Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, at a community consultation session for new accessibility legislation in Vancouver on Nov. 2, 2019. Gerry Kahrmann / Postmedia News Files
As the B.C. government develops accessibility legislation, a left-wing think-tank is calling on policy-makers to consider how historical injustices and continuing discrimination have led to a society that still excludes the deaf and disabled.
From Sept. 16 to Nov. 29 of this year, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction collected public feedback to help develop the new legislation it says will “guide government, persons with disabilities and the broader community to work together to identify, remove and prevent barriers.”
A framework shows how the legislation could work by including standards for service delivery, employment, information, communication and transportation. Minister Shane Simpson said he wants the legislation tabled in the fall of 2020.
The Broadbent Institute commissioned consultant Gabrielle Peters for its submission, which she said is focused on justice and rectifying decades of oppression and discrimination.
“I wrote this because we’re doing it wrong,” said Peters, a Vancouver writer with chronic health issues who uses a wheelchair.
“We have to change how we think about accessibility. We have to change who we think about in terms of accessibility, in order to start doing it right.”
The Broadbent submission first discusses the historical impacts of colonialism, eugenics, institutionalization and sterilization on deaf and disabled Canadians.
It then looks at how those experiences have led to deaf and disabled people being disproportionately represented among the poor, homeless and as victims of violence. They are excluded from education, employment and public and community life, and face barriers in the health care system, the submission says.
“Nearly half of all Human Rights complaints (49 per cent) in Canada are disability related,” Peters wrote. “Discrimination against disabled people is rampant while simultaneously being almost entirely invisible in the public discourse about discrimination.”
Broadbent makes 16 recommendations it says will help repair that damage, the first being the legislation should consider the phrase “nothing about us without us” by including “deaf and disabled British Columbians” in its name.
“Decisions about what was best for disabled people made by the province’s respected leaders resulted in the worst outcomes and a shameful period in this province’s history,” Peters wrote. “This new legislation must spell out whom it is for and what it is intended to begin to rectify and prevent.”
The second recommendation urges government to write legislation that goes beyond making B.C. “barrier-free,” and works to fight oppression. It recommends that government name ableism as the source of systemic oppression of disabled people and the cause of inaccessibility.
The third recommendation calls for the legislation to be intersectional. This would mean recognizing that class, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other aspects of a person’s identity and life experience are linked to various other systems of oppression that marginalize disabled people and make parts of B.C. society inaccessible to them.
The full submission can be read at broadbent.ca. Peters said she hopes it shows to readers that accessibility “isn’t a gift” to be handed to deaf and disabled people, but a human right that they’ve been denied.
The submission also features contributions from harm reduction policy specialist Karen Ward and from urban planner Amina Yasin, who write about racism, ableism and the built environment.
Maria Dobrinskaya, B.C. director for Broadbent, said the submission’s justice-based approach could guide other ministries in their approaches to housing policy, municipal bylaws, transit and other issues.
Government may choose not to implement all 16 recommendations, Dobrinskaya said. But she is pleased the submission will reach the desks of Minister Simpson and other policy-makers, adding that “it’s important that it’s on the record.”
“I think it is very broad in its scope,” she said. “I’m hopeful though, that the comprehensive nature of the approach that we took helps to inform more specific focus on policy that the ministry will be looking at.”
The federal government passed Canada’s first national accessibility legislation in May, meant to “identify, remove and prevent” accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. Those include built environments, federally run programs and services, banking, telecommunications and transportation that crosses provincial lines.
That legislation, however, doesn’t address barriers within provincial jurisdiction. Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia have passed accessibility laws, and Newfoundland and Labrador are developing their own, too.
But B.C. — where more than 926,000 people older than 15 have some form of disability — has lagged behind.
Transit workers from Unifor Locals 111 and 2200 vote whether to ratify a contract agreement with Coast Mountain Bus Company. Jason Payne / PNG
The cost of the new three-year deal with TransLink’s bus company employees, which will add at least $3 an hour to wages for 5,000 workers, won’t derail transit expansion, according to the agency.
“We can’t cost out the deal,” until after negotiations are completed with 900 workers from another union for SkyTrain workers, spokeswoman Jill Drews said Friday.
But she said, “Expansion plans will not be affected. The deal that was negotiated is within our ability to pay. There’s no fear of that (affecting expansion) anymore.”
Workers at TransLink’s Coast Mountain Bus Company voted more than 83 per cent in favour of the deal on Thursday, reached in negotiations between the company and Unifor just before the union planned to begin a full-scale strike.
Unifor had been seeking a 15.2 per cent increase over four years for bus drivers and 16.7 per cent compounded over four years for maintenance workers. Coast Mountain had been offering 12.2 per cent for skilled trades over four years and 9.6 per cent for transit operators over the same period. The company had said Unifor’s would have cost more than $600 million over the 10 years and that kind of deal would jeopardize transit system expansion plans.
