The whistleblower who got it wrong

Alana James was convinced that she found serious wrongdoings. James, a relatively new B.C. health-ministry employee in 2012, was sure that contract researchers hired by the ministry had broken the law and misused confidential medical information for personal gain.

former auditor general John Doyle. image: Vancouver Sun

James had been hired to draft and review information-sharing agreements between the ministry and the researchers. But everywhere she looked she found misconduct.

For decades, BC’s health ministry had enjoyed a collaborative relationship with academic researchers on drug safety. For example, one of these researchers Roderick MacIsaac, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, had been reviewing the effectiveness of British Columbia’s new smoking-cessation program. James was convinced that he and others had misused anonymous health records in his research.

Anonymous records such as those found in PharmaNet, stripped of personal details such as names and addresses, had been regularly shared with researchers to evaluate government programs. Investigative reporter Kerry Gold says:

“A record of every prescription dispensed or purchased in the province, PharmaNet is a researcher’s gold mine (Walrus magazine, September, 2019).”

Alana James was so convinced of wrongdoings that she told her boss, Robert Hart. Hart considered James’ allegations misguided. It was his opinion that she didn’t fully understand the complex relationships of those she was accusing, much less the nature of their work. Crucially, she had no evidence of wrongdoing.

James felt dismissed by her boss; she was told “to shut up and go away” in her words. So went over the head her boss to then auditor general John Doyle.

Doyle took James seriously -not because there was any evidence of wrongdoing but because in the previous year a high-ranking health official had pleaded guilty to charges of receiving personal benefits related to a health-records contract he’d awarded to a doctor. The ministry was still smarting from the scandal.

Sensing the possibility of more misconduct, Doyle’s office asked the ministry of health to look into James’s claims. Suspicions from the auditor general gave credibility to James allegations.

Margaret MacDiarmid, the new minister of health, only a day into her job, held a press conference on September 6, 2012, and said that RCMP investigation was underway. This was a big surprise to the RCMP because there was no investigation underway. However, MacDiarmid’s announcement added more weight to James’ claims.

Caught up in the zealous fervour that gripped government, investigators accused Robert Hart, Alana James’ boss, of wrongfully receiving money. Hart didn’t know what they were talking about but he was suspended immediately and escorted from the building. Eventually, he and six others were fired including the student Roderick MacIsaac.

Humiliated, MacIsaac withdrew from his PhD program at University of Victoria. In January, 2013, the introverted forty-six-year-old who had put off his studies to take care of his aging mother through her final stages of terminal cancer took his life.

To get to the bottom of the matter, the government commissioned a investigation by the ombudsperson. The report, called Misfire, began in 2015, took nineteen months to complete and cost $2.41 million. It found no wrongdoing by anyone but by this time lives and reputations had been ruined in the wake of James’ wild claims.

“The episode remains one of the most sensational cases of wrongful dismissal in Canadian history, and it was driven by a set of assumptions that were unfounded and at no point tested—until it was too late,” says Gold.

Footnote: John Doyle completed his term as auditor general in 2013 and went back home to Australia. He hired Alana James, a trained nurse, to care for his chronically ill wife. After the death of his wife, Doyle and James married in Australia where she began graduate work and research at the University of Melbourne.

Who is responsible for the CO2 produced by streaming?

Two decades of Eye View

This column marks twenty years of writing Eye View. Thanks to former editors of the Kamloops Daily News Susan Duncan and Mel Rothenburger for encouraging me to write, to CFJC Today for their support, and to James Peters for helping me to refine my writing and carefully read what I’ve written (I’m a lousy editor).

I’m seldom at a loss for subjects. What motivates me is my curiosity of the world and my desire to share what I found in a clear and concise manner. My ultimate goal is to write the perfect column. Maybe I’ll live long enough.

 

Who is responsible for the CO2 produced by streaming?

We are regularly reminded to reduce energy our consumption by replacing lightbulbs but when was the last time we were reminded to stream less?

Server Farm.  Image: Los Angles Times

The videos we watch consume 80 per cent of energy used by energy farms located around the world. Netflix alone pumps out over one billion hours of video a week. Now Disney and Apple have started streaming services. Streaming is just part of the picture says Jane Kearns, vice-president at MaRS Discovery District:

“Add those to our video chats, music playlists, online games, virtual assistants, smart thermostats and global positioning systems. Throw in road sensors, surveillance cameras and cryptocurrencies; and, soon, 5G connectivity, remote surgeries and autonomous transportation (Globe and Mail, Dec. 9, 2109)”

Even a simple search on Google adds up. A typical search requires as much energy as illuminating a 60-watt light bulb for 17 seconds.

While lightbulb replacement is promoted as an energy saver, no one reminds us to stream less. Perhaps it’s because server farms are so invisible: videos seems to descend from the clouds.

