Opinion: Red tape to duct tape

Red tape to duct tape

When Premier John Horgan was sworn in as B.C.'s 36th premier in 2017, he could have chosen to keep the Ministry of Red Tape Reduction around, at least for old time's sake.

He would even have been forgiven if he had given it a more fitting name – at least in light of the aftermath to many of the former ministry's decisions – the Ministry of Duct Tape Application.

Once again – this time with the Covid-19 pandemic – British Columbians are left to peel off another strip of the wonder tape hoping to hold things together while trying to watch Red Green instructional videos.

Rallying party militants, finessing campaign applause lines, chasing awards from groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the two former premiers – Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark – lost sight of a simple rule: for every government decision, there are consequences.

B.C. hasn't been immune to some of those consequences either, as the two machete-toting ex-premiers went about slashing government oversight.

Back in the day, former B.C. energy and mines minister Bill Bennett had an incredible knack for finding a baseline to contrast a new policy or event against that somehow always made the government shine.

Bennett pulled out all the tricks from his spin bag with the Mount Polley mine disaster.

As David P. Ball reported in The Tyee: Bennett insisted that provincial mine inspections are “as frequent today as they were five years ago (2009).”

“However, scan back a bit further to 2001 when the B.C. Liberals took office and questions emerge about why Bennett chose 2009 as his starting point.

In 2001 there were nearly double the number of mine inspections: 2,021. The year after, the number dropped to 1,496 – nearly 30 per cent more than 2012 – before reaching a 2004 decade low of 399 visits.”

Even with a weak regulatory system in place, the decisions of regulators can still play second fiddle to the whims of politicians.

Here's how Ezra Black of the Crowsnest Pass Herald reported former B.C. Auditor General's Carol Bellringer audit of compliance and enforcement of the mining sector: “...the Ministry of Environment denied a permit for the expansion of Teck Resources's Line Creek mine in the Elk Valley but it was later approved anyway by Cabinet. It was the first time Cabinet used its authority to approve such an expansion, said Bellringer.

Despite the health and environmental risks that the mine expansion poses, Bellringer’s report concludes: “The ministry has not disclosed these risks to legislators and the public.”

Three years after Bellringer's report, “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is (still) demanding the provincial government hand over data explaining why Teck Resources coal mines in southern B.C. are being allowed to exceed guidelines for a toxic heavy metal.”

In special prosecutor David Butcher's anything but “clear statement” on possible prohibited donations to B.C. political parties by lobbyists, he noted: “police had difficulty gathering “evidence of criminality because there were structural flaws in regulatory accounting systems.”

The Horgan government doesn't get off scot free on this one either. While there have been 'show trial style' fines levied at Site C by WorkSafeBC, there have also been far too many instances where inspectors have turned the other cheek. Stern warnings were the order of the day.

Too much advice on regulatory affairs in B.C. has come from ideologues and industry insiders, instead of those whose expertise is actually in the field to be regulated.

Industry executives have move effortlessly between posts in government and their former executive office, cooling-off periods be damned.

In a recent interview with Justine Hunter of the Globe and Mail, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie put it well, as she described her sentiments with these approaches to government oversight particularly as they apply to for-profit long term care facilities in the province.

“One of the frustrations I’ve had is that the health authorities and the ministry keep talking about ‘our partners.’ We’re not partners. We’re regulators. We are using public dollars to contract with somebody to deliver a public service. They are not equal partners at the table, their interests are not equal to our interests. Our interests are the public interest, and that needs to take precedence.”

It's not just terminology, though. The government dropped the ball in far too many areas of long term care. Now we have a chance to put it right.

That's a story for another day.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

No, going to a restaurant will not invade your privacy

Dining out is a privilege

After Dr. Bonnie Henry eased restrictions on restaurants in B.C. this week, citizens all across the province debated whether the terms of the order allowing restaurants to reopen were too restrictive. 

And while there were some legitimate points being made, most of the debate was, frankly, absolute nonsense. 

