"i'm afraid to leave the house, because i'll hear about another death": the ongoing crises and the toll on frontline workers

The branch supervisor of the Port Hardy Library
made these, on her own initiative. We have given
away more than 50 of these "crisis keychains" so far.
Front and back pictured here.
The Port Hardy community has been besieged with a series of untimely deaths, many of young people. This has been going on for several years, but last year it escalated sharply, and this year has been even worse.

In 2023, 21 people died from non-natural causes. This year so far, there have been 13 such deaths. This in a community of about 4,400 people. 

Almost all the victims have been Indigenous people.

These deaths are caused by toxic drug poisoning, by alcohol addiction, by car accidents in which alcohol was involved. There have been a substantial number of suicides. 

Many in the community are trapped in a cycle of trauma. Among people already using substances, in lives riddled with trauma, there is no healthy way to process these fresh wounds. The connections among intergenerational trauma, personal loss and grief, mental health, and substance use are an almost seamless web. 

It is heartbreaking.

This crisis hits frontline workers very hard, and library workers are part of that. Libraries are often the only public space left for the people most impacted by these multiple crises. Many of our customers have died. We have lost people that we used to see every day. Others that we see every day have lost sons, daughters, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts. They bring their grief and trauma to us daily.  

People within the community are intimately connected through extended family and Nation ties. As one of our beloved regulars said, "I'm afraid to leave the house in the morning, because I fear I'll hear about another death."

Two of our regulars, a couple, lost a child in an alcohol-related car accident. Before this, they were working hard at rehab. They were clean and sober for the longest time they had ever managed. Then this. 

One of them is the person I performed CPR on in 2019. He uses our public computers, watching videos of his son and sobbing. Imagine processing your grief in public. 

The other constantly gets into fights, hurling her anger and grief at everyone around her.

The woman whose dog I adopted -- Cookie's first mom -- died a few months ago. I saw her at the library every single day since starting work here five years ago. That was the only funeral I have attended so far. The room was full of elders, burying one young person after the next.

Library staff is constantly exposed to this grief and at the very same moment, must cheerily assist customers with their book searches, their holds, their checkouts, their tech questions. Must give a happy and upbeat storytime. Must simply move on with their day.

For many people, trauma combined with substance use equals aggressive and menacing behaviour, so we're always dealing with that, too. We call the ambulance. We (reluctantly) call the police. We call a mental health outreach worker, but they are overtaxed and can rarely respond. 

We're trained in Naloxone. One day each week, a harm-reduction nurse is available at the library to train anyone in the community. We have drug-testing strips. 

We've had training in crisis prevention and trauma-informed practice. We've had recognition and support from First Nations elders. We've discussed and debriefed and done way too much self-care. 

Some staff respond by going into overdrive, trying to help more. Some can't think straight. Some fold into themselves. Some pretend it doesn't hurt. I'm an expert at compartmentalizing. I'm expected to take care of my staff, but the demands of my job don't allow too much time for that.

This week, staff and I are attending a two-day workshop on suicide prevention: ASIST. It's being offered jointly by Island Health and the First Nations Health Authority. Demand was so great that many people couldn't get in, and a second round is being offered a bit later this year. It's wonderful that so many people are interested. It's devastating that the need is so great.


what i'm reading: operation paperclip: the secret intelligence program that brought nazi scientists to america

Many years ago, I wrote about how the label conspiracy theory is used to shut down inquiry and squelch the questioning of authority: two words, part one, two words part two. */**

Never have I been more aware of this than after reading two books about real events that could easily sound like the wacky imaginings of the tinfoil hat crew. 

Both books are impeccably researched and written.

The subjects of both books are incontrovertible fact. 

Both are about programs organized and run by members of the US government, kept secret from most people in government -- something many people believe is impossible to do. 

The first book, I wrote about here: Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. The capsule summary: 

From the early 1950s to at least the mid-1970s, a tiny group of men within the CIA, led by Gottlieb, conducted research into biological and chemical weapons, experimenting on human subjects who lives were considered expendable. 

