Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A most unsettling story list of this thing we still call farming

Credit: Moscow Ministry of Agriculture and Food
I'm a loyal reader and financial supporter of the British non-profit news outlet The Guardian, and subscribe to its "Animals Farmed" newsletter. Every couple of months or so, the newsletter arrives in my email inbox with news of the wild, weird world of what we still call farming, but that mostly just looks like mass murder at this point.

Even just reading the little summary blurbs about the stories is an excellent reinforcer of my efforts to ramp back my meat consumption to almost nothing. I used to love my farm set when I was a kid, but realistic play with a modern-day "farm set" would require stuffing your cute plastic animals into an overcrowded, hellish stink-barn for a very short life of misery, with not a whiff of green grass or fresh air to be found.

So let's start there with my first link from this morning's newsletter, about how Russian industrial farms are experimenting with virtual reality for dairy cows, to see if tricking them into thinking they see an open meadow will make them happier. And able to produce better milk, of course. Because it's a given that anything we do in industrial farming that outwardly looks like we're being a bit kinder to the animal is in fact just a way to trick them into giving us better, tastier, or more products from their bodies.

Next time you eat a lamb shawarma in the Middle East, think about the 14,346 Romanian sheep that died last week when the cargo ship they were being carried on overturned. Romania is the third biggest exporter of sheep in the European Union, and the sheep were bound for Saudi Arabia. Speculation is that the ship was overloaded, but at any rate, the sheep were trapped in the hold and didn't stand a chance when the ship flipped.

Only 254 sheep ended up rescued. I'm hoping that none of the dead creatures were among these sheep that passed by us when we were visiting Romania this past spring, but the future's not bright for Romanian sheep overall.

The risk of mass sheep death at sea is not just an issue from "over there," either. More than 22,000 lambs a year make the journey from New Zealand to the United States to satisfy hungry consumers, and that number is up 20 per cent from a decade ago.

And how is life going for our pig friends? Not so good. African Swine Fever is in the process of wiping out what's expected to be a quarter of the world's pigs. In China alone, some 100 million infected pigs were killed last year in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

But that's great news for "farmers" of non-infected pigs, who are finding surging global demand and increasing sale prices when piggies go to market nowadays. The value of monthly UK pig exports hit £36.4 million - $63 million in Canadian dollars - in September, a 50 per cent increase over a year ago.

In other pig news, Britain's Conservative Party has backed away from a promise to ban farrowing crates, because they go against everything a mother pig would naturally do to prepare for and care for her piglets. But pig producers have worked equally hard to shut down that conversation.
The crates are small cages that pregnant pigs are kept in from before their piglets are born until they are a month old.

Now let's turn to China, the home of my ancestors but also a country that often seems viciously committed to eating every species from the face of the Earth. That includes donkeys, 4.8 million of whom are killed every year just to satisfy China's demand for a gelatinous traditional medicine called ejaio, which is made from the hides of donkeys. If demand continues apace, half of the world's donkey population will be wiped out within five years.

Bummed out yet? We ought to be. I get that humans are omnivores and have a long history of killing animals for food, but we're so far past any kind of hunter-gatherer framework with modern-day industrial farming. One last link before you go, this one to a deadly algae bloom of "red tide" in Florida that wiped out 200 manatees, 127 dolphins, 589 sea turtles and hundreds of tonnes of fish when it hit in 2018, and is now back again.

It's a naturally occurring phenomenon, but you can likely guess what makes it much, much worse. Yup, industrial farming, which in Florida is flooding the sensitive wetlands with agricultural runoff.

I started into "flexitarianism" mostly because there's only so long you can keep telling yourself that your eating habits are harmless, but reducing our meat intake is also a major step toward reducing our individual (and ultimately, global) carbon footprints. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that industrial livestock production is responsible for 14.5 per cent of human-caused carbon emissions.

Do the right thing. Put peas on your fork.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Oh, what are my thoughts on what we need to do to improve social health in BC? Why, thanks so much for asking...

Illustration by Avril Orff for provincial forum

The lines between my professional and personal interests are quite blurred at this stage in my life, as I've had the great privilege of being able to work for many years now on issues that I feel very passionate about personally.

One such issue is social equality - in other words, supports and strategies for better social health that lift us all up, whether we need something relatively mainstream like good childcare and a safe, friendly place to grow old in, or something more intense like trauma counselling, help getting out of a gang, services for mental health, substance use, immigrant settlement and so on. Social health wears many, many hats.

In my role as part-time executive director of a very small umbrella non-profit, the Board Voice Society of BC, I was invited to speak Nov. 15 in Richmond at the Provincial Social Services Forum. I'm part of that forum through my Board Voice role, as there are a number of umbrella organizations sitting at a roundtable with government right now trying to work out a more resilient, mutually agreed upon partnership that will achieve our shared desire to strengthen, organize and sustain good social care in BC.

I was asked to speak on how the work of the roundtable could impact social change in BC. Here's what I had to say:

We do a lot of visioning about social health, in BC and around the world. We do less well at figuring out how to realize that vision. We dream big – ending homelessness, supporting every child, eliminating poverty, creating community well-being. But we rarely have structure in place underneath those dreams to guide us in achieving them.

I like metaphors, so let’s use the roofs on our houses for this one, and start with a suitably sweeping vision: “My family will live under a roof that doesn’t leak.”

It’s a great goal. But what if the reality was that you had leaks all over the place? Buckets overflowing. Bits of weakening tarpaulin pasted over some of the holes. A major reno in one corner that worked for a while but can’t keep up. Leaks patched a couple of years ago that have started dripping again. You’ve spent a fortune in buckets, mops and make-do repairs by this point. But still the roof keeps leaking.

So it is with social care, where we dream big but often struggle to identify and effectively tackle the root causes. The roof leaks until you fix the leak, right? Social care fixes social problems, and supports healthy communities in so many ways.

But just like fixing a roof, the only way to get there is by taking our lofty visions and breaking them all the way down to the strategies that can fix each one. After that, we apply them - in a planned, thoughtful, flexible, routinely updated, client-centred manner that understands that social care is as important as health care and education to all of our futures. Because we know that’s true.

I see the roundtable as a vehicle for getting us there. Nothing about social care is ever simple, but we now have a place to talk about it, one that brings us together as partners with a shared interest in improving social health.

Quality child care. Affordable housing. Interventions for kids with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities. Lifelong supports for people with intellectual disabilities. Services that improve Indigenous people’s lives. Newcomers settled in and helped to find work. Good homes for children in care all the way through to genuine adulthood, not an arbitrary age.

Supported housing for people as they age and lose function. Employment services. Recreational opportunities. Income assistance. Wellness programs. Trauma counselling. Community centres. Good work and fair wages. Clean and green communities.

