The war in Strathcona…

In a recent foray into the Main and Hastings corridor, an area known to this blogger for over 30 years, it was truly shocking to see the level of human desperation which continues to consume that area. What have we to show for the last decades of effort? Seemingly nothing. A whole community is under siege and burning before our very eyes. The area known as Strathcona is gradually being swallowed whole by an industrial level of drugs and the suffocating undercurrent of violence. Mental anguish and conflict layered on top of excruciating poverty.

This despite 30 years of a victim centric infrastructure which has been created, developed and now maintained by myriad levels of social workers, housing advocates, drug counsellors, medical staff, firefighters, police, sanitation workers and all those academics that like to “study” the problem. The advocates of all stripes have been continually moving in and out of these garbage strewn streets and alleyways, pausing long enough to relay their latest theory on how to correct this miasma of despair. Playing in the background, on some sort of victimization verbal loop, is the ever constant narrative of the “oppressed”, the “downtrodden” and the “unable to fend for themselves”.

It is scary place. It is depressing, but it is equally disgusting that in a country as bountiful as Canada, that this monument to everything that ails this society, stands in proud defiance.

Where has it all gone so wrong? Millions and millions of dollars expended in this apparent never-ending war on a drug fuelled mental health epidemic. It is a magnet which draws from all over the country. A bizarrely twisted tourist attraction, for all the wrong reasons. A place where even the hardened from other cities are truly taken aback at such a level of lawlessness and depravity.

Drastic and innovative action is clearly long overdue. Not innovation designed by the leftist victim advocating culture wing of our society, but by some with a modicum of common sense and where individual responsibility becomes part of the solution.

But the very first step, desperately needed and absolutely essential, is an honest managerial and expenditure review. A macro look over decades of funds and governmental decisions. A far reaching and inclusive appraisal of what has been spent and the effectiveness of those expenditures and the managers who have been overseeing the policies and processes for years.

The Washington Post recently unveiled a sweeping story sourced by thousands of pages of information which looked at the true cost of the war in Afghanistan. One can not help but be taken by the many parallels to what seems to be a similar story about the the war zone at Hastings and Main.

What the Washington Post and others found was that the war and the efforts of the Americans and the many other countries, including Canada, in Afghanistan has proven to be not just a failure, but a failure of epic proportions. It’s worth looking at their findings.

It was in 2001 that President George Bush announced the first military action in Afghanistan with the goal to disrupt terrorist operations and attack the Taliban. Today, eighteen years later, the Taliban control much of the country and are killing Afghan security force members sometimes in the hundreds per week. Even though the leadership of the Taliban moved to Pakistan, they have now expanded into Yemen, northern Africa, Somalia and Syrian.

Over $10 billion was spent on counternarcotics. Despite this, Afghanistan remains the source of over 80% of the global supply of heroin. Before the war the Afghanistan government had almost completely eradicated opium when the actual Taliban were in power. Opium production has now quadrupled.

They spent $87 billion to train Afghan military and police forces yet today no one believes that the Afghan military could support themselves. The army is continually fighting desertion and casualties making them replace over a third of their Forces every year.

War related spending has doubled the size of the Afghan economy but the current rate of unemployment is 25%. Corruption in all its forms still runs rampant.

$30 billion was spent on infrastructure and reconstruction. Most of that money has been considered “wasted”. The Inspector General documented over $15.5 billion lost to fraud and abuse between 2008 and 2017.

$500 billion on interest to finance the war spending, as all the monies have been borrowed which will take years to pay.

Over $1.4 trillion will be spent on veterans that fought in post 9/11 wars by 2059. About $350 billion has already gone to medical and disability care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are estimating the total spending bill for the medical problems, over the next 40 years, to amount to another $1trillion.

Afghanistan remains one of the largest sources of refugees and immigrants.

What has this got to do with all of us? It demonstrates the problem when incremental spending and single narratives are accepted as gospel and when the problem is allowed to fester year after year. It demonstrates the need for a great big spotlight to be shone on this smaller version of Afghanistan. Not a study by an interest group that continually circles the DTES, but an independent study, independent of all who have been part of the thirty years of problems.

The usual self-described experts always avail themselves to the cameras and microphones, to riff or to lecture the rest of us on what they believe is the cause of the problems. They have no shortage of people to blame, but that blame seems to stop short of any introspection.

