Sunday, December 31, 2006

Safe travels in Mexico
Dec. 29, 2006

For the most part, I try not to crab about the opinions of other writers in these pages. It just doesn’t seem professional.
But George Jonas’s scare piece last week on Mexico and Cuba was just too ridiculous to let slide. He contends he’s travelled a lot, but his comments read like somebody who never leaves home.
The point of the piece was to lament those puzzling Canadians who continue to like holidaying in sunny destinations that Jonas has chosen to categorize as “impoverished and lawless countries.”
He chastised such travellers for being tempted by cheap holidays when what they ought to be thinking about were the tremendous risks they were taking by visiting such places. “Get your tan in Arizona this year,” opined the Toronto writer.
His remarks would have rubbed me the wrong way regardless of the countries he singled out, given that I’ve travelled enough to see that it’s never that simplistic. But his selection of Mexico got under my skin even more. I’m very fond of the place and would count myself lucky to be living there.
Jonas points to the murders of Toronto couple Dominic and Nancy Ianiero earlier this year as examples of why any sane tourist ought to reconsider ever travelling to Mexico. Why, those Mexicans will slash your throat in a heartbeat, as happened to the couple on the eve of their daughter’s wedding at a high-end beach resort a couple hours south of Cancun.
I feel for the Ianiero family. But there’s nothing particularly Mexican about 11 months having passed and no murderer being caught. The same thing happens somewhere in Canada pretty much on a weekly basis. That’s the case in the U.S. as well, despite Jonas’s apparent belief that all is right in Arizona.
Nor was what happened to the Ianieros even remotely a typical thing to happen to a tourist in Mexico. Tens of thousands of world travellers pass unharrassed through Mexico every year. Even now, they continue to sleep in comfort and security in the five-star beds of the very resort where the Ianieros were killed, and equally safely in the one-star hotels and hostels of less prosperous neighbourhoods all over the country.
Travelling in a country with a dramatically different standard of living does require a certain amount of awareness. There are areas in every Mexican town where I wouldn’t walk with diamonds around my neck and a big fat purse dangling loose from my shoulder, but that holds true for parts of Vancouver, Toronto and Prince George as well. No need to tempt fate.
But there’s no evidence so far that what happened to the Ianieros has anything to do with that.
To date, no one has produced an impoverished and lawless Mexican who plotted the Ianiero murders. In fact, nothing was identified as even being stolen from the couple’s room. No motive has been advanced for their deaths, least of all one that conveniently turns it into a story of naive holidayers and evil Mexicans.
Far from accepting the Ianiero murders as cautionary tales for Canadian travellers who choose cheap sun holidays, we should see them as the tragic and isolated events that they were. What happened to the couple was horrible, but it’s got nothing to do with an overall risk to tourists.
We stayed not far from the Barcelo resort in the weeks immediately after the Ianiero murders, and were stopped in our tracks more than once at a news stand by graphic photos of the murder scene that ran in some of the Mexican papers.
The couple looked like they had been executed. Each bore the marks of a quick and brutal single cut to the throat. They were left for dead where they dropped.
Whatever the eventual explanation for such brutality, I’m willing to bet that it won’t have anything to do with Canadian tourists randomly singled out by impoverished and lawless Mexicans.
For one thing, the chance that such a Mexican could slip through the extensive security system that surrounds five-star resorts like the Barcelo is extremely unlikely.
Knowing how important it is for visitors to feel safe in Mexico, the country guards its high-end tourist resorts with hard-bitten security types, big iron gates, and real guns. If you were a typical Mexican looking to slip by the watchman at the Barcelo to kill a couple Canadians for no apparent reason, you’d really have to work at it.
For another, that’s just not how life unfolds in Mexico. Sure, you could be attacked while travelling there. But thankfully, you almost certainly won’t be.
The same can be said for Vancouver, where a young Korean visitor was beaten into a near-vegetative state four years ago. No warnings went out to tourists cautioning them to stay away from that city for fear of similar treatment. The attack on Ji Won Park was correctly interpreted as the awful and rare event that it was.
Bad things can happen anywhere, including Mexico. But mostly, they don’t.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The upside of aging
Dec. 22, 2006

There’s no avoiding the gravitus of a birthday ending in zero. I’ve just marked a big one, 50, but they’ve all been notable in their own way.
When I turned 20, I felt the weight of no longer being a kid anymore. Like it or not, life was underway. At 30 - the only really tough one for me - I had to give up on a dearly held belief that I’d have everything sorted out by the time I was 30.
Then came 40, and I was OK with it. I’d won and lost on a number of big life fronts by then, but was ultimately happy with where the fates had carried me. Ten years on, the feeling of personal peace is that much stronger, and I find myself grateful for the gifts of aging.
I’ve been a restless soul for most of my life, always knowing I was looking for something but never too sure what it was. But somewhere in the last decade, I think I must have found it.
It didn’t arrive with fury and splendour, and was more like a gradual unfolding. People’s opinions of me no longer mattered as much. I gave up wanting to be the belle of the ball. I settled down. Something like contentment occasionally settled over me.
A psychology type like Maslow would no doubt say that I was finally getting my needs met. Sure, but first you have to stick it out long enough just to be able to identify them. For the longest time, my needs rattled around namelessly inside me, wreaking havoc with the various life plans I tested over the years.
To let go of all that unfocused striving and yearning has been the wonder of aging. Nothing wrong with a little striving and yearning, of course, but nothing wrong with being done with it, either.
I suppose it’s about being on the other side of all of life’s big milestones. Marriage. Children. Careers. Houses. Great loves. You spend your first 40 years trying to make all of that happen, and it isn’t until 50 that you finally get the opportunity to just enjoy what you have.
Time also assumes greater meaning as you age, as it ought to when you consider how each day that passes accounts for a larger percentage of the life you have left to live. Two days lost to unpleasantness at age 20 is a much more significant loss at age 50, when every day counts that much more.
Perhaps that’s the most important lesson of aging: That life slips away faster and faster. I find myself grabbing the days with calculated enthusiasm. I’ve miles to go before I sleep, as the saying goes, and a single wasted hour now seems a shame.
I’ve even worked out the number of weekends I can expect to enjoy if I’m lucky enough to live to 75 or 80. Once, when I narrowed the category to “summer weekends,” I was devastated by how few remained. It wasn’t a pleasant exercise, but it certainly got my attention. No weekend slips by me unawares anymore.
Because I’m no longer consumed with the chase like I was in my younger years, I have more energy for new interests. In recent months, it’s been kayaking and Taiko drumming, even a few pole-dancing classes. The self-consciousness that would have stopped me in my tracks as a younger woman has been vanquished by the passing years. And how truly wonderful to have it gone.
Lately, I’ve developed a near-obsessive interest in birds, something my youngest daughter says seems to be a trend among people my age. If that’s true, perhaps it stems from a need to revel in what’s good about the world, right there outside our windows.
I watch my own adult children struggling, and find myself advising them to hang in there until things can get better in their 40s. The worst of it is that you’re convinced for all those years that it’s only you that can’t figure things out. It must be far more intense for today’s young adults than it was when I was younger, what with ever-rising expectations on each coming generation to run faster, jump higher, try harder and earn a lot more money.
I can’t say that I ever relished the thought of turning 50 during the years of rushing forward into my future. But now that it’s here, I see that it comes in peace. The loss of tight jawline and taut midriff aside, I can tell that 50 wants the best for me.
This past weekend, with the December sun slanting across the waters of Portage Inlet, I kayaked in great happiness past rafts of wintering ducks, snatching up my damp binoculars at regular intervals to categorize the distant specks into bufflehead, golden eye, hooded merganser. An unfamiliar feeling took hold: Serenity.
Peace in my time. If that’s what it means to grow old, bring it on.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sex workers owed decent workplaces
Dec. 15, 2006

In its own small way, the police raid on 18 Greater Vancouver massage parlours last week has a bit of the “weapons of mass destruction” scam about it.
Like the invasion of Iraq, the raids were staged under what would turn out to be false pretenses. Raiding a business is, after all, fairly serious stuff in a democratic country. The justification in this case was that the businesses in question were involved in human trafficking, possibly brought into Canada against their will. The raids would in fact be helping people escape a desperate situation.
“Previous experience dealing with human trafficking on a global level has shown the victims of human trafficking are often found working in establishments such as the ones searched last night,” RCMP Supt. Bill Ard said confidently the day after the Dec. 8 raids.
Could be. But not this time. None of the 78 women found at the massage parlours were illegal immigrants. None were younger than 21, nor did any want a transition bed when one was offered to them after the raid.
The raids were pitched as a means of reaching out to enslaved women forced into the sex trade against their will. Instead, those same women ended up accounting for the majority of people arrested in the raids. A week later, charges have yet to be laid against anyone.
What that means in terms of government spending is that some 200 police officers were involved for months in plotting a big raid on 18 B.C. massage parlours, which ultimately turned out to be nothing more than yet more hassle for a group of workers who were theoretically the “victims” when the raids started taking shape.
What that means in terms of adherence to democratic principles is that raids on 18 legitimate businesses were carried out under false pretenses. The raids were sold as rescues, but nobody was looking to be saved.
Solicitor General John Les depicted the raids this week as a “huge shot across the bow” for anyone considering getting into the prostitution business. Oh, please. The sex industry will barely register a blip from the raids. The only ones who will feel the pain are the women who work in the sex trade, who will once again go looking for even darker corners to escape the scrutiny of police.
How can we continue to be surprised at the presence of a sex trade in our cities? As long as there are men who want to buy sex, there will be women and men who will sell it. That’s how it’s been in our community since the first non-aboriginal settlements took root, and in every other community around the world for as long as human history. Surely we can’t still think that this is a matter for the police.
Misguided police raids in Vancouver back in the 1970s were a significant factor in the spike in street prostitution in the years after that. Up until then, B.C.’s sex trade had mostly been an indoor industry, operating in places like Vancouver’s old Penthouse Cabaret. After the busts, sex workers were displaced to the Downtown Eastside. A frightening rise in assaults, rapes and murders involving those workers soon followed.
Three decades later, we’re apparently as baffled as ever about what to do about prostitution beyond more of the same. And no small wonder. We’re clearly stuck if we still believe that complex, costly police raids dressed up like rescues are how we’ll “crack down” on the sex industry.
Not only are such raids a disturbing waste of money, the people who bear the brunt of the impact are typically the very workers identified as needing to be saved through police intervention. All that the latest raids have done for the women rounded up at the 18 massage parlours in Coquitlam, Surrey, Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver is to push the workers into even more invisible places in the future to avoid hassles with police. Some may even end up working the streets, which are as dangerous as ever to those forced to do their business there.
What’s to be done? It starts with coming to grips with the sex trade, and the fact that it exists no matter how much we wish it didn’t. We’ve all got our views on the morality of the trade, but there comes a point when continuing to do nothing is the most immoral act of all.
The ugly aspects of the sex trade most definitely have to be routed. Exploitation of a child, sexual slavery, coercion -all must be vigorously pursued and punished. But at the same time, we desperately need to address working conditions for the thousands of Canadian adults who continue to work in the sex industry. In an age when even lumber is bought ethically, we at least owe that small courtesy to those who sell sex.
Sex sells, and the buyers are us. All the pointless police raids in the world can’t change that.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A recipe for creating homelessness
Dec. 7, 2006

