Tag Archives: neoliberalism

What Hillary Clinton means for feminism

Feminist Current has published a fantastic article by Marie Crosswell entitled Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of liberalism, not feminism. I urge you to read it. Everything from the title to the well-argued points are exactly what feminism needs right now. I wanted to add a few points of my own to bolster the great case that Crosswell has made and to put another much-needed article of dissent out there. Nothing I’m saying is original. This started out as a comment posted on the site in response to liberals but I decided it needed its own space.

 

“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.” – Hillary Clinton [source]

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

It’s the job of feminists to critique and analyze every supposed representative of our movement. Women haven’t died and made incalculable sacrifices so that modern feminists could make excuses and settle for half-assed solutions to the domination of our species by males. We need to carry these women’s work on our shoulders and prove that it wasn’t all in vain. Feminists are having to learn this lesson over and over and over again because the movement coddles people who can’t think beyond their knee-jerk denial.

The question simmering beneath the debate is simply this: Who are you here to defend; one woman or all women?

Patriarchy runs down to the core of this rotten society. It requires a radical solution. At what point do we realize we’re decorating a tree that needs to be taken down? We know the system has many tentacles that women often only have the time or energy to focus on individually. Hillary Clinton is not one of those people. She’s white, rich, and powerful. She’s smart. She could be a formidable force but she has chosen to mold her politics to a template that does not work, and I doubt very much that she doesn’t know that. She could have decided to extricate herself from a party that recently decided, extending the DOJ well beyond its legal mandate, that sex-based protections under Title IX mean nothing because some men have confused the stereotype of femininity with the material reality of womanhood itself. Whoever can’t see how damaging this is – that it is the erasure of females as a distinct class of people whose needs should be protected – needs to call whatever it is they’re doing something other than feminism.

The question of just how feminist Hillary Clinton is has been articulately laid out by many feminists, but some people don’t think they need to internalize that info because Clinton supports abortion. How many feminist-identified politicians are against it? When you’re done counting to zero, ask yourself whether you want to keep running on this hamster wheel. Liberals are never willing to face the ugly truth and stand up for real change – and that’s dangerous.

You might have good reasons for voting for Clinton and we can certainly appreciate the good things she’s said and done. I for one will be celebrating when (I hope) she kicks Trump’s ass and outshines her own philandering husband. But none of these things make her worthy of being the face of feminism. Can we finally admit Clinton’s limitations and instead set our focus on doing the work that we know only we are willing to do?

The world has seen a number of female leaders. Thatcher broke that glass ceiling a long time ago in the U.K. How much of a difference did that make for women? She wasn’t a feminist by any means, so it’s not an apt comparison on that level. But she was a neoliberal – a capitalist individualist – whose policies weren’t so different from those endorsed by Clinton all these years. A leader’s support for women shows not only in the comments they make explicitly about women but also in their policy, particularly as it concerns education and the economy, since these areas are key drivers of sex-based inequality under the current system. Being the most exposed and least valued, women are the first to suffer, forced into work that even the poorest men can avoid, along with the risk of unwanted pregnancy and their role (voluntary or not) as the primary carers of children and other family members.

Stopping at reproductive rights leaves a huge gap that fails to address the cause of sexual violence (masculinity) or the ways in which women who are further marginalized because of their ethnic backgrounds, disability, civic status, etc. are coerced into making impossible ‘choices’. As quoted above, she’s said that she doesn’t even understand why all of this is happening. I too want to believe her heart is in the right place but the depth of her ignorance is disappointing and her contradictions form a clear pattern.

An impressive list of countries including India, Guyana, Mali, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Argentina, Indonesia, Liberia, Philippines, Malawi, and Brazil have elected female heads of state. I think it’s important to ask how the lives of women and girls have changed as a result. For instance, what has Angela Merkel in Germany done for female victims of violence, not only at the hands of immigrant gangs but also at the hands of white German men who prey on poor women who are often trafficked from economically depressed regions, in mega brothels? One of the fascinating bits of history revealed in the Ascent of Woman BBC series is that women have taken power many times throughout human history, some of whom used that power to help their sisters while others didn’t or couldn’t. Worse yet, neither Canada nor the U.S. have managed to elect a woman as prime minister or president. So I absolutely want to see that happen.

