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.

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.

My Segway is not a mongrel

Terrance Wojtkiw was ticketed as he rode his “e-bike” on a road in Saanich, B.C. It would have been a legal e-bike if it was limited to a speed of 32 km/hr and could be peddled but he was going 48 km/hr and the pedals had been altered so as to be unusable.

image: David Charbonneau

Wojtkiw was ticketed because, since it wasn’t an e-bike, police reasoned that it must be an unregistered motorcycle. The court ruled that it’s neither. The judge ruled that Terrance Wojtkiw’s “thing” was not an e-bike, not a motorcycle. The judge called it “a mixed breed or mongrel” and the case was dismissed.

It turns out that ICBC doesn’t even recognize such a thing. Wojtkiw couldn’t have registered and licensed it if he wanted to.

Lacking words to describe these “things,” I’ll call them Electrically-Assisted Transportation Devices (EATDs). Many such devices have no legislation to define them and/or regulate their use. They cover a rainbow of EATDs: e-scooters, electric unicycles, hoverboards, electric bikes, electric wheelchairs, scooters as mobility aids, and Segways.

In Canada, the feds hand over the registration of motor vehicles to the provinces. I first rode an X2 Segway in Hawaii. Upon my return, I bought one in Kamloops.  U.S. federal legislation ambiguously defines Segways as a personal transportation device which may, or may not, be like an electric wheelchair. The U.S. Federal Transit Administration says:

“The Segway is a two-wheeled, gyroscopically stabilized, battery-powered personal transportation device.  The Segway is not designed primarily for use by individuals with disabilities, nor is it used primarily by such individuals.  However, some individuals with disabilities may use a Segway as a personal mobility aid, in lieu of more traditional devices like a wheelchair or scooter.”

In other words, if a person has mobility issues the Segway is a “personal mobility aid.” If not, it is “personal transportation device.” What my Segway is classified as is in the eye of the beholder but as for me, I don’t have mobility issues.

Ah hah, you might say: “if it barks like a mongrel then it must be a mongrel.” But I don’t think my Segway is a mongrel. The pedigree of Wojtkiw’s electric Tag500 is even more uncertain –neither fish nor fowl.

The B.C. government hopes to bring some clarity to EATDs. In their news release they say:

“People who choose new types of transport, like e-scooters, electric unicycles or Segways, to get around will benefit from proposed amendments to the Motor Vehicle Act, introduced on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. These changes clarify how emerging devices are to be used and will ensure the safety of everyone who uses roads and sidewalks (Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure Oct. 7, 2019).”

If I want to go anywhere in Westsyde on my Segway, I have to travel on the sidewalk. To ride on Westsyde road would be hazardous to my health. Fortunately, the sidewalk is a shared pathway although whoever designated it as such probably never imagined the menagerie of EATDs that might travel it.

Even with provincial legislation, the regulation of EATDs will depend on the existence of shared pathways, bikeways, the volume of road traffic, and the number of pedestrians on sidewalks. Look for the mess to fall on the lap of Kamloops City Council anytime soon.

Not your father’s minority government

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government is not like his father’s. When Pierre Trudeau won minority government in 1972, he didn’t have the support of opposition parties. The government only lasted 1 year, 221 days. His minority government introduced the unpopular Petro-Canada Crown Corporation that reminded Albertans of the despised National Energy Program. Petro-Canada’s reddish-coloured headquarters in Calgary were tagged “red square.”

P.M. Lester Pearson. Image by Nobel Foundation, Associated Press

Given the bluster from the United Conservative Party of Alberta, you wouldn’t think that the Liberals have any support from the Conservatives until you consider that they both want the Trans Mountain pipeline built.

Consider the following, suggests my Calgary friend:

“I think the conservatives and liberals are not that far apart on the pipeline issue. If the liberals make good on our 4.5 Billion dollar investment in the TMP they will get no support from the NDP or the BLOC but the conservatives would be foolish not to support it.”

Wouldn’t that be something to behold? If the NDP or the Bloc Québécois opposed a pro-pipeline bill, how could the Conservatives not support it without appearing hypocritical? And the NDP and Bloc could then wash their hands of the project that offends environmentalists.

Justin Trudeau has consistently said that he is going to build the Trans Mountain pipeline. He repeated that goal after the October 21, 2109, election.

While reactions to the federal election have focused on a divided country, I see Justin Trudeau’s Liberals offering something for everyone.

