Friday, December 29, 2006

A resolution: Pay attention, and be outraged

VICTORIA - My partner’s stocking stuffers this year included a bumper sticker, the first one for her truck.
“If you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention,” it said.
For the last five New Year’s, I’ve written about the same resolution I’ve made each year, and taken the chance to urge it on others.
I wanted us all to pay attention.
The idea started as I sat with my first grandson asleep on my lap at the Island Music Fest. I looked around and realized there was not much point in worrying about his future. Thirty years from now, he could be anything - on the festival stage, or watching with his own child on his lap, working 5,000 miles away or slouched in the beer garden.
Who could know what’s ahead? Who would want to know?
Instead, I thought on that sunny day, my arm slowly falling asleep under the weight of Paxton’s head, we should be paying attention to this minute and making it matter.
It’s not easy, at least for me. Worrying about the future - about whether I’ll get the next column done on time, how my own children’s lives will go, if I’ll have enough money - comes naturally. And it’s reinforced by a lifetime of being told how important it is to think ahead.
But the risk is that we stop paying attention to right now as we fret about a future we may never see. Every year brings a few more deaths to remind me that you can really only count on this moment.
Paying attention starts with the world and people right around you. Right now, is that person - friend, or child, or partner - across the room happy, or sad? What do you see in their eyes when they laugh? How does the air feel on your skin when you step out into the day? How are you?
But it’s not just about your life, or personal growth. I figure making a better world, for the people we know and the people we don’t, starts with paying better attention to this one.
That’s a vote of confidence in your decency. I believe that if we really paid attention to the homeless people we saw, or the kids in care booted out in to the world with no real support when they turn 19, or seniors waiting struggling without adequate care, we would make things better.
But if we don’t notice them, nothing happens.
Writing columns is interesting, pleasant work. But the job only has a point because I believe that readers, once aware of problems, will see that they are fixed. They’ll act on their own or pressure government, but they’ll get something done.
It’s my job, I think, to try and pay attention on your behalf. And, at least in print, as a result I probably seem perpetually outraged. Why not write more about the good things we do, politicians from a couple of governments have asked?
Mostly, because that’s a waste of the great opportunity each column offers. There are too many things that should demand your attention, things you would care about that need fixing. Certainly, governments do many fine things and they will undoubtedly tell you about them. My role is to tell you about the things that I think would make you unhappy.
Not to be gloomy, but because I believe you’ll deal with them. It’s like the bumper sticker says: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
But paying attention isn’t really all about problems.
It’s often a reminder of just how wonderful our lives are: Moments of shared kindness, the wonder of mist rising from water, the pure joy of being in love or seeing a little kid smile at the world.
I urge it on you, one again, as a resolution. This year, really pay attention - to the people around you, the world at your door, the joys and sadness and beauty and pain that are all sure to be part of the next year.
We’ll be better off.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The meaning of Christmas: A Canadian family journey

We were making the trip from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Ottawa, for a family Christmas.
It was cloudy, foggy and bleak as we abandoned the grey station wagon in the snowy parking lot. (I don't really remember the weather, but it was almost always cloudy and foggy and bleak for the three years we lived in Saint John.)
The airport was crowded with lost and discouraged travellers, their eyes pleading for help, or release from their misery.
We dragged two children and too many suitcases stuffed with dubious presents and a range of clothes for every social experience. Sam was five; Rebecca seven. It was for them a grand adventure.
We were bound for Ottawa, and Christmas at my ex father-in-law's home, one of those charming Eastern brick houses with a front porch, and a park - with a skating rink - next door.
So the luggage included skates, not the easiest thing to pack. Rebecca's skates wouldn't fit in any of the suitcases, so we crammed them in a backpack with other last-minute items, kids books and snacks. Even in those happier, simpler times, it turned out two long sharp blades were not the best thing to send through an airport X-ray machine on the busiest day of the year.

I wasn't sad that we weren't heading to Christmas with my family. We were all still recovering from a special family Christmas in Lake Louise the year before, which ended with smashed china, broken bones and my brother spending $700 to change his cheap airline tickets so he and his wife could fly home several days early.
Some 15 years on, we still don't speak about it. Ovid was wrong. Time does not heal all wounds.
But I was still faintly apprehensive. My father-in-law was one of the smartest people I have known, with a photographic memory and a vast store of useful information, a fine journalist and beloved professor.
He was also proudly eccentric, and more so in the years he had been a widower.
But it was Christmas. So I thought brave thoughts as we herded on to the plane, and off, struggled to find our baggage and battered our way through too many desperate people, their glazed, blank eyes staring straight head, sweat beading on their brows as they dragged oversize suitcases through the airport in search of a gate that didn't exist.

Don - that was my father-in-law's name - had prepared.
Sitting in a corner of the living room was a Christmas tree, that I truly believe had once been the finest on the lot.
"I shopped early, to get the best one," he said proudly.
But sadly, he had brought the tree into the house that day three weeks earlier, and leaned it against the wall without water, beside the out-of-tune piano.
My daughter went to look at its splendour, touched a branch. The cascade of dry needles made sound like gently falling snow. The floor looked lovely, like a pine forest. I thought of posting a fire hazard warning.
The tree didn't stand a chance.
Don's quirks extended to the domestic.
Perhaps because of a Depression boyhood on a farm near Moose Jaw, he preferred to keep the house at a balmy 82 degrees year-round, enough to keep him comfortable if he wore his customary bright red sweater over a dress shirt.
Don also preferred to keep all the lights on 24 hours a day, but that was merely disconcerting, like you were living in a science experiment. The heat - which seemed to suck all oxygen from the house - that's what got you.

But hey, a tree wasn't that important.
We dragged our bags upstairs, and went to check on the food supplies for Christmas dinner. Who knew what small, last-minute items might have been forgotten. Oh look, Don's hasn't got cranberries. Those men.
In the fridge there was cottage cheese, medium bright orange cheddar, HP sauce, half a loaf of brown bread and a bag of celery that had melted into a green puddle.

Did I mention that Don had no car, had never driven? So at 4 in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, in the growing dark and deepening cold, I hunted on foot for the food for a Christmas dinner for 15, and staggered home with white plastic grocery bags draped all over my body, my fingers growing numb. It seemed especially unfair that I got lost.

But over the next several hours the family arrived, from Toronto and Vermont, shaking off the snow, comparing travel stories.
Rebecca ran upstairs to get Meplauseth, her favorite doll, to show Fiona, her favorite aunt.
Her scream was epic, one of two times in her life to date that I have heard voice given to the purest terror.
We ran up the stairs, but I think I knew what was wrong.
We had not warned about Suzie.
You see Don collected. Books mostly. He had some 30,000 of them by then. Shelves walled every room. The basement looked the library in a struggling community college.
He also collected Mounties.
It started with souvenirs - plastic Mounties on horses, Mountie paperweights, Dudley Do-Right. But it grew out of control, as people lunged desperately at a possible gift for an impossible-to-buy-for man. He even got, from somewhere, a full red-serge dress Mountie uniform, used, but impressive. His son Murray had long ago found a female mannequin in an alley.
The mannequin - Suzy - modelled the uniform proudly, despite the chip to her nose.

So what Rebecca saw as she reached the top of the stairs was a crazed-looking women wearing an ill-fitting Mountie uniform and a dated wig, staring at her unblinking.
I guarantee you would scream too.
(Although, it could have been worse. For a time Don and family lived in Montreal, near the home of former defence minister Pierre Sevigny, famous for sleeping with a Soviet spy in CanadaƂ?s only really good sex scandal. Sevigny a war hero, and lost a leg in battle. When he updated his artificial leg, he threw out the old one. Murray - he of the mannequin - claimed it for the family collection.)

It was not, of course, all bizarre. We ate, and drank, and watched movies - I am still fond of the Three Amigos - and wore funny paper hats. Bound by weirdness, I think we all even behaved just a bit better.

But I had a dream. A Canadian dream.
In Ottawa, you can skate for five miles on the Rideau Canal, through the heart of downtown. I had told the kids about it back home, showed them a newspaper article about hot chocolate and bonfires, happy crowds and a skating dog. Rebecca read it to Sam, especially the part about stands selling Beaver Tails, giant flaps of fried dough dipped in sugar.
Now it was our last full day.
It was 32 below, and the wind pushed loose bits of snow down the street. The sky and the snow were the same pale grey colour.
Come on kids, I said. We're going skating.
They say exposed flesh, in those conditions, freezes in six minutes.
I can say that it takes nine minutes to tie three pairs of skates in an unheated wood hut. Sam was weeping quietly by the time we fell down the bank to the ice, where we stood alone, trying to decide if it would be better to stumble into the wind, and face it on the way back, or go with the wind now and suffer later. I didn't think they would go into the wind. I was afraid we wouldn't make it back if we skated the other way.
So we shuffled back and forth for three minutes. Rebecca and I were weeping then too. My feet were frozen, and I couldn't feel my fingers. It took 10 minutes to undo their skates.
We drove, in a borrowed car, to get Beavertails. Our spirits rose, and no marks of our ordeal remained.
Except on Sam. The tears had frozen on his face, and each one had left a white, frostbitten mark.

