Category Archives: Canadian Politics

Losing Touch with (Community) Reality

Why we can no longer really know our own community.

I’d felt compelled to be present, to bear witness to this last stand. That’s why I’d attended a number of meetings alongside representatives from the Capital Regional District, municipalities of Victoria and Saanich, Camosun College, Vancouver Island Health Authority, and others helping bring together a report called Growing Prosperity in the Capital Region.

Drawing on census data from 1996 to 2006, this report was released in April by the Community Social Planning Council. Some interesting insights were included: Poverty in our region remained steady. About 20 percent aged 15-25 were poor. Women, especially women over 75, were amongst the poorest. At least 10 percent of workers lived below the poverty line. It remained difficult to quantify how much the cuts to public services and non-profits, degenerating environmental health, and declining access to land were affecting quality of life.

I was glad that this important information, and these information gaps, were discussed in the report. However, for me, the whole project also carried an air of funereal futility. After the global financial crisis, we all knew this data was gravely dated. Worse, we knew there was no comparable up-to-date data coming, because our federal Conservative government in 2010 decided to make the long-form census voluntary instead of mandatory.

“The census is a vital, even pivotal component of our statistical infrastructure,” UBC economists David Green and Kevin Milligan wrote in Canadian Public Policy. Comparing the Conservative’s decision to abandoning upkeep on our power grids and roads, they wrote, “the degradation of the Canadian census has impacts that, while perhaps not immediately clear to Canadians, will eventually have large influences on the quality of Canadian society.”

Unfortunately, it already is becoming clear—through the immeasurable despair that’s seeping into communities and groups like ours across the country, while any still-thrashing protesters are buried like “old news.”

Read the rest at Focus online.

Hidden Surveillance

Not many people know that local Victoria, BC police and the RCMP have already begun building a massive public traffic surveillance system. And no one knows how they’re going to use it.

The A News reporter and Nanaimo constable interwove: “amazing,” “blown away,” “overwhelming.” “This will revolutionize the way we police,” proclaimed Vancouver police in The Province.

Both media and police across North America have engaged in such trumpeting about Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR). The RCMP and BC government piloted ALPR in 2006 and have expanded it rapidly. BC now has 42 police cruisers equipped with the technology, including one with the Victoria Police Department (VicPD), one in Saanich, and two in our regional Integrated Road Safety Unit.

Normally, area police manually key in plate numbers to check suspicious cars in the databases of the Canadian Police Information Centre and ICBC. With ALPR, for $27,000, a police cruiser is mounted with two cameras and software that can read licence plates on both passing and stationary cars. According to the vendors, thousands of plates can be read hourly with 95-98 percent accuracy. These plate numbers are automatically compared for “hits” against ICBC and Canadian Police Information Centre “hot lists” of stolen vehicles; prohibited, unlicensed and uninsured drivers; and missing children. When such “hits” occur, plate photos are automatically stamped with time, date, and GPS coordinates, and stored. The officer will investigate details in the above-mentioned databases directly, and may pull over suspect vehicles.

At least, that’s how the popular story goes, and it sounds wonderful. However, some news stories have quoted academics or civil rights advocates worried about what else this plate recognition technology is, or could be, used for. ALPR was developed by the British government in the 1990s to track movements of the Irish Republican Army. By 2007, the International Association of Police Chiefs was issuing a resolution calling for “all countries” to begin using ALPR and sharing population surveillance data for fighting gangs and terrorism. Today in the UK, ALPR is used for charging tolls, “risk profiling” travellers, and tracking or intercepting people using cars photographed near protests.

But most Canadians’ concerns have been assuaged with statements like that in a Times Colonist article: “Both federal and provincial privacy commissioners have approved the system, which must comply with federal privacy legislation, said [RCMP Sgt. Warren] Nelson.”

Yet no one in Canada has actually investigated either police claims or the complaints.

That lack motivated me, along with Christopher Parsons, a University of Victoria PhD candidate in privacy and surveillance studies, and Kevin McArthur, a web architecture developer and high-tech civil rights advocate, to form a research team.

Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s office gave us our first shock of many.

Clicke here to read the rest of this article in the February, 2012 issue of Focus magazine.

Forget Chickens; Invest in Eggs

Our general belief that jobs are created by businesses needs a little refinement

 

When Mayor Dean Fortin began proposing a gradual reduction of the business tax rate in Victoria relative to the residential rate, he argued it would help protect and create jobs. In resounding endorsement, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business agreed it would help companies “hire more staff”. A feature in the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s “Business Matters” magazine, “Local Government’s Role in Business Prosperity”, similarly endorsed this idea.

When federal finance minister Jim Flaherty announced the Conservatives’ latest corporate tax cuts, he explained that this would allow Canadian businesses to “create jobs”.

When the Smart Tax Alliance coalition of BC businesses came out swinging in defence of the Harmonized Sales Tax, chairman John Winter’s primary argument was that the eased tax burden on businesses would help them “create jobs”.

When discussing the Wisconsin state government’s now infamous efforts to squash public sector workers’ rights while giving tax breaks to corporations, Kevin Gaudet, national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, explained on CBC radio that even in times of public financial crisis we should be cutting taxes for businesses because “they’re the ones that put in place the jobs that people get paid for”.

It’s a statement that constantly re-emerges in federal proclamations and provincial debates, local community discussions and dinner-table arguments: Businesses create jobs. The phrase has spread throughout our culture like a viral “meme”, the term evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined to describe ideas, beliefs, symbols and other cultural information being passed around like genes between breeding rabbits. Continue reading “Forget Chickens; Invest in Eggs” »

What is a Sidewalk For?

Municipal engineers have a lot more power over city life and politics than most of us realize.

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It’s an academic lecture about sidewalks. Could I have even dreamed up an event that sounded more inconsequentially mind-numbing?

But on this cold, rainy, January night, the little Legacy Art Gallery and Café, as part of the University of Victoria’s “City Talks” lectures, has drawn nearly a hundred provincial and municipal bureaucrats, business owners, artists, developers, lawyers, students, urban gardeners, civil rights activists, anarchists… Why on Earth would all these people be so interested in sidewalks?

Within the hour the answer becomes clear, as Simon Fraser University’s Nicholas Blomley delivers a surprisingly riveting overview of the role of sidewalks in social control.

Blomley is a “legal geographer” who specializes in “property and its relationship to the politics of urban space.” His new book sounds similarly recondite: Rights of Passage—Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow. However, much like his earlier work on homelessness, First Nations dispossession, and community gardens, Blomley adeptly straddles abstract academia and on-the-ground activism.

“What is a sidewalk for?” he begins, and it’s soon apparent this seemingly benign question holds the seeds of intense urban conflict.

Read more.

The Politics of Parking

We’re paying a lot for parking. An awful lot.

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Years ago, I was awaiting the fate of a grant application before Victoria city council to help build a community garden. Instead, council got bogged down debating a developer’s building permit and re-zoning application.

The developer wanted a reduction in the number of parking spaces required in favour of more room to expand his apartment building. Discussion ensued about the number of people moving in, the number of cars they’d own, the limited availability of street and store parking in this high-traffic area, and our tight, expensive rental market.

It seemed mundane. Recently, though, an opinion article prompted me to investigate the politics of parking, and it dramatically shifted my perspective.

Most of the article’s arguments and statistics were based on Yale University urban planning expert Donald Shoup‘s intriguing book, The High Cost of Free Parking. Reading Shoup’s analyses, it suddenly seemed bizarre that, even though I’ve long been aware of the many damaging environmental and economic impacts from cars, I hadn’t thought much about the role of parking. Continue reading “The Politics of Parking” »