Category Archives: Politics

Which Political Leader Can We Trust?

Christy Clark, John Horgan, Andrew Weaver. photo by bc.ctvnews.ca

I’m certainly not the first to observe that politics can be a fickle, mischievous mistress. This is especially the case when politicians lose the trust of the people. In Searching For Certainty, Bricker and Greenspon suggest “trust is no longer given, but earned.”

I respected and enjoyed Christy Clark’s vibrant style as a popular Vancouver radio talk show host prior to returning to politics. My trust in her and the Liberals took a body blow though when she refused to order a Site C evaluation by the BC Utilities Commission. Like many B.C. citizens I feel such a massive project, estimated to cost $9 billion, should receive serious scrutiny by experienced experts. Some knowledgeable individuals not beholden to the government are saying the power isn’t needed and will have to be sold at fire sale prices. I’m wondering if the Liberals have set us on a course that will put our children and grandchildren on an unnecessary financial hook for many decades.

My trust was further eroded by Clark’s brazen inclusion of a number of NDP promises in her recent ill-fated budget. This seems at least a tad tacky when we consider the way she had earlier scoffed at the NDP program, claiming much of it was not affordable.

I still like Christy Clark’s enthusiastic gung-ho style. Having been disappointed too often by charisma unaccompanied by substance and wisdom though, I’m experiencing anxiety as to her motivation. She appears focused on toppling the in-coming government and forcing an election. According to several big city pundits, the Liberals have already amassed a considerable campaign war chest. Large donations are mostly from corporations, which is troubling in itself. Campaign contributions generally come with expectations of favours. Ordinary citizens are rarely in line for such favours.

I realize the Liberals are not going to accept any advice from me. Possibly not from anyone else either. They seem to be thinking about how best to again grasp the reins of power. If they were willing to listen, I’d suggest before they trigger another campaign they consider the 1944 Saskatchewan election outcome.

Premier William Patterson and his Liberal party thought they could convince voters the CCF (now NDP) candidates were dangerous communists. According to Charlotte Gray in The Promise of Canada, “corporations contributed dollops of cash for fear mongering.” Evidently the Liberals didn’t believe Tommy Douglas and his small contingent of MLA’s would be taken seriously. They didn’t understand the trust factor.

On the campaign trail, Douglas made promises that would benefit ordinary people, not big companies. Although the CCF had won only a total of 11 seats in 1938, including one in a by-election, and had never been in power, voters liked and trusted Douglas. In the 1944 election, CCF won a surprising 47 of 52 seats.

In subsequent years, Tommy Douglas delivered on his promises and went on to win 5 consecutive elections. Among other measures of benefit to citizens, he introduced public auto insurance, the first in Canada. People quickly saw that they were saving money.

During his time in office the government renovated or built 33 hospitals. By 1954, Saskatchewan had gone from having the fewest hospital beds in Canada to having the most. The government also began paying for hospital care. Charlotte Gray says one major secret of Tommy Douglas’ continued success is that he was bringing in polices and programs that made peoples’ lives easier. They came to trust him.

Although it was expected then, as now, that the socialist-democratic government would pile up debt, provincial treasurer Clarence Fines was tight fisted. Over the years he brought in 16 balanced budgets. He also began paying down government debt. New services were provided only as they became affordable.

Undoubtedly we can expect high drama in the B.C. Legislature in coming days and weeks. Will Christy Clark be a constructive leader of the Opposition, or will she be in campaign mode? Will John Horgan and Andrew Weaver maintain a positive working relationship, foster a productive atmosphere in the legislature and not drive B.C.’s bank account deep into the red? For all 3 leaders it will provide an opportunity to prove we can trust them to do what is right, not primarily for themselves, corporations, or unions, but for the citizens who pay their salaries. Along with the rest of us, the fickle, mischievous mistress of politics is observing.

After The Political Heavy Lifting

Book Cover photo from Amazon
Book Cover photo from Amazon

Now that we’ve done the heavy lifting, casting our ballot, where will we turn our attention next? For most of us, it likely won’t be to politics. Having pondered about whether the Liberals or the New Democrats will do the most good and the least harm, we’re ready to move on. Anyway, our democratic system encourages electors to get out of the way and permit the government to make all decisions.

There are several insidious black flies in this ointment, however. They hide behind a curtain of tradition and secrecy and bedevil politicians, federal and provincial, and also tax paying citizens. Their chilling influence is experienced by those on the government benches and also those on Opposition benches. Recently some frustrated retired politicians have drawn our attention to a number of disquieting issues in our political system, in the hope there will be change.

