Category Archives: Rita Smith’s Blogs

RIP, Accessible Taxis and equitable service

Toronto didn’t pay for this taxi; Co-op Cabs didn’t pay for this taxi. THE OWNER/DRIVER paid for this taxi, and all the costs associated with it. They can’t afford to do it anymore.

 

Disabled passengers left feeling like ‘pawns’ in B.C. taxi vs. ride-hailing war

This article ran originally ran in the Toronto Sun July, 2017

Toronto still stings from the infamous 2010 “à la Cart” experiment, in which bureaucrats planned to bring 15 healthy ethnic food options to Nathan Phillips Square.

Staff with no restaurant experience brainstormed to develop a standardized cart and a list of foods which could be sold. Vendors were required to pay for permits, purchase $30,000 carts and have menu changes approved by Public Health. Several vendors were financially ruined and at least one declared bankruptcy.

Now, Toronto is financially devastating a group of people which is 45 times larger and has invested over $40,000,000 serving a much more important market: vulnerable customers who need Accessible taxis.

As Council’s need to meddle in business knows no bounds, it decreed in 2014 that henceforth, 100 per cent of new taxis would need to be accessible. This decision was not based on any research or needs analysis; it was purely a virtue-signalling exercise. The industry had already met the goal of making six per cent of cabs accessible, despite the fact that Accessible calls account for less than 1 per cent of requests received.

In 2014, Council voted to release 500 additional Toronto Taxi Licenses (TTL) plates. Purchasers were aware that they could ONLY put these plates on Accessible vans, which are customized with wheelchair ramps, cost almost double the price of a sedan taxi and guzzle a lot more gas.

Operators stepped up in good faith to purchase the licenses and the vans. People who need Accessible taxis often need lots of help in and out of buildings, cars, and appointments. This segment of the market is not as simple or lucrative as business or bar calls, but enthusiastic entrepreneurs, largely immigrants, stepped up to deliver services Toronto does not want to pay for itself.

Amazingly, 551 men were OK with this proposition. We should thank them.

Instead, in 2016, Toronto pulled the rug out from underneath them when it adopted Chapter 546, the new Vehicle for Hire by-law. Two years after it insisted upon 100 per cent Accessible taxis, Toronto decided it didn’t need ANY REQUIREMENT AT ALL for Accessible taxis. It cancelled the TTL program, and instead brought in a two-tiered system allowing Uber use its own fare structure without offering Accessible service.

Overnight, all the men who bought TTLs were stranded, competing with 30,000 additional vehicles which were not required to buy $65,000 vans.

They have been devastated, financially and emotionally.

Latif Gowher, who heads up a group of TTL owners asking the City to convert their TTLs to Standard plates, calculates that under the new Chapter 546 market reality, there is no way an owner can pay off the van in the seven years it is allowed to be on the road.

“We signed up when there was one law for taxis. Now there are two laws, and Uber is not required to comply,” he notes. “This is not what we signed up for.”

Several of those who purchased the plates have returned them to the City, or sold their vans and plates at a loss.

This is a serious problem for Accessible taxi owners, but even more so for the clientele that need them.

Instead of making continued progress toward meeting the 10-minute equitable service goal set by Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, Toronto is likely to move in the opposite direction as taxi operators have realized bureaucrats and politicians are nonchalantly using them as a political football.

Risky business, indeed.

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Christie Blatchford – the best of the best. Gone too soon.

As a writer, I used to think if I could even begin to approach Christie Blatchford’s immense, immeasurable talent I would be happy.

In 1996, I took a job as Press Secretary for Dave Johnson, MPP. He had just been appointed Government House Leader, a responsibility he added to his portfolio as he was also the Chair of Management Board (now Treasury Board).

Dave’s first week as House Leader was incredibly chaotic and tumultuous, as the elected Speaker of the House, Al McLean, was accused of sexual harassment by one of his female staff.

The outrage and overwhelming media attention this story attracted, just as the House was returning under the already-hugely controversial Mike Harris government, can hardly be understated. It was a circus. Calls for the Speaker’s resignation were deafening.

This was the second or third day of my new job, my first job inside of government, and I was seriously questioning whether I made the correct decision in shuttering my business to take this position.

