Thursday, November 10, 2005

Pine beetle tab heading towards $5 billion

VICTORIA - The pine beetle damage numbers are leaping towards incomprehensibility.
The B.C. government has been pitching a $1.5-billion program to cope with the disaster over the next 15 years, hoping for $1 billion from Ottawa.
But new leaked documents reveal an increasing crisis and mounting costs.
"Our latest projections indicate the mountain pine beetle to be a $3-billion to $5-billion issue over 35 years," says the draft notes on a new aid pitch being rushed to the feds.
That's just the money to replant the trees, clean up the mess, encourage quick harvesting and - the toughest part - help communities prepare for a coming economic and social crisis.
On top of that figure a $2-billion annual hit to the provincial government's bottom line for years, suggests the Business Council of BC's Jock Finlayson.Forest revenues will be down and expenses up because of the beetle.
All this woe is about a decade away. The beetle is on track to kill about 80 per cent of the lodgepole pine in the province within the next few years.
The dead trees will hold their value for a while. Figure five years of frantic logging to try and grab whatever value can be had.
And then things get grim. Those trees are gone, and the next generation is decades from maturity. Towns that were built on forestry will see the available timber supply slashed. Fewer trees means fewer mills, fewer jobs mean less business for stories, a population exodus means falling property values. In a community like Quesnel industry employment could fall by 50 per cent from the beetle-harvest peak, according to the Canadian Forest Service. The impact will be much the same as if Victoria lost 35,000 jobs within a couple of years.
The leaked documents were released by the NDP, who complained that the proposal to Ottawa was being rushed together.
It was. The documents reveal work started four weeks ago, and the proposal was due in Ottawa any day now.
But if there's a chance to get a financial commitment from the Martin government as it tries desperately to solidify support for the coming election, then the province is right to grab it.
The New Democrats were on sounder ground when they charged that the document reveals a lack of planning and preparation. The work of coming up with plans would have to start quickly if the money came through, the paper says.
The province has a Pine Beetle Action Plan document, but it's stretching things to call it a plan. There are very general goals, but no details on how to achieve them.
Partly, that's understandable. The problem is vast, and much of preliminary research is only being done now.
But the coming crisis has been clear for five years or more, and the response has not come nearly quickly enough. The efforts to reduce the coming economic damage, to keep communities alive, need to start as soon as possible. The process needs to get beyond planning and into doing.
The leaked document is also encouraging. The federal and provincial focus has been short term - looking at ways to increase logging now so the resource value is maintained.The two levels of government have so far come up with about $220 million to deal with the crisis, with the emphasis on land and forest management. Less than $50 million has been committed for community economic diversification.
But the paper reveals federal Industry Minister David Emerson wants a different approach. The focus should be on socio-economic development, the planning paper says, reflecting "Minister Emerson's desire for any new mountain pine beetle ask to be placed in the context of an economic plan for B.C. Interior communities."
It's an enormously challenge, with great risks. But an economic disaster is coming towards B.C. in slow motion. The impact goes far beyond forest communities, and will damage the entire provincial economy.
And the time for an effective response is growing short.
Footnote: Thank politics for the opportunity for a new pitch.The federal government has committed $100 million so far. But with a close election on its way, seats in B.C. will be critical the Martin Liberals. A decisive response to the pine beetle crisis - in the form of money - will improve the party's chances.