Yet, there are over eight million server farms around the world running full-tilt, all hours of the day. The fact that these processing machines are working 24/7 at maximum output barely registers on us. These invisible machines use 200 terawatt hours a year, about one-half of Canada’s annual electricity consumption. They emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry. And with global data traffic more than doubling every four years, they are growing fast.

It’s part of a bigger problem: when servers are located in a specific country but internet use is international, which country is responsible for the greenhouse gases they produce?

Northern countries are ideal for locating servers because the biggest cost is in cooling the computers. Companies like to build them where the weather is temperate – countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Finland, and Canada. Or where there’s lots of water for cooling. It doesn’t seem fair that those countries must add the CO2 produced by these servers to their total commitment.

British Columbia faces a similar situation with natural gas which it plans to export to Asia. Since natural gas will, theoretically, replace coal-fired generators, should B.C. be credited with the net reduction in CO2 or China?

It’s the same problem for China, where goods are made for sale globally by manufacturers burning fossil fuels in China.

The problem of energy consumed locally for global use needs to be addressed but when nations won’t own up to CO2 produced for local consumption, streaming will remain someone else’s problem.

 

Albertans to receive the highest carbon gift

The carbon gift is not a lump of coal. Albertans will receive the highest carbon tax rebate of any of the four provinces who have opted out of the federal plan. A family of four will receive an average tax credit of $888, compared to families in the other holdout provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan who can claim a credit of $448, $486 and $809, respectively.

imge: Pinterest

Let’s call it a gift, not a rebate because most Albertans will receive more back than they pay in the so-called carbon tax. According to calculations by economists Jennifer Winter and Trevor Tombe at the University of Calgary, 80 per cent of Alberta households will get more back from the credit than they will pay in increased costs (Globe and Mail, Dec. 19, 2019).

And can we really call it a carbon tax when it isn’t really isn’t? Taxes are collected by governments to pay for health care, roads, education and so on. The goal of the carbon transfer is to reduce fossil fuel consumption, not to collect taxes. Let’s call it a carbon transfer. Money is just collected and redistributed.

The names given to the carbon transfer and carbon gift are politically motivated.  Conservatives prefer to call it a tax because it suits their political agenda of characterizing the fed’s actions to reduce fossil fuel consumption as a tax grab. The feds like calling the carbon gift “climate action incentive payments” because they like to pretend that we will meet carbon reduction targets.

And the federal Liberals are not rewarding Albertans for shutting them out of the province in the last election. The carbon gift is higher there because it covers a longer period of time than the other provinces and because Albertans spend more on fossil fuels.

You might wonder who’s paying for the carbon gift if it’s revenue neutral. Who is paying more than they receive?  It turns out that businesses are.

For struggling businesses, the carbon transfer seems unfair. But the holdout provinces are responsible for that: if they had devised their own carbon transfer system, the one proposed by the feds wouldn’t be in place. All provinces are free to create their own systems. Presumably, they could devise a system where taxpayers end up giving a carbon gift to small businesses. By refusing to create their own plan, they are accepting the fed’s by default.

B.C.’s carbon transfer is a model for the rest of Canada to follow. Businesses are not hurt –in fact they receive a reduction in taxes, as do personal taxpayers. Introduced in 2008, it has reduced per-capita emissions by 12 per cent and contrary to what conservatives claim, it hasn’t hurt the economy.

B.C.’ carbon transfer is also a model for conservatives because it was introduced by the BC Liberals, a conservative government. If the BC Liberals could introduce a carbon transfer and get re-elected, any conservative government could.

Pricing carbon is an easy sell to voters because most Canadians agree on pricing pollution, led by BC (84%) and trailing in Alberta where it’s still a majority (69%). And if there is no net cost to taxpayers, what’s not to like?

The supervolcano next door

The horrific deaths of 16 tourists on White Island, New Zealand, are a reminder of the lethal force of volcanoes.

White Island

Lillani Hopkins, a 22-year-old student, witnessed the eruption. She was on a boat leaving the island when it blew. Clouds of scalding hot water and ash descended on those tourists still on the island. Twenty three of the tourists from the island were taken to Lillani’s boat where passengers frantically attempted to treat them. They were in bad shape.

Lillani had never seen anything like it. Welts and burns that covered every inch of exposed skin. People’s faces coated in grey paste, their eyes covered so they couldn’t see, their tongues thickened so they couldn’t talk. Some of them still screaming. The boat appeared to be filled with discarded grey rubber gloves. But they weren’t gloves, they were husks of skin that had peeled away from people’s bodies (Globe and Mail, December 11, 2019).

Most of those who survived the eruption at White Island on December 9 suffered burns and 28 patients remain hospitalized, including 23 in critical condition. Hospitals are calling on international skin banks for the large quantity of grafts required.

