Category Archives: Unsustainably Inane

Who’s Deluded?? Fact-checking the “ReachOut Psychosis” Show for Schools

ReachOut Psychosis is an “educational” show touring BC schools right now that traffics in a shocking abundance of misleading misinformation and blatant lies about the alleged dangers of psychotic or schizophrenic experiences and the wonders of pharmaceutical drugs.

 

I recently saw ReachOut Psychosis, and haven’t been able to rest until I’ve publicly commented on it. ReachOut Psychosis is an “educational” show touring BC schools right now that traffics in a shocking abundance of misleading misinformation and blatant lies about the alleged dangers of psychotic or schizophrenic experiences and the wonders of pharmaceutical drugs. It’s truly a wonder — and horror — that any teacher or school even brings this show in at all.

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ReachOut Psychosis is described by its creators as a “high-energy, interactive and entertaining presentation, which provides life-saving brain science while countering stereotypes and misinformation around mental illness.” Produced by the BC Schizophrenia Society and funded by the BC government and various other mental health nonprofits, foundations and companies, it’s basically a lecture broken up by some live music, with an accompanying website, videos and teacher’s manual. The program has been “vetted” and “endorsed” by “early psychosis clinicians,” and is reportedly being provided free of charge to some 20,000 secondary school students in British Columbia every year.

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I guess it’s not entirely surprising that prominent mental health professionals would endorse public deception at this level and scale — for example, I’ve previously written about how even a child and youth mental health training program aimed at BC family physicians was riddled with similar misinformation and pharmaceutical industry propaganda. Even if you, your kids or your students haven’t been and never will be subjected to this particular show, ReachOut Psychosis is emblematic of the broader mental health “education” movement sweeping across North American schools, so it’s still instructive for analysis and discussion and important for everyone to know about. (If you’re a teacher, feel free to print out or use this post as a basis for discussion with your class.)

Here is a rundown of some of the most important misrepresentations and outright lies in the ReachOut Psychosis program:

1. A “What is psychosis?” reality check
2. Psychosis by the (made-up) numbers
3. Sure, psychosis is “able to be treated”… whatever that means…
4. What’s causing brain damage, exactly?
5. Gee, do antipsychotic medications really have no serious side effects at all?!

1. A “What is psychosis?” reality check

The performers and writers of the ReachOut Psychosis program use the terms psychosis and schizophrenia more or less interchangeably, and identify the most common warning signs of psychosis/schizophrenia as “delusions” and “hallucinations.” They give only brief examples of what these are, such as, “the person may believe that a movie star is sending him special messages or that people in his neighborhood are plotting against him” and “Ordinary faces may seem frightening, or a gentle touch may be unbearable. People may actually hear, see, smell, feel, or taste things that are not real.”

At first glance these examples may seem self-evidently “crazy,” but if we think about them seriously, they naturally raise many questions. For example, anyone who has worked in the arts knows that one of the skills many artists try to master is the ability to make people in the audience feel as if they are being communicated to intimately, or as if the art is reflecting their own personal lives in profound ways — if someone is particularly sensitized to that with a particular artist, is that necessarily “psychotic”? In some predominantly white neighbourhoods in North America, many people (though they’ll rarely admit they do it) secretly look at black children and youth with fear and suspicion and are more likely to call the police on them — so if a black youth somehow intuits those feelings in his neighbours, is he experiencing “psychosis”? Similarly, can you imagine any circumstances where you might find a face more frightening than you would ordinarily, or when you would find a particular person touching you in a certain way almost unbearable? Are feelings only acceptable if they come with rational explanations? How do you determine the difference between a flavour you taste that is “real,” and a flavour you taste that is “a hallucination”? Have you ever believed in anything that others did not believe in, or known people who believed in things that you thought were foolish, naïve or even illusory? These are the kinds of questions about the nature of reality and illusion and about conventional versus unconventional ways of perceiving that have puzzled, fueled and inspired spiritual, philosophical, artistic, social and political thinkers for centuries.

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But the writers of the ReachOut Psychosis show (on video here) and website do not discuss any of this. Instead, they act as if every reasonable person always knows exactly what “real” delusions and hallucinations are and are not, and they further assert that delusions and hallucinations are simply symptoms of a “brain disease.” Indeed, in their 27-page teacher’s manual — developed to guide student discussions after seeing the show — the writers describe psychosis/schizophrenia as a “neurobiological disorder,” “illness” or “disease” of the “brain” 122 times. Another 11 times they write that when people experience psychosis “the brain is not working properly”, or “not functioning properly” and that this is caused by “changes in the chemistry or structure of the brain”, “chemical imbalances as well as structural and functional abnormalities in the brain”, or “severe disturbance in the brain’s functioning.” They also repeatedly describe psychosis as a “medical illness” or “medical condition” requiring “medical care” from a “physician and/or psychiatrist” and emphasize that antipsychotic medications are of “vital importance” as the “foundation of treatment” that people “need” — in 27 pages, the writers of the teacher’s manual emphasize the absolute necessity of taking antipsychotic drugs 57 times.