These are the true determinants of health, and fundamental to the health of a province’s economy and future. Any region, any community, any neighbourhood is only as good as the health and connection of the people who live and work there.

But much like climate change, social health is mired in public opinion, politics, fear, judgment, stigma, and a general tendency in humans to waste a lot of time casting about for someone to blame when people’s lives go sideways.

Do we even think of the same thing when we hear “social services”? I would bet we don’t have consensus even in this room, let alone at a provincial level. I see the roundtable as a means for establishing measurable social goals, so we all know what we’re chasing.

What are the social challenges that are priorities for tackling in BC? We need to agree on that. We need to establish achievable outcomes and then measure them relentlessly, and constantly adjust our approaches and supports to account for emerging issues, changing priorities, unintended consequences.

We need to agree on all these things and then raise that work above the political cycle, as we do with education and health care. Because social care is foundational to a life well-lived, but it can’t be realized in a three- to five-year political cycle.

Emerging social issues are almost always just the visible evidence of problems that began 10 or 20 years earlier, now grown so big that you can’t help but notice them. Homelessness is one such example. If you’re my age, you’ve seen it go from a word that didn’t even exist to a persistent and seemingly intractable problem in every BC community.

There are so many reasons for that. And if you want to vanquish homelessness, you have to do something about every one of them.

Yes, homelessness is about homes, but it’s equally about things like early childhood nutrition and child development, quality education, family supports, mental health, good work, income assistance based on the true cost of living, and the way our justice and foster systems function.

Our governments play a key role in supporting strong foundations for social health. But they can’t stand alone in that important work. This is work for all of us, from the community-based organizations that know this work and how to raise money for it, to the engaged citizens already involved in building well-being in their own communities.

From the BC businesses that get that good social health is fundamental to a strong economy and workforce, to the five million British Columbians who will all benefit when social health is addressed in a planned, strategic, realistic and sustained way in our province.

For me, the roundtable and this forum is a statement that all of that has been recognized – not just by government, but by the community-based organizations that have been doing the work of social care since long before there was government funding for it. I look around at who’s at the provincial roundtable and marvel that we’re finally all there together. And today, here with all of you.

And no, this is not the first time we’ve tried to figure this one out. But it could be the time that changes everything. It could be the time that we actually get this done.

I really appreciate that all of you are here to deepen a conversation that might finally fix that roof, to everyone’s benefit. Thank you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Allergies: The View from Here

I've been wanting to write about my experiences with allergies for a while now. I expect I have a level of insight that could be useful to others after 60-plus years of a life lived allergically. Permit me to share my thoughts here, with the qualifier that I am in no way an expert on allergies except as a person who has always had a bunch of them.

My late mother used to tell of an angora hat she put on me when I was a baby that was apparently the first indicator that I was going to be allergic. I get itchy just thinking about it. The list grew rapidly to include eggs, animals, pollens, molds, grass, chocolate, dust mites and many other things that are impossible to avoid completely. (I sometimes wonder if the mass giving away of my beloved stuffed animals in the name of a dust-free bedroom was an early childhood trauma.)

Eventually I got old enough - 11, maybe? - to have one of those scratch tests on my back, which made for a horrible hour of being forced to lie still on my stomach while my back raged with itching. The test confirmed that I was allergic to pretty much everything they tried. I've since had a lifetime of unexplained periods of fluctuating duration in which I might have hives, itchy eyes, wheezing, a kind of weird mouth thing that I know as "tingle-lips," and various bumps, welts and scratchy bits that emerge and subside unpredictably.

One time, I ate cheezies while riding a horse in the rain, and some strange combination of that left me looking like a child version of The Hulk for several hours as every part of my face swelled up with itchy bumps and my ears turned into thick, twisted lumps. Another time, I got giant, water-filled hives on my torso from some drug they'd given me for my asthma, and it left scars that lingered for more than a year.

So yes, I know a thing or two about allergies. I'm nothing like how I was when I was kid, but I still get rashes for no discernable reason, and tingle-lips at parties if anybody has put blue cheese too close to the other cheeses on the charcuterie plate. (Oddly enough, a friend cooked blue cheese in a macaroni casserole recently and I ate it without knowing, and nothing happened. Does that mean cooking the blue cheese changed something, or that it's all in my head?)

One of the top learnings from a lifetime of allergies is that controlled and gradual exposure to many of the things I'm allergic to has been a huge help in getting over them. That said, the strategy doesn't work for everything. The tricky thing is in figuring out which of your allergies might improve from gradual exposure and which ones never will.

Cats, for instance. As a kid, I couldn't even walk into someone's house who had a cat without starting to wheeze. But then I grew up and went through many years of owning cats because I loved them anyway, and realized that I quickly got used to whatever cats we had in the house at the time. For a few years, we had a cat that had a lot of litters (I know, irresponsible, but we always found them good homes and loved them madly for those months before giveaway). I'd be allergic to each new litter for about 3 weeks and then would adapt.

Now, I barely think about being allergic to cats. I still can't pick one up and rub my face in its fur, and I wash my hands after petting so I don't accidentally touch my eyes with cat hands (the weak link). But other than that, I'm fine to hang with cats. I'm fine with rabbits, too, having bought a house rabbit for my youngest daughter once upon a time and endured six intense weeks of wheezing, nose-blowing and scratching while getting used to dear Nutmeg.

But then there's mold.

In the 1960s-70s when I was growing up, it was common to give kids injections for their allergies, the theory being that if you were exposed gradually to increasing doses of an allergen, you would develop a tolerance. I'd go in every week or so and get a pollen mix injected in one arm and mold in the other.

The pollen series worked well, and I give those shots credit every spring, when so many others are suffering with their allergies and I'm not. But my mold injections had to be stopped early, because my arm was swelling more and I was getting sicker with each injection.

Just a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon the surprising information that one of the world's most common food additives is produced from a mutant strain of the fungus Aspergillus niger, which is responsible for black moldWhen cultured in a sugary substance, the fungus - a known allergen - creates citric acid as a byproduct.
Photo credit:

That byproduct is everywhere, in a vast array of juices, pops, coolers, cosmetics, "fruit-flavoured" bars, jams and more, even though no research has ever been done on its safety or the impact of increased exposure. More than two million tonnes are produced annually, most of it in China.

Fed up with more than a year of a persistent, itchy rash under my arms and some seriously uncomfortable bouts of heartburn after drinking lemon-lime diet drinks, I scanned the list of ingredients of some of my favourite beverages a couple of months ago and got to wondering about citric acid. So I looked it up, and was stunned to learn that it came from a mold.

