Sunday, September 30, 2012

Let's Consider a Street Nursing Program For British Columbia

When Athabasca University alumnus Tracey Collins walked across the stage to receive her Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, she brought attention to her pioneering work in street nursing--and made more than a few people like myself aware of the potential that exists for this exciting and remarkably simple idea:
“I’d been working as a hospital nurse for more than 30 years,” she explains, “and in 2000 I saw a large gap in health services. People weren’t getting the help they needed because they weren’t ‘seen’ by the health-care system.” (Cathy Nickel 2012)
Street people are too often "unseen"  because health care human resources are naturally over-concentrated in doctor-run medical clinics and hospitals--the two areas that are most easily funded under our fee-for-service health care system. Tracey, who is currently  a primary care/psychiatric outreach nurse practitioner based out of St. John’s Community Kitchen in Kitchener, Ontario, has as her  core idea  improving services delivery outreach: “I work with the psychiatric outreach team to go where needed, when needed to provide care and facilitate connections to the many services this population needs,” she says.

As a British Columbian,  I can see how this adds a whole other dimension to the value of training more nurse practitioners, especially among  the aboriginal population.  Not only are they needed to improve health services delivery in small or remote communities that don't  have full time resident physicians (this is a commonplace observation made by politicians), but also to improve services delivery to the street people of downtown Prince George, Kamloops, Williams Lake, Nanaimo and East Vancouver.   Another implication: more First Nations nurse practitioners are simply worth their weight in gold, wherever they choose to reside.

There is a federalism dimension to this as well. as my colleague Katherine Fierlbeck has commented,  the decline in  conditional funding in recent years  has meant that  provinces don’t have to worry about channeling their money into these kinds of programs; now provincial governments have the discretion to use health care money as they see fit, rather than being limited by the Canada Health Act. So don't thank Harper's "open federalism" (i.e. less money and looser reins except for the Onsite Clinic?) for what Tracey Collins has accomplished. Blame recent federal governments for creating conditions that make innovative programs such as this less likely to occur.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Let's Consider Having Two Thorium-Fuelled Nuclear Reactors in Northern Alberta and Sakatchewan

Mention the words "nuclear power" , and you're likely to get a  knee-jerk reaction against them, particularly from people on the left who assume that "nuclear" means "uranium" or "plutonium", which therefore produces large amounts of highly poisonous waste that (in the case of plutonium) has a half-life of 25,000 years and continues in a highly radioactive state for even longer.  Uranium and plutonium power poses a perpetual environmental and health and safety risk, even if  there isn't a meltdown or an accident related to earthquake, tsunami  terrorist attack or other natural or man-made disaster that will threaten human populations.

But what if there were a nuclear fuel  that only produces 10% as much waste as uranium, and  if that  waste only lasted in a poisonous state for about 200 years?  And if the technology associated with that fuel  was less prone to meltdown? These features of thorium-fuelled nuclear technology might be enough to make me come off the fence in favour of thorium reactors in Alberta and Saskatchewan, both in order to reduce greenhouse gases in the tar sands and in order to meet our long-term energy needs. Two hundred years is a waste management problem on a human scale, and we should not be afraid of it.

The construction of these two reactors could also make Canada a leader in this technology--which really isn't that new or experimental; it has just languished because of the ways in which  military priorities have skewed research and development. Ironically, India (whom we got started in uranium technology with CANDU reactor sales in the 1970s) is now pulling ahead of us in thorium technology.

Canada has about 100,000 tonnes of economically available thorium-- not as much as India, Australia, the U.S. or Brazil, but  more than enough to support two reactors.  We need not be hostage to a foreign supplier.

Using thorium in existing reactors has been likened to using bio-fuel  in a Hummer.  But when the reactors are built from scratch as thorium reactors, they are highly efficient. If Canada were quicker out of the blocks, we could be a world leader in this green technology. That is in addition to the other benefits  touted by supporters of  conventional nuclear power, including the following arguments gleaned from Yahoo!:
"1. All the nuclear waste from all the reactors in the USA operating since the 1950s would fit on a football field.
2. If we had used breeder reactors and reprocessed the fuel -- it would have reduced the waste in #1 above by 70%! But Jimmy Carter and a compliant Congress passed a law forbidding reprocessing in the 1980s.
3. By altering the isotopes-- which is what happens in a breeder reactor -- we can reduce the half life to hundreds of years rather than thousands of years.
4. Nuclear waste is a SOLID-- encased in glass or other durable material and placed in a bore-hole reaching down 40,000 ft into a subduction zone-- its gone for millions of years. Yes we can drill that deep.
Nuclear power has ZERO CO2-- and by the way the first nuclear reactor at Penn State is still operating safely (after more than 50 years)."

