Friday, April 01, 2005

B.C. wins Ottawa’s attention on beetles, tourism

VICTORIA - Score two for the federal Liberals’ B.C. Dream Team, just as the Conservatives are looking like stronger rivals.
Ottawa has come through with a pair of important initiatives for B.C.
Industry Minister David Emerson has announced $100 million in pine beetle aid, an amount that at least can be called a downpayment on what is needed.
And Prime Minister Paul Martin has confirmed that the Canadian Tourism Commission will move to Vancouver from Ottawa, an important shift both practically and symbolically.
The commission's mandate will still be national. But the move means the attractions, issues and opportunities will be top of mind when the commission staff head to work in the morning.
Practically, it also recognizes that B.C. offers the greatest opportunity to increase Canadian tourism. The province is the gateway for visitors from Asia - and soon from the booming Chinese market.
Ottawa was a bizarre location for the commission, with its 100 employees and $80-million budget. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver could each reasonably claim they were good choices - centres for tourism and marketing. Vancouver’s selection acknowledges the greater potential on this coast. (The shift also give B.C. marketing firms a chance to grab a larger share of the commission’s budget. The federal government and the provincial government both need to look more aggressively at functions and departments that can be moved outside the usual centres.)
The $100 million in pine beetle aid is also welcome, and enough as a first instalment. But the province, and communities, need a clear multi-year commitment so they can plan for the coming crisis, not a one-time chunk of cash.
Neither the province nor Ottawa has responded adequately to the pine beetle crisis. The federal government provided $40 million in 2002; the province has allocated $89 million for reforestation efforts over the next three years. The provincial government knows much more is needed, but wanted Ottawa to step up first.
The problem is huge. The beetle-killed trees will retain their commercial value for five to 10 years. But in about 15 years, those trees - 80 per cent of the lodgepole pine in the province - will be dead and worthless. The replacement trees, even with stepped up silviculture, will be decades from harvest. Communities will see the annual allowable cut reduced by up to 40 per cent for decades. No trees, no mills, no jobs.
In Quesnel, the timber supply is expected to be cut by 30 per cent. About three-quarters of the local jobs are linked to the forest industry, so figure about 2,500 out of 12,000 jobs are threatened. (That’s the equivalent of a single issue that would cost 300,000 jobs in the Lower Mainland.)
The challenge is immense, and government response needs to be sweeping. Reforestation is important, and finding ways to add value to what timber remains. But equally important is planning for a very different economy, and giving people the maximum time to prepare. That means consistent support, over the next 10 years.
All that aside, both the tourism commission move and the pine beetle aid money are welcome, and an indication that B.C.’s concerns are being heard by the Liberals in Ottawa.
It’s an opportune time. A Liberal minority government means closer attention to the province’s issues.
Especially as Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives seem on a bit of a roll. They emerged from their national convention without any major self-inflicted injuries. A weak bragging point perhaps, but bringing together the former Conservative and Alliance partisans without a public brawl is an achievement.
Still, the party emerged from the convention united. Members resisted the temptation to run one of the favorite social conservative causes up the flagpole so they could watch potential supporters run away. And Harper's leadership won strong backing.
A rising opposition, minority government, an imminent close election.
It is one of those moments when B.C. matters. And that’s an opportunity to be seized.
Footnote: The chance to tap some of the windfall provincial government revenues from a booming forest industry for pine beetle aid may have passed, The Conference Board of Canada is predicting industry profits will fall by 50 per cent this year - even with a settlement in the softwood dispute.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Too little information on the way we treat kids in care

