Inflation hurts restaurants as much as HST

Originally appeared in North Shore News – October 1, 2010

Read on for real-world figures for inflationary grocery costs exposing the phoniness of the official ones, and learn how to eat and grow richer through plain cheating and exploitation.

Following my yarn here about our own family grocery bill, North Vancouver reader Peter Schaerer graciously permitted me to cite his own costs.

Schaerer is worthy of a separate profile. He was born in Switzerland and came to Canada in 1957. He is a professional civil engineer with a long career with the National Research Council, an expert on a vast range of problems with snow — protection against snow avalanches, an adviser to government and industry on safe practices, a teacher of ski guides and maintenance personnel in snow areas. He is a member of the Order of Canada.

He is 83 and thus on the threshold of old age.

“I have noticed a dramatic increase in food cost since 2008,” Schaerer writes. “In the years 2000-2007 the average cost was fairly uniform. I am a single male . . . and I am not eating extravagantly, except drinking wine with dinner.”

Now follow the bouncing ball: In the years 2003-2007 his average monthly costs were $204 for groceries, $93 for liquor, and $87 spent in restaurants and coffee shops.

In 2008, his costs for groceries rose to $248, for liquor to $109, and for restaurants/coffee shops to $136 — substantial increases.

In 2009, the respective figures were $257, liquor steady at $109, and $108. Note that the latter figure was considerably down from the previous year’s average monthly cost.

Now, up to date: In January-August this year, Schaerer’s average monthly grocery bill was $301 — almost 50 per cent higher than the 2003-2007 average, and almost 20 per cent higher than the previous year’s. Meanwhile his average liquor bill dropped to $97 and his outlay for restaurants and coffee shops fell sharply to $74.

“As you may see,” Schaerer notes, “I tried to compensate for the increase of expenses in grocery stores by cutting back in liquor store purchases and eating out, though the prices of these establishments have also increased.” In short, soaring grocery costs have impacted expenditures on strong drink and eating out.

This experience — what the economic professionals often scorn as “anecdotal evidence,” as opposed to the cooked figures of the cost-of-living index and such that they rely on — by a man trained in scientific principles, strongly bears out the plight of screaming restaurateurs squeezed by declining business and rising taxes. Currently, the Harmonized Sales Tax.

The restaurant associations have softened their earlier HST complaints, obviously under huge pressure by Gordon Campbell’s unpopular B.C. Liberals and their media footmen, who have raised the terrifying bogeyman of a New Democratic Party government, led by the unlikely bogeywoman Carole James. Which, we are well aware, would destroy civilization as we know it.

Typically, the editorials of a well-known downtown Vancouver daily not only have (heavy-handedly) finessed the effects of the HST, which they and their dully dutiful financial columnists support, but have turned to dire warnings of what would replace the HST’s revenues if it were scrapped. The cynical strategy of the premier and his acolytes is to offer taxpayers a choice between the rack and the mere thumbscrew.

– – –

Now another take on how to beat rising costs.

A reader writes: “Regarding your monthly food bills ($916 excluding spirits), I have the perfect solution for you: Give up the pets and take in foreign students. Not only do they eat less, they each pay $700 monthly draw-down fee.

“We have five students for a total of seven in the household. (August’s) total was $1,067 for all groceries, paper and cleaning products, fruits, veggies and meat. It does not include meals out (once a month) or booze. I shop Costco weekly. . . . I never use coupons, but I do check the produce store for specials.

“My wife is an excellent cook and often will make a very tasty dish with only $4 in meat. (Interjection: I’ll do the arithmetic for you — that’s 57 cents per person for meat.) We do eat steak, chicken or fish at least twice monthly. The students make their own breakfast and lunch.”

More arithmetic: The five students kick in a total of $3,500 a month, and the grocery bill for all seven in the household is $1,067. Does this man know how to make money, or not?

Oh, this also helps. He ends his letter: “As I do not wish Revenue Canada knocking on my door I will remain anonymous.”

Yes, if you cheat other taxpayers it’s remarkable how easily you can afford 57 cents a serving for meat for students, and there must be considerable leisure for this couple if the students helpfully make their own breakfast and lunch.

To be fair: I’d feel more sympathy if this gent had no other income, an ailing wife needing expensive medication, or whatever. A grocery bill isn’t all of a life. As they say in the other official language, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”

– – –

What smarmy political hypocrisy. Publicly, Jack Layton righteously announced that his New Democrat MPs were free to vote their conscience on the long-gun registry bill. In the politically correct smokeless back rooms, Layton twisted the arms of rural members like pretzels to persuade them to vote against scrapping the registry — born in corruption and bureaucratic waste for about $1 billion. That’s how the party system that distributes preferment and perks to the faithful works: Brownie points in public, brown-nosing in private.

– – –

“What were they smokin’?”

So I genially jested to Peter Chapek, the Stanley Theatre’s superb guest services manager, after witnessing the dazzling Tear the Curtain!

No jesting here: This grand creation of the Electric Theatre Company is the stage equivalent of a page-turner. Never mind the puzzling story (there is one, isn’t there?). It’s brilliant theatre, technique, acting, entertainment.

Yes, you’ll appreciate it more if you have rubbed elbows with surrealism, attended the 1913 Armory Show, and read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in the original. And the first act, 80 minutes, is too long. A trifle. Go see. Till Oct. 10.

– – –

West Vancouver Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones is still going on about vandalizing Argyle Street, and beyond, with a cross-town bicycle/pedestrian path. She, councillors, bureaucrats pushing this idiocy should check the “first phase” from Park Royal to 13th Street.

I’ll save them the trouble. Confounding the planners, many pedestrians choose to travel on the automotive vehicle side. And also a substantial percentage of cyclists — abjuring the sparsely used $1.2 million roadway built for them. I motioned toward the bike path to one keener who was storming along at high speed toward my van. He gave me a cheery wave and sped on.

Why? Because people behave rationally. Rationally, travelling in the car lane is far safer — for all concerned — than unseparated mixing of pedestrians and dog-walkers with silently-approaching bicycles. Expect accidents, not necessarily minor. See for yourself, mayor, and get familiar with the real world. And have you noticed the sharp fall — to zero, on my drive Monday — of bicycles past your own Marine Drive house when the bicycle’s fair-weather friends encounter actual rain?

© Trevor Lautens 2010

Kitchen oracle speaks economic truth

Appeared in North Shore News – September 17, 2010

Let’s get serious. Our family grocery bill for August was $1,091.25.

And yours?

My wife was shocked when she added up the figures. We have never budgeted. I always considered budgeting beneath the dignity of West Vancouver residents.

Little levity there. But I genuinely can’t figure out how a lot of “average” Canadians are making ends meet these days. I cite our own grocery bills only because they are handy and embarrass no one but my unembarrassable self.

To be sure, the $1,100-odd includes the bill for spirituous liquors and wine ($136.99), which I consider part of a healthy person’s proper diet.

But it excludes some cash outlays, like for fresh produce at the one-man farmer’s market off West Vancouver’s 31st Street near Marine Drive. And our supermarket purchases don’t involve expensive cuts of meat. We are quasi-vegetarians, in recent months becoming more quasi, guiltily slipping from our principles.

The final figure, excluding a couple of restaurant meals, is somewhere north of $1,200.

Some readers will retort that we’re living enviably high off the hog.

Others, who buy deliriously expensive cheeses, not Safeway’s excellent-value white cheddar ($1.79 per hundred grams) like us, and consider $25 wines their everyday plonk, derisive of the four-litre boxes we buy, might feel so sorry for us that they’ll quietly leave a donation at our door. (A friend warmly advocated a new brand of gin costing “only pennies more” than the Gordon’s, Beefeater, Gilbey’s I buy. It turned out to be almost twice as expensive as those common gins.)