One of the key issues is the rigid control exercised by political parties over elected representatives at both the provincial and federal levels. Alison Loat, formerly a fellow and instructor at the University of Toronto, and billionaire businessman Michael MacMillan, have cast a glaring light on Canadian politics at the federal level. In “Tragedy in the Commons” they report on interviews with 80 former MP’s from all parties across Canada. According to Loat and MacMillan, “MP’s rarely speak out against their leader or party, fearing they will be demoted, removed from caucus, unable to fully do their jobs, or will not be considered for cabinet positions or promotions.”

One of those interviewed was Russ Powers, a former Liberal MP (2004-2006). He said, “the party tells us to say we are there to adopt national policies for the betterment of all in the country. Reality though, is we are there to adopt policies that are self-serving and beneficial to the party in order to stay in power and get re-elected. You had to adhere to the policy or endure the wrath of the Whip.”

Graham Steele, Nova Scotia’s former NDP Finance Minister, adds another unsettling thought. In “What I Learned about Politics,” he contends that “the desire to get elected drives everything a politician does.” He adds, “in politics regrettably, the undecorated truth is usually unwelcome.”

In spite of these gloomy observations by former politicians, all may not be lost. Knowing it’s extremely unusual for currently elected politicians to voice concerns regarding our political system, I was surprised to learn that a number of MP’s, representing all parties, have recently expressed their views in a new book just released last week. The title is “Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy.” In a news release about the book, Samara Canada states “MP’s from all major parties and ridings across the country joined together in a rare display of unity to make change a reality, explaining why reform is so urgently needed and proposing practical, achievable suggestions for making it happen. It has chapters from MP’s Niki Ashton, Michael Chong, Michael Cooper, Nathan Cullen, Elizabeth May, Scott Simms, Kennedy Stewart and Anita Vandenbeld.”

What does this mean to us living comfortably in our beautiful Similkameen Valley? While we may consider it unlikely that we can play a part in cleaning up the political mess in Ottawa or Victoria, this may be an overly complacent, pessimistic conclusion.

We could begin by changing what we expect of politicians. When we ask, “what will you do for us,” are we not implicitly agreeing to be bribed with our own money? Understandably, politicians experience great pressure to outbid the other party. Leaders believe we are more likely to support them if they promise what we demand. To get elected and to be given consideration for committee positions, the lower ranks fall in line, even when at times those at the top make decisions that will adversely impact an unsuspecting electorate.

We need to view governance as a shared responsibility. This means we don’t ask for more than we can afford. It also means we remind our leaders that what we really value is integrity, honesty, truth, prudent decisions, etc. By shifting our focus from the material realm to a values realm, we may be able to begin a dialogue with our representatives about what is really important to us and our nation.

Graham Steele suggests that “the only person who can change our policies is the engaged citizen.”

Linda Larson, Wiser And More Experienced

Linda Larson
Linda Larson

Before Linda Larson arrived at our home for a conversation last Thursday, I read the column I had written about her 2 years ago. At that time she said, “In my childhood, mom struggled to put food on the table. She baked bread. We had butter every 2 to 3 months. Other kids at school wore store bought clothes. My mom made mine.” Since those early meager times, Linda has attained considerable success in politics, initially as mayor of Oliver and more recently as the Boundary/Similkameen MLA. I was interested in her perception of what it’s like to play a role (even if not a high echelon one) in Christy Clark’s high roller style of politics. I also wanted to know if success had in any way tainted her values and principles.

Sitting at the round table in our sun room, eating my wife Linda’s egg sandwiches and bean salad, we engaged in a pretty frank discussion of life in provincial politics. I was watchful for the usual escape hatches that politicians duck into to evade uncomfortable questions.

I began our conversation by suggesting that a lot of politicians express a desire at the outset of their career to make their community and country a better, safer, more liveable place, but before long they become jaded. “It is important to come into politics with the belief you can make things better,” she replied. “Politics is a game, but not a frivolous game. You have to learn the rules and make them work for you. As an individual, you aren’t powerful, but as a member of a team you are.”

She reflected for a moment. “If I want to get things done, I need to be a team member. Democracy is a challenging system, but it’s the best in the world.”

In response to my question, she cited several instances where she has obtained results. A transition house, a dam project and an irrigation system. Also a 10 year contract for the Grist Mill in Keremeos.

