Wednesday, October 11, 2023

I wish you a Central American


My partner and I lived in Honduras and Nicaragua for almost five years doing Cuso International development work in the 2010s. I concluded very quickly that if ever there was an apocalypse, I’d want to go through it with a small-town Central American at my side.

I’m feeling that more than ever in these eye-opening days of global reckoning.

Time and again during the period we lived there, I saw people in those countries come through with a quick fix for whatever unexpected weird thing had just happened. It was an ingenuity borne of centuries of certainty that nobody was coming to fix their problems.

They stepped up with little hesitation to help random strangers with their problems, too, because they knew a time would come soon enough when they’d need strangers to step up for them. It’s not just a nice thing to do down there, it’s smart and strategic. You need to be ready for anything, and living in a permanent state of pay-it-forward.

One day, the car we were in broke down on a quiet road past Leon, Nicaragua. Within 15 minutes, we were repaired and on our way after two strangers on a motorcycle pulled up and began scrounging up scraps of this and that from the roadside, and then used them to do something inexplicable but effective to the car engine to get it running again.

Such anecdotes are coming to mind more often these days as events play out around the world to remind me that nobody’s really got our backs.

How must the citizens of Israel feel to realize that their much-touted security systems were easily compromised? How do Libyans feel about all those decades of government ignoring dam maintenance? What do Americans make of the hard lessons first from Hurricane Katrina, and more recently in the Maui wildfires – that their emergency preparedness systems are in no way prepared?

How do we feel here in Canada, where successive governments were so wrongly presumed to be managing the work of making sure we’d always have enough housing? They weren’t even counting the number of new Canadians right.

How come we can’t access basic medical care anymore? How are 13,000 British Columbians dead from toxic-drug overdoses in the last seven years and we’re still bickering about public drug use?  How can governments be allowed to “step back” on fossil fuel use and the development of greener alternatives after the entire planet just spent a horrifying year seeing where climate change is taking us?

If I’d been born a small-town Honduran, I suspect I’d have known better than to believe that the big things of life were being taken care of by government. Honduras has no social safety net, minimal public health care, lousy schools, and wages so low that most people need two jobs and a side hustle just to get by. It’s a country where you learn early to take care of your own business.

But I was born a comparatively privileged Boomer in a peaceful, liberal democracy with a social and legal commitment to human rights and a better life for all. I just always figured everything was going to be OK, at least in Canada.

Ah, but there’s far less Canada in Canada these days. Free trade ties us to some of the world’s most fraught countries. With minor exceptions, we don’t make our own clothing, household goods, vehicles or parts. Ninety per cent of our medicines are made with ingredients imported from China or India.

We’re dependent on other countries’ supply chains, food production, human resources. When their wildfires burn, we breathe the smoke. When their people don’t come to fill our workforce, it’s our services that suffer. We're frighteningly dependent, yet still so blissfully unaware of that reality. 

For better and worse, the world has tied its fortunes together through intricate trade deals and border-crossing corporate entities outside the management of any government. No war, climate disaster, or economic collapse anywhere on Earth is far enough away to avoid a direct impact everywhere else.

And even though virtually everything tripping us up these days requires a long-term plan to fix, there is no long-term plan for any of it. Even when some government starts on a plan, it rarely lasts beyond the four-year election cycles that doom progress on the complex issues of the modern world.

This is the world we live in now. This is the world my grandkids will have to find their way through. If I hear that they ran away in search of cheap land where they could grow a simple diet, generate their own electricity and count on a handful of good neighbours who knew how to fix things, I will understand completely and cheer them on.

Develop your inner Honduran, kids. Things are going to get rough.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Can we talk? No, really - can we?

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Virtually every day, I go out on a dog walk and start putting together the start of a blog post in my head. But I never get them written.

It’s not so much writer’s block getting in my way as a feeling of pointlessness.

My schtick is persuasive writing, which I had the great pleasure of doing for almost a decade in Victoria’s daily newspaper as a columnist and editorial writer back before I gave it all up for a chance to get closer to the action on social-justice issues. Now I do communications work and lots of writing for non-profits with noble visions of a better world, because I want to be doing that, too.

The draw of persuasive writing as a tool for social change, however, is the presumption that there are people out there open to being persuaded. It’s a means of bringing important things to people’s attention and maybe shifting their thinking a little.

It did used to feel like that was possible in years past. Yes, people who hated what I had to say would phone (and later email) from time to time to bury me in a stream of horrible invectives, but we’d often work around to finding some shared views on the issue at hand. As much as I disliked being yelled at, I came to love the challenge of seeking even a bit of common ground with the people who most disagreed with whatever I’d written about. And sometimes, they shifted my thinking as well.

