Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

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An Unfortunate Love Affair

Hockey. Maple syrup. Freedom. Nature’s beauty. Whining about the weather. There are so many things Canadians love. And then there’s the thing we love the most. It’s a little something called debt. We’re positively enamoured of the stuff, just can’t get enough and savour it so much we just keep adding more.

According to a recent Maclean’s magazine article by columnist Jason Kirby entitled Canada’s Fatal Attraction to Debt, our total household debt jumped from $360 billion in 1990 to over $1.7 trillion last year, a staggering increase.

What’s causing our insatiable passion for credit? It’s easy to point the finger in several directions but, honestly, there’s one overwhelming cause: low interest rates. Looking at a graph accompanying Kirby’s article, it’s amazing how closely a rise in household debt to disposable income has mirrored a similar decrease in five-year mortgage rates since 1990.

It’s absolutely undeniable that low interest rates have led to a feeding frenzy of increased debt. Kirby says it’s like watching a movie called How Canadians stopped worrying and learned to love the debt bomb.

Despite warning after warning that interest rates are bound to rise sometime soon, most of us have grown immune to such predictions. After all, the rates have been virtually locked at historic lows for so many years, anyone who forecasts an increase is generally dismissed. As Kirby says, “We’re pretty much at the point now where it’s just accepted interest rates will stay low.”

But, betting that will happen and, consequently, that we’ll all be enjoying what Kirby calls “essentially free money” for years to come is a dangerous risk.

The columnist gives a generic example of a young couple earning $100,000 and wanting to purchase a home with a 25-year mortgage. Using the accepted guideline of not devoting more than 32 percent of your income to housing costs, the couple would have been eligible to borrow $200,000 in the days of 10 percent mortgage rates, which, although it may seem hard to imagine for some, was roughly the average rate over the last 40 years.

Instead, with rates today hovering around three percent, that same couple would now be able to borrow $300,000, 50% more than in the past. If they did, they’d be paying roughly $1,420 a month. However, should rates increase to that historic 10 percent mark, their monthly payments would balloon to something like $2,700. If you’re a new homeowner, try to imagine how that would affect your life.

And, of course, the same holds true for everything we buy. As Kirby points out, “An era of low rates has desensitized borrowers to the risks inherent in carrying too much debt. A whole generation of young Canadians has come of age in an era when no bungalow, renovated kitchen cabinets or TV is ever truly out of reach.”

There’s little doubt that the entire world’s economy is one giant house of cards. It wasn’t too long before the recession hit in late 2007 that many countries, including the U.S. and most of Europe, were considered to have booming economies that, ostensibly, showed no signs of collapse. Then BOOM!

For a few short years, there were some tough reality checks where credit dried up, houses were repossessed and much of Europe was revealed to be a virtual economic sinkhole. Then things started turning around again and – voila – people returned to their same old ways.

In Canada, due to a highly regulated banking industry and some relatively prudent government schemes, we were spared the worst of the recession’s woes and some people took a small breather from spending like drunken, financially-lobotomized sailors. But, that tendency was short-lived and now we’re pretty much back to where we started pre-recession.

The one saving mercy for all of us is that interest rates continue to hold steady, long after it was predicted over and over and over by economists and other financial geniuses that they would rise. Now, even the most rabid predictors of interest rate increases are hedging their bets, saying it could happen in 2015 or the next year or the year after that.

It doesn’t much matter. As Kirby concludes so eloquently: “Central banks have consistently proven themselves incapable of spotting bubbles. It happened in the U.S. It will happen here. And when the consensus among economists, and more importantly, borrowers, is for rates to stay low, it’s a safe bet they’ll be proven wrong. The story of Canada’s love affair with debt has all the makings of a cliffhanger, and those who’ve overextended themselves are standing at the precipice.”

Don’t miss the surprise ending to this spine-chilling thriller. I hear it’s a real shocker. Or maybe not so shocking at all.

 

 

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.

 

 

State Of Disunion

Unifor. Ever heard of it? If you have, you’re one step ahead of me. It happens to be the largest private sector union in the country. The “super union,” which was announced more than six months ago and officially came into being in August, represents the amalgamation of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions. In total, Unifor has over 300,000 members – and, yet, like me, I bet many Canadians don’t have a clue it even exists.

The idea of joining the two unions was born back in May 2011 when CAW’s president Ken Lewenza and CEP’s boss Dave Coles were attending a Canadian Labour Congress executive meeting, listening to speech after speech about the declining state of Canadian unions. The two chiefs decided that something needed to be done to reverse the slide.

