Category Archives: Articles

Meet Your Doctor’s Generous Friend

Pharmaceutical companies have paid billions of dollars in fines in the US for giving bribes and kickbacks to doctors. Are their drug sales representatives behaving any differently in Victoria?

“Dinner and Yankee game with family. Talked about Paxil studies in children.” That note, written by a drug sales representative about his evening with a doctor and his family, was one of many records that forced GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to pay a $3 billion fine to the U.S. government in 2012.

According to Public Citizen, since 1991, there have been 239 legal settlements between U.S. regulators and pharmaceutical companies adding up to $30.2 billion in penalties—a third of those in the past two years. Over half related to the kinds of activities that drug sales reps were doing in the GSK case: Reps promoted drugs with misleading information or for unapproved uses (the antidepressant Paxil carries government warnings against use in children), and gave doctors “expensive meals, weekend boondoggles, and lavish entertainment,” “trips to Bermuda and Jamaica, spa treatments and hunting trips,” and “cash payments” disguised as administrative reimbursements or consulting fees, all “to induce physicians to prescribe GSK’s drugs.”

The sheer scale of these cases is overwhelming, collectively involving dozens of multinationals, thousands of drug reps, and seemingly tens of thousands of doctors (although doctors have rarely been charged). And it shows no signs of abating, when such fines seem to be just the cost of doing business in a sector where profits rank with those of the oil and financial industries.

Notably, these same multinational pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars promoting the same drugs to Canadian doctors. And surveys show many Canadian doctors meet with reps monthly, weekly, or more often, regularly attend their educational events, and regard them as a primary source for information about newer drugs. Yet there’s never been any similar lawsuits in Canada. Do drug companies play nicer here, or are we just bigger dupes?

There are over 200 drug reps registered to visit Vancouver Island Health Authority facilities, and more visiting private doctors’ offices, but there’s no central tracking of what they’re doing. However, two former sales representatives who worked in Victoria and Vancouver for four different pharmaceutical companies agreed to interviews with Focus, and they make the case that most Canadians are dangerously in the dark. (Both men requested anonymity, which required removing identifying details of companies, drugs, and doctors.)

Read the rest at Focus online.

 

The Pharmacist of Film

Over 20 years, Bruce Saunders has built Movie Monday into one of Victoria’s most enduringly popular arts events.

 

The police looked uncomfortable the night they came to Movie Monday. We’d just watched Crisis Call, an absorbing, emotional documentary exploring often volatile, sometimes deadly encounters between Canadian police and people with severe mental health problems. After the film, host Bruce Saunders introduced us to two Greater Victoria police officers whom he’d invited to share their perspectives and answer audience questions.

One important point, though, in case you don’t know: The weekly film event Movie Monday takes place in a 100-seat theatre located at Royal Jubilee Hospital’s Eric Martin Pavilion, formerly the psychiatric hospital and today still home to various psychiatric services. Probably at least half the audience that night was comprised of people who had a mental health diagnosis or knew someone who had one, including Saunders himself, diagnosed as bipolar. The ensuing discussion revealed a lot about the challenges faced by all sides, but at times it understandably took provocative, tense turns.

Afterwards, one of the local police officers contacted the Vancouver Island Health Authority to complain that he’d felt “attacked” at the “poorly moderated” event. Rumblings circulated that VIHA might pull the plug on Movie Monday. Saunders anxiously contacted other audience members to write up their own observations of the evening; however, the most important letter came unsolicited: The other local police officer dropped Saunders an email saying he was recommending his department purchase the “excellent” documentary, and adding that he was impressed by Saunders’ “community-minded devotion” and felt “very good” about how “the police perspective was appreciated” by the Movie Monday audience.

“You don’t always have witnesses to your dealings with police,” says the 63-year-old Saunders to me with the kind of light-hearted smile that can only come years after things long since turned out okay. “Luckily for me, there were a lot of witnesses that night.”

