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By Alan Cassels, December 2015

The Ministry of Health’s attempt to privatize the voice of patients does not have a promising prognosis.

Private corporations vying to position themselves to suck as much as possible from healthcare budgets occasionally deliver some shocking truths. Greg Reh, the US and Global Life Sciences Leader at Deloitte Consulting LLP, wrote an online commentary last month, “Capitalizing on the latest breakthrough drug: the patient.” He writes that “life science” (i.e. pharmaceutical) companies “should consider revisiting the strategies and services they provide around patient access, support, education, and adherence. If they don’t, they could lose out on one of the best breakthrough drugs of the century—patient engagement.”

Which is to say, Deloitte’s the kind of big league multinational consulting firm capable of packaging up a nice little pill for governments and drug companies to swallow: the voice of the patient.

By Liz McArthur, December 2015

Victoria prepares to help Syrian refugees make a new home.

As if there were a link between refugees and terrorists, fears have been expressed by some about the new Canadian government’s commitment to soon welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees. Yet there is no evidence for such a link. According to experts like Ottawa University law professor Errol Mendes, the refugees Canada will resettle will have been thoroughly pre-screened by UN officials—and then undergo extensive additional screening by Canadian officials.

While 25,000 refugees may seem like a lot, back in 2005 Canada accepted close to 36,000 refugees. As a result of rule-tightening by the Harper government in 2012, refugee claims dropped from 20,223 in 2012 to approximately 10,000 and 12,000 in the two subsequent years.

By Liz McArthur, October 2015

Why are marijuana dispensaries the growth business in Victoria?

In downtown Victoria empty retail storefronts are quickly being filled with marijuana dispensaries and business is booming for the legally ambiguous operations. In what has been likened to a new gold rush, it is not the federally approved “Licensed Producers,” but these rogue dispensaries who are successfully tapping in to an eager market. If marijuana is Canada’s new gold rush, then British Columbia is the Wild West. Regardless of a warning shot fired at them by Health Canada in September and proposals to regulate them at the municipal level, the retail marijuana industry seems likely to grow.

By Derry McDonell, May 2015

Former BC Premier Mike Harcourt tells a pro-amalgamation crowd that citizens will have to lead the way.

If the 75 percent of Greater Victoria residents who voted in favour of making changes to the governance structure of the region last November actually want it to happen, they had better get involved and be prepared to drive the process forward themselves. That was the frank advice of former BC Premier Mike Harcourt, speaking to a meeting organized by Amalgamation Yes on April 21. About 75 people attended.

“Don’t wait for the politicians to do something,” said Harcourt. “If you do, nothing will happen.”

The politicians are too invested in the status quo, he explained. “They are worried about their mayor’s perks and planning director’s salaries.” 

By Derry McDonell, April 2015

Academics weigh in on the amalgamation question.

In November, voters throughout Greater Victoria said “yes” to studying some form of amalgamation in the Capital Regional District. Even in municipalities where the ballot question was either obtuse (Saanich) or clearly biased (Oak Bay), the overall result endorsed considering, at the very least, how greater service integration and cooperation among the 13 municipalities could benefit the region as a whole. North and Central Saanich, Sidney and Victoria went even further, endorsing a cost/benefit study of amalgamation itself. 

By Derry McDonell, February 2015 (Updated)

Will breaking into two groups create a consensus solution on sewage treatment? Or new unresolvable problems?

Last August Saanich councillor and CRD Director Vic Derman presented a motion calling for the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee, otherwise known as “the sewage committee,” to shift its focus away from a “one size fits all” approach. He advocated a best practices sounding of “individualized” solutions to sewage treatment. 

The motion failed to pass. The sewage committee remained wedded to the plan to put a single treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. 

Since then, however, the CRD’s failure to get the necessary zoning for McLoughlin—along with local elections in Greater Victoria— appear to have altered both the balance of votes at the sewage committee and the will to consider alternatives to the original plan. 

By Alan Cassels, February 2015

A Victoria resident spearheads a national vaccine compensation movement.

Bob Martin is the kind of guy who inspires people to action. Fit, energetic, with a wry smile, a spiky crewcut and sparkling eyes, Martin exudes so much energy you’d think this 77-year-old has never had a health problem in his life. You might have met him in the Oak Bay Rec Centre where he works as a personal trainer, easily passing for someone 20 years his junior. One thing you learn very quickly about Bob is that he’s a man with a mission. 

In October 2010, two weeks after getting his routine annual flu shot, Martin lapsed into a severe case of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder where the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. It left him paralyzed for eight months, four of which were spent in intensive care, so weak and disabled he needed a machine to do his breathing for him. 

By Leslie Campbell, November 2014

Oak Bay mayoral challenger would bring a different approach to solving the sewage impasse.

In conversation with Cairine Green, her significant skills in communication and diplomacy are apparent. While she’s confident that she can provide better leadership than incumbent Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, she says it in the nicest way possible. Since Jensen won by only 428 votes in 2011, it’s likely he’s taking her challenge seriously.

A council member for Oak Bay for the past three years, Green earlier served on North Saanich council for six years. “Politics was always part of my life,” explains Green. Her parents met through politics, and her father served as both a Liberal MLA and, later, reeve of Saanich (1952-58). 

By Alan Cassels, June 2014

The large drop-out rate during clinical tests on statins has disguised the dangers inherent in their use.

In early April this year, 68-year-old Sooke resident Veronica Diment finally got an explanation of her health problems and an official diagnosis: polymyositis, a chronic inflammation of many muscles.

