Canada Day 2020

Happy Canada Day

Warmest Canada Day wishes, at a time we can’t share the holiday together in person. This June 30, 2020 picture was taken of a planter in the back yard.

The Canada Day 2020 holiday weather is perfect! It’s just that the parks will be fairly empty, and the few strollers should be individuals and family groups keeping a respectful distance from one another. Since mid-March, the whole year has felt like living the film Groundhog Day. As one of Andrea’s WhatsApp group friends observed, “In this stay-home time, what difference does it make if Sunday falls on Monday?”

The people who seem to be adjusting best are those who are comfortable in their own skin, who maintain a regular routine, see opportunity in the time to improve themselves, their home, or do things that normally stay on the perpetual back burner.

Mother Nature seemed to conspire to get Canadians to do the right things by providing spring weather that kept people inside despite themselves. Right into May, I’d get some fresh air in the back yard wearing my winter coat, scarf, gloves and hat. When, I wondered, would spring ever start? But it did. Andrea and I have planted, pruned and decorated the back yard garden, but in this bizarre COVID-19 year, its appreciative audience may consist of squirrels, birds, the occasional curious skunk, and our cat, Merlin.

New normal

Adjusting to the COVID-19 year

With the start of a new decade came the rising realization that something was seriously wrong in China with a new virus that seemed to have no cure and spread rapidly. As the spring of 2020 rapidly dissolved into summer weather (at last), we almost forget that the news event of the new decade started with the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and then seemed to spread to cruise boats.

Andrea and I normally attend a round of Chinese functions at the time of the Chinese lunar new year. With Chinese restaurants and Chinese people being either avoided or shunned, and often worse, we resolved to show our support to the Chinese-Canadian community, and attend the functions to which we were invited in the first quarter of the year. And we did, without harm or effect. A few large Chinese social functions scheduled for February were cancelled: at least one of them normally serving upwards of 1,000 people. Back then in mid-winter, one wondered whether our Chinese-Canadian community was being overly cautious. With the perspective of a few months of hindsight, one can see they were being careful, responsible and prudent.

The shut-down begins

Just before the general shut-down, life was pretty busy. The first weekend of March began with a family funeral, at which Andrea and I did our best to minimize our contact and maximize what would, within days, become known as ‘social distancing.’ The following day, the Ontario Liberal Party Leadership Convention began at the International Centre in Mississauga. I picked up one of my Riding Association colleagues on the Friday. We registered, cast what would turn out to be our only ballot, did a minimum of socializing with friends at the event, skipped all the receptions, and went home. We were not being anti-social at the time, but just careful. We went the next morning for the speeches and the vote counting of the first and only ballot. By this time, people were talking about COVID-19, but nobody knew anybody who had it, and the the phenomenon of the asymptomatic ‘super-spreader’ was then unknown. They announced that our Candidate, Steven Del Duca, had won on the first ballot, and my group bade a polite and expedient adieu to an event I would have otherwise enjoyed for a few more hours.

In the weeks that unwound, we are not aware that anybody at either the family funeral or the OLP Leadership Convention tested positive for the virus. They were close to the last large events of their type that happened before the world shut down in the following week.

For me, it happened after Wednesday hockey. As I was getting dressed to play goal, a few of the guys rolled in talking about the ongoing Prospectors and Developers Convention in Toronto, and how a few people had tested positive. I asked if any of them had encountered anyone who was there. No, they said, they’d just heard it from others.

“Good,” I thought to myself, “I don’t need to run out of here and I’ll play this game.”

On the ice in goal, it occurred to me that a hockey rink was a pretty strong environment for any exhalation-borne disease to propagate, and I was glad to be in goal, away from the players’ benches. After the game, one of the guys asked me if I’d be available for a game with his group that Saturday night.

“Well, two things,” I said to him. “Yes, I have nothing on Saturday night, which makes me available, but we’d better talk tomorrow or Friday, because I am not sure if we’ll be playing.”

Sure enough, when we spoke the following day, he told me that the City of Mississauga had called and cancelled all his ice time for the balance of the year. I said I was on one hand disappointed because I was in peak condition for hockey, and on the other hand, I was a bit relieved. The previous day, the stay-home period was mandated across Canada, and the country-wide shutdown began.

