The Real Instructions

From Lego to GoldieBlox, this year nearly every package under the Christmas tree came with instructions. Every one that is, but the ones that needed them the most: internet-enabled devices like smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles. Sure they come with basic instructions telling you how to get the device working so you can start playing your game or texting your friends, but the real instructions are missing. You know, the ones that can help make your online experience a happy, less threatening one – the instructions for safely navigating through our mediated reality.

Kids as young as five (probably even younger) often have iPhones and iPads these days. Nine year olds have YouTube accounts filming their dance moves and Minecraft worlds (don’t tell YouTube; the minimum age is 13). Their parents, the only ones that need the instructions to set up the devices, are left to try and fill in for the missing guide. The same people that have been sharing their kids’ lives online since the first ultrasound; the ones who are themselves trying to figure out the online world and too often learning the hard way that the internet never forgets. So, to try and help, I’ve put together a list of ten very basic instructions to help parents and kids navigate this world. These steps are by no means exhaustive and are really just the tip of the iceberg. The main thing is that they should be used to spark a conversation: a two-way conversation that evolves with changes in technology and the needs of the users.

Before opening a new internet enabled device, please sit down in a comfy spot with your parents or kids and read the following steps.

  1. The first thing you must do is set passwords for the device and all online accounts. A password is a secret set of letters and numbers that give you and only you access to your device and accounts. A unique password should be used for each individual account. Of course, it’s way easier to re-use the same password but that convenience can come at a cost. It means that if someone can figure out that one password they can access all your online information, get into your bank accounts, emails, Instagram or Tinder accounts. Nobody wants that. So, don’t take the easy route, create unique passwords for each account.
  2. When creating passwords, make it tricky for someone that you know to guess. Your name, date of birth or pet’s name…not very tricky. Use a mixture of capitals, letters, numbers and characters. For example, turn something simple like “snowshoe” into a hard-to-crack password like: “sN0wSho3!”. No one would ever guess it, especially if you’re like me and you’re not a big fan of snowshoeing.
  3. Now that passwords are set, it’s important to review what it means to keep passwords SECRET. First, let’s talk about sharing your password with your BFF, boyfriend or girlfriend. For the sake of brevity, just don’t do it. There is absolutely no reason anyone else needs to have access to your device and definitely no reason why anyone else needs access to your email, Instagram or Snapchat accounts. Now, I know parents think they should have these passwords and as a parent, that’s your prerogative, but there is another way that is based on open communication, trust and respect. Have your child write down their password, put it in an envelope. Once the envelope is sealed, both child and parent sign the back. At any time, the parent can open the envelope (with the child) and spot check the password, if it’s still the same, have them change the password, re-seal and start over. If the password has changed without the parent’s knowledge a different conversation needs to be had. This idea is borrowed from Jesse Miller’s website.
  4. When setting up your online profiles, leave some things for the imagination. You don’t really need to provide your home address, phone number or date of birth. You also don’t need to list your family members, what school you go to or your favourite colour. The people who need to know this information probably already have it. The further afield you go in this new mediated reality, you will find that everyone wants your personal information. The important thing to remember is that they don’t need to have it. Some things should be on a need to know basis, and Facebook doesn’t need to know what city you were born in. Why? It’s simple: if other people have access to all of your personal information it becomes easier for them to “steal” your identity. “I’m a kid, what do I care if someone steals my identity”, you may ask. Well, you will care, if someone starts opening up Instagram or gmail accounts pretending to be you and starts being mean to your friends and family or posting things to embarrass you.
  5. Stop reading these instructions. Talk to the person you’ve been sitting on the comfy couch with reading these instructions. See where these conversations take you. It might take an hour or even day, but come back and finish these instructions.
  6. Don’t click on links in text or emails from people you don’t know. If you get a text telling you to click on a link in order to claim a prize, just delete it. Trust me, even if you entered a contest where the prize is a huge sum of money that won’t be the only way you will be contacted. More likely it’s someone “phishing” for your personal information. Sometimes the links contain a virus that can infect your device or copy the information you have stored, including your passwords. It can be tricky to tell real messages from real companies from the fake ones. That’s why it’s always best to wait before you click on a link. Ask a parent whether it’s legitimate or not. And parents, sometimes it’s good for you to ask your kids or your partner before clicking on a link. If you do click on a link or provide personal information and it turns out to be a scam, contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. If you’ve lost money or are being threatened, then call your local police.
  7. Turn off the comments. You’ll be in good company. In October 2015, Wired Magazine published an article outlining the end of the comment section and around the same time the CBC announced they were temporary suspending the comment section for articles about Indigenous people. If your kids have a blog or YouTube account, make sure comments turned off. Trolls have no boundaries and no one should be subjected to nasty comments, especially kids. Of course, accounts like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are pretty boring without comments, so teach your kids about PRIVACY settings so that they can control who can see your stuff and make comments (and kids, teach your parents about these settings too). The playground and café can be tough enough, the online world doesn’t need to be as well.
  8. Keep an open dialogue. All the safety features and privacy settings won’t always protect your children (or you) from seeing things you wish they hadn’t. Having open lines of communication between you and your children is important and a great way of maintaining a healthy relationship regardless of their online activity. Let your kids know it’s OK to talk to you about it, without consequence. We’ve all made poor choices and sometimes those choices have had additional repercussions. Best to let your kids feel like they have a safe place to go to help minimize the negative repercussions.
  9. Put away your device and go outside and play. Go for a walk. Read a book. Play a game of cards. The online world can be fun but like all good things, in moderation.
  10. Register for a talk on Internet safety. The New West Police Department and Parent’s Night Out are hosting a Social Media Workshop for parents presented by Jesse Miller of Mediated Reality. Do not miss this great FREE opportunity . If you are not able to attend this workshop, look for others or use the links below to help demystify the online world and make it a happy and safe place for you and your kids to hang out.

There are a lot of really amazing resources available for kids and parents here are just a few:


Why PACs never stop asking parents for money

As parents of kids in New West schools know, each school has a PAC, and they never stop asking for your money. Although PACs are familiar, a lot of people aren’t sure exactly what they do or why they do it – and why, no matter how much you donate, it is never enough.

“PAC” stands for Parent Advisory Council. PAC members work very hard to represent the parent voice within their children’s schools. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, School Districts started forming PACs in order to increase family involvement in the education process (this is according to the Vancouver School Board PAC handbook). It became school board policy that all schools must allow the formation of a PAC, and that members of the PAC executive should be chosen by election. Since then, PACs have been an integral part of the BC education system, representing the voices of families.

PACs have been involved in everything from evolving curriculum and communicating with School Boards, to creating school lunch programs and raising funds. However, the PACs’ responsibilities have become increasingly weighted towards the latter. PACs have long been responsible for providing schools with things like hot lunches and activities, but they are now also providing schools with money for field trips, playgrounds, and technology. PACs are becoming a high stakes game, and schools are slowly becoming “have” or “have-not” due to the ability of its PAC to raise those funds. I spoke to some PAC members and parents, and there are some very telling commonalities in the typical PAC that indicate whether its school is a “have” or “have-not.”

When I asked PAC members and parents what one of the main issues was with today’s PAC, the number one answer was parent involvement. When I was a child in the 80’s, I remember my parents’ PAC meetings being a meeting place, a place to socialize, to be involved, and to get sh*t done at the school. There were always at least 20 people at the meetings, most of them on the executive. And this was a school with only 150 kids! That’s quite a ratio! The school I now work in, has a membership of 4, and an average attendance of the same.

Parents assume that they have to commit huge amounts of time to the PAC. And if there are only 4 people attending meetings, you DO! But the more people involved, the more work there is to go around, and the less time it takes to do said work. Then, the work is shared more equitably. The PAC president at my school is here most days, all day. spearheading fundraising, arranging hot lunch days, researching grants, organizing various after-school fun activities, etc. It’s a full time job that she doesn’t get paid for. Some may say, “Well she signed up for it!” And if it was signing up for something that only affected her family, fair enough. But it affects all the families in the school, and if the PAC isn’t providing, the school suffers. PAC members who work their butts off burn out quick. When I asked PAC members and parents what their top wish would be for, one of the top things was more parent involvement.

