Saturday, March 17, 2018

Martyn Brown: Say Wha-a-a-a-t?

People change. I get that. But I still feel a flash of furious disbelief every time I see one of my soft-left acquaintances embracing the writing of a man who not so long ago was the powerful architect of a most terrible era in BC - one that we're still trying to recover from.

Martyn Brown is the former chief of staff of former BC premier Gordon Campbell. Everything that right-minded people hated about Campbell's devastating first term in office almost certainly had Brown's fingerprints on it. "He's a very powerful man for someone who has never been elected," noted Nisga'a leader Chief Joseph Gosnell at the time. 

I was stunned at the time that Campbell picked Brown as his right-hand man, knowing from my work as a journalist that Brown had led a movement committed to wiping out Indigenous rights. And I am stunned once again to see how Brown has reinvented himself as the voice of reason for a better British Columbia. 

Brown now writes very long pieces for the Georgia Straight, most of them fomenting loathing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the Kinder Morgan pipeline. If it serves to foment more loathing, he will even celebrate Indigenous rights, which just kills me when I think back to the battle he helped lead from behind the scenes to extinguish those rights in the runup to the landmark Nisga'a treaty.

(I'm still gawp-mouthed at a sentence in his latest piece, where Brown invokes a Churchillian we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches zeal against the pipeline "for the harm it stands to suffer upon Aboriginal people, in flagrant contempt of Indigenous rights and title.")

Like I say, people change. I profiled Brown almost 20 years ago for the Times Colonist, when he was at the height of his political power - the only profile I've ever written in which the subject refused to grant me an interview. Maybe he's had a Damascus moment since then, a walk in the snow like his current enemy's father once had. He'll turn 61 this year. Maybe the Old Brown has been laid to rest.

But whenever I read the New Brown loving up the environment, Indigenous people and a better British Columbia, I keep hearing that saying about how the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

One of the people I interviewed for the profile on Brown noted that what was particularly fascinating about him was that he'd "never moved from his original point on the political spectrum - never wavered from his centre-right, populist, small-government beliefs." Keep that in mind, people. 

Here's my own very long piece that I wrote on Brown back in 2001:

(From the Victoria Times Colonist, December 4, 2001) 

If there was a moment that could be said to define Martyn Brown, it was surely the day 13 years ago when he issued a memo to the Social Credit caucus defending the severance the B.C. government had just paid to David Poole.

Brown was a 31-year-old political fledgling in the Socred research department at the time, one year out of university. Poole was Premier Bill Vander Zalm's principal secretary, the most powerful politico in government.

Poole had just been paid $100,500 in severance, prompting criticism from the New Democrat Opposition. Brown, director of caucus research for the Socreds, took it upon himself to write a memo explaining the deal. He'd been reading news of the criticisms, he wrote, and thought it "might be helpful" if he clarified a few details.

It was an unheard of breach of protocol, a young pup well down on the political food chain writing something directly to the MLAs. Carol Gran, caucus chairwoman, fumed that the memo was "unauthorized, contained editorial opinion and didn't reflect government views."

Brown quickly humbled himself. The memo had been ill-conceived, he told reporters. He regretted his audacity in writing it, acknowledging that "clearly, I stepped over the boundary."

There weren't many who knew it then, but they'd just witnessed the first solo flight of a political force. Martyn Brown was born to government in a moment that revealed him as brash and certain, engaged, loathe to make mistakes but principled enough to own up to them if it came to that.

All these years later, at the age of 44, Brown now holds the very position in Gordon Campbell's government that the late Poole held when Brown wrote his memo. As chief of staff, he's the boss of 200 appointed employees and Campbell's gatekeeper, top of the heap among political staff and arguably the most powerful non-elected person in government.

Brown's hand is said to be all over Campbell's New Era document, his influence felt in every corner of government. He's a driving force behind the contentious treaty referendum. His blessing is sought before Campbell makes a move, and he's widely credited by insiders for the Liberal win this spring.

"He's the guy who bosses British Columbians around," says Nisga'a negotiator and elder Joe Gosnell, who has tangled with Brown on treaty issues. "He's a very powerful man for someone who has never been elected."

Yet Brown keeps a low profile. Outside political circles, his name sparks few glimmers of recognition. He clearly likes it that way; he refused all comment for this article.

But the picture that emerges from talking to acquaintances and co- workers reveals a man not much different from the memo-writer. He still hates being wrong. He's still focused, driven, and an immensely hard worker. And he's still doing what he thinks is the right thing, even if it rubs people the wrong way.

In fact, those who have known Brown the longest say he's barely changed at all since those early days of 1988, when he emerged from a legislative intern program to take a job with the Socreds. That he has since grown into a Liberal premier's muse is not a result of changes in Martyn Brown, but simply because the things he has always stood for have caught on.

