Saturday, December 24, 2016

At the Cash-for-Access Party

A courier arrived at my door and handed me an envelope embossed with the Canadian coat of Arms. You know, the one with the scowling lion and a silly unicorn, each holding a flag.

I tore it open and found an elaborate card, embossed with gold JPJT lettering, inviting Mr. Po Ling to a Cash-for-Access party.

I had no idea who JPJT was, and there seemed to be some confusion about my name. But a party is a party so I rummaged the basement for my tweed suit, knitted tie and the pork pie hat I wore when I was a young reporter.

I arrived at the party site, a castle-like mansion in a leafy Toronto neighbourhood. The place looked like it cost $20 million so I assumed it was owned by an offshore drug lord, or a baseball player.

Inside, I presented the invitation and entered a huge reception room tightly packed with knots of chatting people. A cloud of sweet smelling smoke hung over the room and I saw a guy circulating with a silver tray stacked with what appeared to be hand-rolled cigarettes.

“That’s Billy Blair, the former Toronto police chief,” I muttered to myself. Billy now is the prime minister’s dope czar. He looked a bit foggy, but then he looked that way even when he was chief.

He approached me with an offering but I declined and walked to the bar, trying to decide whether to order a Perrier and water, or a beer.  

“I’ll have a Molson Canadian,” I told the bartender.

The bartender scanned my tweeds and pork pie hat with a good deal of disdain, then sniffed:

“The prime minister has asked that tonight’s guests be offered Chantereines Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I can knock back those craft brews just as quickly as a Molson.”

I wandered about sipping my Grand Cru and watching the people. I heard some giggling from a knot of folks gathered in a corner.
I sauntered over and saw Jane Philpott, the federal health minister, talking animatedly, her head wreathed in smoke.

“The opioid overdose epidemic will disappear as soon as we get the weed legalization bill through Parliament,” she giggled, taking a pull from her rollie.

“Yes,” one listener nodded enthusiastically. “And, you will be getting taxes from all that dope, which will mean you won’t have to raise our taxes as the prime minister has suggested.”

I spotted the prime minister in a group gathered in another corner. He was wearing one of those satin smoking jackets guys wear in Turner Classic Movies re-runs. The front of the jacket was embroidered with the large letters JPJT, which I now realized stood for Justin Pierre James Trudeau.

“We need to increase your taxes just a tad,” JPJT was telling the group, “to help the middle class pay their electricity bills. When they are back on their feet, we increase their taxes again, allowing us to reduce yours. It’s a fantastic plan. We’re gonna make Canada rich again.”

“Fantastic!” said one of the billionaires in the group as he raised his glass of Grand Cru. “Here’s to sunny ways and tax-free days!”

“Oh I almost forgot,” said another, pulling out a cheque book. “I have that $50,000 donation to help build the statue of your dear old dad.”

“And here’s my 200 grand for the Trudeau Foundation,” said another.

Suddenly I found myself dragged toward the front door by two large goons wearing Mountie hats. The front doors of the mansion flew open and I was propelled down the stairs, arms and legs flailing in every direction.

“Jim. Jim,” I heard a distance voice calling. “Jim, you are having a nightmare.”

I opened my eyes to see my wife shaking me by the shoulders.

I realized I had fallen asleep reading. I took the book from my lap and opened it at where I left off.

The book was Orwell’s Animal Farm and I was at the scene where Benjamin the donkey is observing the changes to the new society’s commandments painted on the barn wall. Only one commandment remained and it had been edited to read:



Thursday, December 15, 2016

Our Drug Overdose Epidemic

Back in 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) arrived in Toronto from China. Roughly 400 people got it, 43 died, Ontario declared a public health emergency and the rest of the country lived in fear waiting for it to spread.

As this is written, hundreds of people are overdosing on illegal drugs across Canada. It is an epidemic more widespread and damaging than SARS, yet there is no concerted national effort to stop it.

No seems to know exactly how many people are dying, but British Columbia
reports 622 overdose deaths between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 this year.

Ontario says it had 2,471 opioid overdoses between 2011 and 2014. It doesn’t say how many involved deaths, or why in this computer age of Smart Meters that pick the pockets of electricity users, it can’t provide up-to-date, current statistics.

