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If you’ve been following the news in Canada over the last year or so, there should be nothing too surprising about our Prime Minister’s “war on science”. World-class labs and experiments have been shut down, libraries destroyed, scientists “muzzled” and mandates have been re-written along unabashedly ideological lines. The disregard for any science which might contradict his political interests has provoked indignation throughout Canada’s intellectual and academic communities, leading to protests at Capitol Hill by many notable scientists. At issue isn’t just information which might damage his political chances or the petrochemical industry he represents but the notion of “science” itself.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of very good critiques of science, academia and “rationality” out there. Since taking the reigns of “established truth” from religion, science has often found itself in the same authoritarian roles, defining dark-skinned people as less-than-human, homosexuality as a “mental illness” and generally facilitating the spread of empire. That being said, I must ask, if not science, then what? Emotion? Rhetoric? Dogma? If and when a better system comes along I’ll gladly adopt it, as will, I suspect, every intellectually honest academic, but only after demonstrating a superior ability to predict and explain the unknown, something the alternatives have all (so far) been unable or unwilling to do. Science, as an institution, has shown the nearly unique ability to admit wrong-doing and learn from its misktakes. That evidence-based evolution, rather than any one claim, defines “science” and sets it apart from its peers.
In spite of all the economic and institutional incentives for science to parrot the views of government, it often doesn’t, and that’s the problem here. Over the past century honest self-criticism and better methodologies have demolished many of the cherished ‘truths’ it once upheld, making life a lot harder for those who based their reactionary politics on them. This has provoked some understandable resentment and suspicion, especially among those unable to understand or evaluate the science in question. In more ignorant and hardline groups, this often leads to a wholesale rejection and allegations that all of science and academia are aligned against them in a giant liberal/communist/Jewish* conspiracy, which is now sadly something of a mainstream political view.
Even in a perfect world, science will never be “neutral”. It may assume neutrality as a starting point, but sticking with it means never reaching any conclusions, or at the very best permanently agreeing to disagree (as we have with philosophy, religion and musical preference). The sad fact is that we can’t all be right. We may be entitled to our own opinions, but reality is not obliged to indulge our egos. Believe, if you wish, that global warming isn’t real, that the Tar Sands and fracking are sustainable, that austerity, tax cuts or the gold standard are likely to fix the economy or that putting more people in prison will lower crime rates, but that’s not what the evidence says. That may be a result of Illuminati agents distorting the data, but there’s a far simpler explanation: you might just be wrong.
What we don’t know can hurt us. Not looking to see if there are cars coming doesn’t make crossing a street any safer. Nor will avoiding tests for diseases stop them from making you sick. In the face of danger, ignorance is among the worst choices one can make. Sadly, in this case, the choice is being made for us.
The rejection of science leads us down a dark path. If conclusions are decided ahead of time, there’s little point to doing experiments or writing papers at all. If evidence isn’t valued, then what sets serious debate apart from a karaoke competition? This policy threatens to stifle a world-class scientific community which took generations to build. Worse, it sets a precedent by which knowledge and truth are decided directly by the government of the day and evidence tailored to fit their views. If replacing science with ignorance is to be the new official position of our government, the only thing we’ll be able to know for sure is that our country is run by a bunch of idiots.
This week’s “movie” is actually the most recent episode of the CBC’s Fifth Estate, “Silence of the Labs”. I don’t usually use this space to promote current broadcast programming, but given the dire nature of this subject matter as well as the CBC’s willingness to post the whole thing online, I’m willing to make an exception. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d definitely recommend making time for this one, if only to see yet another glaring example of how twisted this nation is becoming.
*This is not hyperbole, there is a long history of association between fascism and anti-intellectualism. The Nazis adopted the ultra-nationalist “Deutsche Physik” movement which rejected “Jewish Science”, especially Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Similar views are common among religious fundamentalists, Holocaust deniers and John-Birchers for obvious reasons, as well as most of the nastier authoritarian leftist regimes.
The blockade in Westover, now enjoying its fifth day, has been a stunning success. The surprise appearance of dozens upon dozens of protesters at Enbridge’s construction site Thursday morning managed to take the company by surprise, and as of this moment, demonstrators control the site and have dug in for a prolonged stay. At least 30 tents now line the long driveway and people are continuing to arrive from as far away as Toronto and Ottawa.
