Monday, 30 March 2015

April 1 a day some Hydro One customers dread

April 1 is an important day for many people in Grey Bruce and across all of Ontario.

April 1 is the day when Hydro One starts disconnecting electrical service because of billing arrears and alleged non-payment.

It’s not a happy day.

If you don’t have any problems with your billing from Hydro One, count your blessings. If your billing is roughly the same as it has been for a while, consider yourself fortunate. That’s not the situation a lot of people in this province find themselves in.

I’ve been watching a Facebook group called “Hydro One - Enough is Enough”. It has more than fifteen thousand members. It includes people who are having billing problems with Hydro One, people who are in the process of losing their homes because they electrical bills are more than their mortgage payments and people who are just plain angry about the repeated abuse and confusion they keep getting from Hydro One with little resolution of their issues.

How bad is it?

Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin has been investigating the Hydro One problems for over a year. In that time he says his office has received and investigated more that 10,000 complaints, more than any other investigation his office has ever handled. Of those complaints, two thirds were related to billing. After intervention, more than 4,000 were resolved.

Common themes among the complaints were threats of disconnection for those who have missed payments; customers having to call Hydro Customer Service agents repeatedly to have their matters resolved; incorrect bills; no bills for prolonged periods of time estimated bills covering prolonged periods of time; large “catch-up” bills after a period of no bills or estimated bills; multiple bills within a short period of time, or all at once (18 bills, in one case); large amounts of money withdrawn from the bank accounts of customers with automatic payment plans, without warning; lack of clarity regarding charges/billing adjustments and confusion over processes, e.g., for overpayment refunds and credits.

It shouldn’t take the intervention of the Ombudsman, an officer of the Legislature, to fix what is, foundationally, a customer service failure. The Hydro One billing system is broken. And customers are paying a steep price.

In Belleville recently, a Hydro One customer discovered that Hydro One had confused his account with someone of the same name in Owen Sound, had not credited his account for what he had paid and demanded payment for the other person’s account. The situation was cleared up with the help of the Ombudsman’s Office, but it took months of calls.

And lest you think you are safe if your electricity comes through Westario Power, they routinely disconnect people throughout the winter, I am told.

The system is broken and needs fixing.

If you are a Hydro One customer and you have billing issues, contact the Office of the Ombudsman and ask for their help.

If you have been hit hard by high electricity bills or being threatened with disconnection, call 211 and talk to them. They can outline options about payment alternatives and work with you and Hydro One through the LEAP program.

If you are concerned about Hydro One disconnection practices, contact your MPP. While it may not have an immediate result, Hydro One is still a provincially owned corporation and our MPP’s have some responsibility to share your concerns with the Premier and the Minister responsible.

If you are served by Westario Power and you have concerns and get no satisfaction from the company itself, contact your local municipal politician. Westario is owned by the municipalities and there are municipal representatives on the Westario board.

We are not powerless. We just need to know where to direct our energy.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County

Monday, 23 March 2015

MP should go further than his apology

I was brought up short by Monica Lewinsky this week.

That’s a name from history.

You remember her. In 1998 she was the twenty four year old White House intern who former President Bill Clinton called “that woman”.

Today, older and wiser, she spoke in a recent TED talk about her own public shaming. She contends that the scandal was “the first to be brought to you by the digital revolution”. Now, she said, we call it cyberbullying and online harassment.

As I read the story, I recalled a parallel between that experience and the media frenzy we have experienced in the past week in Grey Bruce.

You know the story. In talking about Muslim women choosing to cover their faces, our MP was quoted as saying, “Frankly, if you're not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you're joining the best country in the world, then frankly, if you don't like that or don't want to do that, stay the hell where you came from, and I think most Canadians feel the same.”

He apologized for his words. He still backed the position of the government, which is opposed to a recent decision of the Federal Court which permitted face coverings during citizenship ceremonies.

What connected Ms. Lewinsky’s TED Talk to Mr. Miller’s remarks was a deep memory from my childhood.

I spent part of my youth in a very multi-cultural, immigrant dominated part of Toronto. It was not unusual to hear kids on the school ground calling each other racial slurs. Often it was in their mother tongue, which was not English. I learned those words, and some good swear words, in those languages, too.

One of the worst insults you could say to someone, even in public school, was to call someone a racial or ethnic slur and cap it off with “You don’t belong here. Go back to the country you came from.”

It was cutting, hurtful and mean. Today we call it bullying.

That’s what ran through my mind when I heard Mr. Miller’s words.

Then the media got hold of the story and within a very short time it was all across social media.