The family’s signature cats

Though not from COVID-19, we suffered our losses in the family. Our younger cat, Bebe, had developed a very aggressive form of cancer in early March, and she met her merciful end on March 23rd, with her human Mummy and Daddy at her side. She had always been a healthy little cat, and we were not prepared for her very quick passing. At least Andrea and I could be together and at home during the mourning period that follows the loss of a loved member of the family, whether they talk on two legs or four.

The house was, and remains, emptier without our little Bebe cat on patrol, checking her territory, cuddling with Andrea on and off all day, and talking to us at key points. Particularly when I was elected, people often remembered our two cats who adorned every Christmas card: Obi-Wan (1999 – 2005) and Bebe (2005 – 2020). Now they are both gone, though alive in spirit and memory. Merlin, who adopted me at Pet Valu in Meadowvale in late February of 2016, remained healthy.

The following week, Andrea’s older brother passed away, also suddenly, from heart problems in Guyana. The funeral had to happen quickly and without the family members from Canada and the USA. We participated by video.

The days that re-occur daily

And then life settled into the stay-home pattern: shopping once every eight or ten days; no more in-person visitors; and the days sort of folded into one another such that one of Andrea’s relatives observed on their family WhatsApp chat group, “During this time, what difference does it make if Sunday should fall on Monday?” We started a blog page on Andrea’s family we site to record what was happening from week to week. We tracked what we had for dinner on each day, because the event of dinner seemed to mark the transition from the work day to personal time. We watched old movies on TV, learned how to use Zoom, called our friends and discovered we were all living more or less the same day each day, and took it one day at a time.

And it was cold! Into May, I had not put away my winter jacket, gloves, hat and scarf. Merlin would go outside and wander about, and I would sit in the gazebo to keep him company and get a bit of morning air – cold morning air. My own theory was that Mother Nature was doing her part to help Canadians maintain social distancing by making it uncomfortable and inconvenient to be outside together. In May, when new COVID-19 cases in major Canadian cities began to rise again, it turned out that my theory held water: as soon as it was warm and sunny enough for people to congregate too close together, they did just that, largely without masks or other protection. We just stayed home.

The garden provides a ray of sunshine

From what was indoors and had survived the winter, and from what we had in storage, much of the annual summer garden got started in April and May, when the weather permitted. It took a few careful visits to the Longo’s garden centre near where we live and to our favourite nursery (all suitably masked) to get the balance of the flowers and garden soil to finish the job. This year the garden is a bit more sparse and economical, but it’s there.

To work or study outside in the gazebo in the good weather of 2020 offers the songs of the household robins, the fragrance of our garden flowers, the comfort of a sleeping Merlin with me, and this view when I look up from what I am doing. Nice office environment!

As May drew to a close, and the first wave of summer heat descended, I tried my summertime outdoor office again in the gazebo, where I had studied for my Canadian Securities Course in 2019. I can bring out a portable table, set up the computer, bring out a cordless phone, my cell, and all my books and notes, and I largely set up. The Wi-Fi from the house can be a little spotty in that corner of the garden. This year, the songs of the resident families of Robins are more evident due to the still-unearthly quiet in the neighbourhood. Merlin and I had not been able to get to the neighbourhood park for our walk not so much due to the virus, as we seldom encounter anyone at the park, but because the park was either too cold or too wet to make the 600-metre stroll enjoyable for me or for 17-year-old Merlin, who remains a healthy, active and handsome cat.

Shopping adventures

Andrea didn’t want to run the risk of grocery shopping, so we found a great substitute. Longo’s has high-speed Wi-Fi for its shoppers, so after I have run down the list, I go over to the fresh meat and fish counters, plug my Bluetooth headset in, use the video function of WhatsApp, and let her virtually shop with me for a few minutes. It has worked out perfectly.

Now really: if we had encountered anyone dressed like me, and now just about all the grocery shoppers, before the corona virus period, wouldn’t this look like somebody who wasn’t in the store just to pick up groceries?