Former B.C. politician David Mitchell, a professor at the University of B.C., described it as the "oddly stationary journey of Martyn Brown."

Brown, noted Mitchell, has never moved from his original point on the political spectrum, never wavered from his centre-right, populist, small-government beliefs. And eventually, government has come around to seeing things his way.

- - -

Born in St. Catharines, Ont. and raised in Scarborough, Brown moved to the Island with his family as a teenager. He worked in Kelly's stereo store for a few years when Victoria still had one, then finished up a bachelor of political science at UVic and was picked for the legislative intern program.

Brown spent a year immersed at the legislature as an intern before being hired in 1988 into the Socred caucus research department. It was trial by fire: on his first day on the job, Vander Zalm made his infamous comments about restricting abortions. "And ever since then it's been one thing after another," Brown mused years later.

UVic political science professor Norman Ruff taught Brown and remembers him as a bright and "capital-C Conservative" student. He too has been struck by Brown's new fit with the Liberals.

"In the years I've known him, he was always the same person he is now," says Ruff. "It was like he was ahead of where B.C. politics eventually went."

Brown was known as an exceptional "policy wonk" and researcher in his early days in government. Jess Ketchum, a political staffer from that era, takes "some of the blame" for introducing him to the political side of things in the 1990 election, when the Socreds were heading into the fight of their lives against the New Democrats.

Socred campaign manager at the time, Ketchum arranged a leave for Brown to work on the election, giving him "a really good taste of hard-knocks politics."

Only seven Socreds were left standing by the end of it. Jack Weisgerber, who'd been eyeing Brown for better things for years, was one of them. He took Brown on as his chief aide, a position Brown held through Weisgerber's 1993 transition out of Social Credit and into B.C. Reform.

And for a year or two, Reform flourished with Brown as its strategist. In 1995 when the Vancouver Sun named Brown "one of the new power brokers," the party was riding high in the polls. The press took to describing him alternately as Weisgerber's Svengali, spin doctor, mastermind and hidden puppet-master, words that are still bandied about today.

He and Weisgerber remained a team until the disastrous 1996 election, when Reform won just two seats. Brown wouldn't soon forget the painful lessons of the election. He'd mistakenly thought the right-wing vote wouldn't split because no one would vote New Democrat. The party subsequently won with 40 per cent of the vote.

Weisgerber retired. Brown quit B.C. Reform and the following year launched Citizens' Voice on Native Claims, a lobby group deeply opposed to the Nisga'a treaty.

But Brown didn't last long out of politics. By January 1998, he was special advisor to Gordon Campbell, an appointment that delighted Weisgerber.

"I thought Martyn really had a lot to offer Gordon," says Weisgerber. "He has good political instincts. His strongest point is an immediate grasp of a situation, a kind of instinctive reaction that's not always right, but right most of the time."

Brown had been drifting toward the Liberals since leaving Reform, seeing no other choice but to unite the right in B.C. if another 1996 was to be avoided. But he never recanted his Reform roots. Soon after Campbell hired him, Brown was quoted saying he was "only here because I'm convinced we are a genuine coalition."

His status with the Liberals has risen considerably since then. In just three years, Brown has gone from adviser to election strategist to chief of staff, his salary climbing from $60,000 to $148,500. He's credited with creating the new image for Campbell that got him elected, and is said to be "incredibly tight" with the premier.

Political observers say Brown's influence on Campbell is evident in Liberal policy. The party has moved markedly to the right and exchanged its "downtown Vancouver" outlook for one more in touch with the issues of rural B.C. and small business, not incidentally a population that Brown's Socreds had a particular affinity for.

Campbell has also hardened on treaties. The old Campbell talked occasionally of a referendum but for the most part left the treaty issue alone. The new Campbell sounds much more like Brown's defunct Citizens' Voice: treaties, yes, but not before B.C. voters are polled on how they want them handled.

Perhaps Campbell is in Brown's thrall, another victim of the puppet-master. More likely, he recognizes Brown's role in getting him elected premier.

"Gordon was so lost in the 1996 election," says one government insider. "He just wasn't up to the vicious campaign Glen Clark was running. But then he worked with Martyn all through 1998, and they really bonded. Martyn is so much about turning Gordon Campbell around."

Weisgerber says Brown is the consummate right-hand-man for a political leader, on top of every detail and a "straight shooter" intensely focused on the boss's best interests.

Noted for his impeccable grooming and style, Brown even knows how to keep that particular vanity in check as required.

"He's very conscious of looking neat and sharp, but he also knows you don't come out in a better power suit than the guy you're with," Weisgerber says. "He wants to keep the spotlight on the right person."

- - -

Brown cites his ongoing desire to stay out of the spotlight in declining to be interviewed for this article.

"I'm not elected," he says. "I don't think it's the role of staff to be talking about themselves or their role in government."

