Gananoque’s industrial base has collapsed; tourism and condominium development to capture the wave of geriatric boomers fleeing the cities are its main hopes. With the pristine headwaters of the St. Lawrence at its feet, Gan’s problem isn’t water, but sewage treatment capacity. A proposed hotel next to the Shorelines Casino has been told it has to build its own sewage treatment plant.

According to the 2016 census data, Hudson is by far the wealthier community. Hudson has fewer private dwellings (2,386 to Gan’s 2,516) but 650 more detached single-family dwellings (1,975 vs. 1,315.) Average total household income: Hudson $121,000 to Gan’s $70,300. Hudson also collects roughly $500,000 in transfer tax.

 

Charge for parking!

 

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Sandy Beach, Saturday, June 16: Why would Hudson not charge non-residents for the privilege of using the beach so that the Town can recoup the cost of securing and maintaining this lakeside jewel?

While Hudson debates whether to charge people for using the Jack Layton Park (JLP) boat launch and how to police and control access to Sandy Beach, here’s food for thought.

Between 2:45 and 3 p.m. Saturday, June 16 we conducted a 15-minute survey of people using the boat launch at JLP.

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This St. Lazare resident and her partner launch and recover their kayaks from a small beach next to the motorboat launch. Why not give non-motorized users separate access to they don’t have to drag their craft across gravel and wait for a pause in the motorized boat-launch traffic?

We began by asking them where they were from. Two respondents — a couple kayaking and the owner of a 23-foot Sea-Doo runabout — were from St. Lazare. The others hailed from Les Cedres, Huntingdon and Lachine.

Asked whether they spent any money in town, all said no.

Asked whether they would pay $50 to use the launching ramp, all said they would go elsewhere.

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Lachine resident reloads his boat after a morning on the lake. If the town jacked the launch fee to $50, he says he would stop coming even though he prefers the Lake of Two Mountains to his home waters. Lachine charges $10 per vehicle and $10 per trailer so that boaters can use the launch ramp for free — and at their own risk.

The Lachine resident has been using the ramp for three years, including the season the town charged for the use of the ramp.

He said he finds the Lake of Two Mountains more interesting for boating and fishing than Lac St-Louis but wouldn’t return if the town charged $50 for use of the ramp. Lachine, he pointed out, doesn’t charge for use of the ramp. Instead, Lachine charges $10 per vehicle and $10 per trailer. Boaters using the ramp do so at their own risk.

 

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Because there is no supervision or control of who parks where, vehicles with trailers monopolize the free parking without regard for how they park. Result: other vehicles are blocked from leaving or finding parking.

Next, we tallied the number of vehicles with and without trailers in the parking lot.

We counted 20 vehicles with trailers and 40 vehicles without trailers.
Let’s say the town charges $10 per vehicle and $10 per trailer.
At $10 per vehicle and $10 per trailer, that amounts to $800 for one afternoon.
Since many won’t spend the whole day on the water, it’s a fair assumption this past Saturday would have pulled in $1600.

Multiply that by 32 weekend days and we come up with $51,000.
Assume rainy weekends will be more than offset by revenues from holiday weekends, when the ramp is in constant use from dawn to dusk.

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Another reason to police parking at Jack Layton Park.

Assume another $42,500 for weekday use. Conservatively, parking for JLP and Sandy Beach could bring in $100,000 a year.

The only expense would be a parking attendant and gate at the park entrance on Halcro.

The benefits of charging for parking rather than for using the boat launch?

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Beachgoers can enjoy a sunny Saturday on Hudson’s waterfront without spending a cent. Shouldn’t they at least pay for parking?

Non-residents enjoying Sandy Beach should be paying for the privilege as well as subsidizing the cost of parking-lot operation and park/beach bylaw enforcement. We biked to the far end of the beach and noted the number of off-leash dogs (the vast majority), coolers of food and alcohol, and overflowing garbage cans the Town pays to empty. How many bought their food and drinks locally before heading to the beach?

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These boaters know the secret to not being boxed in.

Hudson residents pay dearly for all of this, so they should be alone in enjoying free parking by applying for a decal.

