Monday, December 29, 2008

We've shopped 'til we dropped - then shopped some more

I’m not certain when it was that shopping became a question of patriotic duty, but I’m guessing it was when U.S. President George Bush made it an imperative in the days after 9/11.
“Get on board,” he urged a devastated American public struggling to come to grips with the bombing of the World Trade Centre.
“Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Fast-forward seven years and the bombs are more metaphorical, this time tearing apart the world’s financial markets instead of New York City’s twin towers. But shopping is still the “cure,” apparently, as evidenced by our own federal government’s recent fit of pique with the country’s big banks over whether they’re doing enough to provide Canadians with easy credit.
I get the theory of it - that everything depends on everything at times like these, and that economic stability hinges on us all just sticking to what we’ve always done and continuing to spend. But is that really a solution anymore now that we know where such habits get us?
I lost track of the endless times this Christmas season that the media featured stories speculating on whether all of us would/wouldn’t be shopping in our usual excessive way this season.
The shopping theme is always popular this time of year. But the level of coverage was truly extraordinary this season, given the natural tie-in with the global recession. Radio and on-line polls jumped in with the tough questions: Are you shopping yet? How much do you think you’ll spend? Is that more or less than usual?
I doubt the media intended their scrutiny to effectively come across as an exhortation to shop. But that’s what it ended up feeling like to me. Was I going to be letting down the national economy if I didn’t get out there and do more spending?
I’ve got nothing against shopping. I did my share this Christmas, albeit not always happily. (I like the idea of exchanging gifts with people you love, but find the current tradition has morphed into some kind of nutso mutant that burns through a ton of money and stresses everybody out.)
But shouldn’t we be reconsidering everything to do with the way we manage money right now in light of what’s going on with the world economy? Not to oversimplify a complex situation, but the lesson I’ll be taking away from this period in history is about what happens on a global level when we all get used to spending money we don’t have.
Bring the big concepts down to the individual level, and it’s not far off of a typical North American Christmas shopping experience.
I understand the potential for economic disaster were we to ever stop shopping. Our spending habits drive business and industry in Canada and around the globe, and employ legions of people whose jobs depend on our willingness to continue to shop, shop, shop.
In Canada, we keep almost as many people working through a single month of crazy Christmas spending as the country’s manufacturing industry provides in an entire year. We spend close to $30 billion annually just in December.
But do we want to? Can we afford to? Those are important questions to ask.
Every January I talk a good game about spending less on the next Christmas, but inevitably find myself jammed into the stores 11 months later spending more than I wanted to. Judging by the number of grim-faced shoppers on auto-pilot I passed by in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I’m not alone with this problem.
Those who long for a return to the true meaning of Christmas lament the shopping frenzy that surrounds the season. A pleasant tradition of sharing small gifts has grown into six weeks of frantic buying, little of which has anything to do with Jesus.
My complaints are more secular. I just think we’re losing touch with the fact that the bill always comes due, whether we’re talking about our Christmas spending or the global financial crisis.
Lenders, investors, traders, venture capitalists, regulators - they all have had a hand in the crisis that’s rocking world markets. But at the root of the sub-prime collapse that triggered much of the economic mayhem are individual consumers who were in over their heads. They shopped when they should have been saving.
A tip for surviving economic downturns: Learn to live within your means, whatever the season. The only thing mindless spending gets you is more of the same.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's good news week

Even a doomsayer like me has to let up once in a while, and the Christmas season generally feels like the time to do it. Maybe it’s all those songs about peace and goodwill.
At any rate, I’ve dug up some nuggets of good news to share with you this festive season.
I admit, my initial instinct was to add a “but” to every one of them, because it seems that every upside has a downside in these problematic times. But for the sake of a holly, jolly column, I’m going to try to keep my gloomy inner voice in check for a change and tell you about what’s working.

The B.C. government is awakening to the problems of homelessness. Four of the six news releases on the Ministry of Housing and Social Development Web site this week detail actions being taken to house or shelter people living on B.C. streets.
Better still, work is underway on 19 old hotels in the Vancouver area to turn them into better housing for the impoverished people who already live there, plus add new units for some of the thousands still living on Vancouver’s streets. Sure, it’s probably because of the Olympics, but who cares?

Four “StrongStart” preschool programs launched this week in B.C. The new programs, available to any B.C. school district that wants to give them a try, are designed to help children get off to a better start when they begin kindergarten.
All the studies point to the importance of those early years in determining a child’s future well-being, so it’s great to hear that we’re paying more attention to that vital period of development. Parents and children attend the free drop-ins together.

We’re trying to be more effective at preventing youth crime. We’ve been talking about this issue like we meant it for a very long time. But what’s different about the latest initiative in B.C. is that it’s evidence-based.
In other words, researchers have actually evaluated the new strategies that will be piloted in six communities and deemed that they really do work when it comes to keeping kids away from a life of crime. The first pilot targets Vancouver children ages 10 to 15 who tend to take their first steps into crime after long hours hanging out with other youth at the city’s SkyTrain stations.
Too often, we tend to take people’s word for it when they seek public funding for “prevention” programs. We don’t ask whether the methods are actually effective, or require those running the programs to produce meaningful evidence that show their approach is working. If we really want to prevent B.C. children from getting involved in crime, that has to change.

Fewer Canadian children are going to jail. Credit the five-year-old Youth Criminal Justice Act for that positive change. Studies have repeatedly shown that jailing young people sets them up for criminal involvement as adults, but it wasn’t until revamped young-offender laws were enacted in 2003 that Canada’s courts started changing their sentencing patterns.
The number of youth doing jail sentences has dropped by 36 per cent since the act was passed into law. The past year alone saw a five per cent drop.

Almost half of Canadians are leading a “very” environmentally active lifestyle. Some 45 per cent of us routinely adhere to at least four of six indicators around good environmental practise, and another 45 per cent manage two or three. We’re turning down our thermostats, using low-flow toilets and showerheads, switching to fluorescent bulbs, composting and recycling.
Unfortunately, we’ve got ways to go. Canada’s household greenhouse gas emissions are up 13 per cent since 1990, with motor-fuel use alone contributing to almost a third of that increase. Oops.

Speaking of gas, it’s cheaper. These are happy days for drivers, if not for the environment. Gas prices in October were almost 12 per cent lower than they were in September, and they’ve fallen even more since then. Granted, energy costs are still 14 per cent higher than they were a year ago, but hey, enjoy the “savings” while you can.
Overall, it’s costing you 10.5 per cent more to run your car now than a year ago. But at least the cost of buying a new one is down nine per cent.
B.C. leads the nation in the growth of small business. Economic diversity is what minimizes the ravages of a downturn, so let’s be grateful for the more than 385,000 small businesses that together account for a third of B.C.’s gross domestic product. Show them that you care by doing business with them.

Merry Christmas, folks. May all your news be good.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sheer madness and massive waste of money to release BC prisoners to homelessness

What I’d planned for today’s column was a look at what happens when somebody without housing is released from a provincial jail in B.C.
I’d run into an interesting fellow named Reg in my downtown travels, who’d wanted to talk about the practise of releasing prisoners straight onto the streets after they’ve served their time at the jail on Wilkinson Road. He told me it had happened to him more times than he could count.
But sometimes a column ends up becoming the story of what happened on the way to the story, and this is one of those.
First, a few statistics to give you a sense of the issue at hand. B.C. has nine jails, which at any given point in time are housing close to 2,800 prisoners serving sentences of less than two years. The average stay is 55 days, so that means as many as 18,500 people moving in and out of B.C. jails in any given year, at a cost of almost $160 million.
That’s just the cost to lock them up, of course. On top of that are the far larger costs of crime itself - obvious things like policing and courts, but also the incalculable costs borne by the 300,000 British Columbians who are victims of crime in a typical year.
Big stuff. You’d presume somebody in the provincial government would be keeping a careful eye on all of that, wouldn’t you? You’d presume somebody would have realized that releasing prisoners to the street is a recipe for more crime, more street problems and more cost.
But you’d be wrong. It turns out the government doesn’t even keep records of how many prisoners are being released into homelessness, let alone question the practise.
Nor is anyone monitoring the number of repeat offenders cycling through B.C. jails. BC Corrections spokesman Bruce Bannerman tells me the provinces have never been able to reach agreement on a single definition of “recidivism,” so nobody tracks it anymore.
I’d initially set out to try to talk to somebody at Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre about the problem, but that turned out to be a wild fantasy. I was diverted to BC Corrections first, then made my own way to the Public Safety Ministry four days later when my calls still hadn’t been returned.
Six days after my first inquiry and half an hour past the time I’d given as my absolute deadline, I got a call from Bannerman.
Corrections worries about corrections issues, he told me. Once a prisoner’s sentence is done, it’s up to “community partners” and other government agencies to take it from there.
Considering that there is no government agency that actually finds people housing - and no housing to be found by the weary, underfunded “community partners” who are out there looking - I guess that answers my question about whether prisoners are being released straight to the streets.
Bannerman says that at least these days, everyone coming out of B.C. prisons gets $200 or so from the welfare ministry as they leave. That’s a change from a few years ago when they walked out the door with nothing. Reg says it’s hard not to want to buy drugs or alcohol with the money, especially given how many prisoners these days have addictions.
BC Corrections wants me and you to believe that we can leave it to “community partners” to take care of things on the other side of the prison wall. But it’s just not true. Agencies are doing what they can to find housing, but there’s very little housing to be found. The new Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team (VICOT) is showing some early successes in housing 50 chronic offenders with diagnosed mental illness, but there are far more people than that who need the help and VICOT already seems to be at capacity.
Reg says he can always tell during a stint at “Wilkie” when a fellow prisoner is due for release, because all they’ll be talking about is whether anyone knows a place where they can stay.
When Reg got out of jail three weeks ago, he was under a court order stipulating he stay at a recovery house as a condition of being released. Yet he still ended up released to the streets. He dreams of opening a transition house specifically for men coming out of prison and trying to stay out of trouble - men like him.
“Right now, people are getting out of Wilkie and are back there almost immediately,” he says. “How long’s it going to take once you’re out on the street before you get some crack and booze in you and kick in somebody’s door?”

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Stigma one of the worst 'symptoms' of HIV

It’s a rainy Tuesday, and the group of women who put on this year’s Viral Monologues are debriefing over bowls of moose-meat stew about their performance the previous weekend.
There were some challenging moments. One of the six performers backed out at the last minute, unable to bear the thought of putting her HIV status out there for all the world to see. That left an empty chair on stage.
But the group decided to leave the chair there anyway, as a reminder of the stigma that still lingers when it comes to HIV. The effect was powerful.
The Viral Monologues models itself after Eve Ensler’s popular Vagina Monologues. The “viral” version of the play was launched in 2002 by the Voice Collective, the AIDS Vancouver Island women’s group who is meeting on this day to dissect its sixth and most recent production.
The “monologue” premise a la Ensler is simple enough: Women sit on stage and tell personal stories from their lives - from the point of view of their vaginas in Ensler’s case, or through the lens of HIV in the case of the Viral Monologues.
Ensler’s stories are real-life, but presented by actors. What distinguishes the Viral Monologues is that the stories are told by the women who are actually living them. Today at the debrief, talk turns to how challenging that can be.
Revealing the intimate details of your life to an audience of strangers would be difficult at the best of times. But when the story is about HIV, anything can happen. One member of the Voice Collective is learning that the hard way, having been ordered out of Canada after years of living here with her Canadian husband when word got out that she was HIV-positive.
A shift on AVI’s information line is a painful reminder of the stigma that continues to cling to HIV, says AVI manager Heidi Exner.
“I’ve had people ask me whether they should bleach their dishes now that they’ve found out their friend has HIV,” she says. “It’s not the people with HIV who change. We change the people.”
Media attention is a mixed blessing, the women agree. The stories need to get out there, because they put a face on HIV. Those who still envision HIV as the quick and brutish killer it once was need to meet the new generation of people who are living into old age with the virus due to major advances in treatment.
But the risk to those who go public shouldn’t be underestimated, because there’s just no predicting what might happen once the story of you and your HIV hits the daily paper. Even when things go as well as they possibly could, there’s a potential for something to go very wrong when it comes to a disease as stigmatized as HIV.
An uninformed and fearful landlord could see your name in the paper, for instance, and start working on ways to evict you. A potential employer could see the story and choose somebody else for the job. The guy at your bank, or your kid’s teacher, might start looking at you funny. The pity in people’s eyes might drive you mad.
Once you and your disease are featured in the media, you’re “out” wherever you go. There’s no taking your privacy back.
If it’s a story about living with asthma or cancer, no problem. Nobody gets judged for having asthma or cancer, or a whole roster of other diseases. But the same can’t be said for HIV.
Even the way a person gets HIV determines whether they’ll be more or less stigmatized . There’s one kind of stigma for those who catch HIV through a blood transfusion, and quite another for those infected through injection drug use. As for sex, better to have contracted HIV through your unfaithful spouse than to have gotten it through a promiscuous lifestyle.
Exner tells a funny/tragic story of a hospital doctor relentlessly questioning her one time about the source of a friend’s HIV, as if her answer would make all the difference as to how the patient was treated. The sad thing is, it might have.
With new medications turning HIV into a chronic health condition rather than a death sentence, it’s stigma that often gives the disease its sharpest edge these days. The women around the table agree it’s tough to go public with your story in the face of such judgment, but recognize that staying silent just feeds the sense of shame.
“It’s part of our life,” says one. “We’ve grown a lot by telling our stories.”

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Local police officer takes a stand against drug prohibition

David Bratzer and I share at least one opinion in common: That it costs us a pointless fortune to maintain the charade of having effective drug laws in Canada.
Me holding that opinion: No big deal. Anyone who knows the kind of things I write about wouldn’t be too surprised to discover I’m of the belief that Canada and the U.S. have made a complete hash of things by treating a health and social issue like a criminal matter.
But Bratzer holding that opinion: That’s just a little different. He’s a Victoria police officer - the one tasked with enforcing those laws.
I suspect there are many more who think like Const. Bratzer inside the department, as you’d expect would happen to anyone tasked with patrolling Victoria’s ridiculous streets for any length of time. But it’s still not a view that’s expressed publicly by police very often.
In fact, Bratzer is one of only two active police officers in Canada who does public speaking on behalf of the U.S.-based non-profit, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). He signed on three months ago after clearing it with his boss, and now aims to put some of his off-hours to use speaking to people about why drug prohibition doesn’t work.
“LEAP’s position is that a lot of the problems we’re seeing aren’t caused by drugs, but rather the unintended consequences of drug prohibition,” says Bratzer, citing public-health problems, violence and a gang-controlled drug market as examples of that.
Bratzer came to the same conclusion after three years of policing the streets of Victoria.
“The effort that we put into chasing drugs - it’s bottomless,” he says. “Canadians have put billions and billions into fighting the war on drugs, but at the end of the day they’re cheaper, more potent and more available than ever before.”
Wanting an end to prohibition has nothing to do with liking drug abuse, notes Bratzer. But ceding control of an arbitrary assortment of drugs to gangs and criminals simply isn’t working as a strategy. The LEAP Web site ( tracks U.S. “drug war” spending by the minute; at $2,000 every 60 seconds, spending for 2008 is already more than $46 billion.
Canada doesn’t officially have a war on drugs, with federal authorities preferring to describe our efforts as “demand and availability reduction.” We’re not quite so jail-crazy, nor so prone to lock up people indefinitely at great cost and to little effect.
But we still spend a heck of a lot on drug enforcement in Canada - more than half a billion dollars a year. And if the goal of all that spending is to wipe out trafficking and the use of illegal drugs, then anyone with eyes and 15 minutes to hang out in the downtown can see that it’s not working.
“The LEAP strategy is to build a bureau of speakers modelled on ‘Vietnam Vets Against the War.’ That group was effective because they had the credibility of having been there,” says Bratzer. “What LEAP believes is that once people hear from those in law enforcement about the multiple harms caused by drug prohibition, they’ll change their minds.”
Bratzer is careful to point out that his views are his own, and not those of the Victoria Police Department. He also stresses that the solutions lie in slow, measured steps that remove drug laws and replace them with good public policy.
“I don’t support drug abuse, and I don’t support breaking the law. I know it all has to be about baby steps,” says Bratzer. “My message to the marijuana lobby is to aim higher, because if marijuana becomes legal but all the others remain the way they are, there’s still a lot of harm being done.”
Bratzer’s view is that “soft” drugs should be taxed and sold, similar to alcohol and tobacco. Harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin would be available as prescription drugs, and “consumed in a monitored site” as part of a harm-reduction program.
“I think every doctors’ office should be a needle exchange,” he adds.
Bratzer knows his decision to go public with his views might not sit well with some of his co-workers at the department. As of this week, he’s also got a new boss to consider: Chief Jamie Graham.
“I’m not saying police should stop being police,” says Bratzer. “I have a lot of respect for my fellow police officers, and am not trying to shove this down their throat.
“But at the end of the day, I didn’t want to work as a police officer for 30 years and end up feeling like this was an issue I should have spoken up about sooner.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Early-morning street tour speaks volumes for what hasn't changed

Giant box of day-old doughnuts: Check. Three big jugs of coffee and a whole lot of sugar and cream: Check. Final essential item: Two packs of cigarettes, enough for one smoke each for the first 40 people Rev. Al Tysick sees on his regular morning rounds.
He goes out every weekday morning at 5:45 a.m. to wake up people sleeping on Victoria’s streets. He started doing it seven months ago, after funding changes at the rebuilt Our Place street drop-in resulted in shorter opening hours. He buys the cigarettes with his own money, because getting a free smoke in the morning means a lot to people.
“It’s like taking a bottle of wine to a friend’s house,” says Tysick as he parks the Our Place van at our first top on 800-block Fort Street. “That’s what we’re doing this morning: We’re going to their house.”
Tysick’ wake-up call is a kinder, gentler version of the one that people will get an hour later, when police do their own morning rounds to flush the homeless from the downtown alcoves and hidey-holes where they sleep. It’s a doomed exercise: No shelter or drop-in is open anywhere in the city at 7 a.m., so there’s no place for people to go.
I’ve offered to be Tysick’ assistant on this particular morning, which entails keeping the coffee flowing and the doughnut box replenished. His rounds barely stretch over three square blocks, but he knows he’ll see at least 40 people even so. He knows, because the cigarettes always run out.
It used to be he could find a lot of people on Cormorant Street, but nobody goes there anymore after the heat came on this spring and the needle exchange was ordered out. Now, they go half a block further east, to the steps of the Ministry of Housing and Social Development building - the “Ministry of Love,” as it’s wryly referred to on the streets.
A year ago, I spent several weeks looking into street issues for the Times Colonist, and came out of it hoping against hope that what I’d seen was one of those “darkest before the dawn” periods. There was nowhere to go but up, I figured.
But in the morning dark outside the welfare ministry this week, handing out coffee to a growing line of people emerging from the shadows, I saw it wasn’t so. Yes, some positive things have happened this past year - more mats on the floor, more support and outreach, even a little bit of housing. But you’d never know it by the way things look on the street.
I’ve met many good people through my involvement with the Mayor’s Task Force and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. Some very smart, caring minds are hard at work right now unravelling the issues tangling up people on the street. One day down the line, the efforts of the coalition are going to bring about real change in terms of how we manage street issues.
But what’s to be done until then? Even if we could start 20 new housing projects tomorrow, they’re years away, and the current downturn in the economy certainly won’t speed that process. What’s the plan for the short term?
If there was an earthquake this week and 1,500 people were left homeless, you know how our community would respond. We’d blow right through whatever policy, zoning bylaw or jurisdictional issue was in our way, and get every one of those people indoors by nightfall. Done.
We need that same kind of response around homelessness. We need an emergency plan in place at the provincial level that puts people indoors immediately. We need something like a refugee camp, where people can live indoors and be connected with support services until something better can be worked out.
Not more shelter beds, but a place where people can live indefinitely until something more permanent is available. A place where the police aren’t always gunning for you, and there’s room to store your stuff. To get out of the weather. To stay out of harm’s way.
Admittedly, any place where several hundred distinctly different people had to co-exist under one roof would almost certainly be chaotic and challenging. In any kind of sane world, no one would consider the temporary warehousing of masses of complex and impoverished people.
But this isn’t a sane world. And a refugee camp for those on the street isn’t nearly as crazy an idea as just leaving them out there. One early morning outside the Ministry of Love is all it takes to remind me of that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Media wrong to conspire in hiding kidnapping news

Best wishes to Mellisa Fung, the intrepid CBC reporter who was released last week from what must have been a horrific and traumatic month imprisoned in a cave in Afghanistan.
She’s safe, and I’m very glad to hear that. But what are we to make of recent word that the world’s media reached a private agreement to keep her kidnapping a secret until now? With no disrespect to Fung or those who wanted to keep her safe, I’m stunned by the news.
As happy as we are to have Fung back, the truth is that most of us didn’t even know she was missing. That’s because in a most unusual development, the global media agreed from the outset not to report on her high-profile kidnapping.
It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the moment and see the media’s decision as evidence of the industry finally thinking about whether it’s helping or hurting with the way it covers the news. “We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure,” CBC News publisher John Cruikshank said of the international decision to keep Fung’s kidnapping secret.
But why now? Why just this once? If we keep people safer by suppressing the news of their kidnappings, then why the wide-open, no-holds-barred coverage of all the other cases of kidnapping that have taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan in recent years? What made the media act differently this time out?
On first blush, you might presume that what’s different this time around is that a journalist is the victim. A quick search through five years of electronic newspaper archives puts that one to rest, however. Media outlets around the world continue to report all the details of the many kidnappings going on these days, including of journalists such as Alberta’s Amanda Lindhout, missing in Somalia since August.
So what’s special about the Fung case? Was it that she worked for the CBC? That she had friends in high places? That the federal government was two days away from an election at the time of her kidnapping?
The Globe and Mail wrote several thousand interesting words on the subject in Monday’s paper, but I never did find the answer.
Media bosses interviewed in the Globe piece were clearly aware that they’d done something very unusual in maintaining silence for a month about Fung’s kidnapping. They argued that they chose that course out of fear that Fung would be killed. Canadian Press policy on news about kidnapping and terrorism states “no news story is worth someone’s life,” CP editor-in-chief Scott White noted.
Absolutely. But how often has the same courtesy been extended to other kidnap victims? From my experience, virtually never. Poor Amanda Lindhout’s kidnapping was being loudly reported around the world within hours of her disappearance four months ago. What’s different this time?
“Editors exist to exercise their discretion about what should be published and in what way,” comments Globe editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon in his paper’s piece.
Fair enough. But with such power comes the responsibility to do so with excruciating fairness. Media integrity hinges on the public’s perception that news is reported with more or less of an even hand.
That’s a vital principle. The industry earns the public’s trust by treating every person at the centre of a news story in identical fashion. The idea is that we’re all equal before the media, for better or worse.
If the decision to keep Fung’s kidnapping a secret is the start of a more self-aware media recognizing the impact that thoughtless coverage can have, count me in. But I sense a one-off, available only to national CBC journalists kidnapped on the eve of federal elections. Numerous kidnappings happened while Fung was missing, the vast majority reported in the usual way by the world’s media.
I can’t imagine how Lindhout’s parents must feel right now, having experienced a dramatically different news curve when their own daughter was kidnapped. Revelations that the media cared enough to remain silent about Fung must have left them concluding that Lindhout’s safety simply didn’t matter as much.
From Nov. 14: Thanks to readers for passing along a few Web sites where people can find candidate information heading into Saturday’s municipal elections.
For West Shore residents, the West Shore Chamber of Commerce features candidate profiles at The Saanich Civic League has put together a very comprehensive site for Saanich residents at Then there’s, and blogger Bernard von Schulmann’s
See you at the polls.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Voting a crap shoot at municipal elections

In just over a week, we’ll pick the mayors and councillors who will lead B.C. communities for the next three years.
It’s an incredibly important job. We “hire” municipal councils to tend to dozens of vital tasks in our communities - from dog-catching and parking tickets to policing, planning, roadwork and economic development. A single term of bad council can turn a community on its ear for years to come.
Councils also play an important role in representing our interests at the provincial and federal levels. Municipalities generate a scant eight per cent of the total tax base in the province, so we all want councils that are strategic and clued-in to ensure they’re effective at “managing up.”
You’d think that the hiring process for a big job like that would be done with the utmost care. You’d think we’d be really conscious of wanting to pick the right people to lead our communities.
But you’d be wrong. In truth, 70 per cent of us won’t even show up to vote in many B.C. communities, based on voter turnout from the 2005 municipal elections. Even those of us who do will often have no real sense of who we’re voting for.
Just 27 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls last time out in the City of Victoria. In Saanich, where the mayor was acclaimed in 2005, turnout was 19 per cent. Only Metchosin and North Saanich saw anything approaching a respectable voter turnout in our region, and even that was a minimal 50 per cent.
Turnouts in the 2005 municipal/regional elections throughout B.C. were 25 to 35 per cent in most communities. (Go to for individual results).
Voter turnout on much of Vancouver Island was below 30 per cent. Tahsis and Alert Bay saw remarkable turnouts that topped 90 per cent, but those communities were notable exceptions in an otherwise dismal year.
As for whether those scant voters made the right picks in 2005, all we have is our councils’ accomplishments these past three years to help us come to a conclusion about that.
That’s never an easy thing to measure. We don’t ask our incumbent politicians for proof that they did a good job. Nor do we often have enough information to gauge whether the newcomers clamouring for our votes will make things better or worse. I suspect I’m not alone in heading into next Saturday’s election with much uncertainty as to who to vote for.
It’s up to each of us to get informed, of course. In Esquimalt, where I live, nothing is stopping me from contacting each of the candidates myself to see what I can ascertain, because at least I’ve managed to find all their e-mail addresses on the Township of Esquimalt Web site. But that’s hardly an efficient way to inform the most number of voters.
The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has a helpful “meet your candidate” feature on its Web site for the four core communities, at
There’s a brief resume-style summary of each candidate, followed by their answers to five questions on topics including economic development, tax rates and top priorities. A sixth question asks about an issue specific to a particular community (sewage in Oak Bay, homelessness in Victoria, etc.).
But the Chamber can’t insist candidates take part, so the listings are incomplete. Only one Oak Bay candidate has bothered to post a response. Half of the City of Victoria’s eight mayoral candidates haven’t posted responses. And with only four municipalities included on the site, two-thirds of the region’s electorate are out in the cold at any rate.
The Times Colonist has begun community profiles, but can’t devote the space and resources required to feature each of the 100-plus candidates running for a seat in our region. As for all-candidates forums, most are unsatisfying affairs unable to give candidates more than a minute or two to state their case.
Small wonder, then, that local candidates have been inundated with questionnaires from people trying to figure out how they’ll vote. How else to determine who to pick?
The lack of meaningful engagement goes a long way to explaining why so many of us just give the whole process a pass. Yet to think we’re now electing our local governments based on the largely uninformed choices of a quarter of the eligible voters - well, that’s kind of scary.
There has to be a better way. But until we figure it out, it’s head-first into another crap shoot. I’ll see you at the polls Nov. 15, and we’ll just have to count on luck to take it from there.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Silence is golden, and frighteningly rare

I look at birds differently these days than I used to, ever since getting a great pair of binoculars a couple years ago that opened my eyes to the incredible variety of birds out there.
But I quickly learned that if you really want to see birds, the trick is to stand still for a few minutes and listen. In the stillness, life goes back to normal in the spot you were just about to rush past, and you hear a whole lot of bird talk that you’d never have heard otherwise.
That there’s meaning and purpose in silence is hardly a new philosophy. But it took birds for me to find it, and to remind me of how much of the world we no longer hear simply because we’re drowning it out with our own noise. What will the future hold for this cranked-up, hyper-communicating world of ours if we forget that?
There are days at the bird marsh when the sounds of loud cell phone conversations are just about as common as those of the song sparrow. We’re living in a time when “staying in touch” has morphed from a sweet sentiment about human connection into a jangly way of life that smothers the silences under a din of ringing phones and buzzing Blackberries.
I made the mistake of taking my cell phone with me once on a bird walk - once and never again. I hadn’t expected it to ring, but it did, and I was mortified to be the one disrupting other people’s nature walks.
Choosing not to answer, I then wondered for the entire walk back who it was who had called, as if it made one whit of difference. The only thing that being available for constant communication does is ensure that no time is ever really your own.
I regularly see people interrupting their lunch dates - important ones, romantic ones, it makes no difference - to take a call. I see them digging wildly through their purses and pockets to answer the ceaseless calls of people who simply have to talk RIGHT NOW.
I overhear the most personal conversations everywhere I go, conducted at top volume by someone who I’m quite sure has no idea of how widely they’re disseminating the news of their breakup, medical problem or weight gain. I’ve been in the midst of what I thought was a genuinely engaged discussion with someone only to realize that in fact, they’re sneaking in text messages to someone else.
Until Jack Knox got his Blackberry (why, Jack, why??), I hadn’t realized that the cursed devices buzz every time an e-mail arrives, prodding you into thinking that yes, you’d better answer right now.
Sounds like a genuine nightmare to me. But researchers say they’re finding that wired-up Canadians have actually begun to “crave the idea of access to a world of information,” and to associate their ringing phones and Blackberries with feelings of importance. “Being plugged in validates your importance,” noted Solutions Research Group in a report last March.
The private consumer-research and consulting firm, which conducts surveys four times a year on the communication and technology habits of Canadians, noted rising levels of anxiety in its spring report when people were asked about being unable to use the Internet or their cell phones.
Almost 60 per cent of the 3,100 people SRG surveyed reported experiencing “disconnection anxiety” at the thought of being left out of the communications loop, even temporarily.
“It’s almost like you lose your sense of freedom because you can’t just call someone,” explained one respondent in the Fast Forward survey.
“It’s like you are cut off. You’re just a little person walking around. You might as well be in the 1800s, like you don’t have contact. We are so used to having that with us nowadays, it is like security.”
Just 10 years ago, less than a third of Canadian teens and adults had cell phones. Now, almost 70 per cent of us do - 19 million people. In just four short years, Blackberries and other “smart phones” have emerged from obscurity to rule the lives of more than two million Canadians.
That the din from all that communicating renders us deaf to the small pleasures of life that are audible only in the silences - well, that’s a given. But what else are we no longer able to hear over the din of our constant chatter? How is it possible to think deeply about anything amid all this noise?
The lesson of the birds: Take in the silences once in a while. You’ll be amazed at how much you can hear.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Court decision on homeless 'camping' is ticket to real change

So now people can sleep in our city parks, but have to be gone first thing in the morning. Hope somebody at city hall is developing a Plan B, because I sure don’t see that 7 a.m.-curfew stuff working out to anybody’s satisfaction for very long.
Here’s the thing about last week’s B.C. Supreme Court judgment that brought us to this point: It’s one of the most powerful tools to emerge so far as a means of ending homelessness.
Dealing with our problems requires political will, which in turn requires community outrage. The spectre of hundreds of people sleeping in our parks every night - even if rousted by 7 a.m. - will quickly generate all the outrage we need to get this ball rolling at long last. In fact, it has already wrested 85 new beds out of the province, none of which had even been hinted at until the judgment came down.
B.C.’s highest court essentially ruled that because there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds for everyone on our streets, the people who have to spend the night outside have the right to put a tarp over their heads while they’re sleeping. Hardly an extreme position to take.
A smart city would respond to such a ruling by using it to bully and push other levels of government into compliance around making things happen on the homeless front. A stop-gap bylaw that misses the point of the judgment won’t get us far.
With municipal elections coming up next month and a provincial election in the spring, hold your representatives accountable for what they’re going to do about homelessness. I’ve put a few questions on my blog at that I think are important to ask.
An enormous thanks to all the people who responded to my Oct. 3 column by donating goods and volunteer time to a big gathering we put on for the street community last week.
We saw more than 500 people through the door at the region’s first-ever Project Connect, which I organized on behalf of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. In my column I’d asked readers to help us by volunteering their time and buying some of the goods for the 500 “survival packs” we wanted to hand out at the end of the day.
You came through in every possible way. We ended up with an abundance of everything, including that most precious of commodities: People’s time. You donated socks, gloves, personal products, rain ponchos, blankets, thermal shirts, hats and more, but more importantly you gave us your time to ensure we’d be able to pull the whole thing off.
More than 120 people volunteered that day and in the intense week leading up to the event. I can’t thank them enough for their help, and hope in turn that the gift the event gave them was the chance to meet - with open hearts - the very interesting and often heartwrenching people stuck in the middle of this thing we call “homelessness.”
(Visit for Christopher Bower’s moving video vignettes of some of the people on hand that day.)
Thanks as well to the two dozen-plus service agencies and professionals who showed up that day to help people in whatever way they could. We saw an impressive array of services delivered in a single room on a single day. A standing ovation to Gordon Fry and the Capital Lions Club in particular, who served up 1,000 burgers and 500 dogs with astounding efficiency.
It was still just one day, of course, and one day does not a solution make. But what I witnessed that day was a new way of doing business in terms of service delivery, and a powerful way to bring together the mainstream and street communities to work together on addressing the many problems at the root of modern-day homelessness.
We’ll do it again sometime soon, and hopefully again and again. When the day comes that we actually have housing to offer people, a Connect event will be a great way to make that happen. In the meantime, we’re really going to have to build, renovate and hang onto any and all cheap forms of housing, because we simply don’t have anywhere near enough of it to meet the need.
For those who made it happen last week, thanks for a magical day. A special thanks to the street community for their respectful participation, and willingness to share their stories one more time in the hope of bringing about real change.

Monday, October 20, 2008

With a municipal vote coming up in the Capital Region in November, here's a few questions that might help you quiz your municipal candidates as to what they plan to do about homelessness in the region if elected:


What do you think are the reasons Victoria has such visible problems around homelessness and street issues?

How do you think those problems should be handled?

Where do homelessness and street issues rate in your list of priorities for the city?

How would you describe your own level of knowledge on this subject? How did you come by that knowledge?

Please describe an “ideal world” around homelessness in terms of which levels of government would assume most responsibility for dealing with the issue. What are the responsibilities of:
the federal government?
The provincial government?
Municipal and regional government?
The business community?
Individual citizens?

If elected, how would you demonstrate leadership in tackling the issues in Victoria and holding other levels of government accountable for their own areas of responsibility?

How would you get around the many challenges that other politicians have faced on this issue? Please tell us what you’d do to manage each of the following challenges:
-lack of regional buy-in,
-no certainty around funding for new construction, land, operating costs,
concentration of street services in the downtown core
-"silos" of service and a lack of co-ordination in service delivery
-lack of addiction services,
-tight vacancy rate,
-lack of affordable, supported housing,
-mental illness on the street
-open selling and using of drugs
-crime and vandalism affecting people who live, work and shop in the downtown

Sunday, October 12, 2008

1860s-era NYC tenement brings modern times to mind
Oct. 10, 2008

Children falling sick - even dying - from milk contaminated by unscrupulous suppliers. Families struggling in substandard, overcrowded housing.
Sound familiar? It could easily be a story ripped from today’s headlines. But in fact it was 1860s New York City, in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.
I heard the story last week on a visit to NYC. Tipped off by a Victoria acquaintance we ran into on the ferry to Ellis Island, we took her advice and visited the New York Tenement Museum, where I found myself in a small, dark apartment that in 1869 had been the home of an Irish immigrant family.
The Moores had four children, one of whom died that year at the tender age of four months from the “swill milk” commonly sold to impoverished families. As has just happened in modern-day China, the milk was being diluted to increase profit, in this case with water, chalk and ammonia.
Hard to escape a certain sense of déjà vu when you hear a story like that. It wasn’t the only one I heard that day with troubling parallels to modern times.
The museum constructs its program around a tenement built in 1863 on Orchard Street by an immigrant tailor from Germany. More than 7,000 people subsequently lived in the five-storey building over the next 70 years, until tougher health codes finally shut the place down.
The museum’s tours are built around the lives of the actual families who lived in the apartments, their stories painstakingly stitched together from census data and genealogical research.
Those were tough times. The Lower East Side was awash in poverty and people, and the city was struggling to develop health standards as a new understanding developed of how disease spread.
It’s interesting to compare the way things were handled then and now. Back then, the public health authorities dealt with the problems of inadequate housing by demanding improvements - in the case of the Moores’ building, a minimum of two indoor toilets per floor and running cold water to every flat.
I’m sure the landlords didn’t like it. But they lived with it, and held the rents at about 30 per cent of the typical family income. Today, the more likely action would be to condemn the building and order the tenants out, with no other place for them to live. It’s not exactly what you’d call progress.
Life was pretty miserable for the Moores and their neighbours, and I don’t mean to suggest that there haven’t been improvements since those bleak days.
But as awful as it was for poor people in the 1860s, things were in fact improving for those living in poverty at that time - fewer dead babies every year, better living conditions, new and better care for sick people. Can we make the same claim now?
The 20-year-old tenement museum was set up by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a group of museums and historical sites with an interest in raising awareness of past injustices and struggles. After our tour, we shared popcorn and ice tea with our little group of fellow travellers at a session facilitated by museum staff - a “kitchen conversation” designed to get people reflecting on what they’d seen.
Our group included a couple from Oakland, Calif., and four British travellers from London and Birmingham. As talk turned to housing in our own home towns, everyone reported similar problems: an erosion of supported housing programs; more people on the streets; the emergence of what appeared to be a permanent underclass.
(“In Canada?” the woman from California asked us incredulously. “I thought you were the ones who were doing things better than us!”)
The building where the Moores lived was a grim place: 120 people sharing four outhouses and one water pump at the back of the building, families with three or more kids squeezed into 325 square feet of space.
We don’t tolerate tenement buildings like that anymore, it’s true. But we can hardly claim the moral high ground given that children are still dying by the dozen from swill milk, and tens of thousands of Canadians don’t even have running water and an indoor toilet, let alone 325 square feet to call their own.
The Moore family eventually moved to a nicer building. Their three children grew up, got jobs, bought houses, and lived better lives than their parents.
Life was bad back then, but it was getting better. A century and a half later, we can’t make the same claim.
Text of a speech I gave at the University of Victoria Oct. 7 as the Harvey Stevenson Southam lecturer:

Thank you so much for coming tonight, and I’d especially like to thank the Southam family, both for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening and to teach a journalism course this fall at the University of Victoria. Both are pleasures I never expected to have, and that I’m enjoying very much.

What I’ll be talking about this evening is this thing we call “media, ” and the role I think it needs to play in leading change in our communities. Seeing as some of what I’m going to be talking about will be about understanding the difference between being passionate versus being biased, I guess I’ll identify myself right off as being biased in terms of believing that change DOES need to come in our communities, on many front, but at the same time I work very hard to keep myself completely open-minded around the ways that we might go about achieving that change.

Of course, I want to use the sweeping label “media” carefully when talking about the shortcomings of the industry, because there are any number of exceptional journalists in Canada and around the world who are already leading change and doing exactly the things I’ll be talking about tonight. Nor would I want my criticisms to be misconstrued as focusing on solely about our local media, as there are some exceptional journalists right here in our town. But I still see plenty of room for improvement in this community and across the country in terms of local journalists participating in powerful, informed and relevant story-telling that helps bring about real change.

I think that’s what all of us in this business actually set out to do, and what we desperately need to get back to both for the good of our communities and of our profession.

I suppose that’s what I’m really talking about: The need for individual journalists to think about the work they’re doing, and the part they’re playing - or not playing - in making things better or worse in their community. Are they comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as the late journalist Finlay Peter Dunne once said ought to be the goal for all of us? Or are they succumbing to what I’ve come to think of as ‘drive-by journalism’ - in, out, and gone in a flash to the next story, and the next, and the next? Are they bringing their own passion for issues into their writing?

It’s funny, whenever I bring that up to a journalist, they immediately assume that it would mean showing bias in their writing, and that’s just not allowed. They think that caring about an issue is the same thing as being biased about it - a journalism no-no from way back.

But the truth is, you can care about something - you can have real passion for it - without being biased. Bias means deliberately leaving out aspects of the story that you disagree with or fear will undermine your own position. Passion means writing about ALL the aspects of an issue - the good, the bad and the ugly - and caring enough to bring all of it to the reader with clarity, context, historic relevance and honesty.

I’ve been a journalist since 1982, and still consider myself one despite having more or less left the profession four years ago.

I can’t claim to be an expert on anything that I’m saying tonight, except in the sense of having seen it all and done it all for myself these past 26 years, both as a writer and manager in the media , and as an avid reader of the particular stream of information known as “news.”

The world is a very different place than it was when I first went into journalism, but you can say that about just about any industry these days. In truth, the basic job has by and large stayed the same: Go out and find the news and bring it back for your readers and viewers - making money for your owners in the process by creating a product that’s good enough to buy, and good enough for advertisers to want to be part of.

I’ve never had a problem with the idea that a good paper can also be a profitable one.

So it’s that part about being “good” that I’d like to focus on for now. Do we have “good” media in Canada right now? Are journalists producing good stories? And what IS a good story, anyway - one that sells the most newspapers? Gets the biggest play on the front page? Scandalizes the most people? Provides the most useful and relevant information to the people who most need it? Gets read and talked about by the most number of people? Solves the problem? Embarrasses the most politicians? Galvanizes the community?

All of the above on any given day, of course, and depending on the story. In a dream world, readers and viewers would take in their daily media knowing absolutely that they were getting the most important, useful and relevant news of the day,
and that it was being provided by journalists who they completely trusted to make the right decisions in terms of which news to select for them.

The individual journalist has a lot of power in making that decision. While there may be a few newsrooms out there where one of those tough-as-nails Hollywood style city editors are still barking out the story assignments, I can tell you that by and large it’s the individual journalist who will be selecting the stories that he or she will be working on, interviewing the people who they think will tell that story best, choosing the angle that the story will be told from, and digging up the relevant details and statistics that will help them tell the story better.

It’s far from a perfect science. Great stories go untold, and ridiculous ones get into the media all the time.

Easy stories are chosen over more complex ones, because they lend themselves nicely to two phone calls and who’s got the time for more than that, anyway? Stories that take a long time to tell are passed over in favour of ones that can be told right now and then forgotten. That’s the essence of drive-by journalism - important and multi-faceted community issues reduced to two sound bytes, one for and one against, destined to be forgotten by the next day as another day of drive-by stories stacks up on top of it.

I won’t tell you for a minute that all of this was “better in the old days” or anything like that - we have long been a profession enamoured of the drive-by, albeit with some wonderful exceptions from time to time.

But notable exceptions aside, the media as a rule have not been leaders of the public conversation at any given point in time, but more like the documenters of the status quo. When it was politically acceptable to refer to Chinese people as chinks and the “yellow peril” back at the turn of the last century, journalists were right in there calling them those names.

But there’s no reason for us to follow rather than lead. The great journalists - Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and people like Stephanie Nolen in more recent times - were always taking risks in their writing, and approaching subjects from then-controversial points of view.

I just reread an old Hunter Thompson piece from the 1960s that I’m using in my university class this term, one that he wrote about the Hell’s Angels back when no one had ever heard of the biker gang.

More than 40 years have passed since he wrote it, and yet it’s still every bit as relevant today for what it says about the way to write about people from the margins. Thompson nailed down all the myths and the rumours that were swirling around California in those days about the motorcycle gang. He snuck into a Hell’s Angels meeting, then worked his charm sufficiently when caught out that they actually invited him back to party with them. What came out of all of it was a story that laid to rest some of the hysterical statements being made about the Angels in the broader community.

At the same time, it revealed the dark nature of the bike gang’s style of revenge that was in fact much more frightening than any of the uninformed bogey-man type tales that had been swirling around in the mainstream press.

A different time, a different place, yes. Hunter Thompson was writing a piece for Esquire magazine, and was no doubt given much more leeway from his editors and time to craft his piece. He was no joe-average newspaper journalist caught up in the daily grind, with a deadline looming over him. And covering the Hell’s Angels is obviously a hell of an assignment - gosh, who COULDN’T get a great piece out of that?
OK, so a daily reporter isn’t going to churn out an Esquire-ready masterpiece most days.

But nothing stops a journalist from at least borrowing some of the strategies and techniques of the masters of engaged journalism. Nothing stops us from seeing - doing - FEELING a story, with all due respect to the obvious constraints of time and resources. And that’s ultimately where I think we need to change - as individual journalists -- - both for reasons of staying relevant in this Age of Information but also to be the powerful story tellers who can identify problems and lead change in our communities.

For an example, let’s take a look at a subject near and dear to my heart: Homelessness. My career in journalism has coincidentally exactly tracked the growth of homelessness in B.C.

So this issue has become a real obsession for me primarily because I’ve actually witnessed the series of mistakes we’ve made at the political and policy levels that have created the disaster on our streets. I’ve seen us manufacture homelessness in our communities.

I’ve also seen the media - in the broad sense of the word, because of course there were individual journalists who were doing what they could to cover the issue well - be completely unable to get underneath the very complex issues of homelessness, or to bring any real understanding to it. They cover it enough to be able to say that they’re paying attention to it over the course of any given year, but never enough to actually inform their readers or viewers how to go about doing something to address the problems showing up on their streets.

That’s because it’s simply too complex to be dealt with as headline news, or even as “Homelessness: The Six-Part Series.” It’s not a story that can be told easily, or quickly. It needs deep, meaningful reporting done day after day - by a committed, informed reporter who has the full support of a committed, informed editor and publisher.

But meanwhile, the numbers on our street just keep rising, and all we’re doing is continuing to tell that great big grey and frightening story as a black-and-white, right-and-wrong, your side/my side piece. We write about it when some horrific or particularly outrageous detail surfaces, or when the shopping carts or the drug addicts or the sleeping bags pile up particularly deep in some part of town, but it’s soon forgotten beneath a tide of whatever else is coming our way as news.

Is it biased for a journalist to care passionately about homelessness? Of course not. Who’s in FAVOUR of homelessness, after all?? Were the writer to deliberately ignore the impact of homelessness on, say, downtown residents, or to write about all 1,500 people living on our streets right now as if they were freeloaders who needed to get a job - well, THAT’S showing bias.

But to write deeply and well about the many issues and sides of homelessness - to care enough about the issue to engage over the long time, and to learn enough about it that you become an informed source for a baffled community - there’s nothing biased about that. That’s about picking an issue that’s obviously critically important to our community, and writing about it creatively, fairly and thoroughly until something is done about it.

Think about the other issues that could benefit from a similar approach. Child welfare. Poverty. The roots of crime. Our environment. Effective political representation. Quality education. Health issues and disease. Within each topic, there are obviously a variety of positions that need to be explored fairly if the coverage is to remain objective, but that’s not to say the issue can’t be passionately addressed - and in fact, MUST be to maintain a healthy, vibrant community. As a reader or viewer, I WANT the journalist writing about those subjects to care passionately about the issue. I want them to help me understand what I need to do to bring about an end to poverty - to reduce crime in our community - to bring about better child welfare policies - to build a better world for my children and grandchildren - to take care of my health.

That last issue in particular, health, is an excellent example of something that tends to be covered in the disjointed way that disempowers us as communities rather than empowers us. Think back on a typical year’s worth of health coverage in the mainstream media and you’ll see what I mean. Coffee is bad for you one day, good for you the next. Wine, the same. Vitamins are pointless placebos, and the next day they’re the shining light that will save us all from cancer.

I took a three-day course at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland four years ago that was expressly put together for journalists to try to counter the uninformed, superficial writing that passes for health coverage in most of our newspapers.

With the notable exception of the very skilled health writer Andre Picard, of the Globe and Mail, we simply don’t know enough as journalists about interpreting scientific studies to be writing about this stuff, and as a result we leave ourselves wide open to promoting blatantly false information as if it were scientific truth. Nor do we ask the big question - of health studies, of political polls, of any number of surveys that we put forward as “truth:” Who paid for this study? Even a quick glimpse below the surface reveals that a great deal of what we pass along to our readers as health-research findings is really much closer to propaganda dressed up like a study - one that has been funded by a special-interest group or pharmaceutical company in line to benefit from the publicity we give them.

How does a community know whether to trust the information we give them if we aren’t putting the necessary thought into deciding the accuracy and depth of that information? How do readers judge the worth of an issue - how much they need to worry about it, or act on it - if the story of the day ends up being just one more in a long line of formulaic pieces that never gets beyond telling readers one viewpoint on the issue and then the opposite view to negate it? Another “six of one, half dozen of another” story? You hear talk of the need to tell “both” sides of a story, but in fact a story usually has at least half a dozen sides, if not more. Are we journalists doing anybody any favours by simplifying virtually every story down to a he-said/she-said exchange that leaves readers with great, gaping holes in the information they need to make their own decisions about the importance of a particular issue?

Or if the type of stories we write essentially encourage people to pick sides on issues that are far too complex to be handled that way?

How do I, as a citizen, engage in a story about a problem in my community if the journalists themselves haven’t bothered to? Why should I even read it at all, if all it’s going to do is depress me and disempower me by not giving me a reason to hope for change - a way into the story, and at least a small glimmer of hope for a way out of the problem? How can citizens be making the smart decisions that are desperately needing to be made in this country of ours when they can’t depend on the information they’re getting from the media to help them do that?

Like I say, I’m no longer a journalist, so I’ve got no personal stake in whether the media takes to heart anything I have to say about all of this.

I like my morning paper, but if I had to, I could manage quite nicely without it. I’m just back from a week in New York City, where I found myself getting by quite well on a daily dose of one of those free, pre-packaged little tabs that are all the rage in newspaper giveaway boxes these days.

But the fact that I can even THINK I could get by without a daily paper is enough to send a chill through my own heart when I think about what that means to the future of journalism. And while I may be disenchanted with how it’s often practiced these days, I still continue to think it is as a powerful and necessary vehicle for telling the stories that matter in our communities. But I’ve seen our star as journalists plummet in my years in the business, and I suspect it’s because we have breached the public trust with our superficial and incomplete coverage of issues.

You know those surveys they do where they ask the public which kinds of people they trust most? Not so many years ago, journalists routinely scored among the top 10 in those surveys. Now, they’re barely above politicians at the very bottom of the list. What’s that telling us?

I see so much potential from a more engaged journalism style, and in a newsroom team that puts constant thought and effort into the stories that they tell. There are a number of reasons for that that go beyond me just feeling protectionist over my chosen career.

For one thing, I’m an activist, which I suspect is what can happen over time when you’ve been a journalist long enough to see how truly spectacular this old world is at screwing things up, and how desperately change is needed on so many fronts.
I’ve spent the last 26 years watching well-intentioned communities blunder into the same problems over and over again, to the point that I would really hesitate to apply the term “progress” to what I’ve seen unfold in the world so far.

In terms of homelessness alone, I’ve seen the City of Victoria go in less than 20 years from having a quiet community of maybe 50 homeless men with drinking problems to a sprawling, unmanageable mass of humanity 30 times that size, their problems now grown to encompass profound mental illness, all ages, genders and race, vast drug issues, and truly alarming public-health concerns. Then and now, we seem completely incapable of understanding how it happened or taking even the most basic steps to rectify the problems. And yet it’s all there in the stories of the past.

Search Canadian newspapers through the Infomart database for their stories about homelessness over the past two decades, and you can see the entire tragedy playing out before our very eyes.

But in the day by day coverage, the stories are inevitably simplified and conflict-oriented. People in favour of a needle exchange are pitted against those who aren’t. People who hate shopping carts on their downtown streets battle people who see them as a survival tool for a desperate population. People who don’t want a beggar sleeping in their doorway face off against beggars who simply have no other options. Every year, a new homeless count and the inevitable comparisons with the homeless count of the year before, and that’s the end of that for another year.

Problems on Cormorant Street become problems near the welfare office become problems in Centennial Square, and nobody connects the dots that the PROBLEM is that nothing ever happens to change any of it.

And it’s obviously not just homelessness that ends up getting that treatment. Everything happens in the moment, and the context that will help us see the patterns in all of it is rarely brought to bear. It’s a massive waste of time, energy, passion and money. Meanwhile, the problem, whether that’s frail seniors stuck in badly needed hospital beds or sick, desperate people using drugs in plain sight on the street, children being abused by their parents and then abused again by a troubled child-welfare system - is never acted upon beyond the name-calling and blame-laying that passes for community news most days.

Sure, we fill the white space with new words and photos every day, but that DOESN’T mean we’re serving up the most important stories. Nor are we necessarily telling those stories in ways that engage readers and viewers - who quite rightly will just pass traditional media by if we can’t give them information in a way that has meaning and relevance to their own lives. Nor are we taking on what I think is an unwritten yet vital aspect of being a journalist - to bring context and history to what we’re writing about, and do it in a way that makes for a compelling read. I teach writing every now and then and always like to remind my students that getting the words into print is only the first step - the REAL challenge is getting people to read those words.

Another reason for me wishing for a journalism renaissance is that I’m someone who loves newspapers. But I see before me a dying industry, cast into deep shadow by the Internet monolith and completely unprepared for a new reality. News of the day, analysis, points of view, classified ads, theatre listings - all of it is one Google search away nowadays, This should be a time of dramatic reinvention in the newspaper industry, but it’s obvious to me that barely any thought has gone into how the industry will stay relevant in people’s lives now that all the select information media once provided is available in abundance - and free - elsewhere. I’ve seen tremendous changes in readership in my own time in the profession, and the only trend has been down, down, down. Ten years ago when I was in newspaper management, some 67 per cent of adult Canadians had read a newspaper the day before; today, barely half have.

Will our industry be the metaphorical frog that stays in the water as the temperature slowly rises, never noticing that it’s reaching the boiling point until it’s too late?

And for all their flaws and challenges, I see mainstream media as an essential component of democracy and a well-informed public. Without community newspapers, how WILL our communities come together to understand and rally around common problems? Who will be the keeper of our community history? Who will remind us that yes, we’ve made these mistakes before, and that’s why we need to do things differently this time?

Yes, more information is available to any of us than ever before due to the Internet. I marvel at the immense amount of information from around the world that’s now at my fingertips through a single Google search.

And certainly blogging is one of the most democratic developments to come along in a long while, because now there’s suddenly a way for ANYONE to be a journalist, and to break free of the constraints of traditional media.

But while I love the World Wide Web for the many wonders it has opened up to me, one tremendous drawback is that it’s primarily a vehicle for self-selected information. Nobody presents you with the information - you have to go looking for it. Another real concern is that all those bloggers whose sites you’re reading may or may not be know anything about what they’re writing about, and you the reader either have to put time into cross-checking their facts or - more worryingly - presume that what you’re getting is truth when in fact it could be nothing but hot air, uninformed opinion and lies.

If you think back to a time when a community got its information mostly from a single source - the daily newspaper, the radio, the local television channel - people were participants in a common conversation. They all knew what was happening on that stretch of highway a couple miles away, or what pet project the mayor was pushing. They all knew when trouble was brewing in the bad side of town, and which police department was trying to do something about it. They had the ability to come together to solve common problems in their community, because they were all well aware of what those problems were.