Within moments of the successful seizure, a website and twitter account went live and press releases began flooding out to media outlets. Adam Carter of CBC Hamilton was on the scene shortly and tweeted live updates throughout the morning. By the afternoon, even Enbridge was tweeting to #SwampLine9. Soon others began to arrive, including more reporters and representatives of Six Nations. In terms of (official) confrontation, there’s been very little – demonstrators pledged to fight for the workers pay, if necessary, and promised not to touch the equipment, most of which is locked inside a fenced enclosure. Regular “safety inspections” and a small, full-time (rotating) presence of watchful employees have been allowed, though campers have now blocked further deliveries of fuel for the all-night floodlights. In return, campers have been allowed access to the on-site bathroom trailer, at least for the moment. If that fails, campers have brought along a composting toilet, built fresh for the occasion. Police have maintained a small presence nearby, but have so far refused to act without a court injunction. The little ‘trouble’ campers have experienced (all peaceful, thankfully), I’m told, has come from angry drivers and residents, which is pretty much par for the course in an action like this.
Since the occupation began, they’ve been joined by a steady stream of friends, activists and neighbours. Events have been held, such as the support demo last Friday on public lands across the street last and a “Swampfest” concert yesterday, featuring local acts such as Lee Reed and Mother Tareka. When I visited yesterday, spirits were still high, if a little more tired and heat-striken than when I left Thursday, with many more tents and plenty of new tarp-and-cable-spool construction.
This tiny strip of barren land, amidst the rolling hills, fields, swamp and forest of Westover, has now come to represent a national debate over energy infrastructure. Given similar opposition to proposals for new westward or southbound pipelines (Northern Gateway and Keystone XL), a tri-partisan consensus formed around an eastbound route which would quietly re-purpose existing pipelines to get Tar Sands oil to terminals in Maine. Harper’s government, so intent on turning Canada into a mid-east style petro-state, has exempted the plan from environmental assessments and taken a hard line on critics. Since even Hamilton’s council has proven powerless to intervene, many had assumed this was a ‘done deal’, but they hadn’t factored in the millions of people who live along its path.
The Westover Terminal was an obvious choice for occupation. Appearing on continental pipeline network maps, it’s the meeting point of Line 9a (Sarnia-Westover) and 9b (Westover-Montreal), the two stages of the overall reversal. It also lies amidst the Beverly Swamp, the most significant watershed in the western Hamilton, feeding both the Spencer Creek and Cootes Paradise. A spill here (the vast majority of pipelines spill at terminals) or anywhere along the nearby pipes would put the entire area at risk ecologically, as well as the many farms and residents who are dependent on wells for water.
The danger this poses to Hamilton shouldn’t be hard for most long-time residents to grasp. Not only have we long suffered with the stigma (and reality) of being a “dirty” and “polluted” city, but we’re already home to Canada’s worst freshwater tar contamination – Randle Reef. After decades of bickering and inaction, the cost of remediating this sixty-hectare patch of coal-tar near (former) Stelco’s docks now stands at around $140 million (taxpayer) dollars. Along the Spencer Creek itself, a July, 2007 fire at the Biedermann pesticide plant in Dundas spilled an estimated million litres of (still unknown) chemicals into the creek, which then flowed into Cootes Paradise. Along their route they killed an estimated 6000 fish in the creek and 5-15 million in and around Grindstone Marsh. In both of these cases, the corporations escaped any kind of prosecution, leaving us to suffer the consequences and shoulder the cost of cleanup.
Whatever Enbridge wants to claim, the oil industry’s recent record isn’t comforting. Just over a week ago a leak was discovered from Imperial Oil’s eqipment in Sarnia, not far from Enbridge’s facilities there. Around the same time, a Plains Midwestern pipeline ruptured near Manning, Alberta, spilling a few thousand barrels of natural gas condensate. A couple of weeks before that, Apache Canada spilled almost ten million litres of contaminated wastewater near Zama, Alberta. In the past few days, catastrophic floods have brought more ruptures, one in a Turner Valley gas pipeline, leaking deadly “sour gas” from a submerged section of pipe and a widespread shutdown of Enbridge’s own lines after another spill south of Fort McMurray.
Alberta’s floods illustrate the double-edged danger of these gigaprojects. Their infrastructure is not (and cannot be) built to withstand the unprecedented and cataclysmic weather which it creates. Only a few days ago much of Ft. McMurray was besieged by flood-waters – if they’d moved much further north into the oil patch and breached the massive “tailings ponds”, the resulting dump of industrial waste into the MacKenzie-Athabasca River Delta could easily have turned much of northern Canada into a dead zone. Even without such a disaster, though, there’s enough carbon buried in the sands of northern Alberta to bring about “catastrophic” global warming without any help from America or China. That means more droughts, floods and super-storms, with all the decimated crop yields and underwater cities that entails.
