How long can we support the weight of COVID-19?

Published: The Globe and Mail (PDF)
September 25, 2020
818 words

In August, I received a frantic text message from my sister. She has been our  mother’s primary caregiver for many years, but Mom is 92, settling into dementia, and now had gout. The time had come to finally help her to move out of the family home and into care.
Even though I hardly ever make the drive from Vancouver, where I live, to my home town Kelowna, obviously there was no choice. I cancelled a day’s work and was set to go.
But I didn’t. I still don’t feel entirely safe visiting my mother. I’m pretty sure that I don’t have COVID-19, but that isn’t 100 per cent certain. I’m even less sure that my brother and sister aren’t carriers.

(Read the full column)

Oh, so you think you know us olds?

Published: The Line (PDF)
August 11, 2020
1116 words

A few months ago my wife Susan and I travelled to Vancouver Island to meet a breeder of Great Dane puppies. After decades of rescuing dogs and cats, we had decided that it was time to finally splurge and adopt the dog of our dreams.

We met the breeder, and his Danes, and his puppies, and spoke at length about our experience with dogs, our training as dog handlers, and about the life that we expected to offer our new pet. Even though his prices were higher than some breeders, we were ready to pay it. These were lovely dogs.
We returned home and waited for the email telling us when our puppy was born. And waited. And waited.

After the breeder ignored us for more than a month, we finally put the pieces together: he had decided that we were too old to adopt a dog. Our income, experience, and knowledge meant nothing because we had grey hair – especially since he had said his “best” puppies were all reserved for cool young couples living in Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown neighbourhood.

In an age when almost everyone accepts that you can’t refuse people service on the basis of race, religion, culture, or disability; when right-wing pundits cry in their beer because they’re expected to be respectful of people who are different from them; when #MeToo, and #BLM, and Trans rights are part of the public discourse, there’s still one group that you can mock, insult, and discriminate against: old people.

On one day it’s oh-so-cool tech gurus complaining how they need to dumb-down products because old people can’t understand computers and smart phones. That might include the people who literally invented the Internet and personal computing. They’re now in their sixties and seventies.

On another it’s being ignored at a local restaurant because the servers believe that Old People don’t tip. (We do. Usually 20%. Unless you ignore us.) Incidentally, the American AARP claims old people tip more.

The most absurd are thirty-year-olds who apologize all over themselves for dropping a “fuck” into conversation as if we’re poor innocents that will be shocked into a heart attack if we hear a “curse-word.” That wasn’t true when I was 20, and it’s sure not true now. I grew up with George Carlin’s “7 Words You Can’t Say On Television” so you’re not about to shock me.

Every few years a movie or TV series will appear that tells of an older (invariably widowed) couple who fall in love. It will be a comedy because obviously old people falling in love is just ridiculous. Their children will be very concerned because, well, their parents are OLD people. And the writers won’t dwell on sex because 70 year old people don’t do that, and besides, it would be gross!

Still, I’ll take that bad romance over the inevitable inspirational stories about people 60, 70, or 90-years-old who run a marathon, hike the West Coast trail, or climb Mount Everest. Or get a law degree, or get elected to office, or do important scientific research. Or get married.

“Look Martha! That old person is doing stuff that young people usually do!” Or “Isn’t that sweet, that old guy just kissed that old woman.” Or “Wow, she’s 60, and just started a business!”

Well, big whoop-di-do.

I’ll actually place the blame for these prejudices at the feet of the media, and especially advertising. Whether it’s the sheer inanity of Norwich Union’s 1990 “It’s Patrick He Took Out Life Insurance!” ad series, or the infomercials for Acorn stair lifts and walk-in bath tubs, the truth is that advertisers of all stripes portray older people as infirm, often confused, and not very bright — yet loaded with cash to spend on junk that claims to improve their lifestyle.
Contrast that with the image of older people presented by retirement communities and the government: happy healthy Senior Citizens, with (moderately) active lives, great big smiles, and some kind of unspecified comfortable income that lets them relax, dress well, and take cruises to Alaska. Ah yes, those fabled days of happy retirement!

