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Trevor Tombe: Actually, Minister Guilbeault, Canada needs more roads, rail, and all of the above

Commentary

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault may have erred last week by saying “the federal government will no longer provide funding to expand the road network.” If he was serious, that would mark a significant federal policy shift and stall future infrastructure projects nationwide.

Reactions were swift. Ontario’s Premier Ford was “gobsmacked”.

The minister’s attempt to clarify—saying federal funding would not support “large projects”—did little to help.

I won’t pile on. The minister often struggles to clearly articulate key federal policy decisions. But whether serious or not, his comments touch on a critical challenge for Canada: our transport infrastructure is inadequate and our productivity suffers as a result.

The task of connecting Canadians is vital for our economic health and well-being. As is the task of connecting us with the world. This isn’t easy in a country with relatively few major cities spread out over vast distances, but it would be impossible without trucks and major roads.

Internally, I estimate roughly three-quarters of everything we trade across provinces is shipped by truck. Internationally, roughly two-thirds of our exports are shipped that way. Rail is important too, of course, mainly for heavy items.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Trade allows Canada to maximize its economic advantages, but it needs good infrastructure. And at least for trade within Canada, we have a clear and costly problem. Since the early 1980s, interprovincial trade has declined and is now half of international trade.  

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

If this was due to individual and business market decisions, it wouldn’t be a problem. But several barriers to the free flow of goods and services are at work.

Most of those are due to provincial governments having different rules, regulations, standards, and certifications. But another part of the problem is infrastructure, and the added costs involved when our road and rail networks fall short. 

We need more funding, not less, for critical infrastructure. More funding for interprovincial highway capacity. More funding for expanding the national rail networks. More funding for seaways, ports, and airports. More funding for long-distance electricity transmission.

More for all of the above.

In recent years, we’ve seen precisely the opposite.

Canada’s federal, provincial, and local governments spend less on transportation than two-thirds of what the U.S. does as a share of our respective economies. And after rising substantially between 2004 and 2009, our public spending on transportation infrastructure fell by roughly 0.2 percent of GDP. That may not seem like much, but it means roughly $5 billion less per year for critical infrastructure. To match the U.S., we’d need to spend about $17 billion per year more.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Reduced direct federal spending is not the main cause of the decline, to be sure. But since 2018, provincial transportation infrastructure spending is up while federal spending is down. In 2022, according to the latest data, federal expenditures amounted to just $800 million. And, according to Statistics Canada, most of this investment is negated by an estimated $670 million in depreciation of existing infrastructure. Net federal infrastructure investment is therefore nearly zero.

Of course, some provincial spending depends on federal contributions that share in the costs. We have issues there too.

First, funding squabbles between governments are frequent. Consider recent disputes over financing improvements on the Chignecto Isthmus between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, despite clearly being an interprovincial project. Similarly, the development of the Ring of Fire in Ontario has faced major obstacles.

Second, and perhaps more troublesome, the federal government consistently fails to spend available funds. Last year, for example, of the $1.1 billion available in the National Trade Corridors Fund (meant to help fund roads, railways and airports) the federal government spent only $219 million. The year before that, there was $339.4 million available but only $233 million was spent. Before that, $463 million available, $164.6 million spent. In fact, from what I can tell, every single year underspent the available funds considerably.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Improving internal trade with more and better infrastructure could boost our lagging productivity. While not cheap, the gains are considerable. 

To give just a hint of the potential for economic gains, consider improving infrastructure just in Canada’s North. My colleague Professor Fellows and I estimate that if the quality of northern Canada’s infrastructure simply matched southern Canada’s, the present value of future economic gains might be on the order of roughly $100 billion.

Expanding transport infrastructure would also reduce increasingly real risks. Single events, for example, can sever interprovincial ties. Recall the 2021 British Columbia flood that almost turned the province into an island separated from the rest of the country.

A transport truck hauling two trailers travels on the Trans-Canada Highway past Hwy 5, west of Winnipeg near Carberry, Man., Friday, June 16, 2023. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

There might also be political benefits. Prime Minister Diefenbaker campaigned quite successfully with “Roads to Resources,” which planned to expand road infrastructure to boost natural resource exploration and development.It’s worth noting that Diefenbaker’s initiative wasn’t exactly a resounding success, being quite limited in scope and ambition. However, the rhetoric tapped into an idea that remains pertinent. Deepening the physical connections between Canada’s diverse regions was then, as it would be now, about “a transcending sense of national purpose.”

Where might the money come from? There are plenty of options, including from both public and private sources. From the public, each federal gas tax point is about $600 million, for example. We could massively expand the National Trade Corridors Fund (and make it permanent) with a modest gas tax hike.Federal gas taxes have been flat at 10 cents per litre since 1995. If it merely increased with inflation, it would be 18 cents today. From the private, we could use trade corridors (championed recently by the Senate of Canada) to ease regulatory burdens on private infrastructure proponents. We could also use tolls to leverage private capital.

One thing is clear, though: backing away from new major road projects on ideological grounds points Canada in precisely the wrong direction.

Amal Attar-Guzman: The Taylor Swift deepfake porn scandal highlights how dangerous AI can be

Commentary

AI is both a gift and a curse. On one hand, it has opened up a new world of possibilities and helped make everyday life easier, faster, and more efficient. On the other hand, it’s opened up Pandora’s box, letting loose a variety of negative, complex social outcomes that are quickly becoming difficult to contain or mitigate.  