“It’s fair to say it’s below that” $600 million,” Drews said., adding the deal is “somewhere in the middle” between the initial demands.
Drews said the cost for the bus company will be made public after negotiations are completed with Canadian Union of Public Employees in a separate set of contract talks for 900 employees, including station attendants and maintenance workers of TransLink’s B.C. Rapid Transit Company.
The strike by the Coast Mountain workers began Nov. 1 with a uniform ban by transit operators and an overtime ban by maintenance workers, which reduced SeaBus sailings.
Unifor national president Jerry Dias said in a news release that the deal with Unifor Locals 111 and 2200 included “historic gains” for wages, benefits and working conditions.
Unifor said the deal reduced the “wage gap with Toronto’s transit operators,” brought the wages for Coast Mountain’s skilled trades workers more in line with the about $3 more an hour paid to SkyTrain’s skilled trades workers, set out “guaranteed minimum rest and recovery allowances of 45 minutes” and better washroom breaks and facilities.
The salary range for drivers before the settlement was $24.46 to $32.61 an hour after 24 months. After four years, with a two per cent raise retroactive to April 1, one per cent on ratification, and three per cent a year thereafter, the range would rise to $27.49 to $35.64 an hour.
Coast Mountain’s skilled-trades workers received a two per cent retroactive pay to April 1 and an additional $1.95 an hour increase, followed by two per cent raises in future years of the contract.
Vancouver council is set to consider a motion targeting disorderly conduct in the Granville Street entertainment district by doubling fines for fighting.
The motion championed by Coun. Melissa De Genova, who has long urged council to crack down on those fined for fighting on city streets, would increase the fine for such offences to $1,000 from $500 — the maximum penalty allowed for a ticket under the Vancouver Charter.
The Vancouver Police Department has expressed support for the increase, which could help deter hooliganism in an area known for its drunken, late-night fights. In October, for instance, a massive, early morning brawl resulted in three people being hospitalized with serious stab wounds.
This latest plan appears likelier to be approved by council, especially as it also seeks incentives for voluntary payment of these fines. Collection of unpaid bylaw fines issued for fighting has been an issue for the City of Vancouver and other municipalities.
Under the motion, set to be considered Tuesday, fines paid within 30 days would be reduced by 50 per cent, falling back to their original rate of $500.
Tamara Loyer proudly wears a bright red lanyard around her neck, from which dangles keys to the modest office where she oversees a unique Downtown Eastside drop-in program for trans woman that she designed this year.
She’s come a long way in the past decade: from a despondent homeless woman trapped inside a body with male genitalia to someone who has undergone gender-confirming surgery and now has a home, goes to school and is employed.
“I’ve not been in an office setting since the mid-1980s,” laughs Loyer during an interview at Atira Women’s Resource Society, where she started the Beyond the Street drop-in for trans women in September.
Now 57, Loyer believes her internal war with her gender was at the root of her 30-year spiral into drug addiction, sex work and homelessness, and that the surgery she had in April 2014 gave her the confidence to start putting her life back together again.
“After surgery, I thought I don’t want to have to think about (gender) the way I did before. I can be part of the world. I can go and do things now without being self-conscious,” she reflected. “I walk around here and I don’t have to be afraid that what’s in my head and what people see aren’t the same.”
She is happy with her outward appearance, but is inwardly still haunted by gender dysphoria — a crippling unhappiness with one’s biological gender.
“After surgery, we all like to think that it will never bother me again. It still does. I think about it every day,” she said.
Her dark thoughts are often triggered by still-lingering male gender traits, such as facial hair and a low voice. “That bothers me still to this day. I’m not as critical, as I was, at what I see in the mirror, (but) it doesn’t go away 100 per cent.”
The Vancouver Sun documented Loyer’s story in 2014: the challenges of applying for the surgery and organizing the logistics when you have a vulnerable lifestyle, no fixed address, a panhandler’s income, and no family supports. At the time, B.C. funded sex-reassignment surgeries, but the only place in Canada that performed them was a private Montreal hospital, where Loyer was flown by a charity airline.
“I had nobody with me and it was terrifying,” she said. “It was daunting. There is so much red tape to go through.”
The number of B.C. patients that must endure that flight to Montreal is expected to decrease in the coming years. A new gender surgery clinic opened in Vancouver General Hospital in late September, where the Health Ministry anticipates full-scale gender-affirming surgeries will be performed, likely next year.
B.C.’s new gender surgery clinic
Two surgeons with specialized skills have been hired to work at the clinic, and since September have done repairs and revisions to previous surgeries, and performed parts of so-called “lower surgeries” — but not yet the entire procedure, the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Until this year, patients in every province had to travel to Montreal for “lower surgeries” — which include vaginoplasty for trans women and phalloplasty for trans men. In June, Ontario started to offer these complex surgeries at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, and B.C. plans to be the next province to do so.
