Thursday, April 28, 2016

Lines on the Road

The last few stubborn patches are gone finally, but in a way it is sad to see the snow go.

Snow covers more than just autumn’s decay. It hides for a few winter months the flaws in our society, one of which is our continuing disrespect for nature.

The melting snow reveals roadsides littered with bottles, cans, coffee cups, cigarette packages and other detritus tossed out vehicle windows. The amount of roadside litter in Haliburton County and elsewhere truly is discouraging. It makes you wonder how we ever will fix the world’s environmental problems when people continue to use our roadsides as garbage cans.

That’s old news, however, and continuing to write about it is beating a dead horse.

A newer concern about the roadways is the deteriorating state of line marking. Many municipalities appear to be delaying, or even giving up, on road marking. Road dividing lines, intersection stop lines, and lane turn markers have faded to almost nothing in some places where I drive. It is a way for some municipalities to save money.

Municipalities have been stretched for money as Ontario governments have continued to download service costs on them. (For instance, check your tax bill and see how it has increased because of downloaded Ontario Provincial Police costs).

Road line marking has been stopped in some areas of Britain. It is an experiment to test whether roads without dividing lines make drivers more cautious. Some data shows that removal of white dividing lines slows the average speed of vehicles by up to 13 per cent.

There is much argument about that. One side argues that self-enforcing schemes such as removing lines are the best way to reduce speeding, especially where policing budgets are cut. Others say there is no proof for this and that clearly marked roads save lives.

Ontario has reviewed the no-line experiments in England and has no plans to change its road marking system, says Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer for the Ontario transport ministry.

Pavement markings serve an advisory or warning function, and may be used to complement other traffic control devices,” he told me. “There are concerns that the removal of pavement markings will affect those with ageing visions and impact certain safety technologies in modern cars that rely on pavement markings to warn drivers if they’re drifting across a lane.”

Nichols also said that road painting has not been cut back on roads and highways maintained by the province.  Most lines need to be repainted once a year and the province has not changed the frequency of line painting.

Also, there have been rumours that Ontario has stopped using glass beaded pavement paint, but Nichols says this is not true. Glass beads in road paint are the only way to meet minimum reflectivity standards, he says.

Ontario this year began testing AVs (Automated Vehicles), self-driving vehicles that use artificial intelligence, digital gadgets and presumably road markings to keep them on the road. AVs sound a bit scary but they can’t be much more dangerous than some of the lunatics you see behind the wheel these days.
The repainting season begins soon, once roads are clean and free of sand and salt residue and the temperature is at least 10 degrees C.

Hopefully this year there will be fewer impatient drivers who insist on passing road painting trucks. They make a lovely mess when they drive over freshly painted lines and don’t seem to mind having yellow or white paint splashed onto their vehicle.

Meanwhile, here’s a little road test question: Is it illegal to cross a solid double  centre line?

Not in Ontario, which is the only Canadian province or territory where it is not a traffic offence to pass on a solid double line.

Solid double lines are warnings placed before curves, hills and other highway vision-limited sections where an oncoming vehicle might be met too suddenly to avoid a collision.

So you can pass without fear of being pulled over by police, but it’s a really dumb idea.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Death of Billy Skead

Billy Skead was buried during the winter but the question continues to prick the conscience of his troubled aboriginal community: Why did he die?

Medical reports say Billy died of an overdose of tuberculosis pills, which he stole from his brother-in-law. He swallowed pills once before but people managed to get him to hospital where doctors and nurses saved his life. This time they couldn’t.

The system counts Billy as just one of countless Indian suicides. People in his community, however, say Billy did not take his own life. They say it was taken by an uncaring system that has sapped the spirit of native people and left them to drift aimlessly like autumn leaves fallen into a stream.

Billy Skead was an intelligent and interesting young man. Too intelligent and too interesting to be dead.

He was born and raised on the reserve, the middle child in an impoverished family of three boys and six girls. When he was nine years old his mother froze to death in a snow bank on the reserve.

He was one of the Indian kids who persevered and got some education. He went to community college and learned the carpentry trade.

He thought a lot about the plight of his people and became an activist intent on changing the system. He took part in a blockade and occupation to protest the social conditions in which his people lived.

He marched in an native protest in Ottawa and was arrested by the RCMP.

After that he returned to the reserve and worked as an education counsellor, helping reserve children with school problems and trying to persuade them not to drop out. He organized children’s sports and tried to help people bridge the gap between reserve life and the foreign culture of city life.

“He was a happy-go-lucky person,” his young widow Rose told me when I talked to her. “He liked all kinds of sports. He liked reading and going to the movies.”

 “He was a quiet, normal Indian boy,” Rev. John Fullmer, the Lutheran minister who married Rose and Billy told me in an interview.

“Billy was one of those kids who always had a smile on his face,” said Len Hakenson, director of the Addiction Research Foundation.,

Louis Cameron, an Indian leader and Billy’s uncle and friend, told me that many people wonder why a happy, strong and well-adjusted young man with many friends could kill himself.

“This generation is very sincere and has a lot of deep and urgent messages,” he said. “Sometimes to die in an unnatural way is an omen that something is happening.”

Louis Cameron said that perhaps Billy was frustrated by all the change that is needed, but realized that he could not achieve it.

“We Indian people are living in an acute state of emergency,” he told me.

Billy was not one of the victims of Attawapiskat, the Northern Ontario aboriginal community where five more young people attempted suicide last Friday night. There were eleven attempted suicides the previous weekend in Attawapiskat, and a total of 28 in March.

Politicians and news media are pouring into Attawapiskat, which has declared a state of emergency.

Billy also was not a victim in Davis Inlet, an East Coast community where Innu youth killed themselves by sniffing gasoline.

Nor in Grassy Narrows, Ontario where people didn’t have to gulp pills or sniff gasoline to get sick or to die. A nearby pulp and paper mill did that for them by poisoning their nearby fishing waters with mercury.

And not Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, which descended into a social Hell after construction of the W.A.C. Bennett dam dried up the Peace-Athabasca Delta, destroying the hunting and fishing lands of the native people.

Billy Skead was not even of this century. He committed suicide in 1976 on the Whitefish Bay Reserve near Kenora. The column you are reading is basically the story I wrote for The Canadian Press news agency on April 21, 1976.

That was 40 years ago today.

Some things never change, especially for Canada’s native people.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Annoying White Noise

It has come to this: If you sat in front of your television set for 10 straight hours (God forbid!) you would be bombarded with roughly three hours of commercials.

In the earlier days of television, commercials offered time to grab a cold one from the fridge. These days, commercial breaks are so long that you have time to go to the beer store. If they get much longer, you’ll have time to brew your own.

In 1960 a typical hour-long show provided 51 minutes of entertainment. Nine minutes out of the hour were set aside for advertisement. Today an average hour of television provides 42 minutes of entertainment and 18 minutes of commercials.

On some channels, notably the so-called super channels such as AMC and Peach, a movie that runs 1:40 to 1:45 lasts three hours because of the commercials. That’s a mind-numbing lot of commercial viewing for anyone tuning into the trillionth broadcast of The Bourne Identity.

To people with calm personalities, TV commercials have become white noise to which they give scant attention. It’s simply there in the background. For the A personalities among us, TV commercials are an enemy that must be eliminated by any means.

The battles against TV ads began with the remote control. When a commercial intruded, we changed channels to watch something else. That battle was lost when some evil ad executive figured out how to have commercials running on your favourite channels at the same time. Flip to another channel to escape a commercial interruption and you run smack into another.

Then came the PVR. Record your favourite program then fast forward through the ads. That was a partial solution to avoid commercial annoyance. However, you had to be quick and nimble with the remote to escape the full messages.

Streaming services such as Netflix are the latest escape from TV ads. So far Netflix is commercial free and available at a reasonable price.

There is no complete escape from TV advertising, however. Many people still want to watch news programs – local and from afar – which are increasingly cluttered with commercials.

ABC World News Tonight is one of the better news operations but its 30-minute broadcast drowns in commercials soon after the15-minute mark. Then viewers are bombarded with drug company pitches for everything from erectile dysfunction to anticoagulants and adult diapers.

Especially repulsive are TV commercials paid with our tax dollars. You know, the one about “if you’ve got pink eye,” or the bridge that magically lengthens to save the life of a guy because the Ontario government now has a pension scheme. Then there’s the Ontario Power Generation agency ad informing us that Ontario stopped using coal for power generation a couple of years ago.