The former language teacher, who now runs a rural vacation retreat near Sooke, told me the diagnosis landed like a bomb in her life. What was so startling was not that she finally had a name for the disabling condition which has left her at times without the muscle strength to climb the stairs, it was how matter-of-factly a specialist described the source of this auto-immune disorder: “long-term statin use.”

Many pharmaceuticals can improve the quality and length of our lives, yet as Diment’s experience with statins demonstrates, they can also do the opposite. 

By Simon Nattrass, November 2013

Warriors are essential given competing visions for indigenous peoples’ traditional territories.

For many of us, the landscape is a neutral backdrop to our daily lives—the place in which we play out our activities and the source of resources with which we meet our needs. For cultures that have existed here since time immemorial, the land has been as much a character in life’s drama as any friend or family member. Prior to the arrival of settler culture, the land was in turns a teacher, a provider, and many things besides as part of a complex relationship between indigenous peoples and the places with which they lived—a relationship which the process of colonization has endeavoured to suppress for a century and a half. 

The saga continues

Update on the Ministry of Health scandal

Over the next few months patients and caregivers in BC are being asked for their opinions on the three main drug treatments used to treat Alzheimer’s disease that are covered by BC Pharmacare. On its “Patient Voices” website, the Ministry of Health is requesting input on experience with donepezil (Aricept®), galantamine (Reminyl®) and rivastigamine (Exelon®). Those comments will form part of the deliberations as a government committee decides whether or how the drugs should be covered by the public purse.  

By Ross Crockford, October 2013

Backroom debates intensify.

Despite an August 31 deadline announced by Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) executive director Graham Bruce, negotiations are continuing between Southern Rail of Vancouver Island (SVI) and VIA Rail to craft a new passenger-rail agreement for the Island. 

“We are coming closer and closer together,” says SVI president Frank Butzelaar. “We are confident we will reach a deal.” 

In April, SVI submitted a proposal to have VIA’s trains based in Nanaimo instead of in Victoria, as they were before VIA stopped service in 2011 due to poor track conditions. VIA has said it prefers the original arrangement, under which it paid an average annual subsidy of $1.4 million. The SVI proposal would require an annual subsidy of $1.8 million, plus $6 million over five years for track maintenance.

By Maleea Acker, October 2013

Complaints about deer eating gardens and farmers’ crops may be louder, but biologists are raising concerns over deer’s affect on native flora and fauna.

A red-tailed hawk landed on my balcony railing last month, fluffing its feathers and peering backwards at me through the window. The raptor, perching on streetlights above the Pat Bay Highway or searching my grass for a meal, helps keep populations of rodents and small mammals in check in the same way that cougars, wolves and bears manage forest land deer. 

By Briony Penn, October 2013

No moratorium on Discovery Islands logging

Last month Focus reported on Discovery Islands tourism operators’ frustration with the response from provincial ministers of tourism and forestry on three requests: that at least one of them come to the Discovery Islands and meet with the operators to see and hear their concerns first-hand; that a hold be put on the proposed viewshed logging in the three remaining unimpacted marine corridors until after the meeting; and that government strike a land-use committee of stakeholders to negotiate the demands of the different major economic interests. 

By Ross Crockford, September 2013

The fight to save the E&N Railway enters the final round.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and the Malahat is jammed. The safety improvements are done, but it still takes 90 minutes to drive from downtown Victoria to Crofton. The highway is full of Islanders hauling groceries and building supplies, and I get stuck at practically every traffic light enroute. Judging by the growing numbers of mini-malls along the road, by 2030 the same drive will probably take twice as long.

By Ray Grigg, September 2013

The latest deadly threat to BC’s wild salmon.

If the research recommendations of the Cohen Commission Report are to be implemented, then the study of pathogens emanating from net-pen salmon farms would be a useful place to begin. Indeed, Justice Cohen is quite explicit that rigorous testing be undertaken on “the hypothesis that diseases are transmitted from farmed salmon” to wild species.

By Stephen Andrew, September 2013

How politicians avoid journalists’ and voters’ questions.

What you are meant to be reading in this space is an article on one man’s quest to revisit the City of Victoria’s bylaw pertaining to skateboarding in the Downtown core. As the bylaw currently exists, it’s against the law to ride a skateboard and if you do, police and bylaw officers can issue a $75 fine and confiscate the skateboard. But, according to Victoria’s Mayor Dean Fortin, it’s an inappropriate topic right now.

By Dorothy Field, September 2013

Our forests, our minerals, our fish, and our clean water come from Crown land, that is, unceded territory.

I recently returned from my second trip up to the Action Camp hosted by traditional elders of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. The camp is on the path of the Pacific Trails Pipeline as well as the many other pipelines that intend to use that route from the Alberta tar sands and BC’s fracking fields out to Kitimat. Several Wet’suwet’en families have moved onto their traditional clan land, determined to protect the pristine Morice River and their salmon run, their moose and their wild berries from the inevitable spills and seepages that will accompany the oil and gas bonanza.   

By Simon Nattrass, September 2013

Upping our 2-3 day food supply

Victorians have been repeatedly warned about The Big One, the apocalyptic earthquake which threatens at any moment to engulf our fair city and send it sliding into the sea. But while engineers and safety-conscious citizens are busy building life-line bridges and packing granola bars into their emergency kits, it turns out the rest of the Island is in no position to deal with even a minor catastrophe—that is, if it affects our food supply. 

