Thursday, August 30, 2018

Opioid crisis: Those who manufactured it should pay their share



I like a good analogy for figuring out complex problems with moral overtones. I got to thinking about which one might work for understanding the opioid crisis after I saw the comments from my Facebook post today linking to the BC government’s announcement of a class action law suit against the opioid manufacturing industry.

How’s this: Reimagining the issue as if it were the use of pesticides.

Like the opioid manufacturing industry, the pesticide industry is both a help and a harm. It makes no sense to just demand the elimination of pesticides, or to expect that people who really want pesticides aren't going to find their way to them whatever you do. Besides, if there’s money to be made selling pesticides to desperate farmers, there are going to be companies selling it.

But at the same time, you can’t just leave the industry without responsibility for the harms it causes. Corporations don’t innately have morals (you HAVE seen “The Corporation,” right?). Unregulated, unfettered industry will always go for the biggest profit. It’s what they’re born to do.

OK, let’s picture Farming Community Z (FCZ), which for all kinds of reasons is struggling to keep things going. They’ve had drought, floods, bad soil and not enough food on the table for a long time, and all of a sudden a plague of aphids has hit. Pesticides aren’t the long-term answer, but they sure look good in the short term.

Sad days in FCZ, but the sorrows and struggles going on there in fact affect many other neighbouring farming communities. The impact of pesticides is felt far beyond the farms where it’s being used. Making things considerably worse, the people in FCZ are dying like crazy, because they are the ones living right in the midst of all that pesticide, and the grief from those who loved them, helped them, or tried fruitlessly to get them to quit using pesticides is reaching unbearable proportion.

Who’s to blame? It’s complicated. Personally, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time looking for who to blame, because there are an awful lot of factors years in the making that have laid the groundwork for what’s going on in FCZ. Maybe laying blame could be an exercise for another day, when people aren’t dying.

So…if you were a bright and progressive society like Canada, what would you do?

First, you’d acknowledge that whatever you’re doing now really isn’t working. The evidence is pretty much insurmountable at this point. So maybe you would take one of those political walks in the snow to reflect on all those reports, royal commissions, analyses, studies, and research done on pesticide use over the years, and wonder how it is you’ve still never acted on their remarkably consistent recommendations.

You’d get to work pulling apart all the pieces of the puzzle and you’d identify that:
  •  The people of FCZ need help that starts all the way back to fixing that damaged soil, and accepting that some are never going to be able to manage without pesticides; 
  • Every level of government and all kinds of people are being harmed, drained of money, and otherwise suffering because of the situation in FCZ, regardless of whether they live there; 
  • Pesticides have been around for a really long time, but something has clearly changed in their availability and lethal quality for this level of harm to be occurring; 
  • The only notable exception amid misery in all directions is the pesticide industry, which is profiting from the crisis; 
  • It’s way past time to follow the money. 
Analogies aside, here’s the one absolute truth of the opioid crisis: The pharmaceutical industry is profiting mightily from it. Everyone else is being harmed, but that industry is making money.

There is a direct line from opiate-induced misery to the pharmaceutical companies that make those drugs, and the clever bastards are pocketing even more now that we’ve been convinced that the solution to the damage caused by their increased opiate sales is to arm the population with anti-overdose drugs, which they also sell.

I think the government’s class action suit against the industry is brilliant. If we all must suffer, then certainly the corporations making these drugs ought to suffer along with us. They make their money from sorrow. The least they can do is pay their share.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Don't you be calling me adorable: A reflection on ageism


These are times of calling people on their shit. So I’m going to call out ageism, and more specifically that insidious kind I think of as “compliment-based ageism,” which I’m now experiencing in my own life.

Some recent examples: I scrambled up the rock at my favourite Upper Thetis swimming hole a few days ago and a woman watching me from the top told me what a good climber I was. When travelling, my partner Paul and I notice that younger travellers have taken to praising us as “inspiring.” Last night as I was cycling up a hill coming home from work, a woman walking past called out, “Good for you!”

Good for me? I’ve ridden that hill I don’t know how many times, with nobody applauding my tenacity. I’ve scrambled up those rocks for almost 30 years, and nobody’s ever called me a good climber before. I’m still travelling the way I’ve always travelled, which did not attract attention as inspirational until recently.

