Archive for category Canada
One of my favourite bits of trivia about Christianity specifically is that the teachings attributed to Jesus say far more against hypocrisy than they do about sex. This, of course, does not seem to faze his ‘followers’ whose anti-sex crusade seems to be taking notes directly from Orwell (who are we kidding? They’ve never read Orwell). While the weird pre-occupation of the religious with sex is well-understood, this does not seem to dissuade the throngs of pious outrage from trying to interfere every time someone drops trou. While we here in the north agonize with our southern cousins over the disgraceful erosion of that most sacred American ideal – the separation of church from state – a little known fact is that Canada has its own religious right that is intentionally mimicking the tactics of the “Moral Majority”.
A bit of background before I launch into this news tidbit. More than a decade following the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade that found anti-abortion laws unconstitutional in the USA, Canada’s Supreme Court made its own finding that no laws could be passed against abortion in Canada. While Roe v. Wade was couched in the right of privacy enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment, Canada’s court was a bit more explicit. It was ruled that anti-abortion laws violated the security of the person, as laid out in our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most of this legalese is unimportant, particularly to those that don’t live in the USA or Canada, but bear with me.
Abortion has been, since then, a relative non-issue in Canada. Nobody has really brought a substantive case against abortion rights, and we don’t have nutjobs running doctors out of town (at least not any that make the news – if I’m wrong someone please tell me). However, the religious right – emboldened by a recently-elected majority government – have decided that if it’s fixed, break it:
Please read the rest of this post over at FreeThought Blogs.
Once again, because of time constraints and my lack of willingness to let things simply slip through the cracks and into my delete bin, I am giving you abstracted versions of news items that I think should have been developed into full-length blog posts, but for the lack of time. Sometimes my trouble as a blogger is finding enough material to get me going – this week I have the opposite problem. Here’s some stories about police, law, and justice.
The peaceful Occupy Wall Street protest march turned violent as the NYPD corralled and pepper sprayed the participants. Mass arrests were made and loaded onto a NYC bus further locking traffic. The protest march took a route from Zuccotti Park to Union Square on East 14th Street. The protesters were marching back to Zuccotti Park when the NYPD turned violent. Hitting, arresting and forcing protesters into a small area. At that point a NYPD supervisor yelled shut up to one of the protesters and shot pepper spray into her eyes point blank range and hitting a half dozen protesters (including 3 police officers) when they had nowhere to go. The same supervising officer was seen (photographed) laughing after the arrests while looking at his text messages. The peaceful protest march started as 300 participants but rose to over 1,000 as the event stopped traffic in lower Manhattan. People spontaneously joined the march over a 2 hour period.
I usually like to source these kinds of things from major media outlets, but sadly the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor and Amanda Knox seem to be far more interesting to even outlets like the BBC. Maybe you hadn’t heard, but this vicious gang of thugs has destroyed billions (perhaps trillions) in wealth by manipulating markets and selling bad loans. Instead of being punished, incidentally, they were rewarded through concerted lobbying in the halls of power. If you’re pissed off, you can join a few hundred of your fellow citizens to demand that something be done about the surreal level of irresponsibility and fraud being perpetrated against the people of the world by a small group of elite jerkoffs. But don’t protest too hard, or you’ll get pepper-sprayed in the face.
Luckily the asshole who committed this assault is being named and shamed. Even if the police don’t prosecute him (and they won’t, because they circle the wagons around their own like the Catholic Church every time one of their officers breaks the law), he has been tried in the court of public opinion. Click on the link above to see some pretty graphic images of what happened that day.
More than 60 per cent of people arrested by Toronto police last year were forced to undergo a strip search, according to police statistics. But a police accountability group says routine searches are against the law and alleges Toronto police are using the practice to humiliate and intimidate people. Police figures show that 31,072 people were strip-searched in 2010, up from 29,789 the previous year. John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC) said that means about 60 per cent of those arrested in Toronto were subjected to a strip search.
“Silly Crommunist”, you are probably saying while shaking your head and smiling indulgently “that’s an American story! Up here in our glorious north our police are respectful and kind! They’d never do that.” Yeah… seems not to be the case. Toronto cops, by their own statistics, have revealed themselves to be just as brutal, unforgiving and short-sighted as their American counterparts. Strip searches may be necessary in a small minority of cases, but unless Toronto criminals are in the habit of keeping dangerous goods taped flat to their bodies, a thorough search could be just as easily accomplished by a pat-down. This isn’t just my opinion, either – it happens to be the opinion of an Ontario superior court judge. If their goal is to humiliate and intimidate (which it seems to be), then I have no more sympathy for the Toronto police than I do for the fuckwads in New York.
