Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pickton trial no relief for outdoor sex workers
Jan. 26, 2007

Today was going to be the day I didn’t write about social issues. Too much thinking about the frightening mistakes being made these days can really bum me out.
But then Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan came out with his happily-ever-after take this week on how the trial of Robert Pickton will be the thing that changes everything for the troubled women the pig farmer allegedly preyed on.
“There's no doubt that a very big, negative impression is going to be created by this," said Sullivan when asked about the impact of Pickton’s trial on Vancouver’s reputation.
"But hopefully, out of this, we can turn it into a good-news story and find a way to ensure that no women will ever have to put themselves at risk again in this way."
I just couldn’t let that go.
If we actually planned on making a difference in the lives of the women who go missing on our streets, there’d have been some sign of it by now. We’ve known for many years that women are dying out there. It’s not like we can claim surprise.
They’ve been going missing in significant numbers since the 1980s. They’ve gone missing in Vancouver, in Prince George, in Edmonton and Victoria - in every city in Canada, no doubt.
Sure, we’ve wrung our hands about the situation. Our newspaper archives are laden with our outbursts of dismay and horror.
But we haven’t actually done anything. An extremely disadvantaged group of women and youth are still having to work the dark streets on the edges of our towns.
Violence is routine, whether robbery; rape or assault. Addiction is common. So are the many illnesses that result from combining heavy drug use, poor nutrition, and a hard, hard life.
The men who shop for sex among such disadvantaged people run the gamut. Many of them aren’t out to hurt anyone. But given the state of the modern-day Canadian outdoor prostitution stroll, a few killers are bound to find their way there.
The conditions on the stroll are such that murderous types are provided with anonymous access to a population that’s widely shunned by the mainstream.
That population works in the dark, and largely out of sight. The drugs are everywhere, so nobody’s eager to call in the police. The workers are often sick, desperate and out of options, making them easy pickings.
If you were looking for a woman or a kid who nobody was going to make too big a deal about if they went missing, where would you look?
So Sullivan’s bright-new-day comments are just a bit much, given our fairly horrifying lack of action to date.
We can’t just hope to “find a way.” We have to actively seek one out. If we don’t want a subclass of workers vanishing on the edges of our cities, what are we prepared to do about it?
Would we consider trying to house them, for instance? Would we actively help them find another way to make a living? Would we find a safer place for the ones who continue to work, and get them the health care they need to get a handle on their addictions?
I talked to the Canadian Labour Congress the other day about whether the organization would ever consider coming out in defence of a safer sex trade. The members are divided, I was told. No position has been taken.
With all due respect to the members - and to anyone who still thinks we will eliminate prostitution - people are dying out there. They were dying before the Pickton case ever made headlines and they’ll be dying long after if all we’re going to do is more dithering about whether we feel ready to deal with the bigger issues of prostitution.
The first thing to do is strengthen social services, because many of the thousands of women working on B.C.’s outdoor strolls would gladly be doing something else for a living if it was an option. They need a place to clean up and housing they can afford, and maybe three or four years of solid support to get their lives straightened out.
Next comes the workplace.
We wouldn’t tolerate the ridiculous conditions of work that sex workers endure for any other profession. We shouldn’t be tolerating them for the workers of the sex industry either. Whatever our feelings on prostitution, surely we can all agree that adults working in it deserve a safe, healthy and fair workplace.
Improving the situation for women on the outdoor stroll also requires a commitment to cracking down hard on the men who go there to hurt somebody. Nothing about the sale of sex has to involve violence. The killing of a sex worker is not about a “high risk lifestyle,” but about our willingness to apply that term as an excuse for doing nothing.
It doesn’t have to be that way. But if we can’t get beyond the talk, the Pickton trial is nothing more than a pause in the proceedings for B.C.’s most vulnerable workers.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Going nowhere fast, and spending a fortune to do it
Jan. 19, 2007

If you’re the type to worry about where we’re headed in this world, these are bleak times.
We’re at one of those points in history where things on any number of fronts are either going to get much better or a whole lot worse based on whatever we do next. Unfortunately, we’re showing few signs of being up for the challenge.
I’ve often wondered at what point a community ignites. How did the small, brave acts of people in the U.S. finally explode into the civil rights movement? What finally elevated gay rights to being a legitimate issue that mattered?
To know that would perhaps be the secret to unlocking this national stupor of ours, one that seems to render us incapable of addressing an array of really serious problems unfolding around us.
We would not for a moment be so cavalier in our personal lives. We wouldn’t continue to do things that clearly weren’t working, or spend vast sums of money without ever questioning the benefit.
Yet we tolerate it for our country. We see the error of our ways, yet continue down the same path anyway. It turns out the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
I can only hope for revolution.
No violence, of course - nothing truly good ever comes from that. But we’re way overdue for a peaceful uprising, something much bigger than just another election. Either that or go mad from all the senseless, short-sighted decision making that has accumulated to a point of crisis.
The issue of the moment is our national drug “strategy,” which has once more been revealed as being both tremendously expensive and completely ineffective at the same time.