Could that be the source of my irritating rash? Hard to say, but it wasn't too tough to excise citric acid from my diet and test my theory. So I did. The rash is gone. Could be coincidence, could be an ah-hah. Personally, I'm just glad to not be itchy anymore. I can live without citric acid.

If my mother the nurse was still alive, she'd probably pooh-pooh my citric acid theory and note that if that were the case, why would the allergies only be bothering me now? To which I would tell her that people in general are experiencing increasing allergies to food and cosmetic additives, because we are being exposed to greater and greater amounts of them in this unnatural life we lead.

The growing exposure to a grand number of weird little lab-made chemicals is creating sensitivities even in people who have never had allergies. I talked to a University of Victoria researcher a while back who told me of the race in the cosmetics world to find a substitute for preservatives like parabens and methylisothiazolinone. Both are now omnipresent in cosmetics due to a shrinking list of safe preservatives, and are triggering sensitivies because of overexposure.

I've tried many vitamins and herbs over the years to see if they help with my allergies. I've never noticed much impact from any of them. The effective strategies for me have been gradual exposure to the things I'm not too allergic to, avoidance of the things that I can't get a handle on (those scented sticks in oil just kill me - what the heck is in that oil??), and antihistamines for the occasional times when I know I''ll be allergic but want to do whatever the thing is anyway. (Horseback riding!)

Antihistamines are very useful when used well and in moderation, but you need to figure out which ones work for you. The word "antihistamine" covers a number of drugs, all of which work in different ways and react differently from person to person. You'll need to do some experimenting and label-reading to figure out which one brings you relief. (For me, it's loratadine. The brand name is Claritin but it's gotten so expensive lately that I've switched to the generic versions, which seem to work equally well.)

When heading into an allergy-rich situation, I take an antihistamine before I go. You never want to wait until the allergies set in, because the drugs don't work nearly as well once that happens.

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun
So if I'm going to a barn party in a working barn, or spending the day at the Saanich Fair, I take one, because hay and big animals like horses still get to me. If I've got the care of a dog that has allergies itself (hot spots, for instance), I know I'll need antihistamines for the first couple of days while I adjust, because something about an allergic dog really makes me allergic, too.

If you've got allergy stories and solutions of your own, I'd love to hear them. Having allergies is the kind of thing that requires a lot of figuring out so they don't interfere with your life, and they feel to me like they're too variable and individualized for modern medicine to respond to well. I think a lot of it comes down to individual strategies.

One last observation: If you're sensitive to pollens, don't believe the assurances of the clerk in the vitamin store that supplements like bee pollen and royal jelly don't cause allergies in people with pollen allergies. I learned the hard way that's not true. I unknowingly triggered a three-week stretch of terrible, almost-in-the-hospital asthma before it dawned on me that the culprit was the bee pollen I'd been taking daily.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

One more Naked Truth

And another good read from The Naked Truth sex work blog and Annie Temple, who writes here about the highs and lows of "squaring up" given that the workplace culture of the sex industry is just so very different than what you find in a more conventional workplace.

My favourite kind of sex-work writing (well, writing about anything, really) is when it's like this: Straight up "this is how it is" kind of stuff. For sex work in particular, the misconceptions people have about the industry are so very far from reality that some people will probably need to read a thousand pieces of writing like this one before thinking starts to shift. But hey, now they only need to read 999 more.

I posted this piece on Facebook as well and heard from a number of connections that Annie's top 10 "cultural shock challenges" resonated with them as well, as they have their own work culture expectations that don't conform to the rather odd one that we tend to think of as "normal."

There's another reason to read more writings of sex workers - because we have the same issues. We are sisters and brothers in the same causes, which is a critical point to emphasize given the amount of stigma, judgment and discrimination sex workers experience because of people in the "square world" demanding that sex workers be viewed as different - so different, in fact, that they deserve to be denied basic human rights.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Naked Truth: Susan Davis on the life of a migrant sex worker

Photo of Susan Davis from the
Naked Truth website
There's few better ways to start to understand sex work than reading the writing of sex workers. I'm grateful for The Naked Truth for its efforts to bring those pieces to a broad audience, most especially this fascinating piece by long-time warrior Susan Davis.

Susan is a Vancouver entrepreneur, activist and sex worker who has played such an important role in bringing the issues of BC sex workers into the spotlight, and challenging the tired trope of broken victims in need of rescue. 

Her account here of making her way across Canada as a young sex worker, and the frightening challenges of settling into a new scene when you're in the sex industry, makes for a gripping read.

It will also make for an uncomfortable one for some people, as violence can be a routine part of a sex worker's life due to laws that keep the work in the shadows and make it virtually impossible for workers to avail themselves of police protection. (Reading Sue's many futile attempts to sound the alarm on serial killer Robert Pickton certainly gave me the chills.)

I haven't met many issues as capable of polarizing a conversation as sex work. I've listened to decades of those conversations and once upon a time, used to play way nicer and try to convince people of why it was important to decriminalize sex work to increase worker safety. Not so much anymore on the playing nice. When people literally have their lives on the line because we can't get past our moral objections and uninformed opinions, there's no room for "nice."

Canada has had bad law around sex work for its entire history, and arguably worse law since the former Harper government criminalized the purchase of sexual services for the first time ever in 2014.  The Liberal government made mumbly sounds of "considering the issue" when they first came into office, but never acted (one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about Jody Raybould-Wilson, who never lifted a finger for sex workers in her time as Attorney General).

While police attitudes in certain Canadian cities have shifted significantly over time, that's still not the case in many communities across the country, where sex workers continue to work in extremely dangerous conditions with no hope that the police officer they approach will be prepared to help them.

You don't have to approve of the existence of sex work to get that criminalizing it is just about the worst way to oversee the industry. All our laws do is increase danger for people in the industry, the majority of whom are women. And yet here we are 152 years on, still doing the same old same old.

Add it to the list of Things That Make Me Weep. Or scream.

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Great Hack: Watch It

I've been alarmed anew by the Cambridge Analytica horror story after watching the documentary "The Great Hack" last night on Netflix.

We're all rightly offended by the massive invasion of privacy that occurred in that scandalous period. But what's far more frightening for me after the film is the monumental scope of global democratic disruption.

What Cambridge Analytica did with Facebook's happy help was psychological warfare funded by wealthy people. Carried out on behalf of political parties that the wealthy people resonate with, it targeted carefully selected "persuadibles" chosen for their fear-based, authoritarian-leaning personalities. Everything they needed to know was mined out of Facebook and other social media, via a "fun" little personality quiz developed by an American researcher working at Cambridge University.

And the rest is history, as they say. Brexit. Trump. But so much more, because Cambridge was active all over the world. When authoritarian interests came calling, Cambridge was there.