Vancouver ‘street cops’ are still filling the gaps in B.C.’s flawed mental health system, despite recommendations in a powerful 2008 report on policing the city’s mentally ill, an updated report finds. The 2008 report, titled Lost in Transition: How a Lack of Capacity in the Mental Health System is Failing Vancouver’s Mentally Ill and Draining Police Resources, detailed flaws in B.C.’s mental health system and their effects on policing. The problems included the lack of available long-term care, lack of hospital space and difficulties in getting people assessed.
Because I opine on politics a lot, people have asked me what I would do if I had unlimited political power. Well, the first thing I would do is create some limits, because no one person should have that kind of power, but the second thing I would do is drastically increase the level and scope of mental health care we provide to our citizens. We spend an unbelievable amount of money on health care problems that should be handled through therapy rather than hospitalization. I’d certainly have the Vancouver police on my side, I’d bet. While they are not qualified as mental health workers, they are the ones who provide that service (at a level of pay far below what an actual mental health worker receives, and far below what such a person deserves). To get an idea of how serious the problems are here, take a gander at the blog written by one Vancouver beat patrol officer:
1515 hrs – Exit the courthouse in desperate need of coffee and breakfast. I’m supposed to be working one-man tonight, so I make plans with my old partner, Tyler, to visit Save-on-Meats for their all-day brekkie. But first we’ve got to deal with the shirt-less guy flipping out across the street. He’s flailing around, delivering spinning karate-kicks at phantom opponents and doing the kind of back-bends that would make even Bikram Coudhuryshudder. His behaviour, the track marks on his arms, and the needle and crack pipe in his pocket, give us a pretty good idea of what he’s been up to. We call for EHS, and 36 minutes later our friend is heading to St. Paul’s Hospital with the ambulance crew for some Narcan.
Not a glamorous lifestyle, to say the least.
So while I can sympathize with a police force that is overworked and whose positive contributions often go unrewarded, that is not enough to persuade me from my blanket condemnation of the insular, self-righteous environment that police forces in our country and others operate within. I treat police in the same way I do stray dogs – while they might look friendly, all it takes is one bad one for me to be in serious trouble.
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I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.
Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.
However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:
More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.
But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.
If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.
I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.
However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?
Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.
While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.
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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.
Yesterday there were a bunch of stories that, each on their own, would have made for excellent blog posts. However, in the interest of not deleting them because of insufficient time to address them in depth, I presented them all to you with a brief comment. The week has not gotten any longer, nor my schedule any freer, so I am going to do the same this afternoon, this time about race stuff:
Campus Republicans at the University of California Berkeley have cooked up a storm of controversy with their plans for a bake sale. But it’s not your everyday collegiate fundraiser they’ve got in mind. They’ve developed a sliding scale where the price of the cookie or brownie depends on your gender and the color of your skin. During the sale, scheduled for Tuesday, baked goods will be sold to white men for $2.00, Asian men for $1.50, Latino men for $1.00, black men for $0.75 and Native American men for $0.25. All women will get $0.25 off those prices.
“The pricing structure is there to bring attention, to cause people to get a little upset,” Campus Republican President Shawn Lewis, who planned the event, told CNN-affiliate KGO. “But it’s really there to cause people to think more critically about what this kind of policy would do in university admissions.”
Not being able to do this story full justice pains me, because nobody is more deserving of being torn a new asshole on the internet than Shawn Lewis right now. First of all, this isn’t an original idea – these kinds of bake sales happen all the damn time. But, because people are morons, they don’t bother to adapt their approach or their argument when it has been thoroughly skewered. Many people have been bringing up the idea that people should just round up a bunch of Native American women, take all the baked goods, and then sell them at a profit. That would, perhaps, better approximate the history of racial ‘fairness’ in the United States (albeit in reverse). Stunts like this, which are inaccurately named ‘satire’, serve to illustrate how lopsided the treatment of different racial groups has been throughout the history of the Americas, and how certain people simply refuse to get it.
The NHL called it “stupid and ignorant.” Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds said he was “above this sort of stuff.” A banana came out of the stands in London, Ont., on Thursday night as Simmonds was skating towards Detroit goalie Jordan Pearce in a pre-season shootout. Simmonds is black.
