Welcome to Scarborough-Agincourt, where confusion reigns

By | Published in iPolitics.ca on June 24, 2014

TORONTO – It’s just before dinner time at the advanced polling station in the Scarborough-Agincourt riding, and nobody is around. There are more election workers than voters, and it seems that’s the way it’s been since advanced polling began here three days ago.

“It’s been on and off,” an election worker said when asked if the polling station had been busy.

An elderly couple hand over their voter information cards, passports and a joint electricity bill in exchange for a ballot. There’s no line up.

Byelections are notorious for having lower voter turnout than general elections, and this upcoming vote will almost certainly follow the trend.

Scarborough-Agincourt is one of four federal byelections taking place June 30th. The riding became vacant after long-time Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis resigned, leaving the district without an incumbent for the first time in more than two decades. There are five candidates, but only three appear to be competitive.

With a provincial, mayoral and now federal byelection all within a few months, voters are fatigued. In addition to those factors, the vote itself is happening on the Monday of a long-weekend.

“With three elections in the same year, I think people get confused and distracted,” said Mike Grella, the owner of a Veal shop in Agincourt.

“We don’t know what is what.”

It’s so bad that provincial and federal lawn signs are being mixed up. Signs from both elections are still standing, with posters advertising candidates in the last provincial election alongside those promoting candidates in this campaign.

But it get’s worse.

“Some people actually took down our signs and said when are you coming to pick them up?,” said Ian Perkins, the campaign manager for the federal Liberal candidate, Arnold Chan.

“There’s a lot of confusion out there,” said Perkins.

A group of older adults at a local community centre playing bingo had no idea an election campaign was happening. At a Tim Hortons, two men having coffee said they had received automated calls, but they couldn’t name any of the candidates.

And that uncertainty means the parties have to think of new ways to communicate with voters. People are screening their calls, Perkins said, which puts a greater emphasis on the need for door-to-door campaigns and informal meeting with voters at bus stops in the riding.

Although the Liberals are confident they have this election in the bag, the party has a new and largely unfamiliar candidate. The opposition parties have their best chance in years to break through in this important Toronto riding.

A loss for Liberals in a riding they have held since 1988 would be a blow for the credibility of Trudeau, who is depending on Ontario in the next federal election.

“People are ready for a change. You can’t take the vote for granted. It is anyone’s game,” said NDP candidate Elizabeth Long’s campaign manager Andrea Moffat.

“We are definitely hearing some uncertainty about it and some voter fatigue, but for the most part we are getting a really positive response.”

Despite some challenges, Moffat said Long has been able to draw up significant support. A meet and greet last Friday with Long and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair attracted about one hundred people, she said.

“There are a lot of people who know her from representing their immigration issues in the past. As an immigration lawyer, she has represented people who live in the community,” Moffat said.

The NDP hopes to maintain their momentum in Scarborough. Last election they doubled their vote in Scarborough-Agincourt, and picked up a seat in Scarborough—Rouge River and Scarborough Southwest.

Fed Gen Elxn Toronot 2008 & 2011Scarborough-Agincourt, numbered 80 in the map above, is one of the few Liberal islands remaining in what was once called Fortress Toronto.

“I don’t call anything a Liberal riding because we made history just next door in what everybody said was a Liberal riding,” Moffat said, adding that the NDP is the official Opposition this time around.

“I think people maybe vote for what they used to, but I don’t think people say they are voting Liberal because they are particularly excited about it.”

Conservative candidate Trevor Ellis has been relatively silent in the race, skipping an all candidate’s debate Tuesday night. Volunteers at his head office said traffic has been relatively inconsistent.

Between door-to-door visits, Ellis told iPolitics the campaign has been going well. He said he’s been receiving mixed responses from voters about the byelection. Recently, Ellis said he ran into a woman who was taking down his lawn sign thinking the election was over.

“I said oh, excuse me. If you don’t want that lawn sign I’ll take it because I’m the candidate, Trevor Ellis,” he said.

“She said oh, I thought this election was over. And I said no it’s coming up in about a week.”

Ellis said he isn’t worried about low voter turnout or confusion among voters because all the candidates are facing the same challenges. Voters who are best informed and who know what is going on will go vote, he said.

