Friday, January 29, 2010

Disgrace can't erase Fonyo's accomplishments

Poor Steve Fonyo. Something about that guy just breaks my heart.
Few things are more painful to watch than a long and very public fall from grace. Fonyo’s fall has been more painful than most, because he really was just an ordinary teen trying to do something positive when he set out to run across the country in 1984.
He accomplished something quite miraculous. Not only did he run all the way from St. John’s, Nfld. to Victoria - 7,294 kilometres in all - but he raised $13 million for the Canadian Cancer Society along the way. And it all took place just five years after Fonyo lost his leg to cancer at age 12.
Canadians loved Fonyo, at least for a little while. But he soon began to try our affections, starting with a drunk-driving conviction in 1987 and then a seemingly endless series of criminal convictions over the next 22 years for things like shoplifting, driving without a licence, and fraud.
The latest humiliation came this week, when Fonyo was stripped of his 1985 Order of Canada. He’s one of just four people to be removed from the Order in its 42-year history. For his sins, he now shares a place in Canadian history with NHL players’ agent Alan Eagleson, aboriginal leader David Ahenakew, and lawyer Sher Singh, all deemed to have brought the Order into disrepute through bad behaviour or criminal activities.
Timing is everything, and it’s unfortunate that in the period when Fonyo was preparing for his run, Canadians needed more than just a plucky one-legged teen running across the country for cancer. We needed a hero.
Terry Fox’s tragic story had captured the nation just three years earlier. We wanted Fonyo to be everything that Fox had seemed destined for.
Who could meet such a tall order? Certainly not Fonyo, who was just a kid when he suddenly found himself elevated to hero status following his 14-month run. He achieved what Fox had not been able to do (Fox died a year into his run), but couldn’t possibly live up to the myth.
Even the $13 million Fonyo raised with his cross-Canada Journey For Lives pales in comparison with the $24 million that Fox raised without ever completing his run, let alone the hundreds of millions raised in Fox’s memory since his death.
Fonyo enjoyed a few heady months caught up in the whirl of fame - riding in red Ferraris with George Harrison; meeting the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul; receiving the Order of Canada at the tender age of 18. But real life is no fairy tale, and Fonyo’s brief time in the limelight was over soon enough.
He tried to kick-start things again in 1987 with another fundraising run, this time across the United Kingdom. But the disastrous run raised just $115,000 and left Fonyo deep in debt.
His first conviction for drunk driving came later that same year, right around the time his car was seized due to unpaid bills. He was 20 years old and $36,000 in debt.
His ongoing problems with drugs and alcohol have been well-documented by the Canadian media. In fact, every bump in the road that Fonyo has encountered in the last two decades has been well-documented, to the point that it’s now the drunk and disorderly side of Fonyo that springs most easily to mind whenever his name comes up. The hero is no more.
What can you wish for a man like Fonyo?
We liked him well enough when he was a kid with a disability and a simple and compelling dream. But the full-grown man - warts and all - has been much harder to warm up to. His years of criminal behaviour have doubtlessly hurt many people, and he has put countless lives at risk by repeatedly driving drunk and without a licence.
Still, he did something amazing once upon a time. He’s a small-town B.C. boy who raised a staggering amount of money for cancer, and is still the only one-legged runner in history to run across Canada. I hope he still hangs onto the memory of that proud achievement in the midst of his latest disgrace.
Fonyo was reportedly devastated when he found out he was to be removed from the Order of Canada. A former boss at a Surrey auto-repair shop told the Vancouver Sun this week that it just seems wrong to do that to Fonyo.
“They gave him the Order of Canada based on his accomplishments, and they’re still there. It’s not like he didn’t do it, or lied about it,” says Satnam Singh Sidhu. “He finished his marathon and was an inspiration to a lot of people.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why do we need to believe the worst about the sex industry?