The media report on “the economy” and use terms like “the recession” and quote the official “inflation rate” — a figure so patently bogus, so ridiculously selective (real estate, for good example, excluded), that a government that’s supposed to be open and democratic should be ashamed of it. It’s as cooked as statistics from dictatorships. Ottawa has a hard-eyed interest in keeping the numbers artificially low, partly to restrain indexed pensions and other outlays.

Those stuffy phrases, solemn talking-heads on TV, radio interviews, business-page stories and op-ed page pieces don’t reveal the subjective truth for many Canadians — the truth of the kitchen, you might say.

Behind closed doors, even on the affluent North Shore, there has surely been a lot of pulling in of belts, perhaps literally, since the “recession” (another stiff-lipped word) struck a couple of years ago and hasn’t departed for many people. There’s a story behind every old woman or man picking out coins from a change purse for a few small items at the supermarket checkout.

I went through our own costs.

First, the family census is like an accordion, membership expanding and contracting irregularly. The core members are two people, two dogs, a cat, and two birds, the latter apparently aiming for the Guinness book’s longevity record. (Pets are awesomely expensive. A woman walking her tiny poopsie at Ambleside Beach the other day casually mentioned that she paid $87 a month for pet health insurance.)

In August, we had all three of our young-adult children at home, raising the usual grocery bill. One bunked in to take a two-week professional course — alarmingly expensive: In my youth it could have paid almost the entire four-year undergraduate tuition for all three children.

The finance ministers, the chief economists for the banks, the experts of the Conference Board of Canada and the C. D. Howe Institute (named for a politician who once famously sneered “What’s a million?” — which now seems remarkably prophetic) are still largely insulated from the storm, like wealthy journalists such as me.

But there are a lot of anxious faces out there, especially outside of anomalous Vancouver — people living pension/paycheque to pension/paycheque. That’s to say nothing of the educated young, many under-employed if they’re employed at all. My young financial adviser suggests investing in Chinese bonds. Can you believe?

– – –

Last week I gently invited the North Shore’s four Liberals MLAs — much-liked Ralph Sultan, mediocrity Joan McIntyre, nice newcomer Naomi Yamamoto, and already baggage-laden Jane Thornthwaite — to state their views on the leadership of the premier. No responses so far. None likely after the most recent turn of events.

If they weren’t done like dinner before, Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals he’s dragging with him are toast for the next election — to mix culinary metaphors.

Campbell’s lackeys’ decision to submit the Harmonized Sales Tax issue to a $30-million referendum rather than face up to a free vote in the legislature is — I never dreamt I’d write this — more disgraceful than anything the New Democrats did in power. An informed public debate and submitting the HST to the legislature initially would have settled the matter. A whole year of confusion and tax-influenced strategies, not to mention an expanding pay-cash-no-tax marketplace, lies ahead.

In the next election, the Liberals — notwithstanding their many good earlier initiatives — deserve to drop somewhere behind the Radical Vegetarian Party.

– – –

A reader scolds me for the item knocking the RCMP for shrugging off a dangerous Squamish reserve crack house as a problem for the natives to deal with.

“While I certainly sympathize with the natives living near this crack house with the inherent low-lifes and criminals that frequent it,” he writes, “it must be pointed out that for decades the native reserves have been pushing the white man’s enforcement and punishment out of their communities, and have been implementing their own ‘healing’ processes. The natives cannot expect to have their cake and eat it, too.”

A well-taken point and heartily conceded, allowing that it isn’t just them. Every group, every human being who treads the earth wants to have their cake and eat it too, and make bread pudding out of the crumbs.

– – –

What a good idea — creating a 3-D image of a child playing ball on the road approaching Ecole Pauline Johnson, startling drivers with a sober slow-down message.

It’s amusing that this brought more attention to West Vancouver, including coverage by CNN in the U.S., than much weightier matters.

– – –

As governments age they become stupider — unlike old journalists, who just keep getting smarter. Why Stephen Harper chose to drop the compulsory long-census form, and stubbornly won’t back up, would baffle the best minds. Months have passed and the issue won’t go away.

Worse, the government was caught out in falsely claiming that making the long form voluntary was Statistics Canada’s proposal. The angry, principled resignation of chief statistician Munir Sheikh sank the government narrative.

What no one seems to have noticed is the human factor. Some people like telling all about themselves. They’re flattered. Workplace analysts long ago learned that employees feel a rise in esteem when they see their work is important enough to be studied. It’s like the thrill of seeing your name in print, though I can’t see the magic of it myself.

– – –

Extra, extra, read all about it! West Vancouver sports writer makes history!

Jim Taylor, already in three sports halls of fame and with an earlier national lifetime achievement award, becomes the first sports writer to receive the coveted Bruce Hutchison Award for his life’s toil in what its denizens cynically call “the toy department.” In fact some of the best journalists began, and some stayed, in sports.

Coincidentally, Taylor’s 14th book, And to Think I Got in Free! Highlights from Fifty Years on the Sports Beat (Harbour Publishing), soon will appear at bookstores near you.

Little inside joke in the first para. CKNW lavishly reported Taylor’s triumph. No ink at all at this writing in the two downtown dailies, where Taylor wrote for a total of 30 years.

– – –

Speculation in legal circles is hot at this writing about who should head the Pickton inquiry. Here’s a suggestion: If she’s available, retired B.C. Appeal Court Justice Mary Southin.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Tired, poor, huddled masses can get in line

Originally appeared in North Shore News – September 3, 2010

I have no respect for a country that has no respect for itself.

What do you call a country that knows queue-jumping alleged refugees are sailing toward it in a rusty ship and does nothing to stop it?

Whose bureaucrats boast of the superb readiness of five of its agencies to receive and deal with them, as if bureaucracy exists for its own sake?

Whose supreme unelected lawmakers, judges, long ago ruled that anyone who sets foot on its soil automatically receives the full rights of its citizens?

Whose richly rewarded immigration lawyers are masters of exploiting the system?

Whose government leaders privately hold opinions that they won’t dare publicly express because many of their members and future candidates fear offending the well-entrenched ethnic or other special-interest groups that, especially in big-city ridings favoured by immigrants, can elect or defeat a government, and make or unmake individual political careers?

Whose media also fear to lose their audience or customers by carefully “balancing” the views of their program hosts, columnists, opinion contributors and their on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand editorials that end up exquisitely advising squat — all under the “human rights” commissions’ Big Brother threat of honestly speaking their minds?

Whose liberal elites are more concerned about their country’s standing in some notional international league of opinion than the “conservative” views of their own taxpayers — who actually pay the full shot, who don’t have the higher incomes, tax write-offs, indexed pensions and similar privileges of the officially compassionate?

Whose governmental bank balances are deep in red ink — can’t afford to maintain all its commitments to its own sick, young, pensioned, unemployed, homeless etc. people, yet out of its great big heart spends scores of millions processing the claims of self-seeking foreigners arriving illegally on disgusting ships?

Whose rules reverse the usual onus of proof — the receiving country’s authorities must prove the refugee’s claim invalid?

Whose indignation is near zero (there are just too many things to be indignant about) when some such claimants are ruled ineligible after years of costly process, are served with deportation orders, and disappear into the woodwork by the tens of thousands?

And, finally, a country that for all its many successes still harbours an inferiority complex — doesn’t have the self-confidence and self-respect to defend its own borders from foreigners who can craft a plausibly poignant story?

