This postcard comes to you from Ottawa…
March 28th, 2013

This postcard comes to you from Ottawa. Last week it was Toronto, this week the nation’s capital. I’m on the go again.  I took this shot a few hours ago. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was in the House delivering the annual budget. You can see it’s a dreary grey winter day here, although technically it’s spring. Weather like this takes all the romance out of this iconic gothic landscape. Note the steel barrier. A police car was squatting just to the left of the frame. The cop at the wheel took note of my picture taking. It’s not exactly a White House security situation, but things have changed in Ottawa over the years. I have been coming here for one reason or another for most of my adult life and I have seen the steady increase in surveillance and security. Well, it’s budget day and so I suppose there was a certain stepped-up degree of vigilance, just in case anyone too disenfranchised or angry at government might sabotage activity on the Hill.

One of those people could be the young and unemployed. For weeks the government has been spinning the message that the country is severely short of killed trade workers.

March 28, 2013

That blog was rudely interrupted by something or another and here it is, a week later in St. John’s, with provincial budget fallout in the air. A lot of people have been laid off in the public sector. One wonders how any of that can be good for the economy, let alone the morale of anyone suddenly facing a mortgage and no income. The provincial budget did not, at least, echo the same skills-shortage rhetoric, or actions, of the federal one.  Millions of dollars are soon to be channeled towards a program that focuses on short-term skills training. Apparently we have a crisis in this country, or so the Harper Government wants us to believe—not enough welders, not enough young men with the hands-on abilities to serve the oil and gas and mining industries.  So it is that colleges and especially private career colleges will be receiving vats and vats of dollars to encourage the training of those skills. There are some big catches—provincial governments have to match the money along with potential employers. The program is called Canada Job Grant, soon to be commonly known as the CJG, no doubt.

Already the Quebec government has told the federal one that it can stick its CJG program where the sun don’t shine. Don’t tell us how to train young people, they are saying. The reaction from all other provinces has been deafeningly silent.  Out of the blue they are being pressured to cough up money targeted for other sectors. No wonder they are withholding their applause. There are serious flaws here. You can’t train people to become experts of anything in a short amount of time. The program also channels money away from public institutions and from universities that are struggling to keep their own programs afloat. Dedicating billions to encouraging private career colleges is a crazy narrow hair brained notion!

Perhaps the biggest problem here is the myth that we actually have a universal skills shortage crisis. Sure, one hears about this all the time anecdotally, but where did government get its hysteria from? There is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and a lot of intelligent commentary in the blogosphere to set the matter right. No one asked me, but I would argue we have a real shortage of artists, filmmakers, and public intellectuals in Canada. That billions of dollars should be circulating in sectors where ideas matter, where creativity is fostered, and intelligence nurtured—where our reputation as a progressive, cool nation might be generated. Amazing how quickly we have moved from a so-called Knowledge Economy—one dependent on high-level professional skills—to a trade skills economy. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the Ottawa brains who are running this country, does it? Sure, we need skilled workers to harness the resources but a shortage crisis?

It’s about as anti-intellectual a budget as we have ever had, although not surprising from a government that doesn’t actually believe in government spending in research or culture. The military and prisons—yes. Education—not so much. They believe we should all somehow be raising our own money to deliver programs that are not obviously applied or lead to a job in the Tar Sands. One thing I noticed in Ottawa after several meetings in and around the Hill is just how complicit we all are –university and education  leaders—with the government agenda. Experience has shown that speaking out or challenging that agenda gets you taken right off the list. Dissent—what universities should be encouraging, as with critical thinking,–has been taken hostage. History has shown time and again how entire societies tacitly comply with or stay silent about ignominious behaviour. I really get that because I feel as if I am living that out. No one is getting killed but it’s a matter of degree. Self-censorship is a strong survival reflex, however ineffective.

As I have said before, we are in much better shape living in this province, where tuition is low and where, for now, at least, government understands the value of investing in post-secondary education. That said, they have given notice that they will be looking for “operational efficiencies” in our system next year. Now there’s an odious term if ever there were one. For now, it’s situation stable. Stay tuned.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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