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The Harper government just announced plans to pull out of the United Nations Convention on Desertification. This move, which caught the Convention’s offices in Bonn by surprise, would make Canada the only nation on earth outside the agreement. Minister Fantino cited high costs and a “lack of results” as the move’s reasoning.
To put those costs in perspective – as much as $350 000/year – it’s a little more than what Hamilton libraries are budgeting to fight bedbugs this year ($200K) or what it’s cost Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital to drop “Memorial” from it’s name as a part of their new re-branding effort ($290K). Hardly cost-prohibitive in the world of international relations, where people often make many times that much in a year.
But what is desertification, anyway, and why does Harper like it so much?
Desertification is what happens when an ecosystem dies. Through removal of plants and degradation of soils, regions can lose their ability to attract and retain water, resulting in a breakdown of the water cycle. This can be caused by agriculture, grazing, logging and climate change and it threatens to displace fifty million people over the next decade. It’s one of the most dramatic effects of humanity’s effects on the environment, and given the drastic changes it brings about, one of the most undeniable.
Climate, it turns out, isn’t just a product of sunlight and air chemistry. Plants, soils and trees play a large role in regulating temperature and rainfall. Think of plants as tiny, branching wells which dig deep into the earth. Some produce shallow webs of roots, like grasses, which hold the soil in place even on steep hillsides. Others have deep tap-roots which bring up water from many metres deep which would otherwise drain away. They then breathe out water, helping to seed clouds and produce rainfall through a process called transpiration. Other benefits include holding and storing water in both droughts and floods, and breaking down to produce a rich soil when they die. Without all of this, soils become sand and wash or blow away easily and rainfall levels fall to those of a desert.
A lot of work has been done in recent years regarding climate change on a local level across history. Global climate change might require all the technologies of industrial civilization, but regional climate change doesn’t require much more than axes or fire. Deniers like to remind us that climate change has always been happening, but it’s important to remember that for thousands of years now, it’s been happening by our own hands. The tragic spiral of rising populations and dwindling rainfall seems to have played a fairly significant role in the fall of many ancient civilizations (Anasazi, Maya and Harrapan Valley, for instance), going right back to the collapse of Babylon through irrigation which salted their own fields. When this process began, the Middle East was one of the most rich, lush and “fertile” places on the planet. Today, it exists largely as desert.
As for desertification in the modern world, it’s likely to become a much larger problem in the near future. Our over-reliance on water buried in “fossil” aquifers which see little natural “recharge” means many regions which are now the world’s breadbaskets may soon become dust bowls. One such area, spanning the eight states dependent on the Ogalala aquifer, produces around a fifth of America’s wheat, corn, cotton and cattle. Added pressures from climate change will only add to this, as will the growing industrial and urban demand for fresh water. These threats are real and have the potential to starve and/or displace millions of people.
Withdrawing from an important global efforts like the fight against desertification is, of course, just another day on the job for Stephen Harper. This kind of blatant disregard for the natural world fits his record like a glove, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t some profits to be made by disregarding these restrictions. This careless and wanton disregard for international agreements evokes dark memories of George W., and given their common origin in national centres of oil production, it’s hard not to see a pattern developing. It doesn’t take many G8 nations dropping out of conventions such as this to cast doubt on all of them, as most nations will be hesitant to limit their economies (or arms stockpiles) unless they’re sure their competitors are going to play along. Policies of rabid economic expansionism tend to drag neighbours down with them, forcing a ‘race to the bottom’ as others are forced to lower their own standards to remain “competitive”. While I’m often critical of such agreements (too little, too late…), abandoning the little progress they have made is no way forward.
Desertification isn’t just a crisis, it’s the culmination of many crises: climate change, deforestation and careless agricultural and pastoral practices. It’s a frightening reminder of how easily an entire ecosystem can shatter under our weight. Failing to deal with our environmental problems at this stage, especially for these paltry sums, shows a complete incapacity (and unwillingness) to address ecological issues at all. Harper is playing a very dangerous game here, and with a billion and a half people already affected by land degradation worldwide, it’s hard to imagine how much more callous his policies could get.
How much longer are we, as the people of (or at least, residing in) this nation going to let this maniac represent us on the world stage?
Thomas Mulcair just can’t win. First, he tried to distinguish himself from other New Democrats though a mix of centrist politics, in the hopes of becoming a kind of NDP “Tony Blair”. That hasn’t worked out as well as hoped, failing to impress critics on his left and right, but ya know what they say about trying to please everybody…
That being said, he’s impressed me more over the past week than the entire rest of his tenure as leader combined, but that doesn’t say a lot. First, there’s his supportive statements toward Gary Freeman, extradited for a shootout with police dating back to 1969. Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney had branded Freeman a “Black Panther” and a “cop killer” in parliament, opposing his re-admission to Canada on “terrorist” grounds. As Mulcair (and even his American prosecutors) point out, there’s no evidence he was a Panther and only managed to hit the officer in the arm. Also worth mentioning is that Canada doesn’t officially consider the Panthers a “terrorist” group, and doesn’t seem to have a problem allowing Angela Davis to cross the border for a speaking engagement here next week.
Mulcair’s recent troubles, though, relate directly to one issue: pipelines. He recently made the trip to Washington, as so many other Canadian politicians have done recently. Unlike the rest, though, he didn’t pressure Obama to sign off on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Instead he warned about climate change and the economic plight of Eastern Canada. These remarks have not been well received across Canada, infuriating premiers like Alberta’s Alison Redford (Cons.) and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall (NDP), as well as many federal politicians and media across the country. Viewed as scandalous, possibly treasonous, he’s accused of “not acting in Canada’s best interest”.
Now, as Mulcair and others have pointed out, there is nothing particularly scandalous about the Leader of the Official Opposition choosing to oppose government plans, even while abroad. That’s his job, and it’s the same thing Harper did when he held the position. So why is Mulcair in the spotlight? Because he criticized the Tar Sands, and chose one of the worst possible times to do it. Obama is heavily conflicted over the Keystone XL Pipeline – on one hand, he obviously wants to allow it. On the other, a very large part of his (possibly former) supporters are staunchly opposed to it, to the point where they regularly show up outside the White House in the tens of thousands, and line up by the thousands to be arrested just to make their point.
What makes this “scandal” all the more laughable is that Mulcair isn’t even “against” the Tar Sands – he simply favours a (longer) eastern route for the bitumen, hopefully involving some refining jobs along the way. For him, this might be an alternative, but for the industry itself, it would be a bitter compromise. They’ve been demanding the western (Gateway), eastern (Line 9, etc) and southern (Keystone) and more for years, with dreams including the infamous McKenzie valley pipeline proposal, Arctic shipping hubs and nuclear reactors in the oil patch. Whether or not other routes are constructed, the loss of Keystone would severely limit these ambitions, cutting billions or more out of projected profits.
These potential profits are increasingly becoming Canada’s new political Holy Grail – sought by all with the power to cure all ills. Far more than just the money, this development offers valuable political currency as well, such as the ability to fund budgets without unpopular tax rates and the massive number of new jobs created. Alberta, over the last decade, has shown how this can drive both economic prosperity and national political dominance, with our Prime Minister coming straight from the heart of Calgary’s financial district. Seeing this success in contrast to stagnating manufacturing in central Canada or collapsed fisheries in the east, many are hoping for a piece of this pie, whether it be in taxes, transfer payments, refining jobs or their own new dramatic resource extraction projects like Plan Nord and the “Ring of Fire”.
As many have noted, there’s plenty of precedent for what happens when nations become overly reliant on new oil revenues to pay their bills – it’s called the resource curse. Selling off natural capital to pay operating budgets can be a very popular move, as any number of Middle Eastern government officials can tell you, but what it does to the political process is usually downright ugly (as you’ll hear from most of their people). Excepting a few who’ve opted to charge high royalties and save large funds (ie: Norway), most lead an ugly path toward despotism, environmental destruction and/or war. Alberta’s financial strategy, of course, is the latter – charging low royalties and saving little for the future. The increasingly shrill cries over the fate of the Tar Sands from politicians across the spectrum and the big national papers only underscores how much these revenues are now being coveted. The more serious effects, though, are now being seen in widespread attempts to muzzle federal employees such as scientists, and now even Librarians. That the leader of the Official Opposition is not even “allowed” to threaten this agenda is telling, and it’s to his credit that he did it anyway. Whether it will have any impact remains to be seen.