And then I realized the true spirit of Christmas. It's not about receiving gifts, or giving them. It's not about family, or forgiveness, or the brotherhood of man.
It's about courage. In the face of Mountie-clad mannequins, and frozen tears, and the certain knowledge of coming disappointments, Christmas is all about courage

Ombudman's probe into lottery wins welcome

VICTORIA - Solicitor General John Les and the B.C. Lottery Corp. have done a poor job of explaining why lottery retailers seem to be winning way more than their fair share of prizes.
It's not some little statistical blip. According to records obtained by the Vancouver Sun, the people who own or operate lottery ticket and Keno sales outlets have won 4.4 per cent of the prizes worth more than $10,000 in the last six years.
There are just 21,000 people who sell the tickets. That's about 0.7 per cent of the total population.
Which means that the people selling the tickets or collecting the Keno forms are about six times as likely to win a big prize as the average British Columbian.
There are only a couple of possible explanations. The people who work in the 4,400 lottery outlets, in malls and stores and bars, are spending much more than the rest of us.
Or there might be fraud at the expense of legitimate gamblers.
The issue first arose in Ontario, where a CBC report uncovered a similar high number of wins for the people selling the lottery tickets. That raised concerns unscrupulous sellers were cheating customers, either by telling them that their tickets weren't winners and then claiming the prize or by "pinpricking" scratch tickets to identify winners.
Neither the B.C. Lottery Corp.  nor Les were reassuring.
The corporation speculated that people who worked in lottery kiosks are just big gamblers and win more as a result.
But it had no facts to support the theory. Ontario's lottery corporation, facing the same concerns, did research and found ticket sellers were twice as likely to gamble on scratchies - not enough to explain the big winnings. Les said he had asked the province's Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch "to confirm the integrity of the technology systems used for BCLC's lottery retail network" and was told everything was fine. That doesn't really address the concerns.
He also said that more changes to protect consumers will be announced soon.
And anyway, the lottery corporation said, security staff have only confirmed four such scams in the last two years, all based on customer complaints.
That could mean everything is fine. It could also mean that there's just no enforcement to detect problems.
That's a real fear. In the last three years the Liberals have continued to expand gambling in B.C., adding Internet betting, minicasinos in communities across the province and new games aimed at bar patrons. Gambling-related crime, unsurprisingly, spiked, up 36 per cent last year alone.
But in the same three-year period the budget for the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch has been cut each year.
Gamblers have some protection. About half the lottery outlets have machines that let consumers check their own tickets. At every outlet, a display screen is supposed to show the customer the results when the operator scans a ticket.
But that's not enough, given the serious questions.
The lottery corporation doesn't even know what share of prizes under $10,000 are being won by retailers, for example, a critical information gap. It could ban retailers from participating, or at least require them to gamble at another outlet. It could step up enforcement and spot checks.
Fortunately, B.C.'s Ombudsman has decided to investigate. Kim Carter plans to look at the lottery corporation's efforts to monitor retailers' participation and enforce the rules.
Lottery tickets are a bad bet. Start spending $2 a draw on 6/49 tickets when you're 19, pocket the occasional win along the way, and the odds say that by 65 you'll be down $5,200.  Take the same money and invest it in a mutual fund that earns six-per-cent interest and you'll have a retirement fund of just over $50,000 when you hit 65.
But British Columbians are still spending almost $20 million a  week on lottery tickets, Keno and the rest.
They at least deserve better assurances that the games are straight.
Footnote: The people selling their tickets are claiming the biggest number of prizes from Keno. The B.C. Lottery Corp. suggests that because there are games every five minutes and the odds are good. But it's worrying that Keno is also played in bars by gamblers who have been drinking and are vulnerable to fraud.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Health and big surpluses the stories of the year

VICTORIA - I’m writing this as I get ready for a radio chat about the big stories of 2006.
Of course it won’t really be about peoples’ big stories of the year. Those are all individual - a divorce, a new child, a dying friend, love, loss.
No one is going to look back in 20 years and say I remember 2006, that’s the year the Harper minority government pulled out of the Kelowna Accord. It will be the year their daughter went off to school in another country or they moved into that smaller house with so much light.
It’s not that hard to come up with a list of the “big political stories” of the year.
The election of the Harper government in January, with B.C. seats critical to the outcome, seemed big, though the impact hasn’t been that great.
David Emerson’s leap from Liberal backbench to Conservative cabinet, which set new standards of wretched political behaviour, led only to a mediocre softwood-lumber deal.
Premier Gordon Campbell was able to go all enviro in February with a land-use deal for the Great Bear Rainforest and celebrated a raft of public-sector labour agreements through the spring. The Queen of the North went down in March. More charges were laid in the legislature raids in April and Ted Hughes delivered his devastating report on Liberal government bungling in services for children and families.
By fall, three First Nation draft treaties had been initialled. Government approval is a formality. If even two by band members decide to support the treaties it will be a gain for the B.C. Treaty Commission process and an enormous step forward for the province.
They’re are big stories. But it’s like watching the winter ocean waves rolling into a tangle of logs on a rocky beach. The big waves you notice - the splash, the crash.
But it’s the steady, grinding of the smaller waves that changes things, that turns big tangles of logs into little pieces of bark and wood strewn along the beach.
There was no giant health story in 2006. There were big ones. The Fanny Albo case where a woman was cruelly taken far away from family and friends to die alone. Maybe the revelation that public hospitals were allowing people to pay extra to jump the wait lists for tests.
But there were a succession of smaller stories, about patients on stretchers in halls and closets, about jammed emergency rooms and terrible suffering while people waited for surgery.
Together, health care worries were probably one of two really big stories in 2006.
Another - closely related - was the government finances. Finance Minister Carole Taylor’s February budget forecast a $1.45-billion surplus for this year, an enormous cushion. After the first three months of the fiscal year, she said the surplus would be more than $1.5 billion. After another 90 days had passed, the forecast was increased again, to $2.15 billion.
It’s not a blip. The February budget forecast surpluses of $950 million and $550 million in each of the next two years. But Taylor quickly revised those numbers as well. The surpluses are forecast at more than$1.8 billion in each year.
Those my choice for the two big stories. The quality of health care and the big surpluses. And they’re closely linked.
The heath care system needs more money. The current plans call for per-capita spending to lag inflation for the next two years, despite an aging population and much higher costs.
And the province has lots of money, for health care and education and children and families and making a payment on the debt.
But the Liberals seem to have other ideas. Finance Minister Carole Taylor and Premier Gordon Campbell have used wildly wrong numbers in a bizarre effort to care people about the affordability of health care.
Despite the public’s demand in budget consultations for more services , the government seems set to rein in health spending and pay down the debt more quickly.
Look for the response to that decision to be one of the big stories of 2007.
Footnote: Stephane Dion’s selection as Liberal leader could also turn out to be a big B.C. story, and not just because of the strong organizing support he found here. DIon’s focus on the global warming could raise the profile of the issue. Bad news for the B.C. LIberals, who have only a vague climate-change plan and are contemplating several new coal-fired electrical plants.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Injection site condemned for saving lives, reducing addiction

VICTORIA - Who would think that the most disturbing words I’ve seen in print for years would come from a Mountie?
When people look back on these times, they will be baffled by our persistent stupidity when it comes to drugs. From alcohol in the ‘30s to crystal meth 70 years later later we keep trying to police addictions and abuse out of existence.
In the process we have spent untold fortunes, bankrolled every organized crime group from the Mafia to bikers to Asian gangs and watched as more people suffered and died, more families were destroyed and more communities damaged.
And in all that time the approach never once showed any signs of working.
The disturbing — even obscene — words came in an RCMP report on Insite, the Vancouver safe-injection site.
The site opened in late 2003, Canada’s first experiment in giving addicts a safe, clean place to shoot up. The theory — tested in other countries — is that the site offers big benefits. People injecting drugs in the centre don’t share needles, so they don’t spread HIV and hepatitis and other illnesses. If they overdose, help is near. They can get medical care. If they’re ready to try quitting, they can be referred to services.
And they aren’t sticking needles in their arms on the street, a significant benefit to neighbours and nearby businesses.
It has worked. More than dozen serious research studies have looked at Insite’s impact. They’ve been reviewed by independent scientists and published in The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and other journals. The site has increased the chance addicts will decide to try treatment. It has cut the spread of deadly diseases and saved lives. Street problems are reduced.
And there is no evidence that it has increased drug use, which is not surprising. People are not going to go say, “hey, a safe-injection site, I think I’ll try heroin.”
But the Conservative government is unconvinced.
Insite’s three-year operating certificate was up for renewal this fall. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he didn’t have enough information to make a decision, despite the research and the support from Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, Premier Gordon Campbell, Vancouver police and public-health officials.
The federal government refused to renew Insite’s operating certificate, instead giving the site a temporary reprieve until the end of next year. The prime minister said he wanted more research (then his goverment cut off research funding). Harper said he especially wanted to hear from the RCMP.
Peter O’Neil of the Vancouver Sun made a freedom of information request for RCMP documents on Insite. He found that the Mounties’ regional co-ordinator for drugs and organized crime awareness had prepared a negative report.
There were no statistics or analysis in the three-page document, just opinion. The RCMP doesn’t actually patrol the area where the site is located.
And the report didn’t provide any evidence to challenge the studies showing the site has resulted in more people seeking treatment and saved lives.
In fact, the RCMP argues, the fact that the site saves lives might be a bad thing.
''The RCMP has concerns regarding any initiative that lowers the perceived risks associated with drug use," the report says. 'There is considerable evidence to show that, when the perceived risks associated to drug use decreases, there is a corresponding increase in number of people using drugs.”
Stop and think what those two sentences say.
The RCMP “has concerns” about a safe-injection site or any other measure that makes drug use less dangerous.
If someone’s daughter gets AIDs, or someone’s father dies in an alley, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says our national police force. More deaths and illness might deter others from doing drugs.
It’s cruel and stupid, especially as people have been dying for years and drug use continues.
Safe-injection sites save lives, reduce addiction and make the community safer.
And those, apparently, are seen as bad things by the RCMP and the Harper government.
Footnote: The safe-injection site has been criticized by U.S. drug officials. And reports this week revealed the Harper government has been consulting U.S. government officials on its new drug policy, holding meetings between “various senior-level meetings between U.S. officials and ministers/ministers’ offices.” It would a be a tragedy if Canada followed the disastrously expensive, ineffective U.S. approach.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The big question about treaties

