It’s All In Your Head

(The following was written and originally published prior to the tragic August 9th shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and is not intended to reference that incident in any way)

Nuts. Psycho. Two sandwiches short of a picnic. What’s your attitude when you hear that someone is suffering from mental illness? The three examples above were among many given in a U.S. police training exercise about dealing with people who may be emotionally disturbed. The officers were asked to come up with pejorative terms for mentally ill people. Although initially uncomfortable, it didn’t take long for them to rhyme off the above examples.

Later in the exercise, the officers were asked for similar adjectives to describe people with cancer. About the worst they could come up with were “sick,” “brave” and “courageous.” Looking at the two lists side-by-side on a blackboard, the officers realized how distorted their viewpoints were about mental illness.

This is just one example of the problems police and other first responders have in trying to deal with those who may have mental disorders. They’re part of an absorbing article called, ‘Stand Down’ by John Lorinc, which appears in the July/August 2014 edition of The Walrus.

One focus of the wide-ranging article concerns the unique approach developed by the Memphis Police Department in dealing with incidents involving emotionally disturbed suspects. In response to a tragic shooting nearly 30 years ago, the MPD created the Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a specially trained group of officers who are dispatched to emergency scenes and given over-reaching powers when a potential incident occurs involving a suspected mentally ill individual.

Lorinc describes the CIT model as “a progressive approach to de-escalate high-tension confrontations, improve police attitudes toward those suffering from mental illness, and divert them from the criminal justice system.”

Since its creation, similar programs have been developed in 2,700 regions in the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as in Vancouver and Hamilton. Almost across the board, there have been vast improvements made in the way police departments deal with such incidents, many of which can be prevented from escalating just by having trained people on-scene who know how to deal with mentally ill people.

With so many departments adopting such programs, one notable exception stands out from the list: Toronto. This is particularly disturbing given the number of high profile shootings in recent years involving Toronto Police Services and mentally ill individuals.

The most notorious happened just over a year ago when teenager Sammy Yatim was shot to death on a Toronto streetcar by Constable James Forcillo, who fired three times at Yatim, paused, then took six more shots at close range. Forcillo has since been charged with second-degree murder in the incident.

According to Lorinc’s article, between seven and 40 percent of people who police come in contact with may have some form of emotional disturbance. And there are often additional factors such as homelessness, addiction or people suffering some kind of emotional crisis.

Lorinc indicates that Toronto police deal with about 19,000 calls per year involving someone who’s emotionally disturbed. That’s less than one percent of all police contacts with residents in Toronto, far from the estimated seven to 40 percent quoted above. Lorinc surmises that, possibly due to inadequate training, Toronto police simply are unable to recognize signs of mental illness when they see them.

Based on numerous examples given in the article, it would certainly seem so. Rather than talking rationally and calmly to emotionally disturbed suspects, many of the noted incidents involve officers screaming and shouting commands at the people, often the worst possible approach.

At the end of July, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair had his contract turned down for renewal by the city’s Police Services Board. According to reports by the CBC, Board chair Alok Mukherjee said it was time for a change and there was a need for renewal.

The CBC said Mukherjee indicated what some of the changes might be when that “renewal” happens: “They will include the way that the police interact with the community; the way officers interact with emotionally disturbed persons and the mentally ill; and the need to transform the police service in a way that ensures it is effective and sustainable in the long term.”

In a not-too-subtle way, Toronto’s Police Services Board has confirmed what Lorinc and many others already believe – that the city’s police force is ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with incidents involving those with emotional disturbances.

Lorinc talks at length about a coroner’s jury in Toronto that held an inquest earlier this year into three police shootings. Its recommendations echo many of those from the Memphis CIT training manual. These include a better knowledge of mental health problems, more training in verbal de-escalation techniques, and an abandonment in certain instances of what’s referred to as the “twenty-one-foot-rule,” where police are often expected to subdue suspects forcibly who are closer than that arbitrary distance and are considered a potential threat.

The rules need to change. According to Lorinc, during the coroner’s inquest, one police officer said about the shooting he was involved in, “It’s textbook, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” But, if that “textbook” is outdated and incomplete, why is it still being used?

