Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Space for Faith - Urban Planning and The Church

New Westminster’s Child and Youth strategy is a good first step in developing plans and policies to make the city more inviting for families to live.  Two of the tenets the strategy identifies are Belonging and Inclusion.  Historically, one of the key community connection points for belonging and inclusion was the local church.  As a bad Christian, I was curious to see how the city had accounted for the needs of the local communities of faith in its community and related plans. 

Reviewing the official documentation finds scant mention of churches, temples, or other houses of worship, despite a healthy collection of them in the city.  Reviewing five community plans, the only real references I found to houses of worship were in reflection of their heritage value for the downtown churches, or in the context of South Asian ‘culture and diversity,’ as with the Sikh Temple Sukhsagar in Queensborough.  New Westminster is not alone here, Vancouver did just the same in their West End plan.  Despite several vibrant, active churches in the west end, how those churches and members fit in to the plan is not discussed. 

Holy Trinity Cathedral - Parish Founded 1859
So how is that oversight going to play out in the coming years?  Looking at the census data for New Westminster paints a picture that probably surprises no one. 

Religious Affiliation
City Total Population
Other religions
No religious affiliation
Total Religious

As of 2011, roughly 61% of city residents are claiming a religious affiliation.  It strikes me as odd that the city planning documents generally ignore the potential needs for some 60% of its population.  Particularly given that even as the proportion of religious residents shrinks, due to a growing population the absolute number of religious residents is still growing.  Metro Vancouver growth projections show New Westminster having ~102,000 people come 2041.  If the current rate of religious affiliation holds through then, then another 22,000 people will be looking for places to worship and fellowship.  Even if the rate drops to 50%, that’s still 11,000 more adherents than today.  Where will they all go?

We have some idea from what has played out in the city and regionally in recent history.  The two most visible signs of this are the leasing of commercial spaces by churches and the suburban style mega-church.  According to the zoning bylaws, churches are permitted in CM-1, or Commercial/Industrial zones, or Institutional zones.  However, we have examples such as Five Stones Church or the Redeemed Christian Church of God setting up in straight commercial spaces. 

Five Stones Church in the heart of downtown New Westminster
Now there are some benefits to siting churches in commercial zones – they could share parking with the nearby businesses that don’t need it on weekends, it’s generally transit accessible, it draws more people to the area in quieter times, etc.  They churches can minister to people who are working in the area.  They’re closer to many of the people in need that they should be serving.  But it’s clearly not what’s intended by the zoning laws as they stand.  And shouldn’t the city actively consider the benefits and costs and then manage it instead of letting the chips fall haphazardly as they do now? 

Being a developed, compact city, the mega-church has not really come to New Westminster.  Calvary Worship Centre at the foot of 12th Street is probably the closest thing we have going to a "mega-church", and from what I can tell they just took over an old Legion building, and being reasonably centrally located have fewer of the issues associated with mega-churches.

But large churches in other cities contribute to sprawl (you can argue if the zoning restrictions contributed to that too) and have a regional draw, taking local residents out of town.   I would rather have our residents attending local churches helping local people deal with local issues that see everyone scatter on Sunday. 

Historical churches have additional issues.  Several churches in New Westminster were built around the turn of the (previous) century.  There weren’t as many cars around then, so the churches were easily accessible for the folks living in the area.  But over time, development has pushed homes out from these churches.  How do they maintain accessibility to their adherents?  Needs have changed, regulations have been strengthened - are these churches able to keep up to date and relevant while still complying with local bylaws?

Also absent in the 1900s were seismic codes.  Holy Trinity Cathedral has started the process to develop some of its property, the proceeds of which will be partially used to upgrade their cathedral to modern standards.  My church is amidst the same process right now.  How should the city handle these kind of developments?  Many of these churches are on the historical building register – should the city be providing more active support to maintain the heritage value of these buildings?