The increasingly tight leash on government communications staff speaks to Brown's distaste for others' loose lips as well, as does his edict forbidding anyone but ministers from being quoted in the press. Ruff remembers him as a "micro-manager," which would explain the current rumour that Brown vets every detail right down to the design of staffers' business cards.

Weisgerber says Brown's interpersonal skills have improved dramatically since his early days in politics.

"He didn't delegate well or suffer fools lightly," says Weisgerber. "He let it show too much. Fortunately, wisdom and maturity have made him more subtle."

But Brown isn't above a little vindictiveness. Reportedly still brooding over the rough treatment and cramped quarters accorded the Socreds after Social Credit lost the 1991 election to the New Democrats, Brown has in turn made life extremely difficult for the remnants of the NDP.

While lesser mortals usually tend to the details of divvying up office space after an election, Brown himself decided where the New Democrats would go -- jammed into one small office and a room in the basement.

"I'm not proud that it was New Democrats who did that to the Socreds back then," says one disgruntled NDP staffer. "But you'd think there'd be some magnanimousness in the man."

New Democrat MLA Joy MacPhail suspects a similar "mean-spirited" pitch from Brown convinced Campbell to get tough and deny her party official opposition status after the spring election.

"I've only actually met the man once," says MacPhail. "I've been in the same room with him more often than that, but only met him once. And I had to be the one to introduce myself that time. He's certainly no extrovert."

When Brown isn't working -- not often -- he lives a private life in Shawnigan with his wife Linda, who does office work in a veterinary clinic. The couple have no children. He's reputed to be an aggressive and exceptional downhill skier.

Brown was born in the Year of the Rooster, 1957. The Chinese horoscope sign fits him well. The Rooster is "neither complicated nor profound," reads his horoscope; rather, "he is very forthright and straightforward."

And just like Brown, a typical Rooster is always right. Untrusting of others. Devoted to his work. Extremely conscious of clothing and appearance. They're said to make excellent trouble- shooters.

Brown shares his birth year with Confucius, Wagner, Yoko Ono and Groucho Marx.

- - -

Brown's most notable venture into the public eye was four years ago when he and a group of like-minded British Columbians formed Citizens' Voice on Native Claims.

He was executive director of the group; John Pitts, former head of Okanagan Helicopters, was president. Other members included lawyer Harry Bell-Irving -- previously active in opposing the self- government provisions of the Charlottetown Accord -- and former federal Tory MPs Lorne Greenaway and Ron Huntington.

Brown's group took out full-page ads in Victoria and Vancouver newspapers urging the citizenry to wake up before the Nisga'a treaty was a done deal. Raising the spectre of fewer rights for non- aboriginals on Indian land and a "third level" of government, Citizens' Voice contended that the draft agreement reached that year with the Nisga'a tipped the scale in favour of aboriginals.

"There was always the nub of an issue in the Citizens' Voice stuff, but let's call it what it was: Fear-mongering," says one critic close to the treaty process.

Nisga'a elder Joe Gosnell was quickly drawn into the debate: "Despite their motherhood statement that `we agree with the treaty process,' " he said at the time, "I think their overall agenda is to completely wreck the treaty process in B.C. and halt the Nisga'a treaty."

The group faded away shortly after a Supreme Court ruling affirmed the existence of aboriginal rights. But Brown carried on, taking up with the Liberals within weeks and no doubt playing a major role in Campbell's 1998 decision while in Opposition to sue the provincial and federal governments over the now-ratified Nisga'a treaty.

The Liberals lost. They'd planned to appeal, but abandoned that after winning the election this year and realizing they'd essentially be suing themselves. Brown was said to be devastated at the decision not to go ahead.

Brown was once on the political fringes with his ideas around treaties. The Citizens' Voice viewpoint was routinely quoted in an array of right-wing publications, from the Fraser Institute to Alberta Report and the U.S. anti-abortion Life Advocate.

And Brown's days guiding B.C. Reform strategy connects him directly to past Reform resolutions calling for the minimum wage to be scrapped, the civil service to be slashed, public-sector strikes banned and English declared the only official language of B.C.

But the extreme is now the mainstream. A referendum on treaties is now a certainty. The minimum wage is effectively scrapped as a result of the Liberals' 500-hour "training wage." The civil service is headed for a bloodletting.

With a new job in the highest echelons of government and a receptive ear in Gordon Campbell, Brown's moment has arrived.

- - -

Politicos expected Brown would last "five minutes max" with Campbell. They've now had to concede that the partnership appears to be working.

But the future is never certain for a chief of staff, and Brown will be lucky if he lasts two years, says one past insider. "You make too many enemies, because you have to take on the premier's enemies. That's the nature of the beast."

There are already hints of trouble: dissension in the caucus, conflict between Brown and senior staff in charge of the civil service, growing concern among a handful of remaining "Liberal- Liberals" that the party has essentially become Reform.

There's also the question of what happens to an ideologue like Brown if his political masters start doubting his unswerving advice.

"Look how the world has changed since the election," says the insider. "It was fine that the Liberals did their independent reviews and told staff to manage money wiser, but they went out and spent those savings on a tax cut. Now we've got Sept. 11 and the softwood lumber disaster, and it's not working."

It seems odd that Brown hasn't been drawn into the political arena himself after all this time. But Weisgerber says Brown has always understood where his strengths lie.

"I'm not sure that Martyn would be nearly as good trying to campaign for himself as he is in the position he's in," says Weisgerber. "They're very different skills, and I think Martyn knows that."

As for strokes to the ego, Brown gets his away from the public eye.

"He gets enormous satisfaction out of political wins, whether big ones like an election or the kind of things that go on day to day," says Weisgerber. "For instance, the Throne Speech, which got described by a number of media as one of the most comprehensive they'd seen. Hearing that would have given Martyn a lot of satisfaction."

Fans turn up in the strangest places. Brown has an unexpected one in Adrian Dix, who did the same job as Brown for former New Democrat premier Glen Clark.

Dix doesn't profess to know Brown well, but clearly admires him.

"In 1996, when it would have been easy for his career to go the route of joining the Liberals, he stuck with Jack Weisgerber and Reform because he was committed to that," Dix says. "He's not simply a political fixer. He obviously has strong beliefs."

They're dramatically different than his own, Dix adds, but at least Brown hasn't swayed from them. That's not common in the fickle world of politics.

"I think he has greatly improved things for the Liberals," says Dix. "And I have to say he's a person of principle. Even if I profoundly disagree with some of them."

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Utila and I: A Love Story

Downtown Utila
What is it about this place that makes me love it? It’s not particularly pretty, and in a few places it’s kind of smelly. There are even hellish sand flies at certain times of day that will motivate you to douse yourself with Deet before even considering hanging out at one especially bad beach. (I’m dabbing cortisone cream on several blistering bites at this very moment.)

Yet from the first time I set foot on Utila, Honduras in December 2012, I loved it. We’re now here for a whole month, giving me the luxury of time to reflect on what appeals to me about this small chunk of rock and mangrove swamp floating in the Caribbean. It’s my third visit here and the longest yet, and I’m still very much in Utila’s sway.

Definitely that big old Mesoamerican Reef that runs right past Utila is Charm No. 1 for me. Snorkelling is my favourite sport, if you can call it sport when you float around like a Macy’s parade balloon gazing at the glorious world of fishes below.

To be able to just pop on your water shoes and start swimming toward a vibrant reef in a warm, clear sea is a luxury that few other getaways can offer. One of my favourite entry points is a homely little bit of rough shore known as Airport Beach, with nary a palm tree or stretch of white sand in sight.

But swim out maybe 40 metres and suddenly you’re in a stunning seascape of coral ridges and peaks, with fish of every colour, shape and size going about their business below. Just beyond the ridge is a dramatic dropoff into blue infinity, and I hold out the hope that one day a whale shark will pass by.

Spiny-tailed iguana, found only on Utila
A short bicycle ride up the road (renting a rusty, poorly maintained mountain bike to is an essential part of the Utila experience) is Coral View and Blue Bayou, a whole other snorkelling experience that begins as soon as you make your way down a couple of steps into shallow waters where a small barracuda is routinely hanging about in search of the tiny fish under the dock.

Swim out barely any distance at all and once again you’re on the line between coral ridge and deep-sea dropoff. There, you might see schools of much larger barracuda, a ray scudding by on the sea floor, a big puffer fish looking up at you with a sour and skeptical face.

So yes, the snorkelling on Utila is a big, big part of its charm for me. But it’s also got this on-land vibe that appeals to me – one of real people going about a real life, happy enough for some tourists to keep the economy flowing but not yet so hooked on what are still fairly scant tourist dollars to make too much of the visitors. (The idea of a holiday in Honduras still seems to scare the hell out of many travellers.)

Getting to Utila generally starts with a flight into San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s biggest city and its commercial centre. Up until recently, San Pedro was known as the world’s most dangerous city for the staggering amount of murders that go on there, but now it’s slipped to No. 3, below Caracas, Venezuela and Acapulco, Mexico. Yay, San Pedro!
Rich people have the best houses, don't they?

At any rate, don’t let that little detail put you off. The violence in Honduras is almost exclusively violence between Hondurans, and a very purposeful violence visited upon those who are: 1. In the cocaine import/export business; 2. In a gang, or living in a profoundly poor barrio in a big city controlled by gangs; or 3. Involved in other criminal activities that sooner or later are going to get you killed by either your competitors, police, or the angry family of a victim that knows better than to rely on the country’s hopeless justice system to settle scores.

