37 Centimetres (But How Much is That in American?)

CBC Radio’s local show interviewed the man in charge of keeping Ottawa’s streets clean and passable. He figured that last Sunday’s snowfall – a one-day record 37 centimetres of fluffy dumpage – was going to cost between $4 and $5 million to clean up. We should hear numbers like this more often; among other things, it’s a good reminder that five million bucks, from the collective standpoint, isn’t really a lot of money.  It costs a tremendous amount to run a city, to provide the services that we taxpayers so often take to be automatic rights. (And “free” ones, too! Because when we’re that blisslessly ignorant of what city work costs, it’s easier to whine about how much we pay in municipal taxes.)

Taxes are, for the most part, a considerable bargain. I know how much private schools for my boys would have cost. I should probably know the price of all the pipes and pumping and purification to bring us clean water, too. But to tell the truth, the connection between the ploughing of my streets and my tax bill wasn’t the main thought that snow brought, thankfully.

I walk the street, with cold crunchy snow and the odd patch of black ice, and I remember hockey on Sutherland East, kitty-corner from Edinburgh Square, between the Timsons and the Martindales. When I was a kid, the streets couldn’t have been salted and sanded like they are now, and it’s not just my childhood-days-were-better hindsight to think that the winter temperatures were generally colder. That ideal street-hockey surface – snow packed hard by the passage of maybe a day’s worth of cars – was not always present, I know; we played eight or nine months of the year, anyway, and were as unstoppable as postal carriers (which my little town was too small to have). But winters then were, well, more wintry than they are now. (And no, no global warming rants today, except maybe for this: Walter Gretzky couldn’t build that famous backyard rink in Brantford now. Not enough chillin’.) And that’s one of many reasons for enjoying Ottawa, where I now live. It may still be considered the coldest national capital in the world. It’s the real northern deal here, especially this week.

Even though I don’t do a lot of winter sports, I still love genuine, made-in-some-idealized-Canada-of-the-mind winters, and Ottawa comes through more regularly than southern Ontario does. I was sidelined from most of the shovelling post-Sunday, as my back has been painfully wonky from a high school typing class injury. (No joke, but not even that good as a story.) And I was ticked off – I LOVE shovelling snow! I’m not quite the pitching machine I once was, but it’s a fun workout. I met more neighbours, even with my limited lifting, on Sunday than I have in weeks. Pushing folks out of snowbanks, commiserating, smiles and mitten-shakes, need an extra shovel? and why not just park it in my driveway for the night? Even though basketball dominates my sporting thought in winter, I live in hockey country and get out for an outdoor whirl and some puck-bashing several times a year. There are times when I idly wish that I was a skier. I do remember, though, how my thighs burned as I snow-ploughed down Mt. Tremblant on my second downhill excursion ever, and as for our region’s superb cross-country trails? Bought the equipment (used, archaic). Took the lessons (humiliating, painful). No doubt the snow angels I live with will try to strap me on to those accursed boards again this year, and I will resist with spotty success. (Course, there’s always hope that I won’t spend so much snowbank face-time, and it is a beautiful thing to be out in the hills and trees…) I love skating on the Rideau Canal, but I don’t get on it more often than an eager tourist does. New season, clean slate, and there is the outdoor rink two streets over.

Winter’s great, even if I’m not gliding down hills. I like striding down the middle of snowbound roads when the sidewalks are stuffed. I like watching Sam climb the mountain of snow collecting in the vacant lot down the street, or furiously excavating his front-yard fortress. And one of my ongoing pleasures, ridiculously and quintessentially Canadian, is building and maintaining our tiny townhouse backyard rink. Sam is seven now, and still wanted the rink, even though two hard skating strides necessitate a hard turn, even for him. He’ll have no choice but to learn stopping and turning; he’s been on the ice several times already this year. Perfect conditions, and so much earlier than the last three seasons!

One problem. Thirty-seven centimetres is a lot of snow — in Canadian or American — especially on a fenced-in rink with already maxed-out banks. Every shovel load needs to be pitched over a six-foot barrier into the common ground behind, and I figure it ain’t kosher to fire it into the neighbours’ yards. Although Diana wielded a mighty shovel on the driveway during my lameness, she draws the line at backyard silliness. Sam isn’t strong enough. I’ve had one very careful, old-mannish, bent-kneed session of human Zamboni-ism, and I’m looking at another two slow hours. So far, my back has made only grudging complaints, but I can’t afford the screaming spasms of last week. Slowly, ol’ buddy. Easy does it.

But now my weather report calls for RAIN this weekend! Five degrees! (Nearly 40 for metric deniers in the USA.) What is this, southern Ontario? Indiana? How’s a dad supposed to Gretzky-ize his son and keep his ice hard when spring comes in December?! (And that’s among the most emotionally compelling signals of climate change for Canadians, next to struggling polar bears: the northern migration of the home-made outdoor rink.) Hey, presto! I’ve just found what every Canuck carries as standard equipment: a reason to complain about winter weather. It’s just NOT COLD ENOUGH!

