Thursday, September 13, 2007

A dumb and sleazy controversy on veiled voting

I can't remember a weirder, dumber and potentially more sinister political controversy than the great debate over veiled voting.
To read the papers, you would have thought Canadian democracy was making a desperate last stand. All the way over in Australia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was outraged that Elections Canada said women who chose to wear a veil wouldn't have to show their faces before voting.
Imagine. Women in burkas, voting, in Canada.
Harper sounded angry. He "profoundly disapproved" of the decision. Chief Electoral Officer Mark Mayrand was subverting the will of Parliament. Conservative MPs leaped to the attack.
And so did Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton, in less overwrought fashion. Both said women should have to show their faces if they want to vote.
Except it's utter baloney. Unless the leaders pay no attention to what's going on in Parliament, they know that the Commons passed amendments to the Elections Act earlier this year.
They know that the legislation does not require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
And if voters don't have to show ID, what's the point of demanding to see their faces? Is it so election workers can see if there is dishonesty in their eyes? Or is it just unCanadian to wear a veil, and grounds for barring someone from voting?
Here's what the Election Act says, after the changes the Harper government introduced and the Commons and Senate passed this year.
Voters can establish their identity in two ways. They can show "one piece of identification issued by a Canadian government, whether federal, provincial or local, or an agency of that government, that contains a photograph of the elector and his or her name and address."
Those people would logically have to show their faces, so election workers can be sure that they match the photo.
But Parliament also decided voters could show "two pieces of identification authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer each of which establish the elector's name and at least one of which establishes the elector's address."
There's no point in demanding that women who aren't required to show photo ID lift their veils.
You can understand the public getting wound up. The politicians made it sound like Mayrand had gone rogue, creating special rules just for the most extreme - or devout - Muslim women.
But Layton, Dion and Harper, they know better. They know the law allows people to vote without providing photo ID. They know that about 80,000 people voted by mail in the last election, without showing their faces.
So, why are they pretending to be so outraged, when they made the rules?
Maybe they did a bad job, and photo ID should be mandatory to prevent voting fraud. But that's not the law the Conservatives introduced and Parliament passed. (And really, having a bunch of burka-clad women voting under fake names doesn't seem like an efficient way to rig an election.)
It's tough not to smell particularly stinky political opportunism. There are three by-elections in Quebec on Monday. They're being held as the provincial government holds hearings on "reasonable accommodations" for minorities - that is to say, Muslims. A little tough talk might win a few votes.
Even if it is based on a completely bogus issue.
There is a real issue here. Canadian society has accepted the equality of women, sometimes grudgingly.
The burka, or hijab, covering women from head to toe, undermines equality. Their husbands aren't bundled up; just the women. Their work options are limited, lives proscribed. Is it a choice - like wearing a nun's traditional habit - or coerced? That's a big difference, worth discussing. What accommodation is reasonable, for employers, schools and others. When should we care about someone else's choice of dress?
But that's not what the current controversy is about. Instead, the politicians are beating up Elections Canada and a long-time government worker for following their directions.
Unless they're wildly incompetent, they know that's true. And that's sordid.
Footnote: So, what if a burke-clad voter shows up at the polls in B.C. when we vote again in 2009? No worries. The province doesn't require photo ID, so Elections BC says it has no need to see voters' faces.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Suicide, mental illness and our neglect

All across B.C., parents sent their children off to school in the last few days, hoping things would go well, worrying about what might go wrong.
Worrying about the wrong things, mostly.
We drive our kids to school, because we fear bad people might hurt them. We support groups like MADD, figuring drunk drivers are a threat.
And of course we worry about drugs and our children.
But suicide, that's not much on our mind. For some reason, we think it's more likely that strangers will kill our children than that will choose to end their own lives.
We're wrong.
In B.C., your child is 13 times more likely to kill himself than be killed by someone else. He's more than three times as likely commit suicide as to die in an alcohol-related car crash.
And while about 250 people will die of illegal drug overdoses this year, about 400 will kill themselves.
More of those little kids starting kindergarten - or older kids starting university - will die of despair than addiction, car crashes or homicide.
But who talks with their children about mental illness and depression?
It's World Suicide Prevention Day today. That's good. But it's still easier to get people to buy a ribbon showing they disapprove of drunk driving than it is to make suicide an issue.
We just don't like to think about suicide, or mental illness; it's still shameful. Since it's shameful, it's easy to decide the people who are ill don't really deserve our help.
And when the choice is whether to replace some 40-year-old's hip or help someone who suffers from schizophrenia, mental illness usually loses. On some level, a lot of us just think those people should try harder.
Maybe that's changing. The federal government has just created the Canadian Mental Health Commission. "It costs our economy billions and our society untold grief," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in announcing the commission.
I'm not so sure. The provincial Liberals rightly attacked the former NDP government for a mental-health plan that was a sham, lots of words but no funding.
But today, there is no funding commitment for mental-health services. The hard-pressed health authorities decide on spending, not the province. And, often, crowded ERs or surgical backlogs are bigger priorities than help for people struggling with depression.
The Health Ministry's performance plan has only one measurement dealing with mental illness - the percentage of people hospitalized who get some help in the month after they're released. It's a pretty sketchy way to measure performance in a fundamental health area.
I'm sure Health Minister George Abbott's staff will bang out a letter for him to sign about spending great new initiatives once this column runs.
But looking around Victoria, it sure doesn't seem like the mentally ill are getting more help today than they were a few years ago. There are a lot more of them on the streets.
It's not just a government problem. We're mostly alarmed by mental illness. The people are often strange. We wonder why they don't just buck up. (Although we don't think cancer patients should try a little harder to cure themselves.)
Here in Victoria, a drop-in centre that's a lifeline for people with mental illness - a place where they're accepted, have friends, a life - is closing. If it was a seniors' centre, or provided the same break for disabled kids, the media and public would be all over the issue. Not for the mentally ill.
Or look at suicides. Every 10 days in Victoria someone will kill himself. But you won't read about it, or see a report on TV. There are reasons for the media hesitancy; some studies suggest a risk of increased suicides if they are reported.
But I'd argue the media just reflect our reluctance to deal with what is, generally, just another effect of mental illness.
And with some authority. My brother killed himself. And I am sure my response, my family's response, was much different than if cancer or a car crash had killed him.
Really, it starts with us. It starts with recognizing that mental illness is fundamentally just another medical condition. And that people suffering from it deserve care and support just as much as any other people battling illness.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Nuclear power debate about to heat up

