Saturday, July 24, 2004

Resource towns fight back against arriviste rock stars

VICTORIA - When Randy Bachman and Neil Young are rocking in Duncan this fall, raising money for the next round in a fight against a nearby pulp mill, Leanne Brunt is going to be there too.
But not inside the theatre, clutching one of the hot $200 tickets.
Ms. Brunt and friends will be handing out pamphlets outside the theatre, and holding their own small-scale festival - "a celebration of resource communities and the people who live in them."
The duelling concerts - one with rock stars, the other with a picnic and some kids' games - mark the start of a new B.C.battle, one that goes far beyond the fight over emissions from Norske Canada's Crofton pulp mill.
Mr. Bachman lives in a $3-million enviro-friendly house on Saltspring Island. He and a clutch of like-minded Islanders joined forces in the Crofton Airshed Citizens' Group. They want an independent study of the emissions from the mill, which is about five kilometres across the water from Saltspring.
Ms. Brunt lives in a considerably more modest house in Campbell River. Like many of the people who work at the mill, she suspects the real goal of Mr. Bachman's group is to shut the mill down.
It's exactly the the kind of conflict that led her and others on the North Island to strt a movement called First Dollar. People in B.C.'s resource communities have been ignored and pushed around for too long, they say, by politicians, urbanites, and people like Mr. Bachman.
It's a divide you can see across the province. But the two worlds collide with the loudest crash in places where moneyed newcomers set down alongside resource communities.
In Pemberton, the current dispute is about logging in the "viewshed." In the Kootenays, it's about gas drilling. And on Saltspring and in the Cowichan Valley, it's about the pulp mill, which has been an economic mainstay for 47 years. Norkse employs about 1,000 people in the area, at above-average wages.
The relationship between mill and community has often been uneasy, especially as the community gentrified. But the current batlle was sparked by a company proposal to start using chipped-up railway ties, coal and shredded tires as fuel to supplement wood chips in the mill's boilers.
There's room for debate on the effects of using that kind of fuel, and a need for independent scientific review.
But many of the people who count on the mill for a living are convinced the critic's larger goal is to shut the mill down. If that's so, no amount of improvements will satisfy opponents.
The clean-air group denies such accusations. But then came the leak of an e-mail from Mr. Bachman to the provincial environment ministry. “We will not rest until the Crofton mill is shut down permanently,” he thundered in the January e-mail.
Mr. Bachman's publicist has since told reporters he has changed his mind, and no longer wants the mill closed.
Ms. Brunt doesn't have a publicist - not many single moms working in aquaculture do. She says all across B.C. people are moving to resource communities and then deciding they don't like the industries that have kept the towns alive. Couple that with government neglect and it's costing communites good jobs. "I have a 22-year-old son, and when he graduated a lot of his peers just left B.C.," she says.
First Dollar is only a few months old, but it's already found supporters across the province, including mayors and MLAs. Te goal is to promote resource industries, challenge opponents and counter boycott campaigns - generally, to push back.
B.C. has had its share of battles pitting environmentalists against companies (and sometimes unions). They have reshaped politics, helping the Green Party grow.
But this is a different kind of division, with its own impact on provincial politics. Both groups are significant. Both will be looking for a party that best reflects their ideals. Neither has an obvious political home.
Mr. Bachman and Ms. Brunt are in the frontlines of a battle that's likely to shake up B.C. politics every bit as much as the enviro campaigns of the '90s.
- From the Vancouver Sun

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Watchdog sounds children and families warnings

