The Indy News Hour – March 30, 2014
Transcript by Erika Steeves
“AUSTERITY DOESN’T WORK”: REACTION TO BUDGET 2014
JUSTIN BRAKE: On Thursday Finance Minister Charlene Johnson delivered a budget speech quite different from last year’s austerity budget that included major cuts to education, the department of Justice, social programs, and led to somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 job cuts. In their 2014 budget, which represents the second year of what the Progressive Conservatives are calling a “10-year Sustainability Plan”, the PCs, under interim Premier Tom Marshall — following a year of turmoil in and outside the party, and now in the midst of a leadership race in the lead-up to a provincial election in October 2015 or sooner — they’re forecasting a deficit of $537.9 million for the fiscal year, and an increase of the province’s net debt of more than $807 million, bringing Newfoundland and Labrador’s total net debt to around $9 billion. In the budget speech Johnson said the government’s focus is best captured in three phrases: shared prosperity, fair society, and balanced outlook.
CHARLENE JOHNSON [AUDIO CLIP]: “Shared prosperity is about ensuring that we work together to grow our economy responsibly; it is also about ensuring that residents share fully and equally in the wealth generated from our province’s recent economic growth. Our commitment to a fair society is a commitment to social justice – to care for those who are vulnerable and to support those who face obstacles to growth. A balanced outlook is about charting a sound course to sustainability over a reasonable period of time. This reflects our commitment to our 10-year Sustainability Plan.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Among the government’s commitments are investments in early childhood and post-secondary education, supporting innovative businesses development, lowering the corporate tax rate for small businesses, increasing the threshold for income support, and $2 million to keep clearing trees alongside the Trans Canada Highway in a continued effort to minimize moose-vehicle collisions. But despite the government’s apparent reversal of last year’s austerity measures, there’s been mixed reaction to the new budget. Some are expressing concern about whether or not the Progressive Conservatives’ 10-year Sustainability Plan, so heavily dependent on non-renewable resources, can actually give way to a sustainable economy, while others are frustrated over what the budget did NOT include. Mary Shortall, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said while she’s pleased with the 15-year extension on the tuition freeze, the student loans to grants, full-day kindergarten, higher threshold for seniors and low-income individuals and families, and the investment in the fishery—all of which will benefit unionized workers in the province—she hopes the past year has taught the government a lesson in how to balance the books in a way that’s fairer for everyone in the province.
MARY SHORTALL [AUDIO CLIP]: “I think what it points out to us is that the government has been sent a really clear message over this past year that austerity doesn’t work. Austerity budgets just don’t work. They paid the price in the polls and everything else that happened because of that, so they’re really left with no choice but to do this I think. There’s no two ways about it, gearing up for an election, gearing up for the leadership. … The other factor is that there no job cuts in this budget, which is good. But there weren’t a lot of job gains either. There were some. But the fact in the public sector is that there’s still a huge gap there. There’s still, in our numbers, over 1,400 positions that weren’t filled. So that gap is felt not only within the public sector workforce but in the public services. They haven’t really addressed that yet. They’ve just kind of left the status quo.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Speaking to the Independent on Friday Memorial University economist Doug May said the 2014 budget was as much a “political document as it is an economic document”.
DOUG MAY [AUDIO CLIP]: “So, what you obviously have to do, because politicians are elected, is you’ve gotta put out things which would maybe not have a huge economic impact, but would signal that you’ve got various principles and would appeal to the general public, to the electorate.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Indy columnist Brandon Pardy, who writes about issues affecting Labradorians, said the budget was fairly status quo in how it will impact Labrador.
BRANDON PARDY [AUDIO CLIP]: “There’s nothing big in there. If it’s an election budget you would think there’d be a commitment for paving the Trans Labrador Highway, phases two and three. But it’s more of a steady as she goes kind of thing, as far as I can see from what I’ve looked at in the budget. … It’s all tid bits, $100,000 here, $50,000 there. You’re only mentioning it because, well, we gotta talk about Labrador somewhere, right?”
JUSTIN BRAKE: St. John’s-based Climate action organizer and educator Meghan McCarthy, who attended the United Nations’ global climate change conference in Durban, South Africa in 2011 as part of the Canadian Youth Delegation, said the government has not been, and is still not, doing enough to address climate change.
MEGHAN MCCARTHY [AUDIO CLIP]: “Within their Action Plan and within this budget, there’s absolutely no real action on climate change, which for a province who has a very cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry isn’t too surprising, but it still is absolutely unacceptable seeing they know what we’re in for in terms of climate change and its impacts on our coastal communities and all of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: McCarthy also says the government has been greenwashing in its rhetoric on climate change to give Newfoundlanders and Labradorians the impression it is handling the crisis responsibly.
