Monday, 20 April 2015

Snake oil and bunker oil... something's mighty fishy in English Bay these days.

Vancouver has a jaw-droppingly beautiful harbour. Despite being the fourth largest port on the continent, it's home to killer whales, grey whales, harbour seals, sea otters, a multitude of fish and birds, and of course, the exotic, blue-tinged polar bear swimmer.

It's a powerful place. It's teeming with life because it's here that the continent meets the Pacific, but it's also where the natural world collides with the industrial. 

It's a relationship with an historically one-sided outcome; after all, how often does nature triumph over industry?

Industry enjoyed a slam dunk here quite recently. There are seventeen moorages in English Bay, deep water parking spaces for ships awaiting their day at port. Last week a brand spanking new grain ship on its maiden mission was awaiting its turn in the harbour and inexplicably fouled the waters when it lost many thousand litres of bunker oil. A recreational boater in English Bay alerted the authorities at 5:00 pm on Thursday, the 9th of April, but even though he waited for hours for the coast guard to arrive, he didn't see anyone. No one placed a boom around the leaking Marathasa until midnight. 

According to the Bellingham Harbour master, the alarm wasn't even sounded till 8:00 pm, and it took them another four hours after that to get a boom around the vessel. That's seven hours from the call. Worse, it was sixteen hours before anyone alerted the city to the spill, so the first anyone in Vancouver heard of it was the next morning. You might wonder how it could take so long to respond to a spill in such a busy urban centre, but the nearest Coast Guard station is down next to the airport at Sea Island in Richmond, where the Fraser River meets the Georgia Strait, over ten kilometres away. The closest boom ship is in Port Moody, in the opposite direction. You'd think that a busy port like Vancouver would have a Coast Guard, wouldn't you? It certainly used to. With the abysmal response to this spill, a chorus cried "I told you so!" Why? Two years ago, the Feds closed the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, the busiest in the country.

Incredibly, the Coast Guard commissioner in Ottawa claimed that the response to this spill was "world class," and insisted that an open and operating Kitsilano coast guard station wouldn't have made any difference whatsoever. But then federal employees are not allowed to speak truth, didn't you know? You might think I am being facetious, but sadly, no. It isn't just our federal scientists who've been silenced, and scripted. There is a "Code of Conduct" which emphasises a "Duty of Loyalty" to the "Duly Elected Government," which includes both a muzzle and a snitch line. Any. Federal. Employee. And this code of conduct extends beyond the workplace to the employees' personal lives. They are not allowed to speak out against any aspect of the federal government. End. Of. Story.  Can you believe it?! This is Canada, not North Korea, though you'd never know it. So of course the commissioner would say that this was a world class response. She was obliged -required by law - to lie, and to claim that nothing would have been any different had the station been open.

Take a gander out the window of the closed station and you could have seen the offending ship.
I know a man, a federal investigator who is regularly called upon by the media, and he constantly struggles with that mad "Code of Conduct." He has a reputation for integrity decades in the making, only now the federal government demands he tow the line with heavily scripted propaganda he feels morally compelled to edit from his statements. In doing so, he walks a fine line, lest he invoke the "Ire of Harper." Was there ever any question, then, that the commissioner should made clearly and obviously false statements? The size of the spill was understated. And within a day or two, the feds claimed that  "The lion's share" of the oil was already removed from our waters, which is impossible, not just unlikely. They claimed that 80% of the spill was removed within a few days, when even an excellent, truthfully world class response would have amounted to a 30% removal. Assistant commissioner Roger Girouard actually  had the gall to claim that "Just six litres of oil remained in English bay by Friday!" Six litres. As. If. What an insult to our collective intelligence.

Six. Litres. He knew this because somebody flew a float plane over the bay. They hadn't even looked underneath the surface at that point. This is bunker fuel. Heavy, sludgy bunker fuel, which does, in fact, sink, by the way. Never mind the bathtub ring round the harbour, and the boats all around the region coated in oil. But he insists that we should take their word for it. He insists that this was a world class response to a small spill, and that there are only six litres of oil left floating around out there. We should happily embrace pipelines and the tanker traffic that goes with them, because they have the best possible spill response firmly in hand. Fer fucksake. I am not sure what is worse, that our government is content to so blatantly lie to us, or that we complacent Canadians are happy to bend over and take it, and then keep on taking it, even as the shit they're shovelling is getting WAY out of hand.  My dear fellow citizens, please tell me: Why, Oh Why don't we hold the federal government accountable for its responsibilities?! Why don't we force them to do the things they are legally, ethically, and morally bound to do? Why don't we have this administration recalled?