VICTORIA - It's a remarkable disgrace, the way the children and families ministry has been mismanaged.
The people the ministry serves rely on us. Some 9,000 children are in our care. We - not the government, but you and I - said OK, we'll take care of you. Your parents can't, so we'll get you through the perils of childhood and launch you into the world.
It's not just those kids. The ministry helps families in trouble, mentally disabled adults. Their counting on us. Not because they want to, but because they need us.
I'm not keen on this. I've got my family, my work, my worries. But they're counting on us, these children and families. And we're not such jerks that we can tell some four-year-old, lugging her plastic bag of possessions to a new foster home, that she should just shape up and make her own way. We're not ready to say 'Sorry, little one, need to trim the budget a bit, better in the long run. Try and cry quietly while you go off to sleep in a strange bed.'
I have children. I know how hard it is for them to make their way into this life even with lots of advantages - enough money, good schools and parents who, in their fumbling way, are trying hard to do the right thing. That means I know how much harder, and sadder, it must be to make your own way without those things.
I'm not always a great parent, but I've tried. Governments haven't tried with these kids.
This isn't about the bad Campbell Liberals. The NDP turned indifference and incompetence into an art when it came to the ministry of children and families.
But the Liberals promised better. More money for the ministry, more commitment, stability, competence. And they have betrayed that promise, and those children and families.
Instead of providing more money, they tried to impose a ridiculous 23-per-cent budget cut. When that blew apart, they settled for a 12-per-cent cut. Instead of more stability they opted for a bungled restructuring effort.
There was lots of talk, about moving to new regional authorities, supporting families and giving communities control. There was a great deal of volunteer work done by people across the province to help prepare for the transition, which makes sense.
But there wasn't competent management. The first regional authorities were supposed to be operating now. Instead they've been pushed off to 2006 or 2007. Community planning committees for the five non-aboriginal authorities have been shut down; aboriginal committees have had their budgets cut.
Child and Youth officer Jane Morley has just looked at the ministry's efforts in her first real annual report. The title - Stay the Course - and the tone are upbeat.
But the warnings are stark.
Many people no longer believe the changes are even going to happen, and feel betrayed. "The trust and engagement of those who have put energy into the transformation cannot be turned on and off like a tap," she reported.
Many on the front-lines believe the government plans are really about cutting costs, not providing better care. "My team and I have heard from many service providers as well as service users and their advocates that budget cuts have reduced communities’ capacity to provide needed services," she found. "Many believe that talk of shared responsibility with communities is code for downloading government financial responsibility."
Unless "real authority and resources continue to be devolved to the regions and through them to communities" the whole process may fail, she warns.
We had a right to expect better. The Liberals called for more money for the ministry when they were in opposition. Their election platform promised an end to constant bureaucratic restructuring.
Instead, they ignored warnings and launched a reckless, mismanaged plan to cuts spending while totally restructuring the ministry.
And children and families across the province have paid the price.
Footnote: From the report: "Sufficient resources are a prerequisite for an effective service delivery system. Yet there is never enough money to fund health, education and welfare needs . . . . In this competition, the voices of children and youth are not loud; they need champions to ensure that they are not forgotten when scarce resources are allocated."

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Martin's new cabinet good news for B.C.

VICTORIA - Expect a few quiet cheers from the BC Liberals at the news that Victoria MP David Anderson has been dropped from the new federal cabinet.
Followed quickly by groans as they contemplate the prospect of dealing with new federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, their former NDP adversary who once said Gordon Campbell wouldn't know the truth if it hit him the face.
All in all, the new cabinet looks like a gain for B.C.
The huge - perhaps even bloated - cabinet includes five ministers from B.C., the largest number in history. Dosanjh is joined by David Emerson as industry minister and Stephen Owen as minister for western economic development and sport. Raymond Chan gets multiculturalism and Jack Austin gets a seat at the table as the government leader in the Senate.
The numbers are intended to send a signal that B.C. matters. But the test will be what the clutch of ministers are actually able to do for the province on critical issues like the softwood lumber dispute.
Anderson's demotion will please the provincial Liberals on a couple of counts. As environment minister he had been a resolute foe of any plan to allow drilling for offshore oil and gas. Not until all the questions have been answered, he said, but always in a context that made it clear that what he really meant was never.
And during the election campaign he took a number of shots at the Campbell Liberals, blaming their unpopular policies for dragging down the federal party. There was at least some truth to the charges, but it hardly won Anderson points with the Campbell crew.
But Ujjal Dosanjh's emergence as health minister creates at least a couple of problems for the BC Liberals. Harsh words have been spoken in the past, and there's some illwill to be overcome.
And the Liberals will be twitchy about whether Dosanjh's new role will help Carole James in her efforts to paint the NDP as the voice of moderation, a party with more in common with federal Liberal voters than the Campbell government.
That shouldn't be a huge concern for the BC Liberals. The NDP had lots of nasty things to say about Dosanjh's jump to the federal Liberals, and there's illwill to be dealt with there as well.
Practically, Dosanjh should be the kind of health minister B.C. wants as the provinces head into negotiations with Ottawa on a new funding deal. He used to call on the federal government to increase funding; now he has at least a small chance to make that happen. (Small chance because the major health policy changes will be driven by the prime minister's office, not the health ministry.)
The most interesting addition is Emerson, a former top bureaucrat in Bill Bennett's Socred government and most recently head of Canfor. Industry is a big ministry - some 6,000 employees and a $1.4-billion budget - and includes responsibilities for tourism promotion and economic development.
Emerson is also the senior political minister for B.C., supported by Austin, a role that gives him the opportunity to emerge as a major voice for the province. (Though that was also the hope for Owen when he was elected in 2000. It didn't happen.)
It's an interesting time for the province.
Martin has promised to tackle B.C.'s sense of alienation. And with a minority government and facing a likely election within the next 18 months, he's got good political reasons for trying to convince British Columbians to back his party. (The Liberals and NDP were virtually tied for second place in the province in the election last month.)
That should provide opportunities for Gordon Campbell to lobby for increased federal aid, in terms of both money and policy change.
Count up all the pluses and minuses, and this looks like a cabinet with the potential to offer B.C. a stronger voice in Ottawa.
Footnote: Owen does have an opportunity to help B.C. as minister for western economic diversification, now removed from industry and made a stand alone minister. Owen is also responsible for the 2010 Olympics; he and Campbell can talk about the opportunities when they're both at the Athens Games next month.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Bar on family care shows an uncaring government