Ultimately, it’s a trademark liberal strategy to fool the optimistic ranks into believing that a token woman in a powerful position is a sign of fundamental change. Does it make anything more than a little dent in patriarchy? It sure does enrage MRAs to think of a woman representing a state that they believe should be protecting their own privileges. And it gives many women and girls hope. Leaving aside the question of the degree to which a U.S. president is a true leader rather than a figurehead, having a woman in that role means something. The problem is that the liberal elite are very good at exploiting this something, blowing it out of proportion, and hoping that women will be content with it because they didn’t get stuck with an openly fascist president whose hatred of women is part of his appeal.

Women can’t afford to fall for the spectacle. The good news is that feminism is not one woman, and it remains up to all of us, as it always has, to overcome male power.

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Filed under Feminism & Gender, Politics & Society

Dogma is the problem: religion, secularism, and moral progress

Quick disclaimer so I don’t look like a complete idiot: In this post I discuss secularism and atheism sometimes interchangeably because this is how they’re often discussed – and perhaps I should not have done that because it contributes to the confusion that arises when people fail to acknowledge that there is in fact an important distinction between the two. I may return at a later date and clean up this language. My apologies.

In my last post I wrote about the morality of vegetarianism, specifically why being vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily represent a form of moral progress or enlightenment. Recently I came across an article by Michael Shermer entitled Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress in Salon. Sometimes Bill Maher is funny and he’s made some good points. But his tendency to be proudly ignorant and disrespectful, especially where culture and religion are concerned, makes him one of the last people I would turn to for guidance on the topic of moral progress.

My ethics in this area can be summed up thus: Never allow yourself to be silenced because you have something inconvenient to say, but don’t be an asshole about it. Most people avoid pompous blowhards for good reason. One can hardly trust the motives of a person who has already decided they know everything.

I’m not here to defend religion. I’m a Buddhist, first and foremost, with a lot of nature-based spirituality in the mix. Even though there’s something about Wicca and witchcraft that have always attracted me I don’t perform rituals or cast spells. It feels silly and contrived to me. I don’t pray or worship, although reverence toward nature is part of my worldview. I practice Vipassana meditation which involves an exercise called metta bhavana, commonly described as loving-kindness meditation or the cultivation of benevolence. Deities don’t figure into my spirituality; I don’t believe in God if by God we mean anything remotely resembling the Judeo-Christian male godhead. I was raised in a Catholic family but I’m not Christian in the sense that I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin and remained celibate, and that he rose from the dead as described by the Bible. I don’t agree that simply believing that he’s the Son of God will save me from Hell (which I don’t believe in either). I will never accept something as fact simply because someone somewhere wrote something down. I’ve always felt inspired, however, by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who preached love and stood up to injustice and was predictably murdered for it. What about reincarnation? I’ve never really given the idea much importance. Doing the right thing out of fear or a sense of insecurity doesn’t seem very right to me. And while I don’t think it’s lights out when our bodies cease to function, I’m willing to accept that this could be how things end. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If this is all that underpins the concept of eternal life or resurrection, I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy for me to accept that everything is impermanent. Everything is also energy and energy never really ‘leaves’, nor is it distinct in the way we like to think it is.

Paulo Coelho theorizes [YouTube] that when we die, the question that will be asked of us won’t be what sins we committed but rather: Did you love enough? Truth is, when our candle goes out, none of us knows what will happen until it happens. Some of us have had what we believe to be paranormal experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know about our planet or our universe and science may not be able to answer many of our enduring questions. Humans are also capable of believing what they want to or what others want them to. I think a lot of people believe crazy things, religious and otherwise. But there are more important things in life than who is right about spirituality and religion. What good is your faith if you don’t respect others? Likewise, what good is your rejection of religion if you don’t do the same?

Michael Shermer writes:

Most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.

Woah. What?!?