Lorinc indicates that in that same shooting, one police officer actually called on his comrades to use some sense of calm. The author wonders why and concludes: “He likely had enough life experience to think beyond the twenty-one-foot rule, and to recognize what was in front of him: a man in crisis, rather than a police killer brandishing a potentially fatal weapon.”

Ironically, a local resident, out for a jog the morning of the incident, saw the confrontation and instantly recognized the situation for what it was: “It’s a cold winter day. The guy is standing there in a hospital gown, with bare legs. My first thought: this guy is in a mental health crisis.”

If an average citizen with no training determined what was happening instantly, why couldn’t a group of ostensibly “trained” police officers? And why did it take all of 72 seconds for them to end the emotionally disturbed patient’s life with their guns?

The bottom line is that we all need to be better educated about mental illness. That education starts with our frontline police officers.

How Slow Can You Go?

When you’re out for a typical drive, how fast do you travel? Under the speed limit? At the speed limit? Or over the speed limit? I’d venture to guess that most Ontarians would choose the latter, especially for those who drive on the provincial and 400 series highways.

So, if most of us are already driving over the speed limit, why doesn’t the government recognize that fact and increase the maximums? Crazy talk, you say? Not at all.

According to an editorial in the July 21st edition of Maclean’s magazine, that’s exactly what’s happening in British Columbia. The story explains that the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister recently announced a wide range of changes to B.C.’s highways, including raising the speed limit on dozens of them.

Maximums are being bumped up by as much as 20 km/h on certain highways, with some limits jumping to 120 km/h, the highest in Canada. The article notes that the increases have been opposed by several groups, including the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and environmental agencies. Their reasons include everything from safety issues to environmental concerns.

However, according to the article, “In truth, there should be no appreciable impact on safety or the environment. The changes will simply allow people to get where they’re going in a lawful and timely manner.”

Maclean’s says there is plenty of evidence showing that most people’s speed is a reflection of driving conditions and road characteristics, not posted limits. As well, contrary to what you might think, “Raising limits doesn’t produce faster average speeds; it merely makes lawful what is already common behaviour.”

The article goes on to say that it isn’t the speed itself that causes accidents – it’s the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers. “A large gap between drivers’ speeds is most often found in situations with artificially low speed limits and this can lead to dangerous passing attempts, unpredictable behaviour and driver frustration: all of which most certainly cause collisions.”

As proof, the story notes that the last time B.C. raised its speed limits in 1997 serious collisions dropped by 18 percent over the next five years, despite traffic volumes increasing by about one-third during the same period.

In deciding to raise the limits again this year, the B.C. government used a background report that states, “Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”

The guideline used to determine the new limits is the typical speed travelled by 85% of those using the highway. By that measure, it’s pretty obvious that speed limits in Ontario are completely out of whack.

In fact, transport trucks in this province are mechanically limited to a maximum speed of 110 km/h – ten clicks over the actual speed limit on the 400 series highways. And, unless I’m totally oblivious to everyone around me on the 401 or 402, most of the passenger vehicles are already driving faster than those transports.        So, what is the province accomplishing by keeping the limits artificially low?

The Maclean’s article says the changes in B.C. will allow law enforcers to put their efforts into combatting the truly reckless drivers amongst us and, thereby, making the roads safer for everyone: “The moves should free police to focus their efforts on stopping the 15 percent of drivers who exceed accepted norms and behave in ways that are obviously dangerous to themselves and others: driving drunk, distracted driving, racing, etc.”

British Columbia and Maclean’s magazine are certainly not the only two proponents of an increased speed limit. A website called http://www.stop100.ca advocates increasing maximums to between 120 and 130 km/h on Ontario’s 400 series highways. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition on the website supporting the increase.

The Stop100 site includes editorials from several sources to back up their fight, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post, along with lots of information on various studies that support an increase in speed limits.

The website also notes that 120-130 km/h speed limits exist in more than 60 countries and states worldwide – and that many countries with higher speed limits have lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.

What are your thoughts? Do you routinely exceed the speed limit, especially on 400 series highways? If so, do you believe you’re guilty of breaking the law and should be punished for doing so – along with the large percentage of other drivers who also typically exceed the maximum? Or do you think it’s time Ontario re-examines a policy that is constantly ignored by most of its drivers? Equally important, how do we drive home that point with our provincial government?

