Exciting times


There are three things on my mind these days: babies, politics and basketball. I’m feeling pretty upbeat about all of them too. I’ve got a little one set to arrive in around one moon’s time. There are multiple elections with serious ramifications that I imagine are going to end up the way I would like them to – well, except for the federal Canadian one. And basketball continues to bless our world with the many gifts it can offer.

Basically, I’m going to be a dad – possibly, the most important elections in my life are coming up and the spinning ball of joy is within my reach.

Lately, I’ve been spending a great deal of energy sprucing up our nest. It’s funny how such a small person can take up so much space in our minds, and now, in our home as well. There are so many questions about our world and what it’ll be like when our child grows into it. I know that in our own small way we are doing what we can to encourage our future to be dignified and healthy. I can’t help but feel hopeful that we are collectively making positive changes in the face of major calamities. Even slow-moving structures like government are realizing that we need to advocate for our planet. Every choice we make has an effect and our children will dwell in our choices until they can make their own.

I’m not saying that making a choice to live more sustainably is always easy or fun, but it is necessary. It can sometimes make your head hurt trying to anticipate all the ramifications of what it is you’re about to do or not do, following a decision down its multiple, possible paths.

The general rule I’m following these days is less is more. I believe that the cure to our ills generally lies in controlling our ego and disallowing it to consume more than we need.

Here’s to getting real cozy with people you love and taking some time to just be. Good luck; I know I’m going to need it.

Films worth watching:
Burn After Reading
Pineapple Express

Internet time well spent:

Ishi graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 2001, with a BFA major in photography. He makes films, collects cacti and ponders many things. Currently, he is doing what he can for himself and the planet.

contact: ishi@yahoo.ca

Go for green

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

Green is a big plus when it comes to nutrition. Whether it is a salad or vibrant florets of steamed broccoli, a green juice or a smoothie, the green derives from the chlorophyll molecule, with magnesium right in its centre. Greens are packed with a multitude of minerals and abundant vitamins. (See recipe below.)

Green is also an outstanding choice when it comes to political parties. The Green Party, now rising to well-deserved prominence, recognizes that food choices profoundly affect our health and that of the planet; this fact is reflected in school food policies. The Green Party advocates the labelling of genetically modified ingredients, in line with the desire of many Canadians who prefer GMO-free foods. It also supports the elimination of subsidies for pesticides, thereby permitting organic farming to be more competitive with pesticide-laden foods that are sold at cheaper prices. The Green Party also supports fair trade, ensuring that impoverished farmers receive fair prices.

The Green Party profoundly understands the link between lifestyle and climate change. Taking heed of the thousands of peer reviewed climate scientists who agree that global warming is a real threat, its party platform encourages earth friendly choices for food and transportation. We Canadians want hybrid cars, energy efficient appliances, wind and solar power systems and green building products and the Green Party supports the growth of these industries in Canada.

For Canadians, the issue that has proven to be even more important than driving eco-friendly cars or riding a bike is the food we put into our mouths. Researchers Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin at the University of Chicago have calculated the carbon intensity of a standard vegan diet and North American carnivorous diet, through production processing, distribution and cooking to consumption. By going vegan, one elects to emit 1.5 tons less CO2 every year than the burger-eater. Choosing a state-of-the-art Prius hybrid over a gas-guzzling vehicle saves just over one ton of CO2 per year.

An average diet that includes meat leads to an annual greenhouse gas production equivalent to driving a mid-sized car a distance of 4,758 kilometres. See below for the correlation between eating various foods and the equivalent distance driven in kilometres. (Source: the Institute for Ecological Economy Research, Germany; study commissioned by independent consumer protection group Foodwatch.) Calculations are based on methane from animals, emissions from food production, manufacturing feed, fertilizer and the use of farmland.

Comparison of dietary choice (for one year) and the equivalent distance driven by a mid-size car:

• Diet that includes meat: 4,758 km
• Vegetarian diet (no meat, fish, poultry): 2,427 km
• Vegan diet (vegetarian with no eggs or dairy): 629 km
• Organic, vegan diet: 281 km.

Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and author of a number of nutrition classics, including The Raw Revolution Diet, co-authored by Cherie Soria and Brenda Davis. Register for the raw FUNdamentals class with Cherie Soria (Sunday, November 23) at www.rawbc.org or call 778-737-8852. For more great, green energy, visit www.greenparty.bc.ca or call 604-687-1199 or 1-888-473-3686.


(Makes 2 1/2 cups)

Of all the foods that support health, dark, leafy greens top the list. Kale, a plant that survives Vancouver winters, offers more nutrition per calorie than almost any other food. This recipe provides protein, vitamins A, C, E, most B vitamins, calcium, iron, selenium, zinc, copper, magnesium and manganese. Vary the flavours to suit your taste. In winter months, use hot water for a warming soup. This recipe is a favourite of Patrick Meyer, Langley’s Green Party candidate.

3/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup orange juice, or 1/2 orange, peeled
3 to 4 cups kale, stem removed, chopped
1/2 apple, cored or 1/2 small cucumber, peeled
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, basil leaves or dill weed
1 1/2 tbsp. light miso
1/2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 clove garlic
1/4 red jalapeño pepper or a pinch of cayenne
1/2 green onion, optional
1/4 cup sunflower seeds or 1/2 avocado, peeled and seeded

In a blender, process the water, juices, kale, apple, herbs, miso, garlic, jalapeño and green onion (if applicable) until smooth. Add seeds or avocado; blend again until smooth and serve.

