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Focus features

By Alan Cassels, September 2015

Vancouver Island’s aging baby boomers, coupled with stretched budgets and operating rooms, have created a perfect storm for timely access to needed joint surgery.

Sixty-eight year old Nancy Tienhaara, who works in marketing for a Victoria software company, felt she needed a new knee but couldn’t get it. The pain, she recalls, was unbearable and X-rays showed there was very little cartilage in her knees. Walking was difficult and painful. After seven weeks of waiting, she finally got in to see an orthopaedic surgeon. But she didn’t hear what she wanted to hear: She wasn’t a good candidate for surgery—her pain and immobility were not yet severe enough.

By Roszan Holmen, December 2014

Records recently obtained by FOI show that after explicit warnings about the condition of the E&N Railway tracks in 2009, the BC Safety Authority allowed 22 months of further deterioration before passenger service was finally terminated in 2011. Now, with $20 million in public money allocated to upgrade tracks and restart service, critics say the plan is under-funded, won’t provide long-term safety, and therefore isn’t worth pursuing. At the same time, impassioned advocates see rail as a low-carbon solution to the increasingly congested and accident-prone Island Highway—and a potential boon for tourism.

"Look out!” That was the warning from the train conductor to his companions as he approached a tree lying across the railroad tracks, some five miles from Courtenay.

By Rob Wipond, May 2014

The unplugging of a Saanich School District database raises serious concerns about the BC government’s secret plans for students’ personal information—and for everyone’s BC Services Card information.

The BC Ministry of Education warned Saanich School District in March that it would cost the district millions of dollars to make their openStudent database properly integrated with the BC Services Card. Daunted, the school board immediately cancelled development of their in-house database for recording student information, abandoning the two years and $1.5 million they’d invested. 

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, November 2013

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, aimed at raising awareness of the impacts of the Indian residential schools and building bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, has proved a remarkable and moving experience for those involved. But much more is needed to make the process of reconciliation meaningful.

"The political elite all knew what was happening in the residential schools and they did nothing. I am filled with incandescent rage,” seethed celebrated humanitarian Stephen Lewis during his address to September’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Vancouver, “thinking about what was done to the children. It was sheer, unadulterated evil and they did nothing to stop it.” 

By Alan Cassels, October 2013

Are we ready for the consequences of a province-wide colon screening program?

The sign on the front of the podium said it all: “Screening Saves Lives.” It was April of this year and Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid was speaking at a very important event. After a three-year pilot study in several communities around BC, she was announcing the official start of the new Provincial Colon Screening Program which was going to be unrolled on Vancouver Island this summer, before moving on to the rest of the province. 

As she was announcing that program, few might have predicted the controversies that lay ahead; a summer where front page headlines were saying people who needed colonoscopies were facing massive line-ups and long waits for referrals to gastroenterologists. The new Health Minister Terry Lake had to face reporters to explain how they would fix things. 

By Rob Wipond, July/August 2013

Pharmaceutical companies have paid billions of dollars in fines in the US for giving bribes and kickbacks to doctors. Are their drug sales representatives behaving any differently in Victoria?

"Dinner and Yankee game with family. Talked about Paxil studies in children.” That note, written by a drug sales representative about his evening with a doctor and his family, was one of many records that forced GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to pay a $3 billion fine to the U.S. government in 2012.

By Barbara Julian and Maleea Acker

Airplanes, leaf blowers, whipper snippers, chainsaws, automobiles and a host of other sources of noise are creating a growing din in our daily lives. The cacophony is creating health risks and, increasingly, quiet refuge is getting hard to find.

Part 1: The noise crisis cometh

Barbara Julian

By Alan Cassels, March 2013

Health researcher Alan Cassels explores the context—and theories—surrounding the unprecedented and unexplained destruction of independent drug evaluation in BC.