One of the other top wishes was for more funding from the government. PACs receive money from the government, and over the years, there have been more and more stipulations put on how the government allots that money, and what the PAC can use that money for. For example, PACs have to have a minimum number of members to get funds, and must fill out mountains of difficult paperwork. PACs also receive funding from the BC Lottery Corporation, and over the years, the funding has not caught up to inflation, which means the funding is actually getting cut more and more. Meanwhile, the BCLC is making more and more money, each year and passing that money on to big Crown corporations that work specifically towards the government’s agenda. BCLC money can only be used for certain things. Technology is not one of them. And what are schools lacking in the most? Up to date technology.

As I mentioned before, in the ’80s, PACs played an integral role as the family voice in new district policies, governmental curriculum development, and school communities. However, as PACs’ plates have become more and more full with providing for the schools they represent, their ability to communicate at those levels has declined.

District PACs, or DPACs have popped up. And Provincial PACs, or the BCCPAC. These new representative groups have taken on the responsibilities of policy change and educational reform. Therefore, there should be a lot of communication between DPAC and BCCPAC and the local school PACs, right? Nope. In most cases, none at all. DPACs and BCCPAC have adopted their own political agendas over the years, and the formerly non-partisan organizations have become decidedly partisan in their agendas. These agendas, for the most part, have no link to the average schools’ needs. Local school PACs feel they have little to no voice outside their own school. And even within their school, some feel segregated.

With the rise in dependence on the PAC to provide funding for field trips, school supplies, and even teacher funds, PACs have also noticed less teamwork between teachers and PAC members. In the ’80s, teachers, principals and PAC members worked side by side, creating school communities where children thrived and school was “fun.” Now, PACs are becoming more and more disengaged with teachers, finding it difficult to communicate.

When a PAC asks how they can help teachers, teachers want money for more opportunities to provide students with fun and engaging activities. And that means more money from PACs. The fundraising machine runs non-stop. Programs that used to be free are no longer free, such as the Aquarium and Science World. Some programs have been cut altogether (such as swimming and skating) and therefore those field trips and programs have gotten more and more expensive, and all due to lack of funding on those programs’ own parts. And the PAC is still there, needing to toe the line. With fewer and fewer members doing more and more, with less and less.

So the next time you get, yet another, PAC notice asking for money, hopefully you will understand that grabbing money from you is the last thing the PAC wants to be doing. And it is the last thing they should be doing too.

Toilet deserts of New West

The SkyTrain Station at 22nd St in New West is unusual in its isolation from commercial buildings. With no adjacent cafes, restaurants, or stores of any kind, 22nd St is a weird little bubble of activity within a sleepy neighbourhood of single family homes. 

If nature should “call” while you are at 22nd St Station waiting for a train or bus, you are out of luck. The only toilet can only be accessed with the aid of a (typically absent) TransLink station attendant. The nearest business you could ask is a doctor’s office, several blocks up the hill – but even if they might let you use their facility, they are closed evenings and weekends. 

As a fascinating NY Mag article about bathroom culture in North America pointed out, everybody poops, but nobody likes to admit it. One of the side effects is the emergence of public spaces that fail to meet the most basic biological needs of the people who go there. Without an easily accessible public toilet at 22nd St SkyTrain Station, men have taken to using the side of the building as a urinal. Women hold it in better (or perhaps are just sneakier), and parents caught in this toilet desert with a newly toilet trained preschooler are completely out of luck. In other areas, toilet deserts could be created when a bloc of businesses all restrict toilet access to paying customers only, or when the public toilets are closed seasonally or for lengthy periods.

So the big question is, does the City of New Westminster have a duty to ensure reasonable access to public toilets within commercial zones? And if so, how should this be done? Should funding be allocated for creating and maintaining universally accessible public toilets? Should businesses be encouraged (or even required) to allow reasonable access to bathroom facilities upon request? 