But that was then. We all seem so far apart now. At this point, it feels like anything I write will get read only by people who already think like I do. That’s not just because we’ve entered into a worrying new state of polarized opinion on every single damn issue, but the reality of algorithms that push us ever deeper into our corners and make us even less likely to interact with – or understand - anyone who doesn’t think like us.

How will we ever build bridges across the cavernous divides in opinion these days? We’re like the human manifestation of climate change, full of extreme developments and dramatic overstatement. When some issue of the day needs a little rain to cool things down, we bring a hurricane.

Those of us who found their greatest writing happiness in trying to convince people to think a little differently are crushed about this. Where is the motivation now in writing about the critical issues of our times when the only readers are people on the same side of the “war” as me?

I embrace them as brethren in a frightening new world, of course. But we’re already singing from the same songbook. They don’t need convincing. And it’s pretty clear by now that preaching to the choir is not a successful strategy for social change, because otherwise we’d be there by now, right?

A kind fellow I ran into on a dog walk this week remembered me from my columnist days, and told me I’d had a knack for putting things a certain way that got people reflecting even if they didn’t share my views. Nice of him to say, but neither here nor there when applied to this very different period of time.

The people who I liked to aim my writing at 20 years ago in the hope of influencing their thinking ever so slightly wouldn’t even see my words nowadays. The newspaper industry was in serious decline even then, but the Victoria Times Colonist was still the media outlet that a lot of locals counted on for their news. Every column I wrote put my thoughts in front of a potential 70,000 readers.

Sure, untold thousands would choose not to read me. But there was at least the chance that any of them might. Their eyes might have drifted across the headline, or the first few words. They might have read a paragraph or two, called me up to yell, and ended up in a brief conversation with me that left them thinking.

Today? Even if I was still writing for a newspaper, everything has changed. The years when the daily paper was a person’s primary news vehicle is long, long gone. We’ve splintered into a thousand online news sources, some of them still striving for journalistic neutrality and others so opinionated and cross-eyed that the content is largely fiction.

I don’t know what to do about it. There are still so many things I want to bring to people’s attention, but it’s hard to motivate myself when it’s almost like talking to myself. I used to be able to post a link to a blog post on Facebook and get a fair jump in readership out of it, including a few people who wanted to yell at me like in days gone by. 

But things have changed there as well, and the almost complete absence of interaction that now occurs just reminds me of the pointlessness again.

Dear reader, I tell you all of this partly because I’m sad to be trapped in this state of mulling big and important issues over in my head on every dog walk, still looking up all the history and stats as if I was going to write something but never getting it written. For me, writing never feels better than when I can put it to use as a tool for social change, and I don’t like it that the tool is failing me.

Ultimately, however, this issue is so much bigger than one person’s whine about feelings of writerly pointlessness.

It’s about all of us now listening only to the people whose views we know won’t challenge our own. It’s about people going down rabbit holes and not even noticing how narrow the view has become. It’s about algorithms trying to make us happy by surrounding us with like minds in all our social media interactions, but in actual fact destroying any chance we might have had of talking things through long enough to find common ground. 

It’s really about an end to civil discourse, and it leaves me wondering how social change will come about in a world where we can’t tolerate each other’s views enough to try to find compromise on the points we disagree on.

Monday, June 26, 2023

BC leads pack by a long shot when it comes to Canada's missing persons


Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

My news feeds have been bringing me so many reports of missing persons in BC recently that I finally went looking for stats this month to clarify what was going on. Was there actually more people going missing, or was I merely trapped in a bad Google algorithm?

The truth turned out to be astonishing. Not only has BC been leading by a long shot the missing-person stats in Canada for adults age 18 and up every year since 2015, when the Missing Persons Act took effect, but the number of adults reported missing in BC has grown by more than 48 per cent since then. (Our population has increased by 10.2 per cent in the same period.)

In 2022, BC police filed 14,751 missing-person reports involving adults to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). The province with the next-highest number of reports was Ontario, at 7,298. While various provinces have been No. 2 over the years—all with roughly the same notable gulf between BC’s numbers and theirs—BC has always come in at No. 1.

Looking at per-capita rates, BC has been a consistent leader there, too. In 2022, British Columbia had the highest number of missing-adult reports per capita, with 273 reports per 100,000 people. The next highest was Saskatchewan, with 146 reports per 100,000 people.

In fact, 42 per cent of Canada’s 33,913 adult missing-person reports in 2022 originated in BC. That number is on the rise as well, up two per cent since 2020.

Equally worrying is the growing number of adults who aren’t being found quickly, in BC and across the country.

In past years, 60 per cent of CPIC reports on missing Canadian adults were taken out of the system within 24 hours, and 90 per cent were removed within a week. But in 2022, for the first time since stats have been kept, those numbers dropped to 34 per cent removed within 24 hours, and 73 per cent within a week.