MEGHAN MCCARTHY [AUDIO CLIP]: “They take no responsibility themselves to say ‘Yes, we’re going to take the action we need. We are going to stop fossil fuel development. We’re going to turn around our economy and invest in things that ultimately won’t harm the future of this province.’ So again, it seems like they’re not taking responsibility for a problem that they are a big part of as it stands right now. It’s an all talk, no action approach to climate change and that simply won’t do.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Another glaring omission from the budget is the Family Violence Intervention Court, which the NDP and women’s rights advocacy groups have been actively lobbying the government to reinstate after the Dunderdale administration announced in last year’s budget it was cutting the progressive initiative. The decision last year prompted outcry from many involved with the court who saw firsthand how successful it was in addressing the root causes of domestic violence. Lynn Moore, a former Crown attorney with the court, responded to the budget on Thursday afternoon.
LYNN MOORE [AUDIO CLIP]: “I’m very disappointed that the government hasn’t reinstated the court, but I’m not in any way discouraged from attempting to try to convince them that this is the right thing to do. And I really hope that I have the occasion to sit down and talk with the premier and the minister of justice, if they’re willing, to tell them about why this court was valuable and helpful to the people of the province. … I think that this government does have a social conscience, and I’m going to continue to try and tweak it on this issue. And I think that’s what this budget shows, that they are concerned about taking care of people who need help, like students, and full-day kindergarten, more fire trucks. They are socially-minded, and it’s just a matter of getting the right information to them to convince them that the Family Violence Intervention Court is worthwhile.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: During its operation from 2009 to 2013 The Family Violence Intervention court cost the province $500,000 a year and significantly reduced the recitivism rate among domestic abuse offenders who went through the court and the rehabilitation process it offered.
Memorial University Graduate Student’ Union President Joey Donnelly was optimistic about the government’s decision to allocate $14.7 million over two years to move away from student loans to a comprehensive grants program, saying the decision to put such progressive measures in place is a good long-term investment into the province’s people and economy.
JOEY DONNELLY [AUDIO CLIP]: “I think we’re the only place in Canada that’s really done that, and I think it speaks to the heightened or shared values that people in Newfoundland and Labrador have in terms of education. I think here more than anywhere else it’s not so much an issue that’s drawn along party lines — it truly is a shared value. Just like medicare reached that critical mass in Saskatchewan, we’re getting closer as a province in Newfoundland and Labrador to a fully accessible education system that includes post-secondary education as a tenet of accessible education. So it’s very significant.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Donnelly says while the province’s decision to move from student loans to grants could be influenced by the fact the PCs need to gain support in the lead up to the provincial election, the decision is more likely the result of heavy lobbying and activism on the students’ part to make post-secondary education more accessible.
JOEY DONNELLY [AUDIO CLIP]: “They’ve been really longstanding campaigns of the Canadian Federation of Students in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we are the only province to have all the post-secondary students, including the College of the North Atlantic, to be under the banner of the CFS (Canadian Federation of Students),” he said, explaining the CFS’s motto at annual meetings has been ‘Newfoundland and Labrador, 100 per cent united’, and I think that’s true — we’ve been able to keep that pressure on year after year and build consensus amongst students, amongst administrators, amongst politicians.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Federation of Labour President Mary Shortall said the budget still leaves much to desire in terms of Newfoundland and Labrador’s need to address immigration and migrant workers, poverty reduction including the minimum wage, and childcare.
MARY SHORTALL [AUDIO CLIP]: “They talk about putting more money into immigration, but we really need a sound policy around immigration and some clear direction where they’re gonna go with migrant workers — that’s a real big issue as well, and they didn’t really touch on it. Because they had cut the budget of the immigration department last year; they reinstated that funding now, so hopefully that means they’re going to point in a direction where they’re actually going to look at our new diversity as a society and what that means. If migrant workers can come here, they should be able to work here — and how [the province] works with the federal government to make that happen. They re-emphasized the importance of that strategy, but yet they didn’t talk at all about the minimum wage, and we’ve been asking them to reconsider the decision around raising the minimum wage next year. They should do that much faster and it should be with the cost of living. There was a very basic thing around housing, but I mean housing is in crisis level here and they haven’t really addressed how they’re going to fix that. They pumped money into some subsidies for the regulated spaces and that, but we’ve been asking them to point toward hearing up for a publicly accessible, affordable childcare program. So they’re giving money and they’re fixing pieces of it, but again if we’re talking about population growth strategy and how we move forward, things like housing and minimum wage and childcare — those gotta be huge ticket items. At the beginning of their budget, their opening statement said that consumer spending actually drives the economy, right? And we know it’s to the tune of about 55 per cent of the total GDP…[and] that means that they have to put more money into the hands of people, so they do that through some of the taxation measures at the lower end. Maybe they need to put something in at the upper end as well around taxation to make it more progressive.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: Doug May said while the budget was smart from a political perspective, the government should offer greater public oversight to how it spends taxpayers’ money, and share the research and results of the programs and services it is investing in.
