November 2007 Issue

President’s Notebook

Communication and Consultation Coming
of Age at APEGGA


APEGGA President

Your newest Council now has two of the five meetings of its term complete. Here are most of the faces behind the names. Standing (from left): Public Member Al Scherbarth, CMA; Engineers Canada Director Linda Van Gastel, P.Eng.; Coun. Jim Beckett, P.Eng.; Public Member Gary Campbell, QC; Coun. Dick Walters, P.Eng.; Coun. Anne Simpson, P.Eng.; Coun. Jim Smith, P.Eng.; CCPG Past-President Brenda Wright, P.Geol.; Coun. Kim Sturgess, P.Eng.; Engineers Canada Executive Committee Member Dan Motyka, P.Eng.; Coun. John Hogg, P.Geol.; Coun. Marc Sabourin, P.Eng.; Coun. Chrys. Dmytruk, P.Eng.; Coun. John Van der Put, P.Eng.; Coun. Ron Hinds, P.Geoph. Sitting (from left): Executive Director & Registrar Neil Windsor, P.Eng.; President-Elect Gordon Williams, P.Geol.; President John McLeod, P.Eng.; Past-President David Chalcroft, P.Eng.; Vice-President Lisa Doig, P.Eng., Absent: Coun. Leah Lawrence, P.Eng.; Coun. Judith Lentin, P.Geol.; CCPG Director Ian McIlreath, P.Geol.; Public Member Larry Ohlhauser, MD.

I hear a lot these days about the image of our professions, both good and bad. Most of the time, members of the public have a generally positive view of engineers and geoscientists.

Most members of the public don’t have direct interaction with us, and in many cases they don’t know exactly what it is we do. Overall, however, our professions are respected.

Then something like the Bre-X scandal or a bridge collapse comes along, and what we do is on the front pages of all the newspapers.

That’s when, I think, our image suffers most. To some extent, it happened after the Laval overpass collapse in Quebec, Sept. 30, 2006, which killed five people and injured six. Although this failure happened in another province, it gave us all pause — professionals and non-professionals alike — as we collectively wondered, Could that happen here?

Then, last summer, south of the border in Minneapolis, another bridge collapsed. Final death toll there was 13 souls.

Last month, a commission led by Pierre Marc Johnson found that engineering problems were part of a “chain of causes” spanning 35 years and eventually ending in the Laval collapse. His recommendations and report don’t single out one person or group, yet engineering certainly does not come out unscathed.

The commission found three major causes — improper rebar support for the design, improper rebar installation at the time of the overpass’s construction in 1970, and the use of low-quality concrete in its construction. There were also a number of contributing causes listed, including some bad engineering decisions during maintenance and repairs.

I won’t go into the full details here, but the 200-plus-page report is worth reading and can be found online. The website address appears in the information box with this column.

I think the so-called infrastructure deficit in this country is a big issue, and certainly contributed to the Laval collapse. Engineers Canada, which represents the engineering self-regulatory groups in this country and their more than 170,000 engineers, said two years ago that Canada was $60 billion behind in infrastructure spending. The figure is probably a conservative estimate.

The Johnson Commission does not ignore the infrastructure deficit problem. The report recommends that the Quebec Government spend $500 million a year for 10 years on bridge and overpass repair and construction. The commission found, in fact, that the Quebec Transport Ministry had neglected maintenance and ignored problems with the bridge.

I don’t want to minimize how horrible the Laval collapse was, or, for that matter, the more recent collapse in Minneapolis. Even one tragedy of this kind is too many.

The record in Canada is, however, an excellent one. We all cross bridges, safely, on a regular basis. And we count on the engineering expertise of others countless times each day in many other ways, whether we’re drinking a glass of water or flicking on a light switch.

Are we, as members of these great professions, doing enough to let the public know how reliable and safe the vast majority of the products, goods and services coming out of our professions are? And are we doing what we can to prevent future tragedies?

Part of this has to do with the overall profile of our professions. We need to be seen, we need to be a source of reasoned comment, and we need to be proud of who we are and what we do, even when things go wrong.

One of our primary duties is to keep an excellent safety record intact. We have individual roles to play, and your Association has a role, too. All of us should speak in favour of improving infrastructure, for example, every chance we get.

Perhaps you saw APEGGA’s billboards and heard our radio spots, last spring, promoting the things your professions do. I think these are important from a public relations viewpoint, but also to boost our own pride. The more we believe in the value of our work, the more others will believe in it, too.

How should your Association be involved in public issues? Members are divided on this. Some say we should comment on public affairs. Others say we shouldn’t take any action in shaping public policy.

We can’t please all of you all the time — this organization is far too diverse for that to ever happen. I do believe, however, that your Association’s voice should be heard.

Sometimes you’ll agree with what we say. Sometimes you won’t. But regardless, you’ll know that your Association is enhancing its role on the public stage.

Your elected Council agrees. The APEGGA Business Plan, which stems directly from Council’s strategic planning sessions, identifies this role as a strategic priority for 2008. APEGGA should “provide informed, balanced discussion on professional issues and technical issues affecting society,” the plan states.

The presidents of the other provincial and territorial associations identified enhancement of the image of the professions as a high priority at a recent Engineers Canada meeting  in Ottawa. There may be opportunities to cooperate on these messages to all Canadians.

If you want to discuss or comment on these or any other issues, please contact me at president@apegga.org.

A Sad Time
As most of you will now know, we lost two leaders in the engineering community in separate small plane crashes, just as The PEGG went to press.

Edmonton’s Allen D. Williams, P.Eng., founder and chief executive officer of A. D. Williams Engineering Inc., died in a crash near Golden, along with Steven T. Sutton, the company’s chief financial officer. A young granddaughter of Mr. Williams survived.

A separate crash near Invermere claimed Life Member Ron Bullen, P.Eng., who founded Canadian Fracmaster in the 1970s and became a pioneering Canadian in Russian ventures. His friend Bill Wood and Mr. Wood’s son, David Wood, also died in the crash.

Our sympathies go out to the families, friends, colleagues and companies associated with these men. Their accomplishments were many, and their loss is huge.

Full tributes will appear in the next edition of The PEGG.


further reading

Johnson Commission Report