Saturday, June 23, 2007

Manitoba chief's blockade threats may be best strategy
June 22, 2007

Calls for a coast-to-coast railway blockade by aboriginal leader Terrance Nelson couldn’t be more un-Canadian.
We like things settled without conflict. We’re particularly loath to engage in it right out in the open, the way Nelson likes to do it.
The chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation says some outrageous things when he gets heated up about the grim struggles of Canada’s aboriginal population.
And he’s just about at the boiling point these days. The Assembly of First Nations is organizing a “day of action” next week for the nation’s aboriginals, and Nelson wants to see a blockade so big that Canada’s economy will still be reeling from the shock months from now.
“There’s only one way to deal with a white man. You either pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money,” Nelson most famously said a month ago in a media interview.
In a follow-up Globe and Mail profile this week, he reiterated his hope that aboriginals use the June 29 day of action as an opportunity to disrupt Canadian National railway shipments across the country.
On first blush, there’s no way to defend a guy like Nelson. What do racist comments and blockaded trains have to do with the problems of Canadian First Nations?
But viewed as a strategy, Nelson’s call to action is more understandable. And while the whole thing may seem just a little too angry for Canada’s tastes, in fact he’s got history on his side in advocating economic protest.
Maybe Nelson has even read Poor People’s Movements, the 1979 book that identified economic protest as one of the most important factors in determining whether anything actually changed for a particular sub-class fighting for its rights.
Authors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Coward looked at movements like American civil rights, welfare reform and workers’ rights. The issues are different again for Canada’s aboriginals, but they’ve certainly been stymied by many of the same things that got in the way of those earlier movements.
The Piven/Coward book found self-interest to be one of the most powerful motivators in prompting social change.
The “elite” who control society tend not to respond to the needs of poor people until their own interests are compromised. Economic disruptions get their attention.
Of course, a whole lot of other factors have to be in place as well. The authors documented the efforts of countless hard-working believers who played vital roles on the front lines of each of the movements.
The twists and turns of history also set the stage for change. The high unemployment rates of the Depression, for instance, primed the public to accept the need for benefits for unemployed workers.
So change isn’t only about applying economic pressure. Nelson needs a plan that’s far broader than a single day of railway blockades if he hopes to help aboriginals see a brighter day.
But I’d have to concur with him that it’s time to quit waiting for the nice people in charge to set things right.
As Nelson knows all too well, everything that goes wrong in this country goes wrong way more often for aboriginals.
They live in far greater poverty. They die at a much younger age, and endure challenging health problems more often. They drop out of school at alarming rates from Grade 8 on.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. On any social front, from homelessness to addiction to foster care, aboriginals lead the downward curve. They’ve been leading it for as long as I can remember, and for several decades before that.
“Look, I’m 53,” Nelson told the Globe in defending his call for a blockade. “We have done everything we can to wake up Canada. . .”
I suspect it must be hard to get aboriginals mad enough to rise up, because I would have expected rioting in the streets by this point.
You need only think of smallpox, land appropriation, cultural extermination, residential schools, the Indian Act and our complete inability to negotiate a treaty to know that history has not unfolded particularly well for Canada’s aboriginals.
At 53, Nelson has lived long enough to see any number of grand promises to Canada’s aboriginals wilt on the vine. Money changes hands and great wads of it seem to be spent in pursuit of a solution, but it never seems to trickle down to the people who need it most.
Can you get to the bottom of a problem like that by orchestrating a 24-hour national railway blockade? Probably not.
In fact, Assembly of First Nations leader Phil Fontaine is already playing down any suggestion of genuine confrontation, and is instead promoting June 29 as a day for Canada to educate itself about aboriginal issues.
That’s a nice Canadian-style compromise. But people like Nelson have figured out what that actually means: Nothing will change. In terms of really getting Canadians’ attention, a day of education doesn’t hold a candle to a day of railway blockades.
Peaceful, dignified solutions - yes, I still hope for that. But sometimes protest is all you’ve got left.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Choosing death ought to be our right
June 15, 2007