What about societies that existed before the “Enlightenment” and those that emerged (and continue to exist) outside of Western science and culture? Are they primitive? Does the fact that a society isn’t secular preclude it from offering values we can learn from? Why would their values be inferior, or any different, for that matter? Why aren’t we counting the knowledge and stewardship of indigenous peoples in what is termed moral “progress” by those who control popular discourse?

Clearly Shermer has made no attempt to educate himself about the incredible work done by many non-secular people across cultures and traditions over time including (imagine this!) Islamic scholars, thinkers, and technicians such as Avicenna, dubbed the father of early modern medicine. Wise women (witches), wise men, and shamans are frequently portrayed as superstitious charlatans in the modern imagination. What isn’t so well known is that many witches and healers were demonized because they were less invasive and more successful than doctors whose outlandish theories (science, back then) led them to violate the bodies of the living and the dead. When we heap praise on Ancient Greece for its contributions to Western civilization, let’s not forget that the Greeks were Pagans, and that didn’t stop them from being brilliant human beings.

The suggestion that reason and sound morality can only come from a secular or atheist mind – and is necessarily absent in religious people – is rendered preposterous by even a cursory review of world history. More importantly, however, this type of posturing is irresponsible. I’ve seem many people take the Western liberal commitment to secularism to extremes with the result of dismissing the legitimate experiences of many people; this tendency continues to be used in order to justify colonization and genocide particularly in a passive way, including among self-professed liberals who, if they were being consistent progressive, would reject rhetoric of this kind. Although Shermer and those like him aren’t coming right out and saying it, what people are really saying when they claim that “most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment” is that European men are the moral compass of the world and without them, we would be savages. What a steaming, putrid pile of horse shit.

I think we need to be very careful in equating secularism with enlightenment. There are many illusions we can cling to and an awful lot of damage we can cause (and have) outside of a spiritual or religious ideology. We need to look at the core problem as one of dogma. Western science preaches reductionism, which seeks to isolate phenomena, introducing the notion of separateness into our perception where none exists in reality. We live in a world in which everything is interconnected and interdependent. We barely understand these processes today even with all of our modern technology. Discovery Channel’s Earth From Space [YouTube] is a mind-blowing documentary that helps us to understand how so many of our planet’s systems overlap and work together through the use of satellites, and yet this knowledge has not inspired us to stop devouring the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A paradigm shift in thinking, not data or gadgets, is the key to determining our future. Western science will not save us. Western values, whatever we believe them to be, aren’t doing much good on that front either.

We’ve also lost a great deal of knowledge precisely because we’ve been told that there’s a special strata of people who are more intelligent and more worthy. If this doesn’t feed the idea of supremacy, particularly white/European/Western supremacy, I don’t know what does. We must eliminate this intellectual cancer from our psychology permanently.

Reductionism misses much of what we can’t see, measure, or articulate even through our own languages. It represents a compartmentalized framework that can’t grasp a holistic reality. Atheism and secularism aren’t in and of themselves antidotes to this problem. And what about science? Science is nothing more than a human construct that we’ve put into practice in order to better understand our world. It has never been confined to one continent or one period in time. And yet, it’s still not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

The very concept of moral progress is false. How can we possibly say we’re more evolved today as a species than we were even one thousand years ago? We subjugate sectors of the population based on race, gender, economic standing, etc. A tiny percentage of the global population owns and controls the world’s wealth and resources and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Western, secular countries. That’s moral progress? The consumption on which our lifestyle is based requires resources plundered from elsewhere. This necessitates corporate and state imperialism and even war. We are the new conquistadors. Technology may have advanced, but where has that gotten us? Who’s benefiting? Who’s paying the price for this “progress”? Morality is quite frankly nowhere to be found in all of this and yet Shermer wants us to believe that the boogeyman we should fear is religion. I don’t buy it.

While Carl Sagan was critical of religion, more specifically he was critical of dogma and recognized that atheists don’t have a monopoly on the truth:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible.