VICTORIA - Three draft treaties in less than two months. Not a bad way for First Nations and the provincial and federal governments to end the year.
And at the same time, the latest deals are a reminder of the need to get moving on treaties across the province.
The Maa-nulth First Nations from Vancouver Island's west coast were the latest to initial a treaty, days after the Tsawwassen band agreed to tentative terms. Add in the deal reached with the Lheidli T'eneh in October and you've got a large chunk of the province covered - a coastal group of First Nations, an urban band and one from the northern Interior.
First Nations don't like the idea that these agreements are setting patterns for future settlements. Each of the 47 sets of negotiations is different, they maintain.
But practically, these deals are setting benchmarks. Or they should be.
These aren't yet treaties. The federal and provincial governments have to approve them - a formality now that the Campbell Liberals have abandoned their past objections to treaties. There have been complaints about provisions that would see land taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve as part of the Tsawwassen deal and concerns that non-
natives leaving on reserve lands won't have votes on all decisions.
But without a political party leading the opposition, as the Liberals did in trying to kill the Nisga'a treaty, speedy government approval is assured.
The bigger risk lies in the membership votes each First Nation will hold. The band members are making an enormous decision. The treaties are final settlements of all outstanding claims. There's no chance to try again if a mistake is made. The members know that their vote will affect the lives of future generations.
They will be looking at the fairness of the agreements, in terms of what's been lost and what is offered. And members will be wondering if their negotiators have left anything on the table - whether waiting could produce a better deal.
That's more of a problem. Broadly, these agreements look fair. The five first nations that are part of the Maa-nulth group, for example, will get about $300 million over the next 25 years.  They'll get about 240 square kilometers of land - figure 60 Stanley Parks - including some high-value oceanfront with development potential. That's about eight per cent of the traditional territory they claimed.
But Maa-nulth voters s will be wondering if they could get more by waiting.
It's a fair question. Setting a value on a treaty deal is difficult, but estimate this agreement at $200,000 per member in land and cash over the next few decades.
That's significantly better than the Nisga'a did with their agreement, approved in 2000. And it's much better than a tentative agreement reached on behalf of the Maa-
nulth and other Vancouver Island First Nations in 2001, just before the election. That agreement fell apart and led to a breakup of the native negotiating group.
The lesson - for First Nations voting on these treaties and others still bargaining - could easily be that waiting pays. That's especially true, as B.C.'s acting auditor general noted in a report earlier this month, if interim agreements developed as part of the province's "new relationship" provide some of the benefits of treaties without any commitments. There are benefits to First Nations in getting treaties done quickly. The sooner the agreements are signed, the sooner they can begin working towards what should be a better future.
But federal and provincial government negotiators are also going to have to be clear. While First Nations can still expect meaningful negotiations at treaty tables, the compensation pattern, in broad terms, is being set now. The Tsawwassen, Maa-nulth and Lheidli T'eneh need to know that it will not be a mistake to lead the way.
If they have that confidence, B.C. could be on the brink of an important step forward on treaties.
Footnote: The rising costs of settlement raise again the question of how different things might be today if the B.C. Liberals had not fought the Nisga'a treaty and given up at least two years of potential progress while they conducted the now-ignored referendum on treaty principles.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Catching criminals before they steal your car

VICTORIA - What if instead of waiting for people to commit crimes, you identified and stopped them before they broke into your house or grabbed your mom’s purse?
That was the premise of a Tom Cruise flick of a couple of years ago called Minority Report. Future police were able to identify people on the brink of killing a spouse or committing some other crime - don’t ask how - and sweep in for a preventive arrest.
And it’s also, minus the sci-fi, what the B.C. Progress Board is recommending in its report on reducing crime in the province.
Instead of focusing on hiring more police and building more jails to house more criminals - an approach that hasn’t worked all that well so far - the Progress Board report says we should work harder at keeping people from committing crimes.
It’s a good idea, one of a succession of first-rate efforts from the board since Premier Gordon Campbell set it up in 2001.
There’s no fancy science or magic tests involved.
The report says we know what turns people into criminals. Or at least we know about the people who commit 90 per cent of the crimes. There are still the crimes of calculation, blind anger or - based on my brief stint as a court reporter - the extraordinarily rare and scary people who are just evil.
But mostly we can look out into our communities and know who will be committing crimes in a few years.
Which means we can stop them, or at least a lot of them.
The report from the Progress Board, a hard-headed, business-dominated group, recommends that approach.
The major cause of criminal activity - no surprise - is drug and alcohol use, the report notes.
People steal to pay for both. Both make them stupid and unable to see the consequences of their crimes. Users are angrier, more violent. Suppliers - except for the Liquor Distribution Branch - commit crimes to protect their businesses.
About four out of five federal penitentiary inmates are substance abusers, the report found. Deal with that problem and crime plummets.
But, the report found, we aren’t doing well. We talk about the four-pillar approach - prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement. But treatment isn’t available across most of the province and there’s no help to keep people sober. The report says the problem is especially serious outside the Lower Mainland.
Much more needs to be done, the report says: "Most of all there needs to be some action."
It’s not just drugs. The report identifies a second - equally unsurprising - cause of crime. That guy shoplifting today was a neglected or poorly parented four-year-old in 1995. Give kids some help and a fair chance and they’ll do OK, the report says.
But we haven’t given many kids a chance. "Clearly, existing health and social services that address childhood development issues are not adequate at this time," the board reports.Little kids need help; they don’t get it.
Then there are the crazy people, or, more politely, the mentally ill. Hospitalization is rare now. But there’s not enough community support either. So people with mental illness end up in jail. The justice system has a “revolving door” just for them, the report says.
The Progress Board identifies another potential crime group that includes people from all of the first three categories. People living "impoverished and chaotic lifestyles" are prone to crime, the report notes.
These are incredibly difficult people. Think of the hardcore streetpeople you see. But the board’s report says making an effort to deal with their problems and "colossal unmet needs" would pay off in reduced crime.
All these people have something in common besides a propensity for crime. They also aren’t going to be deterred by more enforcement or tougher penalties. A mentally ill addict with fetal alcohol disorder doesn’t calculate the odds of getting caught and punished. She leaps.
Just imagine, stopping crimes before they happen. All we have to do is try.
Footnote: The report offers three options for dealing with the drug trade: Legalize, or if that’s not possible or practical, then spend a great deal on a serious 10-year effort to wipe out the trade. Or, the report suggests, launch the attack with legalization to follow. The board makes no recommendation on which course the government should choose.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Dion's win good for Liberals, and the country

VICTORIA - You should feel good about Stephane Dion's fourth-ballot victory to become Liberal leader, even if you loathe the party.
Dion has the usual mix of strengths and weaknesses. But he offers the Liberals a relatively fresh start. He was never implicated in the sponsorship scandal that so disgusted Canadians. He was never associated with the destructive internal party fighting that reached its peak in the Martin-Chretien wars.
More Canadians will now feel they have a real choice in the next election, which could be only months away.
That means Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives will have to work harder to sell their policies, instead of relying on Canadians' loathing for the Liberals to guarantee support.
That's good. Our system works best when there is real competition for the chance to form government. Parties have to justify - and moderate - their policies to win voters. There's a real debate, leading to better decisions. That all breaks down, as British Columbians saw in 2001, when one party collapses.
Dion is not a newcomer. He's been a Quebec MP for a decade. But he was untouched by the sponsorship scandal and has a reputation for integrity. He served in senior cabinet posts under both Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, a relatively rare achievement in that polarized world.
And, critically, he wasn't seen as the candidate of the Liberal party old guard - the people responsible for its current low status - that had largely lined up behind Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. (That wasn't true in B.C., where the Martinite political operatives largely backed DIon.)
That was important. Ignatieff and Rae did well on the convention's first ballot. But they stalled. Delegates sent a message that they weren't interested in the choices of the establishment.
Of course it's not quite that easy to break with the past.
Dion's acceptance speech confirmed that the environment is going to be one of the themes he will hit hard in the coming months.
He has serious green credentials. As federal environment minister Dion championed the Kyoto accord and received good marks for his efforts. He'll be betting - rightly - that Harper is out of touch with Canadians on climate change. Dion is such an enthusiast he even named his pet husky Kyoto.
But the Conservatives will be able to go right back at him. Dion may have championed the deal, but he was also in cabinet when the Liberals failed to take any serious efforts to meet Canada's commitment.
Dion faces other challenges. There's been some fretting about yet another Liberal leader from Quebec, especially one with a relatively low national profile.
And there are worries about his ability to build support within that province. As the point man in 2000 on the federal Accountability Act, which imposed terms for any future votes on separatism, Dion took a lot of flak.
That's a plus in the rest of Canada, establishing his federalist credentials. (His convention performance suggests fears about his English skills are overblown.)
And Dion's economic policies are still largely unknown, although he will point to the record of growth under the Liberal governments.
But the good news is that Canadians now have a real choice in the next election between two parties capable of forming government. (That is not to discount the significance of the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and even Greens.)
And they will be offered significantly different policy choices.
Not just on the environment. Dion has called for an honourable withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, arguing too little is being accomplished at too great a cost. No matter where Canadians stand on the issues, they should welcome a real, vigorous debate on the mission we have asked our troops to undertake.
Those kinds of debates are much more likely with Dion's victory. That makes it a step forward for all Canadians.
Footnote: Dion is 51 and was a hotshot academic in Quebec before entering politics. He's widely seen as very bright and hard-working, well-prepared before he tackles issues. Critics complain he can be close-minded when he believes he is right and lacks charisma. Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin describes him as Stephen Harper with a French accent.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A wake-up call on treaty progress and costs

On one hand, it's good that there has been no great public uproar over the latest reports on the B.C. treaty process.
The reports, by the federal and provincial auditors general, aren't encouraging. Since the current treaty process started 13 years ago the participants have spent about $1 billion, about $5,900 per native in the province.
And all that effort and money haven't produced a single treaty. The Lheidli T'enneh First Nation near Prince George has signed an agreement, but it still needs ratification by members. Several other deals are reportedly close.
Despite the lack of results, the public appears ready to press.
That's good. There's a legal obligation to compensate First Nations for land that was taken from them without their consent. Negotiated treaties are the best way to do that.
And the lack of treaties has left big questions about land ownership and management across much of the province. Until those are resolved, investors are going to be nervous about projects in B.C., costing jobs and economic activity.
Finally, there is an obvious need to improve the lives of natives, erasing the huge gaps in health, education, economic circumstances and social stability. Treaties are part of that process.
So it's welcome that British Columbians and Canadians appear ready to press on despite the high costs and lack of progress.
But it's also important that we learn from these reports and push all three parties to the treaty process to do a better job. It's one thing to accept the need for treaties and acknowledge the reality that the job is complex. It's another to watch complacently as the parties churn through another $1 billion over the next 13 years.
When the B.C. Treaty Commission was proposed in 1991 it was supposed to bring together representatives of the federal and provincial governments and First Nations. The commissioners were to help fast track treaty settlements. They were to oversee talks and keep the parties on track.
The governments predicted that with the commission's help and goodwill all outstanding claims would be settled by 2000.
So what's gone wrong?
The commission hasn't worked as planned. It has been a timid watchdog. When it has pressed the parties for more effective approaches, it's been politely ignored. Back in 2002 the commission suggested moving some big issues - like taxation questions - to regional or provincial negotiations. That way, the two governments and First Nations could attempt to set out some broad principles for settlement instead of tackling the same questions at 47 different treaty tables. The idea went nowhere.
The auditors' reports found governments haven't done their part to push things forward. The Liberals' foolish and now-ignored treaty referendum stalled talks. Both governments have sent negotiators to the table with mandates so limited that settlement would be impossible. Governments have chosen to focus on a few treaty tables, partly to save money, and other talks have stalled as a result.
Even positive moves, like Premier Gordon Campbell's attempts to create a new relationship with First Nations, have created problems. The interim agreements on land use and revenue-sharing reached as part of the new relationship provided First Nations with the benefits of treaties without having to give up any of their claims.
There are no easy solutions. It makes sense to reach interim agreements, for example, both for First Nations and to allow economic development, even if they make treaties harder to reach. And there is no escaping the reality that the courts are always looming over the process, an alternate battleground when things go badly for any party. First Nations are tempted to wait and see what the next legal ruling brings.
But the reports suggest a bigger problem. Despite the big money being spent, there has been little sense of urgency or commitment to getting deals done. That focus needs to be much sharper.
Footnote: The reports note that First Nations now have borrowed about $290 million to fund their role in treaty talks, money that was to be repaid from cash settlements. Repayment was to start 12 years after the first loans were made to a First Nation, but governments have not enforced the provision. The expectation now is that loans will be forgiven.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Abbott flounders in dodging private ER issue

If Health Minister George Abbott wanted to insult British Columbians any more effectively this week he would have needed to go door to door giving people the finger.
The opposition raised important health-care questions this week as the three-day sitting ended. Two-tier health care has been expanding in B.C. for a decade, as clinics offer speedier, better treatment for patients willing to pay extra.
The latest incarnation is the boldest. The owners of the False Creek Surgical Centre are opening a private emergency room this week. Come up with the $199 examination fee, plus extra for tests and treatment, and you won't have to wait around in an overcrowded hospital emergency room.
Some people think that's fine. But Canadians have so far decided that people's access to health care shouldn't depend on how rich they are. Parliament passed the Canada Health Act to create a law to make sure that doesn't happen. It's illegal to charge an extra fee for medically necessary procedures in Canada. Most people support that idea. If a child is injured, or a grandparent falls ill, we have decided that their treatment shouldn't depend on how much the family can afford to pay. We've agreed to ration health care based on need, not by auctioning off access to the highest bidder.
The surgical clinics, and now the private ER, violate that principle. If two children fall ill, rich parents can buy quick treatment. The other child, even if sicker, will wait in an often crowded, dismal and chaotic hospital emergency room.
The NDP tried to ask questions about the private ER in the legislature. Abbott's response was appalling.
The first question, from NDP leader Carole James, asked why Abbott was apparently caught off-guard by the new business. The operators offered the health ministry a briefing 10 months ago, but he only learned of the plan last weekend.
Abbott didn't answer. Instead he went off on a rant about the NDP government's failure to do anything about the False Creek Surgical Centre when it opened in 1999.
He's right. The New Democrats can be blamed for allowing private two-tier care to take hold. But the public is not much interested in what happened seven years ago and Abbott is the health minister today.
James tried again. Abbot responded by listing other private surgical centres that opened their doors in the 1990s.
You get three tries in Question Period. James used her third to ask about other two-tier care issues raised in the last year, including the opening of the Copeman Clinic in Vancouver. Abbott responded by noting federal NDP leader Jack Layton had hernia surgery done in a private Ontario clinic - hardly important to British Columbians wondering if they should start saving to ensure they can afford first-rate ER care for their parents or children.
Maybe Abbott is still smarting from the shoddy way NDP cabinet ministers responded to Liberal questions. Maybe he thinks the legislature is just a place to talk trash and score political points.
But I like to think the New Democrats were booted out, at least in small part, because of their refusal to recognize that MLAs - even opposition ones - were asking questions on behalf of the people who elected them and deserved serious answers. Even when the questions were couched in their own political rhetoric.
Spout nonsense in response and you insult all British Columbians who want real answers. These are real, important questions. The Liberals have failed to address the expansion of private two-tier care. They introduced and passed legislation to make it easier to enforce the Canada Health Act in 2003, but Premier Gordon Campbell then decided not to implement it. Issues like the Copeman Clinic and the private sale of MRIs on equipment in public hospitals drag on with no resolution. And the ministry didn't even think the private ER issue was worth a meeting with the owners.
It's a shoddy way to let public health care erode.
Footnote: Abbott was more forthcoming outside the legislature. He allowed that he shouldn't have been in the dark about the clinic's plans 10 months after ministry staff was told of them. And he said it appeared that the private ER violated the Canada Health Act and B.C. medicare protection legislation. The doors open this week.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

NDP makes most of brief session

You can see why the Liberals didn't want a fall session of the legislature.
Barely minutes into what they hoped would be a one-day sitting to appoint a new Child and Youth Representative, Solicitor General John Les was facing tough questions. The New Democrats were accusing him - with evidence in hand - of misleading the legislature and the public when he claimed last year that all child deaths in the province were being properly investigated.
And NDP leader Carole James offered up evidence that she said showed a government attempt to get around the freedom of information act. The government attempted to cover up facts that contradicted Les' earlier claims about child-
death reviews.
Both charges are the latest events in a scandal the Liberals hoped they had put behind them. After months of denials and stonewalling, the Liberals admitted last year that bungling and cost-cutting had led to the abandonment of hundreds of incomplete reviews into the deaths of B.C. children. The failures were among the raft of problems in the children and families ministry that led to the appointment of Ted Hughes as an independent commissioner to investigate. His scathing report included a call for the creation of the new Child and Youth Representative position.
Throughout the scandal Les continued to insist that the problems were limited and things were back on track. All child deaths since 2003 were being properly investigated, he said, and the Coroners Service had the authority and money to do the work.
But the NDP had done a freedom of information request. It turned up memos from the Coroners Service sent to Les months before he offered the reassurances, saying the coroner couldn't investigate all child deaths. It didn't have the authority to collect evidence, the Coroners Service said. New legislation was "urgently needed." This before Les claimed the service had all the authority it needed to investigate any child's death.
The coroner said 40 per cent of child deaths weren't even reported to his office. Les claimed every child's death was reviewed.
And an internal review from the extremely diligent manager of child death reviews summarized the situation in mid-2005. "No research has been conducted in relation to child deaths ... no education or prevention initiatives have taken place. ... The actual formation of multidisciplinary child-death review teams has not yet taken place." Les acknowledged none of that.
Wait, as they say on the late-night infomercials for miracle vegetable choppers, there's more.
Because when the NDP got the big freedom of information package, a hand-written note from the top executive in Les' ministry was tucked in the pages.
The deputy minister was reviewing the material to be released to the NDP under the freedom of information law, which is in itself kind of alarming. The law provides for open government. The ministry CEO shouldn't really need to vet all the material released under the legislation.
The deputy minister wasn't happy. Wait a minute, he noted. Some of the information makes it seem the coroner didn't have enough money to do child death reviews. Some of the material to be released "contradicts what we have said to this point. . . . Suggest [this section] be severed," he wrote in his note to staff.
Les tried to explain the comments away, unconvincingly. The government is allowed to keep advice to cabinet ministers secret, he said, and his deputy was suggesting the material qualified. No big deal.
Except the deputy minister didn't write a note saying the material should be secret because it was advice to cabinet. He said it should be concealed because it contradicted what the government had told the public.
The New Democrats have managed to keep the legislature going for two days so far and can probably manage another two before the Child and Youth Representative is approved and everyone goes back home.
That likely can't come soon enough for the Liberals.
Footnote: Almost lost in all this is the appointment of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as child and youth representative. She appears an excellent choice - aboriginal, a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan with an excellent academic background, a good record on the bench and an interest in child and youth issues. She starts work in February in the important new role as the advocate for children and families and watchdog over the ministry.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Governments pay First Nations for legislature land, at last

