Friday, October 26, 2007

Booster seats and lost politicians

The great booster seat controversy is mostly depressing.
And it leaves me wondering what happened to Linda Reid, the minister responsible.
I was a big fan when the Liberals were in opposition; in government, Reid looks to have just lost her way.
Things started out fine. The government launched a campaign to encourage parents to get ready for a new law requiring older, bigger kids to use booster seats in cars.
As part of it, taxpayers picked up the tab for 2,000 booster seats. They were to go to low-income families.
But then the Liberals lost their minds. They sent the car seats out for distribution - but only to Liberal MLAs' constituency offices.
The proud Liberal politicos sent out press releases and posed for pictures, the guardians of poor kids' safety.
"Liberal MLA hands out free car seats for kids," said the headline in Burnaby Now. MLA John Nuraney said not all families could afford the car seats. "We did not want people who could not afford them to suffer because of that," he said.
"The giveaway is part of a larger initiative where the provincial Liberals are sending seats to all constituency offices across the province," the story said.
Oh, those good Liberals.
Except they weren't. The taxpayers picked up the bill. The Liberals MLAs just took the credit.
It was both sleazy and dumb, since they obviously going to be caught playing fast and loose with the facts.
And they were. The NDP asked about it in the legislature. Reid fumbled through some non-answers and fared even worse when reporters scrummed her on the issue.
The problem, fundamentally, was that she trying to defend the indefensible. It was just painful.
In the big scheme of things, trying to score phony political points off kids isn't a huge offence. The booster seats seemed to have ended up in the right parents' hands.
But it left me wondering what happens to politicians, to people like Reid.
I had a lot of time for her when the Liberals were in opposition, literally. She was the critic for the children and families ministry; I wrote about the ministry's problems - and there were a lot of them; and Reid offered useful insights.
More than that. She made a compelling case for a whole different approach. The ministry required much more money and an end to constant restructuring, Reid said. Front-line workers needed a lot more support and more work had to be done on prevention.
And the government should start by figuring what families and children at risk need to thrive, and what that would cost, Reid said. Even the government couldn't afford to do it all, the work should start with a needs-based budget.
Reid seemed knowledgeable, pragmatic and passionate about the ministry and what it could be doing to make peoples' lives better. It wasn't political stuff. It was about doing the right thing.
But then the Liberals were elected. Reid didn't get children and families; that went, disastrously, to Gordon Hogg. She became a junior minister for issue affecting young children.
And everything changed. Her government didn't increase support for the ministry; it announced reckless cuts to the budget for children and families.
Instead of stability, the government launched a disastrously botched re-organization. The process is in its sixth year now, and the future is still unclear.
Maybe that's just the way it is. You say one thing in opposition, and then abandon not just the policies you advocate, but also the principles behind them once you're in government.
Or maybe it's all more complicated. You fight for the right thing in caucus or cabinet and then go along, even if you're betraying the principles you once advocated. You can do more good from inside and all that.
And then you find yourself standing in a hallway, or the legislature, defending - badly - a cockamamie scheme to play political games with a kids' safety program.
You know it's wrong, but there are you are. _
Footnote: How embarrassing was the whole deal? Premier Gordon Campbell handed out booster seats; the photos were prominent on his website. But once the NDP started asking questions, they were shuffled out of the spotlight, like some out-of-favour Soviet general erased from the annual May Day parade photos in Red Square.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Time for tougher controls on police Taser use