When I met Robert Brown for coffee a couple of years ago he had something to show me. It was a sample of a new drug called Pradax (dabigatran) that his doctor had given him. It was the first in a new class of drugs prescribed for people with atrial fibrillation (AF), a relatively common condition that can increase one’s risk of having a stroke. The standard script for AF is warfarin, a widely used blood-thinning drug. I didn’t want to worry him but in the course of our coffee I asked if he was aware of the drug safety controversies surrounding Pradax. It was an innocuous question but when the 64-year-old retired professor of statistics and actuarial science called me a few weeks later, he was outraged. 

By Rob Wipond, February 2013

A new book provides a shocking analysis of environmental destruction and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies abroad—and how we help them do it.

Chandu Claver was born in the small town of Tabuk in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines, near a large copper mine at various times partially owned by Canadian interests. This is where he became a surgeon, got married, and wanted to raise his family. 

He never planned on being a refugee in Victoria.

By Rob Wipond, January 2013

The Privacy Commissioner has ruled on licence plate tracking, but our police and government seem unwilling to obey the law. Who will hold them to account?

Upon its release in November, the BC Privacy Commissioner’s report on the Victoria Police Department’s use of automatic licence plate recognition surveillance (ALPR) looked like an inspiring example of democratic checks and balances working to perfection. Unfortunately, it rapidly became a siren call for how wantonly our governments and police are ever more often tossing aside any pretences to following democratic principles or rule of law.

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, December 2012

The final report of the 3-year, $26-million Cohen Commission may signal the end of fish farming on BC’s coast.

In the summer of 2009, the number of Fraser River sockeye salmon reaching their spawning grounds could be counted in mere thousands rather than the ten million fish originally predicted to arrive in the river that year. 

By then, steadily declining returns had already led to closures of the fishery for three years in a row. Bowing to vociferous public demand for action, in December 2009 the federal government commissioned BC Supreme Court Judge Bruce Cohen to investigate what was happening to the wild fish. 

Cohen’s terms of reference required him to consider the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) policies and practices, investigate and make findings of fact on the state of the fishery, and make recommendations for improving its future sustainability. 

By Rob Wipond, November 2012

An elderly woman, with the support of her family, has been struggling to avoid forced psychiatric treatment at the hands of Vancouver Island Health Authority doctors.

When I arrived at the prearranged location, Michelle met me at the door. “Sorry, I didn’t want to tell you on the phone,” she said. “Now we’re going to go to where Mia really is.”

By Alan Cassels, October 2012

The Cochrane Collaboration’s examination of flu vaccines in healthy adults, a body of literature spanning 25 studies and involving 59,566 people, finds an annual flu shot reduced overall clinical influenza by about six percent.

How many diseases are important enough to have their own season? Not many, but we do have one, and it strikes every year: the flu. 

Arriving in the fall and exiting in the spring, flu season strikes with the predictability of clockwork. For some the flu might be a mild inconvenience, perhaps embraced as a way to stay home and get a few days couchside wrapped in the unpleasantness of high fever, aches, sniffles, and daytime reality TV. Yet for others, usually the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, the flu can be deadly. It can lead to hospitalizations, pneumonia, and sometimes death.

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, September 2012

While fleets of log-laden ships depart our shores in growing numbers, scores of mills have closed resulting in massive job losses in BC. With so few mills left to send logs to, logging companies claim exports are the only way to stay in business. With the removal of the requirement that forest companies holding tenure on Crown forestland must mill that timber locally, there’s little or no impetus for them to invest in much-needed infrastructure that would provide an alternative to log exports. What will it take for BC to stop exporting so much home-grown opportunity to Asia?

"Advocates of raw-log exports in British Columbia claim log exports create employment. The truth of the matter,” the United Steelworkers Union declared bluntly in a May 2012 publicity campaign linking massive BC job losses to record volumes of log exports, “is that raw-log exports kill BC jobs.” 