VICTORIA - It's reassuring to know that local First Nations won't be hammering a big 'For Sale' sign into the lawn in front of the B.C. legislature.
The Songhees and Esquimalt bands filed a lawsuit in 2001 arguing that the big stone building sits on property that belongs to them.
And now the provincial and federal governments have agreed, promising $31.5 million to compensate the bands for their lost property. Instead of being sheepish or resentful, the politicians turned the deal into a Saturday morning celebration at the legislature. (Though they did choose to unveil the agreement while Premier Gordon Campbell was half-a-world away in China.)
When the two First Nations launched the legal action in 2001 it was mostly seen as part of the backlash over Campbell's divisive and pointless plan for a referendum on treaty principles.
But in fact they had a good claim.
By the time the Vancouver Island colony was set up in 1849 the British government had decided to recognize the principle of aboriginal ownership throughout the empire. It wanted local representatives to reach agreements showing clearly that natives had agreed to surrender land and been compensated.
So James Douglas, the colony's governor and the regional manager for the Hudson's Bay Company, set out to sign treaties. The deals offered the natives money to give up title to vast tracts of land and also set out areas they would continue to own.
In 1850 Douglas reached one of those deals with the predecessors of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations was one of those agreements. Under he agreement they were to continue to own their village sites, which included the nice piece of waterfront property across the harbour from Fort Victoria. The land was marked on colonial maps as a reserve. (The treaty push only lasted a few years. The British government didn't see enough pressure for development to justify acquiring more land.)
But when Douglas and colonial officials started looked for a site for a legislature in the late-1850s, the reserve caught their eyes. Part of the appeal was that the government wouldn't have to pay; it could just take the land.
And it did.
It's a familiar story. Even when treaties were reached with First Nations, governments and business were often quick to take bits needed for a new community or a highway - or a legislature. It was faster, easier and cheaper than buying property from non-natives. The practice continued at least through the 1940s in B.C.
But the courts have said a deal is a deal. If you take someone's property, you owe them compensation, even if they don't find out about the loss for a century.
All in all it's encouraging that the governments have accepted this claim and reached a settlement. That's a big change.
In 2001 Campbell and the Liberals were still arguing that the Nisga'a treaty should be declared invalid because it gave too much power to the First Nation.
They were planning a referendum to seek support for treaty principles that would have made agreements impossible.
Now five years later the referendum results have been tossed in the dustbin, the Liberals laud the benefits of the Nisga'a treaty and Campbell is championing a New Relationship with First Nations.
The federal government's shift is just as dramatic. It has routinely stalled and stonewalled similar cases for decades.
Partly, the Songhees and Esquimalt bands probably have the International Olympic Committee to thank for the settlement. The governments knew that in 2010 the world media would have jumped all over a story that showed B.C.'s legislature was built on land taken illegally from First Nations.
But the settlement likely also indicates that the provincial government is looking for ways to right old wrongs and remove barriers to the new relationship.
Clearing up the cloud over the province's legislature is another useful step.
Footnote: The ceremony came the day after Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mike de Jong jumped into a dispute between local First Nations and a developer who wanted to destroy a cave they say is sacred. De Jong helped reach a two-week truce, saving the governments from some embarrassment on what was supposed to be a good-news day.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Public clear - give us more services, we’ll pay

VICTORIA - Commentators seem to think it shows some problem that British Columbians have ideas for where government could do more, but can’t offer up any places to cut spending.
But why? Surely the public has a right to tell government that spending cuts aren’t needed.
And surely that’s exactly what the vast majority - say 90 per cent - of the 8,000 submissions told the legislative finance committee.
The committee has just reported on its budget consultations with British Columbians and offered up its recommendations.
Finance Minister Carole Taylor had tried to frame the discussion as a question of trade-offs. The public shouldn’t just offer ideas for areas where more needs to be done, but also where cuts could be made to offset any new spending.
British Columbians told the committee they didn’t see areas where government should be cutting spending.They don’t want any money wasted and they’re nervous about Olympic costs. But the 8,000 people and organizations didn’t want government to cut services or programs. They believed they were useful.
In fact, they wanted government to do more. They wanted it to spend the money needed to provide faster access to health care. They wanted a bigger investment in education, from kindergarten through university. They thought the environment and climate change should be priorities. And they convinced the committee that a bigger, faster investment is needed in affordable housing and services for women.
Why should that be a surprise? Government is a service provider; the legislative committee is effectively doing market research. And what people are saying is that they want services from government, for themselves and to make the community better. And they don’t want reductions.
Not surprising. People always want lots of features. They don’t always want to pay for them.
But there’s good news for the government. First, it has the ability to keep the customers’ satisfied. It’s forecasting annual surpluses of at least $1.2 billion for this year and the next two.
And even better, the market research - that is the committee consultations - found the public isn’t looking to pay less. Tax cuts simply weren’t a priority.
Business groups want B.C.’s tax regime to remain competitive, and that is important. But even business spokesmen had few immediate issues, like the capital tax on financial institutions. The public also thought the property transfer tax was taking too big a bite as house prices soared.
But generally, there was no demand for tax cuts, the report noted.
That’s a change from a decade ago. People were concerned about the level of taxation and were prepared to see governments cut services. They believed - with justification - that their money was not being spent wisely and carefully.
Governments responded. Now the public is prepared to pay. A majority of Albertans didn’t want this year’s $400 rebate cheques from their government; they thought the money go for better services. A 2004 Ipsos-Reid poll found 60 per cent of British Columbians would prefer higher property taxes to reduced services.
Really, it’s a compliment to politicians. People believe they are getting value for money and prepared to pay more. And, since they are also worried about the province’s debt, they see a need to pay as they go.
Of course, none of this much matters. The legislative committee is like the eight-year-old who’s asked where he thinks the family should go on vacation. Cute, but pretty much irrelevant.
The committee got a very similar same message two years ago. The public said 80 per cent of any surplus should got to improving services, especially education and health. When the dust settled, education and health got one per cent of the surplus; 80 per cent of the money went to paying down debt.
But maybe this time the government will be more attentive.
It would be wise. The public is saying don’t waste our money, but we’re prepared to trust you to collect taxes and deliver the services we need to live happily in this very fine place.
That’s a big compliment. Why not listen?
Footnote: There has been some suggestion Campbell is committed to tax cuts in this budget, apparently based on his speech to this month’s Liberal party convention. But Campbell speech talked about more tax cuts “within this mandate.” That means anytime up until the 2009 budget, not necessarily this spring.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Government condemns these children to suffering

VICTORIA - What kind of government can boot disabled 19-year-olds into the world knowing they face almost certain failure?
Not just the usual struggles of any young adult, but full-on disasters - poverty, chaos, crime, exploitation, sexual abuse and just plain lonely misery.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley has just reported on what happens to children in care with fetal alcohol disorder when they turn 19. The report reminds us that behind the statistics there are scared, struggling young people thrown alone into a world where they little chance of coping.
Fetal alcohol syndrome and its related disorders are terribly cruel afflictions. When a mother drinks during pregnancy the fetus can suffer permanent neurological damage, often with few physical symptoms. The effects are cruel. Children and adults suffering from the disorder often have great difficulty in looking ahead even a few minutes to judge the consequences of actions. They are impulsive and take big risks, without realizing that's what they are doing. Their social skills and judgment are terrible, leaving them at once lonely and isolated and vulnerable to exploitation by people who pretend to befriend them. They have difficulty learning and performing even moderately complex tasks.
None of this means that they can't also be sweet and successful people. They can work and manage and contribute, although a lot of support is often needed.
But they rarely get that help. Morley's report looked at what happens to children in government care with fetal alcohol disorders in government care when they turn 19. It's disheartening.
For most young people, turning 19 is a milestone. They still count on parental help and support, and likely will for several years. But they're moving on into the world.
For kids in government care - about 9,000 today - it's a terrible turning point. The children and families ministry assumes they are adults. They're sent away from foster homes.  The supports and counselling they were receiving end abruptly. They are on their own.
It's a ridiculous way to treat anyone. It's disastrous for youths with fetal alcohol disorders.
Morley's study looked at six real young people who were close to the age of 19. It evaluated the support they were receiving, their personal progress and problems and the help they would need to make it in the world.
Then the report looked at the help they would actually get under current government policies. That is, for the most, part, none.
So Ashley, 17, will be expected to live on her own, find work or get welfare, manage her money and avoid life's pitfalls with little or no structured help and no special financial assistance.
Except that today Ashley is receiving extensive support in a foster home. She can't manage money on her own, use public transit or shop for groceries. She forgets appointments and obligations and is lonely and insecure. She is already being exploited by people who see her as an easy victim.
Ashley's story could have a happy ending. She's going to high school and working in the cafeteria. She thinks, realistically, that with help she could have a good life. Her social worker and caregiver agree.
But instead she will be set adrift in world where she can not survive on her own.
That's immoral and costly. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives costs much more than providing needed help before it is too late.
Morley makes several recommendations, starting with a call for the government to provide transitional support that would continue until these people reach 24. Most children already receive such help; it's ludicrous to deny it to those who need it most.
But that's what the government has done. It is now fighting a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it is illegal to cut off needed support arbitrarily at 19.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen won't commit to accepting any of Morley's recommendations.
We should all be ashamed.
Footnote: The province has a fetal alcohol strategy, but it emphasizes prevention and work with children and youth. A $10-million one-time grant to the Victoria Foundation earlier this year was also focused on those areas. Young adults, especially children aging out of care, have received little attention. Morley's report is available at