That picture ignores the hard reality that not every old person is enjoying that happy, healthy lifestyle. The government’s own figures show that about 5% of the senior community lives in poverty, and while those statistics do suggest that the elderly are wealthier than many working-age people and their children, the truth is that many of us continue to work just to make ends meet.
Unlike younger people — who still enjoy health, energy and time to get ahead — many older people are forced into retirement with no real hope of escaping poverty.

Then there’s the matter of healthcare. Being an old patient means that your busy life is not a priority. Everyone in health care assumes that you can be scheduled to whatever time is convenient for the doctors or nurses. Surely you’re not holding down a job anymore? More frightening is the growing sense that there are some medical procedures that you’re just not offered because of age. Then there are the frank statements by doctors who warn that, in the face of a shortage of ICU and ventilators, elderly people will not get access to life-saving interventions.

The picture of the cute, befuddled, but loveable old senior, working the garden of the (fully paid for) family home with no worries beyond the next bingo session at the community hall is nonsense. We have responsibilities to our families; we struggle to pay our bills, just like everybody else.

But it’s this nonsense that provides cover for governments that don’t want to provide pensions that meet the poverty line.

I’ll acknowledge that some old people are doddering old fools. The secret is that they’ve always been doddering fools. I’ve known people that were “old” at age 25, with a boring job, a boring house in the suburbs, and a boring minivan.
Stop and talk to the old people that you do know. Don’t ask about grandchildren or Facebook: ask about how little they get from their pension, or how much of that money goes to medicine and health care. Find out where they’re cutting corners to cover the rent increases every year.

Armed with that information, ask yourself if the pensions and services we’re offering are enough for older people that haven’t had the luck to build up healthy RRSPs or real estate holdings. This matters because sooner or later it’s going to be you that needs them. In the meantime wise up to the truth that the 70 year old you saw in the park could easily be a friend, a business partner, or even a lover — if you could get past your prejudices.

 

It’s Too Late For Us To Fight Climate Change. Instead, Here’s How We’ll Spend Our Lives.

Published: Huffington Post
February 16, 2020
700 words

Barry Rueger looking out over the Pacific Ocean on Vancouver Island in Ucluelet, British Columbia. 

(Note to commenters: This column has generated a significant amount of email and feedback. All comments are moderated.  Climate science deniers will simply be deleted and blocked.  Anyone rep[lying with “OK Boomer” will be asked for a 1000 words explaining how they came to that assessment.)

Last year was when the endless bush fires in Australia convinced me and my wife, Susan, that climate change was unstoppable. It’s also when we realized that we likely will avoid seeing the worst of the climate emergency.

At 64 and 74 years of age, my wife and I believe there’s a good chance that we’ll be gone before coastal cities are flooded, the ice caps have melted, and the planet descends into a “Mad Max” dystopia. We would like to think that this isn’t what the future has in store, but the intransigence of almost all governments to actually slow carbon emissions leaves little doubt that things are unlikely to turn around.

One of the things that age gives you is a sense of history, a feeling that you’ve seen patterns repeat and that you can see where things are heading in the near future. Over and over again, we’ve seen corporations and governments ignore the people they should protect in order to line their own pockets. What has changed now is that they’re sacrificing an entire planet instead of a town or a country. I would like to believe that the younger people marching with Greta Thunberg could change that, but honestly I can’t see it happening.

Read more.

Do we need CanCon for print media?

Published: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (En français aussi)
February 4, 2020
1211 words

The Canadian content regulations established by the CRTC in 1971 played a major part in building our homegrown music industry. What would happen if we applied those principles to Canada’s news media sector?

The Top Thirty playlist for Vancouver's CKLG radio station in June 1973.In my hometown of Kelowna, B.C., in 1970, you bought your records at the Music Box store on Ellis Street. Each week you’d travel downtown to choose from the new 45s and albums that you’d heard on the local radio station. And while you were there you’d pick up the latest list of the top 30 records being played on Vancouver’s powerhouse station CKLG.