Dr. Henry’s order sets out the following restrictions on restaurants that choose to reopen at this point in time: 

  • Patrons not in the same party must be able to remain at least two meters apart from any other patrons; 
  • Tables and chairs must be arranged to keep a two-meter distance between each party; 
  • No more than six people are permitted to be seated at the same table; 
  • The restaurants must operate at only 50% of their ordinary capacity; 
  • No events are permitted where more than 50 people are in attendance; and
  • The restaurant must maintain contact information for at least one person in the party, in the event it is needed for contact tracing. 

The aspect of the order that appears to be causing the most consternation is the provision requiring contact information to be collected by the restaurant. People believe that this is a violation of their privacy rights, as they do not want their contact information to be collected and turned over to the government. 

There is no merit to those concerns. 

First of all, it is only in rare circumstances in which the contact information would be provided to government. The contact information is not automatically provided to the Provincial Health Officer’s office; rather, it is collected and retained in the event that the Health Officer contacts the restaurant when investigating an outbreak. This means if you are exposed to COVID-19 while at the restaurant, the contact information is used to notify you so that you can be tested and those that you have been in contact with can be notified. 

Essentially, it is to protect you from getting sick and from spreading the disease to others. 

And the information that is collected is not information the government does not already have access to in a public health emergency. For example, recently if you took a flight and were seated in an affected seat, airlines turned over your information to the Provincial Health Officer to contact you and notify you about possible exposure. 

The idea that people would be up in arms about government having one piece of contact information for them is also absurd. One can only assume that these same individuals do not have driver’s licenses - which require you to provide contact information to government - or BC Services Cards - also which require contact information - or purchase car insurance, which requires you to provide both an address and telephone number to, you guessed it, a government agency. 

In short, you are not providing the government with information they do not already have. You’re simply providing a restaurant with information that allows the government to notify you if it is in the interest of your health and safety. 

And while some may complain that they government shouldn’t know where you choose to dine, you do provide this type of information to government every single year. If you’ve ever written off a meal as a business expense on your taxes, you’ve given the government your contact information and information about restaurants that you visit. 

Finally, the complaint that the restaurant will have contact information is also meritless. The information is collected pursuant to obligations under a Public Health Order. The provisions of the Public Health Act prohibit disclosure of the information except as required for a public health purpose. 

That means no spam texts, no phone calls for marketing, and no mailing list signups with special offers and menu items. The information can and will only be used for the purposes of protecting public health.  

Let’s not forget: dining out is a privilege, not a right. 

And complaining that you have to hand over a little bit of information to exercise that privilege is in itself a complaint that is coming from a position of privilege. For the sake of public health, either check your privilege or eat at home. 

Kyla Lee is a lawyer with Acumen Law Corp. in Vancouver

May 15 is Endangered Species Day

Our species to save

Endangered species day was established 15 years ago.  It is a day for us to learn about the wildlife, plants, animals and insects that are at risk of disappearing and perhaps most importantly, what we can do about it.

Every nation has a unique role in saving our planet’s endangered species. As Canadians it’s important that we know about the plight and prospects of wildlife from around the world.  But it is most critical that Canadians know about the fellow species that share our lands and waters. These are the plants and animals that we steward and can take action to protect. Our decisions alone will determine their future.

We share our country with about 80,000 known wild species. We don’t know the exact number, and more remain to be described and discovered. Many of these plants and animals are common and thriving. Species like raccoon, mallard and Labrador-tea are not endangered, and have a low risk of ever being lost from Canada.

There is an important group in our Canadian collection of known plants and animals that are at risk of disappearing. Canada has about 800 species, sub-species and varieties of wildlife that have been officially assessed as at risk, but this probably represents less than a quarter of all plants and animals that are imperiled in our country. Without conservation actions, these species could join Canada’s “missing” species such as the greater prairie chicken, eastern box turtle and great laurel.

Within this group of nationally imperiled species are about 1,600 plants and animals that are also of global conservation concern. Many of these have very small ranges like the Bicknell’s thrush of Quebec, Atlantic Canada and the northeastern US, or the sand-verbena moth that is limited to a handful of sites of coastal sites in Washington and BC including the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s James Island. In most cases, we share the stewardship of these species with other nations, primarily our American neighbors.

