Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why does the belt only tighten at one end?

You know, it's really striking how often political parties that shape themselves as being about "small government" in fact spend their time in office growing the business out of all proportions.
Here's the latest news on that front involving the Tories. Keep in mind that all this growth happened at a time when Stephen Harper's government was slashing public services. That's the thing that grates the most - that even while we're losing long-standing public programs due to "belt-tightening," our governments are growing larger, taking ever-bigger salaries, and even paying out bonuses to the senior managers who are most effective at cutting our services.
In ancient times, they would have called this kind of governance a kleptocracy - "rule by thieves." Whatever you want to call it, it's crazy-making. But hey, we keep electing them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Free parking at our hospitals

Now here's an idea whose time has come - free parking at hospitals. Maybe now that the Canadian Medical Association Journal is saying it, it will have an impact. How crazy is it to stress people out just that little bit more  when they're going through an illness or something worse than by charging them to park?
And once we're offering it free, how about offering more of it, too? Can't believe they built that new parkade  at Royal Jubilee hospital at a capacity that was well below what's actually needed.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Occupy movement down but not out

Having to make way for Santa seems an ignominious end for the Occupy movement, but that’s how things tend to go in countries that aren’t yet angry enough to get genuinely uncivil.
Still, the public reaction to the Occupy protests over the last eight weeks has been surprisingly sympathetic. I take that as a hopeful sign that this movement will have legs.
People tolerated the protest camps for much longer than they usually do when tents appear in public spaces. I think a lot of them quietly related to the issues the movement has raised.
It’s pretty impressive that in just two short months, a mixed bag of disaffected citizens around the world took a small protest in New York City’s financial district and turned it into a global movement.
Whether it can last long enough to affect change, I guess we’ll see. But the Occupy protests got a lot more positive attention than most “occupations” get - an indicator that people have a certain sympathy for the cause.
The movement started with a single email that Canada’s Adbusters Foundation sent to people in July.
The foundation is known for publishing an ad-free magazine and holding strong opinions on corporate influence over democracy. But its suggestion of a peaceful occupation of Wall Street clearly struck a chord that resonated well beyond the magazine’s usual sphere of influence.
"The idea of Occupy Wall Street is to revive people's democracy," said Adbusters editor Micah White in an interview with the Huffington Post last month. "We are sick of the corporate political parties deciding the agenda of America."
That would have bordered on cuckoo talk a decade ago, when we were all so certain that our governments were leading us toward the light.
But we’ve learned some hard lessons since then. From the 2001 Enron scandal on through an outrageous series of global financial disasters and government ineptitude that severely shook public confidence, it has been a tough and discouraging 10 years.
Maybe the average people of the world were just ready for somebody to issue a call to action. At any rate, one group of sympathizers after another picked up Adbusters’ call for occupation and spread the word. A global movement was born virtually overnight, with Occupy protests eventually organized in more than 80 countries.
None of it will change the world, at least not yet. But let’s not discount the miracle of such a thing happening at all. Just the fact that a group of protesters kept their camp alive in Centennial Square for more than two months and city hall was still being nice about it is an astounding turn of events on its own.
The Occupy movement’s catchy slogan - “We are the 99 per cent” - is a reference to the growing income disparity in western countries, with wealth concentrating in the hands of the richest one per cent of the population.
In the last three decades, the top one per cent of income earners in the U.S. saw their incomes rise almost 300 per cent. That’s at least seven times more than any other income group saw in the same period.
Here in Canada - where the gap between rich and poor has been growing for the last 15 years - the richest 20 per cent now have nine times the income of the poorest 20 per cent. That’s the biggest gap we’ve seen since the 1970s.
Income disparity isn’t exactly a hot topic around the office water cooler. But even people who don’t often think about such things are by now well aware that crazy problems are manifesting out here in the world.
They didn’t all storm the streets with the Occupy forces. But they did make space in their communities for the protests to happen. It’s a bigger win than it might appear, and signals a real shift in the public mood.
Widespread tolerance for something as non-Canadian as public protest - in the Christmas season! Right in the heart of the downtown! - says a lot about how much the issues raised by the Occupy movement must be resonating. Protesters, you are not alone.
But Santa’s coming and it’s cold outside. Store owners near the protest camps are losing patience. Municipalities and their police departments are closing in.
It looks like the end. I suspect it’s just the beginning.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mammography controversy a reminder of screening risks

