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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First Nations and resource development: friends or enemies?

While indigenous groups are usually characterized as being anti-development, many First Nations in Canada are directly involved in resource development and see it as a way to improve their living conditions and become independent. Just because First Nations are critical of the federal government and corporations operating in remote areas, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily against resource exploitation in and of itself. Accordingly, the Financial Post recently ran a story entitled, First-ever aboriginal oil sands deal built on common interests.

Even First Nations that are suing the federal government over claims that they violated treaty rights through the implementation of controversial omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45 – Frog Lake First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation, both located in northern Alberta – are themselves involved in extractive activities. Mikisew Energy Services describes itself as “a major participant in the resource development sector for the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries.” On its website, Frog Lake First Nations states that it has its own oil and gas drilling facilities.

Also in northern Alberta, the Horse Lake First Nation and Western Lakota Energy Services Inc. were given $1.35 million from the federal government to form an oil and gas partnership in 2005. Rather than increase funding for basic services and infrastructure, this is how the government hopes to prove that it is “committed to closing the unacceptable gap between First Nations people and other Canadians.” Former Horse Lake First Nation Chief Dion Horseman (who passed away last month – RIP) applauded the deal, saying, “Horse Lake continues to strive to diversify our economic base and we view the Western Lakota partnership as a key component to our future development. Further opportunities with Western Lakota and other entities should help secure the future for our band members.” The benefit to the community? A projected 15 direct and up to 77 indirect jobs for Horse Lake First Nation members. The band’s population totaled 938 in 2009, with 436 of those people living on reserve or Crown land.

Back in October 2012, Duncan’s First Nation Chief Don Testawich strongly criticized the Alberta government and Keyera over an oil spill and specifically, for failing to adequately inform the local communities of the impacts and failing to mitigate those impacts on the environment, on which those communities’ livelihoods depend. Testawich identified the problem as a “disregard that Alberta and the oil industry have for the environment and the rights of our community and other communities.” In particular, he cites a lack of adequate environmental legislation, which adopts a results-based approach. This is an important distinction. Greenpeace recently unearthed a letter from the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents the oil and gas industry) that asked the federal government to adjust its legislation to shift its focus from “preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.” In other words, let’s not take a preventative approach – let’s just wait until things happen and then respond to them “responsibly”.

Testawich is the owner and Corporate Director of Rig’s Oilfield Services Ltd., which is listed as a partner on the Duncan’s First Nation website.

In 2010, Duncan’s First Nation and Horse Lake First Nation won intervenor status from the Supreme Court of Canada. At issue was whether the corporations behind major oil and gas projects adequately consulted and accommodated their concerns before being granted approvals for resource development. Testawich explains, “Our traditional territory is being overrun and cut to pieces by oil sands, major pipelines, gas fields and major power projects. Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Trans Canada Pipelines and Bruce Power are proposing massive projects that will fuel unsustainable oil sands growth. Development on this scale is making our treaty rights meaningless and threatens our traditional way of life.”

Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan is the largest oil producing First Nation in Canada. Their chief, Wallace Fox, has criticized Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for backing the Conservative government’s assimilationist aspirations. Instead, he throws his support behind Roseau River chief Terrance Nelson. In 2007, Nelson said, “It is time to quit being loyal Canadians, we don’t need the white man’s money. We need a share of our own wealth. There’s only two ways to deal with the white man. Either you pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.”

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Ruskin Dam, BC

In December 2012, a coalition of aboriginals, farmers and environmentalists joined forces to fight BC Hydro’s planned Site C dam on the Peace River, which would flood 3,000 hectares of prime farmland. The behemoth project would count as yet another in the northern BC region, which has already seen intense resource development. Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations responded, “Enough is enough. We need to slow down. It’s more important to maintain the integrity of what’s there than put it under water… all to expand the industrial footprint.”

Meanwhile, the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in BC evicted surveyors working on a natural gas pipeline project from their territory and have set up a roadblock. In a statement, spokesperson Freda Huson said, “The Unis’tot’en clan has been dead-set against all pipelines slated to cross through their territories, which include PTP (Pacific Trails Pipeline), Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and many others.”

Returning to the above mentioned Financial Post article, there are some fundamental questions to consider. The article states that the oil and gas partnership “fuels optimism that the seemingly incompatible values between aboriginals and the oil sands industry can be bridged when there is mutual benefit.”

INMconsentValues. I keep coming back to this word. It would be paternalistic to dictate to First Nations what their values are, either on a single community or collective basis. First Nations of today aren’t all going to look at these issues in the same way, and within communities we would naturally expect to see a diversity of opinion. Some First Nations don’t want extractive activities on their lands, period. Others are okay with it as long as there’s resource sharing, some control and/or fair compensation. Others still may see it as their only alternative to poverty within the current framework, or they may figure that since projects will be pushed through anyway, they might as well get their rightful slice of the pie. All of these approaches have been represented within the Idle No More movement, which broadly seeks both sovereignty and environmental integrity. You can’t take for granted that everyone at a rally will be against pipelines, mining or oil and gas exploration, even on aboriginal lands.

