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 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.