For over half a century, the amount of food produced on Vancouver Island has steadily decreased in proportion to the population. In 2011, a study by the Local Food Project stated that 85 percent of food was imported, leaving locals with only enough to support ourselves for two or three days in the winter season.

By Simon Nattrass, July/August 2013

From dishonouring treaties to fostering inauthentic relationships, colonialism hurts us all.

In late May, a crowd of several hundred people gathered to watch as members of the Tsawout, WSÁNEC, and Songhees people reclaimed the traditional name of PKOLS for what has been called Mount Douglas. The mood was both celebratory and somber. Speakers at the event drew upon the current swell of support for indigenous peoples across Canada, but throughout the day conversation inevitably returned to the forgotten history of the mountain. Over 150 years earlier, Sir James Douglas signed a treaty with indigenous peoples on the site of the day’s celebration. The broken promise of that treaty—that colonists were not to interfere with local clans’ lands or way of life—was to become the theme of a century and a half of colonization on the South Island. 

By Simon Nattrass, July/August 2013

Elders’ stories illustrate challenges.

Misconceptions abound when it comes to active illicit drug users in our community. Police, Block Watch programs, and neighbourhood associations repeating the not-in-my-backyard mantra too often encourage us to view addicts as people to be feared and avoided. 

In early June, I was one of the few people outside Victoria’s street community to be invited to the second annual Convergence of People Who Use Illicit Drugs. The day-long event is the culmination of a program called Street College, organized by and for members of the street community in partnership with AIDS Vancouver Island and the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users. 

By Rob Wipond, June 2013

Local surveillance round-up

After discovering that local police are conducting illegal mass surveillance through their automatic licence plate recognition (ALPR) program, Focus tried to find out which other local public bodies are conducting video surveillance on the general public. So far, we’ve found nothing too worrying—except for schoolchildren in the western communities.

The City of Victoria is using ALPR cameras to monitor parking and issue tickets. They retain the images of illegally-parked cars for seven years, but their privacy impact assessment indicates that they only retain the data about law-abiding drivers for 12 hours. 

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, May 2013

A new film is making sure salmon are on the menu of the provincial election.

Here’s the good news: While the documentary Salmon Confidential is an incredibly disturbing exposé of government efforts to hide the truth about devastating diseases affecting the West Coast’s wild salmon population, it does end on a positive note. Both filmmaker Twyla Roscovich and wild salmon expert Alexandra Morton, the film’s protagonist, believe strongly that there is still time to save our wild fish. 

By Rob Wipond, May 2013

Former federal Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page exhorts Canadians to "wake up."

Parliamentary institutions that bolster Canadian democracy “are under attack right now like I’ve never seen them before in my 35 years of public service.” The warning had a particularly sharp sting coming from recently departed federal Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. Brought to UVic by the Green Party, Page was speaking to a packed lecture hall in April. No partisan firebrand, Page is just a lifelong bureaucrat and self-described “numbers guy” who became increasingly frustrated, then appalled, and then positively worried witnessing important national financial decisions being made “based on ideology alone” and without accountability to anyone.

By Alan Cassels, May 2013

Another lawsuit against the Ministry of Health for firings of drug safety evaluation employees

A large question mark still hovers over 1515 Blanshard Street, headquarters of the BC Ministry of Health, as observers try to make sense of the tsunami that has, and continues to wreak havoc in that building and delay drug safety evaluations. Just last month another fired Ministry employee filed her lawsuit against the government, raising the tally to seven lawsuits or wrongful-dismissal grievances. Two other employees were let go (with severance) and one died, a co-op student who was three days away from finishing his work term.

By Aaren Madden, May 2013

An amalgamation of groups favouring amalgamation in Greater Victoria

“With an amalgamated community, there would be no CRD,” Earl Anthony told those attending the April 10 launch of the Amalgamation Yes office on Pembroke Street. Once the thunderous applause and cheering died down, he continued, “You would at least have a district representative at the table, which doesn’t happen in our current structure. Chances of something coming out of the woodwork like Viewfield Road [site of the proposed biosolids plant] would be less likely.”

His comments were in answer to a question from the audience regarding the main concern held by the 90-odd people present: accountability. 

By Rob Wipond, Derry McDonnell and Alan Cassels, April 2013

• Trend to “oral government” undermining accountability

• Faux consultation on City budget?

• Another fired drug researcher files suit


Trend to “oral government” undermining accountability

Last September, the non-profit Freedom of Information and Privacy Association complained to BC Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham about a growing trend for public information requests to the provincial government to come up empty. Denham investigated, and in March issued her report. 

The Commissioner verified that “no responsive records” replies to Freedom of Information requests have dramatically increased across the BC government from 13 percent in 2008/09 to 25 percent of all requests in 2011/12.

By Gerry Bliss and Brad Densmore, April 2013

In BC, two decades post-FIPPA, it’s harder to get government information than it was before the legislation came into force.

When the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) was introduced in 1993, BC was at the leading edge of citizen access to government information. Architects of transparency and accountability legislation around the world had a vision of better educated citizens, the press holding government accountable for its policies and actions, and legislators bringing the light of day into the public service.

In fact, there hasn’t been a major political party in Canada in the last 30 years without a formally stated commitment to transparency and strengthening public access to government information. People today have every reason to expect to be able to get any information they need to be informed citizens and stakeholders of government services. 

By Simon Nattrass, April 2013

Heavy-handed policing of homeless and poor people is the focus of a new affadavit campaign.

Marianne was visiting a friend the first time it happened. Like a scene from a TV crime drama, officers with the Victoria Police Department entered the home and, after a brief search, began accusing her of using illegal drugs based on her proximity to paraphernalia belonging to the house’s occupant. Marianne told the officers that she had stopped using. Finding no evidence to support their assumption, police left without pursuing charges. 