The largely ignored question is: How can we talk about protecting the environment while forging ahead in extracting, refining, transporting and finally burning fossil fuels? This contradiction is reflected in the letter authored by the Energy Framework Initiative, which prescribes “economic growth and job creation while continuing to ensure responsible environmental and social outcomes.”

One key observation… Non-aboriginal fossil fuel corporations aren’t advocating maintenance of the status quo. That’s not how they’ll thrive. They want economic growth. Economic growth that will spur a greater need for energy, and thus ensure a future market for their product. It’s a cyclical, self-perpetuating system that depends on a reliable source of capital. When they talk about growth, they’re not talking about workers, communities or public infrastructure. They’re talking about themselves.

Is there room for the much-touted aboriginal creed that we make every decision with the next seven generations in mind? Is resource extraction, and oil and gas development specifically, consistent with a worldview that holds that all life is sacred, that we are stewards of the land, only borrowing it and then passing it on? Is it in keeping with a philosophy according to which the very idea of owning land and exploiting resources for profit is tantamount to blasphemy and self-denial? Far from simply being a spiritual belief set, this worldview is one that sustained indigenous peoples prosperously and happily for thousands of years without causing significant damage to the environment. Is going the same route as the white man, albeit independently, nevertheless not an acceptance of the white man’s ideology, and therefore an internalized form of colonization?

Photograph by Peter Essick

Alberta Tar Sands (photograph by Peter Essick)

When it comes to fossil fuels, the issue goes beyond First Nations. We’re talking about basically every community in the world and future generations being affected by climate change in ways that could threaten their survival. No one group has a monopoly on environmental wisdom and activism. Many non-indigenous individuals and groups around the world actively oppose environmental destruction and pollution. We have a unique opportunity now in Canada to bring people of all backgrounds together. What seems clear is that human beings generally only turn to environmentally destructive practices when they are destitute or have become so separated from their natural environment or roots that they don’t understand their relationship with the environment and their impacts on it.

It’s important to note that most of the petroleum produced by the industry is exported to foreign markets. Viewed from that lens, how does fossil fuel production truly make any community – First Nations included – self-sufficient, economically stable and prosperous? These are after all non-renewable resources. Once that revenue source is tapped, where then will communities turn to generate income to sustain themselves, especially once they begin to improve their standard of living and their energy needs inevitably rise? When you are producing goods or services that other people consume, extracting only money from the process, there is no benefit in it other than to be able to buy the things you need… from corporations. True self-reliance would seem to entail producing what you need to survive yourself.

It’s difficult to understand how a community can maintain that it is following a traditional way of life while participating in extractive activities. There are, however, obvious reasons to believe that those income-generating activities are preferable to relying on inadequate government funding that is held over communities’ heads at any rate. Are some First Nations or chiefs being bought off? Are they selling out? Or are they just doing the best for their people given the circumstances?

Resource development on First Nations lands is not simply a question of whether natural resources are exploited in the first place, but who does it, how large the projects are and how they’re carried out. Generally, First Nations seek greater control over these resources and the opportunity to participate in decision-making so that impacts can be mitigated and the communities affected can be fairly compensated – at the very least. It’s one thing for First Nations to derive their revenue from controversial sources; it’s quite another that corporations are given a free pass by the government to exploit resources on First Nations lands, in clear violation of the Constitution.

Pipelines and tankers frequently leak and spill, affecting vulnerable traditional communities the most, so it’s incumbent upon people to speak out about them as Don Testawich has. But ecosystems aren’t contained within political, tribal or geographic borders, and the interrelated and cumulative impacts of projects, both big and small, native and non-native, are not very well understood, nor is there any mechanism in place for putting all of this into perspective. Our world is becoming increasingly globalized and ‘developed’; every community at some point is or will be faced with the decision to continue in this direction or to pursue alternatives, such as decolonization and degrowth. It’s clear that it’s in our best interests to make proactive decisions rather than to wait until there’s a proverbial knife to our throats, but is sustainable development possible with improvements to the economic and political systems, or is it just a pipe dream? Or is radical, fundamental change the only way to achieve prosperity and justice?

Anishnabe Prophecy of the 8th Fire

“At the time of the Seventh Fire, a new people will emerge. They will retrace the footsteps of their ancestors and will try to find those things which have been lost along the way. They will approach the elders in search of guidance. It will not be an easy task but if they are of good heart and pure intentioned they can prevail. Some elders will be sleeping and have nothing to say, others will say nothing out of fear.

The New generation must be fearless in their quest.

The Light Skinned race will be at a crossroads. If they continue down the road of Materialism, it will be their destruction and for all humanity as well. But if the Light Skinned Race chooses to join with the Natural People of this land on the Spiritual path then they will again have the chance to create a nation, the greatest spiritual nation ever to have existed.

Two other races will join these two races. Together, they will together light the 8th and final Fire an eternal fire of Peace, Harmony, Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”

I leave you with a trailer for Fractured Land, a documentary that tells the story of a young Dene law student from northeastern BC who takes on Big Oil and Gas to protect his land and people: