Tuesday, December 12, 2023

In case you were wondering: A surfeit of social realities to explain (a bit) about how we got here

Image by Taken from Pixabay

I haven't worked as a full-time journalist for almost 20 years now, but people still pay me to go find things out. I have a habit of finding way more information than the person who hired me wanted, the curse of a curious nature. 

Here's some of the surplus I've accumulated recently from some of that work, all of it related to the multiple layers of social crises we're seeing emerging in virtually every BC community. I drive along 900-block Pandora Street sometimes and am at a loss to grasp just what the hell is happening to us, but when I consider all the snippets of social tragedy below, it makes a very, very sad kind of sense. 

For instance:

We shut down institutions and never really replaced them with much

Riverview Hospital used to be BC’s largest mental institution, housing 4,300 people at its peak in the 1950s. But by the early 1990s, locking up people deemed "mentally disordered" for indefinite periods of time, with or without their consent, had fallen from favour. Riverview had been scaled back to 1,000 beds, and plans to replace institutional care with community care were in their final stages.

But from the start, the political motivations for closing Riverview were as much about cost savings as they were about philosophical shifts in how best to support people with mental illness. Between 1994 and 1998, spending on in-hospital psychiatric units was cut almost in half, and spending on community services for mental health was reduced as well, despite years of political promises to the contrary. 

Riverview was permanently closed in 2012. The long-abandoned promise of community services to replace what Riverview once provided isn't even talked about anymore. We are not going to return to the days of huge institutions, and that's a good thing, but there must be some middle ground between that and the modern-day reality of abandoning people with lifelong psychiatric health issues to figure out a hard life on their own. 

As for BC hospitals' psychiatric units, people pass through them so quickly nowadays that their mental health crisis doesn't even have a chance to stabilize. People used to stay an average 36 days in BC psych units before being discharged, but that fell to 15 days a number of years ago, and 14 days now. Psychiatric admissions between 2005 and 2017 increased 29 per cent, with no increase in beds[3].

People with developmental disabilities used to have to live in large institutions in BC as well back in the day. But deinstitutionalization happened for them around the same time as Riverview was being phased out. 

That population did seem to get better community care for a number of years after institutions like Tranquille, Glendale and Woodlands closed. But over time, the safety net has frayed substantially for them, too. It's not uncommon now to see people with developmental disabilities among the homeless. 

That is such a devastating ending for all the families who fought so hard in the 1960s-70s for the right for their children not to be locked away in institutions. Be careful what you wish for.

We are drowning in poisoned drugs

BC has always had lots and lots of illicit drugs. But what we've got going on in 2023 looks nothing like the relatively straight-forward drug scene of years past. With fentanyl, carfentanil, benzodiazapines and all kinds of other weird additives stirred into the mix now, people are getting sick in entirely new ways, and the death toll from toxic drugs is staggering. 

Since BC declared a public emergency in 2016, there have been 13,000 deaths from toxic drugs in the province, and no end in sight. Annual toxic drug deaths have increased almost ten-fold in the decade from 2012 to 2022, from 270 to 2,342.

For those who overdose on an opiate, prescription drugs like naloxone can save lives when injected immediately after an otherwise-fatal overdose. But people revived after an overdose are at high risk of having incurred a brain injury during the minutes when their brain was not receiving oxygen, and suddenly, a crisis of brain injury among people brought back to life after an overdose is emerging as a new (and almost completely unserved) concern.

Our governments quit building affordable housing

We all know there's a housing crisis going on. The increasing use of housing as an investment is often cited as a primary driver.  But as stats from BC's rental scene make clear, an equally big issue is that nobody has kept up with population growth. 

BC's population grew 34 per cent in the last 30 years. But in that same period, we've added exactly 6,000 more rental units. Our population grew by a third, while the number of rental units increased by a mere five per cent (from 114,129 units to 120,472[4].)

Equally problematic: Rents that are just so far beyond so many people's ability to afford. 

Average rents have increased 250 per cent in the last three decades. But the shelter allowance for those on income assistance was frozen at $375/month for the last 15 years up until this year’s increase to $500 (which still gets you nothing in any urban area). 

Given all of that, it's no surprise that the Lower Mainland's 2023 homeless count noted a 32 per cent rise in homelessness since 2020, with almost 70 per cent homeless for more than a year. We have created a permanent homeless class. 

We do jail differently now, mostly by accident

Even 15 years ago when the social crisis wasn't quite so obvious, people with mental illness or substance use disorders made up the majority of BC inmates, at 61 per cent. But now, it's almost like jail is the new psych hospital. Three-quarters of inmates now have a diagnosis of mental illness, substance use disorder or both. 

They and their fellow inmates churn through the system with unprecedented speed. The median length of stay in a provincial jail these days is 12 days. Almost a third of inmates across Canada are released from jail into homelessness

Provincial jail is where you do your time if your sentence is "two years less a day." But the majority of inmates in BC jails don't even have a sentence yet - they're in remand, where a person is held while awaiting trial if bail doesn't work out. People in remand units now account for 67 per cent of inmates in BC jails[7], up 15 per cent from a decade ago and slowly on the rise since the 1980s.

So we have recreated the institution part of Riverview by turning our jails into de facto psych units, but minus the psychiatric services and supports. Things that make you go hmmm.

We're still so far from doing right by Indigenous people

Indigenous people are over-represented in virtually every measure that matters for social wellness, health, safety and well-being. This is particularly true in terms of our jails.

Indigenous people account for six per cent of BC’s population, but make up more than a third of people in custody in the province[8]. In 2020-21, the incarceration rate for Indigenous people in BC was 22 in 100,000, compared to 2.3 for non-Indigenous British Columbians. 