At the stores, we never yielded to the compulsion to hoard at any stage. Sure enough, paper products were back in abundance, and soon on sale. The same for such items as chicken and dried pasta. Our local Longo’s became a progressively weirder place to visit, as the shoppers increasingly were masked (as was I after the first two trips). On Twitter, I observed that if I had showed up at the grocery store pre-COVID-19 attired in the mask I now wore, I would likely have encountered a skeptical police officer by the time I got down the second aisle. Now, I am just another masked face pushing a shopping cart.

Flour and yeast were products that we had purchased a few weeks before the run on the stores began, and we were fine for our yeast supply through the spring. Flour supplies were sporadic for a while as the whole world seemed to start baking. Yeast vanished for nearly three months. In the end, Longo’s offered a 20 kg bag of unbleached flour for $18.79, and one such purchase solved our flour supply for the indefinite future. It’s about equal to eight of the normal bags we buy. A friend of mine found yeast at their summer place near Niagara, and the next day (as it always happens), we saw yeast also at Longo’s: in 450 gram packages, again nearly eight times what was in a single bottle we generally bought. Now we are good to bake anything we want for most of the rest of the year.

And so life goes on. We continue to be careful and to stay apart from the family, friends and other people we’d normally have over for dinner and visit. That part hasn’t changed from the year of the Spanish Flu a century ago. At that time, some 500 million people were infected, and that corona virus killed more people than the recently-completed Great War of 1914 to 1918.

Praise at 15

Happy anniversary, Praise Cathedral

One of my favourite annual events was the first Sunday of May, simultaneously the anniversary of both the Hindu Heritage Centre in Streetsville, and Praise Cathedral Worship Centre in Meadowvale. Speaking among the Praise congregation is always fun! Lead Pastor and Bishop, Lennox Walker is a superb speaker, so it means setting aside the traditional slightly-understated address for a few minutes of pure rhetorical fun with a group of people whose company I have always enjoyed.

This year of 2020, with COVID-19 having closed the churches – all of them – my anniversary greetings were recorded in late April in our back yard gazebo. And by the way, it was cold that day!

So Happy 15th Anniversary Praise Cathedral. You are a credit to the community and a foundation to our thriving black and Caribbean neighbours and culture. I am proud to have helped the church get its services onto the web from day one of the stray-home period with its web site. Andrea and I look forward to being with our good friends in person, and safely, once again at Praise Cathedral, just near the Meadowvale GO station.

Flu Shot Time

Avoiding weeks of misery = flu shot

Bob getting his 2019 flu shot

Another autumn, another annual flu shot. Not once in the 16 years I have taken the annual flu shot have I got the flu. Get your free flu shot now.

One the most frequently-read articles on my old MPP web site was always my annual post on getting the flu shot. Click or touch here to read it. I had never had the flu shot prior to being first elected in 2003. Over the years, I saw what a difference getting the flu shot makes. I get my own flu shot each autumn as soon as it is available. This year, the pharmacist at Rexall at Thomas Street and Winston Churchill administered my flu shot.

The annual winter surge in hospital admissions is almost completely driven by influenza cases. The peak time for the flu to lay waste to your health is from December to March. You can reduce your risk to almost zero with a free flu shot.

The flu shot works! But…

  • You need to be healthy when you get your flu shot. As early in autumn as you can, and while you are healthy, get the flu shot;
  • The flu shot requires some time, in most people a week or two, before your immune system benefits from it. Get your flu shot early;
  • You need the flu shot each and every year. Getting the flu shot sporadically through a decade isn’t the powerful protection that an annual flu shot offers;
  • Make sure each and every person in your household, especially children and seniors, get the flu shot.

Don’t put off the flu shot. Go into nearly any pharmacy, and ask for your flu shot. It is free. All you need is your OHIP card.

Required ID

The ‘foundation’ ID documents everyone needs

As an MPP, I discovered to my shock and horror how many adults, especially those who are older, and those struggling with poverty, simply lacked the identification to show they were who they are, and lived where they did. It cost them money. It cost them the opportunity to vote. It lessened them as people. And it is easy to fix.