What’s changed? I passed some invisible line where people started to see me as old. It started in the runup to turning 60, so the last couple of years. Maybe the neck wrinkles got to be too much, the thicker torso – I don’t know, but it was like somebody hung a “Plucky old lady!” sign on my back, and all of a sudden everything got weird.

We think of ageism as affecting employment and how we’re viewed as workers, and you’ll get no argument from me about that. But having people say kind things about you that are nonetheless distinctly ageist is really no better. Those kind words lay the foundation for a damaging belief: That people become less able, less engaged, less interested in the world as they age, and thus we should celebrate the rare older person who is the exception proving the rule.

You might be thinking, “Come on, Jody, now you’re going to crab at people for saying nice things, too?” Yeah, I guess I am. I’d make the case that they’re not actually saying nice things. What their comments make me feel like is that they’re observing me as spectacle - an aging woman acting against type, like a dancing bear. It’s not a good feeling.

I posted a photo on Facebook of Paul and me at an event on behalf of sex workers’ rights a few months back, and somebody called us “adorable.” I took it like a blow.

Adorable is a cute word for babies and toddlers, but for someone who’s still very much engaged in trying to change the world, it’s a kick in the pants. Does anybody change the world by being adorable? I don’t think so. Adorable is toothless and dear - a sweet old geezer who nobody needs to listen to anymore, an endearing example of a harmless oldster looking “cool” by standing up for edgy causes.

(Nobody has yet used “feisty” to my face so far, another old-person-specific word, but I’m bracing for that to happen as the years accumulate. That first feisty is going to be grim.)

There is an easy solution here: Cut it out. People in this modern day know how to catch themselves on thoughts relevant to all those “isms” that are (rightly) no longer tolerated. Ageism has been on the list for quite some time, but we clearly need more work on the sneaky kind that wears a friendly face.

Please, allow me to help.

For one, don’t ever tell anyone they look good for their age. In fact, strike “for your age” right out of your vocabulary. If they look good, just say that, and say it to other people of any age if they look good as well.

Any compliment that ends with “for your age” is both a back-handed insult to the person receiving it (“Wow, I’d expected you to look like a wreck at your advanced years!”) and a direct insult to anyone in the maligned age group used for comparison. Also, stop if you hear yourself telling a story and saying something like, “So then some grandma type comes along and says…”

Compliment people for what they do, of course, as you might at any age. But if the only thing striking is that they’re old doing a “young” thing, either ignore them entirely like you would anyone else or just give a friendly nod and say something neutral, like, “That’s quite the hill, isn’t it?”

Don’t presume to know what old people are like. Isn’t that the principle underlying every “ism”? We have visible differences, but they don’t explain the person within. We work to train ourselves not to “see” a person’s exterior in matters of race, religion and gender; we need to think the same way when looking at older people. I am still the same person I always was – it’s YOU who think me different, and for no reason other than my appearance.

If you are older yourself, don’t allow words of self-denigration to come out of your mouth. Every time you attribute anything to growing old – aching joints, inability to do a somersault, puzzlement at all this new-fangled technology that the kids are using these days – you confirm the cultural belief that older people are doomed to become useless (albeit adorable) shells of the vigorous, competent people they once were.

Joints can ache at any age. I was never good at somersaults. We must not let the stigmatizing view of older people – powerless, ineffectual, weak, a burden - colour how we view ourselves.

So if you compliment me on my form one day as I cycle past and you think you hear a muttered “Fuck off!” in response, at least now you know where it’s coming from. Just chalk it up to me being feisty.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A garbage read. No, really

Just be glad you don't live in Kolonnawa, Sri Lanka, where 800 tonnes
of garbage is added to this dump every day. 
I'm reposting a 2002 story of mine on recycling here, and never mind that I quietly roll my eyes at my many photographer friends who trot out their old photos as "new" and repost them on Instagram. But here's the thing: it's such an interesting subject, what we do with our garbage, and perhaps even more relevant in 2018 than it was 16 years ago when I wrote this for the Times Colonist.

