Monday, November 29, 2010

Well now, how nutty is it to base our choice of new citizens on whether they can pass a citizenship test? If you remember your own school-years suffering when you jammed your head full of information for tests then forgot it all the minute the test was over, I think you'll agree that tests are just about the most useless way to gauge someone's actual aptitude over the long term. Especially for something like citizenship.
But I always knew Ottawa was out of touch, and here's more proof.
On a happier note, delighted to see I seem to be attracting more well-informed blogger-commentators to my site, judging by the very clued-in comments I'm starting to get on some of my posts.
My partner Paul Willcocks has always had really informed people commenting on his blog and I've been envious. I'm happy to see some of these writers gravitating to mine. They add a heck of a lot to the conversation. More, please!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Outright homelessness just most obvious face of Canadian poverty, study finds

The latest eye-opener on the state of social health in our country confirmed what anyone working in poverty services has known for a long time - that there’s a frighteningly large number of people barely hanging on in our communities.
What the broader community notices is the absolute homelessness - the people huddled in the doorways and camping on the boulevards. But as the authors of the just-released Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency have discovered, that’s just the visible edge of a much bigger problem.
For every person occupying an emergency shelter bed, multiply by 23 to calculate how many people in that community are actually falling in and out of their housing at least a couple of times a year, says the report from the Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness, Housing and Health.
Do the math in our region and that’s more than 10,000 people.  Forget the distinction between “homeless” and “vulnerably housed,” advises the alliance: “This is one large, severely disadvantaged group that transitions between the two housing states.”
Some 400,000 Canadians are living like that, says the alliance, a partnership of 14 hospitals, universities and community services across the country. That includes more than 54,000 in B.C., giving our province and Quebec the dubious distinction of having the highest percentages in Canada of households at risk (3.6 per cent).
These people are dead-poor, hungry and sick, with high rates of chronic and severe health problems.  Almost two-thirds have suffered a traumatic brain injury at some point in their lives. More than half have a diagnosed mental illness.
Whatever the disease or condition, rates are at least double for this impoverished group compared to the broader population - from heart disease to hepatitis-C infections, diabetes to cancer. And while the rest of us experience violent crime at a rate of one in 100, more than one in three of the 1,200 people interviewed for the study reported being beaten up or attacked in the previous year.
The rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are four times higher than in the general population. Asthma rates are triple. Problems with mobility - trouble walking, missing limbs - are more than twice as common.
This is what two decades of social cuts and poorly considered policy changes look like, Canada. How much more will it take to get us to act?
It’s too bad that the annual report from the Select Standing Committee on Finance was released at such an intensely political moment this month, because the findings got lost in the noise of an unexpected tax cut from a desperate premier and the subsequent resignations of affronted New Democrats on the committee.
Side shows aside, I thought the committee really recognized this year that cuts to community services had gone too far in B.C. That’s especially significant given that it was an all-Liberal version of the committee that issued the final report after the NDP walkout.
Hardly a surprise, mind you.  Dozens of presentations to the committee this fall came from people whose work puts them in the midst of B.C.’s growing sub-class. Say what you will about trickle-down economics and “hand up” strategies, it ought to be obvious at this point to anyone with their eyes open that poor people are starting to pile up in our province.
What to do? Get real, for one thing. People on income assistance can’t possibly stay housed on current rates - a single room in a shared home goes for at least $500 in Greater Victoria right now, impossible on a shelter rate of $375 and a total cheque of $610.
Raise the rates and allow people to keep some earnings from part-time work. If someone’s just too sick or disabled to ever achieve financial independence, put them on a guaranteed income tied to the cost of living and help them find volunteer work.
Give employment-insurance benefits to people who are unemployed, which is not the way the system works at the moment.  Raise the minimum wage and tie it to cost-of-living increases.
Mental-health care needs to shake off its stigmatized poor-sister status and become a genuine part of the health-care system, not a rag-tag bit of bother that’s always the first to lose funding and the last to get it. Brain injuries need to be treated as the lifelong sea change that they are, with services and supports lasting well beyond the hospital door.
Not rocket science, as they say. Yet here we are, 400,000 people deep and still dithering.  

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Great blog post from Ernie Tadla today, a local fellow whose passion and moment of transformation really comes through in this piece.

