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Peacekeeping is no job for ordinary soldiers

17 November 2017 - 8:33pm
Political ActionPolitics in CanadaWorld

Peacekeeping always seems like a good idea at the time, then it tends to go awry. It did right from the start when Canada's Lester B. Pearson proposed a UN force to resolve tensions in the Mideast in 1956, after Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. Pearson got the Stanley Cup -- I mean, the Nobel Peace Prize -- for it, and probably became prime minister as a result six years later.

Even that didn't go smoothly. Pearson wanted Canadian troops as part of the force but the Egyptians gagged when they heard names like the Queen's Own Rifles and Princess Patricia Light Infantry, with a little Union Jack on the then-Canadian flag, the Royal ensign. They'd just been blasted by Royal British bombs.

Eventually some more nondescript Canadian logistical forces were deployed instead but that mixed bag quality has endured. General Lewis Mackenzie was the Canadian in charge of UN peacekeepers in Bosnia in the early 1990s. He's been critiqued for non-impartial behaviour by both Canadians and Bosnians. General Romeo Dallaire was UN commander during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and has been relentlessly eloquent about his own failure, even as others praised him.

The UN force, including Canadians, sent to Haiti in 2004, after a coup ousted a democratically elected president, "stabilized" (the UN's term) that shameful outcome while repressing popular movements, according to Canadian and other critics. It acted as an arm of U.S. policy, facilitating privatization. UN troops' behaviour led to an outbreak of cholera and involved sexual abuse.

The low point of Canadian UN peacekeeping was the 1993 Somalia affair. An "elite" unit, with a history of white supremacist influence, imprisoned and tortured to death teenager Shidane Arone (there were burn marks on his penis) while others overheard and played on their Game Boys. There were sundry cover-ups as Canadian journalists dug the story out, then a dismissal of the official inquiry by PM Jean Chrétien before it could finish its work. The unit was disbanded. That isn't exactly what Pearson had in mind.

Sexual abuse is at the top of this rapsheet. The numbers are stunning -- and undercounted: 2,000 allegations between 2005 and 2017; 99 in 2015, a jump to 145 in 2016; 55 charged in the first six months of 2017 (Al Jazeera). The normal, decent Canadian response to this stuff is: What the hell's going on? These are noble UN peacekeepers, dedicated to helping others, they wear those soothing, benign blue helmets.

A paper by U of T undergrad Daphne Wang that I happened come across last year had a great answer. She said, more or less (in my reading of her): Well, what did you expect? These are soldiers. They're trained, like soldiers everywhere, to be aggressive and able to kill. ("Killing is what it's basically about," said a former officer I knew, who was old enough to recall the Second World War.) They inhabit a patriarchal, hierarchical milieu, with little space for sensitized, much less feminist, responses. They receive relatively astronomical UN-level wages to offer desperately poor local women for sex, and if abuse occurs they're unlikely to be charged, due to legal arrangements that shield them.

In this light, the problem may be that, while peacekeeping is a military task, it's no job for ordinary soldiers, with their traditional skills, such as killing, conquest, rape and pillage -- killing being the most justifiable. Conventional soldiers "keeping the peace" could be as fatuous as the obscene "war to end all wars" was.

It seems to me that the original idea of a UN force, implied -- even if not explicitly -- something else: an actual UN-based contingent of peacekeepers, not just briefly lent by member states. It paralleled the hope that the UN might evolve into an embryonic world government, rather than a grumpy consortium of states.

And in that light, Justin Trudeau's seemingly minor and not very costly idea of at least starting to "feminize" the process may be the best component in the constricted menu he presented as his peacekeeping policy this week.

He reneged on almost everything else, like total numbers and naming where they'd go, as he's done with most policies he once promised. But apparently most Canadians like the idea of peacekeeping -- who wouldn't?

So it's good politics here at home, though maybe less so for the populations we shuffle off to. The best thing to do with it at the moment might be a good shakeout and rethink.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Cpl. Janessa Pon​

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peacekeepingUN peacekeepingpeacekeeperscanadian militarymilitary interventionCanadian war crimesCARick SalutinNovember 17, 2017Foreign-policy left should resist temptation to embrace militarized peacekeepingCanada's preeminent left-wing foreign policy think tank has spurned demilitarization and anti-imperialist voices to promote the views of the liberal end of the military.Why good peacekeeping training really mattersUN peacekeeping is not a substitute for politics. If the political framework for peace is flawed, then the peacekeeping mission will have an uphill battle. But we must not abandon the field.Lester Pearson's Peacekeeping: The Truth May HurtPearson was an ardent Cold Warrior who backed colonialism and apartheid in Africa, coups in Guatemala, Iran, and Brazil, and was an important contributor to the American war against Vietnam.

Three unpredictable world leaders make a headache in Canadian foreign policy

17 November 2017 - 10:37am
November 17, 2017WorldIs Trudeau ready for a Middle East war?Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s new absolute ruler Mohammad bin Salman are creating a world of uncertaintyMohammad bin SalmanDonald TrumpBenjamin NetanyahuLebanonyemenJustin Trudeau

United States is alone in the world in its refusal to act on climate change

16 November 2017 - 8:52pm
EnvironmentUS PoliticsWorld

BONN, Germany -- The nations of the world are here to discuss the next steps to implement the Paris agreement, the global pact hammered out two years ago to confront climate change. All the nations, that is, except the United States. This is the first high-level United Nations climate summit -- referred to as the Conference of Parties, or COP -- to be held since President Donald Trump announced on June 1 that he would pull the United States out of the accord. Two other nations -- Nicaragua and Syria -- that had previously not signed on to the agreement have since done so, leaving the United States alone in the world, the sole country that refuses to act on climate change. But when it comes to setting policy on climate change, as with healthcare, taxes, and, hopefully, even war, Trump doesn't hold the same dictatorial powers as authoritarian world leaders whom he admires. There is a force more powerful: people joined together in a mass movement. This multifaceted movement of Americans who do care about climate change are here in Bonn in force, letting the world know, as their slogan reads, "#WeAreStillIn."

An official U.S. delegation is present here in Bonn. To Trump's dismay, even though the Paris agreement is a voluntary document and not a binding treaty, it still takes four years to fully withdraw. At past COPs, the U.S. special envoy for climate change would give frequent press briefings. And while many around the world were critical of the U.S. role in the climate talks during the Barack Obama years, at least they acknowledged the existence of human-caused climate change, and were committed to some form of solution. What a difference a year makes. The Trump administration's official delegation scheduled just one formal public session during the entire two-week summit. We went to cover the event for the Democracy Now! news hour. It was all you would expect from a Trump administration climate change event.

Hundreds of people were waiting in line for access. A separate line formed for journalists. As we filmed the scene, a U.S. Embassy consultant put his hand over the lens of our camera. Things were not looking good. Upon entry, we were corralled in the back of the room, while select invitees filled reserved seats in the front row. Before the official delegation entered, two Democratic U.S. governors strode in, unannounced, and addressed the press, decrying the spectacle of climate change denial that was about to take place.

"This is a sideshow," Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced. "The world is not going to listen to someone who says that climate change is a hoax." He was joined by Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who, together with scores of other elected officials -- mayors, governors, senators and others -- attended this summit to organize and demonstrate the bottom-up resistance to Trump's withdrawal from the Paris agreement. The two governors left, and the official delegation filed in.

Led by Francis Brooke, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and George David Banks, special assistant to the president for international energy and environment, the panel included representatives from the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. As they delivered predictable homilies on the necessity of their destructive energy sectors, three-quarters of the room rose in unison, turned their backs and began singing Lee Greenwood's popular, patriotic "God Bless the U.S.A./Proud to Be an American," but with satirical, anti-fossil-fuel lyrics:

"So you claim to be an American
But we see right through your greed.
It's killing all across the world
For that coal money.
And we proudly stand up until you
Keep it in the ground..."

Outside, hundreds who were denied entry to the small room chanted loudly in solidarity.