Lillani’s chilling eyewitness account reminds me of the victims I saw in Pompeii, Italy. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, plumes of scalding mud covered citizens. I remember one statue-like victim in particular, sitting on the ground, hands covering face, entombed for eternity in a thick crust of ash.

You don’t have to be standing on the rim of an active volcano to feel its affects. I still remember waking up on May 19, 1980, in Calgary the day after Mount St. Helens, Washington, erupted killing 57 people. Even though the volcano was 800 km away, there was a deposit of ash on my car.

The most powerful eruption in recorded history was at Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia. Most of the deaths that resulted were not from burns but from climate change –the 92,000 fatalities were largely from starvation. The ash from the eruption was dispersed around the world and lowered global temperatures in an event sometimes known as the “Year Without a Summer” in 1816. The resulting volcanic winter triggered extreme weather and harvest failures around the world.

However, the force of Mount Tambora pales in comparison to the supervolcano that hit what is now Yellowstone National Park before recorded history, 631,000 years ago. That was long before modern humans roamed the Earth. The Yellowstone blast would have been at least ten times that of Mount Tambora, leaving molten ash and rock so thick that it filled entire valleys and left debris over much of the North American continent. The resulting volcanic winter would have killed many animals including some of our prehistoric ancestors (Scientific American, Dec, 2018).

Yellowstone is a simmering supervolcano, characterized by a relatively cool pool of magma sitting on top of a hot plume. The magma is the consistency of crystalline mush that’s “only” 800 C degrees compared with the 1,200 C of the hot plume. The magma is not on boil at this time; however, the relative cool of the magma cap is deceiving. It only takes a few decades of cooking by the mantle below to cause the magma to blow explosively.

When that happens, a few ashes on our cars will be the least of our worries.

Cannabis at your holiday work party? Here are some tips

Now that cannabis is in its second year of legalization, some employers may consider serving cannabis at the holiday party.

image: Greenito

First, gauge the corporate culture of your company.

Some stigmatization of cannabis use lingers as it did after alcohol prohibition was lifted in the 1920s. For decades, alcohol had been characterized as the ruination of families. Cannabis still has a negative image as a gateway drug leading to abuse of more deadly substances; or pathetically comic as in Cheech and Chong’s “stoner” portrayals.

Some companies may be comfortable with the sophisticated use of a fine scotch or wine at office parties but not so much with cannabis.

“Read the culture of your workplace when determining the best approach to accommodating cannabis at your company party,” says Trang Trinh, CEO of TREC Brands, “For companies with a more conservative or traditional culture, one consideration may be to make an effort to not alienate employees who may wish to legally partake in cannabis on an equal footing with those enjoying a glass of wine (Globe and Mail, Nov. 29, 2019).”

TREC Brands describes itself as “a socially conscious cannabis company based in Toronto.”

Accommodating cannabis users can make a corporate statement of inclusiveness, organizational maturity, and progressive branding.

If cannabis is to be served, policies regarding use need to be made clear before the event. A successful party will be one in which alcohol and cannabis use is moderated by a bartender or “budtender.”

Gone are the wild office parties of the 1960s where the punch was spiked and the goal of partakers was to get inebriated as quick as possible and progress to a wild, drunken affair. Gone, too, are the smoke-filled zombie pot-parties where everyone gets stoned to the point of oblivion.

If smoking of cannabis is planed, a smoking area has to be arranged. The budtender can set up rolling stations to aid regular users and newbies alike.

A host who is familiar with the effects of cannabis use should be stationed at tables where rolled cannabis and edibles are served. The uncontrolled use of cannabis at the office party can lead to guests being very stoned -the equivalent of alcohol intoxication.

The presentation of cannabis is part of the festive occasion. Just as alcohol is presenting in attractive glasses and served with an attractive flair, so cannabis products should be pleasingly displayed and offered.

“Just as a bartender is expected to know how to make a martini using the right implements, ingredients and maybe even a creative flourish or two, cannabis use has its own series of rituals and tools,” says Trinh.

“Start low, go slow,” should be the mantra. Some partygoers may want to try cannabis for the first time. Just like alcohol, cannabis affects people differently. Beginners, who have never experienced being high on cannabis, may be tempted to overdo it. The effects of moderate cannabis use are subtle and newbies will want to take it slow and to be coached as to what to expect.

Lastly, the party should be by invitation only with everyone being over the age of 19.

Kenney should be careful what he wishes for

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants Canada’s equalization formula adjusted to be fairer to Albertans.

image: Macleans

When it comes to equalization payments to provinces, Albertans think that there must be a mistake. They see themselves as contributors to Quebec at a time when Quebec’s economy is on a roll and Alberta is in the dumps.

Kenney is being disingenuous when he claims that the current formula is unfair. His government was the author of the current formula in 2009 when he was a cabinet minister under the Harper Conservatives.