By Maleea Acker, April 2013

Victoria was described as a “perfect Eden” by Sir James Douglas. But then the sweet song of bluebirds disappeared.

This spring after darkness descends, thousands of songbirds will navigate up the Pacific Flyway, travelling north to their summer breeding territories. Migrating from Central America, Central Mexico and the Southwestern United States, it’s possible to see their slight forms against the moon, or even hear their furious wing beats as they traverse the Olympic Peninsula, Juan de Fuca Strait, the San Juan and Gulf Islands, and up the reaches of Vancouver Island. 

Amidst the Violet-green swallows, Golden-crowned sparrows, and Yellow warblers, Julia Daly, project technician with Victoria’s Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT), is crossing her fingers for the return of a few Western bluebirds, which have not bred here since 1995. That is, until last year. 

By Pete Rockwell, March 2013

A proposal for a new 200-unit building shows competing visions for a quiet North Park neighbourhood.

It’s almost warm in the sun on this cold clear day as I walk down Mason Street, which runs parallel to Pandora, just off Cook Street. On my left is a modest park. A few trees. Couple of benches. A small playground where two mothers push their kids on swings. Two older women sit and talk on a bench. A Hipsterish couple walk their dog. Across the street a young guy with a beard talks to his cell phone and leans against the brick wall of a coffee shop called Yoka’s. 

Walking west, I pass the Mason Street City Farm. Neat, well-tended vegetable gardens and a few greenhouses occupy the back and side yards of older wood frame houses. Earlier era houses extend down to the end of the block. Narrow Mason Street seems a modest, friendly, quiet place. So close to downtown, yet a world away.

By Rob Wipond and Leslie Campbell, March 2013

The right to sleep, continued; RCMP agrees to stop tracking innocent drivers; A healing journey in dangerous times; Ombudsperson pans incapability assessments


The right to sleep, continued

If David Arthur Johnston gets his way, the City of Victoria’s bylaw disallowing camping during daylight hours will be challenged in BC Supreme Court soon.

By Sylvia Olsen, February 2013

Idle No More is a healthy sign, a rejection of victimhood.

Thirty-nine years ago I moved to Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island. The reserve was my home for 35 years. I was an 18-year-old “white” girl then. Now I’m a non-indigenous mother, auntie and grandmother to some of the next generation of indigenous Canadians. 

From my perspective, Idle No More is a movement, make no mistake. My Facebook feed indicates that the news is vastly understating the numbers of gatherings and attendees. But then why wouldn’t there be thousands of frustrated young indigenous people in our country? They are educated. They have been learning their history and it’s not a great story.

By Simon Nattrass, January 2013

A First Nations group denies access to its sovereign territory.

After hours of searching through a labyrinth of logging roads, local activist Julie Anne Gilchrist and several others arrived at the Wedzin Kwa (or Morice River) crossing at 4 am under the light of a full moon. The bridge was watched over by a sign declaring “No Access Without Consent. Stop and Honk,” placed there by activists from the Unist’ot’en Action Camp to ward off surveyors for the Pacific Trail pipeline. That’s the pipeline planned to deliver natural gas from northern BC and Alberta to a proposed liquid natural gas terminal at Kitimat for shipment overseas—key infrastructure in BC’s drive to become one of the biggest exporters of LNG in the world.

By Pete Rockwell, January 2013

Is Victoria just too darn cantankerous for pipeline PR personnel...and review panels?

Energy giant Kinder Morgan wants to build a new pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. This would facilitate pumping solvent-diluted bitumen over the Rocky Mountains and across southern BC to Westbridge Marine Terminal, where it would be loaded onto oil tankers. Oil tanker traffic—through Burrard Inlet, past Vancouver, across Georgia Strait, through the Gulf and San Juan Islands, past Victoria, and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca—would increase by 500 percent. Preceding their application to the National Energy Board for this project, Kinder Morgan is holding “public information sessions” in various places along the proposed route. I decided to attend the one held on December 5 in a back room of Saanich’s Cedar Hill Recreation Centre.

By Briony Penn, December 2012

The Canadian Heavy Oil Association hopes a “factspill” will persuade British Columbians to support their pipelines.

Ian Anderson, CEO of Kinder Morgan, recently confessed at the annual fall business conference of the Canadian Heavy Oil Association in Calgary that “what I have come to understand is that consultation means something very different from handing out a bunch of baseball caps and nice dinners.” Dubbed by the Calgary Herald as a new breed of oilman with “hard-won wisdom,” Anderson admitted that those in the oil patch have misjudged and mischaracterized British Columbian’s opposition to their pipelines and tankers. 

By Simon Nattrass, December 2012

Young people on the streets are often denied support by the very Ministry that’s supposed to help them.

In 2008, a conservative estimate by the Community Social Planning Council placed the number of homeless youth in the Greater Victoria region at 616. Educated guesses place that number higher today. The Council readily admits—and most service providers will confirm—that many homeless youth are not visible enough to provide an accurate count, meaning that youth on or near our city streets could number over a thousand. With only 69 reliable beds and a handful of shelter mats, many young people survive by sleeping on couches and staying with friends before seeking shelters and doorways. Unsurprisingly, a good number of them seek help from the Ministry of Children and Family Development at some point in their lives. 

Posted by David Broadland, November 15, 2012

Three researchers, including Focus writer Rob Wipond, say they are encouraged by the findings of Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham's investigation into Victoria Police Department's use of an Automatic License Plate Recognition system.

