Tag Archives: environment

Opinion polls and public ‘support’ of the Keystone XL pipeline

Today, the Financial Post proclaimed that a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll indicates “overwhelming” support of the American people for the pending Keystone XL pipeline. That it does not.

Polling design greatly influences the nature and quality of responses. One of the most common ways in which responses are rendered unreliable is by framing a question in a way that misrepresents or omits key information that would significantly influence a respondent’s opinion. In this way, polls can be commissioned to produce justification for particular policies.

What makes the Financial Post’s interpretation of the poll incorrect is the way in which the question was presented:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?

What is particularly problematic about claiming public support for the pipeline based on this one poll question is that the public at large is relatively undereducated about the pipeline proposal to begin with – particularly with respect to the efficacy of arguments regarding the political, social, economic and environmental implications. This is partly the result of very aggressive PR, lobbying and election financing by the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, with the Koch brothers alone both directly and indirectly having spent millions of dollars on the 2012 election. In April 2013, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication reported that despite their finding that fewer than half of respondents were following news about the Keystone XL pipeline, a majority still supported building it. This, despite the fact that according to the same poll, a large majority of respondents supported a U.S. effort to reduce global warming even if it has economic costs.

A critical piece of the puzzle is missing from the question posed in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll: the fact that the pipeline will not simply “carry oil from Canada to the United States”. It fails to mention the intention of refining and exporting the “oil”. What is described as oil is in fact crude bitumen, a thick, heavy and highly corrosive semi-solid substance. It differs from conventional oil in a number of important ways that, if respondents were aware of them, have the potential of producing different poll responses.

Because the question itself also offers oversimplified justifications for and against the pipeline, rather than simply asking the respondent’s opinion as it exists, it is suggestive. A respondent who is naturally unconcerned about environmental issues or even climate change is more likely to state that they support the pipeline especially when they are presented with an argument, whether well-founded or not, that it will create jobs and is intended to supply domestic markets. If on the other hand the poll followed up with a question asking whether respondents would be as supportive of the pipeline if they knew that the State Department’s environmental impact statement was authored by TransCanada (which is currently building the pipeline), the promises of job creation in comparable situations have not materialized and the refineries are strategically placed to service foreign markets, would respondents still indicate “overwhelming” support?

Figure into this picture also the magnitude and ubiquity of public resistance and the fact that over one million comments were registered voicing opposition to the pipeline. In the face of an unprecedented global issue – one that could affect every aspect of life on this planet – we can’t afford to rely on the dubious science of public opinion polls, which in ideal circumstances are not necessarily the greatest measure of public opinion. Far more important than trying to figure out what random people think is educating ourselves and discussing at length, from every angle, just what the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would really entail. Do we make this decision based on sheer popularity, or the merit of the arguments before us? That is the real question.

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Filed under Canada, Health & Environment, Politics & Society

Idle No More: An anti-colonial perspective on justice, peace and wisdom

“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”
– Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada in a town which now has a population of about 8,000 people and whose name, Kapuskasing, means “bend in the river” in Cree. It’s located 850 km northeast of Toronto (about a nine hour drive), and if you think it’s anywhere close to the northernmost limits of the province, think again. It’s located 388 km south of Attawapiskat, a town situated on the shore of James Bay that has gotten a lot of press for the horrific living conditions of its aboriginal residents. The community stands as a prime example of the long-simmering tensions between First Nations and the Canadian government.

Kapuskasing

Kapuskasing

The only thing Kapuskasing is ‘known’ for is being the hometown of director James Cameron and a former prisoner-of-war camp, in addition to lots of great outdoorsy stuff like hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling. My family dragged me along on hundreds of these expeditions over the years. Kapuskasing is a predominantly French-Canadian town, with a meager 1.7% of its population consisting of visible minorities. This does not include aboriginals, who comprise 4.3% according to a 2006 census. I once had a friend who seemed ‘different’ because she had darker skin and covered her hair with a scarf, but when she explained that she was Muslim I had no clue what she meant. We had a handful of students at school who were Asian, black and Indian (East Indian), and considerably more native kids (as we referred to them) than all of them combined. In comparison to us white kids, natives didn’t stand out the most in terms of their appearance or behaviour. But Kapuskasing is where I learned just how normalized and rationalized aboriginal-focused racism in this country is.

In my Grade 9 math class, there was this quiet native boy named Emerson. The kids would ask him mockingly if he was going hunting for moose, taunting him with the word he used in his own language to describe these animals: “tatanka”. I don’t know why I remember that word of all things, but I recall feeling angry and ashamed at the way he was treated. Still, I doubt I said anything to defend him.

My mother was born in Canada to an Italian immigrant father and a French Canadian mother. Many of my family members on her side have aboriginal ancestry, though I myself do not as far as I know. I was told as a child that I was the last in our line to qualify for an Indian status card; my mom’s adoptive father was part Ojibway or Mohawk. I remember hearing stories that some of my aunts could read tea leaves or stop a nosebleed instantly. I wondered if it was some sort of indigenous folk medicine or superstitious witchery.

