Monday, October 21, 2002

Inquiry needed into Kamloops shootings
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It's wrong to blame the shootings in Kamloops on government job cuts.
Just as it's wrong to say cuts had nothing to do with the killings.
I hesitated before writing about the whole sad case. It's important to respect the families of all three men who died, each of whom was by all accounts a dedicated, decent man who did his best on the job.
But there is benefit in examining what happened to see what we need to learn. Not to ensure that such a thing will never happen again, because we can never achieve that. But at least to reduce the chance that it will.
An RCMP investigation will provide some answers, but the police focus is on the hours around the shooting - what happened, and when, not why. The government plans an internal inquiry, to be conducted by the same branch responsible for developing the layoff and discipline policies. That will be useful in determining if warning signs were missed or policies failed to provide enough support for those being fired, and those doing the firing.
But the internal review will be compromised by the government's immediate - and puzzling - declaration that layoffs and job cuts had nothing to do with the shootings.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman has had the thankless task of handling the government's public response to the shootings. And he's repeatedly maintained that the layoffs - and the plan to cut 8,000 more jobs over the next two years - had nothing to do with the shootings. "This is an isolated personnel issue that's got nothing to do with the workforce adjustments," he said in a variety of ways.
How in the world could Coleman know that? The evidence from others is that Anderson was distressed by the task of firing people, and felt swamped by the workload. Hours before receiving the disciplinary letter, which threatened his job, he had been at another office telling three employees their jobs were going to be cut.
That doesn't mean the cuts are to blame. Firing people and being fired are part of life in the workplace, and most people deal with the stress.
But the quick claim that job cuts played no role in the events is impossible to justify, based on the available information.
That information has been sketchy.
Coleman said initially, even before police had entered the building, that Dick Anderson had been fired hours before the shooting. That seems a risky, potentially inflammatory statement, given the possibility that a potential hostage situation was under way.
The next day Coleman reversed himself, and said Anderson had simply received a letter of discipline.
And no one in government could even say how many jobs the environment ministry planned to cut in the round of layoffs that were supposed to begin this week. (They have been put on hold.)
An independent inquiry - perhaps through a coroner's inquest, perhaps through something broader in scope - is needed to look at this case.
Not to find someone to blame. All the evidence indicates Anderson went into the workplace with a gun, and shot two people and then himself. No circumstances change the reality of personal responsibility.
But there's reason to wonder if this isn't a symptom of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed and factored in to the handling of layoffs.
Auditor General Wayne Strelioff reported earlier this year that morale is abysmal among government employees. They don't trust their managers, don't know what their departments are trying to achieve and overwhelmingly dissatisfied with their ministry leadership. And that was based on a survey done before the Liberals took office and announced that one-third of government workers weren't needed.
We need to look hard, and with an open mind, at these killings, and see what there is to learn.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

Education system cheating rural kids
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - If you live in the northern two-thirds of B.C., your children are getting an inferior education, one that hurts their chances in life.
It should be an outrage. If your child goes to school in Prince Rupert or the Cariboo, they stand a much greater chance of leaving school without basic reading, writing and math skills.
You pay the same taxes. Your children have the same dreams. But they're getting a second-rate education.
I've been waiting for a wave of anger and government action since the Foundation Skills Assessment test results were released this month. The province-wide tests showed, again, that if you live in the urban south your children are far more likely to leave school with the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to give them a good chance in life.
But in the rest of B.C. it's a very different story.
In the seven highest ranked school districts, more than 80 per cent of Grade 10 students are meeting provincial standards for reading. Those districts were generally in Vancouver and Victoria.
But in the 10 lowest ranked districts barely half the students are reading at an acceptable level. Results for math and writing showed the same dismal disparity. Those districts were in the north, the Interior and on Vancouver Island.
This isn't a case of individual districts doing a poor job. The results show a structural problem. The system is failing children in rural areas and small cities across B.C.
And it isn't a case for political debate, or a chance to rant about the NDP or the Liberals or the teachers' union. It's about kids, and a fair chance at life.
So far, the response has been lame. Everyone comes up with explanation for the results; no one takes any real action. It's as if a doctor thought his job was done when he told you you were seriously ill, without offering any treatment.
We don't owe these kids explanations for why they are starting life at a huge disadvantage. We owe them an education and a fair chance. And accountability contracts for school districts are not going to solve this problem.
Education Minister Christy Clark has appointed a rural education task force. That's welcome, but this is a far more serious problem, and calls for immediate, significant action.
B.C. doesn't have to invent solutions. Manitoba has recognized the problems of teachers in rural districts and provides special training opportunities and extra classroom help. The state of Virginia offers a range of support programs for struggling districts, from coaching to an additional staff member in each school to help raise students' performance. Alberta provides funding for district projects aimed at improving students' success.
This should be a crisis. People on the coast, in the north and across the province have the same hopes for their children as people in Vancouver. They count on government to provide their children with an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives.
And it's not happening. Take two children starting school, one in West Vancouver and one in the Cariboo. The city kid will almost certainly gain the skills needed; the rural child stands a high chance of being sent into the world ill-prepared.
Or go into a Grade 4 class in Delta, and you'll find one child not doing math at a provincial standard. Go into the same class in the Prince Rupert district, and you'll find 11.
We don't guarantee success in life. People have different abilities and ambitions, and the right to make as much or as little of their opportunities as they choose.
But we do owe children an equal chance. And we're not doing that. It's a cruel way to treat children. It's a waste of talent the province badly needs. And it should have parents around the province demanding action.

Paul Willcocks can be reached at