A staggering 90 per cent of Indigenous people in provincial custody have been diagnosed with a mental health or substance use disorder[9]. Grimmer still: A Statistics Canada study released this year found that in the years 2019-21, almost one in 10 Indigenous men in Canada between the ages of 25-34 experienced incarceration[10]

We're returning to the days of poverty for some seniors, only this time they're homeless too

More than a fifth of people identified as living homeless in the 2023 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count are ages 55 and up. Nearly half of them became unhoused for the first time after turning 55. People age hard once homeless; those who are chronically homeless have life spans 20 years shorter than the rest of us.

Even comparatively comfortable BC seniors are struggling. BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie noted in her 2023 "It's Time To Act" report that seniors in privately run, publicly subsidized assisted-living units are having a hard time keeping up with the array of additional costs that housing operators now charge for every little service, not to mention rent increases of up to 15 per cent a year at some facilities. 

And here's a strange trend: Even though BC's senior population is expected to increase to 25 per cent from 19 per cent over the next 15 years, the number of assisted living units per 1,000 population has fallen 15 per cent in the last five years in the province.

Is that because people don't want to live like that and they're finding other options, or because somebody has quit building that type of housing because they can make more money doing other things? Tune in 15 years from now to find out.


Ah, feels so much better to get those unused stats off my chest. I should wrap this up with some pithy conclusion, or a ringing call to action to fix this by doing a, b and c. But seriously, is it even possible to wish for a fix anymore? We are so profoundly late to the game. 

[1] https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/lbrr/archives/cnmcs-plcng/cn28441-eng.pdf

[2] BC Ombudsperson report Committed to Change

[3] BC Schizophrenia Society and BC Psychiatric Association joint report

[4] https://www03.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/hmip-pimh/en/TableMapChart/Table?TableId=

[5] https://globalnews.ca/news/10030845/vancouver-homeless-seniors/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CWe're%20already%20in%20crisis,32%20per%20cent%20from%202020

[6] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/prison-mental-health-sfu-study-1.6271915

[8] https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/justice/criminal-justice/corrections/reducing-reoffending/indigenous#:~:text=Indigenous%20people%20are%20nearly%206,and%2027%25%20in%20the%20community.

[9] https://www.oag.bc.ca/sites/default/files/publications/reports/BCOAG-Mental-Health-Substance-Use-Services-Corrections-Report-February-2023.pdf

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

I wish you a Central American


My partner and I lived in Honduras and Nicaragua for almost five years doing Cuso International development work in the 2010s. I concluded very quickly that if ever there was an apocalypse, I’d want to go through it with a small-town Central American at my side.

I’m feeling that more than ever in these eye-opening days of global reckoning.

Time and again during the period we lived there, I saw people in those countries come through with a quick fix for whatever unexpected weird thing had just happened. It was an ingenuity borne of centuries of certainty that nobody was coming to fix their problems.

They stepped up with little hesitation to help random strangers with their problems, too, because they knew a time would come soon enough when they’d need strangers to step up for them. It’s not just a nice thing to do down there, it’s smart and strategic. You need to be ready for anything, and living in a permanent state of pay-it-forward.

One day, the car we were in broke down on a quiet road past Leon, Nicaragua. Within 15 minutes, we were repaired and on our way after two strangers on a motorcycle pulled up and began scrounging up scraps of this and that from the roadside, and then used them to do something inexplicable but effective to the car engine to get it running again.

Such anecdotes are coming to mind more often these days as events play out around the world to remind me that nobody’s really got our backs.

How must the citizens of Israel feel to realize that their much-touted security systems were easily compromised? How do Libyans feel about all those decades of government ignoring dam maintenance? What do Americans make of the hard lessons first from Hurricane Katrina, and more recently in the Maui wildfires – that their emergency preparedness systems are in no way prepared?

How do we feel here in Canada, where successive governments were so wrongly presumed to be managing the work of making sure we’d always have enough housing? They weren’t even counting the number of new Canadians right.

How come we can’t access basic medical care anymore? How are 13,000 British Columbians dead from toxic-drug overdoses in the last seven years and we’re still bickering about public drug use?  How can governments be allowed to “step back” on fossil fuel use and the development of greener alternatives after the entire planet just spent a horrifying year seeing where climate change is taking us?

If I’d been born a small-town Honduran, I suspect I’d have known better than to believe that the big things of life were being taken care of by government. Honduras has no social safety net, minimal public health care, lousy schools, and wages so low that most people need two jobs and a side hustle just to get by. It’s a country where you learn early to take care of your own business.

But I was born a comparatively privileged Boomer in a peaceful, liberal democracy with a social and legal commitment to human rights and a better life for all. I just always figured everything was going to be OK, at least in Canada.

Ah, but there’s far less Canada in Canada these days. Free trade ties us to some of the world’s most fraught countries. With minor exceptions, we don’t make our own clothing, household goods, vehicles or parts. Ninety per cent of our medicines are made with ingredients imported from China or India.

We’re dependent on other countries’ supply chains, food production, human resources. When their wildfires burn, we breathe the smoke. When their people don’t come to fill our workforce, it’s our services that suffer. We're frighteningly dependent, yet still so blissfully unaware of that reality. 

For better and worse, the world has tied its fortunes together through intricate trade deals and border-crossing corporate entities outside the management of any government. No war, climate disaster, or economic collapse anywhere on Earth is far enough away to avoid a direct impact everywhere else.

And even though virtually everything tripping us up these days requires a long-term plan to fix, there is no long-term plan for any of it. Even when some government starts on a plan, it rarely lasts beyond the four-year election cycles that doom progress on the complex issues of the modern world.

This is the world we live in now. This is the world my grandkids will have to find their way through. If I hear that they ran away in search of cheap land where they could grow a simple diet, generate their own electricity and count on a handful of good neighbours who knew how to fix things, I will understand completely and cheer them on.

Develop your inner Honduran, kids. Things are going to get rough.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Can we talk? No, really - can we?

