Thursday, March 15, 2007

Heartlands hurting, but government can't even see it

That was a lame performance by the Liberals this week on the tough future facing most of B.C.'s Interior and Northern communities.
Even for people paying attention, the 2006 census numbers came a shock. The province's population grew by 5.3 per cent between 2001 and 2006, just behind the national average. (The first time in Canada's history that B.C. has lagged the rest of Canada.)
But the growth came in the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan and southern Vancouver Island.
Across the rest of the province, from small villages to major centres, populations were shrinking.
That's not surprising. Around the world, people are moving to the big cities, where the jobs and opportunities are. That's as true in B.C. as it is in Nigeria or China.
But the Liberals have made a big deal about sharing the benefits of growth across the province.
Remember the Heartlands strategy in 2003? The promise was a renewed future for all those communities coping with courthouse and government office closures, or cutting their schools back to four days a week because that's all they could afford.
There was no strategy behind the slogans. Within a year, it all pretty much collapsed like a pyramid scheme.
That was too bad. Based on the census results, those communities could have used real help.
Consider Prince Rupert, which lost 13 per cent of its population between 2001 and 2006. Trail, down 4.5 per cent. Terrace, 6.5 per cent. Prince George, down two per cent.
From here in Victoria, or Vancouver, those are just numbers.
But if you've got a grocery store or contracting business in Quesnel, and the population declines by seven per cent, that's a problem. There are fewer people to shop, or hire you.
So businesses struggle. School enrolments fall and they close, or go to four-day weeks. It gets harder to attract people. Main Street has as many vacant stores as successful ones.
Government can't actually fix all this. But it can help counter the bad effects and be straight with people about their futures. Then it's up to them to decide what to do.
The NDP leaped on the numbers in the first available question period.
The government put up Economic Development Minister Colin Hansen to handle them, even though the questions were directed to Communities Minister Ida Chong. (The day before, Agriculture Minister Pat Bell had answered for Labour Minister Olga Illich.)
As health minister, Hansen had faced the toughest questions with facts and common sense.
But this time he was terrible, offering irrelevant prepackaged spin. He didn't acknowledge the reality of peoples' lives in these communities, or the facts.
People are moving back to B.C., Hansen said.
But not to most of the Interior or North.
Unemployment is at a record low even in these communities, he said.
True enough and a good thing. People who couldn't find work have moved away, an often painful but practical response.
But the number of people working in Prince George today is lower than in the mid-90s.
For the community, that's a problem, even if its sons and daughters are doing well in the Lower Mainland.
Government can't stop these changes, at least without running big risks.
But it can slow them, perhaps choosing to keep a ministry branch office open to help a community or to make forest companies process trees where they cut them down, buying mills a few more years. It can fund schools to be open five days a week.
Stop-gaps, for sure. Mills that can compete don't have a long-term future. That's simply reality.
Still, stop-gaps aren't so bad sometimes.
What was most alarming was the government's apparent unwillingness to even acknowledge that so many communities are facing difficult times, as the census results show. That suggest their problems aren't even being considered.
People in Interior and Northern communities living through these changes have to be wondering how they have become invisible to their governments.
Footnote: Forest Minister Rich Coleman also disappointed. Many of these communities face a drastic cut in the available timber for decades as a result of the pine beetle disaster. But Coleman, asked for an indication of the likely impact and timing, refused to answer. Families and businesses in the affected areas deserved a real answer to a serious question.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Liberals struggle in responding to farm worker deaths