This is the thing about racists: they’re just so funny! Hahaha! A banana! Get it? He’s black! Black people are like apes! Apes like bananas! HAHAHA!
The sigh-inducing aspect of this story is the number of people who took to the internet to defend the guy who threw the banana. “What if he was just planning on eating it, but then got angry and threw it?” Not only would it be a staggering coincidence that someone brought in a whole shit-ton of bananas to a hockey game and just happened to have one left right at the end of the game (through overtime, no less) when the only black person on the ice was taking a solo penalty shot, but who the fuck brings fruit to a hockey game? What is this guy, some kind of health nut with an anger-management problem and an ironic sense of timing?
On a positive note, it is being condemned by pretty much everyone in clear, unequivocal terms, and hasn’t seemed to
phase faze Simmonds much [seriously, Crommunist? What the fuck, dude? - props to Beauxeau]. Also, he scored the goal, and Philadelphia won the game 4-3.
The controversial new executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust is out of the job already. Carole Nixon has stopped working for the organization, but trust chairwoman Daurene Lewis wouldn’t say Wednesday if Nixon had been fired. ”She’s no longer with the organization, and this is a personnel matter and any speculation (on that) would have to remain confidential,” Lewis said in an interview.
Regular readers will remember this story from last week. Carole Nixon was appointed the director of the Africville Trust in Halifax. One of the issues swirling around the appointment is that while the story of Africville is essentially the generations-long oppression of a black minority by an unforgiving white majority, Carole Nixon is a white woman. It is an interesting story where compelling arguments can be made on both sides: can an outsider truly represent the values of a community, particularly this one? Is it right to restrict jobs to only those of the ‘correct’ race or nationality?
All that discussion has been rendered hypothetical by this dismissal, which may not be for the reason you suspect:
Newspaper clippings from the St. Catharines Standard in Ontario outlined Nixon’s departure from four jobs, including her firing as executive director of the Burlington (Ont.) Downtown Business Improvement Association in 1989 and the City of Toronto’s employees association in 1995. In 2000, the Standard reported, she abruptly stepped down as executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association, and in 2002, she was reportedly fired as development director in Watertown, N.Y.
This one’s going to court, I’d imagine.
If someone wants to pay me to do this full-time, I will be able to devote the requisite amount of attention to each of these stories and more that cross my desktop. Until such time, you’ll just have to make do with these brief summaries and my sincere apologies.
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I don’t have a ‘goal’ for this blog per se. Based on feedback I occasionally get from readers I am introducing anti-racist concepts and vernacular to an audience that hadn’t encountered them much before – that’s a bonus for me. I am reasonably sure I haven’t deconverted anyone to atheism… yet. While I am unashamedly putting my ideas out there for public consumption, I don’t hold any pretense of trying to change the world or start a revolution. I’m just a guy with ideas, and some people seem to find them interesting, which makes me happy.
That being said, I am not above occasionally goosing my fellow Canadians and reminding them that while things are undoubtedly bad in other countries, we have our fair share of problems here too.
Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation. “I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist. “Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.” (snip) The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position.
I’ll admit that even someone as outspoken and uncompromising as me had a really tough time coming down on one side of this issue. For those of you who weren’t here in February and aren’t familiar with Africville, I wrote about it during my Black History Month review of Canadian Black History. In brief, Africville was an area of Halifax that was systematically underserved and discriminated against by the citizenry of the city at large because it was inhabited primarily by black people. It was eventually bulldozed, leaving its residents largely homeless.
To head up the museum dedicated to the preservation and exploration of the history of this monument to Canadian exploitation and hatred of the white populace against black citizens, the selection committee chose a white woman. Obviously they made their selection based on her qualifications – Ms. Nixon has a certificate in black history from UofT (although I have no idea what that means). At the same time, she is not a member of the community and has no ties to its history. Beyond the simple poor optics of the choice, Ms. Nixon represents, to many of the community members, the same forces that were responsible for the debacle of Africville.
A frosh event at a Montreal university has come under scrutiny after students painted themselves in blackface. Students at the University of Montreal’s business school dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, with black paint covering their skin, for the event Wednesday.
Meh, so what? So a couple of frosh dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, and in order to lend their costumes a bit more realism, they ‘blacked up’ (despite the fact that there are lots of white Jamaicans). Where’s the harm, right?
One witness, who is of Jamaican descent, said he felt uncomfortable and was shocked to hear some students chanting, “Smoke more weed.” “They had reduced all of who I am and the history of Jamaica and culture of Jamaica to these negative connotations of weed smoking, black skin, rastas,” said McGill law student Anthony Morgan, who happened to be on the campus at the time and filmed the group.
