Month: December 2021

Dreary, Wet, and Cold…But a Lot of Love

There were a few white Christmases when I was growing up in England’s industrial Midlands, but not many. For the most part, Christmas weather was chimney smoke-dreary, wet, and cold.

But that was just the weather, not the spirit of the times.

We didn’t have much to be happy about by today’s standards, but happy we were. That’s even with a father out of work in the great depression of the 1920s and a mother trying to raise four children while taking in other people’s laundry or scrubbing other people’s kitchen floors to keep bread – and on some joyous days, butter – on the table.

They were hard times for my parents, but I don’t remember them being hard for we children. We were sometimes hungry, but never desperately so. There always seemed to be a slice of bread and “dripping” or butter and jam in rare moments of luxury.

I have been trying to figure out what made Christmas on the edge of poverty so happy for our small family of six before death and time scattered us to dust or far away places. I have no desire to return to the sometimes-lean days of childhood, but I wouldn’t mind seeing restored a few still well-remembered things.

Things like the Salvation Army band playing Christmas carols on grimy, rain-wet streets with crowds huddled under gas-lit streetlamps – to listen and sometimes join in. Only readers old enough to remember childhood before new-fangled electric radios piped Christmas music into every home will understand. Those were the days when the first carols were heard only a few days before Christmas; when a boy soprano could launch O Holy Night echoing through the shadows of an old church’s vaulted ceiling like an angel singing; when most of us could sing along with the grand choruses of Handel’s Messiah. And some of us still can.

Radio, and later television, relieved us of the thirst for street corner brass band Christmas music or the walk to church on Christmas Eve for a spiritual feast of carols. Sure, we can still find carol services in local churches and cathedrals, but they have, alas, had their beauty – and their inspiration – diluted by the tidal wave of Christmas music pumped out by radio, television, and the ubiquitous piped music of the mall. Christmas carols swamp us from early November and, long before Christmas week, we become overwhelmed, senses deadened to any message in the old hymns composed to lift the human spirit. They have become homogenized background sounds, unheard and unheeded, by stressed shoppers trying to buy Christmas spirit.

It would, I think, be wonderful to see a voluntary ban on Christmas music until at the earliest December 15. Merchants can keep their marketing strategies and push for ever-higher Christmas sales. But let them have the good grace to leave what remains of the spiritual side of Christmas to the churches and downtown week-before-Christmas Salvation Army band street concerts if such bands still exist.

One other thing merchants could contribute to recapturing lost Christmas values is restoring the old “lay away” plan – the pay before you take delivery scheme that saw even the poorest of families able to buy Christmas gifts and wake up on Boxing Day debt-free.

When I was the youngest lad in the family, I had to accompany my mother and sister to the street market every Saturday morning, dreading at every step that I would meet a derisive schoolmate. The most important stop was at “The Co-operative,” a department store where Co-op members were encouraged to start in January to “lay away” for next Christmas. Every Saturday, mother would buy a stamp for her most carefully protected possession, “the Co-op stamp book.” The money for her stamps came from the floors she scrubbed, the sheets she washed, ironed, folded immaculately.

Come Christmas week, she would have enough stamp money laid away to provide every member of her family with a present – including a new clay pipe and a stick of evil-smelling black tobacco for my dad. My first bike – a Raleigh three-speed – when I was 14 must have cost her acres of scrubbed floors and a multitude of crisp white sheets. But, when I got it in 1937 with a “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” message, it was already paid for.

It was important to her – and to the merchants who served her – that there should always be enough money to pay the Christmas bills – before Christmas. Debt, both banks and merchants taught us back then, was bad.

I have given up on banks with their greedy credit card inducements to ever higher “charge it” burdens, but I think merchants, with genuine Christmas goodwill, could lead us back to “layaway” debt-free days. It would be a great Christmas gift to offer their customers. And, if they gift-wrapped it with a promise of “no pablum carolling before December 15,” well, I would wish them all the most genuine Loving Christmas! 