DOUG MAY [AUDIO CLIP]: “In terms of outcomes and how we’re doing, that that information may be available to government officials, but I think they’ve — when I’ve seen them, they should be more available to the public. And I think the public has to concentrate a little bit more on what outcomes they’re getting for their tax dollars.”
JUSTIN BRAKE: May also said we should be thinking more progressively in ways to distribute the province’s wealth more equitably, and that for all the discrepancy the two provinces have shared over power generation and the Upper Churchill, Quebec might be a good place to look for an example of progressive economics.
DOUG MAY [AUDIO CLIP]: “But the question I would have to your listeners, is are there better ways to help those such as single mothers and fathers most in need — is there a better way of doing it? And I think there may be. At least it deserves investigation. … Helping out in terms of childcare expenses, right? That’s an out of pocket expense — making more childcare places available. I think the government’s done the right thing in terms of, if you’re going to invest in something better to invest in it early, and therefore all-day kindergarten is a good idea. But at the same time, you know, some children who are going in the more disadvantages areas of the province or of our city, they’re disadvantaged because what happens if parents, when the child is two or three, can’t afford books? Then the upper-middle income class child, or middle income class, they’ve had books all along since they’ve been two years old. So the sooner we can begin to help children socialize and learn a few things the better. The sooner we can help parents, particularly mothers who feel they’ve got to get out and work, reduce the burden of those expenses, then I think we can end up with a net benefit to government. I think that’s a smart way to spend money, as has been shown in Quebec for example. … There are some things which, in terms of Quebec, we aren’t happy with, such as power. But there are other things which Quebec economists and politicians have shown a lot of leadership in, and I think we can learn from their experiences.”
THE ‘REALLY IMPORTANT NEWS’ WITH HANS ROLLMANN
JUSTIN BRAKE: Here’s Indy political correspondent and editor Hans Rollman with this week’s Really Important News.
HANS ROLLMANN: This week in Really Important News, St. John’s City Council has responded to concerns to their proposed review of snow clearing operations where there’s general agreement that the city’s snow clearing operations require a review; there’s considerable debate about how to review them. City Council has proposed hiring a consultant at a cost of $100,000 to conduct the review. That approach has come under fire as a needless expense. Other ideas that have been proposed involve crowd sourcing the review via VOCM Open Line or having City Council, and the city’s dozens of full-time staff conduct the review at a cost of zero dollars. Members of City Council have questioned the expertise and ability of themselves to conduct a review of the things that they do. However, a grassroots community coalition has formed in opposition to the $100,000 review, calling themselves You Are Not As Dumb As You Think You Are, City Council—or ‘YANADAYTYACC’ for short—demanding that the councillors do the job they were elected to do without hiring consultants to do it for them. In an effort to bridge a compromise, the city has proposed spending $50,000 on a mediator to review the conflicting proposals and render a decision.
Meanwhile, citizen fury is growing at the lack of adequate snow clearing in the city. A grassroots protest is being organized via social media, calling itself Actual Real Life Protest of St. John’s City Handling of Snow Clearing. The protest hopes to distinguish itself from other contemporary protest movements by proposing to gather physical bodies in a single physical location, where they will be able to touch each other and speak to each other without the intermediary of a computer. “We believe this marks a new innovation in political expression,” said one of the protest organizers. “Most of us are used to protesting by the click of a button or by submitting our email address. The idea of gathering in a physical location with other living human beings may be a bit ahead of its time, but we think it’s worth a shot.” The Actual Real Life Protest, which is now also being called Take Back the Sidewalks and Streets of St. John’s, will be happening on Monday March 31. Interested parties can check out the Facebook event for details.