A new study out of Simon Fraser University concludes that people who buy sex are no more prone to violence than anyone else.
Fewer than two per cent of the 1,000 respondents who took part in SFU sociologist Chris Atchison’s study reported ever having hit, hurt, raped or robbed the person who they’d bought sex from.
Granted, that’s just them saying so. But Atchison noted in a Vancouver Sun story this week about his research that there was little reason for the respondents to lie, given that the survey was anonymous.
That his findings are provocative is an understatement.
"It's an outrageous study and it really works towards normalizing sexual assault," said Aurea Flynn of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, which is the go-to organization in B.C. when media are looking for a quote from someone vehemently opposed to prostitution.
"I'm really angry about the emphasis on the compassion for johns that the study provides,” added Flynn, “and I'm very concerned about its impact on the continued normalization of prostitution in Canada because I believe prostitution is violence against women."
It’s odd, really. Atchison’s findings ought to be considered good news in a society that puts so much emphasis on reducing violence for all British Columbians. Shouldn’t we be happy that most of the thousands of British Columbians who buy sex on a regular basis aren’t violent toward sex workers?
Ah, but this is about the sex industry. We don’t want to hear anything “nice” about it. We don’t want anybody telling us that most of the customers of the sex industry are largely average, non-violent guys - the kind of men we work with, live with and even love. We don’t want to hear that most adult sex workers in Canada might actually be choosing to work in the business.
When it comes to prostitution, we only like it violent, coercive and miserable. I guess we pretty much have to cling to that belief, because otherwise we just might question the ineffective, discriminatory and ultimately harmful laws that govern how the sex industry operates in our country.
We prefer a single story line when it comes to public conversations about the sex trade - one in which all the people who buy sex are exploitive predators, and all the people who sell it are victims needing to be saved (or at the very least prosecuted in the event they refuse “rescue”).
But what if we’ve got that wrong?
Without question, there are some loathsome and horrendous things that go on in the global sex industry. No civil society should tolerate the truly awful parts of the sex industry. We need strong laws - and much more effective enforcement of them - to protect against the exploitation of vulnerable people and prevent child abuse, human trafficking and sex tourism.
We also need plenty of community supports to help people wanting out of the sex trade. It’s not a job that anybody should have to feel they’re doing against their will, including for economic reasons.
But at the same time, it’s profoundly hypocritical for a country with so many eager customers of the sex trade to pretend that the entire industry is monstrous. It doesn’t seem implausible to me that 98 per cent of the people who took part in Atchison’s survey really are just looking for a sexual encounter, not the opportunity to hurt anybody.
I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a number of adult escorts over the past couple of years, and they’ve given me a whole new perspective on who their customers are. I’ve been stunned to discover just how many customers there are, and their many complex reasons for paying for sex.
So to judge them all as vicious creeps just doesn’t work for me anymore. We may like to tell ourselves that they’re all Robert Pickton types looking for any excuse to make some crushed and exploited woman’s life a little more miserable, but it just isn’t true.
I do think the people who buy sex need to get a spine, however, and start doing more to change the laws to ensure fair, safe workplaces for adult sex workers. The customers of the massive sex industry hold all kinds of authority positions, in our region and around the world. How about they start using some of that influence to create real change for adult workers, starting with decriminalization?
For another view of the industry, come on down to the screening of The Brothel Project Jan. 31 at the Victoria Film Festival. The documentary by April Butler-Parry follows me and UVic researcher and outreach worker Lauren Casey in our 2008 attempt to open a co-op brothel in Victoria.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Major rent increases coming for people in B.C. residential care

It isn’t often that a landlord can quietly order up a 30 per cent rent increase for more than 2,000 people without anybody making a public fuss about it.
But maybe that’s what happens when your tenants are elderly, frail seniors living in B.C.’s long-term care facilities. As of Jan. 31, “rents” will go up for most of the 26,000 people living in government-subsidized residential-care facilities, in some cases jumping as much as $672 a month.
That barely a word of it has made it into the major B.C. media says one of two things: Either the people in residential care think it’s a fair deal and aren’t complaining; or the reality hasn’t sunk in yet. I guess we’ll know soon enough which one it is.
The rent increase is far beyond what any private landlord could dream of imposing on an existing tenant. The allowable rent increase for B.C. landlords in 2009 was 3.7 per cent.
Alas, residential-care facilities aren’t governed by the same act as home rentals. The provincial Health Services Ministry says people in subsidized long-term care should pay a larger share of their room and board costs, and contends a rate increase of this magnitude is needed to address the problem.
Unlike the “free” care we receive when we go to an acute-care hospital, seniors’ care in a little more complex. Tax dollars fund the medical component of long-term care, but seniors are required to contribute toward the room and board component of their stays. That “co-payment” is currently too low in most cases, contends government.
Right now, the amount a senior has to pay is based on an 11-step grid ranging from $940 to $2,260 a month, depending on income. As of Jan. 31, everyone in residential care will instead pay 80 per cent of their annual income to a maximum of $2,932 a month. Most will also be allowed to keep $275 a month.
It’s not all bad news. Low-income seniors will see a small drop in their monthly rents under the new system. All told, a quarter of the people currently in residential care will see their “rents” either stay the same or decrease a little.
As for the other 75 per cent - well, they’ll be paying more. The co-payment for people in the highest income bracket is going up by $672 a month (effective immediately for those just heading into care, and phased in over this year and the next for those currently in care). Of course, that’s arguably still a bargain compared to the private sector, where room-and-board rates can easily top $5,000 a month in an assisted-living facility.
The increases in the public rates will likely hit hardest for couples in which one spouse is in residential care and the other is still in their own home. They can launch individual “hardship” appeals through the Vancouver Island Health Authority, but that’s a lot to ask of an aging couple at one of the most stressful points in their lives.
One local man whose father is in residential care cautions not to expect an easy solution to such appeals. His mother tried the hardship route under the current system after her husband went into full-time care, but ended up having to legally separate from him to be certain she could retain enough income to live on.
Anticipate some problems as well with the $275 a month that people are allowed to retain for personal expenses. (Most people, anyway: those on income assistance will keep just $95/month).
True, that amount is higher in B.C. than in any other province. But that’s not to say it’s sufficient to cover everybody’s costs. All expenses have to come out of that $275: prescription drugs that aren’t covered under the government plan, over-the-counter drugs, mobility aids, grooming and care products, clothing, haircuts, dental care, phone, and so on.
The government says it will review the rate every three years. But that’s a pointless promise in a system where the average stay is a year and a half. Few of those in long-term care right now will be around to get any satisfaction out of the 2013 rate review.
All in, people in residential care will be paying an additional $54 million a year under the new rates. The government says the money will be reinvested into things like more client care, more staff, more rehab. Read the fine print, though, and it’s no sure thing. Health authorities will actually decide how to spend the money, at sites with “the greatest needs.”
Should we be alarmed by all this? Too soon to say. But the changes affect thousands of vulnerable British Columbians, and that’s a warning sign in itself to proceed with caution. Heads up, people.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bridge too fast scares up thousands of resisters