The bad thing isn’t necessarily that so many people are dying after being tasered by police.
What’s really worrying is that police forces - at least officially - don’t see any connection between zapping people and their almost immediate deaths.
Robert Dziekanski is the latest victim. His mother, who lives in Kamloops, worked two jobs and saved for years to bring her 40-year-old son to Canada. He flew into in Vancouver, but there were delays in getting into the terminal. She missed him at the airport.
He wandered for 10 hours, unable to get anyone to understand him. Then Dzienkanski started acting aggressively in the airport, alarming people. RCMP officers subdued him with a Taser. He died. His mother is wondering what happened.
The official police position is that Tasers are safe. But at least 17 people have died after being shocked with the devices in Canada in the last five years, six in this province. That seems more than coincidence.
And it’s significant. In B.C., police have only had to shoot more than three people in a year than once in the past decade. Officers are remarkably restrained in their use of weapons, no matter how great the personal risk.
Tasers were proposed in B.C. in 1998 as an alternative to deadly force. They were to be used when officers were ready to draw their guns.
That seemed a very good idea. Anything that gives police an alternative to shooting someone - without putting themselves at increased risk - is good.
But it’s impossible to know if that’s how the stun guns have been used in B.C. The impression is that Tasers have been used as a convenient way to subdue people.
When Victoria police studied Tasers for the B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner in 2004, they found that about one-third of the cases in which it had been used in Canada involved people who were resisting arrest - perhaps pulling an arm away from an officer, or ignoring an order. They weren’t hitting or kicking.
There’s certainly been no evidence that the RCMP had any reason to consider shooting Dziekanski. He had no weapon; there was no imminent danger in the largely empty airport. At least three RCMP officers were there to deal with one angry man.
Don’t get me wrong. Long ago, as a reporter, I did a ride-along with an RCMP officer in Alberta. She stopped a beat-up car full of men on the highway. I sat there with my notebook, wondering what I’d do if things went sideways and we were suddenly fighting five big guys. A Taser would have been reassuring.
The issue here is not the value of the weapon. It’s the need for an accurate assessment of the risks, so that the Tasers can be used to ensure police safety while not subjecting civilians to the risk of death.
Police and the manufacturer argue Tasers don’t kill. But their use has been part of a sequence of events that does. The person being zapped is generally in state of excited delirium, often due to cocaine use. They are then restrained on their stomachs, with hands and feet tied behind their backs. And then they stop breathing and die.
The 2004 report made several recommendations around police training and the need for mandatory reporting anytime a Taser is used. It called for specific training for all officers in excited delirium and an end to “maximum restraint” positions that sees suspects hogtied on their stomachs.
Some of the recommendations have been adopted; others are still not in place. But the continuing toll be taken by Taser use indicates that more needs to be done.
And the greatest concern remains the reluctance of police to acknowledge the risks or that Tasers can kill.
When people are belligerent or violent, there is no easy solution for police. All the alternatives, from pepper spray to baton to talking, carry risks.
But Tasers have proven particularly dangerous. It’s time to ensure their use is treated almost as seriously as discharging a gun in the line of duty.
Footnote: The Dzienkanski case raises once again another problem. The investigation into his death is being conducted by the RCMP, just as the force investigated its officer’s actions when Ian Bush was shot and killed inside the Houston RCMP detachment. The public interest demands an independent investigation.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Slow progress on coming pine beetle disaster

The news is getting and grimmer on the pine beetle front. Yet the crisis still doesn't seem to have really captured the political and public attention it deserves.
It's difficult to grasp the scale of the economic problems ahead. B.C. has never experienced anything like it. Only the collapse of the east Coast cod fishery offers a comparable disaster.
The province has released its latest report on the update, with yet more bad news.
The timber killed by the pine beetle appears to be losing its value as lumber faster than expected, reducing the amount that can be salvaged. And there is some evidence the beetle is attacking more of the younger trees that were considered safe from destruction.
Here's the problem.
The Interior forest industry is running flat out now to harvest pine trees before they're dead and worthless. The government has offered cheap stumpage and bumped the annual allowable cut.
Last year, about 46 million cubic metres of timber were harvested for saw logs. That's about 25 per cent more than before the beetle disaster. The Forest Ministry report said that rate could last about four years, until the timber is gone. The annual allowable cut will be reduced to about half the current levels.
And the harvest will be one-third below the amount of timber being cut down and sawed into two by fours and other lumber back in "normal" times.
There will still be forestry, using other species, pines that survive and young pine trees reaching maturity. But for 50 years -- almost two generations of workers -- the traditional industry will be at half its current levels.

The impact will vary by region. But in the Quesnel area, for an example, the timber supply will be cut by some 35 per cent. About 75 per cent of the 12,000 jobs in the region are linked in some way to the forest industry. That means about 3,100 jobs at risk -- one in four employed people in the community. A similar economic disaster in the Lower Mainland would mean a loss of more than 400,000 jobs within a period of a few years. (And, I expect, it would mean a lot more government action.)
That kind of job loss creates a chain reaction. People have to leave town, so stores and other businesses suffer. The forced sale of houses hurts property values. Schools lose students. It's a nasty spiral.
At the same time the government released its forests report, it issued a progress report on efforts to come up ways to help the affected communities deal with the economic crunch.
So far, the province has been more successful at ensuring the wood gets logged than at dealing with the long-term crisis.
The progress report isn't that reassuring.
There's a big replanting push. The report talks about funding for research on ways to use the damaged wood and efforts to find new markets. Bizarrely, it goes on at length about the fact that pine-beetle wood will be used for the roof of the Olympic speed skating oval.
The government is also gathering geological information to try to lure mining companies into the affected areas. It hopes the wood can be burned to generate power and is looking at encouraging farmland.
But the rate of progress is slow --the report talks about a six-parcel agricultural pilot project. And the report's section on "Maintaining strong communities" is a little surreal. It talks about the LocalMotion program to fund bike paths and about Spirit Squares -- hardly at the centre of economic renewal.
There is more going on.
The federal government has put up $36 million for economic diversification. The Northern Development Initiative Trust has set aside $32 million for economic renewal programs and community and regional groups are at work.
But the crisis is just a few years away and the challenge enormous. And so far, the urgency of the crisis just doesn't seem to have hit home.
Footnote: The other big questions are around what will happen with the massive reforestation effort. There's concern about the threat the beetle might pose to trees as they mature and concern about the effects of global warming on the forest during the 50 years the trees will take to mature.