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The teacher’s manual checks all the points where questions will be stopped.

Adding it all up, that’s 190 assertions that psychosis/schizophrenia is a biological brain disease that requires antipsychotic drug treatments. The teacher’s manual is only 8400 words long — so the writers on average do not go more than 44 words at a time without again stating that psychosis is a biological brain disease that requires psychiatric drug treatments. Notably, in one passing instance they acknowledge that the causes of schizophrenia are in fact “not known,” but they immediately follow that with the assertion, “However, it is definitely an organic (physical, biological) disease…”

They cite no scientific studies that prove these assertions. That’s because the causes of psychosis or schizophrenia are in fact not known. And there is no conclusive scientific evidence whatsoever that either psychosis or schizophrenia are physical, organic brain diseases. Further, there is no solid evidence that psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or any so-called mental disorders are caused by genetics or consistently identifiable physical, biological processes, diseases or pathologies in the brain. In 2013 during the release of the new edition of its diagnostic manual, the American Psychiatric Association came under intense public pressure to provide clarity on this issue, which pharmaceutical advertising and mental health “education” programs like ReachOut Psychosis have done much to confuse. The American Psychiatric Association and chair of the task force leading the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally released an official public statement admitting that, “In the future, we hope to be able to identify disorders using biological and genetic markers… Yet this promise… remains disappointingly distant.”

Questions for discussion:

Since it’s not factually true, then why would the writers of the ReachOut Psychosis show and manual emphasize to teachers and students over and over and over again — within every 44 words that they wrote over 27 pages — that psychosis is a biological, organic, biochemical illness of the brain that requires treatment with medications? What do you think the writers’ motives were, and why did they have those motives?

The producer of ReachOut Psychosis, the BC Schizophrenia Society, has intervened in court cases to support treating people against their wills with psychiatric medications, and has taken money from pharmaceutical companies. Do you think that is relevant information that the BC Schizophrenia Society should have disclosed to teachers and students?

If unusual or distressed states of mind are not proven to be “mental illnesses,” what do you think they are?

2. Psychosis by the (made-up) numbers

The ReachOut Psychosis website and teacher’s manual claim that 3% of the population will develop psychosis, and at another point that 1% will develop schizophrenia. At one point the ReachOut Psychosis performers claim 3% of the population will develop psychosis. Later in the show, though, the performers claim that “six times” as many people will develop psychosis as have diabetes. Following statistics from the Canadian Diabetes Association, if the ReachOut Psychosis performers actually mean Type 1 diabetes, then they’re claiming that 5-6% of Canadians will develop psychosis, and if they mean Type 2 diabetes, then they’re claiming that 56% of the population will develop psychosis.

It’s difficult to know from where or how they got any of these claims about psychosis affecting 1% to 56% of the population, because ReachOut Psychosis simply utters all of the contradictory numbers as if they’re known, universally accepted facts. This practice is common in the mental health industry, because most of these prevalence numbers are indeed essentially made up — they can’t be proven, but they can’t be disproven, either. For example, one of the ReachOut Psychosis figures would seem to have come from studies like this one from the Archives of General Psychiatry. In 2007, these researchers found that about 3% of the population experience various mental disorders that include some kinds of psychotic symptoms — however, a main part of their research involved giving brief telephone questionnaires to random people, which is a crude approach that often “diagnoses” about 5-10 times as many people with mental disorders as get diagnosed under normal conditions. In addition, this study included many people who were having psychotic-like experiences due to substance abuse or medical conditions such as tumors, strokes, epilepsy and infections.

Question for discussion: Hey, is this show for real?

Question for discussion: Hey, is this show for real?

Other studies have found that as few as 0.8% or as many as 31.4% of ordinary people are experiencing one or more “psychotic symptoms” at any time. The percentage of people supposedly experiencing psychosis depends entirely on how specific researchers define things like “delusions” and “hallucinations” — which is also why there’s no medically reliable or valid way for any individual psychiatrist to “diagnose” schizophrenia or psychosis in any individual person even under ideal clinical conditions. So the underlying fact is, no one has any idea at all how prevalent “psychosis” or “psychotic” experiences truly are, because what these experiences are cannot be consistently, scientifically identified in the first place.

Questions for discussion:

If no one really knows exactly how to define or diagnose “psychosis,” why would some people assert that we do in fact know? What might their motives be?

If no one really knows how prevalent “psychosis” or “psychotic” experiences are, why do you think some people at times want to make it seem like psychotic experiences are relatively common? And why do you think other people at times want to make it seem like psychotic experiences are instead relatively uncommon?

3. Sure, psychosis is “able to be treated”… whatever that means…

The ReachOut Psychosis program repeatedly asserts that psychosis is “treatable” or “can be treated.” Although these statements are misleading, they are certainly true — anything, in principle, “can” be “treated”. But the important question is, does the treatment cure the disease? Or, at least, do the treatment’s potential benefits outweigh its potential harms?

