Monday, December 31, 2007

Wishing for a better life for Chantal
Dec. 28, 2007



She used to make me cry when she’d go missing for days at a time, back when I was new at this whole tragic business of life on the streets.
Now I know just to wait. Chantal will call when her “run” is done, and the next thing you know she’ll be bugging me for $3 for poutine at that little place in Market Square as if nothing had happened.
I’ve known her for more than three years now. She can be as endearing and charming as she can be loud and ornery. Those who end up loving her, and there are a number of us, have usually seen enough of the sweet version to counter the times when she’s awful.
She’s 23 and has lived on the streets for a hard six years now. Her story is what happens when you give up on kids - most notably, ones with permanent disabilities. Chantal’s brain was damaged long before she was ever born by her mother’s drinking during pregnancy, and the impact on her life has been profound.
She was taken into foster care at age nine here in Victoria, having already survived some very tough times with her birth family. As is the lot of many a foster child’s life, she bounced through several placements, then was cut loose at age 16 to go on “independent living,” which basically amounts to a welfare cheque and not much else.
Everyone charged with caring for her at that time must have known what a disaster it would be. She’d had behaviour problems for years, and started drinking at 13. By 14, she was using cocaine, and by 15 was pregnant. She’d had several encounters with the police. But they still walked her straight out of care with nothing more than a handful of cash and the clothes on her back.
And that’s pretty much how life has stayed for her. She’s been housed for brief periods, but most times she can’t manage even a few days on her own, or tolerate the loneliness. She logged an impressive two months this year in a small, peer-supported house for women in recovery, but then she disappeared on a cocaine run for a couple weeks and they evicted her.
The kind of housing Chantal needs - a boarding house, really, with an experienced and realistic house mother who understands Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder - doesn’t exist here. If there’s such a place anywhere in B.C., I haven’t been able to find it. She lives on the streets because it’s the only place that accepts her without question.
It’s what makes me roll my eyes when I hear people talking about street issues as if they’re hopeless “big city” problems that we just have to get used to. The sad truth of it is that we’ve barely even tried.
A regular at Streetlink and a familiar figure to police, Chantal is what you might call larger than life. You don’t want to be out in public with her when her unflinching honesty manifests as a cruel insult to a passing stranger. But she has also broken my heart more times than I can count with her sweetness.
Welfare Wednesdays are the worst for her. The last one was just over a week ago, and we formulated a detailed plan to get her through it relatively unscathed. I was taking her for a visit at the ministry office with the baby she had five months ago, but first I picked her up at Streetlink and we made our way to an old furniture store to stand in line for the Santas Anonymous hamper pickup . Chantal wanted to have a Christmas present for when she saw the baby.
She was trying to prove to a friend that she could stay clean long enough to buy him a meal with her welfare money, and was desperate to avoid cocaine that day so she’d have the money. The plan was to visit the baby; pick up Chantal’s cheque at the welfare office; cash it at the bank; give me half the money to hold; and find her friend for lunch. I was wary about taking the money, but she vowed not to hound me relentlessly on the phone for it like she had the last time.
We settled on $50 to be returned to her this past Saturday, and the remaining $100 sometime after Christmas. (“Midnight?” she asked mischievously.) Then we picked up her friend and went to a Chinese buffet to heap our plates, and Chantal paid. For a few hours anyway, her dreams came true.
In the U.S., one in four children taken into state care eventually ends up on the streets. I imagine the same is true in Canada, because so many of the stories I hear on Victoria’s streets are essentially tales of hard-luck and hurting kids left to grow into lost and struggling souls.
So here’s to free turkey dinners and warm coats at Christmas for people on the streets, because kind gestures matter. But my dear friend Chantal needs so much more than that. A new year is coming, and I can only hope for real change.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Gorge boatman looks to small houses to solve homelessness
Dec. 21, 2007

The turnout isn’t as good as he’d hoped - four people. He’d been counting on 15. But so it goes, and Roland Lapierre isn’t the kind of guy to let a thing like poor attendance get him down for long.
We’re gathered in an upstairs board room at Our Place, where Lapierre is holding forth passionately to a small knot of bemused people from the streets. He’s trying to put together an organizing committee, and so far has three signatures. “It’s dinner hour at Streetlink right now, so that could be why there isn’t more people here,” he tells me.
Briefly famous for the graceful one-man raft he built and lived on for a year in the Gorge; Lapierre is back on land now after being rousted from the water by the City of Victoria. He’s found a room at the Fairfield Hotel on Cormorant Street, but hasn’t given up on his dream of a life far from the streets. “I’m just the kind of person who’d rather live in a forest,” says Lapierre, 56.
He’d called the meeting to gauge interest in his latest plan: little 64-square-feet cabins big enough to house one person. His concept is to have people on the streets build the one-room cabins using donated material, and then to find willing property owners willing to let the cabins be set up on their land in exchange for a tax break.
“You could have a dog. You could have a cat. You could have a house instead of a doorway,” he tells the group. “Some of the houses could be set up in a park, and the people who lived in them could help with park maintenance. It’d be a lot better than living on the street.”
Lapierre has brought a book along - A Little House of My Own: 47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses - so that people can get a look at what he’s talking about. His favourite is the Cube House, a tiny, perfect cabin complete with bed, miniature kitchen, chemical toilet, and teeny-weeny balcony.
“This has been in Popular Science magazine,” he tells one sceptical fellow leafing through the book. “Popular Science doesn’t publish dangerous things.”
Lapierre has a detailed plan for the project. First, people from the streets will participate in building them, thereby disproving the notion that they “aren’t willing to do anything to help themselves.” Then the little houses will be loaded onto half-ton trucks and taken to whatever properties are available.
“But you’re going to need a social contract with whoever owns the land saying that you’ll be respectful and clean up after yourself and all that,” Lapierre cautions the group. “Don’t bring the cops home.”
The savings begin almost immediately, says Lapierre. The provincial government, for instance, would no longer have to pay the shelter portion of people’s welfare cheques, and could instead invest those savings in building more of the little cabins. Fewer people living on the streets would mean less crime, less garbage, less conflict with frustrated business owners.
In an interview after the meeting, I tell Lapierre I want to play the devil’s advocate, and ask him what he’d say to the doubters out there would likely respond to his idea with a cranky admonition to get a job and pay for his own damn cabin in the woods.
“When I could work, I worked,” says Lapierre. “Back when we were greasing the wheels of industry, who do you think was greasing them? But have an accident and see how long that $50,000 from ICBC lasts. Lose your job, or your marriage. It’s all circumstances beyond our control that puts us out here.
“It’s not our fault that we’re ill. It’s not our fault that the jobs all went somewhere else. I can’t even type with two fingers, so where do I fit in anymore? We’ve left some people out of the formula.”
Lapierre says his cabin concept is his “last kick at the can” before he gives up and retreats to a 40-hectare placer-mine stake north of Sooke, which he registered after scratching together the required $2 a hectare. He isn’t legally able to live there, but does have the right to occupy the land.
As for his fine year afloat in a little bay near the Selkirk Trestle, Lapierre will not soon forget any of it.
“I had breakfast with swans, and lunch with the geese,” Lapierre recalls. “I saw a lot of beautiful sunsets. I met great people. I had quiet waters and peaceful living for a whole year, and that was a wonderful gift.”
But the eviction hasn’t been all bad, he says.
“The boat was like one of those sand mandalas for me - a beautiful thing swept away. I had to say, ‘Well, what good will come from this?’” says Lapierre.
“But when it was over, people - strangers, just walking past me on the street - started coming up to me to say how sorry they were about how it turned out. They’d be passing by and say, ‘Hey! You’re that guy from the boat!’ People showed me that they cared. I’ve never had people care for me like that.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Street memories fresh, and he's not going back
Dec. 14, 2007

His name is Brad, and we’ll leave it at that. He told me he doesn’t care about having his full name out there, but I don’t know whether his sisters and teenage children would feel the same way.
His is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, one that Brad hopes he’s finally got a grip on. The 47-year-old has been clean and sober for nine months now, and off the streets after a harrowing year and a half at the bottom of the world.
“I know what it’s like to be there. I don’t want to go back,” says the former IKEA store manager. “But trying to get back to where I once was is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
Brad was on the streets briefly as a teenager while making his way out of a tough childhood, but that didn’t last long. He was soon on his way to the life he’d always envisaged for himself - good job, wife and kids, friends coming by every Friday for a barbecue and a few drinks.
But that was then. Brad still marvels at how far from that ideal he ended up, and at how much effort it’s taking to try to get back.
People on the streets often talk of a series of unfortunate events - bad things happening in a bad sequence - as setting the stage for their fall. In Brad’s case, his marriage broke up, and the bitter dispute over custody and support that followed took a terrible toll financially and emotionally.
“I started to use drugs more, because I was falling apart. I’m not trying to use that as an excuse, but that’s what happened,” he says. “People talk about ‘losing everything’ on their way down - well, I didn’t lose it, I gave it away. I sold it. And finally, I made it to the streets.”
People with addictions often talk about having to hit “bottom.” For Brad, that point came in March.
By then, he was a skinny, desperately sick guy living homeless and hopeless in the downtown. He’d been calling the region’s only detox facility every day for two months, as is the requirement for anyone hoping to get access to one of the facility’s seven beds. “You’re on the list!” they’d cheerily tell him.
By early March he’d grown so sick that his alarmed doctor footed the bill for a cab to the hospital emergency department. A few hours later, the hospital refused him as well, and sent Brad stumbling away in slippers into a cold and rainy night long after the shelters had closed.
“That was it for me. The next day, I called my sister. I was just sobbing,” Brad recalled over coffee, at a downtown cafe that he notes would likely have barred him entry not too many months ago. “She called detox the next day, and I finally got a bed.”
Anyone who recovers from addiction has had to vanquish a mighty foe, not to mention survive a fragmented and inadequate system of care. The only thing that kept Brad from returning to the streets after his week in detox was his refusal to leave the place. They finally found him a bed for six weeks in a Nanaimo recovery house.
“That was the turning point,” he says.
He won’t soon forget anything about his time on the street. One morning, he woke up on the ground near Swan’s Hotel to find a rat on his chest.
“And the worst of it was that I didn’t even care,” he adds. “I should show you the video that Shaw Cable got of me from that time - 40 pounds lighter, missing teeth, beer in my hand, wearing this big coat with my crack pipe in one pocket and heroin in the other. I’m keeping that coat just to remind myself.
“It rips you apart out there. I lost my integrity. I even sold ecstasy to a 16-year-old. Hell, I wouldn’t have even given a kid that age a cigarette a year before.”
Brad is living with one of his sisters now, and grateful for the stability and support. But regular contact with his drug counsellor is equally important, because she’s there for him when his baffled and beleaguered family just can’t take it anymore.
The strongest of families can snap under the stress of trying to support someone through an addiction, and Brad is working hard to win back his family’s trust. But it’s not easy. The relapse that sent him to the streets came after a year of clean time, so “everybody’s looking at me sideways now.”
With his own life circumstances improving, Brad wants to play some part in helping others still out there.
“There’s a way to make it work. Whether it’ll cost $7 million or $7 billion, I don’t know, but I do know that we can make it happen,” he says.
“Everyone’s doing the best they can, sure, but the truth is they’re busting their hearts out to not succeed. We need to get with the program that’s going to work.”

Monday, December 10, 2007

Enough talk on homelessness - time to act
Dec. 7, 2007

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like five weeks of hanging around on the front lines of street issues to leave a person feeling sick at heart.
I hope I managed to convey that to readers in the Times-Colonist series I finished up last Sunday. I hope you’re alarmed, aghast and scared for the future. Because I surely am.
Going into the series, I figured my intense education running PEERS Victoria for three years had given me insight enough into the issues that lead people to the streets and the scope of the problem. I thought I knew all there was to know about the difficulties people face in trying to access mental health and addiction services.
I now realize I was a babe in the woods. Things are so much worse than I ever imagined. The people living on our streets have grown large enough to populate a small town, and they’re leading lawless, generally miserable lives in our streets and parks in conditions that border on feral.
These are people we once cared for. Not always well, mind you; I have a friend who won’t soon forget the straitjackets and dehumanizing aspects of the old-style psychiatric institutions, and another who lived through B.C.’s failed experiment in mandatory addiction treatment in the 1970s. But it was care nonetheless, something of which very little remains anymore.
There are many paths to homelessness, and we need to be taking action on all fronts if we’re to dry up the flow of lost souls to our streets.
But certainly the current crisis can be traced to the phasing out of our big mental hospitals starting in the late 1980s, with problems growing exponentially over the next 20 years as we cut even deeper into mental-health and addiction services; eliminated support programs and specialized housing for people with brain injuries and mild developmental disabilities; churned kids through the foster system until they lost their way; and stopped building subsidized housing.
On top of that, we made it much harder to qualify for a welfare cheque even while slashing job-support programs that helped people with challenges succeed at work. Add in the widespread availability of street drugs to ease the pain of the people who are out there, and it’s no surprise how we got to this point.
People wrote to me throughout the series asking what they could do to help. They cared, but didn’t know how to act on it. My first suggestion would be to get informed, then find an avenue for direct involvement - whether on behalf of the homeless, the business community, the police or the service providers. Make a personal commitment to do something. Give money, and time.
Then commit to writing a letter a week for the next year to the provincial government, and another to the federal government. Once a month, write a letter to your mayor, too, requesting a list of city council actions that month related to resolving street issues.
Teachers, get your students involved. Employers and union leaders, take it on as a project. A thousand people can generate 44,000 letters a month - in a year, more than half a million. We don’t just have to sit here and take it.
Provincially, alternate letters between the ministers of Health, Income Assistance, and Housing. Copy every letter to Premier Gordon Campbell and your local MLA. Federally, send letters to the ministers of Health Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, copying Prime Minister Stephen Harper and your local MP. (Websites for finding contact information are listed at the bottom of this column.)
Demand that they address the breakdown in services that has led to people living on our streets. Demand that 350 people be relocated into well-supported housing in our region by the end of 2008, and each year after that until the street problems are gone.
Keep letters short and respectful, but unwavering and relentless. Don’t let them distract you with stories of $40 million here and $10 million there, or of federal-provincial agreements that are “laying the groundwork for future negotiations.” Demand that the problems be fixed right here, right now, in your home town. Period.
My other request: Bear witness. Go to where the problems are and see them first-hand. That’s essential if we’re to understand the challenges that lie ahead, and the immensity of the tragedy.
Bearing witness is especially important if you still think addiction and untreated mental illness are about choice in any real sense of the word. But it’s equally important for the tender-hearted who think the business community just needs to lighten up a little. Believe me, businesses and downtown residents have good reason to be fed up.
And what will I do? I’ll keep telling the stories from the streets that I hope will start you writing letters to government. I’ll join like-minded people in the community and on the streets, and we’ll put our shoulders to the wheel to make things happen.
If not us, who? In the words of the revolutionary Thomas Paine: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Find your federal MP at canada.gc.ca/directories/direct_e.html. For MLAs: www.leg.bc.ca/mla/3-1-1.htm. Municipalities: www.civicnet.bc.ca/siteengine. BC cabinet ministers and the Premier: www.gov.bc.ca/ministries/

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Noon on Dec. 2, in a driving rain:

I'm just coming out of a five-week stretch of looking at street issues in Victoria's downtown for the Times-Colonist, and am filled with thoughts of the people and the problems I encountered along the way. It's immensely discouraging - as bad as I thought the situation was, which was pretty damn bad, it's actually so much worse. I fear for the future if things don't start to change, and can't bear the thought of where it will all end up by the time my grandchildren grow into adults in another 15 years.

Somehow in our misguided attempt at charitable action, we've ended up providing people with just enough of the basics to maintain them in their misery. They have to work so hard to try to get out, and we make it as hard as possible by adding to the difficulty at every step of the way.

Consider methadone, for instance, particularly on this rainy and miserable day in December. Methadone is a prescription drug that is used as a replacement for heroin. You don't need to inject it, one dose lasts 24 hours, and the people who respond well to it are essentially able to just get on with a regular life.

But methadone is also a narcotic, and thousands of people who take the prescription drug are considered too unstable in their addiction to be given their methadone to take home. What that means is that every day, they have to go to the drug store - and only certain stores, because most pharmacies don't sell methadone - to take their daily dose in the presence of the pharmacist.

On a day like to day, anyone who's on methadone but not allowed "carries" had to head out into the driving rain for their morning "juice." Unless they are on disability and successful in scrounging up the $45 for an annual bus pass, they'll need to have bus fare of $5 in correct change in their pockets. They'll need to ride the bus for however long it takes to get there, then do it all over again to get home.

Every day. Every single day, as if forced to prove to all of us that they are worthy of recovery, that they want it badly enough. If anything goes wrong and they can't make it to the drug store, they will be very, very sick in short order.

Or they can call up a heroin dealer and have the drug delivered to their door in minutes.

What would you do?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hi, readers. Here's a link to the five-part series I just finished up for the Times-Colonist. I don't know how long it will stay active on the TC Web site, but will post it on this site directly as soon as that happens. The series ran Nov. 4 to Dec. 2.

The Street

Monday, October 29, 2007

Across the water is the place for me
Oct. 26, 2007

As beautiful as the Capital Region is, it has taken me a long time to click into this place. I’m a Courtenay girl originally, and there’s not much that feels familiar in Greater Victoria if you hail from just about anywhere else on the Island.
But then my partner and I moved to Esquimalt in early 2006. And for whatever reason, things just kind of fell into place.
All of a sudden, I find myself taking an interest in goings-on in my community. Before I moved here, I wasn’t even sure what my “community” was.
I’ve recently caught myself reading with great interest about the proposed redevelopment of the local shopping mall, and pondering what kind of retail mix I’m secretly hoping for. I care about how things will turn out at Kinsmen Gorge Park after new facilities are added, and whether one of my favourite bird-watching fields along one side of the park will be affected.
Those are healthy signs. If I live here, I ought to care about what’s going on in my community. I should be paying attention, and feeling engaged.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve felt that level of engagement all along, on behalf of whatever neighbourhood I was living in at the time. But in all my years in the region, I just never felt the love until I moved to Esquimalt.
I’ve cast my lot in with several communities in the region since moving here in 1989. First came Sooke, then Highlands, albeit a mere electoral district in those days. I lived in the Hillside area for a while before finally settling in Saanich for 14 years, most of it spent in Gordon Head.
We lived in a perfectly nice neighbourhood there, and I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with Gordon Head. But I admit to feeling like a visitor all those years. It’s hard to pin down what makes a community feel like it’s the right fit for you; all I know is that I couldn’t find mine.
For the longest time, I thought it was just the way it had to be. After all, our region is a final, fabulous stop for people from around the world, all of whom come with their own definition of the “perfect” community.
For that reason alone, it’s always going to be a challenge to build community in our region. With a few exceptions, we tend to be a community of people from other communities. We have a common love for the scenery and climate of the southern Island, but that’s really not much to go on when it comes to community development.
One night maybe two or three years ago, I found myself on the way back home from somewhere and needing to run into the drug store at Colwood Corners. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, but something must have been in the air that evening.
I walked in the door and suddenly it seemed like I was back among people I recognized - people like me, whatever the heck that means. I’d be hard-pressed to define it. But that night, I felt it.
That’s when it dawned on me that I might be living in the wrong part of the region. My “people” lived elsewhere - in the Western Communities, perhaps. Had it not been for the Colwood Crawl and the prospect of tedious daily commutes in creeping traffic, I might have packed up right then and there.
Fortunately, Esquimalt has turned out to be the happy mid-point. I’d been hearing the jokes since I moved to the region about how different things were “across the bridge” and am delighted to discover that indeed, they are.
Is it the proximity to the water? Could be. I suspect my fervour for kayaking has something to do with a daily routine that regularly leads me past eye-catching stretches of the Gorge and Portage. While I have no more of a water view now than I did in Gordon Head, the wonderful scent of the ocean definitely lingers more on this side of town.
Is it the interesting trails in every direction for cycling and walking? Yes, that’s significant. Recent expansion of the Lochside Trail has made a big difference for the Gordon Head area, but for cyclists in particular it’s still difficult to go for a ride without having to endure unpleasant stretches on roads like McKenzie and Shelbourne.
More than anything, I think what I respond to in Esquimalt is the people. It’s not that they’re nicer, or dramatically different from those in other parts of the region. But something about them just reminds me of where I came from.
The funny thing is, I have no urge to return to Courtenay, and barely recognize the old place anymore. But there must be some Courtenay state of being that I’ve been missing all these years, and for some reason the people on this side of the bridge just seem to bring it to mind more often.
Home. Nice to finally find a neighbourhood where that word feels like it fits.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Homeless solution rests with all of us
Oct. 19, 2007

Up until I read that damn Frances Piven and her research into social change, I was certain that a bright new day was just around the corner in terms of people living sick, homeless and desperate on our streets.
The darkest days are just before the storm, I’d tell myself. People wouldn’t take it for much longer.
The better part of a decade has passed since I first had that thought, prompted by a walk through Vancouver’s tragic Downtown Eastside. But the street situations in Vancouver and Victoria have worsened significantly since then, and I’m still waiting for that storm.
Fortunately, a friend pointed me toward Piven’s 1979 book Poor People’s Movements earlier this year, and I saw in its pages the error in my thinking.
Piven and co-author Richard Coward looked at U.S. movements that had sprung up over the last century around issues such as welfare rights, unemployment insurance, and civil rights for American blacks. In each case, change only happened when several highly specific factors came into play all at the same time - few of which are evident when it comes to homelessness.
Violent protest and economic disruption were essential aspects in the movements Piven and Coward studied. Equally important was somebody in power who was championing the cause. Tiny, dedicated groups of committed people at all levels also had to be in place, and prepared to work very hard for many, many years.
Even with all that in place, change only happened when the mainstream felt directly affected. People had to see that change would serve their own interests. (The mass unemployment of the Depression, for instance, did wonders in convincing the broader population that unemployment insurance was a good idea.)
In addition, those at the heart of the movement had to be relentless in their commitment, not to mention articulate and compelling. View the modern-day disaster of homelessness through Piven’s lens, and it’s obvious why change continues to elude us.
First, consider the homeless themselves.
People on the streets tend to be quite sick - physically and mentally. Few are in any position to protest, let alone wait out the series of court injunctions should they dare try.
They come from a street culture that might as well be Mars in terms of how much it resembles our mainstream culture. They can’t often present themselves in appealing enough fashion to elicit any public sympathy, and many inadvertently inspire fear.
Then there are the challenges of economic disruption as a motivator, particularly in this region.
Downtown Victoria and city taxpayers certainly feel the pain. The city has spent $1.4 million to date in 2007 cleaning up the detritus of 1,200 people living on or near the streets. Police have identified 324 particularly intense people in the downtown who have collectively racked up more than 23,000 encounters with the law in just over three years, at a total cost of $9.2 million. The needle exchange, currently under threat of eviction due to the social ills unfolding on its door step, has seen its caseload triple to 1,600 in the last decade.
But if you don’t live, work or shop in the downtown, it’s almost like there’s no problem. In a region with 13 municipalities and numerous shopping districts, you can choose not to look - at least until the problems grow large enough to spill into your own neighbourhood.
So how will we battle this beast at the heart of our community? I guess it’s up to the small band of believers that Piven identified as playing a key role in leading change. If you’ve made it this far into my column, it could be you’re one of them.
Maybe you’re sick of washing urine and dirty needles from your storefront. Maybe you want homes, health care and support for everyone out there. Maybe you live in the middle of it all and just want a decent night’s sleep and a feeling of safety. No matter. Everyone who wants meaningful solutions to the real issues on our streets is ultimately on the same side.
The Mayor’s Task Force on breaking the cycle of mental illness, addiction and homelessness reports today. And as you’ll see, there are solutions.
The task force has spent the last five months crafting a strategy that draws on best practises from around the world. Speaking as someone who was part of the process, it’s a good report. There’s much to learn from the experiences of cities that are hard at work trying to tackle their own crisis of homelessness.
But without action, the report is just words on paper. There’s no big bag of money out there waiting to be spent, and no immediately obvious champion for the cause who will take it from here. In other words, don’t count on change unless you’re prepared to be part of it.
Homelessness is growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year. Close to 2,000 people will be living on our streets by the end of next year. Another 600 will join them the following year, and almost 800 more in 2010.
Want to do something about that? Then gird your loins and let’s get at it. Nobody but us is going to make it happen.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pine-beetle devastation marks end of B.C.'s pine forests
Oct. 12, 2007

My first glimpse of what has now become a catastrophic natural disaster for B.C. was in 2003, when I was travelling around the province writing stories from the so-called heartland.
At that point, the mountain pine beetle was already into its fourth voracious year of attacking B.C.’s pine forests. In my stopovers in Quesnel and Prince George, the briefest glance from the car window was all it took to see the damage. In the worst-hit spots, dead trees covered the landscape.
The people in affected areas were still trying to be cheery and entrepreneurial about the pine beetle disaster in those days. The greyish-blue wood colour that is a hallmark of a beetle-infested pine was being reworked as a niche product - “denim pine.”
I returned to the coast and didn’t think too much about pine beetles after that. Lodge pole pine is a rarity in coastal forests, so it’s easy to forget the whole tragic thing if you don’t get out of town much.
But a visit to my old haunts in Kamloops last week brought me face to face with the terrible reality of B.C.’s pine beetle infestation another four years on.
Most of the beautiful pine forests that dot the dry hills around Kamloops are dead now, or will be soon. I saw the red patches across the river valley first, and initially wondered if I was looking at deciduous trees turning colour. I drove past a familiar hill on the Yellowhead Highway and wondered if fire was responsible for the greying trees. Then I remembered.
By the time the beetle infestation peters out in eight or so years, 80 per cent of the pine trees on B.C.’s forestry lands will be dead. Half will be dead by next year.
In parks and on private lands, the damage will be equally catastrophic. The more established the forest, the greater the impact; pine beetles prefer older trees.
Like most catastrophes, there’s a tangle of reasons for why B.C. is in the grip of the biggest beetle infestation in North American history.
To start with, there are just more mature lodge pole pines in B.C. than there used to be. In 1910, the province had 2.5 million hectares of pine that was at least 60 years old. That figure had more than tripled by 1990.
A long-standing provincial policy to put out wildfires rather than leave them to burn is also a factor. Instead of burning up on a regular basis like they once did, B.C.’s pine forests now live long enough to grow old, which is just how the pine beetle likes them. Logged land that had been replanted with a single species added to the problem, as it concentrated stands of lodge pole pine.
Then came global warming. The only weather that will kill off a pine beetle is several straight days of cold temperatures below -35 C. Since 1999, when the current infestation started taking hold, the Interior hasn’t seen a winter like that.
The environmental impact of the infestation goes well beyond the aesthetic of 9.2 million hectares of dead lodge pole pines. A healthy forest soaks up significant amounts of runoff in the spring. It also creates a lot of shade, which slows the rate of snow melt.
So dead trees mean way more water making its way into B.C.’s creeks and rivers every spring. Topsoil on the forest floor gets stripped away in the rapid flow of runoff, and rivers jump their banks. Fragile ecosystems, roadways, farmland, fisheries - all will be put at risk by the time the infestation runs its course, in ways that no one can fully predict.
In terms of making money from those dead trees before they’re too rotten to sell, the province is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The annual allowable cut in half of the 20 hardest hit Timber Supply Areas has more than tripled in recent years as the government and forest industry scramble to salvage what value they can from the disaster. Take away too many trees too fast, however, and the subsequent flooding makes it much tougher to replant.
But the biggest impact of the beetle infestation will be felt in another 10 to 15 years. That’s when more than 30 logged-out Interior communities will hit the wall in terms of having any wood left to harvest.
At the moment, those communities are seeing some economic benefits from the infestation. With all those dead trees out there and a real sense of urgency at the provincial level around salvaging the wood as quickly as possible, there’s no shortage of logging work right now.
But when the trees are gone, they’re gone. New pine forests won’t be ready for harvest for another 60 to 80 years. And while forestry-dependent communities have been grappling with hard times for years now, the economic devastation caused by the pine beetle could easily be the worst blow yet.
What can be done about any of this? Short of saying a prayer for our vanishing pine forests and bracing for the disaster still to come, barely a thing. This is devastating history in the making, and we can only hope to sift some new understanding from the wreckage.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ideology is no way to run a country
Oct. 5, 2007

The problems of ideology-based governance clearly must be more obvious from afar. Otherwise, Canadians wouldn’t be able to bear the hypocrisy of railing against oppressive and backward regimes elsewhere in the world while committing ourselves anew to the folly of a “war on drugs.”
With news this week that we’re returning full-force to the same fruitless battle we’ve already lost several times over, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has once again reminded me why word of his 2006 election plunged me into a pit of despair.
Here we are one more time, at least 60 years after we first heard from the experts that we were doing things all wrong, talking about “crackdowns” and the need to “get tough” with those who use illicit drugs. Posturing about all the butt-does kicking we’ll be doing at the border once our new anti-drug strategy is in place. Planning the latest version of an earnest but pointless campaign to convince teenagers not to use drugs.
Small wonder I eventually lost my appetite for journalism when I think how many times I’ve witnessed this particular story cycle unfold. The real tragedy is that the misuse of drugs continues to cost us $40 billion a year in Canada in direct and indirect costs, and that’s not even counting all the billions we’ve thrown away on misguided and ideologically driven attempts to do something about that.
Here’s the thing: Health issues can’t be resolved through ideology.
For the most part, we understand that. You wouldn’t catch us scrapping radiation therapy as a treatment for cancer, for instance, based solely on some politician’s belief that the only cure is to eat lots of vegetables. Were we to elect Jehovah’s Witnesses to office, I can’t see us banning blood transfusions.
So why do we continue to let our elected politicians ignore the science when it comes to drug issues? Why should anybody’s poorly informed position around drug use be the lens that we apply when trying to address complex health and social problems that are far too important to be left to political whim?
I respect the right of Stephen Harper and his MPs to believe that using illicit drugs is bad. It’s a free country and they’re welcome to their opinions, and never mind that alcohol is actually Canada’s most dangerous and readily available drug by a long shot. (The social costs of alcohol use in Canada are more than double that of all illicit drugs combined and health-related costs are three times higher.)
But why would we want to base something as important as our national drug strategy on opinion and belief?
We’ve got six decades worth of scientific studies underlining the importance of an informed, health-based approach in reducing the harm and societal costs of drug use. Yet we’re still letting vital public policy be decided by people who would rather maintain their personal fictions than take steps to fix the problems.
“This is a failed approach,” University of B.C. researcher Thomas Kerr commented to the media this week about the Harper government’s intention to launch yet another anti-drug strategy rooted almost entirely in enforcement. “The experiment is done. The science is in.”
We’ve researched drug-use issues from every possible angle over the years, and have established an astonishing amount of consensus at the scientific level in terms of how Canada can best manage problems related to drug and alcohol use. We verified a long, long time ago that concentrating our efforts on enforcement is not only futile as a way of reducing much of the problem, but also alarmingly costly.
But our current federal drug strategy devotes almost three-quarters of its annual $245 million budget to enforcement. The updated strategy being touted by the Harper government offers more of the same - and less of what’s actually working. Highly successful harm-reduction strategies like Vancouver’s safer- injection site are rumoured to be on the chopping block.
What is it that we`re trying to change? If it’s the flow of drugs into our country, then we need to tackle the issues of demand. We can knock ourselves out trying to stop drugs at the border, but they’re going to find their way in no matter what as long as there are Canadians to buy them.
If it’s the health risks we’re worried about, then we need to be providing honest information to everyone who might use drugs, particularly pre-teens heading into the inevitable experimental years. The key word is “honest,” which implies being truthful about which drugs are truly the scary ones.
Our old friend alcohol certainly wouldn’t fare well in that truth-telling. The annual health costs from alcohol consumption in Canada are almost 45 times that of marijuana, and alcohol is far and away the most dangerous drug of all to use during pregnancy.
If it’s drug addiction that we want to have an impact on, that entails dramatic, system-wide change, because we’re doing almost nothing right on that front at the moment. Addiction is a health issue, plain and simple. We’ll get somewhere when we start treating it like one.
So with all due respect, Mr. Harper, believe whatever you like in your personal life. But as prime minister, please run this country on facts and not fiction.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Nothing beautiful about cosmetic surgery
Sept. 28, 2007

We ought to be grateful for people like Krista Stryland and Micheline Charest, whose sad deaths present an opportunity for all women to reflect on the demons that send us searching for happiness through surgery.
Stryland died last week in Toronto of a heart attack after undergoing liposuction, in which a thin, sharp instrument is rammed repeatedly into your body to break up pockets of fat. Charest died in Montreal in 2004 following six unconscious hours on the operating table being sliced, diced and skinned in the pursuit of “beauty.”
Death is merely the worst-case scenario on a laundry list of ugly possibilities when it comes to cosmetic surgery, mind you. So I’m grateful too to celebrities like Cher, Joan Rivers, Burt Reynolds, and legions more. One glimpse of their mannequin-like faces is all it takes to remind me of the mighty price people pay for thinking they can get one over on the aging process.
We can talk all we like about whether general practitioners should be allowed to call themselves cosmetic surgeons and start operating on people in their private clinics, as happened to Stryland. That seems to be the major theme in the news coverage of her death this week, and it’s certainly an important point in provinces that haven’t sorted that out yet (B.C. already has).
Or we can cut to the chase and ask ourselves what in hell is going on with us.
Why do more than a quarter of a million Canadian women undergo some kind of cosmetic “enhancement” procedure every year in an attempt to feel more attractive? Why do Canadians spend more than half a billion dollars annually having ourselves tightened, tucked, lasered and poisoned in the elusive - and ultimately hopeless - pursuit of youth?
The self-loathing that characterizes so much of the female experience in this day and age has now spread to men, who once seemed virtually immune to such dangerous vanities. But while the number of men seeking solace through cosmetic surgery may be on the rise, 85.5 per cent of the Canadians undergoing the procedures in any given year are female.
Men tend to come looking for a better nose, or less droopy eyelids. Women have different goals: Less fat; bigger breasts; fewer wrinkles. The procedure that Stryland was undergoing, liposuction, is the most requested cosmetic surgery among Canadian women, accounting for a quarter of the total surgical market.
Cosmetic enhancement has become so popular, in fact, that a loan company in Toronto now more or less specializes in lending money to people wanting to be operated on. Medicard lends money to people facing a bill for an unfunded medical procedure, three-quarters of whom have are people wanting cosmetic enhancements.
In 2004, Medicard surveyed 1,000 doctors doing that work. The survey produced some of the first hard numbers specific to the thriving cosmetic-enhancement industry in Canada.
The numbers are pretty frightening. Almost 25,000 Canadians a year are having liposuction. Some 17,000 women a year get their breasts enlarged. More than 100,000 doses of the botulism toxin are injected annually into people happy to pay for the privilege of getting rid of a few wrinkles by having their facial muscles paralysed.
Cosmetic procedures overall rose almost 25 per cent in Canada between 2002 and 2003, Medicard reports. In the U.S., the growth in the industry is staggering: close to 11 million Americans now undergo cosmetic procedures in a typical year, an increase of almost 500 per cent in the past decade.
Our sisters down south are even more enthusiastic than we are about putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of false youth and beauty. Women account for 91.4 per cent of the U.S. market, which now drives an industry worth close to $12.5 billion.
Why are we doing this to ourselves? We like to blame the fashion industry, or Hollywood, or all those magazines endlessly haranguing us to lose 10 pounds by Christmas/summer/next week. The cult of youth, the anorexic runway models - what can a girl do but try to keep up?
But we wouldn’t respond to the negative messaging if we were confident in our own skins. If we weren’t so tragically uncertain about our own worth, all the images in the world of skinny, airbrushed, smooth-skinned 20-year-olds wouldn’t ruffle us a bit.
Were we whole to begin with, we wouldn’t be here wondering why a happy, fit young mom would die for the sake of a little less flab on her belly. We wouldn’t be borrowing money by the thousands to get our faces cut up and our breasts filled with plastic pouches.
Perhaps the patriarchy had something to do with all of it way back when. But we’re long past the time for laying the blame on anyone except women themselves.
If we stopped buying the magazines that exist to make us feel inadequate, there soon wouldn’t be any. If we quit buying teeny-tiny vials of vastly overpriced creams to dab on our unstoppable wrinkles, we could feed the planet with the money saved. If we aged with grace instead of desperation, whole industries would collapse overnight.
Just say no, ladies. There’s no beauty to be found at the end of a knife.

Monday, September 24, 2007

U.S. corporation takes another piece of B.C.'s human service work
Sept. 21, 2007

For better or worse, the bulk of B.C.’s back-to-work programs for people with disabilities are now under the control of a large, aggressive American corporation.
The ink is barely dry on the Aug. 3 agreement that saw the sale of the local company that has run the programs up until now - WCG International - to Arizona’s Providence Service Corp. So it’s much too soon to speculate whether clients will notice any difference, or to assume that it’s automatically a bad thing when one more big U.S. company takes over yet another aspect of B.C.’s human services.
But man, I get cold shivers down my spine when I think about how easily British Columbians are giving this stuff up, all of it without a whisper of public debate. Providence in particular is a heavy-duty acquisitor of government social-service contracts, and delighted to be gaining its first foothold in Canada.
Providence bought WCG less than a month after the Victoria company had secured the better part of $18 million in contracts with the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance. Of the eight contracts awarded in B.C. for services to people with disabilities, WCG secured four of the most lucrative ones - Vancouver Island north and south, the Fraser Valley, and northern B.C.
WCG has run welfare-to-work and the Triumph disability program for several years now, so no surprise it got the contracts. First hired by the New Democrats in the mid-1990s to get people off welfare and back to work, the company has continued to do very well under the Liberals.
It’s difficult to gauge the success of the venture overall, given that the only absolute measurement is whether fewer people are receiving welfare. We don’t know if their lives have been improved because of that, or if they managed to maintain whatever job was found for them. External factors - a booming economy, for instance - complicate things even more.
So all that can be said with certainty about this past decade’s efforts is that 230,000 fewer British Columbians are on welfare now compared to 1995, and that companies like WCG have played a key role in that.
That our streets, hospitals and jails are now overflowing with people who are no longer receiving welfare - well, that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s stick to the sale of WCG, and what it means to have a U.S. monolith now calling the shots in great swaths of the province.
Providence founder Fletcher Jay McCusker was running for-profit reform schools when he “saw an opportunity” in the mid-1990s to expand the business.
Governments throughout the U.S. were losing interest in providing social services, but in many cases were required by federal law to continue the work. Meanwhile, social need was growing. For the private sector, those factors pointed the way to a “recession resistant” industry, notes the Providence Web site in its section for investors.
Providence now has a workforce of more than 7,000 operating a soup-to-nuts list of social services in 37 states. The purchase of WCG marks Providence’s first foray into work programs for people with disabilities, but its other offerings run the gamut: probation services; domestic-abuse counselling; foster care; parole supervision; child and youth behavioural programs. Florida’s entire child-protection system is now run by Providence, under a contract the company touts to potential investors as “economically insulated.”
In the topsy-turvy world of profiting from human misery, worsening economic conditions are actually “market drivers” for companies like Providence. There’s a financial interest in maintaining poverty and suffering.
With all the social problems the U.S. is experiencing, that means there’s nowhere to go but up. The emerging industry that Providence defines has the potential to thrive in times of economic downturn.
And if two years in a row of “double-digit returns” aren’t enough to convince wary investors of that, Providence offers a grim array of statistics to verify the growing dependency on its services. More than 40 million Americans now living in poverty. Almost five million adults released every year on parole. Two million children needing protective care. Half a million kids in foster care. High-school dropout rates at 33 per cent and rising.
The company adds that it is “further driving revenue growth by expanding into select geographic markets, including Canada.” We’re a prime market, as it turns out - lots of “liberal benefits” for job training and government interest in offloading the provision of social services.
Do we want to go in this direction? Is there even time to ascertain that before all is lost?
Providence is voraciously expanding its empire by buying up businesses like WCG and signing management contracts with not-for-profits. In an age when bigger is always assumed to be better, each acquisition positions Providence to snap up even more government contracts.
“Most of our competitors are small, local, not-for-profit kind of United Way agencies. This has historically been very parochial - that is, they are interested only in their community and providing services to their community,” McCusker said in a recent interview with the Wall Street on-line magazine TWST.com. “The more we do, the more credible we become with the state procurement people.”
He’s right. And it really scares me.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Add one more homeless man to Victoria streets
Sept. 14, 2007

