Watchdog fails motorists – MPI premium increases

By: Graham Lane
Published: Winnipeg Sun, December 29, 2016

Despite sound reasons to deny MPI a premium increase for motorists, the Public Utilities Board upped rates 3.7%. Unfortunately legislation, policies, operations and even oversight are all in the hands of government and government-appointed boards, meaning PUB’s oversight mandate is too restricted to be fully useful.

PUB’s late recognition of MPI’s flawed investment strategy and questionable and expensive technology efforts together with a swollen bureaucracy should have been enough for PUB to put pressure on MPI by freezing average premiums. But, provincial legislation gives government absolute control over MPI’s investing and programs, leaving PUB a handicapped and partial review mandate.

A zero rate decision combined with a call for better investing, smarter technology, and a more efficient operation would have been in the public interest. Upping rates simply preserves MPI’s low-performing status quo, allowing the insurer and its government master to idle on, changing little and ignoring valid concerns. With the government itself facing a rising deficit, the bump up in MPI rates helps government’s fiscal position while hurting motorists.

MPI’s investment returns and prospects are too low, and likely to go negative as bond values fall as interest rates rise. MPI and government’s choice of investments overemphasize bonds, provincial and municipal, which generate very low yields. Smarter investing would have more and more diverse equities (stocks). Why is it that government pension plans and the WCB maintain more effective investment portfolios, benefitting government workers (their pensions) and employers (funding WCB), while MPI continues with an out-dated low-yield approach, long to the detriment of vehicle owners? Simple, again because it’s approach serves government’s interests, not motorists.

And then there is the expense side of the insurer’s operations, with layers and layers of management, a personnel complement well above industry norms (even before the addition of driver and vehicle licensing, a government responsibility to MPI’s duties – unprecedented anywhere). Case management is but one element of a long needed independent stringent operational review. MPI carries on resisting extensive benchmarking against private sector and even other provincial government insurers (SGI, ICBC).

Overall, MPI’s financial position is secure: a very conservative estimate of claim liabilities, a ‘pad’ (provision for adverse deviation), plus reinsurance. And, MPI enjoys the ultimate security of a mandatory monopoly with an anticipated infinite lifetime: motorists can’t escape MPI.

Government monopolies commonly empower politicians with hidden tools for cooking the books and buying votes. MPI policyholders have subsidized the provincial government by over $100 million after the first years of transferred responsibility for government’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing branch. Drivers via MPI also pay for government-favoured donations; funding police, Justice and corrections’ operations; paying long-haul truckers’ no-fault claims and training costs with no premiums exacted.

The NDP once pushed it too far when it attempted to have drivers fund university programs through MPI, blinking in the face of public outrage.
MPI shouldn’t have got its latest premium hike. Instead, MPI should be tasked to revise its investment approach and reduce operational costs to at least the industry average. Driver licensing, a core government function, should be unbundled from MPI to improve transparency and remove a hidden subsidy to government.

PUB should have ordered a rate freeze, pressure on MPI is long overdue.

Graham Lane, Manitoba Forward’s leader (manitobaforward.ca) and former PUB chair.

Too costly to leave the indigenous situation as it is

By: Graham Lane
Published: Winnipeg Sun, December 23, 2016

Despite innumerable inquiries, claimed reforms and repeated apologies, Canada’s indigenous situation remains unsettled, tragic and almost incalculably expensive. Mired in misery, far too many aboriginal people and communities remain trapped in dire situations while fundamental changes are neglected.

Canada has approximately 614 First Nations and 50 Inuit communities, many in the north. About 60% have populations of less than 500, less than 10% have more than 2,000. In northern Manitoba, there are 32 First Nation communities comprised of about 50,000 residents – probably another 50,000 reside in Winnipeg or other Manitoba cities and towns. Four of the northern communities are off the electric grid, many more rely on winter roads and air transportation for food and fuel.

The reserves are marked by inadequate housing, over-crowded living conditions, unemployment, sub-par heath and education levels, expensive groceries and over-whelming despair. And, high birth rates in indigenous communities place pressure on already inadequate services: suicide and premature death are too common. Those that leave their communities found needed services in their home communities inadequate or missing. But, not that easy for the leavers, the per capita payments from Ottawa do not ‘go’ with those that leave.

Our indigenous citizens dominate an array of dreadful categories – 90% of Manitoba’s children in care, a very large percentage of families and individuals on provincial welfare, lowest educational level, highest unemployment, highest percentage in jail are about 3% of Canada’s population but 18% of federal prisoners), highest rate of diabetes, lowest level of teeth care, lowest average age at death, highest infant mortality, and lowest average family income.

Yet the indigenous people who leave their reserves and come to the city, despite the problems they confront and endure there, do much better – employment, health, education – than those who remain on reserve.