Line 9 is not just a symbol. This thirty-inch pipe and the export capacity it represents is crucial to Tar Sands expansion plans, and to the new Canada Haprper is busy creating. Aside from the potential disaster it represents to every community along its path, this pipeline will spur new toxic development from Alberta to Asia. In literal, physical terms, it will further entrench our economic dependence on petrochemicals, even as global efforts to break the addiction are finally underway.
If we want to stop this, now’s the time. Once a project like this goes online, it becomes infinitely harder to stop, and that’s scheduled to happen later this summer. There will soon be no more construction sites or NEB hearings, just a hundred million barrels flowing through our ground each year. This is our chance to say “no”, and we may not get another one like it for years or decades. Whether or not this blockade survives, these brave land defenders have raised the bar for everybody from Sarnia to Montreal. If it is evicted, others will try elsewhere, and only one needs to successfully stop construction, at any point in it’s 1000+ kilometres, to bring the entire project to a halt.
If you want to support Swamp Line 9, there’s many ways you can help. As with any blockade, they’re constantly in need of people to maintain a presence on the site. Whether you can stay for ten minutes or bring a tent and stick around for a while, it’ll be appreciated. There’s also a need for supplies (see official list), rides to and from the site (especially accessible vehicles) and help spreading the word on and off-line. For those elsewhere, there’s been a call-out for solidarity actions tomorrow (Tuesday June 25th), encouraging everybody to grab some signs and head to their nearest Enbridge facility. As for direct actions elsewhere along the line, such as blockades of roads and other construction sites, they’re more than welcome. This was never meant to be a ‘last stand’ – it’s only the beginning.
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?
One of the big risks of electoral systems like ours is that a minority of the population will vote in a government who undertakes a radical transformation of traditional institutions. Harper, who recieved votes from less than 1/5 people in this country, is a prime example of these fears. During his time in office he’s transformed Canada along lines we used to associate with places like Texas, much to the dismay of most Canadians. These changes, senseless as they might seem, follow an ideological agenda reflecting both the desires of his ‘sponsors’ and a strongly-held personal belief that capitalism can solve all problems.
In the latest Federal budget, two glaring examples stand out and have gotten a fair bit of attention. The first is the demise of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which had formerly been responsible for international aid. The second is to tie aid to young First Nations people on reserves to “job training” and similar initiatives. Both are obviously odious for plenty of reasons, but what I find most galling is the willingness to use the plight most vulnerable as an easy venue for this agenda, and to tie it in so deeply with questions of basic survival.
Capitalism, both in theory and practice, has always relied on the most destitute. On paper, they provide a constant demand for more growth and progress. In practice, they supply a cheap, flexible and massive workforce without which the system couldn’t function. While in past times this meant local slums, today entire countries and regions have been transformed into Dickensian landscapes. The spectre of Third World poverty has been used many times by the likes of Monsanto and the World Bank to promote their products and policies, though not to much (positive) effect. Instead, through “trade-based” policies, these areas have become the site of 21st century plantations and sweatshops. Canada’s role in this process is well-acknowledged, we’re the mining powerhouse so often cited for questionable mining claims and human rights abuses.
The demise of CIDA and incorporation of aid programs into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) will accelerate the process I warned about last December when Harper started cutting the agency and talking of using aid to promote foreign investment. The Canadian press has taken a remarkably friendly view of this move (Star, Globe, Macleans), but the UK’s Guardian takes a much harsher tone,
Cida has pulled back from Africa and increased its programmes in Latin America, where Canada’s mining industry is especially active. As China is synonymous with global industry, so Canada is synonymous with global mining – although its activities in the sector embrace more than 100 countries. About 75% of the world’s exploration and mining companies are headquartered in Canada, partly because the country acts as a major banker for the extractive industry, but partly also due to weak corporate governance and enforcement.
Moves like this set a frightening precedent. Turning aid workers into the official missionaries of foreign investment poses a very serious challenge to their perceived neutrality. Conflicts over Canadian mining operations often get violent, and we don’t need to give foreign rebel groups any more reason to shoot at aid workers.
For the “Fourth World”, Canada’s internal colonies, Harper is pursuing a very similar policy. He’s making available $241 million in job training to reserves, but only on the condition that welfare support for young people on those reserves is tied to participation in those programs. The training in question will prepare native youth for the booming “resource development” industry in the North. First Nations youth are of course the country’s fastest-growing demographic and suffer horrible rates of poverty. This policy aims to use that desperation.
