Friday, December 31, 2010

 May your new year be meaningful!

New years are interesting things. They’re basically just the rather arbitrary start to another 365 days, but I do like the sense of hope that always seems to accompany them.
If nothing else, a new year is an invitation to reflect on the old one. Unless you’re one of those rare creatures living the dream, that usually leads to some deep thinking about what needs changing in your life and in your world.  I suspect that’s what gives the new year that air of hopefulness.
Fat people resolve to get thin. Harried parents resolve to spend more time with their neglected kids. Struggling businesses resolve to have the year that changes everything. The resolutions of a new year are whatever you want them to be, but they’re virtually always about doing better.
That’s not to say that our resolutions end up happening. We all know the high failure rates of new-year resolutions. But even just thinking about the things that need to change is better than not thinking at all, and for that we ought to be grateful.
I spent three years working with women in crisis at PEERS Victoria. In the early months, I was tripping all over myself trying to understand the kinds of things that were going on in their lives and how to help them.
Fortunately, a local psychologist suggested I do some reading around the stages of change. And it all fell into place.
In that instance, I used the stages model to help me understand why people continued to use drugs harmfully even when they were completely destroying their lives doing it. But I’ve used the stages of change to think about all kinds of puzzling behaviours since then, because it’s really clarifying.
In the language of that model, the new year is essentially the preparation stage - stage three in the five-stage process. It’s the stage where you’ve recognized your problem and that something has to change, and now you’re determined to act.
Not surprisingly, the preparation stage was a profoundly hopeful period in the lives of the street-entrenched sex workers who tended to come through the doors at PEERS in my time there.
They’d gone through much adversity getting to that point, and knew that much personal work still lay ahead if they were to succeed.  But at that very moment, there was nothing but hope.
The new year has that same feeling. For at least a few days once a year, we collectively focus on problems that we’ve been thinking about for a while, and what we’re prepared to do about them. We recognize our own role in making change happen.
I like to think that people in high places experience something similar at the start of a new year. Sure, they probably swear off bad carbs and vow to do more exercise just like the rest of us; Stephen Harper definitely trimmed down over the past year. But I hope they spare a thought or two for the bigger picture.
We need our politicians, policy-makers and business leaders making resolutions. We need health-system CEOs preparing for change. We need provincial leadership candidates who can articulate more meaningful transformation for B.C. than the trivial bits and pieces put forward so far.
And it’s not just up to them. Imagine if everybody made at least one resolution for the larger world this coming year, something that they then made happen.
World peace and an end to global hunger would be really nice in 2011, but a better world is actually built one small good deed at a time. What will yours be?
For those with more traditional resolutions around weight loss and fitness, I hope you find the discipline this year to make them happen.
It’s been 28 years now since I first made exercise a permanent feature of my daily life. I’m deeply grateful for the health, strength, agility and peace of mind it continues to bring me, and for the 25 pounds I managed to lose this past year by eating better (and less).
‘Tis the season of the poet at the Times Colonist. I recommend a piece that I virtually memorized during my time at  PEERS, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,  by the late American singer and songwriter Portia Nelson.
Some say the poem perfectly describes the five stages of change. A toast, then, to new beginnings.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A government news release three days before Christmas is always cause for greater scrutiny, because those guys know full well the media are off their game (as are readers and viewers) in the runup to the holiday. So when you see a Dec. 22 release about the province buying former Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt's therapeutic village in Prince George, it's just one of those things that make you go, "Hmm."
Not that it's necessarily a bad thing that the province is taking over the addiction treatment centre. I haven't looked into this at all, so I'm definitely not trying to say there's something wrong about the deal. But I'd suggest it's worth a deeper look just to get a better understanding of how this has come to pass, and what it means to other addiction services if money that used to go to them ends up diverted to cover costs at the Baldy Hughes Therapeutic Community. 
Interesting that it's BC Housing ponying up for the project. They've also been tapped for the $20 million in capital costs to build the Pacific Family Autism Centre in Vancouver, a project put together by Vancouver power-couple Sergio and Wendy Cocchia. About $900,000 of that is being provided to the project proponents in advance so a consultant could be hired and a series of focus groups done around the province this past fall.
Again, that's not to say having a fine new autism centre for excellence is a bad thing. But is this new money, or coming out of existing services? If the private sector doesn't come up with the $34 million in funds that the autism-centre proponents are hoping for, will taxpayers soon be on the hook again for yet another private/public dream that didn't work out as planned? And at what cost to existing services?
I'm all for government funding important community services, of course. But not at the cost of other effective, efficient community services, which the province has been putting the squeeze on for a decade now. Just seems to me we need to have a conversation in B.C. about some of this, because it all feels a bit like social-service-by-political-connection at the moment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Here's hoping B.C.'s ombudsman agrees to the request of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to look into the resignation of the province's new chief coroner, Diane Rothon.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman has already proven on a number of occasions that he has no problem with sticking with the official government line no matter what, even when it's obviously a bald-faced lie. He's certainly in top form over the coroner issue, contending that the provincial government has never interfered with the work of the coroner's service - and never mind that every single coroner from 1988 onward has said otherwise.
There is simply no reason that coroners' reports should be handed to the politicized Public Affairs Bureau for vetting before going public, other than as a courtesy for PAB to prepare the government for whatever media questions may arise from a particular report.
 If government is truly supportive of an independent coroner's service, like Coleman says, then it should have no qualms with a direct release to the public. In the meantime, listener beware, especially when it's Rich Coleman doing the talking.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My mom the nurse could regale us all with horror stories about the staph outbreaks in hospitals across Canada in the 1950s, many of which were devastating to moms and their newborns. Now it's Strep A. The scary thing about infections that you get in hospital is that they seem to take hold and never let go these days, unlike the staph outbreak of days gone by. Mom tells me that getting a grip on infections back in the 1950s was all about fanatical hand-washing and rigorous cleaning procedures - but is that still possible in these times when even the docs complain about how rarely other docs wash their hands in between patients?