“The trans community has advocated over a number of years for improved access to care, including access to complex lower surgeries within B.C.,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said in November 2018, when he first indicated the services offered here would expand.
“For those seeking lower surgery, people were required to travel to Montreal or to the U.S., resulting in additional medical risks associated with travelling long distance after surgery and in receiving followup care if there were complications.”
The number of British Columbians travelling to Montreal has been on the rise, with about 100 patients annually in recent years. That number is expected to stay roughly the same in 2020, while the B.C. program fully ramps up, the Health Ministry said.
An estimated one per cent of the population identifies as trans, which includes a wide range of people for whom their gender is different from their assigned sex at birth. In B.C., the Health Ministry says, about 46,000 people identify as “trans or gender diverse,” but only a few will pursue medical or surgical services.
Offering the service closer to home will make it simpler to access and to allow friends to visit during recovery. That may encourage more trans people to consider surgery, especially those from marginalized communities like the Downtown Eastside, Loyer said.
And, she argued, it will benefit society in the long run to help more people feel in sync with their own bodies.
“You are going to get a person who is going to be more productive. Somebody who might want to go to school, get a job. Somebody who might want to join their family again,” she said. “You don’t have to live in despair, overwhelmed with what is described as an illness. You can be functional.”
Trans people face discrimination and harassment, which often leads to poor mental health and a greater risk for suicide, says the Calgary-based Centre for Suicide Prevention.
Loyer speaks softly when she remembers trans friends who committed “suicide, got killed, ran away, were never seen again, overdosed or became mental patients.” She hopes these tragedies will be less frequent among her peers with the new local access to medical help.
Another set of surgeries many trans people pursue — breast augmentation or chest construction — were, until recently, offered in only Vancouver and Victoria. Now B.C. has 16 surgeons who do this work, and these procedures have been extended to Abbotsford, Burnaby, Port Moody, New Westminster, Kamloops, Kelowna and Prince George.
The demand for these upper surgeries in B.C. has quadrupled in just three years, with 49 performed in 2015-16 and 254 in 2018-19. The Health Ministry anticipates 300 breast or chest surgeries will be completed by the end of this fiscal year, in March 2020.
And B.C. has a waiting list for this procedure with more than 200 names.
In 2015, the Provincial Health Services Authority launched Trans Care B.C., which offers details about health care and support for trans people or their families. Its service directory lists dozens of drop-ins and information groups across the province, including in communities outside Metro Vancouver such as Prince Rupert, Fort St John and Cranbrook.
She hoped B.C. would offer acceptance
So much as changed since Loyer first arrived in Vancouver in 1984, at age 23, leaving behind a turbulent childhood on a Quebec military base. She came here to seek acceptance. She assumed the name Tamara, found work as a computer programmer and continued to pursue post-secondary education.
But she faced discrimination, numbed her pain with drugs, and eventually worked the streets to earn income. In 1989 she began inquiring about a sex-change operation, but had no stability to pursue surgery.
She was homeless, sick and dejected in 2011 when an outreach worker took her to the first place she felt at home: a shelter for woman, run by Atira. Despite the obvious challenges of sharing communal bathrooms with the female tenants of the modest shelter, Loyer began to heal and, through a new network of support, was able to get her surgery in March 2014.
The Healthy Ministry paid $20,000 for the procedure and $2,000 for her post-surgery care in Montreal. Doctors removed her male organs and created a vagina.
The Vancouver Sun’s first feature on Loyer was published one month after the operation, when she was still healing and had modest ambitions to live a more stable life.
Today, she says that it took her about six months to physically heal from the invasive surgery while she lived in Atira-supported housing in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. There were infections that required cleaning, extreme tenderness, and a daily routine of using dilators to ensure her new vagina wouldn’t close up.
And there are post-operation steps that will be necessary indefinitely. Attached to her stomach is a patch that supplies very large doses of estrogen, a female hormone that her body considers a foreign substance and tries to reject.
But, overall, she is elated with the outcome of the surgery. “I wake up in the morning and I’m happy that I don’t have to encounter a body that is what I had. That was one of the most horrible things in the shower and the washroom and getting dressed. And that is gone.”
Loyer does not wear makeup, jewelry or fancy clothes, but rather prefers basic, gender-neutral garb.
“I am happy with what I look like,” she said. “It’s not the outside that’s the problem. It’s the inside that is giving me the problems.”
In early 2019, Loyer was upgrading her high school credits at the South Hill Adult Education Centre in south Vancouver, but she was also still panhandling, which she found increasingly demeaning, to supplement her disability pension.
“I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be in school.”
Loyer appeared “isolated,” recalled Janice Abbott, the executive director of Atira, so she suggested Loyer open a drop-in for trans women. Atira offered space to hold the meetings, a small budget for food and communication, and the encouragement for Loyer to independently create a program that was needed in the Downtown Eastside.
“The trans community is complex, it’s not homogeneous in any shape or form. So I think that more opportunities for safe space in ways that trans women identify their own communities, I think that there needs to be more (of) that,” said Abbott, adding that Loyer’s drop-in is a low-key environment where people can make friends and share challenges.
“I think everyone in the Downtown Eastside needs an informal place, where you don’t have to come in and fill out a form that says I need social services. It’s a place to get a snack and have a cup of coffee and hang out for a couple of hours. And I think that’s part of what makes it beautiful.”
Beyond the Street trans drop-in
Loyer’s program, Beyond the Street, is among the first peer-led drop-ins for trans women in Vancouver. It has been holding two-hour sessions every Sunday afternoon since September.
It focuses on offering people help in three main areas: housing questions, such as dealing with transphobia while looking for an apartment or getting evicted; legal matters, such as how to change your name or marriage breakup help; and counselling issues, such as being trapped in a lifestyle that isn’t true to your identity. The program also offers fun activities like Thanksgiving dinner and movies.
“Sometimes trans women get stalled. Something happens and you stop. You can’t get anywhere, whether it’s housing or medical. The idea is to keep them going,” said Loyer.
The three-month-old drop-in has 12 regular attendees, but Loyer also helps women in other communities by phone or email.
She hopes the program can offer marginalized trans woman better options than they often faced in the past: “You end up on the street corner, or you end up in the alleys, or you break down and cry, or you suicide.
“We try to keep people from saying, ‘Oh well, this is what I get.’ Which is easy to think when you don’t have anybody saying anything different,” Loyer said.
Among Atira’s many social housing buildings, which accommodate more than 1,500 women and children every year in the Lower Mainland, up to 20 per cent of the adult female tenants identify as trans, depending on the building type and location, Abbott said.
Many trans women also use Atira’s SisterSpace, which is described as the first women-only overdose prevention site in Canada. Evaluation reports on Atira’s website quote trans women who say the “safe space” offers empathetic workers and an escape from transphobia.
Trans issues have increasingly been in the news. In a high-profile court case, a local father who opposes his transgender child’s pursuit of testosterone therapy fought lower-court decisions all the way to the B.C. Court of Appeal.
For Loyer, trans issues are not new. They’ve been bottled up inside of her for five decades. She hopes, though, that more attention will lead to increased acceptance.
Since her surgery in 2014, she said, her health has improved drastically. The hepatitis C she contracted in 1989 from intravenous drug use is now not detectable in her blood. She is drug-free and quit her 30-year smoking habit. She can walk without a cane, which she had used since her leg was broken in a nasty 2011 assault. Her sight has improved after a hole in her cornea, likely from a beating, was repaired. And she now weighs 165 pounds, up from the 109 she weighed when she arrived on Atira’s doorstep nearly nine years ago.
She no longer lives in supported housing, and has moved to a mixed-income Atira building where many of her neighbours have jobs and go to school. While B.C. Housing subsidizes her rent, Loyer must pay for utilities, internet, and other living expenses.
Perhaps she is most excited about the high school science and math courses she is taking to boost her marks so she can one day apply to the University of British Columbia for a combined degree in astronomy and physics. A downtown investment firm, who read about Loyer in 2014 in The Vancouver Sun, has told her it will pay for her tuition if she gets accepted to UBC.
But with that excitement also comes the fear of failure.
“I need to find a place to apply myself. But the science part I was really nervous about. I didn’t want to think that I could do something and find out that I made a total mess of it and lose confidence,” she said.
Loyer will need confidence to complete her academic goals. She has displayed confidence already, though, in the pursuit of her gender goals. And she has a favourite saying that has, in the past, given her courage and determination: It’s a song title from the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which she saw in Toronto in 1978 after she ran away from home, at age 16, so she could start living as a woman.
Dazzle-dressed Zynth & Co. dancers backed stand-up comedian Jon Gagnon in the Rocky Mountaineer station where he MC’d the hospitality industry’s 15th annual Golden Owl awards festivities. Malcolm Parry / PNG
CRYSTAL CLEARING: Jennifer Johnston chaired the Crystal Ball for the third time recently, benefiting the B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation. The 33rd annual event reportedly raised $3.8 million. Foundation president-CEO Teri Nicholas and board chair Lisa Hudson said that sum will help fund the hospital’s Next Generation Technologies program to study youngsters’ entire genetic makeup. Data thus derived should eliminate many painful, invasive tests while providing speedier diagnoses for hitherto hard-to-identify ailments.