VICTORIA - Remember the Baulnes, the Kelowna family whose lives ended in despair after the government refused to provide money to help cope with their disabled son?
Because your government doesn't.
Maurice and Belva Baulne and their son Reece sat together in their little RV more than 2 1/2 years ago, while a hose running from the exhaust pipe filled the space with carbon monoxide. They were desperate - exhausted, running out of money and hurt. After 34 years of caring for Reece, who suffered from a terrible form of epilepsy and severe emotional problems, Maurice and Belva were sinking. They believed that Reece's emotional problems meant that handing him to strangers would destroy him. They knew they couldn't go on.
They needed help, and had tried to get $500 a month from the government. But while it was prepared to pay $60,000 a year to place Reece in an institution, government policy banned any payment to family caregivers.
After the deaths, then children and families minister Gordon Hogg promised change. "If any good can come out of these deaths, it's an understanding of the need for more flexibility," he said.
Empty words. Just ask Cheryl Hutchinson.
She's 34, a university graduate and composer. She also suffers from cerebral palsy, and requires 24-hour care to provide all her physical needs. The government will provide $6,000 a month so she can hire support workers.
But not the care worker she wants to hire, the one who has been looking after her since she was 13 - her father Phillip. The same policy that shattered the Baulnes remains in place. The B.C. government, almost alone among provinces, bars family members from providing paid care.
Cheryl and a few others have been fighting the rule for more than six years. And finally, after long delays, a BC Human Rights Tribunal has just ruled that the ban is illegal. It discriminates against Cheryl because she's severely disabled and against her father by barring him from work.
But it was a momentary victory. The government says it will appeal the ruling.
Cheryl's father, a single parent who is now 71, quit his job when she was 13 to provide care and give her the best chance at a full, independent life. They often lived on the edge of poverty. When there was no money for a wheelchair, he carried her to the school bus each day. He bathes her, rises in the night to roll her over in bed, helps her to the bathroom.
She's tried paid caregivers, but they've quit, or made her feel unsafe. (Imagine depending on a succession of strangers for almost all your physical needs.)
The government told the human rights tribunal it wants to make families to recognize their legal and moral obligation to provide care. It seems to me that Hutchinson has showed he understands that obligation better than most of us.
And the government says opening the door a crack could see more and more families seeking funding, causing costs to rise.
But it provided no convincing evidence. The government still decides when care is needed. Other provinces have successfully developed policies allowing paid family care.
And remember, the issue isn't whether Cheryl needs care. The government has agreed to provide $6,000 a month. Just not to her father.
Attorney General Geoff Plant says the government has to appeal the ruling, because it raises important issues.
But there need not have been a ruling. Instead of fighting families, the government could have developed a policy that allowed exceptions to the ban on family care based on clear criteria. (This isn't a Liberal issue; the NDP government was just as unyielding.)
The government's treatment of Cheryl Hutchinson and others caught in the same cruel trap shows little attention was really paid to the desperation of the Baulnes, giving up on the world in their lonely RV.
Footnote: The government's claimed commitment to providing support to help people remain in their homes is being undercut on another front. Parents have made convincing complaints that they are forced to put their severely disabled children in foster care because they can't get adequate government help to care for them at home.