After the protesters walked out and the panelists gave their spiels, we managed to pose a simple question to each of them: "Yes or no, do you support Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement?" The nuclear power advocate said she disagreed with Trump, as did the natural gas entrepreneur, a former Obama administration staffer. The coal executive, from the notorious multinational Peabody Energy, refused to answer. The oil and gas lobbyist said yes, he supported withdrawal, while Brooks and Banks stated that they work for the president, so of course they support his decision.

The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a catastrophe, to be sure. But it has inspired a whirlwind of bottom-up climate activism, with thousands of U.S. businesses, universities, faith groups, elected officials, student groups and prominent individuals committing to combat climate change. For all of Trump's bluster and all of his tweets, this may well be the most important consequence of his climate change denial.

This column was first published on Democracy Now!

Photo: Spielvogel​/Wikimedia Commons

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Climate ChangeDonald Trumpclimate change denialparis agreementclimate agreementclimate policyclimate injusticeParis climate summitAmy GoodmanDenis MoynihanNovember 16, 2017Climate change denial by Trump administration sparks grassroots actionAs "Russiagate" becomes a full-blown conflagration threatening to consume Donald Trump's presidency, his denial of human-induced global warming continues to threaten a planet already on fire.What Canadians can do now that the U.S. is leaving the Paris accordThe Trump administration has pulled the U.S. out of the historic agreement, but there is still much that Canadians can do.Trump is a pariah in the face of climate crisisIf there's a bright side to Trump's decision, it's that climate change has received more serious media coverage than ever before, and people around the world have agreed to increase their efforts.

Scientists have issued some daunting recommendations about the environment

16 November 2017 - 1:23am
November 16, 2017EnvironmentWhen 15,000 scientists warn of environmental catastrophe it must not be a one-day storyIn 1992, concerned scientists described a series of danger signs for the planet, including loss of species, deforestation and climate change. Twenty-five years later, their new warning shows that all fish farmsatlantic salmonwild salmonover-fishing

National Aboriginal Veterans Day ceremonies echo Canadian foreign policy mythology

15 November 2017 - 1:01pm
Yves Engler

The power of foreign policy nationalism is immense. Even the primary targets of the Canadian state have been drawn into this country's mythology.

Dispossessed of 99 per cent of their land, Indigenous people have been made wards of the state, had their movements restricted, and religious and cultural ceremonies banned. Notwithstanding their antagonistic relationship to the Canadian state, Indigenous leaders have often backed Ottawa's international policies.

At a National Aboriginal Veterans Day ceremony last week, Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Stewart Phillip said Indigenous soldiers were "fighting for the common good" and were "on the right side of history." But, Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: World War II. Ignored in the Rememberance Day style commemoration are the Afghans or Libyans killed by Canadians in recent years, the Serbians and Iraqis killed two decades ago, and the Koreans killed in the 1950s and the Russians, South Africans, Sudanese and others killed before that.

While Phillip's comments reinforce the sense that Canada's cause is righteous, he is not a sycophant of power on most issues. Phillip refused to attend a "reconciliation" event with Prince William, called for "acts of civil disobedience" against pipelines and said "the State of Canada and the Church committed acts of genocide as defined by the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide."

Philip was but one of many Indigenous voices applauding Canadian militarism during National Aboriginal Veterans Day/Remembrance Day activities. CBC Indigenous reported on a reading in Mi'kmaq of the pro-World War I poem "In Flanders Fields" and quoted the editor of Courageous Warriors of Kahkewistahaw First Nation, Ted Whitecalf, saying "it's all for freedom that the people served willingly and voluntarily."

Outside of war commemorations, Indigenous representatives occasionally echo broader foreign policy myths. Alongside Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was a keynote speaker at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation's Global Impact Soirée in May. Part of Canada's 150th anniversary, the Global Impact Soirée included a Global Affairs Canada exhibit titled "25 Years of Excellence in International Development Photography" and "Recognize Canada's 15 international contributions."

At the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, former AFN leader Matthew Coon Come denounced Canada's "marginalization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples." In what was widely described as a forceful speech, Coon Come labeled Canada "an international advocate of respect for human rights" and said:

"Canadians, and the government of Canada, present themselves around the world as upholders and protectors of human rights. In many ways, this reputation is well-deserved. In South Africa, the government of Canada played a prominent role in isolating the apartheid regime. In many other countries, Canada provides impressive international development assistance." 

(While repeated regularly, Coon Come's characterization of Canada's role in opposing apartheid is inaccurate and aid was largely conceived as a geopolitical tool to blunt radical decolonization.)

Indigenous opinion is, of course, not homogenous. Some chiefs have actively supported Inddigenous communities resisting Canadian mining projects in Latin America, while former chief of Manitoba's Roseau River First Nation Terrance Nelson called on first nations to forge their own international ties. Author of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance, Gord Hill criticized First Nations collaboration with the Canadian Forces. From Kwakwaka'wakw nation, Hill denounced Indigenous leaders supporting recruitment for a force "who continue to loot and plunder not only Indigenous lands here, but also those of tribal peoples in Afghanistan and Haiti."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Native Alliance of Red Power opposed "efforts to co-opt native leadership into Canadian imperialism." The Coast Salish (Vancouver) based group protested local residential schools, police brutality, racism, sexism, as well as the war in Vietnam and colonialism in southern Africa.

Indigenous leaders have various ties to the foreign policy establishment. They are part of a slew of initiatives set up by the Canadian International Development Agency, Global Affairs Canada, and Department of National Defence. Historically, Canadian military experience significantly shaped Indigenous politics. After returning from the Western front, Frederick Ogilvie Loft formed the League of Indians of Canada in 1919, the first pan-Canadian Indigenous political organization. Backed by a significant share of the 4,000 Indigenous WWI veterans, the League led directly to today's Indian Association of Alberta and Saskatchewan's Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. "The League was also the forerunner of the National Indian Brotherhood, now known as the Assembly of First Nations," explains a history of The League of Indians of Canada.

Rather than echo nationalist myth, Indigenous leaders and activists should be part of a movement for a just foreign policy. First Nation experiences with Canadian colonialism, including so-called aid, missionaries and government financing of Indigenous organizations, can offer insight into this country's foreign policy. Over the longer term an expansion of First Nations autonomy could redefine the Canadian state in a way that helps resets this country's place in the world.

Photo: 4 Cdn Div / 4 Div CA - JTFC/FOIC/Flickr

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Who benefits more from the PC takeover of the Alberta Party -- the NDP or UCP?

15 November 2017 - 1:39am
David J. Climenhaga

Having been the victims of Jason Kenney's double reverse hostile takeover of the Alberta Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties, the remnants of the old PC Party seem to have successfully carried out a hostile reverse takeover of their own -- of the once-somewhat-liberal Alberta Party.

So the big question now has to be whether, come the next Alberta general election, the reconstituted PC Alberta Party (PCAP? perhaps pronounced Pee-Cap?) is likely to take more votes from the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley or from Kenney's United Conservative Party?

There has been a lively discussion about this issue in the comments section of this blog and, I must say, I am quite uncertain as to which scenario is most likely to unfold.

My instinct is that if an election were held soon featuring full slates from all three parties, the PCAP would take more votes from the NDP than from the UCP, quite possibly resulting in a UCP government.

But if the election doesn't happen until the spring of 2019, and the UCP meltdown in the Legislature continues apace, the situation could result in another conservative vote split that could work to the benefit of the NDP.

So far, however, my personal political crystal ball is murky.

This much is clear, though: with the unexpected resignation of Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark last week, gamely touting the benefits of a leadership race as he walked the plank, it is quite apparent the Alberta Party is now very much in the hands of a cabal of old-style Alberta PCs.

The UCP clearly thinks this too, judging from commentary on social media by Blaise Boehmer, Kenney's key digital propaganda mouthpiece.

"Do you miss the shenanigans and back room dealings of the Redford era?" asked Boehmer. "Then you should join the new PC-Alberta Party," he concluded at the end of one of those new super-long Tweets that have taken all the fun and creativity out of insulting people on Twitter.