Beaches and greenspaces in our region— Pointe du Moulin, Oka Provincial Park, Plage Saint-Zotique, Plage Saint-Timothée, Base de plein air — all charge for vehicle access. Some offer reduced rates or free access to their citizens. Some exchange special access privileges.

To summarize, wouldn’t it be preferable to see Hudson’s lakeside jewel of a greenspace covering the cost of maintaining and securing it for Hudson residents? I can’t understand the mindset of those who say it will end up costing the town more to charge than to give it away.

Don’t believe us. Do the math. Take your own survey. God knows we have the Parks and Recreation staff.

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This lengthy rig managed to occupy four parking spaces, but he’s blocked in by another rig parked in front of him. Good luck getting out.

$120,000 for nothing

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I visited the Bradbury Park well site off Côte St. Charles Wednesday, May 23 to see the results of Samson’s test wells. These are photos of the test cores. Each of the piles in the photo represents five vertical feet. The ideal core forms a fairly solid, compact pile that looks like it was formed with an overturned bucket. The cores that look like mud pies indicate a mix of fine sand and silt, which quickly clogs intake screens. This is what happened to the adjacent Bradbury well barely two years after it began pumping.

The following account was compiled from information on the public record or freely available to enterprising residents.

The next to last item on the agenda for tonight’s June 4 Hudson council meeting — authorization for drilling piezometer – Wells 483, etc. — will mean nothing to most people. But for those following Hudson’s chronic water shortage saga, it’s confirmation of the latest failed attempt at finding a solution.

One of the last acts of the previous council was the approval of a $1.4 million loan bylaw to cover the cost of locating, authorizing, drilling and connecting a new well.  At some point in the decision-making process, it was decided to concentrate the search for a new well in the same area of the Viviry Creek watershed where Hudson’s two producing wells are located.

Every step in that process was approved by council, beginning with $14,000 to consulting hydrogeologists Akifer to pinpoint the location of two drilling sites. Another $7,000 went to environmental consultants Sagie to steer the project through the environment ministry’s approval process. Another $36,500 went to Daoust for site preparation on a very short deadline, followed by $63,434 to Forage Samson, the winning bidder on the actual drilling of the wells.

Samson began drilling operations on Daoust’s temporary road below Hillcrest the third week in May.  The contractor quickly concluded from core samples the site would not support a well capable of producing 600 gallons per minute on a sustainable basis. There was plenty of water starting at a depth of 150 feet—  but the sand matrix was too fine and laden with silt to guarantee sustainability.

The best comparison is with a Slushie, those concoctions of sugar syrup and crushed ice consumed through a straw. If the ice is too coarse, you end up with a cupful of ice and no liquid. If the ice is too fine, it clogs the straw — essentially what happened with the nearby Bradbury well barely two years after it started pumping.

A second borehole confirmed Samson’s concerns. I have not seen the contractor’s drilling report but I strongly suspect it recommends against further drilling in the Viviry wetland because of the unsuitability of the water-bearing sand.

In other words, Hudson taxpayers paid in excess of $120,000 with nothing to show for it but another summer water ban.

What does Quebec have to say about the Town of Hudson’s annual well quest?

This morning I put that question to Hudson’s regional representative for the Sustainable Development, Environment and Fight Against Climate Change (MDDELCC).

“Every year, you spend more money and get no f**king results, just another interesting report,” he said. “When are you going to come to your senses, run a pipe into the lake and build yourself a treatment plant?”

With a provincial election this October and a federal election next fall, he added, there’s no better window of opportunity to pressure the politicians for subsidies. “Stop wasting time and taxpayer’s dollars!”

This evening’s Item 11.1 seeks council’s approval to conduct test drilling in one or more of the piezometers (test wells) surrounding Well #483, the town’s single major source of drinking water. I find it ironic that after all this time and expenditure on outside expertise, we’re considering a solution first suggested by former technical services director Trail Grubert some 10 years ago.

Hudson’s potable water system is supplied by four wells.  They have a combined production capacity of 3,547 US gallons a minute. Each well’s health and productivity is monitored in real time by a system of piezometers, or test wells, located throughout the municipality and the results logged by municipal employees. Summer demand peaks at 4,750 GPM, representing a 30% shortfall and the reason behind the annual summer watering ban.