Reopening The Death Debate

Abortion. Capital punishment. Assisted suicide. If you were making a list of the top three subjects that no politician ever wants to discuss, those would probably score highest in Canada. Although most people probably won’t squawk if the status of the first two issues remains as it is, more and more Canadians are starting to murmur about the need for change on the matter of assisted suicide.

In a touching column in The Globe and Mail on June 27th, writer Gary Mason is more than just murmuring. He begins his article by stating bluntly: “One day, society will look back at the way we currently allow some people to spend their last stretch of time on Earth, and it will abhor us.”

Strong words, indeed. Mason admits he’s been on the fence about the issue in the past. “On one hand, I understand there are people whose lives have become essentially valueless, because of illness, tragedy or some other reason. Because of that, they would rather not spend their final days trapped in a world of misery, despair, pain and/or physical suffering,” Mason writes.

On the other hand, however, he states, “I’ve had trouble imagining signing an order to end a person’s life, especially if that person was someone I spent a lifetime loving.”

When his father got sick, he wrestled with both sides of the argument, despite the fact that his dad’s final years were entirely miserable. Still, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of voting to end someone’s life. In a gut-clenching moment, he admits, “Now, I realize how incredibly selfish that point of view was.”

What changed his mind? Mason says the ordeal of watching his younger brother die, someone he wasn’t even particularly close to, was what pushed him over the edge in the assisted suicide debate.

“When I first saw him in hospital, I barely recognized the person with whom I’d once shared a bedroom. His skin hung off his bones. Once one of the strongest, most robust persons I’d ever known, he might have weighed 36 kilograms in the final week of his life. As he lay in his room, he was often delusional. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He ripped out drips that had been inserted into various parts of his body as he flailed about. He could only mumble a few words, but the ones he whispered to me one afternoon I will never forget: ‘I want to die, Gary. Please let me die.’”

The situation got so bad, his brother begged Mason to steal a needle and do what had to be done. This was not some hypothetical debate among politicians or people sitting around a water cooler or arguing at a church meeting. This was a real person asking Mason to end his misery, to make a life-changing ethical decision and break the law. Mason realized, “His were precisely the circumstances that would qualify for physician-assisted death consideration in more enlightened jurisdictions around the world.”

Thankfully for Mason, he never had to make the ultimate decision because, after a few more days of torture, his brother finally passed away. But, that didn’t end Mason’s mental dilemma. Or his thoughts about others going through their own ethical conundrums.

“I know there are many Canadians who have shared similar experiences, maybe ones that have also reshaped their thinking on the question of dying with dignity,” says Mason. “There seems little doubt now that we are going to have a national debate on this matter, and this is only a good thing. The Supreme Court of Canada is set to rule on it for a second time. And of course, the province of Quebec has already gone ahead with comprehensive end-of-life legislation, which could also get challenged in the courts.”

Britain is also considering the idea of legalizing assisted suicide, notes Mason, and he believes Canada has to look seriously at how various U.S. states and other countries are dealing with the issue. He realizes what a minefield the debate may become.

“I’m not suggesting for a second that there is anything straightforward about this discussion. The question of whether the sanctity of life trumps personal freedom, or vice versa, is a complex and divisive one. It’s also vulnerable to histrionics, overstatement and oversimplification,” he comments. And weak-willed Canadian politicians are highly unlikely to put it on their “To Do” lists anytime soon.

But, the issue is not going to go away. In fact, it will only grow in the coming years. “As Canada’s baby boomers begin their grand exit, the demand for a debate on this subject is only going to intensify,” says Mason.

According to Statistics Canada, the average life expectancy for a Canadian male rose from 59 in 1920, to 69 in 1972, and now stands at over 79. Similarly, women’s life expectancy went from 61 to 76 to 83 over the same timeframe.

It’s wonderful that more and more people are living into their 80s, 90s and even past 100. What a blessing for those who are healthy, active and mentally vibrant. But what about those who aren’t? As Canada’s senior population continues to grow, the issue of assisted suicide will demand more and more attention.

