Not seeing the forest for the trees — or even seeing trees

Russell Wangersky
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There’s cause, and then there’s effect. The two are intrinsically linked, however carefully governments and self-serving citizens want to ignore the fact.

Right now in Canada, we’re chugging along through a huge series of federal budget cuts to everything from food inspection to search and rescue to different kinds of medical costs.

The government mantra is that in order to pander to big business, taxes have to be cut on corporate profits, and government costs have to be cut — and that cutting those costs will have no effect whatsoever on services to Canadians.

That is, of course, bullshit, but it’s comforting bullshit for those who think of their own wallets first and the greater good second.

That staggering lie about there being no effect from the cuts brings me to the trees — it’s a little tangly, so bear with me.

Five years ago, New York City used to budget $4.7 million a year to prune trees and remove dead or dying trees and branches. Now, the city pays just $1.45 million, and has far fewer inspections of the city’s

2.5 million trees.

The inspectors, according to the New York Times, now have much broader jobs. As reported on Monday, tree inspectors often have no formal training:

“Workers without special training look for dead limbs and other obvious risks as part of a 16-point inspection program that also requires them to evaluate play equipment, benches and fences; make sure animal waste and condoms are discarded; and check lawns and ornamental plantings. The parks department’s forestry division often sends trained arborists only after problems have been noted by the untrained employees.”

The problem is, reduced tree inspections have meant an increasing number of deaths and injuries caused by falling trees and branches — two deaths, and 31 reported injuries in just five years, many of which were the result of clearly diseased or dead trees. It’s a staggering amount of preventable human injury and suffering. (For those among us who don’t count preventing human suffering as having any value, there’s also the financial impact. The resulting lawsuits are costing New York millions upon millions of dollars — $5.6 million last year, as much as the original cost of properly caring for the trees.)

That kind of thinking — the kind that doesn’t consider how a stitch in time can save nine — can easily be seen in the Harper government’s priorities.

For example, when the National Post recently carried a story about cuts to medical services for refugees, federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney pointed out the move would take away “an incentive from people who may be considering filing an unfounded refugee claim in Canada.” The move would also save around $100 million.

But would it?

One of the things it would do is limit care for some refugee claimants to care that would “prevent or treat a disease posing a risk to the public health or a condition of public safety concern.”

As Dr. Mark Tyndall, the Ottawa Hospital’s director of infectious diseases pointed out, “If we are only allowed to offer care to someone when they are spitting up blood in the emergency room, they will most certainly have already infected others (with tuberculosis.)”

The website comments section, as it often is, was downright brutal: the general tenor was that providing basic public health care was giving hard-earned money away to freeloading immigrants.

Forget the fact that most people in this country are immigrants or come from immigrant stock, and forget the fact that basic public health actually benefits us all in the long term — just think what limiting public health spending for the poor did for, say, the spread of the black plague.

While you’re at it, why not forget that real, living human beings will suffer needlessly from medical conditions that can be easily treated in a First World country with massive advantages and a high standard of living: why worry about trees when you can save a few dollars?

It’s shortsighted — save money now, and pay out more later. And that’s even before the fact that, as Canadians, we’re agreeing to continued medical misery for some of the poorest of refugees.

Charity begins at home? Apparently, it ends there, too.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: New York Times, National Post, Ottawa Hospital

Geographic location: Canada, New York City

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Recent comments

  • Carl
    May 18, 2012 - 14:50

    Mr. Wangersky, as a professional writer, you should be capable of expressing yourself effectively without the use of profane language. I suppose you think using the word "b***sh**" in your column (twice) makes you look down-to-earth and relatable to the common man, but it doesn't. It just makes you seem needlessly crude and unimaginative, and undermines the argument you are trying to make. Moreover, how am I supposed to stop my 9-year-old daughter from using such language when people like you give it credibility by putting it in the daily paper? Your use of such language in this context is completely inappropriate. It's pretty sad when I can't let my children read the newspaper because it corrupts their vocabulary!

  • Taylor
    May 18, 2012 - 14:12

    Actually, the current round of federal spending cuts is not "huge" - it is tiny in comparison to the cuts made by the LIberals in the 1990s, and it is tiny in comparison to the cuts being made by governments in most other developed countries. Furthermore, lefties like Wangersky are simply not credible when they accuse the federal government of "pandering to big business." Considering that the current Conservative government has banned political donations from corporations, I don't see what Wangersky thinks the government stands to gain by currying favour with corporations. It makes more sense that cutting corporate tax rates is simply good policy - corporate tax REVENUES have actually increased dramatically since the Conservative government started cutting corporate tax RATES, because corporations choose to pay their taxes in the jurisdiction where rates are the lowest.

  • Casey
    May 16, 2012 - 06:32

    This CON government is probably the most right wing in Canadian history. Brian Mulroney almost destroyed the original PC party, Harper will destroy what is left of it.

  • McCadden
    May 15, 2012 - 13:26

    This editorial is right on! I have spent time with two families of refugees who spent 7 years in a refugee camp in Liberia. Federal Immigration brought them to Canada on compassionate grounds. One of the women had been raped and both mothers were suffering from PTSD. Still, they want to work but are not permitted to do so for one whole year after they arrive. They pay ridiculous rent of $1250/month for a basement apartment that would have cost $350 before the oil industry caused greed. These people need our help to shop for groceries (because they cannot afford them on the stipend the Feds give them). And now they will also be denied access to health care? Why did the Harper government bring them here in the first place? I have lost all faith in both the provincial and federal governments.