The subject of garbage was on my mind this week after I posted this story from the Guardian on Britain's rather appalling habits around its own waste; the country is still exporting plastic waste to countries that appear to be dumping it willy-nilly, and it hasn't yet even got a deposit program for its beverage containers.

The story prompted a lot of waste-related thoughts from my Facebook community, and curiosity about what was the latest on what we were doing with waste right here in our hometown.

Which got me thinking about my long-ago story. Here it is, with some updates in a few spots where I could find new information.

Thinking out of the box: Are we green enough?

Jody Paterson
July 28, 2002

The case for a garbage revolution in the capital region had been building for more than a decade by the time the local politicians gave the order to drain the lake.

It would have been an easy decision in an earlier time. This is, after all, the region that once towed its garbage out to sea, and Heal Lake on that July day 11 years ago was little more than a contaminated swamp ruined by decades of sitting next to the Hartland Avenue landfill.

But attitudes had changed over the years. The litterbug generation had grown up with a new sense of environmental responsibility. There was a lot of guilt around garbage by 1991, and Capital Regional District board members felt the shameful significance of destroying a natural wonder, even a dilapidated one, to make room for more trash.

No more, they vowed. From that point on, the region would reduce, reuse and recycle as never before, and the flow of garbage to Hartland would be halved by 1995. Facing unrest elsewhere over other dumps and landfills, provincial politicians made similar commitments around the same time in B.C. and across the country.

It didn't happen by 1995. It still hasn't, except in a handful of areas that are composting the huge flow of food waste and other organics that account for the heaviest component of any municipality's garbage stream. More than 10 years into the dream, less than a third of all the garbage in B.C. gets diverted from landfills or incinerators. The capital region has been stuck at 41 per cent since 1999.

**Update: I couldn't find current diversion rates anywhere after flipping through a number of CRD reports on its website, but I see that the City of Vancouver has a diversion rate of 63 per cent now, so let's presume we're similar or someone would probably be yelling at us by now. The trend these days is to measure per-capita waste production, which was 412 kilos per person/year in 2002 in the Capital Region when I wrote this piece and is now 348. Looked at another way, our population has increased by 25 per cent since 1990 but the waste we generate has decreased by 27 per cent. 

But while the dramatic forecasts of waste reduction may not have been borne out as quickly as expected, there are heartening signs that we're well on the way. We're generating less garbage and getting increasingly innovative about making use of what we've got. We're finally seeing our governments hold industries accountable for the waste their products create, which in turn builds markets for recycled commodities to help pay for the high cost of collecting them.

And while finding other uses for waste is still not as cheap in the short-term as throwing something away, the day when that may be so no longer seems quite so distant.

"Every year, Canada and the U.S. continue to capture more recyclables," says Jerry Powell, editor of the Oregon trade publication Resource Recycling. "We roared through the '90s catching the low-hanging fruit, and it's not going to be that easy anymore. But we're going to keep on growing."

The brewing industry was an early entry into recycling, having found during its infancy 150 years ago that it made economic sense to collect beer bottles for refilling. B.C. brewers followed suit in 1924 and continue to do so, encouraging participation by charging deposits and asking the province's 43 participating brewers to use a uniform style of bottle. The average bottle of B.C.-brewed beer is filled 15 times before it's retired.

Steel recycling caught on across the country during the Second World War, when the federal government was desperate for steel to make weapons. Motor oil, lead-acid batteries, paint and tires were banned from B.C. landfills several years ago, necessitating recycling industries around those products as well.

"Blue-box" goods -- plastics, tin cans, newspaper and office paper -- have been melted and pulped into new products for many years. But it wasn't until communities started collecting them in large amounts as part of recycling programs in the last decade that they came into their own as commodities on the world market.

The capital region launched its blue-box program in the late 1980s and now sells almost 16,000 tonnes of recyclables a year into the global market. More than three-quarters of British Columbians have access to a curbside recycling pickup, a major reason why the province generated 400,000 fewer tonnes of garbage in 2000 compared to a decade earlier, even while the population grew by 24 per cent.

In the early days of community recycling, the vision was of glass bottles turned back into glass bottles, of old newspapers pulped to become new ones. Waste would be eliminated and the environment spared; 20 recycled aluminum cans, as recycling advocates have noted, can be made new again using the same amount of electricity and water needed to make a single can from scratch.