At some point in our lives, we’ll likely all have to deal with this dilemma. How will our positions change when that happens?

For Mason, the shift was dramatic. “After witnessing the sad and mostly undignified end to my brother’s life, I know where I now stand,” he admits. No matter what your own stance, even if it’s a morally or theologically-based one, how will it hold up when you’re faced head-on with someone close to you who’s dying? Be prepared to find out.

Warm Thoughts In The Dead Of Winter

It’s hard to find much good to say about last week’s extreme frigidity. Offhand, the only thing that lightens my mood when it’s -25 C out is the reappearance of the anti-climate change Luddites. I’m talking about the diehard few who cling to the completely debunked idea that global temperatures aren’t continuing to climb at an alarming rate.

Nothing brings these folks out of hiding like a record-setting cold snap. Refrains of “Whatever happened to your global warming?” were all the rage last week, rising meteorically in equal proportion to the plummeting temperatures outside.

I appreciate the fact that many of these people are just joking. It’s their winter equivalent of “Hot enough for you?” in the dog days of summer – and, just like that popular slogan, it gets tired mighty fast.

Like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, these “denialists” claim glaciers aren’t melting, snow cover isn’t disappearing, spring isn’t coming earlier, humidity isn’t rising, temperatures over lands and oceans aren’t increasing, sea levels aren’t rising, sea ice and ice sheets aren’t disappearing, oceans aren’t warming, species aren’t migrating and tree-lines aren’t moving poleward and upward.

Thankfully, the number of misinformed individuals continues to decline – and worldwide acceptance of manmade climate change continues to grow. Apparently, all it took was a series of epic extreme weather incidents to make a large chunk of the few remaining naysayers change their opinions.

That’s especially true with Americans, a nation that often seems to thrive on dismissing everything that’s happening around them. After a series of cataclysmic events, including Hurricane Katrina (over 1,800 dead, $81 billion in damage, according to Wikipedia), Hurricane Sandy (nearly 300 dead, $68 billion in damage and massive flooding), drought (the current one is called the largest natural disaster in American history) and record-setting heat waves, the number of climate change deniers in that country may soon drop to less than 10%. Hallelujah.

It’s always nice to see Americans catching up to the rest of the world, considering the untold destruction and loss of human life that’s already occurred in other parts of the planet, directly or indirectly caused by climate change.

Personally, I knew the tide was turning when one of the last bastions of global warming denial crumbled last year. In my case, I’d be talking about my 86-year old father who I always assumed would drown underneath a melting polar ice cap while holding a placard that said, “Climate Change Is A Hoax.” I nearly fell off my soapbox when he informed me that, “There might be something to this global warming after all.” Miracles never cease.

Like many popular hoaxes, the anti-climate change folks still cling to the junk science that exists on the Internet, although the remaining websites that promote this crud are starting to look like projects some college pranksters might have designed when they were both extremely wasted – and terminally bored.

It was priceless to see right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh hit the crackpot jackpot last week after he claimed scientists had made up the idea of a “polar vortex” to explain the frigid temperatures. In Limbaugh’s words, “They’re relying on their total dominance of the media to lie to you each and every day about climate change and global warming.”

When the anti-climate change contingent is forced to rely on someone like Limbaugh to make its case, you know they’re in trouble. This is the same clown who regularly rants against women, African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, any religion except Christianity, homosexuals, immigrants and anyone who’s not a member of the Republican Party. This is someone you want on your side? Why not hire Krusty the Clown? At least that clown’s got a sense of humour.

Thankfully for Limbaugh, he probably won’t be around in 20 years or so when the world starts to get really nasty. As if it isn’t already insufferable enough in many tropical countries where temperatures are making life nearly unlivable for much of the year, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. According to a study in the respected journal Nature, tropical countries like Indonesia will start experiencing regular, unprecedented heat waves just five years from now.

An article in USA Today from last October 10th, says these heat waves will start to affect much of the U.S. just 20 years later and will create a tipping point after which the temperatures will rise every year. The figures will break every record set in the last 150 years if climate conditions continue to change at their current pace. The study’s lead author says, “Whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.” Scary stuff.