As discussed at RethinkUrban, churches hold geographically central locations, and as such are often in the midst of the city’s social issues.  Why are they not being included as stakeholders in the urban planning?  I don’t believe it’s ill will or malice – in every church-city interaction I’m aware of, the city has been unfailingly helpful.  I think it’s more that communities of faith have failed to keep up with how development and planning engage with the community theses days, and make their voices heard.  As the planning process has become more conversational, we as people and communities of faith have failed to join in that conversation. 

One city that has tried to change this is Calgary.  After Calgary developed its City Centre plan, a group of faith organizations recognized the issues discussed here and took action.  They took inventory of the faith communities in the area.  They studied the role those institutions play in the city.  They proposed discussion and changes to the city.  This led to amendments to the City Centre plan last year.  While most of the changes were simple recognition of the roles faith organizations play, there is value in that recognition.  It also brought in a policy to recognize the role both faith and non-faith based institutions have in promoting social stability and assisting community members in need.  

New Westminster Councillor Jonathan Cote was gracious enough to speak with me about this, and what he said was encouraging.  One, the city is already involved with a number of churches in terms of services for the homeless, new immigrants, and other people in need.  Working with such groups is already in the Official Community Plan, and the city intends to continue.  This is a natural point of contact, as the missional side of the church and the government both have similar goals in protecting the vulnerable in our community.  

Two, the city tries to be accommodating when churches and temples come to the city with their planning and development needs.  The city recognizes that many of the buildings were built a long time ago and do not suit current needs, and is willing to work with the churches in terms of variances and zoning to help them update their facilities to meet the needs of their congregations. 

Three, the city also sees the churches working to partner up and more fully utilize the assets within the city, for example having multiple services run by different organizations in the same church building.  I've seen signs of this on many churches in the city.  Will this accommodate 10-20,000 more people?  I don’t know, but it’s a start. 

Four, Cote recognized that in the overarching planning, there may be some gaps in recognizing and accounting for the spiritual needs of the city’s residents.  This is particularly the case given the significant growth in immigrant populations which can bring very specific religious requirements with them. 

Finally, we spoke on how communities of faith can make their voices heard. The Official Community Plan (OCP) is being updated, and there are a number of ways to be involved.  The update of the OCP is a great opportunity for people of faith both as individuals and communities to provide input to the city on how the government and communities should support each other. 

From the OCP website,
“The updated OCP will provide a renewed vision for New Westminster, and the regulatory framework to guide growth toward that vision.
The OCP will contain policies on housing, parks & open space, arts & culture, heritage, energy, utility services, transportation, well-being, hazards, economy and environment.”

Do faith and spiritual needs belong in there?  I believe they do and will be saying so through the channels provided.  If we as communities of faith come together to present a common vision on this, Councillor Cote also said there may be other opportunities for such a group to be heard.  I would encourage all people of faith in New West, both as individuals and communities, to participate in this process and let the city know how you believe faith should be shaping our city.  

Friday, May 16, 2014

The ALR - (potential) Farmland, not Holy Land

Local agriculture cannot feed Southwest BC.  It can potentially provide a small, but significant, portion of it, but it will never support the population.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone; back in 2006 the government found BC as a whole was about 48% self-reliant for food. Feeding the densest corner of the province from local farms?  Ain’t gonna happen. 

This farm would feed those towers for about two minutes

First off, what is local food?  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines it as such  (it is noted this is an interim description and subject to a review).
  •  food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
  •  food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory
The problem with that definition is BC is big.  No seriously, BC is REALLY FREAKING BIG.  Like it would be the 32nd largest country in the world big (larger than Venezuela, Turkey or France).  Saying all food produced within BC (or parts of AB/Yukon) is local to Vancouver is insane.  Los Angeles is closer to Vancouver than the northwest corner of the province.