The story of Unifor’s formation is nicely told by author John Lorinc in the December 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, along with a counterpoint story about a scrappy union called UNITE HERE!, itself an amalgamation of two U.S. unions (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union). UNITE HERE! Canada represents about 50,000 workers across the country in a wide variety of industries, mostly in lower paying occupations.

Despite being a fraction of Unifor’s size, the smaller union appears to be doing a better job of attracting new workers to its fold, mostly through a grassroots campaign that listens to workers’ concerns and tries to find solutions.

Reaching out to its workers was a key problem that already existed within CAW and CEP’s membership. In fact, one of the goals of Unifor is to provide “a new structure and identity that would better represent its members, organize and empower all workers (whether in the union or not) and build a more cohesive and strategic movement of working people.” Whether that’s happening or not remains to be seen, but it’s something that certainly needed to be addressed.

In my lifetime, I’ve been a part of numerous private sector unions, several of them associated with CEP. My first experience was in my early 20’s when I worked at a paper mill in Northwestern Ontario. Since the “P” in CEP stands for paperworkers, you’d think the union would have some understanding of the nature of the work its members did, but I often found that wasn’t the case.

As a new employee and first-time union member, I remember going to the bank when I was hired and seeing a fairly large sum of money had been taken out of my account. These were my union dues, which were being deducted regularly from my meagre savings, even though I had yet to work a day with the company, was on a “call crew” where I was only brought in when needed, and wouldn’t actually start getting a paycheque for several weeks.

I suppose I didn’t understand how unions worked at the time – and didn’t again when I was laid off for several stints but continued to have union dues deducted – but it seemed unfair to me to be paying a union when I wasn’t even being paid by the company.

You might think a union representing paperworkers would understand the sometimes-sporadic nature of the employees it represented, but you would be wrong. That was just the first in dozens of head-scratching moments over the years when I tried to rationalize what the union was ordering me to do – and what common sense seemed to be telling me I should be doing, instead.

Several years later I belonged to a union called NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) while working at a television station. That seemed to be a good union that understood its employees and the nature of the work they did. But, as has happened with many smaller unions over the past 20 years, NABET was eventually swallowed up by a bigger union called – wait for it – CEP. It was at that point I wondered how one union could effectively represent me in such diverse occupations.

To me, that’s the crux of the whole problem, one that seems unlikely to improve under Unifor. The new union may talk about getting back to the grassroots and listening to its members’ concerns and all that positive-sounding stuff, but it seems a bit hard to believe. Bigger rarely seems to be better, as most companies have discovered when they’ve grown larger and larger.

Many people have asked, “What does the name ‘Unifor’ mean?” In fact, so many, it’s one of the five “Frequently Asked Questions” on the union’s website. Here’s part of the answer: “The name “Unifor” is intentionally ambiguous. It means different and personal things to a union membership that is increasingly diverse. The name doesn’t peg us to any one sector of the economy, or a particular workplace. Unifor is a union built for workers. But it’s also a union that reaches out to the unemployed and self-employed; to marginalized and racialized groups union (sic); to women and young workers. Simply put Unifor is a union for everyone.” Alrighty.

If I told you the new union’s name was the result of the efforts of a polling, communications and brand strategy firm, a design company, focus groups, member surveys and townhall meetings, would you be surprised? Between the generic sounding name and the non-descript “U” logo, the response from union leaders, members and the general public has been, at best, underwhelming.

But, branding aside, what really matters is whether anything will change at CAW/CEP/Unifor. Only time will tell if the mega-union will move in a new direction, attracting the same kind of grassroots dedication of UNITE HERE! and truly representing its members’ real needs and concerns – or if it will remain stagnant because it’s increasingly out of touch with the reality of a country where manufacturing jobs, Unifor’s bread and butter, continue to disappear.

In any case, the task ahead won’t be easy. Unions are being bashed everywhere you look, by political parties like Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, by the media and by many Canadians who either don’t belong to one or feel neglected by their own current union. If Unifor hopes to regain its focus and reenergize the labour movement, it’s going to have to happen soon. Otherwise, it’s going to be too late.

 

The Most Boring (And Potentially Important) Story You’ll Read This Year

Pension reform. Have you stopped reading yet? Have your eyes begun glazing over? Have you already gone to the refrigerator to find something to snack on? If so, then, like me, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the issue of pension reform in this country. The fact is, the changing demographic make-up of Canada is about to have a serious impact on the future of all our pension systems. So what? Well, whether you’re about to retire – or have another 40 years left in the workforce – it’s going to affect you in ways you’ve never imagined.