Nationally and globally imperiled species are critical to conserve.  We can help by protecting key wetlands, forests, coastal areas and grasslands by supporting the work of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other land trusts. These projects leverage matching funds from the federal Natural Heritage Conservation Program.

There is also a select group of wildlife that are worth learning about. About 310 plants and animals live in Canada and nowhere else in the world. These range from a unique variety of the weasel-like marten that only lives on the island of Newfoundland to a small fish called the Vancouver lamprey that is restricted to Vancouver Island to a delicate wildflower that grows along the arctic coast called hairy braya that was rediscovered based on notes from the Franklin expedition. Most of the species in this select group have always been restricted to this geography we now call Canada. A few like the eastern wolf, have been lost from their former range in the US and their last stronghold against extinction is in Canada.

These are uniquely Canadian species. No other country can protect them. Later this spring, NatureServe Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada will be releasing a report and some maps on this select group of all-Canadian wildlife. If we want to pass on the full richness of the world’s wildlife to future generations, we need to protect these species.

We can use this time of social distancing to nudge closer to nature. To learn a little more about even just one of our endangered species in Canada. Learning is the foundation of conservation. Knowing what other species share our community and our country. Learning why they might disappear. Learning what can be done to save them.

Dan Kraus is senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada

Our B.C. testing strategy for COVID-19: adapting to our pandemic

What's next in virus testing

Testing for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases is a core tenet of public health.

It tells us the what, who and where of disease transmission, but we need to understand the limitations of testing to do this right.

Many have asked and many continue to ask about who is getting tested for COVID-19 in B.C. and why we don't just "test, test, test everyone." What I can tell you is we adapted our testing approach as we learned more about the virus and the test, and as more tests became available, and we will continue to adapt as we progress through our pandemic response.

Scientists at the BC Centre for Disease Control were some of the first in the world to develop a COVID-19 test - the "what" in our testing strategy. This test detects the genetic material of the virus in a sample (usually a swab taken from the back of the nose) from someone who is sick. It is used across Canada and around the world to determine if someone is infected.

Initially, B.C.'s testing strategy was based on identifying the source of transmission to understand who was getting and spreading the virus to guide our response.

That's why we first focused on returning travellers, in combination with leveraging our annual active influenza surveillance testing. This allowed us to put in place the necessary precautions, orders and restrictions we have today.

As the pandemic progressed in B.C. and we had evidence of community transmission, we adapted our testing strategy to focus on those most vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19.

We did this because we knew the "where" of transmission was now potentially "everywhere." We also knew that many people with mild illness don't need tests and can safely self-isolate and recover at home.

So, we concentrated on the sickest patients, health-care workers, those in long-term care homes and those connected to an outbreak. This gave us an understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on hospitals and care homes.

Of course, testing is not the only public health strategy. Step in step with testing is the contact tracing that our public health teams always do and will continue to do as we transition to Phase 2 in BC's Restart Plan. This is vital to setting up a firewall around every case and breaking the chains of transmission.

As our rate of new cases slowed into mid-April, we adapted our strategy again to broader community testing. This means anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 can now be tested.

It's still important to remember not everybody needs a test and the tests we have are not perfect. If someone tests negative, it may mean they are too early in the illness for the test to detect it yet - a false negative.

When we have a small number of people who actually have COVID-19 in the population, the number of false positives can also be very high. That means we are telling people they are infected and maybe immune to COVID-19 when they aren't.

What's next? Soon we will introduce a "serology" test that can tell us if someone has been infected with COVID-19 in the past and has developed antibodies to the virus. Once the serology test has been validated for accuracy, the test results will be used to get a better sense of where the virus has been and how to further prevent its spread as we move into the next phase of our pandemic.

Understanding the limitations of the tests, our strategy has never been about just testing everyone, but rather using the tests we have to understand who is or has been infected, so we can best protect our families, health-care system and communities.