I don’t think the word “homelessness” was something that our communities ever thought of up until a few years ago. Sure, there were always a few homeless people. But nobody foresaw a time when homelessness would become more or less of a permanent condition for thousands of British Columbians.
Signs of it sneaking up on us were evident in Times-Colonist stories of the early 1990s if we’d paid more attention. First came the warnings from the front lines that more and more people were struggling. Then the business community brought its concerns to the table, starting in 1996 when then-mayor Bob Cross and his council took a hard line against “aggressive” panhandlers.
And here we are 10 years on. Entire homeless families now alternate between cheap motels in the winter and campsites in the summer, and at least twice as many broken people with nowhere else to go now live on downtown streets. For kids growing up on the edges of homelessness, it means constantly changing schools, losing contact with friends, and living a heartbeat away from imminent disaster. That’s a very hard way to grow up into a happy, healthy adult.
How did we end up here?
It started with short-term, political social-policy decisions made with nary a thought to the tremendous long-term impacts. In the 1980s, we opened the doors of our giant institutions, and we pushed thousands of people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities out into the community. We promised community support and failed to deliver. Then we decimated welfare spending and quit building social housing.
More significant than those missteps, however, is the fact that we’ve done virtually nothing to rectify them. The problems have worsened before our very eyes, and we have carried on as if blind to the increasingly visible signs of damage in our communities. We appear to have convinced ourselves that the social problems we’re grappling with have nothing to do with years of massive and poorly thought-out cuts to social services.
In fact, we often talk about homelessness these days not as evidence of our mistakes, but as something that just might be inevitable - part of the growing pains of becoming a city. As if the only choice we have around homelessness is to learn to live with it.
To walk the downtown at any time of the day or night is to see the results of all that non-strategy and neglect.
On the left, a long string of impossibly overloaded shopping carts parked precariously along the sidewalk near Streetlink. Up the street, countless downtown doorways and cubbyholes put to use as makeshift winter campsites. Across the bridge, park bushes along the Gorge pushed into service by illegal tenters.
But we don’t have to accept that. Housing people is not beyond our capability. We can choose to act.
Money will have to be spent, yes, but certainly no more than what it’s costing us in health care, lost earning potential, policing, and revolving-door court appearances for B.C.’s struggling underclass. That’s not even counting the economic impact on our downtowns of continuing to do nothing. Or the inevitable rise in communicable disease, crime and conflict.
That we’ve stayed this course for more than a decade is discouraging enough, but carrying on any longer can only lead to ever-darker places. The scenes that we’re seeing daily on our downtown streets would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. How far are we willing to go?
It’s about housing. It’s about doing what needs to be done to help people, whatever their challenges. It’s about income assistance, which has become a punishing and desperately mingy program that those with the most barriers can’t even access. If the people living on our streets are even on income assistance - and a whole lot aren’t - they’re expected to get by on as little as $180 a month. Nobody could do that, least of all somebody with a brain injury, drug addiction, untreated mental illness or otherwise massive problem.
It’s not about feeling sorry for people like that, although a little empathy wouldn’t hurt. It’s more about seeing where erroneous social policy has taken us, and taking action. We need to build housing, provide subsidies, look for innovative concepts. We need to acknowledge addiction. Families need to be supported and kids need to grow up with a community around them.
The hard-liners will tell you that nobody was around to mollycoddle them when they were learning to make their own way in the world. They prefer the “tough love” solution, which appears to boil down to cutting services in hopes that those who can’t live without them either die off quickly or move along. But so much has changed in B.C. in the last 30 years that there’s simply no comparing then and now.
The economy. Family structure. Our towns. Our connection to community. Everything’s different. The structures that prevented homelessness in years gone by have collapsed, exacerbated by relentless cuts to social services.
Cause and effect. In the end, it’s as simple as that.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Maybe it's the mirror: A reflection on body image
Dec. 1, 2006

Nobody in our household is quite sure when the happy mirror first arrived.
For the longest time, only my stepdaughter knew of its magical powers. The otherwise ordinary full-length mirror hung in her bedroom for years and I learned of its charms only after she moved away and left it behind.
I’ve known about the existence of bad mirrors for many years, of course, being well familiar with those kind. I can’t count the number of store dressing rooms that have broken my heart over the years with their bright lights and bad mirrors.
The happy mirror, on the other hand, tells a much different story to those who look into it. Wherever your body type and tendencies have taken you, it makes you look taller and thinner, and quite nicely proportioned. Your clothes look better. Your hair is neater. You look rested.
At first, I resisted its allure. A mirror that made you look good just seemed like too guilty of a pleasure after a lifetime of bad mirrors. I worried that it would swoon me into thinking I looked OK all the time. Heaven forbid.
But one day a few months ago, it just became obvious to my partner and I that we loved the happy mirror. There’s no denying the pleasure of walking by it as you breeze back and forth in the morning. The happy mirror sends you out the door feeling terrific.
Is it wrong to be so caught up with the image in the mirror? We’ve loved mirrors for a long, long time: first as ponds, then polished metal, and now as treated glass. For better or worse, we are fascinated by our own reflections.
I have no real idea what I’m looking for when I glance in a mirror. I suppose I want to see the person I present to the world. It’s an effective tool for steely-eyed assessment and reconsideration - for getting the poppyseed out of your teeth, the mascara off your nose, your clothes aligned.
The happy mirror, on the other hand, is like having a kind-hearted person on hand at all times to warmly declare that you look really good. Stubby and thick around the middle? Not a bit. Slouching and pot-bellied? Nope. You’re just right.
That women loathe their bodies is nothing new. Any number of theories have been put forward to explain that - media images, social conditioning, marketing. What isn’t in dispute, however, is that what we see in the mirror continues to matter to us.
I searched on “Why do I hate my body?” in Google this week and came up with page after page of Web sites devoted to the question.
Some encourage continuing to hate your body by naming which part bugged you the most, while others denounced the fixation with body image and put the blame on the patriarchy, corporations and oppressive social conditions. One blogger wrote that she used to hate her body, but now hates “the forces that conspire to make you hate your body.”
But has anyone considered the role of the humble mirror in all of this? Could it be that we were happier when there were only pond surfaces and the warm glances of passing strangers to convey to us how we looked?
Up until the late 1800s, mirrors weren’t so hot. The techniques to make them were far from perfect, and the materials were a challenge. Then a German chemist invented silvering and the modern mirror was born. Life would never be the same.
These days, we check ourselves in countless mirrors as a matter of course. The one in the bedroom. The one in the bathroom. The car’s rear-view. Shiny glass buildings. Staff washrooms. Elevators. Mirrors greet us at every turn, passing their opinion on how we look with no regard for whether we want to know.
Before I came upon the happy mirror, I thought I was condemned to always finding some aspect of myself wanting in my reflection. I suspected that that it was one of those garden-variety issues related to self-esteem and body image, perhaps related to some inner psychological tripwire from my childhood I hadn’t worked out yet.
Never once did I wonder if it was the mirrors.
But to experience the happy mirror is to realize that you are whatever the mirror says you are. And if it says you cut one fine figure, you do. A lifetime of bad mirrors at every turn has left us believing the worst of ourselves. But that’s nothing that a good mirror can’t fix.
We don’t have to look for our personal truths in bad mirrors. We can seek out happy mirrors - pass a regulation requiring them in all public places, even. No more disappointments.
What’s the worst that could happen? We’d start every morning believing that we looked great. It’s not perfection we need - just mirrors that make us feel that way.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Eating: The new smoking?
Nov. 24, 2006

