Thursday, June 27, 2019

Things we saw: Road trip in Eastern Europe

Town square at Piatra Neamt, Romania
Loved, loved, loved our three-week road trip through Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria in May and June. I came home with hundreds of photos, but also a bunch of video clips that I had no real plan for but we collected anyway. Glad we did, because the resulting half-hour video really captures the trip beautifully. A lot of the shots are out the front window of the car as we drove along, and captured the scenes that really call up memories of a place but often don't make it into your photo gallery.

We used Google Maps to guide us. Mostly it was just plain wonderful to have that service, because otherwise we would have been constantly lost. (We learned right at the start of our trip that Priority 1 upon arriving in any country was to get a local SIM card in our phones.) But it also took us on some of the strangest routes - often not the big freeways, which I was grateful for, but sometimes true backwaters that looked like they weren't even real roads.  And every now and then on a big freeway, we lost serious time when Googleova couldn't figure out what to do about a detour or major construction at an interchange, and sent us down the wrong road with no way to fix the error until the next exit - which in some cases was 30 kilometres down the road.

This video is recommended viewing for anyone who loves road trips but hasn't been on one for far too long, for no particular reason but just because they kind of forgot how much they love them. Watching this made me want to get back on the road all over again.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Journalism 101: Winning awards is one thing, consistent and solid local coverage is something else

Advice to Phillip Crawley, or any other boss poised to cut $10 million in salaries, none of which involves their own job: Don't try to dress that up as a positive thing.

 Yes, the Globe and Mail's reporting staff of 250 does seem unbelievably luxurious in the eyes of any other slashed-to-bits Canadian newsroom. And yes, I'm sure those who remain after this latest round of cuts announced this week will still do their best to maintain quality journalism.

But Crawley - G&M publisher - came across as tone-deaf, insensitive and pretty damn unaware of newsroom realities in the J-Source story about the coming cuts at Canada's national newspaper. Defending the cuts, he chose to cite the recent National Newspaper Awards win of the St. Catherines Standard with a skeletal staff of five reporters (down from 49 after years of cuts) as an example of how quality reporting doesn't require quantity.

Here's the thing: Sure, a newsroom with almost nobody left to do reporting might still be able to win a National Newspaper Award once in a while. But can it cover the non-award-worthy daily grind of local news that readers actually care about? Not a chance.

I only have to reflect back on my own time as managing editor of the Victoria Times Colonist in the mid-1990s, presiding over a newsroom staff still large enough that we were able to cover all the regular council meetings of Greater Victoria's 13 municipalities, and even keep an eye on the three school boards in the region. Oh, those were the days.

Nobody wins national awards for the quotidian coverage of council and school board. But those kinds of stories are the lifeblood of a good local newspaper. Those are the stories that keep councils mindful of their actions, citizens aware of what their municipalities are up to, and maintain a general sense of news coverage that stays on top of the local scene.

What is being lost in the ongoing cuts to mainstream media is average "beat" reporting. It's the kind of reporting that keeps politicians on track and citizens in the loop. It's the unremarkable yet critically important foundation to democracy. And nobody has been able to figure out how to make it happen in the new age of digital media that no one wants to pay for.

What to do? Worry, I'd say. Subscribe to the daily newspapers that matter to you, though subscription costs seem very much out of whack with the sad-looking products that pass for daily newspapers these days. And I'm sure you'll have noticed already that local news coverage is a shadow of its former self compared to what it was back in what I now think of as the golden era (though cuts were already happening even 20 years ago), because it's the coverage that costs the most.

Do send donations to the digital news sources that you rely on, because quality journalism simply can't exist without somebody paying. The Tyee online newspaper fundraises to hire reporters for specific local issues - better than nothing for sure, but not able to sustain a fleet of reporters grinding it out on the unsexy but essential coverage of daily life in our communities.

So ignore guys like Crawley when they tell you that a $10 million cut in newsroom staffing isn't going to hurt the quality of journalism. He's wrong.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

On sex work, 'trafficking,' and sloppy journalism that causes harm

Red Umbrella March - courtesy of Peers Victoria
This piece of mine started as a total rant that I imagined going on my blog or perhaps a BC newspaper. But for various reasons I ended up sending it to the editor of JSource, the website for the Canadian Journalism Project. And here it is, hot off the press today, rewritten into less rant-like style but better because of it.