And, there is a massive and ever-growing cost of the situation that falls on the non-indigenous population to pay. Total federal and provincial costs to serve our Canadian indigenous population already runs at about $18 billion a year. The federal government promises more. Current government support for indigenous people is about 70% higher per capita than support to the non-indigenous population. The ‘balance sheet’ suggests our indigenous citizens are a financial drag on the rest of us – much is spent with but little is coming back.

So, there are two arguments for major reform of the old but still current approach. One approach is centred on assisting our indigenous population to live better, longer, and more enjoyable lives. The second approach has our indigenous population becoming economically more productive, having employment, paying more taxes and reducing pressure on non-indigenous taxpayers. As it is, Canada is greying, with the percentage of seniors increasing year after year, increasing the overall dependency ratio.

Canada’s Indian Act and constitution blocks unilateral federal action. Somehow we have to convince indigenous leaders to give up their favourable economic and power positions and help transition their people squarely into modern Canada. The treaties and legislation should allow
funds now flowing to the band council to be granted to individuals, so those leaving reserves will have the support they need when they move to cities and towns. Courage, honesty and hard work are needed.

Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward (manitobaforward.ca).

What was missing in the Truth and Reconciliation Report

By: Graham Lane

Published: Winnipeg Sun, December 16, 2016

In an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press (September 26th), Gerry Chidiac accepted without reservation the Truth and Renconcialion Commission’s (TRC) findings, which uncritically condemned past residential schools.

The TRC Report (on the History of Indian Residential Schools) had three ‘sensitive’ commissioners delve into experiences that clearly traumatized many aboriginal people. While Canadians appreciate that this major historical issue needed to be critically analyzed, it is time to hear the voices of other people who had different experiences in these schools —including school administrators and employees, and non-aboriginal children who also attended. Many tell different stories. As compelling as the testimonies of former aboriginal students are, they represent a partial and skewed picture of the 150 years of the schools’ history.

The most incendiary claim made by TRC was that the 150,000 children who attended these mainly Church-run schools between 1849 and 1996 were considered “sub-human”. This claim is contradicted by the schools’ true purpose, that being of educating aboriginal children: to provide knowledge and skills needed in an evolving Canadian society. Obviously, only human beings can be educated, sub-humans cannot.

Second, TRC was aware that providing education to reserve-based aboriginal children was often requested by aboriginal leaders and parents. Providing schools was entrenched as an obligation in many treaties, a promise that government faithfully kept. Without residential schools, the nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, remote location, and tiny size of many aboriginal groups would have neither offered nor brought formal education to these children.

Third, TRC glossed over the fact that over the 150 years only about 30% of aboriginal children attended residential schools. About 70% either never attended school at all, went to integrated (public) schools, or attended Indian Day Schools. Importantly, some scholarly studies suggest that aboriginal people who attended integrated and day schools weren’t substantially better off than those who did. If this is true, then the deplorable condition of so many younger aboriginal people today cannot be entirely attributed to their ancestors’ residential school experiences.

Finally, TRC reported that more than 4,100 students died while attending residential schools. But, the commissioners don’t say how many children died of abuse and neglect and how many died of natural causes and accidents. Rather, they let readers assume that all the deaths resulted from abuse and neglect. During the same 150 year period, children attending public schools also died, but rarely in school because they were either sent home or to a hospital when ill. Residential schools had infirmaries, so it is understandable that more aboriginal students died at school because they were sent to the schools’ infirmaries.

And, did residential school students die in numbers grossly disproportionate to public school students? Did residential school students routinely die of abuse and neglect? Are there mass graves of unnamed aboriginal children while non-aboriginal children were buried in separate, marked plots? Conventional wisdom may say “yes”, but there is little evidence of that in the TRC Report to support this conclusion.

Independent non-partisan research is needed.

Canadians appreciate that TRC opened this historical issue to public scrutiny, but claims need to be carefully and critically examined. We need to move on, the future is all we all have.

Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward (manitobaforward.ca).

Renegotiate First Nation treaties

By: Graham Lane

Published: Winnipeg Sun, December 9, 2016

Canada has had 150 years to deal with a clash of civilizations between a pre-existing indigenous population and a massive influx of, initially, Europeans. With newcomers quickly out-numbering the indigenous population, spreading into lands occupied by hundreds of separate tribes, problems were to be expected. And, the lands reserved by treaties for the tribes were rarely choice agriculture land.

A problematic situation was made worse by the slaughter of bison after the American civil war. The slaughter was an effort by the American government to open up land for prospectors and settlers. In Canada, Riel’s success in dragging a few tribes into the 1885 rebellion didn’t help: a resentful Canada first left its indigenous people to a depleting hunting and fishing environment.

