Category Archives: Articles

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.

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A Revolution You Can Eat At

Your backyard provides hope for the future.

We’re pretty conspicuous when we pull up in a little silver hatchback covered with children’s paintings of carrots, flowers, and slogans like “be cool, grow veggies,” sporting a roof rack piled with enough hay bales to practically tip us over.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling we’re sneaking around like criminals. Surely we’re not supposed to be in other people’s backyards when they’re not home. Even if they said we could.

So it’s a new way of experiencing my city as we pull weeds, lay compost, roll a seeder, and harvest strawberries, nasturtiums and lettuce in yards in Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay.

I’m urban farming with Sol Kinnis, co-owner of City Harvest. It’s part of an international movement in revitalizing food production in cities informed by organic and SPIN (small plot intensive) agricultural methods. Others do similar projects locally, like Donald Street Farms, LifeCycles, and Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers, but with 12 loaned yards City Harvest is the largest, and co-owners Kinnis, Sharon McGeorge, and Heather Parker are the only urban farmers in BC attempting to create a financially viable co-operative company.

We break for lunch outside Parker’s own home with a half-acre yard hosting planting areas, beehives, toolsheds, greenhouse, and cold storage. Kinnis and Parker’s respective children play nearby, pets romp, volunteers and people working in exchange for room and board come and go, and I feel part of a warmly vibrant extended farm family—on Haultain Street.

Jo-Anne Lee, I’ll soon learn, has similar feelings. This women’s studies professor, who’s loaned City Harvest her Oak Bay yard, waxes on about supporting alternative economies and democratic, co-operative enterprises which provide opportunities for mothers “to have an integrated work-life balance,” but then laughingly concedes her real motives are “less theoretical than that.”

“I had this big yard that was way too much for me to manage,” she says. “Having somebody come in to garden…was just a gift.” Lee loves to turn from her computer and see people bringing her yard to life on a sunny day, then leaving her vegetables. She also enjoys feeling more vitally connected to her community. “It’s kind of neat to think that something grown in your backyard is going to find its way to a local market or restaurant…To be in that cycle, in that network.”

Yes, inside the network, I think, as Victoria’s wet spring tugs at me through the summer weeds I’m pulling. As Vancouver Island’s bee collapse makes the thick honey in City Harvest’s new beehives sweeter still. As our urban jungle springs at me when Kinnis recounts how a racoon broke into her chicken cage. “I was really shocked to see all these headless chickens with no blood. No blood anywhere. And I’ve killed chickens; I know they squirt a lot of blood.” Kinnis subsequently learned racoons often drink the blood and leave chicken carcasses “like vampires.”

As I turn compost, I feel even more intertwined with roots and branches of our community. City Harvest has drawn in compost from Victoria’s Pedal to Petal, manure from Peninsula horse farms, fruit scraps and coffee grounds from local bistros, grass clippings from landscapers, soy pulp from Esquimalt’s Dayspring Tofu, and leaves from municipal collections. It all turns into food for weekly customers, the Oaklands and Centennial Square markets, and sometimes for Cafe Bliss, Camille’s, Niagara Grocery and other local restaurants and shops.

My reverie breaks. Amidst rich, blackish, finished compost, I’m spotting reds, whites and oranges of imperishably plastic “certified organic” stickers. Neon-light announcements of our society’s absurdist hypocrisies.

I sift through, picking out stickers. Then I stand holding them helplessly. Where should they go?

Evidently, I’m also more intimately intertwined with our community conundrums. This is driven home when Kinnis takes me to City Harvest’s newest plot, behind an apartment building. Soil tests showed inexplicably high levels of lead. She’s planted particular leafy greens that will extract the lead from the soil. But now she wonders, should those toxic plants go into the municipal compost, or to the landfill, or somewhere else? We ponder how many other city areas are contaminated, and where all the contaminated plants are going. Is anyone keeping track?

In its second year, City Harvest’s co-owners earn $2/hour for their long days. Nevertheless, Kinnis says, “I love that I’m able to produce something at the end of the day that I know everybody needs.”

She’s hopeful City Harvest will grow, but worries about our society’s lack of support for labour-intensive agriculture.

“People are concerned that their food prices are too high, but most people spend 30 to 80 percent of their income on their housing,” she observes.

We dry-washed greens for tomorrow’s market through an outdoor washing machine’s spin cycle. My mind wanders into our community’s likely futures: A post-peak oil, climate chaos? Financial collapse? Same-old, toxically degenerating? Capitalism, socialism, tyranny or anarchy, whatever we’re envisioning, it comes to me, we’re going to need this. We’re almost certainly going to need more local resource recycling, and more land and people engaged in local food production. Organizations like this need to survive, and thrive. For all of us. Urban farming is a revolution at which everyone can dance and, even better, eat.

Later, Lee and I brainstorm how urban farmlands like hers could be protected in perpetuity. A city agricultural land reserve? Legal covenants? Municipal designations like those for heritage homes, giving owners tax breaks for donating their yards as community foodsharing assets?

In the meantime, City Harvest seeks new backyards, customers, and volunteers for everything from skilled labour to occasional weeding and harvesting. Contact Kinnis at 250-382-2124 or www.cityharvestcoop.com. And you can buy their produce at the Sunday Market in Centennial Square, 11 am–4 pm until September 25.

Rob Wipond discloses that he received some free lettuce and tomatoes while working on this article.

Getting a Read on Smart Meters

Smart meters won’t endanger health or privacy, and will conserve energy, reduce theft, and produce cost savings. Or so BC Hydro tells us. But is there a hidden agenda driving what may be a billion-dollar boondoggle?

 

One exchange at BC Hydro’s tense public meeting in Victoria in March was emblematic of the debates about smart meters. Asked about the health dangers of smart meters’ wireless electromagnetic fields (EMF), BC Hydro consultant Dr John Blatherwick explained they’d rarely be transmitting, anyway: “Those things will be [operating] for one minute [per day] on average, up to a maximum of three [minutes].”

BC Hydro has said the same, but coming from a former Vancouver chief medical officer, this reassurance carried weight.

However, Walter McGinnis, an electrician who retrofits homes to reduce EMFs, said the meters actually communicate constantly, but in energy micro-bursts. He claimed BC Hydro was using sleight of hand to disguise that—like claiming a strobe light flashing on for 0.05 seconds every half second is technically only “on” for six minutes per hour.

“I have tested it,” said McGinnis. “The meter does transmit all day every day.”

“I can’t debate that with you,” returned Blatherwick. “I do not know the specifics.”

It was shocking to see Blatherwick blithely switch from shining a responsible, authoritative light onto the technical reasons why we needn’t worry, to admitting being in the dark about what he was even talking about.

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Kathleen’s Demise: a cautionary tale

There’s much to learn about BC’s laws and eldercare system from the last years of Kathleen Palamarek’s life in a local nursing home—especially from the battles that were fought in her name between her children, care providers and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

 

It was a small but important epitaph for a much-loved woman. NDP West Kootenay MLA Katrine Conroy spoke in the provincial legislature in June in support of a public inquiry into the recent “suspicious death” of Kathleen Palamarek, an 88-year-old resident of Broadmead Lodge in Saanich.

During Lois Sampson née Palamarek’s five-year struggle to help get her mother out of the nursing home, Kathleen became an icon to local seniors advocates. That’s why the Saanich Peninsula Health Association, Vancouver Island Association of Family Councils, Old Age Pensioners Organization local, and others have been blitzing politicians, media and public agencies with requests for an inquiry.

“[T]he suspected abuse was due to overmedication, and the family needs answers,” said Conroy.

Yet the story involves much more than possible improper medicating; I’ve been following it since 2006. Kathleen’s life, and now death, is a tragic example of how our outdated guardianship laws summarily declare seniors “incapable” and thereby turn them into battle zones over which families, health professionals and others fight for control amidst an increasingly troubled eldercare system.

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Robert Whitaker on the Dangers of Psychiatric Drugs

The author of Anatomy of an Epidemic speaks in Victoria, Canada on May 17, 2011. Whitaker overviews the past 30 years of scientific research into psychiatric medications, showing how the drugs seem to be creating the very chemical imbalances they’re supposed to cure, and why they’re so dangerous in long-term use. For more info, see here. If you’d like to join a group of people based in Victoria, BC working on these issues, email rob (at) robwipond (dot) com .