Saturday, September 24, 2011

Travelling through Thanksgiving

I'm off to China this morning for a family trip with my mother, her sister and six of us cousins. I don't think I can be counted on to keep my blog up-to-date while away, so please check back for more regular postings starting Oct. 10. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

My world in 17 syllables

I’m almost three months into an odd little creative project, writing a daily on-line haiku about some aspect of the day that stands out for me.
I’ve since discovered I’m just one of many people out there using haiku in creative, unusual ways.
Maybe it’s a trend. Or maybe a tightly constrained form of writing that forces you to cut to the chase is simply a relief in a time of too much blah-blah-blah.
Traditional haiku are, of course, exquisite jewels of 17 carefully chosen syllables, organized in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. They’re most often about nature and the seasons.
My goal was to use the form for journaling rather than to strive for high- quality haiku. So while I follow the five-seven-five syllable rule, my haiku are less like poetry and more like something you’d write on a Post-it note to remind yourself about the day.
It has been an interesting exercise. Having to come up with a haiku every night means I have to think about what was distinctive about the day. It makes me dig deep for the 17 syllables that I hope will still summon the feel of a day decades later.
I’ve been a hot-and-cold journal writer for much of my adult life, alternating between months of pouring out the intimate details of my life and years of not writing a single word.
I’m better when I travel, when every day tends to feel like a rich new experience that you want to make note of. I was flipping through one such travel diary of mine when it struck me that I wanted to work harder at identifying those same moments in my daily life.
Growing older unsettles me with the way it compresses time. Each day rolls past just a little faster, often so similar to the previous day in its routines that it’s hard to tell one from the other. I feel the need to make each day stand out.
What is it that distinguishes a day for me from the other 19,950 days that went before it? That’s the question I reflect on every night as I try to pull together that day’s haiku. It’s definitely making me much more aware that even an ordinary day is unique.
My mother has long kept a journal, of the kind that scrupulously notes weird weather, special occasions, unusual family illnesses and unprecedented sports scores. If ever there’s dissent in the family about what the weather was like in the summer of 1982 or which year Dad came down with pneumonia, out comes the journal.  
She encouraged me from a young age to follow suit, but the largely empty Barbie diary from my girlhood speaks to my early history of sporadic record-keeping.
Still, there’s something very special about seeing the inane declarations of your 11-year-old self, or the angst-ridden entries from your various periods of torment. Your life, in your own words - it’s compelling.
Doing haiku-style journaling came to me while I was flipping through an old daytimer that I had maintained off and on as a bare-bones diary for three years in the 1970s.
As an actual journal, it’s fairly worthless. My habit was to write one or two sentences in fairly random fashion, never with much consistency.
But when the book surfaced during a recent housecleaning, a browse through it reminded me of the value of even scant observations from your own past. It’s all personal history.
July 14, 1975, for instance: The start of a long, painful strike at the mill where my then-husband worked. August 15, 1977: My first cable-car ride in San Francisco. December 14, 1978: The doctor extracts a huge piece of mouldering bread from the nose of my two-year-old.
They’re not exactly the major events of my life. But they call up a lot for me in a few words. The haiku form is ideal for doing that, as it leaves room for nothing but the essence of a day.
And making the journal public forces me to write a haiku even on the nights when I’d really rather not. I’m leaving for China with my mom tomorrow so won’t post those haiku until our return Oct. 10, but I’ve got my travel scribbler packed and remain committed to the discipline.
“We do not remember days, we remember moments,” Italian poet Cesare Pavese once said. I’ll hold onto mine syllable by syllable.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Feds get "tough", but what's the real impact?

Here we go, introducing get-tough-on-crime legislation in a period when we really ought to be celebrating how effective we've been at lowering crime rates these past 20 years. But enough of the public seem to want to believe otherwise that the Conservatives see a political edge in doing this. Time will tell how these laws will translate on the ground, but you do have to wonder about what will happen to people's rights.
Case in point: The Preventing the Trafficking, Abuse and Exploitation of Vulnerable Immigrants Act
The act sounds good on paper. It gives power to immigration officials to refuse work permits to people if they suspect the person is vulnerable and being brought to Canada to do "humiliating or degrading" work (the nickname for the act is the "anti-stripper law," reports the Globe). Hey, nobody likes human trafficking and exploitation.
But how exactly will an immigration officer decide who's "vulnerable"? What criteria will be used? Who will be deciding whether a job is humiliating or degrading, and whose definitions will they be using?  What's the process for assessing someone's "vulnerability"? Where are the protections to ensure powers like these don't end up being used just to block certain categories of people from getting work permits?  
And really, if we're so deeply concerned about people's vulnerability, is denying them a work permit the best way to help them?
But of course, helping immigrants was likely never the goal of this act. It's just a new way of being able to say no to more people. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