It’s complex,” she observed. “Sometimes it takes a lot of time and persevering. Three years ago a man came to me with the request that disabled motorcyclists be permitted to park in places designated as disabled parking. “It was quite a process,” she said. “A number of organizations and several government departments were involved. Now you can get a sticker for a motorcycle licence that lets you use a parking space reserved for the disabled.”

She told us that work on individual files is handled by a staffer in her office. “When a man didn’t have the funds to take a bus to Vancouver for cancer treatments, Pat knew who to talk to. She has dealt with 700 cases over the past 4 years. She really knows how to produce results. This allows me to work on larger, complex issues that require engaging various levels of government.”

About 95 percent of people are great, Linda told us. “I love my work and I love the people. When someone is angry, I know something has happened. We have to try to fix it. Only about 5 percent are negative, but they are also the most vocal. Dealing with them has taught me I have a thicker skin than I realized.”

Linda acknowledges there have been disappointments. “In my riding natural gas is not available to a number of homes.

Those people are hit hard by high electricity costs. I had hoped for more from the recent BCEU report.” Her face registered concern. “We can’t just tell a government body what to do,” she said. “A rule change can affect the entire province. Government needs to look at social, environmental and cost implications when making changes. I feel though there is a better way and we need to find it. I will continue to work on it.”

I sensed that her concern regarding exorbitant hydro rates is deep and genuine. She has the experience to know this will not be an easy fix. She’ll need allies. Her statement that she will continue working on it seemed much more than a convenient line to please voters.

After our 90 minute conversation, I had a better understanding of how government functions. Linda didn’t duck into escape hatches and I felt pretty certain she has not been unduly influenced by the flamboyant, off the cuff style of her leader. Still Linda Larson, but wiser and more experienced.

Linda Larson on the campaign trail.
Linda Larson on the campaign trail.

Vonnie Lavers, Green Party Candidate

Vonnie Lavers, Green Party Candidate for Boundary-Similkameen
Vonnie Lavers, Green Party Candidate for Boundary-Similkameen

When Green Party candidate Vonnie Lavers said she once worked as an executive assistant to the president of Syncrude Canada, I needed to mentally pause. This didn’t align easily with my perception of her party. Aren’t Green and Syncrude as incompatible as oil and water?

In a wide ranging conversation in the sun room of our home in Hedley, Vonnie talked freely about her life, beginning with the early years in Port Saunders, a small community in Newfoundland. We would learn that although she is committed to the preservation of our environment, life experience has alerted her to a variety of additional societal challenges. “We lived in poverty the first 8 years of my life,” she said in answer to my question. “I was the second oldest of 8 children. My parents are Metis and I’m also Metis. I did housework, picked berries, helped bake fruit pies, cleaned fish. We ate moose, bear, rabbits, fish, plants and berries.” Her early experiences gave her an appreciation for the role a healthy environment plays in sustaining all life. “We need to think about the future of our children.”

We began to see Vonnie’s grit and capacity to be proactive when she spoke of her time in a trades and technology college after high school. “I received a phone call from my parents one day,” she recalled. “They said I’d have to quit my studies. There wasn’t money to pay the $35 a week room and board. I had worked and had enough hours for EI, but being in school made me ineligible.”

She reflected for a moment, then smiled. “I sat on the doorstep of MP John Crosbie’s office 3 days. I guess he decided I wasn’t going away so he invited me in. After hearing me out, he arranged for me and other students to collect EI. That took away a lot of anxiety.”

After completing her courses, she managed a summer government work project. When she overheard 2 men talking about opportunities in Fort McMurray, she told her mother she’d like to go there to work. The response was, “we’ll have to see what Dad says.” Undeterred, Vonnie replied, “you’d better persuade him because I’m going.”

The move to Alberta would be important in her education outside the classroom. She would grow further in her understanding of the complex issues every society must contend with.

In Fort McMurray her college training and work experience persuaded John Lynn, president of Syncrude, to hire her as an assistant. During these years she witnessed the prospering of Syncrude when oil prices rose, and also the difficult times when prices declined sharply. She recalls seeing a bumper sticker saying, “please God, let there be another boom. I promise not to pee it away this time.”

The years at Syncrude gave her an understanding of the role natural resources play in providing good jobs. Extensive travel and reading alerted her to the need to ensure our environment is not overly exploited. “Even the Saudis are diversifying, moving into renewable energy. We need to allocate more funds for research and the development of alternative sources. There are good job and business prospects in this.”

She’s still enthusiastic about an opportunity she was given at Syncrude to make a positive contribution outside the corporate offices. A committee she chaired donated $3 million annually, primarily to child related programs and the arts.