The Libby Davies or Jenny Kwans, or the Pivot Legal Society do not need to be consulted in this proposed study. Their versions are already clear and predictable. They are always pointing to some level of government not providing “more”. The money being demanded is an endless request which re-invents itself with another justification, in one form or other, for the next year.

Money clearly is the common cure all whether you are asking the firefighters or the housing advocates.

Each agency demands annual funding, taking credit for successes which go unchallenged or doesn’t seem to reflect the reality.

There have been studies and counter-studies over this continuum. The studies, like the DTES many services often operate in silos and not always in a singular approach.

Donald McPherson, is a typical example. The former drug policy co-ordinator for the city of Vancouver (who now heads another Drug Policy Coalition) talks about the 10 year plan outlined in the Vancouver Agreement in 2000. It was designed to improve housing and social welfare. He blames the collapse on the Harper government.

Mr. McPherson in this proposed future study should also be ignored.

Governments themselves have come and gone, each offering up their particular version of what is needed. Liberals and NDP equally share responsibility for these disastrous results. None of them take the time to look in the mirror.

On one side of the ledger, groups like the BC Centre for Disease Control takes credit for saving 3000 lives between April 2016 and December 2017.

On the other side of that account is that 2177 people also died in this Province during this time.

There is no shortage of positive spin.

Twenty-three operating supervised injection sites claim to have saved 230 deaths. The overall goal of these sites is to decrease “needle sharing”. Their “observational studies” dutifully report favourable results. Their evidence is that fewer people are “injecting in public”. Anybody walking down Hastings may disagree.

The annual operating cost for the injection sites alone is $ 2,948,101.

The injection sites define “saving lives” and count those that have been treated by “agonist treatment” or “opioid replacement” treatment where the people get put on a methadone program.

Meanwhile those running the Needle Exchange program say that Insite is exaggerating the numbers.

In 2017, 60,000 naloxone kits were distributed. At roughly $70 apiece that works out to about $4.2 million this year just on the kits.

Health officials claim that through their services that they have saved “hundreds of lives” but the numbers often vary according to the individual study quoted. The dearth of agreed upon results and the fact that there is a lot of self-reporting remains one of the major roadblocks to any comprehensive study.

But the fail safe fallback to any counter-argument is the oft quoted maxim that “even one life saved” means that their programs can be deemed a “success”.

On the negative side of the ledger.

Calls to Oppenheimer Park in 2019 for the Vancouver City Police have increased over 50%. Shots fired calls have increased over 800%, weapons calls have increased 300% and assaults in progress are up over 17%.

Vancouver City police estimate the policing costs for Oppenheimer park encampment are over a million dollars so far this year. That is for an encampment of about 100 people in amongst the 2700 estimated homeless in the area.

Meanwhile the BC Centre for Substance Abuse and the University of British Columbia in a recent study argued that the police need to stop policing the DTES because it leads to drug users fearing the police, intimidated, and being harassed by the police.

How did they come to this conclusion: they interviewed 72 persons in the DTES and spent 200 hours hanging around overdose prevention sites. They feel police shouldn’t be checking for drugs, or running persons for warrants and such minimal breaches of the law.

What is not answered is how do they propose that we “de-criminalize” if the people are still doing criminal acts?

In the last five years the number of break-ins to vehicles has doubled to 6538 incidents in the Strathcona area alone.

Vancouver City Police records show in 2018 there were 666 assaults and 68 robberies in the Strathcona area.

In the single month of June 2019 in this small geographic area there were 70 assaults, 106 thefts from vehicles, 11 robberies and 31 break-ins to businesses and residences.

To add insult to injury the number of homeless has increased from 2181 people last year to 2223 this year.

Like the war in Afghanistan over 18 years have now gone by since Mr. McPherson’s study in 2000.

Does anyone doubt that during this time there have been misuses of funds, fraud and corruption? Does anyone believe that governments are providing a full accounting of the costs?

Maybe, just maybe, government spending for more counsellors, housing or drugs is not the answer.

Maybe, it is unjustifiable, or maybe an alternative to a policy of more of the same is out there somewhere.

However, it is difficult to contemplate any alternative which does not include forced rehabilitation; or removal from the core (sorry Pivot Legal Society).

The only way to honestly answer is to see the entire package of funds and resources which have been expended over the many years; the layers of government action and in-action; the levels of bureaucracy; the levels of private industry and the number of social housing models which have been proposed and tried over the decades.