So if the reconstituted PCAP starts to sound like a credible challenger, expect the UCP to direct more fire at the putative leaders of the Alberta Party -- to the point it may sound very much as if a reprise of the recent War of the Wildroses has broken out.

I am sure the NDP, seemingly operating on the sound principal of piloting the ship of state "steady as she goes," very much hopes this will happen.

To prevent it, one would think, the UCP would need to project the image of being a government-in-waiting that is ready, steady and under control. Indeed, one of the slogans the UCP's been trying out -- "we lead, they follow" -- suggests the party's strategic brain trust recognizes this.

Alas, the recent performance of the combined post-2015 PC and Wildrose B-Teams in the Legislature sure makes it sound as if Kenney's re-branded Wildrose Party is being engulfed by a fully engaged dumpster fire.

As Calgary blogger Susan Wright suggested in a thought-provoking post on Sunday, the UCP's strategy in the Legislature has been long on frantic rage and short on workable ideas.

As she pointed out, the UCP's view Alberta should be insulting Ottawa, retaliating against British Columbia, screeching about the Canadian Constitution, and suing everyone who doesn't do what they want sure doesn't make them sound like a potential government in waiting.

"The expression 'we lead, they follow' may be a cute political slogan," she wrote, pretty well nailing it, "but as a UCP Opposition tactic it's coming across as 'we have a tantrum, they press on.'"

What's more, Kenney's emotional band of social conservative troglodytes just can't leave the students' rights/human rights/parents' rights debate alone, with a result that has been described here and elsewhere as Lake of Fire 2.0.

I suggested a few posts ago that, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Kenney would be just as happy to be outside the Legislature for as long as possible in the run-up to the 2019 (or whenever) general election.

But if the UCP meltdown in the Legislature continues unabated, I may have to revise that view. Kenney's famously Stephen-Harper-like iron hand may now be required on the floor of the Chamber just to keep his caucus from spontaneously combusting.

If the UCPers do bust into flames, it would be to the long-term benefit the PCAP -- which still faces the formidable tasks of consolidating its coup and finding a leader who is credible, charismatic and suitably progressive on social issues, not to mention filling a province-wide slate of candidates in the not-too-distant future.

The Alberta punditocracy is abuzz with the names of likely and not-so-likely PCAP leaders -- many of them women.

A continuing UCP caucus freak-out would also certainly help the NDP -- which has the advantage of being in power and already has, of course, a leader who is credible, charismatic and undeniably progressive on social issues.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

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Tzeporah Berman pulls no punches saying what she thinks about tar sands development

15 November 2017 - 1:30am
David J. Climenhaga

Is it possible that the Alberta NDP wishes they'd never heard the name Tzeporah Berman?

Berman is the outspoken Vancouver-based environmentalist and public advocacy tactician appointed by the Notley Government in 2016 to be Co-Chair of the Oil Sands Advisory Group.

It was an honourable and sensible effort to build consensus that would allow Alberta's economy to continue to grow. It did not go exactly as planned.

In that role, Berman immediately became a lightning rod for Conservatives determined to attack the NDP's social-license approach to the development of the Athabasca Bitumen Sands, which drew embarrassing attention to the fact the constant Conservative bullying of other Canadians from Ottawa and Edmonton had been a notable failure for more than a decade.

Berman is no shrinking violet -- even when the NDP, I am certain, wished she would tone it down, if only just a little. Her role ended five months ago, and while she was not "let go" as some mainstream media outfits falsely claimed, I'm sure there were some among the NDP's strategic brain trust who were nevertheless relieved to see her role at an end.

In the event, media covered her departure and all but ignored the successful work of the OSAG.

The attacks on her by Conservatives were usually intemperate, frequently vicious, sometimes quite threatening, and just as often highly offensive. On one occasion, she was physically attacked in Edmonton International Airport.

Indeed, there was something about Berman that provoked a particularly ferocious reaction from the Alberta right. There were legitimate differences, even profound ones, between her views on the oilsands and those of the carbon boosters who dominate both conservative parties. But that hardly explained the intensity of their reaction. I have always suspected it was because she is a strong, outspoken, successful woman that accounted for the viciousness of the response.

Now Berman has written a powerful opinion piece in Britain's Guardian newspaper, which nowadays also has a significant international online presence, savaging Canada's environmental record and arguing that no one, anywhere in the world, should be fooled by official Canadian efforts to slap a coat of green paint on the oilsands.

"Alberta has a new progressive majority NDP government which has made some great, long overdue strides in addressing social and environmental issues such as a coal phase-out and a cap on emissions from the tar sands," she wrote in yesterday's edition. "However, even under this government, the cumulative impacts of this fossil fuel development are growing and industry continues to obtain sweeping approvals that are shocking for their lack of environmental rigour."

Tailings ponds in the region have been labelled "the largest (and most destructive) industrial project in human history," Berman noted, calling them "Canada's most shameful environmental secret."

She concluded the piece: "If they are not dealt with now, tar sands tailings could become a permanent toxic legacy of the most reckless forms of 20th-century fossil fuel extraction."

It's hard to argue with many of Berman's conclusions. Stand by, though, for a hysterical and ugly reaction to the Guardian article from Conservatives of all stripes, as they are bound to see this as another opportunity to vent their fury on the NDP.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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Do newspaper endorsements matter in elections anymore?

14 November 2017 - 10:26pm
Scott Stager Piatkowski

In an era in which circulation figures for most newspapers are falling faster than water over Niagara Falls, do newspaper endorsements in election campaigns still matter? At the risk of appropriating the language of click-bait, the answer may surprise you.

While the Canadian experience is less immediate and, even among the most politically engaged Canadians, less discussed than the recent American example, let us begin to by examining the situation at home.

There's a growing concentration of media ownership: There are only two truly independent dailies publishing in English -- The Whitehorse Star and the Fort Frances Daily Bulletin -- and the same number in French -- Montreal's Le Devoir and L'Acadie Nouvelle, from Caraquet, N.B. Consequently, endorsement decisions are no longer made at the editor's desk in each Canadian community, to the extent that they ever were.

During the 2015 federal election, every Postmedia daily that endorsed a party called for the re-election of Stephen Harper's Conservatives (some published an editorial credited to Postmedia and some wrote their own endorsement). That spate of endorsements was, surely, almost as predictable to their readers as the Toronto Star's pro forma call on their readership to again back the Liberal Party.

Consider the fact that, in many Canadian communities, there simply is no longer a daily newspaper. Oshawa, Ontario -- a city of 168,000 people -- lost its daily in 1994 when it closed down in the midst of a labour dispute. Dailies serving Guelph, Ontario and Nanaimo, B.C., closed in 2016, while dailies in two other B.C. towns, Cranbrook and Kimberley, became weeklies in the same year.

The Guelph Mercury, a paper born in the same year as Confederation, struggled with declining circulation numbers for years. When its owners at Torstar finally pulled the plug on the paper, it had circulation of just over 11,000 (subscribers and individual sales), in a city of 120,000 people (not including surrounding townships). While some might argue that it's difficult to lament the loss of an institution that was apparently so little valued in its own community, the truth is a little more nuanced.

The Mercury had for the last eighteen years of its existence been tied together with the Waterloo Region Record. For most of the time, it shared a publisher and an editor with the Record, and all copy editing, page layout and printing was farmed out to the Hamilton Spectator. With the remaining eight reporters doing their best to cover local news, sports, and entertainment, the real wonder is that the paper lasted as long as it did. It is hardly surprising that the longstanding indifference of its owner was met with the indifference of its target audience.

With daily newspapers suffering declining readership, does it even matter who they endorse? Certainly, the New Democratic Party, which received the endorsement of not a single daily newspaper in the 2015 federal election, would argue that it matters. Indeed, historically, the NDP has received support from a daily newspaper only twice in its history (the Toronto Star in both 1984 and 2011), and both of those were highly qualified, almost grudging endorsements that were widely assumed to have been brought on by the weakness of the Liberal Party at the time.