The Edmonton Journal ran a series on sex trafficking in March. At least, that’s what the headlines said, even though none of the sex workers in the piece were actually being trafficked and nobody was charged with trafficking.
Some might say those two details kind of cancel out the premise of the series.
But I’ve been taking in news coverage of sex work for a long time, and dressing up a story to look like something that it isn’t is tragically common. It’s as if all the usual journalistic instincts to present a fair story and get the facts go out the window when somebody says “sex trafficking.”
Not that I’m in favour of sex trafficking, of course. But I’m an activist for the rights of adult sex workers. Their efforts to secure even the most basic human and workers’ rights in Canada are harmed immeasurably by an abundance of sloppy, biased reporting that lazily assumes sex trafficking and sex work are interchangeable terms.
It’s the kind of journalism that never asks the hard questions and denies sex workers a voice. It doesn’t do its homework. It knows how the story will go before the first interview has even begun. That story is always about shattered victims and evil exploiters, and the good police and earnest community people who rescue innocents from this awful work that no one in their right mind would choose.
And if the truth is something different than that? Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be something that journalists, as a whole, concern themselves with on this issue.
Our profession has a reputation for skepticism and doubt. Hallelujah for that. But something about issues with a moral aspect to them - sex work and trafficking, illicit drug use, migrant issues - shuts down journalists' normal way of approaching a story. 
We let people make outrageous statements with no proof. We make little effort to check whether there might be more sides to the story. We presume inaccessibility to anyone who actually works in or is directly affected by the story we’re looking into, and so we don’t even try to get their comments.
For sex work, the result of that is the perpetuation of myths that let our country keep on justifying the denial of basic rights to legal workers.
Myths that sex trafficking is a big problem in North America. (In 2017, more than 1.9 million crimes were reported by Canadian police. Forty-five involved sex trafficking  – down from 68 in the previous year, and 61 in the year before that.)
Myths that we have statistics proving claims that it’s a big problem. (The 2018 Trafficking in Persons global report notes that Canada “did not provide comprehensive data on investigations, prosecutions and convictions from all jurisdictions,” nor on the number of victims.)
Myths that any sex worker who denies being trafficked is just covering up to protect an exploiter. (Using the theory of a “trauma bond” that prevents victims from turning on their captors, the law in Canada can consider you a victim of trafficking regardless of whether you agree, and as such becomes a tool that’s easily turned against garden-variety adult sex work.)
Myths that police raids are an effective, efficient, respectful way of dealing with the sex industry. (After many complaints from sex workers of harassment by police, Vancouver’s Supporting Women’s Alternative Network took the unusual step in 2017 of writing to the RCMP to urge them to stop Operation Spotlight, an anti-trafficking campaign targeting sex workers: “This strategy is one that is based on deception and manipulation. These actions foster distrust and adversarial relationships with law enforcement. Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ them.”)
The Journal’s series provides a recent and painful example.
The reporter was essentially embedded with the Edmonton police for the purposes of the story. Police posed as clients and responded to online ads placed by workers. They then showed up at the worker’s hotel room or whatever she was working – journalist in tow – to ask her deeply personal, intimate questions that ought to be nobody’s business once everyone is a consenting adult.
(It’s unclear what indicators police used to determine who to target, but for at least one worker featured in the story, it was because the photo she used in her ad made her look underage. She wasn’t.)
So there’s the worker, wearing a “tiny black silk robe” when she opens the hotel room door to what she thinks is a client and it turns out to be the police and a journalist.  “We’re here for your benefit,” Det. Dan Duiker assures her. “We’re not here to bust your balls. When you are co-operative with us, hopefully we can be of assistance to you if you ever need it.”
The journalist features Duiker’s comments prominently in his story. But there’s not a word given over to the young woman being humiliated and shamed in front of everybody. (Like, maybe I’d have asked, “Hey, does this feel like ‘assistance’ to you?”)
Imagine the public outcry if any other Canadian worker was subjected to this treatment – forced to be the voiceless, unwitting poster child for an issue that has nothing to do with you, because you’re not being trafficked. All is revealed to readers: what you’re wearing, where you’re from (this woman was from Quebec, an apparent “hotbed” of sex trafficking), how much you earn, who you contract with, whether you have a pimp.
The journalist then turned for external verification to the very organization that had not only partnered with Edmonton police for the raids, but takes the position that most people doing sex work are victims even if they don’t see it that way themselves.
The Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, or CEASE, does not support views of sex work that would improve working conditions or ease stigma. It makes no secret of that. Yet without so much as a simple Google search on “sex worker organizations Canada” to see if anyone else might have a different view, the Edmonton Journal took CEASE and the police at their word that this campaign was needed to stop trafficking.
As it turns out, CEASE executive director Kate Quinn had her own concerns when she saw the Edmonton series. She and I don’t share the same views on sex work, but we do on reporting that observes and objectifies rather than treats people with respect and as having agency.
“My suggestion to journalists is to first ask the women for permission in situations like this,” says Quinn, who was uncomfortable that some women in the series had a journalist sprung on them and didn’t appear to have been offered the opportunity to talk without police in the room. (Edmonton Journal series reporter Juris Graney did not respond to my requests for comment.)
“It’s respectful to ask, ‘Can I write your words?’ Give people the right to say yes or no. Ask yourself how you’d feel if you were the person being written about.”
That trafficking is rampant is one of the myths most used to shut down debate on decriminalizing sex-work laws, as I explore in a July 2016 blog post on the dishonest rhetoric around trafficking.
Trafficking happens, of course, and every sex workers’ rights activist I know is totally onside with stopping it. But using that term to describe and regulate all sex work just can’t be tolerated. It’s not true. It hurts people and it helps no one.
In fact, we have scant statistics on trafficking. Really scant. And the stats that do exist show minimal evidence of sex trafficking. For the sake of people who are the most stigmatized, misunderstood and silenced workers in the world, we have got to quit hiding behind that offensive trafficking lie as an excuse for doing nothing about a vital human rights issue.
I don’t know why people can’t have a real conversation about sex work. I don’t know why we’d rather believe workers are being beaten nightly by their vicious clients than think that they might be happily doing work they mostly enjoy.
But as a journalist, figuring that out isn’t my concern anyway. My concern is to tell an honest, fact-based story that examines all sides of an issue. My concern is to treat everybody I talk to with dignity and equality, and to check my biases at the door and go into every story with an open and curious mind.
It’s not hard to find sex workers. Search on the hashtag #sexwork on Twitter and start there. Visit the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform website and explore their members’ web pages. Check out some of the pieces listed here. Get informed.
And when the day comes for you to write a story on sex work, do your job. Read the research. Question assumptions. Seek out the diverse opinions of people who work in the industry. Extend the same respect to sex workers as you would to any other worker. If you wouldn’t show up all sneaky-like with the police to ambush any other unsuspecting salesperson just going about their business, show the same courtesy to sex workers.
Get past any weirdness you’ve got about the industry and cover it like any other story. It’s not a reach to ask for that. It’s good journalism.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Suicide by car: On trauma, tragedy and ICBC policy

The tragic suicide by car of a 24-year-old on the Pat Bay Highway on Sunday takes me back to another similar suicide back in 2000 that I wrote about for the Times Colonist. 

