Oil pipelines, tankers on the west coast and food banks – a viewpoint

Ann Grant
2013 Child Poverty Report Card

Commentary by Ann Grant

What are our priorities in British Columbia and where do we put our resources?

This week is the big, annual fund drive by the food banks in BC to raise money for their operations.  CBC Radio One is devoting its local programming on Dec. 6 to its annual fund drive for them. Food banks began in the province 31 years ago and were supposed to be an “emergency” response to food needs at the time.  After all these years of a “temporary” measure, they are still going strong!

Also in the news nearly every day recently is a lot of talk about the building of pipelines to move oil and fracked gas across the province and then load it onto tankers for export to foreign markets.

It struck me as telling that on December 4 this week, the hour-long noontime CBC Radio One phone-in radio program, B.C. Almanac, was devoted to these two topics.

The first half of the program dealt with a new federally initiated report on oil tanker safety released this week.  According to B.C. Almanac, this report “has found that current response time in case of an oil spill would not be fast enough and it would not be tailor made for BC's coast.”  And, “The report makes 45 recommendations to improve oil spill preparedness and response in Canada.” (Listen to a podcast of the broadcast, here.)

The CBC program asks its listeners to respond to the question, “What does a  world class oil spill prevention and response actually look like”.

Lisa Raitt, the federal transportation minister, responded to the report by saying, “I want to thank the panel for its work and the valuable expertise it has brought to this critical issue.  And I want to reiterate that we will take all necessary actions to prevent oil spills, and we will make sure that the ability to clean them up quickly is there if they do have spills and that we will make sure that polluters pay the bill.” 

Raitt went on to say that Transport Canada will consult with various “stakeholders” across the country in the coming months and will help “shape the next phase for the world class tanker system in Canada”.

Callers made the expected comments about the beautiful and difficult-to-navigate BC coast. They said the coast should be protected. Many wondered if it is even possible to protect, and some felt it ultimately be would be impossibe to protect the coast from oil tankers.  Some made the point that we should leave the oil in the ground to help stop climate change. 

There were suggestions to involve the army in oil spill response, to train many more volunteers, that much more equipment would be needed and that the behaviour of bitumen in interaction with sea water would have to be studied. (The latter has been promised by the federal government already.)

Of course, some of these measures are already needed because there are already tankers plying the BC coast. For example,  tankers  presently load Alberta oil at the Kinder Morgan pipeline terminal in Vancouver harbor.

Some of the commentators and callers, including the Mayor of Ucuelet, pointed out that existing prevention and response is already quite inadequate. The federal government is “talking the good talk” but not “walking the walk” right now  

Several callers  made the point that if the new pipelines were simply not built there would be far fewer tankers and therefore much less risk!  Of course, as some callers pointed out, if fossil fuels were left in the ground this would in the end be the best way to prevent oil spills!

Already it is obvious that much time and money has been spent on discussion and “consultation” on oil pipelines and tankers.  And doubtless much more time and money will be spent.  This is obviously a government priority!

The second half of the December 4th program was devoted to the question, “What would it take to shut down food banks in BC?” 

“How reliant on food banks are you or someone you know?” the program asked.

There are 94 food banks in the province under the auspices of Food Banks BC. As the host of  B.C. Almanac noted, “It's fair to say that most British Columbians wish there was not a need for food banks in our communities...”

Contributors to the program reported that the demand for food banks continues to increase. “People are becoming low income families” says the president of Food Banks BC!  The numbers of “working poor” are rising, along with increasing need for food banks.  Good paying jobs are not there and people are lacking in skills for good paying jobs.

Callers talked of their need for the help that food banks have provided them.  There were suggestions that if there was universal (national) affordable child care, affordable housing, higher minimum wages, higher social assistance rates and properly funded social programs, then maybe food banks would be needed less, or not at all.  Several times the need for a guaranteed living wage was raised as a way to deal with the problem.  It was also noted that there would be a reduction in the size of required bureaucracy if there were a guaranteed wage.

Bill Hopwood of “Raise the Rates”,  a coalition devoted to raising social assistance rates, told the program, “The cost of poverty in British Columbia is over eight billion dollars a year.  The cost of a comprehensive antipoverty strategy--child care, housing, minimum wage, and welfare-- is around four billion dollars. So in the medium term tackling poverty would save the people of British Columbia a lot of money as well as making us a lot happier, a lot more comfortable, a lot better place.”

Hopwood went on to say, “It's all about the short term.........We're doing short term savings of money, which in the long term costs a lot…”

“It costs the health system in BC alone over a billion dollars a year because poverty makes people ill.....We know that people care......We know the majority of British Columbians, over 75%, want an antipoverty strategy but we come up against this mindset...”

The program noted that Canada’s federal government has exited responsibility for building social housing in the country.

Not  mentioned on the Dec. 4th program (but   treated  on another recent B.C. Almanac program, (Nov.27, 2013), is the fact that British Columbia is once again this year the leading Canadian province in child poverty. There are two recent reports on child poverty, one issued by Campaign 2000, reporting the Canada-wide child poverty numbers, and the other by the BC group First Call, reporting the BC numbers.)

So here is the question.  What is really going on in our society?  What is this gap between the actual priorities of the majority of our citizens and how our governments (and their corporate masters) are spending our tax money –  on their priorities?

Ann Grant is a member of the recently-formed Vancouver Ecosocialist Group.