My father is Ukrainian. He came to Canada when he was 16 and had to learn English from scratch. He told me that he was called derogatory names at school until he stood up for himself. At that time, Eastern Europeans were being shipped up north by the government to work in forestry. Apparently the French Canadians did not take very kindly to them. There’s a tendency to think all white people of European origin are similar. Not so. Cabbage rolls, perogies and beet soup must have seemed very strange to the locals, along with the different clothing, music, religious traditions and of course, language. Even within the Eastern European communities I noticed alliances of certain nationalities, which to me all seemed to be the same. And in Kapuskasing, by these groups, I was introduced to the concept of anti-semitism. It wasn’t until years later when I moved to Toronto to attend university that I saw and met Jewish people.

I couldn’t figure out how persecuted newcomers, who told traumatizing stories of famine and genocide, could look at First Nations and not see the terrible irony inherent in their own racism towards these people. But the fact is that the prejudice wasn’t limited to them; everyone participated.

Canadian_Aboriginal_FestivalThis is the real Canada – not the peacekeeping, welcoming melting pot image we’ve been projecting to the world. That image is crumbling amid criticism of our treatment of our aboriginal peoples, which is really nothing new but has gotten obvious enough that the United Nations is questioning why First Nations are still so much worse off than the rest of the country. Our reputation isn’t only garnering negative attention for our domestic policy; the Minister of Foreign Affairs (a former police chief) characterized foreign aid as a crutch and is repackaging these initiatives as public-private partnerships. In other words, a strategy whose basic intent is to open up markets in poor countries to privatization. We now have decades’ worth of evidence to show how these neoliberal policies, fronted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, inevitably play out. We never quite see the wealth and prosperity promised (at least not equitably distributed, and with little lasting benefit to the people most affected by these projects). If this is the sort of strategy we’re exporting as a country, we shouldn’t expect to see things being done differently here at home. In fact, it’s getting worse.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press

Near the end of 2012, four women in Saskatchewan, three of them aboriginal, sparked a grassroots movement called Idle No More, which was primarily designed to challenge the second omnibus budget bill passed by the Harper Conservative-dominated government of Canada. Bill C-45 included changes to the Indian Act that would make it suspiciously easier to lease or sell First Nations land, and the number of lakes and rivers protected by the formerly named Navigable Waters Protection Act was decimated to a fraction, most of those waterways still protected being in affluent Conservative ridings, interestingly enough.* Since there has been a lot of confusion about this topic, I’ve provided a detailed explanation and further suggested reading at the bottom of this post. All of this was happening amid fierce opposition to the proposed Enbridge pipeline and reports that our Prime Minister had already secretly assured the energy company that the project would go ahead while publicly asserting that it would only be approved if it was sanctioned by scientists – despite severe staff cuts. Then the government signed a ‘free’ trade Foreign Investment Protection Agreement which allowed a Chinese-state owned energy giant to take over a Canadian company and control a huge section of the tar sands (yes, tar – not oil). Harper conceded that this was indeed an exceptional deal. They dumped the news on a Friday night when no one was looking, probably because in addition to fearing ecological disaster, Canadians would not be happy that China National Offshore Oil Company will be able to secretly sue our government if we initiate any measure, be it environmental or human rights-related, that would negatively affect its bottom line.

REUTERS/Geoff Robins

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

So on the day that Bill C-45 was being voted on, a coalition of First Nations marched to Parliament Hill to realize their right to grant or withhold their full and informed consent, a right guaranteed them by the Constitution. They were shut out. Now two Alberta First Nations are suing the federal government to contest the legality of this most recent budget bill as well as the one passed before it, Bill C-38. Many similar lawsuits based on alleged violations of constitutional and treaty rights have since sprung up. Ottawa officially states that First Nations will be consulted with respect to matters that affect them, but the reality is that their voices are silenced or ignored. Furthermore, as long as First Nations aren’t part of the actual decision-making process as true partners, that relationship remains paternalistic at best.

7734659.binCanadians know shamefully little about our history particularly as it concerns First Nations. What is taught in schools is simplified, sanitized and preserved as an ancient artifact. It’s something we study, not something we live. We’re given the impression that all of the injustices have occurred in the past. History, to those who believe this lie, is no longer relevant. Canadians pacify themselves with the delusion that if First Nations are suffering from lack of basic infrastructure and societal problems, it must be their own fault. There are many ways in which this narrative is defended, as online forums and comment sections demonstrated through a torrent of shameful slurs.

slavery02The truth is that few people outside of social justice activism circles understand the nature and process of colonialism. Consider a cross-cultural study of this phenomenon: What happened after the Dutch and English enacted apartheid in South Africa? What happened after the Spanish colonized South America? The Portuguese colonized Brazil? The English colonized Jamaica and Australia? The French colonized Haiti and Senegal? In a conquest for land and resources, which was justified by an unapologetic civilizing mission ideology, again and again Europeans invaded lands already inhabited by prosperous peoples who lived in harmony with the earth, sometimes uprooting millions of people and transporting them to new lands. In these ‘New Worlds’, they murdered, enslaved and tortured indigenous peoples, stole their land and their resources, jailed them, stripped them of their languages, families and cultures and told them that they weren’t human. In Canada, this was epitomized by a campaign to “kill the Indian in the child” which forced aboriginal children into residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues, practice their traditions or communicate with their families. The Canadian government placed these schools under the jurisdiction of several Christian denominations, whose representatives abused children en masse. Many of these people are still alive today. Anishinaabe activist Wab Kinew has bravely spoken out about how his father was raped by a nun in one of these schools.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” – Ezekiel 25:17

Aamjiwnaang First Nation - Chemical Valley

Aamjiwnaang First Nation – Chemical Valley

What happens to people when they’re singled out, dehumanized and exploited, not just as individuals but as a culture, as a race? Let’s reflect on this for a long moment – what that process does to a people who, generation after generation, see their communities grasping for meaning, identity and healing with nothing more than bandaid solutions and blame thrust in their face. Every single indigenous group is either at risk of becoming or already is, a victim of a festering cycle of discrimination, poverty, domestic and substance abuse and crime. They struggle to overcome poor education and representation, rampant unemployment, high rates of incarceration, lack of basic infrastructure and access to essential resources like clean water, the loss of land to governments and corporations, lack of adequate mental and physical health treatment and exposure to contamination from extractive industries and hazardous waste sites. Sure, there are lots of people in these countries who are doing very well. That was the whole point. But why is it that the people who were colonized are not those people? Ever? Is it because there’s something wrong with them? Or do all of these people have one thing in common: the incredible injustice of being born or forced into a system that is designed to either kill them bodily or spiritually – whatever is necessary – to keep the powerful people powerful?

HarperI was born into this system. I was educated in it, worshiped in it and pressured to conform by people who used their authority to try to shape me into someone I wasn’t. It never felt right, and I got into trouble many times for challenging my family and anyone else who tried to insist that things were the way they should be, because they know that once you accept that mold, it’s very difficult to penetrate or outgrow that basic intellectual framework. It’s a subconscious process. You become entrenched in the story of your country, your ethnicity, your religion, your family and your personal identity. You work hard to forge a path in a sea of people, each struggling to get ahead. You see people who can’t seem to rise above their circumstances, whose situation doesn’t seem to improve no matter what. They want to move ahead too. But this threatens you. You don’t want to give anything up – at least you fear that this is what will happen if the people who didn’t have power before suddenly find themselves in possession of it. You don’t want things to change unless it means that things get better for you.

This system has a name. It’s called colonialism and it’s the product of a worldview that human beings like you and I thought up. We may recognize its ideological characteristics as follows:

  • Patriarchal, hierarchical, top-down social organization
  • Focus on individuality over community, competition over co-operation
  • Shunning of indigenous and ‘informal’ systems of organization, thought and belief
  • Focus on quantification, control and manipulation
  • Value system based on monetary and economic measures
  • Belief that natural resources are sources of capital like any other and therefore subject to private ownership and exploitation for financial gain
  • Tendency to differentiate humans from nature (claiming dominion) and to compartmentalize ecosystems, disciplines and geographic/political boundaries
  • Surrendering trust to the knowledge and interests of the business and academic elite
  • An understanding of time and systems that is linear, not cyclical or symbiotic
  • Tendency to interpret human behaviour and experience only as consequences of individual human choices, rather than the predictable products of systems and established patterns

Aboriginal Protests 20121223All of these factors combine to create a society that has a very specific and deliberate power structure. Why is Idle No More happening? Why are so many First Nations demanding change and why are there so many Canadians joining them? Because now, the consciousness of many people is breaking out of the colonial mold. We know there is corruption, oppression and racism. We know it won’t end unless we shake up the system. Many people have been hoping for a long time that this movement would take shape. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.

What a lot of Canadians don’t realize is that Canada is a multinational country. Treaties were originally signed not with the Canadian government, but with the Crown, and this country remains a constitutional monarchy. Yet the most important decisions affecting First Nations continue to be made unilaterally by the Canadian government at federal and provincial levels. Many First Nations did not surrender their land, nor did they agree to be governed by laws enacted by people they did not elect to represent them. Like it or not, our country is founded on the fact that when the Europeans came to this land, there were sovereign Nations already here. Tribes were plentiful and had no problem living in prosperity and harmony with the earth before their world was changed forever by the settlers. While inherent treaty rights were recognized on paper, they have scarce been respected in deed. Acknowledging this is not an exercise in blame or guilt; it is recognizing that a system that could not be stopped and which has evolved into what it is today was imposed on these peoples. There was no magical moment when that system disappeared or changed. As Anishinaabe lawyer Aaron James Mills writes, “Colonization is not a completed historical fact from which all must simply move on; it is a deliberate, daily violence continuing this moment and anyone promoting that Indigenous peoples are ignorant not to accept this violence as legitimate is at worst, racist; at best, living in a dream palace”.