Looking at those old charts today, you’d be struck by one thing: aside from an occasional appearance by Anne Murray or the Guess Who, you would almost never see a Canadian artist in the Top 30. The charts were dominated by American and English musicians. The assumption at CKLG, and among its listeners, was that popular music came from those places, not from Canada.

Because there was little airplay for our musicians, there was also very little recording industry infrastructure in Canada. Becoming successful in music back then meant going to the U.S. to record, work and live. Today, by contrast, it’s hard to keep track of all of the Canadian artists who enjoy successful careers here and abroad. Everyone from Drake on down is able to record here and build a global profile without leaving the country. That wouldn’t have happened without Canadian content regulations.

Read the full article.

My mother gave her children the magic of Christmas. I’m proud she had the courage

Published: Guardian (Australia)
December 24, 2019
815 words

Christmas Tree
Photograph: Holly Anissa Photography/Getty Images

Excerpt from the article:

The most amazing thing about our Christmas was that it even happened, and that it was a wonderful day year after year. My mother claimed that Christmas was “for the kids, not the adults” but the truth was that this was the one day of the year that she protected from my father’s interference. It is only years later that I realise just how hard that must have been.

My parents were married in 1952. They were both just 24 years of age, and my father had been widowed only six months earlier. His first wife had killed herself by walking in front of a train, leaving behind her husband and her infant child, my half-brother.

I do not know whether that trauma was the cause of my father’s psychosis, or whether her suicide was the result of something that had been with him throughout his life, but I do know that he was a desperately unhappy man. I grew up never knowing affection or approval, and my mother’s life was even bleaker.

Read the full article.

DNV Council – For The Birds?

Pigeon

This week the municipal council of the District of North Vancouver voted to prohibit the keeping of pigeons in the District.  Or, more specifically, they voted to prohibit the keeping of pigeons by one resident.

Even that wouldn’t have particularly bothered me, except that the homeowner in question, Kulwant Dulay, happens to live next to the sole person complaining to the District about his pigeons – District council member Betty Forbes.

CBC reports that Dulay says he’s lived in the District of North Vancouver for 25 years and, for most of them, he’s kept homing pigeons on his property in a coop in the backyard, without ruffling any feathers.  Only when he moved in next to Forbes three years ago did this become a problem.

The biggest concern with this story has to be the way that the District and Forbes very explicitly didn’t name her as the complainant, or discuss why a new bylaw was needed to deal with her complaint.  It seems that only when CBC filed an FOI request did the truth emerge. There’s now a suggestion that Forbes was in clear conflict of interest.

Perhaps ironically, the previous council actually brought in rules that allow people to keep chickens in their back yards.

 

Postscript: Justin McElroy has a great Twitter thread recounting this saga. Including this gem in the comments:

Betty Forbes Tweet

The Chinese media prepared me for the Canadian election

Published: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (En français aussi)
October 15, 2019
1277 words

The Chinese media prepared me for the Canadian election

Donald Trump’s trade war with China was in full swing when we left for China. Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou had been arrested at a Canadian airport, and two Canadians had been detained in China. By the time we left it was July and the Canadian government was warning us to “Exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

The trip was wonderful, and we came away with a much greater understanding of China and the Chinese people, and with an appreciation for how little we knew about the history, culture and government of the country.

The most striking thing about living in what is undeniably a police state was the iron grip that government has on the news media. Since the average person in China isn’t likely to use a VPN to access foreign media, most people see and read only what the Communist party wants them to see and read.

… When we returned home, I was truly looking forward to returning to my regular media diet of Twitter, Facebook and our local newspapers. Instead, I was shocked to realize that the Canadian news landscape was far too much like the Chinese one we had just left behind. The only difference was that the control was by corporate interests instead of the government.

Full article here.