Growing a food movement

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

Food security seems to be on everyone’s mind this year. It’s fascinating to see so many local initiatives in response to the concern for more local food, so I thought I’d share what it’s looking like in my part of the world on southern Vancouver Island.

The year began with a public forum on food security in the Westshore community, which launched a “Grow Tomato Challenge” by giving away hundreds of free tomato seedlings and mapping where they were grown for a future tomato festival to track people’s progress. Often, all it takes is one juicy, homegrown tomato to get a person hooked on growing food!

Food markets sprung up in all 13 of the municipalities in Vancouver Island’s Capital Regional District. At the end of Bastion Square’s Thursday market in Victoria, David Mincey from the Island’s Chef Collaborative (an initiative linking chefs with farmers) told me there was not enough food being grown to keep up with the demand. He is astounded by the response to local food at the downtown market. What a great incentive to get more farmers on the land.

Recently, I was bedazzled by the colourful sight of food being grown on the boulevard in the municipality of Fernwood. On Garden Street, not only did one front garden and boulevard overflow with edible plants, but also the vacant lot next door housed several allotment gardens. Around the corner on “Haultain Commons,” they were giving away free potatoes and squash from their boulevard garden. What a great way to build community and share resources.

In September, I spoke to an audience at a meeting for the newly established Farmlands Trust (www.farmlandstrust.ca) in the Mount Newton Valley in Saanich. Since February of 2008, people have raised $2.5 million of the $6.25 million needed to purchase 192 acres of Woodwynn Farm and turn it into a community farm that will become a model of sustainable, organic agriculture, providing education and land tenure to new farmers. Preserving farmland for the next generation is the only way to go when you consider that the average age of a farmer in BC is 56.

In the municipality of Oak Bay, the council changed a bylaw to allow the continuation of SPIN farming (Small Plot Intensive) so that Martin Scaia and Paula Scobie could carry on market gardening in 20 gardens. In Esquimalt, the council changed a bylaw to allow chickens in backyards and two women stepped forward to write a manual called Everything You Need to Know About Backyard Chickens.

At the Victoria Public Library, I sat on a discussion panel in an overflowing room, where MP Denise Savoie invited people to talk about Vancouver Island’s food security. Public forums are the only way to inform all levels of government of our concern for the future food supply, especially when 95 percent of the food we consume on this island comes from off the island.

This past March, I started teaching a 10-month course called Twelve Steps to Sustainable Homegrown Food Production and discovered two amazingly simple ways to build food gardens. Check out “Lasagna Gardening” and “Keyhole Gardening” on the internet. Instead of digging into the ground, you build up from the ground, which means you can grow food with very little effort or expense. These gardening methods turn unproductive spaces into food gardens in a few hours, as they can be planted with food immediately following construction.

“Keyhole” gardens are so easy to build that even children are making them. If you stockpile organic waste materials, such as cardboard, newspaper, leaves, hay, grass clippings, manure or compost, you’ll have the necessary ingredients. These gardens provide the healthiest and most productive food because the medium in which it grows is so fertile and rich in micro-organisms. 

I have often asked myself what it takes to launch a Grow Your Own Food movement, but I now think we may have already launched one. How’s it growing in your part of the world?

Carolyn Herriot is author of A Year on the Garden Path: A 52-Week Organic Gardening Guide. She grows her certified organic “Seeds of Victoria” at The Garden Path Centre where she blogs The New Victory Garden online.

True surrender

THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle

If we always accept the way things are, we are not going to make any effort to improve them. It seems to me that what progress is all about, both in our personal lives and collectively, is not to accept the limitations of the present, but to strive to go beyond them and create something better. If we hadn’t done this, we would still be living in caves. How do you reconcile surrender with changing things and getting things done?

To some people, surrender may have negative connotations, implying defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic, and so on. True surrender, however, is something entirely different. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and do nothing about it. Nor does it mean to cease making plans or initiating positive action.

Surrender is the simple, but profound, wisdom of yielding to, rather than opposing, the ow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation. It is to relinquish inner resistance to what is. Inner resistance is to say “no” to what is, through mental judgment and emotional negativity. It becomesparticularly pronounced when things “go wrong,” which means there is a gap between the demands or rigid expectations of your mind and what is. That is the pain gap. If you have lived long enough, you will know that things “go wrong” quite often. It is precisely at those times that surrender needs to be practised if you want to eliminate pain and sorrow from your life.

Acceptance of what is immediately frees you from mind identification and thus reconnects you with Being. Resistance is the mind. Surrender is a purely inner phenomenon. It does not mean that, on the outer level, you cannot take action and change the situation. In fact, it is not the overall situation that you need to accept when you surrender, but just the tiny segment called the Now.

For example, if you were stuck in the mud somewhere, you wouldn’t say, “Okay, I resign myself to being stuck in the mud.” Resignation is not surrender. You don’t need to accept an undesirable or unpleasant life situation. Nor do you need to deceive yourself and say there is nothing wrong with being stuck in the mud. No. You recognize fully that you want to get out of it. You then narrow your attention down to the present moment without mentally labelling it in any way. This means there is no judgment of the Now. Therefore, there is no resistance, no emotional negativity. You accept the “isness” of this moment. Then you take action and do all that you can to get out of the mud.