There's a whole other set of victims when people kill themselves in the manner that these two young men did, 19 years apart.

Whoever is in the vehicle when a person randomly picks a moment to step into the road and be killed is almost certainly going to be haunted forever by that stranger's decision.

Here's my column on Ian Davidson's suicide on the Malahat in 2000, and a wish that ICBC does not play rough with the people involved in Sunday's tragedy like it did with the Coopsie family 19 years ago. 


Jody Paterson column in TC, January 2000

Davidson settled on death a long time ago. The only question was who would be the killer.

It turned out to be the Coopsie family, picked randomly from among the many travellers making their way north on the Malahat on that sunny afternoon two days after Christmas. Davidson, 25, waited beside his idling car just past the Spectacle Lake turnoff, waited until the Coopsies' truck was so close that there could only be one ending to this sad drama.

And then he jumped onto the road.

Dave Coopsie, driving to Duncan for a family dinner with his wife Dawn and their two youngest children, swerved toward oncoming traffic to avoid hitting him. But there was no room left to manoeuvre when Davidson lunged at the truck a second time. The young man died moments later, his years of suicide attempts finally over.

It took anguished minutes for the Coopsie truck to slow to a stop, anguished minutes more to walk back and try to figure out what had just happened. Dawn Coopsie cries every time she thinks of that young face pressed into their windshield, the sound of her two boys screaming at the sight of what her 10-year-old called ''the scary, scary man.'' He hasn't said a word about it since then; his mom found out only a couple of days ago that he'd been worrying that his dad was going to go to jail.

Greater Victoria Victim Services arrived soon after the accident to offer support, and the Shawnigan RCMP urged the family to consider counselling for their traumatized sons.

The Coopsies didn't have a clue who picks up the tab for the aftermath when your truck is written off by someone's suicide, when life goes sideways after an intimate involvement in a stranger's death. But they had car insurance and so did Davidson, and they figured ICBC would sort out the details.

ICBC had other plans, as it turned out. The adjuster spent all of five minutes with them the first time they met, just long enough to let them know that because they didn't have collision insurance, they'd have to pay for their towing charges and vehicle replacement themselves. Davidson wasn't actually driving his car at the time of the accident, noted the adjuster, so his insurance didn't come into play.

The insurance corporation had a bit of a change of heart a few days later after hearing from MLA Andrew Petter's office, which took up the Coopsies' cause after getting their desperate phone call. They'd get their towing fees reimbursed and a payout for their vehicle, ICBC told them, but no counselling. The adjuster wanted them to sign an agreement forfeiting their right to sue.

The family has already used up Dave Coopsie's annual health-plan allotment of six counselling sessions getting help for their boys after the suicide. They know it wasn't enough. But with five kids to raise, there isn't any money for more.

They were still trying to figure out how it is that a guy can kill himself on the hood of your car and you end up paying for the damage to your kids when ICBC had yet another change of heart late yesterday.

''There was a miscommunication between the manager and the adjuster,'' said ICBC spokeswoman Elizabeth Goldenshtein. ''The manager had advised paying for counselling, but the adjuster didn't know that. I'm going to be calling the family right now to tell them that.''

Maybe that will help counter Dawn Coopsie's impression that an adjuster's job must be to ''open and close a file as fast as possible.'' Maybe it will help a shattered family come to grips with the fact that there was nothing they could have done that day to get out of the way of a young man determined to die.

The coroner has yet to weigh in on the lonely death of Ian Davidson, whose long struggle with mental illness led him to try to kill himself several times in the past, once by jumping in front of a train. Dawn Coopsie wonders how he slipped through a system that apparently knew all about him, and her heart breaks for another suffering family whose own lives went sideways that day on the Malahat.

Victim services has sent a read-aloud booklet on suicide to the Coopsies to help them talk about it with their sons. Until 15 days ago, the boys barely knew what the word meant.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Thelma and Louise approach to climate change

Reading this piece on rising greenhouse gas emissions in today's Guardian reminded me of those old movie scenes where some character gives another one a good slap to snap them out of whatever foolish thinking they're engaging in.

In this case, the crazy thinking would involve anything to do with believing that the world is actually jumping on the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Nope. Energy use last year grew at its fastest pace of the decade. It was a "golden year" for gas, with consumption up 10 per cent in the US alone. That increase alone is equivalent to the UK's entire consumption of gas in a year.

I hate to be Nelly Negative, but this does more or less reaffirm my belief in humanity's ability to respond to a life-threatening - all life, everywhere - crisis. Unlike those apocalyptic Hollywood movies where citizens dig deep into untapped reserves of strength, ingenuity and hope to save the planet, I have long suspected that in fact we'd actually just look up at the big, fiery meteor hurtling toward us and mutter, "Oh, shit," and that would be that.