The results may be shocking, but nothing less than a Royal Commission level of study is needed. Just as importantly, it must all be seen by a fresh set of eyes–eyes from outside the DTES, eyes with no vested interest in the promulgation of the current norm.

The first thing is the most difficult admission, especially for those that have toiled under the most trying of circumstances with the best of intentions, is the admission that as of today, it has all been a massive failure. On a small scale, this may be our Afghanistan.

*All crime statistics are from the Vancouver City Police records, as reported by the Vancouver Courier.

Photo courtesy of Dan Toulget of the Vancouver Courier – Some Rights Reserved

The Politics of “First Responders”

In March 2017, there was a blog on this site which posed the question as to whether it was time to cut back on Fire Services, who despite a diminishing need for their services,  were in fact expanding in terms of manpower, equipment, and general presence.

The self-justifications for the fire services expansion all hinged on their incursion into medical calls, fanned by the publicity burning opioid crisis. It was the continuing perpetuation of the somewhat mythical life saver dynamic, they being the foremost and therefore indispensable “first responders” that made up the Group of Three.

What stirred this pot which highlighted the decreasing need, was the review in Ontario of the Fraser Research Report, which reviewed Fire Services in Ontario for the period of 1997-2012.  It discovered that during this time period in Ontario the number of firefighters increased by 36.3% while fires (including autos) had decreased in the same period by 41.4%.  In British Columbia in this same time period the number of firefighters had increased by 43.8%.

The hourly wages for firefighters followed suit, in Ontario, their wages went up 47.8% in this same time period, whereas price levels only increased by 34.6%.

All of this growth in both wages and infrastructure, while at the same time there has been a phenomenal decline in the need for “fire” services. There are some estimates that say as little as 5% of the fire department calls now relate to actual fires.

Clearly, this should call for most persons aware of ever dwindling municipal budgets and ever increasing tax levels, that maybe one could do away with some of the equipment, halls and personnel involved in firefighting. Although Ontario did cut back some of their services, most areas including British Columbia seem oblivious to the seemingly obvious.

So how is it that governments, municipal counsels, and the governing bodies seem to have missed this obvious decline in the need for fire services?  In searching for explanations one finds a masterful blend of self-promotion, coupled with an outright expansion of their roles outside of their intended mandate, which this blog covered previously.

Now it would seem that we need to add another component, a political component.

But we need to review how we got this new level.

With subtle flourish even the modern day lexicon has been transformed. No longer, police, fire and ambulance. Now, all are “first responders”.  Their’s is the only one group who has a vested interest as being on par with the others, both in terms of how they are viewed, how they are paid, and the significance of the role they play.

To their credit the firefighters early on figured out that they needed to expand their roles, they need to aggressively move into other mandates, areas where they were not before. In terms of mandate, of course the only place for them to go was to cross-over into the ambulance and police services.

They even made the subtle name change from Fire Department, to Fire and Rescue Services as they jumped headlong into car accidents and medical calls and they have been remarkably successful. They point out in somewhat boastful tones that they estimate 70% of their calls are now medical, as they “rescue” opioid overdoses, or respond to heart attacks. This is true, even though they do not and can not provide the same level of service as the paramedics.

Even their “rescue” capabilities, has become more specialized, now under the umbrella of “Technical rescue”.  ‘Auto extraction’, marine, or bridge rescue components are now separate tranches, in an attempt to be more expansive and all inclusive.  They have also  become, through little debate, the Hazardous Material experts.

Why? Their very employment and infrastructure survival depends on a sleight of hand, the general public needs to believe that they are the “first responders” of record. They need to convince you that they are the white hats, always there, always the first on scene. They are the life savers which we can not do without.

In B.C. there was a recent budget increase for paramedics of $31million.

The firefighters had the audacity to actually complain that it had cut into their calls for service. They justified their complaint saying that they were often first and more capable of getting to a scene “quicker”. The argument of getting there first by the way, is a constantly repeated theme. The obvious counter argument would be if there were more paramedics on the road, people more qualified, than their ability to get there first becomes moot.

The fire departments are unflagging in their efforts. Vancouver Fire Department and “Rescue Services” prior to the municipal elections were asking for an additional 21 fire personnel. They justify this of course on the need  to respond to 6200 opioid calls.

All of the above has been obvious for quite some time but what caught one’s eye during these same elections in the Lower Mainland was a somewhat new twist. It would appear that the firefighters are now honing their political voice, enhancing their political efforts, and are now becoming an active political force, a true definition of a self-interest group.

