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Friday, July 27, 2007

Not smelly yet...

A ray of hope shone late Tuesday evening for those affected by the Vancouver civic strike.

The labour action, which covers everything from day camps and swimming pools to garbage collection and building permits, is only in its fourth day, but the impact is already been felt throughout the City.

The City of Richmond, which bargains separately from the rest of the GVRD municipalities, announced that it has come to a deal which would provide labour stability for five years - until 2011, long after both the Olympics and the civic election cycle have passed.

Although the terms of the agreement weren’t released publically, the media have been reporting it as a rich package and a five year contract.

This puts the City of Vancouver back to the table – they really don’t have a choice now that a junior muni to the south has cut a deal with one of the toughest negotiating unions on the block, CUPE.

The civic worker squabbling is based around a couple of key points: money and benefits, obviously, but also length of contract.

The City owes it to residents to have labour peace during the Olympics.

And CUPE wants to make sure that if the City is aiming for peace, it is going to have to pay through the nose for it.

And that is the key issue that the entire conflict centres around.

Place that big elephant in a council chamber that just voted to increase property taxes and add a smidgen (or dollop) of partisan point-taking by union-funded Cope and Vision Vancouver and you get a situation with the potential to last for months.

Fortunately, the City of Richmond pulled off a deal with its workers in the eleventh hour, which places a whole bunch of pressure on both CUPE and the City to move quickly and find a resolution.

There is nothing quite like pressure from the neighbours to get the deal done.

The first week or two of a civic strike is mostly inconvenience – seniors and kids missing their recreation centres, delays to receiving permits for new construction, slightly fuller garbage cans. But by the end of next week, if this thing drags on, our town will be getting smellier and much less “fun”.

Those of us around during the last strike in 1998 remember the swarms of flies that hunkered down around the city.

The teams in Richmond have shown us that it can be done. It will be expensive – but so will a strike in the middle of tourist season.

Both sides have spent the week taking shots at each other through the media – now it is time to get back to the table and sort it out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Yes - I'm back...

I'm back to posting in blogland. And I'm so very sorry for being gone so long.

Thanks to all who encouraged the return after the ugliness of last fall.

Now - onwards...

Erin

Changing the Rules - But Soon Enough?

Through the spring, the Federal government worked on significant changes to the way the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is governed and appointed.

And just one week after the shocking death of Surrey school principal, Shemina Hirji, in the days following her wedding, these rules came into force.

On July 11, Diane Finlay, the Minister of Immigration, tightened up the methods of appointments to the IRB in an effort to make, in her words, the body “more open and accountable”.


This, of course, is in stark contrast to years of blatant political appointments to the Board, which hears a variety of cases, including those of refugees and immigrants who face deportation.


For years, controversy dogged the IRB, whose members, while political favourites, had little or no experience with highly complicated criminal and immigration case law and theory.


In 1997, the Review Board heard the appeal of Paul Cheema, the husband of the slain Hirji and the prime suspect, according to police reports.


At that time, revealed yesterday in Immigration Canada documents, due to “community and family support” he was allowed to remain in Canada, despite trying to murder the mother of his ex-fiance.


The new rules built on work started in 2004, in the dying days of the Federal Liberal government, which initiated a panel to review applicants for the Board.


The panel was a great idea – but the method of appointing people to it was a terrifying stroke of Liberal brilliance. Under the Liberal system, the chairperson was appointed by the Minister and then that chairperson had sole authority to grant membership to the panel.


No matter how good the chairperson, it was a system just begging out for corruption.


Finlay’s changes are subtle. The first has to do with an exam that all panel applicants need to write. Prior to last week, applicants could fail the test, but still be appointed if the chairperson wanted them badly enough. That has been changed to pass/fail. If you fail, you can’t be appointed.


The second change is around the make up of the panel itself. Gone are the days of the backroom nods through a politically appointed chairperson. The panel is now made up of the IRB chairperson and three panelists appointed jointly by the chairperson and the Minister.


Three more, with at least two of them being senior managers within the IRB, will be appointed by the chairperson alone.


But while Federal Liberals in Ottawa decry the new rules brought in by Minister Finlay, a significant case for why the new structure is necessary is staring them in the face.


The question still to be answered is how many other politically influential criminals won appeal when they really should have been sent away?

Just because you lied...

It isn’t easy managing an immigration system when you are among the most desirable places in the world to live.

As a country that, without fail, ranks as one of the top nations in United Nations’ surveys, we have much to be proud of. From an international perspective, Canada boasts an excellent education system, opportunities to work, and religious and ethnic freedom.

It is little wonder that each year, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world attempt the move here. They are willing to leave their homes, their families and their own culture behind because they know that their lives and their children’s lives will be better here.

Over 250,000 made the cut last year but 840,000 were still on the waiting list as of the end of 2006.

Generally aspirants are faced with an exhaustive process of paperwork, fees, wait lists and uncertainty. There is no guarantee of admittance to Canada. It depends greatly upon job skills and factors including language ability and education status.

Although it is hard to say no to people who want to become Canadian, our economic, social and government systems could not cope if we had open borders.

And only a very small portion of the immigration to Canada is in the form of refugee claimants.

Which is why the attention being paid to Mr. Laibar Singh’s “refugee claim” is so troubling. His supporters are trying to cast doubt on the entire process, because Mr. Singh wanted a quick and dirty entry to Canada four years ago.

The irony is that if he hadn’t used a forged passport and had instead sought asylum initially, he wouldn’t be in this mess. But by circumventing the process that hundreds of thousands of people wait patiently through, he set himself up for deportation.

His credibility is shot because he lied to get into our country.

So the question comes down to do we owe Mr. Singh a place in Canada because of his medical condition, regardless of how he actually got in? He has four children in India to care for him. He says he has been wrongly accused of belonging to the terrorist group that brought down Air India.

India is a democratic country with a rule of law, much like our own. It isn’t as wealthy and I’m sure he will not receive the same medical service as he does here. But if he has been accused under their law, he needs to return and face the music.

If we don’t deal appropriately with this case, it will open the floodgates to others who wish to jump the queue to the detriment of those who are legitimate refugees and immigrants.

Layton and the Soldiers

A June 20th poll, published in the Angus Reid Global Monitor, places the NDP in an interesting position.

In the survey, 30% of Canadians responded they would be voting, or would consider voting, NDP in the next election.

Remember that the NDP, under the shaky leadership of Jack Layton, managed to pull out only 17% of the vote in last year’s January election.

This result provided them with 29 seats in the minority parliament, well below expectations in a campaign in which they had hoped to be the middle position for Canadians tired of the Liberals but scared of the Tories.

Eighteen months later, hungry to defray internal mutterings over his leadership and eyeing the faltering antics of Stephane Dion, Layton and his key advisors have clearly decided that the only real wedge issue sticky enough to solidify these numbers for the upcoming by-elections is the divisive battle in Afghanistan.

We seen over 60 young Canadians die in this far-away land fighting a culture so archaic that most rational people find it hard to believe that Taliban “values” can exist in a modern, global world.

Let’s be honest: hacking off limbs, stoning women and ruling by male tribal lineage pretty much went out of favour in the mid-1400s. Ditto sending pre-pubescent boys into battle. And we’re not good with torture. And public executions in soccer stadiums aren’t really our thing either.

Regardless of one’s political stripe in Canada, certain items like rights for women, support for minorities, legalized trade unions and universal education are pretty much given.

But the NDP are showing that they are happy to abandon these hard-fought principles when it comes to others in the world, in a play for more seats right here at home.

Buoyed by snapshot poll numbers, Layton came trotting out yesterday with his trumped up news conference on the heels of the deaths of six Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

We can all disagree about the war in Afghanistan. We can debate whether or not it is appropriate for us to send our young people to fight half the world away. We live in Canada – we have this privilege.

What is distasteful about Layton’s approach is his willingness to play politics with dead boys.

At the same time that grieving mothers were first hearing the news of the deaths, Layton was telling the nation that these courageous volunteers died in vain - that freeing a nation from cultural slavery isn’t worth it.

In politics, timing is everything.

And by his choice of timing, Layton has demonstrated he doesn’t have the tact to be leader of anything more than a ragtag fringe party, regardless of where the poll numbers put him last week.

The Summer Begins

That sigh of relief you heard from Ottawa was the sound of pleasure uttered by Members of Parliament as the House of Commons rose for the summer and all the nasty unfinished business of a minority government was left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

Now a long summer on the bar-b-que circuit looms for all the political leaders, from the ultra-green, back-pack toting Stephane Dion, to the “on again, off again” Bloc Quebecois head guy, Gilles Duceppe.

Even Jack Layton, desperate to squeeze votes from a squeezed centre-left, will be glad-handing in the sunshine (if we actually ever get any).

This spring, you will recall, was supposed to be about an election between the struggling new Liberal leader and the Conservatives, as the government tried to leverage its hard-one minority territory into a majority government.

There were moments when the government came very close to being toppled by a non-confidence vote, but at the end of the day, all parties realized that an election would only hurt, not help, their sagging fortunes.

And no wonder. Canadians are tired of elections.

They are tired of provincial elections, municipal elections, band elections and, most importantly, federal elections.

Given voter fatigue, there was a high likelihood of major backlash against the instigator of an election.

The poll results through the spring showed this volatility. Sometimes the Liberals were up, and other times the Conservatives led the pack.

The third parties, generally seen as a safe place to park a vote during turbulent times, didn’t fluctuate much in support either.

Because parties have changed their traditional positions on key issues of the day so much, voters didn’t even bother to really keep track, regardless of how the media pushes or third parties agitated.

Afghanistan, the environment, equalization payments, first nations treaties, and the budget were all treated to a bewildering display of partisan antics in the House.

It seemed often, particularly for opposition parties, that principles came second to political brinkmanship.

During the course of this session in Ottawa, the parties focussed on the game, rather than doing the right thing for Canada. Whether it was in environment committee meetings or debates about the role of Canadian armed forces overseas, the party leaders judged their effectiveness by poll numbers, rather than outcomes.

Perhaps given the fractured nature of Parliament, this was the best that they could hope to achieve – a bump in the overnight tracking or an interview with Kevin Newman.

So, if you run into your MP this summer, give him or her a big hug. And then let them know that you expect some results in the fall, not just more endless positioning for the six o’clock news.

Bono, where art thou?

Bono is not a fan of Stephen Harper right now.

The lead singer of the edgy pop group, U2, is one of the leading activists committed to raising issues of the AIDS crisis in Africa. He is convinced that Canada is avoiding ponying up our fair share of international aid funding.

Some counties in Africa have an AIDS infection rate over 30 percent of the adult population. Millions of children are orphans. Economies are crippled by lack of skilled workers. The infection rate continues to climb, although there have been isolated success stories in treating pregnant women and young children.

In Bostwanna, the average life expectancy is now around 50 years. In Zimbabwe, it is under 40 years.

Canada has stepped up to the table in a big way to work with other nations in getting concerted action to relieve the worst travesties surrounding the epidemic.

Just this last February, Harper announced a $139 million package with Microsoft’s Bill Gates to fund AIDS vaccine research.

Canada’s current African aid budget is estimated at $2.1 billion.

And at the G8 meetings last week in Germany, the leaders announced at $60 billion package of aid for international hotspots. This is unprecedented attention to struggling nations by the leading industrial economies.

So, why is the new king of pop upset?

It goes back to the 2005 G8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland. At the time, the G8 leaders committed to a doubling of their aid to Africa by 2010.

Bono is frustrated that the recent announcement from this year’s meeting didn’t get more specific.

But more importantly, his feelings are also ruffled because Harper wouldn’t take time out from the international conference to meet with him. Although the meeting would have probably helped Harper’s often stodgy image, Harper’s office contends that there was too much going on during the three-day conference to meet with rock stars, no matter how popular they are.
George Bush, even more desperate for an image overhaul, did meet with Bono, as did the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Harper, who says he is a big U2 fan in addition to his love of the Beatles, did promise to meet with Bono after the conference and he is quoted as saying he believes that the activist is a knowledgeable and sincere person, based on previous conversations.

It is unfortunate, however, that Bono took the scheduling snafu as a reason to slam Canada’s commitment to less fortunate nations. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Bono has, that Canada is trying to derail a G8 AIDS commitment.

Unlike previous governments, Harper understands that helping African nations struggling under the burden of despair isn’t accomplished by photo-ops, but concerted, consistent action.

Helping Business Through the Briar Patch

Last week, NDP opposition MLA Gregor Robertson put forward a bill suggesting property tax breaks and emergency loans for Cambie Village merchants, and other business in Vancouver and Richmond along the Canada Line corridor.

It was met with a frosty response from the provincial government who fear the precedent in setting payout levels for infrastructure spending and other liability issues.

The federal and provincial governments, Translink, YVR and the City of Vancouver are all spending partners for Canada Line, which is aiming for a 2009 completion date, well in advance of 2010.

But the mess, disorder and delay caused by construction is a sensitive topic – and not just for government.

Business owners don’t want to raise too much fuss, as they fear it will further discourage shoppers from the area. Most, also, are supportive of rapid transit and feel strongly that the project will ultimately make our city a better place to live and do business.

Cambie Business Improvement Association’s Canada Line Construction Liaison, Leonard Schein told me that the BIA supported the property tax grant portion of Robertson’s bill but not the emergency loans.

Merchants along the construction zone have been patient as estimates for disruption in front of any one business escalated from three months to four months to twelve months. As time increases, it is more difficult for small business to manage, according the Schein.
Translink says that they are doing their bit with a million dollar ad campaign.
The City of Vancouver is offering up free parking at the City’s parking lots at Cambie and Yukon.

A retail consultant has been hired to give workshops to local business owners, with the goal of helping attract more shoppers along the chaotic construction corridor.

The reality is, though, losses have totalled some $100 million by mostly small, family-owned and operated businesses.

Now not all of those would have thrived anyway, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that a big, gaping tunnel in the middle of the street, confusing traffic patterns and the dust and noise from heavy equipment might deter weekend and other pleasure shoppers.

Schein admits that businesses close down for lots of reasons. “Any commercial area has vacancies, but people here aren’t making money and their ability to hang on depends on how deep their pockets are.”

Estimates of property tax relief range from $1 million to cover the hard-hit Cambie Village to $10 million for the entire line from Richmond to Vancouver.

Robertson’s well intentioned bill, modelled after a similar situation in Washington State, won’t likely see the light of day. Hopefully, however, the spending partners can find some solution for businesses carrying the bulk of the construction pain.

Cambie Line Business Plan?

Laura Jones, the BC Vice-President for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, isn’t against the Canada Line. But she does feel it is “outrageous” that businesses along the Cambie corridor are paying the ultimate price for a public project.

She joined with NDP MLA Gregor Robertson this week calling for compensation for business owners and operators along the line who have seen their business revenues decline from 40 to 60 percent, according to Jones.

There is no secret that the Canada Line construction project is very disruptive. Anyone who has tried to journey east to west or back during rush hour knows the impact of taking out an arterial route does to our car-dependent town.

We also all pretty much knew that the construction would be a royal pain. You can’t tear up a major street and expect life to continue as normal.

Despite assertions to the contrary from Translink and the provincial government, Jones feels that those involved in construction are in denial about the state of affairs for Cambie business.

“It is ridiculous to suggest that business isn’t suffering. Long term, established businesses that have been in successful operation for 18 or 20 years are losing staff and moving out.”

The Canada Line team has tried to help out merchants. They have budgeted $1.5 million on advertising campaigns designed to encourage people to continue to shop in the area. They have conducted community consultations to mitigate some of the worse aspects of the project.

But having attended a meeting a few weeks ago at King Edward and Cambie, I can sympathize with folks trying to shop there – parking is a nightmare and restricted left turns took me on a confusing tour through neighbourhood back lanes.

The provincial government fears setting a precedent for major infrastructure projects and are nervous about potential costs to taxpayers every time there was inconvenient construction.
Robertson’s proposal included property tax breaks and low-cost loans that could be applied for by businesses who could demonstrate that the construction had an impact on their operations.

These shouldn’t break the bank – nor set up the government in a liability perspective, which is their other big concern.

Robertson estimated the total cost for property tax relief at $10 million in his private member’s bill which was shot down in the Victoria Legislature this week.

“This is really about a principle: should a small business pay an inordinate amount of the cost for constructing a service for the public at large?” said Jones.

In other words, should business, in effect, subsidize the construction of rapid transit?

The answer, according to the largest association of small business in Canada, is no.

Reserves pt 2

Canadian aboriginal children are far more likely than other Canadian children to not finish school, become addicted to alcohol and other substances, face abuse and commit suicide.
This is all of our shame and responsibility, regardless of our race. Canadian children are Canadian children and none of them should live in despair and fear.

Aboriginal leaders are meeting in Quebec this week to discuss what Phil Fontaine, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, calls a “crisis situation”.

The leadership at the meeting considers that one of the cornerstones to resolving native poverty is the resolution of the some 800 outstanding land claims and treaties between the Government of Canada and First Nations.

But they caution that land claim resolution is not enough – a truth that is born out by an examination of the poverty levels of Canadian bands that have completed the treaty and land claim process.

It might also shed some light on the baffling rejection of an historic treaty of the Lheidli T’enneh located near Prince George in March.

Last week, I called the reserve system a failure. I stand by that. They are archaic structures developed in a time when aboriginals were systematically isolated with an intent to annihilate.

A culture and people cannot survive herded onto small tracts of land with no means of economic development. Without access to capital and other resources, the population becomes dependent on whatever money the government of the day wants to hand out.

That dependence is a breading ground for poverty and anger, as we’ve seen with recent threats of sabotage.

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Mike Harcourt leaves the BC Treaty Commission this month but his involvement marks sixteen years of recognition of Aboriginal title in BC. There has been ever so slow progress on land claims and treaty, but it hasn’t been fast enough for First Nations or for any right-thinking Canadian.

As we go through this process, which no one denies has to be completed, is it so wrong to look at other solutions as well? Can we not, as a society, apply some creative thinking?

Does it make sense, while we are dealing with complicated and thorny legal issues of land tenure and resource allocation and access, to continue the insanity of isolated, under-developed third-world conditions? Saying that far-flung, rural reserves, with no hope of economic success, are a ridiculous way to deliver core services isn’t racist – it is humane.