President Obama has endorsed Sheilagh O’Leary in the upcoming Virginia Waters by-election. Hold on a moment. Nope. Sorry, that’s just Wayne Bennett playing on the Twitter again. Surprise endorsements for Sheilagh O’Leary continue to roll in, however. Earlier this month, PC leadership candidate Wayne Bennett caused some raised eyebrows by endorsing NDP candidate Sheilagh O’Leary in the Virginia Waters by-election. In a textbook case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, Bennett later indicated he was motivated by the fact that one of O’Leary’s rivals in the by-election, PC candidate Danny Breen, had endorsed Frank Coleman, who is Bennett’s rival in the PC leadership contest. To add drama to the scene, this week Burger King issued an official endorsement for Sheilagh O’Leary as well. Burger King spokesperson said they were motivated by the fact that O’Leary’s Liberal rival, Cathy Bennett, has a long-standing relationship with McDonalds, with whom she partnered for several years in business operations. According to a tweet from Burger King, this is about more than just Virginia Waters. This is a global contest between the Big Mac and the Whopper. The people of Virginia Waters need to decide once and for all where their allegiance lies. Meanwhile, rumours are swirling that Sobeys is preparing to issue an endorsement for both Wayne Bennett and Sheilagh O’Leary as a blow against PC leadership candidate Frank Coleman, who operates a grocery chain on the island. The O’Leary campaign has requested that non-NDP celebrity personalities, grocery chains, and fictionalized Burger characters please stop endorsing her without permission.
A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary tweet-along went horribly wrong this week when the iPhone being used by officers to tweet their day at work was stolen from a parked RNC cruiser just outside the Tim Hortons on Harvey Road. The tweet-along was a public relations initiatives aimed at bringing RNC twitter followers behind the scenes with patrol officers as they patrolled the streets of St. John’s. After tweeting, “Gone for a double-double at Harvey’s Tims, be right back,” officers returned to find the windows of their cruiser and the iPhone gone from the driver’s seat. Two fire arms were also stolen from the trunk of the car; however, officers were most devastated by the loss of their iPhone, which contained a version of the popular and now discontinued, Flappy Birds app. RNC insists that the theft does not reflect an increase in crime in the capital city. However, they advise motorists against tweeting their location before leaving their vehicles to buy coffee. According to media spokespersons, the RNC is now engaged in iPhone retrieval operations. However, RNC had to shut down its Twitter account temporarily after the rogue iPhone was used to transmit obscene tweets as well as endorsements for Sheilagh O’Leary in the Virginia Waters by-election.
Fallout from the provincial budget continues. Nova Scotia has declared war on Newfoundland. In a series of angry post-budget tweets, Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil denounced the government of Newfoundland and Labrador for its progressive moves to make post-secondary education more accessible. McNeil accused Newfoundland of luring away Nova Scotia’s students, youth, and other intelligent people to live and work in Newfoundland and ultimately trying to depopulate their province. The declaration of war, issued by the Liberal government, was endorsed by all parties in the Nova Scotia legislature. The NDP, who held the reins of power up until last year, were particularly angry at Newfoundland’s Progressive Conservatives for accomplishing more progressive legislation in one budget than the NDP accomplished in four years of governing that province. When asked how Nova Scotia will wage war against Newfoundland, McNeil said they’re considered using Labrador energy to power a series of windmills aimed at the island. The aim, he said, “is to increase the length and severity of the island’s winter, in an effort to draw back all the Nova Scotian students who have come to Newfoundland to study.” If that fails, he said they intend to run former NDP premier Darryl Dexter as candidate in the next Newfoundland PC leadership campaign. McNeil also tweeted for Sheilagh O’Leary in the Virginia Waters by-election. And that’s it for Really Important News. We’ll see you next week.
‘ROGUE METEOROLOGY WEATHER REPORT’ WITH MATT GRANT
JUSTIN BRAKE: We’re joined by Matt Grant with the Rogue Meteorology Weather Report. Matt, we had a bit of weather Thursday. People were expecting it to be pretty bad, and in some parts of the province it was. Wind gusts up to 185 kilometres an hour recorded in the Wreckhouse area, if I recall correctly, and most of the island got hit with strong winds and snow. What was that all about?
MATT GRANT: So we had a giant low-pressure system. I think we were getting central pressures down as low as about 950 millibars or something. Very, very low. And a lot of people got a lot of weather out of it. And people were saying, “What happened to the Avalon? We didn’t get that weather people were expecting.” Well, we got exactly the weather we were expecting, just a lot of people heard the weather of everyone else; it was such a big news article, I guess, that people were kind of listening and saying, oh Halifax is getting this, so we’ll get it. But that’s not really the case. The way it breaks down is when you have a whole gigantic low-pressure system, it’s the size of all of Atlantic Canada, you can kind of break it up into pieces. So Halifax and western Newfoundland got one side of the low and we got another side. And the way that breaks down is, if you think of a circle and you break that down into quarters, and then in the upper-left quarter you’ll have the northwest section. That’s typically a section where you get a lot of snowfall. And if you look at the bottom-right quarter (in other words, the southeast quarter of a low), that’s typically where you get really high winds. So we we’re in that second quarter, whereas most of Atlantic Canada was in that opposite quarter. So it’s a little tricky to think about, but if you think of a glass transport truck, you and I are in a glass transport truck, we’re having a game of catch, because that’s usually what we do on our Saturday nights – we’re very bored people. And say if I’m throwing the ball in the direction that the truck is moving. Let’s say the truck is moving at 50 kilometres an hour and I throw the ball at 10 kilometres an hour, for someone who’s on the side of the road, watching us have our weird game of catch—
JUSTIN BRAKE: —Wishing they could join in, of course.