Monday, November 22, 2010

You know, you don't think things like this can happen when you come from the Land of the Wide-Open Spaces, but I've now had two freaky incidents with a massive crowd of people on the edge of losing it, and it's a terrifying experience.
Nothing here in Canada, of course - the first time for me was at a Carnaval celebration in Mazatlan, and the more recent time was this spring at a famous cave site in Vietnam where thousands and thousands of Vietnamese Buddhists do a pilgrimage to in the weeks after New Year.
No bad stuff actually happened in the end, but the possibility of it was made very, very real to me. This latest tragedy in Cambodia is particularly sad in a country that's had a hell of a time coming back from that massive slaughter of so many of its intellectuals and artists under Pol Pot.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Strong stats in this new report looking at the "nearly homeless" in Canada, an estimated 400,000 people. If we presume our region still has at least 1,000 people living homeless, that puts our population of  nearly homeless at 23,000  based on the finding in this report that for every homeless person there's 23 others living at significant risk. Our inability to support people with brain injuries really comes across in this study - two-thirds of the people they looked at in the category of "nearly homeless" had an acquired brain injury.
Not good enough for the federal government to say that housing is a provincial responsibility. There used to be much, much more federal money flowing into the provinces for subsidized housing - let's get those taps open again, because the provinces can't fix the mess that's been created on their own.

Friday, November 19, 2010

No column for me in the TC today - it's that unfortunate Friday once a month when I no longer get a column (budget cuts). Fortunately, there are good writers out there keeping an eye on the scene in my absence - here's a piece from Vaughn Palmer making his prediction on how NDP leader Carole James will make out with her membership this weekend. 
 Personally, I hope Bill Bennett takes the "independent" option and that he and the other three independents in the legislature right now form some kind of  Party of Real People. Four is enough to form a party, and all the better in my mind if it has no right/left ideology. 
How about a party of common sense? Of true public representation? I would love the option to vote for people who were out there representing their constituencies plain and simple, with no need to be currying favour with a particular leader or filtering everything they said through the party line.
I'd definitely rather see a politician in a full-on meltdown like Bill Bennett this week than sitting there in helpless silence while bad things happen under their watch. Nice to see some of them getting some real spine.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

OK, it's not cheery news, but you need to know it - figures from the country's food banks on the growing number of people living in poverty in this country of ours. I was coincidentally just down at the Mustard Seed Food Bank here in Victoria, and they were telling me that 8,000 people in our region now count on the Mustard Seed for a bag of groceries once a month.
Now that the B.C. Liberals are imploding, maybe we can get back to the business of doing something about that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good on (former) B.C. cabinet minister Bill Bennett for laying it on the line on his way out the door. Here's today's story - check out the audio file of Bennett on the right-hand side of the story. And hurrah hurrah to a sober second thought on that ridiculous 15 per cent tax cut Gordon Campbell dreamed up in his final days - the government has now rescinded that cut. Maybe that will let us get back to funding at least some of the community services that have been dismantled in B.C. under the Liberal regime.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I do think Health Minister Kevin Falcon has a point in this little squib about how we're housing the homeless in $1000-a-day hospital beds. Yeah, that's a stupid and immensely costly way to do it, but the media would be all over the government if they were just kicking people out of those beds into homelessness rather than leaving them there for a few days in the hopes that a better option can be found.
So thanks for leaving them there, Kevin. But now let's figure out some housing and health supports so that they can get out of hospital sooner and into their own place for a fraction of that crazy cost. Better still, let's give them the support they need to not get sick in the first place.
The truth is that the cutbacks under this government and the Glen Clark New Democrats over the last 15 years have intensified poverty dramatically in B.C. It's showing up in all kinds of ways - including far too many people stuck in costly hospital beds. Not all of them are homeless - a shortage of long-term care beds in our communities is also stranding the frail elderly, the disabled and the brain-injured in those expensive hospital beds.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How do you stay optimistic in light of reality?

