Bob Broughton's Blog about British Columbia politics

Most of what you've heard about Mexico is wrong

Ex-convento de Churubusco, one of the sights I saw in CoyoacanAt the time I'm writing this, I have been traveling in Mexico for 19 days. By bus, except for a ferry between La Paz and Mazatlan. I've made stops in Ensenada, Loreto, La Paz, Mazatlan, Mexico City, and Oaxaca de Juarez, and I plan to stay in Oaxaca de Juarez for four weeks.

At no time during this trip have I felt unsafe or threatened. Because I'm on a long trip, I'm carrying along a lot of stuff, and I have a justifiable concern about the stuff being stolen. That hasn't happened. There have been military checkpoints along my route, a military presence in Loreto and La Paz, and a visible police presence in Oaxaca. When I arrived at the Terminal Norte in Mexico City, they have the same arrangement for taxis that they have at the airport; there's a desk where you tell the lady where you're going, she tells you how much it will cost, and sells you a ticket that you can use only on approved taxis. (Taking an unlicensed taxi is the most dangerous thing you can do in Mexico City.)

My experience has been the opposite of warnings that have been issued by people who should know better, such as the Texas Department of Public Safety. Here's two experiences I've had that say a lot more about this country.

1. I went out late at night in Mazatlan to purchase some fruit. I found a juice stand at the Mercado in the Old Town, and asked for a banana and a grapefruit. Then I asked the lady, "how much", and she said "nada". I even pulled out a few pesos to pay for the stuff, and she still refused to accept them.

2. I had to go to an agency on Avenida Insurgentes, a major north-south thoroughfare in Mexico City, to purchase my bus ticket for Oaxaca. My next destination was Coyoacán, a neighbourhood in the south part of Mexico City. There's a rapid bus line on Insurgentes, similar to ones that exist in Bogata and other cities working on low-cost transit solutions. So, I got on a southbound bus, with the intention of making a left turn somewhere to get to Coyoacán. Once on board, I learned from nearby passengers that I should get off at the Altavista station, and take a bus marked "General Anaya".

I did this. However, the bus stop wasn't very visible, and I walked right by it. When I saw the next station on the Insurgentes line, I realized I had done something wrong, and turned around and started back. As soon as I did this, I saw a short middle-age lady, one of the people who provided the directions on the rapid bus. She saw that I had walked by the stop, and followed me down the street in order to show me the error of my ways. Since she was shorter than I am, she couldn't walk anywhere near as fast. She escorted me back to where the stop for the General Anaya bus is, and made sure that I got on the right bus.

Of course, I said "muchas gracias" to this woman and the one at the Mercado in Mazatlan several times. Because my Spanish is very much a work in progress (that's why I'm in Oaxaca, as a student in a Spanish immersion program), I was unable to say more to them. So, I'm writing this article as another way of thanking them.

The message I want you to get from the two anecdotes presented here is, think about them the next time you see a story in the news about some new inconvenience legislated by some state for Mexicans, such as the one passed in Arizona requiring police to ask for papers from any brown-skinned person. Or the law passed in Alabama requiring brown-skinned people to carry identification at all times.

I've described people here that deserve the same respect from you as the people at your country club or Rotary. They want their children to go to good schools, and have a secure future.

Click here for more pictures I've taken along the way.

Harper government goes after passenger rail again

Photo by Jools Stone,

Passenger trains have made it onto the radar screen of the Harper government again, and that's always bad news.

This time, it isn't about nickel-and-diming Amtrak over customs inspections. They are taking a page out of the Republican playbook by talking about “privatizing” Via Rail, which is a euphemism for putting it out of business.

Now, why would be the Conservatives want to rid us of one of Canada's major tourist attractions, just to save approximately $250 million per year? That's about 0.1% of the Federal budget, in an era when we should be talking about reducing fossil fuel dependence, instead of increasing it.

A big reason is Rocky Mountain Railtours, which wants a monopoly on passenger rail travel in Canada. They have a long history of blocking efforts by Via Rail to move into more markets, such as Vancouver-Calgary. Now, they have lobbyists in Ottawa trying to sell the idea that they can not only run Via Rail off the tracks in Western Canada; they can take over passenger trains in Eastern Canada, too.

What's wrong with this? Rocky Mountain Railtours is not in the business of providing an alternative to automobiles and airplanes, or transporting passengers from one place to another in the shortest possible amount of time. What they operate is a cruise ship on rails, and their target market is high-rollers, not people visiting friends and relatives in Edmonton and Saskatoon.