Early in March 2023 I wrote about some of the under-discussed issues women have been facing as the result of these new and emerging technologies. One such issue that stood out to me was the rise of non-consensual deepfake pornography. As of December, deepfakes have risen exponentially, with researchers now predicting that there will be over 5.2 million deepfakes in 2024. 

So when it was time to make The Hub’s 2024 predictions, I decided to raise the alarm once again, predicting that deepfakes and AI technology would soon move to the forefront of Canadian public policy. With its exponential rise threatening democracy and its institutions and the recent case of deepfake child pornography of teenage girls in Winnipeg, the evidence now seems clear. Not only is this fast becoming a major technology story, it is now becoming a gender-based and societal issue at large.

What I did not expect was for my prediction to come true so soon, just a few weeks into 2024. Nor did I expect to see non-consensual deepfake pornography of Taylor Swift on my X feed. 

Now, I am not much of a Swiftie. But not only did I feel disgusted seeing those images on my social media account, I also felt a deep-seated rage seeing people immediately target and harass her. This visceral anger only got worse when I saw the alleged Canadian creator of these images starting to gloat and revel in his newfound online fame. What was even more heartbreaking was that as the backdrop to all this, Taylor Swift was dealing with a recent stalking case

Thankfully, fellow Swifties quickly rallied together to push X to take down these images. The company complied. Both X and Meta have put regulations in place to deal with these deepfake cases, and while they are not perfect, at least something is now there to deal with the issue head-on. 

Seeing this happen to Taylor Swift really puts things into perspective. If this A-list, worldwide celebrity and billionaire, who won multiple Grammys, accolades and sold billions of dollars in concert tickets, can be a target of non-consensual deepfake pornography, what about the rest of us women? 

Sadly, this is fast becoming a reality. Between 2022 and 2023 there was a notable 1,740 percent deepfake surge in North America, one of the highest reported around the world. Women are disproportionately affected. According to a 2023 study by Amsterdam-based company Sensity, 96 percent of deepfakes were non-consensual pornography depicting women.

This is fast becoming a fear for women from all backgrounds. Deepfakes are used to silence and shame women in the public eye and even in the private sphere. If they say what they think, stand up for themselves, or even go against the societal grain, one way or another, they can get punished by anyone, whether they know them or not, without remorse or recourse. No one is safe from this new form of sexual harassment, defamation, and public humiliation. 

While many on my X feed shared these same concerns, one perspective caught my attention. Jesse Brown, journalist and publisher of Canadaland, posted on X that while the situation was gross, policymakers need to be careful about legislating on these issues. As he put it: “[While Canada] need[s] laws against deepfake porn that tells convincing lies,” Swift’s case amounted to “horny fanfic” that “should not be a crime.” 

Brown’s comments attracted a negative reaction, including from me. I decided to listen to the Canadaland episode to see if there was a perspective I might be missing. After listening to the conversation, a couple of thoughts came to mind. 

First, with all due respect, I disagree with the notion that what happened to Taylor Swift was just “horny fanfic.” There is a huge difference between creating fanfiction of fictional characters and celebrities that are meant to celebrate them, versus creating degrading deepfake pornographic images. 

Intent is key. Generating deep fake porn of Taylor Swift wasn’t done to celebrate or even idolize her. It was done to humiliate and degrade her, encouraging people to harass her. If the same thing happened to politicians, journalists, or ordinary citizens, it would still be wrong and some sort of regulation and legal recourse would be needed. 

I also disagreed with the notion that because the deepfake pornographic images looked fake and not realistic—that it’s not a “convincing lie”— it’s not as big of a deal as realistic-looking deepfake pornography that might actually convince people that it’s real. Here’s the thing: even if someone is not completely recognizable, harm is still there. Deepfake porn is the modern-day pornographic drawing of a girl in a boy’s bathroom. It is a form of sexual harassment even if it “looks fake.” 

However, there was one point that Brown raised that was worthwhile. When it comes to regulating or even criminalizing deepfakes, we must be cognizant of the effects on freedom of expression. What about in cases of political satire, or even political messaging or advertising? How should we think about that? 

In such circumstances, a complete ban or extreme restriction of deepfakes would be an overstep. Already, we’ve seen some backlash to Meta’s policy regarding deepfakes, which saw its oversight board acknowledge that in some cases where media is manipulated for humour, parody, or satire, it “should be protected.” As Brown rightly asked, “If you cannot draw rude pictures of the elite, then are you truly free?” 

This screenshot made on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, shows a Taylor Swift search error on social media platform X. X has blocked some searches for Swift as pornographic deepfake images of the singer have circulated online. (AP Photo)

In terms of Canadian policy and law, if future legislation does not strike the right chord, it could lead to a constitutional challenge. AI experts, policymakers, and legal scholars will need to ask themselves this question: how can public policy provide regulations on deepfakes that, if brought to a court of law, could survive a Charter challenge in terms of “reasonable limits”?

Perhaps the answer lies within current law regarding sexual harassment, defamation, and copyright law. Deepfakes and other AI-manipulated content that provide misinformation and disinformation with criminal and defamatory intent will need to be captured, while explicitly ensuring that cases of political commentary, advertisement, and satire aren’t subject to restrictions. Maybe in the latter’s case providing disclaimers will be needed to allow its promotion. 

These are not easy solutions. Which responsibilities and obligations should fall under the realm of social media platforms or the government needs to be explored and debated. And, no doubt about it, mistakes will be made. 

But regardless, it is clear that there needs to be some explicit public policy and legal recourse to deal with the issue head-on—one where freedom of expression is preserved, but as importantly, people are prioritized and protected.