As aboriginals are largely hidden away on reserves in remote reaches of the country, Canadians are seldom presented with the challenges and cultures of First Nations peoples. The fact that they experience so many problems both on and off the reserve is no justification for assimilation. No people should be asked to forfeit their culture. Ignorance and racism – expressions of colonialism – prevent Canadians from seeing past the stereotypes and myths. Canadians don’t remember their government’s treaty obligations because they were never taught about them in the first place. Chief Terry Bellegarde has explained, “Our treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands. But that’s what we see”.

idm1We often hear that we support these communities with perpetual payments – unfair burdens on the taxpayer. But we don’t understand their financial burdens, or the land that is still being slowly siphoned away for resource extraction by corporations that threaten ecological integrity, human health and traditional ways of life. How many Canadians have considered that placing people in unlivable conditions out of which there is no escape was not simply an act of cruelty but a strategy to dispossess aboriginals of their land and resources, thus finally forcing them to join ‘the rest of us’? Who is supporting whom?

There is no doubt that there is corruption within some band councils and that band members are demanding more accountability. This is precisely why popular voices from the Idle No More movement have stated that it is a revolution of the people – not necessarily those who claim to represent them. As Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo has pointed out, councils for the most part are doing their best within a system not of their own design, and one that is fundamentally flawed.

Some words on Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat are in order. The reservation is in dire need. I know how cold it gets in northern Ontario. Here in Toronto, people really have no idea how terrifying the idea is of living in a tent or without heat during a winter up there, on top of inadequate sewage and water delivery systems. Before anyone gets into whose fault it is, it bears stating upfront that it’s unacceptable for government officials to shrug their shoulders at alleged aboriginal financial mismanagement and walk away. And before discussing the effectiveness of management, the Canadian public needs to understand the exceptional challenges that First Nations band councils deal with. The quality of construction and infrastructure in most cases was substandard from the very beginning and communities struggle just to keep things from falling apart. The cost of construction, maintenance and social services in remote and sub-arctic environments is prohibitive. Transportation of materials to these locations is extremely expensive, as are the hiring of contractors and lawyers to put things in motion. And while Attawapiskat has signed a contract with the nearby De Beers diamond mine, that agreement is in dispute and it is alleged that not all terms are being met. That aside, the fact is that aboriginal communities receive less funding per capita than do non-aboriginal communities, and yet their operation costs are much higher.

spenceWas there fraud on the part of the First Nations managers when it comes to managing public funds in Attawapiskat? This hasn’t been demonstrated. All we know is that there was a systemic lack of documentation to support transactions – a problem which shrunk significantly once Spence became chief in 2010. The federal government also reviews financials every year, so the Harper administration’s claim that funds have been squandered and wasted since at least 2006 begs the question of why, if that’s the case, they continued to throw money in that direction. It wasn’t until media reports of the plight of the community shocked the world that the government pointed to the band council and sought to impose third party management. This should all be considered alongside the fact that the government leaked a “damning” audit report by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche (whose credibility has been seriously questioned), conveniently while Spence was in the midst of a much-publicized hunger strike. Furthermore, a lack of public discussion about the Canadian government’s own scandals and rampant financial mismanagement sparked a wave of indignation and jokes that hatched the Twitter hashtag, #Ottawapiskat.

Attawapiskat vs G8 gazebos

Now, apparently Chief Spence owns a spiffy SUV, or gets chauffeured around in one, while her people starve and freeze. I don’t know what the deal is with her transportation situation or anything else she might indulge in. It’s quite possible that transparency and accountability issues persist. But the degree to which critics were skewering Spence because she didn’t starve enough (i.e. apparently she hadn’t lost enough weight and subsisting on herbal tea and fish broth isn’t a hunger strike) lends support to the claim that she was the subject of a smear campaign which sought to deflect attention from the original root causes of the problem.

If the campaign was somewhat successful, it was partly because Spence was made into a poster child for the movement, when in reality Attawapiskat is one First Nation out of over 600 and Spence is one chief. If you can tear Spence down and make the community out to be a casualty of aboriginal corruption, you make Idle No More look like a bunch entitled hotheads. At least that seemed to be the plan.

Canadians at some point will have no choice but to realize that Idle No More is fighting to protect future generations from certain catastrophe. Our government insists that the only way of ensuring economic survival is to squeeze out the last of the most elusive, dirtiest and corrosive fossil fuel on the planet, funnel it through poorly constructed pipelines with the ultimate goal of exporting a huge majority of it. Job creation forecasts are grossly inflated. And yet the federal government is so intent on allowing corporations to shape our economic ‘growth’ that they’re labeling people who are trying to protect the planet as terrorists. Why would the government choose to pursue what is essentially a dead end? Inconveniently enough for them, it has come to light that the government has slashed environmental protections specifically because the oil and gas industry asked them to.