Growing up with 6 sisters and a brother gave Vonnie a keen appreciation for family. “Our entire society is based on family,” she observed. “It’s important we sit down together for supper. We also need to be connected outside the family. We can’t just be taking all the time. We have to give back. Family and friends support us in the valleys of life.”

The president of Syncrude became her mentor and encouraged her to prepare for further accomplishments. At age 28 she enrolled in Mount Royal College in Alberta. Since then work, community involvements and business ventures have broadened her perspective. She can speak knowledgeably about Portugal’s response to drug and mental health issues, depletion of wild life in Zimbabwe or an apartment building in New York where at Thanksgiving the tenants come together around long tables in the hallway for a potluck meal.

Vonnie has an offer on her Kelowna home and plans to move to the Boundary/Similkameen constituency. This Green candidate is about much more than just the environment.

Green Party Candidate Vonnie Lavers with Dave Cursons, Campaign Manager
Green Party Candidate Vonnie Lavers with Dave Cursons, Campaign Manager

Can’t Afford Christy Clark Dinner

February 14, 2016 -  BC Premier Christy Clark. Photo by Dave Chan.
February 14, 2016 – BC Premier Christy Clark. Photo by Dave Chan.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from the B.C. Liberal party. It began as follows: “We’re honoured to invite you to the 2017 Vancouver Leader’s Dinner on April 10 in support of Premier Christy Clark and Today’s B.C. Liberals.”

Naturally I felt flattered that they’d think of me, a little white haired guy living in an obscure community, far from the centre of provincial power. Before I could even briefly savour the moment or make plans to attend, Linda read the rest of the message. Her words quickly doused my euphoria. “Listen to this,” she said, a tinge of regret in her voice. “I don’t think you’ll be able to attend. Single tickets are $500. For a seat at the Premier’s Circle Table, where I know you’d like to be, it’s $10,000. This is for people in the big leagues. They’re looking for high rollers, like Jimmy Pattison.”

I suppose, even after many years, I’m still hoping those holding the reins of power want to hear from average people like me. I should have known immediately though they weren’t really enthusiastic about having me there, unless I came with pockets full of high denomination bills.

Lately there has been much discussion by political pundits and members of the opposition concerning Liberal fund raising. The party has attached a hefty cost to the privilege of access to the Premier and elite members of her cabinet. Certainly this dinner is not for average citizens striving to feed children, pay rent or property taxes, maintain a vehicle, contend with constantly rising government fees and a plethora of other expenses.

It isn’t surprising that polling suggests the connection between ordinary citizens and governments is in serious disrepair. An Ekos poll revealed that at the national level, the proportion of Canadians who trust their government to do the right thing decreased from 60 percent in 1968 to 28 percent in 2012. In 2013, participants in a Leger poll rated politicians as the second least trusted professionals. Only psychics ranked lower.

In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan state “there is a growing sense among Canadians that conventional politics are not working quite as they should.” They add “for well over a generation, in election after election, voter turn out has declined.”

Compared to the NDP, the Liberals are already lavishly funded. (In one recent week, London Drugs, Copper Mountain Mine, Ernst & Young LLP, among others, each contributed $10,000.) The fact that it will be primarily the wealthy who attend the fund raising dinner suggests the party will be under a huge obligation to corporations.

Having at times expressed the belief that one individual can make a difference, I have sent the following note to Premier Clark.

Dear Premier,

I feel honoured by the invitation to your Party’s 2017 Leader’s Dinner. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend, due to the cost.

My wife Linda and I would certainty like to meet you, however, and undoubtedly would enjoy a conversation with you. We’d like to invite you to our home in historic Hedley when you are campaigning in this area. We’d be happy to serve lunch, or any meal.

I write a column for two Black Press papers, the Similkameen Spotlight and The Review (Keremeos). Often my focus is on individuals doing important things in the Similkameen Valley and in our country. I’d be happy to write some positive things about you. Stopping in Hedley would almost certainly attract the attention of big city media.

Linda and I look forward to hearing from you.”

If you’re thinking this is a “long shot,” I won’t argue with you. If you consider it silly, I won’t argue with that either. I realize Christy Clark’s campaign bus may not even pass through our community, and if it does she isn’t likely to visit Linda and me. I do feel though she needs to hear from average citizens.

As I’m writing this, Linda has just informed me the Premier’s Circle Table is already sold out. Don’t despair though, for a mere $500 you may still be able to sit close to Mike Dejong or Rich Coleman.