A former Crystal Ball chair, Steph Nicolls, said the role entailed “three times the work I expected, but the result was 10 times what I expected.” Current chair Johnston would doubtless agree. So would Crystal Ball founder and honorary lifetime chair Isabelle Diamond, whose late husband Charles barely survived polio at age 15. That was in 1949, two years after Crippled Children’s Hospital was renamed B.C. Children’s Hospital, and 33 years before today’s 28th-at-Oak complex opened. Following Ms. Diamond’s impetus, the Crystal Ball has reportedly raised $38 million.
END OF SEASON: After three decades at the Four Seasons Hotel, which will soon vacate its Pacific Centre premises, the Crystal Ball will need a new locale for 2020.
WE FOUR: School students filled Rogers Arena recently for Craig and Marc Kielburger’s annual WE Day rally. The brothers also attended a 10th annual pre-event dinner in Lorne and Melita Segal’s home. Craig was 13 in 1995 when he founded the Free The Children campaign that became WE Day 12 years later. He is 37 now. Marc is 42. Many youngsters today have the Extinction Rebellion movement and fellow teen Greta Thunberg literally sailing the Atlantic to inspire them. The two-decade Kielburgers-Segal relationship include working on projects in Kenya.
Guests at the recent Segal dinner included pro basketball’s famed “sky hook” practitioner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who retired in 1989 — before current WE Day celebrants were born. NBA stars Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal attended earlier dinners, along with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Virgin maestro Sir Richard Branson and assorted senior politicians. This year’s sole example, Kim Campbell, was Canada’s 133-day prime minister in 1993, two years before Craig Kielburger got the WE Day ball rolling.
DRESSING UPWARD: Some fashion designers and manufacturers have successfully tapped the mainstream market with garments featuring coastal First Nations motifs. Former international model Joleen Mitton took a broader and more politicized view when she founded Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week in 2017. Running again recently, it featured some 20 Indigenous designers in three differently themed events that featured glamorous garments, future streetwear, leather, etc. East Vancouver-raised Mitton, who is part Plains Cree, said that runway models and production crew were trained by the Pacific Association of First Nations Women’s Mentor Me program “that empowers Indigenous youth to see themselves represented in a truly beautiful and vibrant way.”
WHAT A HOOT: Vancouver’s hospitality industry rated its own recently when the 15th annual Golden Owl awards event (goldenowlawards.com) filled the Rocky Mountaineer station. Twenty-two category winners included The Parlour for atmosphere and Chambar for service. The Alibi Room was best pub, the Keefer best late-night lounge, and the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Lobby best hotel lounge. Fortune Sound Club won for nightclub, Downlow Chicken Shack for food, and the Shameful Tiki Room for cocktails. Top Table was named restaurant group of the year, and Yuk Yuks won for comedy experience. Standup comedian Jon Gagnon deserved a trophy himself for handling MC chores with the precision and grace of girlfriend and Ballet B.C. dancer Emily Chessa.
HELLO SAILOR: He’s in hot water today, but Prince Andrew’s 2003 Vancouver visit was purely the blue-and-salty kind. And, like Yaletown’s Blue Water restaurant, dining was involved. As commodore of the 1775-founded Royal Thames Yacht Club (brother Charles is a patron), the sailor prince presented its burgee — royal crown on a white-on-blue Cumberland cross — to Royal Vancouver Yacht Club’s then commodore, John Dew. That done, he cut a blue ribbon to launch the Point Grey club’s Star & Dragon family dining room, then vamoosed without tucking into fish and chips, still a relative bargain at $14.
KITCHEN HELP: Restaurant kitchen workers know that heat, pressure, hours and even remuneration can challenge their mental health. In response, 15 city chefs and four bartenders contributed to an inaugural fundraiser titled Kitchen Aide. Held in Richards Street’s Café Medina, it reportedly raised $15,000 for the Mind The Bar Foundation that serves those “dealing with thoughts of suicide, depression, anxiety, and workplace harassment.” Admitting to being helped “when I was in a dark place,” Published restaurant’s Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson hoped Kitchen Aide will “support cooks who wouldn’t otherwise have the means.” Meanwhile, his cured scallop, kohlrabi kraut and XO sauce should comfort anybody.
DOWN PARRYSCOPE: Remember Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, also Ancient Greek historian-warrior Thucydides’ warning that humankind’s gravest failings include “want of sense, of courage, or of vigilance.”
Late last month, a man in his 30s with a long history of addiction doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in the garage of a Surrey recovery house.
Two other residents went to hospital and were treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the two-alarm fire.
The B.C. Coroners Service is investigating. So is the Surrey fire department.
Self-immolation is tragedy enough. But what makes it worse is that the man’s death is directly attributable to years of appalling neglect. For two decades, B.C. failed to regulate residential addiction treatment facilities or ensure that they met even the most basic standards.
The man, who has not been officially identified, died in a government-registered treatment home where he was supposed to be monitored, supervised and helped to attain long-term recovery.
What intensifies the tragedy is that his was the third death in a year in a house run by Step by Step Recovery Society. One of the society’s five directors, Debbie Johnson, owns the house at 138A Street that was badly damaged in the fire.