But aluminum proved to be the exception, the only blue-box recyclable that pays for itself when collection costs are factored in. The reality for other blue-box commodities was more complex.

Reused newsprint doesn't have the same strength as "virgin" newsprint, making it an unpopular choice in large quantities for the high-speed presses of the newspaper industry. There also weren't enough de-inking plants in North America to handle the glut from the rapid expansion of community recycling in the 1990s, and markets are only now recovering.

Glass broke so often in the process of being collected that it was impossible to keep one colour of bottle separated from another, making it useless for future batches of bottles. Only domestic beer bottles, hand-sorted by colour by the brewing industry, return to use as bottles.

Plastic pop bottles were durable enough, but so cheap to make in the first place that the industry cared little about getting the old bottles back. Health laws in various locales often prohibit "post- consumer" plastics from being turned back into bottles anyway, unless it's certain that the consumer's mouth won't come into contact with the recycled material.

So while markets have developed as blue-box programs proliferated, the recycled use is almost always in something of lesser value. Newspapers become ingredients in cardboard. Glass is ground up for use in road aggregate and fibreglass. Plastic pop bottles are flaked and shipped primarily to China, to be turned into T-shirts, fleece jackets, sleeping-bag fill and carpet.

It was a harsh learning experience for many communities. Having envisaged a nice little nest egg from selling recyclables, they instead found themselves dealing with wildly fluctuating markets disconnected from the cost of collecting the goods.

In the capital region, costs have improved in the past two years since collection methods changed. Glass, metal and plastics are now sorted at recycling plants rather than curbside, making it easier for contractors to pick up more material on a single run and keep collection costs lower.

Even so, it still costs almost twice as much per tonne to run the region's blue-box program as it does to throw garbage in the landfill, $84.49 compared to $45.66. Of the almost $10 million spent last year on waste management (funded by the $75-a-tonne charge to dump at Hartland), $4 million of it went toward diverting recyclables. If profit were the measure of success, we'd be failing. **Update from CRD’s 2016 annual report, the most recent available: The region now spends $19.6 million on waste management, of which $6.1 million goes to fund recycling collection and another $3 million goes to other diversion efforts. It now costs $110 a tonne to dump waste at Hartland.

The goal, however, is garbage reduction, and on that count the program is working. The region has dumped less garbage into Hartland every year since the blue-box program began; last year's total, 135,000 tonnes, is the smallest amount generated since 1987, and less than half of the 300,000 tonnes that was expected to materialize by the early 1990s. **The amount of garbage going into the landfill got as low as 112,000 tonnes in 2015, but jumped to 133,000 the following year, mostly due to an increase in construction waste. There are no figures more recent than 2016 on the CRD website.

The landfill that was once forecast to be full by 2000 has at least 50 years left, and even more if a long-awaited composting facility finally gets built. That's good news in an era when building a new dump would cost tens of millions of dollars and almost certainly prompt a non-stop series of confrontations with unwilling neighbours, First Nations and environmentalists.

But if diversion rates are to hit the ambitious levels set in the years when Heal Lake could still call itself that, there's much work to be done.

“We haven't begun to scratch the surface of what we can do," said Prospect Lake resident Gary Moonie in the runup to the draining of Heal Lake, arguing for more aggressive recycling policies.

In fact, people in the capital region and across North America have proven resistant to recycling unless it's either very easy for them or worth their while, which is why areas with curbside pickup and bottle deposit programs have the highest recycling rates.

(In B.C., which has deposits on most beverage containers, three- quarters of all plastic pop bottles are returned for refunds. In the U.S., where only 10 states have deposit programs, barely a fifth of the 1.6 million tonnes of plastic bottles sold every year are returned.) **2016 figures: The US recycling rate for plastic bottles has inched up to 29 per cent.

So communities wanting to reduce their garbage stream face the challenge of keeping it easy -- curbside blue-box collection, numerous bottle depots -- without going broke paying for it.

Finding markets for recycled goods that will offset at least some of the high price of collection is critical. Glass has turned out to be the worst of the blue-box commodities, bulky to transport and worthless on the market.