It won’t be all that long until we have another election, and for once, it seems like the NDP might be fielding a serious contender. Harper and Mulcair are now roughly tied in polls approval ratings (though Harper leads by a distance at disapproval). Barring the entry of a certain political dynasty, Mulcair stands a chance of becoming our next Prime Minister, and it’s still hard to tell what that might mean. These latest moves have given me more hope than most so far, but I must admit, I’m still apprehensive. There’s a good interview with local Professor and notorious activist Kevin McKay on the subject which just came on CFMU’s Progressive Voices the other day, which articulates these concerns well. If “winning” means making big sacrifices in the party’s traditional beliefs, is it really winning? On the other hand, after all these years of Harper, I’d almost settle for Bob Rae. Such are the limitations of electoral politics.
The real battles with the Tar Sands are taking place at the local and grassroots levels right now, on both sides of the border. Through a growing network of civic action and civil disobedience, these pipelines and others are being challenged across North America (did you know Hamilton’s Council discussed Line 9 today?). Left to their own devices, there are few if any who’d stand up to the allure of petro-profits from the Tar Sands and it’s subsidiaries, but the growing popular pressure is proving difficult to ignore. Instead of a debate over who or where gets this infrastructure and the associated risks and profits, it’s starting to verge on a debate about whether we want this disastrous gigaproject to happen at all. That might be the conversation they’re afraid of, but it’s also the one we need to be having right now.
Ok, I’ll admit it. “We” are not invading Mali. I’m not. I should hope anybody who reads this blog isn’t. Our countries, as Canadians, Americans, British and French citizens, are. At least in a support role. So while I have no particular love or allegiance for our government nor it’s imperial misadventures, I can’t exactly pretend I’m not involved. As the people of aggressive “peacekeepers” such as Canada, it’s our job to make these distinctions.
Every time I see, hear or read about this new war in Mali I find myself getting incredibly depressed and discouraged. For all the nightmarish horrors of neocolonialism, I would have liked to believe that another outright military conquest of Africa by Europe was out out of the question. As western forces now do battle with Muslims in the eighth country in four years and our leaders start once-again using bush-style, war-without-end rhetoric, it’s starting to look like “the dark continent” is once again in the crosshairs.
Understanding the conflict in Mali requires a little more context than it’s been given in most of our papers. Mali is a former French colony win West Africa, named after the Empire of Mali which held power in the region staring around a thousand years ago. After gaining independence in 1960, it was run as a one-party state (first socialist, then military) until 1991, when a mass-movement forced the dictator to hand power over to a multi-party democracy. It’s enjoyed decades of good relations with the West, since the days of the military dictatorship (and it’s IMF collusion), and until recently was seen as fairly stable by regional standards.
Serious trouble started about a year ago when a rebellion broke in the north, largely among the Tuareg, the area’s traditionally nomadic indigenous peoples. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), a secular army demanding national autonomy, took over a number of towns and cities including Timbuktu and declared autonomy for the Azawad (“northern Mali”). This rebellion was joined by Islamic insurgents Ansar Dine, but fighting soon broke out between them and the MNLA was routed (they’ve since offered to join the French campaign). Both sides got a tremendous boost as fighters returned from Libya, bringing fresh NATO weapons and battlefield experience with them, as well as a growing sense of solidarity with other rebellions in the region.
While the army battled for control of the north, another threat appeared in the South. Frustrated by the administration’s lack of progress against insurgents, a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré and suspended the constitution last March. This seriously inflamed the situation, leading to an international condemnation from both inside Africa and out, as well as a total loss of control over the north. In response, a “transitional” President, Dioncounda Traore, was sworn in and a civillian Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, appointed. This didn’t change much – at one point “pro-Sanogo youth” forced their way into the president’s office and beat him so badly he needed a medical evacuation to France. Months later, in December, Diarra was forced from power by a group of soldiers acting on Sonogo’s orders, replacing him with the country’s latest leader, Django Sissoko.