First things first. The Canada Pension Plan is in decent shape, at least for the time being. Far from being the basket case it was in the early 1990’s, the system is in no danger of collapsing – for the moment anyway. The reason is that the Liberal government at the time and, specifically, finance minister Paul Martin, made massive changes to the system, which would have been bankrupt by now if things had stayed on the same course.

Similarly, Stephen Harper’s government has now introduced measures to gradually raise the age when Canadians can begin receiving their Old Age Security (OAS) benefits and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) to 67 from 65, which helps bolster that part of the retirement pie. The government gave four reasons for the changes.

First, Canada’s population is aging rapidly. Over the next two decades the combination of baby boomers hitting retirement age and longer life expectancy means 25 percent of the country’s population will consist of seniors by 2030, compared with just 14 percent in 2010.

Second, because of the rising number of seniors, OAS payments will increase over the same 20-year time frame to $108 billion from $38 billion, or about 21 cents of every federal tax dollar from the current 13.

Third, with the increased payments required, the burden to fund the system will fall increasingly on younger Canadians. Right now, there are four working-age people for every senior. By 2030, there will be just two working Canadians for every senior. That will not only affect workers’ lifestyles, it will also hamper their ability to save for their own retirements.

Finally, the Canadian labour market is going to have to adapt quickly due to the huge number of retirements. If labour can’t pick up the slack, it will have a huge impact on the country’s economic growth and our ability to fund social programs, especially those for seniors.

With the latest changes, a Band-Aid has been applied to the OAS and GIS, but nothing has been done to fix the most glaring problems, which are the CPP and the decline in private sector pension plans. For the time being, the CPP is adequately funded. The problem is, benefits from that plan max out at only about $12,000 a year. Add in OAS and GIS and it doesn’t equal much of a retirement plan, especially if that’s all you’re counting on in your golden years. What else do you plan to live on?

The bare minimum most retirees can survive on is 60% of their working salaries, while most require much more if they want to live even somewhat comfortably. As reported in the Globe and Mail, a report from CIBC earlier this year says, “5.8 million Canadians face a decline in living standards of more than 20 percent when they retire. Those born in the 1980s can expect a drop of 30 percent.”

In the past, most of the difference between working income and retirement income was made up by pension plans, especially “defined benefit plans” that guarantee retirees a payout equal to a certain percentage of their best earning years. While public sector employees still enjoy those plans, most private companies have opted to switch to “defined contribution plans” where your retirement fund is made up of the contributions you and your employer make plus whatever growth you can accumulate. In other words, there are no guarantees about what you’ll be paid out when you retire and, typically, they’re much less lucrative.

Even worse, many companies have abandoned pension plans altogether – or their existing plans are so underfunded that the benefits people once expected are now gone forever or will likely be cut back severely by the time retirement arrives. Currently, less than a quarter of private sector employees even have a pension, versus 87% of public employees.

To be blunt, if something isn’t done now to address this issue, millions of Canadians will be retiring in the next 20 years with virtually no pensions, no RRSPs and no savings of any kind. As The Walrus magazine stated in an article from its September 2013 issue: “This cohort faces the very real risk of an impoverished old age that will inflict extreme fiscal pressures on social programs and health care while starving other public services. Those without decent pensions will have little choice but to keep working if they want to avoid poverty.”

It’s probably too late for many of the millions of retiring baby boomers to address the problem if they haven’t already planned ahead. However, for anyone in their 50’s or younger, new solutions need to be found – and very quickly. There are plenty of options, some voluntary and some mandatory. One would be an enhanced CPP where individuals can supplement their required contributions. Another is a Pooled Registered Pension Plan, which is similar to the enhanced CPP, except it’s administered by employers, although companies themselves don’t have to contribute. There’s already a federal framework for this and Quebec recently introduced its own version called the Voluntary Retirement Savings Plan.

The problem with voluntary plans is that they’ll likely only be used by people who are already good savers and invest regularly in RRSPs, TFSAs and other similar vehicles. For the millions who don’t have the discipline to do so, mandatory options seem to be a better solution. But, who would administer such a plan – the government, employers, or a totally separate entity?