For those familiar with on-reserve politics, there’s other clear motives at work in this scheme, as well as a sick, assimilationist logic.. Many bands are bitterly divided over questions of resource development – deeply opposed but also dependent on projects for jobs and payments. These mirror deeper questions about the future of traditional ways of life, local autonomy and governance, as well as how to recover from centuries of colonization. Harper, obviously, would love to see one side of these arguments prevail, as the other has been one of the largest national thorns in his side. Those willing to oppose pipelines and logging with direct action, such as the Unist’ot’en blockade in BC, have threatened billions in infrastructure and investment, and given the national successes of Idle No More actions, stand to pose a much larger threat in the months to come.
There will, of course, be many, both here and overseas, who cannot manage the rigours of working resource extraction. There will also be many communities who just aren’t conveniently located near oil or precious metals. They’ll simply be left out. Others will see first-hand what these kinds of projects do to communities and ecology. The benefits, of course, will flow back toward Toronto and Vancouver, as that’s the point of investment. After all, this isn’t (really) charity.
The problem with any charity, especially of the welfare-state variety, is that it rarely does much to resolve the underlying problems. It relies on, maintains, and all-too-often exploits the inequalities and power relations it claims to help, usually in the name of religion, donations or social control. This kind of lifeline provides power over the recipients, and the temptation to abuse it can be overwhelming. As they say, charity is no substitute for justice denied – if we truly want to help, then we shouldn’t be setting terms.
As for Harper’s sick take on Reaganomics, I really doubt it’ll ‘raise all boats’ any more than his other many tide-raising policies. “Primary” (extractive) industries are notorious for not providing the kind of poverty alleviation they promise – the most successful economies have always been those who focus, as well, on processing those materials (“secondary” and “tertiary” industries). Exporting raw ore, bitumen or logs does little, even by capitalist standards, without the associated milling and refining jobs. Instead they engender an atmosphere of corruption and petty despotism among local officials, and often leave regions in ruin once the ‘mines run dry’. This shift in policy is dangerous, as is the self-serving ideology behind it. No matter what people tell you, subsidizing large, rich coporations rarely, if ever, does much for the poor.
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.
For nearly a month now indigenous protests against the Harper government and its policies have been exploding across Canada and beyond. Under the banner of “Idle No More“, protesters have targeted Bill C-45, our second budget omnibus bill which cuts funding and environmental protections while making it easier for outsiders to lease reserve lands (among many other changes). Adding fuel to this fire is Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who’s been on hunger strike since Dec 11th demanding to meet with Harper himself, who’s remained remarkably absent since the whole ordeal begun.
Within weeks, the mobilization had reached or exceeded the peak of turnouts for the Occupy movement in most parts of Canada. Given that First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples make up less than 4% of Canada’s population (rather than “99%”), and that December is one of the hardest months to organize, that’s a breathtaking achievement. Flashmobs of hundreds have struck some of Canada`s most iconic urban centres (malls, plazas and intersections). Blockades have begun on highways and railway tracks (like Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia, which ended last night and Tyendinaga) and many more are planned. Tensions are rising quickly, solidarity demonstrations and words of support have been coming in from around the world, and at this point even organizers are having trouble keeping track of all the demonstrations happening.
In my experience, this kind of rapid and resounding success only comes when tensions below the surface are close to the breaking point. There have been a number of high-profile indigenous protests in the last decade, from the Aboriginal Day of Action in 2007 to years of events surrounding the controversy in Caledonia. Many have inspired solidarity demonstrations (including road/rail blockades) across the country, going right back to the infamous armed standoffs of the 1990s (Oka, Gustafsen Lake, etc). Few, though, have seen this kind of rapid and viral spread. What seems different this time, if anything, is the response – one which this time is seeing far more solidarity and less hostility.
Whether this is a continuation of inertia from the Arab Spring, Occupy and Quebec Student Strike (among others), a reaction to the increasingly radical and unilateral actions of our Prime Minister or simply the culmination of centuries of frustrations, it’s certainly about time we saw a mobilization like this.
The Big Tent
Idle No More, like Occupy, is a very broad, “big-tent” styled movement. Both the tactics and demands up until this point have stayed fairly moderate, considering what often happens at these protests. Even to the usually unsympathetic Canadian public, there’s very little which could be deemed unreasonable. After the national embarrassment which was the PM’s handling of the Attawapiskat housing crisis (later deemed illegal in court), ongoing struggles over pipelines and other Northern development and the horrific revelations which emerged from BC’s inquiry into missing native women, it’s becoming harder to pretend that anything’s really changed since the passage of the Indian Act in 1876.