"It's fused sand," says Resource Recycling's Powell. "There's no worth in that."

One industry insider says that if he was choosing, he'd grind up waste glass and dump it into the ocean, where he contends it would be virtually undetectable. Blue-box scroungers, who can be fined for stealing goods at curbside that rightly belong to the regional district, do the CRD a favour when they take glass, one staffer quietly admits.

Newsprint has held its own, although its price on the market has been as low as $5 a tonne at times in the past decade. Recycled aluminum can sell for as much as $2,000 a tonne; the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat buys almost two-thirds of the 2.1 billion cans discarded in Canada every year. Cardboard is selling for $220 a tonne right now, a high.

Plastic, however, has been a disappointment. There's a hungry market out there willing to pay as much as $400 a tonne for pop-bottle plastic and HDPE, the heavier plastic used for shampoo and detergent bottles. And there's a load of plastic out there: Between 1995 and 2000, the amount of plastic beverage containers manufactured in the U.S. alone almost doubled to more than 600 billion.

**2018: Surprisingly little change in many of the prices for recycled goods. Here’s an estimate out of Alberta from June 2018. Aluminum cans now fetch considerably less than in 2002, with rates in the US just over $1,300 a tonne. Newspaper sometimes doesn't even reach $1 a tonne.

But many of those bottles were single-serving -- bottled water, in many cases. They were bought and consumed by people on the go, who threw them away instead of bringing them back home for recycling. As well, consumers are forgetting to recycle "household industrial" plastics, used as containers for things like hair products and cleaners.

The result: recycle rates of plastic beverage bottles in the U.S. fell to a low of 22.3 per cent in 2000, down from 40 per cent five years earlier. In B.C., the Recycling Council estimates that 87 per cent of the 7,000 tonnes of household industrial bottles we use every year end up landfilled.

The stats are less grim for B.C. pop bottles, as the province collects a deposit of five or 10 cents per bottle from consumers that's paid back upon return. The recycle rates last year of that type of plastic beverage bottle -- PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate -- were around 72 per cent.

But there's still more demand for used PET and HDPE than there is a ready supply, even while communities across the country lament the flow of plastics into their landfills.

"When the big overseas markets like China are buying, there's a tremendous volume accepted," says plastics broker Dave Smith, of Sarnia's Canadian Plastic Recycling Inc. "It competes with cotton, so when the cotton crop's bad, the demand for PET is big. I'd say the demand always exceeds the supply."

What's the solution? Recycling markets often need a push from government to establish themselves: the banning of a certain item from landfills; recycled-material quotas for producers; government- led purchases of new products made from recycled goods. Little of that has happened yet with plastic.

"Once government mandates that something is banned from a landfill, we have something to base our business on," says Doug Stevens of Metro Materials, the Victoria firm under contract with the CRD to process all blue-box items and ship them out for remanufacture.

His co-worker Matt Dupuis notes that "it's still cheaper to cut down trees" than to manufacture plastic two-by-fours.

"We may actually need artificial markets for a while, where a municipality commits to buying x-amount of plastic lumber for a building project, or to using plastic road dividers," says Dupuis. "If governments at various levels coordinated things like that, you'd start to see those costs go down."

Improving plastic recycling rates could reduce the cost of blue-box programs, but the biggest hope for shrinking the garbage stream lies in composting. Organics -- everything from restaurant waste to soiled disposable diapers -- account for about 38 per cent of the weight of all garbage in the capital region and other jurisdictions, the single-biggest source of waste. **Food waste has been prohibited in household garbage in the CRD since 2015 and has to be separated into a "green bin" for pickup. However, organics still account for 21 per cent of the waste stream as of the last study in 2016.

But only a few thousand tonnes of yard waste are diverted into composting at Hartland in any given year, and only two B.C. towns, Mission and Cobble Hill, have easy access to a compost facility for food waste. Interestingly enough, this is still true.  Since banning kitchen scraps in 2015, the CRD ships "green bin" waste to these two facilities.

The province and the region have talked about the need for composting for more than a decade, but the long-promised regulatory framework is only now being drafted. The considerable resistance of neighbourhoods fearful of smell and noise will no doubt hamper the search for a plant site for several more years.