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Virtually every day, I go out on a dog walk and start putting together the start of a blog post in my head. But I never get them written.

It’s not so much writer’s block getting in my way as a feeling of pointlessness.

My schtick is persuasive writing, which I had the great pleasure of doing for almost a decade in Victoria’s daily newspaper as a columnist and editorial writer back before I gave it all up for a chance to get closer to the action on social-justice issues. Now I do communications work and lots of writing for non-profits with noble visions of a better world, because I want to be doing that, too.

The draw of persuasive writing as a tool for social change, however, is the presumption that there are people out there open to being persuaded. It’s a means of bringing important things to people’s attention and maybe shifting their thinking a little.

It did used to feel like that was possible in years past. Yes, people who hated what I had to say would phone (and later email) from time to time to bury me in a stream of horrible invectives, but we’d often work around to finding some shared views on the issue at hand. As much as I disliked being yelled at, I came to love the challenge of seeking even a bit of common ground with the people who most disagreed with whatever I’d written about. And sometimes, they shifted my thinking as well.

But that was then. We all seem so far apart now. At this point, it feels like anything I write will get read only by people who already think like I do. That’s not just because we’ve entered into a worrying new state of polarized opinion on every single damn issue, but the reality of algorithms that push us ever deeper into our corners and make us even less likely to interact with – or understand - anyone who doesn’t think like us.

How will we ever build bridges across the cavernous divides in opinion these days? We’re like the human manifestation of climate change, full of extreme developments and dramatic overstatement. When some issue of the day needs a little rain to cool things down, we bring a hurricane.

Those of us who found their greatest writing happiness in trying to convince people to think a little differently are crushed about this. Where is the motivation now in writing about the critical issues of our times when the only readers are people on the same side of the “war” as me?

I embrace them as brethren in a frightening new world, of course. But we’re already singing from the same songbook. They don’t need convincing. And it’s pretty clear by now that preaching to the choir is not a successful strategy for social change, because otherwise we’d be there by now, right?

A kind fellow I ran into on a dog walk this week remembered me from my columnist days, and told me I’d had a knack for putting things a certain way that got people reflecting even if they didn’t share my views. Nice of him to say, but neither here nor there when applied to this very different period of time.

The people who I liked to aim my writing at 20 years ago in the hope of influencing their thinking ever so slightly wouldn’t even see my words nowadays. The newspaper industry was in serious decline even then, but the Victoria Times Colonist was still the media outlet that a lot of locals counted on for their news. Every column I wrote put my thoughts in front of a potential 70,000 readers.

Sure, untold thousands would choose not to read me. But there was at least the chance that any of them might. Their eyes might have drifted across the headline, or the first few words. They might have read a paragraph or two, called me up to yell, and ended up in a brief conversation with me that left them thinking.

Today? Even if I was still writing for a newspaper, everything has changed. The years when the daily paper was a person’s primary news vehicle is long, long gone. We’ve splintered into a thousand online news sources, some of them still striving for journalistic neutrality and others so opinionated and cross-eyed that the content is largely fiction.

I don’t know what to do about it. There are still so many things I want to bring to people’s attention, but it’s hard to motivate myself when it’s almost like talking to myself. I used to be able to post a link to a blog post on Facebook and get a fair jump in readership out of it, including a few people who wanted to yell at me like in days gone by. 

But things have changed there as well, and the almost complete absence of interaction that now occurs just reminds me of the pointlessness again.

Dear reader, I tell you all of this partly because I’m sad to be trapped in this state of mulling big and important issues over in my head on every dog walk, still looking up all the history and stats as if I was going to write something but never getting it written. For me, writing never feels better than when I can put it to use as a tool for social change, and I don’t like it that the tool is failing me.

Ultimately, however, this issue is so much bigger than one person’s whine about feelings of writerly pointlessness.

It’s about all of us now listening only to the people whose views we know won’t challenge our own. It’s about people going down rabbit holes and not even noticing how narrow the view has become. It’s about algorithms trying to make us happy by surrounding us with like minds in all our social media interactions, but in actual fact destroying any chance we might have had of talking things through long enough to find common ground. 

It’s really about an end to civil discourse, and it leaves me wondering how social change will come about in a world where we can’t tolerate each other’s views enough to try to find compromise on the points we disagree on.

Monday, June 26, 2023

BC leads pack by a long shot when it comes to Canada's missing persons


Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

My news feeds have been bringing me so many reports of missing persons in BC recently that I finally went looking for stats this month to clarify what was going on. Was there actually more people going missing, or was I merely trapped in a bad Google algorithm?

The truth turned out to be astonishing. Not only has BC been leading by a long shot the missing-person stats in Canada for adults age 18 and up every year since 2015, when the Missing Persons Act took effect, but the number of adults reported missing in BC has grown by more than 48 per cent since then. (Our population has increased by 10.2 per cent in the same period.)

In 2022, BC police filed 14,751 missing-person reports involving adults to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). The province with the next-highest number of reports was Ontario, at 7,298. While various provinces have been No. 2 over the years—all with roughly the same notable gulf between BC’s numbers and theirs—BC has always come in at No. 1.

Looking at per-capita rates, BC has been a consistent leader there, too. In 2022, British Columbia had the highest number of missing-adult reports per capita, with 273 reports per 100,000 people. The next highest was Saskatchewan, with 146 reports per 100,000 people.

In fact, 42 per cent of Canada’s 33,913 adult missing-person reports in 2022 originated in BC. That number is on the rise as well, up two per cent since 2020.

Equally worrying is the growing number of adults who aren’t being found quickly, in BC and across the country.

In past years, 60 per cent of CPIC reports on missing Canadian adults were taken out of the system within 24 hours, and 90 per cent were removed within a week. But in 2022, for the first time since stats have been kept, those numbers dropped to 34 per cent removed within 24 hours, and 73 per cent within a week.

