Monday, June 30, 2008

Coleman's autocratic style could be problem in new ministry
June 27, 2008

Dare we hope that a new day is dawning with news this week that B.C.’s most pressing social issues are now the responsibility of a single provincial ministry?
The new Housing and Social Development Ministry is an amalgam of various challenging bits pulled from other ministries, and on that front reminds me of the old “Ministry of Lost Causes” - the wink-wink nudge-nudge name for the now-defunct Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Ministry, which seemed more than anything to be a place where unpopular issues went to die.
The rebundled housing ministry has responsibility for virtually everything that relates to poverty: welfare; subsidized housing and homelessness; addiction and mental health strategy; landlord-tenant disputes; transition houses. It’s also got responsibility for anyone with a disability, including those with mental handicaps. Every impoverished and disadvantaged person in the province will be a client of the new ministry in one way or the other.
But at the same time, the ministry also manages two major B.C. revenue streams: alcohol sales and gaming. That’s not to say it’s able to spend the almost $2 billion in net revenues that drinking and gambling generate every year in B.C., but surely it can’t hurt to be in the room whenever that much money is flying around.
MLA Rich Coleman will preside over the new creation. He’s familiar with at least some of the issues, having had responsibility for gaming in a previous cabinet job and more recently, for social housing as part of his Forests Ministry portfolio. Whether he’s up for a considerably more intense portfolio at a point in time when B.C.’s social problems have never been worse - well, I guess we’ll see.
I generally take the measure of a politician from their time in Opposition, when they haven’t yet been brought to heel by “party discipline.” So I browsed old newspaper files this week for stories from Coleman’s five years in Opposition under Glen Clark’s New Democrat government (1996-2001).
Coleman was new to politics then, having previously been a real estate developer, security adviser, and RCMP officer. Given that he was the housing critic at the time, the strategies he was promoting then have real relevance to his current position.
The good news: He’s clearly an engaged, caring kind of guy. The Fort Langley-Aldergrove MLA has an active history with Kinsmen and Rotary clubs and his local Chamber of Commerce, and has won three awards over the years for his community involvement. As a new MLA, he personally advocated on behalf of a family fighting to keep their children from being apprehended by the province.
The bad news: He’s a long-time believer in leaving it to the private sector to sort out housing issues. He’s on record opposing government construction of social housing, contending instead that the province’s role in the issue should be limited to providing individual rent subsidies. Coleman was so adamant on that point that a worried Co-operative Housing Federation formed a special committee in 2000 just to combat his take on the subject.
People change, of course, and Coleman’s tack these past two years as minister responsible for housing certainly seems to indicate some changed thinking.
Under his leadership these past two years, the province has bought a total of 32 building sites and old hotels in Vancouver for conversion into social housing, which will house 1,800 people all told when built out sometime around 2010. Purse strings are loosening in our region as well.
What’s perhaps more of a concern in the new gig, then, is Coleman’s style. As we’ve learned the hard way from the appalling handoff of forestry lands to private developers in Port Alberni and now Sooke, Coleman feels no need to consult with anyone outside of government before doing whatever he wants.
And while nobody likes hearing that they’re making mistakes, Coleman really seems to dislike criticism. In the past few months alone, he has challenged the findings of the forest-safety ombudsman, a team of Simon Fraser University researchers looking into homelessness, and planners working on a massive mixed-housing development at the Riverview psychiatric hospital site. As forests minister, his autocratic ways managed to unite industry workers and environmentalists in a call for his resignation.
That doesn’t bode well for his new position. Addressing the complex problems of poor and disadvantaged citizens simply can’t be done in the absence of genuine community consultation. We need a minister who knows how to listen, and Coleman doesn’t come across as someone who gets that.
But hey, maybe this time will be different. With a deepening social crisis hanging in the balance, we’ll know soon enough.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Don't let Scotch broom's pretty flowers fool you
June 20, 2008