We share this planet with other species who together form complex, life-supporting systems. Who says we have the right to disregard their existence, or that we actually own resources, or nature for that matter, particularly considering that we are part of it? Isn’t that a ridiculous conflict of interest? And who said it makes sense to exploit natural resources for private profit? Not Idle No More. We don’t have to go along with a system that is making a small number of people very, very rich while creating chaos, sickness and scarcity. Yes, we need livelihoods. We need goods and we will inevitably consume resources. But we will not be able to continue doing so at the rate at which we believe we’ve become entitled. It’s not simply a question of whether we use resources or how much, but of who has control over those resources. How are they managed? Who benefits? Who shoulders the costs and the impacts? What may shock Canadians is that we do not have the legal right to a healthy environment. The only group of people who have any legal grounds for halting resource exploitation is First Nations, through land treaties that are protected by the Canadian Constitution. They are our last defense. Imagine the idea that the people we have most oppressed are fighting to liberate us all.

Are First Nations justified in staging blockades? Do they have other alternatives or is the threat of economic impact the only kind of language that Stephen Harper will understand? Let’s not lose sight of the kind of person our Prime Minister is. He is unsympathetic hostile to aboriginal rights, his politics formulated within the ideological mold of his mentor Tom Flanagan, who through a plethora of racist justifications has stated that the only sensible approach to aboriginal policy is assimilation. Sylvia McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, along with many other prominent supporters, cautions that this tactic may cost the cause considerable public support. To a large extent, I think that the people who are opposed to Idle No More to the point of denouncing blockades are probably not the sort of people who were going to be onside anyway. Sometimes, civil disobedience is the only way. Debates have sprung up about whether blockades are a form of aggression and are therefore inconsistent with the larger vision of peace and nonviolence. Although the overwhelming majority of chiefs, spokespeople and supporters do not advocate this method, unfortunately these are the sorts of actions that will get the most media attention. So it’s very important for the movement to continue to focus on the fact that it serves the interests of all Canadians, despite the fact that some groups will create controversy. The overall goal is to strike a balance between fighting for human and environmental rights without placating the whims of the privileged, while welcoming the broader public into the movement.

idm3

Idle No More solidarity protests

Some have charged that the message of Idle No More is unproductive and vague. I don’t claim to be a spokesperson, but I think it’s pretty clear why people feel disenfranchised, even if they represent diverse opinions and there is some in-fighting and struggle for power. Did we expect anything different? Also predictably, the media has distorted these aspects by oversimplifying and failing to provide sufficient context on the issues, sometimes intentionally or negligently misrepresenting statements of key organizers. As long as we remember that what we’re really challenging is an idea, and not an invincible force, we can continue to galvanize the people whose hearts and minds are open.

“When you and I are inside of America and look at America, she looks big and bad and invincible. Oh, yes, and when we approach her in that context, we approach her as beggars, with our hat in our hands.” – Malcolm X

Idle No More is about love because it is a movement to end a destructive approach to all life. I may not be of First Nations ancestry, but the joy and pride I feel at seeing indigenous peoples rise up, celebrating their cultures and joining hands with all of humanity is something that I would have never dreamed to experience in my lifetime. The settlers, immigrants and First Nations of Canada, despite our disappointment in the illusion of our democracy and our contagious apathy, are awakening to co-create a new society. When there is so much at stake that unifies so many courageous people, a sacred fire is lit that cannot be snuffed out.

I leave you with the wisdom and power of Winona LaDuke:

* Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) and other laws

Some have objected that the NWPA was never designed to be an environmental instrument and only involves navigation. Let’s set the record straight once and for all. Under the NWPA, there were four provisions which triggered automatic environmental assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Now that those provisions have been stricken and the act renamed ‘Navigation Protection Act’, the removal of the word ‘water’ isn’t simply a symbolic action. The CEAA is one of several laws which both directly and indirectly impact the environment and which were severely weakened by amendments tabled in both budget bills (whose content are largely unrelated to the actual budget). Not only are these changes unprecedented, having been squished into massive omnibus bills – which by their nature don’t allow the requisite time and clarity and for this reason were once slammed by Harper as undemocratic – the original authors of these changes appear to be the fossil fuel industry. A letter sent to the Ministers of Natural Resources and the Environment on behalf of the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents oil and gas corporations) made specific suggestions about which environmental laws to amend and how. Most of these changes were realized months later through the passing of Bills C-38 and C-45.

Charges have been made that human rights activists, environmentalists and First Nations are being reactionary and/or partisan. However, many interpretations of the bills by numerous lawyers, law firms and legal organizations have characterized them as detrimental. In short, it’s incorrect to state that people who are opposed to Bills C-38 and C-45 are misinformed and unjustified simply by virtue of their opposition.

Further suggested reading:

What Bill C-38 means for the environment by Ecojustice and West Coast Environmental Law

Collection of materials about CEAA and CEAA reform by Canadian Environmental Law Association

New Canadian environmental assessments exclude stakeholders and issues by Dianne Saxe (Saxe Law Office)

Gutting the Fisheries Act and Other Federal Environmental Legislation by Juli Abouchar and Joanna Vince, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP

How navigable waters and environmental protection flow together published by Macleans Magazine

Energy industry letter suggested environmental law changes published by CBC News

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Filed under Canada, Eastern Philosophy, Health & Environment, Politics & Society

Climate. Change.

