Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for March, 2009

Bryden Bonvie’s Christmas message

Monday, March 30th, 2009

March 29, 2009

In 2007, 12-year-old Bryden Bonvie wrote a Christmas card.

“Dear Dad,” she wrote, “I love you more than ever and I need you more
than ever, now can you come back please. Oh ya, Merry Christmas, I love you.”

But her father couldn’t answer.

Bryden Bonvie’s words were ringing in my ears last week as I
prepared a keynote speech for Safety Services Nova Scotia, formerly
the Nova Scotia Safety Council. I am no great authority on safety,
but I know something about taking responsibility for one’s
actions — and that’s the core of the Internal Responsibility
System, which is the heart of today’s occupational health and safety regime.

The IRS evolved largely in response to the Westray disaster, says Joe
Treen, SSNS’s director of Occupational Health and Safety. At Westray,
as in many workplaces, safety issues — like environmental
issues — were seen as a nuisance, a drain on profits and a drag on
production. Safety was delegated to safety inspectors, who were
routinely ignored. And 26 miners died.

Today, the Internal Responsibility System declares that everyone in
the workplace has responsibility for safety, and a duty to correct
or report unsafe conditions. If there’s a pool of oil on the floor,
clean it up. If the emergency exit is blocked, get it clear. If
there’s a loose electrical connection, call an electrician. Don’t
tell us it’s not your job. It’s everybody’s job.

“No one person can carry the whole load of safety,” says Joe Treen.
“But if everybody takes a little piece of that load, together we can
move mountains.”

Great theory. So how does it work in practice?

The people on the shop floor sometimes resist, Joe says. We come from
a “get ‘er done” culture, and doing things safely often takes extra
time and effort. But workers know that they’re the ones who take the
real risks, and pay the heaviest prices. They understand that it’s
good to avoid being killed, maimed or paralyzed.

The larger problem is in the executive suite. The CEO is not going to
fall off the staging, or have a forklift mash him into the wall. He’s
got a safety guy to take care of all that stuff, and mostly what he
wants to hear from the safety guy is nothing. Don’t bother me,
buddy, I’m working on cost containment, quality control, financing,
CEO stuff, stuff that makes us money. Safety? Not my job.

Except it is. After all, he’s the boss. He may have a safety manager,
but what is that guy actually doing? When was the last time the boss
asked him for a report, or got him to provide a briefing on the
company’s compliance with the latest safety procedures?

If the CEO wasn’t diligent about safety, then the CEO is
responsible. A serious accident, could mean fines of up to $250,000,
and up to two years in the clink. For the company, the penalties can
be lost production, huge fines, sharply increased Workers
Compensation premiums, a public relations nightmare — and anything
that a court may think up under the heading of “creative sentencing.”

At last week’s conference, for example, the Town of New Glasgow was a
Gold Sponsor. Its Chief Administrative Officer, Lisa MacDonald, made
a presentation about the aftermath of the day in October, 2006, when
an unsafe trench collapsed and killed a worker. The dead man was
Michael Bonvie, Bryden Bonvie’s father.

Judge Jamie Campbell fined the town $25,000, and ordered it to create
safety manuals and policies and provide copies to every municipality
in the province. He also directed it to tell the story to meetings of
SSNS and the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, and to mount a
public information campaign on the impact of workplace safety on
families — using the actual words and art work of Michael Bonvie’s
wife and two daughters.

“Dear Dad: I love you more than ever and I need you more than ever,
now can you come back please. Oh ya, Merry Christmas, I love you.”

Here is what every CEO needs to know. If Michael Bonvie had died on
your watch, you would hear Bryden’s words every time you looked in
the mirror. Forever. And it wouldn’t help at all to whisper, “But it
wasn’t my job.”

– 30 –

The Tenacity of Larry Baillie

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

March 22, 2009

On May 29, 1990, Larry Baillie was driving without a seat belt when he was pulled over. Slipping the belt on before the policeman got to his car window, he congratulated himself on avoiding a ticket.

Baillie was then a travelling salesman on the Prairies.  He sold stuffed animals. He had previously served in the armed forces at a remote radar station in Saskatchewan. To relieve his boredom, he had taken up oil painting, emerging as one of western Canada’s top young artists. Later he sold newspaper ads and photocopiers. He was married and had a son.

On May 30, 1990 — the day after avoiding the ticket — Baillie was driving without a seat belt  near Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, when a pickup truck ran a stop sign. He hit the pickup at 100 km/h, flying out of his seat and smashing his head into the windshield.

