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?