This moderation hasn’t come without criticism, though, from more radical sectors who haven’t been “idle” for quite some time now. Particularly controversial has been the involvement of Band Council leadership in mobilizations, who many regard more as representatives of the Canadian government than their respective bands. Monday, organizers issued a statement distancing themselves from the chiefs and stating a “mandate from the grassroots to work outside systems of government”. The next day, Spence responded that the chiefs must “humble themselves and be one with the grassroots”, admitting their “imperfect past” by “becoming one and the same as the people”. I certainly share many of these concerns, and a longstanding respect for traditional leadership such as the Confederacy Chiefs and Clan Mothers at Six Nations, but I’m also inspired by the grassroots focus shown so far also can’t deny the incredible grassroots show of support so far. No movement is free of such internal conflicts, but is this a chance any of us can afford to pass up?
Our Home On Native Land
Canada has an utterly atrocious record when it comes to indigenous peoples, at home and abroad, which continues up to the current day. Last February, Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth And Reconciliation Committee was forced to admit that Canada’s Residential Schools clearly qualified under UN Conventions as “an act of genocide“. There have been involve in forced relocations, sterilisation programs, deposed governments, incredibly strict racially-based laws (an “Indian” could not vote, drink, gather in public, hire a lawyer for treaty matters or play pool for much of the last century) and sweeping efforts to strip groups (women, professionals etc) of their “status”. Reserves have been stripped of hugely valuable resources (timber, metals, oil, uranium) and dosed in return with nearly every kind of toxin imaginable, up to and including many cases of nuclear irradiation (Serpent River, etc). Then there’s the history of sexual violence, so pervasive and depraved that one can scarcely find words for it. “Atrocious” hardly seems strong enough a word for this horrific history, except in its literal meaning – the above-mentioned acts aren’t just crimes, they’re atrocities.
It’s time for Canadians to abandon cute and cuddly notions of our nation’s history. This isn’t a footnote, it’s a defining feature – without colonization of indigenous peoples and lands there wouldn’t be a “Canada”. First, because (treaties or not), it’s where we ultimately got every square millimetre of this country. Second, because the Fur Trade was the nation’s economic base for the first few centuries. And third, because we’d likely be an American state were it not for the warriors who fought alongside British troops in the war of 1812 (while most redcoats were occupied across the ocean with Napoleon and the Luddites). Even the names Canada, Ottawa and Toronto have their roots in indigenous languages.
At some point, as a nation, we will have to face the ugly realities of our past. We’ve been putting it off for decades, still hoping, like they did a century ago, that Canada’s native peoples would just die off or assimilate already. That’s not going to happen – in spite of centuries of efforts, aboriginal peoples are Canada’s fastest growing demographic. Indigenous rights are becoming just as large an international issue in the 21st century as they were in the 19th, and it’s sad that a country so willing to promote itself with native imagery has fallen so far behind in practice. No apology, no inquiry and no “Royal Commission” is going to suffice – only meaningful action on our parts can go toward healing these rifts. This isn’t something the government will or can do for us – they will continue on their path until they can no longer count on complacent and racist citizens to support them. Saying we’re sorry isn’t enough here, but showing a little solidarity might be.
The issues facing Canada’s native communities – pollution, neglect, corruption and poverty (to name a few) are the same which afflict every other community – white, black and brown – across the country as well. Regional autonomy and cultural are issues for Western, Eastern, Northern, rural and French communities, just as they are for inner-city neighbourhoods in Southern Ontario. This is not and has never been “just an Indian issue”. For many years indigenous activists have played crucial roles in broader struggles (poverty, development, environment etc.) – it’s time to return that favour. This is one movement which none of us, not even the Prime Minister, can afford to sit idly by and watch.
Foreign aid carries with it a lot of myths. We hear tales of hopelessness from the war-torn and overpopulated Third World. We hear harrowing tales of how much we give – it’s a matter of national pride. We’re bombarded with miracle-cures for world hunger and poverty, from GMO crops to microcredit loans. At the core of it all, there’s one central message: foreign aid is failing to fix the world.
Admittedly, there’s more than a bit of truth to that, though not for the reasons usually cited. Canadians don’t actually give that much only around 0.31% of our GDP, compared to an internationally recognized target of 0.7%, as established by our own Lester Pearson. The US gives even less, at 0.19%. We had made progress, doubling spending between 2001 and 2011, but recent Conservative cuts have reversed this, chopping 7.5% of it this year, drawing fire from the OECD.