Several City committees have been asked by Council to discuss the issue of public access to toilets in New West, including the Access Advisory Committee, the Seniors Advisory Committee and the Committee I sit on, Community and Social Issues. The request reflects concern for seniors with dementia or health problems that require fast access to a toilet, but the issue also affects young children, people who are homeless, and anyone who has ever really had to go RIGHT NOW. 

What do you think? Are toilet deserts an issue in the city? Are there specific places where you see more public urination because of a lack of public access to toilets? What do you think should be done to fix these problems?

The New West Moms Group: Finding info, support and friendship on Facebook

Chalk art illustrating the love of the NWMG (New West Moms Group) on Facebook. At almost a thousand members, the women-only group is a dynamic source of information, support and friendship in New West.
Chalk art illustrating the love of the NWMG (New West Moms Group) on Facebook. At almost a thousand members, the women-only group is a dynamic source of information, support and friendship in New West.

When my first child was born, I was the first of my friends and family to have a baby. After he was born, I found myself lost in a sea of questions about what to do, when to do it, and if I was doing it “right.” I tried the local Baby Talk program (run by Fraser Health) but I had a hard time connecting with the mothers there. I took my baby on long walks and out to playdates, but I just couldn’t seem to click with any of the mamas I met.

I found comfort in blogs like Ask Moxie. Reading the comments to Moxie’s posts about baby sleep (and lack thereof) reassured me that what I was experiencing was challenging, but totally normal, but I couldn’t seem to find anyone in New West who would admit to having any of the challenges I was struggling with. It took me over a year to find local mommy friends who I could relate to.

The latest wave of New West mamas has an advantage I didn’t have: The New West Moms Group on Facebook. The NWMG is now almost 1000-strong, and includes ladies from New West as well as those who just like to spend time here. Participants discuss everything from decoding weird baby rashes, to family vacation recommendations, to sleep training, to finding nursing-friendly clothing that doesn’t suck. Sometimes the discussion gets rowdy, as when sharing hot photos of a mostly naked Channing Tatum, asking for opinions on sleep training, or questioning why it is so hard to befriend other moms at Motoring Munchkins. But even when the conversation turns controversial, the tone remains friendly and supportive. I am sure this is in good part due to the steady hand of the group’s moderators, who have established and (importantly) enforced clear rules of conduct.

The NWMG has such a strong sense of identity that they have created buttons for members to wear in order to recognize each other around town. And group member and local crafter Allison Baird of Ribbons and Threads has produced and sold custom T-shirts for NWMG members. The buttons and shirts are often available at fellow NWMG member Alicia Mahoney’s business Shnoo And the Pachooch (a boutique toy store at River Market).

I asked some of the mamas to share what they like about the group, and here are some of their answers:

“I love the community that the NWMG provides. Laughs, support, provisions, information, you need it, it’s here. As a first-time mom at 30, I was more than a bit nervous. But all through my pregnancy, I had resources, supplies, support and advice right at my fingertips.” – Jen ‘Jazz’ Phillips

“What I like about NWMG is everyone has a way of making me feel normal…. Whether I’m losing my mind over my kids, husband, or family in general, I find I’m not alone in feeling that way. Someone else is always going thru it too, or has in the past.” – Shannon Holt

“This group reminds me that I am normal. And also gives me an outlet that I can get opinions on the not so normal and not have to worry about being overly judged. I also appreciate the bold honesty that comes from some. It may not be what I WANT to hear, but it is what I NEED to hear!” – Stacey Sweet

“Being new to NW, this group helped me become part of the community. I feel I belong here now 🙂 – Julia Klymenko

“This group is the opposite of mommy wars. It’s amazing how supportive everyone is of each other even when we don’t necessarily agree on the best way to raise our littles. One of the most frequent comments I see is, ‘You know your child best.’ Awesome!” – Jocelyn Smith

“I love being a mother to my two boys, but it can be isolating at times, especially since the bulk of our friends and family are out East. As the saying goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ NWMG, I think, has become ‘the village’ for many of its members. I don’t know what I would do without that village!” – Diane Duflot


For me, I have found so many rich opportunities through the group. Questions get answered, complaints find sympathy, cries of despair win gentle words of support, and – my favourite part – new doors open. For me, I have already found a few moms who share my interest in community activism and politics, a few more to sing with, a few to write with, and a whole bunch to swap recipes with in the spinoff group I created, New West Cooks.