I’m tired of atheists and secularists advertizing their ideologies to the rest of the world as though they’re not just as susceptible to errors in perception and judgement as everyone else. Religion brainwashes people. It gives them a crutch. A reason to hate. A reason to die. But also a reason to live. Sometimes a reason to love. After tragic events such as the recent attacks in Paris, I inevitably hear people say that perpetrators who call themselves Muslims are ruining it for all the “normal” or “good” ones. Why? Why should members of any religion have to prove they’re not homogenous or inherently crazy and violent? Are the rest of us, who are supposedly so much more reasonable than these extremists or mentally unstable individuals, really not capable of figuring that out on our own? When NATO members bomb innocent people in countries whose governments aren’t actually invading entire regions for geopolitical control, how can we say that this is all happening because they’re backward people who don’t share our values and need to be saved by us? Messiah complex, anyone? This is the modus operandi of imperialism.

Western morality as defined by state and corporate puppets is largely self-validating. Why are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel not sanctioned while others are? Why does our anti-money laundering and anti-corruption policy deem certain businesses high risk when they operate in particular jurisdictions but not in terms of how they turn a profit in the first place? We’ve increased our scrutiny of financial institutions and the precious metals trade only to scale it back or fail to enforce laws altogether. Most industries exploit workers, natural resources, and local communities unless there’s regulation or public resistance preventing them from doing so. Our leaders don’t question “free” trade and globalization schemes that involve the privatization of local resources, land grabs, vulture capital-backed polluting industries, austerity (i.e. the gutting of social programs), and export-driven markets that weaken local economies. They want us to believe that this system is a natural expression of modern economics because identifying ourselves as the winners means we have to talk about the losers. Our hypocrisy is sickening. Once again, I ask: Is this moral progress?

In contrast to the capitalist banking system, Islamic banking actually prohibits the charging of interest, specifically money earned on the lending out of money itself. The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance explains that:

Money in Islam is not regarded as an asset from which it is ethically permissible to earn a direct return. Money tends to be viewed purely as a medium of exchange. Interest can lead to injustice and exploitation in society; The Qur’an (2:279) characterises it as unfair, as implied by the word zulm (oppression, exploitation, opposite of adl i.e. justice). [Edited to correct one grammatical error]

You know what? I’m not about to convert to any religion but I absolutely agree with this tenet and I don’t see why we should have to determine its merit based on whether it’s secular or religious. Obviously it can be both, so there goes the assumption that values have to fit into an ‘either/or’ type of classification.

I’d like to sit Michael Shermer down over a nice cup of tea and ask him why, if we’ve developed so much, we have more global conflict than ever and we’re jeopardizing our own survival and that of millions of other species. Even as our own scientific process proves this to be true, nothing we’re doing offers a systemic solution to this problem.

Who gets to define enlightenment? Shouldn’t it be up to all of us? Don’t we all have that right, whether we’re spiritual, religious, agnostic or atheist? Don’t we share this planet with each other? Don’t we need each other?

Arrogance is another form of dogma and just like every other type of dogma, it arises from ego. Anyone who forgets this is prone to reproducing the same sort of closed-mindedness they criticize in others. Religion is just one possible vehicle of delusion. Anyone can get behind the wheel of their mind and drive it into confusion. As long as we’re convinced that the enemy is some external threat, personal responsibility is no longer necessary. This is fertile ground for binary thinking, xenophobia, racism, exceptionalism, and, of course, war and misery, among other things.

Governments should be secular because neutrality is necessary in order to respect the diversity and freedom of the people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re something we’re not. It also doesn’t mean we should be hostile or disrespectful toward what is an important part of many people’s lives. Especially when we’re talking about marginalized people who are targets of institutional violence. Karl Marx was under the impression that people would have no need for spirituality in a post-capitalist world. We haven’t gotten there yet but I sincerely doubt that we’d all suddenly become secular or atheist simply because we own the product of our own labour.

Maybe it’s tempting for secularists to cling to the idea of moral progress because it gives them hope that someday they’ll have proof that humans aren’t inherently spiritual after all. The reality is that some people are spiritual and some aren’t, and every individual can change their status at any point in time for pretty much any reason or no reason at all. Leftists – and I count myself among this broad category for better or for worse – exist within a culture of secularism to the extent that many chanted “Je Suis Charlie” while denying vehemently that Charlie Hebdo is racist. They’re wrong. If you’re a so-called progressive and you won’t stand up to Islamophobia because you don’t like religion, you don’t get social justice.