The two wells providing most of Hudson’s drinking water — #483 and Bradbury — are located in the wetlands along Viviry Creek. Well #483, Hudson’s equivalent of Old Faithful, began pumping in 1983. It replaced Well #2, located next to the Wellesley entrance to Bradbury Park.

Well #2 still produces, but was condemned on the advice of the environment ministry because its water exceeds provincial norms for iron, manganese and chlorides.

The Bradbury well, barely 10 years old, is producing at below its rated capacity despite repeated efforts to unclog its 60-foot intake screen. Had today’s well-sustainability technologies been in effect when it was drilled, it’s doubtful Bradbury would have ever been connected.

In the west end, two wells supply Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale. This system can be fed water via a connection at the top of Mount Victoria but isn’t configured or permitted to feed water to the town’s filtration plant and reservoir at the top of Fairhaven.

How critical is Hudson’s drinking water situation? Serious enough to question whether the town can guarantee a four-day supply for its 5,200 residents in the event of a failure of either of its two main wells. Until Hudson finds a sustainable long-term solution for its chronic water shortage, we can forget about future development.

Continue reading $120,000 for nothing

Cannabis update: risk vs. potential

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What’s happening with the Liberal promise to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by this July? When will edibles be legal? What’s the story on pot-impaired driving? To find the answers and to see where this budding industry is at, I attended the April 10 Marché du cannabis, a day-long Les Affaires symposium on Canada’s weed industry.

Speakers and panels covered the horizon, ranging from regulatory issues and public health concerns to branding, marketing, packaging and consumables. Some 300 participants included Canada’s three largest growers and an expert on the exploding market in consumables — edibles and other alternatives to smoking.

Quebec municipalities are concerned with three laws: the federal C-45 and C-46, plus Quebec’s Projet de loi 157, now undergoing article-by-article study by the Commission de la santé et des services sociaux. No dates are set for the second or third readings.

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Quebec has adopted an incremental approach to legalization that will not include many of the freedoms found elsewhere in Canada.

C-45 and C-46 are before the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, last stop in the approval process that began last July. The committee’s vice-chair Sen. Pierre Hughes Boisvenu told a recent Conservative party gathering he doesn’t see recreational cannabis made legal until January, 2019.

C-45 gives Ottawa exclusive right to licence growers, processors, exporters and all aspects of branding, labelling and distribution. Medical and recreational pot will be delivered in similar packaging; advertising and promotion will be subject to tobacco rules. The fast-growing markets in edibles and alternative-delivery systems (nebulizers, etc.) will have to wait a year while the feds and provinces work through problems.

C-46 sets out testing procedures, impairment levels and penalties for drug-impaired driving. Canadian police forces will be required to equip their patrols with “spit kits” as well as roadside alcohol breathalyzers. The kits test for THC, cocaine, and methamphetamine. As with alcohol, those who fail roadside spit tests are subject to further testing, with one level for summary conviction and a higher level leading to a criminal conviction.

There was general agreement court challenges are a near-certainty, especially in Quebec where PL157 mandates a zero-tolerance level for THC, whereas the rest of Canada is proposing a 25-nanogram roadside test threshold to separate seriously impaired drivers from someone who might have consumed within in the past 24 hours.

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Quebec and Manitoba are the only two provinces to ban all unlicenced grow ops, even those with the federally allowed four-plant limit. Ottawa says federal law will apply; Quebec doesn’t agree. 

Ottawa and the provinces generally agree on the need to control the black market by keeping the market price as low as possible. Under federal law, individuals would be allowed to grow up to four plants. However, Quebec and Manitoba have chosen to prohibit home cultivation altogether, despite the four-plant limit allowed under the proposed federal law. If their prohibition is challenged in court, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said the federal law will prevail.

The feds are giving the provinces wide latitude in deciding how recreational cannabis should be distributed. Quebec and Alberta propose to make 18 the legal consumption age; the other provinces are all 19. Five provinces, Quebec included, will control distribution and sale through their own retail networks.