I drove up-Island to Courtenay one night last week and was treated to a spectacular sight. The normally drab stretch of the Inland Highway north of Parksville had been transformed into a twinkling sea of blue lupines and yellow broom, which dazzled me all the way to my destination.
Unfortunately, I knew too much about broom to be able to give in fully to the pleasure of the moment. It was a beautiful sight to behold, but hard to ignore what it meant to be passing through dense thickets of broom on both sides of the road for well over an hour.
Scotch broom is native to Africa and the Mediterranean, but made its way here after Capt. Walter Grant brought a handful of seeds to the Island in 1850 from his travels in Hawaii. Three plants grew from the seeds he planted in Sooke. Within 50 years, the plant had naturalized on the Island.
In simpler times, B.C.’s Highways Ministry used to plant Scotch broom along our highways for its cheery colour. That stopped after everyone figured out that the tenacious plant takes over in every sunny spot where it gains a foothold, squeezing out native species and producing an alarming 18,000 seeds per plant each year.
We also came to see over the years that broom was tough to poison, difficult to plough under, resistant to seemingly all insect predation, and too woody and unpleasant for any animal to consider eating. It wreaked havoc with reforestation. It drove up the cost of road and power-line maintenance.
Still, we let it get away from us just the same. Here on the Island, Scotch broom now covers more than 300,000 hectares - 10 per cent of the total land mass.
Oh, it’s a pretty plant, all right. But it’s bad news on just about every other front.
Scotch broom has yet to make the province’s official “bad weed” list, but it’s the source of much concern. It’s a particular problem on southeastern Vancouver Island due to its disruptive impact on two tree species that thrive in our region and few other places: Garry oak and Douglas fir.
Broom certainly isn’t the only problem facing those trees in these wild days of Island development. But its aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of growth blocks sun to new seedlings. Broom also wipes out plants that Island deer depend on for food, and creates such dense thickets in open, sunny spaces that resident quail are forced out of their habitat.
The time to do something about broom is right now, when the bloom is on. Waiting any longer allows the seeds to develop, and ultimately to be spread even farther afield through our fruitless attempts to burn, bury or otherwise destroy the resilient seed pods.
But whose job is it to curb the spread of bad plants? That there’s no real answer to that question perhaps explains why Scotch broom has flourished in B.C.
The Invasive Plant Council of B.C. identified the problem nicely in the title of a symposium on the issue a few years back: “Weeds Know No Boundaries.” Controlling the spread of invasive plants requires, at a minimum, the co-operation and commitment of all surrounding landowners. With B.C.’s mishmash of Crown land, aboriginal reserve, federal land, forest reserve and private property, it’s a major challenge just to accomplish that initial step.
Small wonder, then, that topping the plant council’s list of 10 biggest challenges around tackling invasive species is the task of “improving co-operation” between B.C. landowners. It has to be all for one and one for all when you’re talking about plant control, because nobody’s going to put in the hard work of wiping out broom on their property only to have a few hundred thousand seeds drift down from neighbouring lands where the owner didn’t bother.
Loss of habitat is the major reason for the extinction of native flora and fauna in B.C. But the spread of invasive species comes a close second. On the heavily developed southern Island, that’s a one-two punch for native species.
A 1997 inventory of B.C.’s sensitive ecosystems found only eight per cent of our Coastal Douglas fir region remained in a “relatively natural state.” By 2002, a further 8,800 hectares had been negatively affected. The losses are heaviest in second-growth forest, and you can bet that Scotch broom is doing its part to make matters worse.
Want to join the battle against broom? Visit for tips on how to take action.
As for those lovely lupines, enjoy. They’re native.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Teen finds hope amid the traumas of her life
June 13, 2008