Meanwhile, the Bloc Quebecois can usually count on the support of Le Devoir, but other newspaper endorsements are split between the Liberals and Conservatives (as noted above, often predictably). For better or for worse, the prevailing "red door/blue door" narrative of Canadian politics is largely supported by a news media that assumes that there are no other choices, and -- in the case of newspapers -- makes that abundantly clear in its endorsements.

If endorsements didn't matter, newspapers wouldn't bother to publish them. Clearly, the owners of newspapers feel that they have influence over their readers and are not averse to using that influence. After all, television networks and radio stations in Canada don't take editorial positions during election campaigns, although they are often accused of being too close to or to hostile to particular governments in their news coverage.

Even as their traditional readership declines, newspapers are part of a fierce competition for clicks, likes and shares. Published endorsements are spread widely on social media by partisans and others before the ink that printed them is even dry. In this way, they can be expected to have a much stronger impact now than when newspaper circulation was much higher.

Even with the growth in the importance of Facebook and other online advertising, newspapers still hold more credibility than bloggers, Twitter trolls or Instagram users, which is presumably why so much of the "fake news" that dominated the American presidential election pretended to come from more legitimate sources (if you've ever clicked on, or worse yet shared, a link from the Denver Guardian, for example, you were supporting the burgeoning fake news industry).

If the U.S. presidential election taught us anything (other than to be very afraid of whatever lurks in the souls of American voters), it is that newspapers and their endorsements still matter a lot -- although not always in the way that they were intended to matter. Take, for example, the case of the Arizona Republic, which endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. That might not seem like such a big deal until you consider the fact that the paper began publication in 1890 and had never endorsed a Democrat until 2016.

In a story written for National Public Radio, Meg Anderson argues that "newspaper endorsements matter most when they're unexpected." She cites a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, in which "nearly seven in 10 Americans participating said that their local newspaper's endorsement had no effect on who they voted for, regardless of who the paper picked. The rest were split between saying it made them more likely and less likely to support a candidate."

She also points to a separate study that found "one scenario where a newspaper editorial board may make a difference: when a newspaper bucks its own tradition" -- that is, when a conservative-leaning publication cannot stomach their party's nominee and endorses a Democrat, or simply denounce their party's nominee without formally endorsing their opponent.

One suspects that endorsements or anti-endorsements from publications that don't normally express an opinion at all would similarly carry more weight than one from publications that habitually endorse one party or another. Thus, when the USA Today broke with 38 years of traditional neutrality to scathingly denounce Donald Trump or when Vogue made its first presidential endorsement ever, it was much more surprising to readers than the endorsements from the New York Times or the Washington Post.

To be sure, certain supporters of Trump thought the Arizona Republic's endorsement of Hillary Clinton mattered a lot. The paper was besieged with death threats and vitriol for weeks after publishing its endorsement. Its publisher responded with a very brave editorial speaking out against the backlash (reiterating the reasons for their endorsement and citing something called the First Amendment), which only led to further attacks against the paper and its staff.

More newspapers endorsed "not Trump" than endorsed Trump himself (although he did receive the endorsement of the National Enquirer and the Crusader, the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan). He received far fewer editorial endorsements than did Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008, and many staunchly Republican papers endorsed Clinton.

Of course, both Romney and McCain lost, while Trump pulled off an improbable victory. Some might see this as a clear indication that newspaper endorsements don't matter, or at least didn't matter this time. But, in fact, it can be reasonably argued that they mattered a great deal.

One of Trump's recurring narratives -- and one that worked particularly well for him -- was that the corrupt media elites were out to get him. As Time magazine noted during the campaign, "Trump has been laying out his theory for weeks, gradually expanding the list of institutions that are rigged against the American people...Most of all, he blames the national media, which he claims is single-handedly keeping the Clinton campaign afloat. He said the Washington elite and national media existed for a single reason: 'to protect and enrich itself.'"

If you believe Trump, and the election result is conclusive evidence that nearly half of the people who voted did, every newspaper endorsement (regardless of the source) was just further evidence that he was right about the media. There is something called "confirmation bias," which Psychology Today explains as follows: "When people would like a certain idea [or] concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true." It prevents climate change deniers and anti-vaccine campaigners from accepting facts that contradict their own deeply held beliefs. Similarly, the more the news media reported on outrageous things that Trump said, the more they became part of the grand conspiracy to keep him from becoming president.

In an interview with the CBC following the election, John Cruickshank (a former publisher of both the Toronto Star and the Chicago Sun-Times) responded to questions from host Diana Swain about the message that election results send to the media. "I think we're part of the lives of about half of the population, and that was really proved out in the election in the United States. And we've seen it here, too, in Canada, where there is tremendous dissatisfaction among people who are of a more conservative bent, or more from the rural part of Canada, with the media...The campaign was covered as if it were a plebiscite on the character of Donald Trump, but it wasn't, really."

Does this mean that the media should stop doing its job? Most assuredly not. But, they should recognize that all of their fact-checking and endorsements won't change the minds of those who have already decided that the traditional media is the enemy.

Fact-checking and editorial endorsements will also do nothing to counter what has been called "the post-fact era," in which uninformed opinion is given the same weight as evidence-based scientific studies and fake news and conspiracy theories get far more clicks than well-researched analysis. Countering that trend will take a much larger effort on behalf of citizens to demand better from both their politicians and their media and, in the case of the latter, to be willing to pay for it.

This article originally appeared on THIS.

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Canada must learn from past arms sales folly

14 November 2017 - 8:58pm
Thomas Woodley

With each passing day, Canada's sale to Saudi Arabia of $15 billion of light armoured vehicles looks more and more indefensible.  A damning Globe and Mail survey in September confirmed what the media and political opponents had been saying for years: 64 per cent of Canadians "opposed" or "somewhat opposed" the sale of arms to a country notorious for its human rights abuses. 

Most Canadians know intuitively the deal was wrong despite government claims that Canada's export controls are among the most stringent in the world. Canadians opposed this deal despite being repeatedly reminded that thousands of well-paying jobs in London Ontario would be lost if Canada reneged. While ex-Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion couldn't make the connection between light armoured vehicles being used by the Saudis to violently suppress minority Shia protestors, Canadians being surveyed could.

Beyond its infamous reputation as a country which cuts off the hands of thieves, decapitates more serious suspects, and jails bloggers, the Kingdom has also become a neighbourhood bully in recent years. Under the rash hand of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- the heir apparent to his father, King Salman -- the country has opened belligerent fronts with Yemen to the south, Qatar to the east, and Lebanon to the north. The country's war and blockade in Yemen is credited with putting 400,000 children at risk of death from severe acute malnutrition. 

So the next step for Canada is to make sure it never again inks such an absurd and unethical deal: that government decision-makers of the future have the necessary tools to make principled trade decisions. Fortunately, the Trudeau government has the opportunity of a generation as the House of Commons debates Bill C-47 and Canada's accession to the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT.) 

The ATT is highly laudable, with the lofty goals of contributing to international peace, reducing human suffering and promoting transparency in the international arms trade. That the Trudeau government had tabled C-47 was initially a good sign. The Harper government had refused to engage on the ATT for years, with the result that Canada was uncharacteristically absent from the early discussions on the treaty.

Despite the government's seeming interest in signing on to the ATT, C-47 is highly flawed. In fact, if the bill passes without amendments Canada will "accede" to the treaty in name only. Canadian disarmament, development and human rights organizations have identified about a dozen serious shortcomings with the legislation, two of which are particularly egregious.

First, unless amended, C-47 will exempt Canadian military exports to the United States from the licensing and reporting requirements of the ATT. Such an exception would be grossly incompatible with the letter and spirit of the ATT, which calls for the "highest possible common international standards" on all military exports. While any exception to the ATT's requirements would be suspect, an exception for arms sales to the US -- which represent over half of Canada's weapons exports -- would be especially troublesome.  