 

Show Me The Way To Go Home

Published: PriceTags.ca
October 6, 2019
300 words

Un-named Skytrain StationWhat is this — a café? A library? A corner store?

Unless you regularly travel by transit to Langara College or the Alliance  Française, you’re forgiven for not recognising this as the 49th and Langara Skytrain station. This photo was taken from the west side of Cambie Street looking east on 49th Avenue.

And unless you’re standing in front and looking directly at the entrance, there’s no way to identify this as an essential part of urban infrastructure.

Read more here.

Where’s local news in the Facebook age?

Published: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (En français aussi)
August 6, 2019
1233 words

EThe Liberal government’s newspaper bailout will undoubtedly help big media players like Postmedia or The Toronto Star, but it will likely have little to offer the hundreds of smaller local newspapers in Canada. As many of these community newspapers shrink in size or get closed down entirely, a lot of Canadians are finding that the only remaining place to find out what’s happening in their hometown is Facebook.

Read more

Notes from a Podcast: The North Shore’s Grand Bargain

Published: PriceTags.ca
July 9, 2019
658 words

(many thanks to the Price Tags crew for allowing space for this essay.)

During the Q&A that followed the Price Tags taping at the North Vancouver District Public Library moderator Gordon Price asked Holly Back, a member of the City of North Vancouver council, how she felt about the “bargain” that had been struck between the City and the District.

The bargain is straightforward: the City will build lots of new housing, more than a thousand new rental units, and low income and supportive housing, while the District will do nothing, in order to preserve a suburban community of single family detached homes.

As the City grows, the District will remain unwelcoming—to both outsiders and population growth.

The current District council is smug in its determination to block all new development, and openly hostile to developers, but I suspect they’re fooling themselves if they think this is a triumph. By refusing to approve any development, and asking staff for help in shaming council members who accepted developer contributions, the District is trying to preserve the type of community that was popular a half-century ago; one with suburban houses, big shopping malls, and a complete dependence on cars for transportation.

Meanwhile, the City is densifying, diversifying, and creating a twenty-first century municipality that acknowledges these changing demographics, as well as the looming threat of climate change.

While the District is chasing away projects that would offer services and housing to seniors, the disabled, and the low income workers that drive the retail sector, the City is welcoming them with open arms.

Already you can see and feel the difference. The lower half of Lonsdale Street—especially near the Shipyards and Seabus terminal—is alive with new development. A new Whole Foods store has opened, and a flurry of new businesses, restaurants, and services have appeared that are supported by the rising population. Equally noteworthy is the sense that it’s a young population moving in, with different priorities and different spending patterns. Compared to Lynn Valley where we live, it’s a community—alive and vibrant. There are even people on the streets after nine o-clock on a weeknight.

The feeling that the City is younger is in fact supported by the 2016 census; the City’s population is growing at a rate several times faster than the District, and much of that growth is in people in their prime earning years. That working age population represents a bigger percentage of the City’s residents, than the District, and it skews younger too. While the District’s population currently has more children and teens, by adulthood they’ll join the “missing middle” — younger working adults who can no longer afford to live in the District. Meanwhile, the District is left with a surplus of people at or approaching retirement age.

What hasn’t been discussed by the new District council is what all of this holds for the future. As the City adds housing, and population, and density, it will also grow its tax base and its economic activity.

Building housing will allow the City to grab the lion’s share of Federal and Provincial funding that has become available. More people will mean more spending, more jobs, and more vitality and resilience. A population that is younger and more diverse will create a city that can see new opportunities, and find new solutions to the problems faced by any municipality in the Lower Mainland. And of course, more density will encourage TransLink to improve transit services.

And the District? As the population ages into retirement ,the incomes that support local businesses will decline. As council insists that they only want two million dollar single family homes, they’ll see young people and young families choosing to live in the City. Those people will be looking south, towards the galleries, and shopping, and excitement of Lower Lonsdale and Vancouver, and eventually won’t even think about the District as a place to live or visit.

While the City thrives, the District will just fade away, becoming less relevant with every year.