The previous definition was
  •  the food originated within a 50 km radius of the place where it was sold, or
  •  the food sold originated within the same local government unit (e.g. municipality) or adjacent government unit
That’s more local for sure.  CFIA says this is not representative of how things work today.  I don’t totally buy that, but I would say local food is somewhere in between those two definitions, somewhat closer to the old one.

So to pick a number out of nowhere, let’s say local food is food that originates from a 100 km radius.  Fits nicely with all those hipsters doing their 100 km (or is it mile?) diet.  Very, very VERY broadly speaking, someone on a North America needs about 1-1.2 acres of farmland to keep them fed.  If we take Southwest BC to include
  • Metro Vancouver
  • Fraser Valley Regional District
  • Squamish and Whistler
  • The Capital, Cowichan and Nanaimo Regional Districts
we need to feed roughly 3.35 million people, requiring (very) roughly 3.35 million acres of farmland.  How much farmland do we have within 100 km of those regions?

708,890 acres.  Sounds like a few of us are going hungry.  Now this is just the land in the Agricultural Land Reserve – I’m assuming all farmable land is captured in there.  Not true, but should be close enough for our purposes. 

It gets worse.  Of the 708,890 acres of ALR land near southwest BC, only 287,000 acres of it is Class 1-4 in ALR terms, which is land suitable to growing food crops (and it ain’t easy on class 4 land).  Now the one acre per person assumption does account for the fact that lower quality land can potentially be used for grazing animals, so we don’t need to evacuate everyone just yet, but numbers are clear.  There is nowhere near enough local farmland to support Southwest BC.  There are too many people. Assuming all 708,000 count to the one-acre-per-person, local agriculture can feed ~20% of southwest BC currently, down to ~15% in 2040.  

Even worse worse, farming is highly regionalized.  From the reliance report, “For example, grains and oilseeds are produced primarily in the north, beef ranching occurs mainly in the Interior, the majority of tree fruits are produced in the Okanagan, dairy is concentrated in the Fraser Valley and north Okanagan, and the major production area for small fruits and vegetables is in the Fraser Valley.”  We’re not getting grains, meat, or tree fruits locally in any real quantity. 

What if we expand our “local” radius to 500 km?  That gets us up to 1.1 million acres of Class 1-4, or 2.7 million acres of everything.  We also get another 350,000 mouths to feed, but it’s still a net gain, and we get those lovely Okanagan peaches.  However, it’s still nowhere near enough, especially when we project 30 years into the future where we’re probably looking at over five-million people in the area. 

So when we’re told local agriculture is necessary for our food security, it’s a false bill of goods.  No matter what, Southwest BC will be reliant on importing the vast majority of our food from out of our region, if not out of our country.  Increasing density will only worsen the problem. 

Should we go with the interim definition of local, where the whole province is considered local to itself?  That’s pretty dubious.  One of benefits of local food is short distance to market.  This is supposed to mean you get fresher food, less preservatives, and it’s less transportation intensive. 

In the debate I constantly hear a whine of “why are we buying our food from California, when we could be buying it locally.”  Well, our largest chunk of ALR land, including Class 1-4, is in the Peace Region, centred around Fort St. John.  How far away is Fort St. John?  A little over 1,200 km. Going the other direction, this takes us a little south of Redding, California, not too far from Sacramento.  That chunk of farmland near Fort Nelson?  Farther away than San Francisco.

Apparently, this is local agriculture
Worse worse worse.  This is the description of farmland near Fort St. John, BC from Integrated Land Management BC, “Cold winters, short growing seasons and low precipitation limit the vegetation, agricultural crops and forest ecosystems that can thrive here.”  Limited crops and short growing seasons.  The 1 acre per person was estimated based on New York State farmland, with growing seasons of 150-200 days.  While we get that in Southwest BC, the growing season in the Peace region is near, and often less than, 100 days.

