By Roger Annis, January 18, 2017
Postscript: On January 16, a Pacific Ocean weather front brought mild temperatures and much rain to Vancouver, beginning the process of washing away much snow and ice in the low-lying areas of the region. The lessons of a month-long accumulation of snow and ice nonetheless remain instructive, including, for starters, how to handle the expected land slippage that all the snow, temperature shifts and rain of the past month have created.
It has been a different beginning of winter for residents of the Vancouver region on the west coast of Canada. For one month beginning mid-December, the region received a series of snowfalls and below-zero (Celsius) temperature. These left sidewalks and sidestreets covered in snow and ice, making walking dangerous for pedestrians. Vancouver region proved unable to snow and ice from sidewalks and sidestreets, making life unsafe for residents who don’t own or drive automobiles. Among the worst offenders of failing to clear sidewalks were businesses and municipal government institutions.
Emergency responders report that the number of sprains, broken bones and other injuries to people from falling on icy streets and sidewalks rose sharply. Last week, a neighbour showed me the cast on her wrist and said it was the result of a fall on an icy sidewalk three weeks prior. She said that when she made a return visit to the hospital for a check on how her broken wrist was healing, six other people with similar injuries were waiting for post-surgical examinations.
The icy streets were very dangerous for older people, and not only due to the danger of a fall. They confined older or frail people to their homes, unable to exercise or socialize as normal and ofttimes leaving them without routine checks on their condition by neighbours, postal delivery workers or the like.
This winter’s snowfall inconvenience in Vancouver is nothing compared to the freezing rain emergencies that struck Toronto in December 2013 and Montreal in January 1998. There, lives were lost and more serious consequences were only narrowly averted. Still, any weather emergency of substance is a bellwether of prevailing social conditions. It brings into relief how human society builds its cities and how well protected are these cities from weather events and more serious natural disasters. This is all the more important today due to increasingly errant weather patterns being generated by human-induced global warming. So how does Canada’s third-largest city, Vancouver, measure up from its nasty brush with winter?
The main argument used by politicians as to why they failed to make streets safe is that snow and ice conditions happen only rarely in Vancouver. Apparently, it is not worth organizing and investing in snow clearance for pedestrians. Indeed, it’s been seven years since Vancouver last received comparable snowfalls. But there is much, much more to the story than what the excuses of lame politicians let on. Vancouver’s and British Columbia’s political leaders as well as legions of cheerleaders for the city tout Vancouver as a leader in environmental sustainability. Somehow, the commercial road, rail and ship trafficking in and out of Vancouver was largely unaffected.
I don’t live in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, but news reports during the past month explained the difficulties that the snow and ice conditions added to the already-harsh living conditions there. A few emergency shelters are opened there whenever temperatures drop below zero in order to avoid the specter of homeless and otherwise vulnerable people freezing to death on the streets.
In case you are not Canadian and or not reading the news, Canada is enduring an opioid drug addiction epidemic of alarming proportions. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the lowest-income postal code area in Canada, is ground zero of that epidemic.
Nearly three people per day died on average in British Columbia of opioid drug overdoses in 2016. Thirteen people died in one 24-hour period in BC on December 16, six of those in the Downtown Eastside. Altogether, 914 died in the province in 2016. Of those, 142 died in December, an annual average of 1,700 for the province. The deaths are due in large part to a rising, deadly contamination of the illegal drug supply by fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that boosts the earnings of those peddling illegal drugs.
To date, Alberta and British Columbia have borne the brunt of the overdose epidemic, but Toronto nonetheless suffered 253 overdose deaths in 2015 and worse numbers are anticipated for 2016. (Figures for 2016 are not yet available because until now, people dying from drug overdoses have not been considered important enough to accurately count.) Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are preparing to open supervised drug injection centers in anticipation of a worsening of their opioid addiction epidemics.
Although drug injection centers are a critical response to the overdose epidemic, federal and provincial governments in Canada have opposed them all along. Vancouver’s pioneering ‘Insite’ center opened in 2003 as North America’s first legal supervised injection site. It still operates under a constitutional exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Welcome to Canada’s very own, failed ‘war on drugs’.
British Columbia has 13 per cent of the population of Canada. If the same rate of overdose deaths in BC in 2016 were to occur in all of Canada, 25 people would be dying every day. That’s 25 times higher than the rate of cholera deaths in Haiti in 2016.
The overdose calamity threatens to positively destabilize Canada’s state hospitals and state emergency medical responder system as these respond to thousands of overdose emergency calls daily. State institutions, including police forces, are now equipping themselves with the anti-opioid injection treatment ‘naxolene’ for when they encounter addicts dying or in distress. Pop-up, overnight, emergency drug overdose clinics have gone up in Downtown Eastside Vancouver.
The federal government has turned away the suggestion of BC’s health minister that a national health emergency be declared, saying it is already doing all it can in response to the crisis. It also continues to reject the urgings of medical experts like Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer of Vancouver region’s public health system. She and other medical experts argue that addictive drugs should be made legal so that the public health system can be brought more effectively into play to assist the victims of addiction. But what do the experts know compared to the corporate political nexus for which the regime of drug illegality is an important tool of police control over society?