These days, Karlie passes her time in an old Victoria restaurant, where she’s working on getting past all the bad things that came her way in the last two years.
She’s 15, and already a veteran of crystal-meth addiction, alcoholism, sexual assault and homelessness. It’s been quite an adolescence.
But clean and sober for a year now, she’s back living with her parents. She’s enrolled in the brand-new Youth Hospitality Training Centre run out of the former Taj Mahal restaurant, and liking it a lot. And she’s dreaming of the day when it’s just her and her dog in their own place - after all, it was the dog that got her through.
Karlie (not her real name) now knows that addiction runs in her family. But at the tender age of 10 - her age when she first started babysitting the children of an addicted neighbour - she had no idea of the trouble she was walking into.
The neighbour used drugs in front of her from the time she was 11, and got her drinking before she was 13. As things took a turn for the worse and Karlie hit Victoria’s streets for a year at age 14, she worked her way in short order through ecstasy, powder cocaine and crack. Then came crystal meth, and she knew from the first hit that she was lost. “I went down pretty fast,” Karlie recalls.
Her father never could stand the neighbour. And for good reason, as it turns out. Karlie was a little girl and the neighbour was 12 years older than her, but that didn’t stop him from pouring her drinks and eventually talking her into having sex with him when she was 13.
She didn’t put the words “statutory rape” to what happened, but her mom did when she snooped in Karlie’s diary and saw what the teen had written about the event. The mother called police. When Karlie told the neighbour, his harsh response set her on the fast track to the streets.
“He wanted me to lie and say it was all a fantasy. But I wouldn’t ,” says Karlie. “So he said he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore, and that I couldn’t see his kids either. He’d been my best friend, my brother, my boyfriend, even my dad in a way. It was like I lost everything. Not even a week later, I was on the streets.”
Police picked her up regularly during the year she was out there, but just as regularly she ran back to the streets. She found a “street grandpa” who looked out for her, and a 13-year-old “street sister” to curl up with on cold nights. Drugs ruled both of their young lives.
Change comes in unexpected ways, and Karlie certainly wouldn’t have pegged a squabble outside Pacific Christian School as a turning point at the time. She’d yelled at a kid who wouldn’t stop throwing snowballs at her, and told him she’d stab him if she saw him downtown. He told his parents; Karlie ended up charged with uttering threats.
She got six months probation, and then another nine months when she breached one of her conditions. (Her total sentence was several months longer than the house arrest the neighbour got for having sex with her, but she’s trying to let that go.) Ordered by the court into youth detox, Karlie started the hard climb out of her addiction.
Karlie’s got a new dream now: An animal shelter for youth on the streets, one that understands that sometimes a dog or cat is literally the only friend a kid has. Nothing in the bylaws stops a youth on the street from having a dog as long as it’s licensed and on a leash, but Karlie says the reality is that dogs are seized all the time regardless of whether their owners are in compliance.
She was so angry at the loss of two pitbull puppies she and her street sister had that she tried to take Victoria Animal Control to court. But only adults have that right, she discovered.
Karlie has another dog safely stashed at home these days, and credits her pet as the primary motivator for her getting clear of crystal meth. When it seemed like all the world had turned against her, the dog never left her side.
“My shelter will let people drop their dogs off if they need to go to rehab, because that’s a big problem out there,” says Karlie. “I want to change the way homeless people are treated with their dogs. I want to help.”

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Insite not the answer, but it helps
June 6, 2008

Perhaps you’re already familiar with that ancient fable about the six blind men and the elephant. I find it coming to mind a lot these days in the fight over Canada’s only supervised injection site.
The Indian fable, put into charming verse in 1873 by John Godfrey Saxe, tells the story of how the six men interpreted what an elephant looked like based on whatever part of the elephant’s anatomy they touched first. One touches the animal’s massive side and concludes it must resemble a wall; another grabs the trunk and presumes that elephants are shaped like snakes; and so on. ( if you’re curious).
The point I’ve always taken from the fable is that it’s impossible to reach the right conclusion if you presume that what you know is all there is to know. Problems are solved not by bickering over six different versions of an elephant but by bringing those viewpoints together to understand the whole.
It’s pretty clear from the battle shaping up around Vancouver’s supervised injection site that we’ve got an elephant on our hands. Blinkered by an ideological viewpoint that simply doesn’t allow for a fuller picture to emerge, the federal government has a tight grasp of the elephant’s tail and an equally firm conviction that its version is the only one that matters.
We can fight it out in court, I suppose, and that appears to be what we’re headed for. A win in B.C. Supreme Court last week that deemed the pending closure of Insite unconstitutional is headed for appeals court and no doubt the Supreme Court of Canada now that Ottawa has made it clear that its sole goal is to shut Insite down.
I suspect last week’s ruling will ultimately be upheld. But for the 8,000 users of Insite who face being hung out to dry for the next decade while we argue about what constitutes an elephant - not to mention tens of thousands of other Canadians who could benefit from similar sites in their own communities - I can only hope for a much quicker resolution than a court fight will ever bring us.
My personal view of places like Insite is that they’re a small but important component of an overall strategy for reducing the harms of drug and alcohol use.
They certainly don’t solve all of the problems around addiction, or even most of them. Nor are they universally supported by people with addictions in their own background, some of whom are every bit as adamantly opposed to injection sites as the Conservative government.
But supervised injection sites do keep people alive to fight another day. They bring a desperate and isolated population into contact with professionals who want to help them. They provide health care to a group of people who otherwise receive very little due to widespread stigmatization of their particular illness.
They reduce the spread of costly and difficult diseases. They provide a badly needed alternative to open drug use on our streets by those too addicted to hide their problems any more. Meanwhile, as has been proven at Insite, they don’t lead to increased street problems or higher rates of crime. That’s good enough for me.
The government questions whether the dire situation in the Downtown Eastside has improved at all since the site opened four years ago, and contends that Insite’s $3 million annual budget would be better spent on “treatment.”
Federal Health Minister Tony Clement is absolutely right when he says much more money needs to be put toward treatment for addictions. But for many of Vancouver’s most disadvantaged users, Insite is where treatment starts.
For some, a visit to the supervised site will be a first step toward recovery. I don’t know how Clement envisages people with severe addictions finding the help they need to begin that journey, but in my experience it starts with them getting support in a place where they’re accepted just as they are.
For others, recovery will be years in the making, perhaps even unachievable. But at the very least they will benefit from a safe, clean place to inject, and our communities will benefit from a reduction in the ferocious bacterial and viral infections spread through street-level injection drug use.
As for fears we’re sending a “poor message” to youth about drug use by allowing supervised injection sites, that’s just one of those fictions that lazy people dream up to create emotional heat around an unsound argument. Nothing says “Kids, don’t do drugs” better than the haunted visage of someone in late-stage addiction.
With as many as 125,000 Canadians thought to be injecting illicit drugs, the elephant is upon us. Time to open our eyes and see the beast for what it is.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The problem is doing nothing about the problem
May 31, 2008