This is the quagmire that French troops are walking into.
That France is taking the lead with this intervention is telling. The UN Security Council did pass a resolution late in December (you can read it here), but it doesn’t even mention France. Instead it authorizes an African-led force, under the supervision of the security council, to assist local authorities in restoring order, but also calls for the restoration of democracy and negotiations with rebels (days ago Ansar Dine reportedly split, with a faction seeking to negotiate). The French justification centres around requests from the Malian “government” for assistance, but it isn’t hard to see why some might doubt the “legitimacy” of their authority. Given the multiple threats and condemnations in this resolution directed toward Sonogo, I certainly do.
Law of Unintended Consequences
The colonial tone of this intervention is of not going unnoticed. Given the horrific legacy of slavery, imperialism and neo-colonialism, this was bound to inflame tensions across the region, and it has. The first response was an attack on a natural gas facility in Algeria which killed dozens, now reports are coming in of a 23 more killed in attacks around north-eastern Nigeria. As we’ve already seen far too many times with the War on Terrorism, the indignation caused by western intervention is more than capable of replacing every insurgent it kills.
Algeria harbours a frightening history of its own (extremely bloody) fight for independence from France, and more recent Islamic insurgencies. These later conflicts literally exploded in the 1990s after the government cancelled elections Islamists were expected to win and are said to have received substantial help from former Mujahideen fighters who’d fought (with CIA help) in the Afghan/Soviet war. Nigeria, a former British colony which has spent most of the time since its independence under various military juntas, has seen increasing unrest over the past two decades, largely in opposition to oil extraction which has taken a horrendous toll on the area’s environment. Initially taking the form of mass, nonviolent actions, Nigeria caught the world’s attention when Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders hung on false charges with suspicious connections to Shell Oil. In the years that followed, disillusionment lead to armed resistance through the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND), often attacking at foreign oil companies and kidnapping workers. In recent years, they’ve been joined in the conflict by Islamists Boko Haram, who are believed to be behind the recent attacks.
Since every one of these conflicts involves Islamic militants of one form or another, I should be clear about what I mean (and what I don’t). Unlike our leaders or the press, I do not mean to equate any or all Muslims who bear arms or resist governments. Not only would that be appallingly racist, but it would also be totally inaccurate. There are well over a billion Muslims on earth, so it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be involved in a few rebellions. There are certainly groups with abysmal theocratic aims who employ horrific tactics, but so does every other race and religion, and that’s the context they need to be seen in – they’re just like any other fascists. It needs to be noted that 90% of Mali’s population are followers of Islam, and most want nothing to do with Ansar Dine.
Islamophobia isn’t just a crass and obnoxious prejudice, it’s an important part of the ideology of modern warmongering. With Mali, we can see how the (perceived) threat of an Islamic insurrection (or worse, a state!) seemingly justifies any break with international law or UN resolutions. We saw it in Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Palestine and so many others. “Islamic terrorism” is considered so dangerous it must be faced by subverting elections, arming rival insurgents/paramilitaries/tyrants, “pre-emptive” invasions, torture and a global campaign of drone bombings. The mythology behind this, like most racist fantasies, suggests a vast conspiracy interconnecting Muslims around the globe, tying together every nasty thing done by any Muslim anywhere. With this twisted logic, a “foothold” anywhere could lead to a new barrage of attacks everywhere. It’s essentially a 21st century version of the “Domino Theory“, and it’s just as fanciful as the last.
The problem with such racist reasoning isn’t just that it totally ignores the context of any violence that happens, replacing it with cartoonish stereotypes. If this were simply a matter of never, ever believing that any follower of Islam could have a legitimate reason to take up arms, it would at least be consistent. Unfortunately, geopolitics isn’t so simple and there are some situations in which even the Pentagon feels they do. The Afghan-Soviet War is the obvious example, but there are others – the Kosovo Liberation Army, for instance, had Al Qaeda links. So did many of “our rebel allies” in Libya and Syria. Mali’s crisis, as mentioned above, traces right back to Libya, where both Tuareg and Islamist fighters acquired much of their weapons and battlefield experience.