Here are the ID documents every person needs to have:

  1. Your Ontario Driver’s License or Ontario Photo ID;
  2. A birth certificate from the province or country where you were born;
  3. An up-to-date Ontario Health Card;
  4. A Canadian Passport;
  5. A Presto Card for transit;
  6. A bank card allowing you access to your account at a teller machine;
  7. If you were born abroad:
    1. Your Canadian landing papers;
    2. Your permanent residency card.

Older adults, especially retirees, are at severe risk of not having their set of ID documents up-to-date. Family members ought to ensure they check whether their parents and grandparents have their foundation identification documents, know where they are, and understand how and when to use them.

Ontario ID

Every adult needs either an Ontario Driver’s License or an Ontario Photo ID card. You cannot have both. Think of the Photo Card as the Ontario ‘non-drivers’ drivers’ license. You need this piece of ID to vote, to board an aircraft for a domestic flight, to get a library card, or to prove who you are at your bank. You should always carry this card.

Your birth certificate

This is your first essential piece of identification. Many older Canadians have only a certificate of baptism. That document is no longer valid for proving you are who you say you are. You cannot apply for a passport without a government-issued birth certificate. You seldom need to have your birth certificate with you, but you should carefully store this document (with your passport) in a safe place.

Your Ontario Health Card

To receive coverage from the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, you need an up-to-date plastic health card, with your picture on it, issued by ServiceOntario. See this page on my web site for more information on how to get an OHIP photo card. The old red-and-white card should no longer be used, and should be upgraded immediately at a ServiceOntario location. You should always carry this card.

Canadian passport

There is no reason not to have a passport. You cannot leave Canada without one. Though this is perhaps the only ‘optional’ piece of ID in the list, because you don’t have to leave Canada, it is a document every Canadian ought to have in the 21st century.

A Presto Card

If you live in the Greater Toronto Area or in the Ottawa area, public transit is moving to adopt the Presto Card. Once you have the Presto Card, here are your benefits:

  • You never need to worry if you have exact change to ride public transit;
  • After you get it, and pay the one-time activation fee, the Presto Card doesn’t cost anything on an annual basis, to carry no matter how many or few times you use it;
  • You only pay for the transit services you use, and you always get the best transit fare possible.

Additionally, families can empower their parents and grandparents by linking their own credit or debit card to their parents’ or grandparents’ Presto Card, enabling them to do what you want them to do: get out more. Gift suggestion: buy your folks, or your grandparents, a Presto Card. As a Presto Card holder, you should always carry this card.

A Canadian bank card

All adults need an account with a Canadian bank or credit union. You need a credit history. You need to be able to have social security, government income tax rebates, and salary cheques automatically deposited. You need an account to be able to save money. Don’t be part of the under-the-table, cash society. Have a bank account, and learn to responsibly use your bank card, and/or credit card. You should always carry this card.

Your Canadian landing papers and PR card

If you were born outside Canada, you (or your parents) received your Canadian landing papers when you first came to Canada. For those born outside Canada, this document is as important as your birth certificate. Keep it in the safe place you keep your passport and your birth certificate. Your Permanent Residency Card (PR Card) proves you are legally entitled to reside in Canada. If you or your parents or grandparents were born outside Canada, and haven’t got your landing papers and PR Card now, make the effort, and locate those very valuable documents. If you are not yet a Canadian citizen, travel outside Canada, and don’t have your PR Card, you won’t be allowed back in.

How do you and your family rate?

Take an evening, and see if you have all the above identification cards. How about your children and grandchildren? More importantly, how about your parents and grandparents, or those you care about? Be prepared to be horrified at what you find out when you begin to ask those around you.

Energy Corridor Op-Ed

The trans Canada energy corridor we need to build

On Wednesday July 24, the Toronto Star published an opinion piece I wrote about an issue on which the western Canadian provinces and Ontario should be on the same page: getting energy to move east-west just as people and freight do. The Star lightly edited the piece. This is the full version.

Survey data shows half of all Canadians support the Trans Mountain pipeline. Canadians instinctively grasp the need and the wisdom of linking what powers our economy, as well as what it produces.