By Rob Wipond, July/August 2012

150 years ago, on August 2, 1862, the townsite of Fort Victoria was incorporated as the City of Victoria. But while Victorians get ready to don their party hats, a new book by Tom Swanky presents evidence that the circumstances surrounding that birth are nothing to celebrate.

By Rob Wipond, May 2012

Our seniors care system is operating with a severe lack of standards. So what happens when the BC Ministry of Health gets into the cross hairs of a former Canadian Forces court martials judge?

By Rob Wipond, February 2012

Not many people know that local police and the RCMP have already begun building a massive public traffic surveillance system. And no one knows how they’re going to use it.

The A News reporter and Nanaimo constable interwove: “amazing,” “blown away,” “overwhelming.” “This will revolutionize the way we police,” proclaimed Vancouver police in The Province.

Both media and police across North America have engaged in such trumpeting about Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR). The RCMP and BC government piloted ALPR in 2006 and have expanded it rapidly. BC now has 42 police cruisers equipped with the technology, including one with the Victoria Police Department (VicPD), one in Saanich, and two in our regional Integrated Road Safety Unit.  

By Katherine Gordon, January 2012

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Ah-in-chut Atleo thinks the situation at Attawapiskat is one of many signs Canada is at a tipping point in its relationship with First Nations. The system has failed, says Atleo: it’s time to “smash the status quo” and start over again.

National Chief Ah-in-chut Atleo was speaking at a philanthropy conference in Toronto last October when stark images of families in Attawapiskat, Ontario, living in uninsulated tents without power or running water, started flashing across Canadian television screens. 

By Rob Wipond, December 2011

There are some compelling ideas for how to make our community more economically resilient in the face of climate change, rising fuel costs, and global financial meltdowns, but our civic leadership is so far conducting business as usual. That can put a passionately concerned local journalist in some uncomfortable positions, and raise some provocative questions about the role of news media in a time of crisis.

It’s raining radical change! Hallelujah! That’s how I felt reading some of the introductory sections of the City of Victoria’s new Economic Development Strategy. I read about revamping our local economy to grapple with “the impact of economic growth on the world’s ecology,” “climate change,” “increased energy costs,” and the ”rollercoaster ride” of the global financial system. 

Amen, it’s about time! 

By Briony Penn, October 2011

Both the Fraser River sockeye and Pacific herring stocks are, by many accounts, on the verge of collapse, just as East Coast cod stocks did in the late 1980s. In the case of the cod, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ignored early warnings from scientists and threatened some with loss of their jobs if they spoke out. Is that pattern repeating itself on the West Coast?

The unfolding presentations at the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the 2009 Fraser River sockeye collapse, as well as at a recent symposium on the collapse of the BC herring fishery, suggest that history may be repeating itself. 

By the time the federal government imposed a moratorium on the eastern cod fishery in 1992, it was too late. Many questioned why the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) didn’t warn the government earlier. 

By Katherine Gordon, September 2011

Will the city have what it takes to minimize loss of life and property damage when the Big One hits? Not if expensive, politically driven band-aid measures are the norm rather than comprehensive resilience planning focused on well-considered priorities.

When a catastrophic earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand on February 22, 2011, thousands of buildings and homes were destroyed; 181 people died. Christchurch was almost completely unprepared for that level of devastation. The cost of rehabilitation is likely to be around $11 billion (CAD). 

By Rob Wipond, July 2011

There’s much to learn about BC’s laws and eldercare system from the last years of Kathleen Palamarek’s life in a local nursing home—especially from the battles that were fought in her name between her children, care providers and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

It was a small but important epitaph for a much-loved woman. NDP West Kootenay MLA Katrine Conroy spoke in the provincial legislature in June in support of a public inquiry into the recent “suspicious death” of Kathleen Palamarek, an 88-year-old resident of Broadmead Lodge in Saanich.