This is what future historians (clearly on other planets) will note about our civilization someday - that given the challenge of reducing fossil-fuel energy use or risking climate devastation, we put the pedal to the metal and gunned it into the inferno.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Open procurement and social care: Why that should scare you

Find me here in the Vancouver Sun writing on the scintillating issue of open procurement, and other strange happenings bombarding the community-based social services sector.

While you may think that whole sentence is unbelievably dull and referring to things you have zero interest in, I urge you to read my piece anyway. People, this stuff really matters.

For those who can't or won't click, I'm just going to paste the article right here as well. That's how easy I want it to be for you to read it. Also, I wrote this as the executive director for the Board Voice Society of BC, work I do two days a week, but I am such a believer in this issue that I would have written it even if it wasn't my job.

Editorial pages of Vancouver Sun
March 22, 2019
By Jody Paterson

Open procurement policies put community social-services groups at risk

I work in the non-profit community social-services sector. If your eyes glazed over when you read that, that nicely demonstrates the kind of PR problems besetting the sector now.

We’re in all your lives, though you likely don’t know us by that “community social-services” tag. We’re your daycares, your home care, your crisis line, your social housing. We’re treatment services, counselling, mom-and-tot groups, immigrant settlement, supports for people with special needs. We’re the soup-to-nuts helpful array of thousands of local services around B.C., every one of our organizations born out of the dream of passionate people who saw a need for social care and stepped up to address it.

That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Everyone loves us. Virtually everyone has a story about an amazing community non-profit they have known, and an expression of heartfelt respect for the vital work of the sector. “Good people,” as one B.C. politician summed it up in a recent meeting with me.

But it doesn’t feel like love is in the air right now from inside the sector.

The work is challenging at the best of times, what with it mostly funded project-by-project and for short periods, with the tightest of margins for operating. Right now, however, there are so many layers of other unexpected and negative developments adding to the mix that there’s a real life-and-death feeling to the moment.

Here’s where the PR problem comes in for our sector: Very few people even understand what we do, let alone appreciate that we’re the best ones to do it.

We were born to do it, literally. Every community non-profit’s birth story begins with motivated citizens identifying a need, then building a non-profit to address it. Every one of us is required to have an elected volunteer community board overseeing everything we do, and to reinvest every penny of profit back into our communities (that’s why they call us non-profits).

I mean, what’s not to like about that perfect community model?

And yet we’re losing ground. Two multinational corporations took 22 per cent of the money in the recent awarding of Work B.C. employment-training contracts. Last week, we woke up to news in the media that home-support services are moving back to health authorities next year — news that has left shell-shocked non-profit providers scrambling to figure out whether they can still keep the doors open once they lose those contracts.

An emerging issue is open procurement. In a nutshell, that involves government procuring more and more of its services through open bids that treats companies and not-for-profits exactly the same.

That might sound “fair.” But if you don’t build in points in the bidding process for the extras that non-profits bring to social care — community connection, services built on passion rather than profit, reinvestment back into community — the whole raison d’etre of the non-profit model counts for nothing. When you create larger service regions managed by far fewer suppliers, you create major financial risk that few community non-profits are prepared to take on.

And eventually, the global corporations moving into social care all around the world end up owning social care in B.C. as well.

Just last week, our sector learned that open procurement will be used to secure the next round of contracts for B.C.’s child-care resource and referral centres, established in 38 communities around the province to support families and child-care providers. Unless the scoring for that procurement includes points for the unique values that community-based non-profits bring to this work, these services as well could end up the work of multinationals.

Governments in Canada do have to manage procurement in accordance with international free-trade agreements. But do we actually want to view the social health of our communities as a commodity on the open market? Do we have any proof that open procurement is the best way to go about selecting who provides vital social-care services to our citizens?

There are fundamental issues at stake here. And what worries me most is that we aren’t talking about them. Change is just happening, looking a lot like surprise one-offs until you start keeping a list and realize just how many unsettling and unexpected developments are going on for B.C.’s community non-profit sector.

Some of them won’t survive — and not because their services were inferior, unnecessary or unvalued. Simply because somebody somewhere changed things up without thinking about unintended consequences on community services that really matter.

Am I whining? Is this “self-interest”? Our sector always seems to get that term thrown at us when we raise issues. Sure, we’re self-interested — who isn’t? I’ve got a big two-day-a-week job without benefits at stake here.

But just because we work in the sector doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to us. Good and important services delivered by caring people who really know their stuff are at-risk as never before. A wonderful community model for delivering social care is under serious threat, and all without a word of public consultation.

Social care should be as sustainably funded, prioritized and planned for as health and education in B.C. That’s how we achieve economic prosperity. It’s how we strengthen our communities and engage people to live their best lives. We’re as committed to the government’s dream of reducing poverty, improving child care and responding more effectively to mental health and addiction as they are.

But every day is a fight to stay alive in this sector. The new threats looming on so many fronts are a painful reminder that people still don’t grasp that our work is the foundation of community social care in B.C. Our non-profit model was created for the task. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Jody Paterson is executive director of the Board Voice Society of B.C., representing volunteer boards and senior staff of B.C. community non-profits serving the social determinants of health. The irony isn’t lost on her that March is Community Social Services Awareness Month.

Monday, March 11, 2019

In the beginning: A history of Howard the Gnome

Howard the Gnome needs a new home, not to mention $15,000 to fix his rotting base. The recent news out of Nanoose Bay, where Howard has lived for more than two decades as one of the last of Vancouver Island's classic roadside attractions, prompts me to dig out my 1999 story on the gnome, who had yet to be named Howard at that time and was in the news for a whole other reason.