Let me give you a visual analogy to illustrate the point I am making. You are walking along a path at night, surrounded by a thick fog. But you have a powerful ashlight that cuts through the fog and creates a narrow, clear space in front of you. The fog is your life situation, which includes past and future; the ashlight is your conscious presence; the clear space is the Now.

Non-surrender hardens your psychological form, the shell of the ego, and so creates a strong sense of separateness. The world around you and people, in particular, come to be perceived as threatening. The unconscious compulsion to destroy others through judgment arises, as does the need to compete and dominate. Even nature becomes your enemy and your perceptions and interpretations are governed by fear.

There is something within you that remains unaffected by the transient circumstances that make up your life situation, and only through surrender do you have access to it. It is your life, your very Being, which exists eternally in the timeless realm of the present. Finding this life is “the one thing that is needed” that Jesus talked about.



Adapted from The Power of Now, copyright 1999 by Eckhart Tolle. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA, 800-972-6657 (ext. 52). Visit www.eckharttolle.com.

Release attachment

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

Forever is composed of nows.

– Emily Dickinson

According to Buddhist philosophy, there are two major causes of all human suffering. The first is attachment and the second is the inability to accept change.

Attachment is when our wellbeing is dependent on things being a certain way. We can become attached to people or possessions and be devastated if we lose them. We may be attached to success, popularity or looking a certain way. Addictions are an extreme form of attachment, but there is likely an addictive component to all forms of attachment.

The inability to accept change is related to attachment. We like things the way they are and experience great discomfort if things change. This does not refer to change we have initiated ourselves, but rather to change that is imposed by others, or by fate.

The reason that attachment and the inability to accept change create so much suffering is because, in this world, change is a constant. Nothing stays the same. So if we become attached, sooner or later we will have to let go. In the meantime, a lot of energy can go into maintaining that attachment and we experience anxiety at the thought of losing it.

Of course, this suffering is all the work of ego. Ego is that part of our awareness that gets so caught up in the story of life, taking on the roles of producer, director and lead character. Ego has an idea of how the script should unfold, and so becomes invested in how others, including the universe, play their parts!

Things will not always go according to ego’s plan, but generally ego is not a good sport about it. Think of a football team. The coach has a plan and the players are trained to execute that plan. However, they have little control over what the other team will do, who will fumble or be tackled, or even the field conditions.

A professional, sportsmanlike team will not spend a lot of time blaming others or making excuses for what went wrong. Instead, they look at what they can do to improve their performance and their ability to handle the opposition. They then begin to focus on the next game. They do their best, but there are no guarantees.

Life is much the same. We have our plans, hopes and dreams, but there are no guarantees. Somehow though, it seems harder to view our lives with a degree of detachment. Imagine watching a football game and cheering for your home team. It is so easy to get caught up in the game, feeling elation or disappointment. Now imagine watching a movie in which there is a football game. You know it is not a real game and so you watch with interest to see how it will unfold, but without the same attachment.

This perspective is similar to that of our soul. Soul knows that whatever will be, will be. Soul can already fast-forward to the end of our time here. It does not necessarily know all that will happen, but it knows that much of what aggravates and absorbs ego is ultimately of no consequence.

When we tune into soul and really grasp that perspective, there is a sense of peace and release that floods the body/mind. We can relax, surrender and watch how the story of our life evolves. We know without a doubt that everything is in a constant state of change, as are we.

We become centred in the core of our being, rather than in things outside of ourselves. We know that even if everything will not always be okay, we can still be okay.

We cannot know the future, but we can know this present moment. Be fully present, perceiving what is here. Release moment after moment and embrace each new moment as it comes. We are not destined to suffer just because we are human. We have the remarkable ability to choose. Choose peace. Choose bliss.


Gwen Randall-Young is a psychotherapist in private practice and author ofGrowing Into Soul: The Next Step in Human Evolution. For articles and information about her books and “Deep Powerful Change” personal growth/hypnosis CDs, visit www.gwen.ca

Blue Gold and other VIFF gems


Scene from The Atom Smashers

In recent years, there has been a spate of documentaries on the subject of water – its increasing commodification and the greed, corruption and mismanagement surrounding it.

At the heart of Sam Bozzo’sBlue Gold: World Water Wars(at VIFF October 9 and 10) is a strongly held belief that access to fresh water should be a basic human right. Partly educational, with fine little animations explaining how the water cycle works, it’s also a plea to recognize the scale of the problem. Many salutary examples of water privatization are paraded, from the violent ruptures in Bolivia when government ceded its water rights to Bechtel, to grassroots actions in the US that have had mixed success in combatting corporations tapping their water supplies.

The film depicts how, in the world of supply and demand, drought and water pollution are good for big business but bad for the environment. Consider the carbon footprint of desalination plants and truckloads of water criss-crossing the continent, for example. Lest it all become too depressing, the film knits together some good-news stories, such as the story of Ryan’s Well (www.ryanswell.ca) and stories of how denuded water systems are being recovered.

Blue Gold doesn’t always get the facts right – water privatization didn’t happen throughout the UK; Scotland and Northern Ireland’s water services remained publicly owned due to grassroots opposition – but it identifies disturbing patterns that we should all pay close attention to.