This time it’s B.C.’s Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS pointing the finger, noting that the federal government’s promises three years ago to do better have yet to materialize. Meanwhile, the country’s drug problems set us back $2.5 billion and we didn’t even make a dent in them.
I suppose it comes down to a battle between those who believe we just need to crack down a little harder on drugs, and those who think that living through several miserable decades of that tired old strategy ought to be proof enough that it doesn’t work.
The most damning evidence that it doesn’t is the relentless climb in drug use. Ten years ago, 28.5 per cent of Canadians had consumed illicit drugs in their lifetime. Now, 45 per cent have. A survey two years ago found that almost 270,000 Canadians were currently injecting drugs.
The worst of the impact can be seen in the heart of our communities, where the homeless and the addicted pile up in disturbingly larger numbers. But the true toll of our adherence to flawed drug policy is much greater than that.
It encompasses lost income and family disaster. Rising infection rates. A growing health burden. A truly staggering annual bill for policing: $1.4 billion.
All that money spent, and not a damn thing accomplished.
How can that not be the stuff of revolution? Instead, we tolerate more of the same. We curse the waste, but do nothing more than to mark an “X” every four or five years beside the name of whatever local candidate tickled our fancy in the runup to the election.
Like so many issues that paralyze our nation, the drug debate comes down to strong differences in opinion among us. Nothing wrong with a difference in opinion. But when you’ve tried it one way and have all the stats to prove that it didn’t work, it’s time to put opinion in its place and get down to the business of fixing things.
In terms of drug policy, we are torn between those who still think we can “stamp out” drug use, and those who know we can’t. Once upon a time, we probably didn’t know which was the right course to take.
But decades on, we can’t say that anymore. We’ve given far more years and money than we should have to flawed strategies based on the criminalization of drug use.
I don’t have an Ipsos-Reid survey in my pocket to back me up, but I suspect a majority of Canadians would agree with that. I think they’re tired of everything to do with our failed drug strategies - from having their cars broken into, to seeing their income taxes frittered away on ineffective programs even while people howl for more services.
But will we revolt? That doesn’t seem to be the Canadian way.
Tremendous changes are occurring around us, from urban decay to climate change, from a rise in drug use to a drop in health and fitness. Still, our concern and indignation rarely develop past the level of mildly testy water-cooler conversation.
Surely the moment has to come soon - the one that finally sets a fire under us. Here’s hoping for an inferno.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Derik Lord's long wait

The tale of two foolish teenage boys hired to carry out a murder that was supposed to make them rich is a veritable Aesop’s fable in terms of the obvious moral of the story.
One of the boys admitted his guilt from the outset, and did what the system required of him during 10 years in prison. In return for his good behaviour, David Muir was granted parole five years ago for the two murders he helped carry out in 1990.
The other has steadfastly denied his guilt. He has refused to take required prison programs, and his father has developed into a notorious agitator who infuriates prison officials. So Derik Lord remains in jail, denied parole for a fourth time last month.
The moral: Things go better for people who accept responsibility. Unfortunately for Lord, the opportunity to act accordingly just may have passed.
Lord, Muir and pal Darren Huenemann were teen friends in Saanich when they were convicted in 1992 of carrying out the murders of Darren’s mother and grandmother at the older woman’s Tsawwassen home.
Nobody who knew them could believe it at first. But prosecutors headed into trial with some significant evidence. Included were tapes of a flurry of phone calls between the boys after police told Muir they had a witness who could place the boy - then just 15 - in Tsawwassen at the time of the murders.
Prosecutors also had Huenemann’s young girlfriend, who had a damning story of picking the boys up at the Swartz Bay ferry terminal and hearing of the events of that night.
And then there was the story told by Muir. He told police that he and Lord had been hired by Huenemann to kill the teenager’s mother and grandmother. Huenemann stood to inherit $4 million from their deaths, and had promised to share his newfound fortune with his friends.
In Lord’s version, all three boys were at the Lord family home at 8:30 p.m. on the night of the murders, which meant they couldn’t have been in Tsawwassen. It’s an all-or-nothing story. To believe Lord, you have to believe that none of the boys were guilty - even though Muir confessed to everything.
Derik’s mother Elouise backs up her son. She says she was at home that night and saw all three boys in the basement. Derik’s father David, while not there that night, ferociously adheres to the same story, sometimes to the point of getting himself thrown in jail for protesting some aspect of his son’s incarceration.
Law-abiding before Derik’s conviction, David has turned into something of a chronic troublemaker in the intervening years. When I visited the family six years ago, David joked that his tombstone would read “Well-known to police.”
I had gone to Chilliwack to interview the family , where they’d moved from Saanich years earlier to be closer to Derik at Matsqui penitentiary. The parents were resolutely convinced of Derik’s innocence, and still are.
The irony is that their need to believe that Derik doesn’t deserve to be in prison ensures that he’ll never get out.