I mentioned some of the startling BC-specific stats to an acquaintance with decades of experience in high-level provincial government positions.  He said any dramatic gap between the provinces for virtually any stat almost always comes down to some reporting difference. “Nothing is ever that different from one province to another,” he said.

So I looked into that.

The stats are based on missing-persons reports filed by Canadian police departments into the CPIC database. Missing-person reports can be filed immediately (forget all those cop shows you’ve seen where people are always having to wait 24 or 48 hours before reporting a missing person), and you could certainly speculate that different departments or regions could have different cultural practices around how quickly they file a report to CPIC.

Perhaps there’s a Robert Pickton effect, too. BC police departments looked bad when the details came out about the 1990s-era serial killer, what with so many of his victims missing for years but ignored by police because they were survival sex workers living in poverty and addiction. Maybe BC police ended up being more devoted than most to filing missing-person reports from that point on.

So I tracked down media relations at the RCMP’s national communications headquarters, the spokespeople for missing-persons information, and asked them if they could help me understand why BC seemed to have so many more missing persons.

They noted “many caveats,” from not assuming that the stats are actually complete (many cases are resolved before they get to CPIC), to being very cautious when considering the 11 categories of probable cause that missing-persons cases are slotted into at the time of reporting.

“You cannot be assured that every single person categorized in each category indeed belongs there,” wrote RCMP media relations rep Robin Percival in her email to me.

They agree that the stats are almost certainly affected by “differences in reporting procedures, as well as geography, urban/rural mix, demographics, culture mix and other factors.”

But taking all that into account, I still see no way to explain away BC’s huge lead on the number of adult missing persons as just being about reporting differences. We just seem to have a whole lot more people who go missing. (Click here for the list of active missing persons investigations in BC RCMP jurisdictions.)

“BC has its own peculiar mix of factors, including an ocean,” wrote Percival, adding that many fishermen go missing. “It is also an area where people drift to and then go missing.”

On the upside, our rate of missing children seems much more in line with the rest of the country, though we’re still consistently among the top three. In 2022, we placed second behind Ontario with more than 5,500 children missing, after Manitoba managed to bring down some high missing-child numbers from years past and fell into third spot. Per capita, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have the highest rates.

Nationally, 33,394 children under age 18 went missing in 2022. Three-quarters of them were deemed “runaways,” and more than half were female.

Among Indigenous children, the percentage of missing girls is even higher. Girls account for two-thirds of the 8,300 Indigenous children reported missing last year.

Things that make you go “Hmmm…” Whatever the reason for BC to be lapping the pack when it comes to missing adults, it doesn’t feel good. Hope somebody other than a random blogger like me is taking a look at these numbers.


But also...I happened to be in my Google News settings recently for other reasons, and discovered that Google had singled me out for having a big interest in "missing persons" and had been sending all the stories of missing people everywhere to my news feed. So while it did turn out to be true that more people are going missing, I was also getting a tailored feed that was bringing this to my attention by feeding me way more sad news stories than a person could possibly handle on people gone missing. 

Friday, June 02, 2023

Curbs on social-media sharing will only intensify the divide

What will happen once social media cuts us off from sharing news stories with our connections? That strange development has the potential of sending us even deeper into our respective echo chambers, where no complex problems can ever be addressed. 

We have been heavily manipulated into our interest groups by social media for a number of years now, and it's becoming very obvious that it hasn't been a good thing. So on the one hand, so long, social media, and thanks for nothing for getting us all weird and angry at each other about every damn thing. But on the other, what now?

If you are reading good journalism from totally trusted sources and generally living life with your eyes open, you will be well aware that the world is in a kind of Black Mirror moment. It's like one of those movies where a bunch of chimpanzees or a flock of birds suddenly start doing something super-odd, and every viewer knows to interpret that as code for some very big which-what-everywhere weirdness to come. 

Those are the times we're in. And now, having been shoved into our corners by social media's marketing algorithms for many years, we face being blocked from sharing news items with our networks because of a game of chicken between social media corporations and government, which is  taking up arms on behalf of media companies unhappy that advertisers like social media best.

This is all taking place just as we are facing some of the biggest issues the human race has ever confronted. 

Climate change, artificial intelligence, book burning, the threat of nuclear warfare, one wild precedent-setting storm or fire or flood after another, people being killed on subways because their mental illness is annoying other passengers, communities running out of water. There's some intense stuff going on.

We're either going to start talking to each other reasonably about how to find solutions that are as fair as possible to all concerned, or we're setting the stage for human annihilation. (Not to be overly dramatic, but don't you think so?) 

We are wasting precious time, people. Whatever side you're on, whatever the issue, you know in your heart it's not possible to yell the other side into submission. We're going to need to talk. 

I'm not going all unicorns-and-rainbows here and imagining the lions lying with the lambs, peace and love among humankind. I know that's not going to happen. But we can find ways to identify common cause, and start there. Right, left or straight down the centre, none of us wants the water to run out on our kids and grandkids or to lose what a healthy environment gives us. 

Social media certainly has the potential to help. I still remember how excited I was at the thought of people from all around the world and a million perspectives suddenly able to talk to each other freely about all the big things on their minds. (Ha. Silly me.)

But we were never able to share information freely, as we all know now. Our feeds are curated, using criteria that is pulled from all the bits of information that we offer up about ourselves when we use social media. Advertisers like it that way.

I've noticed in my own page that my posts are no longer being seen by people who don't think like me, as judging by the very long time it has been since anyone contrary posted anything on my feed. I guess I'm supposed to be happy about an algorithmic defence against trolls provided to me by Facebook whether I wanted it or not, but I can't see how we ever solve problems if we all stay in our boxes surrounded by people just like us.

Meanwhile, a tiny fraction of the people in each of our social media networks even see what we share. If you're sharing a link these days, that seems to send your post into purgatory as well. I can tell that Facebook's algorithms like it best when I offer up a cheery here's-my-day kind of thing, or a photo of my dog. If only the world's problems could be solved with photos of my dog.