With thorium power, we would not have to get bogged down in arguments about how fool-proof breeder reactors  are (point #2) or how easy or safe deep waste burial is (point#4).  The quantity and quality of thorium waste present clearly manageable risks. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Real Problem with Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente's partial apology for her partially plagiarized July 18, 2009 column  titled  "Enviro-romanticism Is Hurting Africa,"  is further proof that she is above all, a stylist who specializes in sarcastic attacks on progressive causes, who rushes to conclusions that are attractive to her way of thinking. She is not distinguished by balanced, thoroughly researched and scrupulously attributed passes at the truth.

Her column on "enviro-romanticism" ranks with her memorable columns "What's Not to Love about my SUV" (2003) and "Who's in Trouble, Polar Bears or People"? (2010). Wente shows in all of these pieces a lack of desire to carefully weigh all sides of an issue, preferring to skewer what she sees as conventional politically correct thinking. To be sure, she makes some good points along the way: GMO foods can contribute to alleviating world hunger. But we need to be on guard against corporate monoculture reducing biodiversity, and we need to insist upon labelling of GMO products. The corporate lobby against labelling goes against the whole ethos of liberal capitalism and consumer sovereignty -- the kind of paternalism that says consumers shouldn't be informed, because most of them don't read Margaret Wente's columns and therefore are unduly alarmed--  is truly appalling.

The more fundamental truth is that activism to stop runaway Greenhouse effect has the characteristics of what economists call a "public good" --i.e. even if the vast majority know that there is a problem, that doesn't mean that collective action will be taken, because each individual actor has trouble seeing or capturing the benefits for herself when she isn't sure that others will join in the sacrifice. So little actually gets done. There is little danger of overly-precipitous collective action on climate change; the far greater danger is that far too little will be done far too late.  So do we really need Margaret Wente's one-sided pooh-poohing of climate change activism or other political causes that share these same "public good" attributes?

By the way, kudos to journalism professor and blogger Carol Wainio for exemplifying the role that bloggers can play in keeping the feet of the established and increasingly concentrated media to the fire. Her blog "Media Culpa" is excellent, and if you read her particular posting on the Wente column , you will see that it is careful, judicious and discriminating--and that the Editor-in Chief of the Globe and Mail, John Stackhouse,  is in substantial agreement with her.

As for Margaret Wente, perhaps it is time for her to join her climate change-skeptical former colleague Rex Murphy at the National Post. They both belong there.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why NHL Owners Should Budge

NHL President Gary Bettman   is no doubt correct when he says  that  financial health for all 30 NHL franchises requires a bigger share of revenue for owners. But notice that the NHL  (1) does not have the same degree of revenue-sharing between owners that the NFL does, for example; and (2) does not relocate franchises as often as the NFL does, for example.

What  is the significance of these two facts?  That the NHL's reluctance to share more revenue or to move franchises around more are choices that they have made. And if those are their choices, the players should not be forced to shoulder all of the cost of those choices. If the owners' "southern strategy"  in search of TV revenue has failed, and they persist even when it is clear that more viable franchises are to be had in Ontario and Quebec, then that isn't the players' fault.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lougheed's Legacy

{A version of this posting appeared as a letter to the Editor in the Edmonton Journal on September 18, 2012 }

Last year I had the good fortune of meeting Peter Lougheed, at the Edmonton conference commemorating the 1981 Constitutional Agreement that led to the patriation of the Constitution.  He was blessed to have been lucid and articulate as ever to the end of his life. 

Maybe that is why, when  I visited him as he lay in state in the rotunda of the Alberta legislature this week, I couldn't help but think about the invisible elephant in the room.  If this is Canada's greatest premier of the past 40 years, why have so many of Canada's conservative politicians and pundits been ignoring his advice  for the past 20 years?

For example, his admonition to "think like an owner" during the royalty debates; to "reduce dependence on energy revenues" during budget and taxation debates; to replenish the Heritage Trust Fund; to demand more jobs in Alberta for the Keystone XL project; and to invest in public infrastructure for a rapidly growing province.  All  of these remarks have fallen upon the largely deaf ears of populist reform and neo-con types, many of whom always resented his patrician roots and Harvard degree, and  who fled his party either federally or provincially, because it wasn't ideologically "pure" enough.