The ReachOut Psychosis teacher’s manual admits that antipsychotic drugs do not “cure” psychosis. However, the manual also repeatedly suggests that antipsychotic medications will “effectively” and “successfully” treat psychosis, especially if people take medications right away at the first sign of symptoms and keep taking them indefinitely. If psychosis is not being cured, then what does “effective” and “successful” treatment for it actually achieve? The ReachOut Psychosis program does not explain.

Contrary to what ReachOut Psychosis claims, there is no solid evidence that intervening as early as possible with antipsychotic medications is especially helpful to anyone. Scientific evidence does show that, over periods of about 4-8 weeks, antipsychotics can reduce some people’s symptoms of psychosis. This is apparently because these drugs numb people to their own feelings and experiences — the antipsychotics in fact used to be called “tranquillizers.” As you can probably imagine, then, most people do not often feel all that much better when they’re permanently tranquillized, and many feel worse: In most scientific studies of schizophrenia, people taking antipsychotics on average will “improve” by only about 6 points more on a 168-point symptom rating scale than people taking placebos will improve.

Worse, evidence is mounting that over the long term of 1-10 years or more, antipsychotics are actually associated with poorer outcomes and increasing disability in people who take them compared to people who never took antipsychotics or took them for only a very brief period and then tapered off them. We’ll explore why that is shortly.

Hey kids, let's talk openly except about the facts I'm hiding from you.

Hey kids, let’s talk openly except about the facts that I’m hiding from you.

Questions for discussion:

If there is a lot of debate in the scientific literature about the relative effectiveness of antipsychotics for treating psychosis, especially beyond periods of 4-8 weeks, why would the ReachOut Psychosis program avoid mentioning that such a debate even exists, let alone not provide any risk-benefit discussions or statistics?

Why do you think pharmaceutical companies and psychiatrists changed the commonly used, public name of “neuroleptic drugs” to “tranquillizers” and later to “antipsychotics”?

4. What’s causing brain damage, exactly?

In the ReachOut Psychosis show, the performers conclusively and repeatedly state that psychosis “causes brain damage” and indeed “each episode of psychosis causes damage to the brain.” The teacher’s manual, though, isn’t so certain about that: It states that some research “indicates” that “some people” experiencing psychosis “may” suffer brain damage.

The performers also repeatedly state that “early intervention” with antipsychotic drugs “will prevent this brain damage.” The teacher’s manual, though, never says that.

When your thoughts become a brain disease.

What it’s like according to ReachOut Psychosis when your thoughts are a brain disease.

The actual scientific research has found that there is an “association”: some people who’ve experienced psychosis seem to at times also have some brain damage. No one can explain why or how this might happen. Notably, there is growing evidence that early childhood traumas may sometimes cause long-lasting impacts on brain structure and function, and can lead to a greater likelihood of having psychotic-like experiences later in life. However, this association is even stronger for people who’ve experienced trauma or psychosis and who’ve taken antipsychotic medications. There’s growing evidence that the antipsychotic drugs that some people take to treat psychotic symptoms could be causing brain changes and brain damage.

But there are many more harmful side effects of antipsychotics about which there is no debate at all — we’ll examine some of those next.

Questions for discussion:

If it’s not clear that schizophrenia or psychosis can cause brain damage at all, why do you think ReachOut Psychosis repeatedly asserts that even one experience of psychotic feelings causes brain damage?

If there is scientific debate about whether it’s psychosis, childhood trauma, or antipsychotic drugs that may be causing brain damage in some people, why would the creators of ReachOut Psychosis not even mention this?

5. Gee, antipsychotic drugs really have no serious side effects at all?!

The ReachOut Psychosis program never discusses the risks of antipsychotic medications. The teacher’s manual only briefly mentions that some people may not want to take the medications due to possible “unpleasant” side effects. To learn anything about these side effects, you actually have to leave the ReachOut Psychosis website entirely, following a reference link to a BC government website about Early Psychosis Intervention.

There, one document discussing the importance of antipsychotic medications includes a mention of a few side effects such as “dry mouth” and “feeling tired.” The document also mentions “weight gain” and “unwanted movements.” That’s about all the document says about these topics, though — along with a bit of advice on how to mitigate these few, minor-sounding side effects.

The BC Early Psychosis Intervention explanation of antipsychotic side effects.

The BC Early Psychosis Intervention explanation of antipsychotic side effects.

Antipsychotics are actually among the most powerful and dangerous drugs that physicians ever prescribe for non-life threatening conditions. Most of them are not approved by Health Canada for use in children or youth, yet doctors and psychiatrists prescribe them “off-label” even though their safety in young people has barely been studied. You can see some of the most common side effects of antipsychotics listed on pharmacology information websites. These sites also explain that antipsychotics block the functioning of key chemicals used in brain and body communication systems, and that’s why these drugs can have so many very serious side effects. For example, antipsychotic drugs disrupt the body’s natural metabolic processes so much that they can typically cause people taking them to gain 10 kilograms or 22 pounds in the first year alone. (See also here.) Other side effects of antipsychotics can include loss of bladder control, kidney damage, liver failure, memory loss, and a host of other serious problems. Antipsychotics will also cause many people taking them to develop diabetes — as high as 30% of people within five years.