So yes, this whole social media business was fraught from the outset. There's a lot that's wrong with it. But eliminating the sharing of legitimate news articles is just about the last thing we need as we try to fight through all the hot air out here.

Modern media has much on its mind, including having to figure out new revenue streams and get more readers. But give me a well-researched Guardian or New York Times article any time over a bunch of random people's opinions about stuff they know nothing about.

The difficult conversations are stacking up. We're down to a talk-or-die situation on a number of fronts. We were never going to settle it all on Facebook, true enough. But it sure isn't going to be settled by making it even harder for people to get to information from a source they can hold accountable.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The civility of silence

"Don't talk about Trump/guns/abortion/covid/climate change," friends and family variously cautioned me as I prepared for a three-week road trip in the US last month.

No worries. I rarely talk about those things even with people I know well. I love a great conversation about big issues when the time and the scene is right, but I'm also just fine with talking about what kind of bird that is over there, or what the price of gas was in the last town each of us passed through. 

The 22-day trip through five states was such a welcome reminder for me that Americans are still good people, their country is freaking gorgeous, and the US is exceptional for road-tripping. I was glad for the chance to have mundane little conversations with random fellow campers and service people along my route about our lives at that moment, with no straying into anyone's beliefs on this or that polarizing issue. 

The world has had to talk so much about big, heavy issues for the last three years. I had no idea what any of my friends' views on vaccination were prior to the pandemic, but I sure do now. Once that issue started dividing everyone, all the other simmering divisive points between us boiled over.

I guess it's been a kind of war, all of us taking sides and forming camps of like-minded people where opinions have hardened. And now it's like a habit, and we struggle to fathom how we could ever have anything in common with these people who are so Not Like Us. 

And then you go on a road trip, and meet many nice people. You talk about the things you have in common - the stress of a snowy mountain pass; whether the showers in the public washroom are fixed; how to blow air through a chunk of metal tubing to liven up a lagging campfire. 

All conversations are conducted knowing that you may or may not be across the divide on so many issues. Maybe they vote Republican. Maybe you're a socialist. Maybe they have a gun in their trailer. Maybe you're "woke."  Maybe they support book bans and criminalizing abortion. Maybe you can be ranty on climate change, and downright depressing on the likely fate of the Great Salt Lake.

But in this moment, we're all choosing not to talk about any of that, here at Tumalo State Park or wherever that night's road has ended. 

We do need to find ways to have difficult conversations on big issues, because that's a real thing in these polarized times. But I am grateful for the road-trip reminder that we have a lot more in common as human beings than we do dividing us. 

Get a job, raise the kids, stay well, enjoy your spare time - whatever our differences, most of us want a version of that. There's a lot to talk about right there. And once we all remember how we all ultimately want the same thing, it might be a little easier to talk about the hard stuff. 

I had a moment at the aquarium in Boise where a bunch of us were all gathered around trying to lure swimming manta rays up to give them a little pet. (It is an exquisite experience if you have yet to try it.) 

Looking around at the all-ages faces and cultural influences on display around the ray pool, it struck me that we would probably get into an ugly, protracted argument on any number of the big issues. But at that moment, we were just a bunch of dazzled strangers smiling goofily at each other at the feeling of a manta ray choosing to swim to our hands.

We are different, but we are so much the same. Thank you, Roadtrip 2023. I needed that.


Curious about the trip itself? Find me on Facebook - I documented my trip there and my postings are all public.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

When the end-of-days feelings get you down, choose up

Indri Robyy, Pixabay

Doom-scrolling is real, and I know to try to avoid it for fear of entering that hyper-vigilant, chronically worried state that can set in when your adrenal system gets worked up. But these days it's hard to find a news feed of any kind that doesn't feel like doom-scrolling. 

Historians hasten to put such gloomy thoughts about "these times" in perspective. They rightly note that in fact, many grand woes of the world are actually lessening. We have less poverty. Fewer nuclear warheads. Less global terrorism. We live longer, having invented cures, treatments and vaccines for many things that used to kill us.

All of that is good news at the big-picture level. But it isn't actually of much comfort to those who are alive in this moment and living in this destabilized state, when flu-stricken birds are falling out of the sky and the Earth is splitting open and every season heralds a new round of record-smashing extreme weather somewhere in the world.  

It's hard to appreciate your moment in time in the Big Picture when your Small Picture is scaring the hell out of you. 

Some of us are living in hellish situations of war and natural disaster while others are just stressed from reading about it, and I don't mean to compare the experiences. But I'd venture that all eight billion of us are feeling the heaviness of these times in one way or another. 

We all need to find our own ways of coping. Some people "check out" and simply don't take in the news, a tempting thought if only our collective alarm wasn't urgently needed to drive change. Nothing gets fixed when people check out. 

Others focus on the here and now. There's no earthquake in Victoria right now, is there? There's no balloon waiting to be shot down in our skies. No sabre-rattling super power getting jacked up about Canada. There's just you and the calm seas and the pretty paper whites, on a mild winter day on a coveted West Coast island.

I like "being present" myself, though I did discover on a road trip last year through California's drought-slammed former nut orchards that it also means bearing witness to whatever is playing out in front of you. 

Driving south through lands I once dreamed of living in only to be confronted with the realities of modern-day California - so, so different from my shiny young-person memories of thriving agriculture as far as the eye could seen and a full-to-the-brim Lake Shasta packed with happy house boaters - was an eye-opener that I haven't been able to shake.

Nor will being present lower stress levels when it involves passing through the pockets of poverty and human suffering that have developed in all of our communities. But it couldn't be more important to be present in those moments, because this hand-wringing state we've been in about social decline for pretty much 30 years now will end only when we shake ourselves awake and act. 