Besides, you’re only going to be passing through San Pedro. The airport is perfectly nice, and from there you can hop a bus, hire a private shuttle, or grab a flight to La Ceiba and be gone – bound for a region that feels different enough from mainland Honduras to be its own country. Once in La Ceiba, there’s a twice-daily catamaran ferry to Utila that takes about an hour. (Advice: Bring anti-nausea drugs just in case, or squeeze your eyes shut for the trip like I tend to do.)

Utila has a seriously multicultural history – one that blends European pirates and settlers, descendants of African slaves, and Spanish-speaking mainlanders. In modern times, these settlers have blended into a population of white people speaking their own Creole language - though a traveller will mostly hear it only when walking past groups of locals talking to each other - mainland Hondurans speaking Spanish, and black people speaking Creole, English, Garifuna and Spanish.

The other night we cycled past three elderly white women hanging over their balcony to chat with another elderly woman in a golf cart, that being a main mode of transportation on Utila. We could hear bits of English in their speech, but nothing we could make out. Had we stopped to ask directions, however, they’d have answered in perfectly clear English.

Speaking of directions, no worries that you’re going to get lost on Utila. There’s one main road that’s maybe eight kilometres from end to end, and no more than a handful of looping or dead-end side roads. Transportation is via golf cart, motorcycle, quad, bicycle or on foot. Whatever mode you choose, expect to make way for all those other forms of transport as everyone weaves and dodges along a narrow and poorly maintained road that is a pastiche of cement, interlocking brick, rock, mud and enormous puddles from that morning’s rain.

I think that’s another reason I love Utila and Honduras. Coming from such a rule-bound and regulated land as Greater Victoria, it’s exhilarating to experience freedom once in a while.

International hotel chains have given Utila a miss, but accommodation in every price range is available, or high-end vacation home rentals if that suits you. We rented one of those in 2012 when my son’s family joined us for a week at Christmas, but this time have opted for an affordable $450 US/month apartment at a small hotel. Electricity is on top of that, and will add significantly to the cost if you’re using air-conditioning. For me, a good ceiling fan suffices.
Public beach at Utila, on a "tropical monsoon" kind of day

While I don’t imagine anyone comes to Utila just for the food, the grilled fish at RJ’s is definitely going to be part of our regular diet while here, and was the first thing that one of my grandsons asked about after we arrived for this latest visit. There’s no competing with the vast cultural banquet available to us every day in Canada, so best to prepare for much simpler, basic fare here on the island. But RJs and an ample supply of Honduran bananas keep me happy.

I don’t even like bananas in Canada, but discovered when we were living here for two-plus years that that’s only because I hadn’t eaten a real one before – picked fresh from a tree when actually ripe, available in a dozen different varieties, subtle flavours, firmer textures. It pleased me to no end to stumble upon a small market here that sells manzanas, the small, fat bananas grown on Utila and named for their apple flavour.

And finally, there’s the climate. Officially, Utila has a “tropical monsoon” climate, and a daily downpour certainly appears to be the norm at this time of year. But that keeps the vegetation green and the temperature at a comfortable 25-27 C most days, just right for sitting in a chaise lounge with a good book and a homemade rum drink in between snorkels. (Bottle of Bacardi: $13. Bottle of cheap but palatable vodka: $8. Honduran beer: $1 a can.)
The nightly view from where we're staying.

Oh, and the sunsets. Whatever tropical-monsoon kind of day it’s been, evenings are almost always clear enough to deliver a gorgeous finale. These days, it’s a ritual to head up to a little overlook at our hotel around 5:15 p.m. and spend the next half an hour bathed in tones of orange and pink, thinking: This place.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Three stories to knock that Christmas cheer right out of you

'Tis the season for sharing, which in this case means sharing some of the stories that caught my attention today.

Putting them into a blog post will not only add (incrementally) to their profile, but will ensure I have them here for whenever I need them, to remind me why my favourite bumper sticker of all time was "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

Plus it's my birthday today, and I would feel good about putting up a post that lets me feel less badly about my decidedly lacklustre posting record of late.

First, this survey of 153 Canadian executives, of which only eight were women (no surprise, given that the glass ceiling has in fact turned out to be made of hardwood, or of glass so slippery that we females simply lose our footing once on top of it), in which 95 per cent reported that sexual harassment is not a problem in their workplace.

Sweet jesus, how they even say such things with a straight face is beyond me, but just let me say this to the Canadian execs: Watch out, buddy, because Harvey Weinstein is not an anomaly. And right now, some former employee of yours is out there speaking your name as the creepy boss from her distant past, and that will not go unheard by the karma gods, who will almost certainly be turning you out into your next life as a low-level young female employee under a disgusting lecher of a boss.