The second glaring shortcoming of C-47 is that it does not establish a legally binding mechanism on the government to block arms sales which do not pass an objective risk assessment test. It is exactly such a similar loophole which allowed successive Canadian governments to approve the $15 billion Saudi Arms Deal despite the better judgement of Canadians. In testimony before the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, witnesses for the government and the defence industry tried to argue that C-47 need merely require the "consideration" of certain risk factors to be compliant with the ATT. These same voices went on to argue that such risk "considerations" should be defined on-the-fly through government regulations rather than being codified in C-47 itself.

Both of these contentions are problematic. To begin with, the simple consideration of risk factors in an arms sale would not meet the standard established by the ATT. Worse, leaving the key considerations to regulations would open the door to widespread abuse. Unlike statutes, regulations are easily amended and can be removed or added by the government without need of Parliamentary oversight or approval. As such, Parliament itself would be unable to ensure compliance with the ATT.

Canada should accede in full to the ATT -- it is the moral and logical obligation of a country which claims to be enlightened and peace-loving. Unfortunately, the convoluted government arguments defending C-47 as written sound much like the hemming and hawing of Canadian leaders around the Saudi arms deal. With the proper amendments to C-47, Canada has an opportunity to prevent the suffering of thousands of innocents, and raise the ethical bar on international arms sales. Let's not wait another generation before taking this necessary and courageous step.

Photo: PV2 Andrew W. McGalliard/Wikimedia Commons

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Site C exposes economic folly of flooding farmland

14 November 2017 - 6:16pm
David Suzuki

As many countries move away from big hydro projects, B.C.'s government must decide whether to continue work on the Site C dam. The controversial megaproject would flood a 100-kilometre stretch of the Peace River Valley and provide enough power for the equivalent of about 500,000 homes.

The BC Utilities Commission, an independent body responsible for ensuring British Columbians pay fair energy rates, found the dam is likely behind schedule and over budget, with completion costs estimated at more than $10 billion. In a "high impact" scenario, it may go over budget by as much as 50 per cent.

The dam has faced court challenges and political actions by Treaty 8 First Nations and farmers whose land would be flooded. Treaty 8 First Nations stand to lose hunting and fishing grounds, burial sites and other areas vital to their culture and sustenance. West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations demonstrated the devastating environmental impacts Site C will have.

The Peace Valley's land and waters are an integral part of First Nations' identity, stories, songs and language. An open letter opposing the project, signed by 27 people and groups, including Amnesty International, says the project betrays Canada's commitment under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Consent from affected Indigenous Peoples is required for developments such as megadams, yet the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations did not give consent.

BC Hydro's economic analysis also ignored ecosystems and the benefits they provide. The David Suzuki Foundation estimates ecosystem services from farmland, wetland and other natural capital in the Peace watershed are conservatively worth $7.9 billion to $8.6 billion a year. Services that sustain the health and well-being of local communities include air and water filtration, erosion control, recreational services and wildlife habitat. The replacement value of what will be lost by flooding far exceeds the dam's economic returns. Failure to account for the loss of ecosystem services puts us on a destructive course and undervalues natural capital in regulatory decisions.

Alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, leveraging existing projects and prioritizing localized generation could be as good -- or better -- for B.C. ratepayers as the megadam. Alternative energy has the advantage of being able to be timed for when it's needed. Additional generation capacity may not even be necessary because BC Hydro currently exports or sells a significant amount of power, often at a loss, outside the province.

Serious concerns are also being raised about production and release of methylmercury from soil. When land is flooded, naturally occurring soil bacteria can convert mercury to methylmercury, a toxic compound that can move up the food chain and potentially harm human health. Modelling projections for Muskrat Falls dam on the lower Churchill River indicate flooding likely will increase methylmercury 10-fold in the dammed river and 2.6-fold in surface waters downstream. Methylmercury concerns loom at 22 major dams now proposed or under construction close to Indigenous communities in Canada, including Site C.

The area to be flooded is some of the North's most arable farmland. Agrologist Wendy Holm estimates this breadbasket can feed a million people in the region, an important feature as climate change alters growing seasons and demands more local food systems.

Dams now supply about three-fifths of Canada's electricity. A long-held belief that big hydro projects are the most economically sustainable energy options is fast losing support as renewable energy costs plummet and projects multiply worldwide. The Peace Valley has an incredible ability to generate natural wealth if protected from development. The alternative is ecological fragmentation.

Economic scrutiny of Site C was long overdue but only answers some questions about hydro megaprojects. We can't elevate the economy above what we need to survive. Humans are now the primary factor altering the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale. Building more megadams epitomizes the folly of our ways.

The Site C dam should never have been approved. Continuing construction is bad public policy, and it's not too late to halt it. Canada must join other nations and stop the destructive, unnecessary practice of damming major rivers and running roughshod over Indigenous rights and title. Lower impact renewable energy, like wind, solar and geothermal, look better every day.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Communications Specialist Theresa Beer.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Photo: Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada/Flickr

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P3 projects will lead to infrastructure privatization

14 November 2017 - 11:18am
November 14, 2017Politics in CanadaCanada Infrastructure Bank poised to allow private-sector domination of public infrastructure projects Government silent on how much of the $180 billion slated for infrastructure projects over the next 12 years will come from private investorsinfrastructureCanadian Infrastructure Bankpublic-private partnerships

Canada Infrastructure Bank poised to allow private-sector domination of public infrastructure projects

14 November 2017 - 3:46am
Rosemary Frei

The good news and the bad news about Canada’s infrastructure-building plans were both presented at the 25th Annual CCPPP (Canadian Council of Public-Private Partnerships) National Conference on November 6 and 7 in downtown Toronto.

The good news is that it was confirmed the federal government will pump more than $180 billion into infrastructure projects across Canada over the next 12 years. This is a 50 per cent increase over the $120 billion that the 2016 budget stated would be invested in infrastructure over the ensuing 10 years.

The feds are disbursing this money via partnerships between municipalities, Indigenous communities, provinces and territories, the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) and the private sector. The money will be used to build schools, jails, court houses, clean water and wastewater systems, hospitals, public-transit infrastructure and other types of major projects.

But that’s also the bad news, because the Infrastructure Canada website and government officials are silent about how much of the $180-plus billion slated for infrastructure projects will come from private investors. The numbers on the website and pronouncements at the CCPPP meeting suggest it likely will be the vast majority.

More worryingly, the government is also silent on what rates of return they’ll give for private capital invested in public infrastructure. The evidence suggests they are high.

The prime minister originally announced the CIB would provide low-cost financing for new municipal infrastructure projects. He stated this in his mandate letters to the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and to the Minister of Finance. The low-cost financing likely would have been provided largely via the sale of bonds, at interest rates of around 2.5 per cent

Those rates aren’t as low as those that could have been accessed if the federal government were willing to restore the Bank of Canada’s original mandate to lend money to it at extremely low interest rates. But that prospect is extremely elusive, and 2.5 per cent isn’t overly high.

In contrast, the rates of return for private investors in public infrastructure appear to be in the range of 7 per cent to 9 per cent.

These rates are public knowledge only because a speech by the CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Michael Sabia, in which he disclosed the rates were placed on the Caisse’s website. The speech is no longer on the Caisse’s website but is still available via websites that archive web pages.

Sabia suggested in that March 2016 address to the Toronto Region Board of Trade that pension funds shift their focus from the stock market to public infrastructure.

“(T)he party’s over” for high returns to institutional investors from the world’s stock markets, he observed.

“The traditional engines of investment returns are just not going to deliver as they once did. So the time has come to think differently — to find new investment strategies capable of delivering the returns that institutional investors require to meet the needs of the people we serve,” said Sabia. “For long-term investors, infrastructure offers something that’s not easy to find today: stable, predictable returns in the 7-to-9-per-cent range with a low risk of capital loss — exactly what we need to meet our clients’ long-term needs.”

This sounds like a smart move for huge pension funds and very wealthy individual investors.

But what does it mean for the 99.9 per cent?

Economist Toby Sanger has calculated that these interest rates can more than quadruple the cost of financing infrastructure projects, and as a result nearly triple total project costs.