Canada's finest health writer, Andre Picard, weighs in with his usual information-laden, clear-eyed view on the fuss about mammographies.
Women are accustomed to cancer screening as a good thing from lifetimes of Pap smears. But as Picard and the larger scientific community points out, screening can have a serious downside when false positives - more common than you'd hope in both mammograms and PSA tests for prostate cancer - lead people to have serious medical procedures and treatments that they didn't need.
Cancer is such an emotionally loaded word. We all know someone who has had it and we're all terrified to get it ourselves, but the truth is that the science of cancer is still something of a mystery. You'd think that highly developed screening tools that can catch the earliest signs of cancer would be a good thing. But now we're learning that some cancers never really get past the starting gate in our bodies, and that there's such a thing as "bad" screening when you end up getting chemotherapy, radiation or surgery you didn't need.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupiers didn't have the numbers they needed

Good try by the Occupiers, but it looks like things are fizzling out across the country. It's cold, for one thing, but probably the bigger problem is that unless a protest gets bigger with each passing day, everybody forgets about it very quickly and just returns to their routines. Then all you've really got is a camp pretty much like any of the other camps of impoverished people we've had in Victoria.
I like the Occupy movement, but I don't know if enough people are feeling the pain yet to give the movement the critical mass it needs. Not in Canada, anyway. The States - well, that's another matter. I think they've got any number of angry-and devastated-citizen protests ahead of them as the country's problems deepen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

WTO police chief cautions against similar response to Occupiers

A good read from regret-filled former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper. He presided over the disastrous 1999 "Battle in Seattle," when an aggressive police response to World Trade Organization protesters turned the city into a tear gas-laden war zone for several days.
I was there, having been sent south by the Times Colonist on Day 2 of the clash to cover the story. There were 5,000 armed police and military personnel in the city by that point, and it was a terrifying, life-changing experience for me to realize that every citizen is in danger when there's that much police aggression and weaponry around.
Stamper has been talking about his mistakes for a number of years now, and I admire him immensely for it. Who better than those who have already learned the hard lessons to remind us not to repeat the missteps of history?

Red River recall highlights food safety measures

Aside from an unpleasant period of paranoia brought on by seeing the documentary Food Inc., I’ve never put much thought into food safety.
But when the food police come for my Red River cereal - well, that certainly gets my attention.
At first I thought there’d just been a run on Red River when I saw the empty shelf. But after several forays to different stores in an effort to find my breakfast of choice, I spotted the little recall notices.
It’s unsettling to learn that something you eat every day has been recalled. So I went looking for answers this week and discovered how little I knew about the whole complicated business of food safety in Canada, let alone the dense regulatory regime that aims to protect Canadians from harmful foods.
In the case of the Red River recall, it’s a labelling issue. Soy is in the cereal but isn’t declared on the label. Food allergies have become a major focus for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after national labelling laws were tightened in February, and soy is apparently a big one.
Companies have until August 2012 to comply with the new labelling rules, which will require a nice, clear caution in plain English warning buyers if a product has soy, coconut or any other of the 14 known allergens CFIA watches out for.
Smucker Foods of Canada - which makes Red River - opted to recall the Canadian supply of the cereal early while the labelling issue gets sorted out. My loss, but probably a good thing for any Red River fans with soy allergies.
Allergens are a common reason for food recalls. We’ve had almost 600 recalls to date this year, and many involved various allergens that turn up in our packaged foods without our knowledge.
Immerse yourself in the very detailed CFIA Web site and you’ll soon see just how many other worrying things can affect our food and drink, from ground-glass fragments to botulism, salmonella and paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Fortunately, a third of this year’s recalls were rated Class 3, a relatively mild infraction that might just indicate a company hasn’t brought a certain practice up to code. (The Red River soy mixup is rated Class 1, because the potential for harm is significant for those with soy allergies.)
The even better news is that most food recalls in Canada are initiated by the companies that make the products. That’s a heartening indicator that they’re paying attention long before their products reach our tables. Most food recalls happen before anybody gets sick.
And that’s as it should be. We need to be able to trust that food manufacturers are doing their best not to harm us. No government body could ever stay on top of all the ingredients in all the food and drink we take in, and a complaints-based approach doesn’t work when a person could actually die in the process.
 But I’d guess that trying to prevent people from having allergic reactions to food products will turn out to be one of the industry’s more challenging problems, and not just because more people seem to be developing such allergies.
Take soy, for instance. People who are allergic to it presumably know to check the ingredients list on the side of a product before buying packaged or processed foods.
But soy goes by many names, and soy-based emulsifiers and thickeners go by even more. Knowing whether soy is in the chewing gum, the tuna or the bread crumbs you’re about to buy isn’t always as simple as reading the label.
The CFIA has a section on its site encouraging consumer responsibility around food safety, mostly urging us to report to the agency with concerns about food-related problems.
 But anyone worried about food allergies might also want to spend some time browsing the site just to get to know the many faces of their allergen when it comes to packaged foods. There’s a great recall search system that links you to all kinds of information - like the 13 Class 1 recalls that have been initiated in B.C. in the last month.
For all you Red River fans out there, I’d hoped to have word of a triumphant Canadian return (Note to cross-border shoppers: no recall in the U.S.) Alas, Smucker’s didn’t get back to me with that information, so we’re left to wonder.
In the meantime, visit inspection.gc.ca and see what your food supply is up to.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two B.C. sex-worker organizations shutting doors