I have no particular stake in what Richard LeBlanc is trying to accomplish on Woodwynn Farm, other than a broad interest in anything that aims to tackle the problems on our streets. I don’t know how big a dent his project will make on the most obvious challenges facing the downtown.
But word last week that a citizens’ group had formed to try to buy the farm before he does was still some of the most discouraging news I’d heard in a while. That people would rally to raise more than $6 million just to stop a guy from trying to do a good thing - well, that’s just such a sad statement of where we’re at in this region.
What’s to be done in a community where the biggest problem is an inability to address the problem?
At least we’re no longer debating whether we have social problems. We’ve even reached some consensus on the work that needs to be done: housing (and more housing), outreach, better mental health care, accessible and integrated services, job opportunities, reconnection to community.
Ah, but where will we build those services? That’s the issue that’s stopping us dead right now. We talk a good game about wanting problems solved, but only if it all takes place in someone else’s neighbourhood.
An acronym has already been coined, of course: YITBY, for “Yes, in Their Backyard.”
The group opposing LeBlanc’s project offers a timely example. Farm Trust chair Barbara Souther, a long-time neighbour of Woodwynn Farm, mentioned in media coverage this week that she’s all in favour of helping the homeless, but thinks an empty school a few kilometres away would be a much better location. I wonder what neighbours of the school would say about that.
Similarly, tensions are said to be running high within the Downtown Residents Association between those who live near the now-defunct needle exchange on Cormorant Street - which is permanently closed as of tomorrow - and those who live in the neighbourhoods where the new mobile exchange will operate.
One neighbourhood wins, another loses. Whoever mounts the loudest campaign wins the right to dump the problem into somebody else’s lap for a while, at least until that group can mount their own campaign to push it elsewhere.
But isn’t the challenge, then, to strive for one of those “win-win” solutions we like to talk about? We need to get past the surface hostilities and figure out what it would take for a neighbourhood to feel comfortable enough to say “yes” for a change.
There are many ways to make an unpalatable idea more palatable. Resistant B.C. communities quickly changed their tune about hosting provincial casinos, for example, after they were given a cut of the profits.
What’s the carrot we could use to appease neighbourhoods asked to host projects tackling street issues? Would a tax break help? More community amenities? What are people actually afraid of, and what could be done to convince them that their concerns will be addressed?
I’m anticipating several angry e-mails in response to this column along the line of, “Oh, yeah? Well, how would you like a bunch of homeless people living next door to you? Let’s see if you’re so damn supportive once they’re breaking into YOUR house.”
If that’s how things played out, then yes, I’d be unhappy. But as we know from any number of potentially controversial services operating below the radar in their particular neighbourhoods - detox, halfway houses, women’s shelters, recovery houses - a well-run and properly resourced service doesn’t draw problems.
It’s understandable why people fear the worst, mind you. The reason things blew up on Cormorant Street wasn’t because a needle exchange was located there, but because it could no longer cope with changing client demographics and a caseload that had tripled since 2002 with no corresponding rise in funding. We taught people to expect a mess should the needle exchange ever come to their neighbourhood, and the challenge in that case is to be absolutely sure we do it right the next time round.
The situation is different in the case of LeBlanc’s farm. His opponents are anticipating problems that I doubt will even materialize. Therapeutic communities like the one he’s proposing hinge on a careful selection process to ensure a good fit with people ready for change. Neighbours need not fear the arrival of busloads of struggling, addicted people plucked fresh from the streets (nor will LeBlanc’s proposal fix all our problems downtown).
We need new ways of resolving an old problem - not homelessness, but our community’s inability to act. Until then, we’re just putting a whole lot of energy into standing still.