Via Rail's management has said they are looking at reducing service in Western Canada. There are only three Vancouver-Toronto trains a week. What would a reduction in service look like? One train a week? A train every two weeks?

Instead, we should be talking about daily Vancouver-Toronto trains, which we had 20 years ago. Via Rail should run three trains a week on the existing Edmonton-Saskatoon routte, and four trains a week on the Calgary-Regina-Thunder Bay route. The latter is more scenic, and was more popular prior to its discontinuance in 1990. We should also be talking about reinstating the Vancouver-Lillooet-Prince George passenger service, which was discontinued by Gordon Campbell in 2002 as part of paving the way for the now-discredited BC Rail sale.

And where does the money for this come from? One huge difference between Via Rail and Amtrak is that Amtrak has been able to upgrade its rolling stock over the years, and Via Rail has been restrained from doing the same. Running trains with 60-year-old equipment is false economy; Via Rail is stuck with high maintenance and fuel costs.

Via Rail could also benefit financially by shutting down a major Canadian industry, high speed rail studies, and spending the money on actually transporting people instead. Take a look at the blurb below by comedian Rick Mercer:

Harper was in China at the time this was written. China is a place where the idea of privatizing or scaling back passenger rail would be greeted with laughter. Passenger rail in China has created a lot of revenue for Bombardier. Why can Bombardier take on an couple of projects in Canada?

Saudi Arabia gets 84 fighter planes

The Kindom of Saudi Arabia was in the news twice during the month of December, 2011. On December 12, a woman in her sixties named Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was beheaded for practicing "witchcraft and sorcery." On December 29, a deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States was announced; Saudi Arabia will purchase 84 F-15SA fighter jets for $30 billion.

You can read the details of the fighter plane sale here. The F15 is more sophisticated than the F35's that Canada is buying, and Canada will manage to defend a much longer coast line with only 65 of them. Arms sales to foreign goverments have to be approved by the President and Congress of the United States, and Obama and Congress had no problem with it. That's not hard to understand; the sale will put $3.5 billion annually into the US economy, supporting 50,000 jobs with 600 suppliers in 44 states.

There's so much wrong with this that I don't know where to start, so I'll start here: where were the screams from the wingnuts who believe that Obama is a secret Muslim? The ones who were having a fit over a proposed Muslim cultural centre in a former coat factory in lower Manhattan. (First Amendment? What First Amendment?) Why weren't the talking heads on Faux News devoting a couple of days worth of air time to this subject? Why do we need Stephen Colbert to remind us that "only 15 the the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens?"

We know, of course, that it's US dependence on oil that causes the US government and media to enable the behavior of the Saudi regime. The suggestion I'm going to make here is, the next time you're having a holiday dinner ruined by a relative who spends too much time watching Faux News, you can respond with any of these reality checks:

  • Since most Repugnikans (except Ron Paul) are competing with each other over who can be the biggest support of Israel, why is the US supplying a lot of weapons to the regime that doesn't care much for Israel?
  • If Repugnikans want to offer us "Sharia Law" as a boogie man, does it make sense to enable the behavior of a regime that really practices Sharia Law? Maybe the people who want to turn the US into a theocracy think that Sharia Law and the beheading of sorceresses aren't such bad things.
  • How come Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Beck, Palin, et al aren't going after Obama for supporting this deal? (If you get this answer: "Beck was fired by Faux News because he criticized the Saudi regime", you can respond "touché". It's a fact that the second-largest shareholder in the Fox Network is Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi prince.)
  • If there is indeed some sort of "war on Christmas" going on, does it make sense to provide weapons to a culture that doesn't celebrate Christmas?

We shouldn't forget for one minute that the Middle East is a very dangerous place, and having nuclear weapons in the hands of Islamic religious fanatics would be a very bad thing. However, making irrational public policy decisions based on Denial over dependence on Middle Eastern oil will make a dangerous situation even more dangerous.

Amtrak stop proposed for Blaine, WA

Blaine BNSF station

The topic of an additional stop for Amtrak trains between Vancouver and Bellingham, WA has finally caught the attention of local media.

The need has existed for a long time. People who live in New Westminster, Surrey, and Delta who want to take a train to Seattle or Portland have to either travel to downtown Vancouver in order to catch a train that takes them right back out to New Westminster, Surrey, or Delta, or get a ride to Bellingham and catch the train there.