Another reaction to these unsettling times is to go all in, spiralling into an increasing state of rage and paranoia over whatever subject a person has ended up fixated on. 

With so much to fixate on, there are many ways to rage these days. I'm sure we all know someone who has fallen into obsession (and whose company we want less and less of as a result). I know a COVID rager, an anti-vax rager, several Trudeau ragers, and even a few pro-Trump ragers who ignited a few years back and can't seem to cool down.

Unfortunately, there's no problem-fixing going on when people are in a state of rage. That's just a time when we want to break things and yell at people. If you're stuck in a rage state, best to get some help with that. It's costing you friends and your personal health, and not changing a damn thing about whatever has you riled.

How does one go about feeling better in gloomy times? Personally, I seek out news stories about things that are making a difference on the issues facing us. A recent read reminding me that the world did successfully address acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer through collective action was heartening, and important to hold onto in times when all the doom threatens to paralyze us. 

Also good: Buy a copy of The Economist every now and again and get caught up on world news  presented with careful balance, research and thoughtfulness. So different than the hyped-up headlines that a Google News search pulls up.

Speaking of news, I highly recommend severely limiting your intake of that which calls itself "news" in these over-saturated times. 

Back in the day when newspapers were still a thing, I read two a day, mostly limited to goings-on in Victoria, BC and Canada. Now, every bit of bad news going on anywhere in the world is as close as a right-hand swipe on my phone. 

It's so easy to do that swipe in a distracted moment, just like I once used to mindlessly light up a cigarette to pass the time in between this and that. But just like those cigarettes, it's so bad for me. I can feel the worry and the outrage building in me almost immediately, even if I was having a perfectly OK time just minutes before. 

Of course, each of us as citizens of the world also need to be stepping up right now. Avoiding the bad news overload is one thing, but taking action where you can must never be avoided. If you've got anyone you care about who is still going to carry on living after you're dead, surely that's motivation enough to do your part right now to actually address problems where you can rather than just worry about them.

Find the news you can use, and use it. May the rest of it roll off you.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Don't let them mess up your face


This is me, age 66. The rock star Madonna is two years younger than me, and I am stunned to realize after her appearance at the Grammys on the weekend that I now prefer my face to hers, so altered has hers become from years of cosmetic surgery and treatments.

This face of mine has been creamed, scrubbed, exfoliated, masked and otherwise fussed over for a very long time. I am as disappointed as any person who comprehends the social capital of physical attractiveness to be experiencing the unwanted changes that aging brings. 

But having watched one beautiful celebrity after another succumb to the disaster of costly and invasive "anti-aging" procedures, I concluded many years ago that I will never do anything beyond the superficial to try to appear younger. 

It's not out of any noble belief in being my "natural self." As you can see from my photo, my hair is coloured, and I am pretty sure it will be until the day I die. I wear eye makeup and have since age 12, and don't even leave the house for the morning dog walk without it on. I got my eyebrows tattooed in 2009 and love them. You'll never catch me singing the praises of a natural look. 

Nor is it out of a determination to grow old gracefully. If I could take a magic pill guaranteed to firm up my neck, jawline and eyelids with no side-effects, I would be seriously tempted, and admit to moments in front of the mirror in which I pull my face skin tighter and lament out loud about how much younger I look.

But here's the thing about invasive cosmetic procedures, as Madonna's 2023 face so tragically reminds us: It's a pact with the Devil. You're going to trade off your future old face for an "improved" face now, and you're going to do that repeatedly as the relentless aging process drags your skin lower to the ground no matter how many procedures you throw at it.

And then one day, you cross some line of having had way too many procedures, and there's no way back. Alas, you still don't look young, you just look like an aging woman who has had way too many cosmetic procedures. 

I get that celebrities must feel the pressure to keep up their beauty, though I would have thought more of them would have noticed by now that the work really dries up once your face starts looking altered (Melanie Griffith, I'm talking to you.)

But why I am seeing so many non-celebrities - and so many young women - getting sucked in? Don't they have eyes to see all the wealthy celebrities with their ruined faces? If famous, rich people with access to top-of-the-line surgeons still end up looking like unrecognizably bizarre cat-people with painfully distorted lips, isn't that a pretty blatant warning to any of us to just stay away from this crap?

We fight very hard to look younger than our age, as evidenced by a global anti-aging market now valued at $62.6 billion US and a $67 billion cosmetic surgery market. There are many theories about why that is so, from evil marketing strategies and ruthless capitalists to the patriarchy.

I know from my own experience that an aging woman no longer draws the Male Gaze (a sad-happy loss for me), and that ageism in your work life is a real thing. The world does view you differently, and makes many strange assumptions once having registered you as "old." I clearly remember the grand insult I felt back in my 50s when some twerp salesman at the computer store leaned in close to ask if I knew what a flash drive was.

But to cut, inject and fill your face with weird chemicals and poisons in reaction to the social realities of aging? And all of it to end up with a face so obviously distorted that you're literally the poster child for aging really, really poorly? What theory explains that?

If you are a younger woman reading this, and I hope you are, I will tell you straight up that it's painful to experience your physical beauty fading. Not to brush off the years of catcalls, unwanted attention and outright sexual harassment as an easy time for women, but being attractive does have its privileges. As someone who for so many years counted on turning heads to get me feeling good about myself, I've found it hard to relinquish the dopamine rush of being checked out.

But all the cosmetic procedures in the world won't change any of that. In fact, they only make things worse, because soon enough you just look like a freaky-faced woman with too much disposable income who is desperate to not look as old as you are. Who wants to be that person?

So embrace yourself as those visible changes creep in and get over it. We don't expect an old dog to look like a puppy. Stay fit, don't smoke, keep the alcohol to a minimum and drink lots of water. Spend some time contemplating the old women all around you and you'll see that it's possible to look good AND old at the same time. 