Under PL 157, Quebec has created a distribution arm of the SAQ, the Société québécois du cannabis (SQC), to oversee the purchase of 62 tonnes of bulk weed annually from federally licenced growers. It will be sold in 20-150 stores, but as with all of Quebec’s initiatives under PL 157, timing is up to an oversight committee mandated to advise the government on every step of the legalization process.

Under the terms of a $5 billion contract announced this past week, Quebec’s sole licenced grower, Gatineau-based Hydropothecary will supply the SQC 200,000 kilos over five years. By then, Hydropothecary is hoping to have 63 products — cannabis and its derivatives in every delivery form — ready for the legal consumables market.

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Aurora’s Envoy is a self-contained miniature greenhouse, complete with grow lights.

Gadgets and consumables were the big draw on the convention floor. Aurora was showing off Envoy, a self-contained miniature greenhouse. Hydropothecary showed off Elixir, a sublingual nebulizer delivering a minty THC/cannabidiol blend and Decarb, an edible THC/CBD capsule or mixable powder. Benefits are never spelled out; federal law prohibits unsubstantiated medical claims and the medical profession is generally wary of the hype surrounding cannabis’s real and/or imagined medical uses.

Marijuana contains more than 100 cannabinoids, but is grown for two principal ingredients — tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD. THC is psychoactive — it gets you high by binding to certain receptors in the brain. CBD binds to different brain receptors and is medically available in Canada (Sativex) for the treatment of multiple sclerosis symptoms. Research is attempting to determine CBD’s efficacy in the treatment of other conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to epilepsy.

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Producers and transformers have lined up an array of products to coincide with both legalization deadlines: smokable weed and  cannabis-based consumables. 

Panels:

Effects on Quebec cities and towns

— Alexandre Cusson, president of the Union des Municipalités du Québec and mayor of Drummondville
— Robert Beaudry, Montreal executive committee member

Major concerns: One-law-fits-all edict, SQC big-footing local government on traffic, zoning, permit and derogation issues. Every municipality is different, with different policies based on what its citizens want.

$60M: Estimated up-front cost to Quebec municipalities for first two years of legalization. Represents police training/equipment, job site (HR) training/enforcement.

$1.25/resident: Recurring enforcement and social costs that should be borne by Ottawa. Municipal/regional police forces will be saddled with costs of enforcing ban on unlicensed cultivation and public cannabis use. Municipal/provincial courts will bear cost of prosecuting offenders. Instead of grow-op ban, UMQ, Mtl. propose $250 four-plant licence.

Scientific research into cannabis

— Dr. Mark Ware, doctor in family medicine, McGill professor and DG of Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids
— Dr. Serge Marchand, doctor/researcher, Université de Sherbrooke and research director, Fonds de Recherche du Québec — Santé
— Dr. Bruno Battistini, cardiologist and PDG New Brunswick Health Research Foundation

Major concerns: Legalization will turn Canada into a huge social and medical experiment before the medical profession is set up to measure the effects on individuals and the healthcare system. Doctors reluctant to refer patients for clinical studies and trials, especially in Quebec where the College des medicins discourages its members from writing medical pot prescriptions. Ware: The problem isn’t in recruiting patients, it’s recruiting doctors to participate in a study.

Studies underway: Is CBD a medical magic bullet? Which markers determine whether someone will respond well to the molecule and who might be genetically predisposed to psychotic or allergic reactions to cannabis? Why do men and women respond to molecule differently? Canada needs to invest in research now, before the U.S. jumps in.

Risk vs. potential

— Adam Greenblatt, Canopy Growth
— Pierre Killeen, Hydropothecary
— Andrea Paine, Aurora Cannabis Inc.

Reps for Canada’s Big Three commercial growers talked about the regulatory logistics and cultural challenges. Greenblatt, co-founder of Santé Cannabis, the first medical pot dispensary in Montreal, complained about the stifling regulatory atmosphere in Quebec. Hydropothecary’s Killeen was far more conciliatory, understandable in light of the SQC’s huge buy from his company later in the week.

Takeaway: They’re all happy to be pioneers in an emerging industry where publicly listed corporations are already trading at valuation levels untethered to real market value. Whatever happens, they’ll each make millions.