Staff in the House Leader’s Office were frantically scrambling to find a precedent for the situation somewhere, anywhere, in any Commonwealth democracy on the planet: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa….anywhere. This exact situation had never occurred, and Ontario was indeed “setting precedent” in any decision made.

The day Parliament returned, Dave Johnson’s first official day as House Leader, I was standing in the hallway outside the House doors. It was jam packed with media, cameras, lights, producers, reporters, photographers. Standing off to the side at the edge of the scrum, notepad and pen in hand, was Christie Blatchford. A little star-struck, I approached and extended my hand.

“Christie,” I said, “I am one of your biggest fans. I am so honoured to meet you. Are you following this story?”

“I broke this story,” Christie sighed sadly. “The female staffer who accused McLean of harassment called me first. I wrote the initial article.”

She spoke without the slightest trace of triumph or ego. The fact that she had “broken” one of the biggest stories yet about a member of the reviled Harris government seemed not to matter one whit; the fact that the Speaker did in fact resign his position in disgrace brought her no joy.

She did not fight her way to the front of the scrum, elbow aside less senior reporters. If she had, out of respect for the fact that it was “her” story, her media colleagues would have waited for her to ask the first question before they began shouting theirs. In fact, she didn’t plunge into the scrum at all. She continued to stand unobtrusively off to the side, until Dave finished giving his comments and answering questions for the assembled press gallery.

Then, when he was done and the cameras were lowered and the lights went off, he stepped over to where Christie was standing. They spoke for a few minutes in a calm and civilized manner, the quietest moment I recall seeing all day. As a former East York mayor, councillor, and Metro councillor before he was elected to Ontario’s Parliament, Dave Johnson would have held Christie Blatchford in the highest esteem. They were birds of a feather actually, both dedicated, professional, respectful, committed to service.

It’s impossible to summarize Christie Blatchford’s significance in the world of journalism, justice, politics, and Canadian life.

These words stand out for me:

“She called me first.”

Trustworthy, brilliant, always there when it mattered – Canada turned to Christie first. I wonder who we will turn to now?

 

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Climate change terror is child abuse

Why study, work hard, avoid drugs or even get out of bed if the world is ending? The good news is, it’s not ending.

Our atmosphere is being poisoned.

This poison is seeping into our brains. It is killing us.

The poison is not carbon dioxide: it is Fear.

It is irresponsible to pretend that carbon dioxide is a poison which is killing us; shoving this fearful idea down the throats of trusting children who are a captive audience is a heinous form of child abuse.

I am honoured to teach a class on business and entrepreneurship in the Jane-Finch community. Every week, I get to spend time with 14 bright, hard-working high school students who dedicate time after school learning how to start a business, from businesspeople.

Early in the program, the class was tasked with inventing a product to manufacture and sell. One of the most engaged and serious girls in the class suggested:

“We should invent a process to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

“That already exists,” I pointed out tactfully. “The process is ‘photosynthesis.’ Plants do that: they take carbon dioxide out of the air and produce oxygen and sugar.”

The class stared at me blankly. “Is anyone taking Biology?” No hands went up. “Chemistry?” I asked hopefully. Nothing.

“Are no sciences required? What is one class that everyone takes?” I asked.

“English!” the class chorused.

OK…so everyone can read terrifying media articles about climate change, but no one realizes carbon dioxide is not toxic. Good to know.

This conversation took a frightening turn as we discussed creating a board game: one boy suggested it should have a post-apocalyptic survival theme. Players would compete for resources in a world destroyed by climate change.

“Miss, could one of the options be ‘suicide’?” a student asked.

“Yeah!” another chimed in enthusiastically. “And if you knew you were going to die, you could use your next three turns taking out as many of your enemies as possible before you go! We could call it, ‘Escape from Toronto.’”

“Whoa!” I jumped in. “Suicide is not an option, the world is not ending, and I don’t know where you would escape to that is better than Canada – most of the world wants to come here. How about we create the rules so that you can leave all the resources you collected to your allies if you die, to give them a better chance to survive?”

The students liked this idea, and turned to discussing what the resources should be: food, shelter, medical care, magical superpowers. The basics.