The NWMG is probably just one of many interesting semi-private groups on Facebook. Do you know of any others?

Hidden gems in Downtown New West

I like to support businesses in my neighbourhood of Downtown New Westminster. Many places make this easy for me to do: River Market, Zoom Hair Salon and Columbia Integrated Health Centre, for example, are active on social media and in the community and have curb appeal to spare. They are all fabulous and I can’t recommend any of them enough.

But then there are businesses that I walk past every day and never enter. They aren’t out there promoting themselves and they just don’t look like they have a lot to offer. But then, one day, I go in and realize how badly I’ve misjudged them.

These hidden gems that have been quietly providing a high standard of service to the community, at reasonable prices, without a lot of fanfare, and it’s about time they get some love. Here are three of my favorites:

Agnes Barber & Stylist is the best place to bring a squirmy toddler for a haircut!
Agnes Barber & Stylist is the best place to bring a squirmy toddler for a haircut! Photo: Linda M. Tobias

Agnes Barber & Stylist
607 Agnes Street 778.397.0460

Agnes Barber might look like any other barbershop in the neighbourhood (which rival wedding boutiques in number) but it’s hands-down the best place to bring your squirmy toddler boy for a haircut.

I used to take my kids to a fancy-pants kids’ hair salon at the mall. They would get a 10-minute haircut and a balloon, and I’d pay $60 for the two of them, after taxes and tip. Ouch! So when I spotted the motorcycle chair through the window at Agnes Barber, I took a chance.

Our barber, Kal, was one of the most patient and pleasant people I’ve ever met. Despite having people waiting, he took his time introducing my four-year-old to the “scary” electric shaver and stayed upbeat and cheerful while my little guy squirmed and fidgeted. My two-year-old, meanwhile, HATES getting his haircut and was in full meltdown mode. Kal dismissed my apologies and wasn’t fazed at all. His skilled hands worked very quickly to get the job done while he remained calm and soothing.

Both kids got great haircuts! Despite their best efforts to walk out with bald patches, their hair looked flawless. They got to sit on a motorcycle, wore a Disney cape and each walked out with a lollypop. They also enjoyed counting the birds the huge birdcage by the window. And to top it off, kids’ cuts cost only $10! You won’t be seeing me at the mall salon again.

Agnes Barber & Stylist is open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm; Sun 10am-5pm


Columbia Square Law Office has very reasonable Notary rates, and great customer service. Photo: Linda M. Tobias
Columbia Square Law Office has very reasonable Notary rates, and great customer service. Photo: Linda M. Tobias

Columbia Square Law Office

833 Carnarvon Street

I needed some notary services recently. My husband called around for rates and, to our surprise, discovered that the most reasonable rates (for a variety of legal services, not just notary) were right in our own neighbourhood at Columbia Square Law Office.

I went down to the office with trepidation. The exterior really does leave something to be desired. The bars on the windows, the drawn shades… it was all kind of off-putting. My opinion quickly changed when I walked through the door. The receptionist, Barbara, was instantly welcoming and made me feel like my time was valuable and that I was respected.

My personal experience with lawyers has shown me that being listened to and treated with respect is the best indication of how happy I’m going to be with the outcome of my legal representation. In this case, my interaction with Mike Jukic, one of the firm’s two lawyers was brief, but my gut told me that if I were in need of legal representation again, I could count on him to come through for me.

For any future legal services, I’m heading straight to Columbia Square Law Office.