The Conservatives have resorted to sending another campaign attack on Trudeau which might be a rehearsal for the next election. The handout portrays a large photograph of Trudeau next to a quote of him saying “The budget will balance itself.”

CPC Attack Ad Trudeau

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The number of homeless veterans in Canada is soaring

By | Published in iPolitics.ca on Jun 30, 2014

The number of homeless people identified by Veterans Affairs Canada has skyrocketed over the last five years, jumping from just 35 in 2009-2010 to 236 last year.

But the true figure could be much higher. Experts suggest there could be thousands of veterans living on the streets yet to be located by government and volunteer organizations. A City of Toronto report released last year revealed that 16 per cent of the 447 people sleeping on Toronto’s streets identified themselves as veterans.

“It’s quite shocking,” said NDP Veterans critic Peter Stoffer. “How many more have not been identified?.

“Either they are couch-surfing, or they just haven’t come forward in that regard, or they walked in and identified themselves as something else because … maybe they had lied, or had been embarrassed to say that they were once in the military.”

The increase represents proactive efforts on the part of organizations like the Royal Canadian Legion, Wounded Warriors and Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada (V.E.T.S.)  to seek out and identify veterans living on the streets. Although the federal government does have its own programs in place, many have criticized Veterans Affairs for relying too heavily on these types of independent organizations.

Sean Bruyea, a former RCAF intelligence officer and advocate for veterans’ rights, said Veterans Affairs has not adequately responded to the growing homelessness crisis among Canadian veterans.

“Most of these veterans are being identified through self-identification, or through partnerships with community organizations. Veterans Affairs itself makes no effort whatsoever to actually proactively find out who these homeless veterans are,” he said.

In 2012, Veterans Affairs gave $1.9 million in cash and $1.8 million in contributions to community groups in London, Victoria, Toronto and Calgary that provided long-term housing for homeless individuals. Cockrell House in Victoria was the only program that catered specifically to veterans. This year, the department gave V.E.T.S. $900,000 to provide 24-hour emergency counselling services to homeless veterans. The department also provides emergency funding to homeless veterans in need.

The pilot projects gave the department good insight into what homeless veterans need, and that’s getting people out of shelters and into permanent housing, said Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs Lt-Gen Walter Semianiw. The department, Semianiw said, relies on partner organizations to act as their “eyes and ears.

“We are just starting to get a real handle on what is the size of the issue,” he said. “We need to get out there, we need to do more for our veterans and we are doing more for our veterans. We can even do more, and I know (Veterans Affairs Minister Julian) Fantino is committed to doing that.”

Bruyea said the department needs to act faster.

“(Veterans Affairs is) moving at a glacier pace, which is just subjecting these veterans to more harm,” Bruyea said.

Former veterans’ ombudsman Pat Strogan first raised the alarm about the homelessness issue in 2008, saying the government needed to do more to track the scope of the problem. That’s when he launched the “Leave Nobody Behind” campaign — aimed, in part, at finding RCMP and military veterans at risk of becoming homeless.

The new veterans’ ombudsman, Guy Parent, has continued his work, making homeless veterans a priority. Parent  said he believes the government should implement a national homelessness strategy that includes a section about veterans. Such a strategy, he said, would raise awareness about the services available to veterans and help link existing initiatives.

“There are mechanisms in place to deal with homelessness in all the municipalities and a lot of different programs in urban areas that are there already … To coordinate all of that, I think you need a national strategy and I think that is where it comes into play,” Parent said in an interview with iPolitics in late April.

Many factors push veterans onto the street, including addictions, family problems and mental health issues. In her research, Western University School of Nursing Professor Cheryl Forchuk found evidence of a 20-year gap between the point  individuals leave the military and when they end up on the streets. That gap, she said, can be attributed to underlying issues like alcoholism.

“Alcoholism is a very big thing. It takes years of drinking before it really takes its toll,” she told iPolitics at the first-ever forum on veterans homelessness at the Royal Ottawa Legion headquarters in April.

Literature in the United States has consistently linked war trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to homelessness among veterans, who represent roughly one in four homeless people. In Canada, however, Forchuk said the situation is “quite different.”

“It is a much slower trajectory and it has much more to do with drinking,” she said.

There is some disagreement among experts about where the homeless veterans are coming from. Sixty per cent of the more than three dozen people in Forchuk’s study did not serve overseas. But Barry Yhard — national executive director of V.E.T.S. Canada, a volunteer group that works with homeless veterans — said most of the vets his organization deals with have fought abroad.

“I don’t know where they got that data from, but perhaps they should have done a bit more research and investigation,” Yhard said.

“Our client base is very broad, so it covers clients from the Second World War, up until and including Afghanistan. Pretty much every major operation or mission that Canada has been in over the last bunch of years.”

V.E.T.S. helps identify homeless veterans across Canada, provides emergency services and funding and connects veterans to local organizations. The veteran-to-veteran contact helps people feel more comfortable coming forward and sharing their stories, Yhard said.

The organization meets about 10 to 12 veterans a day, and has identified at least 171 homeless veterans in cities across Canada. But for every one veteran the group identifies, Yhard said they miss another seven — which suggests there could be 1,300 veterans living on our streets.

“Homelessness is kind of a strange affliction,” he said. “Most of the people, once they get off of the street they stay off of the street, but there are those that prefer that particular type of lifestyle and they will go back to living on the street after a short period of time, maybe a month, maybe six months or maybe a year.”

That’s why it’s important to provide veterans, and homeless people in general, with respect and a safe place to call home every night, he said. It’s this housing-first principle that has dominated the conversation in the emergency housing community of late.

The number highlighted by the government only represents the number of veterans who have been found, a “gross misrepresentation” of the problem, according to Bruyea.

Advocates believe the government needs to act quickly to get veterans off the streets and into existing programs. More than that, experts insist the government needs to do more to address addiction and mental health issues now, so people who are just retiring from the military won’t end up on the streets down the line.

Addictions, mental illness pushing veterans onto the street: experts

By | Published in iPolitics.ca on Jul 23, 2014

It was one of the hardest days of her long career in the military. Just one month before launching a volunteer organization to find and help homeless veterans, Capt. Victoria Ryan learned a former corporal had died on the cold streets of Ottawa.

“This gentlemen, he would have come to me because I was his officer. He knew me pretty well,” she said. “It breaks my heart to think that he froze to death right before we started.”

The veteran died in the capital in February 2013, as Ryan and a group of volunteers were putting the final touches on Soldiers Helping Soldiers.

Ryan said there was no indication the corporal was in need of help. The last time she saw him, he was doing fine.

“You don’t keep track of all your corporals. You give them to another officer, another warrant officer and you move on.

“I had no idea he had ended up on the streets. If I had, I would have found him.”

The number of homeless veterans identified by Veterans Affairs Canada has exploded over the last five years, jumping from just 35 in 2009-2010 to 236 last year.

But the true figure could be much higher. Experts suggest there could be thousands of veterans living on the streets yet to be located by government and volunteer groups. A City of Toronto report released last year revealed that 16 per cent of the 447 people sleeping on Toronto’s streets identified themselves as veterans.

In Ottawa alone, the non-profit Soldiers Helping Soldiers has identified 110 homeless veterans since March 2013. The volunteer group, which is expected to operate in six Canadian cities by Christmas, has found 75 homeless veterans in Calgary and another 50 in both Valcartier, Que. and Montreal.

“I’ve been told by a reputable souce that there could be in one year, just in Ottawa alone, over 1,000 homeless veterans,” Ryan said.

And the numbers are expected to rise. Canada recently wound up its longest war ever, which saw more than 40,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. In the next few decades, experts expect more soldiers to be on the streets.

“We feel that within the next ten years, if we don’t get this issue resolved, especially the mental health issues, that it could explode,” said Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Gordon Moore.

But the ways in which the agencies working with the homeless define ‘veteran’ varies — something which could affect data collection. Soldiers Helping Soldiers considers anyone who ever served a day in the military to be a veteran, even if they served in the military of another country. Veterans Transitional Emergency Services (VETS Canada) — a grassroots group that receives funding from Veterans Affairs Canada — serves only Canadian veterans. They meet approximately 10 to 12 Canadian veterans across the country every day, and have helped approximately 175 veterans in the last year.