Then there was this story from Ben Parfitt in the Tyee, in which it's revealed that not only have 48 dams been built on public lands without permits by energy companies fracking for gas in northeast BC in recent years, but that more than half of them have serious structural problems.

It turns out that BC's Oil and Gas Commission was being rather free with a clause in the Land Act that lets companies use public lands to "store water."

"But in approving the applications," writes Parfitt, "commission personnel failed to ask basic, critical questions: How did companies intend to store the water? In tanks? In pits? Behind dams? Since the OGC didn’t ask, the companies didn’t disclose that they planned to build dams — lots of them.

"Nor did they disclose that in many cases, the water sources for their dams would be creeks and other water bodies that the companies were not entitled to draw from because they hadn’t applied for, let alone received, water licences. Since they hadn’t applied for those licences, they weren’t legally entitled to build the dams."

Oops. Now what, we might ask? The offenders are already asking for retroactive approval. As Parfitt notes, that certainly would make things interesting around the requirement to consult with First Nations, seeing as the dams already exist. 

Then there's this story about a group of Big Pharma executives in the US charged with racketeering for fraudulent business dealings, bribing doctors (who, I must say, don't come out of this looking so great), and essentially being the evil bastards that I've long thought they are. 

Admittedly, this story is from October, not today. But with news out this very day that Canada's fentanyl crisis continues unabated (the situation is even worse in the US, where overdose deaths in the last two decades have killed more people than World War I, II and Vietnam combined), I want to do my part to give this staggering tale of truly despicable collusion a little more profile. 

The case involves InSys Therapeutics Inc.'s desire to increase the use of a fentanyl-based drug that was supposed to be used only for cancer patients in the grips of pain so fierce that no other drug would stop it. The bosses at InSys wanted so badly to increase sales beyond cancer patients that they set up a "reimbursement unit" whose whole raison d'etre was to trick insurers and pharmacy benefit managers into believing that doctors - who we now know were on the InSys payroll - had non-cancer patients who needed this drug. 

Too bleak? Am I supposed to be posting "nice" news so we can all feel warm about our brethren as we head into a new year? Well, here's the trouble with good news - it apparently brings us such comfort that we forget that there's still a hell of a lot of misery and outrageous behaviour going on out here. I'm the Grinch. Oscar the Grouch. Eeyore. I'm a pessimistic optimist, driven to go against my nature by the hard truths of this willfully blind, crushingly disappointing and dangerously stupid world. 

Oh, and best of the holiday season to you and yours. Such a joyous time of year. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

On joy: Reflections on finding happiness even when life does its best to get in your way

I had the opportunity to write this reflection on joy for Victoria's YAM Magazine's November-December issue. It was one of the most moving stories I've worked on, taking in people's stories of strength in the face of significant adversity.

My only regret is that I over-interviewed, ending up with so many stories that everyone here literally gets a few paragraphs and no more. You'll just have to take my word for it that each and every one of them was worth an entire article on their own.

Find the link to the piece in YAM here, or scroll on down to read about these extraordinary Victorians.

Clockwise from top left: Pippa Blake, Debra Bell, Jacqueline McAdam, Sam Jones,
Mary Katharine Ross, Michael Cameron, Jeneece Edroff (centre). Photo: Jeffery Bosdet

It’s the season of comfort and joy, but what does joy really mean? As YAM discovers, some of the most inspiring wisdom comes from people who have seemingly had the greatest burdens to carry.

By Jody Paterson

“And they all lived happily ever after.” Wouldn’t it be something if that were true — if we all could wake up feeling joyous every single day, in a life without suffering?

But any person grown beyond childhood — and even some still in it — know from their own experiences that joy is not a given, not a permanent state. It’s fleeting and mercurial, notoriously hard to hold onto as life’s ups and downs take their toll. Joy is elusive, even for those who appear to “have it all.”

Yet somebody with a lifetime of struggle and barely a buck in their pocket can still be the most joyous person in the room. Someone who’s known nothing but setbacks can be relentlessly optimistic. How do people dealing with adversity find joy even while people with every reason to be happy bog down in their search for it?

Victoria academic and entrepreneur Jacqueline McAdam asked herself the same question after extensive travel in Africa, where she met cheerful children and young people carrying on with their lives despite growing up in dire poverty and seeming hopelessness. She wrote her doctoral thesis, “More Than Luck,” a decade ago on what she found out.

We spoke with McAdam for this piece and also did a little crowdsourcing to ask Greater Victorians who came to mind when they thought of someone they knew who sought joy despite dealing with adversity. People responded with dozens of names.

The moving stories of the small selection featured here echo many of McAdam’s findings in her studies of African children. Their stories underline the points made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in their Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World — that joy comes most readily to those who feel connected to a larger world; that it’s rooted in spirituality and the way we frame our experiences; that we are most joyous when helping others.