Columbia Law Office is open Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm, and Sat 10am-4pm

Columbia Square Animal Hospital

Unit 109-1015 Columbia Street (Columbia Square Plaza)

Dr Brar. Photo: Columbia Square Animal Hospital
Dr Brar. Photo: Columbia Square Animal Hospital

Columbia Square Animal Hospital is tucked away in the northeast corner of Columbia Square Plaza, by the Rona. Open the door and you’ll see a desk covered in brochures and samples, there are hard-backed chairs and stacks of pet food for sale. Nothing about the place seems particularly warm or inviting.

And then you meet Dr. Brar.

Dr. Brar is an amazing vet. He handles my kitty with gentle, but expert hands. He asks lots of questions and takes the time to address any concerns. And, unlike, other vets I’ve encountered in the past, I never get the feeling that he’s trying to upsell me on products or services. In fact, Columbia Square Animal Hospital’s prices are very fair (about half of what my last vet charged!) When I’m there, I feel like the focus is on providing the best possible care for my kitty and not on making a profit.

Columbia Square Animal Hospital is open daily, 8am-10pm

What New West businesses do you feel are overlooked? Sound off in the comments!

Best playgrounds in New West: what are your favourites?

Favourite playgrounds in New Westminster

This Saturday, June 16, the new Westminster Pier Park will open with a celebration from 11 am to 3 pm. There will be lots of fun, family-friendly activities, food and live music.

The upcoming event makes me marvel at how lucky we are in New Westminster when it comes to outdoor play areas. The new Pier Park will feature two playgrounds, a concession, washrooms and playing fields, all in a beautiful waterfront setting. But it’s just the latest addition to many fantastic playgrounds around the city. Here’s the highlight reel of some others:

Moody Park

Located in Uptown, Moody Park has a playground, spray park, outdoor pool, tennis courts and playing fields. There are also washrooms and picnic benches along with lots of shade.

Why I love it: the location makes it the ideal place to stop off while running errands with the kids. Royal City Centre is right across the street and there are many eateries, businesses and shopping outlets — not to mention the public library — in the area.

Hume Park

Hume Park, located in Sapperton, was recently renovated. It features a large playground for school-aged kids with a separate area just for the little guys. The playground is nestled between an off-leash dog park (with plenty of trees and benches), an outdoor swimming pool and a spray park. There are also picnic benches, playing fields, washrooms, tennis courts and plenty of trees for shade.

Why I love it: the large play structure has a wide variety of challenges for older kids (it struck me as a decided response to recent criticisms that today’s playgrounds are too safe.) But my three-year-old was able to enjoy it as well. His younger brother, meanwhile, was happy puttering away in the toddler area, undisturbed by older kids.

Grimston Park

The West End’s Grimston Park has a recently rebuilt playground, a wading pool, tennis courts, washrooms and playing fields. The wading pool is open from noon – 4 pm, July to Labour Day, and has a lifeguard on duty during those times.

Why I love it: the climbing structure is very well designed. My two-year old can easily climb all the way to the top by himself (the look of triumph on his face after he completes this feat is priceless!) In fact, there is no part of the playground that’s not accessible to him. And yet, the school-age kids we see there are able to use the equipment in a way that challenges them as well. It allows all ages to play together.

Queen’s Park

Located in the heart of the city, New Westminster’s biggest park has one playground for little kids and another for the older ones. There’s also a spray park, a concession stand and washrooms, located among trees, picnic benches, grassy areas and flowers. But the highlight, from Victoria Day to Labour Day, is a petting farm filled with critters willing to have little hands tug at their ears.

Why I love it: the petting farm is fantastic with a variety of animals and knowledgeable volunteers, and it’s free (with a donation box at the exit.) The parking is abundant and free. And the size of the park makes the sights and sounds of the city fade away, letting me relax.

I lived in Vancouver for years before moving to New Westminster in 2008 and I’m hard-pressed to think of even one outdoor play space for kids that’s comparable to the playgrounds that New West offers.

What’s your favourite playground in New Westminster and why? Do you enjoy one of the ones I’ve listed here or did I miss a fabulous one that you want to share with everyone? Let’s hear it in the comments!