One of the most unsettling revelations for me was the film's evidence that Cambridge ran a campaign aiming to increase voter apathy among young black adults in the 2010 Trinidad and Tobago election. Cambridge's secret Facebook campaign targeted those who were naturally prone to checking out and showing a low interest in their world with a campaign that encouraged them not to vote.

Parties are known to attract distinct race-based support in that country, so the goal of Cambridge's clients was to see the Indian-based party win by increasing voter apathy among those who supported other parties. The Do So campaign targeted young black adults with a song-and-dance, fun-loving barrage of videos encouraging them not to vote as a symbol of protest.

That is pure evil at work, don't you think?

Hope you'll watch it. Those of us with ethical character can't even imagine the scenarios that those motivated solely by money and power get up to, but it feels important to get a big reminder every now and then, something that gets you reading deep or watching some revelatory documentary that shakes you to the core.

Sure, let's focus on the positive, too. But we wouldn't want to get complacent thinking everything's pretty much OK. The Great Hack reminds us that it most definitely isn't.

Message I was left with: Wake up! Wake up! It's so much bigger than somebody having access to everything on your Facebook account. We're talking an act of war.

Governments are complicit because they want to win. Cambridge Analytica-type firms are complicit because they not only want to grow rich, but get a rush from being disruptors without ethics. Facebook and other social media are complicit because there is so damn much money to be had.

(In her powerful TED talk on this issue, Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr asks social-media executives if this is how they want history to remember them, as "handmaidens to authoritarianism.")

Question I was left with: Where the heck was the academic, Alexandr Kogan, who created the infamous personality test that Cambridge used to identify "persuadibles"? He barely got a mention in the film.

He took his field of research and used it commercially to deliberately subvert democracy. He made this whole thing possible. So many people behaving badly, but I definitely have him on my list.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Don't Get Scared, Get Effective: A Linked-Up Guide to Doing Something About Your Personal Carbon Footprint

Copyright:(c) Allexxe | Dreamstime.com
The frightening realities of the global climate crisis have me looking for ways to reduce my personal impact. For those of you trying to do the same, this one's for you. (And for those of you still denying there's a problem, feel free to stop reading now and fire off an uninformed comment, and I will feel free to not read it.)

I was stunned to learn recently that there's a view out there that people shouldn't have to take personal responsibility for their carbon outputs, because the climate crisis is the fault of corporations and governments and must be left to them to fix.

Seriously? There is absolutely no way to mitigate the effects of climate change without taking personal action. Corporations exist because we feed them. Governments exist because we elect them. This one's all about us - collectively and individually. I am right there in rage with those who are fed up with corporate greed and government paralysis, but it's each and every one of us who has to step up to fix the damaging and damaged society we're becoming. (Did anyone else notice how much Boris Johnson looks like Donald Trump from the back?)

It's pretty damn daunting to even consider how to get a grip on this crisis, I admit. I would love to be able to blame this one on someone, and leave them to clean up the mess. But like that little cartoon possum Pogo used to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." If you really want to end bad government and hurt evil corporations, then it's about getting a grip on rampant consumerism and electing better people (and with better electoral processes).

Where to begin? The first step is in finding the tools to help us understand our personal carbon footprint so we can take action to reduce what we can and offset what we can't.

Today's Guardian piece on that very subject is a good place to start, though go into this exercise knowing that many people are already trying to figure out how to make money from your privileged North American guilt. (You have to hand it to capitalism - it's always there first.) Do a lot of research before you start donating to a cause promising to use your money on projects aimed at making you feel less guilty about your carbon-heavy lifestyle.

Plus if we're actually going to get serious about reducing our individual footprints, we'll need to put more skin in the game than merely sending money to some random organization promising to plant trees or start a hydro-electric project in our honour. There is so much that we can each do that will have real impact. Take a browse through these telling emission charts to see that while Canada may not be topping the charts globally in our carbon emissions, we are right up there with the United States in our per-capita emissions. We only look good at the global level because we have a small population.

Travel that involves flying gives me particular guilt. Now I see why. Using the handy-dandy flight calculator in that Guardian story, I learned that my flight from Vancouver to London and back this spring meant I personally generated more than 1.3 tonnes of CO2 just from that trip. There are 67 countries where the average person doesn't emit that much in an entire year. Yikes.

Then I tripped on over to the Offsetters site to expand that search (I couldn't get the first search to identify Bucharest as an option, which was our final destination). Their calculator put me at three tonnes for the return trip from Vancouver to Bucharest, with a stopover in London. (You may need to calculate total distances for your flights for some of the sites, so here's a place to do that.)

Seeing as the global goal is to reduce everyone on Earth's average per-capita carbon footprint to 1.8 tonnes by 2050, the extent of the challenge is obvious. I'm well over my annual allowance just from one holiday flight, and I haven't even begun to add in all the other emissions resulting from my day-to-day life.

Fortunately, Columbia University has a calculator to help me calculate those emissions, and a list of 35 simple ways to reduce my carbon footprint. They suggest this site for calculating your footprint.

My partner and I have an bit of an unusual lifestyle in that we live in other people's spaces as permanent housesitters, so we're already doing pretty good on a lot of these. Moving to a new house every 3-4 weeks turns out to be an excellent mechanism for keeping your stuff to a minimum. We live in other people's spaces, which also serves to reduce our impact.

But we do love to travel. We still need to do better in all of these 35 areas if we hope to offset a joy that we aren't prepared to give up.

We adopted a "flexitarian" eating regimen earlier this year that for the most part eliminates meat. That was mostly because we realized we could no longer bear the hypocrisy of eating creatures made to suffer from their earliest days so that we can eat their deeply unhappy flesh and consume their breast milk. I'm happy that it also coincides with efforts to reduce my carbon footprint.

I've talked to a surprising number of people who are really worried about the climate crisis but at the same time kind of shrug their shoulders in a "What can one person do?" way when they talk about it. We can actually do quite a lot, and in fact will have to if we want to steer this Titanic away from the rocks. And it's going to hurt, because humans just don't change until it hurts.

We need to be priced out of our cars. We need to be regulated into improving the energy efficiences of our homes. We need development that accounts for changing climate and the energy efficiences of renovating rather than tearing down and rebuilding. We need to curb our rampant consumption, and quit buying vehicles that look like they're armed for the zombie apocalypse when we're really just driving from Oak Bay to downtown. (Read this strangely radical Globe opinion piece on making do.)

We need every level of government to get its act together and do what's good for the planet rather than take it easy on their electorate in hopes of another victory. We need to quit electing governments that pander to the completely unreasonable beliefs of uninformed people. (Fascinating that "conservative" is now attached to a social ideology that doesn't view climate change as a big concern.)