With any luck, I’ll live long enough to see this country do something brave around making it easier for people to choose death.
I respect all sides of the issue. There are some really terrifying possibilities any time it becomes socially acceptable for one group of humans to kill another.
But let’s just start with one thing, then: That an old and failing person ought to have the right to die gracefully and painlessly, at a time of their choosing. Surely we can agree on that.
I don’t think a lot about death, but it crosses my mind from time to time. For instance, I’m currently reflecting on whether I still want to be cremated, or am starting to favour being planted au natural in some beautiful forest.
People generally don’t have much say over how they die, so I won’t indulge in any vanities about how much control I will or won’t have over my own life when it’s my time to die. I know death comes from unexpected directions.
I can live with that. What scares me is imagining being in the same position as the 93-year-old Vernon woman who made the news this week after her doctor was convicted of trying to help her commit suicide.
The woman managed to secure a lethal dose of pills for herself. But staff at facility where she stayed found out before she could take the pills. They stopped her.
I think we’re supposed to be happy that her life was saved. Instead, I find myself nervous at the reminder of how tough it still is for people to die with dignity.
If it were up to me, I would have a death like in the Dutch movie Antonia’s Line - holding court with one loved one after another in a long and final farewell.
My dad’s oldest sister had a death very much like that. I still remember her resplendent in her white negligee, inviting each of us into her bedroom in her final weeks for a last warm word. It seemed a perfect death, if there could be such a thing.
But here we are eight years later, convicting a doctor for trying to help another tired old lady die sooner rather than later. And I realize how tenuous it all is.
I can strive to die like my aunt. But I could just as easily end up stuck someplace where nobody knows how important it is for me to have some control over my death, and end up living long enough to see my doctor convicted of trying to help me out.
The laws needn’t be sweeping. We don’t need to get into abortion, or any actions that might lead to people dying who aren’t ready to die.
But an old person grown too tired and sick to live anymore - that’s a different matter. There has to be a way to create laws that maintain respect for the right to life overall while making exceptions for personal choice at the end of life.
In some cases, there’s nothing wrong with choosing death over life. We accept that in theory. More than seven out of 10 of Canadians polled last week by Ipsos-Reid came out in support of the right to die.
In practice, it all depends.
If your type of death involves a great deal of pain, your chances of getting enough legal medication to kill you is more of a possibility. If you’re dying of less dramatic causes and without much pain, you could linger for years.
You can do things like living wills, or pieces like this one so that nobody ever thinks for a moment that you’d choose to be kept alive at any cost.
But what kind of a guarantee is that? Until Canadian law enshrines some mechanism that gives people the right to die under certain circumstances, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Next thing you know, they’re “saving” your life and trying to send your doctor to jail.
Ultimately, the problem seems to be that we can’t shake the feeling that nobody sane would ever choose to die. In fact, we all die. We deserve the chance to exercise at least a modicum of control over how it goes.
We had a heck of a time registering gun owners, and I imagine that endorsing the right to die could be even more paralysing. But we can’t ignore the issue for much longer.
Not when three-quarters of Canadians surveyed say they support the right to die. Not when doctors still risk criminal records for giving their patients a helping hand.
When time ran out for my mom’s old dog Jake, the vet came by the house and shot him up with something that sent him into a gentle, happy stupor, and then deep sleep. When it came to the final needle, he didn’t even notice.
It was a great way to go. I can only hope for the same.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Problems at BC Lottery bigger than Poleschuk
June 8, 2007

Vic Poleschuk had to go.
Somebody had to take the fall at the BC Lottery Corporation over the issue of whether a few retailers are cheating lottery customers out of their winnings. The president of the corporation is an obvious choice.
But we’d be naive to think that the problem ends there. If we’ve actually set up a government-run gambling industry that tolerates the cheating of customers, we’ve got a lot more to worry about than can ever be addressed by just firing the guy at the top.
Poleschuk has worked in upper reaches of BC Lottery Corp virtually since its inception in 1985, first as vice-president and then as president.
During his tenure, the lottery corporation presided over a 500 per cent rise in gambling revenues, to more than $2.5 billion a year. That’s pretty impressive from a business perspective.
But the gambling industry isn’t just another business. Poleschuk talked on many occasions about that very thing, and the need for lottery operations to be above reproach.
Before a government can “ normalize” gambling in the minds of its citizens, it must first convince doubters that yesterday’s sin is today’s legitimate revenue stream. That can be a tough sell.
In terms of gambling, a government has to convince people that the system is honest. You may not win after a night of government-sanctioned gambling, but the theory is that at least you can rest assured that you lost fair and square.
It’s an issue that the Canadian gambling industry has worked hard on. And so it should. It’s an industry that very readily lends itself to corruption.
Poleschuk - a lottery man ever since stepping out of the University of Manitoba back in 1978 - knew that keeping the trust of British Columbians was paramount. He wanted to see gambling “normalized” as a regular and acceptable activity, as did others at a national industry conference in Vancouver last year.
“Why do we have so much anti-gambling (sentiment) rather than focus on what we do and how we should support our customers?” asked Ontario Lottery chief Duncan Brown at the summit. “Until we can better frame that policy debate, we’re never going to be accepted in the same way as alcohol.”
A little disturbing, but probably true. The transformation of gambling’s image from sinful and bad to a fun thing for the whole family will be complete when gambling and alcohol are equally acceptable in our culture.
Given the ongoing challenges around gambling’s image, how did BC Lottery Corp. miss the signs that a handful of retailers might be cheating people out of their winnings? Whatever the answer, it’s much bigger than Vic Poleschuk.
B.C. Ombudsman Kim Carter dug deeper after lottery customers complained to her, and found a retailer who won more than $300,000 in small batches over five years. A second retailer won $10,000 annually for four consecutive years. Two others collected $8,000-plus for three out of four years.
Every penny might have been legitimately won, of course. The lottery corporation contends that a high win rate among its retailers merely reflects that they buy more tickets.
That’s undoubtedly true. Most retailers aren’t cheating anyone. Carter’s findings overall are heartening proof that the vast majority of lottery retailers are honest folks.
But the bigger problem identified in the ombudsman’s report is that there’s no way to say for sure.
Insubstantial to begin with, the various systems and processes the lottery corporation uses to prevent retailer fraud appear to be just plain missing in action.
For instance, customers are supposed to know to listen for a certain song whenever a winning ticket is presented to a retailer for verification. If you hear that song - You’re In the Money - I guess you’re supposed to challenge the clerk if he tries to tell you you’re not a winner.
I’d have my doubts about any security strategy that boils down to leaving it to customers to listen for a song. But it’s truly pointless when retailers merely have to turn off the sound of the computer to thwart the process.
Should customers grow suspicious of a retailer and complain to BC Lottery, the worst that can happen is a retailer no longer having the right to sell lottery products. No further investigations are done unless the customer can convince the police to do it. No word on how often police say yes.
Part of Poleschuk’s job was to see the inadequacies in such policies. In the wake of the current scandal, he had to be jettisoned as evidence of a corporation dedicated to maintaining system integrity and public trust.
But where was everybody else as the ? We have an entire branch of government devoted to gaming enforcement, and a billion-dollar-a-year need for its profits. If a problem as obvious as retailers being tempted to cheat slides under the radar, what else goes unnoticed?
Possibly nothing at all. But with an audit soon to come, now’s the time to be sure about that.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Tomorrow's disasters visible in report on kids in care
June 1, 2007