The Liberals and the Bloc Québécois can work together on social policy and the environment. The Bloc Québécois has made it clear that they intend to support this Liberal minority government. BQ Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that the Liberals should do “what it takes” to make Parliament work. He added there’s a law stating that government mandates are supposed to last four years. I’m not sure that’s true for minority governments but Blanchet’s support is clear.

Who knows, if successful, Trudeau’s minority government could be re-elected as was a minority government in 1965, one before Pierre Trudeau’s.

The NDP and the Liberals have the common goal of implementing Pharmacare. Both parties campaigned on bringing the much-needed plan into reality.

Canada is an anomaly among nations. We are the only industrialized country with a universal public health care system but no Pharmacare. Every study of Canada’s health care has identified the lack of Pharmacare as a major gap in our system. Medicare without drug coverage doesn’t even make sense. What good is a health care system that prescribes drugs but doesn’t cover them?

Justin Trudeau’s minority government should look to the accomplishments of minority governments before his father’s. Lester Pearson’s Liberals implemented universal health care with the cooperation of the NDP. And his minority government was so successful that it was re-elected as a minority government with back-to-back Liberal minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.

How fitting is it that this minority government complete the Medicare program started by minority governments, a goal not attempted by his father.

Health Canada cracks down on cell injection clinics

The glossy ad in arrived in my mailbox within days of reading that Health Canada was clamping down on private clinics offering cell injection treatments.  The ad was for a seminar on Regenerative Medicine at five interior B.C. locations. The one in Kamloops was on Monday, July 15, 2019.

image: The Mandarin

The ad didn’t make clear what Regenerative Medicine was but it looked like cell injection from the information given.

“Learn from the most significant medical breakthrough in natural medicine this century,” claimed the ad. They ask: “Do you suffer from knee pain, back pain, osteoarthritis neuropathy join pain, COPD.”

The ad provided disclaimers. “Regenerative Cellular Therapy is considered experimental. It has not been evaluated or approved by Health Canada. It is not offered as a cure for any condition, disease, or injury,” and “We want to be transparent with you and disclose that this therapy is experimental/unproven and not everyone responds to the therapy.”

Fair enough but what, exactly, are the treatments?

It was only after phoning the number in the ad that I was given a website where I could find out more about the Regenerative Medicine and Anti-Aging Institute. RMAAI appears to be located in Washington State. While thin on details, the website says:

“At RMAAI we offer premiere regenerative medicine. The foundation of regenerative medicine includes growth factors, cytokines, proteins and mesenchymal stem cells. These are a fundamental piece of our natural and holistic approach to your healthcare needs.”

According to Wikipedia, mesenchymal stem cells can grow into other cells such as bone cells, cartilage cells, muscle cells, fat cells.

Regenerative Medicine, it turns out, is the harvesting of your own stem cells and re-injecting them at the site of injury with the hope that they will replace injured cells. I guess if I had attended the seminar, I might have found this out.

Health Canada has declared cell injection clinics to be illegal.

While the therapy is promising, Health Canada has a number of issues with the way cell therapy is administered at commercial clinics.

Michael Rudnicki, director of Canada’s Stem Cell Network, agrees that while there stem cell research is promising, it is not ready for clinical use. Referring to the banned clinics, he says:

“These treatments are unproven. These clinics are for profit. They are not research enterprises (Globe and Mail, July 10, 2019).”

Health Canada’s has medical and legal issues with the clinics.

The transfer of my own cells back into my body seems safe. Not so, says Health Canada because the procedure can introduce bacteria or viruses and stimulate unwanted immune reactions and tumour formation. “Indeed, a number of serious adverse events have been associated with use of autologous [self] cell therapies and strategies to mitigate these risks are needed,” says Health Canada.

The legal issue is that cell injections fall under the Food and Drugs Act. As such, they are classified as drugs and must be authorized for use in Canada. In addition, principles for labelling and quality control must be adhered to and the devices used to process the cells have to be classified under the Act.

I asked if RMAAI by email if they intend to offer seminars on cell injection therapies. As of the time of publication, I had no reply.

Run-of-river has had its run

Former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s plan for run-of-river generators was a mistake. It left BC Hydro in debt and with power it can’t use. The NDP government plans to let some of those independent contracts expire.

image: Energy BC –
A 1 MW run of river generator.

B.C.’s auditor general, Carol Bellringer, found that BC Hydro has accumulated $5.5 billion in deferred expense accounts. The government plans to write down $1.1 billion of those accounts on BC Hydro’s books.