I was changed forever by a year and a half of doing communications for the University of Victoria. My work introduced me to a lot of climate scientists. What they knew scared the hell out of me, and shook me out of that paralysis that I think so many of us are in on this one.

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at UVic has some great research here, in accessible language. Through my conversations with climatologist Frances Zwiers at the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, I came to understand the challenges scientists face when trying to determine whether it's climate change or just a weird weather event, but that there's still a lot that can be done to mitigate the issues either way.

Francis also introduced me to this marvelous site, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. They work on behalf of the insurance industry. I can get lost for hours in their fascinating and well-researched reports.

Good luck to all of us. It won't be easy. But who would you rather be, that person in the disaster movie whose reaction to the terrifying asteroid headed for Earth is to freeze up and do nothing, or the determined one who reaches deep and takes action? The Arctic is melting, for pete's sake. Do your part.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Things we saw: Road trip in Eastern Europe

Town square at Piatra Neamt, Romania
Loved, loved, loved our three-week road trip through Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria in May and June. I came home with hundreds of photos, but also a bunch of video clips that I had no real plan for but we collected anyway. Glad we did, because the resulting half-hour video really captures the trip beautifully. A lot of the shots are out the front window of the car as we drove along, and captured the scenes that really call up memories of a place but often don't make it into your photo gallery.

We used Google Maps to guide us. Mostly it was just plain wonderful to have that service, because otherwise we would have been constantly lost. (We learned right at the start of our trip that Priority 1 upon arriving in any country was to get a local SIM card in our phones.) But it also took us on some of the strangest routes - often not the big freeways, which I was grateful for, but sometimes true backwaters that looked like they weren't even real roads.  And every now and then on a big freeway, we lost serious time when Googleova couldn't figure out what to do about a detour or major construction at an interchange, and sent us down the wrong road with no way to fix the error until the next exit - which in some cases was 30 kilometres down the road.

This video is recommended viewing for anyone who loves road trips but hasn't been on one for far too long, for no particular reason but just because they kind of forgot how much they love them. Watching this made me want to get back on the road all over again.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Journalism 101: Winning awards is one thing, consistent and solid local coverage is something else

Advice to Phillip Crawley, or any other boss poised to cut $10 million in salaries, none of which involves their own job: Don't try to dress that up as a positive thing.

 Yes, the Globe and Mail's reporting staff of 250 does seem unbelievably luxurious in the eyes of any other slashed-to-bits Canadian newsroom. And yes, I'm sure those who remain after this latest round of cuts announced this week will still do their best to maintain quality journalism.

But Crawley - G&M publisher - came across as tone-deaf, insensitive and pretty damn unaware of newsroom realities in the J-Source story about the coming cuts at Canada's national newspaper. Defending the cuts, he chose to cite the recent National Newspaper Awards win of the St. Catherines Standard with a skeletal staff of five reporters (down from 49 after years of cuts) as an example of how quality reporting doesn't require quantity.

Here's the thing: Sure, a newsroom with almost nobody left to do reporting might still be able to win a National Newspaper Award once in a while. But can it cover the non-award-worthy daily grind of local news that readers actually care about? Not a chance.

I only have to reflect back on my own time as managing editor of the Victoria Times Colonist in the mid-1990s, presiding over a newsroom staff still large enough that we were able to cover all the regular council meetings of Greater Victoria's 13 municipalities, and even keep an eye on the three school boards in the region. Oh, those were the days.

Nobody wins national awards for the quotidian coverage of council and school board. But those kinds of stories are the lifeblood of a good local newspaper. Those are the stories that keep councils mindful of their actions, citizens aware of what their municipalities are up to, and maintain a general sense of news coverage that stays on top of the local scene.

What is being lost in the ongoing cuts to mainstream media is average "beat" reporting. It's the kind of reporting that keeps politicians on track and citizens in the loop. It's the unremarkable yet critically important foundation to democracy. And nobody has been able to figure out how to make it happen in the new age of digital media that no one wants to pay for.

What to do? Worry, I'd say. Subscribe to the daily newspapers that matter to you, though subscription costs seem very much out of whack with the sad-looking products that pass for daily newspapers these days. And I'm sure you'll have noticed already that local news coverage is a shadow of its former self compared to what it was back in what I now think of as the golden era (though cuts were already happening even 20 years ago), because it's the coverage that costs the most.

Do send donations to the digital news sources that you rely on, because quality journalism simply can't exist without somebody paying. The Tyee online newspaper fundraises to hire reporters for specific local issues - better than nothing for sure, but not able to sustain a fleet of reporters grinding it out on the unsexy but essential coverage of daily life in our communities.

So ignore guys like Crawley when they tell you that a $10 million cut in newsroom staffing isn't going to hurt the quality of journalism. He's wrong.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

On sex work, 'trafficking,' and sloppy journalism that causes harm

Red Umbrella March - courtesy of Peers Victoria
This piece of mine started as a total rant that I imagined going on my blog or perhaps a BC newspaper. But for various reasons I ended up sending it to the editor of JSource, the website for the Canadian Journalism Project. And here it is, hot off the press today, rewritten into less rant-like style but better because of it.