Come ON, People!! It's well past time to give those nasty,  greedy leaders THE BOOT!
Why DO they continue to get away with such criminal behaviour? Spin. They can spin a better yarn than the best bullshitters, and that's what they do. The conservative government has world class spin doctors at their beck and call, and they had their top notch public relations team working on this spill long before any oil spill response experts made their way to English Bay. Seriously. Their oil spill experts were in Prince Rupert until two days after the spill occurred. The federal mouthpiece, Coast Guard commissioner Jody Thomas said that the Kits station was mainly a search and rescue operation, and therefore that it wouldn't have made a different to this emergency. She claims that the spill response was excellent, and that only negligible amounts of the toxins are remaining in our waters. 

Get a grip, people. We have a right to the truth, and to a healthy, living planet, too.
And it's LIES. All LIES. Captain Tony Toxopeus, retired Kits Coast Guard coxswain, said that his teams would have been on scene between six and fifteen minutes after the sailor's call at five pm. The mouthpiece said that it wouldn't have made a difference to the cleanup, because Kits was mainly a search and rescue facility, but she failed to mention that the Kitsilano station was, in fact, where the coast guard trained its people in spill response. Toxopeus said "the base was equipped with a purpose-built oil pollution response vessel, 300 metres of self-inflating boom and other equipment. Crews were trained regularly to deal with oil spill response."  Unlike the Ottawa based commissioner, Captain Toxopeus knows exactly what he is talking about, because he participated in hundreds of spill response calls. He isn't just reciting a government sanctioned press release, a script designed to make the government look good in the eyes of the less than discriminating Canadian target er, citizen. And the good Captain most certainly knows enough to know that the likelyhood that the brutally slow and inefficient response to that nasty little spill most definitely did NOT contain and remove 80% of the bunker fuel that entered the waters of English Bay.

It's nasty stuff, bunker fuel. Seriously toxic.
Do you know who else knows the score when it comes to spill response? Retired Commander Frederick E Moxley, that's who. Moxley, a 35 year Coast Guard veteran, and former Commander of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station knows what he's talking about, because he has literally responded to hundreds of oil spill calls,and has trained countless men in spill response. 

“I’ve been in hundreds of spills and never seen an 80 per cent recovery,Moxey said"Usually you recover 30 per cent at most, more like 10, and that’s with an immediate response and a trained crew with sponges and straw pulling the oil out by hand.” Moxley is not the only person to suggest that the government is not speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but his objections ought to be given more than a little credence, because nobody knows the facts in this situation better than he does.

Jody Thomas said: the closed facility has been used for storage after the spill, but said having the Kitsilano station open would not have made any difference in the spill response. Moxey contradicted this, stating that the Kitsilano base responded to oil spills as well as search and rescue before it was shut down. "It was a 24-hour-a-day operation," he said. "All the officers and crew at Kitsilano were trained and had responded to oil spills as well as search and rescue. For her to say that is just false and I will sign an affidavit declaring the fact we were and had been called to respond to spills often."

As Canadians, we shouldn't have to wonder whether our leaders are lying. But then we don't have to wonder, really, do we? it's patently obvious that they are. You can almost count on the fact that this administration will say whatever best suits its purpose, truth be damned. As citizens of a vast, resource rich nation, we have a responsibility to take our stewardship of this country seriously, and yet this particular administration is stripping the land of its riches, and putting the profit in the pockets of a very few individuals.many of whom are not even Canadian. 

It's time to put your foot down.
For example, Kinder Morgan is planning to expand their Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to the Vancouver port. They want to twin it. The National Energy Board used to hear from anyone with questions, concerns or comments about these sorts of projects prior to making a decision about whether or not to let it proceed, but Mr Harper put an end to that. The hearings are now closed to everyone but those with a direct stake in the plan on the table. Still. The cities of Vancouver and Burnaby posed some 1200 questions to Kinder Morgan about their plan, especially with respect to their spill response. The National Energy Board was satisfied with Kinder Morgan's heavily redacted response, even though it did not even begin to address a realistic spill scenario, and even though the company refused to answer half of the questions the cities posed. Oh, but if anything bad ever did happen to our coastline, at least Texas billionaire Mr Rich Kinder could afford to represent himself in court. He took home $60,000,000 last year.

Trans Am Totem: becasue Car is King
You heard it here last week, though it's painfully obvious across the planet... something is rotten in the country of Canada, Horatio.  It's not just the toxins in the water, either.

The earning inequality between executives and the rest of the working population is staggering, and it's laying waste to the economy. But nobody has an appetite for change, it seems. Well, almost no one. There is a twenty first century hero amongst us, a Robin Hood for the modern age, except that this man is sacrificing his own bottom line to ensure that his employees have everything they need. His name? Dan Price. You 're not likely to forget it, either, because though he was already cover worthy, he is sure to get some serious air time in the weeks and months to come.