Yet in areas where composting is already underway, the results are dramatic. The Cowichan Valley has seen its waste rates fall to among the lowest in the province since a privately run composting facility opened in the area two years ago, a situation admittedly helped along by the $125-a-tonne cost of shipping remaining garbage to Cache Creek after the town dump reached capacity around the same time.

Edmonton anticipates cutting its waste stream by 70 per cent at a new plant that makes topsoil out of organic garbage and sewage sludge. Nova Scotia banned organics from its landfills in 1998 and has cut its waste stream in half.

This month in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, residents began separating their garbage into "wet" and "dry" at the curb in a pilot project that the city believes could end the need for a dump by 2010 if eventually expanded throughout Toronto.

"Because we haven't got our organics out, we're stuck at 41 per cent diversion," says CRD staffer Brenda Phillips, manager of environmental education. "And there are still a lot of regulations and land-use questions that will have to be addressed before a facility can open."

Ongoing involvement from all waste-generating industries is also essential in cutting the flow of garbage. Product stewardship -- the "cradle to grave" responsibility of an industry for its product -- has barely been tapped in B.C. The bottling industry leads the pack, having taken over the collection and recycling of beverage containers in B.C. through the Western Brewers' Association and four-year-old Encorp Pacific, a not- for-profit set up at specifically for the task.

Encorp even ended up with a $5 million surplus last year, albeit largely because of the $16 million worth of unredeemed deposit on containers that people threw away and another $12 million from non- refundable "recycling fees" consumers have paid on every beverage container since 1998. Encorp says the fees are necessary to cover the high recycling costs -- and poor markets -- for certain containers, and notes that all profits are put back into recycling efforts. Encorp's surplus was $7 million in 2017, $19.6 million of which came from unredeemed deposits. Read the annual report here

Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Gatorade have all recently given in to government and environmental pressure to begin using between 10 and 25 per cent recycled plastic in their new bottles. These beverage giants are now promising to use 100 per cent recycled materials by 2025 or so. 

But other stewardship programs could be started for any number of products, says a study done four months ago for the Liberal government. Belgium requires stewardship of beverage containers, disposable razors and cameras, pesticides, paper and cardboard, while Taiwan goes after the manufacturers of electronic appliances, computers and vehicles.

B.C. currently targets tires, oil, pharmaceuticals and lead-acid batteries as well as beverage containers, but the programs could all use a little work, the study notes. Electronics can now be dropped off for free at Return-It depots in BC. An environmental handling fee of anywhere from five cents to $10 has been added onto purchase prices of some of these items to cover the cost of recycling them. 

"Product stewardship in B.C. today does not appear to be the result of a disciplined strategy. Rather, it appears to be the result of a combination of history, politics, revenue opportunity, and ad hoc industry and ministry initiatives," says the report.

Such a hodge-podge can be unsatisfactory for both industry and consumers, the report's author notes, citing the example of the government collecting $4 million every year in "eco-fees" for disposing of lead-acid batteries when the actual cost is only $1 million.

Whatever the strategies, any endeavour to reduce waste will live or die on people's willingness to participate.

Garbage diversion rates are highest when people need only shuffle their blue box to the curb, but so are collection costs. A little extra effort from the populace to recycle goods that aren't accepted in the blue box would go a long way toward saving both money and waste.

As well, the litterbug generation that learned as children in the 1970s to put garbage in the trash now needs to teach a new generation to put it in the recycling box instead. The beverage containers with the worst return rates in B.C. are the 126 million drink boxes and "gable-tops" consumed every year, almost exclusively by school children. Almost 60 per cent continue to be thrown away. We're still throwing away 40 per cent of drink boxes in 2018.

Encorp communications manager Malcolm Harvey says education is essential. But so are blue boxes and drop-offs in as many locations as can be provided.

"The only thing that really makes recycling work is that people want to do it," says Harvey. "We just have to make it easy for them."

***

Did you know:

- Every tonne of recycled steel saves 1.4 tonnes of iron ore and 3.6 barrels of oil.

- Five plastic pop bottles are used to make one extra-large T- shirt.

- 55 million plastic bags are taken home by Canadians every week. Yikes, this has now increased to 2.86 billion bags.