Lately, they’ve started to talk of going further. Julian Fantino, Minister of International Corporation recently laid out plans to transform the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), allowing it to “align itself more closely with the private sector“, particularly the mining industry. Under his plan, aid would be tied to development of “extractive industries”, as well as help promote “Canadian interests” abroad. He even announced funding, amidst all the cuts, for a new $25 million “Extractive Industry Institute” at Simon Fraser University.
Fantino has already faced some harsh criticism, and has retreated to say that he’s not partnering with the Canadian mining industry directly, but has remained steadfast in stating that he’s focused on using it to promote Canadian businesses overseas and encourage “development of extractive industries” locally.
For those familiar with these issues, it’s an absolutely horrifying position to take. Primary extractive industries are the keystones of Third World economies. They do little, if anything to alleviate poverty because very little value is added to the raw exports, and because rampant poverty makes resource extraction a lot cheaper (land and labour prices). Resource-rich continents like Africa and Latin America have laboured for decades exporting lumber, minerals and cash crops to no avail.
Of course, there’s another particularly ugly dimension to all this, which is the Canadian mining industry, the largest on earth. More mining companies call Canada home than any other country, due in no small part to the refusal of our government to prosecute firms for foreign crimes. Canada’s mining industry is internationally notorious for human rights abuses, particularly against indigenous groups living on mineral-rich lands. Tailoring humanitarian assistance programs to help promote this kind of “development” is nothing but an attempt at turning aid workers into the foot-soldiers of neo-colonialism, much like missionaries played in older eras.
Further evidence of how the Conservatives now plan to wield foreign aid was demonstrated in the wake of the vote to recognize Palestine (somewhat) at the United Nations. Having withdrawn envoys to the UN and Palestinian Authority, Foreign Minister John Baird has warned of “consequences”, with many fearing that he’ll cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. Such blatant political use of aid makes the real purpose clear: leverage. Those nations who play along with Canada’s (and Harper’s) geopolitical goals will be rewarded, and those who don’t must risk being cut off.
In other recent, aid-related news, the Conservatives narrowly rejected Bill C-398, a proposal to export generic drugs such as HIV/AIDS medication to impoverished countries. Supporters estimated that this decision could have helped thousands or even millions of AIDS sufferers, and even the Globe and Mail is not shying away from the term “genocide“. This is the same government, of course, who defended asbestos exports to poorer and less regulated countries before the collapse of the industry.
This new focus of foreign policy from the Conservative government is not going unnoticed worldwide. I’ve never been a big believer in nationalist myths about Canada’s noble “image” worldwide, but it’s hard to deny that our reputation has deteriorated of late. Did you know that Canada was refused a seat at the UN Security Council in 2010? That there’s been numerous protests outside Canadian embassies and consulates over the past months – Washington, Thessaloniki, Iran, India, and the Philippines? The hawkish and hard-line position taken issues ranging from Palestine to Kyoto isn’t going unnoticed, and it’s redefining how people around the globe see our country.
Aid doesn’t accomplish much. For every dollar wealthy Western nations like ours send to regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, a dozen or so flow back in debt repayment. That doesn’t count the dirt-cheap imports and cut-rate labour we gain, nor what’s been taken over five centuries of European colonization and expansion. It doesn’t include the large amounts of foreign aid which never leaves our hands (like more than 80% of America’s aid to Cambodia in 2010). And it totally ignores the role of institutions like the IMF and World Bank who foist “structural adjustment” (austerity) policies on poor nations in exchange for refinancing their debts. If aid is costing us so much, then why are we turning such a a profit?
These countries are not poor due to a lack of aid, or because they haven’t yet had enough mining projects. They’re poor because a small number of ultra-rich nations (Canada included) rule the world and collect most of it’s wealth, no matter where the work is done or where the resources are extracted. Until that changes, expect to see a lot more infomercials about starving African children.
Can foreign aid “fix” poverty? No. That doesn’t mean, though, that conditions would improve if it went away. Aid is like an emergency room – it doesn’t solve any problems but the most urgent – it’s there to make sure you see tomorrow. If you don’t, those other problems don’t matter much. Nobody wants to think about these horrors if they can avoid it, but the sad fact is that this kind of aid is desperately needed. Without it, enormous numbers of people will die. Isn’t that reason enough to continue?
Charity denied is no substitute for justice.