Read the rest at Focus online.

Is the Law Catching Up to BC’s Police Chiefs?

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Registrar of Lobbyists are hot on their association’s trail. But a former BC police chief and solicitor general doubts they’ll ever be caught.

There’s one thing the police tell you never to do when they want to question you, right? Run. Running makes you look even more suspicious. So why do British Columbia’s chiefs of police keep running from me? Fortunately, I’ve gained some high-profile help in this now year-long chase. Read the rest at Focus online.

How will we re-democratize government?

Greater Victoria candidates in the BC provincial election speak out on how to correct growing democratic deficits.

 

For years we at Focus have been observing an erosion of democratic processes and participatory public engagement at all levels of government. In our opinion, this is worsening government decision-making with respect to many of the challenges we’re facing as a society. And we know we’re not alone.

On the streets, mass movements like Occupy and Idle No More have placed visions for participatory governance high on their agendas, while in our houses of government our elected politicians have been struggling with their own disempowerment: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heavy-handed omnibus-bill antics have raised the ire of elected representatives of the majority of Canadians to little avail; and hardly a month has gone by this year where a disgruntled, departing BC Liberal hasn’t (finally) complained publicly about Gordon Campbell’s years of centralized, iron rule. Many of us have ideas for what needs to change that could fill a book, but with an election coming it seemed like a good time to ask candidates what they think.

So we decided to ask provincial election candidates in five Greater Victoria ridings to respond to these two questions: First, which erosions of democratic or participatory principles and processes have you observed that you think are the worst, and what negative impacts have you seen? Second, what do you propose to do, or feel should be done, to help re-invigorate our democracy with respect to the issues you raise in your first answer?

We encouraged them to reply personally, rather than with pre-packaged party platform statements. Some candidates commented on many issues and overlapped with each other, while others chose to focus on just one or two key issues. Space constraints limit us to publishing only selected excerpts from their written replies to highlight some of the key themes that emerged. We suggest contacting your area candidate directly for more details on his or her thoughts on these topics. As of press time, several candidates had not responded; some parties had not yet nominated a candidate in the ridings included in our survey.

 

Strengthen MLA responsibilities to constituents

Susan Low: Public engagement has become one of many hoops for officials to jump through before legislation is passed, instead of being the way most legislation is started and shaped. The process of civic engagement is being relegated to a mere formality…The negative impact is that people can feel cynicism, and public participation in democracy is evaporating as a result…I propose to increase the public’s access to their elected representatives by having bi-monthly townhall meetings in provincial ridings, and regular times when MLAs commit to being in their office to meet with anyone who comes in… MLAs should report on how they have listened to their constituents, and how that has influenced their voting or actions in government.

Lana Popham: I think one of the main jobs of an MLA is to be an active listener—to constantly gather feedback and input from people about what matters to them and what they want done about it…My community office has organized over two dozen public events, including several large public meetings where hundreds of residents came together to engage with ideas such as sustainability and the benefits of buying local…I organized a community event to discuss solutions [to the high accident rate at Pat Bay Highway & Sayward Road], inviting the public and key staff from the Ministry of Transportation. A proposal for safety improvements was developed and I held another public meeting to share those ideas and gather feedback…The improvements have already started…

Jane Sterk: I plan to have citizens’ advisory groups—seniors, students, business, ethnic and faith-based, transition towns. I want to convene citizens’ assemblies to discuss issues of public policy—amalgamation, budgeting, police, etc. I plan to host annual or semi-annual days where we get large numbers of people together to discuss local issues that need provincial support.