I mentioned some of the startling BC-specific stats to an acquaintance with decades of experience in high-level provincial government positions.  He said any dramatic gap between the provinces for virtually any stat almost always comes down to some reporting difference. “Nothing is ever that different from one province to another,” he said.

So I looked into that.

The stats are based on missing-persons reports filed by Canadian police departments into the CPIC database. Missing-person reports can be filed immediately (forget all those cop shows you’ve seen where people are always having to wait 24 or 48 hours before reporting a missing person), and you could certainly speculate that different departments or regions could have different cultural practices around how quickly they file a report to CPIC.

Perhaps there’s a Robert Pickton effect, too. BC police departments looked bad when the details came out about the 1990s-era serial killer, what with so many of his victims missing for years but ignored by police because they were survival sex workers living in poverty and addiction. Maybe BC police ended up being more devoted than most to filing missing-person reports from that point on.

So I tracked down media relations at the RCMP’s national communications headquarters, the spokespeople for missing-persons information, and asked them if they could help me understand why BC seemed to have so many more missing persons.

They noted “many caveats,” from not assuming that the stats are actually complete (many cases are resolved before they get to CPIC), to being very cautious when considering the 11 categories of probable cause that missing-persons cases are slotted into at the time of reporting.

“You cannot be assured that every single person categorized in each category indeed belongs there,” wrote RCMP media relations rep Robin Percival in her email to me.

They agree that the stats are almost certainly affected by “differences in reporting procedures, as well as geography, urban/rural mix, demographics, culture mix and other factors.”

But taking all that into account, I still see no way to explain away BC’s huge lead on the number of adult missing persons as just being about reporting differences. We just seem to have a whole lot more people who go missing. (Click here for the list of active missing persons investigations in BC RCMP jurisdictions.)

“BC has its own peculiar mix of factors, including an ocean,” wrote Percival, adding that many fishermen go missing. “It is also an area where people drift to and then go missing.”

On the upside, our rate of missing children seems much more in line with the rest of the country, though we’re still consistently among the top three. In 2022, we placed second behind Ontario with more than 5,500 children missing, after Manitoba managed to bring down some high missing-child numbers from years past and fell into third spot. Per capita, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have the highest rates.

Nationally, 33,394 children under age 18 went missing in 2022. Three-quarters of them were deemed “runaways,” and more than half were female.

Among Indigenous children, the percentage of missing girls is even higher. Girls account for two-thirds of the 8,300 Indigenous children reported missing last year.

Things that make you go “Hmmm…” Whatever the reason for BC to be lapping the pack when it comes to missing adults, it doesn’t feel good. Hope somebody other than a random blogger like me is taking a look at these numbers.


But also...I happened to be in my Google News settings recently for other reasons, and discovered that Google had singled me out for having a big interest in "missing persons" and had been sending all the stories of missing people everywhere to my news feed. So while it did turn out to be true that more people are going missing, I was also getting a tailored feed that was bringing this to my attention by feeding me way more sad news stories than a person could possibly handle on people gone missing. 

Friday, June 02, 2023

Curbs on social-media sharing will only intensify the divide

What will happen once social media cuts us off from sharing news stories with our connections? That strange development has the potential of sending us even deeper into our respective echo chambers, where no complex problems can ever be addressed. 

We have been heavily manipulated into our interest groups by social media for a number of years now, and it's becoming very obvious that it hasn't been a good thing. So on the one hand, so long, social media, and thanks for nothing for getting us all weird and angry at each other about every damn thing. But on the other, what now?

If you are reading good journalism from totally trusted sources and generally living life with your eyes open, you will be well aware that the world is in a kind of Black Mirror moment. It's like one of those movies where a bunch of chimpanzees or a flock of birds suddenly start doing something super-odd, and every viewer knows to interpret that as code for some very big which-what-everywhere weirdness to come. 

Those are the times we're in. And now, having been shoved into our corners by social media's marketing algorithms for many years, we face being blocked from sharing news items with our networks because of a game of chicken between social media corporations and government, which is  taking up arms on behalf of media companies unhappy that advertisers like social media best.

This is all taking place just as we are facing some of the biggest issues the human race has ever confronted. 

Climate change, artificial intelligence, book burning, the threat of nuclear warfare, one wild precedent-setting storm or fire or flood after another, people being killed on subways because their mental illness is annoying other passengers, communities running out of water. There's some intense stuff going on.

We're either going to start talking to each other reasonably about how to find solutions that are as fair as possible to all concerned, or we're setting the stage for human annihilation. (Not to be overly dramatic, but don't you think so?) 

We are wasting precious time, people. Whatever side you're on, whatever the issue, you know in your heart it's not possible to yell the other side into submission. We're going to need to talk. 