Underlining that truth really is stranger than fiction, the human species appears to be destined to eat itself to death. Could Jules Verne ever have imagined a more fantastical end? But here we are, growing fatter with each passing year and taking our children down with us into poor health, early death and depression.
How has this happened? It’s as easy as too many calories and not enough activity, and as complex as globalization, public policy, urban planning and genetics. But whatever the reasons, the problems they’ve created are now abundantly clear, and frightening enough as public-health issues to warrant a response every bit as dramatic as we eventually mustered against smoking.
This much we know: Overweight and obese people get sick more often and die sooner. They’re also more likely to raise kids who are overweight and obese themselves. Much like smoking, kids who grow up with parents whose eating habits and activity levels make them obese are at higher risk of falling into the same patterns themselves. Given the dramatic rise in overweight/obesity rates this past decade, you can see where a trend like that will take us.
A federal report last year on Canadians’ growing weight problems noted that there’s not only more of us putting on weight every year, but fewer of us taking it off.
Obesity Epidemic in Canada found that over a 10-year period, a third of Canadians who started out at “normal” weights eventually moved into the “overweight” category. A quarter of those who had been classified as overweight shifted into the “obese” category. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of those who started out overweight lost enough weight to move into the “normal” group.
As the report points out, the direct and indirect costs of all that weight gain are tremendous. As a proportion of total health-care expenditure, the current toll of obesity is comparable to where tobacco was 15 years ago: approximately 2.5 per cent. Almost seven million Canadians are overweight, and another 4.5 million are obese.
Just like tobacco, there’s nowhere for costs to go but up. The disease risks increase over time. Smoking-related disease now accounts for nine per cent of our health spending, and obesity costs could very well follow suit.
Like all lifestyle-related problems, we are loathe to acknowledge that it’s us who will have to do something about it. This week, for instance, more than eight in 10 Canadians polled by Ipsos-Reid agreed that doctors should be required by law to tell parents if their child is too fat, as if the blame for our kids growing fat rests with the family GP for holding out on us.
A frank conversation with your doctor is a great start, of course. But getting at the deep roots of this worrying issue will take considerably more effort than that. And it’s all about tough personal choices.
I’m no expert in obesity, but it seems to me that we’ve lost our relationship with food. Once, we were animals, lucky to find enough to eat, let alone too much. We burned a lot of calories just looking for food, and gauged our portion sizes carefully to avoid scarcity.
But we’re clever creatures, and soon figured out how to ensure food was always close at hand. Along the way, we imbued it with emotional resonance, and made it the centrepiece of every major event of our lives. We eat when we’re happy and equally when we’re sad, and for every emotional occasion in between. Hunger - once the only reason for eating - is rapidly losing relevance in these overfed times.
The proliferation of “fast food” has taken us to new levels in the disconnect. An entire industry has developed to provide us with instant access to food around the clock. Driving into any community in the country starts with running a gauntlet of fast-food restaurants on the edge of town. Many pack more calories into a single burger than our ancestors consumed in an entire day.
Fortunately, we’ve been here before. We once smoked the way we now eat, and for similar fuzzy reasons. We know how to effect change, even in the face of widespread public resistance. The strategies we’ll need are neither easy nor short-term, and in the case of obesity will require going up against Big Food as aggressively as was done with the tobacco industry. But if it’s that or be remembered by future historians as a nation destroyed by its eating habits, no effort should be spared.
What can’t be allowed to happen is the normalization of obesity. That’s already happening in U.S. television commercials, which increasingly feature overweight and obese actors. Fashion’s equally absurd focus on the mega-thin also must go, but we have to resist being lulled into any comforting assertion that overweight is the new “just right.”
As any number of disease trends and health indicators make abundantly clear, it isn’t.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The hazards of parking-ticket policy
Nov. 17, 2006

I’ve seen at least six cycles of the Victoria parking-ticket debate since moving here 17 years ago. They all basically unfold the same way.
It usually starts with the City of Victoria musing about collecting more money by increasing the parking fines. Pretty soon, downtown merchants join the debate, questioning the impact on their customers of whatever new parking policy is being discussed at the time.
Eleven years ago, for instance, downtown businesses sounded the alarm about a plan to give commissionaires handheld computers that instantly identified drivers with 10 or more unpaid parking tickets. Such cars caught at expired meters were to be towed.
Businesses feared the vigilance was going to be a problem for some of their customers. But as the habit has been in the past decade or so, the city went ahead anyway.
Back then, the city brought in $2 million a year in ticket revenue. It’s now almost $4 million.
The changes have been particularly aggressive under Mayor Alan Lowe’s time in office, so it’s a bit disingenuous of him to be speculating this week whether vigorous enforcement of the city’s parking laws could be putting people off the downtown.
In Lowe’s time as mayor, the city has doubled the basic parking fine to $15 from $7.50. For those who don’t pay tickets promptly, the fine for leaving a ticket unpaid for two weeks or more jumped in 2004 straight to $35, up from $20. (Two weeks! What other bill collector can demand the equivalent of nearly 3,500 per cent interest?)
Lowe tried to argue in 2000 that ICBC should deny insurance and licences to people if they had outstanding parking tickets. That’s not the kind of guy who comes easily to the concept of backing off on parking enforcement.
Still, a man can have a change of heart. And the city’s parking laws are surely due for a look after more than a decade of steady increases. What impact has that had on the downtown?
The problem is one of conflicting interests. Downtown merchants want people to come downtown to do business, not go home steaming over yet another ticket. The city wants that too, but is also very fond of the $10.4 million that parking revenues generate annually.
The commissionaires just want to do their job, which they do efficiently and well if you think about it from their point of view. Meanwhile, customers just want to park somewhere not too far from their destination, and not have to pay too much for the privilege.
If the goal is to root out errant parkers, we’re doing a great job. For downtown businesses, however, the issue isn’t quite so clear-cut. They want parking space to be available for their customers, but at the same time fear the impact of rigorous parking enforcement on those same customers.
The city likes the money. Who wouldn’t? Downtown parkers are sitting ducks, waiting to be tapped for at least $15 any time they overstay their welcome. Boggle them further with mushrooming fines, mysterious “small car” designations and rules about allowable distances from the curb, and you’ve got yourself a nice source of revenue.
Unfortunately, that clashes significantly with every business strategy around attracting and retaining customers. A business wants things to be easy and pleasant for its customers. Having one leave your store only to find their car ticketed, even towed - it’s not good.
Common wisdom holds that if parking enforcement is too lax, the streets will jam up with downtown workers instead of shoppers. People will choose the streets over the parkades, and suddenly another $4 million revenue source for the city is in jeopardy as well.
Would it happen that way? A pilot year could reveal a great deal, and allow the testing of any number of different strategies. Increased enforcement and higher fines are certainly our tried and true strategies, but that’s not to say they’re the right ones.
Using parking as a cash cow in times when the downtown needs a shot in the arm is quite a gamble. Such a delicate balance can’t be struck simply by asking commissionaires to lighten up. Policies that turn the downtown into a punitive place to visit are directly opposed to business interests in bringing people downtown.
The city’s standard reaction to such concerns over the years has been largely limited to pointing out the number of parking spaces in the downtown, and reminding people to try out a parkade. But for those seeking an easy welcome for their customers, a lecture on parking habits just isn’t on. As every downtown merchant is acutely aware of, the mall is just minutes away.
‘Tis the season - what could be cheerier than Lowe’s promised rethink of parking policies? When the rules hurt more than they help, something’s got to give.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Prostitution and violence
Nov. 10, 2006

The media came calling this week, with a short-lived and whirlwind intensity that I have come to recognize as the hallmark of being “in the news.” The subject at hand was a new report that briefly touched on drug-fuelled parties in the Western Communities luring youth into the violence of the sex trade.
It was the briefest of mentions, really: One paragraph in a 78-page report. But for me, it would be the dominant force that would rule my Tuesday.
As someone who works at an agency that helps sex workers, I would be in high demand that day and the night before for my comments about the rumoured party place. I had little to offer, having never heard of the place. But politicians and others waded in with gasps of disbelief, and demands for police to “do something.”
The story blew in and out of the headlines in little more than a day. With no young, partying Western Communities children stepping forward to fuel more coverage with confessions of being lured into the sex trade at parties, interest in the story faded fast. Given how important the report actually is, that’s a shame.
Researchers from the Justice Institute of B.C. spent two years talking to 110 youth and adult sex workers about the province’s sex trade. Victoria and Campbell River were part of the study, as was Kamloops and Prince George. The study’s grim revelations underline that violence is commonplace in the sex trade, but it gets its start at home.
I found that to be the report’s key finding: That the “vast majority” of people interviewed for the study reported that their first experience of violence was as children in their own homes, usually at the hands of somebody who was supposed to be looking after them. Childhood sexual abuse was also a significant factor.
Everyone in the sex trade has a different story to tell, of course, and their stories aren’t all sad, predictable or anticipated. But ask them about their experiences around violence, and some common themes emerge. Kids who are hit, hurt and shamed while growing up are at higher risk of ending up with violence in their lives as adults, too.
The problem with having the media focus almost exclusively on the Western Communities party-place aspect of the report is that the kids and adults who most need the help get bypassed yet again. Everybody gets hysterical about scary bogeymen luring good middle-class kids to a ruinous life through drugs and parties, and nobody does a damn thing for the kids who the report is actually talking about.
Those kids are infinitely fixable, capable of turning their lives around even in the face of astounding life tragedy and disadvantage. They just need the right services at the right time, for as long as they need it. That’s a small price to pay for the chance to see today’s damaged children grow into tomorrow’s healthy parents and grandparents.
But they barely got a mention in all the media hubbub this week. Rather than real support for B.C.’s struggling families - where the participants in the Justice Institute study clearly haled from - I fear the conclusion we’ll draw based on the media coverage is that what’s really needed is yet another awareness program warning teens to stay away from party houses and drugs.
I guess it’s uncomfortable to take a genuine look at the sex trade, because that would require acknowledging that it exists the way it does because of us. We made the laws. Our men are the buyers. The reason the kids in the report virtually all said they wouldn’t dream of going to police with their problems is because we made it so they have a lot to lose by coming forward.
We’ve got to quit pretending that the sex trade happens only at some scary place on the outskirts of town, and that the answer is more enforcement. Police have their role to play, sure, but they’re just one small piece of the puzzle. We can’t continue our wasted efforts to “eliminate” prostitution, a folly that does nothing except to force the issue into ever-darker corners.
People are always asking me how we’ll “solve” the problems of the sex trade. Until we figure out why men buy sex, I don’t think that’s possible. Even if we could prevent every Canadian child from heading into the sex trade from this point on, children from other countries would simply flood in to meet the demand. That’s the unassailable law of the market.
But we can certainly do something to make life less miserable for those in the more unsavoury parts of the industry. We can support families and communities in raising healthy and happy kids in peaceful households, and helping children grow up to be better parents than their own parents knew how to be. The things that people need to step away from despair and hopelessness are within our reach to give.
Or we can let the issue die in a blaze of media coverage that completely misses the point. Surely not.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Norman Spector and the "bitch"
Nov. 3, 2006