‘Being able to shoot someone at 600 meters is not necessarily in high demand by civilian companies.’

“For every one veteran we find, we’ve missed seven,” said Barry Yard, national executive director of VETS Canada.

Research suggests veterans end up on the streets because of addiction, transition problems and mental health issues. In her research, Western University School of Nursing Professor Cheryl Forchuk found evidence of a 20-year gap between when individuals leave the military and when they end up on the streets.

Here in Ottawa, most of the veterans Capt. Ryan deals with have some type of mental health issue, generally attributed to their time in the military.

“I would say almost 100 per cent of the homeless veterans have some sort of addiction or mental health issue pertaining to their service,” Ryan said, adding that the issues begin affecting the veterans’ lives after they leave the military.

While Veterans Affairs does offer those leaving the military various transitional services,Ryan believes one of the hardest hurdles to jump over is simply adjusting to civilian life. Homeless veterans tend to be sergeant rank and below, and many of their combat skills do not translate well into the civilian world, she pointed out.

“They were infantry, they were armoured, they were artillery. Not things that translate well to civilian life,” she said. “Being able to shoot someone at 600 meters is not necessarily in high demand by civilian companies.”

Many homeless vets miss the familiarity and reassurance of the disciplined military lifestyle, so Soldiers Helping Soldiers operates along military lines. Volunteers wear their uniforms when conducting quarterly searches for homeless veterans, and treat the individuals as members of their squad. Ryan said the veterans wouldn’t give her “the time of day” if she weren’t in uniform. There’s a level of embarrassment and shame, she said, that often stops homeless people from identifying themselves as veterans.

“One of the things that SHS focuses on is reminding them that they were soldiers. And the abilities and the dignity they had performing that job, they can have again,” she said.

Of the 110 soldiers that Soldiers Helping Soldiers has helped, less than two dozen have stayed off the street. Capt. Mark Eldridge works with Ryan — conducting foot patrols with soldiers to find homeless veterans — and volunteers at local homeless shelters. He said sometimes veterans don’t want help or are unwilling to hand over the personal information required to complete paperwork for Veterans Affairs or the Legion. A big part of the group’s job is to inform veterans about the variety of services available to them.

“Sometimes they just want to share a coffee with us. They just want to share a story with us,” he said.

Eldridge, who has been working with the organization since its inception, said it’s “painful” to find these veterans on the streets. There is no “golden rule” or average length of time needed to get people off the streets. Sometimes, he said, there isn’t much anyone can do.

“There is a sadness is that you can see pretty quickly how any one of us, absent a couple supporting factors in our lives, would be one of them,” he said.

Paulson decries PTSD sufferers in tape of speech

Published on iPolitics 

In a rare glimpse into the RCMP’s inner circle, an audio tape posted to an RCMP watchdog blog appears to show Commissioner Bob Paulson referring to members with PTSD in a derogatory manner.

During an off-the-cuff speech to an RCMP town hall in Edmonton last April, the commissioner seems to reference sufferers by whistling to describe officers with a psychological disorder.

“I want you to hear it from me that if you get hurt on the job, and that includes ‘whistles,’ we are going to look after you.”

In his comments, Paulson underlined the need to get back to work as soon as possible. The veteran Mountie repeatedly assured the audience the RCMP wants to help injured officers get better, but the department cannot do it alone. The onus, said Paulson, is on the individual to come back to work when they are ready.

“The objective is not to get a regimental number and cha ching, cha ching we are looking after you for the rest of your life and into your grave.”

According to the RCMP’s website, more than 2,200 Mounties are receiving full or partial disability pensions from Veterans Affairs for PTSD. It’s a diagnosis that Paulson told the Mounties is not well understood and may be “overused” by some members of the force. It is becoming a “huge liability,” said the Commissioner on the tape.

British Columbia-based Cpl. Roland Beaulieu, one of the first officers to go public about harassment in the force, said PTSD is a growing problem that affects nearly 10 per cent of the departments’ staff.

“They say that’s not systemic, but I would say it is systemic.”

In his talk, Paulson said that the emergence of PTSD in the police force is a byproduct of their stressful work.