I'm not going all unicorns-and-rainbows here and imagining the lions lying with the lambs, peace and love among humankind. I know that's not going to happen. But we can find ways to identify common cause, and start there. Right, left or straight down the centre, none of us wants the water to run out on our kids and grandkids or to lose what a healthy environment gives us. 

Social media certainly has the potential to help. I still remember how excited I was at the thought of people from all around the world and a million perspectives suddenly able to talk to each other freely about all the big things on their minds. (Ha. Silly me.)

But we were never able to share information freely, as we all know now. Our feeds are curated, using criteria that is pulled from all the bits of information that we offer up about ourselves when we use social media. Advertisers like it that way.

I've noticed in my own page that my posts are no longer being seen by people who don't think like me, as judging by the very long time it has been since anyone contrary posted anything on my feed. I guess I'm supposed to be happy about an algorithmic defence against trolls provided to me by Facebook whether I wanted it or not, but I can't see how we ever solve problems if we all stay in our boxes surrounded by people just like us.

Meanwhile, a tiny fraction of the people in each of our social media networks even see what we share. If you're sharing a link these days, that seems to send your post into purgatory as well. I can tell that Facebook's algorithms like it best when I offer up a cheery here's-my-day kind of thing, or a photo of my dog. If only the world's problems could be solved with photos of my dog.

So yes, this whole social media business was fraught from the outset. There's a lot that's wrong with it. But eliminating the sharing of legitimate news articles is just about the last thing we need as we try to fight through all the hot air out here.

Modern media has much on its mind, including having to figure out new revenue streams and get more readers. But give me a well-researched Guardian or New York Times article any time over a bunch of random people's opinions about stuff they know nothing about.

The difficult conversations are stacking up. We're down to a talk-or-die situation on a number of fronts. We were never going to settle it all on Facebook, true enough. But it sure isn't going to be settled by making it even harder for people to get to information from a source they can hold accountable.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The civility of silence

"Don't talk about Trump/guns/abortion/covid/climate change," friends and family variously cautioned me as I prepared for a three-week road trip in the US last month.

No worries. I rarely talk about those things even with people I know well. I love a great conversation about big issues when the time and the scene is right, but I'm also just fine with talking about what kind of bird that is over there, or what the price of gas was in the last town each of us passed through. 

The 22-day trip through five states was such a welcome reminder for me that Americans are still good people, their country is freaking gorgeous, and the US is exceptional for road-tripping. I was glad for the chance to have mundane little conversations with random fellow campers and service people along my route about our lives at that moment, with no straying into anyone's beliefs on this or that polarizing issue. 

The world has had to talk so much about big, heavy issues for the last three years. I had no idea what any of my friends' views on vaccination were prior to the pandemic, but I sure do now. Once that issue started dividing everyone, all the other simmering divisive points between us boiled over.

I guess it's been a kind of war, all of us taking sides and forming camps of like-minded people where opinions have hardened. And now it's like a habit, and we struggle to fathom how we could ever have anything in common with these people who are so Not Like Us. 

And then you go on a road trip, and meet many nice people. You talk about the things you have in common - the stress of a snowy mountain pass; whether the showers in the public washroom are fixed; how to blow air through a chunk of metal tubing to liven up a lagging campfire. 

All conversations are conducted knowing that you may or may not be across the divide on so many issues. Maybe they vote Republican. Maybe you're a socialist. Maybe they have a gun in their trailer. Maybe you're "woke."  Maybe they support book bans and criminalizing abortion. Maybe you can be ranty on climate change, and downright depressing on the likely fate of the Great Salt Lake.

But in this moment, we're all choosing not to talk about any of that, here at Tumalo State Park or wherever that night's road has ended. 

We do need to find ways to have difficult conversations on big issues, because that's a real thing in these polarized times. But I am grateful for the road-trip reminder that we have a lot more in common as human beings than we do dividing us. 

Get a job, raise the kids, stay well, enjoy your spare time - whatever our differences, most of us want a version of that. There's a lot to talk about right there. And once we all remember how we all ultimately want the same thing, it might be a little easier to talk about the hard stuff. 

I had a moment at the aquarium in Boise where a bunch of us were all gathered around trying to lure swimming manta rays up to give them a little pet. (It is an exquisite experience if you have yet to try it.) 

Looking around at the all-ages faces and cultural influences on display around the ray pool, it struck me that we would probably get into an ugly, protracted argument on any number of the big issues. But at that moment, we were just a bunch of dazzled strangers smiling goofily at each other at the feeling of a manta ray choosing to swim to our hands.

We are different, but we are so much the same. Thank you, Roadtrip 2023. I needed that.


Curious about the trip itself? Find me on Facebook - I documented my trip there and my postings are all public.