Our biggest threat doesn’t lie in other people or in other ideologies. It’s in ourselves; in the ego’s tendency to seek self-gratification over the self-denying work of observing our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one a better person than anyone else. Neither does being Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, atheist – whatever. It’s one thing to be proud of our heritage and traditions but quite another to delude ourselves into thinking that because we’ve come to believe or reject a spiritual precept, that makes us superior to anyone else. The only thing that makes us good people is how we treat other beings.

Have we loved enough?

The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.

– Dalai Lama

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

How liberal dogma is eroding the left

I’ve said it before: from a certain angle, progressives are the real  conservatives. At least, we’re supposed to be. Resource and worker exploitation, rampant consumerism, overspending by an elite bureaucracy – these practices may increase the GDP, but they’re wrong. And part of why they’re wrong is that we end up paying for them in disproportionate and messy ways. Of course, it’s never the people who make the decisions that end up dealing with the repercussions, and it’s precisely this sense of injustice, this lack of social accountability, that is supposed to propel the left.

Progressives aren’t perfect. We’re not cohesive. We don’t have a monopoly on wanting things to be better for everyone. And we’re not immune to dogma and rhetoric. I hate to say it, but in the case of Ontario, many lefties seem to be having a tough time reconciling what it means to be accountable when it comes to how governments handle public money. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has this to say on the subject:

I believe that there is a lot of waste in government right now and I believe that the people of Ontario want to see that waste eliminated, and I don’t think we eliminate it without the hard decisions.

How many Ontarians would disagree with this statement? Does anyone really doubt that the provincial bureaucratic machine is not wasteful, after all of the scandals, and that we wouldn’t benefit by figuring out how we might do things more efficiently? If you’ve been reading the comments on Horwath’s Facebook page and other social media sites, for many self-proclaimed NDP supporters (past or current), the answer, oddly, is yes.

I’m really struggling to see the problem here. Since when is tackling waste the exclusive domain of the right?

You’d think the left, which makes a big fuss over the evils of austerity (for good reason) would be able to distinguish that from efficiency. What’s crucial here is who’s proposing the policy and why, what does it really entail, and what is its context within the overall platform? Why should talking seriously about fiscal responsibility be off limits? Is it necessarily the case that progressive candidates who do so are only trying to conquer new territory?

This knee-jerk reaction justifies and perpetuates the stereotype that progressive governments only ever pursue a ‘tax and spend’ agenda, that they’re inherently financially inept, wasteful behemoths. A lot of people who end up voting Conservative don’t do so because they like the idea of seeing social supports slashed; they do it because they’re sick of seeing their money being pissed away by people who don’t share their priorities or understand their challenges. Many on the left completely fail to understand this, to the detriment of us all.

Traditionally left-wing media purveyors such as Rabble and the Toronto Star have been steadily pumping out articles about the NDP that are both reflexive and peppered with conjecture. Case in point:

“The NDP will never win with policies that adhere to Conservative definitions of what counts as fiscal responsibility. Not ever. Fiscal responsibility is not spending your time looking under couch cushions for extra change. Fiscal responsibility is spending money on programs that help regular people and not the rich or corporations. All else is a Conservative smoke screen…”

And there you have it, folks – it’s not just a tired leftie stereotype: as per Michael Stewart, spending – and only spending – is an acceptable form of fiscal responsibility. What’s more, this lazy argument exposes an unfortunate liberal dogma. How is it that a concept as central as this can be defined in such a narrow way, without being widely challenged, and without having to demonstrate a holistic understanding of what it means to manage money? And how is it fair to declare that the NDP is adhering to Conservative ideology just because they’re pointing out a problem that pretty much every single Ontarian would admit exists? The NDP plan doesn’t come anywhere close to resembling a Mike Harris-type platform. Or a Tim Hudak platform. Or a Liberal platform, for that matter. It needs to be said that the progressive ideas put forth by the Liberals have been either borrowed (I’m being generous here) from the NDP or grudgingly adopted from them.

In The Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely criticizes this newest NDP initiative by writing that “what prevents mismanagement is competent ministers.” Sure, that’s true, but that’s not the only way a government can prevent mismanagement – not by a long shot.