Commerce is rolling just fine
While there was much anger directed to Vancouver region municipal leaders over the difficulties that pedestrians faced on the icy streets, a much deeper concern is taking root over the drug overdose epidemic. One recent caller to a Vancouver radio program called the overdose epidemic a consequence of the “low-intensity class warfare” that has raged in the province of British Columbia since the Liberal Party was elected to office in 2001. The Liberals have successfully clung to office since 2001, surviving three subsequent elections notwithstanding its pro-austerity, anti-people and anti-environment policies.
Whereas municipal governments cannot provide for such a simple service as making streets and sidewalks safe for pedestrians–leave alone protecting the most vulnerable members of society dying from drug overdoses–commercial traffic routes and major commuter routes suffered few delays during the past month. The wheels of commerce turned comfortably, as billions of dollars of state spending intended.
Federal, provincial and municipal governments have poured billions of dollars into the Vancouver region during the past 30 years to build new–or upgrade existing–roads, highway bridges and rail and port infrastructure. The spending is grouped under the rubric of Vancouver region as ‘Canada’s Pacific Gateway‘. The rubric’s website promo reads ‘Canada Starts Here’. The goal has been to facilitate the frenetic growth of the port of Vancouver as a major export terminal for fossil fuels and all manner of other natural resources and as a major trading terminal in all the consumer commodities that are wrecking the planet’s biosphere. Vancouver is the largest commercial port in Canada and the largest coal exporting port in North America.
Transportation infrastructure expansion related to the port also facilitates the real estate speculation boom and associated urban sprawl, which took off in the Vancouver region some 15 years ago. The two have a symbiotic relationship.
Four rapid transit lines have been built since 1986, but far from providing for a more ‘livable’ region—that is, less choked by automobile congestion and pollution—rapid transit has further accelerated the urban sprawl and real estate bubble. And they have contributed nothing to alleviating truck and port traffic, which are major contributors to Vancouver’s deteriorating airshed and quality of life.
Vancouver region’s municipal leaders tout the region as ‘green’ and ‘livable’. Vancouver city has an official plan along these lines called Greenest Vancouver. The BC government has its own variant, in the form of a toothless ‘climate action’ plan.
Far from the promised economic nirvana that all the resource industry extraction and expanded transportation infrastructure was supposed to bring, Vancouver region is in traffic gridlock and the province of British Columbia as a whole is a poverty ghetto. Thousands live in the streets of Vancouver region. Many are ill and many are even dying from drug addiction. The province’s minimum wage is less that $11 per hour; a full time job at that salary would not pay for a one bedroom apartment in the city center. Welfare rates buy a one-room bedsitting room, often unsanitary or unsafe. The welfare rates leave little money left over for food and other personal survival. Federal governments bailed out of financing and building public housing decades ago, while the BC Liberal government’s idea of tackling affordable housing is to give tax breaks to people who buy houses.
The province of BC touts a low, official unemployment rate, below six per cent. But the measurement of unemployment is a scam, hiding extensive marginal employment—part-time work, one person holding multiple jobs, temporary foreign workers brought in to help keep wage rates low, and so on. Incomes for those who work are in decline while the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening.
Amidst all of this, fortunes have been made by the rich in trashing the province’s vast natural resources and running up a real estate bubble with double-digit house and condo prices annually. The provincial government boasts of a surplus in its budget that has been created by cutting or monetizing essential human and public services (including already-inadequate environmental regulations).
Canada’s founding economic myth
The large story of the Canadian economy to this day hasn’t changed much from the country’s founding myth of a ‘staples’ (natural resource)-based economy. The future Canada was there for the taking, goes the myth: a land bursting at the seams with vast forests, arable farmland, huge mineral deposits and endless fresh water. Canada carved prosperity out of wilderness, goes the myth. The country industrialized thanks to the wealth accumulation in natural resource plunder.
Today, the myth spells doom if perpetuated, and not only for Canadians. The social and environmental crisis in Vancouver and other Canadians cities is a microcosm.
Canada dispossessed the original inhabitants of the land. Today, the majority of them live in terrible poverty. First Nations people are still obliged to fight every inch of the way for modicums of recognition of their Indigenous and human rights.
The land of Canada itself is dying, heavily contaminated and plundered. This is terribly visible in BC’s vast forests. They have been destroyed by more than a century of clearcutting and, more recently, a global warming-induced epidemic of mountain pine beetle infestation. There is so little remaining old-growth forest in the province that logging companies have taken for a long time to using helicopters or building ever-more difficult and expensive logging roads to get at the old-growth or even second-growth forest.