In order to grow, plants need sun, soil, air, water and snow.  
In season food?  Sure, for three months of the year.  The rest of the time we’re eating preserves.  So much for that benefit.  California’s growing seasons?  250 days plus, depending on where you are.  Our choice is fresh, in-season produce from 1,200 km away 9+ months of the year from California, or fresh, in-season foods from 1,200 km away for 3 months of the year from BC.  And that’s not even getting into variety of foods. 

Would local preserved food be better than shipped in fresh?  Well, it takes as much energy to run your chest freezer for a year as it would to ship the 2,000 pounds of food you eat per year from San Francisco on a semi-truck (the least efficient form of transport), and then there are all the nutritional losses from preservation, so I’d say we’re better off with the latter.  Especially since for Southwest BC, it won’t be local either way – ship in fresh food, or ship in preserved food?  It’s a no brainer to me.  Particularly since the Peace region is generally focused on grains, so we’re getting some form of processed food from them regardless.

Furthermore, if ALR land is critical for food security, why are we using it for non-food purposes?  Over 10,000 acres of land in BC are devoted to vineyards and wineries.  I like a glass of nice wine as much as the next fellow, but for the purpose of food security that land may as well not be in the ALR.  Same story for horses and Christmas tree farms.  In 2001, non-food use of farmland totaled 370,000 acres

So what can we do to reduce the reliance on distant food? 
  • Eat less food.  It would do most of us some good.
  • Promote more home agriculture.  While we will never live primarily off it, we can supplant our diets with home gardens. 
  • Eat more meat.  This is ironic as I was taught growing meat is bad and wasteful and is much more land intensive than crops.  It is, but many kinds of animals can pasture on land and crops that aren’t suitable for humans. 
  • Annex northern Washington.  Seattle might complain, but they’ll all be too stoned to do anything about it. 
  • Irrigation.  We are blessed with tremendous water resources in BC.  Perhaps we can leverage that to expand the amount of high quality farmland we can use.  I know it’s never just that simple, but it’s worth asking have we taken advantage of this where we can?  The self-reliance report indicated we will need a significant increase in irrigated lands to just maintain the current level of reliance. 
But even if we did all that, we will never be anywhere close to supporting the local population with local food.  Taking away a few acres of Class 7 land in Fort Nelson is not going to alter the food situation in BC – Southwest or as a whole.  Heck, taking away all the ALR land in northern BC isn’t going to alter the fundamental equation for Southwest BC – we already must and forever will need to import most of our food to Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

Should we remove all the land then?  No, but we need to accept that once a piece of land is designated as part of the ALR, it is not deified and never touchable for anything else ever again.  Food is only one of humans’ key needs.  We need shelter, activity, and community among other things.  It may well be better for the city, the province and for the people for some land currently in the ALR to be used for something else. Non-farming usage make this the case for over 3% of the ALR already.  

We can't meet our needs locally, so we should be focused on how to maintain a secure, stable food supply in spite of that.  Food security is generally defined along the lines of “the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” Giving someone affordable shelter or a well-paying job may be the best way for some ALR land to provide food security.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The CRTC and Porn, or How Many Double Entendres Can Fit in One Post

It’s old news by internet standards, but recently the CRTC was in the headlines for issuing notice against a few adult video cable channels.  The problem?  Among other things, not enough Canadian Content.  So the CRTC is telling those channels they need to include more Canadian porn in their programming or risk losing their license. 

Naturally, this elicited howls of laughter, and more beaver jokes than I care to recall.  But there is a serious issue with this, so let’s not beat around the bush.

The CRTC is DEMANDING the increased sexual exploitation of Canadian women and men. 

I’m going to focus on women here, as porn is often discussed in and around the issue of women’s rights.  The debates typically end up running in circles.  One side argues porn is an exploitation of women by the oppressive male patriarchy.  The other says porn is just another way women can freely exercise their sexual liberty.  The two camps beat each senseless other until someone sane locks things down or Goodwin’s Law finally gets invoked. 