It’s been one year today since the initial “Occupation” of Zuccotti Park in New York, which kicked-off the now world-famous “Occupy Wall Street”. To celebrate, hundreds of demonstrators have again marched on Wall Street, with at least 180 arrested by an(other) small army of cops. Protests are also taking place in dozens of North American cities, including at least 17 across Canada. In Hamilton, a dozen or so held a vigil outside the Federal Building on Bay St, echoing an anti-Harper sentiment which could be heard all the way to Parliament Hill.
Today’s anniversary is certainly bittersweet, given how the “Occupy Movement” fared over the winter and spring (something most press coverage is taking pains to remind us about…). Facing incredible internal and external pressure, mobilizations crumbled in many cities. There will certainly be attempts to resurrect some, but today was about far more than that. For some it’s an opportunity to see old friends, for others, to again bring attention to pressing social issues. Occupy always meant very different things to different people, and today was no different.
Given all the troubles which eventually befell the young movement, many (myself included) have wondered aloud whether “Occupy” is dead. Even more have argued about what kind of legacy, if any, it had. Judging by history, these debates are far from over. Whatever else it meant, two things are for sure. First, that it was an unprecedented mobilization for this continent, growing at a pace and in ways which we’d never seen. Before last September 17th, most seemed to believe that we’d left such things in our past. Occupy re-ignited the idea of protest and revolution amongst generations who’d, (generally) never witnessed anything of the sort. It should be no surprise that this turned out to be much harder than most thought, but at the very least, there are now tens of thousands more people with first-hand experience. Secondly, the movement turned inequality into one of the biggest issues in the “public consciousness”. All one needs to say is “the 1%” to evoke images of the kind of extreme concentration of wealth and power which rules our society. This topic was virtually taboo until a year ago, almost never acknowledged in public. “Occupy” changed that, and for a time gave a name to the discontentment which had been quietly growing for decades. For all it’s faults, Occupy transformed the way our society talks about wealth and power, and while we still have a long way to go, it’s now clear that there’s no going back.
“The Canadian law enforcement and security intelligence community have noted a growing radicalized environmentalist faction within Canadian society that is opposed to Canada’s energy sector policies,”
This quote comes from a 2011 marine ‘threat assessment‘ compiled by the RCMP with help from CSIS, Fisheries and Oceans and Border Services. A “heavily censored” version of was recently obtained by the media through the Access to Information Act, causing renewed outrage at our government’s ongoing attempts to repress dissent.
The report itself details the actions of groups like Greenpeace. “Criminal activity by Greenpeace activists typically consists of trespassing, mischief, and vandalism, and often requires a law enforcement response,” it states, and goes on to warn that their actions “unnecessarily risk the health and safety of the activists, the facility’s staff, and the first responders who are required to extricate the activists”. This is some heavy language – if you weren’t familiar with typical Greenpeace actions, you might never know they were talking about dropping banners.
I suppose this comes down to how one defines “radical”. For Stephen Harper, CSIS or the RCMP, it probably includes everyone to the left of Genghis Kahn, or anybody who disagrees with the Prime Minister. If so, then “radicalism” has a very solid majority in the polls, which only goes to show that extremism is relative. Harper’s views are hardly typical for Canadians and utterly hostile to nature, making his politics a horrible reference point. If any environmentalist thought (or opposition to national energy policy on other grounds) is considered “radical”, then why use the word at all? All environmentalists will be more radical than some, but some will be far more radical than others. Greenpeace hasn’t been on that end of the spectrum in decades, long-since replaced by groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. Attempting to use veiled eco-terrorist imagery to describe Greenpeace or the David Suzuki foundation is a little like lumping in the NDP with the black bloc (an allegation Harper Conservatives have also made).
If there has been a dramatic upsurge in “radical environmentalism” over the past few years, then I’ve totally missed it. It’s certainly grown, but so has every other kind of activism. I wouldn’t deny a general rise in radicalism and environmentalism, but to point a finger toward “radical environmentalists” sounds more like the paranoid delusions of Stephen Harper than any objective assessment of the state of activism in Canada.
If anything, truly radical ecological theories have lost ground in the past few years. From the mid-eighties until a few years ago, philosophies like Deep Ecology and green anarchism were on the cutting edge of most North American militancy. Nearly all “occupations” were blockades, aimed at stopping highways, logging, business parks or other development projects. The ALF and ELF waged a long quiet war against fur farms, ski resorts and SUV dealerships, eventually becoming America’s most wanted “terrorist groups” (without ever killing anyone!). Even the more militant side of anarchism was caught up, the best example of this probably being the associations between John Zerzan (notorious anarcho-primitivist in Eugene) and the black bloc at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. Since about 2010, though, the pendulum had swung back toward social, labour and urban issues (think “Greece”) and it’s now a safe bet any black-clad rioter you can keep up with is far more likely to explain their broken windows with a cryptic quote from Bonanno than Zerzan.