What do you call that country?

Canada. Oh, you knew that.

The claim of the most recent self-described refugees — Tamils from Sri Lanka — that they are fleeing persecution in the wake of the civil war does not move this citizen’s head or heart.

The ships carrying such refugee claimants deserve nothing but the relatively low-cost remedy of a line of coast guard vessels and Canadian warships on easily arranged routine manoeuvres turning them away as they approach our waters. Any and all such ships, whatever their origin.

The queue starts elsewhere. Let the adventurers find it and get in the lineup. Millions have.

Instead Compassionate Canada allows them to land in a country where the eager bureaucracies spend money we don’t have on people we don’t need.

Martin Collacott, former Canadian high commissioner to Sri Lanka and an expert who closely follows events there, may agree with little in the above. But his Fraser Institute speech last week gave hard evidence of how we’re chumps.

For example, these Tamils could escape alleged persecution by fleeing to their 70 million fellow Tamils in India, 30 miles by water from Sri Lanka. So why choose distant Canada?

What a surprise — because Canada provides lavish “free” social benefits. And a confirmed safe haven for aggrieved, even terrorist ethnic groups to continue hot battles in their homelands that are of about as much interest to Canadians as Brazilian farm receipts in 1924.

“Perjury fatigue” is part of the job for refugee and immigration authorities. Collacott noted that 60 per cent of refugee claimants who say they lost their documents “miraculously found them” later when they were needed to apply for such benefits. In one period, 71 per cent of the supposedly fearful claimants went back to Sri Lanka for a visit. (As of last Friday, relatively prosperous Sri Lanka’s stock market was Asia’s best performer, with a rise of 64.9 per cent in 2010.)

Collacott also questions the supposed verity that “we have international obligations” under the United Nations convention. It’s outdated and needs revision to foil people-smugglers, he thinks. The government could also use the Charter of Rights “notwithstanding” clause to override hamstringing procedures and rulings that allow abuse of the refugee ideal.

(Collacott recalled that Liberal Paul Martin campaigned to scrap that clause. And it was the Liberal government that repeatedly rejected the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s urging that the Tamil Tigers, whose crimes, notably in Toronto, fund their Sri Lanka actions, be designated a terrorist organization. The Conservatives took CSIS’s advice.)

Inevitably such discussions move to the larger issue of current immigration. Based on StatsCan’s own figures, Prof. Herbert Grubel, a “Chicago school” economist and former member of Parliament, has pointed out that immigrant incomes since 1980 have gone into reverse and are now lower than the Canadian average.

We hardly need evidence — fresh proof arrives all too often, as it has in recent days — that some immigrants are a very bad fit with the Canadian constitutional ideal of “peace, order and good government.”

An enlightened government would scrutinize immigrants carefully at the gate for nasty proclivities and attitudes (notably toward women and, yes, members of their own ethnic group), firmly prosecute those who pass muster if they later commit crimes, or otherwise prove unworthy to live here, and speedily return them to their home countries. There are enough bad apples in our home-grown barrel to go around without importing more.

Of course there will be those who declare that the above smacks of racism. No, here’s racism — of the positive kind — that I’ll freely plead guilty to: Can anyone explain why it’s so very, very rare for Filipinos and ethnic Japanese to make trouble, commit crimes, and otherwise appear negatively in Canada’s media?

– – –

Morally paralytic Canada, Part II: A Squamish Nation elder goes public about a noisy, troublemaking crack house on the reserve. His truck is trashed.

The good Squamish people are intimidated. Mounties called. Shrug. The Squamish will have to deal with it themselves, the cops declare. What a travesty.

– – –

September arrives on schedule with all its autumnal gravity (crystallized in Walter Huston’s immortal version of “September Song”), and the start of the North Shore theatre season.

First out of the gate, it appears, is North Vancouver Community Players’ Barbecue Blues in The Theatre at Hendry Hall, opening Sept. 11.

And the Kay Meek Centre springs the surprise of Mickey Rooney, a fresh-faced 90, and wife Jan in Let’s Put on a Show! Sept. 14. Warning to interviewers: Don’t ask Mick about his teenage liaison with a lonely (Canadian-born) star twice his age that terrified their studio, box-office murder if it got out.

A sad casualty of the competition for an audience is Third Sunday at Three, at St. Francis-in-the-Wood Church. The West Vancouver neighbourhood never embraced it enough as its own.

– – –

I never knew Whitgift School in England was so well known — until I misspelled it in my last piece. Thanks to Whitgift graduate Ron Wilson and my vacationing editor, Martin Millerchip, for correcting me.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

From Victoria, the sky seems oddly secure

Appeared in North Shore News – August 20, 2010

More summer smiles, silliness and sobriety:

I trust every North Shorean read Peter Oates’s intelligent and soberingly candid Aug. 7 letter to the editor in The Vancouver Sun, refuting the gospel according to B.C.’s big business interests concerning the Harmonized Sales Tax.

Oates is owner/operator of Carmelo’s, one of West Vancouver’s top restaurants. He responded to a smug opinion piece by Jock Finlayson, a very decent man possibly shoved by a forked stick in his Business Council of B.C. role to act as blocker for Premier Gordon Campbell on the HST.

B.C. Chamber of Commerce president John Winter is also a very nice man — his son and mine played baseball together — and he too is running interference as surrogate for the premier, explaining that the business community’s last-minute lunge to stop the anti-HST petition was simply due to that disparate community’s disorganization. Sort of like the B.C. Lions.

The HST issue moved to the Supreme Court of B.C. Monday, and, courts moving at their own majestic pace, a ruling may take weeks or months. Whatever the result, six business groups support the tax, and they will be punished with Campbell in the court of public opinion.

Back to Finlayson’s piece. The headline said it all: “After a month of HST, the sky hasn’t fallen.”

Oates advised him that it was doing so. Finlayson apparently is standing under an undetachably secure part of the sky. Carmelo’s gross last month was the worst July Oates has experienced, $5,000 less than the previous worst July, in 2003.

Interestingly, his restaurant has proven something of an economic bellwether: Business fell two months before the recession, and rose two months “before the all-clear was sounded.” If Carmelo’s were a brokerage, I’d sign up. Best I can do is to lunch at Carmelo’s once I’m back from overseas.

Oates sounds like a pretty frank and fair employer. He’s consulted with his staff. He’s “already cut labour to the bone” — serving as pizza cook himself some days, waiting on tables others. He is evidently pained by letting staff go — 10 shifts lost.

The premier and Finlayson should assure those dismissed workers of the infallibly staunch security of the sky, perhaps bringing along meteorologist Mark Madryga to explain the technical points.

We are all tiny pieces in what looks like a major global economic dive — such an abstract phrase to describe felt hardship, including hunger — already begun in some smaller countries like Greece.

It would be nice to hear more from the optimists. Now who was it who said that hope makes a poor guide, but a good companion?

– – –

Still on West Van retail, I know one family regretting that Gulliver’s — an inventive travel accessory store for almost 30 years at Park Royal Shopping Centre — and nearby Eddie Bauer are being evicted to make space for a giant Swedish international store. That can be done under the terms of their leases. Who knew?

– – –

And furthermore regarding the HST, here’s what’s called anecdotal evidence, often as accurate as a royal commission: There’s an accelerated flurry of small business all-cash, “off-the-books” transactions being offered out there since the HST kicked in, and I’d wager that the tax police aren’t too eager to track them down because of the HST’s huge unpopularity.