No more was this more obvious than in the City of  Burnaby, who have now elected an independent mayor, a former firefighter, Mike Hurley in an upset victory over Derek Corrigan.

Burnaby is an interesting case study.

All 281 firefighters in Burnaby belong to the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 323.

If one visits their website, they make no mistake as to what they believe: “When it comes to Political Action, we support those that support us” – May 17, 2014.

It is equally clear from their website that the building block from which any political action will flow is the charities. Golf tournaments, city fairs, parades, and charitable balls dominate their photos and exclamations of fealty to the community.

In recent years the Burnaby firefighters came into the news on a couple of occasions, one when Burnaby firefighter Nick Elmes and a couple of others formed the Florian Knights, who met with and were sanctioned to wear their “colours” by the Hells Angels. They used to ride to work showing their “colours” before management stepped in.

Then there was Bryan Kirk, a 36 year firefighter who decided to retire after being confronted on his support of “Camp Cloud” which was the campsite put up by Indigenous protestors at the site of the Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby. The camp was eventually taken down, via court injunction by the Burnaby RCMP, but Kirk supported the protestors and went on record saying “I’m more inclined to put out the Olympic torch then put out a First Nation ceremonial fire”.  (Newly elected Hurley is also on record, aligning with Kirk, saying that he supports no pipeline.)

As one watched the celebrations at the Hurley election campaign, which was held at the Firefighters Public House in Burnaby, where a smiling Hurley was surrounded by Firefighters in similar styled t-shirts as they celebrated one of their own being elected. One could guess that a serious look at the monies being spent on the firefighters in a time when municipal budgets are under crises will not occur in Burnaby, at least while under the faithful guidance of Mr. Hurley.

This was not the only example.

In Langley the Langley Township Fire Department IAFF Local 4550 were out endorsing certain candidates.

In Surrey, the Surrey Firefighters endorsed Tom Gill for mayor (who lost to McCallum). Already on counsel in Surrey was the former firefighter Mike Starchuk, who was a firefighter for 32 years, and still headed up one of their Charitable foundations.

In 2014 Surrey First party raised $1.7 million in support of Linda Hepner– one of the biggest donors, if not the biggest were the Surrey Firefighters who donated $32, 564. 01.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that other “first responders” have become active in politics. Former police officers have taken roles as counsellors on various cities and townships, and one ex-RCMP member is now mayor of Pitt Meadows.

But this firefighter involvement seems different. It seems more organized, more overt, with an exposed agenda. A concerted effort to get their candidate elected.

Many will argue that they are members of the public, they too therefore have a right to get involved in the politics of the day. That is true and there are special interest groups who put forward candidates, and organize to support those candidates. But this seems somehow different.

One needs to ask, do fire, police and medical personnel hold a special role in our society? Clearly their mandates enter into our lives in different ways than other members of the general public. Are they in a position of undue influence? Do they have access to the media which is not available on a regular basis to the members of the general public?  Should or could it be perceived that there is a political component to the service provided by “first responders”? Police are held back from overt political support by a pressing need to be neutral in terms of the laws and its applications. Should medical and fire service be bound by any kind of neutrality?

It is the slippery slope of mixing politics with your role, especially one that is specifically mandated to serve the public. One should be equally alarmed at the Chiefs of Police supporting a particular party, or ambulance attendants supporting a particular pro-union politician.

One can not help but feel that the firefighter new found interest in municipal politics is also being influenced by the need to get a friendly face on the inside. One who will not question the need for greater and greater expansion, who will not look at the statistics, one who will not worry about unneeded financial expenditures. Is there a faint taint on the Burnaby election?

Maybe we need to go back to “police, fire or ambulance?” which is the first question still asked by 911 operators. Maybe the three services should be examined as separate entities, both in terms of budget and mandate, not as a single group of “first responders”. Taxpayers need to pay attention.

But hey, it’s the Xmas season, and the firefighters are busy setting up the Bright Nights Xmas Train in Stanley Park, where a portion of the proceeds goes to the BC Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund. The media will be fawning over the children and the sponsoring firefighters on every news channel and after all who could argue with the cause. It’s brilliant and not just because of the 3,000 lights.

It used to be beefcake calendars, it’s much more subtle now, but the impression remains the same.

Photo Courtesy of  Pete at Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved