Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thoughts before the NCC Announcement #protectthefarm

Photo credit: Richard Hinchcliffe.
Today's the day: The National Capital Commission will be releasing its assessment of federally-owned sites being considered for a new Civic Campus.

Four of the sites are at the Farm, of those three include actively used research fields for studies ranging from the low-carbon farming (zero-till) to breeding soybeans that can be commercially competitive as far north as Edmonton. Agriculture Canada (in ATIP-ed documents) has said losing these fields would have “too great an impact from a research perspective.”

The Sir John Carling site, which stretches well south and west of the relatively small footprint of that old building (demolished in 2013), includes numerous heritage buildings, laboratories, and other facilities. AgCan pegs relocation and rebuilding costs in the "hundreds of millions of dollars," let alone having to work around heritage designated buildings--which have more protection than a federal heritage site.

On top of that, AgCan is planning to build new interpretation and research facilities at the site to support the Farm's core research mandate.

The bottom line: Agriculture Canada officials, as quoted by Liz Payne in this morning's Citizen (and Sun, where she's actually a lot more aggressively making her case), have told the NCC:

"From a research and heritage perspective, the Department feels that an ideal outcome would be that the integrity of the CEF remain intact and that an alternate site be selected that does not include lands within its boundaries.”

After 10:35 we'll know if the NCC listened to their colleagues at AAFC, and if it will protect science, respect heritage, preserve greenspace in the heart of the Capital.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Review of Na Li's /Kensington Market/.

Click here and scroll down to page 16 for my review of Na Li's Kensington Market: Collective Memory, Public History, and Toronto's Urban Landscape in the latest issue of The Public Historian (38.2, pp. 113-114).

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Central Experimental Farm as a "Truth-Spot."

Detail from "Soils of the Central Experimental Farm" showing the original 465 acres.

Author's note: this post is a bit of an experiment. In it I use the Central Experimental Farm to explore Thomas Gieryn's concept of "truth-spots." It is written in a particular moment when the Farm is still facing threats to its research fields, and those politics of course carry through. In a sense this post is inspired by the great community of active historians and my desire to draw out the concepts embedded within my other public writings on the subject. Some of the links may lead to articles behind (steep) paywalls.

In the conclusion to his exploration of the interwar Chicago School of Urban Studies, Thomas Gieryn posits that "in the emplacement of its is probably not the exception, but the rule."

Gieryn's current research project focuses on what he calls "truth-spots." Simply put, truth-spots are locations where knowledge about the world is created and, importantly, legitimized. When applied to science this presents a curious "paradox of place and truth" (emphasis in original).*

Science, like all human endeavors, is a cultural process. People do it in places. It involves learned practices and discourses. But objectivity is (often) a central legitimizing discourse in science. The literary abstraction of science from where it is practiced is part of the epistemic scaffolding used to reinforce its status as universal knowledge. As Gieryn notes, "scientific claims are diminished in their credibility as they are situated somewhere, as if their truthfulness depended upon conditions located only there."

At the same time some subjective contexts of science can provide studies performed or published in their gambit with powerful legitimacy. There's prestigious universities (the Ivy League and Oxbridge); journals (Nature or Science); institutions (CERN and NASA); and field stations (Rothamsted Research and Kew Gardens).

Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm is another such institution.

Letter to the Editor: Research faces more determined threats than geese.

Re: What do you do when geese eat all your research?

As Agriculture Canada sends out tenders for non-lethal anti-goose dogs to patrol its research fields at the Central Experimental Farm, another perennial threat looms over this important federal research station: the Ottawa Hospital. After being rebuffed when it asked for land at the Experimental Farm for a new Civic Campus in 2008 because of the Farm’s important scientific and heritage value and unsuccessfully floating the question again in 2012, the Hospital was able to secure a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2014 with the intervention of John Baird as minister of the National Capital Commission. Earlier this year Catherine McKenna told the Hospital to go back and do its homework as it has become increasingly clear that the scientific, green space, and heritage value of the Farm were ignored by Baird in 2014.

Undeterred by evidence of the longstanding scientific value of the Experimental Farm—its climate research was reported as early as 2008—and its proud 130 year history supporting Canadian farmers, recognized by its 1998 designation as a national historic site of Canada, executives at the Ottawa Hospital continue to focus on the Farm as the home for their new campus with three of its four options under investigation at the Farm, and two of those different configurations of the original 60 acres.

It is past time for McKenna and her cabinet colleagues Ministers Melanie Joly and Lawrence MacAulay to take a strong stand in support of Canada’s public science and, given the budget’s strong words linking agricultural research to fighting climate change, protect the Central Experimental Farm against all development.

