Two thousand nine is the year the system failed us. On every front, the established order collapsed, and regular people realized we can no longer rely on the powers-that-be: we have to take matters into our own hands.
Rightly, 2009 began in September 2008, when the absurdities, lies and perverse power relations of capitalism were laid bare for all the world to see. "This is the time to rise above politics," said US presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in a joint statement. "We can not risk an economic catastrophe."
"Rising above politics" meant not objecting to a multi-trillion dollar handout to the world's largest banks, the very institutions that had conspired to purchase a non-regulatory climate that allowed them to float a speculative bubble for several decades. And, indeed, the "economic catastrophe" was averted---for the bankers, who continued to receive gigantic bonuses and continued insider-friendly regulatory policies. The rest of us were not so fortunate---our pension funds collapsed, our jobs disappeared, our government and personal debts skyrocketed.
The recession was initially a US phenomenon, but besides being the cause of economic misery for the rest of the world, the failure of capitalism at its very foundation would be emblematic of similar failures of leadership everywhere. —Tim Bousquet
JANUARY: Shit storm
Here in Halifax, the worst of the New Year's hangovers were just dissipating when a headache of a different sort hit City Hall. Early morning January 14, an especially wet winter storm overwhelmed the new Halifax sewage plant. Due to a cascading series of malfunctions, the plant was knocked off-line, filled with sewage and much of its equipment destroyed. Every day for the rest of the year, nearly 100 million litres of raw sewage flowed into Halifax Harbour.
Truth is, officials in Halifax never much wanted the sewage plant to begin with, and their half-assed "Harbour Solutions" was compromised, under-funded and mis-engineered from the start. The malfunctions of January were due to poor design, and were completely predictable, had anyone in a position of authority bothered to look.
But the bumbling politicians and bureaucrats at City Hall handed the lemon of a sewer plant over to the Halifax Water Commission, which is noted for its workaday competence, and so, slowly, the plant is getting up to working order again. It helps that public outrage is putting officials' feet to the fire---water commission authorities initially hid their actions behind a wall of secrecy, but of late have been responsibly public, in stark contrast to mayor Peter Kelly, who still refuses to release an engineering report detailing the causes of the disaster.
February: media collapse
In February, the Chronicle-Herald announced it was laying off a quarter of its newsroom.
Love or hate the Chronicle-Herald, it is the paper of record for Halifax. As a result of its shrinking staff, the total coverage of news in the community is abysmally low, and that which does get covered is covered haphazardly and often by reporters without assigned beats. And investigative and enterprise reporting is at an all-time low---so far as I can determine, Halifax now has no reporters---zero---dedicated only to serving the traditional watchdog function of the press; we don't even know what we're missing.
With the failure of the traditional media, the populace is attempting to fill the void. The Coast remains the scrappy independent paper, achieving far beyond its size; blogs and the Halifax Media Co-op are finding their sea legs, but we're still alarmingly underserved on the media front, leaving the citizenry unprotected from unchecked corporate and government power.
June: Socialism lite
The provincial political order was turned topsy-turvy this summer. Both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives have a long history of corruption. But the PCs, under fiddler/gym teacher Rodney MacDonald, had taken scandal and ineptitude to such absurd heights---remember economic development minister/bad driver Ernie Fage's government loan to himself?---that the small-c conservative Nova Scotian voters utterly rejected the two established political parties and installed a majority NDP government.
But new premier Darrell Dexter had attained office by refusing to do anything that might offend anyone at all, and by golly, he's not about to change course now just because he's in a position to do something useful. This allegedly socialist government is arguably to the right of any provincial government in Canada, save Alberta's---it's now government policy to open up wilderness areas to hunting, to reject cap and trade or carbon taxes, to turn low-income-oriented retrofit programs aside in favour of vote-getting electricity rebates, to demand wage cuts from unions, to refuse to fund urban transit and on and on.
The one hopeful sign, however, is that the NDP government appears to be ever-slightly open to persuasion by community and activist groups. It's too early to tell, but perhaps citizen involvement can result in real policy changes, and that's something we haven't much had before.
All year: changing Cityscape
Predictably, the financial collapse was used for political purposes by the federal Conservative government. In Halifax, this played out by city government asking that federal stimulus funds be directed towards a public four-pad hockey arena in west Bedford, and with the feds responding by instead funding a laughably rickety inflatable hockey rink promoted by a private group of Conservative Party-connected insiders in east Bedford.
We did, however, get some dough tossed at the long-wished for Central Library, and that building is slowly making its way through the June-adopted HRM By Design planning process.
Two years ago, the local collection of mucky-mucks---Peter Kelly, Rodney MacDonald, Nova Scotia Business, the chamber of commerce, you name it---bought, hook, line and sinker, a bullshit line sold them by the American financial consulting firm Cisco, Inc.: Downtown Halifax was about to become the financial centre of the western world, an Atlantic version of Singapore. And so, you see, we needed HRM By Design to wade through all the skyscraper applications that would soon be coming our way.
We all know what pinning our future on the financial industry got us: a good belly laugh and some more closed storefronts on Barrington. To be sure, Ben McCrea caused a brief commotion by proposing, in January, to tear down a block of heritage buildings and erecting a Truro-sized office complex in their stead---and at year's end, the Waterside Centre appears to be going up. Otherwise, just a handful of condos, and it looks like maybe Louis Reznick will add two stories to the old Sam the Record Man (pictured above). Fix us another Singapore Sling, bartender.
And, finally, The people
The real story of the year, however, is the hundreds of thousands of little-noticed, but hugely consequential acts in defiance of the status quo. Louise Hanavan haplessly breaks a city bylaw by raising a couple of chickens in her backyard, launching a political movement. The locavore trend is so dispersed that there's no face at all to it, and the city and province react by ladling money into helping the Farmers' Market move to bigger digs. Commuters, en masse, take to riding the bus, and the city frantically comes up with a better, albeit inadequate, transit plan. The Critical Mass folks still haven't found their focus, but bicycling infrastructure is now on the agenda. People are getting off the grid, building solar systems, propping up windmills, demanding sustainable energy options and Nova Scotia Power and the regulators are tripping over themselves to present a better face.
In 2009, the establishment mostly failed, or at best played catch-up, and the progress that was made came thanks to regular people. This is a very good thing.