– – –

Furthermore even some more on the HST, this is an overlooked underlying (oxymoron?) testament to how far out of touch even the most astute and well-informed can be regarding the public temper:

CKNW’s Cutting Edge of the Ledge segment on Fridays is a must-listen discussion among host Bill Good, Vaughn Palmer and Keith Baldrey, smart media people who probably know provincial politics better than most MLAs. Good was only half-joking when at the start of one session he advised political Victoria: “Start your tape recorders.” It’s that influential.

Short months ago the Three Wise Men, as I call them, were treating former premier Bill Vander Zalm’s anti-HST petition as an amusing diversion, a tilting at windmills sure to end up with a blunt lance. (Me too.)

But the ever-upbeat Zalm, impossible to dislike personally, and HST activist Chris Delaney did the wildly unlikely, and on a shoestring: They gathered the signatures of more than 700,000 voters furious about the HST — well above the required 10 per cent in each of B.C.’s 85 ridings.

All that you know. But regardless of where anyone stands on the HST, it’s been seriously under-appreciated that this was the greatest populist feat, the greatest organizing of ordinary people around a cause, since the 1972-75 movement to bang the heads together of the rival “free enterprise” parties in order to form a single party — Bill Bennett’s Social Credit — and defeat the incumbent New Democrats.

Credit where due: I’d say Vander Zalm was the only one, with Delaney’s tireless organizing work in the trenches and an army of great anti-HST volunteers, able to pull it off.

– – –

It’s appalling what party ideology can do to the political tongue. The New Democratic Party ferry critic ascribed the Queen of Nanaimo’s recent hard landing at Mayne Island to “the legacy of privatization.” Spare me.

– – –

It’s a small world, as they say — but this small?

Bill Vaughan attended Carolanne Reynolds’s Royal Tea celebration on the B.C. Day weekend — snappily turned out in white trousers, sharp jacket and straw boater.

Notable on Bill’s hat was some kind of insignia, and I was about to jest that perhaps it was his old school crest when, reading my mind, he animatedly stated that indeed it was — the school being Witgift, in England.

But, as Jack Wasserman used to say, that isn’t the item. The item is that a woman passing by not only instantly recognized it — but declared that she had actually worked at that very school.

The odds for that must resemble the odds of winning the Lotto Max.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Soap bubbles cheaper than facility dreams

Appeared in North Shore News – August 6, 2010

Smiles and stings of a summer day:

“This will only take a minute,” said the pert Asian woman as she seized me by my metaphorical lapels. Right: Sixty seconds later I was $15 poorer.

This occurred at a sidewalk sale near Capilano Mall’s food court. The woman expertly sized me up as an easy mark.

In a trice, a very small amount of time, she was rubbing a dark substance on my hand — mud soap made from Israel’s Dead Sea.

“It cleans more than other soaps and helps with sunburn,” she said. Why the Dead Sea should disgorge mud of special properties was and remains a mystery to me.

A further mystery is how my feet carried me to the cash drawer. I don’t recall moving them.

“That’ll be $20,” said Supersaleswoman, able to leap tall buyers’ resistance at a single bound, “but for seniors it’s $15.” Gee, I didn’t think it showed.

It was worth $15 to watch a really slick operator at work. Not that I’ll be back.

West Van town hall’s proposal for a massive seven-storey old folks’ home on the Wetmore site is surely headed for one hell of a fight.

Residents of the pleasant houses across from the tiny park beside the site would yearn for the days when the Wetmore Volkswagen dealership was their only obstacle to sun and sea. The proposed edifice will nibble away at the park too — named John Richardson Park, who knew?

The deal is for a 125-year lease. That’s essentially selling the land (and at a price sure to be seen as glass beads in years to come). By 2135 even Coun. Bill Soprovich could be weary of topping the polls and safely retired.

Bob Sokol, West Vancouver’s director of planning, lands and permits, concedes that there is “some concern about the height of the building.” Yeah, there would be that.

Town hall is collaborating in the old developers’ game of proposing the outrageous, retreating to the objectionable, and with the fall-back plan that they hide all along — probably a four-storey complex. “See, we listened to the public.”

The City of North Vancouver has let loose a grandiose plan to build new cultural edifices with money it hasn’t got. I didn’t think the summer has been that hot. Unless there’s another explanation for the lunacy.

Actually, there’s a lot of it going around. There’s the Vancouver Art Gallery’s determination to quit its Georgia Street quarters for new digs across from the post office costing $350 million. Predictably, the “art community” rapturously supports this folly. “Communities” are always behind projects paid for by taxpayers.

The VAG pleads it has no room to display 10,000 paintings in its crowded vaults. I challenge it to refute this: At least 9,000 aren’t worth showing. That’s why only the spiders see them.

The truth is that art galleries are in show biz and desperate for money. We are so spoiled, certainly in “world-class” Vancouver and “centre of the world” Toronto, that only the artistic equivalent of a bases-loaded home run in the last inning of the World Series is a draw.

Merely competent or even very good paintings don’t cut it. Curators exist to package paintings of themes or eras (Old Masters, impressionists, Group of Seven, American realists etc.) and export them, sprinkled with a few famous works that can be hyped. Leonardo da Vinci’s doodles are a sure sell anywhere.

Back to the city’s fantasies. Under the clever head North Van Seeks Cultural Revolution, Benjamin Alldritt reports in this paper that the three occupants of “the elderly and quirky Presentation House complex” would get new, separate quarters. Cost: at least $43.5 million.

The turn head, as we say in the newspaper biz, smartly lets the air out of this balloon: City Does not Have the Money for Plan’s Costs. City finance director Isabel Gordon acknowledges that it will “take a very long time to save up” for these entities.

Extra, extra, read all about it! Governments are broke. Taxpayers are hammered. Personal debt is a mountain. We’ve lived beyond our means for decades. Make do!

In another part of the lunacy: Reroofing BC Place will officially cost (don’t believe it) $458 million. The temporary, open-to-the-elements Empire Field stadium was stuck together for just $15 million — and B.C. Lions fans love it.

North Vancouver’s Ralph Bower, retired Vancouver Sun photographer known for creative odd-ball shots, and a great habitué of the track — for years he was the Sun’s handicapper styled “Railbird” — was at Hastings Park last Saturday.

Bower was literally at the rail when the gate opened for the sixth race. A horse named Private Mambo instantly threw its rider, blindly careened down the track, its blinkers apparently twisted over its eyes, and crashed into the winners circle enclosure, making “the loudest sound I ever heard,” Bower said.

It was horrifying. The horse died. A security guard was injured. The rest of the races were cancelled.

Only later did Bower — who is preparing an exhibit of photos from his racing collection — realize that he’d have been in danger himself if the horse had travelled a little further.

And, of course, he didn’t have a camera at hand for what would have been one of the most stunning photos of his outstanding career.

Yurika Kimura will never perform again at West Vancouver’s Silk Purse. By common consent of a mesmerized audience, limp from her playing of Chopin and two inhumanly demanding Liszt pieces, this 18-year-old girl from Japan is destined for some of the world’s top concert halls.

How can director Cheryl Karchut, who retires next month, do it — attract many artists far above the modest venue of Argyle Avenue’s 65-odd-seat Silk Purse?

Apart from her own excellent contacts and personality, with a little help from her friends.

In this case, Keiko Alexander, for years the generous conduit for Japanese artists like Yurika Kimura. She’s the wife of Jeff Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. You can’t put a price on the value of such great citizens to the West Vancouver community.

And, while we’re at it, if the relaxed sprawl of strolling throngs, dog walkers and creeping vehicles along Argyle during the Harmony Arts Festival didn’t convince town hall that the street’s destruction for a biker-hiker trail would be an act of official vandalism, nothing else will.