A flurry of recent media coverage over the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland shone a spotlight on the 40-year-old search for the hypothetical “Higgs boson,” a “God particle” that physicists hope to eventually discover by smashing particles together at very great speeds, in complex and expensive particle accelerators. The documentary The Atom Smashers (October 4, 5, 8) picks up with a US team at the Fermilab laboratory; the team has been working in this field of research for many years as the LHC prepares to come online. As the Bush government slashes away at its budget, Fermilab’s physicists are feeling the pressure to win this subatomic space race.

It’s not exactly clear what millions of dollars of publicly funded research has achieved, which is hardly surprising given the opaque nature of high energy physics, but it also leaves scientists struggling to justify the huge expense in lay terms. Directors Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross make effective use of black and white animation to explain the workings of the Tevatron, Fermilab’s four-mile tunnel, where the particle smashing takes place. Broadening the focus to include the private lives, aspirations and setbacks of the physicists in Fermilab’s program adds a touch of human interest, underscoring the big question of why science, in general, has lost its value in Bush’s US. It seems that science is facing a serious image problem, however, the answer to the problem seems as elusive as the Higgs boson, itself.

Other VIFF films that look worthwhile include Let the Right One In (October 5, 6, 8), a genre-bending horror that has been getting great reviews on the festival circuit; Tokyo! (October 8, 9), a trio of films set in the Japanese capital by three very capable directors (Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Joon-ho Bong); I Am Good (October 1, 7, 9), a light comedy from Czech director and VIFF regular Jan Hrebejk, who always impresses with the fullness of his characters; and the closing film The Class, a high school drama set in a poor multicultural Parisian suburb. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year.



Robert Alstead made the Vancouver-set bicycle documentary You Never Bike Alone, available on DVD at www.youneverbikealone.com

It’s time to vote

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

It’s the election season with a vengeance, with the Canadian (October 14), US (November 4) and BC municipal elections (November 15) all happening within a month.

This is great – democracy in action, and all that. This US election is the liveliest and most important in years, with a clear difference between Obama and McCain. Why is it that our Canadian elections, in contrast, often seem so uninspired and flat?

Is it because most Canadians – eh – prefer to occupy the safe, polite middle of the road, rather than stand up for anything with passion and leadership? I don’t think so.

Is it because the NDP and the Conservatives plotted to keep the Green Party’s Elizabeth May out of the Leaders’ Debate and the TV consortium executives wimped out? Yes, that would do it.

Is it because Canada’s old-fashioned first-past-the-post system of voting shuts out minority opinions and smaller parties and produces totally undemocratic results, such as two years ago, when the Conservatives formed the government even though 64 percent of Canadians voted against them? Yes, that would also do it.

And how about lowering the voting age to 16 so that young people can get involved and get into the habit of voting while they are still at school?

As a Euro-Canadian, I also find it completely bizarre that, in Canada, the party that wins the most seats forms the government. In most of Europe, where proportional voting ensures that many smaller parties have seats in Parliament and negotiations between parties are commonplace, it is not the party with the most seats that governs; it is the party that can form a majority government.

Thus, in Canada’s last election, the Conservatives, with the most seats, would have been invited to form a majority government by making alliances with other parties. If they failed, the Liberals would have been invited to have a go. They would have teamed up with the NDP and we would have had a Liberal/NDP coalition government in Ottawa that commanded a majority in Parliament, giving us a far more democratic and workable result. Why does Canada do it the other way? Maybe there’s a constitutional historian among Common Ground’s readers who can enlighten us.

The childish, abusive, sexist, insulting and intimidating words that MPs hurl at each other could be another factor. Elizabeth May said that when she took her 15-year-old daughter to Question Time in Ottawa, she was totally ashamed of the puerile nastiness of the MPs’ comments to one another. This is embarrassing.

Parliament should create a soundproof penalty box, in full view of the cameras. A new set of House rules should outline what is acceptable behaviour. At the first offence, the Speaker would show the MP a yellow card. A second offence would warrant a red card and 10 minutes in the penalty box. For a third offence in the same day, the MP would be banned from the Legislative Chamber for a month.

We need the same in the BC Legislature where equally nasty remarks are thrown around in place of intelligent debate. How much do we pay these people, Liberals and NDP alike, to behave in such a manner?

In spite of the above, you may still be wondering who to vote for. My mind is clear. Global warming is a global emergency on the level of World War II and it requires urgent, dramatic action. Set next to other issues, it overwhelms them like the sea-level rise that will flood coastlines all over the world by up to two metres this century, if we fail to act.

The Liberals, Greens and NDP are all committed to strong, urgent action on climate change. The Conservatives are not, so vote for whichever candidate from these three parties is most likely to win. Don’t throw away your vote on a weak candidate even if they are running for a good party.

And do vote. Don’t tell yourself it’s meaningless. We can certainly improve our democracy, but, for now, it’s the best we’ve got.


Guy Dauncey is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, editor of EcoNews and author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change and other titles. He lives in Victoria. www.earthfuture.com

Election fever

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

With all the elections coming this fall and winter, global warming is bound to spike up with the increased hot air! South of the border, they’re electing a president; here in Canada, we’re heading into a federal election and in Vancouver where I live, we’ll vote for a new civic government in November.

It would be great if the environment didn’t have to be an election issue. If all political parties recognized that it is such a critical issue that it should transcend partisan politics, we could vote for our party of choice based on its fiscal and social policies. The goal should be to convince all political parties to make the environment the top priority, rather than to vote for the party with the best environmental record and policies. But the environment is an election issue and, as our situation stands, it should be the top election issue, especially in our upcoming federal election.

After all, if we keep dragging our heels on environmental protection, our economic and social systems will, at best, face increasing stress from the costs of dealing with environmental health effects and diminishing resources, and, at worst, be moot points.

But it’s tough for voters to cut through all the rhetoric. Will the Liberals’ Green Shift start us on a path toward sustainability or is it just a “tax on everything”? Will the Conservative plan lead to reduced greenhouse gases “while preserving our standard of living and way of life” or will it stall needed action on global warming? What about the NDP’s Green Agenda for Canada? What role does the Green Party play?

I can’t tell you which party to vote for; I’m not even sure which one I’ll vote for. But I can say that it’s vitally important for all Canadians to put the environment at the top of the agenda in this election. That means becoming informed about the issues and the various party positions on those issues and asking the candidates some direct questions.

I can tell you what I believe are some of the most important issues. Global warming is at the top of the list. Years of inaction by various governments mean that urgent measures are needed, but it’s not a choice between environment and economy. On the contrary, other countries have shown that actions, such as shifting from reliance on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy to renewable source, create numerous jobs and economic opportunities, as well as reducing carbon emissions. I also believe that putting a price on carbon emissions, through measures such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, is essential and has been shown to be effective in other countries.

Conservation of wilderness and parklands is also crucial. This is one area where the government has made some positive steps over the past few years. For example, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the amount of land protected recently in the Northwest Territories alone was equal to the area of about 25 Prince Edward Islands. But more needs to be done to ensure that these kinds of efforts continue, regardless of which party forms government.

Nowhere is the need for increased conservation more urgent than along Canada’s extensive coastline and offshore waters. Although we have the longest coastline in the world, a paltry one percent is currently protected within formally designated conservation zones. Increased protection for our rivers, lakes and oceans should be a priority for the next government.

Of course, those are just a few of the crucial issues. We should also be asking the people who intend to lead us about bulk water exports, clean water, pesticides, health and more.

If we want democracy to work, we can’t leave it all up to the politicians. Governments are there to serve us, and so it is up to us to let them know what is important to us and what we believe they must do to ensure that we continue to enjoy the quality of life that so many have worked to build in this country. So get out and vote, but before you do, don’t just listen to the candidates; talk to them as well.


Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

The plastic prison

by Geoff Olson

In a 2007 Saturday Night Live skit, a book-selling huckster appears before a couple sitting at a kitchen table, picking through their credit card bills. “You’re not the only ones,” he tells them. “Did you know millions of Americans live with debt they cannot control? That’s why I’ve developed this unique program for managing your debt. It’s called “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford!”

illustration: James Steidl

The couple struggles with the concept and find it too confusing, even though the book is only a page long. Apparently, this comic confusion is shared by millions in both the US and Canada. In 2007, according to Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, the average Canadian over the age of 18 was $80,000 in debt, mortgages included. In 2004, that figure was below $70,000. Since 1990, debt loads have increased sevenfold over income in Canada.

Credit cards are the single biggest factor in all of this increase in debt. While roughly 50 percent of Canadians pay off their credit cards every month, it’s the other 50 percent, the ones who do not pay on time, who are of interest to the pound-of-flesh crowd. You could say the bulk of their profits depend on people behaving like Steve Martin’s dopey, debt-ridden Saturday Night Live character. In both Canada and the US, the avarice of the credit card industry meshes nicely with consumer ignorance. It’s a predator-prey relationship of almost Jurassic perfection.

The ignorance is understandable, given our failure as a culture to instruct our youth in personal finance. Young Canadians, who have the least familiarity with high interest rates, are also the most vulnerable to lifestyle sales pitches. Increasing numbers of them use credit cards for impulse purchases, along with groceries and other essentials. The attitude is with the credit card companies offering points, why not put everything on plastic?

Campbell describes the situation as a “tipping point.” Students are graduating with thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Unable to pay cash for both essentials and impulse buys, they’ve turned to credit cards, following their elders’ lead. In a telephone interview with Common Ground, Campbell noted that, according to figures from 2006, students are coming out of school with an average of $5,000 to $10,000 in credit card debt, on top of $30,000 in student loan debt.

“Our young people are completely uneducated when it comes to financial issues,” Campbell says. “They’re graduating from college and university with the highest debt loads that graduates have had and they’re entering the workforce at incomes they thought would be much higher. Their ability to move forward in life is completely compromised.”

Young people can’t plan their future, Campbell explains. They can’t think about getting married or starting a family or buying a home or even purchasing a car because of debt load. And once young workers start paying with plastic, all it takes is a few missed monthly payments for their credit card interest rate to rise from 18 to 24 percent, in addition to onerously large, added fees. “The ones who can least afford it seem to me to be the ones who are getting hit with these kind of charges,” Campbell says.

It sounds like a perfect storm for young consumers. They’re at risk of becoming a generation of indentured servants, working to service the God of compound interest, a mysterious being that communicates through invoices and threatening reminders.

And how many readers can say they’ve even read the contract that comes with their credit card? How many readers can even understand it, for that matter? In the 2004 PBS Frontline investigative report, The Secret History of the Credit Card, after struggling with the fine print of one such form, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren gave up. “I’ve read my credit card agreement and I can’t figure out the terms. I teach contract law and the underlying premise of contract law is that the two parties to the contract understand what the terms are,” Warren stated.

Frontline discovered that the terms for some cards include the right of the credit card agency to reset the interest rate at any time. That includes the late payment on any unrelated loans. Stunned credit card holders in the US have discovered a late payment on a car or other purchase can result in a sudden spike in their interest rate.

A grassroots movement in the US is stumping to reign in the credit card agencies’ rates and predatory billing practices. In contrast, Canadians simply take their lumps and expect Ottawa to look out for them. Until recently, the Canadian criminal code had capped interest rates to 60 percent annually, but that was abolished in 2007 by the Tory government. The federal government had no intention of enforcing it, “so it decided there was no point in having it in the Criminal Code,” Campbell told Common Ground. The responsibility was left with the provinces to determine their own caps to interest rates and to apply their own enforcement. Today in Quebec, there is a 35 percent cap; incredibly, Ontario has no cap.

This doesn’t mean credit card rates will necessarily rise. It’s quite likely the big banks have already used their supercomputers to gauge the sweet spot on the spreadsheet where profit and consumers’ ability to pay are maximized.

Investor and financial commentator Ben Stein, a guy who expresses great fondness for credit cards, told Frontline that credit card companies hate people like him, who pay their bills off every month. “And I know that because I ran into a fellow I went to high school with on the street and he told me he worked for a credit card company. And I told him about how much I use credit cards and how I pay them off every month, and he said, “Oh, we hate you. We hate you guys. We call you deadbeats.”

Frontline examined how this bad craziness began back in the late ‘70s in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, “a modest town of 140,000 known for its cattle auctions and meat-packing industry.” Today, the little town boasts a huge post office, far bigger than its communal needs, but it serves the credit card industry’s interests just fine.

South Dakota once had a historic cap on interest rates, known as usury law. To encourage banks to make loans, the state decided to suspend the law completely. New York-based Citibank took notice. At the time, its credit card division was “haemorrhaging money” and New York’s usury laws prohibited banks from charging more than 12 percent on most consumer loans. Yet interest rates had gone up 20 percent. “And if you are lending money at 12 percent and paying 20 percent, you don’t have to be Einstein to realize you’re out of business,” Walter Wriston, then chairman of Citibank, toldFrontline. The bank saw a big opportunity in South Dakota’s elimination of the usury law, particularly with a surprisingly well-timed Supreme Court decision that said a bank could export its interest rate to other states. Other US states eliminated their usury laws and more big banks joined the gold rush.

This is why the return address on your credit card bill is often some Midwestern US locale. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, the rest is usury.

Merriam Webster defines usury as an “unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest – specifically: interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money.” The key word here is legal. If the banks do it, and regulators are AWOL, then it’s not illegal or immoral by definition. It’s just sound business practice, for the lenders at least.

Yet it’s remarkable how Christians, including those on the boards of major banks, forget that scripture condemns usury in no uncertain terms. There are a half-dozen passages in the Bible damning the practice. For centuries, Christendom got the message. The church outlawed money lending for the flock, leaving it to the Jewish community. This presented a win-win situation for pious Christians, who could condemn the moneylenders even while accepting their loans.

The rise of the mercantile class during the Protestant reformation put a stake into the heart of medieval restrictions on usury, widening the scope for more lenders to join in on the fun. But condemnations of the practice continued. Lexicographer Samuel Johnson noted, “The synonym of usury is ruin.” Joseph Addison echoed his words. “A moneylender. He serves you in the present tense; he lends you in the conditional mood, keeps you in the subjunctive and ruins you in the future.”

Indebtedness, whether it is personal credit or national debt, always involves a reckoning somewhere down the line. And there is an intriguing connection of the credit card agencies’ lending practices to recent events on Wall Street. To explain this, we have to take a trip through the looking glass into the US housing market bubble.

The collapse of the financial houses of Bear Stearns was the first major indication that the US financial/speculative complex is built on sand. The US government recently “bailed out” the bottomless hole that is Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, to the tune of $250 billion. With the subsequent bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, and Bank of America’s buy-up of brokerage house Merrill Lynch, the free market “shakeout” is turning into a rout. Mainstream economists are now speaking in words more suited to the Book of Revelation than BusinessWeek.

On his blog, Global EconoMonitor, the highly regarded New York University professor of economics Nouriel Roubini insists “this will turn out to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the worst US recession in decades.”

Unlike Vegas, what goes on in Washington and on Wall Street doesn’t stay there. In a financial version of the “Butterfly Effect,” the stroke of a hedge fund manager’s pen in New York can cause riots in Thailand. So what does this bode for Canada? Although there are still some regulatory differences between Canada and the US, particularly in the housing market, the economies of the two nations are tightly coupled. And the secret is wide open in financial circles that the entire US credit card complex, holding some $12 trillion in debt, is in danger of going down with the ship.

The credit card industry is intertwined with the subprime mortgage market. For more than half a decade, subprime loans were made to US citizens with shaky credit and marginal ability to pay. As long as the real estate market kept rising upwards, everything was fine. But the loans were ticking time bombs if the housing market went south, which it did.

Once again, avarice meshed with ignorance. The subprime vultures coached naive homeowners into believing they could have something for nothing – they could refinance by taking out home loans based on their equity and pay off their credit cards at the lower interest rate. What this did was effectively hide trillions of dollars in US credit card debt in the ruinous subprime mortgages. By refinancing bad debt as “good debt,” it hid how precarious the situation had become for millions of homeowners. From 2000 to 2007, the loans were bundled into securities and sold across the world to unsuspecting buyers, effectively making the subprime problem the world’s problem.