My hope is not that Christy Clark will visit, even for a few minutes. Rather, I feel a responsibility to remind her she needs to govern for the benefit of all people, even quiet folks hidden away in the Similkameen Valley.

Visit From A Homeless Girl

Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)
Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)

Some years ago, on a frigid day in early January, I came upon a young homeless girl huddled under a tree against the wall of our Abbotsford condo.

Surprised, and sensing her misery, I asked “are you OK?”

“Yes,” she responded. Her voice suggested she meant “no.”

“You look cold,” I said, pulling off my thin gloves and handing them to her. She protested a moment and then accepted them willingly. Skinny as an anorexic fashion model, she seemed incredibly vulnerable. Giving her a pair of skimpy gloves was a meager gesture.

“Would you like to come in and get warmed up?” I asked.

She nodded.

In our condo, Linda turned up the fireplace. “Sit here,” she said. “I’ll bring you hot chocolate and a sandwich.”

“Complexa” seemed eager to talk about her life. We learned she was only 16, and for the past year her home had been a couple of tarps and blankets under some trees. Without any prompting, she volunteered she had done some drugs, including crystal meth. “I haven’t done a lot of meth,” she said. “I don’t have much money. I don’t sell my body.”

Still, we observed considerable twitching as she talked and ate. We attributed this to the meth.

Thinking she needed a thorough warming, Linda asked if she wanted a bath or shower. This thought appealed to her and she spent a good two hours in the tub.

We became concerned she might have taken drugs in with her and overdosed. Linda asked several times, “are you OK?”

Possibly the long stint in the bathroom was to forestall going back to the snow-laden streets.

We had a commitment that evening and couldn’t leave her in the building alone, so when she emerged from her long sojourn in the bathroom, we attempted to help her find a place for the night.

“Does your mom live around here?” Linda asked.

“Yes,” Complexa replied, “but we don’t get along. I haven’t seen her in over a year. Her cell number is out of service.”

“Do you have a dad?”

“My dad faded out of my life quite a few years ago,” she responded. “I don’t know where he is.” There was no indication of regret.

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“I have one brother,” she said. “He’s in prison.”

“What about grandparents?”

They were separated and living somewhere in Ontario. We attempted to find a phone number for them, but without success.

I phoned Community Services, the Salvation Army and the Abbotsford Police. I learned that only one small facility took in young girls. No answer there.

In the end, Complexa asked to use our phone and someone agreed to take her in. This person frequented a “drug house” in our neighbourhood.

Before leaving, she ate a bowl of hot stew and a bun, then thanked us warmly. When she walked out of our door, she walked out of our lives. In more than four hours, she had not smiled once.

Living in a strata building with strict rules, I’m not sure we could have done much more for Complexa.

Although I was aware of our limitations, I felt great unease knowing this 16-year-old unsmiling girl must wander about with no hope, no real destination and no connections outside the drug scene.

The social ills that were already prevalent in Abbotsford at that time have also been creeping into the Similkameen valley. In Hedley, addicts freely visit the much complained about drug house on Daly Avenue. Several are reputed to be making drugs available to teens. It seems that as a society we are capable of building impressive edifices, but we do not know how to create a future for drug addicted,homeless youths. The recent provincial budget, in spite of its many spending promises, will not change this.

Can we do more than wring our hands over this condition that is festering in the bowels of our society?

If our community and our larger society are to be healthy and vibrant, we must make a serious commitment to individuals and families in trouble, before they walk too far along this perilous path to utter hopelessness.

In spite of the scarcity of resources, I’d like to say to the addicted homeless Complexas in our communities, “don’t stop looking for help. It’s always too soon to give up.”

John Horgan Up Close

In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton. Photo by Josh Berson
In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton.
Photo by Josh Berson

When I called the provincial NDP office in early December to request an interview with party leader John Horgan, I considered it a “long shot.” With a provincial election looming, would he want to talk with a small market columnist? I suggested to his effervescent press secretary, Sheena McConnell, that he is well known as a politician, but not as a person. My interest was in writing about his non-political life. She said, “Let’s set something up in a couple of months.”

Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Photo by Joshua Berson

On his early February whirlwind swing through the Okanagan Valley, we met in the Shades on Main restaurant in Penticton. He turned out to be everything I had not expected in an NDP leader.

Upon entering the restaurant, he walked briskly to our table accompanied by Sheena. He had already been interviewed at 8 a.m. by CBC Kelowna, also by Kamloops and Victoria stations. He had met people in two Kelowna coffee shops and one in Osoyoos. In spite of the travel and interviews, he exuded energy and congeniality. I would learn that at age 57 he has the concentration of an NHL goalie.