Peter Anderson
Ottawa, Ontario

Note: I submitted this as a letter to the editor for MetroNews Ottawa. As my commute doesn't usually take me to where MetroNews is distributed, I have no idea if they published it in this or modified form.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Where's the NCC?

Mark Kristmanson (CEO National Capital Commission), John Baird (then-Minister for the NCC), Jack Kitts (CEO, Ottawa Hospital)
On the 3rd of November 2014 three men took to the stage to make an important announcement about the future of the Ottawa Hospital. Mark Kristmanson, CEO of the National Capital Commission, John Baird, then-minister for the NCC, and Jack Kitts, CEO of the Ottawa Hospital, were delighted to share the news that 60 acres of research land at the Central Experimental Farm would be transferred from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to the NCC for lease to the Ottawa Hospital.

(Notably absent from the scene was anyone from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.)

As readers of this blog are well aware, this came as a surprise to everyone. The deal was negotiated in secret in early 2014 despite AAFC categorically rejecting a hospital on the site in 2008. Its absence from the event may suggest how its negotiators felt about being involved in the severance.

Nonetheless, in documents obtained through access to information and freedom of information requests, as well as statements by both John Baird in 2016 and Mark Kristmanson in 2015, the National Capital Commission played the key roll in "facilitating" the proposed land transfer.

And yet since the 2015 election the NCC has been all but absent from the scene. Melanie Joly, the new minister for the NCC, has not said a word publicly. Mark Kristmanson seems to have disappeared even though in spring 2014 he was personally commenting on the draft treasury board submission.

The NCC's role deserves to have more light shed on it.

Why, for example, did the NCC fail to include the land severance during its 2014 consultations on the Capital Urban Lands Plan?

(A plan that, conveniently enough, includes a new "non-federal facility" category precisely for these 60 acres. A plan, further, that makes clear it should overrule any other plan for lands under its mandate, including the Central Experimental Farm which has its own longterm management plan. The NCC had the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to bring this forward during the 2014 consultations on the Capital Urban Lands Plan.)

Why, when asked by a consultant hired by AAFC in spring 2014 for details about the Hospital's case did the NCC simply shrug and say "we'll have to go with what we have"?

Why did the NCC, in late April 2014, tell AAFC negotiators that it understood their interests and wanted to help protect them, and then a few days later tell the Hospital that the NCC wants a design that uses the whole 60 acres being offered? That AAFC's interests were its own and not the NCC's? And that perhaps Mark Kristmanson and Jack Kitts should be personally brought to bear to halt complaints from AAFC regarding the size of the land grab?

Jack Kitts of the Ottawa Hospital has been abandoned to carry the water for the NCC as this deal has soured under ever increasing scrutiny. I am sure he is also wondering "Where is the NCC?"

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Stop Coveting the Experimental Farm, and Other Thoughts.

Research Fields at the 60 acres, source: GoogleMaps.

You can read my latest op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen here.

My argument has two main points:

One: Jack Kitts, the CEO of the Ottawa Hospital, has stated in earlier articles that it would have been inappropriate to hold consultations before the Hospital had secured a location for a new civic campus and had approval to move their design process forward from the Local Health Integration Network. I disagree for three reasons.

First, in March 2012 the LHIN authorized the Hospital's pursuit of the Experimental Farm land (despite being told by AAFC to look else where in 2008--there's an open question what happened between 2008 and 2012) on the condition that it undertakes "community engagement." Four years and six days will have passed before the first "public information session" which is only supposed to be about the design of a new campus.

Second, the Central Experimental Farm is a National Historic Site of Canada. It has a longterm management plan. There is an advisory council that is supposed to guide its future. Both are readily discoverable with a quick Google search.

Third, the Hospital keeps saying it wants a "21st Century Hospital." It cannot achieve this goal relying on 20th century processes that ignore the very people who would point out the flaws in its arguments. It will be 470 days since the announcement and the first "public information session" and the Hospital has actively avoided consultation as both the Citizen and CBC have reported. A 21st century process would have engaged the community early and often.

Two: The Central Experimental Farm is not a land bank. It is an active research station and a national historic site of Canada. The Farm's longterm management plan acknowledges the importance of ongoing research as the best way to celebrate its role in Canadian history. The Ottawa Hospital, and others, however look at the Farm as empty land. It is not empty although, as I argued in more detail back in November 2014, discursive techniques are being employed to empty it of meaning to facilitate construction and development projects.

The Hospital is treating the Farm as free land. Part of the many flaws in its 2007 site selection process--a process that is still defining its choices--is the idea that the only costs that matter are the Hospital's. It did not take into account the benefits of agricultural research at the Farm, and on the land across the street in particular.

As of mid-February the Hospital still hasn't spoken with an agricultural scientist.

They are operating in a low information environment based on a desire to hop across Carling and abandon the existing campus once construction is complete. And that is the root of almost all of the Hospital's ongoing problems. They need to slow down and listen.