At any rate, we don’t need exact figures to know that every day people in every part of Canada are dying of illegal drug overdoses. It is a national health emergency, but no emergency is being declared.

Deaths from illegal drug overdoses are soaring because of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Fentanyl is a pain killer and anaesthetic used in medical situations and is much more powerful than morphine.

Fentanyl products manufactured by illegal labs in China, and here in Canada, have no dosage controls. Criminals mix it haphazardly with other drugs to give bigger, better highs. It is said that in some cases a fentanyl amount the size of two grains of salt can kill a healthy adult.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reports that every day in the U.S. 78 people die from an opioid overdose. Between the years 2000 and 2014 almost half a million Americans died from drug overdoses.

The epicentre of the Canadian opioid epidemic is Vancouver, where emergency medical teams, social outreach workers and police are unable to keep up with the flow of opioids and the numbers of people overdosing. But the tragic effects are being seen across Canada.

Last week four young children in Calgary woke up to find both their mom and dad  dead from drug overdoses. The parents were drug users and the suspicion is they took drugs laced with a fatal amount of fentanyl.

Calgary police have said the force, and Calgary citizens, are fed up with the car thefts, home break-ins and other crimes tied to the drug epidemic.

Alberta authorities believe the problems will get worse, with the introduction of carfentanil into the illicit drug market. Carfentanil, used to sedate large animals such as elephants, is said to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Alberta has confirmed 15 carfentanil  deaths, 14 this fall.

B.C. declared a public health emergency earlier this year in response to the drug epidemic. It had seen drug overdose deaths rise from 364 in 2014 to 475 in 2015, a 30 per cent increase, then 201 deaths in the first three months of 2016. The numbers continue to rise and probably are at 700 or more by now.

Last week the province began opening emergency overdose prevention sites. The sites likely are not legal under federal laws governing supervised injection sites. At the emergency overdose sites, addicts will shoot up on their own while trained workers will be on hand to administer advice and overdose antidotes.

The sites are an effort to reduce the increasing number of calls handled by emergency responders.

“We are doing this because we have to,” B.C. health minister Terry Lake said. “It is a bit like putting out forest fires – you just have to do it and piece together the costing details later.”

Good on him for not fiddling while the bodies pile up in the streets.

There have been high-level calls for the federal government to declare the drug epidemic a national public health emergency. The House of Commons health committee has recommended an emergency declaration.  

However, federal health minister Jane Philpott said the situation cannot be solved overnight and needs more study.

More information on the fentanyl epidemic can be found in an interesting CBC report at:


Friday, December 9, 2016

Déjà Vu All Over Again

There are none so blind as those that cannot see.

He didn’t say those words, but that’s the real message delivered last week by Michael Ferguson, the federal auditor general.

Auditors-general give regular reports on how our governments, federal and provincial, are performing. The reports often are litanies of waste and screw-ups that governments promise to fix. Sometimes fixes are made, often they are not and some problems continue to exist for years, even decades.

In his fall report, Ferguson revealed why problems don’t get fixed. Why governments fail to serve us the way they should.

Governments don’t see because they are looking in the wrong direction. They are looking towards themselves, instead of the people.

“Over the years, our audit work has revealed government’s lack of focus on end-users, Canadians,” he said in a special message attached to his fall report.

Which really means that civil servants and politicians manage programs to accommodate themselves rather than the people they are supposed to serve.

“What about programs in which the focus is on measuring what civil servants are doing rather than how well Canadians are being served? In such cases, the perception of the service is very different depending on whether you are talking to the service provider or to the citizen trying to navigate the red tape.”

Ferguson said an example is the federal government’s many new measures implemented to improve security, yet speed the flow of goods and travellers across the border.

“However,” he writes “these departments and agencies cannot show Canadians how these measures have significantly enhanced border security or accelerated travel and trade.”

I can second that, having made a trip to the U.S. last month.

When you arrive at Toronto International for an out-of-country flight you enter a massive hall filled with computer stations. You feed a computer your passport, stand very still while it takes your picture, then you receive a piece of paper with your photo on it.

You then show your piece of paper to someone who directs you to another officer who looks at the paper, then you go to the U.S. immigration officer who looks at the paper and your passport and you, before you pass through to the hell of emptying your pockets, hauling out your electronics, taking off your shoes, and explaining that you have a titanium knee that is going to set off the alarms on the body scanner you have to pass through.