Sure, they were still having to read too many of those overly simplified stories pitting Person A against Person B. That has always been a problem in the media.
But at least they knew there WERE a couple different ways to think about the issue, and had a slightly broader sense of there being more than one viewpoint to take into account when making up their own minds.

Fast-forward to 2008, and the tremendous changes brought about by the Internet, blogging, chat and instant messaging. People now do much of their reading on-line, and their sense of community is in many cases an on-line one. That’s not necessarily a problem if those people are aware of that and are taking steps to be sure to expose themselves to a broad array of informed opinions to make up for the narrowing of their world, but it’s potentially quite disastrous if they fall into the trap of getting their information from fewer and fewer sources - especially sources who share their same world view.

And with fewer people in the community tied into a single source of information, how DO communities come together to solve common problems? What communications vehicle tells them what those problems are, given that yesterday’s newspaper readers have dispersed into all kinds of alternate forms of communication? We no longer have an easy means to rally large numbers of citizens around a single cause, or to ensure that important information gets to them quickly. At the very time when there are more ways to talk to each other than ever before, we are losing the ability to talk to each other as a community.

The Internet has all the potential in the world to be the BEST place to seek out a variety of viewpoints and angles.

I can’t even imagine how I got by without the Internet in my early reporting days, and thank my lucky stars every day for the astounding array of fabulous information, studies, reports, contacts, analysis and deep thinkers it puts into my reach for use in my own writing.

But as I mentioned a moment ago, depending on search engines to take you to the information you need also makes it very easy for people to self-select for information that already fits with their own views. They go to the blog sites of people who think like they do. They join Facebook groups with people who share the same world view about the issue of the moment. They seek out stories and viewpoints that reinforce their view of why things are the way they are.

They seek information on the issues that they’re already interested in, and thus shut themselves away from the issues that they NEED to be thinking about if our communities are to survive these challenging times.

No longer do they find themselves drifting through page 3 of that day’s paper and accidentally discovering a viewpoint that they hadn’t considered. They’re not reading the letters page and coming across a fresh way of thinking of about an issue. One of the things I love best about great media writing - the New Yorker magazine is a wonderful example of this - is how terrific writing can draw you into reading about something that up to that point, you had no idea you were even interested in.

But in the age of electronic searches of your favourite pre-selected news sources, I suspect there’s far less accidental reading going on.

Now, unless you deliberately go looking for alternative views, everything you ‘find out’ will merely reinforce whatever it is that you already think you know.
So now our increasingly fragmented communities are made up of individuals seeking individual sources of information. They’re not getting the whole story, or even most of it. They’re not being challenged to think differently. They’re not being exposed to different ways of thinking, and instead are immersing themselves in a broad global community that thinks exactly like they do. They’re getting only the parts of the story that they choose to pay attention to. They’re forming their opinions based on the stories of a new breed of self-declared journalist - some of whom are absolutely great, but others who are little more than rambling, ranting proponents of rumour, stereotype and unfounded statements.

The Internet, a tool with the potential to widen your world to unbelievable proportions, suddenly becomes the vehicle that shrinks it.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s great being among a group of like-minded people - everybody waving their fists in the air in solidarity, agreeing with each other, patting each other on the back for thinking the right thoughts. But in terms of creating an atmosphere for change, it’s the wrong place to be. The more our communities splinter into small groups of people who all think the same way, the less we can come together to solve community problems.

The more we break apart into special interest groups, the more we shut out the issues and the people that need our attention. The more we find “community” on-line and among those who think just like us, the less we go looking for it right here in our real-live community, where our service clubs and our churches and our community organizations are dying for lack of participants as a result.

It’s an atmosphere that breeds narrow-mindedness and judgment - two things that are truly the enemy when you’re talking about cohesive and functioning communities. It prevents us from coming together by setting us apart in our individualness.
Obviously, these are enormous issues that go well beyond how the media choose to cover stories.

We are in the midst of great change globally in the way we interact with each other, and I don’t know where it’s going. But I do think that it’s in our interests to maintain a lively and compelling free press in the midst of all of it - one that works hard to keep itself relevant in changing times. I used to argue quite passionately that there would always be a place for newspapers in people’s lives no matter how much the Internet changed things, but I admit that I now see the industry walking straight into obsolescence due to its seeming inability to grasp that it must - simply must - start to do things very differently, both for the sake of its balance sheet and for the benefit of our communities, which NEED media coverage that is thoughtful, contextual, fully informed and absolutely engaged.

As I’ve said repeatedly, we do have some excellent journalists in Canada who are doing this kind of work right now. I know because I remain an avid reader of newspapers, and a believer in the important role they play in our communities. But that said, far too many of my morning reads leave me so infuriated that I regularly contemplate giving up the whole habit. Too often, I see disengaged journalists filling the white space between the ads, and disengaged editors who have long given up the important work of trying to tell the stories that their communities want and need to hear. I quit the media in 2004 because I couldn’t take the state of the industry, and I’ve seen very little since then that has given me any reason to doubt my decision.

In all my years as a journalist, I heard the same excuses for why this is so. “There’s just no time to do anything in-depth. Newsroom resources have been cut to the bone. Who has the time to devote to a big story when your editor is barking for you to hit deadline right now?”

There’s truth to all of that, of course, particularly the cutting of newsroom resources this past decade, which has included a drying-up of virtually all mid-career training courses that once at least gave a few journalists the regular opportunity to try to stay current and fresh.

But they’re excuses just the same. It’s harder to do a job well when you’re in a hurry, but it’s certainly not impossible. It takes a little more energy and drive to engage in a story enough that you bother to learn the history and context of what you’re writing about, but not much.

The same tool that may one day be the death of the traditional media - the Internet - is also the tool that gives every journalist instant and easy access to all the information of the world - information that can help them tell a far more meaningful story.

More recently, blaming the “corporate media” has come into vogue. I’ve never worked for a paper that wasn’t owned by a very large corporation, so I haven’t experienced the difference between an independent paper and a corporately owned one. Having worked for Thomson, Southam, Hollinger and CanWest at one time or the other, I CAN assure you that with a few notable exceptions, there’s not much to this paranoia around corporate interference in editorial product, and I for one don’t see corporate ownership as the main reason for the decline in readership.

But I do see a bland sameness settling over our country’s papers. I do see a lack of community focus and engagement, or even an understanding of the changing needs of the communities we’re writing for. It would be so much easier to blame that on evil corporate bosses, but I suspect it’s really because as journalists and editors in a time of economic decline in our industry, we have become a profession of largely white, largely middle-aged, middle-class, comfortably cynical people who don’t often look too far beyond the edges of our own lives when coming up with story ideas and approaches.

And while I wouldn’t want to be seen to bite the hand that is feeding me at this very moment, I do think universities also have to ask themselves what role they have played in all of this.

I see journalism as more of a craft, a trade, rather than a university degree, and one that has to be worked on with an eye to improvement for the rest of your career. But these days it’d be tough for a young person to land a media job without a degree, and masters’ in journalism aren’t uncommon in the newsrooms of the nations nowadays. So what ARE they learning at university about how to be an engaged journalist?

I asked a professor at Ryerson Polytechnique a few years back whether anybody was teaching a course in passion and curiosity, and he just laughed and shook his head. But why not? Obviously it’s important to learn the structure of a news story, and how to put together an effective sentence, and how to avoid being sued or acting unethically. It’s important to know how to do an interview.

But if we aren’t teaching the heart and soul of journalism to tomorrow’s journalists - if we’re not teaching them to engage and connect and to care about the people and the issues they’re writing about - then it’s all just more words on paper.
I hope that I don’t sound bitter, or like one of those people aging into a rosy memory of how things used to be so much better in the old days. In fact, they weren’t, but perhaps it didn’t matter so much when the daily paper had everyone’s ear no matter what. Now, it matters a great deal, both for the survival of an industry and a profession that I still love a lot, and for communities that are losing the glue that binds them together.

Thank you for this opportunity to sound off - and hopefully to stir the pot a bit as to what constitutes meaningful journalism in an age when we’re drowning in information. I’m told there will be plenty of time for questions tonight and I’m looking forward to that, because the engagement and connection needs to start right here, right now. Fire away, please, and thanks again for the chance to speak to all of you.