In response to today's letter writer in the Citizen, who suggests the Farm should remain on the table, I want to posit if the Hospital is looking for vacant land in the city then the Farm should immediately be taken off the table. As I said above: the Farm is not empty land.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Great Chicken Civil War, and Other Fowl Tales from the Farm

Last night I gave a public lecture as part of the Ottawa Historical Association's lecture series. You can listen to my talk here:

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Consultation, the NCC, and the 60 Acres

Note: This is a slightly cleaned up version of a series of tweets.

In Spring 2014, NCC and AAFC staff questioned TOH’s justification for taking Experimental Farm land. NCC shrugged, it’s what the boss (either John Baird or Mark Kristmanson) wants. Earlier, days after sharing the 6th draft MOU—and finally bringing AAFC to the table, TOH shared a 2007 land assessment matrix with the NCC.

That deserves emphasis: the NCC got to the 6th draft of an MOU giving away Experimental Farm land before asking TOH for justification.

This, rather weak and outdated, justification did not filter down to the staff negotiating later drafts of the MOU. They kept going anyways.

(Acronym Glossary:
NCC = National Capital Commission
TOH = The Ottawa Hospital
AAFC = Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

It’s nice that Catherine McKenna (local MP and Environment & Climate Change Minister) said she wanted to revisit the land grab. It’s based on an avoidance of evidence, consultation, and accountability. The deal doesn’t need to be revisited. It needs to be scrapped. Catherine McKenna and Melanie Joly can act to bring accountability to Ottawa.

The NCC was consulting on it’s Capital Urban Lands Plan while (literally) giving away the Farm, and it’s new CEO knew the whole time. No where in the consultation report did the NCC mention giving away the Farm. Then it parachuted the give away into the final Plan.

This really questions what NCC consultation is worth. With the Farm, at least, they could have used ongoing consultation process. But the boss(es) had already made their decision, so why would the NCC bother with consultations?
This is one reason to be skeptical about any NCC consultation process. What have they already decided and are keeping quiet about?

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The 60 Acres at Various Locations

A couple of months ago I used GoogleMaps to transpose the threatened 60 acres to other locations. The effected area, before taking into account new roads and rerouting drainage patterns, will be over 80 acres. For the sake of ease of reference, I'll post those tweets here:

Friday, 29 January 2016

Revisit the Experimental Farm Severance

First written 20 January 2016, last updated 29 January 2016.

Earlier this month the Ottawa Hospital launched pre-consultations on the design of its future Civic Campus. PACE Consulting, an Ottawa-based public relations firm, has approached a number of stakeholders to determine potential issues TOH may face going forward. The most important outstanding issue is the location of the new hospital. Consultations on the design of a new hospital are premature before light is shed on how TOH got its sweetheart deal to lease 60 acres of nationally and internationally significant research land for a dollar a year.

At its public board meeting, the National Capital Commission voted to rescind its approval to have a monument to the victims of communism located beside the Supreme Court of Canada. This sets an important precedent for the Liberals to investigate other shady deals in the national capital region. It is time for the NCC’s board and the Liberal government to revisit the severance of 60 acres from the Central Experimental Farm.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Jeff Leiper have been fighting for consultations for a year. Earlier this month, after meeting with Environment and Climate Change Minister and local MP Catherine McKenna, Brockington expressed frustration at the lack of information provided by TOH, NCC, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. On Thursday, McKenna echoed his concerns and called the lack of documentation on the transfer “worrying.”

Although TOH selected its preferred site from a set of 12 publicly owned locations, it has avoided justifying its decision for the 60 acres across from the current Civic Hospital. Indeed, in emails during the secret 2014 negotiations, NCC and AAFC staff working on the severance expressed misgivings about TOH’s case for the land. I have obtained a copy of TOH’s “Land Transfer Matrix” through a freedom of information request. This document was prepared in 2007 and was not updated before being used to justify their site selection in 2014, despite TOH’s preferred site being rejected by the Conservative government in 2008.

Two criteria stand out: “Agriculture Canada Impact” and “Future Expansion.” The first sought to measure the impact the acquisition of any land parcel would have on AAFC’s research program. The current site was rated as only having some impact—despite the fact that it is the most scientifically significant section of the entire Experimental Farm. Worse: the covering documents state that this rating had to be confirmed by NCC and AAFC. AAFC’s Science and Technology Branch was not consulted until the day of the announcement, and then only to comment on communications documents.

Under “Future Expansion” TOH made it clear that they were seeking a site where they could expand beyond current plans—that is the threatened 60 acres are only the first bite.