Whereas  the legacy of Tommy Douglas  unites New Democrats in reminding them of what they are doing right, the policies of Peter Lougheed seem to divide conservatives, and remind the rest of us of what they are doing wrong.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

REVIEW: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation 
by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard (McGIl University Press 2008).

I don't have time to write a detailed review of this work, and fortunately I don't need to, since it has  proved to be as provocative as it was no doubt intended to be, and has already sparked much commentary. (For a balanced selection, see Brian Beaton's collection of  four reviews on  Media KNet: .  In particular, a good short  review is that  of Metis policy analyst Joseph Quesnel in the Calgary Herald; and the best example of  scathing and at times nasty critique has to be that of  Taiaiake Alfred.

I will, however, make a few short comments:

1) I was attracted to this book because I believe that there is an aboriginal industry to be disrobed, i.e. the largely self-serving and self-perpetuating army of lawyers, bureaucrats, consultants, anthropologists and native band leaders who profit from native grievance, native dependency, and identity politics.

2)  After all those years of graduate study focusing on communitarian critiques of liberalism (McIntyre, Walzer, Sandel, Taylor, et al) and critiques of Enlightenment (McIntyre, John Ralston Saul, John Gray, to say nothing of feminist theory),  I  found it refreshing to read somebody arguing unapologetically for a good old-fashioned  Enlightenment theory of human social progress!  This view  sees all humans as progressing beyond tribal loyalties and superstitions and toward a rational universal human civilization. The "scientific basis" for this view is the Marxist or historical materialist view that "culture" can be categorized according to the stage of economic and technological development to which it belongs; tribal kinship-based cultures are unsuited to industrial development and mass society and are therefore backwards compared to more mainstream cultures.  "Today, this schism between aboriginal people and other Canadians  is encouraged by the Aboriginal Industry, which proposes initiatives that retain neolithic cultural features"(p.60).  Some First Nations people will find that word "neolithic" to be demeaning, but Widdowson and Howard are well-intentioned and not racist.

3)  They are, however, mistaken to have such a reductionist view of culture. One wonders how they explain away  the fact that Britain, the seat of both the industrial revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment, still has a hereditary chief (monarch)? Or that in The United States, the spearheading of technological and economic progress occurs in a country where anyone who seeks election to high political office must be a churchgoer if they wish to be successful?  One reason that suggests itself is that all of this atavistic cultural baggage performs some functions other than the simple growth in productive power and domination of nature. This was the point of the communitarian critics of Enlightenment liberalism:  that the best way to negotiate modernity  was not by shedding your identity, but by having your feet firmly planted in that identity as a basis for self-determination.  A recent study showing  that First Nations communities in British Columbia with greater control over their affairs experienced substantially lower rates of suicide is another recent example of this evident truth. (J.J. Chandler and C. Lalonde, “Cultural Continuity as a hedge against suicide in Canada’s First Nations,” Transcultural Psychiatry, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1998, pp. 191-219.)

I can also think of another reason for valuing cultural diversity, actually suggested by Darwinian /Marxist theory itself:  might not cultural traits that appear to be primitive in one context (living in balance with nature, matriarchy rather than patriarchy) actually be conducive to human progress in another context (when ecological imbalance and sexual inequality need to be redressed)?  To be fair, the authors do address this latter point, but only very briefly, with reference to the preservation of languages:  "The argument [that disappearance of languages is detrimental to the survival of humanity]relies on a confusion of cultural and biological diversity, as well as a denial of cultural evolution. It is erroneously assumed that linguistic diversity is similar to biological diversity. The comparison is faulty, since languages are a part of culture  and can be dramatically transformed even within a single generation. This means that it is not necessary to maintain a variety of cultural characteristics "on hand"  so that they can be selected to aid survival" (p.212).

4)  We need to ask not only whether a  theory is "right," but whether it illuminates and serves a critical function.  Virtually all political and social theories turn out to be less general and more limited than they aspire to be. Yet the good theories last, not because they are proven to be "right", but because they continue to shed their own particular light. Hardly anyone literally subscribes to the thoroughgoing atomism, individualism and materialism  contained in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, or to the political prescription it contains. But they often see aspects of its logic at work to this very day, in fields as diverse as property law, financial markets and international relations.  It still illuminates.

