Friday, September 19, 1997

Mark Toner
Out of The Blue

Mark Tonner, Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue

p. A19.

Calling a spade an earth mover

As Canada's premiers wield breakfast cutlery in search of wording buttery enough to bring recalcitrant Quebecers on side, I ponder this society's witless preoccupation with vocabulary.

It's as though correcting terms of reference will somehow begin the march back to Eden -- that an impending leap in consciousness, brought about by inclusive terminology, is set to heal the globe.

Here in Vancouver, police find themselves alternately criticized and caught up in the dance. The latest expression to prompt revisionist anti-law-enforement cackling are "skid row" and "the skids" -- old-time labels from what is not the worst of our downtown east side.

Labels, I, for one, am loath to relinquish. Kingsway was once a "skid road," where trees felled in Burnaby and beyond were hauled, along paths of split timber, to a terminus at False Creek that came to be known as skid row. Certainly, the area attracted a labor-oriented crowd, but that's almost never a bad thing. Today's criminals, with their antics in our skid-row area, have sullied an honorable name, not been victimized by it.

Another term under self-congratulatory attack is the simple title of "prostitute." Not that I have any particular attachment to the word, but insisting police call prostitutes "sex-trade workers" smacks of derangement. As though streetwalking were a legitimate career choice! Next the correct crowd wil be crying for accredited training programs and Jobs-for-B.C.-type social supports. Envisage a school counsellor presenting your child with a judgement-neutral option like that.

The modern law-enforcement dance involves anticipating and outmanoeuvring criticism. On that note, the Vancouver police accident-investigation squad is tossing around a new name: The "collision" investigation squad -- the problem being that factors contributing to crashes all too often fall into the on-purpose category. A keen eye will the see the wording on some fo the "acci" cars has been altered.

A waste of paint? I'm thinking it might be wise to follow through, with department-wide term sanitation! For instance, how much longer must our foot-patrol crews be saddled with the label "beat" teams? Far better to refer to them in gentler, non-impact-related terms, like "mobile persuasion" teams, or "sidewalk liaison with the morally challenged."

Our traffic-enforcement squad should be next. "Enforcement" is such a hurtful term, and "squad" implies a militaristic mindset -- I'd prefer something like "police outreach to build excellence in motoring."

Resentment for violation tickets might well evaporate if they were referred to in the language of reward rather than punishment. "Coupon" sounds so much more palatable than "ticket." Fines could be called "merit assessments."

There's just so much to set right. But I digress. And if you missed my descent into the absurd, you likely perceive our premiers to have a chance at settling separation issues by allowing Quebecers to be "unique" rather than "distinct."

While it's important that language not be overtly derogatory, uncomfortable realities do not flee in the face of label adjustment.

Police and politicians deal with an unchanging and unpopular bottom line: Some individuals need encouragement; some need discipline. Which category a person belongs to remains a matter of choice, not terminology.

Const. Mark Toner is a Vancouver police officer. The opinions and statements contained in this column are those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Vancouver police department or the police board. Tonner may be contacted at the The Province, or by e-mail at

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Created: September 20, 1997
Last modified: June 17, 1999

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