The Edmonton Journal ran a series on sex trafficking in March. At least, that’s what the headlines said, even though none of the sex workers in the piece were actually being trafficked and nobody was charged with trafficking.
Some might say those two details kind of cancel out the premise of the series.
But I’ve been taking in news coverage of sex work for a long time, and dressing up a story to look like something that it isn’t is tragically common. It’s as if all the usual journalistic instincts to present a fair story and get the facts go out the window when somebody says “sex trafficking.”
Not that I’m in favour of sex trafficking, of course. But I’m an activist for the rights of adult sex workers. Their efforts to secure even the most basic human and workers’ rights in Canada are harmed immeasurably by an abundance of sloppy, biased reporting that lazily assumes sex trafficking and sex work are interchangeable terms.
It’s the kind of journalism that never asks the hard questions and denies sex workers a voice. It doesn’t do its homework. It knows how the story will go before the first interview has even begun. That story is always about shattered victims and evil exploiters, and the good police and earnest community people who rescue innocents from this awful work that no one in their right mind would choose.
And if the truth is something different than that? Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be something that journalists, as a whole, concern themselves with on this issue.
Our profession has a reputation for skepticism and doubt. Hallelujah for that. But something about issues with a moral aspect to them - sex work and trafficking, illicit drug use, migrant issues - shuts down journalists' normal way of approaching a story. 
We let people make outrageous statements with no proof. We make little effort to check whether there might be more sides to the story. We presume inaccessibility to anyone who actually works in or is directly affected by the story we’re looking into, and so we don’t even try to get their comments.
For sex work, the result of that is the perpetuation of myths that let our country keep on justifying the denial of basic rights to legal workers.
Myths that sex trafficking is a big problem in North America. (In 2017, more than 1.9 million crimes were reported by Canadian police. Forty-five involved sex trafficking  – down from 68 in the previous year, and 61 in the year before that.)
Myths that we have statistics proving claims that it’s a big problem. (The 2018 Trafficking in Persons global report notes that Canada “did not provide comprehensive data on investigations, prosecutions and convictions from all jurisdictions,” nor on the number of victims.)
Myths that any sex worker who denies being trafficked is just covering up to protect an exploiter. (Using the theory of a “trauma bond” that prevents victims from turning on their captors, the law in Canada can consider you a victim of trafficking regardless of whether you agree, and as such becomes a tool that’s easily turned against garden-variety adult sex work.)
Myths that police raids are an effective, efficient, respectful way of dealing with the sex industry. (After many complaints from sex workers of harassment by police, Vancouver’s Supporting Women’s Alternative Network took the unusual step in 2017 of writing to the RCMP to urge them to stop Operation Spotlight, an anti-trafficking campaign targeting sex workers: “This strategy is one that is based on deception and manipulation. These actions foster distrust and adversarial relationships with law enforcement. Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ them.”)
The Journal’s series provides a recent and painful example.
The reporter was essentially embedded with the Edmonton police for the purposes of the story. Police posed as clients and responded to online ads placed by workers. They then showed up at the worker’s hotel room or whatever she was working – journalist in tow – to ask her deeply personal, intimate questions that ought to be nobody’s business once everyone is a consenting adult.
(It’s unclear what indicators police used to determine who to target, but for at least one worker featured in the story, it was because the photo she used in her ad made her look underage. She wasn’t.)
So there’s the worker, wearing a “tiny black silk robe” when she opens the hotel room door to what she thinks is a client and it turns out to be the police and a journalist.  “We’re here for your benefit,” Det. Dan Duiker assures her. “We’re not here to bust your balls. When you are co-operative with us, hopefully we can be of assistance to you if you ever need it.”
The journalist features Duiker’s comments prominently in his story. But there’s not a word given over to the young woman being humiliated and shamed in front of everybody. (Like, maybe I’d have asked, “Hey, does this feel like ‘assistance’ to you?”)
Imagine the public outcry if any other Canadian worker was subjected to this treatment – forced to be the voiceless, unwitting poster child for an issue that has nothing to do with you, because you’re not being trafficked. All is revealed to readers: what you’re wearing, where you’re from (this woman was from Quebec, an apparent “hotbed” of sex trafficking), how much you earn, who you contract with, whether you have a pimp.
The journalist then turned for external verification to the very organization that had not only partnered with Edmonton police for the raids, but takes the position that most people doing sex work are victims even if they don’t see it that way themselves.
The Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, or CEASE, does not support views of sex work that would improve working conditions or ease stigma. It makes no secret of that. Yet without so much as a simple Google search on “sex worker organizations Canada” to see if anyone else might have a different view, the Edmonton Journal took CEASE and the police at their word that this campaign was needed to stop trafficking.
As it turns out, CEASE executive director Kate Quinn had her own concerns when she saw the Edmonton series. She and I don’t share the same views on sex work, but we do on reporting that observes and objectifies rather than treats people with respect and as having agency.
“My suggestion to journalists is to first ask the women for permission in situations like this,” says Quinn, who was uncomfortable that some women in the series had a journalist sprung on them and didn’t appear to have been offered the opportunity to talk without police in the room. (Edmonton Journal series reporter Juris Graney did not respond to my requests for comment.)
“It’s respectful to ask, ‘Can I write your words?’ Give people the right to say yes or no. Ask yourself how you’d feel if you were the person being written about.”
That trafficking is rampant is one of the myths most used to shut down debate on decriminalizing sex-work laws, as I explore in a July 2016 blog post on the dishonest rhetoric around trafficking.
Trafficking happens, of course, and every sex workers’ rights activist I know is totally onside with stopping it. But using that term to describe and regulate all sex work just can’t be tolerated. It’s not true. It hurts people and it helps no one.
In fact, we have scant statistics on trafficking. Really scant. And the stats that do exist show minimal evidence of sex trafficking. For the sake of people who are the most stigmatized, misunderstood and silenced workers in the world, we have got to quit hiding behind that offensive trafficking lie as an excuse for doing nothing about a vital human rights issue.
I don’t know why people can’t have a real conversation about sex work. I don’t know why we’d rather believe workers are being beaten nightly by their vicious clients than think that they might be happily doing work they mostly enjoy.
But as a journalist, figuring that out isn’t my concern anyway. My concern is to tell an honest, fact-based story that examines all sides of an issue. My concern is to treat everybody I talk to with dignity and equality, and to check my biases at the door and go into every story with an open and curious mind.
It’s not hard to find sex workers. Search on the hashtag #sexwork on Twitter and start there. Visit the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform website and explore their members’ web pages. Check out some of the pieces listed here. Get informed.
And when the day comes for you to write a story on sex work, do your job. Read the research. Question assumptions. Seek out the diverse opinions of people who work in the industry. Extend the same respect to sex workers as you would to any other worker. If you wouldn’t show up all sneaky-like with the police to ambush any other unsuspecting salesperson just going about their business, show the same courtesy to sex workers.
Get past any weirdness you’ve got about the industry and cover it like any other story. It’s not a reach to ask for that. It’s good journalism.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Suicide by car: On trauma, tragedy and ICBC policy

The tragic suicide by car of a 24-year-old on the Pat Bay Highway on Sunday takes me back to another similar suicide back in 2000 that I wrote about for the Times Colonist. 

There's a whole other set of victims when people kill themselves in the manner that these two young men did, 19 years apart.

Whoever is in the vehicle when a person randomly picks a moment to step into the road and be killed is almost certainly going to be haunted forever by that stranger's decision.

Here's my column on Ian Davidson's suicide on the Malahat in 2000, and a wish that ICBC does not play rough with the people involved in Sunday's tragedy like it did with the Coopsie family 19 years ago. 


Jody Paterson column in TC, January 2000

Davidson settled on death a long time ago. The only question was who would be the killer.

It turned out to be the Coopsie family, picked randomly from among the many travellers making their way north on the Malahat on that sunny afternoon two days after Christmas. Davidson, 25, waited beside his idling car just past the Spectacle Lake turnoff, waited until the Coopsies' truck was so close that there could only be one ending to this sad drama.

And then he jumped onto the road.