Without informed consent from their subjects, and usually without the subjects' knowledge at all, these CIA men tortured people (and to a lesser extent, animals) by feeding them LSD and applying other techniques of psychological torture. This went on for decades and involved thousands of vulnerable people -- drug users, prison inmates, psychiatric patients. Gottlieb also invented deadly new poisons and ways to secretly administer them, with the goal of assassinating foreign leaders. The program was known as MK-ULTRA.

The second book, I read earlier this year: Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America. (Unsurprisingly, these two bizarre and shameful pieces of US history intersect.)

These were not easy books to read -- the content is highly disturbing -- but I'm very glad I read both. I wish everyone would.

Here's what happened, in the briefest form possible

Immediately after the end of World War II, a small and highly classified group within the US government began to smuggle Nazi scientists out of Germany and into the United States. 

The program expanded and continued throughout the 1950s. In all, more than 1,600 Nazis were safeguarded this way.

This program was not reserved for the rank-and-file, the "we were only following orders" Nazis. Quite the opposite. Operation Paperclip gave a new lease on life to elite, high-ranking Nazi scientists, men who were part of Hitler's and Himmler's inner circle. 

Paperclip included the highest-level specialists in their fields: biological weapons, chemical weapons, and atomic weapons. They were also sadistic, amoral men who devised and carried out hideous experiments on human beings. They were war criminals. 

The American officials in charge of Operation Paperclip were not Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. They didn't give a fuck about the scientists' politics or what they had used their scientific knowledge for. They had only one, single-minded purpose.

The Nazis were miles -- light years -- ahead of the United States in the development of biological and chemical weapons, and the men of Operation Paperclip wanted their knowledge. 

Some were obsessed with keeping the scientists away from the Soviet Union. (The Soviets had a similar program and were also scooping up Nazi scientists as fast as they could.) Others were obsessed with the military implications of these weapons. All were neutral about something that should defy neutrality.

Some people within the program raised objections. Some within government, and in a position to curtail the program, raised objections. Those men were overruled and excised from decision-making positions.  

In theory, Operation Paperclip screened for war criminals and required the rescued scientists to undergo "denazification". In reality, none of that happened. War criminals were given new identities. Their families were relocated to the US. Many became US citizens. They were treated well and enjoyed comfortable, long lives. 

Content warnings, at least for me

As a child, I was inundated with Holocaust education. I remember coming home from Hebrew school after one of these lessons -- numb, nauseated, and unable to sleep. It's one thing to know this happened. It's another thing to know it would have happened to you

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a series of highly-regarded documentaries about the Holocaust. After watching one of them, I declared myself done. I decided I would never read or watch anything Holocaust-related, ever again. I felt I had nothing left to learn that could possibly do any good, and I was done exposing myself to this personalized horror. 

(This is specifically about Hitler's Holocaust. I have learned a lot about many genocides, in the past and present, and all over the globe.)

I don't know why it didn't occur to me that reading Operation Paperclip (the book) would require me to break that vow, and in a big way. Of course, in order to understand the import and implications of Operation Paperclip (the program), it is necessary to understand what these Nazi scientists did. 

So. I learned something new about the Holocaust. New-to-me details about the system of slavery used by the Nazis that I hadn't known. This was among the worst things I've ever heard of in my life. 

For a while, I didn't think I could continue reading. The details were so hideous; it felt so traumatic. But I was very motivated to read this book, for many reasons, so I continued. I'm glad I did, but/and now I know more things I wish I didn't know. If you read this book, which I hope you do, brace yourself.

Review in a nutshell

This is an outstanding book, an absolute tour de force of investigation and narrative nonfiction. 

One final note

In both Poisoner in Chief and Operation Paperclip, there is reference to something that has never been declassified. Hidden facts that neither Stephen Kinzer nor Annie Jacobsen were able to crack. A location so secret, so deeply classified, that it is still not known what went on there. Given what has been declassified and what is known, this may be the most disturbing idea of all.