MATT GRANT: Exactly. We’ll pick them up on the way back. But because I’m throwing the ball in the same direction that the truck is moving, our speeds add up. So the 10 kilometres an hour the ball is travelling, plus the 50 kilometres that the truck is travelling makes it seem to that guy on the ground that the ball is actually travelling 60 kilometres an hour. Now, if we were doing the opposite, if I was throwing the ball in the opposite direction that the truck is moving, my 10 kilometre an hour ball throw would subtract away from that 50 kilometre speed. So it would look like the ball, to someone who’s not on the truck, is going at 40 kilometres an hour. It’s the exact same thing with this weather system. You’ve got to think that there’s two things happening: the whole low is just this giant pile of air that’s moving around. And usually it’s moving in a northeast direction for us, by the time it gets to us. The rest of Canada it’s usually generally an easterly direction, and then it kind of hooks up once it gets to Newfoundland. So this whole system is moving in a northeast direction; at the same time though you have air that’s wrapping around the low in a counterclockwise fashion. So air is spinning as well as it’s moving. So in the southeast corner (I’ve got to think about my directions now) in that second quarter we talked about earlier, the wind that’s circulating around the low is generally aiming in a northeast direction. It’s trying to get into the upper right-hand quarter of the low. If you add that to the speed of the air mass, then they add up together. So you get really, really high winds. Now, when that air wraps around to that first quarter we talked about, it’s generally travelling in a southwest direction, which is the opposite direction that the low itself is travelling, so those wind speeds subtract. So you have slower winds, and what that means is air has more time to hang out over the land that it’s travelling over, which in turn means you’re going to get more snowfall (or rainfall), but typically the storms happen in the winter, so it’s going to be snowfall. In fact, it’s so often, it’s pretty much 100% of the time. So we call that section of the low the snow shield. If you look at a radar, when that low-pressure system’s passing through, you’ll see a giant blob of green or even high or still—like reds and pinks or whatever—and you’ll be able to tell. That’s the snow shielding; that is on the northwest quadrant of the low.
JUSTIN BRAKE: So where are we in relation to the lows tomorrow and going into this week?
MATT GRANT: Well, we are not done with winter yet.
JUSTIN BRAKE: There’s more lows coming?
MATT GRANT: [Laughs] There’s no shortage of intensity, put it that way. We’ve got a monster storm coming through, but where it kind of left the Avalon out of the equation there on Thursday, it’s pretty much billed exclusively for us. So the south coast of Newfoundland is going to be seeing some snow starting earlier on Monday. It won’t hit the Avalon until about Monday evening. And then it’s going to continue over us as the low makes its way into the Atlantic provinces. And then about early Tuesday morning the low’s warm front is going to skirt just south of the Avalon. So that’s a little tricky for us because so long as the warm front stays to the south of us, we could stay in snow. But right now it’s kind of just south of us, so our precipitation won’t be fully snow, but it’ll be ice pellets.
JUSTIN BRAKE: Wonderful.
MATT GRANT: Yeah. [Chuckles]. If that warm front moves any farther north, then we could be in for freezing rain, and that could be really dangerous because it could be a very extended period of freezing rain, so everything could be coated in a centimetre of ice.
JUSTIN BRAKE: An ice storm.
MATT GRANT: Exactly.
JUSTIN BRAKE: So starting Monday night, that’s when we’re supposed to expect that.
MATT GRANT: Yeah, for St. John’s we’ll see Monday night snow changing to ice pellets probably. Hopefully not freezing rain, but we’ll have to wait and see. And then regardless of whether that changes or not, or if it does change it’ll change back to snow later Tuesday and then we’ll probably get another ten centimetres out of it. So we’re expecting close to 50 centimetres between Monday evening and early Wednesday morning/Tuesday night, however you want to think about it.