When I first wrote about the big guy, Howard had yet to be moved to his current location at a Nanoose gas station, which didn't exist back then. He was a young thing then, and had been built in Ron Hale's garage out of dryer lint from the Alberni pulp mill among other odds and sods.

Herewith, my Oct. 25, 1999 article from the Times Colonist archives on the gnome, who was a fresh fella barely two years old back in those days but already raising eyebrows in the Nanaimo Regional District, where critics thought his roadside presence was distracting to drivers and breaching sign bylaws.

This article references the Hale family's long-standing amusement park, Kiddieland. But like so many of the Island's long-ago roadside attractions - the Glass Castle, Fable Cottage, Rudy's Zoo, that place with all the fairy- and nursery-tale characters at Elk Lake - it's long gone. Onward into Howard's birth story...

I think it was the first giant slide I'd ever seen. I used to drive past it and wonder whether many people stopped for a slide.

They must have, because Kiddieland -- now Gnomemansland -- is 24 years old and still going. Long after the rise and fall of roadside amusement parks, the Hale family park lives on.

Owner Bruce Hale was 14 when his dad Ron opened Kiddieland on their family property beside the Island Highway south of Parksville. These days, it has go-carts, a giant slide, mini-golf, a lovely old merry-go-round, trampolines and a room full of plastic balls; back then, it was solely a go-cart track, the Island's first and one of only a handful still left.

Bruce didn't get into the family business right away, working instead as a faller for several years before buying his father out six years ago. He has big plans over the next few years to rebuild the park around his mother Disa's unpublished book Gnomemansland, and envisages themed areas for each of the 10 chapters, all tied in with gnomes.

The first step was the raising of Gnome, a seven-metre-high elf that would grace the park entrance. Ron Hale crafted Gnome from steel, papier mache, and dryer felts from the Port Alberni pulp mill, building it in his garage. ''He did a damn fine job,'' says Bruce.

The people from Nanaimo Regional District weren't quite as impressed when they first met Gnome one day in the summer of 1997. There he was, unannounced and unapproved, towering over the Hales' driveway and bidding welcome with his enormous hands.

The fight was on. It started with Gnome's location; the figure was initially erected on a concrete block across the driveway from the park, on a panhandle piece of land owned by Bruce's brother. The regional district cited Hale for breaching the third-party signage bylaw, not to mention several others.

So Hale moved Gnome across the driveway and on to his own property. The regional district then wanted certification that it was sturdy enough to withstand the forces of nature. ''There was absolutely no structural engineering to that thing,'' says regional district development services manager Bob Lapham. ''It could have blown onto the highway.''

The issue aroused considerable passions in the community for a few months. Supporters of a man's right to erect whatever the heck he wants on his own land slammed the regional district for its bureaucratic strangling of free enterprise. Detractors lamented the sullying of their fair Island with a tacky giant gnome with glowing green eyes.

Hale and the regional district have declared an uneasy truce of sorts these days, although Lapham says the district is still waiting for official proof that Hale has met requirements. ''He's still deficient on a building permit. He hasn't given us a location survey, the verification of all that was to happen.''

Hale says satisfying the regional district has cost him $10,000 - 10 times as much as it would have cost to leave Gnome at the first site. Nonetheless, there is no question that Gnome is an imposing sight in his new location, his massive hands welcoming travellers in. A passer-by can't help but gape. Maybe it proves Lapham's point: he argued all along that the way those hands are gesturing made the whole figure a sign, and thus subject to the restrictions of the district's sign bylaw.

It's hard to say whether Gnome lured in that family from Texas this summer, but long-time park employee Howard Newall says the number of American visitors is definitely up. In a good year, the amusement park can attract as many as 25,000 people.

Rumours of Hale's expansion plans have already made their way back to the regional district, which anticipates being surprised again one of these days. ''He's the kind of guy who, instead of coming in for the proper approvals, builds it first and then eventually complies,'' says Lapham.

Out here in Gnomemansland, that's the way it's done.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The immensely irritating but effective way that climate-change deniers do battle

I'm seeing a pattern in my social media spaces right now, where I post some article or opinion piece on climate change and a climate-change denier emerges to comment in that way that the deniers always comment - which is to say, via distraction.

It's a technique that people used regularly to try to shut me down back when I was writing newspaper columns and they didn't like what I was saying. Men and women tend to use the strategy differently in my experience - a man typically diverts by repeatedly asking questions that have nothing to do with the matter at hand, while women will go to an emotional argument that is hot-potato-personal, like the weeping women who called me up after I questioned soaring Caesarean-section rates in Greater Victoria demanding to know if I was suggesting that their babies should have died.

It can be surprisingly effective as a tool to completely divert an issue into an irrelevant and useless direction that ultimately ends with the respective parties getting more and more het up until they finally yell some version of "Oh, yeah? Well, fuck you!" by which point all the reasonable people who the writer had set out to engage have been scared off. (Or, in the case of Caesarean sections, a writer vowing never to touch that issue again in the fear of yet another long week of being called out by emotional moms as a baby murderer. And the rates just keep rising...)

The strategy nicely destroys any hope of enlightened dialogue on the original subject matter. All the other readers are soon running like rats to avoid being caught up in the ugly mess, and any politician passing by reaffirms his or her position that this is a "hot button" issue best either left alone or manipulated for personal electoral gain.