The resulting brain injury left him unable to stand, speak clearly or control his emotions. He was forgetful, unable to concentrate, and in constant pain. He was adjudged “a-vocational”   — unable ever to work or study again, permanently consigned to a CPP disability pension.

No, said Larry. He promised himself to recover well enough to run a marathon, go back to school and get back to work.

He soon learned that the major gains in rehabilitation from brain injuries occur within two years of the injury. Because the health system was too slow, “I put together my own program and followed it.”

He started swimming at the YMCA, and cut his weight from 300 pounds to 170. Stretches and exercise partially revived his sense of balance. For  hand-eye co-ordination, he played short-court, a game “similar to squash except  it hurts less when you get hit.”

Three years after his injury, wearing air casts on his legs, he ran a half-marathon. A year later, he ran a full marathon. A wilderness canoe trip inspired him to paint again, this time in water-colours. In 1997, the March of Dimes used a painting of his on a card, distributing more than a million copies across the country.

He became a Scout leader and a performer, appearing in costume as the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Energizer Bunny and Wes Lee Coyote, the mascot of the University of Winnipeg football team. He visited hospitals as a clown called Dr. Bubbles, a forgetful physician. He learned magic stunts,  using humour to fill in the gaps when he momentarily forgot what he was doing.

“Face it, pace it, and get on with it,” Larry says. “That’s my motto.” He still struggles with memory, speech, concentration and balance, particularly when he’s tired. He was once thrown off a bus because the driver though he was drunk.

In 2003, frustrated that potential employers “saw my disability before they saw the person,” Baillie enrolled in Red River College, winning A+ grades. Two years later, he entered the Bachelor of Social Work program at the University of Manitoba. In 2007, stung by a classmate’s taunt that he’d gotten into university “through the back door,” he applied for two national merit-based scholarships, including the Canada Millennium Scholarships.

“I was really excited about Millennium because they had three levels of awards,” he remembers, “and I thought maybe I could qualify for the lowest one.” He won the top one, a National In-Course Excellence Award. He was stunned and thrilled. It was “like winning the lottery.”

“It was the recognition that mattered,” he explains. The award “was based on merit and leadership. It was one of the first times in my life that I’ve been seen for my ability, and not my disability.”

Larry was awarded his BSW last year. At the graduation ceremony, he stood beside the stage and cried. Then he found a job, and asked CPP to terminate his pension. It was the first such request that the CPP officials had ever encountered.

“I sometimes tell people that my brain injury knocked some sense into my head,” Larry jokes. Well, no. But it did provide him with the opportunity to become a brilliant example of courage, determination and intelligence –  and not just for the disabled, but for all of us.

– 30 –

The Long Dark Shadow of the Tar Sands

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

March, 15, 2009

The Alberta tar sands, says Andrew Nikiforuk, represent “a nation-changing event” which has made the rest of Canada into “a suburb of Fort McMurray.” A distinguished Calgary-based journalist,  Nikiforuk was in Nova Scotia in early March to discuss his new book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Greystone, $20).

The tar sands, boasts Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have made Canada “an emerging energy superpower.” Because of them, Canada now produces more oil than Kuwait, derives 9% of its GDP from oil exports, and has overtaken Mexico and Saudi Arabia to become the number one foreign supplier of oil to the United States.

Out of sight in the northern wilderness, the tar sands projects are tearing up a chunk of Alberta’s  boreal forest roughly the size of Florida — but, says Nikiforuk, the sands have their black, gooey handprints on every part of the country, whether we recognize it or not.

Our dollar, for instance, is now a petro-currency, driven by the fluctuating value of oil. When oil hit $147 a barrel, our dollar was worth more than the US greenback. When oil fell to $40, our dollar sank in tandem. That volatility hammers all our other industries, from coast to coast. How can you cultivate world markets for lumber, airplanes, software or newsprint when your dollar may, in a few weeks, gain or lose 40%?

The expansion of the tar sands is also driving the “deep integration” between Canada and the US envisaged by the iniquitous Security and Prosperity Partnership. International corporations own the tar sands projects, and their pipelines run south to Texas and Oklahoma — but not east to Quebec and the Maritimes. Atlantic Canada remains dependent on European and Middle Eastern oil, and on jobs in Alberta.  The oil and the profits get exported. The mess stays in Canada.

And it’s a colossal mess. The tar sands represent the world’s largest energy project, largest capital project and largest construction project. They also represent, says University of Alberta water ecologist Dr. David Schindler, “the Guinness World Record for environmental disaster.”