- Six million tonnes of glass are thrown away in Canada annually.

- A tonne of recycled newspaper saves three cubic metres of landfill space and 17 trees.

- 35 two-litre plastic pop bottles make enough fibre fill for one sleeping bag.


Beyond the blue box: End uses of locally recycled goods

· Cardboard: Shipped to mills in Vancouver, Washington and Taiwan to be made into cardboard boxes, liners, and cereal boxes.

· Newspaper: Shipped to Vancouver, Oregon and Taiwan to be made into newsprint.

· Mixed Paper: Shipped to Vancouver, Washington and Taiwan for use in duroid shingles, packing material, corrugated cardboard liner and Gyproc paper.

· Tin: Shipped to tin and steel smelters to be remade into tin cans.

· Glass: Ground for use in road aggregate and highway marker beads.

· Plastics: Divided into one of seven categories and sent to Merlin Plastics in Vancouver to be pelletized, eventually shipped overseas for use in clothing, carpet, drainage pipe, car parts, polar fleece and more plastic containers.

Friday, June 15, 2018

On voyeurism while urinating: The strange tale of the Opus Hotel video cam

I first heard about this story in April from a co-worker of mine, the wife of Paul Razzell. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and my old reporter instincts came to life in an instant as I encouraged her to have Paul call me so we could do a story.

The question at the heart of the story: Is it OK to film people as they go about their business in the bar for the entertainment of men as they pee? Like Paul Razzell, I found the idea revolting and was dumbstruck that it had been a practice at Yaletown's Opus Hotel since 2002, apparently with few complaints.

I thought I'd found an interested outlet for the story after I heard back from the Georgia Straight, which was interested in me writing the piece for them. For whatever reason, I never heard from them again after I submitted the story. So here it is, a blog post now.

I found it a fascinating example of the weird ideas that come into people's heads as "entertaining and fun," though it's too bad it will never be tested through our privacy laws. The resolution of the issue just as a complaint went to BC's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ended that possibility. Not a coincidence, I'm thinking, but at least Razzell did get his wish to see the practice ended.

***
It’s last call for the Opus Hotel’s 16-year-old practice of featuring a video feed of bar customers on monitors above the men’s urinals.

A complaint to BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) was filed May 3 by Victoria man Paul Razzell. He’s been trying for the last six months to persuade the Yaletown hotel to stop the practice. He stumbled upon it in November after visiting the coffee shop next door and being pointed to the Opus washroom when he asked about facilities.

Contacted for comment about the privacy complaint, Opus general manager Nicholas Gandossi said the hotel is planning a major washroom renovation this month (June). The monitors will be removed as part of that reno. The video feed from the bar camera is gone already, replaced by CNN, he adds.

“I know this fellow felt it wasn’t right, that there were privacy issues,” says Gandossi, who contends that nobody else has complained about the video feed. “But in the privacy context, we were never trying to cross the boundary with this. [Razzell’s] timing is perfect, because we’ve been planning an update of the washrooms for a while. And when even one person says he doesn’t like what we’re doing – well, it did get me thinking. “

Razzell says he was stunned last fall to be in front of the hotel urinals and realize he was looking at a number of large monitors on the wall showing a live feed of bar patrons and staff.

He went into the bar to confirm that’s what he was viewing, eventually spotting the discreet camera mounted high on the wall. He then sent his wife into the women’s washroom to see whether there were monitors in there as well. (There weren’t. But Gandossi says that up until the wiring fritzed out two or three years ago, the same feed was displayed in the mirror of the women’s washroom.)

Razzell wrote his first outraged email to Gandossi soon after. He told the hotel manager that the practice was not only an invasion of privacy, it was insulting and demeaning to the women unknowingly being watched by urinating men. It was all “so creepy and voyeuristic.”

Gandossi sees things differently.  The monitors were simply displaying the same images that anyone would see if they passed by on the sidewalk and looked in the bar window, he says. The feed isn’t recorded, or broadcast anywhere other than in the men’s washroom.

The Opus has always gone for a bit of “tongue-in-cheek” and voyeurism, adds Gandossi, noting that its hotel rooms have windows between the bathrooms and the living rooms.