What was worse was the defense. “A lot of people feel the same”.

People may feel that way, but they are wrong. It’s bullying. I would even go so far as to call it racism.

I took the time to read the Federal Court decision. It was well written and well reasoned. It made clear that ministerial policy can never trump the law of the land. Thank goodness. And it affirmed that the safeguards in place to identify those who wish to wear a face covering during a citizenship ceremony are more than adequate.

The government is also entirely within its rights to appeal the decision, but I wonder why it would waste taxpayer’s money.

Unfortunately, an ugly side of our community has been exposed this week. I found myself trying to explain our MP’s comments (not defend, because I could not do that) to church people who were trying to make sense of it all.

I have also heard of people from Owen Sound who work in multicultural settings, including with Muslims, who were deeply embarrassed by Mr. Miller’s remarks.

As I said, Mr. Miller has apologized, as he should. But I wish he and those who agree with him would go a step further and think carefully about the words they use. Bullying is bullying and bullying is wrong.

Monica Lewinsky said it well.

“Showing empathy to others benefits us all," she said. "Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline."

Imagine.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Weekend elections may offend some pious folk

When I was a teenager, my mother arranged for me to participate in a federal election as a poll scrutineer.

It wasn’t a difficult job, but for a sixteen year old, it was my first insight into the electoral process in Canada.

My job as a scrutineer was to watch the ballot count and to note the number of spoiled or questioned ballots and to ensure that the total matched what was reported and then to call the total in to the party office.

I’ve been hooked o politics and elections ever since.

This past week the Chief Electoral Officer in Ontario published the report on the 2014 provincial election. It makes good reading. It is a snapshot of where we are as a province and how we see ourselves as voters.

One of the more interesting emerging issues that the Chief Electoral officer notes is people taking “selfies” or pictures of themselves with their marked electoral ballot. As the report says, “This practice contravenes the Election Act as it involves displaying a ballot that indicates how a person voted and can therefore potentially influence other electors. Breaking this law can carry a $5,000 fine.

Ouch.

The report went on, “When Elections Ontario became aware of posted selfies involving pictures of ballots, action had to be taken to enforce the Election Act. Accordingly, we sent messages to the individuals instructing them to take the photos down. The messages, however, were not well understood by most recipients and, in many cases, not well received.”

I love the understatement “not well received”.

While the report offers many suggestions for improvement and reports that the election came in significantly under budget ($90.3 Million estimate vs. $77 Million actual cost), one suggestion is a bit troubling.

It is proposed that the fixed election date be moved to a weekend.

The rationale is that this will allow schools to be used as polling stations in off hours, with little impact on their function. It would also allow safety concerns of school board over access of non-staff or students to schools.

What the proposal does not recognize is that for three of the world’s faiths, Friday (Islam), Saturday (Judaism) and Sunday (Christianity) are religious holy days. And while an argument could be made that voting doesn’t impinge on religious practice, if voting takes just a few minutes, there are many other factors to consider.

Some faiths have prohibitions on travel (orthodox Jews, for example) on the Sabbath. Other faiths may encourage a day of rest (Christianity) or prayer (Islam).

This is one of those situations where various rights conflict with each other. While one has an obligation as a citizen to vote, religious obligations, the practice of which are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, may intervene.  Conversations will have to be sensitive and open to determine an appropriate way forward for our electoral process.

Respect for religious practices is a hallmark of our Canadian multicultural nation. We have long past the days when Ontario was (if it ever really was) a dominantly white, English-speaking, Protestant province where the sidewalks were rolled up on Sundays.

We have changed. And our challenge is to adapt and adopt practices which reflect the broad and multifaceted community which we have become.

I wish the Chief Electoral Officer well. But I also see struggles ahead as we navigate our democratic waters.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 9 March 2015

United Church looking at a radical renewal

How does a church renew itself?

In the case of the Roman Catholics, they elect a new pope. Pentecostals pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Anglicans issue a new Prayer Book. The United Church strikes a task force.

Three years ago, the United Church did just that, realizing that old structures and ways of doing church no longer worked and something new had to be explored.

The result is the report of the Comprehensive Review Task Group, which has just released it’s report for the church’s General Council this summer.

The report is, in many ways radical. It presents a new model for doing and being the United church. To the 10,000 or so people in Grey and Bruce who claim affiliation with the United Church, it will mean we won’t be your grandmother’s church any more.

There are five key recommendations. Some have more impact than others.

The first is to spend 10% of the giving to the Mission and Service Fund on supporting new ministries and new forms of ministries. The Mission and Service Fund would no longer be spent on church governance and support, but just on mission.