I spoke to a Grade 10 class about homelessness a few months back, and was profoundly discouraged to realize that to them, the problems in Victoria’s downtown were just the way it was.
They’d never known any different. The sleeping bags, the shopping carts, the drugs and the craziness - these kids had no way of knowing that just 10 years ago, most of that didn’t even exist.
On the one hand, the problems all seem so new. But as a report released this week makes clear, creating homelessness is in fact a slow, sad process.
Where did the trouble come from? People ask me that a lot. I then recite a long list of best guesses, starting with the drastic cuts to Canadian mental-health support that started in the early 1980s and carrying right on through two decades of missteps and flawed thinking.
We’ve now reached a point where we not only provide less help to people who need it, but also create the conditions that lead to more people needing help.
Few documents provide more heartwrenching proof of that than this week’s release from Child and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-LaFond.
Written with provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall, the report examined how B.C.’s kids in care are faring in school. Its grim findings answer a lot of questions about the roots of our growing social problems.
The study looked at 32,186 B.C. youngsters who had been in government care between 1997 and 2005. They were compared to 1.5 million other B.C. kids, to see what differences came up in terms of their education.
The differences are massive.
For starters, the high school dropout rate among kids in care is 79 per cent, versus 22 per cent for other students.
What do we know about a lack of education? Among other things, that it correlates with poorer health, lower income, more family problems and the likelihood of jail time.
People who drop out of high school are five times as likely as graduates to end up on income assistance, notes the study. They’re twice as likely to go to jail. Their physical health is poorer.
In other words, a high-school education goes a long way to predicting how the rest of your life turns out.
But the story gets worse for B.C.’s children in care. More than half of those in the study were designated “special needs,” compared to a scant 8.4 per cent of the other students. By age 16, fully three-quarters of boys in care were considered to have special needs.
Most of those special needs related to behaviour problems and mental illness. That was sharply different than other children in the study, who were most likely to be designated as having “special needs” because they were gifted.
The study found a disturbing pattern: Children in care came to kindergarten less prepared to learn, started falling behind the other students almost immediately, and continued stumbling until they finally dropped out.
True, children who need to be taken away from their families can be presumed to already have the deck stacked against them.
Indeed, even in kindergarten, these children were three times as likely as their peers to have poor physical health, language and cognitive barriers, and less social competence.
But the really sad story revealed by the report is that they stayed that way. They arrived at school already struggling, and never really caught up.
Many of those kids will nonetheless live out their lives in honest and hard-working fashion, because what happens in high school doesn’t tell the full story of a person’s life.
But no doubt some of those children from the early period of the study have already drifted to the streets by now. Bad things can happen to anyone, it’s true, but they’re way more likely to happen to a poor kid who starts out life disadvantaged and never does get his feet underneath him.
That must have always been so, of course. I have no definitive answers for why the disadvantages of today seem to have a far greater impact on a person’s life than seemed the case 50 years ago - when the dropout rates were far higher and social supports even less.
But whatever the reasons, things are different now. Proof of that is all around us. The way it used to be is no longer the way it is, nor will change happen just by wishing for it.
On the streets, we’ll begin the transformation when we recognize the problems for what they are and start building housing, more comprehensive supports and a disease-management plan for addiction.
But the future is in our schools. The problems of tomorrow will be avoided in large part by meeting kids’ needs today. We’ve just been given a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go.