This insanity from Victoria, pushed by cabinet minister Kevin Falcon and abetted by cycle fanatics and misguided North Shore Liberal lieutenants, has to be stopped dead in its ill-conceived tracks. Permanently, no resuscitation when the “controversy” ebbs.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Is there a gender gap in James’ popularity?

Appeared in North Shore News – July 23, 2010

Don’t you hate inconsistent people? I do. I’m one of them.

But I digress. Today’s topic is B.C. New Democratic Party leader Carole James. Specifically, why is she dismissed — at least by the powerful oracles of the media who mill around the mainstream and explain all mysteries — as unsuccessful?

A complete inventory of her record will not follow. But, in sum, James has led the NDP out of its dark days of defeat, confusion, ineptness and scandal. She has made the odd slip, as even journalists do, but she has provided that underrated political commodity, competence.

No political leader is far from the glint of knives, even when sheathed, but she has calmed the mad wing of the party while rebuilding a sound front bench starring Mike Farnsworth and Adrian Dix. Unless I misjudge her — and I sweetly remind you that I was a pioneer judge of Blair Wilson and Kash Heed — she is a good person.

James may prove to be a “transition” leader. (We are all in transition — and to a rather sticky end, just as a reminder.)

If polls matter, her party currently buries the governing Liberals, 46 to 23 per cent. Angus Reid tested the popularity of Premier Gordon Campbell and James over the previous three months. Seventy-two per cent of those polled said their opinion of Campbell had worsened, but 18 per cent said the same of James.

Vaughn Palmer, the Vancouver Sun’s brilliant columnist — no irony there — suspects the latter is explained by James allowing Bill Vander Zalm to seize leadership of the dizzily successful anti-Harmonized Sales Tax movement.

I’m not sure James was unwise. The movement may have crested. Its legs are less likely to be the tax itself but rather (one leg) Campbell’s perceived duplicity and (second leg) the last-minute ride of half a dozen business groups to head off at the pass the anti-HST referendum, and legalistically foil the plain will of more than 700,000 British Columbians.

This, where it wasn’t venal, was lemming-stupid. The Liberals may rue the day their pals threw them a lead life preserver. (And then forgot to let it go.)

In short, James seems to this observer to have done modestly, astonishingly, incrementally well. Why so little credit?

Partly, of course, because B.C.’s polarized politics will endure long after the actual poles melt into sunny holiday resorts. British Columbians vote against. The majority has usually found it easier to vote against the NDP than for it. (If effing blunderer Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is allowed back into the NDP’s provincial tent, all bets are off.)

But also, I suspect, because James is a woman. You won’t find one man in the political, media and other elites to admit to a gender bias. That is because what I kindly call “mouth liberals” are thick on the ground. Privately, they have prejudices (and, let us concede, “postjudices,” another of my many inventions) that they wouldn’t dare reveal.

More: Many women share that prejudice. Ask your best women friends whether they’d prefer a man or a woman boss. You may be shocked at their answers, if you are so naïve as to believe the papers, politicians, academics, university students, café intellectuals, and bicycle activists.

And here is my disgraceful inconsistency. I scorn feminist ideology, especially since reading Susan Brownmiller. Millions disagree with me, including some anonymous women at the University of Victoria who once mailed me a venomous package containing the f-word and a fish head.

But I have no trouble at all with women in positions of power, such as in politics, literature or bed. I have always thought that on the whole women are superior to men in the brain way. I feel no prejudice toward unpleasant women that I wouldn’t generously share toward equally unpleasant men.

Not to burden you further, but I hold to the eccentric theory that feminism isn’t a movement by women at all, but by the sinister materialistic state, whether capitalist or communist or whatever, to roust women out of their homes, disconnect them from husbands and children, and lure them into the “liberation” of being good little producers and consumers. A male-made trap. (They said Columbus was crazy too.)

I wrote a ton more this week expanding my theory, backing it with the cautionary tales of Kim Campbell, Rita Johnston and Alexa McDonough. But the editors won’t give me the 10,000 words I need. Wait for it.

– – –

Speaking of gender, I had a bizarre dream recently. I dreamt that the next governor-general was a white, married (to a woman) male! A father! And an Anglican!

Don’t wake me.

– – –

And speaking of taxes, any leftover anger about the HST should be aimed at a report by the Metro Vancouver regional authority — the old Greater Vancouver Regional District with false whiskers — suggesting a one-per-cent piggyback tax on the HST that would raise $450 million.

Metro shrewdly commissioned Harry Kitchen for this study, an Ontario prof who can get out of town fast. He intoned: “The average annual increase in the property tax burden per capita for Metro Vancouver’s services over the past two decades has amounted to nothing more than the price of a couple of cups of coffee per year.”

No kiddin’? Come back and explain my tax bills, professor. The increases could put a down payment on a coffee plantation.

– – –

And speaking more about taxes, much of the increase goes to the arrogant chubby felines of the enduring governments, the bureaucracy.

Statistics in sufficient numbers dull the senses, but these, rounded up by municipal government scold David Marley, will suffice:

In 2006 there were 14 West Vancouver town hall employees paid $100,000 or more. In 2008 there were 28. In 2009 there were 65 (a number slightly inflated by one-time contractual raises and an extra pay period — for all three North Shore municipalities, the 2009 figure was 183.)

Between 2006 and 2009, embracing the worst economic dive since the 1930s, the total West Van payroll rose 25 per cent.

It’s an outrage, but Victoria has decreed that police incomes are excluded.

– – –

And speaking of municipal politics, it’s infuriating that Victoria is imposing four-year terms on local government. If anything, terms should be cut from three to two years.

A mayor is more unassailable in her domain than her federal and provincial counterparts. As chief executive officer and political leader, without a formal partisan opposition and usually much less scrutinized especially by small-town media, she will have four bullet-proof years to rule the town — four years to dispense patronage, favour cronies, punish perceived enemies, isolate those not on side, stroke special interests, fund personal projects, lift initiatives from the agenda when the heat is on and return them when it’s off, and let’s not overlook the well-meaning incompetent who can’t read her hydro bill let alone the town budget — or of course govern flawlessly and to the eternal gratitude and adoration of the citizens.

Obscured by Campbell’s current visible mistakes, this one may produce the most long-term damage. Oh, no — that’s the online gambling evil.

– – –

I saw five cyclists on the new $1.2-million Park Royal-to-13th Street strip that gives pedestrians and cyclists their own generous lane. Two of them chose to ride in the motorized vehicle lane. As they say: Go figure.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Vancouver mayor should stop peddling bicycles

Appeared in North Shore News – July 9, 2010

Vancouver allows chickens. But the biggest cluck in the city’s backyard is Mayor Gregor Robertson.

With his trusty allies at his side — mountain-biker Health Minister and former transport minister Kevin Falcon, pedalling force behind the disastrous Spirit Trail whose effects are being visited on West Vancouver, and Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs, still recovering from a serious bicycle accident in March — Robertson has hatched a 10-year, $25-million program to create bicycle lanes and improvements.

This is lunacy, especially in tight times. City hall’s (suspect) figure is that 3.7 per cent of all trips in Vancouver are made by bicycle. Robertson aims to goose this to 10 per cent by 2020. He has babbled about a $45-million bicycle-pedestrian bridge across False Creek. In furtherance of his goals Robertson has screwed up Burrard Bridge motor traffic and frustrated drivers in other West End areas like Beach Avenue and Dunsmuir Street.

