Friday, August 28, 2009

Throne Speech foreshadows cuts to come

Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones and barely feel a blip when the provincial government reveals its retooled budget next week.
But in the capital city, in a region dependent on government jobs and provincial funding on all kinds of fronts, there can’t be many of those kind of people out there. My sense is that a lot more are awaiting Tuesday’s budget announcement with trepidation and fear, and this week’s throne speech certainly brought no comfort.
Throne speeches are typically pretty vague with the details. They give the flavour of the budget to come, and set the tone. But they don’t actually say what’s going to happen, leaving those who desperately want to know more to read between the lines.
The gist of the Aug. 25 throne speech is roughly this: “B.C. is in the grips of something so awful that we couldn’t have imagined it, and we’ve really had to make some tough decisions around spending. But you can trust us to look after what’s important.”
The throne speech that Lt.-Gov. Steven Point delivered opens with heartfelt sympathies to the families of various prominent British Columbians who died in the last six months, and ends 4,000 words later with an ode to the Olympics. There are no less than a dozen warm references to the importance of B.C.’s children.
But you can hear what’s really being said in the phrases about seismic economic change and decimated government revenues, and in the promises to protect indispensable services while rooting out unnecessary spending. I get the shivers when government starts talking like that, because those are nice little setup lines for all kinds of cuts.
The feeling I got from reading the throne speech was of a worried-uncle type peering sincerely into my eyes, giving me one of those sad-faced, isn’t-this-just-crappy-but-what’s-a-province-to-do looks.
He’s telling me that he’s sorry, so sorry. But these are extraordinary times, and we’re all just going to have to hunker down and tough it out. Why, if he had the money, he’d be taking me out to paint the town red right now, but his fiscal cupboard is bare.
He urges me to trust him, and assures me that all will be well soon. He squeezes my shoulder and says I should be happy that he’s here to take care of things, because at least he knows how to live within his means.
Not quite, what with four or more years of deficits on the horizon. But never mind. What worries me more is having to trust that government will think things all the way through before making cuts. I’m not sure I have much trust left for any government after decades of politicized, poorly informed and random cuts and policy changes that definitely haven’t turned out well for B.C.
When I read in the throne speech that government is going to minimize spending on non-essential services, I wonder: Who’s defining “non-essential”? When I see a pledge to “protect critical health and education services,” I’m curious to know what government considers critical, and why it is that so many other vital government-funded services were left off that very short list.
I guess we’ll all find out in the weeks and months to come, when the long columns of figures in Tuesday’s revised budget become the flesh-and-blood faces of people and communities who are affected negatively by whatever cuts are coming.
You and I will have no say in any of it, because the decisions have already been made. The programs and services that government considers “non-essential” or “discretionary” have already been identified and marked for cuts. Our input wasn’t sought, but we’ll be the ones living with whatever new world order comes out of this.
The throne speech is as interesting for what’s not in it as it is for what’s mentioned. There’s not a single word about income assistance, poverty, affordable rental housing, or mental health and addiction services during hard times ahead, even though the downturn is already having a heavy impact on all those areas. Aside from a brief reference to the need to “strengthen our social fabric,” there was no talk of social services at all.
Shall we take that to mean such issues are so deeply a part of our value system in B.C. that we no longer need to include them when talking about indispensable public services? I fear not.
But we’ll just have to wait until Tuesday to know, and then through the months and years it sometimes takes for the impact of cuts made in haste to hit home. In the meantime, read between the lines at