And let me assure you, there are a lot of perks to growing invisible. Count that one as a secret aging super-power.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

BC's decrim experiment: One giant step for governments, one really tiny step for fixing the problem

Credit: No Name 13, Pixabay

The BC government doubtlessly had to work very hard to get the OK from the federal government for a three-year test of illicit drug decriminalization. 

It's a good thing to have fought for, even if the pilot is so hamstrung with exceptions and rules that it can't help but be of minimal impact. We are so lamentably, tragically overdue to move on this problem of poisoned street drugs killing thousands of British Columbians every year that virtually any glimpse of a different future must be welcomed with enthusiasm. 

But just to be clear, the vast majority of people who use illegal drugs will not benefit from this pilot. Nor will it stop the endless tide of deaths.

That's not to say that any move toward decriminalization isn't to be treasured. But we do need to go into this teeny, temporary change in our senseless and destructive drug policies with the understanding that it's a flea on a fly compared to the complex issues that are actually driving BC's illicit-drug miseries.

The pilot will have no impact, for instance, on the disturbing reality of some 2,300 British Columbians dying year after year due to a toxic drug supply, almost all of whom are men

What the pilot will do is instruct police not to charge people if they find them carrying small amounts of four specific drugs, none of which can have been cut with any other drug. (Alas, anywhere from 20 per cent to more than half of BC's confiscated illicit drugs in 2022 were found to be cut with benzodiazepines, so there's a rather major stumbling block right there.)

The toxic drug crisis, on the other hand, is about illegal drugs being cut by sellers with all kinds of other stuff because it's cheaper and more readily available, and people dying because virtually nobody knows what they're getting anymore. 

Fixing that big issue is about figuring out how to ensure people know what they are purchasing and how to use a particular drug combo safely if it's that or nothing. It involves a full understanding of how drugs come into our province, and how and why they are altered once here. 

That would require consultations with the importers and the sellers, as would have happened long ago were it any other product. But an opportunity has been missed again, with sellers dismissed in the usual way as "predators" in the government's latest messaging.  

One of the most significant insights we've had into the workings of BC's bustling illicit-drug industry comes from a lone seller featured in a research paper published in the January 2021 BC Medical Journal.

"When asked about selling a bad batch of drugs and people overdosing, he said, 'If it’s a bad batch, I’ll probably still sell it because I don’t want to waste it and lose profit. That’s just the truth and the reality,'" noted the researchers who interviewed the anonymous John Doe.

A small exemption on possession charges will have no effect on the illicit-drug industry. As John Doe points out in the paper, the industry is a masterful example of unfettered capitalism that can quickly turn any disadvantage into opportunity, including the supply-chain disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nor will the pilot do much to move people toward treatment who weren't already well along on the arduous journey of wanting treatment.

Being charged with drug possession is arguably pretty low on the long list of worries for British Columbians trying to access treatment, starting with how impossible it is to find it in the first place for anyone without major resources; the reality of having to wait months for a spot while magically staying "clean"; an absence of other problems like poor mental health; and the ability to put your life on hold with no support for weeks of residential care.

Even John Doe understands that people use drugs for complex reasons that are often rooted in trauma and pain. “It would be hard to treat someone with just their addiction and not treat their mental health," he told researchers. 

Now there's the kind of guy whose insights would be useful if the day ever comes when we get serious about all of this.

I wouldn't even expect that the pilot will stop many people from being charged with possession. The small amount of drugs a person can possess under the pilot - 2.5 grams - and the requirement for those drugs to be pure, are pretty much impossible scenarios in the current drug scene. 

But as Premier David Eby rightly notes, it's vital to do something. 

“When you talk to parents who have lost a kid who thought they were taking party drugs at an event, and end up taking fentanyl and dying, you understand how serious this issue is and how it crosses partisan lines and how we all need to work on solutions,” he told CityNews last week after federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilevre called the Downtown Eastside a hell on earth and said all the usual uninformed stuff about drug use.

And if this pilot turns out to be the way to crack the door open on decriminalization overall, hurrah. Until then, it's just the smallest of stepping stones at the edge of a raging river.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Sometimes a good shaming is all you've got

It's hard to talk about Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. 

I fully believe that the right thing is happening to her as she is held up to the searing light that the CBC's Geoff Leo has shone on her fictions. Pretending to be someone you're not feels especially egregious when high-privilege people fake low-privilege backgrounds. 

I am completely on the side of the betrayed Indigenous women who have had to experience a champion from within turning out to be nothing of the sort. All the worse that Turpel-Lafond purported to speak for them, and to have walked that same difficult road to success that Indigenous people so routinely have had to walk.

But it's still hard to watch. For a settler like me, it's also hard to talk about with my settler acquaintances. I can feel the grand discomfort we feel at watching a person whose past work we still admire experiencing a profound public shaming. 

We engage on the subject ever so carefully, tip-toeing around the astonishing betrayal and in the end, not saying much at all. I have exactly one non-Indigenous friend who I can fully engage with on the shocking subject of Turpel-Lafond, and we put our heads down and talk in low voices as if to hide that we've got strong thoughts on the matter.

And yet, these modern versions of a public stoning are important things to bear witness to. We do need to publicly shame those who engage in such blatant frauds. We do need to talk about the massive betrayal, and to reflect on and share the pieces that Indigenous women are writing about how this has impacted them.

Humiliation is both the way we punish and the way we deter when it comes to faking. It's literally the only way to punish those who come from privilege and fake an underprivileged back story - surely one of the most offensive kinds of fakery, given that the faker lays claim to space, key positions, prestige, money and air time that are routinely denied to underprivileged groups. 

And aren't there just a lot of fakers? That's what is really sinking in for me lately. Fake nurses, fake experts, fake college degrees, so many scammers. Grandparents scammed by fake grandsons. Whole police departments duped by modern-day snake-oil salesmen selling fake post-traumatic stress credentials.

Not that I think of Turpel-Lafond as a scammer. Her fakery feels so bizarre and recklessly self-destructive that my thoughts go toward her mental health instead. I have met people in both my personal and professional lives who have told themselves a made-up story for so long that they somehow come to believe it. 

I don't know if that's the case for her, but what else can explain the crazy risk she took by creating a persona and credentials that didn't belong to her? Did she think about this moment, when it all would fall apart and suddenly all would be revealed? 

Now we are left to reconsider everything Turpel-Lafond accomplished in her many significant years in high-profile positions. None of it is work that should be discounted automatically now that the truth is out, but I can't help but wonder how all of that work might have turned out had a real Indigenous person done it.

It's obvious that Indigenous people are struggling to talk about this one as well. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs issued a statement last fall confirming their support for Turpel-Lafond, who they described as a “fierce, ethical and groundbreaking advocate for Indigenous peoples for decades.”

They contended that issues of First Nations identity are for Indigenous peoples, families and governments to sort through based on their laws, customs and traditions, and condemned the initial CBC stories as “digging into private matters.”

But as other Indigenous people have repeatedly emphasized, she could have been that same fierce advocate without faking her background. Being a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights does not require that one pretends to be Indigenous.

Which Indigenous people went uncelebrated for their own contributions while Turpel-Lafond was receiving 11 honorary degrees under false pretences? 

Who might have authored the report into systemic racism toward Indigenous people in BC's health care system had that prestigious and well-paid work not gone to Turpel-Lafond? 

Who might have been the genuinely Indigenous representative for BC children and youth in a province where Indigenous children continue to be vastly over-represented in child apprehensions? What might they have done with a decade of their own in that vital position? 

What important perspectives from lived experience have been missed entirely in all of her work? What depths of wisdom went untapped because privileged space was taken up by somebody who hadn't had the life she said she'd had?

These things matter. In an era so fake that we can't even believe the things we see with our own eyes, authenticity of the person has never been more important. 

I feel for Turpel-Lafond in what must surely be an exquisitely painful time. But her deception has shaken the foundations of every good thing she did. We have all been hurt by her fakery, and Indigenous people most of all. 

Here's a November 2022 piece from the same CBC writer, this one on the report from Metis lawyer Jean Teillet on another Indigenous faker, Carrie Bourassa. 

People who pretend to be Indigenous feed off the ignorance of the non-Indigenous population, notes Teillet. "The fraudsters enact stereotypes they know will be recognized by the non-Indigenous audience. There is often silent and resentful recognition by Indigenous people that the performance is a stereotyped image of themselves."

Monday, January 02, 2023

We won't slow climate change with niceness

Extinction Rebellion UK says it will prioritize "relationships over roadblocks" this year and move away from public disruptions as a prime strategy for getting the world's attention on climate change. 

That's a warm and fuzzy statement for a new year. But hopefully they aren't going to get too nice. Nobody's going to solve the climate crisis with niceness. 

Of course, one does want to be strategic when in the business of disrupting. Throwing cans of soup at famous works of art - not the work of Extinction Rebellion; that was Just Stop Oil - and other poorly considered attention-grabbing antics may get your unknown organization headlines, but simply being offensive in a public space is not a strategic protest. (Put away the soup cans, go disrupt a fracking operation.) 

That said, we sure as hell won't move this crisis with niceness. Co-operative behaviour is one component of an effective change strategy, just like acts of protest, but systemic change at this grand scale cannot be achieved without anger, shouting, threats, arrests, financial loss, deaths and a lot of other not-nice things.

In the case of the climate crisis, consider the long list of potential opponents who benefit from the current system, a number of them with deep pockets for dragging this out indefinitely.

First, there's the vastly wealthy fossil-fuel corporations, which have enjoyed almost $3 billion US in daily profits for the last 50 years. Then there are the governments that are absolutely dependent on the revenue and jobs. International energy policies so friendly to industry that countries that sign on have to promise not to make energy policy changes without consulting Big Oil first. 

There are the global investors clamouring for endless returns on investment. The billions of people completely reliant on fuel to heat their homes, operate their businesses, get to work, and wage war on real and imagined enemies. The travellers, the tourists, the legions of individualists who have never had a collective thought in their life and are just fine with riding Earth into oblivion as long as they can be "free."

There are mega agricultural operations spread across mega land holdings to serve a world that eats 350 million tons of meat a year. There are more than 50,000 merchant ships criss-crossing our oceans every day just to feed our hunger for stuff. There are trade agreements in all directions that bind our governments' hands even when they're willing to do better.

Every one of those things and so much more is going to have to change if the end of this global story we're living is going to be remotely happy. We need to have so many big, brave conversations. We need big, brave leadership at all political levels - leadership that gets past the typical political urge to pander and please and treats this issue like the global emergency that it is. 

And while we can strive to be respectful in all of that, we can't expect that any of this is going to be nice. 

Extinction Rebellion says part of its decision to shift tactics is because we live in times in which protest has been criminalized. "Thriving through bridge-building is a radical act," the group says.

But really, what big change has ever come about without arrests and conflict with the law? In the case of global emissions, we're talking about trying to stop activities that make people so much money. They're not going down that road without a really big fight. Read sociologist Frances Fox Piven's eye-opening Poor People's Movements for more on that.

While it's certainly important to get your allies in order and build those relationships, there still has to be disruption in a crisis this big. If XR wants to play nicer, then somebody else needs to step up to be the disruptor. Climate change is a disruptor itself, and those of us who want better for our world are going to have to meet its chaos head-on.

Change this big will be very painful for those who benefit from the current system. That can't be sugar-coated. 

For the sake of future generations, let's just go straight to being tough and skip the part where we all think we can settle this like friends. That's just going to drag out the bloody ending that's coming one way or the other.