The fundamental premise of the strategy is to ignore the point at the centre of the piece in question and instead, make some random observation related to one tiny aspect; raise a rhetorical question; fast-forward to the most extreme interpretation; or pick at a spelling/grammatical error that will require the writer (or poster, in this case) to divert their energies into heated dialogue about something that has almost nothing to do with the actual subject at hand.

Then everybody fights and the reasonable people flee, and any chance that thoughtful action might arise from the conversation is lost. Again.

So here's the latest case in point, in which random Facebook dude Carew Martin plays the role of disruptive climate-change denier. (Find the full version of the thread here, set to "public" for all to see even if they aren't on Facebook.) I'm currently enjoying time away in Honduras right now and specifically stated earlier in the thread that I wasn't going to waste any time engaging with climate-change deniers when I ought to be holidaying. But in truth, I find that a near-impossible position to stick to because deniers are so effective at getting under my skin.

Jody posts this Guardian opinion piece headlined "Remember the days when we weren't freaked out by freak weather?" and comments: Oh, I so feel this: "I used to find wild weather exciting, but now it evokes the apocalypse of climate change." Who could have predicted in halcyon days of yore that what would alarm me most one day would be the world's weather news? As the writer concludes, few things are more important now than that we all take individual action in "the desire to be a worthy ancestor."

Carew: If anthropogenic climate change is real, why does it not stand up to reason?

Jody: So the stacks of carefully considered scientific research don't count as "reason"?

Carew: No, studies are not logic, they are data, logic is asking questions like, why was the name changed from global warming to climate change?

Jody: Gotta say, that sounds like a lot like the kind of question people use to divert the conversation from what matters and get everybody wasting time and energy talking about some issue that has no relevance.It's what I think of as the "Look over there!" tactic. And was the name actually changed? I think of it as global warming causing climate change.

Carew: You can think of it however you like but the fact is, in common parlance the name changed from global warming to climate change and what you've just done is a diversionary tactic by not answering the question, hypocritically. So why was the name changed?

Jody: Sorry, I am not doing this. You go ahead and talk to people who want to talk about that, and I'll stick with my plan to actually change the things I'm doing so that there's something left for my kids, grandkids and on down the line.

Carew: So you're either unable or refuse to use logic when discussing climate change.

Facebook friend Diane McNally weighs in: That's not logic, that's sophistry and I'm not doing it either .

Carew: Sophistry is not the same as logic which is why I never understand why people consider it a good thing to be sophisticated. Regardless, Jody, weren't you a journalist? I kind of thought a big part of that job is asking questions.

Then comes a series of heated comments between Carew and a friend of mine, Glenn Phillips, who I have known since elementary school and who takes the approach that damn it, nobody ought to get away with saying stupid stuff without being challenged every step of the way. I admire his commitment but personally am done with wasting my time with people who are resolutely unconvinceable.

Irked by the journalist comment, even though I know I'm just rising to the bait, I return with this final long comment, which always seems to happen and leaves me thinking damn it, I'm wasting my energy on this ineffective thread being read by maybe three people when I could be blogging and being read by at least three times that many (ha ha):

Jody: Yes, Carew, I'm a journalist, and here's the question I always have for climate-change/global-warming deniers - why is it so important to be against the science? Why do you want to deny it? Is it because you want to keep using fossil fuels with abandon? Is it because you're a person who always goes up against whatever the majority of people have concluded after much careful thought and research, because you always need an argument? Is it because you genuinely think that all of us are wrong and being duped by people who have conspired to use fake science to extrapolate a false argument?

Here's the thing: If we're all wrong about this and you're right, then nobody would be happier than me to see you have the last laugh. I would genuinely love the deniers to be right, Carew, and that this unusual weather, storms, polar melting, etc we are observing on a planet whose atmosphere has warmed dramatically since the Industrial Age just turn out to be coincidental one-offs.

Unfortunately, I am a responsible person with maybe 30 years of life left if I'm really, really lucky, but I've got eight grandkids and one more on the way who I want to have a good life - one not torn apart by food and water shortages, massive displacement, war, wild and unpredictable weather, bigger and bigger storms. Just my grandkids who are alive right now need 100 more years. But they're going to have their own kids and grandkids, so they're going to want much longer than that by the time they reach my age, because they'll be in my same position.

So I look at all that as a logical, problem-solving kind of human being who has much respect for science but also does her own research and observes with eyes and ears wide open, and I say to myself, Jody, what's the best course of action for you to take to benefit the most number of people for the longest period of time?

And my answer is to consider my own carbon footprint and reduce it. To look at other Canadians' carbon footprints and provide them with the facts that they can use to understand that this issue is about ALL of us, and that they can reduce their carbon footprints as well for the sake of the planet. To keep a metaphorical knife at the throat of the politicians, who are all far too influenced by the sweet whisperings of wealthy capitalist structures that bring them money, and to push back hard at those same capitalists whose short-term, get-it-all-before-it's-gone mentality is quite likely going to kill us all. (The single best way to battle capitalists is to quit buying their stuff. Just quit, people.)

And if it's all for nothing because climate change/global warming is all just a made-up thing like you believe, then what the hell, at least I lived a less extravagantly consumptive and resource-intensive life. It certainly doesn't hurt the world to reduce my carbon footprint, does it? That really just means I will live a simpler life. Drive my car less. Consume far fewer goods. Be mindful of my energy use at all times. Destroy less species through kinder, sustainable habits. Waste less of my money.