* Written before I understood how to use post titles properly

** Posted only weeks before the date after which all comments are wiped out.


rtod: democracy or oligarchy

 Revolutionary thought of the day:

We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)


the ballad of polly bee: in which newbie homeowners learn things they didn't want to know, but turn annoyance into opportunity

As you may or may not recall, Allan and I are first-time homeowners. In 2019, both of us in our late 50s, we bought a home in Port Hardy, BC, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We were lifelong renters, and had no desire to change that. But circumstances conspired... and here we are. 

Statement of privilege

We love our home, and we were incredibly fortunate to be able to purchase it, taking advantage of a government option for first-time homebuyers who have RRSPs, a temporarily depressed housing market, low interest rates, and a gift from my mother. We bought a modest home by North American standards, and we hope to live here for the rest of our lives.

I love our home. But I can't say I love being a homeowner. Maintaining a home is incredibly expensive and time-consuming. It was a big adjustment. I'm grateful to have the privilege, but I was happier renting.  

Bethatasitmay, I'm a homeowner now. I tell you this story with full awareness of my privilege. I have a secure, middle-income job, as does my partner, and we can afford our life well enough. So as you read this story, please know: I'm not complaining. I just want to share.

First there was a bubble

On New Year's Day 2021, Allan noticed a discoloration, a bulge in the ceiling. When he poked the bulge, water leaked out. Holy moly! Move the TV, get a bucket, call a plumber. It turned out an upstairs toilet need a new seal. But... while the plumber was there, the told us our home was full of Poly-B. Read about it online, said Plumber. And so I did. 

Poly-B was an inexpensive plumbing material used in the 1980s and 90s. It was very popular in western Canada. Turns out, 10-15 years after installation, Poly-B deteriorates and disintegrates. Not might deteriorate. Does deteriorate. There are class-action lawsuits and law firms specializing in Poly-B. 

Our house was built in 1994. The horizon for plumbing failure was already visible. We realized that the smart move was to replace the plumbing now -- while we are both employed, and while the ceiling was already open. Why wait until the plumbing fails and we need everything done on an emergency basis? What if the plumbing failed while we were out of town? How could we ever be comfortable knowing that a plumbing time bomb was ticking behind our walls?

And if you do have a flood because of Poly-B, the insurance company won't look at you. In fact, if you have any homeowner's claim at all, and Poly-B is discovered, insurance won't pay, even if the issue is not water-related!

The fun begins

So. We had the plumbing replaced. One plumber did 80% of the work, then moved out of the area. 

We found another plumber, and waited for his availability. 

Then at last, all the Poly-B was out of the house.

Then there was no ceiling in the family room and there were holes throughout the house.

Eventually we found a drywaller and waited for his availability. 

He filled the ceiling, and now it had an ugly flat patch in an otherwise-textured look. 

Then he disappeared.

We found another drywaller, and waited for his availability. 

He patched the rest of the holes. (We opted not to fill the holes beneath the sinks, hidden by cabinets.)

This whole process was really difficult for me. Money that I thought would be saved for travel or retirement was being used for maintenance. Important maintenance, yes. We could afford it, yes. But still. Ouch.

So. Now the necessary work is done. The rest is cosmetic. 

We were going to paint the drywall patches ourselves, thinking the previous owners left cans of paint to match every room. But the paint was old, the colours were off, and we realized it would look crappy. The house looked beautiful when we moved in, and I wanted it to look beautiful again.

Turning annoyance into opportunity

So. I made a decision. 

The house, as purchased, was painted in shades of gray -- a light charcoal gray with a darker charcoal gray border. One room was a mustard yellow, another a very pale blue. 

I love colour. I have always loved the look of colourful walls. We've painted accent walls in rental houses, and I've spent scads of money on colourful window treatments and other colour splashes. When I see rooms on TV or online with richly colourful walls, or when we visit countries where colour is a prominent design feature, I always love how it looks. 

I also like bright white walls, and the brightness that brings to a room. Bright white + colours = exactly my look.

Here was an opportunity to bring my own aesthetic to our home. 