 

Hold sittings of the legislature

Rob Fleming: For me, the hallmark of democratic erosion during the BC Liberal decade is how moribund the legislature has become. The current government started off with some good ideas—two regular fall and spring scheduled sittings, fixed election dates, Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform—but for most of their mandate, the legislature has barely met. They’ve made a mockery of their own reform. We’ve had fall sessions cancelled entirely more often than not. This eliminates the daily accountability of question period, and jams debate on the budget and legislation into an impossibly compressed time-frame. To enforce this, the BC Liberals now use “closure”—ending debate by decree—on a routine basis. It’s an arrogant way to run government. And it diminishes the role of an MLA as a legislator by giving too much power to the premier and cabinet. We’re seeing in BC and federally a creeping “presidentialism,” where the legislature is increasingly sidelined while the premier’s and prime minister’s office run things unchecked…I’m confident we can make the legislature work a lot better. First, we need to have the Assembly meet regularly. That’s an easy but important fix for accountability and scrutiny of government.

 

Allow free votes in the legislature

Andrew Weaver: In a parliamentary democracy, such as the one we have in British Columbia, MLAs are elected to represent their constituents in government. As such, one would expect them to be allowed to vote freely on many issues, including private members’ bills brought in by independents and opposition parties. But the party whip system of the NDP and Liberals in BC has meant that this has not occurred. Instead, most individual MLAs are told how to vote and hence end up ensuring that party interests are put ahead of the interests of the MLA’s constituents. I support the democratic reform agenda put forward by Independent MLAs Bob Simpson, Vicki Huntington, and John van Dongen. One of the items on their agenda was to seek ways to “Relax party discipline so that MLAs can cast free votes in the legislature on non-confidence matters, without fear of repercussions.” In fact, this is fundamentally why I chose to run with the Green Party of BC, as free voting on non-confidence matters is already central to party policy.

 

Resuscitate the legislature’s committees

Parliamentary committees have been so underutilized in recent years, many British Columbians probably don’t even remember what they are. The BC government’s website explains that committees are made up of small, representative groups of MLAs who can travel around the province soliciting input and holding hearings on issues, which they can then summarize into reports and recommendations to the whole legislature.

Carole James: There are currently standing committees of the legislature in a range of topic areas, such as education, First Nations, and health. These committees have members from both government and opposition…They rarely meet. I believe these committees could be better used, taking topic areas out to the public for real public engagement.

Rob Fleming: As the NDP’s environment critic, I’m always pointing out that the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Environment hasn’t met since 1996! At a time when BC needs a well-informed public to understand the climate change and energy challenges and policy choices we face, this just makes no sense. We need a robust committee system that addresses the big issues out there. And this will give MLAs more opportunities to work across party lines while providing a key avenue for the public to influence government.

Andrew Weaver: The Legislative Committee structure needs to be reinvigorated. The last time the Standing Committee on Education met was in 2006 when they developed a report outlining a strategy for adult literacy…As far as I can tell, the Select Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs has not met since 2001. Policy needs to be debated openly and needs to be informed through input from diverse stakeholders, such as those who would present to standing committees.

 

Empower independent offices

Jessica Van der Veen: The Liberal government has weakened our environmental assessment process…and undermined key government watchdogs such as the Auditor General and the BC Utilities Commission. Two specific negative outcomes are: the giveaway of forest lands at Jordan River, despite the findings of the Auditor General; and the privatizing of rivers and streams for private power projects, despite the finding of the BC Utilities Commission that these projects are “not in the public interest.” We need to strengthen environmental assessments and fully include the public…[and we] need to give government watchdogs the power they need to do their jobs.

 

Reform campaign financing

Rob Fleming: The BC Liberals get more than 75 percent of their funds from corporate donations and a very small percent from actual people who can vote…I’m all for getting big money out of politics by putting in place limits on donations from corporations and unions like we see federally and in Manitoba. This will put the average voter at the centre of politics again. Campaign finance reform would reduce cynicism about politicians being in someone’s pocket and increase voter participation.

Jane Sterk: [The Green Party would] eliminate corporate and union donations to restrict donations to British Columbian [citizens], and limit the size of donations. We would also lower the amount of money that could be spent on campaigns.