We're failing future generations

Excellent piece in this morning's Times Colonist from a Toronto doctor who reminds us of all the ways things are growing worse for certain populations of Canadian children. It disturbs me no end to be part of the generation that has made life more difficult for coming generations. Aren't we always supposed to leave the world better than when we arrived?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Media far from fair in kidnapping coverage

Maybe Randall Hopley really will turn out to be every parent’s worst nightmare - a scary, creepy predator who snatches children from their beds in the night.
That rough-looking mug shot of Hopley certainly seems to confirm the image. And how about all the news reports about him being a convicted sex offender? Surely he’s the guy.
Unless he’s not. What’s striking about all the media coverage around Hopley and the kidnapping/return of little Kienan Hebert this past week is that other than police saying so, no evidence has been put forward connecting Hopley to any of it.
I’m stunned by how roundly ignored that fact has been in the reporting of this story. Police have offered no detailed explanation for why they’re convinced that it’s him. Yet we’re all just so certain.
Hopley has been the featured bogeyman in every news story from the moment three-year-old Kienan Hebert’s disappearance went public. His unkempt mug is now known around the world. The make of his vehicle and licence plate number are public information.
All this on the basis of police comments. Innocent until proven guilty? Forget it.
The media coverage of Hopley has been downright inflammatory.
One story quoted a former classmate recalling 46-year-old Hopley as “the dirty, creepy guy who always rode his bike around.” The little boy’s dad lashed out in the national media at “the system” for not doing more to stop a dangerous, damaged guy like Hopley. His conjectures were left to hang there like facts.
No small wonder that at Hopley’s first court appearance Wednesday, picketers outside were calling for the death penalty.
And yes, Hopley could be the bad guy. But it’s way too soon to say, let alone assert it as fact in the media.
Hopley is routinely referred to as a convicted sex offender in news coverage, a phrase that brings all kinds of horrifying images to mind when a child goes missing.
But Hopley’s conviction involves a sex assault from 25 years ago on someone of unknown age, with no suggestions that he has done anything similar since. He got a two-year sentence.
He’s also been reported as having “at least one brush with the law involving a child.” That refers to an incident in which Hopley says he was trying to take a 10-year-old away from a foster home on behalf of the boy’s parents. The charge was stayed for lack of evidence.
Hopley’s criminal record - at least for the eight years of it available in the newly public provincial court database - doesn’t mark him as an obvious child predator. His crimes have been more likely to be break-and-enters and breaches. (He does appear to be fresh out of jail, though, having been sentenced in June to two months for assault.)
Police do what they need to do. I don’t blame them for the tone of the media coverage.
I imagine it makes sense when you’re the police to identify someone like Hopley - he’s well-known to them, after all, and constantly in trouble - in hopes of enlisting the entire country in finding him. If he turns out to be the wrong guy, that’s a problem for another day.
But media have a different duty. They’re expected to be fair and accurate in their reporting of the news. That’s particularly true when reporting on crimes, because you can ruin a person’s life and reputation with a single story that gets things wrong.
Perhaps the news outlets chasing the kidnapping story each made a thoughtful decision that obliterating the rights of a possibly innocent man was worth it given that a child was missing. My fear is that they didn’t even think twice about it.
One observer noted before Hopley’s arrest Tuesday that his image was so high-profile he was virtually “a caught man walking” in terms of public recognition.
In fact, he could have ended up a dead man walking. Imagine if an intense dad had been the first to spot Hopley and acted on the presumption he’d found the sick pervert who grabbed the little Sparwood boy.
If Hopley did it and is competent to stand trial, then may the misery of a lifetime in prison rain down on him. Kidnapping a child is unconscionable, regardless of whether this particular story had a happy ending.
But right now, we don’t know anything. News media have a responsibility to remember that. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A fine editorial in today's Times Colonist on the dreadful things happening to people with developmental disabilities in B.C. these days.
Government obviously hoped this announcement of "new" money - a third of it is money that was always supposed to go to Community Living B.C. but had been withheld by the province up until now - would make its critics ease up. That scares me, because it strikes me that government must genuinely have no idea of the scope of the problems in the way we're supporting British Columbians with mental handicaps these days.
Developmental disability is forever. Someone in the system obviously has to focus on cost efficiencies, but not to the point where the exhausted families and advocates of people who will need quality care and support for a lifetime are left to struggle for the most basic services.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What shall we make of the mysteriously wonderful return of little Kienan Hebert?  The stories I've read so far made the alleged kidnapper sound like an unsophisticated fellow with a mental handicap, yet during a period when there was a national manhunt on for him and police everywhere, he sneaked back into the house where Kienan lived to return the boy safe and sound.
At any rate, I will quell the skeptic in me for now, because this really is an incredibly good outcome to the whole sad scenario. But the police certainly haven't made Randall Hopley out to be the kind of clever - and clearly empathetic - man who would do something like this.
I wouldn't have thought it easy for anyone to break into a closed crime scene at 3 a.m., let alone the alleged kidnapper. But perhaps police had let their guard down in the presumption that Kienan's home would be just about the last place that Hopley would return to.
Still, I hope someone's out there digging on this one. The pieces just don't fit. And really, Hopley's life hangs in the balance, because he's exactly the kind of guy to end up gunned down in a confused standoff with police.
But for now, let's just celebrate a genuine happy ending.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Campbell honour puts political taint to awards