The Auditor General of Ontario also has documented that the higher interest rates associated with private financing are one of the main reasons P3s are more expensive than purely public projects.

And all of this is in the context of Ontario, for example, being the most indebted non-sovereign jurisdiction in the world and Canada’s federal debt being 92 per cent of our gross domestic product.

The federal government has stipulated that in order to pay for P3s they’ll privatize some of our infrastructure — although the feds prefer to use the euphemism “asset recycling.” This will accelerate the worldwide trend in which pension funds are buying important public assets including airports and water utilities.

Unfortunately, these very sobering facts are largely hidden by all levels of government. The truth is trampled by their bullishness about building infrastructure and their frequently blatantly pro-P3 pronouncements — as well as by their statements asserting that the private sector can deliver projects on time and on budget and that the public sector can’t do this.

They certainly seem to share Sabia’s sentiments.

For example, Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and the feds’ main point person on all things infrastructure-related, said at the CCPPP conference that “the goal (of the CIB) is to bring (in) pension funds, institutional investors, (and to) get them to invest in Canadian communities, and build the infrastructure that otherwise may never get built, or we might have to wait maybe another 20 or 30 years (before it’s built by the public sector).”

Janice Fukakusa — who retired from her positions as chief administrative officer and chief financial officer of the Royal Bank of Canada in January and became the chair of the CIB in July — told CCPPP attendees “governments cannot build and plan all the infrastructure we need using public-sector balance sheets alone. It’s just not sustainable.... Working closely with the private sector in all facets of (infrastructure) project planning, development and execution can bring efficiencies and more innovation into public infrastructure.”

Canadian minister of Indigenous services Jane Philpott is also bending over backwards to pursue the private sector. She urged CCPPP-conference attendees to “explore some of these new models to finance, deliver, build, and operate and maintain (infrastructure projects) in Indigenous communities. If there are any additional steps that our government could take to unleash the potential of P3s in this space please let us know,” she said.

“(W)hen you tell me what regulatory barriers you’re confronted with,” said Philpott in response to a question about how to increase private-sector participation in infrastructure projects, “I have the tools to be able to change them or tear them down.”

But in their open-armed approach to private investment — and perhaps because they felt they could be honest with conference attendees, most of whom make money in one way or another from P3s — some of the leaders disclosed some of the aspects of P3s that should be red flags for the general population.

Fukakusa, for example, said the CIB’s focus will be on revenue-generating projects, and described the different forms that revenue could take — most of which are at users’ expense. “Keep in mind that revenue can come in many different forms, including fees, tolls, fares, tariffs and mechanism(s) based on appreciating land values,” she said. “Many governments in Canada already are exploring or have experience with user pricing of infrastructure. As all of you know, user pricing not only helps to fund construction and operation of an asset, it also contributes to efficient usage.”

For his part, Toronto mayor John Tory admitted in a morning keynote that, “oftentimes when you talk about these (public-private) partnerships, there is some risk transfer that carries with it some increase in the cost upfront of those projects.”

Yet Tory didn’t skip a beat, going on to say that, “I want your help in getting things done, from railways to the Rail Deck Park (slated for downtown Toronto)… And I say the same thing with respect to housing. That we need to have your partnership in doing that. And so I urge you to be proactive, as investment bankers, and bankers and financiers often are, (and to) bring proposals forward (for financing P3 projects).”

No wonder Chantal Sorel, executive vice-president and managing director, capital, at SNC-Lavalin — the company that was the CCPPP conference’s “presenting sponsor” — said in an interview with rabble.ca that it is “hunting season” for companies pursuing private-public infrastructure partnerships in Canada.

Rosemary Frei is an activist living in Toronto.

Photo: Rosemary Frei

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Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca’s labour reporter.

Canada must implement UN declaration on Indigenous rights

13 November 2017 - 6:29pm
Dennis Gruending

When they were campaigning, Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised that they would adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It appears that they are now less eager to do so. It took 23 years of effort and negotiation for Indigenous peoples to have their inherent rights recognized in the UN declaration, which was adopted in 2007. UNDRIP's common and recurring theme is that they have the right to dignity and self-determination, and that no actions regarding their persons or lands should be taken without their "free, prior and informed consent."

The Harper Conservatives opposed the declaration in 2007, making Canada one of only four countries to do so. Canada became a signatory in 2014 but the Conservatives provided no legislative machinery to ensure that laws and regulations would adhere to the declaration's principles. The government resisted in large part because it believed that prior and informed consent by Indigenous peoples might put in jeopardy various proposed pipelines and resource extraction projects involving their lands.

Framework for reconciliation

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated residential schools and their aftermath, reporting in June 2015. The Commission called on Ottawa to "fully adopt and implement" the UN declaration and to use it "as the framework for reconciliation." The Liberals responded by promising they would "move forward urgently" but once in office, they began to dissemble. The Liberals continue to say that they support the declaration, but have resisted putting forward legislation which would provide a framework for its implementation.

Roméo Saganash and Bill C-262

Into this void, Roméo Saganash, now an MP but formerly an Indigenous leader from northern Quebec, has introduced C-262, a private members bill, into the House of Commons. The Bill is scheduled for debate beginning on December 4. Saganash's bill would require a process for the review of federal laws to ensure consistency with the standards set out in the UN declaration. It would require the government to work with Indigenous peoples to develop a national action plan to implement the declaration. The bill would also provide for annual reporting to parliament on progress made toward implementation.

People from faith-based organizations and other civil society groups are urging their elected representatives to support Bill C-262. Some who have met with MPs report that Liberals are telling them the bill isn't necessary because they are already committed to supporting the UN declaration; but first they want to do more consultation. The question is with whom? Bill C-262 already has support from organizations that represent over 90 per cent of Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the Assembly of First Nations.

For his part, Murray Sinclair, who was the TRC's lead commissioner and who is now a Senator, says he "fully supports" Bill C-262 and will do whatever he can to see that it passes in the Senate once it arrives there.

Will conscience rule?

Private members bills such as this one are supposed to be voted upon freely by MPs and Senators rather than having their party tell them what to do. It remains to be seen if in this case conscience will rule the day in parliament.

Photo: United Steelworkers/Flickr

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"Ecstasy" personalizes missing and murdered Indigenous women through relationships of sisters

13 November 2017 - 1:14pm
Heryka Miranda

"Depending on whose statistics you use there are currently between 2,000 and 4,000 or more Indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered in Canada. I am glad these statistics are being recorded and analyzed but these women are not just statistics. They are mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, and aunties. They are people. The short film "Ecstasy" is an attempt to approach the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women through the relationship of sisters." - Cara Mumford.

Heryka Miranda worked on the initial scouting and live dance performance which Metis/Anishinaabe filmmaker, writer and director Cara Mumford is using in her film Ecstasy. In an in-depth interview, Heryka and Cara explore the origins of this new film and what it is trying to accomplish.

In brief, what is the short narrative film Ecstasy about? 
To personalize the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women through the relationship of sisters. In the film, one sister is alive and the other sister is spirit. It is a journey to find healing from grief through spirit, dream and dance. 

I understand that the ballet, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, influenced you in making the film. Can you share a bit about the ballet's influence?
It was a play before it was a ballet. George Ryga, who was the son of Ukrainian immigrants -- a non-Indigenous playwright, wrote The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The play, as described by Ryga, is "an odyssey through hell of an Indian woman," that hell being the racism and violence of an average Canadian city.

Can you share a bit more about the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?
George Ryga grew up in northern Alberta and worked alongside Cree people. He had a strong sense of justice and tended to write about Indigenous issues, which made him very political in the 60s. This is also what made him the perfect person for the Vancouver Playhouse to approach when they had the idea for the play. The idea for the play came when Malcolm Black, the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, read a short paragraph in a Vancouver newspaper about an "Indian girl" found murdered on skid row. The article left Black wondering what her life would have been like. He then approached George Ryga to write the play, as a commission for the Canadian Centennial. I think it's really interesting that The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is often considered one of the first Canadian plays and [that] it's about an Indigenous woman seems appropriate to me. But Ryga was an ally without insider knowledge. The play, although well intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and the victim narrative for Indigenous people.

