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  • Air Canada lost my bag

    Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    I've just returned from a week-plus in sunny Vancouver.

    I know, not too many people say that. It may be Lotusland, but it's oft cloudy, cool and rainy. I remember my previous visit (many years ago now) when I stepped out into what I thought was new-fallen snow — only to plunge ankle-deep into the ice-cold water underneath a thin veneer of snow.

    Now, however, I forgive Vancouver for that betrayal.

    In fact, I'd wager that eight days of pure sun, with afternoon highs in the 20s and super warm evenings, might be the best stretch of summer weather my girlfriend and I have had all year.

    Of course, it wasn't all wonderful. Air Canada lost my bag. Here's how that happened, and why I'm not upset about it.

    For various reasons1, I wasn't able to fly out of Brandon on WestJet, and instead flew out of Winnipeg on Air Canada.

    For various other reasons2, I arranged a stopover in Regina on the way there and in Saskatoon on the way back.

    We only had half an hour on the ground in Saskatchewan both ways, and I knew it would be a tight connection. But I also knew that YQR and YXE are fairly small airports, and I was confident we could hike it from one gate to the next.

    But would our bags make it? I wasn't 100 per cent sure. I'd had Air Canada lose my bag before3, and I certainly didn't want to be running around Vancouver with only the clothes on my back and a swiped in-flight magazine.

    So, we carefully packed everything into carryon-size luggage (measure twice, pack thrice) and travelled light. Actually, on the flight out from Winnipeg, there were only about eight people on the whole plane, and the experience was sublime.

    Here's a quick hyperlapse of our takeoff from Winnipeg:

    I even tweeted my appreciation to Air Canada for the awesome service from the flight attendant, who was awesome the whole way. In Regina, airport workers met us at the gate — Air Canada had alerted them that we had a close connection, and they wanted to ensure we took the fastest route to our new gate, and didn't leave the secured area with the other passengers.

    Hilariously, although it was a different flight (new number and everything), we ended up on the same physical plane for our leg from Regina to Vancouver (same great flight attendant, too). There were a few more people on it, although it wasn't full, and we took advantage of the skycheck service, which allowed us to drop our larger carryons in the jetway, have them stowed in the belly of the plane, and then pick them up in the jetway again when we landed. That's a great trick, by the way.

    We got to Vancouver, picked up our bags in the jetway, and walked out into the sunshine.

    A little over a week later (more on that in a future post), we had picked up a few souvenirs. Anticipating this, I'd packed an empty duffle bag for the return flight. Although we again only had a half-hour in Saskatoon, I wondered if we might once again end up on the same plane — and we wouldn't have to worry about bags not making the connection.

    So we checked a couple of bags.

    Sure enough, we landed in Saskatoon and were herded off the plane only to turn around and wait at the same gate for the plane to be cleaned and fuelled so we could get on it again (different seats).

    Once again, the flight attendant was great and the flight was smooth and fast.

    But when we got to Winnipeg, after picking up our skychecked bags, we headed down to the conveyor belt and … nothing.

    Well, my girlfriend's bag came down the chute. As did a couple of other passengers' (the plane was continuing on to Thunder Bay, not a lot of people got off in Winnipeg) but mine did not.

    I obediently waited. And then the conveyor belt stopped. Uh-oh.

    Just as I was about to long-shot check the other conveyer belts, an Air Canada employee came bounding out from a back office, came right up to us, and asked our names.

    He had bad news, but he was smiling. Smiling apologetically.

    "Your bag didn't make it," he said. "How can we get it to you tomorrow?"

    In fact, he was refreshingly forthright about the whole thing, and relentlessly focused on making it as easy as possible for us.

    Because it was technically a new flight out of Saskatoon, even though it was the same plane, our bags had had to be taken out of the hold — the plane "cleared" — and then re-loaded. They'd simply forgotten my bag in Saskatoon.

    "We screwed up," he admitted disarmingly.