Individual speakers:

The market for consumables

— Sylvain Charlebois, Dean of of the Faculty of Management, Dalhousie University

Central message: The market for consumables will dwarf the demand for legal pot. Ottawa and the provinces have agreed to delay legalization of consumables for one year after the recreational use of cannabis is legalized. Health Canada’s central message: ingest, don’t smoke. 81% of Canadians are ready to try edibles. Charlebois predicts a $5 billion market, especially in Quebec where surveys show people demonstrate a more evolved understanding of edibles.

Charlebois, an acknowledged food marketing expert, noted that cannabis combines well with a wide variety of foodstuffs and can be processed into a wide range of products — butter, spices, oils and baked goods.

Quebec’s policy in response to the emerging consumables market is unclear. Quebec’s minister responsible for PL157 has expressed concern over the marketing of THC concentrates known by their street names — shatter, wax, honeycomb, dab, hash oil. While cannabis THC levels are below 30% because of the plant’s own inherent limitations, transformers can produce concentrates of up to 90% THC.

Health Canada status report

— Benoît Séguin, manager, national compliance and enforcement section, Office of Medical Cannabis, Health Canada

As the result of public hearings into C-45, Ottawa will now allow the licensing of microfarms (200 sq. metres). Microproducers will be required to sell output to licensed producers or transform their output (up to 600 kilos, representing the average output from 200 square metres) themselves.

Untapped market potential

— Barinder Rasode, National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education

Main point: Cannabis marketing is missing an huge target — women and minorities. This 49-year-old former Surrey, B.C. two-term city councillor was the only speaker to discuss why she uses cannabis — to enable her to sleep. Women aren’t interested in recreational use and place more importance on word-of-mouth than any other form of marketing. They favour edibles and other consumption alternatives over smoking and vaping.

Rasode noted the role of cannabis in traditional Chinese and ayurvedic (southeast Asian) medicine and the need to explain in those terms why Canada is proceeding with legalization. This market is more concerned with how and where the product was produced. They’re uncertain, confused and seeking a more evolved message.

Others I spoke with:

— An actuary for Intact Insurance. He has major concerns with the federal legislation and appreciates Quebec’s incremental approach. He echoed Montreal executive committee member Robert Beaudry, who noted during his panel that Montreal is Quebec’s largest employer and has to develop a policy covering marijuana in the workplace that doesn’t conflict with collective agreements.

Intact anticipates a conflict between impairment levels permitted in the Criminal Code and levels being proposed in Quebec’s Highway Code.

C-46, the federal legislation, proposes a roadside saliva test level of 25 nanograms for THC and 50 nanograms for cocaine or methamphetamine. Roadside test levels were set deliberately high to reduce the inevitable lawsuits. Once at the station, however, a 2-nano reading is sufficient for a summary conviction and 5 nanos a Criminal Code violation, with sanctions similar to those for blood alcohol levels in excess of .08.

Quebec’s proposed changes are far more draconian, with zero tolerance for drug impairment and an automatic 90-day licence suspension on the spot.

— James McMillan, Hydropothecary VP of business development. He said Hypothecary will be signing production agreements with micro producers to deliver the volume of cannabis the company anticipates requiring once consumables are legal. Any Quebec municipality with unused farmland would have an inside track at meeting the demand. He invited members of council to visit the company’s facility in Gatineau.

 

That lied-to feeling again

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Above is a screen shot taken from Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Letaio’s 2018-2019 budget tabled this afternoon. Where was the Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital project for the past 10 years before it entered the planning stage? 

I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting a good feeling about last week’s Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital announcement made by Premier Philippe Couillard, Health Minister Gaètan Barrette and our region’s two Liberal MNAs Lucie Charlebois and Marie-Claude Nichols. According to today’s Liberal 2018-19 budget, the hospital is ‘now in the “planning stage” in the 2018-2028 capital investment plan. Where was it prior to last Thursday’s announcement? What went on during those 10 years since former health minister Yves Bolduc made the initial promise?