(The thoughts expressed above were first published in 2004. They remain unchanged as I wish this Happy Christmas to all my readers as we spend just a few days exchanging and receiving the greatest of gifts— the love of family and close friends.)

“Simply Put… We Are Failing!”

It is close to six years now ,since the Government of British Columbia declared that toxic drug abuse had become a public health emergency. It had become the leading cause of unnatural deaths in BC.

A few days ago, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe reported on the government’s immediate reaction and the general public’s response to the alarming news that drug dealers are in control of relatively easy ways to purchase a ticket for a ride from an overdose to an agonizing death.

The apparent totality of that reaction was the sounding of a warning siren to “take care” when buying pills because unscrupulous dealers are boosting them with Fentanyl, Carfentanil and Benzodiazepine. And we, the easily lead, are asked to accept it is sufficient that our leaders and protectors recognized the dangers in our back alleys and dark places and so quickly alerted us to the risks of living dangerously.

It is true that five or six years ago, we were in a bit of a mess politically in BC. We had a crazy election result that saw Christy Clark’s Liberals win a general election but lose the right to govern when NDP leader John Horgan and Green Party leader Andrew Weaver agreed to a marriage of convenience.

Our always-precocious West Coast politics remained a little unstable until 2020 when Premier John Horgan called a snap election, won it handily with a solid majority and formed a government that appears to be holding its own in the face of the menace of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the dirtier fight to rid our streets of the toxic – read: ‘poisoned-by-dealers’ – pills that promise brief respite from life’s problems and deliver a quick and frightening dead end.

In her monthly lament, Chief Coroner Lapointe said that the government’s reluctance to take the appropriate action will “be a stain on our province for decades to come.”

“This crisis is not going to turn itself around; this crisis needs some true intervention on a meaningful provincial scale,” she said.

“According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, drug toxicity comes second only to cancers in terms of total potential years of life lost in our province,” Lapointe said. “By comparison, COVID-19 is 12th.”

October 2021 saw a monthly record bring total street drug deaths so far this year to 1,782. Last year, we lost 1,765 in the same period.

The death rate is currently sitting at 41.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. More than 70 per cent of deaths are among those aged 30 to 59 – the median age is 43. Most who have died are men. Since the start of the official public health emergency in April 2016, more than 8,500 people have died.

Lapointe, who sees the result of toxic drug use and is responsible for investigating causes of death, has consistently recommended “safe supply.” Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau’s appeal for an emergency all-party legislative committee, presumably to study that and shape legislation that would “end this brutal loss of life,” continues to fall on deaf ears.

Furstenau, quoted in The Tyee online publication, says her all-party committee could “be bold” and “take politics out of the process.” That’s what the Legislature did in its immediate challenge to COVID-19 when, like Camelot, “for one bright shining moment,” it was united in common cause.

Unfortunately, it has not demonstrated a desire to unite in common cause to address toxic drug deaths. “Simply put,” says Lapointe, “we are failing.”

A Mystery to be Solved: Maybe? –

I’m not sure whether today’s thoughts on the latest developments in the debate about Canada’s horrendous residential schools scandal should be delivered with Christmas bells pealing joyous “goodwill to all” in the background; but hope springs eternal.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller gave us hope back in October when he announced that he intended to release all records held in Ottawa dealing with Indigenous compensation claims. Increasingly, we are hearing that in 2015 the federal cabinet ratified a decision that, in effect, freed the Roman Catholic Church from compensating survivors of the residential schools’ debacle.

A few days after that announcement Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Kamloops to apologize for an earlier bad decision to skip the first-ever national Truth and Reconciliation Day celebration in that community in favour of post-election R&R at Tofino on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. “It was a mistake,” he confessed to a gathering of Indigenous chiefs and people. He said his newly-elected government had, at long last, turned over all the pertinent records of government-funded, church-run residential schools to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg.

Before the day ended the NCTR was quick to announce it had yet to see any documents.

A few days later Minister Miller confirmed all was well. His boss may have been a little premature, but he confirmed that all the files requested were now on their way. These included documents the Catholic Church and the government had shielded from public scrutiny despite regular pleas from Indigenous chiefs.