    In just a couple of minutes, I'd described my bag (he already knew what it looked like) and had a tracking number. He promised to have it delivered — yes, to Brandon — the next day. He said it should get to me around 1:30 p.m., and they'd have the driver call me to drop it off wherever I was.

    It wasn't quite to the minute, but I had my bag before 2 p.m.

    That's incredible.

    One night without my bag was a bit inconvenient — I'm sure my clothes smell like souvenir smoked-salmon cheese, and I had to find an old toothbrush — but it wasn't too terrible.

    And, instead of being left frustrated at losing my luggage, my takeaway is actually impressed with how efficiently and pro-actively they dealt with my issue.

    WestJet gets a lot of kudos for their employee/owners and their positive attitudes. They've recently run ads about their any-lengths problem-solving.

    And, my WestJet experiences (with one exception4) have been just as advertised: Carefree, verging on fun.

    But you know what? On the same day that WestJet announced a $25 checked-bag fee and Air Canada lost mine — it was Air Canada who won me over.

    I'm sure I could have griped and earned some kind of flight credit, or a toiletries voucher — maybe a few Maple Leaf Lounge passes? — but the proactive, positive employee made me feel valued, not neglected.

    Good job.


    PS. I noticed in the in-flight magazine that Air Canada runs a single flight in and out of Sault Ste. Marie (to Toronto). If Brandon is aiming for an eastern expansion, maybe that city, instead of Thunder Bay, might make some sense. Paging interested airlines!



    1. I was travelling to a union meeting, and our union (Unifor) also represents some Air Canada workers, so we were encouraged/expected to fly with them. Flying WestJet would have also required an expensive overnight in Calgary. I also have a sister in Winnipeg, and was able to see her, my brother-in-law, and their two kids, our nephews. Also, that brother-in-law is a mechanic, and our car was making some troublesome noises.

    2. It actually turned out to be the best-possible combination of departure and arrival times, at the best prices, too. It also worked out that we got two legs in each direction for our Aeroplan points, instead of just one.

    3. Almost 20 years ago now, I briefly lived in Quebec City. When I decided to move back to Brandon and continue my education at Brandon University, I packed up everything I owned and hauled it home. But when I changed planes in Toronto, my bag didn't follow. Amusingly, someone else lost a big, green bag in Toronto at the same time, and they landed at their destination before I landed in Winnipeg. They called Air Canada, who found a big green bag and sent it on to them. Sent my bag on to them. Sent it to Bangkok (seriously). It took weeks to come back, and when it did come back, it came with a busted zipper and a bent frying pan inside. It also smelled like spice. Air Canada was great about getting the bag back to me then, too, and they even paid to have the zipper repaired.

    4. To celebrate their expansion into Hamilton quite a few years ago, WestJet offered a promotion: anyone with the last name Hamilton could fly for free, one day only. I was already away, far from any WestJet-serving airport, and I couldn't claim my free seat. Everyone else in my family — literally, everyone — took fun daytrips, but not me. That was rough.


  • Cemetery expansion should move main entrance

    Wednesday, Sep. 3, 2014 at 11:58 AM

    It's welcome news that the city has finally bought the vacant land east of the existing Brandon Municipal Cemetery.

    Despite fears that it was contaminated because of refinery operations decades ago, the vacant land is the obvious choice for cemetery expansion — something that is sorely needed.

    Also, even if the land is a little bit contaminated, frankly, keeping it largely green space is a much better option than sinking basements into it.

    The new land will just about double the space of the cemetery, and should keep Brandon in burials for decades to come.

    Here's a visual:

    The new land is not just supposed to be there for expansion purposes, it's also important drainage for the city. Making it part of the cemetery will allow them to preserve that drainage.

    Now, I'm not a hydrologist, but the current drainage is pretty obvious:

    Even keeping that in mind, though, there is still an opportunity with the new expansion to completely re-orient the cemetery.

    As great as the cemetery is (I love the towering trees), there are a few issues with the current layout. The obvious one is that it is located on 18th Street. Once a sleepy rural highway outside of town, this stretch of 18th Street is now a busy commercial corridor.