Kenney surely knows that one of the reasons Alberta pays more into equalization is that the province has more high-income earners. While only eleven per cent of Canadians live in Alberta, 21 per cent of Canada’s $100,000-plus earners live there.

Of course, high-income earners mean little if you are unemployed.  In October, 2019, Alberta’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.7 per cent compared to Quebec at 4.7 per cent.

Income is just one factor in determining equalization says business reporter Konrad Yakabuski:

“The basis for determining whether any province qualifies for equalization payments is whether its fiscal capacity – the amount of revenue it could raise if it applied average tax rates, combined with its natural resource royalties – is below the national average. Despite a recession in Alberta following the 2014 crash in oil prices, and a slow recovery since, that province’s fiscal capacity remains far above the national average (Globe and Mail, Nov. 27, 2019).”

Kenny would like to see Alberta’s natural resources removed from this calculation, presumably so that Quebec would receive less. That plan would backfire because Quebec, too, has vast hydroelectric resources. Quebec would actually receive more according to calculations prepared by University of Calgary economics professor Trevor Tombe.  Kenney’s plan would have seen Quebec receive $10.1 billion more in equalization payments over the past decade.

Kenney argues that unlike Quebec, Alberta’s resources are non-renewable and should be an exempt. Yet it was Kenney’s government that decided it would be unfair to distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources.

Quebec is a convenient straw man for Kenney, deflecting attention from the fact that Alberta’s riches were used in averting a provincial sales tax and not saved for a rainy day. Oil production was unwisely increased without the infrastructure to deliver it to market –a remedy my pipeline, the “people’s pipeline,” is about to resolve with construction under way.

Quebec’s budget surplus has to do with taxes –Quebec’s tax rates are 30 per cent higher than the Canadian average, whereas Alberta’s are 30 per cent lower. Kenny doesn’t have the courage to address Alberta’s real tax problem: no provincial sales tax.

Alberta’s wealth is, in part, the result of my tax dollars being pumped into the oil and gas industry. The feds recently announced a federal aid package for Canada’s oil and gas industry amounting to $1.6-billion.

As an author of the current formula, Kenney knows that the equalization is fair and yet he prefers to whip Albertans into a frenzy of retaliation and separation.

Five nations, one Arctic

Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway lay claim to parts of the Arctic. It’s not a trivial matter -30 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, 13 per cent of oil reserves, as well as iron and rare earth minerals lay beneath the rapidly melting icecap.

image: Athropolis

Science can inform the decision as to who owns what, and diplomacy could play a role as long as the hotheads stay out of the way.

Cooperation has been a hallmark of Arctic operations in the past in areas of search and rescue and military coordination. But that was when the Arctic was covered with an impenetrable sheet of ice, out of sight, out of mind.

Who owned the seabed of the under Earth’s oceans used to be easy. In the 1600s, nations extended their territory the distance that a cannon ball could be shot (three miles).

As the resources of the seas began to be exploited some nations ignored the three-mile limit. To resolve the matter, 160 countries agreed to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. Sovereign rights could then be extended to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline; and even beyond that if nations could present detailed geologic evidence of the extensions of their continental shelves.

Continental shelves are the areas that stretch out under relatively shallow waters before dropping into the deep sea. However, the rights to the continental shelves apply only to the seabed, not the waters above. Fishing and navigation in those waters remain open.

So far, the determination of sovereign rights to the seabed is fairly straightforward. The tricky part is determining exactly where the continental shelf ends and the deep sea floor begins. Canadian geophysicist David Moser, formerly from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia and now professor at the University of New Hampshire, says: “that’s where all the science is (Scientific American, August, 2019).”

An international body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), has been set up to review claims. The CLCS has received claims from Canada, Russia and Denmark that overlap. The U.S. isn’t expected to make a claim until 2022 but it will likely overlap with Canada’s claim in different area. It’s going to take years to sort it out. And the U.S. claim is weakened by the fact that they never signed UNCLOS although they are cooperating with the agency so far, but who knows how much longer with the current U.S. administration?

As if things weren’t complicated enough, another factor is muddying the waters. UNCLOS allows for nations to extend sovereignty beyond continental shelves to ridges. UNCLOS doesn’t define exactly what a ridge is other than a wide band extending from continental shelf.

One of those ridges, the Lomonosov Ridge, is massive. It divides the Arctic Ocean in half, stretching all the way from Russia to Canada’s Ellesmere Island and next to Greenland. All three countries have made claims on the Lomonosov Ridge.

It’s going to take years to sort through the science. Where the science is unclear, a diplomatic resolution is required. Meanwhile political leaders must be patient.

Another complication is the belligerence of the current U.S. administration. In June, the U.S. Department of Defense warns of an “era of strategic completion,” and “a potential avenue for . . . aggression” in the Arctic.

The rapidly-warming warming of the Arctic is enough of a problem without the addition of hot rhetoric.