Yesterday, the news was about PEERS Vancouver closing in the spring. Today, the other primary Vancouver organization supporting street-level sex workers has also announced it's done. PACE Vancouver will run out of money to pay its staff in just three weeks.
I'm doing some contract work with PEERS Victoria and can tell you that even though that organization is also going through difficult times, it has a more diverse funding base and is hanging in under a great new executive director, Marion Little. But it will still be facing one of the biggest funding challenges in its 16-year history in the spring, when the same revamped employment contract that is wiping out PEERS Vancouver comes into effect across B.C.
Finding money to help sex workers is an extremely difficult undertaking, as I learned the hard way during my three years leading PEERS Victoria. The reason these groups are struggling is because the citizenry simply doesn't care enough about what happens to the impoverished, marginalized women engaged in survival sex work, and our governments know it.
Please speak up - to your MLA, to the provincial and federal governments. Please make this a personal issue, too, and donate money, warm winter clothing, food for hot soups and stews (PEERS Victoria serves more than 300 "meals" from its outreach van every month to women working our local strolls). Put some time into learning  more about the issues so that this isolated, stigmatized population isn't left to suffer at the hands of our massive disinterest.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New resolve around better divorces, or just window-dressing?

I'm a bit puzzled by this story, on the province's big new initiative to reduce the court fights when people split up. A good idea to do that, of course, but isn't that the case already? Mediation has been the option of preference for divorcing couples for many years now, at least from the court system's point of view. The big sticking point is getting them to take that option.
As for the example of the Lee family and how we need to view violence against a spouse as threatening to a child - well, that's not a new thing either. In fact, for poor families caught up with the Children and Family Development Ministry, parents risk losing their kids into government care if there's any threat of spousal violence. So even when Dad's violent and Mom's not, she can lose her children just for not being able to figure out how to get away from Dad.
The problem in the Lee case is that the family was well-off. We all have a hard time believing that well-off families can be dysfunctional and dangerous. Different decisions get made - by the ministry, by police - when a family's got money. Tightening up the Family Relations Act isn't likely to change that.
But hey, I don't want to sound like Little Nancy Negative. It's just that this story line seems a bit like someone's trying to dress an old issue up in new clothes and sell it to us as change. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Death at the Occupy Vancouver protest

A timely open letter to the powers that be from a B.C. blogger and activist very worried about what's going to happen at  the Occupy protest in Vancouver in the wake of a death at the encampment this past week. He's been a participant up until now, but is urging people to wrap things up before more tragedy occurs. 

