Thursday, 29 January 2015

Budgets aren't the only taxes we pay

It’s budget time across lower tier municipalities and all our newly elected politicians are going to learn the real work they were elected for.

               John Tory has introduced his budget in Toronto, with slightly higher taxes and a TTC fare increase, more shelter beds and many other things. He also pointed out the destructive nature of the previous administration, who ran on a platform of taxpayer respect.

               According to Tory, “...cuts to city transit services resembled something done with a “meat cleaver.”

               Locally, county and municipal councils have entered budget deliberations, treading warily as they attempt to balance the many and varied interests at play.

               One of the critical issues to be faced in Owen Sound and regionally is public transportation.

               This past Christmas I heard many parents lament that they had to risk dodging snowstorms to drive their children to college and university. I know we live in Grey Bruce where snow is just part of the winter landscape, but I also heard of one family making a trip of over 1,000 km in one long driving day to dodge snowstorms and get their children to school.

               It did not used to be that way. We used to be able to put kids on the train (years ago, I know) and they could switch at Guelph to get to Waterloo or London or Toronto.  

               It wasn’t that long ago that kids could get on the bus and be delivered safely, in a few hours, to Toronto and then onward to their final destination.

               No more. One bus a day in and one bus out of Owen Sound.

               Locally, the city council will be wresting with a transit subsidy of $785,000 and perhaps a decision about the current bus terminal.

               I would point out that there is no public transit system on the face of the earth (except for Hong Kong) which does not receive a government subsidy of some kind. For any municipal government to think that it can opt out of a significant municipal responsibility such as public transit is simply delusional. To think it can reduce services and, in this weather, put riders outside on our central hub system is downright dangerous.

               The new buses (especially the mobility transit bus) have been sighted on city streets, perhaps doing test runs and driver familiarization. That’s a good thing to see. But transit is more than buses. It’s routes and infrastructure which we all share. And part of that sharing is our support of that infrastructure through our taxes.

               I recently learned that Sudbury has restricted its mobility transit system, claiming that their regular buses are fully accessible. Riders of the mobility transit bus have to be assessed by an outside consultant, presumably a professional, to qualify to ride specialized transit.

               That’s just another form of system and resource rationing which requires a disability means test to access the transit system.

               Let’s hope that doesn’t happen here.

               The challenge for our elected officials will be to cut budgets a bit while giving taxpayers a bit. There is very little fat left on the cow, so to speak.

               It’s my hope that as our politicians make their decisions, they will do so carefully and diligently. They certainly have my prayers, and I trust yours. At the very least, think kind thoughts of them.

               In turn, I hope our elected officials will not forget the people on the edges of our community who need an affordable way to get to medical appointments, food shopping and entertainment. They count, too.


Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.  


Monday, 19 January 2015

Freedom of speech is not an absolute right

Deep in my filing cabinet is a thick file from more than thirty years ago. It tells the story of a time in New Brunswick when a public school teacher and a self-identified Christian, made some remarks in a newspaper interview denying the Holocaust ever happened.

               The interview made a lot of headlines locally and nationally. There were howls of outrage that a teacher should say such things. There were equally loud expressions of horror that the newspaper would even consider printing such words.

               A colleague and I were asked to respond on behalf of the United Church of Canada and we did. We said to the media that the person speaking did not speak for all Christians and that the person’s opinion did not reflect the Christian faith as it was understood by The United Church of Canada.

               Other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church also made similar public statements.

               The response was startling. I received letters from across Canada in support of the church’s position. Several were from Rabbis and organizations active in fighting anti-Semitism.

               I also received several pieces of what could only be called hate mail from various neo-Nazi groups.

               I recalled these deeply personal events last week when I heard the news of the attack on the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris.

               Charlie Hebdo published and continues to publish cartoons ridiculing all religions and especially Islam.

               Many were quick to rush to defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish as an example of freedom of speech; a universal human right guaranteed by many national constitutions, declarations of rights and freedoms and international treaties.

               But is freedom of speech absolute?

               I don’t believe so.

               Canadian laws and courts have understood freedom of speech as being a balance between rights and responsibilities. While one can speak freely, people are restricted by laws against libel and slander and in Canada, hate speech. In other words, with freedom of speech comes responsibility.

               So does Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons poking ridicule at religion reflect freedom of speech or does it cross the line into being offensive and possibly hate speech?

               In a press conference last week Pope Francis made some interesting comments. While agreeing that religious freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights, he went on to say, "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith."

               "There is a limit," he said. "Every religion has its dignity."

               I think Pope Francis is right.

               That does not mean that religious faith should be above being questioned or held accountable for its action. But ridicule for the sake of ridicule is simply not appropriate. The caricatures of Charlie Hebdo and others are disrespectful and do not build bridges among people.

               I don’t have to accept the tenets of a particular religious faith to have a respect for that faith.

               With freedom of speech comes responsibility. If we have respect or love for our neighbours, as the Gospels say, then we consider the serious impact of our actions.

               I applaud the media which have chosen not to reprint cartoons and words offensive to religious faiths. It’s the responsible, moral and ethical thing to do.


Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.