When you combine a $12 trillion credit card debt with the billions in subprime mortgages set to reset at higher rates over the next few years, and the trillions in funny money floating around in derivatives and other cryptic financial instruments, you don’t have a bubble. You have a black hole.

In retrospect, it’s been one hell of a ride around the black holes’ event horizon. On both sides of the border, predatory lenders whipped up the mania for household wealth formation, encouraging homeowners to think of their homes as ATM machines, or better yet, time machines set for an upscale future. Whether it was a sup prime mortgage or a more transparent loan, every other homeowner wanted in, in a bull market that appeared to have the blessing of the Federal Reserve, if not the Almighty Himself.

In an investment stampede that rivalled the Dutch tulip mania, homeowners never twigged to the original meaning of the word “mortgage.” It’s from the French for “death pledge” – a financial arrangement until you die.

But in the speculative Never-Never-Land of the last five years, who had time for scepticism? Pop culture got into the act with a whole new genre of reality television, focused on home renovation. Although these cheery, gyprock-smashing entertainments seemed to be about reaping the rewards of hard work, they always had a whiff of petty bourgeois desperation to them. The home flippers were always working fast, praying they hadn’t mistimed the sacred housing market.

Interestingly enough, not long after the debut of the home reno shows, a new kind of reality television appeared themed around high personal debt. Shows like Till Debt Do Us Part feature financial nannies who counsel couples buried in bills. The ignorance of these folks, many of them weighed under by mortgages and paying for essentials with multiple credit cards, is astonishing, but not untypical. They seem to have virtually no understanding of how compound interest works. They are part of the 50 percent the banks love – the sheep that can be calmly fleeced with usurious rates and exorbitant late payment fees.

Financial advisor Robert Manning, author of Credit Card Nation, put it succinctly in an interview with CBC Radio’s The Current: “The best client used to be someone who could pay off their debts. Today, the best client is someone who can never pay off their debts.”

For the lenders, debt is the gift that keeps on giving. In fact, the same practice that is applied to credit card borrowers has been applied, on a larger scale and with even greater opacity, to loans made by the IMF and World Bank to Third World nations.

Beginning back in the ‘70s, Arab sheiks found themselves flush with credit from OPEC’s oil deals. They had literally more money than they knew what to do with and they invested billions of it in US banks. The bankers now had a problem. To whom could they lend this windfall, and make money themselves? They looked around and saw an opportunity for huge mega projects in the Third World: dams, pipelines and all the big-money infrastructure associated with capitalism’s good life.

The fact that some of the lendees were corrupt dictators, who pocketed significant chunks of money for themselves and their cronies, was outside the banks’ interests. All they wanted was the money back at some point, with interest. So began the great Third World debt crisis, across Latin America, Africa and Asia, with successive governments unable to even service the interest on their interest. This necessitated further rounds of loan arrangements, and often the gutting of social services, along with the privatization of state industries. As Joseph Stiglitz revealed after his tenure as World Bank vice president and chief economist, this miserly misery-creation was simply business as usual for the global loan sharks.

In any case, once you know that the odds are stacked in favour of the house, your attitude to plastic changes. Credit cards aren’t just useful in today’s highly connected world; it’s almost impossible to get by without them. If you make your payments on time, and don’t spend beyond your means, they offer no great risk. But if you fall behind, which is damnably easy to do, you are no longer a “deadbeat” to the credit card industry. You are Argentina, Bolivia or Thailand.

In the end, Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts on debt still apply today: “That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.”


Do the candidates have us covered?

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

Wanna talk pharmaceutical politics? Then ask yourself these two questions: If a new drug is marketed in Canada, does that mean the government should pay for it? And further, if your doctor prescribes a drug that is deemed essential, should you have to pay for it yourself?

If you’re like me, the answer to the first question is “Of course not.” There are lots of drugs on the market, many of which either do very little to improve the quality of your life or may even be harmful. We shouldn’t expect the public purse to pay for these frivolous drugs, especially when there are already so many other urgent demands for our precious health care bucks. The answer to the second question is the same: “Of course not.” In Canada, we don’t pay out of our pockets for essential health services like doctor or hospital visits so why would we expect to have to pay for an essential drug?

By the time you read this, we’ll be in the final sprint for the election finish line. Even though there have been enough mini-scandals, resignations and apologies to keep a hungry media at bay over the last month, and we have heard a lot about what governments would do about crime, infrastructure and childcare, we’ve heard barely a word about health care. Certainly, almost nothing about the biggest elephant in the room – Canada’s pharmaceuticals budget.

Yet this crazy election season is the most appropriate time to be asking, "How well do Canadian governments, both provincial and federal, provide drug coverage to our populations?” Sadly, we are a pathetic country on that front. A recently released report said that among developed countries, Canada is almost last in terms of its level of public coverage of pharmaceuticals.

It seems that for every dollar that goes towards pharmaceuticals in Canada, about 45 cents come from the government; about 35 cents come from your private insurance plan that you would have as part of your employment if you are lucky (even though you are ultimately paying for it because that money comes off your pay cheque one way or another); and the final 20 cents come out of your pocket. The report stated that we scored a dismal seventeenth out of 18 countries, in terms of public drug spending. In contrast, the UK spend on drugs is more than 80 percent from the public purse.