JUSTIN BRAKE: All right. So south coast of Newfoundland and the Avalon Peninsula, winter is not over.
MATT GRANT: Definitely not. We’ve got some lighter winds with this, so it won’t be as bad as some other storms, but we’ll have to watch out. Tuesday afternoon we’ll hove 50 kilometre an hour winds gusting at 80. So that snow, not only will it be intense falling, but it’ll be blowing around a lot. So visibility will be very, very low.
JUSTIN BRAKE: All right. Thanks a lot, Matt. That’s Matt Grant with the Rogue Meteorology Weather Report.
MATT GRANT: Thank you, Justin.
TRIBUTE TO EMILE BENOIT AND FRANK MAHER
JUSTIN BRAKE: Before our final story, we wanted to pay tribute to two of Newfoundland’s most influential musicians of all time. Legendary fiddler Emile Benoit was born a 100 years ago last Monday. Benoit was born in Black Duck Brook on the Port au Port Peninsula, and was a fisherman most his life, until his fiddling talent was recognized in the 1970s. He recorded three albums and wrote nearly 200 songs during his lifetime and released his most critically acclaimed album Vive La Rose in 1992, just months before he died. His influence lives on in the work of fiddlers like Kelly Russell and young traditional groups like the Dardanelles. Another legendary trad musician, Frank Maher, celebrated his eightieth birthday with family, friends, and fans at a special concert last night in St. John’s. Maher is said to be among Newfoundland’s greatest accordion players and played with bands like Figgy Duff, the Planker Down Band, the Planks, and most recently Mahers Bahers. So in celebration of their contributions to Newfoundland music, here’s Fight For Your Right, by Emile Benoit, and Miss Gilhooley’s Party by Frank Maher.
PROFESSOR LAUNCHES PETITION TO KEEP GUNS OUT OF MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY CLASSROOMS
JUSTIN BRAKE: Last November the Memorial University Senate voted to amend the university’s regulation to prevent police officers who are students to attend classes while on duty and armed. The debate was not extended beyond the Senate though, and the new regulation only came to light after the university’s Graduate Student Union president wrote a letter to the editor of local newspapers, including the Independent.ca, outlining his concerns about guns on campus, both in and outside the classroom, after a February 18 incident when an RNC officer fired a shot at a car fleeing the scene of an attempted break and enter into a vehicle in a university parking lot.
In his letter MUN GSU president Joey Donnelly wrote:
On November 12, 2013, MUN Senate amended regulations to allow armed RNC on campus and in the classroom with written permission. I was one of four senators to vote against the measure. The argument at the time was that the officers pursuing studies at MUN were still on duty and required their firearms. One senator noted that in the last nine years, since RNC officers attended class on campus, there had not been an incident. Of course, last Tuesday’s sting outside of the Fieldhouse was police business, and we’re still awaiting the details surrounding the incident. However, I would argue that the recent deregulation of firearms at MUN has normalized the excessive use of police force. Guns don’t belong in schools. As a student I feel uncomfortable knowing there are armed officers who are so willing to escalate the level of violence.
Last week supporting and elaborating on the view expressed in Donnelly’s letter, Memorial University Sociology professor Stephen Crocker launched a petition on Change.org that calls on the university to reverse its decision to allow weapons in the classroom. Stephen Crocker joins us in the studio today to discuss the matter of weapons in university classrooms. We also invited the RNC, Memorial University Senate Committee for Undergraduate Studies chair Bert Riggs, and Memorial University Police Studies program coordinator Anne Morris to the studio to join us for the interview. All three declined the invitation, but the RNC issued a statement to the Independent, and a university spokesperson emailed a letter from Bert Riggs, which he authored last November following the Senate’s decision to amend the regulations. Welcome to The Indy News Hour, Stephen Crocker.
STEPHEN CROCKER: Thank you, Justin.
JUSTIN BRAKE: In your petition, you outline a number of reasons why you don’t agree with firearms in university classrooms. Can you explain why you oppose the Senate’s decision to allow armed, on duty police officers in classrooms and why you started the petition on Change.org?
STEPHEN CROCKER: Well, I started the petition because it had only come to my attention recently that there had been this change in regulation at MUN that now allowed student police officers to carry loaded weapons into the classroom. I find it a frightening development and I spoke to my colleagues on campus and asked them what their opinion was about it and learned that virtually no one at Memorial had heard of this change, and everyone had a very strong feeling about it, did not want it to take place. So I thought it would be useful for there to be some organ by which people could register their discontent and make their feelings known about it. The online petition has been an effective vehicle for doing that so far.