For more than a year now, I’ve watched Roland Lapierre cobbling together at least some semblance of a normal life aboard his tidy little raft on the Gorge.
Once homeless on Victoria’s streets, Lapierre had found a way out. I’d see him sitting in the sunshine on his patchwork raft –reading the paper sometimes, or having a nap – and would send good thoughts his way for having the creative mettle to come up with his own solution.
I wondered how long he’d get away with it. The answer came this week. The City of Victoria has ordered Lapierre to leave the little bay where he anchors, off Banfield Park near the Selkirk Trestle.
In a city that knows no end to people living homeless on its streets, add one more.
The city is within its rights, of course, and I can already hear the “slippery slope” arguments taking shape in defence of rousting Lapierre. We can’t have people thinking they can just pull up a raft somewhere on the Gorge and live for free.
But the city’s action does beg the question: What now?
As pleasant as it may have looked from a distance, life couldn’t have been easy for Lapierre in his teeny-weeny waterfront home. It would have been cold out there a lot of the time, and there wasn’t much room on board to do anything other than sit very still or lie down.
But I loved seeing him on his raft as I made my way through the park. I have great admiration for people who are able to figure their way out of problems, and Lapierre had managed his way out from under a really big one.
One of my favourite travel destinations is Mexico, where there’s no shortage of desperately poor people coming up with innovative ways to survive. I wish for a better social safety net for all of them, but in the meantime appreciate the relative freedom they’re given by Mexican authorities to scratch together a life.
Homeless people have to live somewhere, after all. So while it isn’t pleasant to realize there’s an old, sick woman selling one-peso packs of gum out of the bus shelter where she lives on the road into your holiday resort, at least it’s honest.
The Capital Region, on the other hand, continues to pretend there is no poverty - just insufficient motivation. The street issues get more and more visible and we keep telling ourselves it’s just because there are too many lazy bums out there.
They gather in Cridge Park, and we roust them as vagrants. They find some crappy apartment building that no one else will live in, and we send in the health squad to shut the place down.
We tear down their makeshift tents on a daily basis in Beacon Hill Park. We throw out the sleeping bags they leave behind in our downtown doorways. We fence off another alley in another part of town. We send more police into the streets to move people along.
To where? Wake up, people. Ousting Roland Lapierre isn’t going to make or break the homeless issue in the region, but it’s one more perfect example of how we got here in the first place.
We can’t have it all ways. We can’t cut social supports and then be surprised that our problems are growing. We can’t abandon social-housing efforts and then insist that people get off our streets. We can’t slash mental-health care and then wonder where all the crazy people came from.
Lapierre didn’t choose to live on a raft because he wanted to get one over on the city. He did it because it was a vast improvement over camping out in some cold, dirty gap between buildings, where anybody and everybody is free to give you a hard time, rough you up, and steal your stuff.
Lapierre’s story could have had a happy ending - one where he gets the bad news about having to pack up his raft, but at the same time gets as much help as he needs in finding a more suitable place to live.
That approach would also work for tenants of buildings condemned as unfit, like the apartments on Carleton Terrace that were shut down this summer. But like Lapierre, those people have been left to their own devices as well. The streets await.
In Lapierre’s case, the city tried to be nice about it, offering him a job and even a more distant anchor. But for someone with chronic and severe mental illness - and who I suspect swims back and forth to his raft - neither are workable alternatives.
The city acted after fielding complaints from 15 people. I hope they also complained about the much larger boat anchored next to Lapierre’s raft for several weeks this summer. I hope the concern about “third party” use of the foreshore extends to the rich as well as the poor.
“I thought I had found a way,” Lapierre told the Times-Colonist this week. But his eviction was the final blow. He won’t be “fighting anymore.”
Watch for him looking sufficiently brought down to Earth in a doorway near you. Some victory.

Monday, September 10, 2007

No big-city jams - but now's the time to take on Victoria traffic
Sept. 7, 2007

I noticed in this week’s Times-Colonist that the paper is planning a series on commuting in Greater Victoria. They’ve put out a request for commuter stories, so allow me to be among the first to weigh in.
I’m one of those lucky folks who are able to pick their own start/stop times for work, at least to the extent of avoiding the worst of early-morning and late-afternoon traffic.
So I won’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a frustrated commuter fighting her way through heavy stop-and-go traffic every day. But I do get caught in the crush fairly often anyway, because it’s hard not to if you’re driving anywhere near one of the region’s trouble spots at the wrong time of day.
Civil engineers, physicists and flow experts have been trying for decades to figure out traffic jams, the reasons for which go well beyond the superficial explanation of too many cars crammed onto too few roads. The latest theories view traffic as an element, capable of changing its form under certain conditions.
On a slow time of day on a wide-open road, the theory goes, traffic is comparable to a vapour or gas. Cars travel with ease at whatever speed each driver chooses. With more cars on the road, it manifests as water – still flowing, but at a much more fixed and inflexible rate that makes it harder for drivers to switch lanes or make quick adjustments.
And when the commuter rush is on, traffic turns to ice, leaving you and your car frozen in place.
Sometimes there’s an obvious explanation for the freeze: A stalled car; a poorly planned on-ramp; an accident. But not always. Traffic can slow to a crawl and then speed back up again for no particular reason.
“All of a sudden to go from free flow to stop-and-go – this remains one of the mysteries of our time,” traffic expert Hani Mahmassani of the University of Texas commented to the Washington Post when asked about the phenomenon.
While an overload of cars can’t explain everything, it’s definitely a factor. Traffic simply can’t flow as smoothly on a road originally built to carry 100 cars an hour once development has quadrupled the number of vehicles using the route. The “Colwood crawl” exemplifies that particular problem.
But traffic volume isn’t the whole story, as anyone can attest who has experienced the late-afternoon McKenzie/Trans-Canada Highway jam. Why is it that traffic travels at regular speeds through all sorts of busy intersections around the region – including those on either side of McKenzie - yet frequently slows to a stop at that one?
Sometimes the culprit is bad planning. I suspect the reason that westbound traffic piles up on the Bay Street Bridge at various times of day is because some planner made the big mistake of putting in a single shared lane for vehicles coming off the bridge at the Tyee Road intersection regardless of whether they’re trying to turn left on Tyee or drive straight through.
That shared lane means nobody travelling west across the bridge can move forward until cars turning left on Tyee have negotiated their turn across a fairly steady stream of oncoming traffic. With the lack of an advance left-turn arrow complicating the situation even more, traffic can sometimes back up all the way to Bridge Street and beyond.
In the years when I drove from Gordon Head into the downtown every day, I discovered the hard way never to attempt a left-hand turn across McKenzie in the morning, when a mass of University of Victoria commuters was making its way to school and work.
A morning traffic jam caused by doughnuts and coffee was shaping up in the same neighbourhood just as I was moving out of the area last year, the result of Tim Horton’s devotees trying to turn left off Shelbourne into the restaurant’s drive-through.
Now that I live in Esquimalt, a whole other group of problem roadways has emerged.
A late-afternoon trip from this side of the water to any area remotely close to the West Shore, for instance, is simply not on. Nor do you want to be heading out on Interurban or Wilkinson roads when commuters start flooding back home to Peninsula communities in mid-afternoon. (I don’t know how so many people got jobs that let them head home at 3:30 p.m., but that’s when the crunch starts.)
Then there’s that funny little spot where Blanshard Street morphs into Vernon, at the intersection with Saanich Road. Whatever mysterious forces are at work there, I now know to factor in the delay of getting through that intersection when heading out of town to catch an afternoon ferry.
Even the worst commute in the Capital Region has nothing on the best day in Vancouver or Toronto, mind you. Hard-core commuters from the big city would tease us mercilessly even for considering our little 15-minute holdups as “traffic jams.” But all big problems start small.
Got your own stories to share? I know the TC would love to hear them – traffic@tc.canwest.com

Monday, September 03, 2007

More cuts to mental-health supports betray the lie of "community care"
Aug. 31, 2007