It’s fun to make jokes about global warming – but man-made climate change will soon be anything except a laughing matter. Living in Canada, we may end up being insulated from some of the most radical changes for a few extra years. Right now, it’s rather enjoyable to have spring arrive earlier, winters pass faster, less snowfall and rainfall, and some of the other benefits we’re becoming accustomed to.

But, ask people in tropical countries what their lives are like today compared to what they grew up with – or talk to Americans in the drought-stricken regions – and you’ll gain a different appreciation for why climate change is something none of us should be looking forward to.

“Hot enough for you?” will no longer be a tired, summer catchphrase. Instead, it will be an inescapable reality. As the number of those opposed to the idea of manmade climate change dwindles and the temperatures skyrocket, it will be more than hot enough for everyone. And clowns like Rush Limbaugh will, no doubt, find someone else to blame for it.

 

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.

 

Slip Slidin’ Away

If you’re searching for some sure signs that the official start of winter is near, you don’t have to look far. Cars in the ditch. Fender benders. Rolled over transport trucks on the 402. And repeated warnings from the OPP to “Slow Down!” Every year it’s like déjà vu all over again. Is there something about humans that immediately erases our memories at the end of every previous winter, causing us to have to re-learn the most basic rules of winter driving?

If you’re looking for another sure sign that snowy weather is here for another year, it’s the sudden appearance of all those lists of safe driving tips. You know what I’m talking about: “15 Ways To Beat Old Man Winter,” “Top Secrets Of Being An Awesomely Amazing Snow Driver,” and “Everything You Need To Know To Survive Winter Roads.”

They’re all the things you routinely ignore because you’ve heard them all before. Trust me – that’s what I do. I’ve been driving in winter for more years than I care to remember, so who’s going to tell me how to improve my driving skills? Not you – Mr. Listy McListmaker!

Having said that, a couple of days ago I saw a message from the Ontario government about a two-minute YouTube video they posted a few weeks ago called, “Top 10 Tips to Prep for Winter Driving”. Yawn. So, preparing to be bored out of my skull and scoff at all the things I already know, I watched.

And, you know, a funny thing happened. Even though most of the information was pretty basic and something I’ve likely learned at some point in my life, I also realized that, over the years, I’ve managed to abandon almost all the things they mention in the video. And I bet that many of you have, as well. (If you’d like to watch it yourself, type the above name for the video into the YouTube search bar and VOILA!).

For instance, they tell you to clear all the snow from your windows, mirrors, lights and roof. Like me, I imagine you routinely forget to do at least one of those (probably your lights) and, by doing so, you add risk to your own driving and everyone else on the road. Or, how about starting your car and waiting for your windows to clear before you start driving?

Here’s one I bet nobody does: “Wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement when you’re behind the wheel.” I usually get to that about half an hour into my trip and, typically, I don’t even pull over to take my coat off – I’ll just do it while I’m driving. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

The video also includes two places to get provincial highway conditions before you leave for your trip: Ontario.ca/trip on the web or “511” on your phone. As well, it also gives you a non-emergency number for the OPP Provincial Communications Centre (1-888-310-1122) that you can call anytime to get assistance when you’re travelling.

The video also urges you to pack a winter survival kit (yep, I don’t have one of those either!) that includes items such as a flashlight, small shovel, blankets, extra clothing, winter boots, non-perishable energy foods, a candle (for heat) and matches.

If you become stranded, don’t panic. Check to make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of drifting snow before running your engine and open your window slightly for fresh air. And stay in your vehicle for safety and warmth.

Gas up before you go. Not only will you have plenty of fuel to get you to your destination if the driving is slow and allow you to run the vehicle longer should you be stranded, the extra weight will also give you more stability on bad roads and prevent moisture problems in your fuel system.

Finally, keep your cool. As the video cautions, “Shortcuts in winter weather ultimately won’t get you there any faster.” Perhaps that’s the best advice of all – and something that so many of us fail to heed.

We rush to leave for our destination without checking ahead or properly clearing our vehicle. We don’t allow ourselves the extra time we need to get where we’re going – so we drive faster than we should. We don’t consider the best way to get where we’re going – just the fastest. And we don’t plan ahead – which is the entire message the video is trying to deliver.