How did the play become a ballet? 
In 1971, to commemorate the centenary of the signing of Treaties 1 and 2, the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood commissioned the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to turn The Ecstasy of Rita Joe from a play into a ballet

Why was it important to you to include aspects of the play/ballet The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in your film?
I started working with the play in my mom's class. I began to read a lot about it and research what people have done with it. I read about Yvette Nolan, who did an Indigenous version of the play at the National Arts Centre with music composed by Jennifer Kriesburg and Michelle St. John. I was very intrigued with the concept of Indigenizing the play that Yvette underwent. One of the many reasons why Yvette was brought on as the dramaturge was because of her understanding and experience with that urge to Indigenize. The character of Rita Joe is a metaphor depicting the hard life that many Indigenous women go through when they go to the city. That feeling of just having everything stacked up against her. I feel that because The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is out there in the mainstream, the play itself has been identified as a metaphor for the violent victimization of Indigenous women.

How does your film write a different ending to the ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?
There is an article called "The Many Faces of Rita Joe" that really captured my attention as it discusses the different incarnations that the script took. There were five completely different drafts. One of them had Rita Joe speaking after she died. Before I saw the ballet, I was hoping they had incorporated that idea because ballet often has women dancing after they have died, such as Giselle. Unfortunately, the ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe does not. After seeing the ballet, I was left with this feeling that it was not the right ending, because there has to be some hope after her death. I wanted to take the ending of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe narrative and take it somewhere else. That's why [in the Ecstasy film] there is the living sister. She carries that hope forward. The living sister was Rita Joe but she made it out alive. 

What does the word "ecstasy" mean to you?
In my mother's class, we have had discussions about why the play is called The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. As with all art it's open to interpretation. For me I look at ecstasy as a concept as complex as joy, although many people don't see joy as complex. I remember having a conversation with Rulan Tangen about the word joy and how many people tend to equate it with happiness. There is a depth and a tragedy underneath that joy. You don't reach a level of joy without having experience some deep pain. For me, ecstasy is kind of the same thing. Ecstasy can be painful but you feel alive and that's one thing that the Marsha character hasn't been feeling, even though technically she's the living sister. She hasn't been living her life and she hasn't felt connected and alive. For me ecstasy is that connection. There is pain as well as complex joy. It's all of it together. 

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the character of Marsha?
The names that I have chosen to give the sisters have great significance. The character of Marsha is named after Marsha Ellen Meidow (with the permission of Marsha's mom, Beverly Jean Meidow.) Marsha was a good friend of mine who passed away in 2010, very suddenly at the age of 34. She was a frontline worker with girls on the street in Calgary. Most of the girls she interacted with were Indigenous. Although Marsha herself was not Indigenous, her husband was. She was the director of the Vagina Monologues in Calgary and raised money for Safe Haven House. She was a huge supporter of emerging artists. The feature concept of the two sisters going on a road trip came to me while I was driving across Canada in 2010, specifically the northern shore of Lake Superior. I kept visualizing a dancer along the side of the road as I drove. In hindsight, I now think that this dancer was flashes of Marsha, giving me ideas.

Can you tell me the inspiration behind the character of Lori?
The character of Lori is inspired, in part, by a young woman named Loretta Saunders. She was Inuk from Labrador, living in Nova Scotia, a student at a university studying the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. She herself was kidnapped and murdered by two people who were subletting her apartment because they couldn't pay the rent. Since she didn't look Indigenous, Loretta was initially assumed to be 'white' when she went missing. I remember reading an interview with her mom saying that her heart almost broke when they changed the description of her daughter from being white to Indigenous. Her mother was afraid that Loretta would be downgraded to just another missing Indigenous woman and the police would stop looking for her. The character of Lori represents the women who should have been safe, according to the government and mainstream media who claim that the majority of missing and murdered Indigenous women live "high risk" lifestyles. For Loretta, and the character Lori, their only "risk factor" is being Indigenous women.

Another inspiration for Lori is Bella Laboucan-McLean, also a university-educated woman. Bella's sister, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, writes about her a lot, as Delilah Saunders writes about her sister Loretta, so that sister relationship is right there, too. Bella had just graduated from art school and was going to be a fashion designer, yet somehow, she "fell" to her death from a condo balcony in Toronto and no one in the small condo knew what happened. Again, these were not "high risk" women except for the fact that they were Indigenous. I want people to understand that an Indigenous woman can be the epitome of success, yet still be at risk because she is Indigenous; there are still people out there who see Indigenous women as less than human. 

Why did you choose to shoot the film north of Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Superior?
I've done that drive so many times from childhood to adulthood. It never loses its magic for me. This territory holds huge significance to Anishinaabe people. We filmed close to the Agawa pictographs, which holds great power and carries many stories and dreams of the Anishinaabe people. There are many sacred sites in that area and the lake is said to be home of Mishibizhiiw -- a manitou in the form of a lynx serpent that has many interpretations. I see him as a creature of balance and protector of the lake. Some people view him as evil but I think when he is acting violently it is to protect the lake. 

What is the significance of Lake Superior and its connection to human trafficking, which you touch upon in your film.
Lake Superior is also it is a huge site of human trafficking in North America, specifically on the boats between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minnesota. During my research, I came across the statistic that 90% of women being trafficked in Canada are Canadian, and 90% of those Canadian women are Indigenous (this second stat is more contested). I'm not sure what percentage of those women are transported on these boats, but it's one of the main organized sites of human trafficking in Canada outside of Toronto and Vancouver, along with areas around man camps for extractive industries. I read some interviews of survivors that have been on the boats between Duluth and Thunder Bay. Sometimes they are there for years. Some of them have had children on those boats and had their children taken away to become further victimized by human trafficking. 

I accompanied Elisa, the cinematographer, and you when we were location scouting along Lake Superior last June 2016. I remember when we arrived at Katherine's Cove and the excitement that came over us. Could you say more about that day?
Lake Superior feels like this intersection of the natural beauty, sacred sites of significance to the Anishinaabe people, and then this horrific human trafficking. It just felt like the film needed to happen somewhere along the intricacies and complexities of this land and lake. I didn't know if we would find a spot where we would all feel that power, but when we were location scouting and visited Katherine's Cove, I felt the impulse to sing to the water and you, Heryka, started dancing at the waters' edge, and Elisa was so moved by the place. It felt like the right place where you could sing, dance and feel deep emotions. Everything we needed to do. 

What are you hoping to convey when people watch your film?
The main thing I'm trying to do is to connect people to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women on a personal level. It's important to have statistics and information campaigns out there to raise public consciousness, however, I feel like until people see it in a story with characters that they can relate to that it doesn't really get inside of them. I've learned that dance and music, with the right kind of narrative, can have such an impact on people. I'm hoping that people who watch Ecstasy will finally feel a connection to those women that are missing and to family members left behind. Change needs education with passion behind it -- that will, that urge to change. I feel that this urge to change comes from touching people's emotions. I really feel inspired to create something that is both beautiful and meaningful and has the ability to create change. 

What's next?
Hopefully, this film will also be the proof of concept for the feature film I would like to create with the collective, a road trip film following Marsha and Lori from Vancouver to Halifax, telling more of their story through spirit, dream, and dance.

This blog originally appeared on Cara Mumford's blog. Please contact Cara Mumford to donate or learn more about this project.