These are the first words I’ve written about the closure of Laurel House. Given that it’s closing for good in three weeks, that’s pretty late to be taking up the cause.
The problem was that I had a job in the non-profit sector up until very recently, which made it difficult to go shooting my mouth off about decisions being made by another non-profit.
In fact, I caught an earful a couple months ago just for sending an unhappy e-mail to other non-profits letting them know that Laurel House was closing and our community would be losing yet another resource for people with chronic mental illness. I learned the hard way that I’d have to keep my own counsel on the subject for the time being.
Me and my 800 words aren’t going to change a thing at this late date. But a lament for Laurel House is in order just the same.
If you’ve read the flurry of letters in the paper these past few weeks, you have the gist of the story. A beloved drop-in program in a Fernwood house that supports a couple hundred people with chronic mental illness is to be shut down and replaced with new, short-term programs focusing on “rehabilitation.”
It’s good news for people with lower levels of mental illness, who could go a long way with a little rehab help.
But for the people whose illnesses are more profound – the ones who loved Laurel House because it was the only place where they felt accepted for who they were – the closure is devastating. They don’t need a rehab program. They need a place to go where somebody isn’t always trying to “fix” them.
On the surface, the Capital Mental Health Association appears to have made an independent decision to close Laurel House. But I can’t shake the suspicion that the move has less to do with the will of the CMHA as it does with trying to hold onto almost half a million dollars in annual program funding from the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Non-profits have to bend themselves into all kinds of uncomfortable positions when it comes to maintaining funding. Perhaps the CMHA risked losing the entire $500,000 unless they scrapped Laurel House in favour of more rehab-focused programs.
Whatever the real story, I find the association’s public position on the issue pretty unpalatable. In response to a fairly scathing opinion piece in the Times-Colonist last week written by one of several health-care professionals opposed to the closure, CMHA board president Karla Wagner wrote a letter to the editor noting that some clients were just coming for the cheap lunch anyway.
“They are understandably upset that the lunch will no longer be served, but in its place will be expanded nutritional guidance and a community kitchen to achieve economies of scale,” wrote Wagner.
“We will be teaching people to fish, rather than giving them fish.”
Oh, please. I’m all for the concept of giving people a hand up instead of a handout, but sometimes a person just needs someone to give them a damn fish – or at the very least, a friendly face to sit beside while they eat it. “It’s lonely sitting in a bachelor apartment,” noted one Laurel House regular.
And when you’re barely scratching by on an $800 monthly disability cheque, what’s so wrong about appreciating a one-dollar lunch? Have we no compassion left for chronically ill people who may never be able to get out there and land a paid job?
I’ve got a good friend who has relied on the kind folks of Laurel House for more than 20 years. Some days, she’s plain worn out from trying to “better” herself from an illness that will be with her for the rest of her life.
She must have done a dozen programs in the six years I’ve known her, some of which have admittedly been very helpful in stabilizing her illness. But Laurel House was the gentle background noise to all those programs – the place where she knew she was always welcome, free to pursue the painting and sculpture that makes her happy, and able to make her own choices around what she’d do that day.
Neither she nor any of the Laurel House regulars were asked about the changes that are now underway. They were just called to a meeting one day and told how it was going to be. Apparently drop-ins for the mentally ill are out of step with modern psychiatric theory - these days, it’s all about short-term, work-focused programs.
That the new programs will be run by an occupational therapist rather than the psychiatric nurse who headed up Laurel House says it all. God knows what will happen to the poor souls who just don’t have it in them to rehabilitate themselves any further.
Once upon a time when B.C.’s largest psychiatric hospital was being emptied in favour of a new kind of “community care,” we vowed we’d take care of the thousands of British Columbians who were ousted from Riverview. The closure of Laurel House is just the latest in a long string of betrayals of that promise.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Keep David Ramsay jailed
Aug. 29, 2007

She died in April, having survived a scant 22 years. The only good that comes of it is that at least she won’t have to hear the news that the B.C. judge who helped ruin her life has had the gall to apply for day parole barely halfway into his jail sentence.
The young Prince George woman had a hard life, as did the other three girls who David Ramsay was convicted of sexually exploiting and assaulting while a provincial court judge in Prince George and neighbouring communities.
They were terrified of testifying against the former judge, and understandably reluctant to come forward. But when one of the girls learned in 2002 that Ramsay was the judge who would be deciding whether she got her kids back from foster care, she decided enough was enough.
Ramsay must have seen the writing on the wall when the four girls came forward, because he quickly pleaded guilty in the opening days of his 2004 trial. Prosecutors had asked for a five-year jail sentence for the 61-year-old, but Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm deemed Ramsay’s crimes heinous enough to warrant an additional two years.
Ramsay had been buying aboriginal children for sex for at least nine years – 1993 to 2001 - while a judge in Prince George. The girls were typically broken, homeless kids in the years when he was hustling them into his car for rough sex and beatings.
The girl who died five months ago had seen trouble in her life. Ramsay made a sad little girl’s life significantly more miserable. For that, he got seven years in jail.
Sentences have little bearing on the time somebody actually spends in jail, and Ramsay is in fact looking at less than five years behind bars if he’s a model prisoner. Given his ability to hide his sex crimes against children from his friends, family and co-workers for many years, we can all presume he’ll have no problem acting well-adjusted to his jailers.
Few people would know the ins and outs of the justice system better than a guy like Ramsay. So it’s no surprise that he’s right on schedule with his application for day parole, to be heard Sept. 11. Ramsay would know that in Canada, you’re eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of your sentence and for day parole six months before that.
But I guess I just thought he might have understood how easy he got off in the first place, facing less than five years in jail for crimes that in my mind that are among the worst of the worst when committed by someone with the authority and community stature of Ramsay. Instead, he’s jumping on those early-release dates like none of that means a thing.
He’ll never again be held in high public regard, of course, and will no doubt pay an immense personal price for his loathsome crimes. I don’t suppose any term in jail could be as bad as that for a “pillar of the community” like Ramsay.
But I’d still like to picture him pacing in a cramped, barren cell for some time to come – if not for the rest of his life, then at least for as long as we’re legally able to keep him there. Seven years isn’t nearly enough, but it’s better than the three he’ll have done if he wins day parole this fall and is allowed to move into a halfway house.
That Ramsay will sooner or later be a free man is a certainty, and people like me will have to take comfort in the knowledge that the remainder of his life will be lived in the dark shadow of his appalling crimes.
But can that truly be the end of the story? Archives of the Prince George Citizen reveal at least three relevant cases of sex crimes involving children that Ramsay presided over during the years when he was buying children himself for violent sex. A man who buys children for sex and violence can hardly be presumed to have presided fairly over cases of other men doing the same thing.
In one case, Ramsay sentenced a man who molested his 12-year-old babysitter to 15 months’ house arrest. In another, he cut five years off the recommended sentence for a pimp living off the avails of girls as young as 13 after finding the man to be “the kinder of two pimps.” A third case ended with a $1,000 fine for a 49-year-old man caught buying sex from a child.
Maybe those sentences were fair under the circumstances. But considering how compromised Ramsay was on the subject of sexually exploited children, maybe not.
With one of his four known victims now dead, fewer voices remain to raise a ruckus at the prospect of Ramsay returning so soon to the pleasures of a privileged life they’ve never known. The least we can do for them is ensure their tormentor remains in jail for his full sentence.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Co-op brothel long overdue
Aug. 24 2007

I’ve been trying to pin down the moment when I got so caught up in the issues of the sex trade.
The kick in the butt that got me moving was an interview 10 years ago with former sex worker Cherry Kingsley, when I was working full-time at the Times-Colonist. She blew me away with stories from her tough, sad life.
But even in my fledgling newspaper days I was prowling the streets of Kamloops trying to find sex workers to talk to. So maybe it’s just always been my particular fascination.
In those days, I was adamantly against the sex trade, and for all the reasons you hear in any discussion of it – exploitation, victimization, terrible violence, suffering.
A lifetime of movies, news stories and documentaries about desperate, drugged-out women eking out a mean living on the streets had left their mark on me. I’d heard countless stories from women whose abusive childhoods had primed them to fall into the trade as adolescents, and assumed that all sex workers were victims in need of rescue.
But my views changed over my three years heading up Victoria’s Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society.
Given the rare opportunity to learn about the industry directly from women in the trade – including those who chose to work in it - I came to see that our need to take a moral position against prostitution is in fact a major reason for why aspects of the trade are so dangerous and exploitive.
And now I find myself launching into the planning of a co-op brothel. Who’d have thought?
I’m working on the social enterprise with another former director of PEERS, Lauren Casey. She and I made it relatively unscathed through our intense 15 minutes of fame this week after news broke of our plans.
I think the media were all a little disappointed to discover there’s nothing concrete to talk about yet, other than that the time has come. But planning for any successful business - let alone one centred on the rather incendiary proposition that there are happy, healthy, adult sex workers out there – simply has to proceed at a slow and painstaking pace.
What’s the dream? A terrific work place for sex workers who are in the industry by choice, in which all profits beyond the cost of running the business are mandated to go to social causes.
We want the money to help fund the work PEERS does supporting disadvantaged sex workers wanting to leave the street trade. Street prostitution makes up just 10 to 20 per cent of the total trade, but that group of people are in desperate need of housing, drug detox and treatment, mental-health support, and any number of other services.
What the work place will look like will depend on what we hear from sex workers when we get to that stage of the plan, but we’ve got a few ideas we’d like to test.
Like salaries instead of 100 per cent commission work. Vacation pay. Medical leave. Employment Insurance benefits. Workers’ compensation coverage. Fair shifts, and regular time off.
A letter in the TC this week from a woman I greatly admire condemned our plan as a dangerous “normalization” of prostitution that could attract even more people into the business. I understand that concern.
But sex is a legal commodity in Canada – and like it or not, the industry is thriving. We’ve done nothing to curb the demand that fuels the sex trade, and much to make it even more secretive, stigmatized and dangerous for the tens of thousands of Canadians who work in it. It’s the height of hypocrisy that we buy sex with alacrity but take no responsibility for ensuring workers are fairly paid and well-treated.
Hundreds of functioning brothels are operating discreetly across the country. Some already provide a safe, fair work environment. But it’s far from a given. Our need to deny the existence of the sex trade pushes workers into a twilight zone of wink-wink, nudge-nudge pretence that none of it is happening.
As for the money Lauren and I hope to make from our brothel project, even my younger, more black-and-white self couldn’t have quibbled with the concept of using profits from the customers of the sex trade to fund programs and services for disadvantaged workers wanting to change their lives.
My time at PEERS underlined for me how very difficult it is to find money for that work. A person can only rage for so long at public and government indifference before looking for new ways around the problem. If you knew what I know about the great tragedies unfolding out there, you’d do the same.
I don’t know how we’ll make this brothel happen. But Lauren and I are both of a type to just keep slogging until things work out.
I think we’ll find good people to help us. Work is already underway on similar fronts: planning a co-op brothel in Vancouver; legal challenges going forward both nationally and in B.C. around the lack of safe, legal work places for sex workers.
So we’ll begin, and see what happens. This country’s done nothing for long enough.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Governments chase ghosts to stop on-line myth
Aug. 17, 2007

