Month: January 2019

Money and/or Morals

Could we just pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and ask who is responsible for the shambles at our harbourside BC Legislature? I’m sure you’ve been reading about high-flying expenditures on travel accounts, $1,000 suits, and special hats for the Speaker of the Legislature.

Years ago, during the Dave Barrett era, then-Speaker Gordon Dowding often joked about his “new three-cornered hat” and the difficulty the hat maker had shaping it to “my three-cornered head.” But, those were days when we heard as much laughter in the House as we did angry exchanges.

Today – these past few days anyway – our political world has been seething with rebukes, teeming accusations of strange purchases, mysterious expense account claims and political leaders, who should know better, vowing to keep two men – Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz – suspended from their duties, however long the inquiry into their guilt – or innocence – may take.

Andrew Weaver says he’s “livid”; that the conduct of the two men is “absolutely abhorrent.” If true.

Ah yes, those two words are always important.

The accusations of guilt roll off our tongues easily. Writers of letters to the editor know no shame when they echo the old cry “give ‘em a fair trial, but hang ‘em in the morning.”

I am all for punishment that fits the crime. But, I can wait for the guilt to be declared before the execution.

I think we need to voice a few unspoken observations, like asking Mike Farnworth, Andrew Weaver – the Green mouse that roared – and Speaker Darryl Plecas himself, how he and the man he hired – Alan Mullen – got to be accusers in the issue.

Speaker Plecas tells part of the tale in his long denunciation list. He recalls the day when he became aware that one of the perks of his new job was the authority to hire an “advisor.” He wrote: “I was finding the Legislature an unusual place and I was feeling uncertain about who I could trust – and the prospect of having an advisor of my own choosing was attractive.”

So, he turned to his old friend Mullen who had worked as a prosecutor in the BC Penitentiary where Plecas worked as a judge. “I came to know him as trustworthy and competent, and we became professionally acquainted, and stayed in touch after work in the prison justice system.”

Nothing wrong with that unless we wonder what experience both men could bring to the Office of Speaker.

The maze called “parliamentary procedures in British Columbia” is not mastered overnight, but for the past year or so, we have had in that key position a Speaker with a “special advisor” on the tough side of a learning curve.

How did Plecas get the high paying, prestigious job? Quite simple: he applied for it. New Democrats and Greens couldn’t apply because the loss of a vote would change the balance of power. The Liberals in caucus agreed they wouldn’t apply, but then Plecas quit the Liberal caucus and quite legally grabbed the golden ring as the only person reaching for it.

The enmity will last for some time.

As noted earlier, Plecas admitted he wasn’t comfortable in his new position, but he did get to have some friendly chats with his Sergeant-at-arms Lenz. who, says Plecas, on occasion warned that Clerk James tended to favour Liberals when he should have been neutral in all matters.

And, now we wait while lawyers and police officers work it out. It’s a pity that legendary Ted Hughes isn’t available for yet another bout for truth and justice. Ted is still active of mind and bright to the challenge, but I don’t think he would want another marathon.

Then again, if somebody were to ask, maybe Ted could recommend someone of like mind to sift the wheat from the truckloads of corn we’re getting. It would be nice, at the end of the road, to find out how many of the key players were in today’s game as they all claim – for the people, and how many for the power and the money.

No Need For Tergiversation

It shouldn’t be long now before Speaker Darryl Plecas presents the people of British Columbia with the long list of “certain activities that were taking place within the Legislative Assembly.” He made the promise of full disclosure during a speech to the Legislature Management Committee in early December last year, when trying to explain the immediate suspension, with pay, of Legislature Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

Both men were informed of their suspension while on duty, with TV news camera on hand to record their escorted eviction by a City of Victoria police officer and a member of Speaker Plecas’ office staff.

James and Lenz have never been publicly informed of the specific charges against them or the reasons for their middle-of-the-day removal from their offices and the legislative precinct.

In his explanation of events to the committee, Plecas said he was sorry he couldn’t provide the details leading to his dramatic actions because they had been handed to the police, and “as the matter is now before the police it would not be appropriate for me to comment on this matter any further.”

He then proceeded to lecture MLAs and senior staff members on his duty to taxpayers and how diligent he had been in fulfilling his responsibilities for security and “anything I think is inappropriate in terms of spending.” He proclaimed – with Donald Trump style bombast – that detailed information would never be “buried” while he was Speaker “… there will never, ever, be anything buried here. Never.”

With that promise made, he proposed another meeting of the management committee, “at which I will give you a long laundry list of my concerns” and “I will be proposing a full audit on the Speaker’s office … you will get every detail of how much I spent. You want full disclosure … the public deserves full disclosure – boy, are they going to get it.”