Following publication of two articles in Focus by Rob Wipond (see here and here), which included research assistance from Christopher Parsons and Kevin McArthur, Parsons presented a brief to BC Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham on the use of ALPR in BC. In late July Denham announced her office would investigate. Her findings were released November 15.

In response, Wipond, Parsons and McArthur released the following statement:

By Dr. Perry Kendall, November 2012

BC’s Provincial Officer of Health responds to last month’s Focus article.

I am writing in response to Alan Cassels’ article “Will a flu shot keep you healthy?” Science advances by asking tough questions and challenging accepted “truths.” It is thus essential to have skeptical thinkers like Alan Cassels, Dr Jim Wright and Dr Tom Jefferson active in the field. Our endeavours are all the richer for the questions and concerns they raise.

And I would like to assure your readers that in fact the issues raised by Alan and others are not new to those in public health who, like me, continue to support influenza vaccination as one of the more effective ways of preventing influenza. Nor have we ignored those issues or those criticisms. There are some very compelling reasons why we continue to promote influenza vaccination and I hope to make that case in the following paragraphs.

By Leslie Campbell, October 2012

Longtime Focus journalist is a finalist for 3 Jack Webster Awards.

Each year, the Jack Webster Foundation sends out notification by email to the three finalists in each of the 12 categories of Jack Webster Awards. When I saw the first one announcing Rob Wipond was a finalist in the Community Reporting category for two pieces he wrote on the RCMP’s and VicPD’s Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) programs, I wasn’t surprised. The stories, written earlier this year, garnered tremendous attention on our website from all over the planet. And after Rob, Christopher Parsons and Kevin McArthur took the research done for the story and presented it as a brief to Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, she launched an investigation into the way the program is operating here in Victoria. It was great that the Websters had noticed.

By Amanda Farrell Low, July/August 2012

Two Shakespearean comedies set in the 1920s and ’30s are staged in a Garry Oak meadow.

In some ways, it feels like the Victoria Shakespeare Society is coming full circle. Not only does this year’s Shakespeare in the Summer festival denote a decade of the current incarnation of the VSS putting on shows, but it also marks artistic director Michael Glover’s return to a role reminiscent of the one he took when first acting with the VSS in 2004. Back then, he played Don Adriano de Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost; this year, he’ll be performing as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.

“I got to play the fool and I get to play the fool again this year,” he quips. “It’s full circle for the fools.”

Posted by David Broadland, July 30, 2012

Three independent researchers are praising the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia (OIPC) for today's announcement that it is launching a review into the use of Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) in the province.

See OIPC release here:

For the past year, the researchers have been using access to informationlaws to investigate BC police ALPR programs, and have shared their findings through articles, presentations, and blogs."The Commissioner's decision to investigate and issue a public report is an important validation of the concerns we've been raising," said freelance journalist Rob Wipond. "Authorities have frequently represented the ALPR program to the public as having been 'reviewed and approved' by Canada’s privacy commissioners, but that's not true."

By Simon Nattrass, June 2012

Victoria is a great place. But who can afford to live here?

When Robin, 62, moved here in 1991, away from the noise and chaos of Vancouver, his rent was $410 per month for a small bachelor suite. For a few years his rent was stable, but in 2004, things quickly began to change when a letter arrived announcing an 8 percent increase—the first in a series of yearly increases. Since then, Robin’s rent has climbed 35 percent to rest at $555 per month.

For Robin, the first round of rent increases meant coming out of retirement and finding a full-time job just to make ends meet. Since then, a heart attack has forced him to shorten his work week. As a result, the next significant increase will leave him with little option other than moving out of the city or onto the street. 

By Rob Wipond, June 2012

Why we can no longer really know our own community.

I’d felt compelled to be present, to bear witness to this last stand. That’s why I’d attended a number of meetings alongside representatives from the Capital Regional District, municipalities of Victoria and Saanich, Camosun College, Vancouver Island Health Authority, and others helping bring together a report called Growing Prosperity in the Capital Region. 

By Craig Spence, June 2012

An unsolicited offer to buy City-owned land has highlighted the absence of guiding policies for land disposal in Victoria.

Perhaps the most important piece of real estate for the City of Victoria to identify as it considers policy around the sale of City-owned lands is the office at Number One Centennial Square where the whole process of land disposition and acquisition is supposed to be managed.

There’s a lot of interest in locating that sanctum after it was announced April 30 that the City would consider an offer by the Ralmax Group to purchase four parcels on Harbour Road (see map on page 20), just north of the Johnson Street Bridge. The land in question is currently home to several Ralmax-owned companies, including Point Hope Maritime, United Engineering, Island Plate and Steel, and Harjim Industries, as well as several other non-Ralmax businesses.

By Craig Spence, May 2012

The horrors of the residential school system come perilously close to genocide.

An individual apology might seem woefully inadequate in the face of gut-wrenching statements being gathered from “survivors” of Canada’s residential school system by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which met for two days at the Victoria Conference Centre in April.

But getting non-aboriginal Canadians to acknowledge the truth and apologize for it is one of the commission’s objectives. Giving survivors a chance to unburden themselves by telling their truth is another. 

So here’s my first step: As a Canadian, British Columbian and Victorian, I apologize to people of aboriginal decent for the horrendous damage inflicted on them by the residential school system, and for the institutionalized racism that characterized my nation’s historic policy of assimilation.

By Simon Nattrass, April 2012

Why are there hundreds of young people living on the streets of the CRD?