Friday, December 17, 2010

I’ve been a fan of his heartfelt memorials to his dogs in the “Pets Remembered” section for years, which I guess is why Mal Connors’ writing seemed so familiar to me when I came upon his full-page ad in the Times Colonist last week.
I saw his signature at the end of the 1,600-word letter he paid to run in the Dec. 5 paper, and thought, of course! It’s the Rainbow Bridge man. Thank you, Mal, for the opportunity to learn a little more about you after all these years.
As I now know, the Rainbow Bridge man (that’s how he closes the memorials to his dogs, “See you at Rainbow Bridge”) is the owner of Island Carpet Service, Mal Connors. He’s 73 years old, married to Lizzie, father of four, and retiring after 43 years of doing business in the region.
His ad was essentially a long and deeply personal letter to his customers and friends, every bit as heartfelt as his pet memorials.
“As my tour comes to an end in the work force I would emotionally like to pass onto you all, young and to folks like myself of developed years, these words. I have them in my home gym, office and kitchen: Be unlimited. Be Fearless. Be on top of your game. Be personable,” he writes in the ad.
The letter took him a month to write, he told me, and cost him $4,800 to run in the paper. “You can spend money on different things. I spend it on that,” says Mal, who also doesn’t flinch at the cost of the big memorials he runs for his dogs.
Mal listed his contact number at the bottom of the ad. His phone has been ringing steady ever since the ad came out, including a fellow from the Northwest Territories who called late at night to tell Mal his words had “real resonance” for him.
“People are telling me it’s an amazing letter - such an inspiration, simple and honest,” says a grateful but slightly puzzled Mal. “I just want to say thank you to them for even dialling my number. I’m just so humbled by the phone calls, and they don’t stop coming.”
Even if you’ve never read a Mal memorial, you’d know he loves his dogs by that ad. He writes about the seven dogs, several cats and pet crow that have passed through the family home, and urges readers to “be caring, gentle and show respect to your dogs and other valued pets and give them your daily love. Please, never forget them. “
He’s an interesting man, judging by his ad. But who’d expect any less from a man who mourns his passing pets so generously? Anyone who has known love for an animal knows there’s great grief in saying goodbye, which is why I’ve always appreciated that Mal puts his out there.
Mal has outlived nine dogs in his lifetime.  His current dog is Starlit, a white German shepherd from the Cariboo.
But the family’s lab, Dave, died in September, and Mal is thinking about checking the SPCA for another dog or two. “I’ve got a quarter to a half-acre to farm here,” he says. “There’s room.”
He laminates the memorials to past dogs and hangs them in the kitchen. He has most of their ashes, too.
There are costs to doing it the way Mal likes to do it, but again, he doesn’t flinch at those. He pays the pet crematorium to give his beloved pets a sendoff in a “clean oven,” and patiently waits the two hours that it takes to collect the ashes and bring them home.
“Dogs aren’t for everybody, but they kept me on top of my game,” says Mal. “Cleaning their water bowls, taking them out to Beaver and Elk lakes, all their different personalities. Dogs are a big part of my life.”
I asked him about the Rainbow Bridge reference. He says it’s from a poem. I looked for it on-line, but the links were mostly other heartbroken pet owners saying goodbye to their own dear pets. Wikipedia says the author is unknown, but a kind reader who saw my piece in the TC this morning has now sent me the link. 
“My pets are all waiting for me at Rainbow Bridge, and we’ll cross it together into Heaven,” explains Mal. “I’m not a religious guy, but that’s what I believe.”
Well, Mal, I hope your time at the bridge doesn’t come anytime soon. But you’re in for one heck of a happy reunion when the day comes.