So is porn freedom or oppression?  Liberty, or exploitation?  Simply (well, maybe not simply, but), it’s both.  No matter how freely you choose to enter pornography, doing so means your body and sex are being exploited to make someone money.  In short, you are being pimped. 

Curiously this is happening just after the Supreme Court struck down some of the laws surrounding prostitution, forcing a major rethink on how we approach it.  So we have the situation where the government is asking how do we protect women and reduce prostitution while at the same time a bureaucracy is demanding more women be paid not only to have sex, but to have it recorded and broadcast around the country.  On top of that, this same bureaucracy is responsible for ensuring other TV broadcasters do not show sexually explicit or exploitative material.  And this of course is all on top of the general concerns about how women are portrayed in media in general, and how that influences our society. In short, 


The government’s role is to protect people from exploitation, not force people into it.  I understand the reasoning for Canadian Content rules and how they are meant to help develop and promote Canadian cultural content.  These rules should be removed for porn channels.  Pornography and sexual exploitation are not a part of Canadian culture we should be developing.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Translink - So Wrong and So Right

Via Daryl vs World's No Credit for Translink series, I found some links to Tranlink's 2012 Bus Performance Review.  In my Skytrain Reliability post, I complain loudly and frequently about the opacity of Skytrain performance metrics.  This Bus Performance review is the polar opposite of what I found for the Skytrain systems.

A 10 page document explaining how each measurement is taken, how each metric is calculated, and what assumptions are going into each?  HELL YES!  How they manage to get it so wrong on Skytrain and so right with the buses further 'asplodes my brain.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mayors' Council Part 2

I thought I was done with the Mayors Council, but then I saw this - more whining from the Mayors

Opposition to the Referendum
  • “Referenda are tools without context and would be divisive to the region.” You have control over the referendum process.  You provide the context or lack thereof.  If you propose solutions that will divide the region, it will divide us. The region supports the LRSP and Transport 2040.  Show us the plan for that.  
  • “Making complex policy by referenda is contrary to principles of good governance.”  You are not making complex policy by referenda.  You are seeking approval of tax increase. 

All this is short for we don’t want to do the work to with the region to increase their taxes and improve their transit.  We want the province to force it on them instead.  How is that good governance and accountability, some of the key points on the Governance proposal?

Project Priorities
  • “Transit and road and bridge improvements need to be coordinated and implemented in a timely and expedited fashion to support the success of TransLink’s 2040, the Provincial Transit Pacific Gateway,”  September 23, 2010. 

So in 3.5 years, all the Mayors have managed to do is affirm they support the Transport 2040 vision.  A vision, even a strategy, is not a plan.  Neither the Base nor Supplemental 10 Year Plans discuss anything about what could or should be done if any of these major sources of funding become available, or how they will move us closer to the Transport 2040 vision.  So the Mayors are asking for new taxation to support a dream. 

I keep hearing the Mayors are unified.  They are unified in only two things – they want the province to increase their powers of taxation and they support the Transport 2040 plan.  Step one level below that though, and the unity falls apart.  Watch what happens when you ask
  • Which comes first – West Broadway or Surrey rapid transit?
  • Surface or grade separated?
  • What form of bike infrastructure should we focus on?

I can see the fur flying from here. 

What they’re asking for the province to give them $200 million more a year to support Transport 2040, with no visibility into how they will do it  Forget it.  That money will get lost, absorbed into operations, and frittered away as the Mayors bicker over what to do with it.  We’ve already seen that with the squabbles over the Millennium and Canada lines. 

Conversely, if they ask us for $200 million more a year from a vehicle levy, a region specific 0.25% sales tax, and a $2 toll on the Pattullo to help us reach Transport 2040 by
  • A subway along West Broadway to UBC  by 2020
  • A skytrain extension in Surrey to Newton by 2022
  •  A commuter rail a la Westcoast Express from Aldergrove by 2018
  •  Addition of 50km of separated bike lanes per year until 2030
  •  Extension of the Evergreen Line to PoCo by 2025
  • Park and Rides at 20 stations over the next 10 years
  • Frequent Transit Network expanded to the following routes....
  • etc

people will get onside.  We all know we need this stuff.  Share how this work will improve life for everyone along the way?   Now we see why of late most transit referenda are passed.  It’s an easy sell, if you’re willing to do the work.  Apparently Metro Vancouver mayors are not.  If you think they can’t sort this out now, wait till they actually have the money. 