This is something that needs to be repeated regularly, it seems – it is never okay to dress in blackface. Not ever. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being complimentary or paying homage. It doesn’t matter if you’re spoofing a movie or a television show, or a fictional character. It doesn’t matter if you get assigned “dress like an African” as some kind of bizarre theme exercise. It doesn’t matter how funny or clever you think it is, nor does it matter if you don’t mean it “that way”. The history of blackface, coupled with the way black people are portrayed in contemporary media, means that blackface is just one of those things it’s not okay to do.
It’s certainly not okay when your goal is to mock a culture that you clearly know nothing about as part of a frosh week prank, at a school where black students are underrepresented, in a province that has a major race problem. You would think that this kind of thing wouldn’t need to be explained, but of course that’s the great part about white privilege – you don’t ever have to think before you do stuff like this. All you have to do is claim afterward that you didn’t mean anything by it, and maybe everyone should just lighten up.
Imagine you were inspired and impressed by Canada’s aboriginal history and culture. Imagine you had a world stage with which to express your admiration, and try in your own small way to heal wounds left by generations of exploitation and oppression. Would you do perhaps just a little bit of research to make sure you’re accurately portraying the people whose culture you are paying homage to? Maybe spend some time understanding the history behind the culture, and how it affects aboriginal people today? Would you maybe try to participate in or discuss the cultural practices of the particular band/bands you were emulating?
Or would you just reach for the first handful of cheap stereotypes from a spaghetti western movie that popped into your head?
This may not come as a huge shock to you, but if you chose the first option(s) then you can congratulate yourself on being smarter and more insightful than Miss Universe Canada. Well, at least this year’s entrant. Seriously, considering the fact that the way we treat our First Nations people is the great shame of our nation, why on Earth would you think it a good idea to showcase our collective national insensitivity is beyond my limited capacity to understand.
Canada likes to pride itself on being a tolerant country that is open to people of many different ethnicities and walks of life. For the most part, I think we do a good job of that. However, we should never allow ourselves to grow complacent in our quest to model such tolerance. It is far too easy to slip into the easy errors of racism than it is to maintain a constant vigilance; failing to maintain that vigilance will ultimately be our downfall.
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One of the frequently-raised buzzwords in discussions of the Canadian health care system is the idea of ‘sustainability’. It is a bogeyman argument that crops up every now and then, particularly as a way of softening the rhetorical ground for increased private-sector involvement in health care. The argument often invokes the spectre of a meme called the ‘Grey Tsunami’. The argument goes something like this:
- Canada’s population is aging
- Health care costs are increasing faster than GDP
- Older people use more health care resources than younger peopleTherefore, there is a rapidly approaching point when the expansion of health care costs, due to increased usage by older people, will become too large to sustain and will collapse the health case system.
The implication is usually that the only way to control health care costs is to increase privatization (which doesn’t work) or to introduce a parallel public option (which also doesn’t work). Since the premises are all true, people nod sagely and cluck their tongues and say ‘what a shame’, as though the conclusion followed logically. It’s entirely possible that the conclusion might follow logically from those premises, but it’s not necessarily the case. What would strengthen the argument is some actual evidence.
Luckily, such evidence is recently forthcoming:
To shed new empirical light on this old debate, we used population-based administrative data to quantify recent trends and determinants of expenditure on hospital, medical and pharmaceutical care in British Columbia. We modelled changes in inflation-adjusted expenditure per capita between 1996 and 2006 as a function of two demographic factors (population aging and changes in age-specific mortality rates) and three non-demographic factors (age-specific rates of use of care, quantities of care per user and inflation-adjusted costs per unit of care).
We therefore conclude that population aging has exerted, and will continue to exert, only modest pressures on medical, hospital and pharmaceutical costs in Canada. As indicated by the specific non-demographic cost drivers computed in our study, the critical determinants of expenditure on healthcare stem from non-demographic factors over which practitioners, policy makers and patients have discretion.
This is a particularly cleverly-designed study done by some colleagues of mine at the University of British Columbia. They used a statistical procedure to model the relative contributions of population age, age-specific mortality, cost of dying, and cost of surviving (within a given age range). Their analysis also included variables to account for resource utilization and cost that are separate from age. British Columbia keeps excellent electronic records for all provincial residents, meaning that they were able to apply this model to a cohort of over 3 million people, using actual real-world expenditure rather than relying on evidence from clinical trials.