Thursday, November 09, 2006

This Remembrance Day is different

VICTORIA - This feels like a different kind of Remembrance Day.
It has always been an important day, a time to honour ordinary men and women who suffered and died because they accepted the call of their government or their conscience. A time to remember, so it doesn’t have to happen again.
We remember teachers and accountants and farmers prepared to kill and be killed for a cause — to fight evil, or defend the helpless or just to do their duty. Their neighbours were dying. They didn’t feel right staying home.
But Remembrance Day was always a look back. It was about something we hoped was behind us. That always been part of the point - a war to end all wars.
We stood silently beside our school desks for two minutes at 11 a.m., the weight of the moment heavy enough that no one fooled around. From the moment we first consider death - say at four or five - Remembrance Day has power.
But the day was always about past, increasingly distant, sacrifices. At its centre were men and women who moved a little more slowly each year on their way to the Cenotaph, their numbers always smaller.
And in a way, that was. It meant a whole generation, now two, has been freed from the need to fight. That’s partly why it felt important to keep the memories alive. Remembering the people who had faced the horror of war reminded us all how desperately we should be working for peace.
This year everything is different. When the wreaths are laid they are not just for people who died at Dieppe, or Vimy, so long ago.
They are for people like Pte. Blake Williamson, killed last month in Afghanistan.
The numbers are still tiny. Only 42 deaths in Afghanistan. That would be a few minutes’ casualties at Passchendaele, where Canadians died by the thousands to claim a few hundred muddy yards.
But that was 90 years ago. Those men died in black and white photos. They were our great-grandfathers and beyond. We didn’t know them. We can’t comprehend their lives.
We didn’t send them there.
Even the Second World War veterans’ experiences are far removed from us. For 80 per cent of British Columbians, the war is something they read about. When this generation’s parents came home from war, they were looking ahead, not back. It was something to be put away, hard work that had to be done.
This year is different. Canadians have been in danger - and died - in missions around the world since the Second World War, including Korea.
But this is the first Remembrance Day in half a century at a time when we have sent Canadians overseas on a combat mission, with a main goal of fighting and killing an enemy. A mission that inevitably will mean that some of our troops will die and be maimed.
That changes this day. We’re not just honouring long-ago sacrifices. There are men and women - our neighbours and relatives - killing people on our behalf today, and being shot or shattered by shrapnel.
This Remembrance Day should be about those people too. We haven’t done right by them. Canada edged into a military role in Afghanistan, with little public or political debate. We’ve sent our forces into parts of Afghanistan where no other country will venture. We haven’t demanded answers about what a successful outcome will be, how long that could take and how high a price we are prepared to pay. We’re even split on whether it’s a good idea to have our forces there at all.
None of that is right. If we’re asking people to do this, we need to be a lot more careful and diligent in protecting and valuing their lives.
So this Remembrance Day, think about the men and women who died long ago, the extraordinary courage and sacrifices or ordinary people.
But remember too the people fighting right now. We owe them our attention, now and every day.
Footnote: Americans today are looking back on the Iraq war and all those deaths and wondering if things could have been different if only they had paid closer attention to what was going on, if only they had asked more questions, demanded more answers. Canadians should fear that some day, we will be wondering the same things about Afghanistan.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Campbell's $1,000 baby gift weird policy

VICTORIA - I can't think of a more curious recent policy idea than Gordon Campbell's plan to give every baby born after this year $1,000 towards post-secondary education.
The government will hang on to the money, the premier told the enthusiastic Liberal party convention crowd in Penticton.
When the babies make it out of diapers and through high school, they'll get the money with interest. Figure something like $2,000.
The $41-million-a-year plan sounds great, but it's a very odd bit of public policy.
Campbell has decided, inexplicably, that a tuition subsidy for students starting their post-secondary education in 2025 is a spending priority today. Not fixing more knees this year or homelessness or cutting taxes, but aid for individual students 18 years from now.
Think about that - a government that believes it can predict needs decades into the future. Better yet, cast your mind back the same distance in time to 1987. Could then premier Bill Vander Zalm have made a sensible spending commitment aimed at the needs of British Columbians today?
The world is changing. What if post-secondary education is free in 2025? That's not really such a far-fetched notion as we shift to a knowledge-based economy. The forest industry will still be in the fallow years following the pine beetle disaster. Other resource industries will be substituting technology for labour and expecting higher skill levels from employees. Manufacturing and service jobs will have shifted to Asia and other emerging economies.
It may well be that it makes economic sense to provide free post-secondary education.
But leaving that kind of problem aside, how can Campbell possibly decide that students' needs will be greater in 2025 than they are today?
That is what he's saying. The government could take the money it's tying up and invest it in help for students right now - bursaries or education credits or tax breaks. It could expand apprenticeship opportunities or college spaces. It could pour the $41 million into improving First Nations' dismal high-school completion rates.
Instead, it's decided the educational affordability problem will be greater in 2025.
_That's odd. The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation released its annual study on student debt last week. About 60 per cent of students graduate from _university owing some money.
The debt burden for B.C. grads is the second highest in the country. They owe an average $27,675 by the time they get their degrees.
That is, even today, a painful debt burden for a 22-year-old. A beginning teacher, or social worker, or nurse starts out life paying the government $360 a month for nine years.
The average debt for B.C. students has increased 39 per cent in the last three years. The cost of housing, soaring tuition and cuts to grant programs have all played a role.
But the premier figures things will be even tougher in 2025.
It gets stranger. Campbell promised the future money to every child. If the children's parents are billionaires, they'll still get the $2,000.
Which seems a poor use of public funds. A smart program would target bright kids who couldn't afford an education and worry less about the students who are already guaranteed one. It would look for merit and need in an effort to provide the greatest payback.
It is, in short, a strange idea, and an expensive one. The program will only cost $41 million next year, but what government is going to stop it? By 2025 we will be over the $1 billion in mark in money held in trust.
What's really worrying in all this is more fundamental. The $41-million cost isn't a big deal in the context of the provincial budget.
But it's real money. Our money. We expect the government to use good judgment and sound analysis in spending it to meet real needs.
And there's no evidence that happened in this case.
Footnote: There are a whole of questions unanswered about this notion, further evidence that it's more ploy than policy. What if a child moves out of province months before graduation - does he get the money? Or if most of her life is spent somewhere else? What happens if a student decides to wait several years before starting college or university?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Botched income trust policy hurt taxpayers, economy

VICTORIA - You can be angry at the Conservatives for breaking their promise not to plug the income trust tax loophole - especially if you lost money because you believed them.
But it’s a good move that will help average taxpayers and encourage a stronger Canadian economy.
And if you’re looking for the real bad guys in all this, turn your gaze to the former Liberal government, which chose to ignore the destructive effects of a flawed tax rules.
People tend to turn the page when they hit a column about tax policy. But this one is pretty straightforward, and important.
Corporations spotted a great tax loophole in income trusts about six years ago and proceeded to jump through it in ever-increasing numbers. The less they paid in taxes, the more the rest of us had to cough up. Eventually - way too late - the government decided to act.
It’s a simple enough proposition. Corporations pay taxes on their profits, including the money they send out to shareholders as dividends.
But their clever tax lawyers realized companies could avoid paying most of those taxes. All they had to do was create income trusts and register them. Profits paid to the trust, and then distributed to taxpayers, weren’t taxable. The company had more money left to hand out, so its value rose.
Nothing actually changed for the better in the business - it doesn’t make more widgets or improve in any way. But it was worth a lot more.
A few companies made the switch. The Liberal government did nothing. So more jumped at the chance to cut taxes and boost their value.
The Conservatives promised they would leave the loophole open, so some of Canada’s biggest companies decided to become income trusts. The trickle of trust conversions became a wave. One estimate put the net lost revenue to government - recognizing that individuals would pay taxes on their gains - at $1.1 billion a year and growing.
So Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered his Halloween scare for investors. The tax loophole is closed immediately for companies that haven’t converted, bad news for corporations like Telus that were expected to make the change. Its share price fell 13 per cent on the first day after the announcement. Companies that have already made the shift will keep the tax break until 2011. Their values fell too.
Flaherty did the right thing.
It isn’t just that the corporate efforts to avoid taxes shifted the burden on to the rest of us. Regular corporations can take a look at their financial statements and decide what to with profits - pay dividends, reduce debt or invest in new technology or expansion. But income trusts commit to sending a fixed amount to unit holders each year. There’s a risk that investment in the future suffers.
The big lesson here is that government dithering can be expensive.
The income trust issue didn’t catch government by surprise. Australia and the U.S. went through similar experiences almost two decades ago and decided to close the tax loopholes.
And six years ago, as companies started looking at the income trust option, Canada could have taken the same step with little negative impact.
The Liberal government didn’t. Big corporations liked the chance to pay less tax. With each passing month of government inaction, more people had a stake in the trusts and would be angry at any change. The Liberals and the Conservatives let it slide, until now.
Investors aren’t the only losers as a result. Companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars converting to income trusts and developing new business plans. They developed new long-range business plans.
And then government changed the rules and made their investment worthless.
It’s a sorry tale. A responsible, effective government would have never let the whole trust spree get this far. The result has been lost government revenue, scary times for some investors and wasted time and money in the corporate sector.
Footnote: Trusts, with their regular payment schedules, were popular with seniors. The change hurt them. Flaherty offered an offsetting benefit. Couples can now split one person’s pension income for tax purposes, shifting them into a lower tax bracket. The change will be most significant for those with a high pension income.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