Branko Mustafovic: How can we expect that a politician will be unbiased, when they literally owe those who made substantial contributions to their campaign to have their needs heard loud and clear? There’s only one way to be 100 percent sure no elected politicians will ever dangle from the strings pulled by special-interest groups who helped put them there. The ultimate solution is for government to provide an identical amount to each eligible candidate to spend on their campaign, with that amount being the maximum they may spend. That’s truly democratic.

 

Engage disenfranchised and cynical voters

According to Elections BC, about 75 percent of eligible BC voters are registered, while in 21 districts that number falls to fewer than half of eligible voters.

Jane Sterk: The fixed election date is in the spring, which disenfranchises students…We no longer enumerate house to house. “Registered” voters are now identified by driver’s licence and filed tax returns. This disenfranchises people who don’t drive and those who don’t pay taxes.

Rob Fleming: Reversing the decline in voter participation won’t be accomplished overnight. But we have to make voting opportunities easier so that low-participation groups, like young people, get on the voters list…I like Adrian Dix’s idea to begin voter registration earlier, at age 16, in order to be enumerated by their 18th birthday…We also have to change the tone of how politics is conducted. BC has a reputation for “politics as a blood sport” and this is reflected in statements by politicians and the media. It seems to me that this may be the biggest contributor to disenfranchising voters and turning them off what government and public service in elected office ought to be about.

Carole James: We have seen the government using public money for partisan advertising, creating cynicism in politics and the political system, which leads to lower voter turnout and involvement…The NDP has introduced legislation that would result in the Auditor General reviewing all government advertising to build back trust in the process of the use of public dollars.

 

Implement electoral reform

Jane Sterk: Should I be elected premier…[I would] instruct Elections BC to prepare a plan to implement a system of proportional representation for the 2017 election. To avoid debate about which system to adopt, I would mandate use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and accepted in 2005 by 58 percent of BC voters. To prepare for use of this system, I would include a requirement that Elections BC find a structure for STV that would address the concerns from the large and rural ridings. I would also require that Elections BC conduct a process of [educating the public about STV].

Affordable Housing for Everyone

There’s growing local interest in land trusts as a way to tackle housing costs and reshape our communities.

 

“It’s not a housing strategy, it’s about land reform,” said Michael Lewis. The declaration felt rousing, as if we were in an impoverished part of Latin America rather than a comfortable University of Victoria meeting room. Lewis was leading a discussion with representatives from Vancity, Victoria and Esquimalt municipal governments, the Capital Regional District, the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, and local non-profits and other groups searching for solutions to this region’s housing affordability crisis. And though no decisions were reached, there was general agreement that Lewis’ research report (funded by Vancity) and innovative proposal to build a regional Community Land Trust (CLT) to support multi-owner homes merited further discussions.

There are good reasons to pay attention to the perspectives of Vancouver’s Michael Lewis. Since the 80s, Lewis has been one of the most prominent researchers, consultants, and activists in Canada in Community Economic Development (CED)—economic development which also aims for environmental sustainability and social justice benefits. He’s consulted for credit unions and governments, and helped the Nisga’a form a tribal development corporation and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth forge a forestry strategy. A prolific author, he’s launching his latest book, The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, at a talk on March 11 hosted by UVic’s Centre for Co-operative and Community Based Economy. It’s a theoretical and practical guide for re-localizing and re-democratizing our economies and reshaping every aspect of our communities to survive climate change, resource depletion, and global financial volatility. (Not coincidentally Lewis’ organization, the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, has been instrumental in nurturing Canada’s Transition Town movement.)

That partly explains why Lewis’ perspectives were garnering interest. Additionally, of course, many local leaders are just generally keen to consider any new ideas for taking action on housing. With both our federal and provincial governments steadily cutting support for non-market housing even as aging buildings, economic woes, and other government cutbacks are increasing the needs, we know the problems are only worsening. The squeeze is being felt hardest at the local levels, so that’s where the desire for solutions is strongest—but where will the money come from?