I found a professional painter. I started putting money aside. I looked at colours. Choosing colours was crazy! Especially if you love teal. Teal can mean dozens of different things, depending on the mix of green and blue.

Painting finished last week. I absolutely love it.

Our social/hangout/watching room has a teal accent wall,and the teal also borders the bright white kitchen, hallways and stairs. The laundry room and downstairs bathroom (not shown) are also bright white.

A wall at the top of the stairs, visible when you enter the house, is also teal.

The upstairs bathrooms are both tangerine.

We didn't have the bedrooms repainted. The walls in our bedroom are a light sage green. The two rooms we use as offices, which were previously kids' bedrooms, are a bright swimming-pool blue (mine) and the colour of a greenscreen (Allan's). We both like the colours, so we kept them. 

I'll also throw in a vid of the best part of this house, the feature that sold us, and that is very dear to my heart: the deck. The deck is roofed, so useable in all weather, but the roof is 12 feet high, and translucent, so you don't feel like you're indoors. It's my little slice of heaven.


what i'm reading: a first time for everything, delightful autobiographical tween graphic

A First Time for Everything, by Dan Santat, is a perfect tween book. 

It's funny, sweet, honest, sometimes poignant but not sad. It's a gentle comfort for every kid who has ever felt awkward and different, and an incentive for everyone who is afraid to try new things. 

It's a sensitive and perceptive portrayal of how groups are formed. We often hear that kids can be cruel, and we see that in this book. But kids can be kind, too, and the book affirms that.

I read this book a while ago, and had been planning on writing a group review with some other tween graphics dealing with friendship. I read a few, flipped through a bunch more, and didn't find anything that came close to this book in quality or authenticity. I found each of them either too heavy-handed and preachy or too superficial and vapid. 

In A First Time for Everything, Dan Santat, the author of several children's books, tells the story of the class trip to Europe that he took in middle school. 

In school, Santat had some very embarrassing experiences and was bullied. Now he just wants to keep his head down and make it through middle school without further humiliations. The last thing he wants is anything involving a school group, and certainly not a group that includes some of the same girls who had bullied him. 

At first, it's as awful as he expects. But then Dan tries something new. And it makes him happy. Then he tries another new thing. And he enjoys it. He makes a new friend. He crushes on a girl, who is nice to him. A teacher encourages him. And... Dan starts to enjoy himself. He starts to feel comfortable in his own skin.

The new experiences young Dan has are very small, but they are meaningful. With each new experience, he gains a bit of confidence. And those small steps give him the confidence to try a slightly bigger steps, until he becomes a bit brave, a bit bold, and has a great time doing so.

Santat's portrayal of the beauty and power of the first crush and the first kiss are dead-on. In fact, I found all of it dead-on. 

In flashbacks, we learn more about young Dan's prior bad experiences, which deepens our understanding of his growth. Knowing that Santat wrote this about his life, his own experiences, makes the story more poignant -- and makes you cheer Dan's triumph even more.

One thing I absolutely loved about A First Time for Everything was Santat's inclusion of actual photos he took on the trip, along with a little who's who guide to the characters. 

A First Time for Everything is not so much a coming-of-age story as a journey of self-discovery. It's the best tween graphic I've read in a very long time.


another insidious bit of the digital divide: access to customer service for smartphones only

We need another word for it.

The digital divide -- the gap between those with access to modern information and communication technologies and those without -- has been recognized since at least the 1990s. Attempts to narrow this gap are usually publicly funded, always operating from scarcity, or small concessions eked out of corporations. Either way, the bridges are tiny, flimsy, and often temporary. Untold numbers of people have been left behind.

Over time the digital divide has widened and deepened. The words digital divide are grossly inadequate, almost quaint. Digital canyon? Digital chasm? Right now it feels like a digital abyss.

Better living through apps -- or not

I recently stumbled on a bit of this gaping divide. I knew about this vaguely, in some abstract way, but now understand it more clearly: improved access to customer service for smartphone users. Sometimes, access to customer service only for people with smartphones.