A co-worker of mine keeps a “to do” list taped to her computer to remind her of ways to improve her life. Rule No. 1: “Keep ‘inside voices’ inside.”
As newspaper columnist and ex-politico Norman Spector is learning for himself this week, that’s a rule to live by. Having no fear about speaking your mind has its charming aspects, as anyone who has met Spector in person will know. But sooner or later, it’s going to trip you up big time.
Spector did a radio interview with Vancouver’s Bill Good this week and let loose about Belinda Stronach, the Liberal MP whose personal life has seemingly captivated Canada’s federal press gallery.
“Bitch is a word that I would use to describe someone like Belinda Stronach,” said Spector in the now infamous exchange. “You know, I’m not in politics, I can say it. I think she’s a bitch and I think that 90 per cent of men would probably say she’s a bitch for the way she’s broken up Tie Domi’s home and the way she dumped Peter MacKay.”
Perhaps Spector has already offered this opinion in less public settings. Having experienced the mixed blessing of his sharp and undiscerning intellect at my own dinner table a few years ago, I know the man doesn’t shy away from putting forth an opinion.
But Bill Goode’s show was no dinner party. Spector was live on the radio when he made those comments about Stronach, speaking to however many Lower Mainland radio listeners were tuned into the show. And that’s just not the place to let your inside voice do the talking.
Comments like Spector’s can be taken as insulting on so many fronts, and play into that tired old stereotype of the harlot luring good family men from their happy families. But without getting into the right and wrong of any of that, Spector’s biggest sin was to make his comments in a public arena.
He’s free to think what he likes about Belinda Stronach, of course; so far, nobody has figured out a way to nail us for the thoughts in our head. But he said it out loud - on the radio, no less. And that’s a big mistake.
For the most part, I enjoy people who speak their minds. I like people who make their position clear, because at least that tells me who I’m dealing with. If I were Stronach, I’d prefer to know right up front whether any national columnists thought of me as a “bitch” who’d wrecked Tie Domi’s marriage, as that would let me put their comments about me as a politician into the right context.
But that’s not to say I’d want to hear it on the radio, spoken as if it were truth. Spoken as if the subject should even be up for public discussion. Sure, we’re all free to our own opinions, but Spector of all people certainly ought to know that with such a right comes an equal measure of responsibility.
When one-time politico Mike Geoghegan mused in 2003 about B.C. MLA Jenny Kwan’s race and looks as factors in her getting elected, those who knew Geoghegan understood he didn’t really mean it to come out that way. No such kind interpretation can be given to Spector’s comments about Stronach. As a high-ranking advisor to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and B.C. premier Bill Bennett, Spector is no stranger to the concept of discretion.
In person, Spector is much nicer and way more fun than the average reader might anticipate based on his sombre analyses of world issues. But he’s got a ruthless streak, as I witnessed for myself at that fateful dinner party, during which he raised one intense, controversial topic after another as dinner-table conversation.
Abortion. Religion. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All the subjects they teach you to avoid in Dinner Party 101. He talked so ferociously about capital punishment that one of the more sensitive dinner guests finally broke into tears, prompting Spector to wonder aloud whether that explained why he didn’t get more return dinner invitations.
He’ll certainly be off Stronach’s invite list. But she’ll survive his rude and ungentlemanly comments, and will likely endure far worse in years to come if she sticks it out in federal politics. Being called a bitch by a guy Stronach is probably only barely aware of is no big deal in the grand scheme of things.
But Spector might want to do a little reflecting on the matter, and why it is he gave into such a childish bout of name-calling and judgment. He’s a smart, worldly guy who ought to feel mortified at being caught out sounding like a scorned teenager spluttering out insults as the prom queen passes by.
Inside voices, Norman. Some thoughts just aren’t meant to be shared.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tom Ellison has it wrong

I had a cute science teacher back when I was 15 who I would have gladly had a thing with had he shown me any interest. Fortunately, he was the kind of teacher who understood you didn’t get involved with your students, so nothing happened.
I’ve rarely appreciated that teacher more than in these sordid days of testimony from disgraced B.C. teacher Tom Ellison.
Unlike my decent teacher, Ellison drew no boundaries. He had sex with his young Vancouver alternative-education students as if he was just another boy among them, with barely a thought to the teacher he was supposed to be.
“I apologize to you guys because you’re my good friends,” the former secondary teacher said in court Wednesday to a dozen stricken female students from those years. “I just crossed the line. I know it was wrong.”
Good friends? Since when was that ever a desirable characteristic in a teacher? Ellison made the ridiculous claim in court this week that it was “extremely common” for secondary teachers to have sex with their students in the 1970s. I can only hope that every middle-aged teacher in the province jumps all over him for that, because it’s a lie. Then and now, teachers knew not to sleep with their students.
Not that anything is going to make a dint on Ellison, who’s 63 now and still as unaware of his terrible breach of trust as he was in the years when he was chasing young girls from room to room and tearing off their underwear. A guy who still refers to these now-grown women as his “good friends” after they’ve charged him with 16 counts of gross indecency and indecent assault - well, that’s a guy who’s never going to get it.
But I was in school in B.C. in the years that Ellison was teaching, and what really bugs me is watching him try to excuse his pathetic behaviour as normal for that period. Sure, there were other teachers like Ellison back then, and still are. But it was never OK.
The case at hand involves young girls attending Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary in the 1970s and ‘80s. Ellison was in his 30s for most of that period, running one of those experimental outdoor school programs that get tested every now and then as a new way of teaching. Ellison’s particular teaching style included dating the students.
He contends it was OK because the law criminalizing acts like teachers dating their students didn’t come into effect until 1988. The reality is that, law or no law, teachers have always been in a position of trust over their students, and fully aware of the need to be the adult in whatever scenes play out with their students. It has never been acceptable for teachers to date their students.
As many of us can attest, the early teen years are a sexual awakening. Today, the girls announce it with their teeny tops and skinny-low pants. In my day, it was ridiculously short skirts and matching underwear. We dressed to experiment with how it felt to be a woman, and to stop traffic with our body-baring style.
Why not? Youth is a beautiful thing. Let the young people feel their oats, because years of dignified behaviour and modest clothing await them as adults. From a girl point of view, I think the phase is all about testing your sexuality - sending out those come-hither vibes and seeing how it feels to pick up something coming back.
Sometimes those girl vibes get directed at a teacher. But what’s supposed to happen is nothing at all, because that young, vulnerable girl practically throwing herself at her teacher is simply off-limits.
From Grade 7 on, I can think of at least one teacher per year who my little-girl self dreamed of falling in love with. Did any of them recognize it? Impossible to say, but I can attest that they never took me up on my offers. They let me be a little girl growing into a young woman, and do my learning with boys my own age.
Things were different in Ellison’s class. Testimony in the case so far reads like one big frat party. Ellison and at least one other teacher from the same alternative program essentially surrounded themselves with swooning teenage girls and nights out on a school yacht. Ellison acknowledged he was “taking a risk” when things turned sexual, but the testimony of witness after tearful witness from those years certainly made it clear that he never let that get in the way.
Thank God for the teachers who know where to draw the line. Being a teenager is hard enough without having a teacher like Tom Ellison taking you up on an offer that you’re too young to make. Every girl who never met him ought to thank their lucky stars.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