Because if we wait for an uncertain treaty process to grind through the corridors of power, more children will die, become sick, lose an education and begin a new cycle of despair and dependence.

The morality of reserves

All Canadians, regardless of race or gender or any other characteristic, have the freedom to live where they wish and conduct their lives as they please.

What they don’t have is the right for the government to support that lifestyle.

For over a hundred years, Canada has struggled with the right and moral course of action in dealing with our aboriginal populations.

In the late 1880s and early 1900s, the government’s course of action was one of isolation and annihilation. It was considered appropriate at the time to herd aboriginals onto reserves or kill them off, either directly or indirectly through epidemics and neglect. The best example of this was the impregnation of trading blankets with smallpox – an evil, disgusting, inhuman technique which should shame all right-thinking people.

When our fore-fathers recognized that isolation and annihilation were immoral, a newer approach of assimilation took hold. Driven by the Federal Government, it was considered best for everyone, including First Nations, if they could become “like everyone else”. If First Nations would just abandon their traditional family structures, territories and philosophy then we wouldn’t have this “Indian Problem.”

That didn’t really work out either –mostly because of widespread, culturally accepted and promoted racism in a Canada that was far more white and Anglo-Saxon than it is today.

Then during the 1960s, a wave of activism spread among progressive bands. Tired of despair, leaders began to emerge who pushed their children to get an education (yes, a white one) and fight back on their own terms. Bands and Nations became far more politically astute and began to lay the groundwork for what we see today: a strong, educated leadership that fights hard for the benefit of their people.

But we seem to have reached a new plateau. Aboriginal children, and more specifically those living on reserves, are more likely to not finish school, suffer abuse, and live in sub-standard conditions with inadequate food and medical attention.

It is time to revisit the idea that the best place to be Aboriginal in on a native reserve. The native population is very fragmented – there are 198 separate bands in BC, each with its own band council, governance structure and social programs.

The idea of scrapping reserves altogether is rarely discussed – some how it is seen as racist to suggest that the $8 billion Canada spends each year on First Nations isn’t deriving value when is supporting so many local governments and spread-out populations.

We are willing to help all needy Canadians, regardless of race. The question is how do we help people who chose to live hundreds of miles from running water and an elementary school and deny their children the advantages that other Canadians enjoy.

Olympics - the new social planners?

Over the stormy winter we’ve all just endured, the dream of 2010 has faded a little. Perhaps it was the driving rain on dark February afternoons or maybe it was the sight of ancient toppled trees lining the causeway in Stanley Park, but the Olympic fever has become muted through the combination of a nasty winter, overwhelming expectations and a lack of concrete information.

Of course, the dimming of excitement wasn’t helped by 2010 events plagued by protesters, who went as far as to damage the countdown clock located in the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery and defy court orders in the Eagleridge Bluff’s debacle.

Somehow, on the road to the Olympic Games, the monstrous sporting spectacle became responsible for every social ill and poor government planning decision. Hauling away Grandma Betty Kracwcyzk in handcuffs for her illegal actions – let’s pin that on the Olympics. Homelessness in Vancouver, which has been a multi-government problem for years – must be the Olympics.

But the corner has been turned this week and organizers should hope the momentum gathered this summer will carry them through next winter’s nasty weather.

The long-awaited budget and business plan for the 2010 Games has finally been released, putting to rest nagging fears of cost overruns and taxpayers “on the hook”.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a doozy of a $1.62 billion budget. (Yes, billion). The budget beats the estimated costs from the bid budget by almost double but the organizers, led by Jack Poole, have managed to keep the government financial commitment the same by reaching out to sponsors, squeezing more from the IOC in television dollars and employing innovative revenue generation techniques.

As with most billion dollar budgets, there is something for everyone to criticize, but examined in aggregate, the budget (posted at www.vancouver2010.com) is conservative, well-considered and leaves lots of room for last minute cost increases – which are bound to occur.

Even critics will have to admit that the organizers have done their job and done it well.

But let’s be honest, most Olympic detractors are never going to support the games. They have an ideological opposition to building community in this manner and loath the idea of corporate sponsorship, sports (all that sweat and testosterone) and leveraging a global event for the benefit of a region.

They will continue to push the 2010 Games to provide for social programs that are outside their mandate, a no-win situation for the Olympics and a disingenuous ploy for the social activists.

But with the budget out of the way, the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief and start thinking about how to get our hands on some gold medal round hockey tickets.

The Penalty Box

It turns out that hockey in British Columbia is a lot like politics in British Columbia.

There are moments of sweeping euphoria, times of utter despair, backroom deals with dollar signs written on napkins and, when all else is failing, both just blame the General Manager for the sorry state of affairs.

In a twist of fate far more suited to the machinations in a Zalm-era Premier’s office, the debate over the ownership of the Canucks finally popped up in BC Supreme Court this week.

This is a tale as old as time with allegations of double-crossing, unfair bargaining and advantage being taken by well-heeled and well-connected establishment sons. The scene is set against a backdrop of an unpopular leader (Brian Burke) and a money-losing sports franchise struggling to make it to the playoffs.

But just like party politics, these spats really only get interesting to the rest of us when the combatants take their brawls public. Would the Paul Martin versus Jean Chretien war for the Federal Liberals have been nearly as fascinating if both sides had managed to keep the riding association power plays and short-handed goals under wraps?

There is something in all of us that thrills to a fight, especially one that we don’t expect to see displayed. Maybe it is a throw-back to earlier times of brutal survival, but it takes a strong person (or a liar) to turn away from a little blood on the ice.

Which is why politics and hockey in BC have such a following. They are bloodsports, without the bodies. There may be the odd broken nose, but we don’t have to feel terribly guilty about our lust for the next chapter in the story.

Of course, anyone who has been through the meat-grinder that is Canucks management or provincial politics has a slightly different perspective. Some of them, decades later, are still recovering from often fatal career blows. They might not be actually dead, but I’m sure some of them have wished to be from time to time.

You may ask why the pitched battle over the ownership of the Canucks? That one is easier than following the paper trail of the fast ferries or the brown paper bags of cash. Losses incurred by sports teams can be written off by their owners against other revenue.

It’s basically a way to get your million dollar tax bill reduced at the same time that you get the ego boost of owning the city’s sports soul.

So until icing can be called during Question Period and diving in politics and business is not tolerated by over-worked refs, we can look forward to more twisted tales of games gone wrong.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Using Past to Teach the Future

Should we whitewash our history as a nation, or should we display our past, warts and all, even if it is offensive and embarrassing, both to ourselves and others?

That was the question facing the BC Legislature this week as it grappled with the question of what to do with the historic murals, painted by artist George Southwell, depicting the role BC aboriginals played in the construction of the early days of our province.

The murals, which cover the walls of the lower rotunda in the BC Legislative building in Victoria, show aboriginals, in various states of undress, lugging heavy loads of stones and other construction materials.

Powerful art? Yes. Flattering? No.

BC First Nations’ leaders condemned the murals as reinforcing negative stereotypes about the relationships between aboriginal communities and early settlers to British Columbia. They are concerned that these murals, from an earlier, less sensitive time, will lead children and tourists who visit the buildings today to believe that this is how our aboriginal population still lives.

Best, they say, to paint over these pieces of art to lessen the hurt that remains from those times.

And, of course, the MLAs in Victoria, always looking to be as politically correct as possible, quickly bowed to the pressure of the powerful interest group and voted to do exactly that.

This is very disturbing.

Totalitarian regimes from time immemorial have destroyed works of art that didn’t jibe with the prevailing “wisdom” of the day. Some went so far as to jail or kill artists and thinkers whose works were deemed inappropriate or subversive.

If we started to ban all the art that hurts feelings of various groups, there might not be much left hanging on the walls of art galleries in Canada.

We’d have to start by removing the fantastic Emily Carr permanent exhibit of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In fact, by the time we burned, or painted over, or melted down various art work depicting unflattering depictions of women, old men, war heroes, farmers, and Ukrainians, we might be only left with non-threatening landscapes of flowers found naturally occurring in nature.

I believe that the MLAs, by bowing to this special interest group, have done a grave disservice to an important historical artefact. The reality is that settlers to B.C. did treat First Nations in a deplorable manner. Why would we pretend that this never happened? Removing the murals doesn’t take away those sad facts – it just buries them so that future generations might not even remember our history.

And, frankly, what better way to discuss the injustices of the past than by standing before these powerful murals?

What better teaching aide than these larger than life images haunting visitors when they leave our capital?

Staunching the Flow

Political success by a party leader can be achieved with a few key attributes, which are easy enough to write about, but far more difficult to actually deliver.

Carole James, the NDP head-boss under whose tenure the NDP have slipped back down to popularity levels not seen since before the last election, has struggled with leadership, team-building, vision-setting and adaptability.

In this week’s Ipsos-Reid poll, the popularity of the party has sunk even further to 32%, almost 20% behind that of the governing BC Liberals. Let’s not forget there was a time, just about three year ago, when observers predicted a return of the NDP, phoenix-like from the ashes of the humiliating election of 2001.