The “unwanted movements” that the government document mentions refer to two other common side effects of antipsychotic drugs: Akathisia and tardive dyskinesia. Akathisia is a term to describe how an antipsychotic can make a person feel extremely uncomfortable, restless and agitated in his or her own body for long periods of time. Akathisia can sometimes become so unbearable that it can make some people become suicidal or violent trying to escape it. Some studies have found that as many as 25% of people who take an antipsychotic will experience akathisia.

Tardive dyskinesia is a motor dysfunction like Parkinson’s Disease that results from neurological damage caused by antipsychotics. This neurological damage can cause anything from legs shaking uncontrollably and continually to a tongue sticking out of the mouth at random times. Within a year, about 2-7% of people who take antipsychotics will develop tardive dyskinesia, and after 10 years nearly 100% of antipsychotic users will have it. It is often incurable.

In a percentage of people taking antipsychotics (ranging in different studies over time from about 0.01% to 3.2% of people), these drugs may even cause Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome. This is a neurological meltdown that can put people into a catatonic stupor and is fatal in about 20% of cases.

Mounting evidence also shows that antipsychotics can be very difficult to stop taking, and that users must sometimes taper down off the drugs slowly over months or even years so that their bodies and brains can slowly readjust, or else they risk experiencing emotionally disruptive and physically painful “toxic withdrawal syndrome.”

Questions for discussion:

If the potential side effects of antipsychotic drugs are so serious, why do you think the ReachOut Psychosis program, and even the BC government website on Early Psychosis Intervention, would not anywhere clearly explain the risks to young people and parents?

If a person is already experiencing extreme psychological distress, do you think it is good to give the person a drug that could likely cause extreme restlessness and agitation, permanent motor dysfunction, or rapid, massive weight gain?

Based on a recent study of antipsychotic prescribing rates in British Columbia, we can statistically estimate that every year about 500 BC children and youth are developing diabetes from antipsychotics they are being prescribed, 500 are developing tardive dyskinesia, and 1 child in BC is dying every year from Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome. Do you think young people and parents should be made more aware of this?

Every province and state in North America has laws that allow psychiatrists to force people to take psychiatric drugs against their wills. Many people assume that someone must be “dangerous” to be forcibly treated, but that is not the case in British Columbia — read the criteria for involuntary admissions in Section 22(3) of the BC Mental Health Act. Considering how harmful antipsychotics can be, do you think it’s fair that some people are being legally forced to take these drugs?

Considering all of what you have just read, what do you think about the BC Schizophrenia Society’s ReachOut Psychosis show and the BC government’s Early Psychosis Intervention program?

If you asked the BC government, the BC Schizophrenia Society, or any of the other organizations involved in creating ReachOut Psychosis about all of these factual inaccuracies and missing information that this blog post has drawn attention to, how do you think they would they respond?

 

Author’s disclosure: Nobody paid me anything to write this blog post. I was driven by sheer madness.

“To Safeguard Against Tyranny”

Read deeper and BC Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin’s ruling in support of teachers against the provincial government is about much more than just our schools.

It seems appropriate that the late-January BC Supreme Court ruling won by the BC Teachers Federation has received attention in our news media. But there’s an undercurrent that permeates Justice Susan Griffin’s Reasons for Judgment that hasn’t been discussed nearly as much as it should be: Her very worrying evaluation of the state of our democracy.

For those who haven’t been following the story, the BC Liberal government passed legislation in 2002 that seemed to be a blatant attack against the most basic civil rights of teachers to freely associate and take action collectively. It deleted hundreds of agreements from existing contracts and stripped the BCTF of virtually any powers to bargain on key issues about teachers’ working conditions—primarily with respect to the number of students in classes, and the learning environments for children with special needs. Those are issues that, obviously, do dramatically affect not just teacher working conditions, but also classroom management, children’s education, and probably the emotional state of many schoolchildren. So they’re issues worth discussing.

But the government legislated otherwise. It was as if your boss were not only to refuse your requests for office supplies, but were to suddenly threaten to have you dragged to jail if you so much as tried to discuss or negotiate issues concerning office supplies.

It wasn’t a reasonable approach from the government. And that’s what the courts said, too. In fact, the courts determined that the BC Liberals’ legislation violated teachers’ basic civil rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But the provincial government ignored the courts. Repeatedly.

When, in 2004, the BC Supreme Court first struck down an arbitrator’s decision upholding the government’s legislation, the government simply re-wrote the legislation anew and made it apply retroactively. And for good measure, they wrote into this new version of the legislation that it would remain in force, “Despite any decision of a court to the contrary…” It was like kamikaze legislating: The BC Liberals enacted a law that was deliberately aimed at destroying the authority of our own legal system.