Until then, carry on. The world needs more people with heart.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Good piece by Paul Willcocks in this morning's TC, and I'm not just saying that because he's my partner. (As he'd be the first to tell you.) Excellent stats about what's really happening in B.C. around unemployment. The fact that the government press release was so deliberate in avoiding the truth of these figures serves as a reminder that nothing coming out of the highly politicized Public Affairs Bureau should be taken at face value.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I don’t think of myself as an anarchist. But I admit to feeling quite buoyed by the implosion of B.C.’s two major political parties.
We’ve lived through some tempestuous political times here in B.C. It seems we routinely elect governments that we soon grow to despise. Definitely not the best way to run a province, and I do think we need to work on that.
But there’s a whole other part of the blame that lies with our political parties, which have definitely been ramping up the weirdness in the last 15 years or so. I hope this latest chaos shakes them to their roots, and wakes the rest of us up to the fact that there really are better ways to do this.
I’ve been surprised by the media reaction to the resignation of Carole James this week, much of which has portrayed the 13 dissident New Democrat MLAs as the bad guys. I certainly agree with the standard view of her as a lovely, caring woman, but that’s got little to do with whether she’s a good leader.
I had the pleasure this fall of attending a workshop put on by Ian Chisholm, a local leadership coach who always gets me reflecting on what a leader looks like. He calls it a “gift word” - a title that others give to you because you’ve earned it in their eyes.
That’s a long way from the way we use the term at the political level. Most of us in B.C. are living under the rule of “leaders” we don’t even know, let alone hold in high esteem.
In my dream world, we’d be a province governed by collectively minded independents, probably something along the lines of the citizens’ assembly pulled together by the province in 2004 to investigate electoral reform for B.C. Good people coming together for the betterment of all.
Instead, what we’ve got are two political clubs picking party leaders with no regard to what the rest of us think, who by default become our premiers if we vote that party in. No wonder so many British Columbians grow disillusioned with government leaders so quickly - it’s never us who chooses them.
That the Liberal and New Democrat parties are both muttering at the moment about the need to invoke more party discipline speaks volumes about the flaws in the leadership process. Would a real leader ever be afraid to hear what their team members had to say, or to appreciate and act on other opinions? We’re just in for more of the same if the only lesson the parties have learned from recent events is to clamp down harder.
The leaders in my life earned that designation by acting with integrity and vision, in ways that left me and anyone else they encountered feeling valued and connected. None of them were afraid to hear out their critics and act on what they learned.
So is it a surprise that many of us in B.C. feel we just don’t get the leadership we deserve? Even our political parties now seem to share that angst.
Gordon Campbell has been asking for it for ages. Rule like a king and the serfs are bound to rise up sooner or later.
Carole James losing her lustre is more recent, but things blew up quickly once dissent took hold and the yellow-scarf incident was clearly the kiss of death. I think she’s to be congratulated for recognizing that when 40 per cent of your team is openly against you, it’s time to go.
Who would we pick for leaders in B.C. if it were up to us? I don’t see why it’s such an impossible dream to get out from under the party system and get more of that happening.
Yes, B.C.’s first and only referendum on electoral reform failed in 2005, despite the great work done by the citizens’ assembly. But the chance can come again if we just keep pushing. It needs to.
At any rate, this new rebel spirit among MLAs is hopeful in the interim. If we must have parties, let’s at least have ones that encourage independent thinking, genuine representation and true leadership.  
Say what you will about the old Social Credit party, I remember it fondly for its individualism compared to the authoritarian and controlling parties of today. May the winds of change blow them apart.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