Funding Solutions

  • “…the Mayors’ Council is against the use of property taxes as a further funding source…” So the Mayors are unwilling to use the existing tools they have, the tools which they bargained and gainedconcessions in other areas for, but they want the province to force new taxes on us? 
  • “Appropriate funding sources for TransLink will include the vehicle levy in the short term and road pricing in the long term and land value capture;” Sure, just tell us what you’re going to do with it.
  • “Emphasize that TransLink should not meet current budgets through service cuts or liquidation of assets” and “The Mayors’ Council has previously confirmed its view on additional short and long term funding sources" We’re not willing to live within our budgets or use the tools you already gave us to increase funding.
  • “As per the legislation, the Mayors’ Council will consider supplemental plans that include funding proposals with the extension of funding sources being the responsibility of the province in consultation with various parties” You give us the money; we spend it how we want.

Governance Proposal
Everyone agrees this needs to change. 

If the Mayors spent the energy they have fighting the referendum to actually preparing it and getting the people of the region onboard, they’d be halfway done already.  We’ve done enough visioneering:   LRSP, Transport 2040 and its predecessors, and regional growth strategies have been spouting visions out for decades

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Transit Referendum, or Be Careful What You Wish For…

We all have our stories about things we wished for so much, and then once we got them found out it was a burden, not a gift.  Translink would do well to remember this as they seek new governance and more money from the province. 

All of the mayoral complaints boil down to the same thing: “the big bad Province won’t give us what we want.”  What do they want? 
  1. A blank cheque
  2. Complete authority to decide where to spend it

Where does the province fit into this?  They provide item 1.  Then go away. 

The province, rightfully, said hold on, we gave you that authority and changed the funding structure so you could own it 15 years ago.  But all you did was bicker for the first 10 years, fight with us when we offered to pay for major improvements, and blow every gas tax increase we gave you.  So we took control back, but still left you with oversight and final authority.  You want us to go back to the old way and give you more money?

The Mayors should be grateful the province didn’t spit in their face.  To their credit, the province is willing to discuss governance reform and is willing to commit 1/3 of costs to new rapid transit systems as well as the Pattullo replacement as a starting point. 

As for other money the province said
  1. It needs to come from your region (you can’t tax the provinces stuff)
  2. Your people need to agree (hold a referendum)

This is seen as an offence by those who consider the province the rich benefactor.  Those of us who lived here prior to 2007 think it’s not a bad check on their power.  Translink is dysfunctional now?   I remember when the cities were in charge…

A major strike that ended in back to work legislation.  Planning and building systems on funding not yet committed, let alone in place (federal gas tax, vehicle levy), the blaming everyone else when they have to make ‘cuts.’  Every time the province has come with funding for a major system, the board or equivalent fought with the province pushing for their own agenda instead of working with the province. Despite that, they have managed to find and gain significant funding from a variety of sources such as
  • Increased fares, fuel and property taxes ($80 million / year)
  • Increase parking sales tax from 7% to 21%
  •  Expand parking taxes to cover all off street parking $18 million / year (later replaced with more property tax)
  • New Deal for Cities ($60 million / year)
  • Additional 3 cent gas tax
  • Regular property tax and fare increases

As well, Translink did pass the vehicle levy in an attempt to generate additional funding.  But the NDP pulled the rug out from this. 