When good food goes wrong: e.coli, botulism, c.difficile
Oct. 20, 2006

In the big picture, death by vegetable is an uncommon way to go. Six carrot-juice poisonings are small potatoes, so to speak, compared to the havoc caused by more common killers like cancer and car crashes.
But this month’s toxic carrot story comes on the heels of last month’s tainted spinach alert, which in turn has been followed by an alert about our beef. What are we to make of the troubling fact that almost a fifth of the meat sampled at a Canadian grocery store in a recent study contained the toxin-producing bacteria c. difficile?
It’s hard not to feel just a little alarmed about our food supply in light of recent headlines, and curious whether everything was OK. Having gone looking for some answers to that question, I can tell you that it’s not.
First, let’s consider the spinach. More than 200 people in the U.S. got sick from eating bagged spinach that had been contaminated with the e.coli bacteria. It’s a bug that lives in the intestines of cows and humans, which means that manure from one or the other of those species was likely the cause of the contamination.
The tainted spinach mystery has yet to be solved, but the sequence of events is a little scary all by itself.
It starts with a concentration of the spinach industry. More than half of the North American bagged-spinach market is grown on nine California mega-farms, at least one of which turns out to be surrounded by commercial cattle operations. E.coli is a fact of life in the overcrowded, over-medicated world of factory farming.
In the last decade, nine outbreaks of vegetables contaminated with e.coli have been recorded in California’s Salinas Valley. Sometimes it was spinach, sometimes lettuce or sprouts. Even while last month’s spinach scare was unfolding, 8,000 cartons of lettuce were also recalled after their irrigation water turned out to be contaminated with e.coli. And unlike other toxins on our vegetables that can be dealt with by a good rinse under the tap, e.coli contamination can’t be washed off.
Now, the carrots. They were juiced and packaged by Bolthouse Farms, an American company. Three people in Georgia and one in Florida developed botulism poisoning after drinking the juice. Two Canadians were then poisoned by the same brand of juice.
Read the coverage of the botulism incident and it sounds like six North Americans coincidentally didn’t refrigerate their carrot juice quickly enough and got botulism poisoning as a result. I’ve got my doubts about that, and not only because I can’t recall a single public-health warning in my lifetime of the potentially lethal effects of room-temperature commercial carrot juice.
Bolthouse says it will “modify its juice processing to prevent risk from consumer mishandling.” Whatever that means, it sounds bigger than individual consumers forgetting to refrigerate their carrot juice.
As while it’s bad news to hear of toxic carrot juice, it’s worse to learn that Canadian health inspectors were still finding the juice on grocery shelves more than two weeks after it was recalled. That says something profound about the way we’re handling consumer alerts, and our stores’ responsibility for staying on top of the latest lethal vegetable.
Finally, c. difficile. Good news for vegetarians - this one’s about meat. But do remember that e.coli used to be about the meat as well, which could mean that c.difficile can cross the divide too.
C. difficile is a toxin-producing bacteria that takes hold when the body is being hammered by antibiotics, which kill off the “good” bacteria that normally keep the bug in check. It’s a rapidly growing problem for hospitals and long-term care facilities, where it takes hold among sick people and causes painful intestinal illness, even death. Eighty per cent of the cases in North America involve people on antibiotics.
The most lethal varieties of the toxin can wreak havoc. A four-year c. difficile outbreak that Quebec hospitals are just now gaining control of has killed an estimated 2,000 people. It took an aggressive public campaign warning against the unnecessary use of antibiotics to slow the outbreak.
Not incidentally, four million kilos of antibiotic feed additives are used every year by the U.S. cattle industry. A recent U.S.-Canada joint study found the presence of c.difficile in a fifth of the meat sampled at a Canadian grocery store, and almost a third of the samples in the U.S. Who can be surprised? It makes sense that animals fed antibiotics as part of their daily regimen would have high rates of c. difficile.
Are we putting ourselves at risk if we eat c.difficile-contaminated meat? Too soon to say. But we’re eating it, despite being largely clueless as to whether that’s a danger.
True, food-borne illnesses are still blessedly rare as killers. But the patterns in this fall’s food scares are frightening. When the spinach salads turn lethal, something’s very wrong.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

School system fails B.C.'s aboriginal students
Oct. 13, 2006

Perhaps it’s not particularly noteworthy in itself that 83 per cent of Canadians think our country’s schools are doing a poor job at teaching the basics. That may be their opinion, but it isn’t necessarily true.
Still, it’s unsettling to hear that so many people give schools a failing grade on that basic test. What’s more disturbing is that at least on one front, they’re right. Whatever you may take away from the very subjective findings of the Canadian Council on Learning survey released this week, other more objective measures of how our students are doing tell us we’ve got plenty to worry about.
Few things would be more challenging than teaching school, and I have respect and admiration for B.C.’s hard-working teachers. But the number of students failing to complete high school in our region is closing in on 28 per cent. Losing that many kids in a community as privileged and involved as ours is cause for considerable alarm.
B.C. school stats are particularly grim for aboriginals. The good news is that more than twice as many aboriginal students graduate from Grade 12 these days as they did a decade ago. The bad news is that the non-completion rate is a staggering 56 per cent.
The story that leads to that sad ending obviously begins long before an aboriginal teen heads into high school. The most recent edition of the province’s annual report on aboriginal students reveals that trouble starts early for such children and continues in a relentless downward spiral for most of their school years.
On every assessment test from Grade 4 on, aboriginal students perform well below other students, with gaps of 20 percentage points or more in virtually all subjects. While 80 per cent of other Grade 4 kids are meeting or exceeding acceptable reading-comprehension levels, just 62 per cent of aboriginal kids are. By Grade 7, barely half of the aboriginal kids are meeting reading standards, compared to more than three-quarters of other students.
The problems go deeper than poor performance on tests. With the notable exception of “gifted,” B.C.’s aboriginal students are also overrepresented in every special-needs category. They’re at least two times more likely than non-aboriginals to be categorized as having a special need due to a sensory, learning, behavioural or intellectual disability.
The gap is most significant in the behavioural category. Eight per cent of B.C. aboriginal students in 2004-05 were categorized as having behavioural disabilities, compared to just two per cent of non-aboriginals.
By Grade 10, more than 10 per cent of aboriginal students are in a “behavioural” class, versus three per cent of non-aboriginals. (On every measure, the difference is dramatic enough across the board that you have to wonder whether it’s solely about performance, or if racism plays a role.)
From Grade 9 on, aboriginal participation in school drops dramatically and grades tumble. Almost 40 per cent of the aboriginal kids who wrote their Grade 10 science exam in the 2004-05 school year got an F.
On a positive note, the learning gap starts to shrink for aboriginal students who do make it to Grade 12, where final grades and provincial exam results are much more comparable to the overall student population. “Aboriginal students, when participating, perform very well on the provincial exam,” the annual report from the Education MInistry points out in a footnote about the English 12 exam.
But there’s the rub. Barely half of the aboriginal students who start Grade 12 in a B.C. school will graduate, and many more will never even make it that far. They will pay dearly for the absence of a high-school education in this fast-paced information age and will work that much harder to support their own children as they in turn head into school. One more generation falling behind before they’ve even had a chance to begin.
As with all problems, somebody has to blink. If a majority of us really do believe that our children aren’t getting the basics in our school system - as seems to be indicated by the national learning council’s survey this week of 5,300 Canadians - then we’re presumably open to ideas for intervention. Crisis-level problems for aboriginal students are hardly news, but surely we’re well past the time of pretending it isn’t having an impact.
Like children in government care, it’s hard to separate the chicken from the egg when looking at health outcomes for B.C.’s aboriginal kids.
Yes, a significant number of those kids will struggle no matter what, because they didn’t get the head start that a happy, healthy family with a decent income can provide. That’s just the bleak reality of growing up aboriginal in Canada.
But with rising dropout rates for all students in two of our region’s three school districts in the past five years, we clearly have to try harder on all fronts. Aboriginal or otherwise, B.C.’s kids deserve better.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

B.C.'s Rental Assistance program
Oct. 6, 2006

Like most of the agencies working with lost souls, I meet a lot of people who are really struggling. They’re still standing, but God knows how sometimes.
They need a lot of things when we first meet them at PEERS. Simple things at first: A decent roof over their heads. A place to fit in. Somewhere to start to recover. Eventually, they’ll need to get at the deeper issues that lie buried beneath the drugs, but they can’t even begin that journey without a solid place to live.
Our agency has the great fortune to have 14 portable housing subsidies that we administer on behalf of BC Housing. The subsidies give us the ability to provide real help to people - up to $116.50 per month - in being able to afford even the smallest of rooms away from the users, dealers, mice and infestations. Better still, the subsidies aren’t considered earnings under B.C. law for those on income assistance, which means people get a genuine boost in monthly income.
So it was with great disappointment that I read this week of how the B.C. government had structured its brand-new Rental Assistance Program. It will provide help of up to $238 a month to a Vancouver family of three to find a better place to live, and $170 elsewhere in the province. But only the “working poor” are eligible. People on income assistance are out of luck.
First and foremost, allow me to be most appreciative for a rental-assistance program for the working poor. Anything that puts more money into the hands of B.C. families to find decent places to live is OK by me. The plan to open another 450 units of supportive housing is inadequate, but a good start.
But whose truly bizarre idea was it to declare that the new subsidy program would be off-limits to B.C.’s absolute poor? Who can possibly think it’s a good idea to deny housing support to the people living in the worst class of housing in our communities?
Let me tell you about a girl I know. She’s in her early 30s, and pregnant. She lived on the streets for a while, but lately has been bouncing from here to there: A transition house; a recovery house; whatever bed comes available. Recently, she came very close to ending up on the streets again, at seven months pregnant, where she most definitely would have ended up using drugs again. Instead, getting a housing subsidy let her find a good apartment to rent. She’s doing OK.
A young woman like her - soon to give birth to the child that will bounce just as aimlessly and tragically through its life if nothing changes - doesn’t qualify for B.C.’s new subsidy program. All of the 103,000 families scratching by on income assistance will be denied.
How can that possibly seem like a good idea? With news of the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report this week still fresh in our minds, and the Kendall-Morley report still reverberating, how can we even consider excluding a desperate class of people from a helping hand that they really need?
I admit to still being a little steamed giving up a recent afternoon to attend a forum on the province’s housing strategy, only to hear that the housing strategy would be released weeks before comments from six such forums around the province had even been tabulated.
One thing I would have told them then, had they asked, and certainly now: Think again. If the goal is to get at the issues interfering with our communities’ health and well-being, then it’s just plain misguided to be denying the most desperate ones every chance to do better. And if this is about money, just think for a moment about all the messed-up people that a generation of messed-up people can create, and surely it doesn’t take a CGA to figure out where that story goes.
But here we are, in an age when the problems have never been more evident, announcing programs that shut the door on the desperately poor. It’s so very sad to see that we’re still at a point where we can’t even grasp the fundamental need to do something about the terrible problems afoot in B.C.’s burgeoning underclass.
Pregnant women are no exception, as my young friend proves. If it weren’t for a housing subsidy, she’d have $325 a month for rent right now. Check the classifieds some time for what that would buy you.
If we meant it about doing better by kids, we’d be working at getting rid of every barrier to a family’s success. A healthy, happy baby brought up by decent parents is worth its weight in gold on every possible future front. Whether working poor or welfare poor, what matters is helping those who need it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Children in government care
Sept. 29, 2006