This conversation haunts me. Why are we instilling young people with fear when we should be imbuing them with confidence?

These kids need to wake up every day thinking, “Anything is possible!” not “We are all doomed.”

Why work hard, create a plan, invest in skills, or develop relationships when you don’t expect to be here 12 years from now?

What kind of adult would poison the minds of young people with the idea that they should live in fear? It is criminal. It is beyond abuse – it is a murderous attack on their hopes of achievement before their dreams can even be conceived.

The only thing we have to fear, speechwriter Napoleon Hill famously wrote, is Fear itself. Yet, we are allowing fear merchants unfettered access to the minds of our kids.

Enough is enough. This has to stop. Parents, teachers, businesspeople, journalists, artists, and athletes need to tell young people: “You have a future, and it can be great! Study hard. Work hard. Think positively. Believe.”

Fear not.

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Thoughts and Words, Life and Death

 

It appears that politicians and police brass in Toronto can block out any fact they don’t like out of their minds, indefinitely. Cab drivers, on the other hand live in the real world where the rubber meets the road. Toronto should have listened to them when they took the time to show up and protest.

 

This week, we are trying to absorb the news that a high school student in Hamilton was stabbed to death in front of his mother, by two students who clearly believed they could get away murder.

Where would young people get the idea they can get away with murder, on school grounds, in Canada?

From us. They got the idea from us adults; from our poisonously weak thinking, our recklessly irresponsible words, and our terminally ineffectual actions.

If it’s true that “the thought is ancestor to the deed” (and I believe it is), we need to drop everything and adjust our thinking immediately.

Our thoughts and words are a matter of life and death. Now, more than ever.


On January 20th, 2016, I delivered a deputation at the monthly meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board.

At the time, I was merely  personally and professionally outraged that politicians and bureaucrats  were not only abdicating their responsibility to regulate ground transportation to ensure the safety of riders, they were rolling out the red carpet for law-breakers.

Even I would not have predicted the explosion in gun crime and violence we have seen since then.

Good afternoon.

My name is Rita Smith, and I am the executive director of the Toronto Taxi Alliance. However, I am not speaking on behalf of the TTA; I am speaking as a communications professional with 30 years’ experience at all levels of government and business.

You may recall that about 12 years ago, Toronto was being subject to an annual event at the end of the CNE.

Young people who were often drunk or high would run through the Ex grabbing stuffed animals, knocking over signs and generally creating mayhem that then spilled outside the Ex.

I recall an interview with the police chief at the time, and the firm message he delivered when he committed to preventing another episode of chaos:

“The criminal element is not in control of this city. The police are in control of this city, and we will stop this.”

And they did.

Fast forward to 2016, and citizens of Toronto are hearing a completely different message, one that does not inspire confidence.

Instead of hearing that police have the power and the intention to enforce the law, both the Mayor and the Chief of Police have told media “We cannot enforce the law against Uber.”

This is an incredible occurrence, unlike anything I have ever seen in my lifetime.

I have lost track of the number of times people  ask me, “How can the Mayor say he can’t enforce the law?” or “How can the Chief of Police say he is powerless to enforce the law?”

How indeed?

From a communications point of view, this message is devastating.

Because EVERYBODY hears you say it: not just taxi drivers and Uber drivers.

Drug dealers heard it. Thieves heard it. Gang members heard it…shooters heard it.

No doubt, they rejoiced in hearing it!

Parents and kids heard it too. It did not inspire confidence.

Toronto has just experienced several bad months in terms of violence, shootings and murders.

Chief Saunders has referred to this as a “spike,” some kind of anomaly.

I suggest you need to look to your language, and stop making public declarations of the fact that you are incapable of enforcing the law.

Find a different reason for why you are choosing not to enforce the law against Uber.

But for Toronto’s sake, please stop using this one.

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Congratulations to Ontario’s FIRST Minister of Mental Health and Addictions!

Private citizen and spokesperson for no one but herself Rita Smith commends the province of Ontario on announcing the first-ever Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in its June 20th cabinet shuffle. 

“I hope that in the hours and days ahead we will see the entire community of mental health professionals and organizations step up to congratulate the province and the new minister on this important step forward in Ontario’s history,” says Smith, who was part of the launch of the Mental Health Commission of Canada under then-Health Minister Tony Clement in 2008. 