The culture of the RCMP has come under scrutiny in recent months for hiding and downplaying harassment and bullying cases. Paulson told a Senate committee yesterday that he’s making real gains in fighting that atmosphere despite difficulties with some members who “will not get on board.”

The Commissioner also took direct aim at Cpl. Beaulieu accusing him of seeking a payoff.

The RCMP, said Paulson, needs to do more to help officers. The current policies don’t do enough. Rather than create a national strategy, Paulson told the Mounties he would prefer local detachments focus on early interventions. The stigma around the anxiety disorder often dissuades people from coming forward and seeking help.

The Commissioner later confessed that he too fought the anxiety disorder.

“… I’ve had it myself,” said Paulson. “I understand how tough it is, um, so we have to get a little more thoughtful there and i’m committed to helping the organization figure that out.”

The nature of policing puts officers at a greater risk for developing PTSD, said trauma Psychotherapist Lori Gill. Crime scene visits, photographs, audio and even second-hand stories from coworkers or victims expose officers to traumatic experiences every day.

The five-minute tape of the Commissioner appeared on a website used by critics from within the force who say the RCMP is in crisis.

The department confirmed the Commissioner’s appearance at K Division in Edmonton, adding that his talk focused on issues related to changes in the RCMP. Sources say the meeting lasted between 30 minutes and an hour.

Media Relations for the RCMP detachment in Edmonton confirmed that the Commissioner spoke at their headquarters in April. Another senior K Division Mountie confirmed to iPolitics that that key portions of the tape correspond with Paulson’s talk in Edmonton including that he whistled during the talk.

Toews vetting RCMP Commissioner’s travel

Published on iPolitics 

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews may have interfered in the independent workings of Canada’s national police force in an effort to reduce unnecessary departmental spending.

iPolitics has learned that as of February 2012, all RCMP executives are required to get the minister’s approval for all executive retreats, meetings and conferences, including travel, over $5,000 dollars.

Access to information documents show that RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has asked Minister Toews on multiple occasions for permission to attend meetings with National and International Police Associations. In his letters, Paulson justifies his attendance at these meetings, alongside a list of other participants, key outcomes of the conference, and financial costs. The bottom of each letter prompts the Minister to check ‘accept or decline’ the Commissioner’s request.

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In a letter dated July 16th, 2012, Paulson states that travel to a gathering of Canadian Police Chiefs would help strengthen relationships. The Commissioner requested over $84,000 dollars to send 28 RCMP executives, including himself, to a conference in Nova Scotia. The Minister approved this request.

Whether it’s a national gathering of police organizations or department staff, the government should not be interfering in the affairs of Canada’s national police force, said Ron Lewis, a former RCMP officer and member of the Canadian Mounted Police Veteran’s Association. Although events like the annual meeting of Canadian Police Chiefs appear insignificant, Lewis said they are a major part of the Commissioner’s job.

Toews’ director of communications, Julie Carmichael, justified her minister’s directive as a way to eliminate wasteful spending and return the government to a balanced budget. “In that climate it is important that senior public servants show leadership,” she wrote in an email.

Regardless of the government’s intent, the NDP’s Public Safety critic Randall Garrison said the Minister should have enough confidence in the RCMP Commissioner to make decisions about the department independently. Instead of ordering the RCMP to report spending to the Minister, the government should simply tell the department how much money they need to save.

“The decisions on how to do (save money) that in operations must remain with the Commissioner,” he said.

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The Minister of Public Safety appears to be tightening the government’s grip on Canada’s national police force and threatening its independence. By law, the RCMP is supposed to be at arms-length from the federal government, but their arms seem to be shortening. While former Conservative Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day would not confirm whether approving travel expenses and meetings for senior RCMP officers was a new procedure, Day told iPolitics that generally, his office did not approve expenses.

This revelation comes less than a month after Minister Toews was accused of muzzling the RCMP after ordering senior officers to get approval from his office before meeting with parliamentarians. In 2011, Toews told MPs they could not meet the newly appointed head of the RCMP without notifying the department of Public Safety. The Minister’s latest attempt to interfere with the RCMP does not come as a surprise, said Garrison.

“We’re seeing a pattern for a lack of respect for these agencies that need to be free of political interference,” he said.