A good friend of mine used to work for the Ontario Power Authority. She would go on and on about the fancy catered lunches her manager ordered. They simply had to have their San Pellegrino, and gourmet, organic selection of fine foods. The genre of requests from and accommodations for executives reflected a disturbing sense of entitlement. Does this qualify as the sort of program spending that Stewart was talking about? No, because it’s everyday practices like this that aggregately soak up revenue, in addition to other things, including truly excessive salaries and redundancies (both of which the NDP are targeting).

By pointing this out, I’m not badmouthing public workers or unions. It means I don’t think we should be spending other people’s money on things we don’t really need. There’s absolutely no reason why this isn’t or shouldn’t be a core progressive policy. Now, is this is the sort of waste that the proposed Minister of Savings and Accountability would address? Would we really save about $600 million annually? How would the NDP achieve the goal of 0.5% savings in the budget every year? That remains to be seen. But the sad fact is that many progressives don’t even want to entertain the idea that perhaps we should take a look at how we’re spending money. The claim by Reevely and others that the NDP is veering from their traditional policy of sticking up for the little guy is simply unqualified and nonsensical. Sometimes I actually get a glimmer of understanding as to why conservatives think the whole lot of us lefties are idiots.

If we’re going to question Horwath for promising too much, as Martin Regg Cohn has done (and reasonably so), we should also be ceaselessly pointing out the Liberals’ proven track record of having done so – and failed spectacularly. Cohn has inexplicably described the NDP campaign as “Ford-style populism”, but there’s a huge difference between a politician whose entire platform consists of cutting and saying no to everything and one who vows to go after waste we know exists, and as part of a broader platform that does actually include funding programs that will directly benefit the average Ontarian. While I honestly think it would be foolish to expect the NDP’s entire platform to check out economically, Cohn’s comparison of Horwath’s politics to Rob Ford’s was shamefully gratuitous. Rob Ford? Come on.

I get it – we’re sick and tired of neoliberal policies. We’re paying higher taxes and getting less in return. Services are cut while deficits grow. The solution to this, then, is to think creatively. This includes examining the budget and bureaucracy so we can make sure that where we are spending money, we’re not doing so needlessly. We literally can’t afford to pretend that raising taxes on big corporations and wealthy individuals will give us the kind of float we need to put things back into balance. This would be a good start – but not a solution. Why do so many within the left seem determined to sabotage any attempt at forming a platform that Ontarians can actually get behind?

More to the point, the question that continues to haunt me, now more than ever, is:

Can we not be progressive and responsible at the same time?

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Filed under Canada, Politics & Society

Kathleen Wynne’s Trojan horse: standing up to neoliberalism

In turning her back on the Liberal Party’s proposed budget, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has whipped up a tornado of controversy by triggering a new election to be held in less than two months’ time. Depending on who you ask, this is either the bravest or the most reckless thing she could have done.

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

One thing that’s certain is that it was a big surprise. Reactions on the left include disappointment, bewilderment, relief, and excitement.

Progressives have been forced to capitulate to centrist policy because we haven’t had much choice. A lot of lefties are asking what was so wrong with the budget that it had to come to this. We tend to be caught between two undesirable choices, and this time around was no exception:

  1. Accept the bitter pill of a flawed, bloated budget from a government that has botched things very badly even though leadership has been replaced.
  2. Turn down the budget, thus triggering an election and exposing ourselves to the possibility that we could end up with an even more damaging administration in charge.

We’ve been here before. Andrea Horwath is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. Ultimately, the fundamental challenge facing progressives isn’t the NDP’s refusal to cooperate with the Liberal government. What we really need to be concerned about is why we don’t have a bigger base of support while the conservatives do. It’s not a pleasant subject, but it has to be addressed if we’re interested in the long term well-being of all Ontarians.

The Liberals simply are not capable of delivering the kind of change that we need. Their motives are suspect, their numbers are fuzzy, their promises are lofty, and their record leaves us with not one single reason to believe that they will do what they say they will. Some have accused Horwath of playing politics, but her explanation for voting against the budget is supported by what we already know to be true:

“The same government that couldn’t fill these three promises [reduction in auto insurance rates, introduction of an accountability officer, and significant action on home care] in the last year is making more than 70 new promises this year.”