The numbers also show, more importantly, that James’ personal approval has slipped 18% from her all time high to 51%, and now sits just two points behind that of the Premier.

While two points doesn’t sound like much, it is unheard of for the Opposition Leader to trail the governing Leader in this regard. The Premier of the province does tough work, regardless of political stripe, and has to make decisions that turn people off his party and his person.

In one respect, there are issues beyond her control that make it very difficult for her to push an NDP agenda, if in fact there is one. The economy is booming and that success has been linked in voter’s minds to the 2001 dismissal of the NDP from government and the turn-around seen since.

That being said, there are gaps in government policy in Victoria big enough to drive a truck through– there always is. And NDP members can see these and cannot understand why their leader can’t focus her team on the short-comings of the government.

After being elected to bring a new, kinder, gentler face to the NDP, she has been slow to learn that politics isn’t the same as the sandbox, and that people desire decisiveness and action – they want to feel protected and cared for in a primeval sense by their leaders. If the storm comes or the army invades, they want to know that the leadership will be on the front line brandishing the biggest sword.

Unfortunately James’ team doesn’t see the problem that way, and she is further hampered because she won’t rein in her caucus who, in fighting for their own political lives, are firing randomly on issues, like road potholes, which do little to help build that sense of a team working together.

The piranhas are happy to circle after sensing the blood from flesh wounds. James doesn’t have much time left to bandage the cuts before she will be turn apart from her own team.

Teaching what?

Every once in awhile a public sector union does something so over the top that I can’t help but react.

Yesterday, Kid #1 arrived home from school with a flyer in her backpack proclaiming “FSA testing can be harmful to students”. The material, put together by the BC Teacher’s Federation, was highly critical of the standardized testing that takes place in BC schools in grades 4 and 7.

We then spent €a very enjoyable hour explaining the concept of sensationalistic literature to a nine year old in a way that maintained respect for her fantastic teacher, while at the same time exploring the mysteries of baseline research, curriculum development and the need to benchmark general student achievement over a period of time.

Lovely.

The BC Teacher’s Federation, which put together this alarming piece of propaganda, is perfectly within its rights to politically engage around the issue. The BCTF can take out newspaper ads (which it has) and the leadership can discuss, debate and decry the measurement student progress on talk radio and in newspaper articles.

There are many avenues of advocacy and activism open to the union without the group needing to stoop to employing our children as their messengers.

Teachers have a sacred trust with students and parents. We hand over our most precious treasure and expect that they will be taught the curriculum prescribed by the province in a way that best suits their learning style. We hope they will learn “the rules” and will emerge from the public system with a democratic and broad-based education

We do not want them caught up in the middle of a political fight between the union and the government. It is just not appropriate to insert children into a policy discussion of this nature.
And in cases where the parents disagree with the BCTF, it puts children in the position of feeling uncertain about two very important sets of people in their lives.

Our family has had an amazing experience in Vancouver public schools which is why I find this action so profoundly disturbing. I know the teachers we have worked with put kids first. They want them to be successful and support them at every turn. Some teachers feel compelled to go along with their union, rather than rock the boat.

Personally, I support the Foundations Skills Assessment. I think it provides valuable data about the state of the education system in BC with year over year information. But until the BCTF ceases this inappropriate and, frankly, bullying tactic, it is difficult to debate the guts of issue at all.

I hope the BCTF will see the error of this ill-considered action and circulate a formal apology to parents of students who received the material.

I’m of two minds about the purchase of social housing units announced this week by Premier Gordon Campbell and Minister of Housing, Rich Coleman.

A big part of me cheers at the thought that now, perhaps, we can finally break out of the partisan bickering that has defined this issue and focus on the cause of the despair.

The $80 million investment in single occupancy units and supported housing is an excellent step on the path to truly helping damaged lives.

However, unless we deal with the root of this epidemic of hurt and hungry people on our streets, we will soon fill these beds and still need more.

As I wrote last month, the GVRD estimates there are 3000 homeless in the lower mainland – most of those in Vancouver.

A survey of them shows that the vast majority are coping with mental illness, substance abuse and, more often than not, some variation of both conditions at the same time.

New supported housing, with dedicated teams of mental health workers, addiction counsellors and life skills trainers will go a long way to helping people who can be helped.

If, through this housing, we can stabilize a druggie’s life so that she isn’t selling her body for crack or breaking into your car, then we have made a real difference. If she gains skill enough to go confidently into the real world, away from her old life and work to support her family, that is success.

And success will occur one broken life at a time.

But if the plan is to warehouse the poor, the mentally ill and the addicted in downtown eastside ghettos, we have just made a terrible mistake. Although those making their living from the creation of a concentrated homeless population may disagree, social housing isn’t going to fix the problem.

We need to accept the government’s purchase of marginal housing stock for what it is: a short-term band-aid to the gaping wound that plagues our cities.

Some of the homeless should be incarcerated into mental institutions. Some of the homeless are excellent candidates for drug replacement therapy. Others need to be supported to return to their homes and their families elsewhere.

Because as crazy as it sounds, building more ghetto housing is not a sustainable solution to homelessness, because most people without a roof have complex reasons for their situation, other than a simple lack of housing stock.

So kudos to government for staunching the flow of blood. Now we all need to work through the underlying issue that caused the haemorrhage in the first place.

Island Dead Ahead

The internal report by BC Ferries on the sinking of the Queen of the North a year ago has now been released and the results point squarely to poor practices by the crew members manning the bridge that dark night as a major key to the tragedy.

After a year of silence by the BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union and two of the employees directly involved, what has long been suspected by many observers has now been confirmed: crew members were so lax on March 22, 2006 that the music they were playing could be heard over the radio by the marine traffic controller in Prince Rupert.

The report softens the situation as “human error”, but I suspect the families of Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy, who died that night in the cold northern waters, might beg to differ if they were to review of the transcripts and the “black box” recordings.

“Human error” includes misunderstanding the equipment or getting confused in the heat of the moment.

I’m not sure that human error includes being so distracted that a ship could run off-course for 14 minutes and that highly trained crew members wouldn’t notice an island looming before the vessel.

Anyone who has been on the bridge of a BC Ferry would know that the equipment is top-notch and the crews are remarkably well-trained. They receive paid time off from their regular schedules for additional training on equipment and procedures related to their position.

The Ferries Union, led by the fiesty Jackie Miller, has fought to include this training time in workers’ contracts.

The Ferries Union has done what all good unions do. It has fought for competitive wages and benefits. It has worked to ensure that workers have the proper training. And it has protected workers from the spectre of unfair management practices. Jackie Miller may rub a few folks the wrong way, but you couldn’t suggest that she wasn’t doing her job.

But by sheltering employees shown now to bear a large measure of responsibility for that night, she has devalued the gains she made over the past decade.

I expect that most ferry workers do not condone colleagues who don’t follow proper procedure and I can’t see how they could support the asinine position of their union in protecting employees who have messed up.

The report from the Transportation Safety Board is now being circulated in draft form to BC Ferries, the Union and other interested parties.

Given that two of the employees involved didn’t have the guts to face their own employer with what happened that night, it will be interesting to see what they will say under the cover of the anonymity provided by the Board.

Puffy Egos

Minority governments are difficult to navigate at the best of times and many a good ship government has been scuttled on the shoals of a skittish budget. Ask Joe Clark how it felt to lose his nascent minority by a couple of lousy votes back in 1980.

Here is a little secret: the Conservatives could have given $10,000 to every man, woman and child in Canada and the Liberals and NDP still would not have voted for this week’s budget.

They could have banned all fossil fuels, or opened daycares on every street corner, or funded a Starbucks in every Canadian basement and the opposition would still have not supported the budget.

There is something for everyone to disagree with in the $200 billion in program spending.

There usually is.

However, the Conservatives had to balance on the edge of a keen political reality. Knowing that Stephane Dion and Jack Layton were unlikely to vote for a Conservative budget left Harper and his team little choice but to reach out to the Bloc Quebecois.

If they hadn’t been able to muster support for a budget, we would be pounding election lawn signs into our grass by month’s end.

By crafting a budget that was seen as a boost for Quebec, Harper has assured passage of the positive items in the document. These include income splitting for families, additional child tax credits, debt repayment, more money for low income seniors, funding for alternative energy and incentives to purchase fuel efficient vehicles.

The other provinces are beside themselves, as they see yet another budget built around subsidizing Quebec.

All this kerfuffle could have been avoided if the Liberal and NDP had shown some guts and worked with the government during this minority parliament. But because playing politics was more important to the opposition than running the country, the Conservatives have no choice but to work with the separatists in Quebec.

Layton’s and Dion’s inability to set their puffy egos aside means that Canadians, yet again, have a budget that provides a heavy dollop of sucking up to Quebec.

This time the finger of blame goes right to the opposition. There is no doubt in Conservative minds that Dion is desperate for an election. His flailing around on the opposition benches highlights his ineffectiveness as a parliamentarian. His people hope that the election circuit, built on meaningless sound bits and cheesy photo ops, will be a more effective platform for their guy, who just can’t seem to connect with the beer and popcorn crowd.

In the meantime, Dion and Layton seem quite willing to abdicate their responsibilities to a strong federation in the hopes that playing politics will yield them a magical election result.