Their analysis found that aging has contributed only minimally (1%) to total medical expenditures between 1996 and 2006. Using forecasts from the provincial ministry of health, they estimate that these expenditures will return to current levels beyond 2026. The major factors for health care system expenditure increase had more to do with policy decisions and the purchase cost of equipment, drugs and other technology than it did with a ‘grey tsunami’.
Another article in the same issue says the same thing, albeit a bit differently:
Conventional wisdom holds that Canada suffers from a physician shortage, yet expenditures for physicians’ services continue to increase rapidly. We address this apparent paradox, analyzing fee-for-service payments to physicians in British Columbia in 1996/97 and 2005/06. Age-specific per capita expenditures (adjusted for fee changes) rose 1% per year over this period, adding $174 million to 2005/06 expenditures. We partition these increases into changes in the proportion of the population seeing a physician; the number of unique physicians seen; the number of visits per physician; and the average expenditure per visit. Expenditures on laboratory and imaging services, particularly for the elderly and very elderly, have increased dramatically. By contrast, primary care services for the non-elderly appear to have declined. The causes and health consequences of these large changes deserve serious attention.
Using a similar data set and a different method of analysis, McGrail and colleagues found that, like overall spending, physician-specific spending was increasing. However, there has not been a corresponding increase in those users of the health care system who are not older adults. Even given this increase, the percentage of health care expenditure that is attributable to aging is small.
Given what we know about health care costs – namely, that the increase in price is due largely to the cost of innovation, we have powerful policy levers we can use to make appropriate changes that will preserve the ‘sustainability’ of the system for years to come. Our growing paranoia about the effect of the aging population does not seem to be supported by evidence from actual increases in health care expenditure. While we will undoubtedly have to change the way we think about and practice health care in light of an aging population, it does not follow that we will have to necessarily abandon the way the system is currently structured.
Above and beyond this direct message, I want to take the time to point out that health services and policy research is an important avenue of inquiry. We should make our policy decisions – health or otherwise – based on what is evident, not what is obvious. Whatever our endeavour, we should be constantly asking ourselves questions and measuring our level of success or failure honestly. The authors of this paper, rather than accepting what has been more or less ‘orthodoxy’ when it comes to the health care system, have found ways of directly testing the ‘grey tsunami’ hypothesis. This is a good thing – we should always be challenging our entrenched ideas. Failing to do so will result in us tilting at imaginary windmills, chasing ghosts and false ideas to the point where our efforts are legitimately unsustainable.
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A few weeks ago I opined on the riots in London, and contrasted the police reaction there to the one here in Vancouver following our own riots. That story is continuing:
Prime Minister David Cameron has defended courts for handing out “tough” sentences for those involved in the riots across England. The barrister told the BBC “ringleaders should receive very long sentences” but warned “there was an issue of proportionality” over the way people already before the courts had been treated. The PM said it was good that the courts were sending a “tough message”. Speaking in Warrington, he said: “It’s up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing, but they’ve decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that.”
Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu is defending the pace of criminal investigations into Vancouver rioters, saying investigators are moving slowly because authorities want to make sure they can secure convictions. ”Even though we acknowledge the frustration of those who wish these suspects were already in jail, and we hear and share your frustration, there are many reasons why we must proceed at this pace,” Chu told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. His comments came as critics point to swift sentencing seen in Britain in the wake of a sweeping series of riots in recent weeks.
First of all, it’s important to state unequivocally that the Vancouver riots are not comparable to the London riots. The issues that underlie the widespread reckless smash and grab in the UK are not represented in the 5-hour orgy of violence that happened here following the Stanley Cup final. Looking for a common thread between what sparked the two separate occasions is probably a waste of time. My intention here is to contrast the response by law enforcement in the two situations that, from a surface perspective, appear similar (people rioting).
I was critical of David Cameron’s response to the riots – right-wing chest thumping might be psychologically satisfying, but it is not the kind of evidence-based response we need to see that justice is done and further riots do not happen. While I am still critical of his approach, he is not really the focus of this story. It is now the judicial system that is engaging in a dick-measuring contest to show how “tough” they can be. As I’ve opined before, being “tough” on crime doesn’t do anything but appease the masses thirsty for blood. It’s a short-sighted response that finds its origin in our lizard brains – they hurt us so let’s hurt them back. While understandable, it leads us to react disproportionately and emotionally, when reason and logic are at their most crucial:
BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the sentences being handed out across the country for offences of dishonesty such as theft, burglary and receiving stolen goods, suggested there were disparities between courts. What the public was seeing may just be a “distorted version of the normal system”, our correspondent said. In another case, David Beswick, 31 from Salford was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods. Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said it was not the job of judges “to deliver a political message on behalf of the government” when passing sentence but part of their role was to identify “serious aggravating features that elevate the crime beyond the ordinary”.