Returning from outside the country, the traveller is greeted at Canada Customs (or whatever they are calling it this year) by rows of computer screens. You give your passport to the screen, which asks you some questions, then issues you a sheet of paper.

You walk into a line, show the paper to an officer who directs you to another officer. You show that officer the paper and he or she may direct you to another officer who interrogates you, or to a hallway to another officer who takes the paper.

It used to be that going or coming you stood in line, walked up to a counter where an officer checked your passport and grilled you about where you are going, or where you have been.

Going and coming these days you get the impression that computer sales folks spent a lot of time wining and dining some politicians and civil servants.

A day or so after Ferguson made his fall report, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk released hers. Another day, another litany.

Lysyk reported that Ontario rewards shoddy contractors with more work, has a climate change plan that will help California more than Ontario, has yet to finish its eHealth digital health strategy after 14 years and $8 billion worth of effort.

She also noted that Ontario increased its advertising spending by 66 per cent. That spending of course came after Premier Wynne softened the laws banning use of public funds for partisan ads.

Nearly $50 million of that huge increase in ad spending went to ads promoting the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, an idea that crashed and burned soon after take-off.

Like Ferguson noted in his federal report: it’s déjà vu all over again.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

How We Treat Our Trees

My daughter’s steep-sided backyard in California has a strangely shaped tree. It grows out of the hillside naturally but then bends, forms an arch, and follows the ground down the hill to the patio.

This isn’t a vine. It is a Coast Live Oak with a trunk you would have trouble wrapping your arms around. It is one weird tree, worthy of a Stephen King horror story. (In fact if he is reading this, which is a ridiculous fantasy, he should take some notes).

I imagine the plot. The tree, driven mad by human abuse of nature, extends its trunk down the hill toward the house. It eats the house then moves on through town eating everything in sight as revenge.

Trees have good reason to go nuts. We abuse them badly. We continue to clear cut for convenience and better profits. Our lifestyles are changing the world climate, resulting in bug infestations and droughts that are killing trees by the millions.

In California, 62 million trees have died this year alone in the state’s drought-stricken areas. The U.S. Forest Service says the California die-off is unprecedented in modern history. It estimates total California tree deaths from drought at 102 million since 2010.

This is only the start of this particular ecological disaster. All those dead trees are tinder for wildfires and heighten the danger of dangerous erosion events. Stay tuned for more disastrous wildfires and floods.

Tree losses and the dangers they present are not just a California problem. In 2013, Canada lost 24,500 square kilometres of forest, mainly to wildfires, according to a report from Global Forest Watch. That was the second biggest loss of forest in the world that year. Russia had the most loss at 43,000 square kilometres.

We need not go far from home to see the losses. I stand on my deck at the lake and look across to see dozens of pines dying, presumably from lack of usual rainfall over the last two years.

The large balsam to the right of the deck died this year. As did two or three balsams down the road. I don’t know what killed them but there are plenty of things attacking our trees: invasive species, fungi and dozens of threats from changing weather.
Natural Resources Canada says things will worsen for trees. Droughts and other weather extremes are expected to become more frequent, triggering more forest declines.

The more dead trees I see the more I wonder about our forestry practices. I wonder if they need to change.

The forestry industry, and government folks who regulate it, believe that dead trees and slash should be left to rot. Nature will take care of it. The rot nourishes the earth helping the forest to regenerate.

I question that, especially when I wander the bush around the Margaret-Dan Lake roads near the Frost Centre. Piles of slash and unwanted logs from logging are everywhere.

Hunters have complained that the logging residue makes it difficult to walk through the bush. I worry about a fire starting in all that dry brush.

I also wonder if saying that logging debris helps forest regeneration is simply an excuse for not cleaning up. Another rationalization for our wasteful, throwaway culture.

And, I wonder why some use cannot be made of the slash and unwanted logs. Chipping it, or doing something to provide useful products of some kind. Making use of the slash instead of letting it rot also would provide more work in an economy where jobs are becoming fewer.

Maybe my thinking is way off base. But it seems to me that with the world changing before our eyes, we should be questioning everything.