Introducing Dion...

If you were listening on Monday to CBC radio man Rick Cluf’s interview with embattled Federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion, you are forgiven if you spewed your breakfast over the breakfast table.

To back up a bit, each Monday morning I sit on a political panel at the CBC Vancouver studios. My partners in radio crime are two former BC environment ministers: Moe Sihota, a long-time NDP activist and the controversial Rafe Mair, a mentor for any aspiring radio hack in the skills of not pulling punches and having the facts on hand to back up an argument.

Because of this panel, I am fortunate to meet a wide range of other Early Edition guests, ranging from social activists, to labour leaders and, yes, to the odd politician stumping for votes. We sit and have our coffee in the “green room” waiting for our time at the microphone.

Meeting politicians of different stripes is something I greatly enjoy. Because we are all in the same industry, we generally have more in common with each other than not, if one can get past the diametrically opposing views on how to govern our nation.

However, once in awhile, a politician comes along that bucks the camaraderie that defines the political realm and actually buys into the spin being pushed by his staff and party.

And unfortunately, that dangerous slippery slope to ridiculous has claimed Stephane Dion.

It all started well enough during the late November leadership. Stephane Dion looked a political marvel with his ability to skate past his far more popular rivals and claim the Liberal crown. His intellectually folksy ways seemed democratic and non-threatening. Initially voters were willing to overlook the failed environmental policy of his time in office because of the approachable aura that surrounded him.

Those days have clearly passed.

Dion now travels with a full-size entourage, larger than any I’ve seen from a Leader of the Opposition.

And, as he told Rick Cluf more than once, Dion feels he is the most influential Leader of the Opposition in Canadian history. Given that he’s only been in the job four months, that is quite an accomplishment. Don’t worry about his “common man” backpack, Dion clearly has the ego required for the role.

I’m not sure what he is trying to achieve. I would have thought that his polling numbers alone would be enough to have him revisit his failing strategy of reminding Canadians of the dismal environmental record of the Liberals. To reinforce the good work of the Conservatives – even by saying it is all his doing – is a political tactic of the desperate.

Arrogance and desperation. What a lovely combination on a Monday morning.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tax Cuts Welcome Here

There is nothing like news of an unexpected tax cut to focus attention on a provincial budget.

Between the 10% tax cut in this budget and the 25% tax cut in 2001, most BC income earners have seen their provincial tax burden decrease between 33% and 100%, with the majority falling in the 33-34% category.

For example, a person earning about $30,000 per year used to pay $1,606 in provincial income tax prior to Gordon Campbell coming into government. Now, that same person pays $1023 per year – a reduction of 36%.

An extra $50 or so a month makes a big difference when we live in such an expensive part of the world.

And if that person also happens to be a single parent or the sole-wage earner for a family, he or she is also eligible for day-care subsidies, rental assistance support, reduced MSP premiums and other provincial programs aimed at further helping out his or her family.

It is difficult to craft a budget in a time of relative prosperity. Every advocacy group from business to health care to welfare reform believes that their cause is more deserving than that of any other for a government handout.

The news coverage this week was dominated by one group or another telling us the budget wasn’t good enough.

Let’s keep in mind what this budget provided.

The largest increase ever in welfare rates – not good enough. New funding for health care – not good enough. Additional money for shelter spaces and homeless initiatives – never good enough. .

Most advocates are doing very good work and pushing the government for money is part of that job.

It is, however, disingenuous to suggest that this budget is a disappointment to everyone because that opposite is true.

Most British Columbians get up in the morning, go to their jobs, work hard all day long, and come home to their families or their communities. Frankly these are the people this budget helps – people trying to get ahead in our province and who deserve more in their pockets at the end of the day.

The fact that the government has provided tax relief at the same time they’ve raised welfare rates, provided money for housing and increased funding to health care by 7% speaks for the good fiscal times and the prudent decisions by Carole Taylor.

Tax cuts are just not possible when times are tough – we usually get the opposite during a bad economy, which piles hurt onto hurt.

There is an old saying that a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy but I hope that most British Columbians will not buy into the special interest rhetoric and instead enjoy another unprecedented return of their hard-earned dollars.

As seen today in 24 Hours

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Don't give away the farm (or brand)

Opinion polling completed last fall by Justason Market Intelligence asked residents of Vancouver to name, without prompting, the major municipal political parties.

A staggering 36% couldn’t name one single party and another 11% named parties that no longer exist or that aren’t active on the municipal level, such as the NDP.

Besides the obvious gap in civic knowledge, comes fascinating details about the brand strength of each of the main parties duking it out.

Of the 64% who could name a party, 46% of respondents named the NPA, 36% named COPE and way down the list was Vision Vancouver’s awareness at 20%.

It becomes clear from the research the dangerous path COPE is treading by considering disbanding itself in favour of the opportunistic Vision Vancouver crew which fiercely eviscerated COPE in the lead up to the 2005 campaign.

The small but well-funded Vision force with its four councilors wants to take-over the remnants of COPE, which holds one council spot and five seats on School Board and Parks Board.

Nice trick, but if the left folds COPE into Vision, they will lose years of hard-fought branding – something that the right in Canada has learned isn’t worth forfeiting lightly.

The Reform Party went through a similar ill-thought exercise in 2000 when it re-surfaced as the Canadian Alliance. Voters didn’t have a clue what the organization stood for and, while leader Stockwell Day did well in the 2000 election, it wasn’t as good as the result when it adopted the well-known “Conservative” brand by reaching out to long-time Progressive Conservatives.

Vision Vancouver scores particularly badly among self-identified ethnic voters, with less than 6% of South Asian and Chinese voters able to name the group. COPE scores more than double that, at 13%, among this important and growing demographic.

The NPA, perhaps as a result of Mayor Sullivan’s language skills and outreach, is known by 31% of self-identified South Asian and Chinese respondents.

One myth that both COPE and Vision have cultivated is their supposed support among younger Vancouverites. Ironically, COPE is known by just 25% of those under the age of 45 and Vision by a mere 13%. The NPA beats out the others at 36%.

I understand the appeal that Vision’s slick approach and high-roller backers must have to COPE loyalists tired of slogging it out with small fundraisers and committed ideals. It is difficult to build political infrastructure without cash, and Vision seems to have lots of it.

But COPE, formed in 1968, is wise to play coy for some time in order to discover if Vision can build itself a wider base of awareness, before it sacrifices its name for political expediency.


www.erinairton.com

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Public Health Care on the Skids

Not surprisingly, health care in BC is on the front burner again.

If you are shocked by the machinations in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Valley Health Authorities, you shouldn’t be.

Simply put, our health care system doesn’t work.

We are like a family living in a neighbourhood far beyond our means and buying our groceries on a maxed-out credit card.

Anyone who has lived with a stretched budget knows sooner or later the elastic is going to snap.

Throwing more money at this problem isn’t going to solve anything, other than forestall the inevitable for another election cycle.

Health spending in BC has increased over 25% since 2001 and spending alone this year will increase over 7%, with the pre-budget announcement from the Health Minister last week. In raw numbers, the Ministry of Health will spend $13.1 billion in this fiscal year, including a $100 million for a Health Innovation Fund.

Health care spending accounts for 42% of our provincial budget. Some projections have it at 70% by 2017.

If almost half of your household expenses were taken up with one item, you might feel some pressure to get innovative on spending.

You might choose not to participate in some activities, or sell your car, or not eat out very often. Maybe you would get a roommate. Perhaps you would even have to move to a less expensive city.

What many find frustrating about this situation, which exists across Canada, is the unwillingness of governments to consider innovative solutions because of fear of a vicious lashing from voters who have bought into the mythology of public health care.

Public sector unions, among other vested interests, are threatened by public/private mixed health care, although they operate in many European countries relatively successfully. They point to the U.S. and tell us that is what we’d get with health care reform. How ridiculous. Why don’t they reference Germany or Norway?

Why not consider that our grocery stores are all privately run. No one is starving in our country because of private grocery stores. In fact, due to the competition and efficiencies of the private sector, we have the opposite problem: an abundance of cheap food. We get flyers in the mail every week encouraging us to visit a new grocery store and check out the bargains.

Thankfully, no one is suggesting that governments should run the grocery stores. Or book stores. Or Laundromats.

So how is it we believe that health care is the only part of society for which market economics don’t apply, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

There is no doubt we will have to reform our precarious health care system. Let’s start now, rather than wait for the creditors to start pounding on the door.

As seen today in 24 Hours

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Just say no to homelessness...

It is finally time for innovative solutions for the homeless in our province. Years and years of throwing money at the problem hasn’t worked – the number continues to grow and taxpayers are weary.

In fact, what we’ve done is develop a whole network of government and non-profit agencies devoted to helping the homeless stay homeless. They provide emergency food, emergency shelter, and emergency medical care.

There is an old adage in economics: if you want to encourage something, subsidize it; if you want to discourage something, tax it.

Right now, in a sad way, we are encouraging homelessness, making it “bearable” to be homeless by providing these “emergency” services.

Now, before you get all twisted up, I’m not saying it is pleasant to be homeless and I’m not saying anyone wants to be homeless.