Numerate persons like CKNW’s Jill Bennett and delightful ranter Bruce Allen have counted actual cyclists on the Burrard bike lane at any given time and haven’t reached two figures. Sun columnist Miro Cernetig checked usage of the $800,000 lane at Dunsmuir and Hornby, 10 to 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, and counted precisely 30 cyclists in that hour.

Brainy and usually astute former councillor Peter Ladner, who Robertson unfortunately defeated in the last election, is with the mayor on this. In a Business in Vancouver column, Ladner advocates the public bike-sharing system used in several major cities. He sampled the Bixi version in Montreal. Loved it.

I’ve not seen it. But I say this authoritatively: Unless the bikes have quick adjustments (that are actually made) of seat and handlebars to accommodate the five-foot to the six-foot-six rider, I’d condemn the idea. A bicycle that doesn’t fit the rider is inefficient, uncomfortable and unsafe.

Ladner and other enthusiasts cite bicycle use in Europe (a 40-per-cent share of transportation in Copenhagen, he writes). This is grotesquely misleading. The bicycle in Amsterdam is an entirely different animal from the pseudo-racers on our streets, which I scorn as transportation vehicles.

Why? B.C. law requires a bell and a front light on all bicycles. Ha, ha. Based on more than casual eyeball evidence, I’d estimate that 1.44 per cent of bikes on our roads are street-legal. (Is Robertson’s? Is Ladner’s?) As for requirement to obey the same laws as motor traffic — more ha, ha.

You can find Dutch commuting-type bicycles in Vancouver, if you look really hard. Bring money: They’re around $1,300. They are massive, handsome, ponderously dignified and, of course, properly equipped.

Ours, overwhelmingly, aren’t. Most have no lights, bell or horn, fenders, chain guards (so much for cycling in office clothes, and don’t even think of leather dress shoes), and nothing so decadent as carriers, which explains all those riders with backpacks. That’s dangerous. Not much more than a toothbrush should be carried on a rider’s back. And the back-bending rams-horn handlebars can limit visibility.

Obviously, serious cycling has a narrow appeal. It’s plain that many people are too young, too old, too frail, too fat, too lame or otherwise medically incapable of cycling. Then there’s the weather (if you wear glasses you’ll get a new respect for windshield wipers) and the incline you didn’t even notice when driving.

You’re left with little beyond the Robertson-Meggs-Ladner demographic: Upper-middle-class, well-educated, environmentally sensitive persons, mostly ideologically left, with offices where they can change and shower, and a moral smugness that runs right off the scale. But no hypocrites: Off-camera, on Sundays they cycle away from the old folks home with Granny tied to the handlebars, go to the theatre with their significant other on a bicycle built for two, and bring back family groceries in small, safe loads in their backpacks.

Yeah, right. If they were up-front they’d paste one of those bumper stickers on their backpacks, something like: “My other vehicle is a BMW.”

– – –

So a Squamish chief wants to change the name of Stanley Park to that of a Squamish village said to have once existed there.

Isn’t that the band that short months ago raised several electronic billboards, including near Lions Gate Bridge, ignoring all but unanimous community rage? They get the back of my hand.

The usual suspects instantly fell into line. Kudos for parks commissioner Ian Robertson, who didn’t, while the politically correct (Mayor Robertson predictably among them) squeaked liberal noises.

I jeer at this paper’s fatuous editorial, which sounded as if it had been written by the Che Guevera cell of the Commercial Drive Marxist Collective — maundering about “colonialism” and the park being named for “a British politician who briefly occupied a ceremonial position more than a century ago.”

Ye ed, as legendary publisher Ma Murray would say, should know that constitutionally the governor-general is more than a “ceremonial position.” We’re deeply indebted to Lord Stanley for creating a park where today there would be simply more West End. (Thanks for the cup, too.)

The Squamish village didn’t exist since forever anyway. The war-like Squamish came down from the north and ousted the Musqueam from the North Shore, which is why the latter are ensconced on Vancouver’s southwest side.

Stockwell Day, federal minister for B.C., firmly and quickly suffocated this notion after its 15 minutes of talk-show fame. But be sure: It’ll be resuscitated some day. The Liberals and New Democrats will eagerly breathe life back into it.

– – –

Pat Boname’s church, West Vancouver Presbyterian, has done what town council should have rushed to do. It has dedicated a garden in her name.

Pat was a splendid citizen. Councillor, mayor and school trustee were only the most visible of her activities. As church member Joanne Wallis notes, she was also a volunteer in the arts, in the disability sphere, a Lions Gate Hospital board member and much else.

Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones should have led the charge to name something for Pat Boname. Coun. Michael Evison told me he’d raise the matter to council. Later acknowledged he hadn’t. I won’t take Evison’s assurances to the bank hereafter.

– – –

Ever been reading and something startling jumps out at you? I was trolling through the acknowledgements of The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-1968 — highly recommended, sent to me, mysteriously, by McGill-Queen’s University Press — when I snapped to attention on falling upon author C.P. Champion’s closing nod to “the late David A. Moon, RCN (ret.) of The Bookstall in Ambleside, my summer employer during high school.”

Anyone here remember Christopher Champion, born 1970, now living in Mont Ste-Marie, Que.? I must have encountered him on Moon’s cherished and eccentric premises.

Voila, this coincided with the resurrection of Moon’s old business, now the Ambleside Book Barn, owned by Scott Akin and his mother Gill. Tidiness was never part of Moon’s job description. The Akins have brought in 40,000 books (the former owner has moved her business and stock to Vancouver) and the premises have been transformed. Delightful that West Van’s only used bookstore is still around.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

?

You are entering a (Keystone) police state

Appeared in North Shore News – June 25, 2010

All states are police states. Canada included.

Even in our vaunted democracy we live in a permanent Tow-Away Zone.

Doubt it? Then answer this: Who has the guns? Who are the enforcers? Most of all, who are the certified snoops?

It’s a matter of degree. As our national holiday approaches, we can rejoice that we don’t live in North Korea under Dear Leader Kim Jong-il — where, good example, the cops seized a bewildered woman and threw her in prison. She found out why only long afterwards: She had known the Dear Leader’s wife when young. It was feared she might say something even minutely discrediting about the Dear Leader’s wife.

And not to stop at an easy cuffing of an odious Communist state: The United States under George Bush, including its courts, legislators and high bureaucrats, found weasel ways of legally permitting torture of terrorist suspects, possibly the blackest chapter in the history of the republic — while most of the media kept morally silent.

In Canada’s system of government with its courtly bow to the rule of law and fastidious division of powers, Dear Leader Stephen Harper — er, the prime minister — has nothing like the clout over the police that the extremely wimpish-looking Kim enjoys. Savour the irony: If he had, the remarkably competent manager Harper certainly would have headed off at the pass the monumental blundering and ultimately deadly turf-protection of police who appear to have graduated from the same class of Keystone Kops Academy.

Hold on. I said blundering. Big, bad mistakes. Ham-handed fumbling. Human bloody error.

Yes, in part. But I suspect many people see deeper implications that are far worse.

As the cases of the Air India terrorist bombing (25 years and no heads have rolled, no perpetrators convicted) and of the shameful police action in Robert Dziekanski’s death have agonizingly showed, the nation’s top echelons of law enforcers are contemptuously arrogant — as if above the very laws they’ve sworn to enforce, and with a wanna-do-something-about-it? attitude to the civil government and to the public they are supposed to serve.

(It happens in huge cases at lower levels too. Niagara area and Toronto police were so embroiled in turf warfare and confused communications that sadistic rapist Paul Bernardo might still be torturing and murdering young girls, had not his wicked accomplice Karla Homolka — she helped kill her own sister! — led police to damning evidence they had overlooked, in exchange for an absurdly soft 12-year prison sentence. That’s why Homolka now walks the streets again while two bereaved families’ lives are ruined.)

In the wake of blunt, meticulous reports by retired Supreme Court justice John Major regarding the Air India bombing, which could have been prevented if the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had got their jealous acts together, and by Thomas Braidwood into confused Polish immigrant Dziekanski’s last horrific minutes, I’d say there ought to be obstruction of justice investigations flying all around those two scandals, indicting top authorities and their obedient minions in the police and the federal government who tried everything they could — ducking, dodging and foot-dragging to keep the truth from coming out and their own asses from being exposed.

Those were the “second crimes” — in any but the legal sense — that have added to the well-rooted cynicism flourishing across the land: The deal, the cover-up, the inquiry that exposes without having the authority to indict.

But out of the Braidwood inquiry, at long last a special prosecutor has been appointed, West Vancouver’s distinguished criminal lawyer Richard Peck, to take a second look at the possibility of criminal charges against the four Mounties involved in the Tasering and death minutes later of Dziekanski, caught on the unshakable evidence of a camera.

In Canada, as everywhere that mankind treads, the elites can close ranks when the sticky stuff hits a fan with really far-flung trajectory as smoothly as you can say “deer guts on a brass doorknob.” When the Airbus affair re-emerged recently the National Post, a paper I normally admire, rolled out the big guns of Conrad Black and former reporter Philip Mathias to shore up the good name of Brian Mulroney, which somehow I suspect wouldn’t have attracted their attention if Mulroney wasn’t a former prime minister and a Conservative. Not that, mea culpa, I was warmly disposed toward Stevie Cameron’s 1994 book On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years.

The undersigned has no animus against police as such. On the contrary. I’ve noted before that in my police reporting days I knew policemen (few if any women then) so exemplary in character that I’d trust them not only to catch but to fairly treat and finally to shrewdly judge and punish those they dealt with.

Police work is almost inhumanly exhausting, frustrating and disillusioning. (I don’t dare ask a former Crown counsel I know about his deepest thoughts.) As Vancouver Sun legal affairs columnist Ian Mulgrew recently pointed out, three decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada protecting the accused are largely responsible for the long court delays and legal devices that frustrate police and public and enrich lawyers.

But not to lose the thread here: The RCMP and intelligence agencies by any name can and do snoop around plenty. Among countless and mostly unearthed others, they had dossiers on dangerous socialist Tommy Douglas, now (almost uniquely) revered as a great Canadian politician, and on Quebec separatists, including former premier René Lévesque.

In daily newspaper days in the turbulent 1960s-’70s, I amused myself looking around the newsroom, wondering: Which reporter is the Communist apparatchik? Which editor is the RCMP-FBI mole? Is it paranoid to suspect that such entities would infiltrate large media to subtly influence public opinion?

I think not. But it fired up my fictional mind. A novel: Potentially damaging intelligence has been gathered on both prominent and scarcely known members of Parliament (and which of us, beyond a few saints, has lived so purely as to be bullet-proof, so to speak?). Top cops meet with their nominal political master, the very upset prime minister, and casually drop tidbits about same into their conversation. The PM, being alertly numerate, grasps that if scandal destroyed a few of his MPs his minority government would be defeated. Cleaning out the higher echelons of the security establishment doesn’t look like such a good idea after all. How to resolve the dilemma? I`d have to figure that out.

Ah, it would never sell. Just cheap and lurid fiction.

– – –

A Salvation Army Thrift Shop has appeared in the heart of Ambleside. I didn’t know the recession was that bad.

– – –

It doesn’t need a boost here, but of the 10 or so plays I’ve seen this season — including the underrated Dangerous Corner — the one that out-entertained all of them put together is Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at the Stanley. Bill Millerd did a beautiful job putting it together and Zachary Stevenson is phenomenal in the lead role (the voice-over of Vancouver’s Red Robinson, who interviewed the original, has a talk-on part). And I don’t even like rock and roll.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Upmarket waterfronts are sterile and boring

Appeared in North Shore News – June 11, 2010

“Urban waterfront redevelopment in Metro Vancouver has made our shorelines sterile and boring.”

So Bob Ransford begins his May 29 Vancouver Sun column, followed by this left-right to the solar plexus: “This is in contrast to the gritty, bustling and eclectic waterfronts of Metro Vancouver’s past.”

Sterile. Boring. West Van’s isn’t. But in future?

I’ve long admired and always read Ransford, a former real estate developer and now public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications.

Being congenitally disagreeable, I doubt if he and I would be in complete accord about the Spirit Trail project from West Van’s Argyle Avenue at 13th to John Lawson Park, an act of official vandalism of a mature “people place” (I never thought I’d use that sticky term). Driven by mountain-biking cabinet minister Kevin Falcon under the umbrella of Gordon Campbell’s flavour-of-the-month greenism, and abetted by the premier’s obedient corporals at North Shore town halls, it’s being sacrificed to recreational cyclists, bladers and boarders, and a doubtful number of backpackers.

But if our words differ here and there, I relish Ransford’s music. He overturns the convention: Metro’s waterfronts were once “homes to everything from greasy-spoon cafés that fed longshoremen, mill workers and fishermen, to repair shops, ship chandleries, small grocers and rooming houses. . . .

“Today, miles of shoreline have been reclaimed from industry, cleaned up and moved upmarket.” Upmarket — bang-on. Ransford’s own once-busy Steveston waterfront neighbourhood “has one of the most unexciting, sterile stretches of Fraser River waterfront.”

Radical and right. I may be the only Vancouverite who misses Sweeney’s cooperage and Granville Island’s gritty factories and ugly lumber mill — real people, real jobs (now exported to China), however attractive its present consumer-sucking glitter.

West Vancouver held an entirely bogus Waterfront Plan open house — easily spotted as one of the phonies because it was held after council’s enabling decision, meant not to consult but to mollify restive residents — complete with a motherhood questionnaire no one should have completed that will allow Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones to declare: “We’ve listened to your concerns. . . .” (To be fair, under pressure council is reconsidering removal of the boat ramp.)

Councillors — all but Michael Smith, absent in Africa — were there to sound sympathetic to all points of view. Coun. Michael Lewis, who evidently reads this column, told me what I thought lay in Argyle’s future: “Coney Island! Ferris wheels!” He’d have read my mind more accurately with late columnist Jim Coleman’s 65-year-old Thought-Recording Machine, which ran on vacuum tubes.

But coincidentally I’d been thinking of another island: Martha’s Vineyard, which I’ve cycled around, and nearby Nantucket. Their famous weather-beaten houses are essential parts of the seaview, not obscuring it, as Argyle’s are stupidly considered.

Lewis also scoffed at my belief that such houses along lonely beaches at night are a safety factor. Who, in the hermetic condos on the north side of Bellevue, could hear anyone’s daughter crying for help, screaming rape? Lewis plainly considered this melodramatic nonsense.

Freshly back from Africa, Smith wrote me: “I do not want to see any major change along Argyle either, as this is a special place. The Spirit Trail I think should be put on the back burner for now. Even though the province pays some of the cost, as we have discussed West Van does not have the funds to proceed further. The reserves are pretty much spent and the routing is far from settled.”

A relief to hear. It carries weight, especially from a possible future mayoralty candidate. (As for West Van’s empty coffers, just the short Spirit Trail section from south of Park Royal to 13th Street– a project that moved glacially, apart from ruining a perfectly good path — cost an alarming $1.2 million, about half paid by Victoria, i.e. all B.C. taxpayers.)