Three years ago, a Texas body-shop estimator by the name of John Lockwood got the not-so-great idea of an on-line hunting business catering to hunters with disabilities.
One guy apparently did manage to use Lockwood’s Web cam setup to shoot a caged hog from the comfort of his own living room, or at least believed he had. But the concept never caught on, and Lockwood’s enterprise tanked within a matter of months.
Just another bad idea, gone almost as soon as it surfaced.
Except that the Humane Society of the United States got wind of Lockwood’s failed experiment, and turned it into one of the hottest legislative non-issues in years.
And the story of how that came to be the case is a discouraging reminder of our inability to focus on the things that really matter.
After hearing about Lockwood’s attempt at Internet hunting, the humane society sent out 50,000 flyers condemning it. The society implored legislators to stop “such horrific cruelty,” and launched a vigorous political campaign to ban Internet hunting coast to coast.
The campaign was very successful. Thirty-three states have passed laws to this point prohibiting the practice. A law to ban Internet hunting nationwide is making its way through Congress right now.
“It’s one of the fastest paces of reform for any animal issue that we can remember seeing,” humane society spokesman Michael Markarian told media outlets.
Unprecedented alliances were formed in opposition to Internet hunting. Animal-rights activists and the National Rifle Association were surprised to find themselves fighting on the same side.
“The NRA believes the element of a fair chase is a vital part of the American hunting heritage,” spokesman Kelly Hobbs told media. “Shooting an animal from three states away would not be considered a fair chase.”
Indeed. But in fact, Internet hunting wasn’t happening. Governments were working themselves up over a fiction, while any number of truly bad things went unattended to.
I wouldn’t want to calculate the time, energy and resources that went into 33 states passing laws against Internet hunting. And how many genuine issues were knocked off the discussion table just to make way for the non-issue that Lockwood inadvertently spawned?
The irony is that if Internet hunting had genuinely existed, governments wouldn’t have acted nearly as quickly to stop it, if at all.
Had there been an actual industry with private interests making money from it, hot-shot lobbyists would have been hired to defend the practice to government. Much money would have been thrown around to buy support.
Soon, an industry-funded organization would have surfaced - the Disabled Hunters Alliance, perhaps - to launch a court challenge alleging that a ban was discriminatory.
But with no Internet hunting going on, the state bans sailed right on through. Who’s going to bother fighting a law prohibiting something that isn’t happening in the first place?
To their credit, a handful of U.S. politicians did. Of the 3,563 state legislators nationwide who voted on Internet-hunting bans, 38 voted against the bans, the Seattle Times reported last weekend.
“Internet hunting would be wrong,” said one such legislator, Delaware’s Gerald Hocker. “But there’s a lot that would be wrong, if it were happening.”
Not surprisingly, most of the legislators who spearheaded campaigns to ban Internet hunting had never heard of the practice until the humane society brought it to their attention.
But they jumped on that bandwagon anyway - and aren’t climbing down even now despite word getting out that the whole thing was much ado about nothing.
“You just wonder, who would do something like this?” mused Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who sponsored a ban in his home state. (On-line news site TechDirt.com noted cheekily: “As it turns out, nobody, really.”)
Melanie George Marshall, a Maryland representative who sponsored the call for a ban in her state, acknowledges that she’s newly aware that there’s no Internet hunting going on, but says it’s good to get on top of the issue anyway.
“What if someone started one of these sites in the six months that we’re not in session?” she asked. “We were able to proactively legislate for society.”
Uh-huh. And if everything was already coming up roses in the U.S. - no poverty, no 40 million people without medical coverage, no school shootings or people gunning down their wives and children in the family SUV - fair enough for governments to turn their minds to imaginary problems.
But that’s not the case. Like Canada, the U.S. is in the grip of significant social problems.
School drop-out rates among African-American and Hispanic students in the U.S. are close to 50 per cent. Gun-death rates are higher by far than in any other Western country. There’s an unpopular war continuing in Iraq that’s costing citizens a staggering $475 million a day, and an increasingly unpopular president.
In other words, the country’s got a lot of things to sort out. Internet hunting isn’t one of them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Grandparents live in blessed times
Aug. 10, 2007

Twice in the last month, I’ve been asked whether I love my grandchildren as much as my children.
I do. But I understand why people who aren’t yet grandparents might be uncertain on that front. It’s hard to imagine loving anyone as much as you do your children.
Of course, that’s a key factor right there in terms of getting things started.
Grandchildren are the children of your children, after all, and thus loved by your son or daughter more than anything in the world. If nothing else, you’ll love your grandchildren because your children love them so much.
Fresh off a 10-day holiday with our three grandsons, however, I’m newly reminded of all the other ways that grandchildren find their way into your heart. Doubters, worry not.
Mine are ages eight, seven and four. My partner and I have been spiriting them off for little holidays almost from the beginning - initially as a gift to their weary parents, and soon as a routine event.
First came Bowser Bill’s, which had grassy fields and gentle shoreline well-suited to outdoor naps and a baby’s tottering first steps. I envisaged years of peaceful seaside idylls with the little ones.
But the years slip away even faster with your grandchildren. This year’s idyll manifested as boisterous jumps from a rope swing into the Englishman River and icy plunges into the depths of Cameron Lake. Back at camp, Robert Munsch had to make way for R.L. Stine on the motor home bookshelves.
I won’t try to tell you that hanging out with the grandkids is all happiness and light.
Looking after small children is exhausting in middle age, and there are moments on our camping holidays when I’m frazzled, furious and badly in need of a time out. At moments like that, I can only express my gratitude to the inventor of the portable DVD player.
There were times on this last trip when I would have been way happier to have just me and my partner enjoying our little motor home, quietly taking in an evening’s sunset instead of mediating the bickering over whose marshmallow will be first on the fire. There were times when the last thing I wanted to do was spend my morning in the splash zone of the jam-packed campground pool.
Overall, though, the holidays are quite wonderful. I’m young again when I’m with the grandsons, and grateful to be able to relive years with my own children that I didn’t know enough to value the first time around.
It’s a bit like being given a second chance at raising children - this time with the benefit of experience as well as the broader viewpoint that comes with aging.
So it’s all just a little easier. More relaxed. You don’t sweat the details nearly so much. You don’t try to win every battle, and get way better at avoiding one in the first place.
From this distance, it’s also easier to see the impact of genetics. I once believed that it was all about nurture, but have come to appreciate through my grandchildren the profound effect that nature also plays.
One of my grandsons, for instance, appears to have been born to walk on logs, go on the fast rides, swim in the deep water. It’s only in the last couple of years that he’s accumulated enough experiences to know to slow things down a little.
The other two - brothers - were infinitely more cautious as toddlers. They’ve grown more comfortable with risk only by building up enough safe experiences to convince themselves that they’ll be OK.
Alas, the arguments and unhappy moments that might have been avoided with my own children if only I’d had a better grasp of who they really were underneath it all. I couldn’t see for looking that so much of who they would grow up to be was already there when they were born.
Perhaps the best part of time spent with your grandchildren - or any children, really - is that it allows you to have fun again. You do things that your rational, sensible adult self just wouldn’t do in the regular scheme of things.
Would I choose to plunge repeatedly into a cold, cold swimming hole above Englishman River Falls if not for three young boys calling me in to join them? Or dope myself to the eyes on anti-histamines in order to survive my horse allergy long enough for a trail ride at Tiger Lily Farms?
Would I crawl on my elbows in a half-metre of water through the endless shallows of Rathtrevor Beach? Try to tempt butterflies to land on my head?
Not likely. While I’d love to think that my inner child will always be readily accessible, the truth is that it mostly takes kids to get me acting like a kid.
The days when my own children filled that role slipped past quicker than I ever could have imagined. Like the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
I’d never make the same mistake twice. God bless grandchildren.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Caution essential to revamp of BC Wildlife Act
Aug. 3, 2007