It's hard to know how a government should respond to events like the terrible crash that killed three women farm workers travelling in a crowded van.
Not like the Liberals, at least based on their efforts so far.
The women died last Wednesday on their way to a farm in the Fraser Valley.
The NDP started asking questions in the legislature Wednesday. They continued Thursday and devoted entire question periods to farm workers' issues Monday and Tuesday.
So far, the questions have been better the answers. Solicitor General John Les first tried to argue that nobody should be talking about the crash and whether more needed to be done to keep workers safe.
Police, the WCB and the Coroners Service will investigate and everyone should just wait, he said. And Les accused the New Democrats of being "immoral," raising the issue to score political points.
But the call to wait for investigations that take months or years has been used to often as an excuse for inaction. The public expects a response.
And the "immoral" charge looked hypocritical. The Liberals would have posed similar questions in opposition. The NDP were trying to score political points, but along the way real issues get raised. That, in its clunky way, is how the system works.
The next day, the New Democrats returned the issue. Leader Carole James noted a similar crash in 2003 claimed a farm workers' life. The coroner investigated and said seatbelts could have saved the woman's life. The WCB recommended that roadside inspections by a joint federal-provincial safety be restored.
Why did neither recommendation result in meaningful action, James asked. Les stuck to the argument that the questions were out of line.
Not much help for people wondering if farm workers being shuttled around by labour contractors were safe.
The NDP was back on the issue Monday as James again asked for assurances that the government would improve farm worker protection.
Les started badly with his first words. "It's a new week and it's the same old opposition, I'm afraid," he said. It sounded like he still didn't think the issue was worth discussing.
But Les went on to acknowledge that the government was "stepping up enforcement activity to ensure that there is compliance with the existing laws and regulations."
That sounds a good thing, although Les was vague about the details or why he thought it was such a bad idea to consider last week.
The New Democrats kept raising questions, some not directly related. They noted the Liberals had eliminated overtime and minimum wage protection for farm workers. And they quoted a government directive to employment standards inspectors to cut their inspections when farms were busy - which was also when the most workers were there.
Corky Evans, leaping into the fray, asked why the Liberals eliminated a federal-provincial farm labour inspection program.
Evans, in full flight, said he wasn't interested in what the "spin children," as he called the Liberals' communications staffers, had briefed the minister to say. He wanted actual answers.
Unkind. But based on the ministers' responses, justified. Labour Minister Olga Ilich said record low unemployment meant farm workers would be better treated by employers.
Maybe. But there aren't a lot of alternatives for people doing farm work. And Ilich could be seen as suggesting that farm workers just have to accept some risks except when times are good.
Agriculture Minister Pat Bell then went back to attacking the NDP and said the legislature shouldn't even be talking about the issue.
The questions continued Tuesday, focused more on the impact of the Liberals' elimination of minimum wage protection for farm workers.
The reality is, this could have just been another crash.
But the NDP has raised good questions about protection for farm workers. The government hasn't had good answers.
In that situation, it's in both the opposition's political interest and the public interest to keep on asking.
Footnote: The largely unspoken subtext to this - alluded to by Evans Tuesday - is the fact that the farm workers are largely from the IndoCanadian and other immigrant communities. They are watching both parties' responses to the issues closely.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

More suffering not the answer for addicts

It's barely a kilometre from the legislature to Cormorant Street, but it might as well be a thousand miles.
The street is nothing special, just two blocks long, not far from Victoria's little Chinatown. The health ministry's head office is the biggest immediate landmark.
But it's famous. Cormorant Street is home to Victoria's needle exchange. It serves an astonishing number of people - some 2,000. Last year clients picked up more than one million needles.
Naturally, some of those clients are not people you want hanging around your neighbourhood. Rough, sickly, scary, loud, and aggressive, stealing and sleeping and going to the bathroom in doorways. There's not that many of them. But they make life miserable for people who live and work in the area.
Especially because the drug problem in Victoria is worse than it has ever been. Which is odd, since governments for at least a decade have talked about how seriously they take the problem of addiction and all the related ills. But all the time, things have gotten worse, a pretty serious failure.
One that should be worrying for Kelowna, Prince George, Trail, even smaller communities. Only a couple of years ago, no one would have predicted drugs would be creating such a street problem in Victoria - that sort of thing was reserved for the Downtown Eastside.
Now, there'- no reason not to assume that the problem will keep spreading.
AIDS Vancouver Island, which runs the needle exchange, knows something has to be done about the Cormorant Street problem. It announced plans to move the needle exchange at a press conference attended by police, downtown business representatives and city councillors.
But shuffling the problem off to another neighbourhood is no solution, everyone agrees. The people in Rock Bay, an older largely industrial and commercial area on the edge of downtown, are already nervous the needle exchange is heading their way. Understandably. They've already been remarkably tolerant as the prostitution stroll has moved into their area.
AIDS Vancouver Island has what seems like a sensible idea for dealing with the problems. It wants to find a building with an inner courtyard where clients can congregate without creating a problem on the street. It's also hoping for more space to deliver expanded counselling and support services.
The idea is that any point of contact with people with addictions is a chance to reduce the damage done, by helping them use drugs more safely, deal with their health problems and - if the time is right - to seek treatment.
But there's a catch. The move will cost money. So will operating the expanded centre. Plus there's the challenge to even find space.
And AIDS Vancouver Island is already facing a big cut in the money coming from the Vancouver Island Health Authority. VIHA has decided it needs to do a better job in AIDS prevention and support on the rest of Vancouver Island. It doesn't have any extra money, so its initial plan was to cut support for efforts in the Victoria area by almost 40 per cent. That's been put off for a year, but the axe is still poised to fall. It's difficult to fault the health authority, except for failing to make clear its financial problems. There is a growing demand for services and not enough money across the province.
And addiction services are often the first to be cut, mostly for political reasons. People waiting for knee surgeries have more clout than addicts.That's not just a VIHA issue. While health authorities across B.C. have been responsible for mental health and addictions, the services are routinely squeezed. They aren't a priority.
In that, the health authorities are following the province's lead. B.C. had a junior minister responsible for mental health and addiction services until 2005. The post was eliminated after the election.
The problem of addiction is an epidemic, which threatens people, families and communities across the province. But it's one we seem reluctant to do anything about.
Footnote: There's a persistent view that we just have to make life tougher for addicts and they'll stop. Addicts risk death, jab their bodies with dirty needles, sell themselves, sleep in the street, steal and get beat up routinely. That kind of misery is not enough to end the addiction.
No additional suffering will work.