“This announcement by Premier Doug Ford is welcomed and appreciated certainly by individuals caring for family members and loved ones suffering mental illness and/or addiction issues,” says Smith, who has a considerable amount of non-professional experience in supporting folks who have been thrust unexpectedly into the chaotic maelstrom of attempting to find care for loved ones who urgently need it. 

“While we are thanking and congratulating those who deserve it, I would also like to commend the Ontario Provincial Police for providing Mental Health First Aid training and De-escalation Training as part of its Mental Health Strategy. 

“Every Canadian can take Mental Health First Aid training through the MHCC and local partners, and everybody should,” Smith goes on to nag. “The current mental health crisis is not something we can pay police and healthcare workers to make go away, or to deal with on our behalf while we do other things.  It is incumbent upon every one of us to be as informed about mental health first aid as we are about physical first aid.”

Smith offer special congratulations to Ontario’s first Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo who, she says, “is the most perfect person on the planet to serve as Ontario’s champion for mental health supports.” 

“I am pretty sure I can speak for anyone who ever ran late in a meeting with Michael Tibollo while he went off on a mental health tangent: this Ministry could not be in better hands. God help the staff that stand in his way or tell him ‘no,’ but it will all be for the greater good, I am sure.” 

And while she has your attention, Smith wants to re-iterate what she has learned in all the years of hoping to help loved ones struggling with mental illness. 

“As important as it is to get a professional diagnosis – and it is crucial to have a professional in your ‘circle of care’ – following these five basic life rules will help you cope, recover and get back on track no matter what your diagnosis is: 

  1. Eat healthy food; 
  2. Get 20 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, in the sunshine if you can; 
  3. Get a good night’s sleep – work on your sleep routine
  4. Avoid substances like alcohol and drugs
  5. Spend time with family members who love and support you.”

“Thank you, Premier Ford and Minister Tibollo for this long-overdue appointment. Your work will help a lot of people.” 

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Brandied Fruit: Start NOW! It’s so easy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I actually wrote up the process for Brandied Fruit in response to a Facebook request – short and sweet, but this is basically it. Start in June! There is no “making Brandied Fruit” at Christmas. 

“Sue, it’s not a recipe so much as a process. It is different every year, depending on what berries I can get and when I find the time! 

Basically a cup of rum or brandy and a cup of sugar poured over berries in season, start with that. 3 or so cups of berries. 

The lid is left on loosely, not sealed. Sit it in a cupboard or counter (not in bright sun) until new berries come into season.

By then the first batch will be sitting in a pile of liquid, sugar, brandy, fruit juice. Wash the new berries and add to the jar. Every now and then you might slosh in some more brandy and more sugar. 

As the summer goes on I have to dump everything into a giant mixing bowl and divide it out into MORE jars as I add more berries. These 4 jars will grow to 8 or 10. 

Generally the order of the summer goes: 

  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • raspberries
  • peaches (skin removed, cut in big chunks). 

You can add gooseberries and wild blueberries if you can get them. 

Some people add pineapple, I did that once it was good but not “Ontario.” 

In a perfect world all the fruit is local but I got great raspberries and blackberries on sale Sunday so I started an impromptu batch! Still waiting for local strawberries. 

Use cheap brandy, I usually use Ontario Small Cask brand. Rum is also good. The liquid starts to get fizzy and ferment-y, that’s fine, just don’t seal the jars tightly to allow the gas to escape.  (These jars are never heat processed; the preservation is in the brandy and the sugar.)

When you are done adding fruit, pack the jars away until Christmas….you won’t believe the flavour! It’s quite magical.”

Measles: A failure to communicate

Needlessly exposing kids to measles puts them at risk of blindness and death. How did Science fail to make this clear?

(I researched and wrote this article five years ago. Recent reports show that many parents have still haven’t gotten the message – which means, Science has still failed to deliver it.)


In February, there were news reports of California families hosting “Measles Parties” to intentionally expose their children to the potentially fatal disease in order to gain immunity while avoiding the measles vaccine.