First treaty offers big hope for progress

VICTORIA - The Leheidli T'enneh is only a small First Nation, with barely 300 members in the Prince George area.
But the treaty deal just reached with the federal and provincial governments and could mark some very big progress in the long effort to resolve First Nations land claims in B.C.
After 13 years and hundreds of millions of dollars this is the first final agreement reached under the B.C. treaty process. That's important in itself. One of the problems in any set of multiple linked negotiations - like the treaty talks with more than 50 bands around the province - is that no one wants to sign that first agreement.
All the parties know that the first deal will inevitably set some benchmarks for every agreement to follow. As the people at one negotiating table get closer to a deal they grow increasingly worried about the long-term implications of the concessions and compromises they are making.
First Nations negotiators have another concern. They worry about getting yelled at by members if they sign a treaty agreement now and some other band manages to do better down the road. It's safer to wait.
The Leheidli T'enneh and governments worked through those barriers to reach the agreement signed in Prince George last weekend.
There's more reason for optimism. The treaty doesn't involve a huge amount of money or land. The Leheidli T'enneh have about 677 hectares in their current reserves. They will get another 3,650 hectares, including land within the City of Prince George. Even with the additional land, their holdings will still only be about 10 times the size of Stanley Park. The band will also get about $20 million in one-time payments and $400,000 a year for 50 years in guaranteed revenue-sharing money.
Those will undoubtedly be useful benchmarks for the parties at other negotiating tables.
But much more importantly, the deal tackles some of the critical non-monetary issues and comes up with pragmatic solutions that could be applied in other talks.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, has made much of his opposition to "race-based fisheries." But the federal government has accepted this deal, which guarantees the Lheidli T'enneh - subject to conservation concerns - a share of the Fraser River sockeye run for a commercial fishery. At other treaty tables the question of whether First Nations will be required to accept Agricultural Land Reserve restrictions on development has been a concern for neighbouring municipalities. This proposed treaty deals with the problem, setting out a negotiated agreement on which lands will continue to be considered within the reserve.
Another issue, particularly in the Lower Mainland, has been how - or whether - First Nations would work with neighbouring communities. Municipalities fear uncontrolled development or extreme tax policies that would threaten their management efforts. The settlement commits the Lheidli T'enneh to work with Prince George and the district to develop a harmonized tax structure and regional plan.
And the treaty resolves the issue of certainty, one of the big stumbling blocks in negotiations. First Nations fear the impact of signing away all future claims; governments want treaties to end uncertainty about land ownership and use. The agreement includes language that both sides accept as a reasonable solution, defining the treaty as a final resolution of land claims while allowing for an arbitration process if new issues rise.
First Nations have been insistent that there can be no province-wide template. The issues and solutions are different at treaty tables around the province, they have maintained, and agreements must reflect those differences.
But the reality is that negotiators will be able to build on this agreement, particularly in resolving issues like fisheries and certainty.
A lot could still go wrong. The provincial and federal governments now have to ratify the deal, a formality. But Lheidli T'enneh members also must vote on it and the band has set a 70-per-cent approval threshold.
But this deal remains the most promising road on the long path to treaties.
Footnote: The deal is timely. The weekend saw another meeting of representatives of more than 40 native communities who warned of mounting frustration and the risk of protest over the governments' position on key treaty issues. The Lheidli T'enneh agreement shows progress is possible.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Campbell drops money and bombshells on UBCM

VICTORIA - It's a lot more fun being premier once there's money to hand out.
Premier Gordon Campbell hit the stage to deliver the closing speech to the Union of BC Municipalities with a bag of goodies and a couple of major policy changes.
At least of one of those policies, which will make municipalities switch to public-private partnerships for all major projects, is likely to create some future sparks.
In the meantime all the good news had the 800 UBCM delegates - councillors and mayors - on their feet a few times.
There will be $20 million for Spirit Squares, which sound like one of those tasty treats served at community dinners, but in fact is a program to develop outdoor meeting places for B.C.'s 150th anniversary in 2008. The province will match municipal spending up to a maximum $500,000 for new or improved parks or meeting places.
Another $21 million will be available over three years for infrastructure projects in towns under 5,000. Instead of the usual 50-50 cost-sharing, the province will cover 80 per cent of the costs for projects worth up to $800,000. The program will be a big boost for communities that can't come up with the larger share of spending required under existing programs.
There's $10 million a year over four years for the cutely named LocalMotion Fund, which will cover half the costs for bike paths, trails and greenways.
All fine and dandy and much appreciated by the municipal reps.
But they got less hearty fare when it came to one of the major issues that dominated the convention, the big increase in homelessness and public poverty.
Campbell talked a lot about providing more affordable housing. He made a pitch for greater density - smaller lots, smaller houses, more tall buildings - as a way of keeping housing costs down and creating more livable communities. He urged councils to approve low-income or supported housing projects more quickly.
And he promised that the next budget would include some increase in the welfare shelter allowance - the maximum amount people on social assistance have to devote to housing. The allowances, like welfare rates generally, are ridiculously low, unchanged in 12 years except for Liberal cuts to some categories in 2002.
A parent with two children is allowed up to $555 a month for housing, an impossibility in much of the province. A single person is allowed $325, not even enough for a campsite in Kelowna. A pregnant woman gets $580 a month for food, housing and everything else.
But Campbell wouldn't say how much the rates would increase, or why nothing is being done to deal with the problem now.
Campbell also casually dropped a bombshell towards the end of his comments on homelessness. The effort to move the mentally ill and others out of institutions over the last 30 years has been "a failed experiment," he said. The people were supposed to receive support to let them live in the community. Instead they have been largely abandoned, adding to homelessness and other urban problems.
But Campbell couldn't say what solutions he had planned - whether health authorities, for example, which still continue to close homes for people with mental illness to save money, would get a budget increase. "We're going to have to find ways to do a much better job," was the best he could offer.
The other bombshell is a new requirement that will make it almost mandatory for municipalities to use public-private partnerships for any infrastructure project worth more than $20 million.
Campbell says it's cheaper and less risky to turn the projects over to a private company. But some municipalities - especially on sensitive projects like water systems - are likely to balk at provincial interference.
All in all, the speech was a success. But it's still unclear whether all those "Spirit Squares" are just going to be new places for the homeless, addicted and mentally ill to hang out.
Footnote: Campbell devoted a large portion of the speech to urban planning, urging smaller lots and houses, more high-density development and fewer rules that push up costs for developers and consumers. The benefits aren't just in reducing housing costs, he said, but in creating healthier communities where people can walk to work.

Gambling expansion brings new crime wave

VICTORIA - It’s all unfolding just as Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger predicted when he warned government about the risks of gambling expansion.
Addictions. Suicides. Families destroyed.
Crime - especially organized crime - on the increase.
The latest bad news comes in the annual report of the province’s Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, which reveals a crime explosion at casinos and “community gaming centres.”
Investigations into serious offences like loan sharking and money laundering more than doubled last year. Overall, the branch launched 3,414 investigations - a 36-per-cent increase.
It’s no surprise. Krueger warned government about expanding gambling:  "There is a huge increase in crime, right from breaking into vending machines in order to have money for slot machines, on up to white-collar crime and into really heinous crimes as well."
Criminals like casinos. They’re a good place to move counterfeit money. The branch investigated 1,155 reports of counterfeit offences, up about 3.6 per cent from the previous year.
And casinos are a great place for big-time drug dealers and gangs to launder the proceeds of crime. It’s simple to buy $5,000 worth of chips, make a few safe bets and then cash in and leave with a casino cheque. Criminals can even declare the income. (The federal government does require casinos to report unusual transactions. But it’s hard to track every gambler and, as an Alberta RCMP report noted, casinos are reluctant to risk alienating good customers.)
Then there are the crimes with individual victims.
Problem gamblers and addicts make wonderful customers for loan sharks. They’re desperate and ashamed, but can’t quit. They have jobs and cars and homes - at least for a while - so the lender can usually collect.
The gambling enforcement branch investigated 192 reports of loan sharking last year - almost four new files opened every week. In Richmond, home to he province’s largest casino, RCMP are seeking extra officers to deal with the crime. They report at least five kidnappings in the last 18 months linked to gambling debts.
It’s all unfolding as the Krueger and the Liberals predicted when they were in opposition. That’s why they promised to stop the expansion of gambling.
Instead they went wild, tripling the number of slots, launching Internet betting and pushing mini-casinos into small towns, part of a plan to recruit more gamblers and increase their average loss. (That’s another reason Gordon Campbell said he opposed gambling. Its purpose is to create losers, Campbell said, and he didn’t want a province of losers.)
Meanwhile the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch budget has been cut for three consecutive years. The government is spending six per cent less now on enforcement than it did in 2003-4.
In that time the number of slot machines in the province has doubled. The number of casinos and mini-casinos has increased by more than 50 per cent, taking slots into small communities in every corner of the province.
Naturally, enforcement efforts can’t keep up. Last year the gaming branch launched more than 2,000 investigations into criminal activity. The result was 11 Criminal Code charges. It started 650 investigations into Gaming Control Act violations. For the second year, not a single charge was laid under the act.
The branch says its enforcement efforts are relatively new, explaining both the increasing activity and the lack of charges.
But the crime wave is exactly what the Liberals said would result from a gambling expansion.
Krueger, Campbell and the rest also warned about social problems. And the branch’s annual report shows they were right again. Problem-gambling calls to its help line jumped to 5,830 last year - an 86-per-cent increase over the previous year. More slots, more promotion, more gamblers means more addicts and people whose lives are messed up.
The amount committed to responding to gambling problems remained frozen for the fourth consecutive year.
More crime, new opportunities for gangs, more addicted and problem gamblers and addictions and more damaged families.
It’s all unfolding just the way the Liberals predicted.
Footnote: Public concern about gambling expansion seems to be increasing. BC Lotteries tracks public approval and has been forced to downgrade its targets. And Terrace has just become the first community to reject a bid to install slots in a new “community gaming centre,” deciding the social and policing costs outweigh any short-term benefits.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Column odds and ends, from Afghanistan to Cranbrook