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A budget to please or appease?

Many progressives were taken in by the promise of Wynne’s budget while failing to recognize that this is about much more than the budget itself. In addition to the question of whether it offers the right ingredients, there’s also the question of whether it’s realistic. Most importantly, would it have been implemented by the administration making these promises? The problem is that Wynne’s government has no credibility at this point. The budget may sound like a great deal (it’s not), but it never could be under the execution of an irresponsible government regardless. It’s like a big, beautifully wrapped gift that’s too heavy to carry home. The NDP is taking a huge risk by triggering a new election, but whereas its outcome is uncertain, we know exactly where that budget would lead. When we peel back the cellophane wrapper, we discover that this ‘gift’ is essentially the same one we got last time.

How long are we going to compromise our principles out of fear of the right wing? What I’m really struggling to understand is how NDP types could be suspicious of Horwath while trusting Wynne’s Trojan horse. The left has to come together on this and take a good hard look at what has worked, what hasn’t, and reconnect with the people. We know that a substantial proportion of working people act against their own best interest when they vote Conservative or Liberal. We need to start articulating that not only by criticizing those budgets and platforms, but by building a plan that actually works.

The neoliberal agenda has placed a spell on us with its enchanting incantations but it has failed to make meaningful progress. The Ontario Liberal Party is now widely reviled from all sides. They’re so deeply entrenched in a culture of incompetence, waste, and corruption that people are incensed enough to veer from their traditional voting patterns.

If Tim Hudak didn’t come off as such a mediocre-minded slimeball, the NDP probably wouldn’t have taken such drastic action. I suspect his lack of likeability isn’t helped by Stephen Harper’s reputation as a cold, calculating sociopath. Harper has done considerable damage to the Conservative brand in general, just as McGuinty and Wynne have done for the Liberals. Could this play a part in the election outcome?

Right-leaning voters who desperately want change but aren’t married to the Conservative culture are more likely to overcome their uneasiness about the NDP if they see that they aren’t acting like petulant, out of touch, impotent utopians. Add to this the extra points that Horwath wins for distancing herself from large private sector unions like Unifor and the Ontario Federation of Labour that urged her to side with the Liberals. We saw that under Jack Layton, the party articulated popular priorities very well and was able to seize on favourable conditions. If the NDP demonstrates once again that it has a renewed sense of purpose and is just as fed up as the rest of Ontarians – and serious about doing something about it – there’s a chance they might attract supporters we haven’t anticipated.

 

 

A recent EKOS poll taken right before Friday’s events shows the Liberals leading with 34.7%, the Conservatives close behind with 31.6%, and the NDP with 22.2%. Just under 19% were undecided. How will these figures change following the budget showdown? There’s enough room for swing votes that no one can be sure what will happen. I would love to talk to the people who represent the PC-NDP swing segment:

 

onpoli

 

Even for those voters who still won’t be ideologically swayed by the NDP, Horwath will have earned nods for showing some refreshing nerve and integrity – something many people have been craving badly under the Liberals. She managed to hand them a way out – something that Hudak, Wynne’s most vocal critic – could not. He’s eating his words now.

“Hudak also took a shot at Horwath for not commenting on the budget, saying she chose to ‘duck and run‘ rather than ‘stand up for taxpayers.’”

Under Horwath, the Ontario NDP is now projecting an image that says the era of centre-left patronage is over, and it’s willing to risk losing ground to the right in order to defend accountability. They’re not afraid to step into the ring alone. After all, who wants to root for a contender that doesn’t really want to fight? It’s unclear how much respect Horwath might gain or how much currency that will have, but the election is only eight weeks away. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for Hudak to shine or for Wynne to gloss over the embarrasing rejection. People are sitting up and taking notice, but the key to Horwath’s success lies not in whether the people are paying attention to her, but whether she’s paying attention to them.

If this curve ball doesn’t inspire Ontarians to decide that voting is more interesting and worthwhile than watching TV, I don’t know what will.

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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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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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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