The Price is right! (photo courtesy YPO)
He started his company, Gravity Payments, as a freshman at Seattle Pacific, after learning that small businesses paid as much as five percent to credit card companies just to process their payments. He built the company throughout his education until last year when it realised a $2.2 million dollar profit, as he earned a million dollars. Over the years since founding the company, he noticed that he had two groups of friends: the wealthy executives, and everybody else, and what he saw bothered him.
“I was just experiencing the difference, and seeing both sides of that every day,” he said. The stark divide between the haves and the have-nots irked him, and he felt that the pay-gap between himself and his employees was just too much.
One day, while hiking with a friend, she confided about the stress of having her rent hiked.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
About 30 employees will have their salary double, with others getting smaller raises to get them to the $70,000-benchmark. Before the increase, the average salary at Gravity Payments was $48,000, and about 50 employees were already paid above the cut-off, Price said. (From The Star)
He cut his salary to $70,000, and cut into the company's profits, too, to pay for the initiative, but he sees it as an investment. 
Price said the salary cut is just temporary, until the company makes back the profit lost to the higher wages.
“I think the team is going to do a great job and make that up,” he said.
“This is an investment, not charity, and it isn’t any more than what these folks deserve.”
Although he wants to pay employees well, he said it’s also important to pay a CEO a market rate, so that if something were to happen to him, the company could afford to hire his replacement.
“I’m a capitalist,” he said.
Price said he’s been overwhelmed by emails of support from other businesses. He’s especially grateful for the support from his customers, who have applauded the move.
“We’ve literally had hundreds of businesses reach out to us and say that they’d like to do business with us,” he said.
“I think this is going to become a competitive imperative over time, and it will catch on.”
Genius. That's whatchacall Visionary. It's exactly the kind of thinking that will prevent our descent into chaos should the present levels of income disparity continue to grow. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Taking shelter from an infinite ceiling in a perfect storm.

Ride through Vancouver, and you will see that the city is home to far too many homeless people sleeping rough in neighbourhoods all over the place.

Less apparent, yet equally important to the equation is all of the Homes-Less-People, the multitude of condos and detached houses alike, entirely empty of inhabitants, sitting vacant year after year after year.

The path to this door has been unused for so long that it is almost completely lost to moss.
Whole neighbourhoods are turning into ghost towns, so that fewer and fewer privately owned places are actually occupied. According to the 2001 census, almost a quarter of the residences in Coal Harbour sit empty, causing house prices to skyrocket as fewer and fewer homes remain available to Vancouver residents looking for a place to live. And it's not all condominiums, either.

It's happening all over the lower mainland, but the nicer the neighbourhood, the more it attracts the foreign investor. Vancouver's great beauty, its very liveability is working against our best interests. It's turning our nicest areas into empty, vacant villages.

Take a ride through Shaughnessy with your eyes peeled for the signs of abandonment, and you will be surprised at how many homes are unoccupied. Look for moss on driveways, and rott eating away at a back lane garage. We took just such a ride, and came upon a big old house listed for sale. We stopped by just as the agent was locking the gate. She asked if we would like to view the property, and of course we jumped at the chance.

This 8,000 square foot house is listed at $13.5 million dollars, down from the original $15 million. The agent is a lovely woman named Wendy Tian, of Sutton West Coast Realty. Her number is (604)375-6030,  just in case you've an extra twenty million or so kicking around and a fierce yearning for a to-do project. This is one of those very residences which has been empty for years. The man who bought it was originally planning to turn it into a fifteen thousand square foot home, complete with an inside/outside pool. It will stand in place of the old pool which sits there now, in view of the neighbouring Canuck Place Children's hospice, which is simply the best neighbour a person could hope for, at least if karma has anything to do with it.

The owner's contractors had already begun taking the house apart, so it is without its fixtures and fittings.

He had a full set of blueprints drawn up, and all of the permits are in place, but after work had begun, the owner decided that he would rather build his mansion on the hill in West Vancouver, where he can enjoy a beautiful view.  He bought another property, and began work on it there. And so this house sits empty, uninhabited and unliveable. 

I asked Wendy whether she'd had any offers to date, because I had heard that bidding wars were becoming quite common here in Vancouver. She said that when it was first listed at $15 million, a woman offered $13 million, and the owner declined. Then just a week or so ago, "A kid from China offered the list price for the property, as long as nobody told his parents about it." And Wendy told me that she replied to him that "No, sorry. We won't do that sort of thing." Apparently the boy wanted to store his car collection here, but he didn't want his dad to know what he was up to. !!!! That's some kinda garage. We won't even mention the money laundering that happens in Vancouver Real Estate Transactions. Nope. Not a word.