For example, the municipality of Esquimalt owns two acres near downtown Esquimalt, and municipal Director of Development Services Bill Brown would like a healthy dose of non-market housing there. “We’d like to see the site developed with mixed-use, commercial and residential buildings, using state-of-the-art green technology,” says Brown. However, the municipality can’t afford to do it, so that’s why Brown was at the meeting about CLTs. “We’re looking for a partnership where we provide the land and location and the partner provides financing and development wherewithal. Part of my job is to go out and find options.”

Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt, also at the meeting, is all-too-familiar with such challenges—Isitt recently joined the Capital Region Housing Corporation board and has long been involved with the late-Paul Phillips’ legacy, the three-house Spring Ridge-Fernwood Community Housing Land Trust.

“It was very exciting,” says Isitt of the UVic meeting. Isitt feels we need a variety of different housing solutions in play, but he’s intrigued by Lewis’ proposed regional CLT, especially by possibilities of potentially using such a CLT to leverage the collective housing equity of smaller local non-profits, trusts and co-ops, and to inject capital into renovations of publicly-owned buildings. Isitt suggests the municipality might play a “facilitating role” in bringing stakeholders together to help continue discussions. “It’s an idea that’s still incubating, so I think this support that Michael [Lewis] and the others are providing is really useful,” says Isitt.

A CLT is a community-based non-profit, usually with a multi-stakeholder board representing local financial, public, development, and tenant-owner sectors, that acquires and holds land for non-market housing. While this region already has various types of subsidized housing and trusts operating, most provide only rental units. The relatively new model that Lewis was promoting aims to help get low and middle-income earners into home ownership. The land is owned by the CLT, while the building or buildings are sold to a homeowner or tenant co-operative. Tenants pay in no more than 35 percent of their income and, when they move out, they must sell the house, or the share of the building(s) they’ve paid for, back to the CLT at an agreed price. So tenants can build some equity to finance renovations or expansions, or to eventually enter the private home market, but the CLT’s land stays out of the market and its buildings remain at below-market prices.

According to Lewis’ research, CLTs have been succeeding in the US for 25 years, and survived the real estate collapse in stellar fashion: 15-30 percent of subprime or prime housing loans in the US are in delinquency or foreclosure right now, but less than one percent of loans to CLTs are. And over time, the CLT homes are becoming more affordable to more people, not vice versa.

Victoria sustainability consultant James Pratt welcomes the “groundswell of interest” in such land trusts locally. He was also at the UVic meeting, and feels an urgency to forge ahead quickly with broader goals than just lowering costs. “I think we’re all driving towards a brick wall at 120 kilometres an hour, and we have to find a way of living on the planet sustainably,” says Pratt. “So [our group is] exploring the possibility of a land trust for the capital region that would have a green, sustainable-living focus.”

Pratt, a widely respected, long-time local activist-facilitator, has in recent months been connecting people, relevant experts, and organizations interested in helping create a green land trust, as well as those interested in living in housing supported by such a trust. Another motivation for these efforts, says Pratt, is to create opportunities to break down class, age, nuclear family and other silos to create more diverse, supportive, communal mini-villages. “I want to see the possibility for my children and grandchildren to live in my community, the community they grew up in, and be able to afford to live here, and ideally to have a community setting where they’ll have an easier go of it than I did.”

Pratt’s group is organizing a series of educational talks on these topics (james@prattconsulting.ca for more info) and can provide charitable receipts through its partner organizations. “If people have land, a home, or significant financial donations towards this vision, they could contact me,” Pratt says. Another group with a similar land trust vision is trying to raise money to purchase 153 acres near Sooke by April 1 (see www.villagefarmblog.wordpress.com).

In an interview after the UVic meeting, it’s clear that Lewis’ interest in CLTs is also based in an urgent desire for society-wide transition towards resilience—and he sees transforming land ownership as key.