Questions have sprung up about whether Hurricane Sandy is the product of climate change or was somehow influenced by it. It’s a terrifyingly unprecedented event that spanned a massive area, so naturally people are trying to grasp how such a monstrous storm developed. Many suggestions have been made in the media that we knew this was coming but have ignored this issue for far too long. Now, they say, maybe skeptics and the government will pay attention.

Unlike this photo, climate change is NOT fake

Here’s what it boils down to. Whether or not we can nail down global warming or climate change as the cause of Hurricane Sandy, we can expect more extreme, unpredictable weather phenomena. Whether you believe climate change is a hoax, real and totally natural or real and generated primarily by human activity, you’ll be able to find scientists who support your belief. Science – climate science especially – is not exact. Not only is the phrase ‘exact science’ something of an oxymoron, it’s usually invoked to explain how something isn’t free of error – as though whichever ideal it’s being compared with is. So once and for all, let’s stop pretending that science is anything other than a process of discovery determined by the questions we do or don’t ask, the parameters we set, how we measure and interpret data and how we manage miscalculation. We often speak as though science is truth. It’s not. Science is a valuable tool but it’s not a substitute for common sense. Nor is it a more highly evolved form of wisdom than is the knowledge that human beings have accumulated for millennia which has enabled the survival of our species. Today we have the unique opportunity to harness both forms of knowledge to reimagine a new way forward.

I’m an environmentalist but I’m not going to debate with people about whether climate change is ‘real’. We wouldn’t know for sure until something really crazy and large-scale has happened (oh, wait…). Whichever way you look at it, there’s a very simple subtext here. The amount of goods we consume and the waste we generate (that includes pollution) is extremely problematic. If it’s not clear to us on a broad scale now, it will be once our lifestyles are widely copied in China, India and other countries where industrialization and ‘development’ continue to increase. The lifestyle we’ve adopted in First World countries is extremely new to this planet. It impacts the natural world – our world – much, much more than it did even 50 years ago. If we barely understand the intricacies of how ecosystems work, how can we confidently claim we’re not affecting them to a degree that’s unacceptable? The oceans, the soil, the forests, etc. aren’t magical vacuums into which contaminants disappear. To assume that they can process sudden changes made by a dominant species within a very short period of time, not only in terms of human history but also the geologic time scale, is absolutely insane.

But this isn’t simply an issue of lifestyle. It’s fundamentally a philosophical one. The hurricane made some people realize that we may not in fact be externalizing our impacts. Not only have we believed that we can continue living relatively comfortable lives despite these impacts, we defend the right to take what we want and seek out exponential growth. The focus is on quantity over quality, so much so that many people think quantity will improve quality. Less and less people are going along with this story. There seems to be something intrinsically wrong with this value system.

Large-scale environmental chaos doesn’t discriminate. What has traditionally been the lived experienced of the poor – those people whose communities are forced to accept hazardous waste sites in their communities and the children and adults who toil in factories and on cash crop farms – are not necessarily the only ones who will pay the price for our insatiable appetites. While it’s true that the wealthy can usually avoid or escape these risks, their isolation in this regard can make their privilege the focus of much suspicion and disdain.

Exactly when is it appropriate to say enough is enough? And why are we even debating whether the environment can absorb activities it hasn’t evolved to absorb? Why are we treating this as some sort of experiment to see how much we can get away with before we have ‘evidence’ that we should change our approach? In the wake of the destruction, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said that if there’s any risk at all that the storm was related to climate change, it’s the responsibility of all elected officials to do something about it immediately. To think about our planet in any way other than as one integrated, interdependent system is an illusion we simply can’t afford.

Another thing we can take away from this catastrophe is that regardless of the origin of climate phenomena, millions of people whose lives normally aren’t disrupted by extreme weather were taught the power of nature, by the elements of air, water, earth and fire. Ancient systems of healing have always held that disease occurs in the body as a result of a lack of balance and that symptoms are not nuisances to be suppressed but rather warnings to be heeded. Every day we eat food and drink water that are the products of delicate, complex natural processes that we don’t seem to be particularly aware of or grateful for. At least, we don’t have to be, the way we’ve structured our societies along with our economies.

While many people are still without adequate shelter, food and clothing, the grassroots response has been swift and organized. Occupy Sandy has been widely reported in the media as having led many of these efforts, putting its principles into action, particularly in areas where large governmental and non-governmental organizations alike have been criticized as insufficient. The homegrown motto of disaster relief is one of solidarity, not charity. This is key. Many people are learning and experiencing how much they depend on each other in times of great need. When that need is diminished or no longer present, the people affected won’t soon forget that those connections have really always been there.