More evidence of the high price we're paying for tolerating a growing gap between rich and poor in our country. I can't help but feel we've been tricked - all that talk about freeing up wealth so it could trickle on down, and the result turns out to be a concentration of wealth among the richest Canadians and diminishing tax dollars being spent on services for average Canadians.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Seems like our governments always have massive amounts of money to waste on the projects they get enthusiastic about, like the $3.6 million the feds spent NOT redesigning cigarette packages in an effort to scare off young smokers.
This kind of news is what gets me most when governments are going on about the need for restraint in  difficult times. I'm sure you've noticed that reduced spending is only ever a pressing issue when it involves programs and services that the average Canadian would benefit from.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A reader asked for the link to the source of information in my last column, where I mentioned the government's response to a question about what constitutes lobbying. The information is on the BC Bid site - here's the link to the Request For Information on BC Bid.
You'll need to click on Addendum 8 once there to see the original PDF - scroll down to the question-and-answer part. If you don't care about formatting, here's the relevant text from that addendum:

1. The draft ELMS RFP includes the following clauses regarding communications:
Page 5, Clause b
Any portion of this document, or any information supplied by the Province in relation to this Request for Information may not be used or disclosed, for any purpose other than to prepare a response to this Request for Information, or to any subsequent Request for Proposals or other competitive bidding process related to this Request for Information. Every recipient of this Request for Information agrees to hold in confidence all information supplied by the Province in relation to this Request for Information.

26. Lobbying
Proponents must not attempt to communicate directly or indirectly with any employee, Contractor or representative of the Province, including the evaluation committee for any Catchment Area and any elected officials of the Province, or with members of the public or the media, about the project described in this RFP or otherwise in respect of the RFP, other than as expressly directed or permitted by the Province. In the event a Proponent lobbies the Province in relation to this Request for Proposals, the Proponent’s proposal may be disqualified.

a) Could an individual organization be deemed disqualified from ELMS bidding if an umbrella organization in which it is a member speaks to politicians, bureaucrats, or the media regarding the overall merits of that umbrella’s membership (eg: the umbrella doesn’t specifically mention the member organization in any way)? Under what conditions might that happen?
b) Could an individual organization be deemed disqualified from ELMS bidding if an umbrella organization in which it is a member speaks to politicians, bureaucrats, or the media regarding that specific vendor? Under what conditions might that happen?
c) Could an individual organization be deemed disqualified from ELMS bidding if a community member speaks to politicians, bureaucrats, or the media regarding that specific vendor, even if the organization in question in no way asked or wanted that community member to engage in that communication? Under what conditions might that happen?
d) BC Bid processes are predicated on being as “transparent” as possible, providing equal information to all potential vendors. To that end, can BC Bid provide information about the process it would undertake to determine whether any one organization may be deemed ineligible to bid on the ELMS procurement due to communications with politicians, bureaucrats or the media? What factors would be considered by the BC Bid in making such a determination? Can BC Bid provide more specific information to potential bidders to promote clearer understanding about communications restrictions related to ELMS BC Bid postings?