“People who experience joy give more than they get,” says McAdam, a university instructor and owner of the social enterprise Resilient Generations. “Joyful people know that it’s through other people that we grow, and so they take the risk. Joyful people look for new experiences. They overemphasize the positive while underplaying the negative.”

That last finding in particular describes each of the people sharing their stories here.

A life transformed forever at age 12 by a massive head injury. A single mom who finds herself in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. A woman beset by childhood bullies, depression, sexual assault and now a fatal cancer. A recovering drug user who went through chemotherapy while living homeless on Victoria’s streets. A young person who’s been fighting her way through a life-threatening illness from the time she was born.

All seemed surprised to hear that someone had named them as a person notable for their joy. All framed their adversities as something that ultimately bettered them.

“I’m an ordinary person who has had some things that the average person hasn’t had to deal with, but maybe that’s what makes me able to juggle stress,” says Sam Jones, owner of 2% Jazz Coffee.

His painful memories of being teased about a speech impediment and his appearance — he has a still-undiagnosed genetic condition that causes tumour-like growths on the left side of his face and neck — tainted his school experience so much that he opted to home-school his three children when the time came.

“It occurs to me that my adversity as a child strengthens me, has made me who I am. Part of what I do is survive, and I think that comes from working hard enough throughout my life to get through the bad times.”

Pippa Blake, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young mother and in a wheelchair for the last 26 years, says she likely wouldn’t have spent the years since then sky-diving, sailing, horseback riding and making her way to Mount Everest base camp in 2007 were it not for developing MS.

“All these things I do, I wouldn’t be doing if I weren’t in a wheelchair,” says Blake. “You get to a stage where you say, ‘Why not?’ Getting MS has opened so many doors for me. It has made me a nicer person. I have time for people.”

People who find joy appear to reframe the negative events of their lives in positive ways, says McAdam. Mary Katharine Ross, communications officer with the Community Social Planning Council, exemplifies that, having embarked on a “year of forgiveness” as an adult to be able to forgive, among other things, the two men who raped her at 15.

“We are responsible for how we feel,” says Ross. “I am not responsible for being raped, but I am responsible for how I view it, how I incorporate that experience into my life.”

If joy comes from giving to others, Jeneece Edroff deserves to be among the most joyous in town. Beset with lifelong severe health challenges from neurofibromatosis, the 23-year-old has a legendary drive to give back to her community that started when she was only seven. She has raised $1.25 million to date for local health charities.

“To find joy, look at things with a different perspective,” advises Edroff. “Be around people. Smile and say hi. It’s the little things that can change a person’s attitude. Find a hobby that makes you happy.”

Joyous people know when to call on friends and family for help, notes McAdam.

Michael James Cameron, who went through 20 hard years of substance use and suicidal thoughts from Grade 8 on after a ski accident at age 12 left him with a severe head injury, remembers his family as his “biggest fans” through it all.

Now in recovery and a volunteer with the Victoria Brain Injury Society, Cameron can still recite every word of the Robert Service poem “The Quitter,” which “really resonated with me” when he came across it after his Grade 8 teacher assigned everyone to memorize a poem. By then, he was already heading into drug and alcohol issues, out of step in a small Alberta town where few knew anything about brain injuries.

“My advice: don’t give up,” says Cameron. “I remember this guy in high school telling me, ‘Don’t let the assholes beat you down.’”

Sara McKerracher also recalls her family as “amazing” through the period in 2015 when she was living homeless and addicted on the streets of Victoria, going through chemotherapy for Stage 4 lymphoma (now vanquished). The 28-year-old survived that hard experience determined to change her life.

“Joy for me is something that happens from the moment I wake up now,” says McKerracher. “I’m in a warm bed, waking up in good health. I don’t ever want to forget the things I went through, but I also don’t want to dwell on them.”

Joyous people embrace new experiences, says McAdam. They know how to live in the moment. Sue Morgan, 67, is facing down end-stage kidney failure by packing her bag for six more months in her beloved Guanajuato, Mexico, having rejected dialysis and organ transplant as “not for me.”

She says given her many health issues, she wouldn’t feel right about lining up for a new kidney at this point when so many other younger, healthier people need one.

“I still make plans, just not long-term ones,” says Morgan. “My advice? Don’t be afraid. We’re all going to die. Figure out what matters and live every moment.”

A number of those interviewed cited spiritual practice as vital in their lives: faith, meditation, yoga, mindfulness. McAdam saw that among those she studied as well: “Most people who are highly resilient have a fundamental spirituality.”

Debra Bell has suffered one major life challenge after another, including the death of her son Robbie from a heart condition at age 10 and the diagnosis of her other son, Riel, with schizophrenia at age 17. But connecting to her Bahá’i community and faith never fails to bring her joy, says Bell.

