To pray or not to pray: A look at the SCC decision on opening prayers at council

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada released its long-anticipated decision in the case of Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) [2015 SCC 16]. Examining the question of whether the prayer recited by the mayor at the opening of Saguenay’s council meeting was discriminatory, the court found that indeed it was, and ordered the respondents – the city and its mayor – to “cease the recitation of the prayer in the chambers where the municipal council meets.”

While the case considered the discrimination in the context of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Supreme Court ruling has implications for the rest of Canada, since those same fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion are similarly protected for everyone under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (The court, in fact, pointed to this similarity in its findings, interpreting the relevant section “in light of the principles that have been developed in relation to the application of the Canadian Charter.”)

The Rationale

To understand the rationale behind this important decision, a look at the reasoning shared by the court is helpful. On behalf the majority, Gascon J writes:

“By expressing no preference, the state ensures that it preserves a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally … A neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals … On the contrary, a neutral public space free from coercion, pressure, and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity … Section 27 [of the Charter] requires that the state’s duty of neutrality be interpreted not only in a manner consistent with the protective objectives of the Canadian Charter, but also with a view to promoting and enhancing diversity.”

Further, although neither Charter imposes an express duty of religious neutrality on the state, “this duty results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion … This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non‑belief … It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.”

What Now?

Following last week’s ruling, many municipalities that previously incorporated an opening prayer as part of their council proceedings have dropped the practice. Some have opted instead to sing the national anthem or observe a moment of silence, while others have simply suspended the prayer pending further review.

Those municipal councils who still include a prayer at their opening would be wise to examine the practice in light of the SCC decision. This ruling doesn’t take away the freedom of the mayor and councillors, as individuals, to pray – or not – and be guided according to their own consciences and religious beliefs. It does, however, have implications for carrying out that practice as a formal tradition or procedure as part of an inclusive public process.

The full text of the SCC decision is online at

The Story of Electronics

Our growing mountain of e-waste and why stewardship – and extended producer responsibility – are so important for the health of our communities and for driving green innovation. Another great movie from “The Story of Stuff Project.”

Sustain science

Annie Leonard  calls for a green ‘race to the top’ where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products that are fully and easily recyclable.
Video courtesy of The Story of Stuff Project.

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Measuring Happiness

World Happiness Report

First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations

Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are? And, all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?

Those may sound like rather personal questions to ask. However, a recent report from the Earth Institute at Columbia University suggests that they are in fact among the most important questions that countries – and communities – can be asking their citizens. The first-ever World Happiness Report was commissioned for the United Nations Conference on Happiness held in early April, and takes a serious look at factors that contribute to individuals’ sense of well-being, and how this measure of “happiness” tracks across nations.

Interestingly, the research revealed that, while richer countries do tend to be happier, social factors – such as the strength of social support, the absence of corruption, and the degree of personal freedom – were actually more important for happiness than income. Looking beyond income and work, key determinants of happiness included community and governance, as well as values and religion. Personal aspects of happiness included mental and physical health, in addition to family experience, education, gender, and age.

For policy makers, the report suggests that there is an important opportunity to help promote and improve the environmental factors that can impact happiness, and to balance the compelling arguments for these policy directions carefully against the arguments for economic growth (as typically measured through GDP). Values such as altruism (i.e., opportunities to volunteer, donate, participate, and “make a difference”) and environment (i.e., concerns about the future of the planet, as well as the impact of the existing environment on adults today) are but two examples of areas where local government policy makers may be able to help effect a positive change in overall community happiness.

To illustrate, a 2011 study by E.K. Nisbet and J.M. Zelenski cited in the report may be helpful. This Canadian research (conducted at Carleton University) found that people walking on a tree-lined path beside the river were measurably more happy than those taking the same trip through an underground tunnel system – and that the actual increases in happiness were much higher than people anticipated they would be. For programs like Communities in Bloom and the LivCom Awards, and the communities that participate in these and similar initiatives (you can find great examples throughout the May 2012 issue of Municipal World), this research confirms how important it is for policy makers to pay attention to the natural environment. It offers an unmatched opportunity to improve quality of life in the community, and to increase the sense of well-being and happiness for the people who live there.

You can find the World Happiness Report online at < view/2960>.

Sustainable Sweden

Back in 2006 (as faithful readers of Municipal World may remember), I travelled to Jönköping, Sweden for the World Bioenergy Conference. It was my first opportunity to look, firsthand, at energy solutions on the international level. At the time, I was surprised to find bioenergy (and district energy systems) already playing such a large role in municipal energy production and distribution in Sweden and other parts of Europe. Even more surprising was the extent to which energy from waste was being deployed – and that it was so well accepted by the many, many communities where it had been adopted.