When the lawyers, intimately involved in the criminal justice system, are criticizing your policy, it might be a rebuke you want to take seriously. I said as much this morning.
In matters of criminal justice, it is far too easy to get swept up in the bloodlust of the crowd. Britain is certainly modeling such a reaction for the whole world to see. Vancouver’s response has been far more measured. They are concerned with making cases based on solid evidence, rather than appealing to cries for swift punishment. Why Jim Chu is choosing this route, and whether he will survive the next election cycle for his job, are open questions. I am happy and proud to live in a society where deliberate care is taken to avoid locking up the wrong people, or letting the right people get away on technicalities due to improper evidence.
Now if only we’d apply that same work ethic to charging the financiers that did far more damage to the economy than all the looters in the world could hope to accomplish. Then we’d really be getting something done.
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There was once a time when I could have been accurately described as ‘pro-police’. I recognized that in order for a society to progress, we needed to have some way of enforcing law. A society without laws quickly degenerates into violence, and it was thanks to the tireless efforts of police officers and other members of the justice system that we were such a peaceful place to live. I would openly and unashamedly take the police’s side when debates came up in our high school (we had a pair of police officers on constant patrol on our campus). However, as I’ve become a bit more aware of the world and the nuances of the argument, my knee-jerk support for the police has diminished quite dramatically. While I have not yet gone quite to the extent of labeling police indiscriminately as a gang of threatening thugs, events like the travesty that was the G20 summit are moving me in that direction.
I still believe in the principle of rule of law, and I doubt that will ever change. However, I no longer see police as being reliable arbitrators of law. Again and again, we see examples not only of police abusing their power to circumvent justice for themselves, but of such abuse actually undermining justice for others:
The Richmond trial of five men accused of running a multi-million dollar ecstasy lab has been thrown out of court because of what a provincial court judge says were repeated Charter of Rights violations. In January 2007, Mounties uncovered nearly 100 kilograms of ecstasy and nine pill presses in two Richmond homes following a year-long investigation. Tin Lik Ho, Qing Hou, Shao Wei Huang, Yi Feng Kevin Li and Kai Lai Kyle Zhou were all charged with producing ecstasy and possessing ecstasy for the purpose of trafficking. But in a 30-page provincial court judgment, Judge Paul Meyers issued a scathing indictment of the RCMP’s handling of the case. ”The police officers who were in charge of this investigation, from start to finish, violated so many Charter rights of the accused persons, that one might have thought that the investigation took place before the Charter of Rights had been enacted,” Meyers wrote.
Asking a conservative what this story represents will yield a very different response than if you ask someone who actually understands what she/he is talking about. A conservative commentator will point out that this is a prime example of the “hug a thug” mentality that liberals have – prioritizing the rights of criminals over the rights of decent, hard-working Canadians. This judge is clearly a liberal activist that doesn’t care about seeing criminals punished for their crimes, or of drugs spreading through communities where they destroy the lives of the young and innocent.
Someone with a slightly more realistic understanding of the legal process will recognize that this is the sign of a healthy legal system (the abuses of the police notwithstanding). Undoubtedly, these men are dead to rights – the drugs were found in their homes along with the method of manufacture. This was not the case of a handful of pills trying to make a quick score, or some guys who just really really like to get high – these guys were mid-level traffickers of a restricted substance. They absolutely belong in jail. However, in their handling of the case, the RCMP decided that their apparent guilt justified shredding the charter. While judges regularly look the other way for slight abrogations of legal rights in clear cases of guilt, Judge Meyers’s report details the extent to which these particular officers decided that they were above the law.
The reason why this ruling is good is because there are countries in the world in which those accused of crimes are treated as already-guilty. We don’t like those countries – they tend to use that justice system to lock up political dissidents. Neither the presumption of innocence nor the presumption of guilt will result in a perfect system; however, one will ensure that fewer innocent people are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. We can always produce evidence of guilt – evidence of innocence is almost impossible by definition.