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fired CLBC boss got $345,000 severance package

Say it ain't so! After all the heat and problems at CLBC, all the lost services to vulnerable people, we find out that fired (an important distinction - fired, not laid off or downsized or anything softer like that) CLBC chief Rick Mowles got a $345,000 severance package from the Crown corporation when he was axed last month. Yup, 18 months' severance after being on the job just six years.
Wow. Kudos to TC reporter Lindsay Kines for digging up this important story - he's been an ace on the CLBC issues since the start, and was the only reporter in B.C. even doing any meaningful writing about this stuff until things got so noisy that Global TV and now the Vancouver Sun finally took a look.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Fed changes start from frightening premise

It makes me nervous to read the news stories about plans the Canadian government has for reshaping the non-profit sector.
Sure, the sector needs some work. What sector doesn’t?
But it’s hardly the unaccountable, inefficient system that the federal government made it sound like this week in the media coverage about the new Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act.
“Right now, we ask [the non-profit sector] to take on these jobs,” federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finlay said while announcing new efforts to ensure more accountability from Canada’s 161,000 registered non-profits and charities.
“We give them money to do it. They receive the money whether they achieve their objectives or not. Now all we’re saying is all right, we still want you to do this, but you get more money if you actually achieve your objectives.”
Unless you’ve been involved with a non-profit having to jump through the many - and often meaningless - accountability requirements of federal funding, you might not appreciate how grating of a statement that is in a sector that works very hard for its money. How can we trust change pushed by a government that doesn’t have a clue?
Canada, Britain and the U.S. are all working very hard these days to extricate government from social responsibility. Their efforts tend to focus on initiatives that download the funding of community work to someone other than them.
 Socially invested municipalities and neighbourhoods, new charity hybrids capable of earning their own revenue, mysterious “investors” who are apparently waiting in the wings  to pony up for social causes as long as they can earn a return on investment - all are integral parts of the three countries’ plans for  non-profit reform.
And maybe such strategies will indeed turn out to be beneficial. But pardon me for noticing that underneath every proposed change is an expectation of offloading the cost of social care.
It’s very popular among the government set these days to talk about how charities and non-profits should run more like businesses.
For the most part, they already do. And that’s remarkable given the nutty processes, procedural hurdles and nonsensical funding cuts they deal with as a matter of course. If the goal is a healthy community sector capable of dealing with increasing social complexity, I’d suggest Ottawa start with some personal reflection on the many ways its own systems and policies devalue, complicate and compromise efficient community work.
The nature of non-profit work - running child-care centres, looking after old people, supporting challenged families, preventing environmental catastrophe, finding God, reconnecting lost souls - doesn’t lend  itself easily to standard measurement. In an era when “worth” has only one meaning to government, that’s a major disadvantage.
So much of non-profit work comes down to value-based goals like easing human suffering.  Building community. Saving the planet for future generations. Alas, governments like things that show a return on investment before the next election. 
Community work builds “infrastructure” as surely as construction companies build bridges and roads. So how come nobody has to build a bridge on year-to-year funding or uncertain contracts squeezed whenever the government feels like it? How come we don’t hear about road-builders getting stiffed as a matter of course on annual cost-of-living increases, as is the case for hundreds of social service agencies in B.C. doing the same work for a little less each year?
I do agree with government’s push for more tangible evidence of the benefits of community work. Improvements to the way outcomes are measured and reported would at least settle once and for all that the non-profit sector is doing essential, meaningful work. 
The sector could use a new name, too, because “non-profit” and “charitable” instantly bring to mind some pathetic soul who can’t figure out how to make money and so has to beg.
But what it doesn’t need is a government-led fix that even in its early days has revealed a biased and negative view of the non-profit sector.
Modern-day western governments are obsessed with the idea that charities and non-profits are inefficient users of tax dollars. They think the growing social divide in their countries are because non-profits and community members aren’t doing their job well enough, not because they’ve been hacking apart the social safety net for the better part of 20 years.
They’re wrong. And they won’t set things right with just more of the same.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Corporate double-speak can't hide Hydro's problems

You catching all this fast talking coming out of BC Hydro? Takes me back to my old corporate days, with all those interesting interpretations the Big Guys had in order to create the impression of a good bottom line even when there wasn't one. Times Colonist editorial staff did a good analysis of the situation today - it's hard to imagine that any person taking a common-sense look at this thing wouldn't see that we're really just pushing today's problems onto tomorrow's Hydro users.
Also loved the opening to today's TC story on the same issue.  BC Hydro can't lose money because the government expects a stable profit for its budget each year, said Hydro's chief financial officer, Charles Reid. Oh, if only that was the way life worked.