Being tied to the federal government can create problems down the road, said Rae Banwarie, the National President of British Columbia’s Mounted Professional Association. To maintain their credibility, RCMP officers must operate in isolation from political parties. The RCMP is often called in to investigate MPs, Senators and issues within government departments; the RCMP is currently probing the Senate expense scandal.

“If there is a need for investigations,we must appear and we must be independent from government,” he said .

It’s unknown whether there are any penalties associated with failure to comply with Minister Toews’ directive.

The RCMP did not respond by press time.

Government takes another kick at limiting safe injection sites

Published on iPolitics

New legislation tabled this morning by the Harper government will make it more difficult to establish new supervised injection sites.

The bill, titled the Respect for Communities Act, will create guidelines to obtain exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act. The decision of whether a safe site can open is left to the Minister of Health’s discretion.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the changes will help keep illegal drugs from getting into the wrong hands.

“Our government believes that creating a location for sanctioned use of drugs obtained from illicit sources has the potential for great harm in a community,” Aglukkaq said in a press release. “Accordingly, we believe that the application process needs to be changed to create formal opportunities for local voices to be heard, and their views considered before an exemption would be considered.”

In a press conference Thursday morning, Aglukkaq said the proposed changes to the act will give communities a louder voice in deciding whether a supervised injection site is given the green light. The new rules will require applicants to consult with local police, leaders and residents.

“I’m confident the proposed legislation will bring much needed clarity to the way future applications are made, and show a real respect for community input,” she said in a press conference.

The changes will also give the federal health minister authority to issue a public Notice of Application.

“We all have a voice when it comes to our health and safety,” she added. “I encourage Canadians to make theirs heard when it comes to supervised consumption sites.”

But giving communities more input and raising the threshold could stop new injection sites from opening. Health Canada officials admit tougher rules could potentially translate into fewer sites. Only one exemption has been filed and granted for a new site in the last ten years.

The Controlled Substance Abuse Act subjects supervised injection sites to the same application process as medical professionals obtaining exemptions for clinical trials, or doctors looking to treat patients with opioids like methadone. The exemption prevents individuals from facing drug possession charges. Veteran Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the illegal drugs covered by the act threaten the health of Canadians.

“Substances obtained from illegal sources affect public safety and may fuel organized crime, and exemptions for illicit substances must be carefully assessed,” he said in a press release.

Critics have voiced concern about supervised injection sites. Many believe the sites legitimize the use of illegal drugs, do not help curb drug abuse and can act as a meeting ground for drug dealers.

Matt Skof, the President of the Ottawa Police Association, told reporters Ottawa’s police force has backed the government’s bill. The scholarly research supporting injection sites, he said, is inaccurate.  Communities will actually suffer from having a safe drug consumption site in their neighbourhood.

Richard Chenery rests after injecting heroin he bought on the street at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. CP/Darryl Dyck

“That peer-reviewed research, you will not find me saying that is an accurate portrayal of what actually happens,” said Skof. ” You cannot convince me that an Insite program is going to be something that will be beneficial to both them, anybody who has ever been an addict in an anti-social situation or to the community.”

The Conservative government, too, has been critical of safe injection sites. In 2008, then-health minister Tony Clement said the exemption from Canada’s drug laws that allowed Insite, Canada’s lone safe injection site, should not be continued. The position received a sharp rebuke from Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in 2011 when the top court unanimously voted to keep Insite open.

“This limit is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” McLachlin wrote on behalf of the unanimous court, adding that it was “arbitrary” and “grossly disproportionate.”

The court decided that closing the Vancouver site, which had legally obtained an exemption from Canada’s drug laws, would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The judges also said closing the site could come at the detriment of drug users’ health and well-being.

The government’s new bill responds to suggestions made in the Supreme Court’s ruling that said grants for exemptions must consider the site’s impact on crime rates, and community support or opposition. The Respecting Communities Act will require applicants to meet stricter guidelines, which could make opening a new site that much harder.

Insite was opened in 2003. The B.C. program provides drug users a sterile environment to inject drugs, and connects visitors with health care professionals and counsellors. It now attracts nearly 500,000 people every year. The Minister said the new legislation will not effect the Vancouver drug consumption site.