    There's not enough traffic in and out of the cemetery to warrant lights at its entrance, obviously. Except when there is a funeral procession trying to get either in or out. That can tie up traffic for a while, despite the fact that most drivers are polite to funerals, and will let them in.

    If you're not part of a funeral, and you just want to turn left into the cemetery, it can be a bit of an issue.

    Some people may not know that there's a secondary entrance off of Aberdeen Avenue:

    It's not always open, but I've used it plenty in the past, and it saves me a bunch of time, especially since I'm generally coming up from that direction anyway (from the north and from the east).

    So it got me thinking: Why not move the main entrance to Aberdeen?

    In fact, why not move it down a little bit into the new area, where a new entrance can be built on empty land, without disturbing current burials at all.

    My thought is that a cemetery entrance at 13th Street and Aberdeen Avenue is full of advantages to the cemetery – and to Brandon.

    I would make a 13th and Aberdeen entrance a traffic circle. That is proven to help calm traffic and would work in concert with the "speed hump" further east on Aberdeen to slow down what is still is a fairly speedy section of road.

    It would also encourage people to see what should be a showcase entrance to the cemetery — I'm thinking stone and wrought-iron gates, something classic.

    Finally, it should help encourage people to use 13th Street, even for access to the Canadian Tire / Sobeys / Liquor Mart development, which might relieve some of the congestion on 18th Street.

    I originally considered lights, but lights wouldn't necessarily help slow traffic — they'd either stop it, or they'd allow it to rush right through.

    I also considered making it an entrance combined with the parking lot entrance beside Canadian Tire, but I think that's too much into the old area of the cemetery, and would be more difficult to build a wide entrance road.

    Adding an entrance at 13th Street would be in the new expansion, meaning it could be planned without handcuffs.

    As above, I'd bring it in and around the drainage ditch, and then swoop it over top (I'd prefer a bridge and not a culvert) to connect to the main roads in the existing cemetery.

    When burials start moving into the new land, it would be easy enough to sprout new roads off of the entrance and open up new plots.

    Meanwhile, though, the drainage channel offers an interesting landscape for a cemetery — not too many of them have a creek running through.

    An any rate, I'm happy to see the city finally move forward with this obvious expansion. Looking forward to seeing what they do with the land.


  • My model campaign platform

    Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    With less than two months to go until the municipal election, I'm starting to get frustrated about the lack of clear platforms or policies from any of the candidates.

    Many of them are really good at identifying the issues that Brandon faces — high taxation, downtown development, flooding — but I don't think I've seen any candidate at all offer a single idea on what they would actually DO about those issues.

    Except, of course, that they would "address" them. After "consulting with constituents," of course.

    It wasn't always this way. Last go-round, challenger Shari Decter Hirst released a huge number of specific campaign promises on her campaign blog, from keeping the Sportsplex open to holding "Coffee with the Mayor" meetings, to bidding for the Canada Games in 2017.

    This year? Crickets.

    Of course, after four years of her mayorship, we all have a pretty good idea of what Decter Hirst's priorities are, as well as what her abilities are to get things done on council and in the city.

    But I'd still like to see where she sees the next four years taking Brandon.

    And what about the main challenger this time around? Rick Chrest is by all accounts a nice guy, and he's got plenty of council experience, but what are his priorities? I can't go back on his years as council like I can with Decter Hirst — the city faces new and different challenges now than it did back in the '90s. Things like a pair of mega floods and Maple Leaf have dramatically changed this city.

    On his website, Chrest has identified a number of issues, but despite the many hundreds of words written about "economic development," "air service" and "taxation," the actual ways that he intends to address those issues are pretty thin.

    I give third mayoral candidate Mark Kovatch a brief pass on this, since he just entered the race yesterday, but he should be on notice that we're all watching.

    Candidates for city council fare no better — they are really good at finding issues, and pledging that they'll address them, but there's almost no concrete suggestions on what they would actually DO about those issues.