The focus was settling western Canada and avoiding absorption into the American empire. With no initial universal education, medical and welfare system, the tribes were dependent on religious orders. Intent on converting them to Christianity, they provided the education, healthcare and skills they thought aboriginals needed to thrive in a country they had no role in creating.

As a result of the approach taken, our aboriginal people have seen 150 years of poverty, misery, premature deaths, and shame. Unfortunately, there is little intelligent and open discussion on what to do to fix what developed. No federal government has truly tried to face the problem.

In a nutshell, here it is.

The reserves are now funded based on the numbers of people living there, about 50,000 in Manitoba. As funding is based on the headcount, with additional expenditures for education, housing and health care, aboriginal citizens are trapped on jobless reserves. As the money flows through the band and not directly to each member, leavers cannot take their funding with them nor obtain alternative funding (excepting for provincial welfare). As a result, most of those who come to Winnipeg remain in dependency, collecting welfare while struggling to find adequate housing, schooling, and employment.

Fortunately, increasingly more aboriginals are becoming well-educated and find meaningful work off the reserves. They leave in search of a better life, as do many other poor rural inhabitants around the globe.

We cannot dictate where non-aboriginal Canadians live, yet we pay aboriginal Canadians to stay on reserves. Section 6.2 of the Canadian Constitution says: “Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province”.

It is time for First Nations people to have a real chance at a better life through choice, like every other Canadian. Treaty negotiations should be reopened, seeking to unshackle these first Canadians by giving them the same opportunities as other Canadians enjoy.

Chiefs and councils should put aside the advantages of power the current system provides them and their families and engage in renegotiating the treaties. A century and a half of maintaining an apartheid system should end.

If, at first, only a few altruistic chiefs and bands took up this challenge and left ruinous dependency, it would only be a matter of time before other bands followed. Truth if not reconciliation comes next week.

Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward (manitobaforward.ca).

A Bleak Future for Northern Reserves

By: Graham Lane

Published: Winnipeg Sun, December 2, 2016

Recently we have had worrisome news from Northern Manitoba. From the troubles of the Port
of Churchill and its rail line, a scare from the Pas’ major employer and thoughts of moving the
aboriginal-run casino, to continued plans to shut down parts of the Vale and HudBay’s
operations in Thompson and Flin Flon. All affect the employment of aboriginals.

In the heady 1960s, Churchill reached a population of nearly 6,000 people. After the US
Airforce moved out and the rocket range closed down, Churchill’s population steadily declined
to about 700 people. Tolko’s forestry operations in the Pas tried to make a go of it after crown
corporation Manfor couldn’t – trees are too small, markets too far away.

Many other communities in the north, such as Lynn Lake, Bisset, Pine Falls, and Flin Flon,
have had operations closed down or reduced, and have seen their working populations decline
substantially. Gone are the days of never-ending price increases for all raw commodities –
welcome to the days of cutthroat competition, flattening demand and low economic growth –
spelling disaster for many northern resource-based communities.

People naturally migrate out of declining communities to areas of economic opportunity,
better health care, and greater educational opportunities. Until we see an explosion in the
demand for our natural resources, the Manitoba North will produce less economic output and
continue to lose population.

So, where does this leave our First Nations people living on northern reserves? The hope was
economic opportunities would spill over into their communities. But with mine closures,
forestry at risk, hunting and fishing offering limited opportunities and local industries
relocating, what is the long-term economic outlook for our northern citizens?

This situation is important for all Manitobans. The Aboriginal communities are part of
Manitoba and Canada and we are all responsible for our aboriginal citizens.
Aboriginals living in the north, and especially those on reserves, face a bleak future,
economic and social. Frankly, there is little possibility for the majority to become
economically self-sufficient. Right now, 90% of the people on northern reserves are
unemployed, with no hope of ever finding meaningful and longterm work outside of internal
band administration.

For families wherever located and whether or not aboriginal, to have a purpose to their lives
and believe their children will be better off than they have been, they need economic
empowerment. The brutal truth is that no one can turn history back and support their
families by hunting and fishing. And, it is increasingly unlikely mining and forestry will rescue
them. While there will always be some traditional trapping and small-scale commercial
fishing, it will never be enough to support our northern aboriginal population.

These people are trapped, dependent on a welfare state controlled by Chiefs, band councils,
and the federal government. To some degree, we can blame corruption and a lack of skills,
but there are fewer employment opportunities in the North. There is no hope of these
Manitobans becoming economically well off – PERIOD.

It is time that we looked for real alternatives to help our Northern aboriginal people find
meaningful and productive lives, rather than hiding them away on crime-infested reserves and
other withering northern communities.

Next week, what we can do.

Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward (manitobaforward.ca).