After a challenge brought by the BCTF in 2011, the BC Supreme Court struck down the legislation as contravening teachers’ constitutional rights. (Er, didn’t I say that already?) The government reacted by basically changing some words here and there and passing the same unconstitutional legislation all over again. So the BCTF had to take the government to court all over again. And the BC Supreme Court struck down the legislation as unconstitutional—all over again—this January.

It’s crucial to understand that relatively little substantive was actually being negotiated during many of these years. Rather, the teachers were for the most part simply trying, again and again and again, to win back their basic right to at least be able to discuss and negotiate their working conditions with government.

Appropriately, then, Justice Griffin’s January 2014 decision was hard on the government. She acknowledged that government “has a role and responsibility” to establish “some fiscal and policy parameters” around the teachers’ collective bargaining process. And she noted that there was “a plethora of tools” available to both sides to resolve impasses, such as mediation and arbitration. However, Griffin said the government’s actions for the past ten years were “not in good faith” and flatly “unlawful”.

Griffin further determined that, particularly in the past few years, the government’s representatives delayed unnecessarily, “wasting time,” wouldn’t engage in meaningful dialogue, didn’t listen or make any reasonable efforts to reach agreements, and often simply “ignored” the BCTF. The government even engaged in efforts to sabotage negotiations by refusing to repeal the unconstitutional legislation, and trying backdoor routes to reduce teachers’ pay and cancel teachers’ leaves and professional development days. Indeed, with access to confidential cabinet documents and the capacity to compel testimony, Griffin heard enough evidence to state unequivocally that the government was in fact “preoccupied” with such sabotage. “From the start…the government had a strategy in mind that it would be to its benefit if negotiations failed and if collective bargaining resulted in a strike and impasse,” wrote Griffin. “The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.”

All of the news coverage that I’ve seen of the court decision essentially stopped at this point. Those are certainly already damning enough findings to report, but as I reflected on these insights, and read more of the Reasons for Judgment, I saw an even darker, more broadly significant undercurrent emerging.

First, it’s important I think to really absorb some of what we’re hearing. The BCTF is one of the biggest unions in the province, representing 41,000 people. It has immense funding, paid staff, ready access to volunteers, researchers and lawyers, and a professional communications arm. Essentially, the BCTF is one of the bigger and more powerful political entities in British Columbia apart from the provincial government itself, the federal government, or some major corporations and their lobby groups. But the BCTF’s attempts to understand the government’s positions were constantly deflected. The government frequently simply ignored the BCTF for long spans of time. The government flouted the law in teachers’ faces, tried to upset them so they’d act rashly and discredit themselves in the public eye, and then tried to undermine their source of income. Basically, the government kicked the mighty teachers’ union around like it was no more significant than, say, to use an example I can personally relate to, a lone freelance journalist writing for some small publication.

Even more sinisterly: Our government was actually covertly working hard behind the scenes trying to orchestrate a province-wide, full teachers’ strike, in order to justify a harsh crackdown on the teachers. It’s really the most deceitful, duplicitous, publicly manipulative and pernicious way of governing possible. It’s like employing undercover police to launch a riot at a peaceful demonstration, so you can justify sending in the riot squad to bash heads. If you’d seriously argued at the time that the government was secretly trying hard to provoke a strike, a lot of people probably would have mocked you as a cynical, feverish conspiracy theorist.

With these perspectives in mind as I waded deeper into Justice Susan Griffin’s nearly 50,000-word decision, I started to think that she was actually trying in her own way to warn us all of the seriousness of this situation we’re in with our government.

Griffin’s ruling described part of what was at stake in this legal case as being Canada’s democratic structure itself “which requires that governments must act legally, within the supreme law of the country, the Constitution.” She wrote that “Democratic institutions and democratic philosophy are at their root based on a belief that society should be structured in a way that is fair”—and she described our government’s actions as “fundamentally unfair.”

Discussing the historical context for her decision, she wrote that political forces often desire “to consolidate and gather more power and to seek to diminish any restraint on that power.” Conversely, she wrote, “A democratic system has institutional checks to counter that tendency and to safeguard against tyranny.” And one critical check on tyranny, Griffin wrote, is our Charter of Rights and Freedoms—which our provincial government has for ten years running deliberately spurned.

When Griffin considered what level of financial penalty against our government would be appropriate, she cited the moral and legal context for her determination as government conduct that could be placed somewhere on a spectrum between negligent “wilful blindness” and a clearly wrong “abuse of power.” And without substantial penalties for such actions, she argued, it was simply “too tempting” for governments to dismiss and extinguish the basic civil rights of the governed. (Griffin ultimately fined the province $2 million, indicating understanding that there could also still be substantial costs for the government in making re-dress to teachers, and expressing reluctance “to unduly take from the public purse and other public programs.”)

Absorbing all this, I thought, how much more dire a warning about our government could a high-ranking representative of our judiciary give us? And isn’t this the kind of court finding that 20 years ago got governments scandalized and politicians turfed from power?

Yet no sooner was this BC Supreme Court judgment rendered, than Premier Christy Clark (who was a principal architect of the legislation) announced that the government would appeal. It shows how emboldened our governments have become in their disdain for democratic process and their comfortable confidence in our collective passivity or ineffectualness in protest.