Four months as a municipal councillor have taught me the tricks governments use to kick an election-promise can down the road. Posting them in a capital investment wish list is a sure-fire can-kicker.

Maybe I’m using the wrong metaphor. Instead of kicking the can, what about badminton with the bureaucracy? We’re the bird being whacked back and forth.

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My last blog Political Improv was written following last Thursday’s announcement, described above on the website of the SQI, the government’s real estate development arm. Since then, I’ve come to reflect on why I concluded the event was improvised. It was the absence of documentation.

Whenever the provincial government has a significant announcement to make, there’s a snowstorm of releases beginning with the invite to a news conference. Journalists attending tare greeted with media kits. Usually there’s a page on the announcement and a page or two of briefing notes. If more than one elected official is present, one also gets copies of speeches to be checked against delivery.

These media kits are assembled by the press attachés for the porteur du dossier, the ministry or agency under whose authority the announcement is being made, with input from their colleagues in the political sphere. In this case, the media kit should have included a statement from Couillard’s office, an explainer from Barrette’s people and comments from both MNAs, one of whom is also a cabinet minister.

The invite came from Yves Masse, president-director-general of the Centre intégré de santé et de services social de la Montérégie-Ouest. I received mine on my town email March 20. It was headed Annonce importante concernant les soins et les services de santé offerts sur le territoire de Vaudreuil-Soulanges but gave no details about who would be making it. The lack of paper says to me Masse and his people have as much enthusiasm for building this hospital as Vaudreuil-Soulanges residents have for voting Liberal. Quebec’s health and social services bureaucracy doesn’t take kindly to being ordered to work at anything more than a snail’s pace; 2028 may be optimistic.

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So here we are on budget day evening, attempting to parse what, exactly, the government has announced in regard to a Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital. Above is what we THINK is the envelope for the purchase of the site on which the hospital will be built. Is it?

I’m one of those who feels Finance Minister Letaio and the Couillard Liberals have done an exemplary job of cleaning up Quebec’s finances and putting this province back on the road to prosperity. Ex-Quebeckers visiting from outside the province can’t believe the number of public and private construction projects in Quebec’s major cities. But for whatever reason, the Couillard Liberals have neglected the Montérégie-Ouest, the tail on the Montérégie donkey with its head in Longueuil.

It makes no sense to me that the Liberals would deliberately turn their backs on Vaudreuil-Soulanges, a district which contains two ridings that have consistently voted Liberal for decades. But the lack of efficient public transit, no replacement date for the crumbling Île aux Tourtes bridge and a list of other deferred promises speak for themselves.

The Liberals could pull off a win in October’s election, but it won’t be with weasel words and bureaucratic code for “let’s kick this sucker down the road for another 10 years and see if those rubes in Vaudreuil-Soulanges are as stupid as they seem.”

Fool us once — shame on you. Fool us twice — shame on us.

 

Political improv

Liberal hospital announcement
From left, Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon, Vaudreuil MNA Marie-Claude Nichols, ealth Minister Gaètan Barrette, Premier Philippe Couillard, Soulanges MNA and Treasury Board vice-chair Lucie Charlebois, Vaudreuil-Soulanges prefect Patrick Bousez, Yves Masse (standing).

Improv theatre has its place, but at the announcement of a $1.5 billion hospital for Vaudreuil-Soulanges? I’m referring to Tuesday’s (March 22) reveal by Quebec premier Philippe Couillard that his government would finally be getting around to build a 404-bed facility to serve the county’s 150,000 residents.

This should be a vote-getter in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Back in August 2008, then Liberal health minister Yves Bolduc gratified the region’s healthcare structure with an unscripted promise of a 250-bed hospital by 2018. Shortly after the Liberals retook power, Couillard walked Bolduc’s blurt back with his own vague non-promise at a February 2014 appearance. Couillard’s health minister Gaètan Barrette tried to play it both ways with an April 2016 announcement that $16M had been earmarked for acquisition of a site. The money was never appropriated and the site, still agriculturally zoned, was somehow removed from the regional master plan.