But let’s not forget we have built up a substantial industry of well-meaning people who make their livelihoods and defend their funding on the basis of supporting a homeless population.

The 2005 GVRD counted the total homeless population (in a 24 hour counting period) at 2174. I would suggest the number is higher, just because of survey techniques. I doubt the counters climbed through the bushes in Stanley Park enumerating all the tent dwellers, for instance.

Let’s say 3000 people in the GVRD are homeless. These, of course, are the truly homeless without access to a friend’s spare sofa and not knowing from night to night whether they will be sleeping in a crowded, fetid shelter or over a vent at Georgia and Burrard.

From the GVRD research, they are likely medically or mentally ill and struggle with some form of addiction. Most startling was the information that 55% of homeless had some form of income support from welfare, a pension or disability benefits.

So here is one radical idea and I’m sure there are more.

Why don’t we gather together each and every homeless service organization at BC Place along with each and every homeless person? Why not take each person, one at a time, diagnose the issues at the root of their inability to find or maintain housing and then put a plan in place for each?

More money for homeless services isn’t going to rid us of homelessness. In fact, it will do the opposite. If we take those funds and direct them to removing each person individually from the streets, we may actually make some lives better.

In the short-term, we can house them at BC Place while we sort it all out.

It is not right to help people stay on the streets. The only moral course of action is to remove them, forcibly if necessary, and assist them in building a new life.


As seen today in 24 Hours.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Paying Us Back

If the Government of Canada were a bank, do you think they would stand for only 17% of their outstanding loans being repaid or would you expect to have some heavy handed knocking on doors demanding the money be returned?

Over the past 23 years, more than $18 billion has been loaned to various corporations and businesses – and only 7% of that total has ever been recouped. It is important to understand that this $18 billion does not include distributions through other
departments, or the three primary federal regional development agencies in Atlantic Canada Quebec, and western Canada, or through other government sources.

This $18 billion comes solely from Industry Canada.

The first question is why have successive governments lent almost a billion dollars per year to business?

Now, in fairness, some of these transactions take place as loan guarantees for Canadian companies operating abroad and some of this grand total is for grants that are not expected to be recouped.

Loan guarantees shouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent, unless the Canadian company defaults.
Grants are a policy decision by government to encourage certain behaviours, like locating to a certain province or hiring unemployed workers.

But with both of these out of the mix, we are still left with $7.1 billion of payable loans handed over to corporate Canada, of which just over 17% has been returned to government coffers.

The worst offended is a program called Technology Partnerships Canada (TPC), which the Liberal government formed in 1996. In ten years, it has given out $3 billion and seen only $169 million returned – less than 6%. When TPC was formed, the government of the day predicted that $1.74 would return to Ottawa from every dollar doled out.

The Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation (CTF) calls the whole scheme “Corporate Welfare” in a scathing report issued last week. The report is a stunning tale of handouts gone terribly wrong and a general lack of accountability and oversight – all things, of course, that were brought to light in the 2005 SponsorGate scandal that help to topple the Liberal government.

According to the CTF, the Technology Partnership Council requires loans over $10 million be authorized by Treasury Board. Their report reveals that just about 10% of the funds distributed fall suspiciously under this threshold and therefore don’t require political approval.

In the words of the John Williamson, the National director for the CTF: "By getting out of the subsidy and regional development business, Ottawa could reduce the corporate tax burden. Savings of $2- to $4-billion could be realized annually if Ottawa recognized that corporate welfare was not a suitable role for the government.”

You can read their full report at: The 30-page report can be viewed at:
http://www.taxpayer.com/pdf/2007_corporate_welfare_report.pdf

At What Point Comes "The Past"?

Do we bear, collectively, the responsibility for the historic wrongs of Canada?

How do we weigh the claims of past discrimination by the government and society towards our aboriginals, Chinese migrant labour, Japanese interred in war camps, and Dukabours stripped of their children, among others?

The majority of these less than savory moments occurred long before most of us were born or even lived in this country.

Jack Layton was back in BC this week and called again for an official apology for the Komagata Maru incident. MP Ujjal Dosanjh said that the Liberals would have done it, but they just didn’t get to it during 11 years of majority government.

For background, almost 93 years ago a ship of primarily Sikhs from India attempted to land in Vancouver. Held in the harbour for months, they were finally sent back to India, where there was a skirmish with police and 20 died.

At that time in our history, Canada had “Exclusion Laws”, which made it almost impossible for non-whites to immigrate to Canada – mostly as an effort to protect jobs of white Canadians in factories and lumber mills.

The laws of the time said that Indians had to have $200 to enter BC and must travel non-stop from India – highly unlikely as the average daily wage in India at the time was 10 cents and there was no ship making direct passage that would sell tickets to Indians.

A wealthy Indian businessman, Gurdit Singh, chartered a Japanese boat to make the journey, via Japan, in an attempt to circumvent the unfair laws. It didn’t work.

This scenario just wouldn’t happen today. We have policies in place to assist refugees seeking asylum and we have immigration rules that don’t discriminate on the basis of race.

Given that we have learned from our mistakes, is it necessary to formally apologize for the Komagata Maru or pay redress, as we have done with Chinese head tax survivors?

At some point, we have to close the books on the past and build on our legacy of an open, tolerant nation or risk playing pandering, race-card politics.

Almost any group in Canada can claim some kind of systemic discrimination. Women, for example, couldn’t vote until 1918. Should Canadians of the female gender receive an apology and compensation for this? Frankly, it doesn’t particularly bother me; we’ve learned from history and I can vote and my daughter isn’t in any danger of losing that right before she turns 18.

But in the race for seats in a minority parliament, sometimes politicians grasp for dangerous straws. A country must be about more than just the sins of its past.

Let’s move forward together rather than picking at the wounds of history.

Nurses Union: Politics Before Debate?

In the midst of the provincial government’s landmark “Conversation on Health Care”, the BC Nurses Union has shown that it has no interest in trying to find solutions to BC’s health care conundrum and would rather play politics with court cases.

On December 20th, the BCNU filed a revised argument in BC Supreme Court that basically called for a moratorium on private involvement in our health care system.

Fair enough opinion I guess from an entrenched public sector labour group whose driving aim is to grow its membership working in public facilities like hospitals and clinics.

It would be one thing if the government was cutting the health care budget. It isn’t. In 2006, the government spent $3.6 billion more on health care than just six years ago. The total health spending now sits at $12.8 billion or approximately 40% of the provincial budget.

It is no secret that we could spend more on health care. That’s one option. Of course, it would mean spending less on public transit, or education, or policing or welfare.

I don’t see the BCNU’s Supreme Court filing addressing those tough budget decisions instead they are rehashing old, tired rhetoric.

This overly politicized environment does nothing to serve the future sustainability of our health care system. It makes for good headlines, but doesn’t actually do much to deal with the looming spectre of an aging population reliant on public health services.

The average spent by government on health care for a 45-64 year old is $2364. This increases tenfold to $20,878 per senior 85 years and older. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know about the aging baby boomers who are starting to hit retirement age and approaching the time of their greatest impact on our system.

There are other factors in the increase of provincial health costs: more expensive drugs and new technology are among them. Fortunately, people are surviving health crises that even ten years ago would have killed them due to these phenomenal advances. We don’t want to turn back the clock, but we need to figure out some ways to lesson the impact on public coffers so that those who need services get them in a timely manner.

The BCNU is obviously mistrustful of the “Conversation on Health Care”.

Because the government is engaging directly with the public who aren’t traditional special interests, they can gain ideas untainted by public sector agendas.

This is probably quite nerve wracking for the BCNU who seem to have decided that instead of constructive solution making, court cases would make better public policy.

Find out more about the Conversation on Health Care at : www.bcconversationonhealth.ca. The BCNU filing can be found at: www.bcnu.org

Common Sense and Green

For some reason, the left gets all the credit about environmental progress in our country.

Stephane Dion, the newly elected Liberal leader waltzes in a green agenda that he couldn’t advance when he was actually the Environment Minister and now most of the media are acting like Canada will be saved from our mess of emissions and air pollution.

Let’s not forget that Canada has some of the worst air pollution in the OECD and some of the highest emissions of greenhouse gasses. We have all sorts of excuses, but the fact remains we need to do better.

You are right in thinking that this isn’t news, but we didn’t exactly see a lot of concrete action under the last Liberal government, even when it was propped up by Jack Layton’s NDP.

The fact remains that a significant amount of practical environmental legislation has been brought in by conservative governments, rather than ones on the other side of the fence.

It was John Fraser and Brian Mulroney who were able to leverage well-developed relations with the US into a successful bi-lateral acid rain treaty. A key issue of the 80s, emissions causing acid rain were responsible for devastation of Eastern and Central Canadian lakes and forests. While recovery has been slow, it took decisive action to end the degradation and begin the clean up.

The last conservative government in Canada also brought in the Environmental Protection Act, a thoroughly practical and common sense piece of legislation aimed to protect Canada from environmental problems like chemical dumping and water pollution.

History has shown that large, international environmental treaties are not effective in combating major pollution and environmental problems. One could argue they don’t accomplish much in the realms of child poverty, peace or disease either. They do make for interesting travel schedules for Environment Ministers, though.