Hunting isn’t my thing, but I recognize it as a genuine B.C. activity beloved by tens of thousands.
So I’ve worked hard at staving off any kneejerk reaction to recent news that the Environment Ministry hopes to get another 20,000 hunters out into the woods over the next few years.
Six per cent of British Columbians hunted 25 years ago. Nowadays, just two per cent of us do. In real numbers, that’s a 50 per cent drop - from 168,000 active B.C. hunters in 1981, to 84,000 today.
I can see why hunters might want to bolster their ranks. I can also see why the government is on side, given the potential boost to the economy of B.C.’s struggling rural communities that could result from increased hunting activity.
But look beyond the headlines about the push for more hunters, and you’ll find more substantial things to worry about. While a few more hunters likely won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, other proposed changes to the provincial Wildlife Act are potentially less benign.
Whatever you or I might think about hunting, the reality is that it’s a traditional B.C. industry and a pleasant seasonal past-time for resident hunters.
The various aspects of hunting generate roughly $50 million a year in B.C. The money flows from a number of sources - from the sale of hunting licences to recreational local hunters wanting a freezerful of venison, to the big-ticket extravaganzas booked by rich U.S. hunters in search of big game.
Hunting revenues are a drop in the bucket compared to tourism overall. They represent a mere one per cent of the $5-billion tourist industry, and a fraction of the $900 million generated every year by the wildlife-viewing industry.
A thoughtful, well-enforced Wildlife Act is obviously key to keeping all those industries healthy while also protecting the wonderful birds, fish and animals we’ve been blessed with in this province. A series of public consultations around the act has just wrapped up, and the Environment Ministry’s 2007-2010 service plan has also put forward several major operational changes for consideration.
Boosting the number of hunters is part of that plan. But there’s also a proposal to deregulate many aspects of the commercial hunting industry, and to hand off oversight to an industry-led board that would take over much of the supervisory functions currently done by government.
That’s considerably more scary than a campaign to find more hunters.
The Liberals’ viewpoint - leaving aside their ideological drive toward smaller government - is that those making money from a resource are the most motivated to look after it into the future. If you’re a guide-outfitter making a good living at helping U.S. hunters bag mountain sheep, you’re presumed to have more of an interest than most of us in making sure that B.C. doesn’t run out of them.
I get the theory, and appreciate that self-interest very often creates positive change in surprising ways. B.C. guide-outfitters, for instance, often end up as passionate advocates of saving old-growth forest, because logging disrupts grizzly-bear habitat.
Unfortunately, history is littered with any number of catastrophes that resulted from leaving industry insufficiently supervised.
When oversight falters, terrible things happen. Surely we’ve devastated enough fisheries, forests, mines and pristine wilderness in B.C. alone to have seen that for ourselves, and that’s not even counting things like the leaky-condo debacle, toxic prescription drugs, corporate fraud and numerous other examples of industry malfeasance.
I don’t mean to suggest that anything like that is going on in B.C.’s hunting industry. No doubt most folks in the industry are abiding by the rules, even in the absence of significant enforcement on the ground.
Yet we still need to think long and hard about what it would mean to shift to “outcome-based” oversight of the industry, as detailed in the ministry’s service plan.
For those not used to the jargon, achieving an outcome simply means you accomplished a specific goal. You made more money. Found more customers. Saved more lives. Gave better service.
But when it comes to natural resources, outcomes are a tricky business. On the one hand, industry could turn out to be better stewards of the resource than government itself. On the other, maybe not - and the damage could be irreparable by the time we realize that under an outcome-based regulatory system.
The challenge lies in balancing the needs of today against those of tomorrow. The reason B.C.’s rural economies are floundering right now is because previous generations didn’t get that balance right. We’ll be picking up the pieces from our shattered forest and fishing industries for a long time to come.
In terms of managing B.C. wildlife for the future, 20,000 more hunters isn’t likely to be the tipping point that brings things crashing down. The same can’t be said for handing over to industry the bulk of regulatory control for this precious resource.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lured into the Facebook vortex
July 20, 2007

I try to be discerning in my choice of trends, and certainly didn’t expect to like Facebook. The idea of becoming somebody’s on-line “friend” was just a little too high-school for me.
But the e-mails kept coming, most often from people who I hadn’t heard from in ages. They’d invite me to be their “friend” and post happy little pictures of themselves to lure me in.
The requests piled up unanswered in my inbox. But then my cousin’s wife in Kuwait sent me an invitation. With all that distance between us, it just seemed downright rude to refuse to be her Facebook friend.
And things just kind of went crazy from there.
For those unfamiliar with Facebook, it’s the invention of California computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg, who was just 19 when he launched the “social utility” Web site in February 2004.
He and a group of Harvard classmates (some of whom are now suing Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea) took a few stabs at different kinds of on-line networking before finding one that really clicked.
First came Coursematch, which let Harvard students see who else was taking the same classes. Then came Facemash, one of those “hot or not” Web sites.
That last idea got Zuckerberg in big trouble with Harvard’s administration, as he’d taken student images from the university’s Web site without seeking permission. He quit Harvard shortly after and launched Facebook.
Membership was initially restricted to Harvard students. But within months, it opened up to include the seven other “Ivy League” post-secondaries in the northeastern U.S.
Soon after, anyone with a college or university connection was eligible. By 2006, all you needed to qualify for Facebook membership was an e-mail address.
The Web site is essentially an electronic meet-and-greet - a combination of blog, chatroom and electronic photo album. Given that I can barely make it through all the electronic communications I’m already getting in a typical day, I wasn’t planning on finding anything about Facebook enjoyable.
But it got to me. I started out a skeptic just trying to be nice to a relative living abroad, and in no time at all had transformed into an enthusiastic Facebook user. I still don’t really know how that happened.
I suspect it started with the picture.
Posting a photo isn’t a Facebook requirement or anything like that. But once you give in to that first invitation to be somebody’s “friend,” how long are you going to be content with having a big question mark come up instead of your picture every time you send them a message?
So you upload. And then you go to your site to see how the picture looks and discover that somebody you went to junior high with has written a message on your “wall.” Somebody else has sent you a “gift” - some teeny little electronic image of a birthday cake or a cheery glass of bubbly (Choose gifts with care - a puppy in a basket will set you back $1 US).
Next, your eyes stray to the status section of your page, where various Facebook friends have posted brief comments about their activities of the moment. “Rebecca is hung over,” says one, which tells you all you need to know about whether the birthday bash you’d heard about earlier had gone off successfully.
Further down the page, a new friend - who’s in fact a long-lost one, from grade school - posts a dozen photos from Calgary of a party she was at, and writes nice comments beside your own photos. Pretty soon, you’re sharing memories that you forgot you even had in common.
The young have embraced Facebook most fervently. Of the almost 350,000 Facebook users who belong to the Vancouver network (which includes the Island), only 500 of us are ages 48-55. The numbers only get skimpier from there.
Older people will love the concept once they give it a try, and I’m already cooking up plans to lure a few Web-savvy seniors out for a Facebook test drive. In the short term, however, membership does skew a little young.
But there are benefits to that, too. I’m now hearing from some of my kids’ friends, who were regulars at our house back in the days before everybody grew up and set off to see the world. I’m stumbling onto people who I’d completely forgotten about, sharing life’s small details with people I didn’t even conceive of ever talking to again.
It’s not all happiness and light, of course. I haven’t yet fully grasped the very public nature of Facebook for those who choose to leave their sites open to all Facebook members, and am occasionally indiscreet.
Last week, I inadvertently broadcast to the Facebook masses that my daughter was sick with terrible diarrhea and camping out on our couch. A few days later, I loudly proclaimed that my mother looks much better for having lost some weight. (Note to self: The Wall is public. The Wall is public.)
But hey, we’re all friends here. And as it turns out, I’m not minding that at all.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Victoria street issues are everybody's problem to deal with
July 13, 2007

Being part of the mayor’s task force that’s trying to figure out the street problems in Victoria’s downtown has given me the opportunity to hear about the issues from every viewpoint.
I’ve been heartened to learn that virtually everybody is worried. We need to be.
But it’s also been discouraging to realize how many of us feel powerless to do anything about it.
My most recent conversation as a member of the task force steering committee was with a group of downtown landlords. They gave me one disturbing anecdote after another when asked about the problems they were experiencing.
One had recently seen a woman raped in an alley off Johnson Street, on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon. The woman was screaming as her attacker beat her with a hammer.
Police were called. The woman, who lived on the streets, refused to press charges, fearing “street justice” if word got out she’d brought charges against her attacker. End of story.
Other landlords chimed in with more disturbing tales - stories about installing yet another iron gate across yet another entry way, and of the relentless accumulation of discarded needles around their property.
Once blessedly rare events, hunting for needles and hosing down urine puddles are now just part of the daily routine for merchants on some blocks.
Prime commercial leasing space in a few critical areas is sitting empty for months - even years - because potential tenants don’t want to risk doing business amid the street problems, say the landlords.
They talked of parking lots where a car break-in is now virtually a given, and how the sight of sick, crazy people setting up camp on your building roof has grown so common that it’s lost its shock power.
And of course, they all had a story about some baffled, angry customer wondering what the hell was going on. It’s tough to sign up a new leaseholder for the empty building down the way when she has to step over used needles and a big splash of reeking urine just to view the place.
For those who don’t live, work or shop in the downtown, it probably all seems a little theoretical.
Indeed, that’s a major reason for the problem. With only a small percentage of the region’s population experiencing the misery, most people seem quite content to sit back and wait for the City of Victoria to sort things out. Their mayors and councils are more than happy to do the same.
But what we’re seeing in the downtown is the ugly face of 20-plus years of flawed decision-making at the provincial and federal level, with a little globalization and international drug trafficking thrown in. Victoria simply can’t set all of that right on its own.
We have a growing street problem in our urban centres because we unthinkingly created the conditions for an underclass. Blame a deadly combination of policy paralysis, social-welfare cuts and ideologically driven health-care “strategy,” and a world that changed too fast for some people to ever catch up.
Even if the City of Victoria could find the money to fix such massive challenges by itself, it doesn’t have the authority. Issues of health, social welfare, crime and child protection are all responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments.
Righting the many wrongs that have created the problems in the downtown won’t be easy, or fast. It will take significant amounts of planning, strategizing, innovation, political action and luck. It will require that we put aside political differences once and for all around social health, and embark on a well-considered strategy that spans at least the next decade.
A big job. But if everyone in this fractured region of ours would engage, it’s possible. Because as powerless as we tend to feel, the fact is that we have all the power we need to make a difference.
The mayor’s task force is an excellent beginning. The people sitting around that table are thinkers, movers and shakers - powerful folks in their own right. Put them in the same room with the people who know what’s happening on the front lines, and you’ve got a 360-degree view of the problems and all the knowledge you need to figure them out.
But the task force doesn’t have the money to fund whatever solutions are identified. Nor does it have the authority to override political stances - for instance, the federal government’s objection to a supervised site for street-level drug addicts to inject - or the ability to reshape provincial and federal policy.
Fortunately, we citizens have that power. Our political process is far from perfect, but it still responds well to pressure.
Money must be found. Flawed policy must be addressed. Sick people bouncing around our streets deserve to get the help they need, and landlords deserve to be spared bearing grim witness to violent rapes on otherwise sunny Saturdays in the region’s most popular shopping district.
Make it happen, people. We’re the only ones who can.

.