What has seen a real and dramatic upsurge is moderate environmentalism. That’s exactly what one might expect given the direction our government’s taken. Groups like 350.org and Greenpeace have been staging an enormous number of entirely peaceful protests. At their height, thousands lined up for days to be arrested outside the White House and Parliament Hill. None of these groups are calling for anything much more radical than the Green Party, and it’s generally a safe bet that they’ll inform police themselves before they attempt much civil disobedience. Targeting them for police surveillance is beyond inappropriate, and sets a very dangerous precedent.
If they can go after David Suzuki, they can go after anyone. If you like rivers or trees, you too may now be an “enemy of Canada”, because of course, Stephen Harper is Canada. This isn’t about a crucial national energy policy, this is about the oil-fuelled ambitions of our Prime Minister, coming straight from Calgary Centre, the heart of oil country’s financial district. He has sought to dismantle, demonize and criminalize an entire side of a very important national debate. Beyond his petty corrupt despotism, though, are departments full of people who know better. The RCMP and CSIS are well aware that Greenpeace poses no “threat” to our country, but they’re still more than happy to take part in this witch hunt. This has nothing to do with “crime” and everything to do with money and power. As our government moves further to the right, everybody else begins to look more “radical” in comparison. There’s no question that this points toward a truly dangerous group of “extremists, but they certainly aren’t environmentalists.
Right now Parliament is engaged in a “marathon” of votes over the Conservatives’ budget omnibus bill. The dreaded legislation is far more than a budget, it amends 70 different laws with a whole host of changes such as gutting environmental assessments and restricting access to Employment Insurance. Because it’s also a budget bill, MPs can’t vote it down without triggering another election, a very unpopular move, and therefore very unlikely. The process will also be rushed, as the Conservatives limited debate on the bill, the 26th time they’ve done this now, breaking the previous Liberal government’s record. Liberals are also largely supportive of the bill, but New Democrats and sole Green member Elizabeth May are doing what they can to fight it.
Numerous protests have begun to break out across the country at Conservative constituency offices. Over 70 of them have been organized through the leadnow.ca network, which first became known for organizing “vote mobs” in 2011. This comes after a year in which dozens of constituency offices have been occupied so far by students, retires, unions and activists. There’s also been web campaigns, like one in which participating websites blacked out their backgrounds at once. Harper personally faced protests Monday in Montreal when he spoke at the International Economic Forum of the Americas, surrounded by bus-loads of riot police confronted by nothing more than peaceful hecklers. Today’s speech at the Forum by Alan Greenspan is also expected to be targeted by Montreal’s protesters.
Speaking to the elites of the financial world last Monday, Harper announced that we need not have to choose between austerity and prosperity. We can have both, he claimed, with the “Canadian model“. These remarks are a little perplexing – does he mean that we’re going to impose austerity measures even in times of prosperity? Or is he trying to salvage the now thoroughly discredited notion that prosperity comes from austerity measures? (Like they did in Greece and Spain?) He also stated his support for the Spanish bank bailout, though he still takes a German-style hard line on any Canadian support for the faltering Eurozone. Whatever he means by all of this nonsense, there’s nothing clearly “Canadian” about it. His opinions might as well have been written by one of Angela Merkel’s staffers. The only thing substantially different about Canada is that we’re sittting on more natural resources than any other, save possibly Russia or Brazi. Harper’s plan for “prosperity”, ruthless exploitation of the Tar Sands, is a clear winner with this budget, which limits projects to a single assessment instead of the years of environmental assessments they now legally require. What else did we expect from Calgary-Centre’s MP?
On the local front, ADFA MP David Sweet’s constituency office saw a march of fifty people from downtown Dundas last Friday, joined by another 25 when they reached the strip mall housing his office, met by police, the property’s owner and a large “no tresspassing” sign. This followed a rally the previous Friday organized by leadnow.ca also outside Sweet’s office. They’re planning another action there this afternoon at 5:30, as well as a press conference at the old Dundas City Hall this Saturday to discuss further opposition. Also, another Casserole demonstration is planned for tonight, gathering at 8:00 in Gore Park.