Everything you need to know about what’s going wrong in B.C. communities these days is summed up in the depressing little report released last week on the health status of children in permanent government care. If you’ve ever wondered where lost souls come from, look no farther.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall studied health outcomes for children in permanent care between April 1997 and November 2005. Some 37,000 kids were taken into care in that period, with 24,800 eventually making their way out of the system. The report focuses on the 12,200 who didn’t.
Not unexpectedly, the study found that kids raised solely by the government fare far worse than other kids, sometimes in ways that underlined for me the essence of family. Having a series of people being paid to care for you just isn’t the same as being raised by your family, a truth the study reveals in telling ways.
For instance, kids in the permanent custody of government are prescribed drugs like Ritalin up to 12 times more often than other children, and psychiatric drugs up to eight times more often. It could mean that they’ve got a lot more problems than the average kid, but could just as easily be about what happens to a child when there’s nobody in his life who really knows him.
If it were your six-year-old acting up, you’d have six years of history with him to reflect back on in trying to determine whether little Nathan had an attention-deficit problem or was just a wired, on-the-go kind of kid. You’d be in a far better position to make an informed decision as to what to do about the boy.
But a child in permanent care can end up passed from foster home to foster home, each only seeing whatever version of the child is presenting at that time. With no family history to look back on to determine that indeed, all of Nathan’s family members tended to be a little crazy at age six - but just fine by 10 - you’d be more likely to conclude that a troubling behaviour was an indicator that something was wrong.
Of course, the chances that something really is wrong with Nathan are significantly higher if he’s a child in permanent care. Such kids in the study were four times more likely than other children to be struggling right from birth. And it was an uphill slog for them after that, through a childhood rife with accident and injury, an adolescence more likely to go off the rails, and an unsettled and difficult early adulthood.
But that’s no excuse for why kids in care are doing so poorly. The whole point of government care ought to be to help our province’s most disadvantaged young citizens grow up into responsible, healthy adults. If that’s not happening, then the onus is on us to figure that out.
Alarming health outcomes for children in care is not news in B.C. The Kendall-Morley report merely brings home how little progress we’ve made after well over a decade of hand-wringing and political promises. Is it really 11 years since the stark findings of Judge Tom Gove ever so briefly galvanized us to do better?
Care for kids who are falling behind from the start has to be better than growing up in an average family, not significantly worse. Instead, almost every bad thing that can happen to a child happened at a far higher rate to children in care.
More drugs. More sickness. Longer stays in hospital. Fewer happy endings.
Children in continuing care were four times more likely to get pregnant as teenagers. Four times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental-health condition: attention deficit; “conduct disorder”; depression; anxiety. Twelve times more at risk of being in a car accident. Eight times more likely to be on psychiatric drugs, and up to 12 times more likely to end up on a whole host of other prescription drugs, from asthma sprays to antacids.
Did all that medical attention make them healthier? You be the judge. Kids in care died of infections during the study period at seven times the rate of other children. They were almost seven times more likely to die of “unknown causes,” and more than 11 times more at risk of dying of diseases of the nervous system. Those who made it into adulthood continued to struggle with higher accident and injury rates, more mental-health problems, and more suicide attempts.
The only conclusion to draw from the study is that we failed more than 12,000 kids during that nine-year period - kids whose lives we had the chance to turn around. Sadder still is that we’re still doing it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cops for Cancer
Sept. 22, 2006

In homes scattered around the Island, 21 amateur cyclists will be spending tonight preparing for what just may be the most significant athletic event of their lives. They will ride more miles, cry more tears and raise more money over the next two weeks than any of them would have thought possible mere months ago.
My own Tour de Rock ride for the Canadian Cancer Society is five years past now, and I doubt that I’ll ever grow so nostalgic as to forget how much hard work it was to get ready for that ride. But the power of the 1,000-kilometre journey has also stayed with me, as it no doubt has for every team of riders since the debut of the Cops for Cancer fundraiser nine years ago.
This year’s riders leave Victoria tomorrow for the van ride to Port Hardy, where the long and hilly ride south will begin first thing Sunday morning. For two intense weeks, they’ll ride several hours a day with no mind to the weather, and climb any number of daunting hills.
They’ll have their heads shaved and in turn shave the heads of others, and preside over dozens of raffles, draws, contests and car washes staged in their honour. They’ll ride past throngs of supporters in communities up and down the Island, and race tricycles and grocery carts across shopping-mall parking lots. They’ll pay sombre visits to cancer wards, looking for hope in the sad stories of worried families.
And along the way, they’ll raise more than a million dollars for children with cancer.
Team members are primarily police and emergency personnel. “Media riders” such as myself have been included in most of the annual rides, but it’s the police who are deservedly the stars of the event.
They’re given rock-star welcomes by the Island youngsters who cram into school gymnasiums to meet the team during the ride, and feted by countless community groups that have spent months raising money for the cause. I saw for myself the impact that it had on police to feel so beloved by their communities.
Police and media aren’t necessarily the best of friends, so one of the spinoff benefits of my ride of 2001 was getting to know the people behind the uniforms. As a group, police turned out to be a lot of fun, and they really get the team thing. I knew there were some mixed feelings initially among the group about having me along, but I never felt any less than a full member of the team.
The two-week ride from Port Hardy is the showy part of the Tour de Rock, but the real work is done in the months leading up to the trip.
Canadian Cancer Society reps essentially work year-round on the logistics of the ride, including developing the vital community connections that spawn the many fundraisers that are the backbone of the Tour de Rock campaign. Community groups get going on those fundraisers from almost the moment that the previous year’s Tour de Rock wraps up, with the goal of accumulating enough for an impressive cheque when the riders pass through town the following year.
The riders spend months getting ready as well. By May, tour riders are putting in at least 200 kilometres a week, a pace that continues right through the summer. Tour de Rock riders not only have to be fit enough to complete the ride, but to finish each day’s leg with enough energy to take part in the community events that are an essential component of the fundraiser.
I guess it’s for that reason that every memory I have of the summer of 2001 is related to training for Tour de Rock. Every aspect of my life - diet, head space, fitness level, sleep patterns - was determined by the need to prepare.
I started every shower with three minutes of ice cold water on my aching legs, in hopes that I could shock them back to life in time for the next training ride. I packed Power Gels with me wherever I went, having come to revere the weird little packets of goo for their ability to bring me back from the dead. I talked incessantly about hills, drafting and flat tires, and considered just about anybody’s advice on how to improve my performance.
And then one day, it was time for the tour. We were athletes by then, but the sporting prowess we’d spent all those hours developing quickly took a back seat to the real purpose of the ride once we were underway. Cops ride because cancer kills, and God bless them for it.
The ride’s a one-shot deal for those who take part in it, and I’m not so sure I’d want to do it again anyway. But my heart’s out there with the riders this weekend. I wish them the time of their lives.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Philippe Rushton and the "glass ceiling"
Sept. 14, 2006

If it wasn’t Philippe Rushton’s study, I probably could have worked up more of a head of steam over the latest “finding” that it’s lower IQs holding women back from those big corporate jobs.
But Rushton is just that wacky University of Western Ontario professor who’s always coming up with some one-off, offensive explanation for why things are the way they are. Getting riled up by one of his theories is barely worth the effort.
He’s something of a dream academic for people looking to justify discrimination. The psychology prof is known for his past work ranking Asian and European intelligence above that of the black races. His most recent study on the differences between men and women concluded that it’s “very likely” that the reason women aren’t advancing as rapidly in their careers is because they’re less intelligent than men.
Being called intellectually inferior by a guy like Rushton is practically a badge of honour. It means you and your kind are enough of a force to alarm people like him into developing crazy theories for why you ought to be oppressed. If Philippe Rushton is saying mean things about you, that’s most likely a sign that you’re doing something right.
“We have to find the truth about the normal distribution in society,” said Rushton about his study. “It’s not right to simply say, ‘It must be discrimination and don’t dare say anything else.’ One should really look at the facts.”
Absolutely. But in this case, the facts are that the way the world is being run is not so good.
Could it have something to do with men making all the big decisions with little input from women? I’d be just another Rushton if I postulated that. But you have to at least consider the possibility that the virtual absence of women in positions of power contributes to the problems plaguing the world these days. The world needs us, but we’re nowhere in sight.
I don’t mean to put men down. Collectively, their tremendous energy is what drives us forward into whatever frontiers may await. Men seem particularly good at being innovative and daring, and pushing the limits - all desirable skills in a complex society.
But female energy is equally important. I sense in the female nature a need to take the longer view. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the longer view is exactly what’s missing in the decisions being made around the big tables of the world. Women aren’t there, and a vital point of view is going unheard .
Just over a decade ago, people believed that such problems could be corrected by forcing women into positions of power, through a combination of affirmative action and aggressive recruiting campaigns. Former prime minister Jean Chretien even appointed women candidates just to get the numbers up, and corporations scoured their ranks for eligible females to elevate into big jobs.
It didn’t work. And as Rushton rightly notes, that isn’t solely because of discrimination. But neither is it about brain power (a fact underlined quite nicely by any number of really terrible decisions made by male corporate and political leaders over the years).
My sense is that it comes down to women being unable to find their fit in a system built exclusively by men. Such an issue will take care of itself when the number of women holding big jobs reaches a point of critical mass, but we’ve yet to get even close to that.
And so women taking on those big jobs continue to be expected to either “take it like a man” or step aside - which they’ve done in droves despite some really sincere attempts to propel them through the glass ceiling.
On the one hand, Rushton et al might shrug off such examples as confirmation that women simply don’t have the right stuff for the job. All the more proof why men should continue to rule the world.
On the other, we are in crisis on any number of fronts around the globe, including our own country. We’ve made a number of really wrong decisions that are going to cause our children and grandchildren a great deal of grief in the coming years, whether that be in the form of fallout from a war in the Middle East or just the slow decay of our social fabric. If this is how men run the world, then women simply have to get more involved.
How will it happen? Ultimately, governments and businesses will have to see that it’s in their own interests to tap into the female skill set. They have to want us in our own right. Affirmative action can launch the process, but it will take a deep and widely held belief in the need for more female energy to sustain the effort. I hope I live long enough to see that.
In the meantime, cheers to Philippe Rushton. As always, his comments make the need for change just that much more obvious.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Dying on your own terms
Sept. 8, 2006

