Friday, February 01, 2008

Liberals look to have run out of forestry ideas

These are tough days for the forest industry. The future doesn't appear much better.
And the government looks like it has pretty much run out of ideas. When Premier Gordon Campbell made his eleventh annual speech to the Truck Loggers Association convention last month, the contractors were hoping for a meaningful announcement.
Instead, Campbell announced another round table to look at the problems and report to cabinet every three months. The membership and terms of reference were still to be set, he said.
The effort can't hurt, but it looked like one those announcements that governments make when they really don't know what to do. It might have been unfair just to focus on the lack of ideas in Campbell's speech.
But two days earlier, the provincial Forest Practices Board had released a report that indicated companies and government no longer considered forest sustainability the top priority.
The board looked at 54 helicopter logging sites on the coast. In more than half, the companies were taking out the most valuable cedar trees and leaving the aged hemlock around them. There was no replanting or thinning. The forests were being mined, not sustainably managed.
The board found logging plans were often shoddy, but the companies were following the province's rules.
It was another indication the industry has moved into its twilight, at least in terms of government attention.
Then, a few days after the premier spoke to the truck loggers, the auditor general released a report on safety in the forest industry. It too was grim.
Back in 2003, the government expressed concern about the death and injury rate. Campbell pledged to cut them in half in three years. He appointed a task force (which is somehow different than a round table).
Auditor general John Doyle's review attempted to look at the results. But there weren't any. The death and injury rates are unchanged. Government policies were part of the problem. Safety inspections had been cut sharply.
Policy changes meant responsibility for safety shifted from the land leaseholder or owner - usually a big company - to hundreds of contractors with a few employees. They didn't have the experience or resources.
And there was "race to the bottom" in forest practices because of economic pressures, the auditor general found. That, combined with the lack of enforcement, led to unsafe practices.
The bottom line? "The goal of eliminating forest worker death or serious injury has not been achieved.''
Taken together, the three developments are discouraging. Then add the government's decision to shift vast tracts out of the working forest on Vancouver Island, because companies want to make more selling it for real estate development.
And throw in the slow response to the coming disaster when timber supplies are slashed because of the pine beetle devastation. The government has been pretty good at salvage efforts and Interior mills have improved their efficiency.
But beyond some vague hopes for wood-based power, there are no plans in place to help the industry and communities cope with the decades required for pine forests to regenerate, even with aggressive replanting efforts.
The provincial government's big forestry overhaul in 2003 seemed to make sense. Companies gained more freedom to do what they liked with Crown timber. The change meant mill closures and job losses, but government and industry said it would bring investment and a more competitive industry. A shift to market-based stumpage was supposed to help resolve the softwood dispute. But the measures didn't work and the government didn't adapt to their failure. There are no easy solutions. We've stripped the best parts of the forest - ones that took at least 500 years to grow - in about 40 years. Everybody involved grabbed the easy money.
And B.C. faces competition from other regions that operate more efficiently. But still, this is an extraordinary resource. It should provide jobs, in the woods and mills and pulp and paper towns, for thousands of British Columbians for decades to come.
And while the government will point to lots of funding announcements and initiatives like the round table, the fact remains that the Liberals' policies over the last seven years haven't worked and there's no change in sight.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Government playground funding system just plain weird

I just glanced at the government press release last month announcing funding for 66 school playground projects across the province. It seemed wrong that playground equipment is no longer considered something kids are entitled to. The government won't pay, so parents have to raise the money. That's easy in some schools, way harder in others.
Jason Harshenin, editor of the Grand Forks Gazette, paid more attention. It turned the grants covered about 10 per cent of the school playground requests. And they were awarded by lucky draw, not need.
Here's his excellent column.