The corporate elite have of course already tried to exploit Hurricane Sandy by suggesting that what we really need is more large-scale enterprise and private infrastructure development. Those of us who aren’t sheltered from environmental and economic disaster instead might see this as an opportunity for people to rethink our place in society and nature. Not as a result of statistics, academic studies, computer models or politics, but because moving forward without doing so is simply no longer an option. Nor is it desirable. There is truly nothing more ridiculous than a headline that asks, “Is Sandy changing the climate change conversation?”. It has done more than that. Both the people who have lost and those looking on have something to learn from this tragedy. The way forward is both an individual and a collective effort. The wonderful people who are helping each other through these challenges are showing the world that love is power. This forges new grassroots links and new respect for the sanctity of community. When we heal our relationships with each other, we naturally extend that boundary further and further outward. Are we evolving from an individualistic, competitive do-it-yourself mentality to one of inclusiveness and mutual support? If there were ever a catalyst for change, this is it.

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‘Experts’ and environmental exclusion

Canadians should be paying close attention to their government now more than ever as it employs environmental rhetoric that is alarmingly arrogant and fundamentally undemocratic in nature. According to a Vancouver Sun interview, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver stated that the Canadian government will be limiting participation to members of the public who are “directly affected by major projects” and rejecting input from environmental groups deemed not to have specific expertise. There are several serious problems with this policy approach:

  • In order to make informed decisions, governments must consult with environmental professionals who have detailed and technical knowledge. But we know that academics and scientists are not necessarily subjective and it’s particularly unlikely that a government that has recently made very strong statements regarding environmental policy will select experts who aren’t sympathetic to its goals.
  • If the government is applying a harsh set of rules as to who can have a say, how likely are intervening parties to be taken seriously even if they’re affected or have substantial credentials?
  • What level of participation will the affected public and NGOs have with respect to projects that aren’t deemed major? Naturally, we’d expect even less scrutiny in those cases.
  • How do we know who’s objective? More importantly, what makes an expert an expert, whether it’s an individual or an organization? Who should decide what constitutes sufficient expertise? How can we ensure that vital choices are based on recommendations from experts who have demonstrated neutrality and an understanding of the concerns of all stakeholders, regardless of their financial clout or level of education?
  • How do we determine who judges which parties are “directly affected”? The people who are impacted, specially selected ‘experts’, lobbyists, investors or government officials? This is a key consideration because in the case of the oil and gas sector, for example, impacts aren’t contained; they extend throughout ecosystems and jurisdictions. Airborne particulates are carried vast distances through the atmosphere and settle in the soil and water. Polluted water spreads through watersheds. Contaminants are absorbed by vegetation and organisms ingested by animals (and in turn humans), resulting in the bioaccumulation of toxins. Greenhouse gas emissions have global impacts. Some chemicals, particularly those used in the mining and petroleum industries have very long half-lives so they don’t break down or get processed for many years.
  • Any given ecosystem, while it may affect a particular group more than others, is not the property of any one group. No one has the right to give ‘permission’ to pollute or deplete resources without the consultation of others who may be impacted even decades later. Without fair and transparent environmental assessments and the participation of a diversity of stakeholders (including non-experts and those ‘less’ affected by industrial projects), the parameters that we choose to determine what’s acceptable frame the magnitude of our results – positive and negative.
  • The Canadian government has never been very good at listening to Aboriginals – particularly the PCs – so why should we trust them now? Do I not have the right obligation – not only as a Canadian citizen but as a member of this planet to stand up for those factions of humanity whose voices are silenced and ignored? The officials we elect don’t have the right to tell us what rights we have. It’s for us to tell them.
  • A final but critical point: we are the environment’s sole defenders. We can’t afford to screw this up. Once resources are gone or damaged, there’s no turning back. We need to be absolutely certain that we’re acting in the best interests of all involved, which includes present and future generations, and that we can reasonably justify, mitigate and remedy risks and impacts. Because impacts on the environment are impacts on us. There’s a growing global movement to enshrine the legal rights of our planet (e.g. check out this article). Gone are the days when we could confidently assert our dominion over the earth. Bolivia has already passed laws to this effect and other proponents are forming new discourses around this issue that remind us that we can’t give our planet rights; we can only recognize them.

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Oh Canada!

Fraud!

Fraud!

Seriously, what is going on in this country??? I was even more overwhelmed than usual today by all the bad news about the direction our government is taking us in. Man are they busy, busy, busy giving us a ton of reasons to be terrified for our future. Below is a buffet of Harper’s home-cooked catastrophes. Try not to get too depressed or angry. Personally, I’m both.

Feds Eliminate the National Centre for First Nations Governance
The NCFNG offers innovative nation rebuilding services and has engaged over 300 First Nations across Canada in its short six year time frame. It provides First Nations leaders and administrators with hands-on tools for fully engaging their citizens and taking responsibility for their future, developing their own self-determining governance that moves them beyond the confines of the Indian Act to make real and lasting change for themselves. Now why would we want that?

Prime Minister celebrates shrugs at the 30th anniversary of Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Harper deemed the Charter an “interesting and important step”. Yeah, I guess. It only resulted in the limiting of police powers, protection of women’s reproductive rights, recognizing the LGBT community and strengthening Aboriginal rights (and we’ve already covered how he couldn’t care less about that). Embarrassing and disrespectful.