SINCE LEAVING HOME AT 13, Dianne* has divided her life between shelters, care homes, and the street. She’s 20 now, and has just left Holly House—a girl’s home run by Threshold Housing Society—for a detox facility. Dianne’s life will be unstable while her case worker looks for another supportive living space, but she says things have been worse—for a long time, her life revolved around her addiction. “I spent most of my time trying to score, most of my time using. Everything revolved around using and getting dope, using dope, being dopesick and trying to get un-dopesick and getting clean, relapsing and getting clean again. That was my life for a long time.” (*The young people in this story are real but we've changed their names to respect their privacy.) 

By Rob Wipond, April 2012

Ombudsperson, BCCLA and Greens criticize BC’s draconian laws.

I WAS READING THE CORONER'S REPORT on Kathleen Palamarek and something didn’t seem right. I’d been following her story since 2006. This was a diminutive, timid, 88-year-old nursing home resident with dementia and a heart condition, who’d been somewhat controversially diagnosed with dementia-related psychosis. She’d died of a heart attack. The coroner had found the antipsychotic olanzapine in her body. 

By Gordon O'Connor, March 2012

In its desire to keep streets safe, has the City spent too much on ineffective and discriminatory policing?

The majority of people in our community appreciate the role that police play in society. Excepting the frustration felt after being stopped for a speeding ticket, most adults have faith in and feel protected by police. Statistics Canada reports that 83 percent of Canadians have a high level of confidence in law enforcement agencies.

Recently, however, a number of reports from across the country have demonstrated that the opposite is true for people experiencing poverty or homelessness. This inspired the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) to investigate the relationship between Victoria’s street-involved people and its police department by interviewing over 100 members of Victoria’s street community. 

By Rob Wipond March 2012

Documents suggest BC Solicitors General and the RCMP have been misleading the public for years.

"THERE'S NOTHING, in my view, to be alarmed about,” said Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham. He was speaking at February’s Reboot Privacy and Security Conference in Victoria, to 200 privacy experts, academics, and government and corporate executives from around North America, including Alberta Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton and BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Graham was on a panel with Christopher Parsons, a UVic PhD candidate in political science and surveillance studies. Parsons was presenting findings from research done by him, me and tech expert and civil rights advocate Kevin McArthur into Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (findings first revealed in February’s Focus, “Hidden Surveillance”). 

By Briony Penn, February 2012

Stephen Harper’s government doesn’t want “socialist billionaires” messing with Canada’s resources unless they’re from China.

Why is the Canadian government behaving so bizarrely over the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline? That’s a hot topic as the pipeline hearings unfold. At the heart of the issue, many argue, is Canadian sovereignty over energy. As journalist and UVic lecturer Terry Glavin wrote in the National Post after the opening of the Enbridge hearings in old Kitimaat:

“If there were a global competition for the most brazen and preposterously transparent attempt by a ruling political party to change a necessary subject of national debate with alarmist distractions and hubbub, the Conservative escapade engineered in Ottawa these past few days really deserves some kind of grand prize.”

By Rob Wipond, January 2012

On January 31, a panel of local experts will talk about new ways to ensure your savings, RRSPs, and investment dollars help strengthen our community sustainability and resilience. We offer a preview of some of the ideas they’ll address.

During her presentation at the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria’s recent annual general meeting, economic development expert Nicole Chaland brought out a perspective-shifting number: $360 million. 

That’s how much Greater Victoria residents invested last year in Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs)—enough to effectively double last year’s growth in Greater Victoria’s entire gross domestic product. Yet instead of boosting our economy or helping improve our community, most of that enormous wealth of ours was simply drained away into globalized mutual funds.

By Ross Crockford, January 2012

What happened to the plans for commuter rail?

For a few hours in 2008 and 2009, residents got an idea of what it would be like to take a commuter train between Langford and Victoria. 

One Saturday in August, in both those years, Jim Sturgill ran a 70-passenger VIA Rail “Budd” car back and forth between Goldstream Avenue and the old CPR roundhouse in Vic West, as part of E&N Days, a summer celebration of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. “It worked very well,” says Sturgill, a veteran trainman who operated locomotives on the E&N for 30 years. During 2008’s one-day test, he made six round trips, taking about 25 minutes each way—a challenge for any car driver trying to reach the same destination by navigating the stop-and-go traffic on Douglas Street or Craigflower Road. 

By Rob Wipond, November 2011

Resistance to BC Hydro’s smart meters still seems strong, but it’s hard to tell who’s winning.

A BC Hydro rep gave a presentation at a recent meeting about energy conservation initiatives. Unbidden, he began by letting us know, “One thing we’re not going to discuss today is smart meters.” 

Since I was filling in for a friend and not there “as journalist,” I won’t disclose details. Suffice to say the meeting was filled with people very supportive of energy conservation.

When the BC Hydro rep inadvertently mentioned smart meters some minutes later, he interrupted himself: “Let’s not go there.” 

When his PowerPoint slide about smart meters popped up, he jumped to the next slide. He wasn’t even going to try to make the case for them to this knowledgeable group.

By Pete Rockwell, November 2011

Citizens unite against corporate greed and power.

Occupy Victoria joined in solidarity with 900 protests around the world. Starting a month ago on NYC’S Wall Street, the movement against continuing disenfranchisement of the “99%” at the hands of corporate/military/police power, generally summed up as “corporate greed,” has gone global.

Here in Victoria, about 1000 people showed up at Centennial Square, marched through Downtown to the Legislature for a rally, and returned to establish an “occupation” in the square—where some still remain.