In response to my question about family, he said “my father suffered a brain aneuyrsm on Christmas Eve and passed away a few months later. I was an infant and have no memories of him. My mom didn’t have a drivers licence or job. A few years later, I’d come home from school, turn on the tv and make myself a peanut butter sandwich.”

There were serious hurdles before he found sure footing. “I went off the rails in grade 9”, he said. “I started smoking and hanging out with a bad crowd. I skipped classes and failed math, science, typing and French. The principal, counselor, and basketball coach worked hard to keep me in school.” In grade 12 he was elected president of the student council and captain of the basketball team. “In basketball, soccer and lacrosse, I learned a lot about personal discipline. I came to understand the importance of working together.”

Along the way he got experience that seasoned him and helped him understand people with limited means. “I’ve worked in mills,” he said. “I’ve worked in construction. I know what it’s like to live paycheque to paycheque.”

On his first day at Trent University, he met Ellie. “She was gorgeous and she was kind.” They have now been married 33 years and have 2 sons. He rarely takes Ellie along campaigning. “I’m concerned for her,” he said. “It’s too distracting.” He needs to be away a lot so he doesn’t see her as much as he’d like. He says, “Even so, she’s my oasis in all this madness.”

John didn’t hesitate when I asked if we could talk about his bout with cancer. “Sure,” he said. “I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 49. I’ve had surgery since and it went well. It helped me understand that every moment is precious. We need to make an impact and try to help others.”

He had thoughts of social work when he began undergraduate studies as a psychology major at Trent University in Ontario. This changed when he attended a talk by Tommy Douglas. Then about 82, this iconic political elder kindled a flame in him. “He was a small, frail man, but I was impacted by the power of his voice, his speaking skill, and his message. He spoke of compassion and empathy, the importance of protecting the less fortunate. I shook his hand, convinced I could make a greater difference in policy development.”

John switched to political science and history, and went on to attain an M.A. in Australia. In 1983 he joined the NDP.

Having grown up in a politically conservative family, I’ve long been wary of NDP policies. I decided to ask a few political questions. His responses suggested he might be closer to median voters like myself than I had anticipated. He said, “A linear spectrum of politics doesn’t work anymore. The needs of business people and working people are the same. Seniors aren’t concerned about ideology. Students aren’t interested in manifestos.”

We need investment in industry. Workers understand that to have jobs, business must prosper.”

After 35 minutes he needed to hurry to a meeting with the Chief and Council of the Penticton Band. In his values, especially his concern for all people, John Horgan caused me to think of J.S. Woodsworth, respected founder of the CCF, now the NDP.

Government Paralysis Not Fatal

I’ve observed that politicians and bureaucrats at times appear to develop an instant case of political paralysis when citizens seek help in protecting their community. This is likely what prompted my friend Suzanne to adopt a confrontational approach in her numerous quarrels with government.

A gentle, generous white haired lady, now a grandmother, she has been a community activist much of her life. She decided early that being nice got her no respect or results. When I suggested it would be less stressful if she backed off a tad, she just smiled, probably thinking I was astonishingly naïve. She was certainly right about that. However, subsequent experience has convinced me hers is not the only strategy, or the most effective.

Corky Evans (Nelson Star photo)
Corky Evans
(Nelson Star photo)

Meeting former MLA Corky Evans in Hedley recently, I was reminded of a few lessons I learned in the early1990’s about community activism. It began when Linda and I became aware of a plan to develop a mushroom composting operation on the periphery of our Abbotsford neighbourhood. I wasn’t concerned until I was invited to visit a similar operation on Sumas prairie, east of Abbotsford. The plant was situated no more than 200 paces from the home of an elderly couple, Joe and Angie. They had lived there some 20 years. The odour from the plant was so obnoxious that, to retain their physical and mental health, they needed to go away for several months at a time.

Soon I received a visit from Roger. He ardently urged that we gather a few neighbours and picket the local plant. I was willing, but argued we should do it only when we had sufficient numbers so we appeared strong. To this end,we partnered with others in the neighbourhood and developed a motivated, cohesive group. We then linked up with a group irate about a large composting plant in Surrey.

