Thursday, February 22, 2007

What happened the night police left Frank Paul to die

VICTORIA -It’s hard to let go of Frank Paul and the way he died, dumped in a Vancouver alley, on a cold night, by police.
Maybe it’s because he was the kind of guy who needed protecting.
Paul was a skinny little man with damaged hands, a Micmac from New Brunswick who ended up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, homeless and drinking too much.
Who knows, maybe Paul, then 47, would be dead by now anyway.
Or maybe he’d be back home in Big Cove, doing better.
But three weeks before Christmas in 1998 two Vancouver police officers found him in an alley, semiconscious. They called a patrol wagon.
Video from the jail shows Paul being dragged from the wagon, down a hallway and up in an elevator to the floor with cells. He doesn't  move. A nurse walks past twice as he lies on the floor.
Then the video then shows Paul being dragged back out by his feet. The patrol wagon tried to take him to a detox centre, where he was rejected. So police left him in an alley.
A few hours later, the same officers who picked up Paul up the first time found him dead of hypothermia, sprawled half-dressed in the cold and rain.
It’s case that cried out for answers. Why wasn’t Paul kept at the jail or taken to hospital? What were the police department policies about dealing with semiconscious people?
But nothing happened. No one would likely have known about the case until problems started mounting in the police complaints commissioner’s office in 2002. It was revealed then that staff had been pressing the commissioner to call a public inquiry for two years. He refused.
It took until 2004, but the new police complaint commissioner, Dirk Ryneveld, recommended the government call a public inquiry. At least two witnesses had never been interviewed, he learned.
Rich Coleman, then solicitor general, refused. A coroner’s inquiry and an internal police review were enough to answer all the questions.
It seemed an inadequate answer even then.
Then this week Greg Fiolotte came forward. He was a corrections officer and says he helped drag Paul to the police van that night.
No one from the Vancouver Police Department has ever interviewed him to find out what happened, he said. At best the department didn’t want to know what really happened, he said, and at at worst it already knew but didn’t want the facts to become public.
How could one of a handful of witnesses — and one of only a few not part of the police department — never be interviewed?
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs wants answers. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the investigation looks like a sham. He wants a public inquiry.
So does Dana Urban. He was a legal advisor to the police commissioner, one of the people who unsuccessfully argued for an inquiry seven years ago.
Urban is in Kosovo now. He’s an international prosecutor with the United Nations, dealing with human rights abuses and war crimes,
Despite all he’s seen, he told the Globe and Mail, he’s had a hard time letting go of Paul’s death too.
The most basic Canadian right — the right to life — was violated that night, Urban said. The people sworn to protect Paul and entrusted to investigate his death failed him. “I will never forget the shame I felt, and continue to feel for my country and its people," Urban said.
Solicitor General John Les ruled out an inquiry Wednesday. But the next day, he reversed his decision. An inquiry will finally be held
It’s been a long time since Paul died in that alley.
We owe him, and ourselves, some answers, about what happened and whether anything needs to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Footnote: Why did Les change his mind? The premier got invovled, likely because the renewed interest in Paul’s death comes at a critical time in the government’s new relationship with First Nations. Despite progress on some fronts frustration is growing with the pace of change. First Nation leaders have had a larger concern about police treatment of natives for some time. Failing to act would have caused more problems.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Budget ignores public and comes up short

Where the heck did this budget come from? The government spent a whack of money trying to find out what you wanted in the financial plan, sending a flyer to every home and a committee of MLAs around B.C. to hold hearings
Tax cuts weren’t high on anyone’s list — not even the business community’s.
Individuals and organizations told the government they were worried about health care, education and issues like addictions and homelessness. From Cranbrook to Campbell River, the public said government should make delivering services the priority.
And they were even willing to pay for them.
But Finance Minister Carole Taylor confirmed yesterday that the government has a different ideological bent. “We as a government have always run on the policy of lowering income taxes when we can,” she said.
So, out of nowhere, an across-the-board 10-per-cent tax cut on the first $100,000 in income, phased in this year and next.
For someone making $30,000, the cut will be worth $67 this year and $134 in 2008. For someone at $120,000, the gain will be $430 and $864.
The government claimed the tax cuts are part of a housing policy, the theme for this year’s budget being “building a housing legacy.” (Last year, Taylor said the budget was “about the little ones.” This year, government cut $40 million from the children and families budget. Staying power is an issue for these people.)
In fact, the tax cut is by far the largest part of the housing commitment. The government claims it’s allocating $2 billion over four years to help British Columbians “address their housing needs and the challenge of home affordability.”
But about $1.5 billion of that tally is based on the value of the tax cuts.
And while it’s nice to pay less tax, can anyone argue with a straight face that a tax cut worth $25 a month to a typical family is really the centrepiece of an effective housing strategy?
Or that the $515 million a year in foregone revenue could not have made a great difference in improving health care or addressing drug-related crime — or providing targeted housing programs?
The other housing measures might be useful; it’s too early to say based on the limited information.
The other striking thing about this budget is how much is left up in the air, in way that might make sense for a government in its first year or two but is worrying after six years in power.
There’s no real health-care plan after this year. Instead the government has built its budget by simply allocating enough money for wage increases in the following two fiscal years. Any additional funding, for population increases or cost pressures or needed services, will have to be found within a limited contingency fund.
If the conversation on health results in a commitment to invest in care, or preventive efforts, that money will have to be found in the same contingency funds.
The big restructuring of the children and families ministry, which was originally supposed to be complete long ago now, has been put off until 2009 or 2010. If there’s an interim strategy, it remains hidden.
Even on climate change, the issue that dominated the throne speech, the government has no real plan behind the urgent words. Taylor’s budget speech talked about a $103-million environmental commitment over four years. Almost half of that goes to buy 20 hydrogen buses; the rest covers small programs.
The only funding directly linked to all those greenhouse gas targets Premier Gordon Campbell talked about is $4 million this year to fund a climate change office. It will try and figure out short-term greenhouse gas reduction goals and the actions needed to reach them. If those actions cost money, that will have to come out of the contingency funds.
It’s not a terrible budget. The province is projecting strong economic growth for the next five years and big surpluses through the next three. There’s no wild spending or cutting.
But it shows a baffling disconnect between the realities of life in B.C., as experienced by ordinary citizens, and the government’s choices.
Footnote: It’s tough to see much in this budget for what used to be called, in another time, the Heartland. The pine beetle crisis, now apparently coming even more quickly, got no mention in the main budget presentations. Much of the infrastructure money appeared concentrated in the Lower Mainland. And the cost overruns on the Vancouver convention centre, now more than $300 million over its initial $495-million budget, are cutting into capital budgets.