The two-faced strategy practiced by western leaders against “terrorism” has failed twice. First, because of the willingness to embrace “Islamic fundamentalism” when it suits them, which played a large role in creating the modern Jihadi movement. Second, by then over-reacting to the threat and lashing out at entire nations, they galvanized the support base by proving what nasty imperialists they could be. Putting Al Qaeda in the crosshairs for this global war legitimized them in ways they could never have accomplished otherwise, and 12 years later “terrorism” is bigger than ever.
No article about the invasion of Mali would be complete without a picture of its resources, which betrays a slightly different agenda underlying this invasion. Gold-mining has been at the centre of Mali’s economy since the days of the old Empire. Currently it’s the third-largest producer of gold on the continent. The largely undeveloped north is thought to contain large reserves of metals like uranium (this region supplies much of France’s electricity) and possibly oil (Nigeria and Algeria both have considerable oil/gas reserves). Mining interests also explain some of why Canada is so eager to get involved, as there are more than fifteen Canadian mining firms currently active in Mali.
Gold might not have been the most important resource a few years ago, but thanks to a near-chronic fear of another financial collapse, many individuals and investors have started buying gold in the hopes it will hold it’s value. This has led gold prices to skyrocket, attracting speculators and fueling the rise. In recent weeks this trend has started to reverse, leaving many to wonder about it’s sustainability, but still fixate on it’s importance. With Africa (and often the poorest regions) supplying much of the world’s mineral and metal demands, this makes western-friendly governments (democratic or otherwise) a must.
They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Another “intervention” makes me wonder if we’ve learned anything from either the last decade or century. This invasion, like any other, will have long-reaching consequences which will go well beyond Mali’s borders. Even if the French-led forces capture northern Mali, they will never manage to contain all insurgents in the region. The legacies of poverty, repression and ecological destruction caused by debt, land grabs and foreign mining/drilling exploits have consequences of their own, providing a desperate and indignant recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and others. The rise of Islamic militants, like so many other problems the region faces, is deeply rooted in colonialism, and that’s not a problem more colonialism is going to fix.
There are no angels here, no devils, just people, and while I might sympathize with some groups (MEND) more than others (AQIM), I have to admit that it’s not actually any of my bloody British-descended business. Control over African political affairs needs to belong, once-again, to Africans, whatever I might think of their choices. Without understanding that principle, any attempt to “bring” democracy to the region is doomed from the outset. Until richer nations stop seeing invasions, military aid and “friendly” dictators as acceptable ways to influence affairs in poorer regions, this kind of chaos is going to continue. It’s high time to renounce the role of emperors and accept the status of allies, at least if we care at all for any of the people actually living through this nightmare.
A recent episode of The Stream on Al Jazeera focused on the controversies surrounding Canadian mining corporations, especially relating to Latin America. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t familiar with the issue, as it outlines the problem very well.
To make the story very short, there’s three things you should know. First, that the Toronto Stock Exchange is the “financial capital” of the world’s mining industry, and most of the world’s big mining corporations are Canadian, whether they mine here, abroad or both. Second is our lack of laws against committing crimes in other countries. In America, for example, the USWA was able to bring a lawsuit against Coca-Cola for its use of paramilitary ‘death squads’ to murder union organizers in Columbian bottling plants. In Canada, there’s little legal recourse against an individual or corporation hiring death squads in another nation. So why would all of these companies choose to locate in such a legal environment? That brings us to the third point – that Canada (predictably) leads the world in mining-related human rights abuses.
What does all that political jargon mean? In simple terms, there’s usually people, often indigenous groups, living on the areas these companies want to mine. So they hire mercenaries to threaten, harass or even massacre anyone who doesn’t want to leave. Sometimes it’s cops or soldiers, but even when it isn’t it’s generally tolerated or even endorsed by local governments. This isn’t just one company or country, either, if you watch the news another bloody story turns up every couple weeks. On top of this, modern mining tends to be an incredibly destructive and toxic process, with huge implications for the surrounding lands and populations, who are rarely included in the political process. If they object, they may also face paramilitary pressure.