Ottawa ‘streamlines’ eco-reviews to aid growth; critics call it sop to Big Oil
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Enbridge, Ethical Oil and other financially vested stakeholders agree with the government that “streamlining the review process… will attract significant investment dollars and give every region of our country a tremendous economic boost.” Apparently the rest of us are expected to applaud fast-tracking’s perpetual damage to Aboriginal livelihoods and the environment (which belongs to all of us, Alberta and BC!). Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen published an opinion piece quoting Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver as having previously stated that “environmental and other radical groups… [want to] stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth”. Interestingly, the author takes issue with the fact that the government is using “language that makes it look as if the government has a secret anti-environment agenda even if it doesn’t”. That’s because IT DOES.

Suzuki quit foundation over fed ‘bullying’
David Suzuki, one of Canada’s greatest scientific visionaries and environmental stewards, is stepping down from the board of the David Suzuki Foundation because the organization is taking heat for his ‘political’ stance. He explains that he is “keenly aware that some governments, industries and special interest groups are working hard to silence us. They use threats to the Foundation’s charitable status in attempts to mute its powerful voice on issues that matter deeply to you and many other Canadians”. Of course, the Toronto Sun and National Post jumped all over this. Well, I’m gonna go a step further than Suzuki and ask by what logic the Canada Revenue Agency claims that “it is a charitable purpose for an organization to teach the religious tenets, doctrines, practices, or culture associated with a specific faith or religion”. How is that not a political issue?

Tories criticized for vastly divergent reactions to Canadians on death row
In tandem with Amnesty International, the government is pressing Iran to drop the death sentence of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, an Iranian-born Canadian citizen accused of espionage. What’s raising eyebrows is how shockingly weak Canada’s support of another condemned Canadian, Montana death-row inmate Ronald Smith, has been in contrast. Any excuse to make Iran look bad, right Harper?

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Waterlogged: Canadians out of touch with precious resource

I’m wondering how many Canadians were aware that last week was National Water Week (after all, this post is a little delayed). Lately I’ve been noticing more talk in the news about access to clean water. For example, according to some recent articles, a forthcoming global water shortage will fuel conflict, but Canada will benefit from it. People are sitting up and taking notice of what is developing into a real environmental and humanitarian crisis.

I know. We already have enough to worry about with climate change and oil and all that. But the global economy is a shit storm and our whole planet is pretty much suffocating. So what’s another huge threat to our existence, right?

It doesn’t look like the public is quite up to speed on this issue, which obviously has something to do with the fact that we Canadians have access to a hell of a lot of fresh water so we don’t even realize how fortunate we are. Just what are Canadians’ views about fresh water? Interestingly, Royal Bank has been polling Canadians about this since 2008 as part of their Blue Water Project. Their 2012 Canadian Water Attitudes Study found that 40% of poll respondents believe that fresh water is Canada’s most valuable resource. A shocking 21% said oil is our most valuable natural resource.

Wait – what? 21% believe oil is more important than water? I’ll grant you that our society is highly dependent on fossil fuels. It’s a parasitic relationship that, like it or not, affects and involves all of us in some way. But our planet has existed for billions of years and humans have existed for tens of thousands of years without petroleum. Without water, our planet as we know it wouldn’t exist. This basic lack of knowledge about the world we live in is an alarming indicator of how disconnected we have become from nature. Because to understand nature as in any way separate from or subservient to us is to forget how to live. How to survive.

This is not just a case of undervaluing what’s abundant. That same survey revealed that the percentage of people who believe arable land is the most valuable resource was pretty much negligible. Surely we need arable land more than we do oil?

How did we get so screwed up? Within this capitalist system, when we talk about value, whether it’s something naturally occurring or anthropogenic, we automatically think dollars and cents. What is the value of x? Well, it must be the perceived economic benefit, right? How do we measure it?

Numbers. They can tell us important information, but they don’t lend comprehension to everything. There’s no possible way to know that the number values we assign to some things have any meaning at all. This is most blatantly true when it comes to natural resources. Capitalism dictates that natural resources should be assigned a monetary value and thus exploited for profit. Would you drain your own blood and sell it if someone offered you a small fortune for it? Somehow, we don’t realize that this is exactly what we do when we privatize natural resources. The fact that we think it’s acceptable – and desirable – to do so tells us everything we need to know about where we’re headed.

I don’t see the point in drowning you with terrifying statistics. It’s never the numbers around poverty, pollution and the like that bum me out the most anyway. It’s the fact that in a ‘free’ society, so many people are fundamentally and purposefully ignorant. Until a significant proportion of the population becomes more realistic about the kind of life this planet can support, governments and corporations will continue to turn whatever they can into commodities. Even things that have no real value whatsoever. Like pollution, for example. How insane is it that you can buy the right to emit carbon dioxide? Imagine what their appetite for water will be when we really start to run out.

Update: Just like the alternative media has been reporting on land grabs quite a lot recently, another issue of growing importance is water grabbing. Check out The Global Water Grab: A Primer.

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