Between November 2018 and March 2019, there were 65 separate breaches of the Assisted Living Registry’s regulations at the five Surrey houses that the society was operating.
Those infractions — the most recent of which were investigated in March — range from inadequate food to unqualified staff to unsafe facilities to failure to ensure residents are not a danger to themselves or others.
At the house on 138A Street where the most recent death occurred, there were 11 substantiated complaints. Only one was dealt with, according to the most recent report posted on the Assisted Living Registry’s website.
The pest control people did get rid of the mice.
But, according to the report, no action had been taken to address verified complaints about safety, about untrained, unqualified staff, and about the lack of any psychosocial supports aimed at helping people attain long-term recovery.
The society voluntarily closed two of its houses earlier this year.
But of the three still on the registry, all have substantiated complaints that haven’t been dealt with. In March, nothing had been done at the houses on 78A Avenue and 97A Avenue that were deemed unsafe for the needs of residents. Verified complaints posted in February about safety and the quality and training of staff remained outstanding.
The question that screams for an answer is: Why wasn’t Step by Step shut down earlier?
The legislation didn’t allow it. The Assisted Living Registry had no power to take immediate action to suspend or attach conditions to a registration.
Instead, all that the registry staff could do was try to work with the operator to get them to conform.
There are dozens of other niggling questions. If this were a well-staffed facility, someone might have realized that the man was struggling before he went to the garage. If it were a well-run, supportive house, it’s unlikely he would have had access to gasoline.
With better rules and oversight, those other two deaths at Step by Step might not have occurred either, and maybe other deaths could have been avoided over the past two decades.
Two decades. That’s how long B.C. went without any regulation of residential treatment centres.
That finally changed on Dec. 1 — 21 years after a previous NDP government brought in regulations only to have them scrapped in 2001 by the B.C. Liberal government that described them as too onerous.
The Liberals did promise new and improved rules in 2016 after a Surrey mom was killed outside a hockey arena by a resident of one of the unregulated facilities. But those rules were never enacted.
In 2017, a coroners’ jury recommended regulations following a 20-year-old man’s overdose death in a Powell River treatment centre. Those regulations were finally released in August 2019 and operators — including Step by Step — were given three months to get ready for the changes.
In the last four days, the registrar has cancelled all five of Step by Step’s registrations. A letter has gone to the operator. And, according to the emailed response from an addictions ministry spokesperson, the operator is “expected to begin an orderly transition of current residents to other registered supportive recovery homes.”
The email also said that Surrey’s bylaw department will work with the operator to place the remaining residents to ensure that no one is left homeless as a result of the closures.
It’s a glimmer of good news. But it all happened four days too late for the unnamed man, for 21-year-old Zachary Plett, whose family will grimly mark the first anniversary of his death at Step by Step last Dec. 15. And it comes nearly 13 months after Step by Step staff took two full days to discover the body of a 35-year-old who overdosed in the house on Christmas Eve.
“Why they had to wait to get these regulations in place is beyond me,” Zachary’s mother Maggie Plett said Thursday. “They should have been done sooner.
1998: The NDP government brings in the first regulations under the Community Care Facilities Act.
2001: The B.C. Liberal government scrapped those regulations as part of its deregulation drive, declaring the requirements too onerous.
2014: A Surrey mother is murdered outside a hockey arena by a man living at one of the unregistered houses. At the time, Surrey alone had as many as 250 flophouses purporting to offer supportive housing for recovering addicts.
2016: In the spring’s Throne Speech, B.C. Liberals promise regulations, enforcement and a public registry.
In December, Surrey council voted to require all recovery houses to have business licenses, capping the number at 55 and requiring all of them to be listed on the B.C. government’s Assisted Living Registry.
The amendments to the Community Care and Assisted Living Act were never enacted or enforced.
2018: The B.C. coroners’ review of an overdose death in a Sechelt recovery house recommended that by September 2019 there needed to be better regulations for public and private residential addiction treatment facilities, as well as heightened enforcement.
The government agreed and set up a committee to develop standards to “help ensure quality and consistency and enhance understanding of the services across the province.”
April 2019: The deadline set by the coroner for a progress report came and went, but in a letter from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in May, it promised to have a final report ready for September.
August 2019: Addictions Minister Judy Darcy announces that the 2016 regulations will finally be enacted along with some additional requirements on Dec. 1. To prepare for the changes, the government offered $4,000 in grants to operators licensed by the health authorities or registered by the ALR to offset staff training costs as well as an increase in per-diem rates for residents after more than a decade of having been stuck at $35.90.
Jean Saveur, pictured here at work, is among the trainees Vancouver’s Michelle Swami trained during a November 2019 trip to Rwanda to help set up new vision clinics. SUBMITTED / MICHELLE SWAMI / PNG
Hindsight is 20/20 but a new pair of glasses can be life-changing.
Just ask a Vancouver optician who recently returned from setting up much-needed vision clinics in Rwanda and who is now raising funds to continue that work here in the Downtown Eastside.
Michelle Swami, 31, is among the team of 12 optometrists and opticians from Canada, the U.S. and The Gambia who travelled to Rwanda last month with OneSight to train staff to work in self-sustaining vision clinics in Kigali and the surrounding area.
“We are working on empowering locals to help locals by training them to run a vision centre as well as establishing manufacturing facilities,” said Swami, adding that all facilities are then managed by and create jobs for locals.
“Everything from doing a simple eye exam, glasses adjustment and a pre-test – we passed on our skills.”
OneSight is a non-profit that works to provide vision care to the 1.1 billion people living around the world without access to an eye clinic or glasses. In Rwanda alone, OneSight has helped to establish 33 vision centres, serving 10.8 million people.
It is the second time Swami has made the trip to Rwanda, prompted by her own experience wearing glasses and an understanding of the importance of vision.
Figures provided by OneSight show that clear vision can improve an adult’s productivity by 35 per cent, increase their earning ability by 20 per cent and reduce student drop-out rates by 44 per cent.
During her most recent trip, Swami’s team treated a woman who thought her poor vision was normal and didn’t realize glasses could help.
“She was so excited to go home and cut her nails. Just a normal task she couldn’t do without glasses,” said Swami.
Another of Swami’s trainees was Jean Saveur, a nurse working to become a dispensing optician who was caught quietly reading eye charts during training.
“He then admitted he broke his glasses a long time ago but didn’t tell anyone because he knew he was training for this job and couldn’t afford any new ones,” said Swami.
Moved by his determination, Swami and another colleague Don Biermann sent Saveur to have his eyes checked, found that he had a high level of astigmatism and pooled funds to buy him a new pair of glasses.
“This was very emotional because not only can he see again, he can do his work with fewer headaches,” she said. “Plus, we helped support his vision centre by being the first pair of glasses the vision centre sold, ever.”
“Knowing I can help someone out whose glasses broke and are in a bind, or just got glasses for the first time and saw things that they didn’t know they could? That, to me, will never get old,” she said.
Austin Zhang is CEO of Gokabu, which runs the Chinese language ride-hailing platform Kabu. Francis Georgian / PNG
Thousands of ride-hailing drivers are set to hit the streets of Metro Vancouver when companies are permitted to begin operating in the next few weeks.
No fewer than 19 ride-hailing platforms are being vetted by the Passenger Transportation Board, some with hundreds of drivers already qualified to work.
The Chinese-language Kabu Ride app was disabled in September to avoid operating illegally after legislation passed enabling legal ride-hailing.
But Richmond-based Gokabu Group had been operating Kabu Ride in the “grey space” for more than three years with hundreds of drivers pulling in more than $10 million a year combined, said company spokesman Martin van den Hemel.
They began encouraging drivers to get their Class 4 drivers licence months ago and secured affordable training with local driving schools to ensure they would have a small army of drivers ready to work under new provincial rules.
Kabu Ride has “hundreds of qualified drivers” who have been through Kabu training, obtained a commercial driver’s licence and secured all the documentation required by the transportation board, said CEO Auston Zhang. “We’ve got many more taking their knowledge test to obtain a Class 4 learner’s licence.”
The vast majority of Kabu Ride drivers are men, but the company is encouraging female applicants.
“We have stay-at-home moms who work for two or three hours a day while their kids are in school,” said Hemel. “We also have drivers who work 50 hours a week and make north of $65,000 a year.”
Lyft is operating two driver hubs in Metro Vancouver — with a third on the way — to recruit and educate potential drivers about the documentation needed before they can participate in ride-hailing.
To drive for a ride-hailing service, you must possess a Class 1, 2 or 4 drivers licence, produce a commercial driving record, obtain a criminal record check and your vehicle must pass a commercial vehicle inspection.
More than 600 people have attended Lyft information sessions in Vancouver, Surrey and Langley, the company said.
Lyft driver Met Yi Su likes the flexibility that gig driving offers, to work around his main job.
“I’m a project manager for a mining organization, which has me working in the field around six months of the year,” he said. “What attracts me to driving with Lyft is the option to do it anytime I want. My wife stays home with the kids, and I can do ridesharing as needed.”
Uber is encouraging potential drivers to use its online guide to get through the qualification process and “be ready to drive in the next few weeks.”
The ride-hailing giant has started distributing Uber decals to its qualified “driver partners” to display once the transportation board approves its transportation network service licence.
Edmonton’s TappCar also has plans to serve Metro Vancouver along with smaller cities in B.C.
It is difficult to know exactly how many drivers will be in the field because some are likely to be active on more than one platform, but other Canadian cities are recording tens of thousands of trips a day.