JUSTIN BRAKE: And what were some of your primary concerns? The RNC has said, and the MUN Senate it was part of the discussion of this November 12th, 2013, meeting that the RNC will follow very close and strict guidelines about firearm safety and stuff. What are some of your primary concerns about there being guns in the classroom, if they’re on police officers who are on duty?
STEPHEN CROCKER: Well, in general, I think guns have no place in the classroom, or guns have no place where they are not needed for reasons of extreme emergency that may require lethal force. Otherwise they are a threat to the people around them and they are a distraction to people trying to carry out their studies in the class. We have regulations at MUN about the kind of scents that people can wear, the underarm deodorant, the perfume they can wear, whether they can have cellphones or laptops in class, all because these prevent distractions to the learning of other students. I think that a loaded weapon also creates a disturbance in the classroom. It’s an unnecessary presence. Guns are usually allowed in public spaces when there is some reason to believe that there may be the presence of an extreme emergency or threat to public order, but this is not an extreme emergency situation. It’s the standard operating practice of a classroom. So I don’t think there is a good reason for a gun to be in a classroom if there is not an emergency situation. In addition to that, the reason why this regulation was brought into effect is that the RNC say that it’s difficult for them to change out of uniform before coming to class. And it seems to me that that is a trivial reason in comparison to the major change that it brings about in classroom culture and in weapons policy.
JUSTIN BRAKE: In the November 20 letter for Bert Riggs, it was actually to Cecilia Reynolds, the associate vice-president of Undergraduate Studies at Memorial University. Riggs explains that Sgt. William James, head of the RNC Tactical Force, gave a presentation to the University Senate at the beginning of its November 12 meeting, the week prior. Riggs said, “There were many questions, most of which were from senators seeking information.” Some of those questions raised, one was why do officers have to attend class while on duty? Why could they not be given time off to attend? To which the response was, according to Riggs — this was James’ response according to Riggs: “The RNC has a rotating schedule governed by a collective agreement and it would require wholesale changes to scheduling and the payment of overtime if officers were allowed time off during a day when they were scheduled to work to attend classes.” So the question here is, and you raise it in your petition: where does the responsibility fall to find a solution that would satisfy the concern even if there’s a vocal minority of students and faculty, you said that the RNC and the university should work together to satisfy the concerns of that minority. Can you explain that a little bit?
STEPHEN CROCKER: Again, I think that the reason for this change – this is a significant change in university culture and in gun policy at MUN – and the reason for the change, I think, a scheduling problem, a difficulty in dressing and undressing out of uniform, is not sufficient to warrant a change of this scale. So it seems to me, if you read the minutes of the Senate decision there in November, that not sufficient attention was given to finding other possible solutions to this problem. For instance, in the meantime since I put up the petition, I’ve received numerous comments from people sending me emails and so on expressing their concern about this matter. And someone sent me a section of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary collective agreement. This is widely available online, if anyone wants to google Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Collective Agreement in effect from May 2013 on, section 29.07 of the collective agreement clearly reads:
Police officers who are enrolled in either the Criminology certificate program or in the degree of Police of Arts Police Studies program at Memorial University may request from the chief of police time off to attend classes which occur during their regular shift. Subject to the operational requirements of the force, the chief will endeavour to grant such requests provided they are kept to a reasonable limit.
Again, that is section 29.07 of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary collective agreement. So there, already, in the bureaucratic structure of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is a way of solving this problem. The collective agreement that the police and the administration have signed seems to recognize that it is desirable for police not to be on duty, to be relieved of duty or to be able to attend class, to have time off to attend classes which occur during their regular shift. It seems to suggest to me that it is desirable that they are off shift while doing that, and that they have a right to demand that from the police department. I would say, too, that I think it could only be in the interests of the police to make use of that clause and to be able to fully engage themselves as students in the classroom and to not have to worry as well, at the same time, about emerging police situations that may be occurring while they’re paying attention in class.
JUSTIN BRAKE: In a letter to the Independent on Friday, RNC Media Relations officer Geoff Higdon wrote:
The diverse nature of policing dictates that officers be fully prepared to address any level of threat to their safety or any member of the public we serve. Officers who attend class while on duty must be available to respond to emergency situations, as they would take precedence over their attendance at class. Because the majority of our officers enrolled at Memorial University complete course material through distance education, very few actually attend class while on duty. There are no officers who attend class while on duty currently. The RNC continues to support the decision reached by the majority of the Senate. Other than attending class, RNC officers are routinely at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s campus, for a variety of reasons.