**Note: North Vancouver blogger Norm Farrell pointed out an error in my column around Luigi Aquilini's donation, so that has now been corrected. Thanks, Norm!

You have to feel for all the other 2011 recipients of the Order of B.C., whose many accomplishments have been overshadowed in the public eye by all the din around former premier Gordon Campbell getting the award.
We’ll presume from the time stamp on the government’s news release - late afternoon on a Friday before a long weekend - that it knew from the outset that people wouldn’t be happy that Campbell and three other high-profile B.C. Liberal stalwarts made the list.
That’s a great time to send out a news release if the sender hopes to slide something by unnoticed.  The time-tested government communications strategy makes it much less likely that media will be able to find the sources they need to build a big story or have the resources to go after it.
 But there’s no hiding an incendiary list like the one government sent out last Friday announcing that Campbell would be honoured with the Order of B.C. And there’s no hiding the growing prowess of B.C.’s political bloggers, who never sleep. Word spread fast.
Campbell’s government wove politics into everything B.C. did during their time in office. So I guess it’s naive to think that the Order of B.C. would somehow remain exempt from all that.
Still, I think there must be people inside the selection process who are very, very unhappy with the way things went this year. The annual awards haven’t really had a political feel up until now. Unfortunately, that’s no longer true.
I mean, think about it. A committee is tasked with selecting 14 fine citizens to be honoured for their hard work, passion and dedication. That’s all, just 14, out of the whole province. You really have to be exemplary to be picked for an honour like that.
But this year, we’re supposed to believe that it’s just a coincidence that four of the 14 recipients happen to be very tightly connected to the B.C. Liberals. They want us to buy that a guy who British Columbians hounded from office because they were so unhappy with his leadership is one of the 14 most exemplary people of 2011.
Could it really be just one of those unfortunate coincidences? Maybe the selection committee concluded completely independently that Gordon Campbell, his former deputy Ken Dobell, fellow politician and Campbell “star” David Emerson, and Liberal Party donor Luigi Aquilini - who has given more than $500,000 to the party - all deserved to be honoured in 2011.
Or not. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? There’s now a taint to an award that up until now had none.
Live long enough and you’re bound to accumulate a few skeletons, so maybe it’s no big deal that someone busted for drunk driving while premier gets named to the Order of B.C.  If you had to be a saint to qualify, we’d have run out of eligible nominees long before now.
But having the selection committee declare Campbell a “visionary” whose efforts have made B.C. a better place - well, that’s a bit harder to take. Says who?
Under his leadership, we slashed needed community services, sold off public forest lands for a song, increased poverty, politicized every government decision and greatly enriched the salaries of MLAs and senior government. What’s visionary about that?
And it’s downright disrespectful to have Campbell and his friends shoved at us all at once at a time when so many of us are still fuming about the guy.
The selection committee even appears to have broken its own rules to allow his nomination. No sitting politician is eligible for the award, but Campbell had five days left in his term when nominations closed. So did they stretch the deadline to accommodate him, or ignore the rule about sitting politicians?
If the process really has been neutral up until now, these must be sad days for any non-partisan staff and committee members involved with the Order of B.C. Perhaps it’s just another odd coincidence that last week’s news release was nowhere to be found on the order’s own Web site until late Tuesday afternoon, but I’m choosing to interpret it as a sign that they’re red-faced with shame and protesting in their own small way.
My sympathy to the other recipients of the 2011 order, who really are a very select group picked for all the right reasons. Special congratulations to Crystal Dunahee, a tireless community-builder and fundraiser in our region. Find out more about these worthy recipients here:

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

How sad that the Order of B.C. has been revealed to be politically influenced. The awards body has done an exceptional job at keeping itself above the political fray, but has clearly thrown that all away with this latest round of nominations, which honour a strangely predictable list of clubby B.C. Liberals and hangers-on including Gordon Campbell, Ken Dobell and David Emerson.
Campbell was even a sitting politician when he was nominated, which ought to put him out of the running right then and there. But no. He's in, and only the second B.C. premier ever to get the award. (Bill Bennett was the other, but only in 2007 -  21 years after leaving office.)
I know Campbell has his fans, but really, what is the "exemplary" behaviour he exhibited that has distinguished him as worthy of the honour? He did great things for all his friends, but little for the rest of us. I'm sure Dobell and Emerson are competent, caring people in their own way, but I suspect their tight ties to the Campbell government played more of a role in their nomination than their actual service to B.C., seeing as many fine civil servants who have done great work on behalf of the province have never received the honour.
The toll his government took on social services will take generations, if ever, to repair. He tore up valid union contracts and privatized health-care support services, and I don't think it's coincidental that food quality and cleanliness plummeted in B.C. hospitals after that. He has created a virtual kleptocracy in government, where senior civil servants make buckets of money and are paid bonuses for cutting public services. He got caught driving drunk while in office, a crime that was suffcient to get Steve Fonyo stripped of his Order of Canada.
Obviously, his award has generated just a little controversy, including an online petition through Facebook that has already garnered almost 3,000 of the 5,000 signatures the organizers are trying for. I'm waiting with eager anticipation to hear what the good folks at the Order of BC have to say about all of this - the story broke over the Labour Day weekend, so none of the stories thus far have had any comment from the office.
Unfortunately, the brouhaha over Campbell's award has overshadowed news coverage of some of the truly worthy recipients, like Crystal Dunahee. Here's the news release issued late Friday by government, which lists all 14 recipients of the 2011 award.
Interesting that the Order of B.C. Web site doesn't have a news release posted, or any listing of the 2011 recipients. Hmmm - could it be there are some people inside that office cringing at Campbell getting the award?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

A case of city envy

Sure, I get the cliché about the grass always being greener somewhere else.
I was in a coffee-shop line in Portland waxing poetic about that fair city just this past weekend, in fact, while up ahead of me a Portland couple enthused about a recent visit to Victoria. There you go.
Still, I wish we could be more like Portland. No city can get everything right, but Portland comes pretty close.
I gave up amalgamation as a column topic years ago, because there’s just no point. It’s not going to happen of its own accord in our region, and the province is never going to step in to force anything. So I’ve let it go.
But then I go to a place like Portland and get thinking about the possibilities.
In a region and climate not that much different from ours, Portland has created a friendly, vibrant city. Whether you’re walking, cycling, using rapid transit or driving a car, it’s an easy place to get around in.  
There’s cheap food everywhere, courtesy of the city’s many food carts. There’s a Saturday market packed with local wares, and a huge waterfall fountain downtown that the locals treat like an urban swimming hole.
Portland has a distinct core, but it also has any number of walkable, food-and-drink-laden neighbourhoods nearby - each with an individual feel but still part of a whole. It’s got homeless people and panhandlers, but nobody seems too worried in a city known for its sensible and humane homelessness initiatives.
Could we be that kind of city? Is that achievable in a region segmented into 13 separate municipalities?
Not that I’ve seen. But hey, I’ve only lived here 22 years. That sewage-treatment plant being debated when I first arrived here might actually happen one day, so you never know.
The south Island doesn’t even feel like a region, really - we feel like 13 strikingly different places. Spend a few years here and you’ll soon learn how very hard it is to introduce anything that extends across many municipal boundaries. Strong-minded neighbourhood associations add to the sense of living among individual enclaves each focused on their own thing.
Many locals seem perfectly happy with the way things are, and would probably tell people like me to just go ahead and move to Portland if we like the place so much. People aren’t exactly chafing for better regional governance, let alone a directly elected body like Portland has to handle all land-use planning.
But the incredulity is unmistakeable in the voices of people new to our region when they first find out that fewer than 350,000 people are governed by 13 mayors, councils and distinctly different bureaucracies. Then comes the frustration, after they realize how hard it is to make big things happen in a small region of small, inward-looking towns.
We like to talk about light rail transit for this region, something which Portland has done well. But think about how things would actually play out with an issue like that.
Think of the land-use hurdles. The politics. The conflicting interests and ideologies. Then multiply it by 13. Picture all those overheated public hearings. Imagine trying to secure agreement across 13 sets of taxpayers to pay for it all.
Well, maybe we could start with something simpler than LRT - more food carts, say. You can’t walk far in Portland without bumping into a food-cart cluster, with everything from fried peach pies to po’boys and lavender milk shakes on offer until late into the night.
More cart pods like the little one in Cook Street Village would not only bring much happiness to aficionados like me, but add more jobs and buzz to commercial areas. They would draw people in.
But forming ourselves into 13 tiny towns has also made us a region of many, many rules. Portland’s food-cart experience certainly isn’t a free-for-all, but it doesn’t much resemble the scrubbed-up, tightly regulated way we do things here. Could we ever loosen up enough to try?
We’re a charming place in our own right, as those Portland residents noted. But we could be so much better. If we won’t amalgamate, can we at least find more effective ways to reach past our municipal self-interest and get this region popping?
Until then, there’s always Portland.