Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Two choices. Adrienne Clarkson and the odd attitude of the province's college of physicians and surgeons. Both 650 words, with footnote to take them to 710 or so.

Clarkson's Great White North tour out of line
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Much that's wrong with this country can be found in Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson's million-dollar junket to Russia, Finland and Iceland.
I almost didn't write about the 19-day trip with 59 "talented Canadians." Too easy, I thought. But then some of the usual Upper Canadian suspects started defending the Great White North tour as a modest and reasonable initiative by a charming and stylish governor general.
Modest? The price tag will be more than $1 million, or about $900 per person each day.
The justification for the trip is that Canadians share a bond with other people who live in cold countries, and some good will come of sending some of our smart people to talk to their smart people.
Or, as Clarkson says: "By bringing these talented Canadians to help us represent Canada we will engage Russians, Finns and Icelanders in a vigorous exchange of ideas and culture affirming and strengthening our shared northern identity."
I have no idea what that means. And I certainly don't know how sending failed Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae and his writer wife on a trip to Russia is a worthwhile way to spend your money.
In fact, how the heck can anyone justify a Northern identity junket in which only 10 of 60 people actually live in the North? Almost half the group comes from Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal; fully one-quarter come from the remote Northern outpost of Toronto.
I'm sure they're fine folks. But why are you paying so Clarkson can take seven wine experts with her to Finland and Iceland? Why should you send soprano Measha Brueggergosman and architect Howard Sutcliffe off to some nice hotels and fine dinners, when you're probably trying to figure out how to pay for a weekend away?
You may wonder why the politicians are so silent on this issue. Perhaps it's because they're going along. Victoria MP David Anderson is heading a group of senators and MPs going along on the trip. Foreign junkets are a regular perk for MPs who further the cause of world democracy by heading off to some pleasant country for 10 days on your bill.
It's not wrong to send Canadians abroad - if there is a clear, useful purpose, and a justification for the guest list.
But this trip fails the sniff test. Clarkson is taking her spouse, John Ralston Saul. Eight other married couples are on the guest list, adding to the impression the jaunt is as much a holiday as a working trip on behalf of Canada.
It's not a lot of money, in the context of the federal government.
But symbols matter, especially in this case. The role of the Governor General is symbolic, a representative of the Queen who can graciously hand out awards, help communities celebrate milestones and generally make Canadians feel better about who we are.
This trip is also a symbol. Clarkson has picked 60 people much like her - affluent people, largely from the Toronto-Ottawa corridor, mainly from the arts and gentle left. (One Albertan is going along, a composer from Calgary; six British Columbians are on board.) They are heading off on a dream trip, with no clearly articulated purpose, at someone else's expense.
It's not what Canadians expect. And it sends a message that the people in charge in Ottawa don't really care much about what we do expect.
Under Clarkson's hand, the budget for the governor general has climbed from $11 million to almost $19 million. A Parliamentary committee had talked about examining the spending, but Liberal members are shying away.
That's too bad. We don't need witchhunts that seize on big expense accounts and kick the spender around.
But we do need to know that our money is being spent wisely and carefully. The fact that this trip doesn't meet that test justifies a closer look at the governor general's $19 million budget.

Who owes patients protection from bad doctors?
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It doesn't feel me with confidence to hear the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons argue that it has no responsibility to protect individual patients from dangerous doctors.
The college agrees it has a role in protecting the public. But not in protecting people, the college argues. Not people like the 19 women who are suing over sexual abuse by a Campbell River doctor.
The 19 women are suing Dr. Mark Stewart, who was sentenced to four years in jail for sexual assaults on patients. They're also suing the college, prepared to argue that the college was recklessly negligent in dealing with past complaints, and that its failures led to the women being abused.
The evidence remains to be heard in court. But before that could happen, the college applied to be dropped from the suit. No professional regulating body had ever been sued in this way, its lawyer argued. Allowing such lawsuits would make it impossible for the college to do its job of regulating the medical profession, and anyway the college is charged with the protection of the public, but isn't responsible for protecting individuals. Even if the college was negligent in dealing with bad or abusive doctors, it's immune from legal action, they argued.
Madame Justice Lynn Smith didn't agree. Requiring the college to act in good faith in dealing with allegations of abuse by doctors doesn't compromise its ability to protect the public and the rights of doctors.
You could suggest, I suppose, that this is an other one of those cases of judicial activism that people like to grumble about. If it is, it's a case to be celebrated.
It doesn't seem too much to expect, that the college - which has all the authority for regulating doctors, and hearing complaints - would accept responsibility for the job it's doing.
The ruling - and the college's argument its role doesn't include protecting patients - brought to mind a report earlier this year by provincial Ombudsman Howard Kushner.
Looking at 10 years of investigations into complaints about the college and other professional regulatory bodies, he said they often just don't get it.
"They still believe, perhaps because it is the members who elect the governors and pay for the colleges' operations, that the colleges are primarily there to protect the interests of the members."
That's an especially alarming because the Liberals have chopped the Ombudsman's budget. The office will no longer be able to investigate complaints about how the colleges do their jobs, Kushner reported.
And the case also brought to mind the government's readiness to blow up the College of Teachers, arguing that it had paid too much attention to the concerns of its members and not enough to the need to serve students. (A legitimate criticism, and one that required action - although not such extreme action as the government's radical overhaul.
The college is taking steps to improve its work in protecting patients. The college announced earlier this year that it will set up a web site to allow patients to see the doctor they are considering visiting has faced disciplinary action in the past, and what for. (The college sends out news releases of disciplinary decisions right now, but it remains difficult for most patients to get the information.)
It's a laudable idea, one that gives patients information they should have.
But it also comes six years after the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons provided the same service to patients in that province.
The court case should raise renewed concerns about the cuts to the Ombudsman's budget, and the college's view of its role.
When the college regulating doctors doesn't even see that it has a responsibility to individual patients, then the public needs a watchdog.
And at the same time, we owe a debt to the courts for insisting that the college face up to its responsibilities to patients.
Footnote: The plan to take over the college of teachers has run into a snag, as thousands of teachers threaten to withhold the membership fees that support the organization. If you're not a member, you can't legally teach in B.C., but school districts can hardly fire protesters if numbers are too great.