Joel Watson: Let's not go back to 'normal.' Because the old normal was bad
Canada is huge, why does “Normal” demand we cluster on top of each other in veal-fattening pen jobs and white-hot housing markets?
By: Joel Watson
As the pandemic eases across Canada, after a wave that did not bring out lockdowns or major restrictions, politicians, pundits and pedestrians are calling for “back to normal.”
Are they mad? Do they not remember what “normal” looked like? Have they learned nothing from more than two years of of lockdowns, supply chain disruption, trade embargoes, invasion and inflation? Or is it just landlords and big-city mayors selfishly concerned about rental and tax income who are stuck in the past? Why would we want to get back to the old normal?
Consider what we’ve discovered since 2019. We have learned that you can buy an entire bottle of wine for $16 instead of paying $16 for one glass downtown. Same for beer and scotch. Living in tiny condos sucks when you cannot take your massive dog to the park for their business and you do not have a backyard. You didn’t mind having no space in your home because you thought the pub down the street was your patio — until it wasn’t. Then you tried to use your kitchen because eating out was out and you grew tired of ordering in whatever cold stuff arrived late and expensive. In “normal,” Canadians had forgotten how to boil water and grocery stores had morphed into pre-made meal cafeterias. But then we learned to make bread, and it’s tasty, like much of the other stuff we found in Grandma’s recipe book.
Now this assumes you could afford a condo, let alone a house, because back in “Normal,” house prices were already stupid, driven by outdated planning that gobbled needed farmland to make developers easy profits building McMansions, in addition to modern monetary theory and lack of skilled labour. But then we learned that a lot of office work can be done remotely for the people privileged to work from a Mac, as acerbically noted by Joel Lightbound. If we work remotely, we could move anywhere and buy a house in a small rustbelt city, town or green countryside (if it had broadband access) and work and breathe fresh air.
The east coast saw an immigration boom from central Canada, reversing its aging demographic, and of course it did. Have we learned that every business does not need to locate in the GTA, Montreal, Vancouver or Calgary, and that living on top of each other is problematic in a pandemic? Zoom fatigue is absolutely a real thing but could the new normal not be fast rail from Peterborough for that weekly meeting in downtown Toronto instead of a return of “Normal” multi-hour daily commutes?
We learned that we had off-shored our economy so much that we couldn’t make PPE, vaccines, skidoos or much else. The supply chain woes weren’t just microchips, our food was held up at the border or left unpicked for lack of migrant workers. Even if we had factories, the Boomers had convinced everyone that trades and resource extraction were for losers and dirty, so we have orphaned entire generations without useful skills for needed and well-paying jobs. Neither the U.S. nor China was particularly friendly to us — hostages, canola, pork, pipelines, fentanyl and the rest — and just when Ukraine and Europe could have used our abundant grain and gas, we were reminded that “Normal” meant that we don’t build things in Canada, like export-enabling infrastructure.
Back to “Normal?” Why?
How about “innovative” or, dammit, even “visionary” instead of “Normal?” Canada is huge, why does “Normal” demand we cluster on top of each other in veal-fattening pen jobs and white-hot housing markets? Let’s spread out and connect by fast rail and broadband, reviving rusted-out small cities and towns. Let’s find ways to fill essential needs in the global economy. COVID and Chinese aggression taught us that critical microchip production is at risk. Microchips need lots of really cold water and power. Thunder Bay has lots of friggin’ cold water, hydroelectricity and an unemployed work force that could really use some investment to counter the crime and addiction problems plaguing that community. Instead of cancelling licence plate fees when nobody was asking, induce a tech company to start up chip manufacturing in T-Bay, where there’s room to build houses with stunning views and great fishing.
Build hydro transmission capacity from northern Ontario and Quebec because “Normal” meant their plants couldn’t ship surplus power. These will be good jobs that will drive energy rates down and competitiveness up in the rest of Canada. Open the all-season port at Churchill and with rail and pipelines, get grain, energy, potash and minerals into the global market that is suffering from Russian invasion, food scarcity and Chinese imperialism. Yes, we need to lower emissions because climate change is real, but no, it is not going to happen overnight and no, Canada should not cut its own throat while countries with less concern for the environment drill, baby, drill and invade their neighbours.
And, finally, instead of paying people to stay in their parents’ basements, incentivize them to go into the trades and sciences for a better future for all.
Return to “Normal?” Hard No. Let’s be awesome, innovative and visionary instead. Because normal had a lot of problems. And we can do so much better.
Joel Watson is a former soldier, a practicing lawyer and a historian whose research focuses on veterans transition, socio-economic change and global conflict. Between jumping out of airplanes, and being the lawyer who stopped the music industry from preventing music sharing, he reads a lot of Edmund Burke, harvests his own food and cuts his own wood. He’s also a father who wants a better future for all of our children.
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