By Rob Wipond, October 2011

Stantec makes off with the money in what looks like a nation-wide practice of producing copied-and-pasted assessments.

The year-long development of the Greater Victoria School District’s strategic facilities plan may have been an utter waste of time, resources and taxpayer dollars. And now, practically everyone involved is hoping and praying that’s exactly what it was—because the alternative would be much worse.

Either way, the consulting firm Stantec is plucking untold sums from school district coffers through what looks like a questionable BC-wide or even national practice.

“It’s about a billion-dollar corporation that appears to have taken advantage of the good will of a vulnerable school district that’s already stretched to its limits,” summarizes David Bratzer, a Victoria police constable who’s been following school issues and is running for a trustee position this fall. 

By Rob Wipond, September 2011

Smart meters won’t endanger health or privacy, and will conserve energy, reduce theft, and produce cost savings. Or so BC Hydro tells us. But is there a hidden agenda driving what may be a billion-dollar boondoggle?

One exchange at BC Hydro’s tense public meeting in Victoria in March was emblematic of the debates about smart meters. Asked about the health dangers of smart meters’ wireless electromagnetic fields (EMF), BC Hydro consultant Dr John Blatherwick explained they’d rarely be transmitting, anyway: “Those things will be [operating] for one minute [per day] on average, up to a maximum of three [minutes].”

BC Hydro has said the same, but coming from a former Vancouver chief medical officer, this reassurance carried weight.

By Ross Crockford, September 2011

Can a hallucinogenic tea help people overcome addictions?

This medicine changed my life,” says Gabrielle. “It changed the way I experience life, every single day, for the better.”

A slim, enthusiastic woman, Gabrielle tells me in her Cedar Hill apartment that she’s been living with chronic pain since 1993. For years she managed the pain with exercise, and focused on her job as a municipal administrative assistant. But in 2008, the pain got so bad that she could barely get out of bed. She tried conventional therapy without success, took disability leave, and became dependent on prescription morphine.

By Linda Rogers and Leslie Campbell, June 2011

A lawyer has launched a civil suit against the City and five police officers.

In his sunny home office in Cordova Bay, lawyer Rajinder Sahota admits “I always wanted to be a lawyer and fight for justice.” Growing up in Esquimalt, where he played hockey with cops from the police station across the street, he never imagined he’d one day be trying to right what he believes is an injustice done by police to him and two friends.

Yet his studies have certainly prepared him: After graduating from UVic with degrees in commerce and law, he received a Master of Laws degree from the London School of Economics where he focused his studies on international economic law, human rights, and the law on the use of force. 

By Yule Heibel, June 2011

Living over the store may seem quaintly old-fashioned, but it’s a direction that might keep downtown Victoria healthy.

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004 percent in favour of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7 percent compared to 1.1 percent for businesses. 

By Zoe Blunt and Mark Worthing, May 2011

When a 2009 rezoning application by Peninsula Co-op to convert several acres of farmland into a supermarket was opposed by candidates seeking election to the Co-op’s board, the Co-op acted in a way that an arbitrator later found was “unlawful.” Now, on the eve of a new election for a board of directors, Peninsula Co-op has filed a legal suit against seven people, including one of the candidates.

It’s a stormy spring for Peninsula Co-op, and two pivotal events this May will shape the future of the influential 56,000-member gas and grocery chain. On May 4, the Co-op’s rezoning application for a larger food store in Central Saanich goes to public hearing. And on May 25 comes a court-ordered board election that could turf out the pro-development majority.

By Will Horter, May 2011

The CRD should be able to enforce its own plan.

Nothing in the world is static. Biological forces such as natural selection and competition for scarce resources compel organisms to evolve, transform themselves, or potentially die out. The same is true for communities. 

There are major challenges on the horizon. The combination of global warming, the rising cost of fuel and food and the increasingly unstable global economy means our local governments are going to have to quickly restructure how we feed ourselves, house ourselves and transport ourselves.

By Rob Wipond, April 2011

A recent conference of municipal planners in Victoria revealed a surprising undercurrent of sustainability radicalism.

Fifteen minutes in, the discussion on “Engaging Your Community in Sustainability Initiatives” at a conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities took an unexpected turn. And suddenly, everyone became much more engaged. The Capital Regional District, currently trying to engage politicians and the public in its own Regional Sustainability Strategy (RSS), would do well to take note.

By Andrew MacLeod, April 2011

Concurrent provincial leadership races have given voters an unusually clear look at the parties’ core values.

In the March afternoon when Lieutenant Governor Steven Point swore in Christy Clark as premier of British Columbia, interim NDP leader Dawn Black observed, “Ms Clark never once mentioned the environment in her victory speech, nor today did she mention the environment.”

Nor for that matter had Clark said much about the environment throughout the campaign that saw her chosen leader of the BC Liberal Party, and thus premier of the province. Indeed, it was one of several key policy areas, including health and fighting poverty, that received scant attention.

There’s a reason she ignored those issues: she could. 

By Gene Miller, April 2011

Predictions and recommendations in light of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and near nuclear meltdown.

With a kid’s Christmas morning-like excitement, I woke at 4:30 one Saturday a couple of weeks ago in a fever of frightened anticipation about Japan’s efforts to cool the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and prevent a full-scale nuclear meltdown and the end of the world. That day, the New York Times carried an uncharitable story that Japanese authorities had now detected increased radiation levels in certain foods (milk and spinach, go figure), and a government spokesman, Mr. Edano, was quoted saying “these levels do not pose an immediate threat to your health,” adding that the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry would provide citizens with additional details.

by Rob Wipond, March 2011

Hearings on Wi-Fi in classrooms discover large differences in the level of trust of information about health impacts.