It also guarantees the worst kind of prison time. Any time somebody in charge grows weary of Derik’s ongoing refusal to admit his guilt, he’s dispatched to a tougher prison as punishment. The 33-year-old had worked his way into a healing-style aboriginal prison by the time of his last bid for parole. Now, he’s back behind bars in Matsqui.
How will it end for Lord? Possibly with a genuine lifetime in jail if he continues to deny the murders. The system may have grown more sensitive to allegations of wrongful conviction, but not in a case where only one of the three men convicted is continuing to deny the trio’s crime.
I got an anonymous e-mail the last time I wrote about Lord in 2001, declaring that Lord was very much guilty as charged no matter what he said.
I think he likely is. But it would be a tremendously hard confession for him to make now, given that his parents have spent the last 10 years and every nickel of their savings on asserting his innocence.
They believe in his innocence, and I sometimes think he has ended up convincing himself of that as well. But if you can’t admit guilt, you stay in jail. And so it goes for Derik Lord.
No one is well-served by keeping Lord in prison. Jails are expensive, and not known for their positive impacts. If Lord was a violent young man, he hasn’t stayed that way, and seems like the kind of guy who’d lead a quiet life far from the public eye if ever released.
But the stories a family tells itself sometimes take on lives of their own, and pretty soon there’s no turning back. The burden of the lie just may be Lord’s to bear for a lifetime.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The entrenchment of MRSA
Jan. 5, 2007

More than 1,000 people in our region will catch a terrible infection this year that no antibiotic will easily defeat. The worst cases will be fatal, but even the ones that aren’t will still be dangerous, unpleasant and extremely difficult to clear up.
Once upon a time, an infection like the one taking root right now was a problem only for very specific populations. A few isolated tribes of Australian aborigines. People living on the streets. Athletes playing contact sports. Military recruits.
Not anymore. The staph infections showing up in our community lately are occurring in people with no known risk factors. “We are the epicentre of the country,” local infection specialist Dr. Pamela Kibsey said this week.
Human beings have been grappling with staphylococcus infections for millennia, of course. No small wonder penicillin was given a hero’s welcome upon its invention in the 1940s, considering how many people had been killed by infection up to that point.
Alas, you can’t keep a bad bug down. From the emergence of penicillin-resistant staph barely a decade after penicillin’s discovery, to the multi-resistant “superbugs” of today, we have yet to vanquish a very old foe.
Bacteria are clever beasts, and likely would have given us a run for our money no matter what strategy we took for surviving their onslaughts. Staph bacteria have reached the point of being able to mutate almost as fast as the latest wonder drug is being rushed to market.
But we’ve also aided the bugs’ cause immensely by doing just about everything wrong in terms of infection control. It starts with years of gulping antibiotics like candy and continues through a long series of health-care and social policy changes made for reasons of economy rather than disease management.
And now we’ve all got a problem.
The latest version of staph has a big name: Community-acquired Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. The experts call it CA-MRSA.
In this region, we’ve been living with HA-MRSA - the kind you get in hospital - for almost a decade. What’s going on now is basically the result of the same bug, except you don’t have to go to the hospital anymore to end up infected.
My dad had the dubious honour in the late 1990s of being one of the first hospital patients in the region to acquire MRSA. The bacteria got into a surgical wound. The ensuing infection almost killed him, and the heavy-duty antibiotics he had to be on took almost as serious a toll.
More pertinently to those beyond his immediate family, he cost the system a fortune. He was in isolation in hospital for five months, on an antibiotic drip that cost more than $150 a day.
The intensity of his illness definitely would have pushed up his nursing costs. And every day he was in hospital meant another day of risk for everyone else who was in there, because staphylococcus aureas spreads like crazy among the sick and weak.
Add eight years of inflation and the spiralling costs of pharmaceuticals, and you can figure out how much this same scenario would cost today. If my dad had been in his working years and not yet retired, the financial hit he’d have taken from being laid up for five months would have been disastrous on a whole other level for my family.
Not all of the 1,000 cases of MRSA in the coming year will be as dramatic, of course. Staph presents differently in everybody, from relatively minor boils to ravaged lungs. A few of us live with MRSA in our bodies all the time, and never get sick.
Still, the entrenchment of MRSA over time is the alarming part. I used to think the trick was to stay away from antibiotics and hospitals, but now it seems that even those ramparts have been breached. The world is growing ill enough that individual efforts to stay healthy are no longer a guarantee.
Why the rise in infection? Pick your theory. We now have ghettos of street people being left to sicken in our downtowns. We’ve seen huge changes in health care. Our food supply is downright alarming, saturated in antibiotics.
Start with an increasingly privatized and mobile health-care force that travels from site to site, inadvertently spreading infection. Mix in ever-shorter hospital stays, heightening the risk that someone is released into the community before their brewing infection is even noticed. Then there’s the overcrowded emergency rooms, stacked with those sickly victims of the street and everybody jammed together for hours.
We eat meat and eggs from antibiotic-laden animals, the poor sods would not survive the miserable conditions of factory farming without the drugs. We overuse antibiotics ourselves, continuing to take them for the wrong things, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But for as long as it is, brace yourself for the consequences.