Here in Canada, a recent poll by Angus- Reid showed that nearly nine-in-ten Canadians say vaccinations are effective at preventing disease for the individual who receive the vaccine (88%) and for the community as a whole (86%); and yet, the same poll found that two-in-five Canadians (39%) agree that “the science on vaccinations isn’t quite clear.”

In attempting to understand what vaccine-doubting or even measles-promoting adults could possibly be thinking, Landmark Report spoke with Canadian virologist and post-doctoral research fellow Dr. Logan Banadyga, and Dr. Baruch Fischoff, professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Neither man could fathom what such parents were thinking, but both pointed squarely at communications by the scientific community – or lack of such communications – as a major contributor to the incredible, entirely preventable situation North Americans now face.

Westerners may believe that measles and mumps are relatively benign diseases, because science has not made a concerted effort to communicate the more serious risks, Fischhoff believes.

“People view the diseases merely as an inconvenience because they don’t know of complications that can arise; the medical community knows these things, but other people generally aren’t aware… we haven’t provided them with the evidence, or communicated the risks. The risk of blindness and death, my guess is that very few people know about that,” Fischhoff points out.

“I can guarantee you that most scientists don’t think about communications at all, because they don’t trust communications people, or they don’t trust journalists,” Banadyga says. “Most scientists think it’s easier to avoid them in the first place; and then we end up in situations where people listen to Jenny McCarthy.”

Banadyga conducts research in virology in western Montana and has dedicated his life to fighting infectious disease; he is particularly concerned with children’s health.

“We know from decades of research that vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures that we have ever undertaken,” he points out.

“So rationally, vaccines are a great idea. We have the data to prove that. It’s not just a bunch of scientists or big pharma getting together and deciding that they could make money off this. We know how to improve quality of life and it improves children’s’ lives – that’s a FACT.

“When you think about these Californians who are having measles parties – people have been doing this with chicken pox for years – you think, ‘You are exposing your child to a disease to which that kid does not have to be exposed and sure, they’ll probably survive if they get measles, but they’ll still get sick, they could potentially get very sick, and they could potentially die.

“You’re exposing them to that virus for no other reason than the completely fallacious belief that you think vaccines are causing more harm than good.” Science, he believes, has not done enough to combat such emotional beliefs which often trump rational thought.

“Part of the North American challenge is that the current generation has no direct experience of diseases like measles and mumps,” he says. “Now we have the case of these parents who are considering vaccines for their children and they have no experiences of these diseases. So their decision is easier to make, because they don’t see the kinds of havoc that these diseases caused in the first place.”

Banadyga believes there has to be a concerted effort to get these messages across to parents. Currently, “the message isn’t strong enough; or it’s not being absorbed clearly enough; or perhaps not enough of an effort is being made to deliver the message.”

Fischhoff agrees that the communications effort has been found lacking: “Scientists, like everybody else, overestimate how much of what they know is common knowledge. This is called ‘the common knowledge effect.’ If you think people know something, you don’t bother repeating it. I think scientists have dropped the ball for a very understandable reason: most scientists don’t have access to the public, so everything the scientist says goes through the funnel of the media.”

“We also,” Fischhoff adds, “overestimate how well we read people’s minds.”

Both Banadyga and Fischhoff commented on the frustration and exasperation scientists and even doctors feel in attempting to communicate well-documented, factual evidence to parents who cling to irrational beliefs.

“Scientists generally communicate in situations in which they are the boss, such as the classroom. We get pretty good at communicating complicated material, but that doesn’t mean we listen to the needs of people who actually need this information.”

Banadyga stresses the importance of family doctors who will listen to parents’ fears and take the time to allay them: “I think physicians are beginning to learn that this you can’t approach this subject as a cold-hearted machine and say, ‘Vaccines are the only way to go and if you don’t vaccinate your kids, you’re stupid.’ That’s going to turn a lot of people off.”

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Risk Communications Sidebar

 

Dr. Baruch Fischhoff, professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University is one the pioneers in the development of Risk Communications, a precise process in which testing how a message is received, understood and acted upon is a critical component in decision-making. He was instrumental in assisting the Public Health Agency of Canada in developing its Strategic Risk Communications Framework, which was released in 2006.