Neither John nor Lorna McCadden are alive to tell us their version of events from that particularly awful day last week at Penticton Regional Hospital. The two of them alone know the truth of what happened.
Judge the shootings by the facts of that day, and it’s a murder-suicide. John shot his wife in the head while visiting her at the hospital on Aug. 30, then killed himself. There’s no way to know whether Lorna wanted to be killed. Initial news stories focused on the level of hospital security and recalled other murders in B.C. hospitals.
But step back from the moment, and the facts tell a different story. In that version, John was a tired old man growing sicker all the time, and his beloved Lorna was about to be dispatched permanently to a nursing home. In his mind, at that moment, dying just seemed like the cleanest way to wrap things up.
That two old, failing lovers might choose to die together rather than see their lives slip beyond their control doesn’t seem like any kind of stretch for me. Still, there’s great tragedy in the deaths of John and Lorna just the same, if only because we live in a country where people feel driven to such drastic actions.
August had been a month of tremendous change for the McCaddens. John, 77, had been hospitalized after suffering a series of small strokes. Lorna, 80, was brought into hospital through emergency. The couple had been able to visit each other while in hospital together, but then John was discharged, and Lorna given the bad news that she would never be going home.
John talked about having to move now that Lorna was going into care, the couple’s landlord told the Penticton Herald last week. John knew he was soon going to need care himself; since the strokes, he’d noticed his memory failing.
What would you do in his shoes? I guess we’re supposed to treasure life over everything else, and be glad for extreme medical interventions, care homes and assisted living to tide us through our final years. But what if you prefer to die on your own terms?
It’s too political of a subject for us to contemplate as a nation. We’re no closer to having a law that lets us choose to die than we were when Sue Rodriguez was killed in the glare of public scrutiny 12 years ago trying to get us talking about assisted suicide.
We’ve quietly come a considerable distance on some fronts, to the point that dying people in tremendous pain seem sometimes to be ushered from the world slightly quicker with the help of prescription drugs. I saw my own father eased out in his final hours in what appeared to be just such a way, a most merciful development.
But for those who don’t have pain, there’s no easy ending. If your diagnosis is a one-way trip to long-term care, that’s where your story is likely going to end.
Personally, I hope to be dead before it ever comes to that - ideally, grown old and wise and then simply found dead in bed one morning after a full and pleasant life. If that’s not possible, I’d still like to think I could work out something less traumatic than having my husband kill me in hospital, but I could see myself resorting to such a measure were things to come to that.
What to do about euthanasia is obviously too big a question for Canadians. Even in the Rodriguez years, we barely scratched the surface of public policy. It’s just so hard to know what to do about people wanting to kill themselves, not the least of which is determining whether they really want to.
But surely old, sick people are in a different category. If we aren’t yet ready to come to grips with euthanasia as a whole, surely we can still find dignified ways for aging people to choose death when they can no longer maintain their tenuous hold on a diminishing life.
“The only thing we really don’t know is the motive,” a Penticton RCMP officer said of the McCaddens’ death, as if the couple’s pending loss of independence, good health and a future together wasn’t explanation enough. Two people dying in such a public, ugly way is a terrible thing, but that’s not to say there’s much of a mystery as to why John did it.
Good arguments can be mounted from either direction: That the McCaddens needed a better care system that supported them as a couple until their natural deaths, or equally, one that would have let them die with dignity. The reality is that we don’t provide either option. Desperate old men are left to gun down the loves of their lives in brutal spectacle.
“It’s just a real shame,” said Lawrence Isaac, the McCaddens’ landlord. It really is.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Tofino runs out of water
Sept. 1, 2006

Any number of painful lessons can be learned from Tofino’s current water crisis. Accidents happen, but this was no accident. Everyone in town should have seen this coming.
The extreme nature of the crisis is undeniable. Tofino’s economy is almost fully dependent on tourism. Shutting down the town’s accommodation and restaurant services mere days before one of the biggest tourist weekends of the summer is a truly drastic, desperate thing to do.
But while the summer has indeed been hot and dry for much of the Island, Tofino’s crisis was in the works long before now. This is the third summer in a row that Tofino has fretted about its dwinding water supply. That nothing has changed serves as yet another sobering reminder of what happens when communities fail to act.
Tofino acted in its own way, mind you. Two years ago, its citizens voted against improvements that would have brought more water into the town. Reports in the Tofino media from that time speculated that the failure might have been due to voters perceiving a “yes” vote as support for more development.
Had the vote been favourable, the upgrades would have been completed by this summer. That irony must be resonating unpleasantly these days with what has to be an outraged group of tourism operators.
This week came news of a University of Victoria study that concluded B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve is being nibbled away by regional development - the result of a policy shift that put ALR decisions into local hands without considering the province-wide impact.
Then came reports that Tofino had run out of water.
They’re really the same story: More people equals more pressure on resources. Whether it’s farmland or water at risk of disappearing, the cause is ultimately people.
Tofino’s story is, again, a little different, as the town is located in a rainforest known for getting as much as three metres of rain a year. More reservoir capacity alone will solve a lot of what ails Tofino.
That could indeed end up fuelling even more development. But if voting down the 2004 water-improvement referendum was intended as a vote against more development, what got overlooked was that the preceding years of growth had already begun to tap out the Tofino water supply in the summer months.
Tofino’s last water upgrade was 15 years ago. If you’ve been to the town even a handful of times in that period, you’ll know that much has changed in those years.
The town’s year-round population is a modest 1,700, but as many as 22,000 people take up temporary residence during July and August. That’s a whole lot of water flushed and showered away and a significant amount of hotel laundry washed. While Tofino can’t really afford the drain of all that activity on its limited water supply, much of the town pins its hopes on just such an influx of visitors.
In 2004, Tofino council lamented about a hot, dry summer while the town teetered on the brink of a water shortage serious enough that major across-the-board cuts in water use were contemplated. In 2005, council again lamented about a hot, dry summer and added two stages to its previously four-stage water-crisis plan.
This week, while once again lamenting a hot, dry summer, Tofino council invoked Stage Five. All lodging and food-service businesses were ordered shut down by the Labour Day weekend. In the event of a Stage-Six crisis, no water use by anybody will be permitted to ensure a supply for fire-fighting.
Another creek has been dragged into service for some Tofino residents, but they’ve been advised to boil the water from it. The heavily cedar-tinted creek water also has a reputation for staining clothes in the wash, which people first learned about when the water almost ran out in 2004.
Such inconveniences are nothing compared to the losses facing the Tofino tourism industry this week, which is reeling from the edict to close up shop. With just three days notice of the closure before the Labour Day crowds were to arrive, businesses will be on the hook for any number of costs related to cancelled trips, sub-par vacations and various other disappointments. (God help any hotel that had booked a wedding for the weekend.)
In the short term, Tofino merely has to come up with a way to catch more rain in the fall and winter months to solve its problem. Had that been done several years ago when concerns were first identified, there would be no issue now.
But with a million-dollar disaster now pressing down on the Tofino tourism industry, the lesson that will linger most bitterly is of the high price of doing nothing.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