Children’s Fitness Tax Credit has cost more than half a billion

Published on iPolitics 

A federal government initiative to increase physical activity among Canada’s youth has cost taxpayers more than half a billion dollars.

According to a response to an Order Paper question, the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit cost $90 million in 2007,  $105 million in 2008, $110 million in 2009, $115 million in 2010, $115 million in 2011 and $120 million in 2012.

Despite the millions of dollars spent, experts say the program’s success is debatable.

“We haven’t seen increases in population levels of physical activity among kids since the program started, but maybe there would be fewer kids active if the program wasn’t in place,” says University of Alberta Professor John Spence.

Canada is facing an obesity epidemic that isn’t going away any time soon. One in four Canadian children and youth are overweight or obese, and kids are increasingly being diagnosed with adult diseases including type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure. And according to Statistics Canada, participation in sport and physical activity has dropped from 45 per cent in 1992 to 28 per cent in 2005.

Queens University Professor Ian Janssen says the money going towards the Children’s Tax Credit last year was misspent. The program, he says, doesn’t help the people who need it most.

“This is just something the government holds up as their physical activity flag saying this is something we are doing to combat obesity in children,” he said.

The credit, first introduced in 2006, is designed to encourage parents to enroll their children in sport and decrease childhood obesity. The initiative allows families to claim fitness related costs up to $500 per child under age 16; parents with disabled children can claim an addition $500 for kids under age 18.

But NDP sport critic Matthew Dube says the credit doesn’t do enough to get kids moving. It’s a program he believes the government should abandon.

“When you consider the increasing cost, I think it is really important to consider whether this is really the most cost-efficient way to get people more involved, and not just those whose families have a decent amount of income,” he said.

The program has repeatedly come under fire for failing to help low-income families offset the costs associated with participation in organized sport and recreation programs. Parents who claim the maximum amount for a non-disabled child get just $75 back, which experts including Janssen say gives parents no incentive to put their kids in sport.

“It made the difference of a trip to Starbucks for a cup of coffee in our annual budget,” he said about his run-in with the tax credit. “It was actual more effort collecting all the information, tax forms and receipts than it was worth.”

In the last three years the program has seen fewer than 60,000 new claimants. More than 1.56 million Canadians claimed the tax credit in 2011, compared with nearly 1.3 million in 2007.

Despite advertising campaigns, research suggests a large number of citizens’ are unaware of the tax credit, especially families in lower income brackets. A 2010 study conducted by Dr. Spence found only about a 38 per cent low-income families compared to 72 per cent of high income households knew the credit existed.

“We found they (low-income families) are less aware, and much less likely to plan to claim it than families in the higher quartiles,” says Spence.

Documents show the largest number of people claiming the credit earn $40,000 to $60,000 dollars annually, with another large clump earning $60,000 to $80,000 and $100,000 to $125,000. The credit, says Spence, assumes families have the money to pay for registration fees upfront. It also excludes people who don’t earn enough to pay taxes.

“The government’s being disingenuous by saying it will help reduce the financial burden for low-income families,” he says.

The tax credit model requires families to spend money before receiving money, which disproportionally benefits families in high income brackets. Hockey equipment alone can range from $300 to several thousand dollars, while registration fees for sports including soccer can range from $100 dollars to $300 dollars per season.

The high price of sports, combined with a shift in focus from active play to organized sport is hurting activity level among youth. Government implemented policies and tax credits can only go so far, says Janssen. The notion that only structured activities led by adults are beneficial for children needs to change. Just last month, an annual report released by Active Healthy Kids gave Canada a D- for physical activity levels, and an F for sedentary behaviour.

“It’s the unstructured things like walking to your neighbourhood destinations, active play in your backyard  or in your neighbourhood, that’s the stuff that has really changed for the bad and where we don’t think of putting a lot of investment into,” adds Janssen.

According to Active Healthy Kids, 95 per cent of children are not meeting national activity guidelines that recommend youth aged 12-17 spend at least 60 minutes doing moderate-to vigorous-intensity physical activity.

To make Canadian children healthier, the Canadian Nurses Association recommends the government place greater emphasis on health promotion and disease prevention. While the credit is an important “federal lever to promote health”, the CNA says investing in school-based exercise programs or community sports clubs could make the program more accessible and affordable.