And now add to this disturbing reality the fact that the students in this year’s high school graduating class were in kindergarten when all this began; their entire schooling has been shaped by these circumstances. So what have the BC Liberals taught an entire generation of our children? And where is it leading us all?

Previously published at Focusonline.

 

So it’s illegal surveillance, so what?

The Privacy Commissioner has ruled on licence plate tracking, but our police and government seem unwilling to obey the law. Who will hold them to account?

(Originally published in Focus, January 2012.)

 

Upon its release in November, the BC Privacy Commissioner’s report on the Victoria Police Department’s use of automatic licence plate recognition surveillance (ALPR) looked like an inspiring example of democratic checks and balances working to perfection. Unfortunately, it rapidly became a siren call for how wantonly our governments and police are ever more often tossing aside any pretences to following democratic principles or rule of law.

The ALPR program involves using cruiser-mounted computerized cameras that read passing licence plates at high speeds and run them against hotlists of stolen vehicles and prohibited and unlicensed drivers. However, BC municipal police forces, working with the RCMP, have secretly expanded the program to gather information about the movements of much wider ranges of innocent people (See “Hidden Surveillance,” Focus March 2012, and “Privacy Commissioner Slams Provincial Surveillance Program,” Focus April 2012). In other countries, ALPR data has been used to risk-profile people based on where they travel and who they meet, or to harass activists driving to protests.

Citing her office’s decision to investigate after receiving a letter from “three individuals”—me, political science PhD student Christopher Parsons, and technology-privacy advocate Kevin McArthur—Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s press release couldn’t have been clearer: “The Victoria Police Department must make changes to its Automated Licence Plate Recognition program to comply with privacy laws”.

Denham’s report identified the key aspects of VicPD’s ALPR program that are not legal under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA): Tracking the movements of law-abiding people of “special interest” to police, such as those who have obtained legal custody of their children, threatened suicide, or are simply relatives or “associates” of people under investigation “is not authorized by FIPPA.” Tracking the movements of all law-abiding BC citizens “is not authorized by FIPPA.” Collecting information about everyone’s movements and passing it to the RCMP to use in unknown ways “is not authorized by FIPPA.” Denham even had strong words for the federal RCMP who’ve been administering much of the program on behalf of municipal police departments: “I do not have jurisdiction to direct the RCMP in their use of ALPR; however, I am nevertheless deeply concerned about the potential privacy implications of this indiscriminate collection of personal information.”

 

It’s inaccurate, in no particular way

Basically, VicPD’s ALPR program—and by extension the same programs at other BC municipal police departments—was determined by the Commissioner to be in significant respects illegal. Her findings were straightforward, concise and unequivocal. Within the week, citing the Commissioner’s findings, Saanich Mayor and Police Board Chair Frank Leonard announced the Saanich Police Department had suspended their ALPR program pending changes.

Others reacted differently.

VicPD issued a press release in which Chief Jamie Graham said, “the Department respectfully disagrees with certain elements of the Commissioner’s characterization of how the ALPR program functions.”

The RCMP similarly issued a press release stating that the OIPC report “contains inaccurate information in regards to the ALPR system which we will address with the Privacy Commissioner.”

No substantiations were provided; nevertheless, news media across Canada replayed these undermining claims. Yet a month later, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) had still received no indication from the RCMP or VicPD that there was actually anything inaccurate in the report.

And that was all our police did. There were no apologies, no promises to do things differently, no shamefaced announcements of plans to promptly come into compliance with the law.

“It was incredibly heartening to see that the Saanich Police Department is abiding by the law,” commented my co-researcher Christopher Parsons who presents and publishes on privacy and security issues both nationally and internationally. “And I hope that other police departments will similarly decide that they’re going to obey the law with regard to licence plate recognition in the province.”

Nevertheless, it was the same in Vancouver. In response to my questions two weeks after the report came out, VPD media rep Cst. Brian Montague wrote, “I am not sure what you mean when you say the VPD is operating the ALPR system contrary to BC law.”

I suggested Montague read the OIPC report, and then went above his head. Vancouver Mayor and Police Board Chair Gregor Robertson didn’t reply to emails or calls for weeks. Patti Marfleet, executive director of the Vancouver Police Board, emailed me more comments from the Vancouver Police Department. VPD wrote that they were “considering” Denham’s proposed changes, but flatly denied that aspects of their ALPR program were, as I’d termed it, “illegal.” Instead, VPD explained “for clarification” that the Commissioner had merely found the ALPR program was in some aspects “not authorized by FIPPA” and could be “more privacy-compliant.”

I refrained from asking the follow-up question which now appeared in Orwellian fashion to be both eminently logical and senselessly inflammatory: So if I speed, I can successfully exonerate myself by explaining to police that I’m not actually doing anything “illegal,” I’m merely innocently doing something that’s “not authorized by the law” and “could be more in compliance with the law”?