By Rob Wipond, June 2011

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request show nearly half of all seniors in long-term care in BC are being given antipsychotics like Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel. That’s almost twice the average for the rest of Canada and amongst the highest rates found anywhere in the world. And even though Health Canada warns these drugs cause a doubling of death rates in the elderly, care workers admit they’re mainly being used as chemical restraints in the absence of adequate staffing and proper oversight.

"IT WILL RELAX YOU.” That’s the only explanation hospital staff gave when administering the antipsychotic medication to Carl. At least, that’s the only reason he recalls—soon he began experiencing “very strange cognitive feelings.”

“I’m a reasonably logical person,” he says, but suddenly he was in a “swimmy universe that didn’t make any sense.” 

By Rob Wipond, May 2011

A plethora of young groups are bringing extremely diverse people together to share knowledge, ideas and perspectives. Can getting us out of our silos lead to new types of collaboration, community building and social solutions?

I arrive at the Victoria Event Centre not knowing exactly what to expect at a “PechaKucha.” I leave a couple hours later having had a great time—but still not knowing exactly what I’ve experienced. However, I’m becoming increasingly sure it’s part of a growing local and international social movement of immense vitality, astonishing creative breadth, and intriguing political possibilities. 

By Katherine Gordon, December 2010

British Columbia’s 32 indigenous languages were almost completely obliterated during the infamous reign of the residential schools. In 2010, they remain close to extinction. In a province where English predominates, does restoring them to active use make any sense? Overwhelming evidence suggests that the answer is yes—not only for the First Nations people from whom they were stolen, but for everyone.

"All our social problems stem from the disconnection of our young people to our culture because they don’t know our language,” says Renée Sampson, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Without that sense of cultural identity, they just don’t know who they are.”

by Sam Williams, November 2010

Did the City ignore the recommendations of their consultants on what to do with Big Blue? Or have they wisely adopted them? Did Delcan hype their report to profit from Infrastructure Stimulus Fund cash? Or will the bridge really collapse, as the Mayor has said, in any seismic event? Is a new bridge necessary for the greening of the City's transportation system, or is it being bought on impulse with little planning and knowledge of expected future use? Will fibs, big and small, win the referendum on November 20?


by Amy Reiswig, October 2010

Focus takes the economic pulse of our community by talking with people in the bellwether sectors.

Hey, how’s it going? We hear and use this phrase many times a day, usually receiving or providing a polite and perfunctory answer. But the global economic downturn of the past two years makes it a question worth seeking deeper answers to in order to get a read on the health of Victoria’s economy and our community. 

by Rob Wipond, September 2010

Out of sight from parents and the general public, school teachers and administrators are waging an increasingly tense battle over children with special needs—and the outcome could influence the future of public education.

It’s discouraging. It’s depressing,” says Julia Christianson, a special education teacher at Cedar Hill Middle School. “I have many parents cry on my shoulder. And many times I ask myself, ‘What else can I do?’”

Now, like many teachers, Christianson is protesting publicly. And it’s not about pay, benefits, or holidays; it’s about “class size and composition.” Just a fuzzy phrase to outsiders, it’s gradually become a flashpoint for public education.

By Briony Penn, August 2010

The combination of a gutted Forest Service, vast areas of not sufficiently restocked forestlands, a quirky loophole in the Kyoto Protocol and a provincial government ideologically driven to sell off public assets has created the perfect opportunity for forest industrialists to burn down the last barriers to privatization of BC’s Crown forests.

On August 20, 1910, a strong wind blew down off the Cascades and whipped hundreds of forest blazes into an inferno that extinguished towns and three million hectares of forests from Washington to Montana. 

by Katherine Palmer Gordon. July 2010

Three controversial infrastructure projects highlight the need for a better way to decide what projects are most important to residents of the region—and which get funding.

February, 2008: Dozens of RCMP, some armed with assault rifles, swarm a campsite in Langford and arrest six Langford's shameunarmed citizens, charging them with mischief. As many as 300 police officers surround a nearby neighbourhood for several days afterwards, questioning local residents as they travel to and from their homes.