Ross says "Illuminata," based on A Course in Miracles — a spiritual thought system developed in 1975 by the Foundation for Inner Peace — is “my prayer book.” The Findhorn Foundation’s Game of Transformation is an integral part of her life.

But just in case anyone is thinking that those who know how to seek joy never suffer again, best to let that one go. Bad things happen to good people, including everyone interviewed for this piece.

That Jones never leaves his workplace without saying to his employees, “Be nice” didn’t protect him from being “totally and completely hosed,” as he puts it, in a business relationship a few years ago, costing him his business, his home and very nearly his marriage.

Ross’s year of forgiveness didn’t spare her a diagnosis 18 months ago of multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer. Blake’s amazing adventures still haven’t replaced the feeling of a hike through the woods on her own strong legs. Edroff’s health challenges will never go away.

“Our adversities change, but we’ll always have them,” says Jones. “It’s part of being human — hunting for food, climbing up a tree at night to stay safe. It makes us more human … and humane. Maybe it’s actually positive that we have these adverse things happen to us.”

Saturday, October 21, 2017

OK, #MeToo, and almost certainly #YouToo if you're female

My old newspaper stomping grounds lured me out of column retirement this week to write a piece launching their #MeToo series. Here it is. You can find the Times Colonist version here.

I admit, the first day of the #MeToo phenomenon was a pretty brutal day to be on Facebook. So many terrible stories, though I felt genuinely heartened by the heartfelt, stunned response from men who clearly had no idea.

The critics are already popping up at this point, saying things like how wrong it is for women to have to be out there in public with their painful stories. Personally, I see real power in the #MeToo thing. Sexual assault and harassment remain one of the most common shared experiences of women around the world, and this is the first time I’ve really seen women out there about it in a big way.

I mean, seriously, can most of us even count how many times we’ve had weird and creepy experiences with a sexual overtone involving men? One of my family members and I were just recounting the time when she was 13 and some Italian on a crowded Venice ferry pressed into her from behind with his erection.

And on the one hand, I think, “Good grief, a child of 13!” and shake my head. But on the other, I know that my own understanding of “the way men are” came right around that age, too.

I’ve had many more reminders since then, from the scruffy clerk in the small Kamloops store who I realized was masturbating while I browsed, to the boss who lifted up my skirt to ascertain whether I was wearing stockings.

More intimate examples as well, of course, though the #MeToo phenomenon helped me see that there are lines in the sand for me, some things I will not put out to the world to reflect on. So just suffice to say, I know how it can be when the lines between intimacy and assault get blurred.

Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve continued to love and appreciate men. Never once did I classify what happened to me as being about all men, because I had met and loved far too many good ones to think that the issue was about all of them. I really hope we can get past any pitting of women against men in the conversation that’s to come around #MeToo. The issues are sexual assault and harassment, not gender.

That said, guys, it IS rather noticeable that this stuff almost always comes back on your gender. It does seem to indicate some troubling issue at the heart of male sexuality.

Sure, we could come up with examples to the contrary. But let’s stick with the obvious for now: Being sexually assaulted and harassed is a troubling rite of passage for virtually every girl/woman, and it’s almost always a man who is the perpetrator.

What’s the problem at the heart of all of this? Kind of a sexual privilege, perhaps. The men who have these anti-social, demeaning and even criminal behaviours believe that their desire trumps your consent.

I’m not even sure if the concept of consent is a consideration for them. Sometimes, the lack of it appears to be the turn-on, as anyone knows who has ever experienced a Thetis Lake flasher staked out on the towel beside them. At times it’s also very clearly a power move, kind of like a full-of-himself monkey who mates with whoever he chooses as a show of strength to the others.

But here’s one thing I do know: It’s got to stop. The Bill Cosby stuff, Harvey Weinstein, Jian Ghomeshi, and now accusations against David Blaine – it’s so awful.

And as women everywhere know, it’s not just happening to pretty starlets. Nor is it only rich, piggish men who are guilty. Imagine the weight of all our #MeToos if every one of us was honest about what has been done to us by men we didn’t want touching us.

There are many good men who are distraught by the #MeToo wave, asking what they can do.

First and always, listen to our stories, because we, too, need to see how disturbing it is to the men who love us that we are still having these experiences. We’re worried for our daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters.

And then, help us understand. Why do we have these experiences with men? What can men do to change in other men whatever behaviour is going on here? Men, we need you for that part, because such questions are mysteries to women. We have our issues as a gender, but grinding our pelvises up against strangers in public spaces or groping our young nephews is not one of them.

Talk, everyone. If #MeToo is to be anything other than a really rough few days on Facebook, women need to tear back the veil on our routine experiences of sexual assault and harassment. And men have to help us set things right.