Thursday, April 10, 2008

An inquiry is needed into the Merritt deaths

The murder of three children in Merritt would be terrible, no matter what the circumstances.
But if the crime could have been prevented. . .
There are real questions about whether Kaitlynne, Max and Cordon Schoenborn had to die. Worse, the same questions have been raised in earlier cases.
And the issues aren't just ones of judgment. The police, prosecutors and courts apparently didn't have access to critical information. Information that perhaps could have saved the children's lives.
The questions have been piling up in the days since the children were found stabbed to death. Their father, Dwayne Schoenborn, is the suspected killer. He was looking after them last Sunday while their mother went shopping. She returned to find them dead; he hasn't been seen since.
Bad things happen in this world. But there are questions about whether this very bad thing had to happen.
The early questions - or criticisms - have focused on whether Schoenborn should have been in jail.
In the seven days before the murders, Merritt RCMP had several dealings with him. They went four times to the trailer were the children's mother, Darcie Clarke, lived with them. Three were at the request of the Ministry of Children and Families; once to arrest Schoenborn for an outstanding warrant for driving while suspended.
That wasn't all. RCMP officers arrested him for being drunk in public. And four days before the murders, Schoenborn was arrested at his children's school. He was accused of threatening the principal and a child who he thought had harassed his daughter.
The RCMP said they wanted Schoenborn held in custody until his court appearance. But Merritt court had closed.
So the RCMP telephoned a Burnaby office where justices of the peace are on call for such occasions. The justice who answered the phone decided Schoenborn wasn't a flight risk, as police alleged.
He ordered him released on $100 bail, and to stay away from the girl and the principal and keep the peace.
I can't second-guess the order.
But I wonder if that's the right way to make such a decision - over the phone, in a hurry. The process does ensure people - still innocent- aren't locked up for any longer than necessary. And it saves money. But is it sound? Does the justice of the peace make a less sound decision when he can't see the suspect? Are the RCMP officers able to present the legal issues as effectively as a Crown prosecutor.
There is a more significant problem. Last year, Schoenborn was charged with threatening to kill his wife. The charge was stayed, but an order limiting his involvement with her was put in place. He violated that order in February.
But the justice of the peace apparently knew none of that. The stories have varied. Some reports say the RCMP didn't know; some say they faxed the information to the justice of the peace.
It doesn't matter. In an age where millions of complex transactions are made every few minutes, the justice system apparently can't communicate critical information about suspects. With tragic results.
This isn't a new issue. Last year, in Victoria, Peter Lee killed his wife, his son, two in-laws and himself. Police believed Lee should be held in custody after an earlier incident in which he had attempted to kill his wife. Crown prosecutors disagreed.
Attorney General Wally Oppal promised a review of the release process then. But nothing has changed. An inquest is scheduled to start April 28. Too late for the three children, and too narrowly focused to produce useful results anyway.
There are other issues, harder to nail down but important. Schoenborn had a mental illness and alcohol addiction. Was he helped? A coroner's inquest has already ordered. But that won't answer anything but the most basic questions.
Oppal has the power to order a public inquiry into the deaths and anything that could have been done to prevent them.
Footnote: The RCMP have faced tough questions as well. It took 20 hours from the time of the murders - until a media relations officer arrived - for the police to confirm that Schoenborn was a suspect. That delay. Some citizens say, put them at risk and allowed the prime suspect the chance to leave the area.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Cap-and-trade bill a blank cheque for government

A cap-and-trade system is a good way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But if I were an MLA - pause here for a shared shudder of horror - I couldn't vote for the government's bill setting up the system.
It's vague and so short of details that MLAs of both parties really can't know what they're voting for.
The cap-and-trade system is a key part of the government's bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2020.
It's simple enough in principle. The bill gives the cabinet the power to set greenhouse-gas emission caps for economic sectors and individual companies. Each company would get B.C. Allowance Units that added up to their emission limit for a year.
If a company found ways to reduce emissions and come in under its cap, it could sell the unused units to another business that needed them. That encourages companies to invest in cuts; there's a financial benefit.
If companies exceed their caps, they would face penalties. But the bill doesn't say what penalties. The maximum is a $1-million fine or six months in jail, but there's no schedule of fines. That's still to come. That seems a big gap.
It gets more complicated. The bill also creates BC Emission Reduction Units. Companies can apply to an unnamed government employee for credits for reducing or removing greenhouse-gas emissions.
If the employee says it's OK, they can sell those reductions to companies that exceed their caps.
So, for example, I could come up with a plan to get everyone in a new development to heat their homes with solar energy instead of oil or gas. I could apply for reduction units based on the average cut in greenhouse gases each year and sell them to an industry.
How and at what price? The bill doesn't say that either.
This isn't so much legislation as the first draft of an idea.
A very good idea, I hasten to say. The best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to put a price on them. That makes its worthwhile for companies - and individuals - to find ways to reduce their emissions. And the only way to deliver on the promised reduction targets is to limit emissions by the major sources to specific levels.
Nothing else guarantees the targets will be met, and that's what the government has promised.
But even supporters of the principle should be nervous about this legislation. MLAs are being asked to give the cabinet huge power to impose rules that could mean ruin - or riches - for companies and communities in B.C.
The legislation doesn't say how the caps will be allocated, either by sector or by company. Who will set the critical quotas, and on what basis? Will they be auctioned, or awarded by cabinet?
The bill doesn't even say which industries or sectors will or won't be covered.
It all matters. And none of the answers can be found in the legislation.
This is naturally making businesses nervous. What new costs might they face next year? Can they even measure their emissions accurately enough to make the system work? Some worry that the costs will put them at a disadvantage compared to out-of-province competitors.
Again, even those who support the cap-and-trade approach should be troubled by the lack of information.
It doesn't seem that MLAs - of any party - could vote for this bill, because it's impossible to judge the impact on the citizens they represent. It should be important, for example, that Prince George MLAs have at least some information on the likely caps and costs for the forest industry before they decide if they're prepared to support the bill.
The whole issue presents a big challenge for government. Premier Gordon Campbell has proclaimed climate change the biggest issue facing government, but there has been little concrete action.
This bill raises concerns about the government's rush to get the job done.
Footnote: B.C. has also signed on to develop a cap-and-trade system with Manitoba and seven U.S. states, including California, as part of the Western Climate Initiative. But again, there are no details and the government has not explained how the two plans will be integrated.