Lewis points out that lower housing costs here would reduce worker commuting, create more diverse neighbourhoods, and help small, local employers keep workers. And while developers typically say that making houses more affordable requires building more houses in the private market, Lewis argues that’s misguided. The real reason house prices are climbing beyond the reach of ordinary people, he explains, is because houses are treated by governments, investors, banks, and even homeowners as speculative investments from which they all demand profits at each resale, rather than as simply places to live.

“We’ve got to deal with how the inequity in the housing market is created over time,” comments Lewis. “It’s almost guaranteed that if you do not have a means by which you can protect the land tenure from being speculated upon or taken over for private gain…you’re going to lose affordability over time. Which is precisely the dynamic that we’ve seen in high-amenity communities like Saltspring, Victoria and Vancouver.” Alongside this process, notes Lewis, the costs of making this expensive housing affordable keep increasing for our governments.

Lewis provides compelling illustrations of how speculating on homes also constantly siphons off public, collective wealth and centralizes it in fewer, private hands, further increasing social inequities and reducing housing affordability. If he buys a house and ten years later it’s worth 30 percent more, then who or what created that extra wealth and properly “owns” it? “Is it me who’s created this other value?” asks Lewis. “What’s the role of the public sector? What’s the role of other businesses? What’s the role of just the population itself, who lives there? That’s all part of creating this ambience; the public sector has created the framework, the infrastructure, roads and so on.” He describes London, England’s municipal government investing 3.5 billion pounds into a subway extension in the 1990s. Land values within a kilometre of the subway nearly quadrupled, increasing by over 10 billion pounds (about $15 billion). Yet most of those profitable increases in value went to private landowners, many of them offshore investment firms, who’d done little more than wait for this gigantic public subsidy to roll in. “So think about that,” comments Lewis. “Why should an individual or a corporation be able to scoop the uplift in market value, when it’s the community and the taxpayer that creates the benefit?”

The same thing has happened near Vancouver’s Skytrain, Lewis points out, and could happen if an LRT is built here. “We’re having a hard time funding public transit expansion, and yet we’re privatizing all the benefits.” If those land value increases were instead effectively “owned” or heavily taxed by the community, some of those profits could finance land purchases for CLTs; alternatively, if all the land had been in a CLT to begin with, we’d all get the public transit benefits without the corresponding negative impacts on land costs and housing affordability.

Unfortunately, Lewis adds, the political, legal and psychological processes that brought us to where we’re at now are deeply entrenched. “Going back 500 years, the process of enclosure, that is, the claiming of the commons by private interests and the aristocracy, is a historical fact. There’s been many aspects to it, and land is a key one.”

Today, most urban areas like ours have very little public land left for housing. And when we “connect the dots” at broader scales, says Lewis, we see that whether we’re discussing housing, food security, renewable energy or many other aspects of our society which have to be transitioned to lower-impact, lower-carbon processes, the underlying challenge is the same: “They all take land.”

Yet the ideology that “private everything” somehow will lead to collective good is still embedded in our psyches and culture, says Lewis, even as we witness economic disparities and environmental exploitation worsening daily. “In a nutshell we’re at a real, real significant conjuncture in human history,” says Lewis. “The biosphere itself and everything that depends on it is being compromised so severely in the name of an ideology that’s out of touch with reality.”

If we hope to make our communities more resilient, Lewis concludes, we need to forge innovative ways to reclaim the commons for the public good. Community Land Trusts are one place to start. “How [else] are we going to navigate transition, if we’re only seeing the world through this very, very narrow prism, this framework that’s dominated by the ideology of private property and the Holy Trinity of free trade, free markets, and free capital?” asks Lewis.

 

Michael Lewis’ book launch and talk will be in UVic’s Cadboro Commons building on March 11 at 4 pm. For more info go to www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cccbe or call 250-472-4539.