I wasn't an early adopter of the smartphone. I like to add technology as I need it, not simply because it exists. I prefer not to fork over any more of my income to mega-corporations unless there's a demonstrable benefit in doing so. New technology should save me time or effort, or bring me joy, or why should I bother? So I do use a smartphone, but I apply this to the use of apps as well.

There are apps that simplify processes, so they're worth using. There are apps that make our lives easier. But many apps appear to be more for a company's access to me, rather than the reverse. For example, when I shop online, I prefer sitting at a computer, using full websites. It's easier to see products, read reviews, compare one company's offerings against another. Which of course is why companies want to drive us to their apps: once we're there, we're captive.

Customer service of privilege

Which brings me to what I recently learned. Perhaps I'm the last person on the haves side of the digital divide to discover this, but I've been astonished to learn what improved customer service I receive through apps.

I had a problem with a credit card, and needed to speak with someone. I called the phone number on the card and on the website. I navigated my way through the menu, went down the wrong path, and was cut off -- more than once. 

When I finally found the correct pathway, I was on hold for 50 minutes. Of course I had the call on speaker, and was doing other things while I waited, but still, I had to listen to the hold "music," and I was limited in what else I could do. 

When at last I spoke with a human, it turned out I would need another phone call to a different department. I asked the customer service rep for a more direct number, and was told: call through the app, you'll get through immediately. Now that is a reason to download and use an app. So I did. I called the bank through the app, and was speaking with a human in less than five minutes.

Some months later, I had a question about Aeroplan miles, which means calling Air Canada. Air Canada is renowned for poor customer service. The company has shred their workforce to the bone, so getting anyone to help you with anything is a nightmare. 

I tried finding the answer to my question online. Fruitless. 

Dreading the next step, I called the Aeroplan number and was on hold for two hours and never got through. I am not exaggerating: I am looking at my call history as I type this: 1 hour, 58 minutes. I gave up.

I then downloaded the Aeroplan app and had my answer in under five minutes. I didn't have to speak with anyone: the information I needed was available through the app, but not through the website.

This is terrible customer service. But beyond that, it's customer service as privilege. What happens to customers who don't have smartphones, who can't afford them, who don't know how to download an app? One would think that companies would still want those people's money, but apparently the savings in labour force outweighs the benefits of reaching potential customers.

It's disgusting. It's wrong. And it's only going to get worse. 


i used to be an activist: another piece of myself has gone missing. or maybe it's on hiatus.

In my experience, the best activism begins like this.

I used to be an activist.

Not being actively involved in a grassroots movement, a part of myself is lost. It's an intentional choice, given the realities that I cannot change. It's what I need. But it's a loss. There's a part of my life that I truly miss.

My purpose and meaning

I've been an activist my entire life. 

I would usually focus on one issue, and explore what I could do within it. South Africa apartheid. Reproductive rights. Violence against women. At-risk youth. Abortion access. US war resisters in Canada. Labour. Each of these, for a time, was a central focus of my life. What gave my life meaning and purpose.

Writing was also part of this. At its best, when I could snag the opportunity, my writing was advocacy. And it certainly was my meaning and purpose. But my activism was in its own sphere. 

When I first became active, I was not a leader. I wasn't even much of a joiner! I wasn't comfortable in group settings; I hadn't found my niche. Realizing my potential as a leader, and becoming comfortable within activist spaces, were big areas of personal growth.

I quickly realized I wanted to work in the grassroots. A group of like-minded people, drawn together by a shared purpose, figuring out a way forward, planning actions, creating opportunities for others to get involved. 

My areas of focus developed organically, expressions of what was important to me, what was most on my mind. I took breaks between issues. I chose what to do next and it chose me.

Throughout most of this time, I didn't work full-time. I was more than full-time busy, but I could cycle through my writing, my various day-jobs, my friends and relationships, and my activism. 

It broke down, and I almost broke down with it

When I became a local union leader, I was also working full-time. This was a big adjustment; more than that, it was unsustainable. I have a chronic health condition, and it was -- to use the common euphemism -- extremely challenging to take care of my health while working and unioning. 