And here's the other thing, Carew - you can quit wasting YOUR time posting on the Facebook threads of people who believe as I do, because as passionately as I feel about all of this, I'm a realist who sees with much sorrow that it's your side that's winning. Here in Canada, we are buying more new trucks to drive than ever before, and they aren't hybrids or even close to it. We aren't changing our habits. We're Nero, fiddling while Rome burns.

We aren't reining in the capitalists, or slapping down the politicians who promise us everything and deliver nothing. Around the world, global temperatures continue to rise because we just can't stop consuming and consuming and consuming.

So however old you are, Carew - and I'm guessing you're at least my age, because climate-change deniers skew significantly toward older men in my experience - you just go on to live out whatever years you have and get on with dying, while the rest of us do what we can to make sure there's something left for future generations.

And what's to be learned from this? As a veteran of many obfuscations, I just want to pull back the veil on this common strategy, which is alarmingly effective. Just see it for what it is - distraction. White noise. The real damage is done when we shy away from important topics for fear of having to deal with these disturbers, who exist solely to cast doubt and scare away the reasonable people.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Flying over Fish City: The Movie

Apart from the sunshine, heat, nice people and good food down here in Honduras, where we are vacationing until March 10, I am mad for the snorkelling.

Utila is a small, rustic island (think Hornby Island, if you're from BC) on the Caribbean coast. It's the remarkably less touristy sister island to Roatan, and one of my favourite places in the world for chilling out for a few weeks in the dead of winter and letting go of all those dark thoughts that can plague a person who thinks too much in times like these.

Here's a few scenes from the underwater world that I captured while snorkelling three beaches around the island in the last couple of days. The standard trade winds have died right off at the moment - a mixed blessing, because it makes doing underwater videos a little easier, but it also makes things way hotter above the surface, with a bigger chance that bugs are going to bite you.

Join me for a flight over Fish City.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Time wasted and energies spent on non-events gone viral

Here's a must-read from the New Yorker on the strange and unsettling ways that social media and mainstream media interact in the modern world to take a thin story involving almost nobody and turn it into a viral phenomenon that actually looks like something big happened.

The example of the moment: the uproar over those Covington Catholic High School students. With one side crying racism and the other side saying the Indigenous guy started it, the world quickly divided according to their viewpoints, and everybody got savaged.

This think piece takes a step back to reveal that in fact, none of the participants came out looking good when you get beyond the massive media firestorm and take a look at the video footage.

Perhaps more importantly, the analysis reveals that the world blew up over an event so small that the reaction is actually the story. Yet that reaction changed nothing, other than to push us all a little farther into our individual perspectives and away from each other.

Where once the mainstream media unfairly dismissed information on social media as so much bumpf, it now gives it too much weight. And in the age of international manipulation by bots and Russians, that is a very bad thing. Worse still, there are real firestorms that require our collective energy - climate change, racism that's significantly deeper than name-calling, increasing inequality, growing poverty. As a species, we are losing our heads over the little stuff while real disaster looms.

Where the heck are we headed? There's still much to love about social media; it's got so much potential to turn all of us into storytellers able to share our individual experiences and perspectives with the world. Alas, it's also a powerful weapon - one that has demonstrated much capability to manipulate our thinking, rile us up over non-news, pit us against each other, and show us a false version of the world that simultaneously overwhelms us with the stories that intensify our biases while keeping us away from the truths that might open our minds.

"We may need to change the way we think," writes Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker article. "Instead of seeing virality as a genuine signifier of newsworthiness, we need to see it for what it is—a product. Covington is the kind of product our social-media platforms sell to us. Perhaps we should be warier consumers."

Yes, indeed. There are those who want us divided and arguing, whether for personal gain or just because it's fun to see us spend all our energies fighting battles that go nowhere. Social media is a dynamic tool in the disruptor's tool box, and I love that about it. But it also lures us into the pointless fights of furious retweeting and name-calling that now passes for "taking action," even while the real battles go unfought. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Please share this sex work podcast of mine and end this ludicrous, unfair stigma

Listening to the conversations of sex workers talking about their work is a privilege for me that lifts me up no matter how low the ways of the world have left me. The dream of capturing those voices for the world to hear started a couple of years ago for me when I did a series of communications workshops for Peers Victoria with indoor workers and was completely captivated by their conversations.

It got me wishing for a podcast. We did our first episode in June 2018 and learned a lot, most especially that doing the recording with a single mike in a room comfortable to sex workers is important. We wanted to do a podcast every month but life got in my way in the intervening months, but seven sex workers and sex workers rights activists managed to get together last week to record the second episode. Here it is!

The topic this time out is "What do you want the world to know about your work?"  Please suspend whatever you think you know about sex work and have a listen to the powerful words about work from some of my favourite people. And please share this podcast widely. The world needs to hear it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Missive from a climate-change fear monger

Graphic credit:
I'm in a heated Facebook exchange at this very moment with one of those people who don't want to be thought of as a climate-change denier, choosing to position themselves instead as brave challengers of fear-mongering and political correctness. Oh, please.

Anyway, I've just been thinking that I'm now writing mini-blogs via my Facebook messages rather than here on my actual blog. While part of me likes the transitory nature of social media, it does make me worry that much of my writing these days is like so much dust in the wind blowing across a social media platform that I'm not even sure I like anymore.

