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Talking to Ontarians 

Halifax Local Chris Benjamin, on vacation in Ontario, check out how central Canada looks at Nova Scotia.

I'm writing this column during my annual summer visit to Ontario. I'm not particularly drawn to the province's phallic symbolism, and I rarely get far enough north to enjoy the wilderness. Like so many of my Bluenose brethren, I used to live here, and the friendship and familial ties keep me bound here, year after year.

There are things I love about Ontario, having spent a significant chunk of my life in four of its cities: its people, its food, its landscapes and the multiculturalism of its southern half. There are also many things about it that perturb me: its arrogance, sense of self-importance, ignorance about the rest of the country.

Remember Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans, in which he ruthlessly used unwitting Americans to mock their own ignorance? I'm tempted to mock Ontarians' ignorance of Nova Scotia in a similar fashion.

But, truth be told, I lack the comedic chops for that. Besides, in chatting with a completely unrepresentative sample of them about Nova Scotia's environment, I'm actually pleasantly surprised by the knowledge some of them have.

Sadly though, the issue they most associate us with is our ongoing abuse of the Halifax Harbour. "Last week I read an article about a wave of tampons washing up on a beach," David, a municipal lawyer, tells me. "That can't be good for tourism."

In fact, most of the Ontarian impressions I heard on our environmental performance were negative. But maybe that is just what people tend to remember best.

"I only remember when it's something really big, or really scandalous," explains Melissa, a provincial government employee who doesn't have much of an impression one way or the other. She is aware that the Sydney tar ponds are a serious problem but also remembers hearing that the problem is being dealt with.

Molly, a photographer specializing in editorial and environmental portraiture, mentions the dirty harbour and lack of progress on the pesticide issue as two things she remembers from a trip to Halifax.

David is a veritable encyclopedia of Nova Scotia's environmental failures, citing our reliance on coal and nuclear, water quality problems and even lack of leadership.

Conor, a comic book writer, is an exception. He has both positive and negative impressions. "It seems that Nova Scotians live a bit closer to the land," he theorizes, "which creates this interesting situation where they are more connected to it, at least more than we are in Toronto, but where they also rely on exploiting it for jobs."

He senses, though, that we are getting better at understanding that jobs and environmental protection can co-exist. "I think some of the biggest challenges they face are related to dealing with the fallout of past mistakes, like the fisheries."

He also makes specific mention of Sydney as a place that is struggling. "They seem to have lost everything: steel, fishing, coal. Yet I know Nova Scotia is still using coal, just that they're importing it from the south now."

Despite these challenges, he has cautious hope for our new NDP government. "It will be interesting to see if they can shake their old reputation, where anything they do is scrutinized by conservatives looking to see where the policy is costing them jobs. I don't think the NDP in Nova Scotia function quite like that anymore, but whereas Conservatives or even Liberals can create economic policy easily, it's harder for the NDP to make change."

The one way we've inspired Ontarians is with our tremendous growth in wind power. As far as our eco-rep goes, it seems we're reaping the benefits of the honest hard work of New Brunswick and PEI on wind power. Several Ontarians mention it to me as something we're really good at, but of course we're a long way from meeting our modest alternative energy goals.

Whatever it is we're doing right, David thinks we need to let the world know about it. "It's not clear to me that you've done anything in a positive leadership role," he says, "but if so it should be better advertised. Perhaps you have wind farms?" Uh, yes, a few.

Ontario, David tells me enthusiastically, has lots of them, with a bunch more on the way. "Our province also has a plan to end its heavy reliance upon coal-based electrical production."

Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure we have a plan too, but it hasn't really taken us anywhere, has it? I'd say their plan is better, but really who knows? Who cares what happens in a have-not province like Ontario anyway?

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