To date there has been no consultation on the land deal itself. Consultation plans from spring and fall 2014 state that the NCC and AAFC would hold consultations on the land transfer. This has not happened. Indeed, TOH has continually frustrated every attempt by local politicians—including Brockington and Leiper—to hold public information sessions. Despite TOH Chief of Staff Jeff Turnbull's statement that they "understand the need for public consultation and engaging our community," the pre-consultation currently underway only touches the design of a future campus.  If TOH has its way, the land grab will not be subject to public scrutiny.

The Central Experimental Farm is a National Historic Site of Canada and has a long-term management plan overseen by the Central Experimental Farm Advisory Council. Both the plan and the CEFAC have been ignored in the rush to give away important federal research land.

No one is arguing against rebuilding the Civic Hospital. A win-win solution, where the Farm remains a viable and intact research station and TOH gets the facilities it needs, is possible. This can only happen with a rigorous, fully open and evidence based process. It is time to hit the reset button on the severance and ensure that we, as a city and a nation, plan properly for the future.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Central Experimental Farm and Public Health

For the last fifteen months I’ve been investigating the events around the severance of 60 acres of the Central Experimental Farm. Since John Baird and Jack Kitts announced the deal on November 3rd 2014, numerous issues have arose including: 
  • The utter lack of consultations on the land transfer (and the decision to not consult on this portion whatsoever);  
  • Keeping Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada officials out of the loop until the National Capital Commission and Ottawa Hospital had a sixth draft Memorandum of Understanding for discussion;  
  • Worse, not consulting AAFC’s Science and Technology Branch—which operates the research fields of the Farm—until the day of the announcement and then only on the text of media documents;  
  • The fact that the planned campus will destroy long term research projects on the impact of climate on agriculture, part of an international project with sites around the world; and, 
  • Relying on a 7 year old, previously rejected, unweighted land decision matrix to choose the site.
Recently the Ottawa Hospital’s Planning and Facilities department has been at the centre of a number of scandals from corruption allegations now being investigated by the police to allegedly breaking provincial rules on sole source contracts. While The Hospital’s lead on the Farm file—Cameron Love—has been cleared of wrong doing in an audit, a construction lawyer interviewed by the CBC suggests his use of hospital contractors for personal projects points to further conflicts of interest.

These very serious allegations aside, one aspect of the deal that I have only recently began thinking about is the relationship between the Experimental Farm’s scientific mandate and public health. One defense of the land transfer is that the federal and provincial governments must balance public goods and that while 60 acres of experimental land may be important, it is less valuable than a new hospital campus. To date neither the proponents nor the opponents of the land deal seem to have thoroughly examined this line of argument.

With that in mind, I want to present three public health related points in defence of keeping the Central Experimental Farm intact.

1.     The 60 acres in question are one of, if not the, most scientifically important parts of the entire Central Experimental Farm. One overseas partner has argued that the land is not of national significance—rather it is of overwhelming international significance. The research on the 60 acres is part of an international program studying the effects of climate change on agriculture and agriculture on climate change. The data obtained through these experiments are key to understanding the public health impacts of climate change especially in regards to food security.
2.     Further, this research examines the efficacy of till and no-till practices on soil health and composition. Over-tilling of land has recently been pointed to as a cause of severe flooding in the United Kingdom. Long term research on the ability of different agricultural techniques to adapt to changing environmental conditions is essential to preventing public health emergencies that severe floods can cause by increasing the ability of soil to retain rain water and reduce the chance of dangerous run off from entering the domestic water supply—which can lead to outbreaks of e.coli and other deadly diseases.
3.     The location of a hospital is an important decision. There has been no public debate on the location of a new campus and the Land Transfer Matrix employed by TOH to pick the 60 acres in question was 7 years old in 2014, was previously rejected by the Conservative government in 2008, and contains a number of weaknesses. These range from minor (frequent spelling mistakes, misallocation of who actually owns the various parcels) to serious (lack of a nuanced ranking system, unweighted criteria, untested and unexplored assumptions regarding the impact on AAFC). It is in the interest of public health to make sure the decision on where a hospital is located is made in a rigorous manner.

I argue that these points combine to expose serious problems with the decision to allocate 60 acres experimental fields for construction. The disregard of the Farm’s long term management plan and the lengths the Ottawa Hospital continues to go to avoid talking about its land choice (let alone how the Federal government put up no challenge to it’s choice, despite the NCC’s legislative responsibility to protect federal lands, especially heritage sites, in the national capital region) point to a rotten deal made with little oversight.

The public health angle just emphasizes that the Hospital has not made its case. 

For those interested in the 60 acres, you can see an incomplete list of my previous articles here and here. Also see the Greenspace Alliance's site for more information. Heritage Ottawa, a registered charity, has taken the lead in fighting the transfer, and you can make a donation to support their efforts through their website by including "CEF"  in the Commemorative Donation Details field when you make your donation.