I’ve already spent more time hosing my backyard to flood the rink than I did in watering the tomatoes last summer. It’s looking good, or will when I excavate a few hundred more kilos of snow. Rain, rain, go AWAY / Fall as snow so we can play…

In Praise of Taxes

Thanks to the Princess of Quitealot, I just rediscovered a favourite column that I thought I’d lost track of. It came just in time, because here in Ottawa, the city is going through its annual budget wrangle, this time under the leadership of a Mayor who promised to ban tax increases. Meanwhile, the dollar buys less and many fine social programs are on the chopping block, not to mention the rising costs of policing and an aging infrastructure that, like every city, Ottawa has in abundance and will someday have to pay for…

It all has me muttering about politicians, particularly the stripe whose popularity is mainly based on an appeal to our greed and sense of entitlement. You worked hard for that money and if you elect us we’re going to put an insignificant but apparently sweet portion of it back in your pocket. After all, why should you care about anyone else? Besides, government stinks, and that’s why I’m running for it. Um, so it’ll, ah, stink lots less or something. Drives me nuts, but I know who they’re talking to. There’s no shortage of folks complaining about having to pay taxes. I’ve heard so much grousing about not getting anything from all the taxes we pay, and I don’t even get out of the house that much.

Anyhow, my bride found me exactly what I was looking for, an answer to all those death-and-taxes and woe-is-me whiners. I’m with the hard-working immigrant Canadian – he was an entrepreneur, and good at it – who told me, “Hey, if I’m paying taxes, that means I’m making some money. And it also means that I can give something back to a country that has given me so much.” You go, guy. The rant in question came from a 2004 article by Heather Mallick in the Globe and Mail. (And where have you gone, Ms. Mallick?* I couldn’t always agree with her, but she was opinionated and strong and often funny. She likely still is.)

She argues that taxes are the price we pay for civilization, and that we should consider that price a privilege; after all, the opposite of civilization is no picnic. Here’s part of what Mallick wrote in 2004, seeing the effect that Stephen Harper was beginning to have on Canadian popular thought. (Mr. Harper had become Conservative Party leader after having led the anti-taxation National Citizens’ Coalition.) I’ll spare you most of her partisan commentary, but here’s a précis of her column:

 How I dislike that remark about the only sure thing being death and taxes. Death is a hateful dragnet, except when it’s a blessed release. But Canadian taxes are great….I’m a fan of civilization and, you see, taxes enable civilization. To put it another way, taxes grease the skids of living well.

Other people say loudly, endlessly, tediously that they hate taxes…. Mr. Harper has many obsessions, but his main one is taxes….To him, taxes are tapeworms — “double, double, toil and taxes,” as Shakespeare’s witches didn’t put it — sneaking into your home to steal all that is good….

This is absurd. I pay taxes. I love taxes. When you work, the government yanks them off your paycheque…The government uses it to do all the stuff I’d rather not think about….[T]ruly, the word “tax” trails clouds of glory. Taxes ease our daily lives in ways we take for granted.

 They pay for traffic lights, sewers, garbage pickup, nicely dressed diplomats so we don’t show up at the G8 in golfing shorts, ferries, fish in general, nuclear power plant inspection, protecting the provincial flower (“Leave that wild rose alone, ma’am”), libraries, white-coated people who spring into action when you contract flesh-eating disease, building codes, schools, dangerous-toy advisories, keeping cable companies in line, clean air, truck inspections for airborne wheels, loan forgiveness, autopsies, campgrounds, divorce, licence plates so you can track the guy on the cellphone in his Humvee who hit you, fluoridation, teacher training, privacy, universities, fair elections, fire trucks, child guardianship, hazardous-waste control, name changes, hostels, museums, protocol (see golfing shorts), trees, zoning, high-tech passports, standards in general, notaries public, noise control, organ donation, human rights, disability, drainage, bingo permits, boating safety, French-language services, neighbour encroachment, aboriginal business aid, art galleries, adoption, jury duty, cemeteries, soil quality, spills response, tattoo parlour inspection, bank deposit insurance, street lighting, commercial ship registry, victim assistance (“there, there”), social insurance numbers, joint rescue (water and land, nothing to do with knees), aerial mapping, pesticide disapproval and savings bonds.

Without taxes, you would have to do all of the above yourself…. Fine, cut my taxes, and I’ll pick a task. I’ll take “spills response” and use recycled paper towels. Oh, you say the spill covers 2,000 hectares and it’s sticky, oily and toxic? I thought you meant coffee. Somebody call the feds. I’m a taxpayer!

Here in Canada, we believe in the public good, as in “good for all the public.” We don’t believe in private affluence and public squalor. We like to balance those two things.

Whenever you get upset by taxation, egged on by HelmetHead [Harper], think of an ill-considered purchase. Then figure out what that cash could have contributed to, had it been in government hands. A gleaming new hip for my mother? An extra season of Da Vinci’s Inquest? An ice rink for kids on the reserve?

Paying taxes is a means to a good end. Can we do it with a lighter heart, please?

(* Good ol’ Wikipedia informs me that Ms. Mallick is writing a book, and still knocking out columns for Chatelaine and writing commentaries on the CBC website.)