Dave Coopsie, driving to Duncan for a family dinner with his wife Dawn and their two youngest children, swerved toward oncoming traffic to avoid hitting him. But there was no room left to manoeuvre when Davidson lunged at the truck a second time. The young man died moments later, his years of suicide attempts finally over.

It took anguished minutes for the Coopsie truck to slow to a stop, anguished minutes more to walk back and try to figure out what had just happened. Dawn Coopsie cries every time she thinks of that young face pressed into their windshield, the sound of her two boys screaming at the sight of what her 10-year-old called ''the scary, scary man.'' He hasn't said a word about it since then; his mom found out only a couple of days ago that he'd been worrying that his dad was going to go to jail.

Greater Victoria Victim Services arrived soon after the accident to offer support, and the Shawnigan RCMP urged the family to consider counselling for their traumatized sons.

The Coopsies didn't have a clue who picks up the tab for the aftermath when your truck is written off by someone's suicide, when life goes sideways after an intimate involvement in a stranger's death. But they had car insurance and so did Davidson, and they figured ICBC would sort out the details.

ICBC had other plans, as it turned out. The adjuster spent all of five minutes with them the first time they met, just long enough to let them know that because they didn't have collision insurance, they'd have to pay for their towing charges and vehicle replacement themselves. Davidson wasn't actually driving his car at the time of the accident, noted the adjuster, so his insurance didn't come into play.

The insurance corporation had a bit of a change of heart a few days later after hearing from MLA Andrew Petter's office, which took up the Coopsies' cause after getting their desperate phone call. They'd get their towing fees reimbursed and a payout for their vehicle, ICBC told them, but no counselling. The adjuster wanted them to sign an agreement forfeiting their right to sue.

The family has already used up Dave Coopsie's annual health-plan allotment of six counselling sessions getting help for their boys after the suicide. They know it wasn't enough. But with five kids to raise, there isn't any money for more.

They were still trying to figure out how it is that a guy can kill himself on the hood of your car and you end up paying for the damage to your kids when ICBC had yet another change of heart late yesterday.

''There was a miscommunication between the manager and the adjuster,'' said ICBC spokeswoman Elizabeth Goldenshtein. ''The manager had advised paying for counselling, but the adjuster didn't know that. I'm going to be calling the family right now to tell them that.''

Maybe that will help counter Dawn Coopsie's impression that an adjuster's job must be to ''open and close a file as fast as possible.'' Maybe it will help a shattered family come to grips with the fact that there was nothing they could have done that day to get out of the way of a young man determined to die.

The coroner has yet to weigh in on the lonely death of Ian Davidson, whose long struggle with mental illness led him to try to kill himself several times in the past, once by jumping in front of a train. Dawn Coopsie wonders how he slipped through a system that apparently knew all about him, and her heart breaks for another suffering family whose own lives went sideways that day on the Malahat.

Victim services has sent a read-aloud booklet on suicide to the Coopsies to help them talk about it with their sons. Until 15 days ago, the boys barely knew what the word meant.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Thelma and Louise approach to climate change

Reading this piece on rising greenhouse gas emissions in today's Guardian reminded me of those old movie scenes where some character gives another one a good slap to snap them out of whatever foolish thinking they're engaging in.

In this case, the crazy thinking would involve anything to do with believing that the world is actually jumping on the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Nope. Energy use last year grew at its fastest pace of the decade. It was a "golden year" for gas, with consumption up 10 per cent in the US alone. That increase alone is equivalent to the UK's entire consumption of gas in a year.

I hate to be Nelly Negative, but this does more or less reaffirm my belief in humanity's ability to respond to a life-threatening - all life, everywhere - crisis. Unlike those apocalyptic Hollywood movies where citizens dig deep into untapped reserves of strength, ingenuity and hope to save the planet, I have long suspected that in fact we'd actually just look up at the big, fiery meteor hurtling toward us and mutter, "Oh, shit," and that would be that.

This is what future historians (clearly on other planets) will note about our civilization someday - that given the challenge of reducing fossil-fuel energy use or risking climate devastation, we put the pedal to the metal and gunned it into the inferno.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Open procurement and social care: Why that should scare you

Find me here in the Vancouver Sun writing on the scintillating issue of open procurement, and other strange happenings bombarding the community-based social services sector.

While you may think that whole sentence is unbelievably dull and referring to things you have zero interest in, I urge you to read my piece anyway. People, this stuff really matters.

For those who can't or won't click, I'm just going to paste the article right here as well. That's how easy I want it to be for you to read it. Also, I wrote this as the executive director for the Board Voice Society of BC, work I do two days a week, but I am such a believer in this issue that I would have written it even if it wasn't my job.

Editorial pages of Vancouver Sun
March 22, 2019
By Jody Paterson

Open procurement policies put community social-services groups at risk

I work in the non-profit community social-services sector. If your eyes glazed over when you read that, that nicely demonstrates the kind of PR problems besetting the sector now.

We’re in all your lives, though you likely don’t know us by that “community social-services” tag. We’re your daycares, your home care, your crisis line, your social housing. We’re treatment services, counselling, mom-and-tot groups, immigrant settlement, supports for people with special needs. We’re the soup-to-nuts helpful array of thousands of local services around B.C., every one of our organizations born out of the dream of passionate people who saw a need for social care and stepped up to address it.

That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Everyone loves us. Virtually everyone has a story about an amazing community non-profit they have known, and an expression of heartfelt respect for the vital work of the sector. “Good people,” as one B.C. politician summed it up in a recent meeting with me.

But it doesn’t feel like love is in the air right now from inside the sector.

The work is challenging at the best of times, what with it mostly funded project-by-project and for short periods, with the tightest of margins for operating. Right now, however, there are so many layers of other unexpected and negative developments adding to the mix that there’s a real life-and-death feeling to the moment.

Here’s where the PR problem comes in for our sector: Very few people even understand what we do, let alone appreciate that we’re the best ones to do it.

We were born to do it, literally. Every community non-profit’s birth story begins with motivated citizens identifying a need, then building a non-profit to address it. Every one of us is required to have an elected volunteer community board overseeing everything we do, and to reinvest every penny of profit back into our communities (that’s why they call us non-profits).

I mean, what’s not to like about that perfect community model?

And yet we’re losing ground. Two multinational corporations took 22 per cent of the money in the recent awarding of Work B.C. employment-training contracts. Last week, we woke up to news in the media that home-support services are moving back to health authorities next year — news that has left shell-shocked non-profit providers scrambling to figure out whether they can still keep the doors open once they lose those contracts.

An emerging issue is open procurement. In a nutshell, that involves government procuring more and more of its services through open bids that treats companies and not-for-profits exactly the same.

That might sound “fair.” But if you don’t build in points in the bidding process for the extras that non-profits bring to social care — community connection, services built on passion rather than profit, reinvestment back into community — the whole raison d’etre of the non-profit model counts for nothing. When you create larger service regions managed by far fewer suppliers, you create major financial risk that few community non-profits are prepared to take on.

And eventually, the global corporations moving into social care all around the world end up owning social care in B.C. as well.

Just last week, our sector learned that open procurement will be used to secure the next round of contracts for B.C.’s child-care resource and referral centres, established in 38 communities around the province to support families and child-care providers. Unless the scoring for that procurement includes points for the unique values that community-based non-profits bring to this work, these services as well could end up the work of multinationals.

Governments in Canada do have to manage procurement in accordance with international free-trade agreements. But do we actually want to view the social health of our communities as a commodity on the open market? Do we have any proof that open procurement is the best way to go about selecting who provides vital social-care services to our citizens?

There are fundamental issues at stake here. And what worries me most is that we aren’t talking about them. Change is just happening, looking a lot like surprise one-offs until you start keeping a list and realize just how many unsettling and unexpected developments are going on for B.C.’s community non-profit sector.

Some of them won’t survive — and not because their services were inferior, unnecessary or unvalued. Simply because somebody somewhere changed things up without thinking about unintended consequences on community services that really matter.

Am I whining? Is this “self-interest”? Our sector always seems to get that term thrown at us when we raise issues. Sure, we’re self-interested — who isn’t? I’ve got a big two-day-a-week job without benefits at stake here.

But just because we work in the sector doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to us. Good and important services delivered by caring people who really know their stuff are at-risk as never before. A wonderful community model for delivering social care is under serious threat, and all without a word of public consultation.

Social care should be as sustainably funded, prioritized and planned for as health and education in B.C. That’s how we achieve economic prosperity. It’s how we strengthen our communities and engage people to live their best lives. We’re as committed to the government’s dream of reducing poverty, improving child care and responding more effectively to mental health and addiction as they are.

But every day is a fight to stay alive in this sector. The new threats looming on so many fronts are a painful reminder that people still don’t grasp that our work is the foundation of community social care in B.C. Our non-profit model was created for the task. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Jody Paterson is executive director of the Board Voice Society of B.C., representing volunteer boards and senior staff of B.C. community non-profits serving the social determinants of health. The irony isn’t lost on her that March is Community Social Services Awareness Month.

Monday, March 11, 2019

In the beginning: A history of Howard the Gnome

Howard the Gnome needs a new home, not to mention $15,000 to fix his rotting base. The recent news out of Nanoose Bay, where Howard has lived for more than two decades as one of the last of Vancouver Island's classic roadside attractions, prompts me to dig out my 1999 story on the gnome, who had yet to be named Howard at that time and was in the news for a whole other reason.

When I first wrote about the big guy, Howard had yet to be moved to his current location at a Nanoose gas station, which didn't exist back then. He was a young thing then, and had been built in Ron Hale's garage out of dryer lint from the Alberni pulp mill among other odds and sods.

Herewith, my Oct. 25, 1999 article from the Times Colonist archives on the gnome, who was a fresh fella barely two years old back in those days but already raising eyebrows in the Nanaimo Regional District, where critics thought his roadside presence was distracting to drivers and breaching sign bylaws.

This article references the Hale family's long-standing amusement park, Kiddieland. But like so many of the Island's long-ago roadside attractions - the Glass Castle, Fable Cottage, Rudy's Zoo, that place with all the fairy- and nursery-tale characters at Elk Lake - it's long gone. Onward into Howard's birth story...

I think it was the first giant slide I'd ever seen. I used to drive past it and wonder whether many people stopped for a slide.

They must have, because Kiddieland -- now Gnomemansland -- is 24 years old and still going. Long after the rise and fall of roadside amusement parks, the Hale family park lives on.

Owner Bruce Hale was 14 when his dad Ron opened Kiddieland on their family property beside the Island Highway south of Parksville. These days, it has go-carts, a giant slide, mini-golf, a lovely old merry-go-round, trampolines and a room full of plastic balls; back then, it was solely a go-cart track, the Island's first and one of only a handful still left.

Bruce didn't get into the family business right away, working instead as a faller for several years before buying his father out six years ago. He has big plans over the next few years to rebuild the park around his mother Disa's unpublished book Gnomemansland, and envisages themed areas for each of the 10 chapters, all tied in with gnomes.

The first step was the raising of Gnome, a seven-metre-high elf that would grace the park entrance. Ron Hale crafted Gnome from steel, papier mache, and dryer felts from the Port Alberni pulp mill, building it in his garage. ''He did a damn fine job,'' says Bruce.

The people from Nanaimo Regional District weren't quite as impressed when they first met Gnome one day in the summer of 1997. There he was, unannounced and unapproved, towering over the Hales' driveway and bidding welcome with his enormous hands.

The fight was on. It started with Gnome's location; the figure was initially erected on a concrete block across the driveway from the park, on a panhandle piece of land owned by Bruce's brother. The regional district cited Hale for breaching the third-party signage bylaw, not to mention several others.

So Hale moved Gnome across the driveway and on to his own property. The regional district then wanted certification that it was sturdy enough to withstand the forces of nature. ''There was absolutely no structural engineering to that thing,'' says regional district development services manager Bob Lapham. ''It could have blown onto the highway.''

The issue aroused considerable passions in the community for a few months. Supporters of a man's right to erect whatever the heck he wants on his own land slammed the regional district for its bureaucratic strangling of free enterprise. Detractors lamented the sullying of their fair Island with a tacky giant gnome with glowing green eyes.

Hale and the regional district have declared an uneasy truce of sorts these days, although Lapham says the district is still waiting for official proof that Hale has met requirements. ''He's still deficient on a building permit. He hasn't given us a location survey, the verification of all that was to happen.''

Hale says satisfying the regional district has cost him $10,000 - 10 times as much as it would have cost to leave Gnome at the first site. Nonetheless, there is no question that Gnome is an imposing sight in his new location, his massive hands welcoming travellers in. A passer-by can't help but gape. Maybe it proves Lapham's point: he argued all along that the way those hands are gesturing made the whole figure a sign, and thus subject to the restrictions of the district's sign bylaw.

It's hard to say whether Gnome lured in that family from Texas this summer, but long-time park employee Howard Newall says the number of American visitors is definitely up. In a good year, the amusement park can attract as many as 25,000 people.

Rumours of Hale's expansion plans have already made their way back to the regional district, which anticipates being surprised again one of these days. ''He's the kind of guy who, instead of coming in for the proper approvals, builds it first and then eventually complies,'' says Lapham.

Out here in Gnomemansland, that's the way it's done.