In the article from The Walrus it talks glowingly about the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the world’s best-performing retirement fund and one that currently has assets of $130 billion. Teachers are forced to invest a certain portion of their salaries in the fund and can’t withdraw anything until their normal retirement age, unlike RRSPs, which people can borrow against. In return, however, they enjoy a lucrative pension that most of us would kill to enjoy (hence the article’s title, ‘Pension Envy’).

Where does the solution lie and which options are most practical for the average Canadian? That’s the dilemma, one that was supposed to be on the front burner of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but seems to have fallen through the cracks. According to the Globe and Mail, the issue was scheduled to be debated by Flaherty and the provincial ministers in June, but nothing seems to have come of that.

Time is wasting and the issue isn’t going to disappear. In fact, as the number of retiring baby boomers starts to snowball in the coming years, the problem will become more and more acute. Who is going to pay for 30-40 years of retirement for those people who are barely making ends meet right now when they’re still working? Their children? The dwindling number of working Canadians? The Tooth Fairy?

Pension reform may not be a particularly exciting topic for the average person. But it’s something we’re all going to have to deal with sooner or later. We’d better hope it’s sooner – or we’re all in very serious trouble.

 

 

This Is Why We Have Laws

If there’s one common complaint Canadians have, it’s that we’re over-governed. Too many laws. Too many regulations. Too much red tape and bureaucracy. As an example, the PC Party of Ontario noted in one of their recent “white papers” that there are 386,000 regulations in the province covering agri-business alone. How is that even possible – and how many thousands of people are in charge of making sure all those regulations are being followed?

Tim Hudak’s party says they’re committed to getting rid of one-third of all red tape across the board, which sounds like an admirable goal. But where do you start? And where does it all end? If you start cutting out all the superfluous laws and regulations, how do you know when you’ve dumped all the unnecessary ones and started chopping the ones that actually serve a useful purpose? The same goes for our whole country.

Just a little over a month ago, a runaway train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 47 people and destroying much of the town. The train’s owners, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, have now declared bankruptcy in the U.S. and Canada, unable to pay even a fraction of the estimated $200 million cleanup, let alone any legal damages.

There has been plenty of finger-pointing since that accident and who know where all the blame will fall eventually? In any case, it’s pretty obvious that many of the regulations that were already in place were never followed prior to the accident. In fact, part of the reason for the catastrophe may have been that some of the rules formerly enforced by Transport Canada had been transferred to the railway companies themselves to self-administer. And, following the accident, Transport Canada introduced several new emergency directives to prevent futures disasters like the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic one, so now there are even more regulations to follow.

This past week, in an accident that seems like something Hollywood might pitch for its next horror movie, two young boys died in Campbellton, New Brunswick after being asphyxiated by a 4.3 metre (14-foot), 45 kilogram (100 lb.) African Rock Python, a snake that has been banned in the province since 2009.

How could such a calamity happen when there were laws in place preventing it? A criminal investigation into the event is still ongoing and there’s no indication what charges might be laid, but there are legitimate reasons why such exotic, dangerous creatures are restricted.

Recently, in our own area, a 21-year old man from London died tragically south of Watford after he was electrocuted while setting up a large tent for a wedding. The OPP and Ontario Ministry of Labour are investigating the incident and no results have been released yet but, again, it appears on the surface that regulations may not have been properly followed.

Three horrific accidents in three different parts of the country, but they all appear to have one common connection: they might all have been preventable, if only the existing laws and regulations had been adhered to. We laugh at some of the ludicrous by-laws on the books, probably for good reason. Almost all of us flaunt speed limits on a regular basis. None of us are saints and there’s no way we can follow every single piece of legislation when there are millions of them – and more been drafted every day.

However, when we make the decision to engage in potentially life-threatening situations, it’s understood that if we choose to ignore the law, we do so knowing there may be dire consequences that follow. We live in a society that runs on rules. This isn’t the Wild West or a chapter out of Lord of the Flies.

During a recent public information meeting, an OPP constable talked about the need to strike a balance in our society so that everyone can live their lives as they choose, without causing harm to others. He said we do that through laws and regulations. It’s a balance that’s not always easy to achieve, but it’s something we must all work towards.

If we reap the benefits of having a government or a police force or a regulatory body whose goal is to protect us, we must, in turn, choose to follow the regulations they set out, even if they’re inconvenient or costly or restrictive. To do otherwise is to choose a path that puts others in harm’s way and threatens all our freedoms. It’s not Big Brother watching us. It’s all of us watching out for each other.