Friday, August 21, 2009

Stereotypes getting in way of good care for seniors

This is a column about my mom, and the crazy things that can happen when you take ill at 83.
My mother is a retired nurse who has done everything right in terms of looking after her health all these years. Despite mobility challenges since being hit by a car in a crosswalk seven years ago, she’s still very much a “tough old broad,” as a friend once described her.
But as our family has now come to see, in the eyes of our depersonalized and harried health-care system, she’s just Old Person No. 347,050 on a very long list. And from what she’s been hearing from her friends, that’s just how it is once you cross some invisible line into old age.
She has no chronic health conditions. She isn’t on any long-term medication. Up until two months ago, she was travelling, cooking dinner for one friend or another virtually every night she was home, and was an active, engaged community volunteer.
Then we went on a family holiday to Tofino in June. She got too much sun one day and went to bed feeling sick. Perhaps she slept too heavily on her bad arm - the accident left her with a broken shoulder and severe limitations in the use of her right arm. At any rate, she awoke the next day with major pain in her arm.
It’s been one strange ride ever since, starting with the prescription drug she was given to reduce inflammation - which lived up to its potential to cause “a general feeling of illness” as one of its side-effects.
By the time she figured that out and quit the drug, she’d developed blood-sugar problems and was showing diabetes-like symptoms. (With any luck, that was a side-effect of the drug as well, because they’ve since stopped.)
And wouldn’t you know it, my mother’s trusted family doctor retired just as all of this got underway. That put her into the care of the doctor who’d just bought the practice.
They’d never met before my mother came in about the pain in her arm. The physician knew nothing of the vigorous, active woman my mother had been just a few days earlier, and didn’t bother to ask. I’m guessing the doctor just saw a tired, sick 83-year-old with a bum shoulder - one who had yet to come to grips with her pain and illness as the byproducts of aging.
OK, I get that. So does my mom. She recognizes that she’s in the countdown. She won’t be looking for medical heroics when her time comes.
But there’s a fine line between expecting people to accept the aging process and relegating them to assembly-line care that presumes they’ll soon be dead anyway. That’s how it has felt for my mother these past two months.
Her saga was complicated by a much-anticipated cruise to Alaska in early July, which she desperately wanted to go on. The x-ray of her shoulder found nothing untoward and the doctors didn’t seem too interested in exploring the issue further, so she mustered her strength to go on the cruise. She still didn’t know whether the diabetes-like problems she’d experienced were a reaction to the anti-inflammatory she’d taken, but figured results from the blood-sugar tests would be ready when she returned.
And they were. But by then she’d caught some terrible flu-like thing that had morphed into a secondary bronchial infection, as had her sister on the final days of the cruise. (Could it be swine flu? My mother is on Day 21 of what she describes as the worst illness of her life, and nobody has even suggested she be tested for it.)
So the bronchial infection was the more pressing issue by the time she got home. In B.C., you’re only allowed one health concern per visit these days when you go to the doctor, which meant her doctor listened to her chest but then refused to review her blood-sugar results until a later appointment.
Her active life has ground to a halt over the past two months. Depression crept in. Fortunately, all those friends she cooks for have come through for her. And the really good news is that so much time has passed since her arm first started to hurt that the original problem appears to have resolved itself. I think she’s going to be fine.
I wouldn’t say the system failed her; she got drugs, tests and an x-ray. But all of it came grudgingly, as if done just to silence a frail old lady who hadn’t come to grips with her own mortality. Come on, docs - look past those aging bodies to the people who are still very much alive inside them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Must share this absolutely hilarious link to a Global TV newscast that went wildly to the dogs.
The upside of mental illness - creative brilliance

Nice to see mental illness finally getting some good press. The latest news is of a genetic link between creativity and mental illnesses, which seems to confirm once and for all what many other studies over the decades have also found.
From the Oracle of Delphi to the great creative talents of today, this thing we call mental illness has been enriching our communities for a very long time.
These days, it’s popular to wish for all mental illnesses to be treated and cured. But we’d be a poorer society in so many ways were we ever to achieve that questionable goal. Think of all the beautiful words, paintings, music and design we’d have missed out on over the centuries were it not for the brilliant work of creative people with mental illness.
I met a young busker and his friend on the Inner Harbour a couple weeks back, and have been struggling with how to write up their very interesting story without falling into one of those man-with-schizophrenia-overcomes-disability tales.
Because the thing about mental illness is that it’s not all about trying to “overcome” it. As science is now confirming, illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are linked to creative brilliance. And what’s intriguing about the story of Jordan Blaikie and his pal Ross Johnson is that their mental illnesses are in fact what brought them together in the first place, which has turned out to be a very positive thing.
Blaikie is 30 and Johnson is 29. Both have lived with mental illness for all of their adult lives and then some, having been diagnosed when they were teenagers.
They certainly know the negative aspects of living with mental illness, not the least of which has been an inability for the two men to find and keep a decent job. They’ve had to get by on disability cheques for the most part, supplemented with part-time work at pizza joints and the like. (“It’s a lot more fun to go busking,” notes Blaikie.)
Over the years they’ve been on medication, off medication and everything in between, and are all too aware of the challenges faced by people living with chronic and persistent mental illness.
Still, if they’d never experienced a mental-health crisis, they’d never have met. They met because they were housemates in 2007 at the Seven Oaks psychiatric facility, and struck up the conversation that ultimately led them to their new business venture: Tricky Magic Productions.
Blaikie had worked off and on as a street magician for three years before he met Johnson, having inherited his sister’s old magic tricks after she lost interest. Johnson had ideas for how Blaikie could extend his busking season by performing indoors in the winter months at seniors’ centres and community events.
And so far, so good. Blaikie took his magic show to 25 venues over the winter. More recently, the pair has branched into “casino nights” at some of the seniors’ facilities, having discovered the joys of dealing blackjack and Texas Hold ‘Em for delighted residents gambling for Thrifty Foods coupons.
It’s on to bigger and better things this fall. Johnson has booked the theatre at Eric Martin Institute for a variety show Oct. 10. The show will be a fundraiser for the Friends of Music Society, an organization that works on bridging the gaps between musicians with mental illness and those without it. The headliner will be Blaikie, of course - “The Great Jordano.”
“I’m hoping to have nine performers that night - we’re calling it ‘Monty Pylon’s Family Circus,’ “ says Johnson. “Most of us have disabilities, but not all of us. Anyway, it’s about the ability, not the disability.”
Blaikie dreams of becoming a cruise-ship magician. Johnson lists six Vancouver Island theatres he wants to do shows at one day. Mental illness will undoubtedly complicate things for the men, because it generally does. But maybe it’s also the thing that helps make Blaikie a confident and charming magician, and Johnson a sweetly enthusiastic pitch man.
Think of the creative gifts that mental illness has given us over the centuries. Would Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf have set pen to paper in such compelling fashion if not for their mental illnesses? Would Van Gogh have painted with such passion and insight? Or Beethoven written with the same power?
Call it a sickness if you must, but the truth is that the world is a much better place for having people with mental illness in it. I wish my young busker friends a lifetime of shining in the dark.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