“The police are supposed to be the people that are above reproach. And here they’re just thumbing their noses at the law,” observed Parsons. “Not necessarily surprising, I guess, but how disappointing is it?”

 

Who ensures laws are followed?

I went above their heads. I asked if the BC Minister of Justice intended to ensure police forces operating in BC, including the RCMP, obeyed BC law. In a written statement issued through a media rep, Liberal Justice Minister Shirley Bond wrote that the government would “consider” the Commissioner’s report but, “In the meantime, we expect all agencies deploying ALPR to adhere to approved procedures and polices [sic] presently in place.” Since the present ALPR procedures are illegal, of course, Bond in effect publicly urged all BC police to continue breaking the law.

“If it was some other ministry, it would be disturbing, it would be upsetting, but it wouldn’t have the same level of significance,” commented Parsons. (Yet this same government has recently fired bureaucrats and shut down some of the most renowned health research teams in the country while investigating the mere possibility privacy laws were temporarily breached in the health ministry.)

Not that I think “the law” is in all situations absolutely sacrosanct if there’s a greater moral imperative involved, but what’s the redeeming moral imperative behind huge databases tracking all our movements? Some people dismissively suggest, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” Why anyone trusts government to always do the right thing, I’m not sure. But the trite phrase also glosses over obvious impacts of even benign surveillance. For instance, most people are anxious and inhibited when public speaking, yet not because they’ve done anything wrong. There’s just something about eyes watching you.

Then, like daylight cresting the horizon, Victoria Mayor and Police Board Chair Dean Fortin wrote to me that, “I believe the Victoria Police are obligated to follow [the Privacy Commissioner’s] recommendations. It is important that our law enforcement tools and operations adhere to privacy regulations at every turn. Now that we have this ruling by the Privacy Commission, I believe we are compelled to act.” Unfortunately, at the Victoria Police Board meeting in December, it took less than 15 seconds and some makeshift muttering from provincial government appointee Lindalee Brougham about how “it deals with operational issues around how we use our manpower” to make them all justify moving the discussion in camera out of public view. The Board finally issued a brief notice directing VicPD “to work constructively with the RCMP to address the [Privacy Commissioner’s] recommendations,” and to report back on progress in three months. How an entire Police Board justifies allowing police to continue breaking the law in the meantime remains a mystery. Fortin receded into darkness, not returning my calls.

Also not surprisingly, then, another key finding by the Commissioner was that neither government authorities nor policing bodies have ever been forthcoming about this surveillance program. Denham wrote, “I recommend that the mandate of ALPR be more accurately described by VicPD and the Ministry of Justice to inform the public of the full scope of the ALPR program.”

Pointedly, and ironically, Liberal MLA John Les was subsequently quoted in The Tyee praising Denham’s report and stating, “Where [the ALPR program] was going was not where it was ever intended to go.” Yet Les was the very Solicitor General who brought the ALPR program into BC in 2006, authorized surveilling all BC citizens, and falsely told news media our privacy commissioners had approved it. So was he now regretful, or was he covering his tracks? Les avoided responding to my emails and calls.

But I soon uncovered how deep the web of deception truly went. Our government and police have even been misleading our privacy commissioners.

For example, police apparently did not clarify to the OIPC that even the ALPR “hit” data is, in fact, mostly information on innocent citizens. Typically about 80 percent of all hits are actually instances where, for example, a spouse or friend is legally and appropriately driving an unlicensed driver’s car. So should all the movements of these law-abiding people still be tracked and stored in databases for years? When I brought this issue to the OIPC’s attention after their report came out, they acknowledged “it may merit a closer look in consultation with law enforcement.”

But I uncovered a much more disturbing deception.

 

Lying to the commissioners

The first clue was the one fact in the OIPC report that completely surprised me: VicPD is indeed currently collecting data on the movements of all citizens and passing that data to the RCMP. The RCMP say they’re deleting the secondary “non-hit” data about innocent citizens, and only keeping the “hit” data. But Commissioner Denham said VicPD officers must by law delete the non-hit data during each police shift before passing anything to the RCMP. VicPD Cst. Mike Russell replied to media as if Denham’s suggestion were utterly novel: “She’s asking us to do something we just can’t do right now.”

But I’d always thought that was exactly what VicPD was already doing.  For the past year, I’d simply been warning the public that police had collected the non-hit data between 2006 and 2009, and wanted to again in the future. And this was, after all, the most important issue with respect to the ALPR system—whether police would or would not collect information on the movements of all innocent British Columbians. So how had I gotten this centrally important fact wrong?

I went back into the documents I’d obtained from VicPD through a Freedom of Information request, and followed a thread of communications that suddenly took on a whole new light.

After criticisms from the federal Privacy Commissioner’s office in 2009 about their “ubiquitous surveillance” of innocent citizens, RCMP Inspector Mike Diack pledged in a March 30, 2010 letter to the federal Assistant Commissioner that police ALPR systems in BC would no longer collect the secondary, or non-hit data. Diack wrote, “I have instructed the manufacturer to reconfigure our ALPR systems to collect only primary hit data. The manufacturer indicates that this will take approximately 4-6 weeks[.]” For those intervening weeks, Diack added, the RCMP themselves would delete the non-hit data as soon as they received it from VicPD.

