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.