NDP, RCMP members decry muzzling, inaction on oversight bill

Published on iPolitics

Rolly Beaulieu’s willingness to speak up about violence and harassment in the workforce could abruptly end his nearly 30-year career as an RCMP officer.

Beaulieu was invited to appear before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Monday night. Three days before the hearing, he received a directive from the RCMP saying that if he was “physically and cognitively able to participate in these hearings,” he was “fit” for work. Beaulieu has been on off-duty sick leave since 2011 following repeated incidences of harassment.

In an interview, the veteran RCMP officer said he felt “targeted” by his employer in order to prevent his appearance before the Senate committee. Beaulieu said the RCMP created a new policy just days after he informed his superiors of his pending trip to Ottawa.

RCMP media relations said they were not familiar with the case.

But Beaulieu is not alone. Speaking to the media, and meeting politicians without written approval can put an officer’s job at risk, said Rae Banwarie, Vice President of the British Columbia Mounted Police Professional Association.

“The fact that I am speaking here to you, I am placing my own career in peril,” he said during a news a joint news conference with the NDP Monday afternoon. Banwarie, like Beaulieu, believes he will face consequences for speaking to reporters and parliamentarians.

Just last week, senior RCMP officers were told by Commissioner Rob Paulson that they could not speak to politicians without approval from both his office and the federal government. The moved was viewed as another attempt by the Conservative government to muzzle RCMP officers. Last year, MPs were told they could not speak to the newly appointed commissioner without informing Public Safety Minister Vic Towes.

During Monday’s news conference, the NDP and several RCMP members’ associations accused the Harper government of continuing to muzzle mounties by refusing to make changes to the Enhancing RCMP Accountability Act.

“We tried to work with the government to address these problems through amendments, but they refused,” NDP Public Safety Critic Randall Garrison said. “RCMP officers deserve a minister that instead of muzzle them, will listen to them and address the deep challenges that have undermined both morale among force members and public confidence in the RCMP.”

Bill C-42 seeks to streamline grievance and internal disciplinary processes, create a Civilian Review and Complaints Commission and establish a framework for handling criminal investigations. It will also give significant powers to RCMP Commissioner Rob Paulson, including the ability to dismiss officers for non-disciplinary reasons like poor performance, and to suspend them without pay. The additional powers will lead to a more “efficient and effective approach” to harassment, said Paulson to a Senate committee meeting on April 22nd.

“…they they are fostering and encouraging the early resolution of these workplace conflict issues that give rise to harassment,” he told the Standing Committee on National Security and Defence.

The RCMP has complained for years that disciplinary procedures take too long. Other than the lengthy process of dismissing an officer, the current RCMP Act does not allow mounties to be punished for longer than a week and a half. One RCMP officer said he’s heard of grievance cases taking nearly a decade before they are heard and resolved.

The NDP voted against the bill during its final vote in the House of Commons in early March. They said it placed too much power in the hands of Canada’s top cop, and failed to present a framework to hold Commissioner Rob Paulson accountable for his decisions. Recommendations by the Civilian Complaints Commission will be non-binding, granting the final say to the Commissioner. Both the Conservatives and the Liberals voted in favor of the bill.

While the bill is not perfect, Liberal Public Safety Critic Francis Scarpaleggia says it is a step in the right direction. The Commissioner needs to be able dismiss employees, especially in cases of sexual harassment or assault.

“[The NDP] want to constrain the powers of the commissioners as much as possible, but we feel that if we are going to change the culture in the RCMP, if we are going to make any progress, we have to allow the commisonner to exercise some leadership,” said Scarpaleggia.”If he has no latitude to act, then we think the problems will persist.”

Bill C-42 was proposed last June after a string of sexual harassment and abuse cases went public. The Opposition party said it doesn’t go far enough to prevent cases of sexual harassment and abuse. They want to see the term “harassment” included in the 29 page bill.

The Act went before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Monday, and will likely become law before the Parliamentary session ends in June. The government estimates it will cost $10 million to implement, with another $5 million going towards the Complaints Commissioner.

The RCMP refused to comment for this story.

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