You will find a fair few massive, unbelievably expensive homes scattered throughout the lower mainland, and increasingly they belong to foreign nationals who don't even spend a fraction of their time here. And despite the price of property here in southwestern BC, which impacts the price of everything, from food to clothes and beyond, wages have not even begun to catch up. That means that what would have been a comfortable, middle class salary ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago is now too small to make ends meet. What used to be middle class is today the working poor, folks struggling to afford their lives. People who used to hold a reasonable expectation that they would buy a home, and pay off the mortgage in twenty odd years must now dream an impossible dream. I met a couple the other day, both of whom hold masters degrees in their chosen fields. They have a baby, and would love another, but they can't afford two children. They also can't afford to buy a place, not even a two bedroom condo, and although they are both working full time, they are struggling to make ends meet. They are the very definition of middle class, and yet (depending on your definition of impoverished), they are also the working poor.

But Vancouver real estate wasn't always so far out of reach. Let me introduce you to the Vancouver Special.

These wonders of architectural mediocrity were createded to maximize square footage to a standard city lot, and were designed with the primary living space on the top floor, and secondary bedrooms on the ground floor. This made it a simple thing to build an inlaw suite, which, when rented out made it easier to pay off a mortgage, or to bring granny over from the old country to help care for the little ones. Between the mid sixties and the mid eighties thousands of these places were built to provide an affordable housing solution to immigrant and working class families. You'll still find them today, scattered all over town, though of course you will find way more of them east of Main than on the west side.

Given the obscene price of real estate and painfully low average wages, you would think that the Government would step in and create a buffer for the populace by building some affordable housing. After all, any self respecting G8 government would by nature be aghast at the possibility of being at the center of a crisis of homelessness, but our leaders don't care, just so long as their patrons are raking in the dosh. They hung us out to dry. Our federal and provincial governments both ended any and all support for affordable housing, preferring instead to build bigger prisons.

Now let me introduce you to the Vancouver Especially:

Vancouver Especially
This is a scale model of the original Vancouver Special, created especially for the 2015 Bienale by artist Ken Lum, as a commentary on the soaring cost of living here in the Lower Mainland. Mr Lum (creator of the East Van Cross) received $45,000 in grants to build this exhibit, which is what it would have cost to purchase one of these boxy residences in the mid 1970's. Originally, he had planned to build a replica the exact size of what $45,000 will get you in today's housing market, but that would be much too small for this project. Instead, he etched a $45,000 space into the front of the display.

Talk about living in a shoe box! Actually, with the rise of micro condos, shoebox housing is the only option left for plenty of people.

For a while, a fair few creative individuals were staying financially afloat by mooring their live-aboard boats in False Creek indefinitely, but with the coming of the Olympics, the tides turned, and the city put an end to that.

Vancouver has a rich history of sqautting, and an equally strong record of evicting those willing to take a housing crisis into their own hands. The Bank of Canada surprised everyone early this year when they dropped interest rates even further, despite what analysts have been saying for years about an overheated property bubble. If they drop it any further, they'll have to pay us to borrow money for a mortgage. And frankly, what with the price of housing, we're going to need all the help we can get. The obscene price of real estate in Vancouver isn't going to change any time soon, however. Not even if the bubble bursts. There is just such a limited supply, and an ever increasing demand.

Some people are doing what they can. Atira, the Vancouver Women's Resource Society, created Canada's first recycled shipping container housing development on Alexander St, just down the block from the city's very well patronised homeless shelters.

There are other examples of sustainable housing in the city, too. Cob houses are an interesting alternative to the bricks and mortar more commonly found around town.

And apparently yurts are making a comeback, too, providing a fresh perspective on the ancient issue of finding shelter from the elements. That's a whole new take on a tent city.

But the problem here isn't about the price of building a structure, it's about the cost of the land itself, and the ever widening chasm between the average person's earnings and the cost of living in the city where the jobs are.

Something is rotten in the country of Canada, Horatio. It's not right. The banks are all making record profits whilst the middle class simply disappears. Fewer and fewer Vancouverites can afford the roofs over their heads, even as a teenaged boy is prepared to drop fifteen million dollars on a Shaughnessy estate to house his secret car collection. Something has got to give. It's inevitable. Who knows? Maybe change will happen organically, and withougt resistance. Men like Warren Buffet give me hope. And then there's John Caudwell. He is one of the wealthiest men in the UK, a truly self made man, who is giving half of his fortune to charity. He retired from his mobile phone empire to pursue a new direction and now he strives daily to become the greatest philanthropist the country has ever seen. His Instagram account has all of the usual photos of the life and times of a young and influential billionaire and his beautiful wife and kids, but one photo stands out:

The CBC recently aired a BBC interview with Mr Caudwell, which ended with his line "All I need is my health and my bike." Hear hear. I couldn't agree more.