OK, I get Victoria councillor Lynn Hunter’s concern about deciding things by referendum. Direct democracy can be an unpredictable and potentially harmful form of governance, as the state of California can attest.
But when it comes to the Johnson Street bridge, I understand completely why more than 9,000 Victoria citizens have signed petitions demanding that city council’s decision to replace the bridge be put to referendum.
For one thing, the idea of replacing the bridge came out of nowhere nine months ago. City council (with the exception of Geoff Young) was such an enthusiastic booster from the start that no one with a wrong word to say about the project was given any chance to air their concerns.
And it was council who created the “alternate approval process” that brought us to this point. Usually the city lets its citizens participate in the decision-making process, but this time council took the position that the answer was “yes” unless they heard otherwise by Jan. 4 from at least 10 per cent of eligible city voters. So those with concerns about the need for a $63 million rebuild of the bridge set out to collect enough signatures to make that happen.
That they succeeded isn’t a blow to representative democracy, as Hunter portrayed it at the Dec. 10 council meeting (See the B Channel video). It’s just the only option people had to try to slow the train down.
The rap against governance by referendum is that poorer decisions will result because the public simply isn’t as informed and knowledgeable about issues compared to their elected representatives. Applied here, that theory presumes Victoria council spent considerable time weighing the options before deciding that replacing the 85-year-old Johnson Street bridge was better than repairing it.
But how many days do you think went by between the first-ever mention in the Times Colonist of the need to replace the bridge, and city council’s vote of approval? Twenty-one. Knock out the weekends and that leaves just 15 working days for council to have reflected on the massive project.
Seeing as they get together only a couple times a week and are wrestling with dozens of other issues at those meetings as well, I’d be surprised if councillors spent more than a few hours all told mulling the bridge issue.
A year ago when the current council was newly elected, not one of them was talking about replacing the bridge. It was a non-issue. Back in 1999, the city spent just over $1 million getting the bridge repaired and resurfaced, and at that time told the public that the refit meant “several more decades of life” for the bridge.
So how did we suddenly end up on a fast track to bridge replacement? How did it become “the number-one infrastructure policy” for the city, as Mayor Dean Fortin described it? I can’t shake the feeling that if the federal government hadn’t been throwing money around last year for capital projects, we still wouldn’t be talking about the Johnson Street bridge.
There’s nothing wrong with the city trying to get its hands on some federal funding, of course. It landed $21 million in the end, half of what it was hoping for but still a nice chunk of change.
But Victoria’s citizens still face being on the hook for two-thirds of the costly rebuild of a bridge that many people don’t believe needs to be replaced . And it’s clear from the results of the counter-petition this week that several thousand of them felt strongly enough about that to put their name to the call for a referendum.
Congratulations to Ross Crockford, Mat Wright and Yule Heibel, the three Victorians who built a solid grassroots campaign out of a conversation that started around a summer barbecue among people puzzling over why the city was suddenly hell-bent on rebuilding the bridge. More than 100 volunteers signed on to help collect signatures. (Here's their site.)
They weren’t looking to make trouble. They weren’t trying to throw a wrench into representative democracy. They just wanted more answers than city hall was willing to give them.
I talked to Crockford, a journalist, this week. The story of how he ended up a spokesman for the bridge revolt is charmingly happenstance, and would likely hearten Hunter as a fine example of democracy in action if she could just break free of the group-think at the council table these days.
People want a referendum on the bridge because they aren’t convinced city council is acting in their best interests. With no chance for public input and a warp-speed approval process, who can blame them?