John van Dongen (photo Abbotsford Today)
John van Dongen
(photo Abbotsford Today)

On a wet Saturday morning we began picketing the plant being built in our neighbourhood. A car pulled onto the shoulder of the road. It was John van Dongen, then a Liberal MLA and Opposition Critic for Agriculture. For an hour he stood under a large umbrella and explained the Farm Practises Act. We were deeply troubled by what he told us. The Act gave immense protection to agriculture. It seemed to have the power of an 11th Commandment. For us it was the beginning of an understanding that the government would not be able to simply move a few political chess pieces to produce the results we wanted.

In the ensuing months, John van Dongen came to understand our concerns. Although deeply committed to farmers, he agreed to represent our issues to Corky Evans, then NDP Minister of Agriculture. We stressed we didn’t want it to become a partisan issue. That would cause the government to close ranks and adopt a defensive position. Van Dongen patiently worked behind the scenes and Evans began to understand we had a legitimate cause.

We came to understand that governments are constantly dealing with expectations and demands from various quarters. If we didn’t continue to apply pressure, the politicians and bureaucrats would turn their attention to other pressing issues.

Unlike the feisty Suzanne, we didn’t make disparaging remarks about political decision makers. We did continue to picket strategically though, giving the impression of large numbers and drawing favourable media attention. Those in positions of power began experiencing the discomfort that comes from public attention and scrutiny. The agricultural engineer who had initially discounted us, now spoke with near awe of our impressive numbers.

Seeking further allies, we asked Environment B.C. to intervene. We also did a presentation to City Council, with many supporters present. The mayor agreed to our request for a committee of stakeholders, including representation from council.

We kept up the picketing and stayed in touch with Corky Evans through John van Dongen. When the political dust had settled, the owners of the large Surrey composting plant threw in the towel and moved to a sparsely populated area. Due to pressure from the City and the legal efforts of Environment BC, the operation near Joe and Angie also relocated. The plant being constructed next to our neighbourhood collapsed under a heavy snowfall and was not rebuilt.

I still think Suzanne could be less combative and more cooperative with government officials. She’s a loving grandmother but I think feistiness must be in her DNA.

Donald Trump Phenomenon

Similkameen Valley (photo Similkameen Valley.com)
Similkameen Valley (photo Similkameen Valley.com)

Does the Donald Trump phenomenon have any relevance for us in our peaceful Similkameen Valley? Certainly many of us have been perplexed by recent U.S. political developments. We wonder why American Republicans cheered on a bigoted loud mouthed renegade billionaire as he brazenly shouldered aside more experienced, more reasonable candidates in the pre-election primaries.

Donald J. Trump
Donald J. Trump

The U.S. political and social environment has been in a state of uncertainty and flux for a number of years. Some Americans fear their leaders aren’t capable of coping with critical issues such as the frightening domestic racial strife or international terrorism. Already during the Obama versus McCain election campaign in 2008, Peggy Noonan, conservative leaning Wall Street Journal columnist suggested there was a sense of unease in her country.

In “Patriotic Grace” she wrote, “I think a lot of people are coming around in their hearts to a belief the wheels may be coming off the trolley, and the trolley off the rails.” She then added, “I think in some fundamental way, things are broken, and can’t be fixed, or won’t be any time soon.” She may have been foretelling and reflecting the present American mood when she said, “I believe we have to assume something bad is going to happen, 10 times, or 100 times as bad as 911.”

Trolley Car (enwikipedia.org)
Trolley Car (enwikipedia.org)

Governments in America and Canada have ballooned to the point where dialogue with the electorate is scant, virtually non-existent. Political leaders almost inevitably promise open, transparent government. Then, just as inevitably, they find reasons to ignore the wishes of the people who entrusted them with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the nation.

In America and Canada, governments have for some time been relentlessly re-engineering significant societal structures. They have entered into overly cozy relationships with multi-national corporations. According to Tom Parkin (Toronto Sun, July 17, 2016) “There’s been a lobbyist explosion in Ottawa. Over 8,000 lobbyists are plying their trade there.” Many of these represent corporations.

One result of corporate pressure is the (yet to be ratified) 12 nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Once ratified, this agreement will allow foreign corporations to sue any level of government if they believe regulations are likely to limit their profits, either in the present or the future. According to organizations like the Suzuki Foundation, we will lose much of our ability to protect the environment that is so crucial to our well being and that of future generations. Doctors Without Borders have expressed alarm that the TPP will adversely impact affordability of pharmaceuticals.

Peggy Noonan says, “there is a sense that the old America in which we were raised is receding and something new and quite unknown is taking its place, a sense that our leaders have gone astray. Some young people don’t know if they have a future.”