What’s more interesting than the finding that drug prohibition causes gang-on-gang violence is our inability – or is it unwillingness? – to learn from repeated demonstrations of this connection. For some reason, we seem to think that what’s happening in northern Mexico – where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Mexican army – is somehow different from what’s happening in Winnipeg, where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Winnipeg Police Service. There is a difference in scale, to be sure, but not in kind. Drug prohibition enriches organized crime, and police crackdowns on drug suppliers provoke gang-on-gang violence over market share.
We know from abundant evidence in other counties that the kind of drug enforcement strategy we use in Canada is not particularly effective at actually reducing crime. This analysis from The Mark suggests that, to the contrary, it actually increases the rate of violent crime as market forces inexorably drive up demand whenever supply is interrupted. If we were trying to reduce crime, we’d change our strategy – we’d do what it took to actually protect the populace against its dangerous elements. However, it is clear that we are not interested in reducing crime, which raises the question of what it is we are trying to do.
It is when we betray the liberal principles of crime prevention and harm reduction that we begin to see the corporatization of law enforcement. For-profit law enforcement strategies only serve those who make profit from crime. If our interest is in doing whatever it takes to ‘punish’ criminals by locking them up, we’ll see more examples like the Richmond case where the rights of the people become a secondary interest to serving and upholding law enforcement’s sworn duty to protect and serve the people.
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In my earlier post today I mentioned in passing that I was cynically optimistic about some of the changes I’ve seen in how governments in Canada think of and behave toward First Nations communities. I think when I wrote that I fully intended to explain what I meant, but for whatever reason (read: laziness) I didn’t. I’ll take this opportunity to do just that.
I am all for governments, corporations and other large, powerful entities doing the right thing. I think it’s fantastic when an oil company pledges to clean up a spill, or when a politician crosses the partisan divide to vote for something that is ethically right, even if it isn’t expedient with her base. I’ve tried to be mostly fair with the Catholic Church when it does things that are in line with secular morality. However, in each and every one of those cases, I am immediately suspicious of the motive behind the action. Is the oil company trying to cover up the fact that it caused the spill? Is the politician trying to brand herself as ‘centrist’ or curry favour with a power interest group? Is the Catholic Church not raping children anymore, or just trying to get people to stop equating “Catholic priest” with “child rapist”?
In light of my cynicism (which I think is reasonable and justifiable), it can be hard to get too optimistic about things. To be sure, I am generally optimistic that life will get better over time – that has been the story of humankind throughout history. However, whether a specific story represents a genuine step forward for society or a clever act of obfuscation is a judgment call I often have a difficult time making.
After years of conflict, including a Supreme Court of Canada battle, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation of northwest British Columbia signed a land and resource management and shared decision-making agreement today with the provincial government — the first of its kind in B.C. Premier Christy Clark said the agreement creates 13 new protected areas and provides resource development opportunities and investment certainty in more than three million hectares in the Atlin Taku region. She added that is the size of all of Vancouver Island.
“We are emerging from a dark period in our history with hope and promise,” said Taku River Tlingit First Nation spokesman John Ward. “It’s so great to come out of the darkness and silence we’ve experienced for so many years and be acknowledged.” Ward said the land use agreement gives aboriginals a say on how industry “can access and conduct themselves in our traditional territory.”
It is my cynicism that is preventing me from jumping up and down and doing cartwheels all around my apartment right now (well, that and the fact that I have never been able to do a cartwheel). This kind of thing is exactly how not only the political system is supposed to work, but the legal system. The courts are supposed to overrule the government when it acts in its own best interests rather than those of its people. First Nations people should control their own lands and not only have a stake in how they are managed, but to reap the benefits of resource exploitation. This deal is likely to mean infrastructure and industry jobs for people living in the region – if these positions are structured properly it could mean real long-term development and sustained economic strength in the region.
That’s the optimist in me talking. Considering the number of First Nations bands that have complained about corruption in their leadership, and considering the ease with which groups that have abundant resources but little education on how to manage them get exploited by multinational interests, my inner optimist is losing the arm-wrestling match to my inner cynic. Until we see a sea change in the way we think of First Nations issues, and how First Nations communities are supported/encouraged to grow, I don’t see this as resulting in anything more than more money in the hands of a few people while the general quality of life remains unchanged.
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Once again my apologies for not posting on time this morning. I am still working through a backlog of stuff at home and at work that has piled up as I’ve been on the road. I will endeavour to have these posts up on time for the rest of the week, but my ‘free time’ is not yet my own. I really do appreciate your patience.