“Tested messages really are the ‘gold standard’ in effective communications, and I don’t know if that is being done anywhere right now,” he says. “We’ve had 40 years of Risk Communications research in support of communications and decision making. I think we know how to communicate these things in a comprehensible and respectful way; I think what’s missing is simply use of the practice…people are just shooting from the hip.”

When public health officials fail to test their messages, Fischhoff says, “they are not doing their jobs.”

“If they don’t have message-testing procedures, then they’re just digging the hole deeper…they could do $500 million dollars’ worth of damage with a $50M campaign, if they don’t test their messages.”

Unlike one-way communications processes like DAD (decide, announce, defend) or persuasion campaigns, Risk Communications includes:

  • identifying the risk information that is most critical to decisions about risk;
  • characterizing the dimensions of risk that matter most to decision makers;
  • helping people make difficult risk choices and weighing competing outcomes;
  • communicating information about the magnitude of risks (and benefits), as well as the processes that create and control them;
  • describing people’s mental models of risks, in order to identify the critical missing pieces between what they know and what they need to know;
  • evaluating the success of communications programs.

“Although it would be nice to know more about all of these things,” Fischhoff wrote in the Strategic Risk Communications Framework, “this knowledge has limited value unless it can be translated into operational terms, usable by organizations with front-line communications responsibilities.”

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Canada’s Food Guide: Another way of saying, “Let’s argue!”

My keto version of the Food Guide eliminates the Whole Grain Foods quadrant; but that’s just me. The Food Guide is a GUIDE, not THE LAW.

Health Canada announced its new Food Guide in January, and first and foremost, I congratulate all the scientists, researchers and staff who worked for a decade to get the job done.

The rollout is an absolutely enormous project, a job I had the privilege of undertaking with a fantastic team in 2007.

The Food Guide – which is a GUIDE, not the law, not carved in stone, not meant to dictate the same diet for 35 million different people – has been part of life in Canada since 1942.

In 2007, our group of stakeholder scientists and nutritionists numbered over 600. The Guide had been researched, discussed and argued for 13 years. It was the source of much controversy and dispute; journalists were (and are) highly suspicious of Canada’s Food Guide ever since it was revealed in the early 1990s that the number of eggs recommended had been influenced by the egg lobby.

I can vouch for the intense desire food lobby groups have had over the years to influence the Guide: in 2007, brand new in my job as the Director of Communications to the Minister of Health when my phone rang. I picked it up; it was a man I had never met before. He introduced himself as the lobbyist for the soft drink industry.

“We are very disappointed that Health Canada has decided to label soft drinks as an “occasional item,” he blustered into the phone.

“We are very disappointed that childhood obesity has tripled in the last 15 years,” I responded without hesitation.

Not surprisingly, I never heard from him again; I still laugh thinking about that call.

In one meeting, as we wrestled with the fact that we were doomed to upset SOMEBODY no matter what the Guide recommended, I grew frustrated with the talk of “the meat lobby this” and “the egg lobby that.”

“Why are we worrying about the most expensive things people can buy, when really we should be encouraging them to eat more of the most nutritious and inexpensive foods? Who stands up for broccoli?!” I wanted to know.

Staff kindly humoured my fevered ideas about inventing Broccoli and Carrot mascot costumes and sending them to schools and sporting events. We never did any of those things, but it was a great rollout nevertheless.

The Food Guide is the second-most requested document the federal government provides. Only Income Tax forms are requested more often.

In 2007, the new Guide was in such demand, our first print run was 4 million copies. We had not only a printing press on stand-by, but a PAPER MILL on stand-by. The pressure to get the Guide finalized was immense. Scientists, nutritionists and journalists were still arguing the day we went to press (as they are still arguing now) but somehow, they were able to come to enough of a consensus to get the thing done and distributed.

In 2007, some of the big new changes included making fruits and vegetable the basis for a healthy diet. Now, in 2019, Health Canada is recommending fully half of “the plate” be fruits and vegetables. It clearly states that water should be the drink of choice; and that culture is important and we should eat together. These are great advances!

Of course, I disagree with the grain recommendations, but then, it wouldn’t be Canada’s Food Guide if we weren’t arguing about it.

Bon appetite, eh?

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