It’s not often CBC radio host Gregor Craigie’s soothing voice puts someone on the defensive. But Craigie said he’d heard from many people complaining about the Greater Victoria School District’s (GVSD) decision to appease protesters by holding hearings about the health dangers of Wi-Fi. Since all the science shows Wi-Fi is safe, Craigie posed to school board chair Tom Ferris, “They wonder why [such hearings] would even be considered.”

Eventually, the elected official gave up portraying GVSD’s “investigation” as much more than political flak-catching. “The thinking is that if people don’t have an opportunity to air their views and get some sort of response,” Ferris answered, “then it’s something that may go on and continue to worry parents.”

By Gordon O'Conner, February 2011

Proposals to extend municipal water services suggest the municipality is being primed for real estate development.

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By Rob Wipond, February 2011

Municipal engineers have a lot more power over city life and politics than most of us realize.

It’s an academic lecture about sidewalks. Could I have even dreamed up an event that sounded more inconsequentially mind-numbing? 

But on this cold, rainy, January night, the little Legacy Art Gallery and Café, as part of the University of Victoria’s “City Talks” lectures, has drawn nearly a hundred provincial and municipal bureaucrats, business owners, artists, developers, lawyers, students, urban gardeners, civil rights activists, anarchists... Why on Earth would all these people be so interested in sidewalks?

Within the hour the answer becomes clear, as Simon Fraser University’s Nicholas Blomley delivers a surprisingly riveting overview of the role of sidewalks in social control.

By Mollie Kaye, February 2011

For the women of Chicktoria, online dating sites provide hard evidence of real, live, single men, right here.

I have a vivid memory of the visceral reaction I had 16 years ago at the home of some friends. They’d just revealed to me and my then-husband how they’d met—through a personal ad! No way! We tittered about them as we drove home. We had met at a party given by a mutual friend. They were SWM and SWF. We saw them as pathetic outcasts whose union was tainted from the word “go.” What sort of desperation led people to use the personal ads to find a spouse? 

At that time, in 1995, the web was in its infancy, and I hadn’t yet heard of anyone meeting their better half online—but if I had, you can bet I would have been equally derisive.

by Andrew Macleod, January 2011

The recent shake-up in BC politics may give politicians more room to say what they think.

Premier Gordon Campbell stepped down as Liberal leader in early November as his caucus quietly prepared to push him out, only to be followed a month later by opposition leader Carole James succumbing to a much more public coup in the New Democratic Party.

Both parties are seeking new leaders, and those who want the job would do well to consider some of the criticisms levelled at Campbell and James about the roles of MLAs in the government and their parties.

by Alexandra Morton, January 2011

An update from the frontlines in the battle to protect wild salmon.

A paper on sea lice released in December suggests that salmon farms or feedlots don’t have to be removed from wild salmon migration routes. This is very favourable to the Norwegian feedlot owners and indeed these are the only scientists who have been given salmon feedlot sea lice infection data. Gary Marty, first author on the paper, uses the affiliation of the University of Davis California, which suggests impartiality. However, he is a veterinarian for the provincial government and works closely with salmon farmers. 

by Briony Penn, January 2011

First Nations lead the fight against Enbridge’s $5.5 billion Northern Gateway Project.

On December 7, all opposition parties in the House of Commons united to pass a motion requesting an immediate legislative ban on oil tanker traffic in Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. On December 14, a bill providing that legislation was tabled in the House of Commons.

By Zoe Blunt, December 2010

Developer Ender Ilkay’s latest scheme draws heavy fire.

At his presentation, Vancouver-based developer Ender Ilkay was calm and self-assured—until he got angry. Then the claws came out.

Ilkay and his company, Marine Trail Holdings, plan to develop seven parcels of forestland purchased from Western Forest Products—land that, until recently, was part of a publicly-managed Tree Farm License. In 2007, the province’s sudden decision to release 28,000 hectares of forestland from TFL status to WFP, without consultation or compensation, triggered a storm of controversy and court actions. Complications scuttled Ilkay’s earlier plans to develop two of the parcels.

by Andrew MacLeod, November 2010

The large number of candidates opposed to a new bridge may split the protest vote and give the Mayor’s choice the edge.

Of the 11 people competing for the single open seat on Victoria city council in the November 20 by-election, at least six would make fine councillors and will likely find significant support from voters.

Oddly though, the race is stacking up to favour the candidate who may be the most out of step with the public sentiment on what’s emerging as the key issue—what to do about the Johnson Street Bridge.

“I hope we don’t just talk about the bridge,” said candidate Marianne Alto, who cites social issues like housing, mental illness and addictions among her interests. “I hope we have an opportunity during the campaign to talk about a variety of issues.”

by Ross Crockford, October 2010

Voting “no” on the delusions and deceptions of Victoria’s bridge project.

Not long ago, while looking through old newspapers, I found an omen of what may happen with the City of Victoria’s plans to replace the Johnson Street Bridge.

It was an ad in the December 8, 1948, edition of the Victoria Daily Times, when the City was four years into construction of the Memorial Arena. Back in 1944, Victoria needed a new hockey rink, and the City decided a landmark arena would commemorate those fighting in World War II. Estimates came in at $215,000, so a citizens’ group raised funds for the project, and voters passed a bylaw to borrow the rest.

Then construction started, and things went sideways.