Monday, 12 January 2015

Luck doesn't trump our own responsibility

As a pastor I have accompanied many people on the journey of cancer. I have seen a variety of outcomes; the cancer went away never to return; the cancer went away and came back; the cancer could not be treated except in a way described as "palliative".

I came to the conclusion that cancer was simply a nasty disease and that while we can prevent some cancers and perhaps cure others, there is a randomness that I simply could not understand.

Turns out that in the majority of many cancers, that’s exactly the case. It’s random. And it’s the luck of the draw.

In a groundbreaking biostatistical study of 31 different types of cancers, biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins University have found that two thirds of cancer occurrences can be explained by random DNS changes at the cellular level. In other words, the study says, bad luck.

We have to understand that our bodies are marvellous creations. There is a constant process of cell division and replication going on all the time within us. Our bodies are constantly being renewed, thousands of cells at a time, millions of times a day.

In this process of cellular replication, the building blocks of life, our DNA, ir replicated over and over again. And the DNA replicates, errors creep in. Most of the errors are harmless. They do nothing and cause us no problems. But when they do go wrong and the cells change, cancer can be the result.

That doesn’t excuse people from making bad lifestyle choices. Some cancers can be caused by random DNA changes amplified by risk factors such as smoking, alcohol abuse, exposure to the sun and environmental factors and heredity.

I was always intrigued that some of the people who worked in the nuclear environment of the early Cold War suffered no ill effects from their radiation exposure. According to this study, it would appear that their lack of side effects, including cancer, was probably due to good luck. They survived because their ongoing cellular changes to their DNA did them no harm.

They were lucky.

Others were not.

I think this study has a huge bearing on our understanding of cancer and how we approach the disease.

First, it doesn’t mean we should not take care of ourselves, live healthy lifestyles and reduce exposure factors. Reduction in alcohol consumption, exposure to sun and a well-balanced diet are all good places to start. We can reduce the risk of cancer as much as we can.

Early detection becomes more important. The study says clearly that this is where they hope medicine will focus its energies. And we have a responsibility to work with our medical professionals to monitor ourselves and keep ourselves healthy.

But we also have to recognize there are some things which are beyond our control. As my kids say, "Stuff happens".

That means we have to recognize that we have to learn to live with illness and realize we won’t live forever.

That does not mean we will live dull, boring and ineffective lives. It means that we learn to live with a medical disease.

The positive side is that cancer is not always a death sentence. With treatment, remission happens. Sometimes it is a once in a lifetime occurrence, never to come back again.

Overall, there is still hope.

Some with say this study means we are helpless to stop cancer.

I disagree.

It means we have to be more careful of ourselves and recognize that we are mortal, human. We have to take care of ourselves, fragile creations that we are. And that’s not a bad thing.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 5 January 2015

GPS a helpful tool, but use common sense, too

I gave my wife a new GPS for Christmas.

               In case you are technologically challenged, a GPS in a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions, anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites.

               A GPS device is about the size of a bar of soap.

               It can be hand-held or mounted on any vehicle on land, a boat, submarine or aircraft.

               The GPS system was originally developed as a top secret way of accurately targeting nuclear missiles. Today, the position accuracy of a civilian GPS unit is about the width of a street. The system was made fully accessible to the public after Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed into Soviet air space in 1983 and was shot down, killing all aboard. Navigation errors in the onboard computer, which would have been corrected by a GPS system, were found to be at fault.

               GPS systems are not perfect.

               The internet is full of stories of people being led astray by their following their GPS units slavishly.

               In one experience, three women used their GPS to go to a museum in California's Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. On the return trip they decided to take a detour to see another sight.

               They got lost. Or their GPS unit got lost. Then their car ran out of gas.

               Fortunately they found a small oasis where they could drink some brackish water, but their situation was growing more desperate.

               In the meantime their family has called the police who had mounted and active search from the air.

               Close to turning back for fuel, a police helicopter located the women and directed a rescue party to them.

               On another case, a teenager in New Jersey made an illegal left hand turn, a turn his GPS said was allowed, and caused a four car collision.

               For the longest time, right  here in Owen Sound, my GPS wanted to take me out to 6 & 10 by taking me up 4th St. East by Summit Place.

Unfortunately, that takes you right into the Niagara Escarpment. Eventually the map was corrected.

               GPS devices are wonderful, but they are only as good as the underlying technology and the ability of the user to program them. And they can become more and more complex. My wife's GPS, for example, can be trained to respond to voice commands and can allow her to dial and receive phone calls without touching her cell phone.

               But all of this comes at a cost.

               I had to read the manual thoroughly before I installed the system.

               I had to update the software and the maps.

               I had to charge the battery.

               It's almost enough to cause you to throw up your hands and say "Why bother?"

               In the long run, it is worth it.

               The avenues and streets, east and west, can be confusing in Owen Sound. And even though the fire number system in Grey and Bruce counties makes finding a location pretty good, nothing is perfect. There still needs to be deep human involvement and interaction to make the technology work.

               I would not depend on GPS technology entirely. I'd still check my senses and keep an eye on the road. And if push came to shove, I'd probably stop and ask for directions.



Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County