    If a normal campaign has a "platform" made out of "planks," so far in the Brandon municipal election, every candidate is basically showing us paper and pencil, promising that they see the need for a platform and have the tools needed to plan one.

    Worse yet are the candidates who are pledging to spend the next few weeks door-knocking and listening to constituent concerns.

    Um, I'm sorry — don't you have any ideas of your own? I'd like to hear them, please, and then I'll judge whether I think you'll be good to represent me. Door knocking to get ideas at this late stage of the game is a lazy gambit that makes you sound like you've been uninterested in politics until now and that you haven't got anything worth saying of your own.

    That makes you a poor bet for a representative, in my books.

    But, if you must know what I think — and since I desperately want some IDEAS in this darn race — I hereby present a model campaign platform, with suggested positions on issues that face this city:

    1. Time for this city to grow up

    Brandon has cracked the 50,000 mark, and we're growing fast. We have unique needs due to our high immigrant population and it's time to negotiate a new City Charter with the provincial government to address that.

    My top suggestion would be to create full-time city councillor positions, but to reduce the number of wards to five (north, south, east, west and central). I'd also like to see the runner-up candidate for mayor be awarded an "at-large" councillor position, meaning we'd have a seven-member council, including the mayor, down from our current 11.

    Full-time councillors would be expected to be more active on committees and in city governance overall. Council meetings should be held weekly, and councillors should be expected to provide written reports on their weekly activities.

    City council votes should also be recorded. Every one.

    I'd also like to see this new City Charter give Brandon more autonomy in setting tax rates and other policies, from building inspections to borrowing.

    We should also take over the management of provincial highways that happen to run through the city — including portions of First Street and Victoria Avenue, as well as all of 18th Street. The province can pay us to take care of them, thanks, but it should be up to the city to determine when they get plowed and paved.

    2. So long, school board

    The Brandon School Division gets to collect taxes through the city, meaning that the city gets blamed for their tax hikes. That may have made sense a hundred years ago, when the city was much bigger than the school division.

    But their budget now is $80 million a year. That's actually higher than the city's. So they can go ahead and collect their own taxes — and the associated taxpayer rage, thanks.

    (I'm taking a page from Winnipeg mayoral contender Robert Ouellette here, who suggested the same thing. It's a great idea, let's do it here.)

    3. Open up the data

    There has been lots of smoke but very little heat from the city when it comes to open data. It's hard to believe that a few years ago, Brandon was ahead of Winnipeg on this file; we're way behind now.

    What data does get posted is often manipulated and spun within an inch of its life, stripped of all meaning and impossible to use in a new or innovative way.

    Right now, "open data" is an extra that city staff do when they have time. They take, say, the mosquito trap counts, and after they are done assessing them, they make an extra effort to make them public.

    That's backwards. Simple data like that should be posted online as it comes in. When city staff need to assess the numbers, for example to decide whether to fog, they should go to the same website you and I go to, and pull the numbers from there.

    The same goes for every other piece of city data, from the location of stop signs to the daily level of chlorine in the water. It's all on computers, make it public by default.

    The Open Data Handbook is a great place to start.

    4. Densify development

    Many of Brandon's problems, from potholes to transit, can be traced directly back to the fact that we have too few people in too wide an area. It means the city's burdens have to be shared among fewer shoulders.

    Brandon recently unveiled plans to sprawl further southwest and to the north, but there are plenty of vacant lots and low-rise developments that could be filled first.

    Developers have shown they're willing to build condos and mid-rise apartments — but they're doing it in new subdivisions along south Ninth Street. They should be encourged to do it downtown and in existing neighbourhoods, too.

    The first bylaw I'd pass as a councillor would be a mandate that all new commercial development include two floors of residential above. Imagine if every strip mall in town had apartments above it? Those stores would have locked-in shoppers nearby and we'd have no more issues with housing.

    5. Put the Chamber in its place

    The Chamber of Commerce is a lobby group. It's a well-funded and successful lobby group with a broad membership base, but it's just a lobby group. It's insane that important city events like an annual State of the City address are done for a paying membership as a fundraiser for this lobby group. Put an end to that practice.