I think it speaks volumes that all rapid transit in Metro Vancouver has been driven by the province.  Expo Line?  Mid-80’s, transit was fully provincial.  Millenium Line?  Put together by the province just as Translink was being created.  Canada Line?  Shoved down Translink’s throat by the province.  Evergreen Line?  Finally going with the provincially appointed Board of Director’s.  Curiously, most of those were done under Liberal/Socred governments.  All this in a period when the federal government was practically shoving money out the door for infrastructure improvement. 

In short: the region wanted control over transit funding and operations and the province to butt out.  They got it and then some, trading provincial funding for municipal taxes and control over those taxes and operation.   But, surprise surprise, 22 municipalities couldn’t agree on what to do or how to do it.  To their credit, after 10 years the province recognized this and put an end to it.  Enter cries of ‘undemocratic’ etc.

The province is doing what it needs to do. It is responsible for inter-municpal transport, and can’t let the region or province wither while the Mayors bicker.  This is a ‘crisis’ of the Mayor’s own creation.  First by insisting on control, then by failing to manage it, and finally by whining when taken to task for it. 

If anything, this demonstrates why these major transit initiatives and inter-municipal transport should remain with the province.  Translink and the municipalities have shown them incapable of managing it to date. The first step to getting back on track would be to take this referendum as an opportunity.  Stop whining about it.  Todd Stone’s letter calls for the Mayors to define a vision with priorities and costs.  The vision thing is good – we've done that a dozen times by now.  What we need are for the Mayors to hammer out priorities and costs. 

So Mayors - we all want better transit for the region, and I believe most of us are willing to pay for it. I certainly am. But before we cut you the cheque, show us that you can work together as a region.  Show us what you’re going to buy with our money, when we’re going to get it, and how it will improve things for us.  If it’s reasonable, we’ll give you the money.  But if you’re not willing to do that, then you don’t deserve it, and we all will suffer for your pride. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Law and Grace, or How a Dollar Store Clerk one-ups Immigration Canada

Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part... making that call. I mean, the law is the law. And heck if I'm gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that's the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street. Jim Kurring, Magnolia (1999)

Well, my Christmas vacation from writing took a little longer than I originally planned.  Let’s return with a story.

A few nights back I was at our church for an evening event.  An ad hoc dinner table formed as a few of us wandered in with our take-out prior to the event, including a two of our pastors.  As we tucked into our IGA sweet and sour pork and McDonalds fries, Pastor Aaron (all names changed) told us a recent story from our shelter. 

Our church runs an overnight shelter once a week where people can come and have a hot meal and warm place to sleep.  Jason, a tall, stout man with a friendly laugh, has been coming for nearly 15 years.   Jason has a significant other – Erica.  Erica is a little frail and a lot clingy – for all those 15 years she’s been inseparable from Jason.  She relies on him to take care of her. 

Jason’s laugh is the outward expression of his heart – he loves and cares for his Erica, and has tended to her, cared for her, the whole time they’ve been around.  The two were a unit – it was impossible to consider one without the other. 

Until a few weeks ago.  Murray came into the shelter with no Erica.  Aaron went right to him to ask about her.  My heart stopped here – when I hear these stories of the marginalized, the homeless, the mentally ill my mind goes straight to the worst.  I knew Aaron was going to tell us how Erica had died, leaving Jason to himself. 

But Erica did not die.  After living here for 15 years with Jason, immigration officers took her into custody and deported her to the United States.  Now she is wandering around some strange city without her lover, her caretaker.  No one to help her, no one to guide her, no one to support her.  Alone. 

This is just bullshit.  Absolute fucking bullshit.  I’m a calm person by nature – it takes a lot to get me angry. But this makes me so freaking livid I’m shaking just writing this days later.

Perhaps ironically, when it comes to immigration, law and order, etc., I’m pretty conservative.  Follow the rules or suffer the consequences.  We have immigration and refugee processes.  They’re ugly, they’re slow, but they generally work. Follow them and welcome to Canada.  Don’t, and we’ll send you back.  A borderless world?  I’m sure it’s a nice feature of your hippie utopia, but I want some controls on who comes into our country.    