Globally speaking, this is a huge problem which goes well beyond both Canada and Mining. To put it in perspective, Shell spent $127 million between 2007-9 on “security” in Nigeria alone, essentially fighting a civil war over oilfields in the Niger Delta. Western corporations are often worth more than entire countries, and this gives them incredible leverage in local affairs. They can order massacres, raise armies or even topple and replace governments, all well-documented in the history of everything from diamonds to bananas.
The central question posed by The Stream is whether Canada or our government has an obligation to do something about this sordid state of affairs. Most First World nations prohibit such activities, and there have been (narrowly defeated) attempts to introduce laws to bring some level of legal control (the Liberal MP sponsor is interviewed on the show). While many raised the point that Bolivia, Ecuador and many others also have a responsibility to act, expecting that to happen shows a total ignorance of what a Third World Country is or how their governments tend to function. Conversely, there’s little doubt that the Canadian government could easily hold head offices accountable if they had the slightest desire to.
Does the government have a moral obligation to act? Unquestionably. Is that likely to happen any time soon? No. Our government is currently run by the resource extraction section (mostly Albertan oil), and they’ve shown themselves to be totally hostile to anything environmental or indigenous. The people of Canada, though, are another story. We may not be able to fight alongside these peasants, but those ultimately giving the orders and footing the bill are right on our doorstep. If this issue shows one thing, it’s that activists in Canada have a unique opportunity to tackle this issue at the geographic centre. We all benefit from this commerce, yet we can intervene (without facing death squads) – that leaves us with the obligation. We can fight this, and for the sake of thousands of lives around the world, we have to.
It’s budget time, and conflicts over “austerity” are continuing to rage across the western world. Canada’s budgets are out, Spain held a general strike Thursday and the situation in Italy and Portugal is continuing to worsen.
Greece and Italy
News from Europe just keeps getting more disturbing. Italy has now seen two men set themselves on fire to protest economic conditions. One did it outside a tax office, another outside the town hall over thousands in unpaid wages. Greece is taking an even scarier turn as the (unelected) government move on with plans to open 30 widely opposed “detention camps” for illegal immigrants, who they’re now attempting to scapegoat for their economic woes. This follows similar measures and proposals aimed at the Roma (“Gypsies”) in Italy and France.
These two nations are furthest along in “austerity” plans (especially Greece). They’ve both had their heads-of-state (Berlusconi and Papandreau) replaced by “technocrats”. Their economies are growing so toxic they threaten the EU itself, and austerity programs so have only worsened debt burdens by wrecking their economies. They’ve both seen enormous, riotous social unrest. Watching this from the relative security of a nation like Canada, it’s time to ask ourselves: is this is really the path we want to embark down?
Spain and Portugal
Spain yesterday saw a general strike grip the country, where (of course) some clashed with police setting tires and trash cans alight as barricades in the street. Yesterday, Spain announced their “austerity budget“, hoping to satisfy European Union creditors. It contains 27 billion in cuts, some of the worst cuts seen since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Spanish unions and protest groups are pledging to keep fighting. Neighbouring Portugal held a similar general strike last week, and business analysts are again beginning to fear that either of the above (or Italy) may become “the next Greece”. EU Ministers met today to discuss raising the “firewall” bailout fund closer to a trillion dollars, fearing another debt-crisis and bailouts which could cripple the European banking system.
Thursday, Federal Minister of Finance Flaherty announced his “austerity” budget, as expected. During the speech a group of protesters raised a ruckus in the gallery and had to be “escorted out”. The day before, McGuinty released his, and the reality of the proposed cuts is beginning to sink in. Federally, over $5 billion in cuts have been announced, expected to directly result in about 19 000 public jobs lost over the next few years, raised eligibility ages for retirement benefits and gutted environmental oversight. The subject of new taxes was avoided, with the Conservatives hoping further investments in large resource-extraction projects like the Tar Sands and related pipelines will bring in more revenue. It’s being called the “least green budget in decades“, inflaming Environmental and First-Nations groups.
In Ontario, the main cost-cutting measure is a two-year public-sector wage freeze along with cuts to pensions. Over the next three years, cuts worth $17.7 billion are planned, with a third of it coming from wages. These measures follow a somewhat watered-down model provided by the Drummond Report, released earlier this year warning of dire financial consequences if Ontario didn’t deal with our deficits.