VICTORIA - The Gove Inquiry, looking at the horrific death of a little boy who should have been saved, was clear.
"Death and serious injury reviews should proceed promptly. . . "  The Liberals and the NDP both supported Judge Thomas Gove's recommendations for children and families' reform.
Now it's ten years on, and a little girl is dead. Sherry Charlie was only 19 months old when she was placed in a Port Alberni foster home. Weeks later she was dead. Her foster father, Ryan George, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Sherry was battered to death.
It's not just another sad story. Because before Sherry was sent to the home, there were warning signs. George had a long and violent criminal record, and was still on probation for spousal assault.
Sherry died in September, 2002. Two-and-a-half years later, no review of her death has been completed. The public hasn't been told if any avoidable errors were made, or if it could be happening again as you read this column.
It's a big commitment, taking on the responsibility for children. On any given day that's the role the government - on your behalf - takes for some 9,000 children in British Columbia. It is difficult, but necessary. And it creates obligations.
We aren't honoring those obligations, according to three people who should know. Former children's commissioner Cindy Morton, children's advocate Joyce Preston and former B.C. ombudsman Dulcie McCallum wrote Gordon Campbell nine months ago because they were worried that British Columbians no longer know how well the ministry is serving the people who desperately need its help. They wanted a confidential meeting, to talk about solutions.
But they never got a response, despite three follow-up calls over several months, and decided to release their letter publicly.
The Liberals eliminated the offices of the children's commissioner, and children's advocate in 2002.
Nothing would be lost, they said. The BC Coroner’s Service would take over investigating and reporting on children’s deaths. But the coroner's budget was cut, and pressures mounted.The service hasn’t released a single review of child deaths, which were prepared every three months by the children's commission.
A new position, the child and youth officer, was established to replace both the children's commission and the youth advocate.
It hasn't been an adequate replacement. Officer Jane Morely may be active behind the scenes, and raised important concerns in her last annual report. But the public accountability has almost vanished.
It's a serious loss. The children’s commission's last annual report, in June 2002, found the ministry had acceptable care plans for only half the 9,700 children in care. It examined 107 cases in which children in care suffered critical injuries, and found half didn't have adequate care plans, and many had been poorly placed in foster homes and moved frequently.
Are we doing better, or worse by those children today? We don't know.
Gordon Campbell used to support the role of the children's commission and the children's advocate. He championed their work, and used their findings to hold the NDP government to account.
The Liberals have, by any reasonable standard, mishandled the ministry. Their initial plans for a 23-per-cent budget cut - obviously unrealistic - had to be abandoned, and the cuts scaled back (but not eliminated). A restructuring plan went wildly off-track, with the deadlines missed by years. Only in the last year has some stability emerged.
Those problems make it more critical that the public receive complete, independent reports on how the ministry is doing. It's not a question of second-guessing frontline workers, or finding fault. It's simply fulfilling our duty to children and families.
We - you and I - have taken on responsibility for some children in very tough circumstances. The evidence over the last decade is that government has great difficulty in meeting the huge challenge of offering the life and hope.
We need to know the job is being done right. And that means independent, public reporting.
Footnote: The coroner and ministry both say they will soon complete reports on Sherry's death. Advocates have been pressing for answers for at least a year, including information on whether the pressure to reduce costs affected her placement, and whether her foster home was appropriate to her needs and adequately supported and supervised.

Monday, March 28, 2005

B.C. needs to plan for a non-white future

VICTORIA - It's time to shed our Canadian politeness and talk a bit about how immigration and demography are changing our society.
StatsCan has just offered a sharp reminder of how big the changes are, forecasting that by 2017 one in three British Columbians will be members of visible minorities. In Vancouver, more than half the population will be visible minorities -they will be the visible majority.
We're lousy at talking about these developments in Canada, for fearing of sounding unwelcoming or even racist.
But the kind of changes are sweeping, and affect every aspect of life in every community in the province. As a society, we need to be making more of an effort to make sure the new Canada works for everyone. Communities and businesses need to do some thinking about what the changes mean for them.
Immigration is a good and necessary thing. Given our aging population, and declining birth rates, we need more people to maintain our workforce and to continue to develop our economy. And given that we are almost all the descendants of immigrants, it would also be churlish to slam the doors shut now.
But the changes are still momentous, and reach across every area of our society.
StatsCan set out to look at the face of Canada in 2017 -only 12 years away. The coming changes are huge, and their impact far-reaching.
Consider one aspect, the impact on the labour force and employers.
In barely a decade, one-in-three people in the province will be members of visible minorities.
But the percentage in the workforce will be much higher. StatsCan notes that by 2017 the median age of the visible minority population will be 36, compared with 43 for the rest of the population.
Thanks to immigration, youth and higher birth rates, the minority communities will supply tomorrow's workers. By 2017, for every 100 visible minority people old enough to retire, there will be 142 ready to start working. For the rest of the population, for every 100 people retiring only 75 will be reaching working age. The base is shrinking.
We're looking ahead to a very different workforce, in terms of first language and cultural values, and smart employers will be preparing.
Businesses need to consider the potential changes in their market. Today about 20 per cent of British Columbians are members of visible minorities. Substantial, yes, but not necessarily critical. But in barely a decade the number will double, from 870,000 to 1.7 million. Business that don't understand the market, and respond effectively, will lose out.
Communities face their own issues. StatsCan projects almost all the visible minority population growth will be in Vancouver. Across B.C. the visible minority population will increase by some 900,000. About 80 per cent those people will be living in Vancouver. (That's understandable. My grandparents came here from England, and settled in parts of Toronto where they felt comfortable, where red, white and blue bunting appeared on doors for important holidays.)
So if, as StatsCan predicts, one in four Vancouver residents will be of Chinese descent in 2017, it;s to be expected that newcomers from China will settle there.
But the implications for the rest of the province are significant. Communities need people, to start businesses and fill jobs and shop in local stores. If towns and cities outside the Lower Mainland are missing out on the largest source of population grwoth, they need to address the problem, stressing the quality of local schools, or cultural diversity or economic opportunities.
We're skittish about all this, we polite Canadians. We have a vague, laudable commitment to multiculturalism and unity, but we don't often pay much attention to the details of the lives of people who come here, and how they change the country.
But our society is changing, in dramatic and exciting ways. We have a chance to look ahead and make the very best of this opportunity.
Footnote: The reluctance of visible minority members to settle outside Vancouver should be a major issue for discussion. StatsCan projects that Vancouver will gain almost 800,000 new visible minority community members between 2001 and 2017. The province's regions will gain 32,000 people. That's not enough to revive communities already facing population losses.