This is a real shame and obviously an election issue that should have huge prominence, given the fact that, in 2007, spending on drugs in Canada reached $27 billion, a figure that represents almost 17 percent of total health care spending. According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Information, after hospitals, drugs account for the largest share of major health expenditures.

It is criminal if Canadians are doing without life-saving drugs because they can’t afford them (though I’m not convinced this is much of an issue). Suffice to say this study provides some evidence that Canadian politicians lack the political will to enact strong, national legislation to pay for our drug costs.

This is certainly not the vision Tommy Douglas had when he established public health care in Canada. Even the Romanow Commission, which is one of the most extensive examinations of Canada’s health care system ever undertaken, recommended a national, catastrophic pharmacare program.

Have we seen anything in the last five years? Nada.

The second important statistic to emerge from this study, which also slams Canada as miserly and misdirected on drugs, is a dismal score of sixteenth out of 18 countries, in terms of access to new drug treatments. While that may strike most people as pathetic, I’m a lot more understanding about this one. When you consider the dismal batch of drugs coming onto the market that are deemed “new” and which arrive on the scene with massively inflated prices compared to existing treatments, you’re not really missing much.

Let me explain: the study looked at a comparison of 36 new drugs evaluated for public drug plan reimbursement by all developed countries. Canada’s Common Drug Review (CDR) the federal body which decides, based on an assessment of the drug’s safety, effectiveness and cost (and makes recommendations whether a new drug deserves public coverage), recommended only 61 percent of drugs for public drug plan reimbursement. Apparently, this is a lot less than the averages of the European Union (EU: 91 percent) and the US at 88 percent.

Most people are thankful that the government does its part to pay for pharmaceuticals. And yet, whether you get access to “new” drug treatments, Canada is apparently not a good place to live. The study was produced by a Toronto health consulting firm and paid for by Rx&D, the association of Canada’s brand name drug companies, with the claim that it is the first comprehensive study of its kind evaluating Canada’s access to new drug therapies.

LetÅñs talk about the access issue because the drug companies and their surrogate patient groups are always screaming blue murder about the lack of access to new drugs in Canada. We’ve got a situation in which about half the ?new” drugs recently approved for sale in Canada – drugs for HIV, cancer, heart disease – aren’t recommended for coverage. The Common Drug Review, a serious contender in establishing proof of evidence when it comes to making decisions about coverage, apparently issued 78 recommendations between 2003 to the end of 2007, giving a positive recommendation only 46 percent of the time.

Even though this study apparently demonstrates that Canada is not keeping pace with other countries, in terms of new drug coverage, it is the lack of public funding overall that I think is the most serious issue.

Where do the various political parties weigh-in on this issue?

We know, for example, that the NDP supports a National Pharmaceutical Program. On his website, Jack Layton says that he “…hears about the prescription problem in every single province he visits.” He knows the numbers too; he’s aware that between 1992 and 2002, household spending on prescription drugs jumped by more than 70 percent, while over the same period, spending on food, clothing and shelter increased by only 11 percent.

Layton decries the fact that almost 20 percent of Canadians do not have adequate drug coverage and God forbid, if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot afford the medication they need, they would be ?…forced to choose between medications or mortgage payments.

What Mr. Layton doesn’t say is that many of those drugs that Canadians are paying for may not actually be worth the money demanded at the pharmacy counter, when you know what kind of health outcome they will deliver. However, he’s not adverse to a bit of fear mongering when it comes to putting demands on the government. He says access to medication should be based on need. ?Canadians want to know that if they get sick and can’t afford the drugs they need to survive, the federal government will step in to help.” I have to give some credit to the NDP when they say that if they were paying for drugs, they’d at least look at “essential” medicines and ensure that those Canadians who carry a heavy burden of paying for drugs would get some help.

Where do the Liberals stand?

It’s hard to say, but, like a lot of issues, the Liberals are stealing the best parts from the NDP. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion promised a ?national program to fund high-cost drug treatments for people who suffer from serious and chronic illnesses – a program aimed at extending coverage to provinces in Atlantic Canada that don’t have provincial drug plans.” Dion said the Libs would spend $900 million over four years and ?ensure people in all provinces can afford expensive drugs like kidney cancer treatments that can run as much as $7,000 per month.”

How about the Conservatives? Let’s start by saying that many drug lobbyists are deeply connected with the governing Conservatives. In an article in theNational Post on May 6 of this year, it was revealed that two high profile Conservatives were mired in the muck around the drug companies’ efforts to restrict the availability of generic drugs. Then there was the stinky business about a former communications director for Stephen Harper, who became a lobbyist for the company that owned the vaccine for cervical cancer for which the Conservatives allocated $300 million.

There’s no doubt that the brand name drug industry is one of the most powerful in Canada, and if anyone is keeping drugs out of the hands of Canadians (due to their high prices), it is those folks.

Let me add one final bit. There is a Conservative I’d vote for if he was running in my riding. Terence Young, who is running for the Conservatives in Oakville, is one of Canada’s staunchest supporters of weapons-grade drug safety legislation. He’s spoken publicly in favour of strong legislation supporting the recommendations of the Romanow Commission, especially the one about establishing a new Drug Agency for Canada to ensure Canadians are safer when using prescription drugs.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria. He was recently interviewed on CBC Radio’s White Coat, Black Art on the subject of public funding of pharmaceuticals in Canada. You can catch this program at www.cbc.ca/whitecoat.