The Kyoto Treaty is a very good example. While well-meaning, it has had to address so many competing agendas and various national development levels that it isn’t going to solve anything. It just isn’t practical.

The Federal Liberals, with Dion at the cabinet table, wasted over a decade and untold millions trying to make this treaty work when instead they should have just strapped on some guts and tried to improve Canada’s dismal performance in practical ways that wouldn’t hamstring industry job creation.

Perhaps the difference is in approach. The Liberals want the big-ego boosting bang that comes with pats of the back from around the world, even if it doesn’t actually fix anything for average Canadians and our precious environment.

The Conservatives don’t care so much about the glory or gratuitous pandering to voters around environment issues, they just want to get the job done in a common sense fashion.

What Maketh a Canadian - Part 2

Last week, I wrote about “Canadians of Convenience” – those citizens living abroad but keeping a Canadian passport as an insurance policy against civil strife or natural disaster. These dual citizens contribute nothing to Canada, but are happy enough to jump on a Canadian vessel when the bombs are falling, only to return to their true “homes” the next month.

There was no shortage of reader comment on that column. Some of you agreed whole-heartedly, some disagreed so vehemently my computer sizzled when the email arrived. Some readers felt I was bashing dual-citizens living here in Canada instead of those who have no intention of being “Canadians” but like the cache of the blue passport.

However, I also received two separate letters that have haunted me since they showed up in my inbox last weekend.

They were both passionately written by individuals who had wanted to immigrate to Canada.

They sold their homes, gave up their jobs, amassed their life savings, pulled their children from their schools and friends and launched themselves towards the great land of Canada.

Both were highly educated as engineers; both were confident after a short period of adjustment, they would find work and be able to support their families.

It just didn’t work out that way.

In a country crying out for skilled workers, their qualifications were questioned and their professional designations denigrated. There was no way to gain credit for their existing education and skills and support their families at the same time.

After six months, one was working as a security guard for $12 an hour, a long way from the career his education – and Canadian Immigration – had suggested would be his. They tried to stick it out, became Canadian citizens, enrolled their children in schools and tried to assimilate.

And, finally, after a number of hard years of not getting ahead, both letter writers returned to their native countries where they would be able to raise their families to a higher standard of living.

Both feel utterly betrayed by the Canadian government which encouraged them to apply, levied large immigration fees and didn’t breathe a hint of the challenges that would face them.

We all know nurses who are working as house cleaners and doctors who are driving taxi cabs. There is something very wrong about encouraging skilled workers to immigrate to Canada, and then refuse them the opportunity to work in their fields once they arrive.

There have been some efforts recently to right these inequalities. There is a plan on the table to put in place a process for the recognition of international educations and skills.

I don’t know how many of our citizens living abroad are those that chose to leave because they were mislead by the promise of Canada but I appreciate the letter writers who reminded me that not all who leave Canada are cut from the same cloth.

What Maketh a Canadian?

Sometimes an issue permeates to the top of Canadian consciousness so gradually that before you know it, everyone seems to be talking about it – and with a large measure of agreement.

The issue du jour? Dual citizenship.

It began last summer with the embarrassing spectacle of “Canadians of Convenience” clambering onboard whatever ships our government could commandeer during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon only to turn around and return once the rockets had stopped falling.

We were shocked with the level of entitlement that these non-resident, non-taxpaying “citizens” showed.

How big a problem could we have?

Unfortunately Statistics Canada only tracks dual-citizens living in Canada – and there were just under 700,000 of these in 2001. However, as the Lebanon conflict showed, there are hundreds and thousands of Canadians living in other countries happy to avail themselves of the comforts of Canada when expedient.

As a state, we don’t track the citizenship status of Canadians living abroad. Goodness knows how many potential Lebanons are lurking in the future.

A great number of people from Hong Kong became Canadians during the days leading up to the take over of that region by China, with many staying and building lives for themselves here. However, many also returned to Hong Kong and currently about a quarter of a million Canadians live there. Close to a million Canadians live in the US. What if they needed to exit in a hurry?

Just to be clear, my quibble is not with those Canadians working or living abroad, but remaining engaged citizens of our great country. Instead I take exception to those who consider themselves nationals of another country first – but like the cachet or benefit of an extra passport in their pockets.

A Canadian citizenship, which doesn’t require military service or tax collection on foreign income, is a handy insurance policy to have. Canadians are also able to enter a significant number of other nations without entry visas.

And, as this summer’s events demonstrated, paying $85 million to evacuate “Canadians of Convenience” was not what we were aiming for with our very liberal citizenship policies.

In the perplexing Stephane Dion red herring case, the issue of his being both a French and English citizen is pretty much moot as there is a section of the French civil code that disallows French citizens from holding government or military positions in another country.

What isn’t known is if this was enforced during his time in the Chretien and Martin cabinets but it would certainly come into effect if he ever became Prime Minister.

Stephane Dion isn’t the problem. He is clearly Canadian, with his life and roots here.

The problem is the hundreds of thousands of “Canadians” who are Canadian in passport colour only.

The Final Choice

Such variety of riches is laid before the Liberal membership this weekend.

Oh but who to chose as leader?

Who best to unseat that evil pretender Stephen Harper and return milquetoast and liberal values to a nation crying out – screaming, really – for safe, comfortable, paternalistic leadership?

There are four noble knights arrayed before us in hues ranging from pinko orange to deep, majestic, federalist blue.

From left to right we survey the contenders – or from top to bottom, if you prefer, after all the Post-Martin Liberals are nothing if not completely flexible in position, as well as principle

First due mostly to his capture of key Ontario seats and the easy scoop of those time-honoured gimme votes from long time party glitterati who mustn’t dirty themselves with something so…democratic….as a delegate selection meeting, is the academic Ignatieff.

Sitting in a hotel room this week, counting and recounting votes, must be a disheartening task for man quite sure that 20 years in the US teaching liberal radicals at Harvard had prepared him for the difficult task of waltzing away with one of the biggest rings in Canadian politics.

Unfortunately, Alberta Liberals (all eight of them) and those in BC felt quite differently. Hence the tough math lesson – similar to the one faced by Preston Manning and Jean Cherest in their quest for leadership glory. Just because you are convinced you are the right choice, doesn’t mean those pesky commoners are going to vote for you.

BC Liberal delegates are strangely attracted to Bob Rae. Not strangely, of course, if you consider our penchant for radical mid-stream conversions on the political road to Damascus.

Forget Bob Rae, the NDPer who brought Ontario to its knees, a la Ujjal Dosanjh. Think, instead, of Bob Rae the underdog battling against the odds of an unlikely comeback and an electorate trying to erase from their minds the sight of his naked knees on national tv diving into frigid waters with Rick Mercer.

Yep. That sounds like great Prime Minister material.

It is hard to place Gerard Kennedy on the winner’s podium. As a good critic, sure, battling it out the House of Commons but Liberals are not as keen to see him caretaker of our great nation.. He might be better, perhaps, as an earnest, geeky science teacher in a crowded middle school classroom..

I’ve held out hope that Stephane Dion will cross the line first. I predicted as such, even up until a month or so ago. But the tide has turned in Liberal Quebec and now I am not so sure. Distinct society, regardless of the name, steels the soul of the Quebecois.

A deal with the devil will be struck. Someone will emerge victorious. Balloons will fall and ringing speeches given. People will kiss – some on both cheeks.

It is hard to imagine any of these men strong enough for the heavy yoke of Canada.

Only Nixon Can Go?

The politics of China have broken more careers of warriors and statesmen than any other nation.

For some reason, the behemoth that is China threatens and fascinates business leaders, politicians and royalty alike. There is a strange mythology, especially in the four decades since Nixon’s surprise visit, that one shouldn’t criticize the world’s most populous nation.

There are two stark theories circulating in respect to the biggest remaining communist state and how we frame our relationship with it.

One is to pretend China is an open democracy like the rest of us and trade away, hoping that the flow of wealth and a growing middle class will bring true freedom to the nation.

In other words, if we get enough BMWs into the hands of the Chinese people, maybe they will spontaneously rise up and slough off the stain of communism.

The other option, which is currently out of favour by most observers, is to shut off the tap of metals, timber and coal and stop importing goods manufactured in China. In other words, force revolution by starvation.

Both theories are dangerous and remain just that - theories.

But there is a reality about China we have to face as freedom and truth loving people.

Although its progress in terms of developing a strong middle class is marvelous, China operates political prison camps for those opposed to the regime, suppresses religious freedom (including the plucky Falun Gong it calls a cult), displays aggressive and possibly genocidal policies in Tibet and, most importantly of all, does not allow free and fair elections.

Stephen Harper’s visit to Asia this last week has highlighted the gulf between the two approaches and the political risk in even a moderate shift in how Canada engages with China.

Unlike the previous obsequious approach taken by Canada, Harper was not willing to meet with the Chinese Leader, Hu Jintao, unless they could discuss human rights issues.

Hu initially declined to “lose face” and the Chinese propaganda machine kicked into high gear. Remember, these are the people that denied the slaughter of students in Tiananmen Square – they can spin pretty much anything. Finally China backed down and Harper got his meeting, but not before Bill Graham and the rest of the Liberal caucus gleefully brought out the knives.

