Friday, June 12, 2020

The man who refused to kill baby bears: A win in the Court of Right Thinking

A cute bear from Pixabay to stand in 
for the cubs that Casavant saved.
Court judgments are often answering questions that the average person wouldn't possibly think to ask about the issue of the moment, like "Did the judge err in declining to consider the jurisdictional issue on judicial review?"

But here's the quick version of BC conservation officer Bryce Casavant's story: He disobeyed a direct order from his boss to kill two bear cubs and instead took them to a rehabilitation facility (they've since been released back to the wild). He got fired as a result. And now the BC Court of Appeal has overturned that firing.

It wasn't overturned for the reasons that I would have overturned it, which would have been around things like questioning why you'd fire a guy who made an informed decision that saved wildlife without harming the public. That would be the Court of Right Thinking, and we don't have one of those.

But hurrah for all the complicated legal arguments the court cited that still ended up with Casavant winning his appeal. I like a conservation officer who tries to conserve.

The story starts out pretty low-key. Casavant was working in Port Hardy back in 2015 and got a call from a resident that a mother black bear and her two cubs were rummaging through the resident's garbage.

Casavant was told by his superiors to kill all three bears because they'd been habituated to eating human food and would continue to be nuisances. The resident said she hadn't seen the cubs eating garbage, so Casavant killed the mother and took the two cubs to a veterinarian for assessment. Deemed healthy, they were transferred to a wild animal recovery centre and would be eventually released back to the wild.

Then all hell broke loose back at Casavant's workplace, and he ended up being dismissed from his conservation job and told he was now working for the Forests Ministry. "The hope is that in your new position, given the different nature of the work involved, you will not suffer from the same inability to follow instructions and policies," his superiors wrote, citing two other incidents when he didn't follow their orders.

Much conflict and union involvement later, Casavant lost a lower court case about his dismissal and took it to the BC Court of Appeal. The court battle was all based on high-faluting legal arguments that had nothing to do with sparing the lives of two perfectly healthy bear cubs, but the upshot is that Casavant won, though perhaps only because the discipline procedure was messed up.

"In my view the best that can be done in these circumstances is to declare that the proceedings before the arbitrator and Board were a nullity, to confirm that Mr. Casavant’s dismissal should have been addressed under the Police Act, Special Provincial Constable Complaint Procedure Regulation, and to leave the parties to sort out the consequences of those declarations, if any, on the settlement agreement," wrote Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon in a June 4 unanimous decision.

No doubt the questionable psychologist's report used to justify firing Casavant because he was unfit for the work played a role in the appeal court's thinking. Asked to perform a general workplace environment assessment, the psychologist "instead provided an opinion about Mr. Casavant’s suitability for his position (a report for which the psychologist was eventually sanctioned by the College of Psychologists, which found the report to be unreliable and improperly obtained)."

Conservation officers play difficult roles mediating the relationship between wildlife and the public. Complex legal arguments aside, Casavant's case highlights that officers appear to be governed in quasi-military fashion, taking their orders from someone who isn't at the scene, didn't talk to the affected residents, and perhaps isn't even trained in conservation. (Haven't we all had bosses with zero experience in the work they're now supervising?)

Is this how the BC public imagines conservation to work? Surely we want skilled conservation officers able to assess the situation in that moment and make a decision that saves wild animals whenever possible. Casavant didn't win his appeal on that argument, but the Court of Right Thinking is feeling good about this decision.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Letter from Copan: The COVID crisis in Honduras

Casita Copan kids making puzzles during my 2016 visit
My partner and I lived and worked in Central America for the better part of five years, and I visited many development projects in Honduras and Nicaragua as part of our work with Cuso International in those years. But few projects have stuck with me like Casita Copan, in our old home town of Copan Ruinas, Honduras.

Started by a young American woman, Emily Monroe, Casita Copan began as a way of helping abandoned children in Emily's adopted home of Copan Ruinas. I've watched her lead that marvelous project for seven years now, and see it as a gold standard for addressing poverty and need not just for children removed from their families, but to prevent child abandonment. There's nothing like it in the country - or in Canada, for that matter.

As you can imagine, the spectre of COVID-19 is terrifying in a country like Honduras. BC has half the population of Honduras but more than seven times the number of ventilators in our hospitals: 732 compared to a paltry 102, and all but 12 of those 102 in private hospitals where poor people can't seek care. Because of the dire shortage of equipment, the country is on restrictive shelter-in-place rules enforced by police and the military. People aren't allowed to leave their homes.

This letter I've just received from Emily - who continues to live in Copan with her husband and young son - is a startling reminder of situations in low-income countries that have virtually no ability to deal with a pandemic. If you can, please send a donation her way. Money isn't going to get Casita Copan out of this pandemic, but it will help get things back on track more quickly when restrictions lift.

The sawdust alfombras depicting Easter
scenes that normally decorate Copan Ruinas
streets at this time of year.
First, I would like to send my very best to you and your loved ones during this difficult time, especially those who are working on the front lines, risking their lives to protect the most vulnerable. I wanted to share with you what is happening here in Honduras and at Casita Copán, as we face the unprecedented challenge of navigating a global pandemic.

I’m writing this from Copán Ruinas, Honduras, my home for the last ten years. This week is Semana Santa, “Holy Week,” traditionally a culturally rich time that draws tourists from around Honduras and the world to our little town. It’s the hottest time of the year, and in other years, we’d be taking the kids for a picnic by the river to cool off and share watermelon. Then we’d go into town to see the alfombras, brightly colored “carpets” of dyed sawdust painstakingly arranged by local artisans to create stunning designs in celebration of the holidays. 

Instead, we are inside, respecting the government’s mandatory shelter-in-place order, now in week four.

It was necessary for Honduras to take strict preventative measures in response to COVID-19 because the country’s healthcare system is the weakest in the region. The public hospital system for the entire country only has 12 ventilators; the private hospitals report approximately another 90. Because of the high rate of poverty, many people in Honduras suffer from preexisting conditions caused by poor nutrition and are particularly vulnerable. Weak infrastructure also means that many affected will be unable to access the care they need, especially those in rural communities like ours.

Here in Copán, we are currently in the eye of the storm. Safe for now, but preparing and waiting for what’s to come. We had to close our Children’s Center, the major source of food, education, recreation, and community for our children and families. We are still sending out packets of food since the majority of our moms are unable to work because of the government restrictions. While all of the kids in our Children’s Center are safe at home with their families, they are still lacking the daily support, education, and loving care that our center provides.

Here in Copán, we are not allowed to go out for a walk. Adults have one day a week (assigned by the last digit of our identification number) where we are allowed to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. Temperatures right now are in the 90s, and the majority of our Casita Copan Children’s Center families live in cramped one-room homes, often with only one bed for everyone. Mothers are unable to work because nearly all businesses are closed and movement is restricted, and if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. If you are caught outside past 6 pm, you can be arrested and forced to spend the night in jail. Rates of domestic violence have always been high in this area, and I am afraid of what the anxiety caused by this situation will provoke.

The children in our foster care program are safe and will still receive food, shelter, love, medical care, educational programs, and attention just as before, even if the routine is a bit different. So far, all of our staff are still receiving their full paycheck and benefits, though their daily responsibilities have changed due to the crisis. We will continue to do everything in our power to provide the maximum number of services possible to our children and families during this time. We don’t know what the future will hold, but we anticipate a serious blow to our local economy that will affect many families, businesses, and organizations. While this crisis will force us to make tough decisions, we will continue to uphold the values that Casita Copán was founded on – solidarity, transparency, responsibility, discipline, respect, and love.

Thank you for taking the time to read about what is going on here in Honduras. I truly hope that you and your loved ones are safe. Please reach out if you would like to hear more details about what is going on. We are busy but happy to get in touch when we can!!

One positive thing I can say that has emerged from this crisis is the realization of how interconnected we truly are. We are all in this together and we truly thank you for your support and compassion during this unprecedented time.

In solidarity,