So it is with Widdowson and Howard's version of Marxism, which shines in several places. We should ask the question "Is preserving this cultural trait this going to help, or at least not hurt, First Nations people to adapt and survive in the twenty-first century?" After all, over-emphasizing some cultural traits at the expense of engagement with the larger society can and does retard social progress. But we shouldn't assume in any specific instance what the answer will be--either from a preservationist or non-preservationist point of view. Widdowson and Howard's perspective suggests some hard questions that need answers. That is why this book deserved its Donner Prize nomination. For example, they challenge the conservative /neo-liberal interpetations  of Thomas Flanagan (First nations? Second Thoughts) and Calvin Helin (Dances with Dependency), who both blame aboriginal problems on an excess of government and see the private sector as the solution.  On the contrary, Widdowson and Howard argue that "[t]he withdrawal of government funding from aboriginal communities would be disastrous, since intensive government programs and services are needed to develop aboriginal cultures"(253).  Alan Cairns's effort to build a theoretical middle ground that combines respectful recognition of aboriginal cultures with a desire to integrate them into Canadian citizenship also gets a tough treatment: the "difference" to which Cairns wishes to accord positive recognition "actually consists of the traditions associated with remnants of aboriginal peoples' hunting and gathering/horticultural mode of production"(254). If Widdowson and Howard are correct, this "recognition" will only inhibit their participation in a larger, more complex and more productive economy and society.

I especially liked their use of Erik Olin Wright's distinction between "exploitative versus non-exploitative oppression" to explain the difference between colonialist relations experienced by black people and those experienced by native people (76-77). While I expect that native theorists would view expropriation and exploitation  of the land as every bit as as "exploitative" of First Nations people as the expropriation of labour of African slaves, that would miss Widdowson and Howard's point: "[l]acking the power that comes from being needed for labour, aboriginals have had to rely on the formulation of legal arguments by the Aboriginal Industry." This has meant depending on judicial interpretations, lacking a cohesive political movement, and competing for government money and resource rights instead of building a true common cause.

  Of course, it is also wrong to sweep the past five decades of theoretical effort in every humanities and social science discipline under the rug with repeated dismissive references to  "postmodern identity politics". And one wonders whether the authors themselves have made sufficient theoretical effort to keep up with the literature on social capital, post-materialism, or the re-construction of social theory that critical theory  makes possible. Which brings me to my final point:

5)  Instead of throwing this thought-provoking work  into the "garbage bin", it should inspire a sequel, based more on the Foucault-Habermas debate taking place and other trends in radical and critical theory now instead of the debates between the anthropologists Lewis Henry Morgan and Franz Boas that took place a hundred or so years ago (53-60). Post-Kuhnian and post-Popperian philosophy of science should also be discussed, since the Aboriginal Industry according to Widdowson and Howard places great stress on what should count as scientific knowledge.  David Harvey's  theorization of the transition from Fordist to flexible accumulation is an historical materialist account, largely inspired by Marx's analysis of capitalism, but up-dated into an account of postmodernism as a societal condition. Bob Jessop is another post-war Marxist state theorist whose work could illuminate a radical critique of aboriginal  policy without eschewing a materialist positive theory. My hunch is that a Foucauldian critique of  the aboriginal industry would be just as penetrating as Widdowson's and Howard's analysis,  and would even more revealing of it as a system of social control. A Habermasian approach to aboriginal policy would likely allow for a greater retention of native identities than would Widdowson and Howard's, since it is sensitive to the sacredness of identity and belief that underpins communicative action.   As a result, its appeal to universal citizenship, while equally rooted in the Enlightenment, would look a lot more like self-determination, and a lot less like neo-assimilation, to native peoples. And a theoretical orientation similar to Harvey's would enable the authors to situate aboriginal policy within an ideological critique of postmodernism instead of  simply dismissing 'postmodernity' as an intellectual fad.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A DNC Speakers' List I Would Like to See

1. Bill Gates: "Why We Should Spend More Money On Public Education"

2. Warren Buffett: "Why I Should Pay More  in Taxes"

3. Ted Turner: "Why We Should Pull Our Weight at the U.N."

4. George Soros: "Why We Need to Regulate  International Financial Transactions and
                              Do More About Climate Change"