The crane that was once the identifying landmark for Malmo's Western Harbour has been replaced by the HSB Turning Torso, a spectacular modern tower with nine five-story cubes that twist as the building rises.

I was honoured to be invited back to Sweden this year, to see and learn about some of the country’s most recent urban sustainability initiatives taking place in Stockholm and Malmö. I was anxious to see how and whether the resolve and commitment to environmental protection and the very clear culture of conservation among Swedish citizens had continued and evolved in the five years since I was last there. As with my prior visit, I came away inspired by examples of “the possible” – examples where perceived limits and boundaries were being pushed aside by aggressive investments and technology, by remediation efforts, fuelled by plans and visions of a sustainable future.

Travelling with a contingent of journalists representing eight different countries from around the globe, the trip provided not only an opportunity to discover Swedish initiatives, but also to learn about sustainability efforts in other parts of the world, as well as the challenges and obstacles that are faced there – including social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental factors that sometimes stand in the way of communities doing what they know needs to be done.

Malmö’s Western Harbour development is a showcase for the kind of sustainable living the city is working to encourage.

The story on Malmö, on page 5 of the August issue of Municipal World, shows how that city, facing an unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable economic crisis, cast a vision for its future and then began putting in place the elements that are necessary to achieve it. As Malmö’s leaders won’t hesitate to tell you, it didn’t happen over night (and it’s not been without its challenges, either). And, although they’re not exactly where they’d like to be, they are confident they’re heading in the right direction. Walking on their streets and seeing their new developments and visions coming to life, I felt fairly confident they’d reach their goals as well.

Often, when we learn how things are done differently (sometimes better, sometimes not) in other parts of the world, it is too easy to assume that it was always thus. As Malmö shows (and Stockholm, too, which I’ll share in the November issue), the sustainable picture we see today would have been unimaginable for some to predict from their vantage point in the past. Sometimes, a challenging situation can be exactly what it takes to help make a sharp turn from the way things are currently done, and recognize that it’s time for a new approach.

Women in Local Government: Getting to 30%

Following Ontario’s Fall 2010 municipal elections, both the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario did follow-up reporting on the results. The numbers for women participating in the process weren’t exactly glowing:

Among the 173 municipalities that answered a question about the gender of candidates in AMCTO’s post-election survey, 5½ times as many men as women ran for head of council positions; and 3½ times as many men as women ran for councillor positions.

Still, AMO reports that the total number of female candidates increased from 1292 to 1484 in this election. And, the number of women elected has grown slightly, too – from 23.85% in 2006 to 24.25% in 2010. Women now hold 24.25% (700 seats) of the province’s 2886 total positions on council, up from 23.85% in 2006. (In some communities, of course, the representation of women is significantly greater: more than 50% in The North Shore, Opasatika, City of Waterloo, and Mississauga.) In the role of head of council, however, women take the lead in only 69 municipalities, compared to 167 in 2006. In Ontario, there are currently 50 municipalities that have no women on council.

During the Standing Committee Forum on Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Government at the recent conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities held in Halifax this month, many women expressed frustration at what they say sometimes feels like a “backward slide” on the issue. Today, although women make up over 52 per cent of the Canadian population, FCM reports that only 23 per cent of our elected municipal representatives are female. On the international stage, Canada ranks 46th out of 189 countries for the number of women in politics. Dismal.

But, despite numbers that, on the whole, still seem weak, progress is being made. And, with funding from Status of Women Canada, FCM is about to launch a series of workshops across Canada aimed at helping women overcome the barriers that prevent them when running for municipal office in greater numbers. The goal is to hold workshops across the country before municipal elections in each province. The first workshops is set to run in British Columbia: June 11 to 12, 2011 in Prince George; June 18 to 19 in Whistler; and June 25 to 26 in Esquimalt. Information on future workshops – and a contact to help arrange one if your community is interested – is available on the FCM website at

Toronto Councillor Pam McConnell, chair of the FCM committee, notes that “FCM´s program will make a meaningful contribution to help us reach the United Nations target of having a minimum of 30 per cent female participation in government.” Canada will need 1,710 more women elected to municipal office – an increase of more than 100 women every year for the next 17 years – to reach the 30 per cent target. (McConnell’s committee has been working towards that objective since 2005-2006, when FCM held a series of workshops and events across the country to explore ways of improving women’s participation in municipal government. At that time, she says, the number we needed was 2,000. So, there’s progress.)

Pam McConnell (a six-term city councillor herself, with 12 years as school trustee before that) spent some time with me following the forum at the FCM conference, to talk about the “Getting to 30 percent” program, the barriers for women, what we all can do to help tear them down.