Our strategy is working, even as we develop it further to meet our evolving needs. It is adapted to our pandemic experience that is helping all of us to hold the line and get through this storm. It will continue to support us as we move through the next phases of this challenging pandemic.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer

Opinion: In mid-lockdown, Mother's Day is on you, Dad

Mother's Day is on you, Dad

Good morning, Dads. You’re in trouble. You forgot which Sunday it is, didn’t you? Normally this wouldn’t be that big a deal, because your kids would have come home with a carefully crafted card in the backpack.

Alas, these are not normal times, as we have been told non-stop for the past two months. You can’t count on your children’s school to cover your butt on Mother’s Day this year, Dad.

That means no vases made from mason jars. No popsicle-stick napkin holders. No coffee cup with the words World’s Best Mom spelled out in glued-on glitter that you’ll be vacuuming out of the carpet and/or dog for the next six months.

Mother’s Day is all up to you, Pa. That’s pa as in pandemic. Or panic.

Breakfast in bed? Too late. Unless you’re already buttering the bread, you’re toast. Go to the grocery store now and you’ll spend 20 minutes staring at the back of another dad’s head, six feet away, in what looks like the men’s room lineup at a Royals game.

Can’t take her out for brunch, either, not this year. Some restaurants are doing delivery — phone now, your eggs benny and mimosas might arrive by Wednesday.

Take her to a movie? No. Concert? No. Ballet? Hell no. Mother’s Day Paint-in at Royal Roads? Not this year, for the first time in a quarter century.

Maybe a gift, something rare and cherished: toilet paper, or hand sanitizer, or baking supplies (“Say it with flours”).

Maybe you should just whip up your own card with a COVID-themed message from you and the children:

• “Be calm, be safe, be kind of nice if you were to make bacon and eggs for breakfast.”

• “If they rammed a Q-tip up my nose to check our love for you, it would test positive.”

• “To help flatten your curves, we got you an exercise bike. But not a Peloton. They’re expensive.”

You could always absolve yourself of all responsibility by airily declaring “You’re not MY mother” — a wholly accurate, logical argument — but this approach might prove to be less persuasive than it is suicidal.

For here’s the deal: This has been a tough year to be a mother. Women who might once have debated the relative merits of full-time employment versus being a stay-at-home mom have discovered that — surprise! — they get to do both at the same time.

Cue the tears of joy. Great, heaving sobs of joy.

Some mothers not only get to juggle full-time parenting with full-time careers, they get to be part-time teachers, too. Teachers of subjects they thought they had left behind with their orthodontic devices and Backstreet Boys posters. Great, why not bring back zits, too?

Parents who couldn’t figure out the tip on a $2 coffee now find themselves wrestling with questions like: “If two trains 300 kilometres apart are travelling toward each other, one with a constant speed of 70 km/h and the other 50 km/h, how long will it take them to meet?”

The answer, of course, is: “Ask your mother.”

This last bit reflects another reality: The lockdown workload is not being shared equally. A survey done for the New York Times this week indicated the burden of homeschooling children during the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on mothers — though fathers don’t necessarily view it that way. The study found that while almost half of fathers with children under age 12 report spending more time teaching the kids than their partners do, just three per cent of mothers say their spouse is doing more of the educating. Eighty per cent of mothers say it is they who do more of the tutoring.

When the same couples were asked who does the most cooking and cleaning during the lockdown, 31 per cent of men said they do, while 82 per cent of women saw themselves as doing the lion’s share. (Or, rather, the lioness’s share, since it’s the females who do the majority of the hard work hunting while Simba lolls on the couch in the savannah, drinking beer and watching Sportsnet.)

The Times isn’t the only one noting this gap. Britain’s Guardian ran a piece headlined “Women’s domestic burden just got heavier with the coronavirus,” while the Washington Post wrote “Moms will inevitably shoulder extra domestic work during this pandemic.” (Fox News weighed in with “Praying mantis eats murder hornet in frightening video.”) Apparently this subject isn’t all that funny after all.

BTW, for those wondering about the train question, the answer is 2 1Ú2 hours. No word on whether Mom spent the time in the bar car.

Jack Knox is a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist

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