The intention of the “Use of Request for Information” clause in the RFI is to prevent any use of the information provided as part of the RFI by any person except to prepare a response to the RFI or to any subsequent RFP or other procurement solicitation.
The intention of the “Lobbying” clause in an RFP is to ensure fair and objective procurement processes that are free from any real or perceived external influences or pressures on potential outcomes. The clause warns against direct or indirect communication with any employee or elected official of the Province or the media about the project described in the RFP or in respect of the RFP. The clause does not prevent any person or organization from normal business activities or discussions with any person regarding subjects that are unrelated to the RFP.
The Ministry will determine, at its sole discretion, when to disqualify a Proposal for a breach of the “Lobbying” clause.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bullying and intimidation seem to be a theme in government these days.
Our beleaguered politicians have been the ones doing most of the sharing recently, and it’s about time. Thank you, Bill Bennett, for starting what I hope will be a steady stream of politicians drawing the line at being treated like trash by the lords of the manor.
 Believe me, politicians aren’t the only ones who endure abusive behaviour.  People inside and outside of government regularly whisper in my ear these days about alarming developments on various fronts, but all are terrified to talk publicly. They’re afraid of being punished if they do.
I confess, I used to think that argument was conspiratorial hogwash. But I’ve come to see that it’s true for those who rely on provincial government funding in some way.
The current government in particular can be brutish in its punishment of those who dare to challenge its decisions, which increasingly come from on high.  Speak up and it just may be that your contract doesn’t get renewed next time around, or a policy change wipes out your whole program.
It doesn’t even matter whether that’s actually the case, as long as people believe it is. It’s been a damn effective strategy, but the bullies in high places are getting so full of themselves lately that they’re now introducing thuggish confidentiality clauses into funding contracts just to be sure.
Bill Bennett chose to withdraw the “battered-wife syndrome” comparison he made during his passionate rant about Gordon Campbell a couple weeks ago. But I think it’s apt. That’s the phrase that comes to my mind frequently when talking to people who count on money from government to keep the bills paid and the doors open.  
That’s not to trivialize the genuine domestic-abuse cycle in any way, or deride everything that government does. Much of it ticks along in competent fashion.
But in places where decisions get political, it can look a lot like the worst of marriages.
The imbalance of power. The fear and secrecy. The isolation. Bouquets and promises to make it all right just often enough to keep the abused partner on side for another day. And then it’s back to the rough stuff again.
Until Bennett let it all out, I’d begun to wonder whether anyone was going to say something. Community groups are so scared you can barely squeeze a peep out of them, despite the many changes, budget cuts and top-down Big New Ideas jeopardizing all kinds of long-standing and well-used social services throughout the province.
Judging by the silence, I’d have presumed a solid win for government on this front. But no - it’s now making silence a contractual condition even for bidding on a contract.
Its latest Big New Idea - which will significantly change the way B.C. delivers employment-training services - includes a warning to bidders that they could be disqualified if they talk about the proposal to the public, MLAs or the media, “other than as expressly permitted or directed by the Province.”
Asked by potential bidders to clarify this point, the Ministry of Social Development notes in documents on the BC Bid site that “the Ministry will determine, at its sole discretion, when to disqualify a proposal for a breach of the ‘Lobbying’ clause.
 In other words, speak out at your peril.
That’s a pretty big hammer to hold over the heads of community agencies that will be very much affected by the massive changes proposed for employment-training services.
This is the contract that combines all eight federal and provincial employment-training programs for the first time. The plan is to reduce 400 service contracts to a mere 73, using a bidding process and a financial model so onerous for cash-strapped community agencies that it’s almost like handing the contracts to the big corporations sniffing around B.C. for more social-services work.
Doesn’t that sound like something the good citizens of B.C. might want to hear more about from the people who currently deliver the services? Don’t we all deserve a thorough understanding of revamped service contracts representing a combined federal-provincial commitment of $320 million?
“I think we’re going to lose a lot of agencies, especially specialized services,” says Norma Strachan of ASPECT Community Services, an umbrella organization representing 180 community agencies currently doing this work. Yet the government demands silence from those who best know the issues.
Coercive confidentiality clauses and governing by intimidation are strong signals that bad decisions are being made - otherwise, what’s to cover up?
Make some noise, people. Bullies thrive in silence. 

Thursday, December 02, 2010

OK, so we have to wait a little longer for decriminalization of the sex industry - the Ontario Court of Appeal has ordered that sex work remain illegal in Ontario until the appeal of the three recently overturned laws is heard.
I'm just going to consider it valuable time for our communities to start sorting out how they'll handle things when the day comes that adult, consensual sex work is no longer criminal.
I think any court that takes a look at the impact of these laws in Canada can't help but conclude that they do more harm than good - in fact, they really do  no good at all, and they greatly increase the danger for sex workers to boot. A shout out to the Ontario Superior Court for striking down the laws around bawdyhouses, living off the avails and soliciting earlier this fall, because that ruling finally changes everything.
Why not get really pro-active and start the conversation now as to how sex work will be managed in our community?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

It scares me to see the erosion of basic rights starting to happen in Canada. Here's an alarming story (why do so many of my posts involve me saying "here's an alarming story....?") from the Toronto Star that points out there are now more people in our jails awaiting trial than there are people serving sentences. Innocent until proven guilty, sure, but that's not to say you won't spend significant time behind bars waiting for the system to decide which one you are.