Grant lottery irresponsible
By Jason Harshenin
Grand Forks Gazette
When the Hutton Elementary School Parent Advisory Council (PAC) initiated its fund raising efforts to replace the school’s old and dilapidated playground, nobody anticipated that the British Columbia Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) would not support their fundraising efforts.
Hutton PAC members applied for grant funding through ActNow BC – a “partnership-based, cross-ministry health and wellness Initiative” that is supposed to “promote healthy living choices to improve the quality of life for all British Columbians”. BCCPAC administered the funding and selected a lottery in order to do so. According to BCCPAC communications and media coordinator, Gabrielle Moore, over 600 schools initially applied for the funding and between them they requested $11 million dollars in funding. Only 66 schools across the province, however, were distributed the $1 million allocated by the Ministry of Education.
Obviously there is a major need for better playground equipment across the entire province. Obviously not enough money has been set aside to address this concern.
But when asked why BCCPAC opted to pursue a lottery as opposed to looking at individual applications and assessing need, Moore stated that volunteers run BCCPAC and they simply do not have the human power needed to scrutinize individual applications. When I asked Moore if she was concerned that the ministry of education would allocate $1 million dollars to playground funding without instituting some funding formula or funding mechanism for how that money is distributed, especially in light of some of the major challenges facing forestry-based communities in the Interior, Moore was unresponsive. I asked Moore to contact BCCPAC president Kim Howland. I would like Howland to explain why BCCPAC utilized a lottery system and whether the decision to hold a lottery was politically motivated. I would also like to know why the ministry of education would agree to that criteria for funding when it would want its $1 million spent on the schools in most need of support.
According to Ministry of Education spokesperson Lara Perzoff, the ministry was not aware that BCCPAC opted to use a lottery; however, Perzoff is identified as the contact person on the ministry’s press release.  I would also like to know why the majority of the schools on the list are in Liberal ridings and in the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island. And why did only one school in the entire Kootenays (both east and west) get funding?
So far the Hutton PAC has raised $37,000 in just over one year. Pretty impressive to say the least. Hutton PAC is now determined to raise the rest (over $60,000 ) by summer so kids going to school this fall will have a new playground to enjoy – a playground that is safe, fun and helps to get them active. In the mean time, I will wait to hear from the ministry and from BCCPAC. Maybe they can explain to me why the children and families at Hutton Elementary school have not been supported.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jean's Eastside visit just a 2010 preview

Michaƫlle Jean's visit to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside should be a wake-up call.
The Governor General toured the tormented streets last week, a visit that went predictably awry. She was flanked by a bunch of security people; many of the residents jeered and called questions. (Most of the rougher comments were directed at the Vancouver councilor along on the walkabout; Mayor Sam Sullivan stayed away.)
Jean said she wished she had been able to see the area without so much fuss. She could have, just by slipping into town early and walking around. She wasn't likely going to be recognized down there.
The whole weird event was a reminder of what's ahead two years from now when media from around the world descend on Vancouver for the Olympics. Short of gathering up the addicted, homeless, mentally ill and dirt poor and busing them out of town, there is almost no chance that the horror show will be on full display in 2010.
People who don't get to Vancouver - or don't venture into the few blocks off the business and tourist zones - likely don't know how bad it is.
The five or six blocks of chaos aren't necessarily dangerous, at least in the daytime.
They are, though, sad and horrifying both. This isn't like the old days, when a few hundred alcoholic men made up the Eastside skid-row community. Some of them drank in parks and fought and panhandled and froze to death on cold nights.
But they were a small problem, one everyone was used to.
Today the same streets are like something out of a bleak movie about the future, when social order has collapsed. I've travelled a little bit, in some poor and strange places.
Nowhere have I seen any place as weird. (The South Bronx in the mid-seventies came close; with its blocks of burned out buildings it looked like there had been some sort of war, complete with aerial bombardment.)
There are stores, but customers run a gauntlet of the sick and addicted to get to them. Sketchy looking pawn shops and vacant storefronts predominate.
The sidewalks are the living room for people with nowhere else to spend time. They're skinny, pale, dressed badly and often obviously sick - coughing, or with abscesses. They gather in groups. Some shout, some in deep conversation with voices only they hear. No one looks real young, but who can tell. Some look like they're grandparents, except everything's gone wrong.
And drugs are everywhere.
It is crazy: Part Third World and part science fiction.
There are a lot of reasons. We closed mental institutions over the last several decades, but never provided support for the people who had lived in them. Now many have fallen to the Eastside. Addiction and drug polices have been a dismal failure. Housing and welfare polices haven't worked.
Perhaps most significantly, we haven't worked at prevention - at catching young mothers before things spin out of control, at supporting kids so they don't slide into addiction and hopelessness.
Now our failures are about to go on display for the world. As the Michaƫlle Jean tour showed, all this makes good television. It will be a perfect colour story for every TV station from every country in the world in 2010 - how blocks from Olympic hockey games, and minutes from condos worth million, there's another, wretched British Columbia.
And the more intrepid reporters will take the story a little farther - a feature on the troubled street scene in Victoria, or drug problems in almost any town or city.
The government has taken a lot of useful steps in the last few months, especially in working towards protecting or creating housing. Even small communities have got funding for outreach workers to help people find and keep homes.
But it's not nearly enough to even patch over the problems by 2010. Either the government has to get much more serious, quickly, or the world is going to get an ugly eyeful when the Games are on.
Footnote: The heckling and abuse were the roughest treatment Jean has experienced since starting the job more than two years ago. The visit ended with protests outside a formal dinner. One man was tasered by police.

Why do governments make it harder to escape welfare?

Judith Maxwell says real progress on poverty is being made by communities and businesses, not government, and looks at some of the government policies making things worse in this column. in today's Globe.
And coincidentally, Victoria columnist Jody Paterson tells one man's story that demonstrates the problem here.