I have given a name to my pain, dear readers, and it is Niagara’s annual state of the region address.
When you get right down to it, the state of region is like having to go your weird uncle’s house to watch slides of his trip to a shoe lace convention.
Only less exciting.
(For the Grant Rant’s younger readers, “slides” was how your ancestors forcibly inflicted vacation pictures on their unsuspecting relatives. It was sort of like Instagram with no filters, fewer selfies and could only been seen in a dark room to the sound of a very loud, obnoxious fan.)
Nothing useful or even remotely interesting ever happens at the state the region. It is like unspeakably boring Helheim – a wretched, inescapable limbo where the idea of something prosaic happening is a lurid fantasy.
As I wrote after the 2016 state of the region (in my now Ontario Newspaper Awards nominated column. Yes, I am shameless), “these state of the municipality speeches are mostly dreadful affairs, filled with so much back slapping it is a minor miracle the speakers don’t injure their own wrists.”
The speeches are also a realm where truth is more or less relative. Don’t get me wrong, our politicians haven’t yet delved into The Upside Down and engaged in full on #alternativefacts. They tell the truth in so far as they say anything of meaning at all.
It is the bits they don’t tell you that you should pay more attention to. The spaces between the sentences. The facts between the lines.
During his recent state of the Region address, regional chairman Alan Caslin gave another “we are the so awesome” speech to yet another audience so engaged in the affair the only way you could tell they weren’t a room full of mannequins was by taking their pulses.
Niagara, Caslin said, is thriving for the first time in a long time.
“I know it’s easy to talk about good news, but Niagara is doing fabulous in terms of its growth, in terms of its engagement of its community, and in terms of its investment in infrastructure,” he said, following a state-of-the-region address Friday.
And Caslin provided the statistics to back up his claims.
“The facts speak for themselves,” he told his capacity audience of about 500 people at John-Michaels Banquet and Conference Centre in Thorold.
He said unemployment has dropped from eight to six per cent.
The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in February for Niagara, according to Statistics Canada, is 6.4%. Which is down from a rate of 8% year-over-year. And Caslin is right, that is good news. If you confine your thinking to just that figure, you can argue Niagara is doing just peachy keen.
But what does that number actually mean? Are things really as fabulous as Caslin suggests?
Not exactly. In fact, touting the drop in unemployment numbers is something of a red herring.
Caslin omitted some facts Niagara citizens ought to be more aware of, and a big one is the Region’s Ontario Works budget.
The Region’s 2016 Ontario works budget ended up $1.3 million dollars in the red because demand for Ontario Works – which provides unemployment and disability payments as well as “discretionary programs,” like assistance with medical and dental costs, housing and energy bills – drastically exceeded projections.
(The Region had budgeted $6.2 million and it wasn’t enough.)
The reason demand was so high wasn’t because of Niagara’s unemployment rate. It was demand for those discretionary programs that broke the bank.
Unemployment figures don’t measure wages vs. cost of the living. What the figures can’t show you – and what Caslin didn’t mention – are the people working minimum wage jobs in Niagara, often part time, while trying to raise families and keep a roof over their heads. They don’t show you people who have to make a choice between buying food or keeping the heat on.
In fact, the employment situation in Niagara is so shaky that Brock University and the United Way have launched a study into “precarious work” – employment that features low wages, unpredictable hours or has poor job security.
Even factory jobs, which Caslin hailed at the state of the Region, aren’t as a sure thing as they once were:
There is a myth about factory work that Brock University sociologist June Corman says is as false as it is tempting.
“We tend to think of factory work as really good jobs. They pay well above minimum wage and they are full time,” she said. “But even factories are springing up and then springing down just as quickly. It is really hard for people to find good jobs that they can stay at for 20 or 30 years.”
Such is the nature of today’s labour market that even factory jobs — once the economic staple of a community such as Niagara — are no longer the guarantees they used to be. In the language of academics, even 9-to-5 jobs in manufacturing plant can be considered “precarious employment.”
“You can have a plant pop up to build wind turbine blades, but once the turbines are all outfitted, the factory disappears,” Corman said, referring to the case of PowerBlades, a factory in Welland that shut down after only two years in operation.
In other words, the drop in the unemployment rate doesn’t tell us what kind of jobs people are finding, and everything we know about Niagara’s economy over the last few years tells us many of those jobs don’t pay well enough or often enough. If they did, so many Niagara residents wouldn’t be turning to Ontario Works to help make ends meet.
But never mind that, because Niagara is doing fabulous. Why, just look at the housing market, Caslin says:
Home values across Niagara have increased by an average of about 26 per cent, as well.
“That’s great news. We see that time and time again in the newspaper,” Caslin said.
Yet, here again, there are details Caslin doesn’t mention.
The value of homes rising in Niagara has very little to do with Niagara itself. Across the province, including Niagara, the housing market is insanely hot. If you are selling, that is great news.
However, if you are looking to buy, particularly if you are a millennial, you are being priced out of the housing market. The problem is so acute, Queen’s Park is considering changing rules surrounding foreign ownership in a bid to bring prices down.
Now, lets play a little deduction game: When you combine the rising prices of houses and the shaky nature of significant sectors of Niagara’s economy what do you think you get? Do you get a “fabulous” situation, or a very difficult and complicated one that will require creative thinking, leadership and time to fix?
In a way, Caslin’s claims in his state of the Region were rather like the photo negative of that bizarre “documentary” about Niagara Falls that was making the rounds last week.
The short film attempts to juxtapose the bric-a-brac tourist district of Niagara Falls, which the city is best known for, and dilapidated neighbourhoods and run down buildings.
The message of this “documentary” – which is a documentary in the same way that a lemon is the planet Jupiter – is that the “real” Niagara Falls is wasteland of urban blight.
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati rightly blasted the video as grossly inaccurate. Yes, Niagara Falls has areas and people that need help. But a few minutes of carefully edited footage of some graffiti and abandoned school houses in the dark doesn’t represent the totality of the city anymore than the tourist district does.
What is missing from that video, and from Caslin’s speech, is context. And context always matters.
Without context, that video can paint Niagara Falls as a rotting corpse of a city. Without context, Caslin can claim Niagara’s economic woes are a thing of the past.
Neither claim is a lie. Those neighbourhoods do exist. The unemployment figures have fallen. But there is so much more to the story.
I won’t deny where actual progress has been made in Niagara. What I am asking for, what the citizens of this region ought to be demanding from Caslin and the rest of the council he leads, is an honest appraisal of the region.
Niagara doesn’t need hollow platitudes, easy slogans or the vapid boosterism that so often infects our politics. It needs an unvarnished assessment where facts and language mean something, where honesty is a virtue not a convenience, and where public service puts the people, not the politicians, first.
Niagara is not doing “fabulous.” Niagara isn’t “great.” But it can be. One day, if we continue to strive, if we are willing to put aside childish spin and muster the courage to grapple with difficult problems that beguile quick and easy solutions, it just might be.