So, for those of you who’ve made it this far in your reading, congratulations! Even if you know about and practice everything I’ve written above, it never hurts to be reminded one more time. I’m off to prepare my winter survival kit right now and, if you haven’t got one of your own, I hope you’ll do the same. Stay safe and, like the video says, keep your cool.

 

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.

 

The Winds Are Changing

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about industrial wind turbines.

Forget about the fact that some people can’t sleep because of them. Or that they cause property devaluations by up to 50%. Or that they’re a blight on the rural landscape.

Forget about the fact that they make life unlivable for many autistic children. Or that many countries in the world are in the process of abandoning them. Or that they only operate less than 30% of the time and often when they’re not needed.

Forget about the fact that they create virtually no jobs. Or that they seriously affect tourism. Or that they kill birds, bats and other wildlife.

Forget about the fact that they’re causing the destruction of valuable, productive farmland. Or that much of their profits go to U.S.-based corporations. Or that they cause tinnitus and other hearing disorders for many people.

Forget about the fact that it will likely cost us hundreds of millions of dollars to tear them down in two decades or whenever they need to be decommissioned. Or that they’re driving a wedge between rural neighbours. Or that many people suffer headaches, dizziness, vertigo, nausea and other health disorders because of them.

Forget about the fact that they’re so unreliable they require other traditional forms of energy production just to supplement the meagre amount of power they produce. Or that when the nearly 800 litres of oil they contain starts burning most municipal fire departments are instructed to stand and watch them go up in flames because of safety and insurance concerns. Or that in the winter they throw chunks of ice as large as refrigerators hundreds of metres through the air.

Forget all of it. Just remember this. Industrial wind turbines make absolutely zero economic sense. And, finally, the reality is starting to sink in across the province.

Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to all the propaganda and rhetoric and hyperbole that get tossed around regularly by both sides of the wind energy debate. Listen to the Auditor General of Ontario whose damning 2011 report on Renewable Energy Initiatives, including industrial wind turbines, paints a bleak picture of Ontario’s energy future.

In the report, the AG notes that when the Green Energy Act was passed in May 2009, the Ministry of Energy predicted modest annual increases of 1% in electricity bills because of the cost of adding renewable energy sources. Within a year, the same Ministry had revised its estimates to indicate increases of almost 8% annually for the next five years.

And that’s just for residential users. The increased cost to businesses will be astronomical. In the AG’s report, it’s estimated that the Renewable Energy-related Electricity Charge will increase by 1000% between 2010 and 2018. It’s going to make Ontario one of the most unattractive places to do business in all of North America.

The AG’s report also notes that, instead of sticking with a Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program that included competitive bidding, the Ontario government introduced the Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) program in 2009 that added about $4.4 billion in costs through extremely generous incentives to energy providers.

Because a large portion of wind energy is produced when we don’t need it (at night or in lower-use seasons), it has to be dumped or it’s lost forever. As the AG’s report notes, “Ontario deals with surplus-power situations mainly by exporting electricity to other jurisdictions at a price that is lower than the cost of generating that power.” That’s great news for the U.S. states that buy the cheap electricity from us, but not so much for the people here in Ontario who pay for it.

And for what? The Ontario Power Authority says both average and peak demand for electricity will drop between now and 2025 and that both our installed and effective capacity is already more than enough to meet that demand. However, we’ll still be paying handsomely. As the AG’s report notes, “Renewable energy generators who have contracts with the OPA will get paid even though Ontario does not need their electricity.” Those contracts last 20 years.

And that’s just the tip of the ice-encrusted, 40-ton, 180-foot turbine blade. From whatever economic perspective you look at them, industrial wind turbines are a financial disaster that we’ll be paying for long after they’ve stopped generating even a trickle of power.

At long last, the media in larger centres are starting to catch on. Rather than assuming it’s just some scattered grassroots complaints from people they like to call NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), people in urban areas are beginning to see the big picture, that we’re all headed down an economic sinkhole from which we’ll never recover. It’s about time they realized the truth in what people from rural areas have been saying for years. This delusional, wind-powered flimflam scam must end. The Ontario government got us into this mess. Now it’s time for them to get us out, whatever the cost, before it takes down the entire province.