While BC Hydro rates will increase, the increase won’t be as much as expected says Minister of Energy Michelle Mungall:

“We were committed to finding the best possible reduction, as much reduction as we possibly could from the existing plan under the B.C. Liberals, and we have looked in every corner to find every penny that we can pinch,” Mungall said at a news conference. “We have found that and were able to reduce the rate increases by 40 per cent (Globe and Mail, February 14, 2019).”

The NDP government has also pledged more oversight over BC Hydro by the utilities commission. That will include less interference by government, I hope.

Lack of oversight is what got BC Hydro in trouble when Campbell decided in 2002 to push his ideology of privatization on BC Hydro. It was a clever move in some respects because he could carve out some of BC Hydro’s public generating facilities to privately run generators while claiming to promote “green power.”

BC Hydro was forced to pay a higher rate for electricity generated which included run-of-river hydro, wind and biomass power.  According to a report commissioned by the government entitled “Zapped,” those contracts are expected to cost the utility $16 billion over the next 20 years.

One problem with run-of-river hydro is that it generates power in the spring when rivers are full and not much in the winter when electricity is needed for heating.

We don’t need all the 131 independent power projects that BC Hydro has signed on to. In the past 12 months, BC Hydro has let three energy purchase agreements expire without renewal and more are targeted.

One of those targeted is with the Hupačasath First Nation on Vancouver Island. They are still in debt from the $14 million investment made in their run-of-river facility in 2005. It was supposed to be a model for Indigenous clean-energy opportunities. Now, BC Hydro says it may not renew the contract in 2025 – just as the project is expected to finally deliver profits to the community.

The NDP will face a lot of flack by changing the course of BC Hydro, including protests from some Indigenous communities, from conservatives like the BC Liberals who believe that private companies can do a better job, and from environmentalists who think small is beautiful and that BC Hydro is a corporate monstrosity.

It makes sense to me that a public utility can deliver electricity at a cheaper rate than a private one because no profits go to external shareholders. We are the shareholders of BC Hydro and barring government interference, we should be the beneficiaries. It’s our dam power.

China “understands” the developing world

China is taking a page out of the American playbook in their massive global investment called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Image: Wikipedia

“Belt,” is short for the Silk Road Economic Belt and refers to the overland routes for road and rail transportation; “road,” is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road referring to sea routes.

In America’s version, the Marshall Plan, they invested $100 billion in the war-torn regions of Europe after the Second World War. The stated goals were to remove trade barriers, modernize industry, and improve European prosperity.

The unstated goals of the Marshall Plan were to establish an economic presence in Europe. The Soviets understood this. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, in opposition to the plan in 1946, said: “If American capital was given a free hand in the small states ruined and enfeebled by the war [it] would buy up the local industries, appropriate the more attractive Rumanian, Yugoslav … enterprises and would become the master in these small states.”

According to China’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, the goals of the Belt and Road Initiative are: “To construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, ending up in an innovative pattern with capital inflows, talent pool, and technology database.”

It’s the largest infrastructure project ever with $1 trillion designated for South-east Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. The plan is expansive. It includes 71 countries that account for half the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP.

Western countries worry about ulterior motives. Jonathan Hillman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says: “It’s a reminder BRI is about more than roads, railways, and other hard infrastructure. It’s also a vehicle for China to write new rules, establish institutions that reflect Chinese interests, and reshape ‘soft’ infrastructure.”

Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today is less suspicious. He thinks China is developing sources of commodities in Africa so developing nations can improve their economies and be less dependent on Western demand.

“Secondly,” says Jacques, “and this is why I deeply resent the argument that China is the new colonial power in Africa, China understands the problem of developing countries. One of the big problems is developing infrastructure that delivers transportation, energy and the necessary building blocks of a more developed economy (New Internationalist, July/August, 2018).”

Maybe China can do global supremacy better than the Western world. Resource extraction by Canadian mining giants in Africa has been less than stellar. At a tantalum mine in central Mozambique owned by Pacific Wildcat Resources based in Vancouver a man was shot and killed, inciting community members to set some equipment ablaze. At the Montréal-based Kiniero mine in Guinea, the military killed three in a bid to drive away small-scale miners away. Soldiers also shot a woman and burned her baby

While American foreign policy amounts to bluster and bravado, China is climbing to superpower status by integrating itself into local economies. China will inevitably make mistakes but the Belt and Road Initiative is more systematic than the Western World’s haphazard corporate colonialism.

The U.S. talks tough about China but they can no more stop China’s ascendancy than they can stop the sun from rising.