Those following this file have become cynical, inured, jaded, fatigued disbelievers after a decade of blabla, especially whenever they’re forced to seek emergency services. Valleyfield? Eastern Ontario? Lakeshore? Downtown? My Louise calls it Loto ER. As I write this, Valleyfield’s Hôpital du Suroît, the ER for more 200,000 Vaudreuil-Soulanges residents, is at 268% capacity. Thirty patients have been lying on gurneys in the corridors for up to 24 hours. Another 19 have been there for up to 48 hours. It’s the hands-down winner of Quebec’s palmares de débordement, our imaginary award for the most overcrowded ER in the province.

Whenever I feel a pang of pity for our local MNAs I remind myself of family and friends wasting hours waiting for to be seen by overworked caregivers while this government chose to ignore our plight.

Thursday’s news conference was called in haste, I suspect because the committee which has been lobbying for the hospital for close to a decade ramped up the pressure by making it an issue in this October’s provincial election. Polls show François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec leading the Liberals in voter intentions by as much as 20 points. Premature, yes, but Liberal support is trending the wrong way. The Liberals don’t share their internal polling but the storm of comments on social media suggest Vaudreuil-Soulanges voters are royally pissed — in both languages.

Whatever, Couillard began on the defensive. “Your deputies fought for this project…cost is immaterial because of the need in the region…we’ll prioritize every step.” A site, currently zoned agricultural, has been identified at the junction of blvds. Harwood and Cité des Jeunes and $16M squirrelled away for its acquisition. (Look for it in Tuesday’s budget.) Quebec will call for tenders in 2019. Construction will begin in 2022, with a late 2026 completion date. The hospital will have 10 operating rooms and 94 surgical beds, 44 psychiatric beds, 24 paediatric beds. A 25-bed obstetrics ward will be able to handle 2,000-plus births a year. More than half the beds would be earmarked for general medicine.

Couillard and Barrette skated hard in explaining the rationale for the 10-year delay. Forget that 250-bed hospital, they said. It was wrong from the start. What happened at Pierre Legardeur, a 250-bed hospital that should have started with 400 beds, won’t happen to you. We took the time we needed to give you the right hospital, adapted to your needs. Barrette: “We can dig a hole tomorrow, but it’s for a hospital, not a quarry.”

Later, Barrette would claim the delay was entirely his fault and reportedly said that if he loses, he’ll return here to work for the new hospital. That, together with Couillard’s explanation of how the government can decree the rezoning of the site from green to white and place the approval process beyond the reach of whichever government succeeds his, suggests to me the Liberals are hearing CAQ footsteps.

The most emotional intervention was that of Soulanges MNA Lucie Charlebois, whose portfolios include the Montérégie, Rehabilitation, Youth Protection, Public Health and Healthy Living. Charlebois, whose riding now includes the Town of Hudson as the result of the latest electoral redistribution, is also vice-chair of the Treasury Board and a member of the Cabinet Committee for Social, Educational and Cultural Development. In other words, Charlebois, one of the highest ranking women in Couillard’s cabinet, can count on an historically Liberal vote from Hudson and St. Lazare. I would have thought a Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital would have been a cabinet priority, if only to sweeten Charlebois’s and Nichols’s re-election chances in two ridings the Liberals can win.

Instead, Charlebois appeared to lash out at those who questioned her government’s handling of the hospital file. “Are you happy now?” she asked Louise Craig, the English-language spokesperson for the Comité tripartite pour la construction de l’hôpital de Vaudreuil-Soulanges lobbying for the hospital. She and Nichols called for a ‘grand collaboration’ to get everyone working together for the common good. “Too little, too late,” I thought to myself.

The invite for the news conference was sent out over the signature of Yves Masse, president-director-general of the Centre intégré de santé et de services social de la Montérégie-Ouest. Quebec’s bureaucracy does its utmost to remain apolitical. We could debate whether this was a political announcement but the message I got was that Masse would have preferred being stuck behind an accident on the Ile aux Tourtes bridge with no gas and a full bladder. It falls on his CISSSM-O to cover the ER shortfall in Vaudreuil-Soulanges for the next eight, nine or 10 years.

My advice to all: do whatever it takes to remain healthy — and thank your lucky stars if you live in a community with First Responders. If not, pray the ambulance gets there in time.