Miller didn’t say how many pieces of paper would be in the package, but promised delivery within 30 days. The NCTR has estimated Ottawa holds some 12,000 files in storage. CTV news recently reported that among these documents there should be a series of “school narratives – reports compiled by Ottawa outlining individual histories, administration statistics on the number of children forced to attend and key events such as abuse.”

Miller said earlier governments refused to make public some stored reports because of third-party legal obligations. However, he said decisively: “Knowing what we know today, it doesn’t seem right …” (to be hiding anything when reconciliation is the long overdue goal.) Minister Miller is correct. It hasn’t seemed right for years; and never will seem right until we make it so.

So, maybe we had better hold the joyous pealing of the bells until a review of the 12,000 files reveals who made the 2015 decision to abandon an appeal of a court decision that freed the Catholic Church from fully compensating survivors of the residential schools nightmare.

Minister Miller has been quoted as saying he knows of no evidence indicating it was a cabinet decision. Former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says she “never signed” any decision to drop the appeal. But, somebody had the clout to derail the compensation train.

All we can do now is wait and, as Tennyson once wrote, “faintly trust the larger hope” that our leaders of church and state have the wisdom and the courage to get the compensation train back on track and moving ahead smoothly … with church and state picking up their full share of the arbitrated cost.

Careless Talk Still Costs Lives

Maintaining public confidence that all will be well has been one of the toughest jobs facing municipal officials – elected and employed – since the first wild sparks set British Columbia on fire last summer to great waves of atmospheric rivers that have swept across the province, savaging everything in their path.

In the main, all levels of government – federal, provincial, and municipal – have earned plaudits for their efforts to fight fire, flood and the great marathon of COVID-19 with its ongoing mutations.

But there is amongst us a strong community of people who wish to be different. They feel that humans who believe some laws governing communal living are required are sheep blindly following seductive pipers. They believe the majority of medical doctors who are trying to keep people healthy, mending them in surgery and putting them back together if badly injured by accident or fate, are linked in a conspiracy.

These people believe they are the freedom fighters, unafraid to face and challenge those who are trying to lead the world astray.

A few evenings ago, the mayor of one small town said one of the greatest difficulties facing him and his staff have been the “posting of misinformation” on the Internet. He urged his TV audience to check only the official municipal web page that is updated regularly with advisories on open and closed roads, landslide threats, flood zones, and roads that should be avoided.

At a time of public stress, it is astounding, but not surprising, that misinformation would be a weapon of choice. The “freedom” to post misinformation must be the most abused freedom in the world, and there is no sign that this abuse is waning.

It isn’t abuse confined to BC or Canada. In the UK, where the populace lived with restrictions of social freedoms and survived great hardships during the Second World War, the current population is not proving as amenable to the idea that minor sacrifice today can lead to victory tomorrow.

A few days ago, The Guardian newspaper prefaced the following comment by noting that 70,000 died in the London Blitz and 145,000 lives have been claimed so far by COVID-19:

“For all their constant bleating about the government trying to control them, it’s a shame the poppy-shaggers and online warriors have absolutely zero understanding of how deeply embedded in people’s lives government was in the last world war, in the interests of the wider public good. How would these people have coped with rationing for years and years on end? Being told by the state how many ounces of basic ingredients you were allowed per week feels a bit more of a pisser than being told to wear a mask while you load up your trolley with pounds and pounds of the stuff in Asda (a British supermarket).”

In British Columbia, the dissenters forget they have parents and grandparents who, in their young families, lost children to diseases that can be held at bay and cured by today’s advanced medical science. In my family, we lost a sister before I was born, a brother at the age of five when I was 10, and four years later, a brother aged 18. Two survivors out of five wasn’t a bad average for a family like ours close to 100 years ago.

Hard to believe that a denier of the benefits of modern medicine would refuse to wear a mask or accept a proven vaccine in the face of overwhelming evidence that refusal is a near guarantee that someone will die as a result.