    People will still want to see a State of the City address, so hold your own luncheon. Or why not make the rounds — one year make a speech for the Chamber, the next have it for the Arts Council lunch, and then the year after that at the Friendship Centre.

    6. Hold up on salaries — especially protective services

    My back-of-the-envelope calculations show that, over the past five years, nearly 75¢ in every new tax dollar went to protective services. The largest budget line there is salaries.

    Beat cops and firefighters regularly make more than $100,000 — an unaffordable extravagence in this low-cost city.

    While police sometimes do dangerous, difficult work, many of their calls are for drunks, shoplifters and teenage pot dealers. This is a safe city, and policing compensation should reflect that it's easier here than elsewhere.

    So-called "firefighters" spend many of their days in the backs of ambulances, taking elderly patients to and from their hospital appointments. There were only 17 structure fires in all of last year. That's just one every three weeks. Meanwhile, they did 3,700 ambulance calls — more than 10 a day.

    Of course, council has backed itself into a corner with the mathematically unsustainable "comparator cities" model for setting salaries. Job No. 1 should be to remove that clause. No. 2 wlll be to let inflation catch up to the inflated pay packets.

    7. Focus on non-car transportation

    Brandon's bike paths are great, but they're decaying. We embarassingly bobbled the installation of a "share the road" lane along Lorne Avenue last year.

    Meanwhile, other cities are racing to install separated bike lanes and other bike infrastructure. Not only does that get cyclists off of city streets, making them safer, it also gets people on their bikes instead of behind the wheel — it's a win-win for drivers, too.

    In 2002, Brandon had a plan to create a network of cycle paths through the city. We've barely done any of it; and it's all very low-cost, certainly better than a "road to nowhere" on the north hill.

    Aside from more bike paths, stat, I'd rev up the city's transit network. It, too, is low cost compared to many other things, but it's tragically underused. Time to move from a hub-and-spoke model (which is impossible for casual users to learn) and switch to a grid model (which matches our street layout).

    Finally, I'd tweak the city's planning bylaws to take parking minimums for all new development and make them parking maximums. Current parking lots should also be taxed at a high enough rate that would encourage their development, especially in areas like Pacific Avenue.

    8. Downtown matters

    It's almost a cliché that Brandon's downtown needs to be revitalized, but it's true. Without a strong, dense central core, we're not a city, we're just a suburb.

    Downtown is what makes Brandon distinct from any other cookie-cutter burg, and we need to invest in it. For decades, we've tried to make downtown "successful" by copying what worked in the suburbs — more traffic, more parking, single-storey commericial.

    But that's like using your nail clippers to cut your hair. Successful downtowns focus on people — wide sidewalks, narrow streets, loads of residential above first-floor retail.

    Along with encouraging the above, I would reverse the one-way traffic on Ninth Street, and tear out the wrong-sided angle parking. But I'd go two big steps further in making Rosser and Princess avenues two-way traffic as well.

    9. Revive the riverbank

    After being hammered by two huge floods in 2011 and 2014, it's fair to ask if we need to reassess our level of commitment to the Assiniboine River.

    I think it's clearer than ever that development along the flood plain shouldn't be allowed. That leaves either fallow fields (ugly) or recreational development that's designed to drain quickly and be easy to clean.

    Guess what gets my vote? Time to double-down on our riverbank development. Embrace the flooding by creating things that adapt, and ensure that there's something to do — skating and skiing come to mind — in the winter as well.

    Oh, and why was it so easy to open up Grand Valley Road as soon as the water went down, when the walking paths buried under dikes in 2011 are still buried under dikes?

    We need to get people back using the riverbank parks within days or weeks of the flood receding, not take years.

    To be clear, I am not running for city council, and do not intend to run for city council. So if you're running, please steal my ideas.

    PS. I typed this up on Friday, with no notes. If I can do this off the top of my head, every candidate should be able to do something similar.

    Ideas, please.

    Not issues that you've identified. Not feel-good platitudes about "leadership" or "representation."




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