So they’re saying that it’s not common, that police officers on duty and armed are attending classes but that the diverse nature of policing dictates that they need to be prepared at any point in time to any threat. And I’ve heard a few comments, somebody on Facebook had posted a comment a little while ago that, yeah, their understanding of it is that armed police officers on campus would be safer for students if something happened on campus. But you mentioned in your petition as well, and we spoke the other day and you mentioned that as a professor, you just simply don’t feel comfortable with having a gun in your classroom. And there’s a few comments, I think, on your petition as well from other faculty and students who have expressed the same view. So how do we negotiate between these two opinions, that presence of armed police officers bringing about safety but then it impedes academic freedom on the other hand?
STEPHEN CROCKER: I think we need to make an important distinction here between the police being on campus for reasons of extreme emergencies that require the police, and they’re carrying their loaded weapon because it may turn out that lethal force is needed, in the case of an event, and regular classroom activities and culture, which are not emergency situations. Now, I would say that if it is true that police duty has to take precedence over their attention to class, then that is itself an argument that they should be not on duty while they are attending class. And their collective agreement, section 29.07 clearly says they can ask the chief for time off to attend classes. This would be in everyone’s interest: it would allow the police to give themselves fully to police duties, and it would allow others in the class not to be preoccupied with the threat of force. If you go to the petition on Change.org, which you can find by going to Change.org and searching ‘Memorial University’, you can read a number of comments to this effect, that people are uncomfortable in having a gun in the class. For instance, one person says, “As a TA (that is, a teaching assistant) I would feel incredibly uncomfortable teaching a lab knowing that one of my students could be carrying a weapon. It would affect my ability to teach and therefore also that student’s learning experience. Guns have no place in the classroom.” Someone else: “Guns don’t belong in the classroom. All students and faculty deserve to work in an equal learning environment. Guns upset the power balance and make many people in the university community feel uncomfortable.” Another person writes and says that she has been a Math professor all her life and she wants people paying attention to the math problems at hand and not police duty. So I think from a professional, professorial point of view, it’s clear that it’s better that students are able to immerse themselves completely in the tasks at hand; that makes for a better classroom learning environment for the police and for others who are participating in the classroom with them. For the police, it is a better situation if they are able to absent themselves from duty to completely immerse themselves in the class activity. They are not here for an emergency situation. They’re here for an academic experience. I think it’s important to make that distinction. We do see the police on campus, when they are called in in the capacity of police officer. But what we’re talking about here are police who are on campus in the capacity of student.
JUSTIN BRAKE: Stephen Crocker, your petition has been up for a few days and there’s about 250, almost 300 signatures on the petition now. How many signatures do you want, or how long is it going to be up for? How will it be delivered to the MUN Senate? What is the plan here?
STEPHEN CROCKER: First of all, the way that these petitions work is that when someone signs the petition, a copy of that petition is then emailed to the secretary of the Senate. So it arrives in the Senate’s mailbox. The Senate has received a letter of petition about a decision that they have made. So the Senate is aware of this as it unfolds. Nevertheless, I would like it to stay up as long as it seems that there is an active interest in it and people have had an opportunity to voice their opinion about it. At some point it’ll be necessary to take it down or bring it to a close and present it to Senate as a final statement about it. Term is coming to an end now; it’s an active time for many people. I would like to have an opportunity for there to be a public discussion about it on campus, which is happening now because of the petition. When we get a sense that there are enough, that people have had a chance to speak their mind about it, then it might be time to consider taking it down, but not until then.
JUSTIN BRAKE: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us in the studio. We appreciate it.
STEPHEN CROCKER: Thanks a lot, Justin.
JUSTIN BRAKE: That’s Stephen Crocker, a professor of Sociology at Memorial University. His petition is on Change.org and you can find it by searching for Memorial University. The petition is called “Prohibit all students, including on-duty student police officers, from bringing weapons to class.”
SPECIAL 3-PART INDY EXCLUSIVE EXPLORES SOCIAL, POLITICAL, ECONOMIC CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING SEALING DISASTERS OF 1914
And before we go, this week marks the centenary of the two sealing disasters that shook Newfoundland in April 1914, when 77 men and boys, who were part of the Newfoundland steamer’s sealing expedition died after becoming stranded on the ice. Around the same time, somewhere off the south coast of the Avalon Peninsula, 173 men lost their lives when the Southern Cross, en route to St. John’s from the Gulf of St. Lawrence with a full load of pelts, disappeared in a gale. Inspired by the diary of William Coaker, founder and first president of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, John R. Matchim has authored a three-part series on some of the social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding the two disasters. Read the special Indy exclusive on our website at the Independent.ca. Part 1 was published today and the final two parts will be published Monday and Tuesday.