I asked, in careful detail, Mayor Goldsmith-Jones how the Silk Purse could possibly survive in present form as a music and art venue under the coming dispensation (no parking, beachgoers six metres from the piano, artists lugging heavy frames back and forth to somewhere or other).

She answered a question. But not mine. She’s become adept at the politician’s 177-word answer to a question not asked — Premier Campbell did a similar classic job of filling the largest amount of air with the smallest amount of information when CKNW’s Bill Good asked him if his next move was appointment to the Senate.

But the mayor did state unambiguously that the Silk Purse will stay as it is. I’ve bet a lunch against that. I think covetous eyes are cast on the Silk Purse and its priceless location. My sense is town hall hugely favours the glossier Kay Meek Centre, a newer, bigger venue, all the more as budgets get tighter.

My take is shaped in part by the fact that a few years ago Patricia Leslie, town hall’s communications manager — very capable, very professional, who recently departed for a job in Whistler — ran for and was elected to the Silk Purse board. A conflict? In my eyes that raises questions about what she might have mentioned even in casual conversation about the Purse back at town hall.

I’d even hazard a guess that a certain amount of jealousy hovers over Silk Purse director Cheryl Karchut, because she’s done so much with so little. She may even have grumblers on the Purse’s board.

Hell, I even guess that a visibly political appointee might succeed Karchut when she retires Sept. 30. (Go ahead, call me a cynic. That’s what they said when I was a very early skeptic about Blair Wilson and Kash Heed.)

Shot in the dark: former councillor Liz Byrd.

– – –

Speaking of town hall open houses, Susanne Petrik was exercised when one was held recently over installing a traffic light at 15th and Mathers.

She claimed that 90 per cent of attendees were opposed — but it was a “done deal” and “basically, no one cared what the residents thought.”

Currently this is one of many four-way stops on the slopes. And, a testament to people’s (or anyway West Van people’s) civility when they are free to behave co-operatively, they work well. At predictable times this is a slow intersection, sure enough, with two schools nearby. But Susanne Petrik writes: “We are concerned that the traffic will be much faster on 15th as people race to catch the green light.”

Dead right. The students are likely to be at greater, not less, risk. To say nothing of residents near the corner in danger of finding a car in their living room.

– – –

Strange, perhaps unforgiveable oversight: The recently unveiled plaque marking the 71st anniversary of the Lions Gate Bridge ignores the Guinness family that built it, albeit with the self-interest of accessing its British Pacific Properties — one of the shrewdest real estate investments ($75,000 for 4,700-odd acres) since the Indians sold Manhattan. BPP project manager A.J.T. Taylor also goes unrecognized.

The Guinnesses are a fascinating family, worthy of books — and they’ve been written. Especially, as my numerous literary readers know well, about and by the madly diverse daughters of Lord Moyne, the Mitford girls.

Oh well, the plaque initiative involved Ottawa, and what do they know?

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Literary Review of Canada Letter

In the April 2010 edition of the Literary Review of Canada, Christopher Moore wrote a piece entitled “The Calamity of Caledonia.” In response, I wrote a letter which appeared in part in the June 2010 edition and in full on the Literary Review of Canada’s website.

The original piece by Moore can be found here: The Calamity of Caledonia

The following is my reply, which can also be found in the letters section of the LRC website:

Re: “The Calamity of Caledonia” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore’s piece in the April LRC, “The Calamity of Caledonia,” with the subhead advising “What B.C. can teach Ontario about Native Land claims” and including a small reference to a 1998 Vancouver Sun column of mine, is an amusing caricature that flatters the Liberal government in Victoria.

A small matter, but that column dealt in part with Australia’s approach—legislation—to the aborigines’ problems with the whites. I made sympathetic noises but didn’t specifically advise something similar for Canada. More important, and allowing that Moore deals in a small space with a gargantuan and in my view intractable issue, his thesis bristles with errors of omission if not commission, and is a classic example of the winking lure of the chimera of Nowism: Our forefathers’ treatment of native Indians (and much else) was bigoted, exploitative, and plain stupid, but, by George, now we the enlightened of this day are getting it right!

If only. But space is short. Moore claims Premier Gordon Campbell had a revelation on the Damascan road, made a volte-face on B.C.’s historical opposition to Indian land claims, and began serious negotiations. (New Democratic Premier Mike Harcourt and his NDP successors had earlier refused to take yes for an answer in court and undermined the government’s own case. In sports they ban you forever for throwing games.) I believe it’s déjà vu all over again: The hard-eyed Liberals and harder-eyed big business concluded that, whiskey and trinkets having a bad name, it was better to make deals with essentially free taxpayer money and Crown land, of which B.C. has a plenitude, than have projects blockaded and the economy held hostage. Violence, terrorism and the threat thereof worked, as they do elsewhere.

A new era? A model for Queen’s Park? As I write, the Musqueam Indian Band and Nation sued, in April, the city of Richmond, for a $59 million land deal it signed, in March. That’s right, the previous month. The band claims it was pressured and cheated. White man still speaks with forked tongue. In olden times at least a decent interval of years intervened before such complaints were made.

Moore cites the 2010 Winter Olympics “partnership” with bands and its implied peace.  He ignores that the Canadian Press news agency reported in 2008 that the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh were each paid $17 million—which used to be a lot of money—for  use of their traditional territory. Evidently you can buy a fair amount of peace for that, plus dancing and music.

The following caused more Main Street fury than any abstraction: perfectly timed for the Olympics, in February the Squamish nation raised big billboards on pockets of band land in Vancouver, including adjacent to the cherished Burrard and Lions Gate bridges. That raised virtually unanimous citizen anger (a North Shore  newspaper poll recorded 100 per cent opposition) muted by white guilt, political correctness, fear of hate speech charges and the Star Chamber hammer of the “human rights” commission. Any positive lessons for Ontario there?

The fact is that—still—B.C.’s 200-odd bands claim over 100 per cent of the province. Overlaps abound, especially in the choicest areas. Politicians humbly give thanks to bands for allowing public events to take place on their traditional territory, in my view  dangerous rhetoric with potential real consequences. Since it was created in 1993 the B.C. Treaty Commission has reached no major treaties, its costs approach $1 billion, and like all other aspects of what I rudely call Canada’s “affirmative apartheid” policy (glaringly concerning B.C.’s fishery), it’s enriched lawyers, consultants and Indian leaders.

Moore favourably cites the Nisga’a treaty—signed, after long negotiations outside of the commission process, in 2000. The treaty denies full voting rights to non-Nisga’a on Nisga’a territory. Mired in procedural blockades, its constitutional legality has been doggedly challenged by Nisga’a Chief Mountain (James Robinson) and Mercy Thomas and is finally scheduled to come to trial this summer. The B.C. government and media have elaborately, dare I say suspiciously, ignored its existence.

From Toronto, where Moore lives, all this and much more (notably the unresolved issue of women’s rights, also band governance, nepotism, favouritism, accountability and all those familiar characteristics that infect non-Indian governance too, but more so) doesn’t diminish B.C. as an admirable template for Ontario, apparently with application to the Six Nations conundrum centered in Caledonia.

The stark certainty is that the zeitgeist, as I believe learned persons call it, insures that Canada’s White Problem and the Indian Problem will persist as long as the sun will shine and the grass will grow. All “solutions” including Moore’s are not just doomed but designed to fail.  The aboriginal industry is simply too attractive and too lucrative to be wound up. And the truth is that most if not all Indians, like all entities harbouring a grievance, and with much justification, will never forget.

Trevor Lautens
West Vancouver, British Columbia

© Trevor Lautens 2010