Bitumen is gouged out of the earth in strip-mines the size of cities, totally destroying forests and wetlands that once absorbed vast quantities of carbon. Then the tar is separated from the sand using immense amounts of steam and hot water. Extraction thus creates three barrels of liquid waste for every barrel of bitumen  — 400 million gallons every day, enough to fill 720 Olympic swimming pools.

This gunk contains salt, phenols, benzene, cyanide, arsenic and the like.  Because it can’t be dumped into the Athabasca River,  it’s stored in “ponds” on the riverbanks behind earth walls 80 meters high.  Nikiforuk calls them “raised toxic lakes.” They cover 60 square kilometers. Some are  20 km in length. They’re so big they’re visible from space.

Do they leak? Sure. Are they growing? Yes. Can we be sure those walls won’t rupture? Absolutely not — and if they did, says Dr. Schindler, “the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.” The ponds already contain pollutants equivalent to many thousands of such supertankers — a standing threat to the whole Mackenzie River basin, the world’s third-largest.

Extraction also burns enormous amounts of relatively clean natural gas in order to produce a low-grade hydrocarbon — like “using caviar as a fertilizer to grow turnips,” as one observer remarks. Along with the trucks, draglines, upgraders and so forth, all that combustion means that the tar sands emit almost as much greenhouse gas as the entire nation of Denmark, and are projected to produce more GHGs than all the world’s volcanoes by 2020.

But the sands produce tons of jobs and billions of dollars in corporate and personal taxes. And that’s addictive.

These are the reasons that the government of Stephen Harper — an oilman’s son, based in Canada’s oil capital –  is so cavalier about environmental matters. This is why Canada lacks an energy policy, a water policy,  an environmental policy, or a national debate about these issues — even as the tar sands transform Canada’s environmental record into one of the worst in the industrial world.

– 30 –

Slim Gyms and Furniture Disease

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

March 8, 2009

The mature male body is a depressing sight. As we age, says my friend Ervin Touesnard, “we all develop Furniture Disease — our chests slip into our drawers.” And then the doctor says, Hey, you’ve put on a bit of weight. Not good.  At your age, you’re at risk for heart disease and stroke. Get some exercise. Start going to the gym.

What a revolting idea.

Gyms are for smooth young athletes,  not for myopic, jiggle-bellied grandfathers with furniture disease. Gyms are peppermint liniment and louts snapping towels at one another. Gyms are for  infantile oafs like Don Cherry.  Besides, I’m too busy.

Fine, says the doctor. If you’d rather save a little time now and spend a lot more time dead, that’s entirely up to you.


For women, there’s a whole chain of gyms called Curves. But there’s no Curves for men. True, says Big Jim McNiven, but there’s a gym in the West End Mall called Slim Gyms: Fitness for Men.  Come with me.

Big Jim introduces me to Slim Gym, a short-haired, bright-eyed guy in his forties by the name of Donnie Hunter. He’s not much bigger than I am. The gym is full of grey-haired fellows in shabby shorts and nondescript sweats, lifting and bouncing and heaving and twisting. I catch a few phrases of relaxed banter.

Donnie wants to know my fitness objectives. I tell him I have heart issues and wish to stay alive. Great, he says, a cardio workout first. We’re going to do a few measurements, get some baseline data and walk you through the process. How’s that sound?

He measures height, weight, chest, waist, biceps, thighs, blood pressure, body mass, body fat. He helps me strap a heart-rate monitor around my chest, with a wrist-watch read-out. A wall chart  tells me that a man my age should have a heart rate during exercise of 120 to 130. When my wrist-watch says 150, it’s time to slow down.

Like Curves, Slim Gyms does “circuit training,” a system developed by the military. I move around the room,  grunting at each “station” for 45 seconds. Pneumatic machines provide resistance as I push or pull with my arms, legs, back. After each machine I have a low-tech station — a small platform to step up onto while lifting dumbbells, a set of bungee cords to pull while high-stepping, a wobbling rubber hemisphere that challenges my balance.

The gym has 40 “signature workouts,” easily tailored for individuals. It  offers custom workouts for men coming out of physiotherapy and rehab as well as sport-specific workouts for golfers, tennis players, runners and others. Two qualified trainers roam the floor, coaching and encouraging and joking. For $45 a month, I can come in whenever I choose.

“We’ve done focus groups, and people love what we’re doing,” says Donnie Hunter. “They love it that everyone’s greeted by name when they arrive or leave. They love the club atmosphere,  the fact that there’s always help available and they’re never made to feel self-conscious. The average gym has a 30% retention rate. We have 85%. Our job is to help people, but you can’t help them if you don’t keep them coming in.