Donald Trump has skillfully tapped into the growing sense on the part of some, that the American dream is fading and losing its once magnificent, compelling allure. He has urged Americans to believe that a festering corruption at high levels is frittering away the nation’s greatness. Even if he is right, does he have the experience, ability, or wisdom to fix what he believes is wrong with America?

Trump has certainly not attempted to disguise his disdain for the practises and policies implemented by Republican and Democratic presidents over the years. His supporters seem determined to vent their anger and disgust by voting for someone, possibly almost anyone, who promises a new approach to governance.

As voters we at times over react against a leader or party we have come to distrust and even despise. This happened in the 2001 B.C. election when we gave the Dosanjh NDP only 2 seats because we had been angered by the previous Premier, Glen Clark. It is possible, at least in part, that support for Trump is rooted in such a reaction.

Peggy Noonan states “Political leaders can know what our priorities are only if we tell them, again and again.” This week I have written our local MP Dan Albas stating my concerns about the TPP, and also the profligate squandering of funds by some Senators. Even in the Similkameen valley, we can help keep the wheels on the trolley, and the trolley on the rails. We can be far more forceful in communicating our expectations to all levels of government. When a nation is governed well, bigots like Donald Trump will find fewer receptive minds.

Doctor Assisted Suicide

Unless we’ve endured traumatic physical, emotional, or psychological distress, the current debate concerning doctor assisted suicide may be of little interest to us. It’s an issue I began thinking about some years ago as the result of a difficult personal experience.

A medical practitioner performed a maneuver on me that seriously disturbed my sciatic nerve. Over several days an excruciating, burning pain began radiating downward from my back to my toes. I wasn’t told one of my pain prescriptions could induce suicidal thoughts. The prospect of living out my years with this throbbing, burning pain almost unhinged me. I sat on the floor of our living room many nights, thinking about dragging myself to the nearest busy street and waiting for a large truck. It was a realization this act would be grossly unfair to Linda that held me back. Fortunately, a couple of people urged me to visit a doctor who had helped them and in time my condition improved.

Dad visiting with his grandson.
Dad visiting with his grandson.

I didn’t feel I had handled my adversity well. Then my 89 year old Dad broke a hip and was placed in a longterm care facility where all residents required wheelchairs and extensive help. This presented me with an opportunity to observe the response of people living with extremely depleted health.

Some, like Ruby, felt they had been betrayed by their bodies. A former airline hostess, she still retained vestiges of the startlingly good looks that must have once turned the heads of male passengers. Now in her early 40’s, she had MS and the bitter tone and words suggested she considered her life finished. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a support network to sustain her.

In the room next to Dad was Ron, whose ALS was already well advanced. He and his wife understood the illness would relentlessly destroy his ability to function. During the half year I knew him, Ron was rarely alone, except at night. A virtually endless stream of family and friends visited, even though they could no longer understand his words. He loved the people and they loved him. Their presence seemed to give him a reason to live.

One of my favourite residents was Susie. Now in her early 80’s, she had fallen out of a cherry tree several years ago. An adventuresome soul who had loved action, she now sat quietly in her wheelchair in the dining room, unable to propel herself. In spite of this cruel twist of fate, her eyes twinkled and she smiled when I crouched beside her to visit. A few days before she passed away, she reached for my hand and pronounced a blessing on me in her native tongue.

Dad’s response to the unkind ravages of life gave me a further example that has impacted my thinking. He had once been a respected heavy equipment operator and active in the community. Music had long been a passion and now in the facility he still played the cello, although with enormous difficulty.

At night 2 care aides used a lift to place him in bed. In the morning they dressed him and lifted him into his wheelchair. On bath day the lift lowered him into the tub and an aide washed him. He required assistance for going to the bathroom. Toward the end, he was too weak to feed himself.

Because of his age and helpless state, several nurses said, “you need to give him permission to die.” Very reluctantly, I followed this advice. “No,” Dad said firmly, “I still like to live.” He never became bitter, never let the experience take away his sense of dignity.

Like Ron and Susie, Dad had gathered inner strength, built strong relationships with the extended family, and resisted feeling sorry for himself when circumstances turned against him. He had come to a place of deep inner contentment which served him well in this state of virtually complete helplessness.

Having experienced pain myself, I cannot argue with those who long to die because their bodies are wracked by intense, uncontrollable pain. Nor with those who know their condition will deteriorate into a vegetative state. I do feel though that our society may be rushing too quickly along a path fraught with dangerous and unanticipated perils. My hope is that we can be wiser, more compassionate in offering help to incapacitated people. At least in some cases, there may be happier options than suicide.