Watch the video on YouTube:

Channel choices: separating glitter from gold

We do indeed live in a world of “Bright Shiny Objects.” That’s what Bill Schrier, Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer, tells us in his article in the June 2011 issue of Municipal World, which has just gone to press. Information technology is pervasive in our everyday lives, with new gizmos and gadgets competing for our attention at every turn.

It’s not just about the physical “toys,” of course. It’s increasing about the applications that allow us to do everything from making a grocery list by scanning barcodes in our cupboards (see <>) to finding the nearest washroom. (Further to my comment in the May issue about the scarcity of public washrooms in New York City, check out <> ­– also available on your iPhone – to help guide you to the nearest facilities when you’re in the Big Apple!)

And, it’s increasingly about the information. Information that comes at us from a variety of traditional and new media sources, including social media. It seems that the morning paper and nightly news are no longer enough to satiate our need to know what’s happening in the world. News (and noise) is broadcast 24/7. Twitter friends (and trends) keep us up-to-date on events around the world as they happen.

Some of these things have value, enhancing our productivity and quality of life (as <> surely must). Some of the most valuable, and useful, information is held by our governments, at all levels, including local. In his article (also in the June issue), IT consultant and open government advocate Aaron McGowan discusses the open data movement, and how freeing the information is allowing those governments who “take the leap” to benefit from all kinds of new collaborations and applications that they might never have dreamed possible. Communities and citizens are reaping the rewards.

For one example, see <>. Aaron is part of the cross-Canada team who built this application, which helps you to track pollution in your neighbourhood using data from Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory. (You can read Aaron’s blog about the application here: <>.) The program is still in BETA while they work out the kinks, but it gives you an idea of the just some of the potential that exists when information is made publicly available in a useable format – and how it might be transformed into something extremely valuable to citizens.

With applications like this, it’s easy to see how data can greatly improve our lives. Sometimes, however, the benefit of all this information may be questionable. Dr. Nick Bontis is a business professor at McMaster University and author of the book Information Bombardment: Rising Above the Digital Onslaught.  His research found that the average office worker receives 84 emails per day, 90 percent of which are useless. And yet, 75 percent of us will check our emails while on vacation and on weekends. “People are afraid to sever themselves from the Web,” says Bontis. “Super-connectivity causes stress, depression, anxiety, and lost efficiency. What’s worse is that our insatiable appetite for knowledge will never be quenched no matter how many new tools and websites are developed.”

As Bill Schrier points out in his article, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish glitter from gold. That’s true organizationally, and it’s also true individually. For your own life, for your own work, and for your own health you must choose your channels wisely – and perhaps put a limit on how many you choose.


You can follow them on Twitter:

And me, at

Visiting the “Sustainable City”


Hammarby Sjostad, a leading international example of "The Sustainable City"

My recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden included a stop at Hammarby Sjostad, a leading international example of “The Sustainable City” and a showcase for the Swedish approach to sustainable development.

Previously an old industrial and harbor area, this modern community now features beautiful architecture, constructed from sustainable materials, and punctuated by stunning natural features including parks and waterways. Most notably, the district has used an integrated approach to city planning – its own “eco-cycle” – contemplating and implementing environmentally sustainable approaches to the energy, waste management, as well as water and sewage.


Public education is an important part of the sustainability agenda at Hammarby Sjostad, and see as key to building and maintaining a culture of conservation within the community from a very young age.

In this Hammarby model, “waste” is not considered a problem, but rather a resource. A district heating and electricity system for the community is powered by combustible waste and biofuels. Sludge and mulch from the sewage and food waste is used to generate biogas, which is then used to fuel vehicles – and the biodegraded sludge is subsequently used as fertilizer. Both district heating and cooling are produced by using the purified wastewater.

All materials that can be recycled are sent to recycling, including hazardous waste and electrical waste where possible. As a result of this very intensive and thoughtful use of resources, very little waste is sent to landfill.


Waste is source separated and deposited in the vacuum collection systems shown above. Underground pipes then carry the waste away to centralized collection stations where an automated system loads collection containers onto trucks.

The three largest streams of normal waste (household waste, food waste, and paper) are source separated and disposed of in special refuse chutes located either inside or adjacent to the building. These vacuum collection systems use underground pipes to carry the waste away to centralized collection stations where an automated system loads collection containers onto trucks – with a resultant decrease in required labour, noise, air pollution, and neighbourhood traffic.

Smart transportation is another part of the suite of solutions offered at Hammarby. A light rail system runs through the centre of the community, with bus routes providing direct access into Stockholm City. Three carpools offer participants (about 1,000 of the town’s 19,000 current residents) access to one of 46 available cars.

Recreational trails, schools, libraries, theatre and other cultural amenities round out the community’s offerings.

The result of all these initiatives is a clean, attractive, sustainable community for those who live, work, and visit there.