So I'm going to glue that Facebook exchange right here, for posterity. Also because I want to make climate change my No. 1 topic for 2019. What other issue possibly matters more than saving the planet from human-caused emissions so that future generations have a healthy, happy place to live that isn't tearing itself apart with fires, freezing, wind storms, floods and massive crop failures?

Here's my original Facebook post from this morning. Admittedly, it establishes a challenging tone with the use of "idiot" that I know brings out the critics, and is not a good tone for public engagement. But hey, I am so done with being nice about this issue:

When exposed to idiot ramblings around climate change/carbon tax from politicians like Doug Ford or Andrew Scheer, remember this: Nothing about addressing climate change will be easy or painless. So what's it going to be - petty political sniping and self-serving arguments because hell, you'll be long gone by the time of reckoning, or saving the planet? Then I linked to this story.

Reply from my Facebook connection:

Hey, Jody, without being TOO contrary a few points…
1.) The accompanying photo is of steam. So what, you say? When I am to be alarmed about an impending apocalypse and recognize steam, it insults my intelligence.
Right from the get go I am being mislead.
2.) They are called greenhouse gases. What do we grow in greenhouses? Food. If I am to be frightened by an impending apocalypse why has an image of lush greenhouses, filled with food been conjured?
3.) The NDP, Champions of the Little People, have taken it upon themselves to use BC’s carbon taxes for general revenues. Why then would I trust ANY government to claim that carbon taxes are to save the planet.
I am not a denier.
But I am surprised by the numbers of people who believe in climate stasis.

To which I replied:

Point 1: I see no issue with illustrating the article with steam, as what we're really talking about with climate change is the use of energy. Whatever's going on with the steam in the photo, I am sure you'll agree that there is much energy being used in the process. I would personally prefer a photo depicting infrared heat loss from a residence, because we tend to get fixated on industry as the cause of climate change without ever accepting our own significant role. Point two: I believe "greenhouse gas" refers to the greenhouse effect caused by C02, not actual greenhouses. Point 3: This is not about politics. I am not trying to say that all will be well if we elect NDP governments. It just so happens that the most idiotic viewpoints seem to come from the Conservatives. This is an issue for the world, not for politics. I guess that's one of my major complaints - we should not be using planet survival as a political soapbox. Please read this:

Responder then got into a short back-and-forth with another person, which ended with this other person thanking Responder for treating potted tomates well, which led to this post from him: 

ALL plants love CO2, The more CO2, the more plants. Science, botany in this case.

I replied:

Unfortunately, there is more than the happiness of plants at stake here. Climate change will destabilize all the things we take for granted - amount of rainfall, temperature extremes, wind extremes, capacity of wildfires, 100-year flood levels, crops that grow in different parts of the world, people's ability to work outside in areas of rising/falling temperatures, effects on weather from our poles, political stability, migrant movement, resource allocation. Seriously, M, perhaps you're not a denier, but you're certainly being contrarian without offering up any meaningful argument. Why do that?

His reply:

Well, I take exception to the outcome being an apocalypse. You mention 100 year flood levels. Given that the planet's geologic history shows us that the planet's mean temperatures are far higher than they are now and that atmospheric CO2 levels were far higher than they are now and that there were no polar ice caps, glaciers, even snow an apocalypse is not what comes to mind. A 100 year time frame is nothing. Also where did all this organic carbon come from in the first place? It came from that time of high temps, high CO2 and a planet covered in jungle. Canada's Arctic has 30% more vegetation now than it did in 1986 (NASA). The Sahara desert is shrinking (National Geographic). I do not see an impending apocalypse, I see a new Garden of Eden, an unfortunate analogy perhaps as I am not a Christian, but a world of much increased vegetation (read: happy plants, read: food). As well, plants are carbon sinks, more plants, less CO2. I grow weary of the fear-mongering. So... why do YOU perpetuate the fear?

To which I replied:

Believe me, I'm occasionally tempted by the idea of an alternate life in which I skip right over the big issues that scare me and just get on with a cheerfully ignorant life. That must be so much more relaxing. It does require that you shut your thinking skills down, however, so I'm not interested. I've worked alongside a number of UVic climate scientists in my work over the past couple of years. I read the IPCC report. I've researched, pondered, listened. And you know, it's looking pretty certain that human-caused GHG emissions are the problem. People can distract from that by talking about plant health or the way of the Earth throughout history, and I accept both of those points. We've been through ice ages and dinosaur ages and amazingly tropical ages, but let's be honest - those all must have been pretty bad experiences for whatever was alive and thriving under the previous conditions, wouldn't you say? What we're talking about is a wholesale change in everything that humans alive today thought they could count on. You can't just walk like Pollyanna into that scenario. Who knows if it's the apocalypse, but there are going to be fundamental changes happening at profoundly important-to-life levels that will affect every person on the planet. And here we are, still talking about whether it's happening. I'm not going to be one of those people wasting energy trying to convince those people. But yes, I'm going to be out here more and more with my fear-mongering, because I have children and grandchildren who need me to be doing that on their behalf.

Respondent's salvo:

I should add I have a degree in botany, B.Sc. from UVIC, '85. And with that bombshell, I've made my point.

And that's where we're at as I write this. If you have important points about climate change to add to this post because you care deeply about the issue and have put a lot of thought and research into it, I hope you will share those with me so I can deepen my own knowledge.

I'm fine with hearing from the deniers, too, of course. But from now I'm just going to send them these responses so I don't waste even a minute more time that could be going to actually addressing the problems.