My son was teasing me recently about the “tough job” of having to have an opinion on everything.
I admit, grumbling about the stresses of having a weekly platform in the Island’s largest daily newspaper for whatever you feel like going on about must come across as just a bit precious for all the writers and ranters out there who would jump at the opportunity.
But the truth is, having an opinion all the time does take its toll. It requires you to stay informed - and that turns out to be an incredibly discouraging process.
I place great value on having informed opinions, and on changing my mind if new information comes available. Think of me what you will as a columnist, but I’d hope that even the people who can’t stand what I write would at least agree I check into things before weighing in with an opinion.
It’s that checking-in that beats you down. You start to see the unmistakable pattern in how we humans operate, which all too often involves “fixing” specific problems only to neglect them back to life again a few years later. I mean, we’ve made an art form out of reinventing the wheel.
And once you know, there’s no “unknowing” - you see everything differently from that point on. You see the limits on the starry-eyed dreams of those who don’t yet know how things tend to work out. I don’t want to be rolling my eyes at someone’s big new vision for tackling the stubborn problems of our world, but it’s hard not to when you’re acutely aware of how often our enthusiastic plans go awry and our attention strays.
Getting informed has a lot of sleuthing in it. You’re lifting up the rocks to learn why things are happening a particular way. You’re asking questions, reading reports, looking at public records.
I love the process, and that being a journalist leads me to the people who can answer my questions. (Whether they will or not is another question, mind you.) I love this amazing age of accessible information. I love the chance to understand.
But what I’ve come to understand the most from all that paying attention is that we’re people of grand vision with fairly hopeless long-term commitment for seeing things through. We build up and tear down on all kinds of front, wasting heartbreaking amounts of time and energy on things that we soon forget we ever cared about.
My biggest fear is that all this knowing is making me bitter and cynical. I don’t want to be the type of person who pours cold water on every hopeful suggestion. I don’t want to be the Eeyore in the room.
I fear I’m already becoming one of those wet blankets at a party who is always bringing people down with their alarmed anecdotes and unpleasant statistics.
I can take a perfectly amusing little conversation and turn it into a deep and slightly uncomfortable talk about a pressing social concern in under a minute, even when I’m trying to keep things light. I’m sure people can spot the flaming colours of my outraged aura from across the room these days, and who could blame them for quietly hoping I wasn’t coming their way?
The other day, I heard myself making crabby comments about a shiny new family centre for autism being planned for Vancouver (more on that later). What an odd position to be in.
Then I startled a sales clerk at a local store with my passionate refusal to sign an anti-trafficking petition until I knew more about the campaign.  I saw in her eyes that I could very quickly become a real drag to be around.
On balance, I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way. The world just doesn’t need another uninformed opinion. But should you and I find ourselves in the same room one day, I’ll understand if you avoid me. There are days when I wish I could do the same.
Farewell to the late Bob Wise, whose own informed opinions around sex work made the Victoria artist and agent provocateur a favourite of mine in my years at PEERS Victoria.
He could have just stayed angry about having the prostitution stroll on his doorstep at Rock Bay. But instead he got to know the sex workers, and found clever ways to raise their issues in his artwork.  I’ll miss you, Bob.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Couldn't agree more with today's Times Colonist editorial. What the heck is with these guys? They go on and on about the need to prevent drunk driving, then they introduce laws that actually work, then they start talking about reversing the laws because the hospitality industry is griping that people aren't drinking enough anymore??
Please make a pact with me that we will not allow Rich Coleman or Kevin Falcon to be the next Liberal leader. Even a couple years under either of those two would be disastrous.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Here's an open letter to Premier Gordon Campbell issued today by First Call, a coalition of BC child and youth advocacy organizations, that notes the grand betrayal of British Columbians resulting from the instant tax cut Campbell used in a desperate attempt to increase his popularity. And here's a terrific Vaughn Palmer column on the same subject. 

November 9, 2010

Dear Premier Campbell,

First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition was one of the organizations that took time to respond to the call for input into next year’s budget by the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.  Many of our coalition partner organizations also participated in sharing their ideas and recommendations with the Committee.  We all participated in this exercise in good faith, trusting that the Committee’s report and recommendations, expected on November 15, would reflect our views, among others.

Your announcement on October 27, 2010 of an income tax cut costing the 2011 provincial budget $568 million was a slap in the face to the Standing Committee and everyone who made submissions to its deliberations.  The consultation document specifically asked British Columbians to share our budget priorities for 2011/12, with the figure of $650 million shown as “Available Revenues.”

Our coalition exists to mobilize British Columbians on behalf of children and youth.  We regularly encourage our coalition partners and contacts around the province to engage in the democratic process, such as participating in formal consultations by legislative committees, in order to make the case for the importance of allocating resources to properly support children, youth and families. 