For some reason, the Federal Liberals bought the Chinese spin that China should not be held to account for the imprisonment of Canadian citizens and the organ harvesting allegations of its own.

Stephen Harper put his reputation on the line in the international sphere because he believes otherwise and reminded all of us that sometimes standing up to the bully is the first step to building a better relationship.

Stumbling and Running Towards Montreal

Two more desperate weeks of campaigning lay ahead for the Federal Liberal leadership candidates as they eye the finish line in Montreal at the end of the month.

This race has been running so long that most of us can only remember the highlights: Volpe’s kiddy cash donations, Ignatieff’s professorial chats about Israel, Bob Rae’s naked plunge off a dock with Rick Mercer, and the only westerner Hedy Fry’s abrupt entry – and exit- from the contest.

But now, we’ve got the nasty little mess that the Liberals have contrived for themselves on the never-ending, party-splitting topic of Quebec nationalism.

This issue has torpedoed more politicians than any other – the wreckage left by the Charlottetown Accord and Meech Lake are excellent reminders of how foolish the Liberals are being to taint a shiny new leader just trying to get out of the gate.

The Federal Liberals have been masters at massaging the issue of Quebec’s status in Canada since the days of Trudeau’s one-fingered salute.

By balancing that province’s need for ready cash with their ambition for recognition within our sometimes precariously balanced country, the Liberals have managed through slush funds, alternating Francophone and Anglophone leaders and sheer dint of determination to hold a commanding presence in the vote-rich province.

So why the Liberal membership felt it a good idea to bring forward a policy proposal to give Quebec official “nation” status within Canada is beyond most political observers in the country.

First of all, who knows what it even means?

Would the proposal actually give Quebec something new? Is it a fresh take on Confederation and a gutsy move to re-open potentially painful constitutional debates?

Or is the proposal, brought forward by the fiery Quebec wing of the party, just an attempt to staunch the vote bleeding in that province?

Let’s not forget the last twelve years were not happy ones in Quebec for Liberals, capped off as they were by the sponsorship scandal which exchanged political donations for taxpayer money.

And stumbling front-runner Ignatieff, who embraces controversial and weighty issues as opportunities to pull on his gown and cap for sophomoric lectures, has fallen for the bait with his comments this week that back up the proposal.

Surely his campaigners know better than this.

Unless they have some pretty good tracking showing this is the only way to pull second round votes off of the other candidates, they’ve made a serious error in judgment.

Or maybe, just maybe, the whole thing is a devious plot hatched in some dark backroom to flush the candidates out from behind their well-constructed message machines.

In which case – it’s good to have the Liberals back.

What's wrong with fat kids?

This week US medical journal, Pediatrics, released a startling study reporting that our kids aren’t just obese, they are packing on the pounds in their abdominal region.

We no longer have middle age spread, we have primary school spread.

Which means that formerly age-related conditions like diabetes, hardening of the arteries and liver disease are expected to balloon among our young.

One can of pop a day can cause weight gain of 15 pounds a year in an adult. Just imagine what it could do to a child.

Add to that a small bag of chips or a so-called energy bar, and the caloric needs of your child are met and they haven’t even gotten to dinner yet.

The solutions aren’t easy, and require more than government taxing junk food or banning vending machines in schools, though those are a good start.

It comes down to this: moms and dads need to step up to the plate and stop feeding their kids too much. We aren’t growing prize winning pigs, here.

The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends 90 minutes of physical activity per day for each child and limiting “screen time” to less than an hour a day. They also suggest five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Before you say that your kid won’t eat them, remember a serving is a medium sized apple or a handful small carrot sticks.

Pop can be a treat, like birthday cake or an unexpected day of sunshine in November.

And perhaps talk to your children about health and nutrition. As an overweight teenager myself, I could have used stricter guidance from my folks about eating habits.

I am amazed how much kids today already know – the schools are doing an excellent job of teaching the right way to eat. But right after the lesson, many are pulling high calorie, high fat, high sugar snacks from lunch boxes packed by their loving parents.

Because of changes to our lifestyles and our increasing access to food, long gone are the days when we could coast through our days with a natural balance of food and exercise.

The underlying message from the Canadian Pediatric Society and the Canadian Medical Association, among many others, is this: there is no easy way to navigate through the new food world. Just as we discipline our children to not hit or steal, we need to discipline them to get regular exercise and eat consciously.

Or there will arise two classes of people: those who are healthy and long-lived and those who die young, plagued by disabling side effects and chronic pain.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Commenting on Comments

Unfortunately I have had to disable the comment function due to some ongoing nasty and ugly remarks.

This frustrates me because there was a very interesting debate happening on the "house arrest" thread with well-reasoned and well-argued postings from a variety of sources, including members of a local Criminology class.

Perhaps I am naive to believe that people can engage in debate without it becoming personal. However, I am hopeful that once this individual has found other other sport, I can re-open the comments and we can try again.

Best wishes,
Erin

Friday, November 03, 2006

Ahhh.. leadership

For one blessed moment in our city, the finger pointing over homelessness has stopped.

It may not last long, but in the past week both Gordon Campbell and Sam Sullivan have stepped up to the plate and made serious, considered commitments to deal with the scandal of homelessness among the most vulnerable and mentally-ill members of our society.

Just last week, Gordon Campbell announced he would be funding increases to the shelter allowance component for income assistance, the first time since 1994 that this has happened.

The shelter allowance currently sits at $325 per month – an almost impossible figure to find a place to live, at least in downtown Vancouver. The new provincial budget will increase that number. It still won’t be luxurious, but hopefully it will be enough for those on welfare to find a safe place to lay their heads.

Welfare recipients may have to share an apartment, or move further out of the city core, but at least they won’t be choosing between food and a bed.

Another important question is what to do with the severely mentally ill individuals who, when removed from institutional care under the NDP, stumbled into the clutches of drug dealers and pimps.

Part of the solution for these people is new non-market housing. The City of Vancouver has 500 units on the way, scattered between a number of hotel conversions, Woodward’s and South East False Creek. These have been funded in partnership with the provincial government, the Vancouver Coast Health Authority and private developers.

Quite honestly, we also need to selectively re-institutionalize our sickest. If my son or daughter were living on the streets in filthy conditions and strung out on crack, I would be happy to commit them against their will and fight about their free choice after the fact.

I would hope there isn’t a parent in Vancouver who feels differently.

In addition to the commitment by the city to purchase a new SRO each year – this year’s is on Carroll Street – Councilor Kim Capri will be asking Council to approve “fast-tracking” three downtown sites earmarked for non-market housing and additional emergency housing funds from the province.

She is also asking for relaxation of the regulations governing the size of social housing units. The rules in Vancouver stand far and above those in the rest of the province, making them just too expensive to build.

People just need roofs over their heads – not 500 square foot mini-condos.

Vancouver’s Homeless Action Plan and the Housing Plan are an excellent first step, as is additional funding for emergency shelter and increases to the base shelter allowance.

Sam Sullivan has also called a shelter roundtable to convene in two weeks.

Here’s hoping that the leadership on this issue will continue and the finger pointing become a distant memory.


As Seen this Thursday, November 2nd in 24 Hours

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why is "doing the time" so wrong?

Canada’s opposition parties just don’t get it.

Ordinary law-abiding people are tired of hearing about sex offenders released from prison just in time to target another child. We hate reading in the news about a guy arrested for stealing a car who sits in jail for a couple of hours and then gets back on the street to steal another one.

And we are really, really sick of convicted criminals of serious crimes who, instead of receiving hard jail time, get an ankle bracelet and house arrest.

I know that we aren’t supposed to think like this in kinder, gentler Canada but if bad guys do the crime, frankly, they should do the time.

And if they are whining the jails are too crowded, too bad.

Criminals and their pals should get used to sharing a bed if they insist on breaking the rules that the rest of us manage to follow.

Just this week, NDP, Liberal and Bloc Quebecois Members of Parliament from the House of Commons Justice Committee decided to gut the new Conservative crime bill.

This new law included such controversial elements as minimum mandatory sentences for gun crimes, limits on house arrest for serious crimes and automatic dangerous offender classification for criminals on their third spin through the justice system.

Hmm, I don’t know about you, but these seem pretty common sense to me.

The NDP and Liberals have decided that house arrest is appropriate for serious crimes and want to allow judges the right to impose it when they feel that the criminal shouldn’t face the music because of whatever pathetic justification his or her lawyers trot out.

Hurt someone else, destroy a child, ruin property and do it over and over again, or with a gun - hard jail time sounds pretty good to me. I don’t care how drug addicted you are or how awful your childhood was – sit in jail until you figure out that hurting others won’t fix your own pain.

Academics and others admit that the new crime bill will protect people and our property but they are afraid it will make it harder to bring the bad guys to the good side of the force.

They would rather follow them around after the crime spree and sugar coat the damage done to their victims.

The guy that broke into our house and stole my grandmother’s jewelry – nothing expensive, but oh so valuable to me – was a pro. He did it all the time. And guess what, after his next court appearance, I’m sure your house or apartment could be next.

Let’s give judges the tools to lock these guys up – four to a cell if necessary. It might hurt their precious feelings, but at least the rest of us will be safe for another night.

As seen today in 24 hours