Canada isn’t Greece, Spain or Italy – we very clearly aren’t in the midst of a “debt crisis”. We aren’t even “sorta” grappling with one like France, Britain or America. We have the lowest debt-GDP ratio in the G7, our own currency and some of the world’s largest stocks of natural resources. Our economy was largely shielded from the shocks of the last five years for these reasons, and we needed a far smaller “bailout”. Our social programs aren’t all that lavish by European standards, and our economy is in far better shape. To say that Canada “needs” an austerity program is absolutely ludicrous, but that’s never stopped our politicians before.
The rapid spread of austerity programs, beyond borders and regardless of party in power, shows how widespread these problems really are. As much as I’d like to place the blame on Harper or McGuinty, they are only a few in the long list of politicians participating. Our new global economy has generated a global crisis, and it’s going to take a global movement to fight back.
Wages, pensions, social programs and other benefits have always been a battleground. They’re a part of the bargain we drive in exchange for our work and compliance with laws. Most of these rights and benefits were only gained at the end of long and hard-fought struggles. This bargaining session never ends – there’s always a mediation between us and those in power (bosses, the government, etc). There will always be efforts to peel back these gains and pay us less in one way or another. When this happens, people fight back. This is the subject of a very interesting paper now making the rounds online, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of the CEPR. From the ninety years they studied, they found “a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability”. These results were tested against all the usual explanations – recessions, democratic/autocratic governments and the amount of media coverage, among other variables, and none showed much effect (with the possible exception of limiting the powers of government’s executive branch…). The lesson here? If you begin to pay people less for their obedience, be prepared to expect less of it.
This fight is already underway. Big days to watch for include April 21st (Toronto), May 5th (Ottawa) and of course Mayday, May 1st (everywhere). There are already big conflicts underway in Quebec (students) and British Columbia (teachers, northerners), as well as many cities like Toronto and Halifax. With these budgets now on the table, Canada’s entry into this international conflict is now official. Austerity is everywhere and the effects are only beginning to be felt, but so is the backlash.
It sure is going to be an interesting spring.
I still don’t know what to think about last night’s election results. The first thing that comes to mind might be “may God have mercy on our souls”. Stephen Harper with a majority in Parliament means a mountain of ridiculous policy is upon us. It will, however, at least mean that battle lines are drawn and we can stop listening to Michael Ignatieff threaten to start voting against him.
Ignatieff, it seems, was not the wisest choice the Liberals could have made. He’s already stepped down as leader, and the liberals came home with only 34 seats. This election represents a massive defeat, and it’s not clear where the party will go from here. The NDP, though, picked up much of the slack and now has 102 seats, a new record, and as official opposition, will now be in the front lines against Harper’s majority. It’s the NDP’s big chance to demonstrate national clout, but only time will tell whether they’re up to the task. Aiding them, for the first time ever, will be an elected Green Party MP, Elizabeth May, but very few from the Bloc. Pretty much every result here is historic.
The results, as always, are skewed into majorities. Harper didn’t really win a “majority”, as his party received just 39.6% of the popular vote (2.3% more than 2008), but because of the way Parliament awards seats, that grants him well over half. The Liberals, with 18.9% got 34 seats, the NDP, with 30.6% got 102, (about triple), and the Greens(3.9%) and bloc (6%) with about half that got 5 between them. And of course, despite predictions of massive turnout, around 40% still didn’t show up – roughly the same amount as Harper’s “majority”. When you factor in Canada’s total population (since many aren’t able to vote or have never been registered), About a sixth (17%) of our population showed up to vote conservative yesterday, and now they have a “majority” with 54% of seats in parliament.
For the people of Canada, this will likely mean a surge of extra-electoral action. A Harper majority will mean many policies which cannot be stopped at the parliamentary level, and that will mean many more people in raging online, on strike, and in the streets. It’s already happening nearly everywhere else, and it seems Canada, too, is about to step into the Age of Austerity.
As the world watches in horror, at Japan’s current nuclear wars, we’re all being forced to ask ourselves: could it happen here? In a word, yes. Or perhaps something very much like it.