I did that for five years. I have no regrets -- I think back on that time with great pride and joy -- but it took a great toll. Before we decided to move to BC, I had already decided not to run for re-election, and to take a less intensive role in the local.

After we moved, my new local union was led by a group of super smart, talented, badass leaders. I knew I would be active, but I also wanted to put strict limits on my involvement. Now I'm a steward, and a member of my local executive. I was on the last bargaining committee, and I would like to be on the next one. Union is an important part of my life -- I love knowing and working with union people -- but it's well contained.

So here I am

My current work is very challenging and demanding. I love it, but it's full-on. When I'm not working, I very much want a quiet, focused life, and I've committed to that. Reading, writing, cooking, walking. Solo pursuits like working on a puzzle or practicing piano. Time with friends and family. When possible, some travel.  

That I can even talk about this is a sign of my great privilege. It's no accident that most people cannot be active in issues they care about. Our society -- the economic system -- is structured in a way that keeps us busy, too busy to question and work on dismantling the system itself. Full-time work, or more likely, multiple part-time jobs, leaves little enough time for the demands of family, and even basic pleasures, never mind changing the world. For millions who also live with chronic illness -- often linked to trauma -- accomplishing just the basics is a huge undertaking.

And it just gets harder all the time. As capitalism continues its death spiral, the cost of living rises, supports shrink, and life just gets harder. Food insecurity is on the rise. More seniors are living in poverty. These statistics are always lower than reality, defining poverty too low, and not measuring hidden poverty. People choosing between eating and staying warm. Parents skipping meals so their children can eat. Seniors caught shoplifting food. Tiny increases in benefits don't even approach the rising cost of living. More people starve, and freeze, or barely scrape by. 

That we can even talk about this in a nation as wealthy as Canada is a disgrace. And it is completely preventable. Meanwhile, profits soar.

What I'd be doing, if I could 

There are two issues right now that I'd like to be more active in: the movement against Israeli apartheid, and end-of-life choice. But when I think about how I might do that, it breaks down. 

I write letters, I sign petitions, I stay informed. But I'm not out there trying to get others to write letters or meet with their MPs. I'm not organizing, I'm not leading.

Recently my MP had a petition, focusing on a way to remove more harmful waste from the ocean, and an important step for coastal communities like mine. I thought I would solicit signatures in my town. I wanted to... and I never did. 

I joined Labour for Palestine and have attended a few meetings, but I couldn't follow through. 

Dying With Dignity Canada suggests many ways to get involved, but I haven't taken the first step.

I never adopted the language of spoon theory, because I had these ideas decades before the term was coined and popularized. But no matter how we visualize it, time and energy are finite. Health comes first.

It's not only health. I want a quieter, more focused life. A life with more white space on my calendar. In this sense, what I want and what I need align.

Maybe tomorrow, maybe some day

If I'm lucky enough to stay alive and healthy and mobile past retirement, perhaps I'll find my way back to activism.

I have similar thoughts on travel. I don't know if or when we will travel again, other than for family visits. Now in our early 60s, we know our priority must be putting ourselves in the best position for a semi-comfortable retirement, or at least a retirement without poverty. 

I know this, yet travel nags at me. It's not just something I love: it's who I am. Not traveling is giving up a part of myself.

The same is true for activism. My work adds value to the community. I am involved in advocacy -- for my community, and for library workers. Perhaps that is a form of activism, but I miss the grassroots. 

This is my choice, and it isn't. I'm choosing to be more mindful of my health, to not burn out. I didn't choose the conditions that make that necessary. 

Everything in life is a trade-off. Every choice brings both opportunity and loss. I'm truly happy with my life now. And these pieces of myself are left behind.

I'm not fishing for validation or approval. Just putting this out there.


Some related reading:

"I used to be an activist." by Daniel Giles Helm.

My first activist step, by Nicole Bedford

I'm a "spoonie": here's what I wish more people knew about chronic illness, by Kirsten Schultz 

The original spoon theory post by Christine Miserandino