The second proposal is to set Aboriginal ministries as a church priority, to be maintained insofar as possible from the Mission and Service Fund.

The third idea is to completely change the existing governance structure of the United Church with something new.

Communities of faith (who might not be congregations at all) will have the power to call and terminate ministers, buy and sell their property and control their own funds. They would be places where faith is nurtured and inspired to serve the world.

There would be regional bodies which support communities of faith and a denominational council which would meet once every three years with representative from across the church. It would have a small executive.

There would be a College of Ministers, which would be similar to professional regulatory colleges for teachers, doctors and lawyers. It would set standards and act as a disciplinary court.

An association of ministers would be encouraged, to nurture collegial support among those in ministry.

Finally, funding for the new structure would come primarily from assessments to communities of faith. It is suggested that this would mean an increase of 25% over current governance assessments.

The national church’s budget would be cut be between $11 million and $13.8 million by 2018. This would mean staff cuts in the national office of up to 50%. The church would only employ staff it could pay for. The sharing of financial resources between congregations across the country would encouraged.

The best summary of the situation the United Church (and many other organisations) find themselves was said recently by The Rev. David Ewart in the United Church Observer.

“The simple fact is that Canadians are not going to church like they used to. In fact, Canadians aren’t going to synagogues, mosques, temples or Kiwanis either. Volunteer membership organizations of all types are declining. Attendance decline is not a problem that can be fixed. It is simply a reality to which we must respond.”

As the report itself says, “The goal of the Comprehensive Review is not to return to the mid-20th century when churches and Sunday schools were bursting at the seams as the general public proclaimed Jesus as Lord and our denomination wielded significant spiritual and moral influence in Canadian society. Our future lies in the spirit of the Pentecost—in being smaller, more agile, and innovative; in listening to the Spirit as we go out into our communities to build relationships and work for equality and justice; and in offering a variety of faith experiences that may not look a lot like church as we know it.”

It’s going to be an interesting journey.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 2 March 2015

School is a proper place to learn about sex

If you want to start a heated discussion among people of faith, just say one word.

Sex.

That’s all it takes. You can approach sex from any angle. You can take any position on the issue. But start talking about sex itself and you get instantly heated conversation.

It came as no surprise to me to receive an e-mail from a person of faith about the new sex education curriculum in Ontario schools. It was strong in opposition to the current government and connected the leadership race of one of the other provincial parties to the sex education issue.

What did surprise me was that when the e-mail came, the curriculum had yet to be made public. I don’t mind opinions but let’s base them on fact, not emotion.

Having had a chance now to review the curriculum (well, at least part of it; it’s a big document), I can appreciate how much work has gone into it and just how much has changed since I was in school.

Back then we got “the talk” with black and white movies from our Grade 9 phys ed teacher. That was it. Boys got their “talk” in one classroom and the girls got their in another.

Most of us knew it already. Some were having sexual experiences (or said they did). Sex education in the school was earnest and somewhat embarrassing.

Nearly fifty years later, the world has changed. Sexting is common. Sexually transmitted infections have much more specific names. HIV/AIDS is real. Consent matters. None of this was discussed when I was in school. Much of it, like the internet and HIV/AIDS wasn’t even recognized.

When I first started in ministry in the early 1980's, we did a session on sex and relationships with the church youth group. We had parental permission and we had a young doctor in the community, active in the church, as our guest. He was excellent. But I remember his telling us about something he had seen in his internship in Montreal hospitals that was yet to be identified. They thought it was spread by sexual contact and it could not be cured. He was speaking, of course, about the early cases of HIV/AIDS.

His words left a deep impact on all of us on how our actions could have serious consequences.

I believe those who say that sex education should be left to parents alone are misplaced in their thinking. Talking about human reproduction with your children is not easy. That’s where the school comes in. The school system can give the facts and the biology. And yes, I believe it is appropriate to talk about this in early grades. But parents have a role, too. Parents can talk about values they hold and offer positive modelling of relationships. But none of us is perfect. And when other factors like alcohol, mental illness or family dysfunction are mixed in, sex education can be complicated and complex.

If schools can offer safe places for our young people for conversation about sex and are in dialogue with parents, then sex education can and will work. It’s a partnership.

I remember telling one of our high school principals that one of my children told me that they were watching porn movies in school at lunch time on someone’s cell phone.

The principal, quite aghast, didn’t believe me at first. But to their credit, they did do some investigating and the school became more aware of the risks that cell phones offered.

I support the new sex education curriculum in our schools. But it has to be a partnership with parents. For our children’s sake, if no one else.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.