So in theory, I should be all for this.  An illegal immigrant living off the generosity of our community, and quite likely off the government? This is the exact thing people are talking about when complaining about illegal immigrants.  A drain on our resources, criminals, yadda yadda yadda, kick the bums out.  And maybe under different circumstances I would be less offended by this.  No doubt immigration kicks other people out of the country I am glad to have gone. 

Why does Erica’s story bother me?  Part of it is the timeframe.  Seriously, 15 years later?  At some point in time have we not de facto accepted Erica as a part of our country?  I realize there are moral hazards in setting time limits on immigration enforcement, but perhaps that would provide an incentive for our system to deal with cases in a timelier manner. 

But time is just a part of it.  As a terrible Christian, the question that really bothers me here is where is the grace?  Not just in Erica’s case, but where does grace fit into our justice system as a whole?
The official sources are not much help.  I read the BC Policing Plan.  I searched for grace, forgive, and a dozen other synonyms.  How many did I find? 


Looking at the courts, I found information aplenty on how the courts work, but almost none on what their goal is, or where grace, forgiveness and similar values fit in.  We can see bits of it poking through – things like absolute (and to an extent conditional) discharges, amnesties, and certain prison programs show we want to move on and bring people who broke the law back into the family of Canada.  Officers can of course show discretion as the deal with their cases. 

The justice system is supposed to consider things like
  • Seriousness of the crime
  • Deterring the accused and others from committing the crime
  • Rehabilitation of the accused

when determining how to deal with a convict.  I believe we need to be going beyond that.  I believe we need to start considering how we give more to the people who have broken our rules, who have hurt our society.  We as a country and as individuals need to show the people bearing the burden of the justice system that we love them and value them as citizens and members of our communities.  We need to welcome them in, be generous with them.  We need to forgive them. 

What specifically can we do to show grace?  Lots of small things. 

For people in or coming out of prison -
  • We can have someone tell them we as a country forgive them and welcome them back
  • We can give them a bus or train ticket to anywhere in the country they want to go
  • We can give them a good set of clothes
  • We can give them better facilities (cue the cries of “prison resorts” now)

For people interacting with law officers –
  • We can take suspected criminals into services rather than jails
  • We can help them right their wrongs immediately instead of through the courts
  • We can just let it go

Would the people falling into the justice system take any of this seriously?  Some would, some wouldn’t.  Are we opening ourselves up to be taken advantage of?  Absolutely.  But somewhere in the middle of absolute grace in all cases and hard-core justice in all cases is a tension we need to find.   I would love to hear from front-line officials (law officers, judicial members, etc.) perspectives’ on how grace fits into their work. 

I went into a dollar store several months back.  The typical seasonal displays were up.  The typical seasonal line-ups were long.  The typical seasonal music was being accompanied by a hysterical wailing coming from the back. 

I couldn’t see what was causing the noise.  No one appeared to be freaking out, so I threaded my way through the aisles to get what I needed.  Eventually I ended up at the back and came upon the source of the wail. 

A gaunt faced woman was screaming, crying, yelling about how she can’t go to jail.  A store clerk was calmly talking to her.  “I’m not going to call the police.  I’m just going to look through your bags.  I’ll give you back anything that’s yours.” 

More screaming. 

The clerk went into two plastic shopping bags with ratty blankets on top.  Predictably, underneath was dozens of dollar store goods.  The clerk put the blankets down and told the lady those were hers, and then went through every item in the bags, one by one, keeping the store goods, but giving back the few items that did belong to the lady.

The whole time the clerk was very calm, very patient, very respectful in dealing with the lady – firm, but gentle.  Over time the lady calmed down significantly.  The clerk finished with the bags, told the lady to take her things and leave, and reiterated she would not call the police.  The lady started to cry again as she took her bags and left. 

Grace.  Did she deserve it?  No – that’s the point.  

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