The first corridor across Canada was the Canadian Pacific Railway, to move people. Over the decades, the railway was augmented by roads. Long-haul people movement has mostly gravitated to the air; short-distance travel to the roads. Railways today mostly move freight and natural resources east-west, linking producers and consumers.

After moving people, freight, agricultural products, wood and minerals, comes energy: overwhelmingly oil, gas and electricity. These strategic Canadian resources originate far from where they are consumed and lack a Canadian east-west corridor.

It makes little sense to burn oil (in locomotives) to move oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan producers, to western shipping ports and eastern refineries, where it is converted to usable products. The least-risky, and lowest-cost way to move the oil and gas Canadians will produce, consume, and need for generations is through a dedicated pipeline. Canada needs that ‘energy railway’ to ship Canadian oil and gas to Pacific markets and expand existing pipeline capacity to central Canada markets.

Long-term, sustainable economic development means not the reduction of carbon emissions to zero, but to carbon emissions below the ability of the surrounding environment to rapidly absorb them.

Urban transit’s steady shift from oil to other fuels, such as electricity, natural gas, and hydrogen won’t displace oil, nor should it. Oil will power inter-regional and interprovincial transit and shipping, aircraft, heavy machinery, commercial, industrial and construction equipment. Oil will still be used for plastics, lubricants and other applications. Natural gas will heat existing homes for generations.

To replace oil, urban transportation and other applications will shift to electricity. Nearly 85 percent of Ontario’s electricity comes from Candu nuclear reactors and hydroelectric dams, mostly generated far from where it is consumed. Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia will shift their electricity generation fuel from coal to renewables, and possibly nuclear. The pan-Canadian challenge lies in sharing power generation capacity for its efficient use, and not ‘stranding’ electricity because it can’t be transmitted to where it is needed.

Few Canadians realize there is no high-capacity electricity corridor to transmit electricity between western and eastern Canada through Canadian territory. A utility executive once summed up the Manitoba-to-Ontario electricity transmission capacity issue to me as “trying to power your house by sending electricity through a piano wire.” Manitoba has an electricity capacity surplus. Getting Manitoba power to southern Ontario, mostly for summer peak needs, means re-routing electricity south of the Great Lakes, through the USA, before connecting back into the Ontario power grid.

We need to send oil and gas back and forth between eastern and western Canada and transmit electricity in both directions.

Internal politics was a factor in building the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 19th century. Post-Confederation in the 1860s and 1870s, the Government of Canada saw a victorious Union army that was the equal of any European army of its day move west across the Mississippi River to knit together the east and west coasts of the United States across the prairies. What, they wondered in Ottawa, was to stop the U.S. Army from turning north and taking what is now western Canada?

America was exhausted, physically and financially, by the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. A third war with Britain within a century wasn’t a risk that the U.S. Congress of that day would entertain or could afford. But fear of that potential invasion was one of the forces that spurred Canada to draw people to the west and stitch the new country together with an iron road.

Canada’s indigenous nations need a 21st century energy corridor to broaden their economic engagement with Canada and the provinces. Public ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline means Canadian federal and provincial governments can do with oil, gas and electricity what Canadians did with people, freight, agricultural products and natural resources. A trans-Canada energy corridor is a national and not a regional priority, as strategic to Canada’s long-term well-being in the 21st century as a transcontinental railway was in the 19th.

Huawei Issue

Rule-of-law first; money afterward

The Globe and Mail, on the Canada Day long weekend, published an extensive interview with China-based Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei, whose daughter, Meng Wanzhou has been detained in Canada pending the outcome of charges against her and Huawei. In the article, Mr. Ren made an astonishing statement: that Canada should ignore the rule-of-law, release his daughter without allowing the courts to resolve the charges against her and Huawei, and “join us and prosper.” I sent the following reaction as a letter to the editor at the Globe and Mail.

Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei, whose daughter, Meng Wanzhou, is accused of a breach of the law in Canada and the USA invites Canadians to abandon the rule of law, and “join us and prosper.” This tacit admission of the substance of the allegations against Huawei is as astonishing as his tone-deaf entreaty to Canada. Join Huawei in what, exactly? The creation of a surveillance state? The ability to take and use others’ intellectual property or personal information? The precedence of rule-by-dictator or rule-by-political-party over rule-of-law? Absolutely not! For someone who claims to have spent so much time in Canada, Ren Zhengfei just doesn’t get a fundamental fact of western-style democracy. Let’s try a very simple explanation.

You either believe in the rule of law, or you don’t. If you do, you either abide by the rule of law or you don’t. If you don’t believe in the rule of law, or don’t abide by it, then you are just another regressive state where entrenched politicians rule by whim or fiat, people have few rights and freedoms, and judges do as they are told by a dictator. Canada believes in the rule of law, and abides by the principle. That is why Mr. Ren’s daughter cannot leave Canada unless and until the allegations against her are dealt with in courts that are independent of politics in Canada and the USA. And there is nothing that the governments of Canada and the United States can do – or should do – about that.

Just as travellers can live with or without Boeing’s 737 jet, communications users and providers can manage with or without Huawei’s 5G routers and switches. If Mr. Ren really understood North America, he would approach his masters in China, ask them to change their ways, and join us in the western world with an independent and separate government, media, church and judiciary in China. On that basis, China and the western democracies really and truly could prosper together. Freedom and the rule-of-law come first; money afterward.

Public Appointments

What happened to the Public Appointments Secretariat?

As a newly-elected Member of Provincial Parliament in 2003, our government set about fixing the Harris-Eves PC government situation of public appointment positions, volunteer or paid, having no job descriptions, no hiring criteria or evaluation standards, no consistent remuneration scheme, and no coherent position postings. That changed with the Public Appointments Secretariat, which addressed and fixed all these needs, and operated successfully from then onward.

No MPP could (or wanted to) affect who received a public appointment. All those who contacted MPPs were referred to the Public Appointments Secretariat. In 15 years of public service, I influenced zero public appointments – exactly as it should be. There were also no public appointments scandals or outrages – exactly as it should be.

The fair and cost-effective solution to nepotism and cronyism in public appointments was in place and operating smoothly when Ford’s wrecking ball Conservative government took office. A reasonable question to ask of this stumbling PC Premier is what happened to the Public Appointments Secretariat?

The Toronto Star carried this piece as a Letter to the Editor on June 27, 2019. Click here to see the letter as published in the Star.

 

Politics farm system

Cautionary lesson for ‘star’ candidates

On May 29, 2019, Toronto Star national columnist Chantal Hébert wrote a column speculating on the scenario of outgoing Bank of England (and former Bank of Canada) Governor Mark Carney returning to Canada, running as a federal Liberal candidate in the fall 2019 federal election, and immediately becoming Liberal Party leader, and possibly Prime Minister, succeeding Justin Trudeau. Honestly, journalists really ought to get out of their ivory campaign buses, talk with real people, and campaign with real candidates more. What more often happens when such ‘star’ candidates get lured into an election with the promise of instant cabinet posts is the experience of two of Justin Trudeau’s first-time MPs who were thrust into cabinet before they even knew how the institution of Parliament and the mechanics of government worked. The Toronto Star published my letter as its lead letter on May 30. It is reproduced below.

Columnist Chantal Hébert speculates about former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney running for Parliament as a Liberal candidate, and then being immediately ready to assume the party leadership. Really? Former first-term Liberal MPs Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott will almost certainly lose this year as Independent federal election candidates and unnecessarily end otherwise promising parliamentary careers. They illustrate the media’s fascination with so-called star candidates, who are too often projected into the cabinet skies unprepared, to be shot out of that sky like clay pigeons.

Does your gender, age, race, religion or region really matter when assembling a cabinet? Those attributes, taken alone, are roughly equal to a coat of exterior paint. Perhaps leaders should focus on what actually makes a difference in a minister: managerial talent, legislative experience and communications ability.

Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, as first-term MPs, should have spent their first term learning the rhythms and limits of Parliament, working with stakeholders and Opposition members, and seeing how laws really come together with committee work before being thrust into cabinet roles for which neither was properly prepared. Justin Trudeau’s government benches in Ottawa hold experienced, cabinet-ready talent doing parliamentary secretary, committee and House duty. It takes time for latent government talent to develop and mature.