Nuclear power debate about to heat up
The big push to mine Alberta's tarsands has put nuclear power back on the political agenda in B.C.
There's not likely to be any change in the provincial government's no-nukes stance. Politically, any B.C. party that advocated nuclear power would get stomped. Pragmatically, the province has a lot of other options, from the Site C dam to wind power.
But a proposed nuclear-power plant in northwest Alberta, about 140 kms from the B.C. border, is likely to spark a new debate on the safety of the atomic energy
After all, if the government maintains the position that nuclear power is unsuitable - and too risky - for B.C., how can it quietly accept a plant not all that far away from Fort St. John and Dawson Creek?
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld inadvertently highlighted the problem, reacting to the Alberta proposal with a response that probably wasn't in the talking points provided by staff. Not my issue, Neufeld said. B.C. has no authority over development in Alberta.
Anyway, he went on, the project isn't that close to B.C.. "It's well over 100 kilometres from the border and the wind generally blows from the west," he said.
That's not exactly reassuring. The idea that something might go wrong, but it's OK because the wind would probably carry any radioactive clouds toward Saskatchewan falls short of seeming like a foolproof safety plan.
The Alberta project, with a $6-billion price tag, is still far from a sure thing. (The project would supply energy to allow extraction of oil from the tarsands, as well as other uses.)
But the scheme is likely to start a useful debate on nuclear power, and energy supplies generally. And the Alberta project will likely force the B.C. Liberals to be clearer about their reasons for banning nuclear energy.
If the reasons include safety concerns, then some people in the province's northeast will be asking why the government isn't taking a stronger role in questioning the Alberta plan. NDP leader Carole James has already said B.C. should oppose the plant.
This should be an interesting debate. Nuclear power has some drawbacks. If something does go wrong, the consequences can be bad. Opponents point to Chernobyl, where the 1986 explosion released radioactive fallout over a wide area. The disaster killed 56 people and is expected to cause 4,000 additional cancer deaths.
Chernobyl was a product of the crumbling Soviet state - poorly designed, badly built and negligently managed. But widespread use of nuclear power would risk similar incidents in other failing countries.
Still, there hasn't been a single fatality in nuclear power plants since then, despite some 430 plants around the world. A lot of people have died mining coal and producing oil and gas for thermal plants in the same period.
An immediate nuclear problem is what to do with the 20 to 30 tonnes of radioactive waste each power plant produces in a year. The material remains dangerous for thousands of years, a dangerous legacy.
While nuclear power has some big drawbacks, so do the alternatives, especially given the new focus on global warming. Coal pollutes and produces large amounts of greenhouse gasses. Oil and gas are cleaner, but expensive, and also major sources of carbon dioxide. Getting the oil, gas or coalbed methane from the ground also creates problems.
There's great potential in wind and tidal and small hydro. Conservation and greater efficiency are important.
But globally, the demand for power is projected to increase by 2.4 per cent per year. That means a doubling of existing electrical production by 2037. Without nuclear power, an awful lot of coal, gas and oil are going to be burned to keep the lights on.
The issue isn't just heating up in B.C. The U.S. has asked Canada to join a new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to encourage nuclear development and manage the risks. The Harper government has said if it will sign on; the next meeting is less than two weeks away.
Expect lots of attention on the nuclear industry in the next year.
Footnote: The other issue waiting to hit the headlines is uranium mining in B.C. The government has banned nuclear power, but is fine with uranium mining. Neufeld says there aren't likely any worthwhile deposits, but several companies have staked claims and are raising money for exploration and development.