We're NOT going to take it - are we?

Ever been to one of those meetings where you’re thinking damn, if I have to take another five minutes of this, I’m going to run screaming from the room?
BC Ferries has found an easy solution. They just pay their directors to go - $1,500 a pop if you’re there in person, $750 if you phone in. And that’s on top of the $48,000-$58,000 a year the directors are already getting just to be on the board - an amount that’s quite a bit more than the full-year working wage of an average Canadian.
What the heck is going on? So much is weird in this world around the things we give value to that I sometimes fantasize about becoming one of those crazed tax resisters holed up in a (sunny) hideaway in some distant land. I mean, really, when IS the revolution?
Something dehumanizing must happen to people when they reach the top of the food chain. Otherwise, how could it be that just sitting on a board of directors ends up being worth more than, say, a full year of difficult, stressful work for a bullet-sweating manager of a typical non-profit?
There are nine directors on the ferry authority. Eight receive an annual stipend of $48,000 for agreeing to be on the board, and $10,000 more if they chair a committee. The ninth is the board chair, who gets $140,000. In the last fiscal year, the directors met six times as a full board, and 10 additional times as committees.
If we assume that all nine attended the board meetings (wouldn’t you if someone was paying you $1,500 to be there?), that’s another $81,000, and a further $75,000 if half are presumed to have attended the committee meetings. All in: about $700,000.
My mind often goes to the non-profit sector when I hear about stuff like this, because the contrast is just so dramatic - especially with the government revising its 2009-10 budget downward at this very moment and scaring the wits out of every non-profit in town.
So here’s an interesting fact: What the ferries board got paid last year just to go to a few meetings and stand as directors is substantially richer than the total annual budget of PEERS when I was finishing up my time there as executive director in 2007.
We employed 11 people at PEERS at that time, most of whom were coming out of tough circumstance. We provided outreach to more than 100 women. We ran a training program for another 50 or so participants who came for help getting their lives on track. I like to think we made a real difference in a lot of people’s lives.
Obviously, it’s difficult to compare the worth of providing support to citizens in need with keeping the ferry service running. I’ve seen loads of stats on the tremendous value the ferry service adds to the B.C. economy, but nothing from government that measures the worth of the thousands of little agencies that help British Columbians stabilize and improve their lives.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be clear on any of that to question whether being on the board of the ferry authority should ever be worth more than a year of work for the average Canadian. I say no.
Another example of top-of-the-food-chain syndrome: the use of gambling revenues. Anticipate disaster for non-profits if the grants really are frozen this year, because the arts and culture grants hitting the headlines now are just the first of seven waves of annual grants that thousands of agencies depend on.
Once upon a time, British Columbians agreed to let government turn gambling into a major revenue stream, largely because charities were supposed to reap the benefits. And gambling did indeed turn into a major revenue stream, one that generates over a billion dollars a year in net profit for the province. That’s more than a 100 per cent increase from a decade ago.
But the amount designated for charity has risen less than 25 per cent. Ten years ago, 5,000 B.C. charities shared just under a third of all government gaming profits. Now, almost 7,000 charities compete for just 17 per cent of the pie, and the average annual grant per charity has fallen almost $3,000. And we just take it.
Throw open the nearest window, people, and lean out all crazy-eyed like Peter Finch did in the movie Network. Shout loud enough to rattle the roof in the places where it’s so painfully clear they don’t have a clue how it feels to be us: We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.