As for the jobs that natural resource plunder is supposed to create, the prosperity is fleeting. Since 2001, 150 sawmills have closed in the BC and the number of people working in the forestry industry has declined from 91,000 to 60,000. Sharp declines are also projected in coal mining and transportation, which currently employs tens of thousands of people, mostly in smaller communities. As in forestry, these communities are especially dependent on their sunset industries.
Mining projects contaminate the land while yet more hydro-electric projects destroy more rivers. The newest hydroelectricity dam in BC–Site C dam on the Peace River–will generate electricity to feed more natural resource extraction, including the tar sands in Alberta.
The landscape of destruction in BC parallels the better-known tar sands behemoth in the neighbouring province of Alberta.
Canada’s founding myth also encompassed the development of the country’s powerhouse agricultural industry. But when I travel through the farmlands of BC and the Prairie provinces, and when I see the ongoing degrading of BC’s precious agricultural land reserve, I see an increasingly poisoned and monocultural landscape. In the ill-treated farmland of Vancouver region, for example, urban sprawl runs amok and invasive species blanket any untended land. The bee hive colonies that pollinate the monocultural crops grown in the region (berries and vegetables) must be fed food supplement or else the bees would starve to death. That’s because the diverse flowering plants that constitute bee diet and could easily be integrated into a proper agricultural plan have instead been plowed into the ground or poisoned with herbicides by agro-industry, or they have been paved over.
The perpetual BC Liberal Party
BC’s resource plunder and real estate bubble is buttressed by a deepgoing regime of political corruption that is recently detailed, in all places, in the New York Times. The story of tens of millions of dollars of corporate cash funding and influencing the provincial government has a federal government variant in a ‘cash for access‘ scandal swamping the federal Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Considering the perilous social and environmental conditions in British Columbia, it is disappointing to see the continued electoral success of the BC Liberal Party. Notwithstanding its name, the party is a right-wing, conservative party created in the late 1990s to defeat the then-governing social democratic New Democratic Party.
Three large factors explain the Liberal electoral success in 2001 and then its repeat successes in 2005, 2009 and 2013.
One is the paucity of electoral alternative. The policy planks of the opposition New Democratic Party are barely distinguishable from the Liberal versions. Where NDP policy does appear different, such as over the proposed construction of the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline from Alberta to the port of Vancouver, it amounts to ‘trust us’. The Green Party’s appeal that earned it eight per cent of the vote and one elected legislature member in the 2013 provincial election has waned as the party has revealed its private enterprise core values.
The absence of meaningful alternatives fuels, in turn, a growing rate of electoral abstention, now higher than 50 per cent.
Two, the Liberals have conducted a very deft handling of the environmental file. Their carbon tax introduced in 2008 is a pork barrel sales tax where revenues are not directed to environmental protection measures but are rebated to those paying the tax in the first place. Meanwhile, Premier Christy Clark’s touted ‘five conditions’ for accepting the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline were nothing more than a public relations exercise. Yet both measures saw the mainstream environmental movement praising the Liberals for ‘environmental leadership’. The theory of the environmentalists is that if you smother with praise any politician who shows the slightest sign of recognition of the global environmental emergency, the politician or party will love the praise so much that they will go looking for more! (Donald Trump has played a similar card with his vague musings of a ‘change in course’ for U.S. foreign policy and domestic economic policy.)
Three, the inflation of house prices due to the influx of foreign and Canadian speculative and lifestyle capital during the past 15 years has enriched, at least on paper, hundreds of thousands of better-off residents of Vancouver region, and the bubble is spreading to the rest of the province. Whatever complaints that BC residents might have of the Liberals since 2001, the fact is that anyone who owned a house has become property-rich during that stretch. The speculation party shows little sign of letting up because in a world of militarism, global warming, and economic uncertainty, temperate Vancouver and BC appear as one of the better places for stability and survival.
What is the alternative to the rather dim outlook for politics in British Columbia, an outlook, moreover, that pretty well holds for the rest of Canada?
The political left in Canada and Quebec needs to organize a political alternative to the status quo. We need a party (or parties) that fight for radical, social-justice and environmental measures, in favour of the most oppressed sections of society. That also means fighting for political rights under attack.
Top of agenda for these parties must be to recognize the scale of the global warming emergency and advocate an organized, radical contraction of all the waste, excess and socially and environmentally harmful action that passes for what is called “the economy”. As well, the fearful rise in war and militarism in the world must be opposed. The world needs peace in order to combat all its social and environmental ills. It needs peace in Syria, peace in Ukraine and peace in every other region where the aggressive actions of the imperialist countries grouped in NATO threaten it.
The world needs to abolish nuclear weapons, which pose the largest danger of all in an increasingly dangerous world.
Who would have thought that a few snowfalls could reveal so much about the state of Canada and the world?
 Toronto has its own real estate bubble taking place, for many of the same reasons. This is explained in a recent column by Toronto Star writer Desmond Cole.
 Toronto writer Mathew Behrens has detailed the state of political rights in Canada in a recent, lengthy essay in Rabble.ca.
Roger Annis is a writer in Vancouver BC. He can be reached at [email protected]