Carney has never held elected office. Whether he might fare well thrust into a senior political role remains speculative. If he does decide to enter federal politics, one hopes he will get the same opportunity to learn the craft of politics as a promising and talented rookie gets in a pro sports farm system before moving up to the big team.

Links:

 

Goodbye BBM

Moving to another instant message app

In the beginning, there was a Windows application (“app”) called ICQ. It meant “I seek you.” It was, in its day, a novel concept, allowing the user real-time instant message (IM) dialogue with a circle of other users of the app. You could send short text messages back and forth, without cluttering up your e-mail Inbox.

With governments in Canada then supporting the Canadian-developed Blackberry, out of Waterloo came the next generation of IM app, Blackberry Messenger, or BBM. It was a better IM app than ICQ, and more importantly, encrypted at both ends, and sent device-to-device. This meant that servers and routers didn’t retain your message. What appealed to users was that you could keep an exchange between them secure. Moreover, when users deleted the exchange, it went away permanently, just like shredding a piece of paper.

As an MPP, we used BBM extensively. To send short messages back and forth between the Legislature and the Constituency Office, or when, for example, my staff would ‘message’ me to let me know they had arrived for our meeting to review documents. As Chief Government Whip, BBM helped me track down our Members and ensure they were doing their House or Committee duty.

BBM made itself very, very handy in business and government. When Wi-Fi bandwidth grew sufficiently, you could have a user-to-user BBM voice chat over Wi-Fi. Like a message, a voice (or later, video) chat was encrypted at both ends, and even better, was digital in voice sound and video quality. I used it on business trips to keep in touch at home, and with the office. Our long distance charges went to zero. BBM didn’t require giving out your cell phone number. It used a PIN. This meant that the app could be carried, or ‘ported’ from one device to another when you upgraded your smart phone.

Other such competing IM apps appeared, notably Facebook’s WhatsApp, and Skype, later purchased by Microsoft. We’ll deal with them in a moment.

When the nature of Research in Motion’s business changed, versions of the BBM app were written for major hardware platforms (Android and Apple’s iOS). Once Blackberry hardware itself vanished, BBM was then a niche Apple and Android app. Once outsourced in this fashion, a lot of ‘code bloat’ appeared in BBM, which filled up with such eye candy as stickers and ads quickly. It wasn’t as tightly-focused as its users had remembered and loved it for.

BBM’s global user base of about 55 million has been in decline for a few years. In April, 2019, BBM announced that the app itself would cease working after May 31, 2019. Farewell BBM.

So what of the alternatives? With the impending end of the free version of BBM, users have four principal alternatives: two popular apps (WhatsApp and Skype), and two niche-market apps (Signal and BBMe). As well, there are other niche IM products that we’ll briefly examine.

WhatsApp and Skype

If you are losing your BBM circle of friends, you are nearly certain to find them all in one or both of WhatsApp and Skype. For non-sensitive personal communications, you’re likely to use one or both of these.

  • WhatsApp is an IM and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) app linked to a user’s cell phone number. WhatsApp has more than 200 million users worldwide. If someone is in your WhatsApp network, they are going to know your cell number. If you view your cell phone as proprietary, and as a business tool primarily to enable you to make outbound calls, that could be a problem, or at least an annoyance. Being device-to-device, WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted. Unlike BBM, you cannot ‘redact,’ or permanently remove, messages on both ends of the chat. Facebook has announced that WhatsApp will shortly be blended into a new app that will combine WhatsApp with Facebook Messenger and Instagram. That makes commenting on features and security of a product that will shortly exist in a completely different, and undefined form difficult. The app could lose its focus, as the expiring BBM did. The development process could also accidentally expose personal data to the outside, as Facebook has admitted happened numerous times in recent years. Teething problems are inevitable when such a major software release is unrolled;
  • Skype is another VOIP and IM app that does just about all of what the old BBM did. Skype is used by more than 300 million users worldwide, and is now a mature product. It allows the user end-to-end encrypted communication (with a warning proviso) between devices. It also allows a call to connect to a standard telephone, with the part connecting to the standard phone sent in the clear. Skype users have a Skype User ID, which could be your Microsoft user ID and password if you have other Microsoft products. Skype conversations are also portable across devices. If you start a Skype message thread on the bus to work, you can log into your laptop, and pick up where you left off, even going into voice and/or audio if you wish. Here is the warning: foreign and domestic governments, and police agencies, have the capability to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, and to have access to Skype users’ geographic locations. A simple request for information is usually sufficient, with no court approval needed. This ability was deliberately added for law enforcement agencies by Microsoft when they purchased Skype in 2011. Is it secure? Sort of. You are likely safe from rogue hackers. But don’t use it for important data or communications if, for example, you are doing business in another country where Internet traffic is routinely monitored by government agencies.

Signal and BBMe

When dependable security between users is an issue, you’ll need to leave the consumer marketplace. Two products built specifically for security offer users all the security they appear likely to ever need. If you are part of a government or a large corporation, and want to equip your people with a proven-secure IM app, you’ll want to test out and choose one of the following two:

  • Signal is everything good and secure that BBM started out being, and adds open-source to that. It is free, not cluttered with ads or other annoying eye-candy, encrypted end-to-end, it doesn’t track you, and offers text, voice , video, document, and picture communications. Signal has iOS, Android, Linux and Windows 10 versions. It is secure and fast. Signal is often used by journalists and others who need the security that Signal offers. So why would you hesitate before gravitating to Signal? Probably because you might be the only one in your circle that uses Signal. Otherwise, it is everything you will likely ever need;
  • The Blackberry Messenger Enterprise edition (BBMe) is similar in features to Signal, and most other IM apps. BBMe can be downloaded from the iOS and Android app stores. BBMe also has Windows desktop and Mac versions as well. BBMe is the very best of classic BBM, without the annoying parts and code bloat. It is free for the first six months, and $2.50 per six month period thereafter. If your organization and/or the people with whom you need to exchange sensitive information use BBMe, this is the IM app for you.

Other IM apps

  • SMS (aka Text Messaging) The lowest common denominator for sending text messages. We all have this on our phones. Depending on your plan, you can be charged for every text message; have a set number of text messages per billing period; or have unlimited text messages. Outside your cell provider’s service area, SMS messages likely cost you money to send, even if you are on a hotel or airport free or trusted Wi-Fi point. SMS messages are not encrypted or protected in any way. SMS messages travel in the clear through different networks and routers, can be read or recorded at any point along the way, and are the most vulnerable means of sending a message between two points. Other than your provider’s supported emoticons, that’s the extent of the functionality. In short, SMS is better than nothing, but not by much;
  • WeChat (Chinese for ‘micro-message’) is an IM app written by Tencent in mainland China. As of 2019, it reportedly has one billion users. If your circle of friends includes a lot of folks from Asia, you may want (or need) to connect with them through WeChat. The app has been subsidized by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its creation in 2011. It is widely reported that PRC officials censor and monitor users. It’s been described as the ‘app for everything,’ as it is integrated tightly into e-commerce, allowing users to shop extensively, and make payments, through WeChat, a capability that differentiates it from western IM apps;
  • Viber was originally developed in 2010 by Israel-based Viber Media, which was bought by Japan-based Rakuten in 2014. Since 2017 its corporate name has been Rakuten Viber. It is currently based in Luxembourg. Viber is available as freeware for Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux platforms. Users are registered and identified through their mobile device number. Viber service is accessible on desktop platforms without mobile network connectivity. In addition to instant messaging, Viber allows users to exchange other media such as images. Viber has more than a billion registered users on its network as of 2019. Why would you install it? Because a critical mass of the people you wish to deal with use it.

Wikipedia lists dozens of other instant message apps, along with a side-by-side comparison of their features. As we bid adieu to the consumer version of BBM, we at least have a number of proven choices to move to in managing and organizing the short messages that would otherwise clog up e-mail systems.

 

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Bob Delaney

This is the personal web site for Bob Delaney, former Member of Provincial Parliament for Mississauga-Streetsville (2003 to 2018).

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