Image: Cara Mumford

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Cara Mumford speaks about her film

Building solidarity in protesting

13 November 2017 - 5:01am
November 13, 2017Civil Liberties WatchWorkers unite: Can the workplace become a protest site?In sports and teaching, brave individuals are opening up what it means to stand up (or kneel down) for otherscolin Kaepernickkneeling protestcivil liberties

Roger Waters on taking the side of justice

12 November 2017 - 4:58pm
November 12, 2017Roger Waters talks about Palestine, peace, and joyReport on October 26 public meeting in Vancouver with singer/songwriter Roger Waters, organized by Independent Jewish Voices-Vancouver and local Palestine solidarity groups

Remembrance Day should be about honouring sacrifice, not sacrificing truth

11 November 2017 - 2:58am
November 11, 2017Politics in CanadaRemembrance Day should be about honouring sacrifice, not sacrificing truthThis Remembrance Day there is special emphasis on World War I. Lest we forget, that war was not only brutal and deadly, it was also, in many ways, unnecessary and unjustVimy RidgeWorld War IRemembrance DayBritish EmpirePasschendaele

It's hard to avoid elitism when you're smarter than everyone else

10 November 2017 - 8:51pm
EducationElectionsWorld

Last year's memo from voters has finally started to sink in among the bright-eyed smarties who run things, or aspire to. The message? We don't like you or trust you. Maybe we don't need you.

Here's Campbell Clark in the Globe explaining that Trudeau Liberals "can't afford to be viewed as a party of privilege."

And here's Lawrence Martin, also in the Globe, on U.S. Democrats: they must "shed the elitist image and expand their appeal to...low-educated white folk. Mr. Trump draws on the emotional intensity of the rabble. He's uninformed..."

You couldn't find a more elitist journalistic rendering of the need to shun elitism.

The Liberals, to their credit, seem to know this. It's why they want to be the party of the people or, as they call it, the middle class. But then, why do they have such trouble getting there? It's fascinating, even touching, to watch them flail and fail. Why not just denounce those elites and separate yourselves from them, as Trump did. As Bernie Sanders did, or Jeremy Corbyn.

Maybe it's not so easy when you genuinely think you are privileged -- not in the sense of moneyed, though some are; but of being worthy and meritocratic. That's how Thomas Frank describes U.S. Democrats' flattering self-image: smarter, more educated, more compassionate even -- thus best qualified to run things. Their role models? Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett.

The speedy shortcut to not being "viewed" as privileged would be not being captivated by your own elite status: knowing it's less the result of merit than of privilege itself (via family and other startup advantages, like race), plus luck.

But that would mean downgrading your self-esteem, which is a lot to ask. It's hard not to be elitist when you know you're better than everyone else.

What are the signs of ingrained elitism? There's the odious term, smart guys, for those you love associating with and, by extension, yourself. Obama used it for Buffett, et al.

I'm not sure why it enrages me. Maybe it's the implied demotic. "Hey, we're just guys, like you dummies on the outside, except we're smart and you're not. So let us drive."

Joe Biden is implied demotic, since he goes by "Joe," though he's loyally served wealth and power forever. Hillary tries for ordinary guyness but the nearest she gets is dropping her g's when she remembers to. She dotes on Henry Kissinger, a war criminal. He talks good, it's true, but so did the huckster at the Ex who I bought a useless kitchen device from when I was 10 because of his spiel. That doesn't make Hillary smart, it makes her clueless.

Another indicator is the notion that worthiness is related to education, since everyone knows Trump supporters are uneducated. (False, actually.) I'm all for good public schools but an education makes you educated, not smart -- i.e., able to think clearly and incisively. That comes from somewhere else.

Harold Innis said that when there was no system of education in England -- late 1700s to early 1800s -- more of the poor rose to "distinction" than at any other time. Koheleth (in the Bible) learned one thing from reading many books: that there's no end of them and they make you vain, not wise, since "all is vanity."

Another sign of ingrained elitism is constantly telling Canadians what they think, feel or want. I utterly fail to comprehend the appeal of this trope. This week Tory leader Andrew Scheer said: "What drives Canadians crazy is when they think..." NDP leader Singh said: "The reality is Canadians are not satisfied. Canadians expect..."

Why not just describe what you think yourself and let Canadians decide how they roll on those things. Even better, ask them! And not just on a "listening tour," as if it's a special regimen you go on, like a kelp diet.

OK, but if you don’t think you're smarter than others, or wiser, more compassionate and capable, why would you run for office at all? Good question. Maybe that's why the ancient Greeks had democracy but not elections. Policies were determined through discussion in mass assemblies of citizens. There were officials but they were selected by lot, not votes. I'm just saying.

It meant that self-satisfied elitists weren't tempted to run for public office. Not that such a thing is inevitable with our system, but it's hardly discouraged.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: The White House/Wikimedia Commons

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Roger Waters talks about Palestine, peace, and joy

10 November 2017 - 6:59pm
Martha Roth

An angel descended among us the other week -- Thursday, October 26 to be exact, at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in downtown Vancouver. He must have left his wings back in the hotel, but he shone out from the crowd, his righteousness, his focus and the elegance of his mind transforming his somewhat scruffy appearance. After all, why should an angel shave?

He was 74-year-old rock star Roger Waters, founding member of Pink Floyd and composer of many of the group's best songs.  He was nearing the end of a long cross-Canada tour called "Us + Them," with a full band and backup singers and huge pig balloons, an old Pink Floyd prop. He had a bad cold, but -- old pro that he is -- he was able to talk above (or below) it, and his energy lit up the church's cavernous interior.

Roger sat in a chair on the stage, between me, a Jewish woman writer in her 70s, and Itrath Syed, a much younger Muslim woman who teaches Women's Studies and Communication Studies at Langara College and Simon Fraser University, and we tag-teamed him. We asked questions about his favourite subjects: social justice in Palestine/Israel, music, politics in general, and love.

"What do you say to people who tell you to leave politics out of your shows and just do music?" asked Itrath. "They're just dumb," responded the angel, going on to prove concisely that all art, all music is political. "People who say that just don't agree with my particular politics." Without ever using the term commodity fetishism he neatly divided the world into Haves and Have-Nots. "And if you look at all deeply into the arguments of people who tell you to leave your politics at the door, you'll find them siding with the Haves."

We asked Roger about his response to critics who call him antisemitic because he supports the Palestinian call for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against the government of Israel. "It's the best way, totally nonviolent. The only way, really." We asked him about difficulties he has faced in his professional life because of his politics. "Everyone faces difficulties." We asked him about living in the United States under a Trump presidency. "He'll be gone in three years. Let's just hope he doesn't do something really stupid in the meantime."

His songs have always taken the side of justice. "You seem like someone who was born with a keen sense of right and wrong," I said, asking him what can be done about people who don't have that. "Education," he answered. "Once you know the facts, all the facts, you can't help but make the right choices." And he told us about his mother, who was a Communist schoolteacher in Cambridge. "When I was little she used to bundle me up and take me to meetings."

We asked him about a couple of songs from his new album, Is This the Life We Really Want? One of them, "Wait for Her," is based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, who in turn based it on passages from the Bhagavad-Gita. Itrath called it "a truly grown-up love song," and Roger told us it was simply about love. "No politics at all, unless you realize that love is the key to everything. If we were truly capable of loving one another there would be no wars, no inequality," said this Being, and I felt a surge in my heart, and maybe in all of the thousand hearts there in the audience. Because I realized long ago that for me there are three sources of joy: music, politics -- the politics of justice -- and love. The other song was "The Last Refugee," and Roger said it was about hope, the hope that there will truly be a last refugee.

We knew from the videos available on YouTube that he would have articulate responses to anything we could throw at him, and he never repeated himself. Angels can do that, I guess -- remember everything, stay present and switch up their responses.

I was angelstruck, gobsmacked, on another plane, and this is what I can reconstruct. We had a very brief question-and-answer period which he handled gracefully, and then he stood and received thunderous applause before leaving the stage. The thousand people who came to hear him looked different going out from when they came in, calmer, smoother, more radiant. He touched us all.

Martha Roth is a writer and editor and a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

Photo: Brennan Schnell/Wikimedia Commons

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How tax havens undermine Canadian governance

10 November 2017 - 10:01am
November 10, 2017EconomyThe real pirates of the CaribbeanSecreting wealth in tax havens deprives Canadian governments of massive amounts of tax revenue every yearfair taxationoffshore tax havenscorporate tax cuts

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