“We have amazing guys, from every walk of life. Probably 65% to 70% of them have never exercised, never been in a gym before. We have 40 or 50 doctors. We have accountants, civil servants, hair-dressers. We have a glider pilot in his 80s who wants to fly across a desert, and he’s here so that if he crashes he’ll be in good enough shape to walk out.”

Slim Gyms has a huge potential market. The nation is full of flabby chaps with clogged blood vessels who are  being hectored by their wives and physicians.  Are Donnie and his partner, Dale Letcher, planning to franchise?

“Yes,” Donnie nods. “The next location is about a year away. We’re picking the franchisees, writing the operations manuals, finalizing the gym design. We’ve all been lab rats in there.”

He laughs.

“You know what my dream is?” he says. “Something like those McDonald’s golden arches, with a sign that says, ‘More than one million helped.’ Wouldn’t that be something?”

– 30 –

Flying East in Winter

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

March 1, 2009

The big jet roars off the runway in the unexpected sunlight, banking south over the jade water of the Salish Sea, otherwise known as the Strait of Georgia. Ahead and to starboard, the forested hills and grey reefs of the Gulf Islands lie scattered in the glittering water, their names evoking 18th-century Spanish explorers: Galiano, Gabriola, Valdez. Farther off, the green mountains of Vancouver Island stand in front of the bruise-coloured smudge of the Olympic Peninsula, in the state of Washington.

The jet rises and turns over the flat islands of the Fraser Delta, climbing above the long coal-loading jetty at Roberts Bank, the tawny sloughs and backwaters of the massive river,  the city of Richmond lying in perfect grids on the level brown alluvium. Acres of greenhouses, swirls of townhouses, bridges and log booms and tugboats.

Off to port, the spiky towers of downtown Vancouver stand like stalagmites beside the green oasis of Stanley Park. The city sprawls eastward along the deep fjord of Burrard Inlet. Listen to the echoes of 18th-century British navigators: captains Harry Burrard, Henry Roberts, George Vancouver.

The Trans Canada Highway runs eastward like a taut string as the white-crested mountains crowd in closer to the Fraser. The plane enters a cloud bank, still rising. It emerges to reveal a magic kingdom,  brilliant serrated tips of crystal mountains poking up through a rumpled carpet of grey clouds.

The clouds thin and vanish, leaving the jet suspended above an ocean of peaks, endless waves of white mountains as far as the eye can follow. Black pencil squiggles of roads nose through the steep narrow valleys, flirting with the rivers that snake between the precipices. Vast white scars disfigure the mountainsides: clearcuts where the forest industry has mowed down the forest like a suburban homeowner mowing down crab grass. The clearcuts are everywhere.

One of the folds in those frigid mountains is the Slocan Valley, where I once lived. It’s cold down there. The famous mildness of the BC climate is limited to the lower Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island. Up here, in the Interior  which encompasses most of BC  the winters are just as bitter as the most masochistic Canadian could require.

A broad flat valley appears, passes below, slips behind –  the Rocky Mountain Trench,  a crack in the continent that runs from Montana almost to the Yukon, and includes the region known as the East Kootenays. Now we’re over the most lordly mountain ranges, the Rockies — and then, after a final towering flourish, the mountains subside into declining waves of  foothills, quickly giving way to the plains. Off to starboard stand the bristling towers of Calgary.

The Prairies slip beneath us, as flat and white as blank pages, cross-hatched with grids of fields and highways. Traceries of streams run over the panels of white like the castings of unknown worms. Meandering rivers are clipped  into oxbow lakes. The plains seem as infinite as the mountains, and then the plains give way to the frozen heaves of the Canadian Shield, low undulations of stone blanketed with stubby forest and dappled with lakes like white inkblots.

And then the jet flies across the shoreline of Lake Superior and out over the most beautiful ice forms I have ever seen. The ice lies between parallel lines in the form of irregular polygons, cubist and startling, shattered fragments of window pane defined by fractures as sharp as death. I see open leads of water, triangles of blankness, panels and frames.

That stern geometry dissolves into hard, huge whorls, like blue-and-white jelly rolls or gigantic fingerprints. And then the ice forms itself into feather-like drifts, elongated and wispy, like paint-strokes brushed across the water by the wind. It modulates again into shapes like organs  vast hearts and kidneys painted in white on blue canvas.

The shapes decay, leaving  fields of stippled white on cobalt blue. Then the ice disappears altogether, leaving tufts of cloud floating above impossibly blue open water.

The jet drones eastward.

A fantastic country. An empire of frost and ice. And we are still only half-way home.

– 30 –