Based on data from Calgary, the City of Vancouver conservatively estimates 500 to 1,000 ride-hailing vehicles will operate in the “metro core,” compared with about 800 licensed taxis, according to a response to a freedom of information request.
On average, drivers in Calgary worked 10 hours a week and made 2.5 trips an hour. But that’s only part of the picture.
Ride-hailing firms reported more than four million trips in Calgary last year, according to a presentation to the International Association of Transportation regulators.
That’s almost 11,000 trips a day serving a population about half of Metro Vancouver’s 2.5 million residents. Mississauga ride-hailing drivers logged 10 million trips in 2018 — 27,300 trips a day — with a population of less than one million.
Most of that is new business. Ride-hailing trips appeared to have a relatively modest effect on the volume of taxi trips in those markets.
Kabu Ride is a platform with uniquely local roots and an impressive growth record.
Zhang and Gokabu president Billy Xiong had originally conceived their platform as a social media app for foreign students, but quickly changed their business model when they noticed that users were organizing rides around the city.
The company has 60 full time employees and about 25 part time staff. The company also offers subsidized health and disability benefits, through The Cooperators, to “driver partners” who work enough to qualify.
While their ride-hailing service is suspended, some drivers are still active on the food delivery platform, Kabu Eats.
Final numbers from the 2019 Vancouver homeless count were released this week and advocates say they again prove the urgent need for more social housing and welfare rates high enough to cover basic rent in the city.
The figures didn’t change much from a preliminary report released in June. Volunteers counted 2,223 homeless people in the city, up two per cent from 2,181 last year. It was the highest number since 2005, when the count was first done.
Surveys revealed that 23 per cent were women and girls, one per cent identified as non-binary, and seven per cent were under 25 years of age.
Most were sick and most lost their homes in Vancouver. Sixty per cent were experiencing two or more health problems, up from 54 per cent in 2018. Eighty-one per cent were already living in the city when they became homeless.
Celine Mauboules, the city’s director of homelessness services, said she was particularly troubled to learn that the homeless population is aging. Twenty-three per cent of respondents were 55 years or older, up from 21 per cent last year.
Shelter providers meet seniors living on small incomes and pensions, and unable to keep up with rising rents, Mauboules said. With vacancy rates near zero, upon losing their housing, they are unable to find affordable units elsewhere and turn to the street. Some lose their housing during long hospital stays, she added.
“They just don’t have any other options,” Mauboules said. “We hear these stories from seniors who are falling through the cracks of our systems of care, and are really being priced out of the housing market based on their limited income.”
Jeremy Hunka, spokesman for Union Gospel Mission, said the rising number of homeless seniors was a top concern for his non-profit, too.
“We know that homeless seniors face even more challenges to exiting homelessness than others, including health and mobility concerns that can keep them stuck, along with fixed incomes and less ability to work, which also prevents exiting homelessness,” Hunka said.
“Senior guests are also much more vulnerable to extreme cold and being taken advantage of, mistreated, or even robbed when they are alone outside, so this steady increase is definitely concerning.”
Coun. Jean Swanson, a longtime poverty fighter elected in 2018, said many of the figures in the counts have been consistent over the years, and government should be acting on what it has long known.
“It’s so frustrating to be always counting and not building housing,” she said.
“I disagree with the premise that it’s so complex. I think we do need to do the counts but it’s almost as if the purpose of them is to say that the problem is these people have mental health issues or they have addictions, when the problem is that they don’t have housing.”
Swanson wants the provincial government to build more modular housing and raise income-assistance rates to be commensurate with the cost of living in the city.
“Those things have to be changed, we can’t let up on them,” she said.
Income and disability assistance rates rose $150 in the past three years, but only after more than a decade with no increase at all, Swanson lamented. A $50 increase last budget put the rate for a single employable person at $760 a month, less than 50 per cent of the poverty line, according to the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
In the past two years, just over 600 units of temporary modular housing, a relatively fast-to-erect and inexpensive kind of prefabricated building, has been built in Vancouver, mostly funded by the province.
Next spring, a 58-unit modular building will open at Vanness Avenue and Copley Street, and the city is working with the province for more permanent modular housing.
Mauboules agreed with Swanson that building more social housing and raising income-assistance rates are key to reducing homelessness.
Meantime, with the temperature dropping, an additional 300 low-barrier shelter beds have been opened in the city. Extreme-weather response beds add another 160 sleeping spaces and warming centres provide a place for people to come inside from the cold for some food.
Mauboules said there are some people who won’t want to use shelters and who say they are fine sleeping in parks or on the street. Outreach workers are working to build relationships with them over time, she said.
“I think it’s a matter of building trust with that person and identifying what the options are,” she said.
“Maybe they had a bad experience at a shelter so they don’t like shelters. But maybe with a different shelter or operator, they might have a different experience … or in terms of housing. People need choice.”
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