Gee, it’s good to get that kind of information and to know that you are paying for it. For my part, I’d rather have those tax dollars back to help pay my Hydro One bill, which is becoming my largest living expense.

Low-intelligence commercials and fourth-rate programing are driving more viewers away from broadcast and cable TV in favour of streaming services and it’s hurting the TV industry. A study prepared for the Canadian Radio and Television Commission earlier this year predicted that without more revenue, nearly one-half of Canada’s local TV stations will go off the air in the next four years.

Rogers Media announced earlier this year plans to lay off 200 people. Last year it cut 110 jobs from its Omni television stations. Both Shaw and Bell television operations also have cut jobs.

Obviously advertising is necessary in our capitalistic system. Ads pay for the programs and staff to produce them. But must it be so intrusive, so annoying and so omnipresent?

Viewers want fewer commercials and less jamming of shorter ads into commercial slots. They are fed up with ad formats that have seen little innovation in 60 years.

TV networks are starting to get the message. They need to do much work, however, on producing fewer commercials that are less annoying, more intelligent, and which provide viewers really useful information.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Open Mouth, Insert . . .

I think it is time that Justin the Good sat down for a serious heart to heart with his No. 1 policeman, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.

The Commish is a political train wreck waiting to happen. He’s been close to running off the rails several times now, causing his political bosses some embarrassment.

His latest public relations disaster was last week in a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade where he noted that it is reasonable for the public to expect police officers to be held to a higher standard.

Later, he drew some laughs when he told about vacationing in British Columbia and being stopped for speeding by one of his own officers. B.C. is one of those provinces where RCMP do highway patrol.

He related how shocked the officer was when he realized he had pulled over his boss. Chuckles all around and that was the end of the amusing anecdote - until a reporter asked the obvious question: did he receive a speeding ticket?

“Oh, that was just a story I made up,” the commissioner replied.
Questioned further, he reversed himself and said the story was true. Pressed harder on whether he received a ticket, he said he didn’t want to talk about it, then admitted he did not.
You have to be awfully dim, or having a really off day, to think that story could be told without anticipating the obvious follow-up questions. It shows bad judgment on the commissioner’s part.
Paulson is building quite a history of bad judgment. The news media often refers to his shoot-from-the-lip style. He has been dressed down by three different federal public safety ministers, the department to which he reports, since his appointment in late 2011.
In 2012 he apologized and repaid the federal government $912, the cost of having on-duty RCMP honour guard assigned to his wedding.
Documents obtained recently by journalists reveal that Paulson had to issue another apology in 2012. The government ordered him to apologize to a subordinate for intimating and demeaning behaviour.
Staff Sgt. Tim Chad of B.C. complained to Paulson after the commissioner distributed a video lecture to all detachments on needed improvements and getting rid of the force’s bad apples.
"We are not all a bunch of screw-ups but it is evident we are all being lumped into that category and we are not valued and trusted," Chad wrote in an email.

Paulson replied that Chad is “living under a rock” and that his complaints “reveal an ill-informed arrogance” that is “at the heart of what ails us.” 

Another B.C. officer then complained that the commissioner’s response to Chad was “aggressive, insulting, arrogant, condescending and immature.”

The government obviously agreed and then-public safety minister Steven Blaney ordered Paulson to apologize.              

Ralph Goodale, the latest public safety minister, has said nothing about Paulson’s most recent judgment misadventure, but no doubt is watching closely.

Back in February, Goodale told Paulson that he wants to see a plan to  end “toxic workplace behaviour” in the RCMP. That came after reports of alleged bullying, sexual touching and nudity at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.

Goodale also has asked the RCMP watchdog to take a new look at bullying and harassment within the RCMP. The watchdog earlier reported that the RCMP needs swift, effective action on complaints about bullying and harassment.

Paulson was in trouble with another public safety minister, this one Vic Toews who was replaced by Blaney. Toews ordered Paulson in 2012 to rewrite an action plan to address findings of gender bias in the RCMP.

That’s a lot of serious sit-downs with your bosses. The next one might be with the boss of them all, the prime minister. Trudeau, when he appointed Goodale told him he wants an RCMP workplace that is free from harassment and sexual violence.

No doubt he is not amused at Paulson’s stumbles, and he likely is becoming impatient. He should be. Paulson has had fours years to change the RCMP. He boasts of some success, but it clear that he has done nothing to change his own style.