He didn’t mention Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s recent examination and passing grade approval of departmental spending. Nor did he mention that, with the next committee meeting set for later this month, and with this month running out faster than a police probe can proceed, he may be forced to bury his laundry list for a while longer – a week or two, possibly forever.

Then again, if he and his aide Alan Mullen are entirely sure they can prove skullduggery, minor or major, don’t they have a duty to say why they hold that belief? Now?

I have other suggestions for Speaker Plecas. When the House is in session, he holds the most important of tasks – to bring order out of the chaos to which a democratic house can quickly dissolve; calmly, and without fear, favour or enmity to any political party or individual politician. He is the person who brings quiet to the storms, not the one who joins back-alley conspiracy talk.

He administers the rules made and shaped by the Members. But, he is not the master of the house; just its humble servant. Or should be.

Back in the early 1900s, the BC Legislature was bumbling through tumultuous times – and this was before political parties ruled to form government or opposition. Historian S. W. Jackman, in his Portraits of the Premiers (John Foster McCreight 1871 to WAC Bennett 1952), describes BC politics from 1900 to 1910 as being in a stage of “complicated tergiversation.”

Don’t worry; I had to look it up, too. I chose the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Tergiversation: evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement; equivocation; desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith.

Example: What Mullen discovered and reported to Plecas “could be potentially criminal.” Plecas’ response when Liberals requested more info on the possibility of fraud: “I never mentioned fraud. Just checking the books doesn’t necessarily follow you’re talking about fraud whatsoever.”

A final word from Mike Farnworth, NDP House leader, who suggests the Liberals are just making political hay and could be hindering the work of the RCMP and the two special prosecutors hired to check the whispers and the whisperers. “We are going to continue to respect the work of the police.”

Fine. Any chance New Democrats could also find, let alone continue, some respect for the work and reputations of a couple of senior and once trusted employees until they are found guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt of any crime?

If Only He Had Meant It When He Said Goodbye

Oh, if only he had meant it when he said ‘bye-bye’. The world would have become a safer place with the United States of America taking a giant step to restoring the respect it once held among world leaders.

If just for once, the loose lips of President Donald Trump had voiced a pertinent truth that we could have rejoiced with a haunting chorus of “What a wonderful world,” but, alas, he didn’t.

Instead of voicing sincere words of a man reflecting thoughts of angels, he launched what he thought was a fiery demand: that the United States Congress give him $5.7 billion to build a wall across a large portion of its southern boundary with Mexico.

The answer was a resounding “No,” and the meeting to discuss ways and means of solving current immigration problems and more efficient border control was over, 14 minutes after it began.

If there had ever been real hope of a solution, it vanished with the petulant Trump response, “then I have nothing to say, ‘bye, ‘bye!”, echoing around the world like so many other utterances – sounding brass and tinkling cymbals signifying nothing.

The world has become accustomed to President Trump’s braggadocios TV reality show attitudes. So, unfortunately, have too many of the Republican Party leaders who could quickly bring him to heel but don’t because they fear being accused of “leaning left” if they agree to anything Democrats advocate.

It’s a strange attitude for a wide-open democracy like the United States to display – a fear that any time the government “of the people and for the people” extends a helping hand to unfortunate fellow citizens by way of heath care assistance or financial support, they are moving ever closer to socialism, which, in their minds, is half a step from communism.

It was the Republican Party’s duo of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon who led the “better dead than red” cold war campaign through the 1940s and 1950s and brought many men and their families to ruin and or disgrace with skimpy or phony charges of anti-American activities.

We seem to have come full circle today with the President, supported by inner circle power brokers, seeking closer connections and friendly business ties with communist Russia and North Korea while expressing red peril fears as if national health care schemes and livable wages are threats to democracy.

It’s a funny world made less than humorous by the man elected President of the United States of America who promised on election victory night: “Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division. It is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.”

He then proceeded to demand that only he and his ideas could unite the nation. His vanity, at least, was boundless and wild. He clearly fits both dictionary definitions of the word, but subscribes personally to only: “Vanity: Excessive pride one’s own appearance or achievements.”

The second he has not yet grasped: “Vanity: The quality of being worthless or futile. The vanity of human wishes.”

If he ever does, it could be the day when he again says ‘bye-bye’ and means it. Hallelujah!

Young Adults Will Prevail

If you think land and house prices are at runaway record levels, you should have been around for the gold rush in 1858.

Recent percentage increases in property values have brought understandable laments from young wage earners that property values are now so high only young couples with rich and kindly parents can afford to buy even a modest starter house. That’s more or less what young couples were saying in Victoria in 1862 when property values skyrocketed an average 75 per cent in nine months – with even higher peaks to follow.