Today alone, we’ve seen an earthquake in the Ottawa area and leak at the Pickering Reactor (35km from Toronto) which released 72 000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario. That’s just today.
Could a level five nuclear incident happen in Ontario? It already has, in 1952 at Chalk River, 180km up the Ottawa river from our nation’s capitol. A cooling failure and hydrogen explosion led to a containment failure and release of 30kg of isotopes into the surrounding environment. Another incident happened six years later when it underwent a ‘fuel failure’ during core maintenance. And though the nuclear laboratories there sit in a seismically active area, neither was caused by an earthquake, but rather insufficient safeguards and operator error. Since then, both the Chalk River site and have been beset by problems. Shut down in 2007 over safety concerns, the current reactor at Chalk River, was restarted in December on order of Parliament after a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. Just shy of a year later, heavy water was found to be leaking from the reactor, and it was shut down again. But unable to find the source after it stopped on its own, they restarted it days later. By May of 2009, it had returned and was leaking much faster, leading to another shutdown which lasted over a year. As of last August, though, it is once again operational due to another shortage of medical isotopes, as most of the world’s other producing reactors were also currently offline at the time.
Continuing East from there, one finds Elliot Lake, former heartland of Canadian uranium mining, and home to roughly 200 million tons of un-remediated tailings from mining sites. As with more active mining sites elsewhere in Canada, we’ve also seen ruptures of tailings dams, like one in 1993 which released an estimated two million litres of radioactive liquids into surrounding environments.
Ontario also houses the Bruce Nuclear plant, the largest in North America, and others closer to us, like the Darlington or Pickering reactors. Hamilton houses our own reactor at McMaster University. At least two more proposed plants have been promoted recently for new development.
And of course, in any discussion of the Canadian nuclear industry, we need to mention the larger global role it played. Since the Manhattan project, we’ve been involved in weapons programs, and still are today. AECL has been a major exporter of nuclear technologies, and therefore a major enabler of foreign nuclear weapons programs. We’ve sold reactors to India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Romania (while a member of the Warsaw Pact) and Argentina. Canadian technologies were found to have played a large role in India’s nuclear weapons program, and we certainly haven’t hindered those of others. Our CANDU reactors and other heavy-water types lend themselves easily to producing weaponized materials. In an age where many are urging the sales of reactors to large numbers of new nations in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the consequences of these sales need to be considered. Not exporting these technologies in the first place is far easier than invading and occupying nations like Iraq or Iran in order to get them back under our control.
Japan isn’t unique and niether is Ontario. Regions all around the world are now asking themselves these questions, and rediscovering their own ugly histories of nuclear mismanagement. Californians, wary of their reactors like Diablo Canyon, built right atop a fault-line. Germans have already reacted, shutting down seven of it’s seventeen reactors and facing a serious chance of a nationwide moratorium. News like this is rolling in from around the world.
I suspect that from this point onward, it’ll virtually require a cold day in hell to sell a new reactor anywhere that now receives news-feeds. Not that they’ll stop trying, but Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island led to a virtual 30-year freeze on new reactor construction in America and elsewhere. Most of those which exist now are close to or beyond their intended decommissioning date. Another similar freeze, lasting even a decade or two, would see the industry implode over large regions of the globe. And once there’s no reactors to point to as bright, shining examples of the atom’s potential, it’ll be even harder to build new ones. I’m not saying this is the definitive end of nuclear power, but if the industry does crash and burn, this will be the week that historians point to.
No fate is sealed. Those who stand to make fantastic profits off nuclear technologies will continue to downplay the costs and demand new stations, singing songs of progress. But now that we’ve all had a close-up look at what a disaster could look like, we’ve all got a very good reason to question those claims. I’ve seen lots of “direct action” in my day, and it ain’t hard. Show up, sit down, refuse to leave. Lock yourself to something if necessary, climb out of reach, dig in and camp – whatever it takes. If they drag you off, come back. We may not even need to go that far – a believable public statement from a few thousand people that we’re willing to may be enough. The day news of Japan’s crisis hit, 50 000 people showed up to protest at a site in Germany. The collective hopes and fears of the earth’s people may not be able to stop the current crisis in Japan, but we can stop it from ever happening again.