Your action, preempting even the appearance of considering the Standing Committee’s recommendations, has made it harder for people to believe that their time is well spent preparing briefs and recommendations to inform government decision-making.  It has increased cynicism about our relationship as citizens with our government.  It has made it more difficult to convince young people that public consultations by government have integrity and are worthy of their interest and effort.

On behalf of our coalition partners, we would appreciate hearing from you as to why this 2011/12 budget decision was made prior to the submission of the Standing Committee’s report from its public consultations.

We look forward to your reply.

[original signed by]
Adrienne Montani
Provincial Coordinator
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition

Copies to Finance Minister Colin Hansen and the members of the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.

See First Call's submission on the provincial budget here:

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bye, Mr. Premier. Wish I could think of something nice to say, you having been the premier for nine long years now. But I can't. 
Social conditions have worsened significantly under your leadership. You have insulated yourself from the people, choosing to surround yourself with paid cheerleaders who told you what you wanted to hear. I can’t tell you how many times the phrase, “The emperor has no clothes” has come to my mind when thinking about your governance style.
There was a moment when I glimpsed the human being that I know must be inside you. It was after you got busted for driving drunk in Maui. You came home to what must have been the most horrendous press conference you've ever had to be part of, and I saw in your eyes a man in real pain.
I wish you'd let that guy loose more often - the guy who knows what it feels like to screw up, to not always be the golden one. Your government operates like it's never known a moment like that. If I was going to describe the B.C. Liberals in a few words, I'd say: "Smug and dangerously certain."
These are complex times, Mr. Premier. I do know a little about your life, and that you've experienced complex events. So how come it never feels like you bring that personal experience to bear when making decisions for British Columbia? 
You guys feel cold as ice in so much of your decision-making. It’s like being run by a corporation. And that is not a good thing when so much of what a provincial government does is about looking after people.
Thanks to you, I do have a better understanding that the business model can be put to good application in much of what government does. But I guess I also have you to thank for showing me its striking limitations. 
 You will not be remembered well by people like me, but who knows - you still have years to go in your life, and are uniquely placed as a former premier to do some really good work out here in the world should you put your mind to it. I never say never.
But I don’t think you can be expected to be forgiven easily, and certainly not by me. I’ve actually met people who your government has pulled the rug out from under. OK, you’re just the premier, but you set the tone. And it’s way off.
I’m a media type, always looking for someone to talk to. I’ve noticed that people have become much more fearful about speaking up under your leadership. That says volumes about the climate you’ve created in government. 
In fairness, it hasn’t all been bad.
You’ve definitely made B.C. a better place to do business, and that needed to happen. You pulled off the Olympics - and I admit, I sat riveted in front of the TV for much of it despite my fervent vow that I would boycott the whole thing.
You got things going with First Nations. That’s particularly impressive given how very far back some members of your government were on that issue when you first came to power.
 And I think all-day kindergarten will turn out to be a good thing in years to come, even though it’s also a prime example of the kind of shove-it-down-your-throat style of government that has brought you to this point.
My sense of you is that you never had a clue what consultation is actually about. You seem quite certain that you know best about everything.
But you don’t. You can’t. That’s how it is for everyone, Mr. Campbell. We all need help figuring out the problems of life, even premiers.
Why have you never been able to see the tremendous potential for transformation you have right here in your own communities? Why do you always think that the people you talk to in your high circles are wiser than the people who are actually doing the work for you here in B.C.?
I’ve been a manager, too. I know the compulsion to have a finger in every pie, control over every situation.
But if you could have only let that go, you would have seen that everything you needed to lead B.C. into prosperity and stability was right there among your citizens. We were actually doing a lot of things right before you showed up.
We didn’t anoint you king, Gordon - we elected you premier, “first among equals.” I just don’t think you ever got that.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

We generally picture the U.S. as a black hole of social support, but not necessarily. Here's an article out of Minnesota about a recent expansion to that state's food program to feed poor families.
A family of four earning $3000 or less a month now qualifies for food aid in Minnesota. Eight per cent of the state's population relies on food aid every month.
Compare these changes to the situation in B.C., where the best you can hope for even if you're scratching by on welfare (for a family of four, as low as $1,100 a month) is a place in line at the local food bank.
If there's a food bank in your town. If the food bank has food....