Everyone lost when child death reviews were just shut down

VICTORIA - Part way through the call from Chief Coroner Terry Smith, I got the feeling I'd been scammed for the last several years.
All along the government has claimed that nothing has really been lost with the elimination of the Children's Commission, and its reviews of child deaths. The coroner has stepped in to do those investigations, said everyone from Gordon Campbell on down.
It always seemed rubbish. The Children's Commission was reviewing more than 150 deaths a year, producing regular public reports on what had happened, and what broader lessons could be learned. (That was only a small part of its work.)
In the three years since the Liberals eliminated the commission, the coroner has produced a report on just one death, and one other general report. The child officer is now starting her first report on a death. Public reporting effectively stopped in 2003.
But through it all the government kept saying the coroner was on the job, even if there were no reports. Child death reviews were being done.
Then came the phone interview with Smith, who announced an inquest into the death of Sherry Charlie. Sherry, 19 months old, was beaten to death after being placed in the care of relatives by a First Nations agency acting on behalf of the ministry.
Smith says he is confident that every child death has been adequately reviewed by ther coroner's office. Children haven't fallen through the cracks, he says.
But he also confirmed that full child death reviews were halted at the beginning of 2003, and have not been done since then.
For starters, the coroner's office doesn't have the legal power to do the reviews. It can't demand documents, or hold in-camera hearings. Smith says he is hoping for legislative changes next spring - more than three years after the Children's Commission was axed - to allow the reviews.
And the coroner doesn't have the money. The Children's Commission had a $4.2-million budget, with something like $1.5 million allocated for child death reviews. The coroner's office was coping with big budget cuts when it took on child death reviews. It got $200,000 to fund the new responsibility, a small fraction of the former commitment.
No one could argue that was enough.
Smith agrees. He's asked for an extra $1 million a year to fund proper child death reviews
"We're now at a point where we need to start doing the fuller reviews, and I have asked for additional resources along with some legislative changes to accommodate that," he said.
But for the last three years, the government has been maintaining that those "fuller reviews" were being done.
The truth is that the Children's Commission was eliminated with no real plan to ensure that work continued, or that there was any effective independent oversight on behalf of the public. The commission doors were closed Jan. 1, 2003. Reviews in progress were quickly shut down. The commission's database on child deaths was abandoned. Everything started from scratch.
As a reporter, and a parent, and a fretful citizen worried about the kids who end up in government care, I found the Children's Commission extremely valuable. When a commission audit found half the children in government care didn't have up-to-date plans for their care, I thought that was valuable. The death reviews, while sad reading, offered useful lessons.
But I accept that there's an argument that the commission went too far in reviewing every death, or that there were too many overlapping investigations. The government could have come up with a thoughtful alternative.
Instead, it killed the Children's Commission and Child and Family Advocate without ensuring any effective replacement. The advocacy work being done, the reviews to identify the ministry's problems - and successes - were all halted.
Children in care, families dependent on the ministry and people who think that accountability is important have all lost as a result.
Footnote: Smith's announcement means there are now eight inquiries linked to Sherry's death. New Democrat Adrian Dix, who has been extremely effective, wants one public inquiry. But at this point, the best option is to let the reviews produce results rather than stepping into the legal complexities and potential delays of a public inquiry.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Charlie case piles up doubts about children's ministry

VICTORIA - Jamie Charlie was three.
His sister, not yet two, had just been beaten to death in the home that was supposed to be a refuge. The man who did it, the father in the home, claimed that Jamie had pushed his sister down some stairs. The boy was set to grow up thinking he had killed her.
Except days later an autopsy found that the severe injuries couldn't have been produced by a fall. The RCMP was called, and the ministry of children and families. Both children had been placed in the home by a First Nations' agency working under the ministry's authority.
Then a criminal record check arrived, too late for Sherry. The man who killed her had a long record, including violent offences. When Jamie and Sherry were sent there, he was still on probation for assaulting his wife.
The ministry launched its first investigation. At the least there was a dark cloud over that Port Alberni household.
But two months later the next steps in Jamie's tough life were being decided in provincial court. Usma Family and Child Services, acting for the director of child protection, needed approval to apprehend him, and decide on where he should go.
And despite all the warning signs, the plan was to leave Jamie in the home where Sherry died - despite the suspicions, the history of violent crime and other concerns.
Worse, the judge didn't get the real story. The court was told only that Sherry had "passed away" in a "tragic accident." That was by then known to be untrue.
Victoria Times-Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines uncovered the information, the latest revelation in the discouraging saga of Sherry's death.
The ministry's first response was to suggest that this really wasn't a ministry problem; it was something for the First Nations' agency to deal with. Its social worker made the court appearance.
Children and Families Minister Stan Hagen quickly moved beyond that position. The agency acted on behalf of the director of child protection. The government remained responsible.
But four days after the news broke, the ministry said it had searched the files and didn't know about the court hearing, or Jamie's placement. "There are no records in any of the ministry files that anybody realized that this had happened," Hagen said.
That's a bad thing. A critical decision was made, and the ministry had no process for staying informed.
It's even more worrying that despite supposedly thorough investigations into Sherry's death - at the very time the court hearing took place, and over the last three years - the government never found out about the hearing. The court records existed; a call to the agency should have produced the information. Questions about why Jamie was left in the home have been raised publicly by his family, and the opposition.
Yet no one in the ministry had investigated effectively enough to find out about the court appearance, or the misleading information presented on behalf of the director. A reporter had to get at the facts.
It was significant information. Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley immediately asked for permission to launch an investigation into Jamie's placement. Attorney General Wally Oppal is expected to grant her request.
That, along with the coroner's inquest announced Tuesday, means eight investigations are under way into this death.
Less than two months ago Hagen was maintaining that a flawed internal review had provided the needed answers. "The director's review is a complete story from start to finish," he told the legislature.
Since then there have been more and more questions that the government can't answer, and more and more reviews into Sherry's death, and the ministry's work.
Things will go wrong in the ministry, and the results will sometimes be terrible. That's the nature of the work.
But the succession of revelations - each of which seems a surprise to the ministry - raises basic questions of competence, and undermines public confidence.
Footnote: The question now is how widespread these problems are. The decision to eliminate the Children's Commission, without having any effective replacement process for reviewing child deaths, has created the risk that children are falling through the cracks, and that lessons aren't being learned.