No more stalling on addiction

So now the head of the region’s new psychiatric emergency service has quit. In a funny sort of way, that’s almost good news.
Dr. Anthony Barale’s passion and rare candour around the crappy way we’re managing addiction and mental illness will be missed. I don’t like to think of people like him getting squeezed out of the Vancouver Island Health Authority, because we desperately need them to guide change. And boy, do we need change.
All will not be lost along with Barale, however, if his high-profile resignation this week finally wakes people up. Finally, it’s not just the social groups sounding the alarm about dwindling community services and support, but the clinical director of a barely two-year-old VIHA service intended as a leading-edge response to people with mental illness.
Archie Courtnall Centre, at Royal Jubilee Hospital, has instead become the “default processing centre for addicted individuals seeking treatment,” complains Barale. Apparently, nobody at the centre contemplated dealing with that much addiction. (What’s with that, anyway?). Worse still, there’s no other place to send people with addictions, meaning they end up the centre’s problem even though it wasn’t built to deal with them.
“The staff of the psychiatric emergency service struggle daily to provide even the most basic medical and psychiatric care for his suffering population,” said Barale. “And they do so with little support and the pitiful resources provided by VIHA - resources which, even by so-called Third World standards, are entirely inadequate.”
You go, Dr. Barale. Use that influence to get this beast in motion. Social groups are viewed as serving their own interests whenever they try to get the same message across, and business groups are still too caught up in the “lazy bum” theory of homelessness and addiction to move this issue forward. But the good doctor knows his stuff, and maybe his can be the resignation that transcends the divide.
That addiction and mental health are so tightly linked should hardly be a surprise in a province that has relentlessly cut back mental-health services for more than 20 years. What might you do if you were bouncing around homeless, broke and lost for long enough? Mightn’t you look for something to make it all go away for a little while?
It’s a potent mix, mental health and addiction. Each make the other worse, as Barale can no doubt attest. Each can lead to the other. The pain of mental illness can lead someone to look for relief from drugs, and the long-term or toxic use of street drugs can shatter people into a million pieces.
It shouldn’t matter which comes first, the addiction or the mental illness. But it does in terms of trying to find health services.
Heaven help the addict who is going crazy from the drugs, because that’s the wrong order as far as our health services are concerned. It is, however, a common problem. Almost half of the people admitted to the Archie Courtnall Centre’s three-day beds since it opened in 2004 had a primary diagnosis of addiction.
Allow me to share a story from the front lines, of a woman in her late 40s connected to the social agency where I work full-time. One day she was going crazy, rattled to the core by the drugs she’d been using. Her body movements were jerky and unpredictable, the result of brain chemistry so out of whack that the violence of her body very nearly tipped over the chair where she sat. We finally called for help when she started hitting herself repeatedly in the face.
VIHA’s emergency mental health team responded, but left within minutes. A VIHA worker familiar with the woman had declared her to be not mentally ill, but in a drug-induced psychosis. The team said they were unable to help. Her options at that point were a few hours at the sobering centre or the streets.
What does any of this mean to the average citizen? Sadly, almost nothing. The public doesn’t like this issue. Wrong-headed as it may be, addiction and mental health too often conjure up sloth and weak character in the public’s mind.
But that needn’t stop action. We don’t solicit public input on how our health system deals with the problems that we bring to it. If the issue was cancer treatment, for instance, we would bring in the experts and figure out the best possible strategy. There’s more than enough expertise in B.C. to figure out how we can be effective around addiction and mental health. We need only begin.
With any luck, the resignation of Dr. Anthony Barale will shake us from our tragic stupor. People who wrongly assume they know everything may briefly be prepared to listen to a psychiatrist-manager who witnessed the problems firsthand. What Barale saw was nothing new, but his voice ought to carry well.
Shout it from the roof tops, doc. We’ve been messing this one up for long enough.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Addiction misread
Aug. 18, 2006

The trouble with drugs is that most of us can use them just fine. The majority of people who try drugs - even street drugs - can quit using them fairly easily if they need to.
I’ve come to suspect that fact is why we’re still so damn hopeless at dealing with addiction. We just don’t get it. We’re a nation of enthusiastic users that really struggles with the concept that not everybody has such an easy relationship with drugs and alcohol.
Most of us will drink, drop, smoke or swallow various drugs over our lifetimes with little incident. We’ll go hard as teenagers and less hard as adults, and we’ll quit when the time seems right, for reasons ranging from the kids getting old enough to notice, the mornings getting harder to bear, or just the embarrassment of being 40 and having to buy marijuana from the kid on the corner.
For those of us so blessed, our drug use remains within our control. When we want to stop using, we do. We understand addiction exists on a theoretical level - thousands of university papers have explored the various aspects of addiction for decades now, and why people end up addicted is no real surprise anymore. But to the great detriment of the poor sods who are among that group, we still can’t shake the feeling that people with addictions simply aren’t trying hard enough.
Such lingering and misguided beliefs clearly drive our clumsy and conflicted actions around addiction. Otherwise, why would we even be having this ridiculous conversation about closing Vancouver’s highly successful safe-injection site? Why else would treatment and support remain so elusive throughout B.C.? What else would be the explanation for leaving profoundly ill people to live - and die - on the streets?
I’m a big believer in democracy, but some things can’t be left up to public whim. Issues that will have an impact on the health and happiness of the population as a whole and on generations to come cannot be decided on the basis of a political platform.
Stephen Harper’s government may want to believe that providing a safe, clean place for addicted people to use drugs is wrong. But it isn’t. Our drug-addiction strategy can’t be about anybody’s belief system, but needs to focus instead on what are the smart and effective things we need to be doing on any number of levels.
Public health. Compassion. Keeping the peace. Happy neighbourhoods. The building of relationships. Take your pick from a couple dozen good reasons for having a safe-injection site, for instance. With Vancouver’s site having operated for three years, there are now even more reasons: Less death; fewer needles lying around; more people taking part in daily conversations about getting clean. It’s working.
Admittedly, the need for safe-injection sites in our cities’ cores is something of a tragic reminder of our failure as a society. In a connected and healthy world, we would have responded to the issues underlying addiction long before it got to the point of herding people into big clinics to inject drugs.
But what’s done is done. Now we’re dealing with a new world order that includes large quantities of cheap drugs and a growing underclass being primed by their unhappy lives and family genetics to develop an addiction to them.
Step one in the plan: Get the politics out of the picture. Whether the Tories or the Liberals are in power shouldn’t make a whit of difference in how we manage the issues of addiction. If a safe injection site is accomplishing what it set out to do, then we ought to consider it a step in the right direction and move on to the next challenge. With so much still going wrong on the addiction front, we don’t need to waste any time tearing apart successful health services for irrelevant ideological reasons.
The argument against safe injection sites generally boils down to one of not wanting to “encourage” drug use. It’s a peculiar position to take in a nation that saturates itself with alcohol, prescription drugs and gambling, and makes even less sense in the context of the sad souls who frequent Vancouver’s safe-injection site.
A clinical, brightly lit room where sick and suffering people are injecting drugs isn’t as grim as a grubby little squat full of sleeping, crying, moaning addicts, but it’s still far from an appealing place to be. Just ask one of the hurting people lined up waiting for their turn. In terms of setting youngsters straight, it would be hard to envisage a better intervention than a visit to the local safe-injection site to see the skinny, abscessed clientele searching for a vein somewhere on their tired old bodies capable of withstanding yet another needle
Most of us will never know what that’s like, and that’s a lucky development. But we owe it to those who struggle with a very different reality to put aside our opinions for once and get on with doing the right thing.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Here's a thoughtful piece from today's Vancouver Sun opinion pages that sums up so much of what's wrong with the federal and provincial governments' approach to health.
Development in B.C. parks
Aug. 11, 2006

Parks are important places. They’re gifts from the taxpayers of today to every generation that follows, in perpetuity. Any change to the way we use our parks is potential cause for alarm, because one bad policy shift is all it takes to betray the public trust that our parks represent.
With that in mind, here’s hoping that British Columbians think long and hard about what it will mean in the long-term to open up more development in B.C. parks. A call for proposals went out this week for construction in six provincial parks, and six more will be put on the list at the end of August. We have mere months to decide if this is what we want for our parks.
The wonderfully isolated Cape Scott Provincial Park was on this week’s list, and thus could be the future site of a small lodge, cabins or yurts. As Parks Minister Barry Penner noted, that would make things much nicer for Cape Scott visitors who didn’t like to tent. But is it true to the park legacy entrusted to us?
I hiked the park seven years ago with my youngest daughter, 14 at the time. We backpacked and tented for six days, and emerged at least five pounds slimmer from the hard work of it. The experience was all about doing for ourselves, in a wild environment that at times was quite daunting.
The park is perched at the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island, 16 kilometres away from teeniest, tiniest Holberg and a jouncy 70 kilometres away, on a gravel road, from Port Hardy, the nearest community of any size. The trails are rough, sparse, and snarled with tree roots. When it rains - and it often does - the mud can be thigh-deep in some spots.
There’s no water supply beyond that of the local creek system, nor any guarantee that you won’t get sick from drinking it should you forget to bleach, boil or otherwise treat it. Campers quickly learn to stake their tents well above the tide line, and to scramble like the dickens to uproot camp when the tide rolls in even higher regardless. Were you to hurt yourself along the way, help would come eventually, but not easily.
Add in a six-hour drive to Port Hardy from Victoria, the many months of the year when the hiking trails are almost impassable, and the fact that you’ll be carrying all your supplies and equipment on your back, and you get the picture. Nothing about experiencing Cape Scott park is about ease and convenience.
Nor was it in 1973 when the park was created. Then as now, part of what made Cape Scott a special place was that you really had to put some effort into it to visit the park. B.C. has any number of accessible and spectacular beaches and misty forests. What distinguishes Cape Scott is its sense of splendid isolation.
I can understand an aversion to tenting. I prefer a motorhome myself. But parks are preserved for reasons beyond a person’s immediate need to get a more comfy night’s sleep. So while Parks Minister Penner may indeed be right that more people would visit Cape Scott if they didn’t have to sleep in a tent, that has nothing to do with why Cape Scott was designated a provincial park.
The north Island has suffered immensely from the shifting fortunes of the forest and fishing industries. An influx of bigger crowds to Cape Scott would be a wonderful development for the struggling merchants and retailers who are hanging on for their lives in Port Hardy. But that mustn’t come at the cost of the park itself.
Holberg and Port Hardy are ideally situated for the kind of development the government is touting. Sprawling backpack supply stores, end-of-trip accommodation for hikers preparing for or wrapping up their trip, strings of restaurants for the ravenous hordes emerging from the culinary disciplines of backpacking with an urge to eat and drink just about anything - it could all unfold a mere 15 minutes’ drive from the park’s border.
Visitors who wanted to stay inside the park without having to tent would still be out of luck under such a plan. But that group isn’t going to like the rugged muck of the trails beyond San Josef Bay anyway (or is the next phase of the plan to pave the path?). If you can’t bear to tent, chances are that the whole rough-and-ready trip through Cape Scott park won’t be too appealing.
Each of the 12 parks now listed for development were set aside for different reasons by the various governments of the day. Some might dovetail quite nicely with the current government’s commercial interests. A big new lodge or a string of cabins might be exactly what’s needed at a more urban park.
But not Cape Scott. It was given to us to keep wild. Thirty-three years into the legacy, we don’t have the right to change our minds.