“But this is voyeuristic in an ugly way,” says Razzell. “There are the bar patrons’ faces, broadcasting in proximity to guys peeing. It permits men to observe women without their knowing it.”

Is it legal? OIPC communications director Erin Beattie says the office can’t comment on any case that it hasn’t reviewed, but noted that all 500,000 or so private organizations in BC – whether churches, schools, businesses, unions, charities or Yaletown hotels – are governed by the Personal Information Protection Act.

On the issue of videotaping people, PIPA is considerably more restrictive than the act that governs the public sector, says Beattie. A case can be made for video surveillance to prevent or solve a crime, she says – installing security cameras in a parkade, for instance. But what happens to that footage, and who it’s shared with, has to meet tests around consent and reasonableness.

For private organizations, getting consent typically comes down to posting a bold sign at the entrance that says some version of “There’s video surveillance here,” says Beattie.  That way, a customer can choose not to enter.

“If we get a complaint about video surveillance, the questions we ask are: Do they have consent? Is it reasonable under the circumstances to collect these images? What authority do they have to collect it? That’s how we determine if it’s legal,” says Beattie.

 “But even after that, there are further considerations, such as whether that information is being disclosed to people outside the organization, and for what reason.”

The key considerations under BC privacy law are collection, use and disclosure. A private organization might be within the law to collect certain kinds of information through video surveillance, says Beattie, but it could still be breaking the law if the way that information is used – or who it’s shared with – fails the test of reasonableness and consent.

Some video surveillance gets a pass. Audiences at sporting events are presumed to be consenting (the Rogers Arena “Kiss Cam” being one such example). But “very few applications allow collection without consent,” says Beattie – and that consent has to come either on or before the information is collected.

Razzell says that even if what the hotel was doing turned out to be legal, it’s morally unacceptable, most especially in a time when campaigns like #MeToo have brought global attention to sexual harassment, abuse and rape. The high height of the camera alone was a virtual invitation to men to peek down the tops of women, he adds.

While Gandossi asserts there have been almost no complaints about the video feed in 16 years, Razzell says he posted his discovery on Facebook last fall and soon had a long list of comments from others who were equally outraged and disgusted. He’s been pushing hard since then to convince the hotel to stop.

“This is not 2002 anymore,” says Razzell. “We don’t want to permit things like this to be normalized in our world. If there was ever a time to do the right thing and stop this, now’s the time.”

Done, says Gandossi: “It was fun back in 2002, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to evolve.”

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Our sexwork podcast has been launched!


I am remarkably excited that the long-talked-about podcast with sex workers that I've been wanting to do for more than a year now has finally come together.

Here's our first episode. With any luck, we'll be doing a new episode at least once a month.

All episodes will be looking at sex work as a small business, as there is so much the work has in common with any other small business. Yet that aspect is never touched on in the public discourse about sex work, where it's drowned out by shouting about victimization, exploitation, trafficking and abuse of women - the standard themes when talk turns to sex work out there in the world.

Our first episode features three of my favourite people, all sex workers from Greater Victoria. We wanted to kick off the podcast on June 2 to mark International Day of Action for Sex Workers' Rights. (It's got another name, as you'll see if you click the link, but I'll leave controversial labelling to be used by those who identify with it.)

Among the most pressing issues for this year's campaign were two new laws in the U.S. known as SESTA and FOSTA - The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act - so that's the subject for our debut episode. Those laws are wrongly being used to shut down online sites that adult, consenting sex workers use to advertise, screen clients and take safety precautions, and have serious implications for sex workers all over the world what with US companies dominating so many online services and domains.

To be clear, nobody in our podcast or any sex worker or rights activist I've ever met is in favour of sex trafficking. We want exploitation, violence, coercion and victimization in the sex industry stamped out as much as anyone. But tune into our podcast to learn the unintended consequences of lumping sex trafficking in with adult, consenting sex work.

We'll be featuring conversations with sex workers, clients and agencies in the coming months. Hope you'll listen in! One of the greatest harms that come to sex workers is stigma, and we can't eliminate stigma without helping the public understand that underneath that distracting word "sex" lies a complex, misunderstood business that's very different than what so many people imagine.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Utila and I: A Love Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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