A possible solution has come for for this because of a seemingly unrelated event. Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns the train station building in Blaine, WA. It's 100 years old, in a state of disrepair, and hasn't been used as a passenger stop since 1980. BNSF announced a plan to demolish it, and people in Blaine decided that this was a bad idea. Not so much because of heritage value of the building, but because they recognize that access to passenger rail service would be beneficial to the community.

The station is within walking distance of the Peace Arch border crossing, although it would seem to be further if you're carrying heavy luggage. It should be possible to arrange secure parking for those people in Surrey, Delta, etc. would would like to catch a train in Blaine, and leave their car there for a few days.

The Prosperity Mine proposal in the Chilcotin - a really bad idea

I'm going to be at the Vancouver Law Courts (specifically, at the corner of Nelson and Hornby) at 9:30 AM on Monday, November 28.

The occasion is a court hearing on the Prosperity Mine proposal by Taseko Mines Ltd., based in Vancouver. This proposal is for a gold and copper mine in the Nemiah Valley, southwest of Hanceville, BC. It calls for dumping mine tailings in Fish Lake, known to the Nemiah Band (Xeni Gwet'in) as Teztan Biny.

I've been to every part of British Columbia sometime during my life, and the Chilcotin, along and south of route 20 between Williams Lake and Bella Coola, is my favourite. The last time I was there was about 14 years ago. I saw the herd of wild horses in the Brittany Triangle. Several people told me I should go to Fish Lake. I was within 5 km. of it, but didn't go there because the road was too rough for the car I was driving.

Here's a video that shows why Fish Lake is a very special place:

Blue Gold: The Tsilhqot'in Fight for Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) from Susan Smitten on Vimeo.

This project has already been turned down by the Federal Ministry of Environment. Taseko Mines responded by renaming the proposal the New Prosperity Mine, and trotted out the bogus claim that the project would create 71,000 jobs. (Taseko had only 414 employees in 2007.) They're insulting our intelligence, and they're certainly not fooling the Nemiah Band.

Occupy Vancouver, Oct. 15 (includes podcast)

I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery, listened to some speechmaking, saw a number of people I hadn't seen in over a year, and walked up Hornby Street and down Howe Street twice. There were about 5,000 people there. As I headed for the Skytrain to go home, I saw yet another parade going up Granville Street, and additional protest effort unrelated to the one at the art gallery.

I have some harsh words for the organizers. I arrived at 10 AM, and the people on the steps were explaining how to do consensus-based decision making. They didn't give us any idea about just what sort of things we would be making decisions about, and when they introduced some people who would be serving as interpreters, someone in the back made an intelligent suggestion: why not have the interpreters introduce themselves in their own language? (Think about it: if someone doesn't speak English, it doesn't do much good to tell them, in English, that Jan is going to be interpreting in Mandarin.) This suggestion was ignored.

Then, there was a long discussion on whether to use an electronic microphone or use "human mikes" instead. Then, they went through the consensus-based decision-making process three more times, and on the fourth time, I headed for a coffee bar a few blocks away to drink a latte and read a newspaper. When I came back, the electronic microphone had finally been turned over the the speakers.

That time between my arrival at the art gallery and my departure for the coffee bar is an hour of my life I will never get back. The same applies to the large number of other people who were present during that period. If the organizers of Occupy Vancouver want our respect as organizers, they need to respect the fact that our time is valuable. There are a lot of other things we could have been doing on a nice October day. I would have rather been hearing about how the mass media has let down the public, climate change, or Christy Clark's involvement in the BC Rail giveaway.

Airspace President Errol Povah showed up with a placard. We recorded a podcast.

Get MP3 (2.1 MB | 4:20 min)

Vote by mail, not by internet

An article in the August 30 Vancouver Sun, Cities push province for electronic voting, says that three BC municipalities are trying to get the influential Union of BC Municipalities to endorse the idea of internet voting.

The UBCM should say "no" to this idea. So should Elections BC, the Federal government, and all provincial governments. We shouldn't accept any voting arrangement that doesn't provide paper ballots that can be counted in the presence of multiple election officials and scrutineers, and can, if necessary, be recounted.

Here's a better idea. We got an excellent turnout with the mail-in ballots used in the recent HST referendum. Oregon has been using mail-in ballots since 1998, and Washington State started using mail-in ballots last year. It has worked well for them; voter turnout has gone up, and the cost of conducting elections has gone down. Let's go with something that works, and can be trusted.