Donations most welcome for Oct. 16 event for street community
Oct. 3, 2008

Winter approaches, and my friends on the street are still mostly out in the cold. Our region is trying much harder than it was a year ago to do something about homelessness, but little has changed in the short term for the majority of people living out there.
The good news: Our community now knows what needs to be done, and has the right people in place to do it. As one of the volunteers who sits on the co-ordinating committee of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness - the group that grew out of last year’s Mayor’s Task Force - I can assure you that some of the best-connected people with the biggest hearts are getting together regularly to try to work this crisis out.
But all that effort doesn’t mean much in the here and now to the 1,200 or so people heading into another long, wet winter. For them, it’s bundle up and wait, because another year has come and gone and they’re still stuck out there.
I’ve written a lot about homelessness this past year, and heard from many readers who wanted to help. OK, here’s an opportunity. I’m organizing an event for the street community Oct. 16 on behalf of the coalition, and we’d like your help in making it a great day for people.
We’re calling the day Project Connect. Partly it’s about drawing in people from the street community to share their frustrations and ideas for change with coalition members, and partly it’s about just putting on a really nice service day for a group of folks who don’t get many breaks. In bigger cities like San Francisco, similar “connect” events are held as often as every other month.
This is the coalition’s first such event, and it’s looking like we’ll have at least a couple dozen different services available to people that day. They run the gamut: haircuts, acupuncture, dental care, help with ID and income assistance, free pet food, outreach nursing, dog licences, job information. We’ll have a whole lot of good food happening as well, and hope to be handing out “survival pack” of socks, gloves and other essentials to everyone who participates.
It’s not even close to a solution for homelessness, of course. A pair of dry socks provides little more than a few hours of reduced discomfort on a rainy fall night.
But here we are on the edge of another winter, and socks are better than nothing. Until we figure out how to give people homes, we’ll have to settle for giving them a heck of a day, including a bag of stuff to take away that might at least knock the edge off their misery for a little while.
Rev. Al Tysick has told me to brace for as many as 500 people at Project Connect. The coalition would like every one of them to leave feeling listened to, well-fed, hooked up to services, and perhaps just the smallest bit better prepared to face down another hard winter.
We’ve got some money for the event, thanks to the support of partners like the United Way. We need it to cover our food and venue costs that day.
But putting together 500 survival packs is simply too big an order for our small budget. So I’m asking readers to consider sharing the load by buying some of the items needed for those packs.
What are we looking for? Things to meet people’s immediate needs: new socks, gloves and scarves; rain ponchos, grooming and personal hygiene products (tampons!); cosmetics; hand sanitizer; treats such as candy and chocolate.
We’re asking for new items only, because new would be a lovely surprise for a group of people who get by exclusively on castoffs. If you’re willing to buy items for donation, please contact Lynn Driver at the coalition at (or 370-1512) for dropoff details. I’m hoping you can help but am acutely aware of the many fine charities out there that also need you, so please consider this request as an “add on” rather than a replacement for any of your regular causes.
We also need volunteers, not just to share in the work of that day but to make the kind of person-to-person connections that close the gap between “us” and “them.” If you’ve got time to give on Oct. 16 or in the days leading up to the event, send me an e-mail and I’ll happily sign you up.
Sure, it’s a band-aid solution. But while we wait for something more meaningful, it will have to do.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bad thinking all round in Battershill story
Sept. 26, 2008

What’s done is done, so there’s little point in getting too worked up over the many missteps in the Paul Battershill saga.
But boy, there was some flawed thinking going on there at a whole lot of levels. And what’s most disturbing is that if it weren’t for a Victoria businessman inadvertently bringing the messy business to light in the first place, we might never have heard a word about any of it.
If you haven’t yet read Times Colonist reporter Rob Shaw’s excellent piece this past Sunday on Battershill’s hard, fast fall from grace as Victoria’s police chief, add it to your must-read list.
It chronicles an alarming amount of seriously bad decision-making leading up to Battershill’s forced resignation last month - on the part of Battershill, Mayor Alan Lowe and Victoria’s civilian police board. That the story took almost a full year to come out also tells you how badly those at the centre of the tale didn’t want you to know any of it.
The short version of the saga is that Battershill got rid of five senior managers and a long-time executive assistant during his nine years as chief, paying each of them handsomely to go away. The severance agreements totalled more than $600,000, with at least some of them negotiated by a lawyer who Battershill was having an affair with.
That he chose to have an affair with someone the police department was paying to help him fire some of his managers - well, that’s a stellar example of wrong thinking all on its own. But as Shaw’s story noted, Battershill also chose to brag about the affair with Marli Rusen to his employees, in explicit detail. By the time Victoria businessman Gerald Hartwig started stirring up trouble for Battershill last October, the affair was common knowledge in the department.
Hartwig hadn’t gone looking for an affair. When he filed a Freedom of Information request for Battershill’s expense accounts last fall, he was merely looking for answers as to why the police department couldn’t afford more downtown foot patrols. But when the law firm that employed Battershill’s paramour suddenly got antsy over Hartwig’s request, events took an interesting turn.
Enter Mayor Alan Lowe. He found out about the situation over an Oct. 7 coffee with Hartwig. But instead of bringing the matter to the immediate attention of the Victoria police board at its meeting two days later, Lowe - who chairs the board - inexplicably decided he’d wait to tell directors at some future meeting when there were more of them in attendance.
The Battershill story broke in the media less than 24 hours later. The blindsided police board was left looking inept and ill-informed, a perception that I would have to say has only been strengthened by the events that have followed.
What we now know is that the police board simply wasn’t paying attention to the major personnel problems that were developing inside the police department under Battershill’s leadership. They weren’t questioning the decisions he was making - to the point that directors signed off on a $125,000 severance agreement for Battershill’s former executive assistant that only Lowe had actually read.
The board didn’t question the unusual clause in the agreement forbidding the assistant from talking to them. Other than Lowe, none of them even knew it was in there.
Then came the RCMP report on the Battershill case a few months later. In yet another lapse of judgment, Lowe refused to provide a copy of the report to members of the police board and instead chose to give them his own personal summary of events at an oral presentation. And they let him get away with it.
Neither Lowe nor the police board have done anything illegal, of course. Under the provisions of B.C.’s Police Act, all the power for disciplining a police chief rests exclusively with the mayor of the municipality in question.
I don’t know who thought that was a good idea. But even if that’s the law - and hopefully it won’t be for much longer - it’s still clear in the Battershill saga that the police board was asleep at the switch. Long after that embarrassing media leak brought about by Lowe’s decision to keep them in the dark a while longer, the police board was still on auto-cruise.
Battershill did much good for the city, which shouldn’t be overlooked just because things ended so scandalously. But what was bad about Paul Battershill was made much worse by the actions of Victoria’s mayor and police board, and we’re owed some answers before the next chief is hired.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Long-ago tax return proves a dollar really does buy less now

published Sept. 19, 2008

I’ve recently been reunited with my “hope chest” from a long-past marriage, and cracked open the lid this summer for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Tucked in between the baby clothes and the wedding memorabilia were four years of my ex-husband’s tax returns. I find those returns coming to mind a lot these days amid the torrent of grim news about the economic meltdown in the U.S.
For those too young to know, a hope chest is a relic from a time when teenage girls were given cedar chests for accumulating the household goods and treasures that they’d need to set up their house once they became somebody’s wife. After marriage, the wife was free to fill the chest with whatever she chose, which in my case turned out to be a random collection of keepsakes, photo albums, greeting cards, and my ex’s 1976-80 income tax returns.
We were a typical young Courtenay couple of our day. My ex worked at the Campbell River mill. I taught piano for a few hours a week, but was primarily a stay-at-home mom with two small children.
In 1980, I was 24 and he was 28, and we’d been married for six years. I never would have imagined at that time that we were leading lives of privilege, but by today’s standards I guess we were. We owned our own home, had two vehicles, took a vacation somewhere nice every year, and generally didn’t want for much.
Looking back on those years, I’ve long suspected that my ex and I - and all the young Island families we knew in those years with jobs in forestry and fishing - enjoyed a much more comfortable life than most young couples raising children these days can count on.
But economic analysis isn’t my forte, so I never got around to nailing my hunch down. I was also wary of the possibility of turning into one of those old coots prone to remembering the past in rosier terms than was actually the case.
Then I took a look at that 1980 tax return. My ex earned almost $28,000 that year, a sum that even three decades later is still what 20 per cent of Canadian families are living on.
The median income in Canada nowadays for a family like ours - one wage earner, kids still at home - is more than double what our household was getting by on in 1980. But prices have done a lot more than doubled over that same period.
A small example: I found an old diary among my hope-chest treasures that I’d used to track our gas costs on a road trip to Disneyland in the late 1970s.
Back then, gas was about 30 cents a litre. It’s almost five times that much now. But what’s even more telling in terms of purchasing power is how gas prices then and now compare as a percentage of household earnings.
If in 1980 you were earning $28,000 and filling up your tank twice a month, your gas costs for the year amounted to less than three days’ pay. For argument’s sake, let’s presume an equivalent modern-day income of $75,000. Filling up at the same twice-a-month rate now eats up eight days’ wages.
In terms of housing, the change is even more dramatic.
We bought a little cabin on the beach in Royston in 1974 for $10,000. We sold it two years later to buy an unfinished two-bedroom house on a much bigger property. By the time we’d borrowed the money to finish it off, we had a $20,000 mortgage and monthly payments of just over $140.
So for starters, the cost of the house was less than what my ex made in a year. Only the wealthiest home buyers can say that anymore. We spent roughly six per cent of our annual household income on mortgage payments. Fast-forward to modern times and a household income of $75,000, and that would translate to a mortgage payment of about $375 a month.
If only. The truth is you can’t even find a rooming-house bed for that price anymore. The average Canadian currently spends more than 20 per cent of their total income on mortgage payments or rent. In constant dollars, median earnings in fact fell more than 11 per cent in B.C. between 1980 and 2005.
Is this “progress,” then? Not by a long shot. And we’d best brace for worse to come, what with America’s impossibly wealthy capitalist kings now fleeing the scene of the disaster they’ve created in the mortgage and investment industries.
As always, the rich get richer. The rest of us just keep losing ground.