Several weeks later, VicPD chief information officer Hervey Simard drew up an overview of how VicPD’s ALPR system operated, indicating that the promised technical change had occurred. Simard explained: “When the shift ends, the [VicPD] officer will click on the ‘End Shift’ button on the screen. The process will delete all [non-hit] ‘reads’, which consist of 95 percent of data. The [VicPD] officer will bring back the USB [to the RCMP] which contains only ‘hits’.”

In June 2010, then, in response to similar concerns about non-hit data collection expressed by the BC Privacy Commissioner’s office, VicPD in turn explained this technical update to the OIPC. VicPD Information and Privacy Manager Debra Taylor assured the OIPC, “In March of 2010 the RCMP instructed the manufacturer of the PIPS technology for the ALPR systems to reconfigure the systems to ensure that only primary (hit) data would be collected and stored. I have confirmed with their agency that the technology now has an auto purge feature for all secondary data, thus retaining only primary data.”

Yet a month later, the RCMP’s Diack admitted in an internal police email that the technological change actually had yet to occur. “I anticipate having these issues resolved by Christmas as my resources are committed for the next several months,” he wrote. In a December 2010 email, the manufacturer wrote to police that the non-hit data was still being collected by VicPD and transferred to the RCMP. The paper trail ended there, with no indication police updated either privacy commissioner that this crucial pledge to conform with privacy laws hadn’t actually been fulfilled as promised. And so, two years later in November 2012, the BC Privacy Commissioner discovered VicPD was actually still illegally collecting and transferring all that personal information about innocent BC citizens to the RCMP.

Parsons was shocked. “This is a guarantee they’re offering the commissioners. You can’t just offer a guarantee and then not do it,” he commented. “It calls into question all the other instances where police may have said something similar. Is it now a requirement to go through all the old privacy statements that these organizations have made and say, well, we can’t trust you anymore, so we have to go check?”

Maybe so. Here’s another example of how untrustworthy our police have become with respect to this secretive surveillance system: I’ve long felt RCMP officers were stonewalling my information requests about ALPR—18 months after my first request, they’ve still released next to nothing. Last March, the federal Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) issued a five-page independent investigation report in which they determined that, indeed, RCMP Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) officers “fell remarkably short” of complying with their legal duties in responding to my information requests. RCMP ATIP officials “deliberately ignored” my requests for long spans of time, the OIC wrote, and other times “deliberately acted contrary to [my] wishes” in “unacceptable” ways. The OIC even uncovered that RCMP ATIP officials once copied and pasted parts of an email from me while deleting other key parts, and then forwarded the resulting “misleading” letter to others as if it were my complete letter.

So can anyone make our police obey the law in how they use ALPR? BC’s OIPC answered in writing: “The Commissioner’s expectation is that public bodies found to be in non-compliance will do what is necessary to come into compliance. The Commissioner has order-making power which she could use to compel a public body to comply with FIPPA.”

However, Denham has no jurisdiction over the RCMP, and the federal privacy commissioner doesn’t have Denham’s order-making powers, so the RCMP can continue breaking BC and Canadian privacy laws unless the provincial or federal government intervenes. This is significant, because most of the ALPR cruisers in BC, including in the capital region, are run by the RCMP or Integrated Road Safety Units that combine members from municipal police forces under RCMP authority.

Parsons called this ever-expanding legal loophole in BC policing “insane,” and asked, “What other laws can you do an end-run around?”

School Board Pans Its Own Strategic Plan

Stantec makes off with the money in what looks like a nation-wide practice of producing copied-and-pasted assessments.

The year-long development of the Greater Victoria School District’s strategic facilities plan may have been an utter waste of time, resources and taxpayer dollars. And now, practically everyone involved is hoping and praying that’s exactly what it was—because the alternative would be much worse.

Either way, the consulting firm Stantec is plucking untold sums from school district coffers through what looks like a questionable BC-wide or even national practice.

“It’s about a billion-dollar corporation that appears to have taken advantage of the good will of a vulnerable school district that’s already stretched to its limits,” summarizes David Bratzer, a Victoria police constable who’s been following school issues and is running for a trustee position this fall.

Read more.

A Mess Fit for a Fascist

Gordon Campbell’s reorganization of our resource ministries is costly, chaotic and destructive.

One of Gordon Campbell’s last major acts as BC Premier, a government reorganization, is old news. However, unless reversed by a new leader, the devastating consequences will be unfolding for years, from Peace River forests through bureaucratic halls to Victoria shores.

The decisions affected nearly every ministry, and thousands of civil servants. But the most significant changes hit our important resource ministries, where many of the highest-level decision-making branches and powers governing lands, mining, agriculture, energy, forests, fish and wildlife, water and the environment were moved to a new Natural Resource Operations (NRO) super-ministry.

Read more.