Despite lack of evidence to the contrary, I am acutely aware of the fact that this blog only really ever discusses racial issues along black and white lines. I don’t mean that I look at these issues as clear right and wrong, but that I tend to focus on issues that are centred on black and white people. This isn’t an accident – this particular divide is the one I am the most familiar. Growing up the way I did, the black/white dichotomy is the one that has been the most apparent to me my whole life. My bias towards this issue is not simply borne of familiarity, but from recognition of the fact that I can comment on these communities as an insider. It is not so for other racial/ethnic communities in Canada, and in the interest of letting people tell their own stories I often watch pitches go by when I think I could do more harm than good if I swung at them (N.B. – the last time I played baseball I was in high school).
I have, for a few years now, theorized that there is much that unites the black and First Nations communities in North America. Despite our disparate histories, First Nations face many of the obstacles that black people faced in the mid-20th century. Public perception of First Nations people is often negative, and their problems are blamed on their own lack of “personal responsibility” rather than a product of the evident systemic abuses that stretch back through history. To be sure, the problems facing First Nations communities are unique, and so are their solutions, but there is enough commonality in my eyes to justify feeling a sense of kinship.
None of this is to say that I feel qualified to express an opinion on issues facing First Nations communities, only to say that I react viscerally when I read things like this:
Nearly three-quarters of first nations in Canada rely on water systems that are classified at a medium or high risk of not meeting safety standards, a national study finds. The independent report examined the drinking water and wastewater systems on nearly 600 first nations. Just over one-third were classified in the high risk category.
You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth, maybe you take a shower. You cook some breakfast, you head to your job or your school. No big deal, happens every day, for millions of Canadians. Except for those Canadians that don’t have access to clean water. It’s chilling to think about how fundamental access to clean water is. For the vast majority of Canadians, we live in circumstances that allow us to take clean water for granted. So much so, in some cases, that we actually think it’s reasonable to look with disdain on the water we do have and pay billions of dollars a year for a bottled version of the same product. Not so if you’re a member of a First Nations band.
Does everyone remember the major crisis over water safety in Walkerton, Ontario a few years back? We were all dumbfounded, myself included, to learn that regulation had slipped to such an extent that in one of the very few countries in the world that can really describe itself as “first world”, people were dying of contaminated water. There can be no safety, no development, no security, and certainly no trust in the government, when there is no access to clean water. It’s fundamental to how we live. And apparently, we’ve been dragging our heels on providing it to a particular group of Canadians. Encouragingly, the problem seems to be one of capacity – lack of training in how to use a water system – than one of contamination. I call this encouraging because it is a clear problem with a clear and simple solution, something that is usually quite rare.
The larger issue, however, is the level of inattention with which we (as non-Aboriginal Canadians) treat our First Nations sisters and brothers. I am cynical, yet hopeful when I see signs that the story might be changing for the better:
Canada’s aboriginal leaders are calling for co-operation between the premiers and the federal government on social and economic issues. Aboriginal communities need help coping with emergencies such as flooding and forest fires, the leaders said at talks in Vancouver, where provincial and territorial premiers are holding their annual Council of the Federation meetings. In prepared remarks to the premiers, Shawn Atleo, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, called the issue of crisis and emergency management “urgent,” given the flooding and fires in 2011 alone.
I don’t know much about Shawn Atleo as a person, but his and my politics when it comes to these issues are very much in line. He is not afraid to point out failures in the system, but his proposed solutions are not simply “more funding”:
The communities need resources and training in emergency management along with long-term security plans so they can better respond to a crisis, Atleo said. This would include “major work,” like permanent dikes in areas prone to flooding, road upgrades, and evacuation centres. Temporary housing would also be required for those forced out of their homes.
What he is talking about is a level of response that is commensurate with the level of crisis, which sounds completely fair to me. Above that, though, he’s pointing out the need for training and capacity building – help us help ourselves. That has to be the approach with any marginalized community – not because it’s politically expedient but because it is the only long-term solution to the problems that face those communities. Where I step off the conservative talking points is that I think that the government should be more engaged in this process – not less.
To bring it back to my original point, I am uneasy about making pronouncements about what is best for First Nations communities in Canada. God knows they’ve experienced enough cases of outsiders coming in and trying to dictate their best interests. I will, however, never hesitate to stand up and shout my disapproval when my government fails to protect my fellow Canadians, or my approval when someone articulates something that I think is a good idea. Issues facing the minority only start to get fixed when they are seen as problems by members of the majority.
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