Friday, May 16, 2008

Government stumbles badly on forest industry

The Liberals are making a mess of the forests file, politically and practically.
It's painful to watch Forest Minister Rich Coleman bluster in the legislature.
And it's surprising. In their second term, the Liberals have avoided getting hung up on ideological positions that leave them looking uncaring or inept.
Not on this issue. There's a disaster going on in the forest industry and the communities that depend on it. Mills are closing across the province, many of them permanently. That Bruce Springsteen lyric - "These jobs are going boys, and they ain't coming back" - is sadly apt.
The industry has shed about 13,000 jobs in the last year. In the same period, the economy has added about 70,000 jobs, so there are opportunities.
But the people being booted out of the forest industry aren't necessarily at the front of the line to get those jobs. And the plunge from an income of $60,000 a year to $25,000 is difficult.
Vonsider Mackenzie, a beautiful town of some 4,500 people, about two hours north of Prince George. In January, AbitibiBowater closed two sawmills and a paper mill. Those closures threw 325 people out of work. Now the Pope and Talbot pulp mill has closed shut. Another 260 people with no idea when, or where, or if, they would work again
In less than six months, 585 good, well-paid jobs were gone - about 20 per cent of the town's workforce.
Bad news for stores. People are spending as little as possible. If families start leaving, one of the two elementary schools could be threatened. The town, deprived of property taxes from the pulp mill, has to start looking at the rec centre budget.
And those people who have no jobs are trying to figure out where to go and what to do. Do you even list your house, when sellers outnumber buyers 10 to one?
The job losses in Mackenzie over the last five months are the equivalent of something like 220,000 layoffs in Greater Vancouver. That kind of economic and human catastrophe in the Lower Mainland would get some major government action.
But the Liberals have basically been spectators as the forest industry unravelled since they were elected.
Coleman is right. There are tough problems beyond any government's control. The U.S. housing market has collapsed. The Canadian dollar was worth 90 cents U.S. not a year ago; now the currencies are more less equal in value. That factor alone means producers are getting 10-per-cent less for their products than they did a year ago.
Those are significant factors. But Coleman seemed too much like he was making excuses.
After setting out all the problems in the legislature, demanded the Opposition "Quit selling false hopes over there."
Which sounded much like the government writing off the industry, and the families and communities that depend on it.
Coleman tried to recover. The government rushed an announcement of the ways it would spend $129 million in forestry aid from the federal government over the next three years. He quoted analysts who said things should get better in 18 months.
It's a tough sell. The government has appeared disinterested in the forest industry. There have been a lot of announcements and plans, but not much action.
As those 325 people in Mackenzie were losing their jobs in January, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a forestry roundtable. It seemed a bit like a cruel joke. The roundtable has yet to report.
Meanwhile, Coleman has handed Vancouver Island forest companies breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars, because they asked for them. The result has been to free what was protected forest land for real-estate development.
The government has allowed increased raw log exports to protect jobs in the woods, accepting the damage to B.C. mills.
It looks like the government has just decided the industry's future is beyond its ability to influence.
Footnote: Expect a lot more questions for Coleman in the last days of this legislative session. The New Democrats believe he's much more interested in the housing side of his portfolio than forestry. And expect critics to compare the lack of new provincial money for forestry with the plan to spend a bundle on a new roof for BC Place stadium in Vancouver.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dismal report on First Nations child protection

The stats for First Nations children in B.C. are dismal. Being born native brings a much greater likelihood of struggle in almost every area of life.
Including the risk of ending up in the government's care. More than half the approximately 9,000 children in care are native; they make up less than one-tenth of the population.
The auditor general reported on how the government is doing in looking after those 4,500 kids, keeping them safe and giving them the best possible chance in life.
Not very well, is the conclusion. It's a tough job. By the time children are in care they often have other problems, physical and emotional.
But the Liberal government - after seven years - hasn't even taken the most basic steps to address the problems.
They aren't complicated or mysterious. In fact, they are exactly the things the Liberals pushed for when they were in opposition, rightly criticizing the NDP for its mismanagement of the ministry.
That makes the failures worse. The government has knows what needs to be done, but hasn't acted.
"As a result," Auditor General John Doyle reported, "many of the child protection needs of aboriginal children and their families continue to remain unmet."
Start with the most basic management tools. In opposition, the Liberals called for a needs-based budget for the Ministry of Children and Families.
Figure out what services were required to look after children properly and what they would cost. Not everything might be possible, but start by understanding the needs.
The government hasn't done that. "The ministry has not identified needs and resources required for aboriginal child protection services," the report says. That's a pretty elemental failure.
Because of that, the ministry doesn't have enough money to fill important service "gaps," Doyle found. "We recommend the ministry make a persuasive business case for the funding needed to deliver the services in an effective way." After seven years, it's troubling - but not surprising - that the government still doesn't really know what it's doing.
The report found the ministry "is only partially successful at delivering effective, equitably accessible and culturally appropriate services."
Its major goal of shifting to service delivery by delegated aboriginal agencies is a good idea, but moving slowly. Some of the smaller agencies might never be ready to take over, reported Doyle.
In the meantime, the ministry needs to ensure uniform standards and effective services.
The auditor general reported the ministry still hasn't set up any reliable system for monitoring how well the child-protection system is working - especially in terms of how well the children and youth being served are doing.
The ministry's service plan includes just two measures dealing with aboriginal child protection. (It didn't meet either target.)
The auditor general said the ministry should be reporting to the legislature and the public "on the costs, successes and challenges of the aboriginal child welfare program."
The report was discouraging reading.
And the ministry's response, included with the audit, was perhaps more discouraging. It was two pages long, dismissive and vague.
The specific concerns raised by the auditor general were ignored. The ministry says it's a doing a great job and already implementing most of the recommendations.
But it doesn't say how, or by when. It points to a plan - Safe and Supported: A Commitment to British Columbia's Children and Youth - available on the ministry website. But the plan and the supporting "Operational Framework" are vague in many areas.
The ministry could have made a good start by responding clearly and completely to the recommendations within the auditor's report.
Minister Tom Christensen didn't do much better in the legislature. He acknowledged the problems, but still put considerable spin on his answers.
It's been 12 years of lost opportunities for aboriginal children and families since the Gove report.
If government had moved quickly and effectively to provide needed services, things would be different today for thousands of children, and for aboriginal communities.
Footnote: The report came as Christensen was forced to withdraw a bill establishing regional aboriginal child care authorities promised years ago. First Nations critics, who said their concerns had been ignored, staged a last-minute protest that forced the government to abandon the move.