Friday, August 27, 2010

The Invisible People

Robert Pickton’s evil deeds challenge every value we humans hold dear. They transcend the essence of humanity, and raise some troubling questions. If one of us can perpetrate this kind of evil, how many more Robert Picktons walk among us? And if they do, how do we stop them? How does a community protect itself?
Leaks from the inevitable probe into the initial police investigation are helping us understand how Pickton was able to wade in blood for so long. Even after Pickton’s name surfaced as a suspect, police and prosecutors chose not to act because potential witnesses were drug-addicted prostitutes and therefore not credible witnesses.
Today, it’s easy to point fingers at the cops and prosecutors and want to hold them accountable for their professional actions and inaction. Yet they are but the canaries in the coalmine providing us with a signal of a deeper societal issue.
I remember a sunny day on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton not too long ago. A friend- let’s call him Ed- and I were having a chinwag and a coffee when we saw one of Edmonton’s aboriginal street women staggering past our outdoor table. “That breaks my heart”, I said. Ed’s response shocked me. “I don’t really notice them”; he said.
There are a lot of “Eds" out there. Many of us living in “respectable society” do our best to ignore those in our communities who remind us of our human frailty. We stay disengaged and silent on the issues of addictions, prostitution, and homelessness. Sadly, some stay mute even when their own loved ones live rough on the mean streets of our inner cities. These women and men are truly “invisible people”.
Some of us might say, "What can I do? This is a huge societal issue that one person, no matter how well meaning and skilled, cannot resolve. I focus on those issues on which I can make a difference”.
While commendable, that pragmatic stance doesn’t resolve the issues of drug addiction, prostitution, and violence against women that are at the heart of the Pickton rampage. Those issues won’t stop until individual citizens in communities engage the issues head-on.
Where do we start? For starters, we can increase our individual financial support for those blessed souls already in the field working with the vulnerable. Next, we can truly engage and join them in their work by lobbying politicians and policy-makers at all levels for new approaches to address the issues of homelessness and addiction.
Our politicians must understand that fine-tuning the status quo will only result in more dead women at the hands of the next Robert Pickton. We need multi-disciplinary strategies rooted in understanding and compassion rather than dogma and punishment.
Next, we can come together as active, committed, and engaged communities across Canada and recognize that those street people are our brothers and sisters. We can begin conversations- without judgment or blaming- with those vulnerable people. What do they value? What are their needs?
We must act now, for the next Robert Pickton could already be stalking his prey. I see those “invisible” people he preys on. Do you?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Race Is On

This has not been the best of summers for the Canadian professional chuckwagon racing community. The action at the sport’s signature event, the 2010 GMC Rangeland Derby with prize money of 1.15 million dollars, resulted in four dead horses.
The death toll triggered a furious wave of public condemnation reflecting a huge change in public opinion in favor of animal welfare. People who had been ambivalent about the sport, and even some former supporters, are now calling for its’ abolition.
Chuckwagon racers see the four horse’s deaths as unfortunate but unpreventable, and refuse to consider the possibility that the sport could be banned. Yet how they ultimately respond to the Calgary deaths will determine the sport’s future.
Denial is not an option. The chuckwagon honchos can bluster and blow until their tarps fly off, but their CBC television coverage and major sponsorships are toast unless they get ahead of the onrushing change.
People have learned to vote with their wallets. It is no accident that McDonalds- yes Ronnie Mac and the burger folks-is among the most powerful forces for farm animal welfare reform. They don’t want to face well-organized consumer boycotts. Is GMC prepared to face a buyer boycott if it continues Rangeland Derby sponsorship?
Adaptation to change threatens all communities, not just folks racing chuckwagons. All of us must accept some hard realities pertaining to change. Change is inevitable, and in today’s world, hits at warp speed. Social networking technology makes it possible for people all over the world to create megalinks overnight supporting causes that “stick” with people. The picture of four beautiful horses dying to satisfy their owners interests is easy to draw, and resonates deeply.
The only way to outrace change is through creative thinking. It’s time for innovative thinking on the part of the chuckwagon community. Ideas that may seem flat-out goofy, such as reducing the prize money, should be on the table. After all, like Corb Lund says in his great “Trouble in the Country”, cowboy song, “ When the money gets big, people get hurt”.
What if all competitors had a direct stake in horse welfare? Why not put a chunk of the prize money into a special pool paid out to all competitors if no horses die? If horses die, the money goes to the S.P.C.A.
The chuckwagon racer’s fight for survival is not unique. They are not the only community under siege. Rural communities wither as the social infrastructure disappears; young people leave, and local businesses close. Inner-city communities watch as homelessness and drug addiction strangle their neighborhoods.
How do we adapt to high-speed change? We won’t adapt by enlisting the help of the usual suspects- governments of all stripes. Dramatic change happens from the inside out.
It takes courage for a community to accept the reality of change, and to find the adaptability to meet change head-on. While that sounds like a tall order, that’s exactly how our forebears built western Canada. Are Alberta’s communities up to the same kind of challenge? All we know for sure is that the race with change is underway, and right now the outcome is in doubt.