It all started in April 1858 when the good ship Commodore unloaded the first wave of Fraser River gold seekers at the docks on Wharf Street. In March, you could have bought an acre of raw land for one English pound (around five dollars). By the end of May, the same acre was selling for about 100 pounds – if you closed the deal quickly. A year later, “a lot 20 to 30 feet in breadth and 60 feet in length could be rented for one hundred pounds a month” and “a half lot bought pre-boom for five pounds sold for 600 pounds” a few weeks later.

The dollar and the decimal replaced the pound in 1862 – but the change did nothing to relieve depressed newlyweds or soon-to-be-weds aspiring to home ownership.

The gold seekers were transients, content to pitch tents wherever they could while waiting for the next ship to leave for the Fraser gold fields.

Victoria, the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, was, at the time, the only Canadian port of entry. To get to the Fraser gold fields you disembarked in Victoria then waited for a boat to get to the mainland and the Fraser goldfields, and later, the Cariboo, Barkerville, and the big one – the Yukon.

Victoria was their lone base supplier – their service industry centre – and that pushed development and land costs ever higher.

In 1858-59, the “the harbour shoreline was a sea of tents” and shanties erected on property rented for exorbitant prices – often by here-today-gone-tomorrow squatters. Three years later, in 1861-62, streets once knee-deep in mud on rainy days were paved, and sidewalks were in place. The “city” was boasting 56 brick buildings, warehouses to hold supplies, a hospital, a theatre – and a reading room.

And the young people fretted home ownership was forever beyond their grasp.

Before the gold seekers, Fort Victoria had been a busy but bucolic administrative centre for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the company that built the original fort and stockade to keep its servants and settlers safe from “the savages.” Ironically, it was these “savages,” the local Songhees, who led the fort builders to “the hill of cedars” – today’s Mount Douglas and Cedar Hill district. It was the Songhees who “harvested lengthy cedar planks from its forests to construct (the) palisades around Fort Victoria.”

Early descriptions tell us the fort was “a square enclosure, stockaded with poles about 20 feet high and eight to 10 inches in diameter, placed close together and secured with a cross-piece of nearly equal size. At the traverse corner of the square, there are strong octagonal towers mounted with four nine-pounder guns flanking each side so that an attack by savages would be out of the question …”

Ah, yes, the “savage” Songhees who helped build the fort to protect the white invaders from their “savagery.” One record states: “… Only one brush has the Company had with the Indians, but it ended in a day or two; the gates of the fort having been closed, a nine pounder fired several times to show what could be done – and judicious and conciliatory advances made to the chief. The peaceable intercourse – from which sprang blankets, hatchets, knives, fishhooks and harpoons – was speedily re-established.”

But even when cooperative, the Songhees remained a problem for white settlers anxious to save the natives from their ancient culture, their traditional language, their laws and their religion.

Not a major problem the white leaders reported; just “a great inconvenience rising from the existence of the Songhees Indian reservation in such close proximity to Victoria.” An inconvenience exacerbated by “northern Indians … in the habit of visiting Victoria and remaining for months at a time on this reserve, bartering for their furs, obtaining liquor, and seeing the sights of the capital. The ill effects of these conditions and their latent danger could not be concealed.”

Not at all considerate, those early Songhees, inconveniently hanging around what they had called home for a thousand years or more. And on top of that, they made welcome their cousins from the north (anywhere beyond the Saanich Peninsula was north) when they came to trade and spend at the fort, and gawk like country cousins at the high palisades built to protect the white folk.

They didn’t get any bargains from “the company” which, the press reported, offered “all the multifarious products of Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds … at exorbitant prices … there being no competition, (the Hudson Bay) company has it all its own way.” And not just with the natives.

Its employees were also held in thrall, “receiving little pay” and forced to buy all life’s needs from the company store. They were “usually in debt to the company and therefore in its power.” But, as one observer cheerfully noted: “The work is hard, but with health and strength this is a blessing rather than otherwise.”

Yes, indeed, hard work unless, as Royal Navy Lieut. Mayne wrote in a letter to a friend in 1857, you were an officer and a gentleman and found Victoria a “very pleasant and society, as it is generally in a young colony, frank and agreeable … the half-dozen houses (outside the fort) that made up the town were open to us.

“In fine weather, riding parties … were formed, and we returned generally to high tea or a tea-dinner at Mr. Douglas’ or Mr. Work’s, winding up a pleasant evening with dance and song. We thought nothing of starting off to Victoria in sea boots, carrying others in our pockets, just to enjoy a pleasant evening by a good log fire. And, we cared as little for the weary tramp home to Esquimalt in the dark, although it happened sometimes that men lost their way and had to sleep in the bush all night.”

The fort vanished, as did “the company’s” stranglehold on rates of pay and living standards. And the young people survived, triumphed, bought houses, raised families, built cities, a province and a nation.

Today’s young couples, tomorrow’s pioneers, will do the same – or better.

(Sources: Howay’s British Columbia; Macfie’s Vancouver Island and British Columbia; www.Vancouver