VICTORIA - Cleaning up the backlog of "almost" column topics.
First, to Afghanistan. Six Canadians have now been killed patrolling a road construction project only a few kilometres long. My impression was that this was part of the improvements NATO forces were making to improve life for Afghanis. But the road - while perhaps useful for transportation - is being designed for the security of troops, with a 100-metre-wide cleared right-of-way. And it is being pushed through farmers’ fields and buildings, in an a country where a typical farm is two to five acres. It doesn't seem like an exercise that will win the hearts and minds of the locals.
Second, to Ottawa, where the Harper government - acting on an initiative started by the Liberals - pushed up health-care costs by handing big pharmaceutical companies a three-year extension on drug patents, preventing low-cost competition. The new rules affect about 25 per cent of prescription drugs and extend patent protection from five to eight years. Federal NDP health critic Penny Priddy - a former B.C. health minister - called the change a “gift” to big pharmaceutical companies. Generic drug companies say the change will cost the public - and provincial Pharmacare plans - about $120 million a year.
Third, to Toronto, where an Ontario Superior Court judge has tossed out a federal Elections Act rule that denied public political funding to smaller parties. Since 2004, when political donation rules were tightened, federal parties have been entitled to funding of $1.76 per year for each vote they got in the most recent election. But the money was denied to any party that got less than two per cent of the vote nationally or five per cent in the ridings where they ran candidates. Justice Ted Matlow said small parties play an important role and have a right to the same funding. The money will be worth about $60,000 a year to the Marijuana Party, which - along with the Christian Heritage Party and others challenged the law. I am now considering launching the Paul Willcocks Voice of Reason Party, with the aim of capturing 1,000 votes in each of B.C.’s 36 ridings - and as a result $63,000 a year in funding. Unless, as expected, the federal government appeals the decision.
Fourth, to Cranbrook, where provincial Liberal MLA Bill Bennett, also junior mines minister, got cranky about health-care criticism. Bennett lashed out at the NDP, telling Cranbrook Daily Townsman reporter Gerry Warner that he believed the New Democrats have hired an American firm specializing in political dirty tricks to advise them in the health-care conversation. He wasn’t just suspicious about the U.S. connection: “We’re certain they have,” Bennett said.
A serious allegation. How did Bennett know? Turned out it, despite the certainty claim, Bennett had not a shred of evidence, except that he though the New Democrats were being dishonest. (Bennett noted that the NDP had sent staff to a conference on campaigning in Washington in the spring, but since the Liberals had sent chief of staff Martyn Brown to a similar event, that didn’t seem too sinister.) The whole affair looked left Bennett - usually a very solid MLA - looking bad, the kind of person who hurls nasty accusations without a shred of evidence.
Fifth, back to Victoria, where Health Minister George Abbott continued to show a remarkably laid-back attitude to possible violations of the Canada Heath Act this week. When two Vancouver public hospitals admitted selling time on MRIs and other diagnostic machines to private clinics, which in turn offered faster access to care for people who could pay, Abbott said the queue-jumping looked illegal. he ordered a halt and promised an investigation.
So what did the investigation reveal? Too soon to say, says Abbott, which is surprising since this all happened almost two months ago. The obvious conclusion is that the government doesn't much care about the Canada Health Act.
Footnote: And sixth, the great Peter MacKay-Belinda Stronach question: Did MacKay, the jilted Conservative lover, call Stronach a dog in Parliament? He says no; the Liberals say yes and he should apologize; the truth will never be clear. It should make all MPs rethink their frequent descent into the kind of mindless, sneering abuse that would be unacceptable anywhere - except in Parliament. (And a note of congratulations to B.C. MLAs, for setting a higher standard of behaviour since 2005.)

A plug for the CBC TV show Intelligence

The blog is pretty much exclusively my columns, but I want to give a plug to the new CBC series Intelligence, on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. It would be a shame if the program died for lack of viewers.
It's smart crime/police/politics drama, proudly set in Vancouver. The lead bad guy - Reardon - is a pretty successful mid-level organized criminal, running grow ops, money laundering and related criminal activities, worrying about the rival bikers and the police and his own people. And worrying, also, about an addict ex-wife and an idiot brother who works for him.
On the other side is an ambitious detective who sees an informant relationship with Reardon as her ticket to advancing from criminal policing to a bigger role with CSIS. But she has to deal with the fierce internal politics of the police-CSIS world (including a sexist, ambitious conniving subordinate played brilliantly by Matt Frewer).
Vancouver looks great, the writing is excellent, the characters are interesting and believable and the similarities between the worlds of cops and crooks - and the corporate world for that matter - is striking.
And there is a Canadian look and feel, particularly in the realistic - at least by TV standards - look at the complexity of the lives of all involved.
I hardly ever make an effort to watch specific shows - 24, My Name is Earl, The Office - but I'd stay home for Intelligence.
Give it a try.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Chaos, confusion and coroners' secrecy put boy at risk

VICTORIA - There's some new appalling detail on almost every page of the report into why a little boy was left for months in the care of the man who beat his 19-month-old sister to death.
The government finally released Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley's report Friday, after sitting on it for three weeks. The report paints a terrible picture of failure, of a system snarled in rigid bureaucracy and plagued by paralysing secrecy, suspicion and indecision.
Ministry of children and families staff were keeping secrets from Usma, the First Nations' agency delivering child protection services to the family. Usma workers were keeping, it turned out, the same secrets from ministry staff.
Pleas for help and direction from front-line workers were ignored by senior ministry staff.
Even as chaos and confusion mounted, no one at the top levels of the ministry stepped in, called people together and sorted things out,
And all the while the Coroners Service, responsible for child death reviews, was refusing to provide critical information - including the details of the terrible injuries that killed Sherry Charlie - to the people charged with protecting her three-year-old brother Jamie and the other children in the Port Alberni home.
It's a grim recitation, made bearable only because the children weren't physically harmed.
Sherry Charlie, who had been placed in the care of family members by Usma on behalf of the ministry, was beaten to death Sept. 4. Within five days preliminary autopsy results made it clear to the coroner and police that she hadn't died from a fall down a few stairs, as the family claimed. She had head and abdominal trauma, a lacerated liver, internal bleeding and other injuries.
But neither coroner nor police shared that information with the ministry or Usma for almost two months.
Some scenes in the report stand out, moments that can convey the bizarre way this case was handled. By late October, eight weeks after the killing, the coroner had told ministry staff - vaguely - that Sherry's death hadn't been caused by a fall down stairs. But the coroner had insisted the information be kept secret.
Usma was about to extend Jamie's placement in the home. A senior ministry official was concerned enough to call the Usma supervisor and ask if she was sure that was the right decision. The puzzled Usma worker asked if the ministry knew something that she didn't.
Instead of answering, the ministry manager allowed a silent pause. She thought that was a good way to hint at problems; the Usma worker thought she was acknowledging there were no concerns. It was a ludicrous way to deal with a child in danger.
What also stands out is the failure of the Coroners Service to discharge - or even grasp - its responsibilities. It took four months for the coroner's service to produce an autopsy report on Sherry's death, which confirmed the original findings. It took another two months of effort to get the coroner to provide the report to the ministry.
This despite a legal requirement that coroners, like others, immediately report to the ministry any facts that raise questions about a child's safety.
It's grim. The Coroners Service priority appeared to be the police case, not children's safety.
Worse, Morley notes that the coroner involved and the Coroners Service both tried to argue that she shouldn't be allowed to comment or report on the possibility that the service had made mistake, broken laws or make any comments that "reflect adversely on the Coroner's competence." It's an incredible attempt to deny public accountability and hide from independent scrutiny.
The other alarming element to all this is that the facts are only coming out now, more than four years after all this happened.
And for much of that time the government has insisted that there was no need for an investigation, that the case had been properly handled and the Coroners Service was handling its responsibilities effectively.
Morley's report shows that none of those claims were true.
Footnote: The report includes on recommendation which urges the government to create a "system of multi-agency child death teams" to investigate when a child dies unexpectedly in the home of a caregiver and other children remain in the home. If the system had been in place, Morley says, police, coroner, the ministry and Usma could have worked together quickly and effectively.