NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton answers your questions on babble

27 September 2017 - 9:02am
babblersMeg Borthwick

At rabble.ca we're excited to bring you a series of Q&As with NDP leadership candidates, hosted by our discussion forum, babble.

Here's how it works: our babble moderator, Meg Borthwick, solicits questions from our readers. The best of those questions are sent to the candidates' teams. On the day of the Q&A we open a thread to host the event, where questions are posted one at a time, and the candidate posts their answer to each of them.

On September 26, we hosted our first Q&A with leadership candidate Niki Ashton. Here we bring you her full babble interview, featuring the top questions submitted by you, our readers. Watch for upcoming opportunities to contribute to Q&As with NDP leadership candidates on babble.

cco: Do you feel that the NDP and the left in general have been trapped by the "jobs" discourse in campaigning? No politician wants to campaign against jobs, but many of these jobs (like coal and asbestos mining) are awful, dangerous to the people who work at them, and dangerous to the environment as a whole -- or, in the case of the Ontario workers who make arms for sale to Saudi Arabia, dangerous to human rights overseas. Furthermore, "it'll kill jobs" is a right-wing cudgel that has been used against essentially every progressive platform plank in history. By talking about jobs instead of more generally about prosperity, aren't we fighting on the right's terrain?

Niki Ashton: Our campaign has made it clear that we need to be tackling the two major challenges of our time, growing inequality and the threat of climate change. A key of part of the struggle against inequality is the need to fight for good jobs. We have said that good jobs mean sustainable jobs -- our environmental justice platform prioritizes the creation of good jobs as part of the investment in renewables and through the work of a Crown corporation. We have also talked about the need to oppose pipelines and instead look at creating work associated to developing a carbon-free economy. We have also tied the fight for good jobs with the fight to end precarious work, which is increasingly the norm for many young people and a growing number of Canadians. In terms of the work related to the deal with Saudi Arabia -- I have said clearly that we oppose this deal and we should instead be looking at supporting the manufacturing sector and creating much needed manufacturing jobs in a range of areas that don't hinge on abusing peoples' fundamental human rights.

I agree that we should be talking about creating and protecting work that is gainful and contributes to building stronger and healthier communities. That discussion involves talking about prosperity and real wealth redistribution.

epaulo13: Why did you not outrightly reject NATO in your Canadian Dimension questionnaire?

Our campaign has made it clear that the NDP and Canada must be a voice for peace in the world. I have been outspoken on the need for justice and peace in Palestine and the Middle East. I have called on the need for leadership when it comes to supporting those who are being oppressed such as the Rohingya Muslims, Tamils and Kurds. I have opposed Trudeau's increased military budget and talked about the need to redirect this money towards saving lives rather than putting more lives at stake.

If we're going to talk about Canada being a voice for peace in the world this means reviewing our role in NATO given NATO's mandate. I believe NATO is an anachronistic organization that is acting in such a way to increase instability as in the case of Eastern Europe, and to make the world a more dangerous place.

Ken Burch: Obviously, you've been repeatedly re-elected from a constituency in northern Manitoba where voters always put practical matters, such as getting through the winter alive, ahead of theoretical and ideological discourse, so what have you found most effective in connecting with the people who keep voting for you?

I'm honoured to represent the part of the country I'm from and call home. It's a place of immense challenge as well as tremendous resilience and resistance. I have always committed to being a voice for our North and fighting alongside Indigenous and Northern people in the face of injustice. And in the last election which was hard fought, it was thanks to many Indigenous people and young people who felt that we were on their side that we won.

People at home know that the struggles we face on a daily basis like inadequate housing, education underfunding, the loss of value added jobs and climate change connect to the bigger picture and the role of the federal government. That's why it's important for me to make those connections, and be a voice for the issues we face at the national level.

lagatta4: How do you plan to push for improving universal health coverage by closing the gaping holes: dental care, pharmacare (not covered in all provinces) and mental health care, covered in theory but woefully inadequate?

I believe that if we are going to tackle growing inequality we must expand the social safety net including in terms of health care. Tommy Douglas talked about how medicare was only the first step in talking about health care. It's time we go further. Our campaign was clear from the beginning about the need to commit to pharmacare, universal dental care and the need for federal leadership on mental health. Our plan is outlined in detail here.

This takes political will and I am committed to pushing this vision forward. It is also clear to me that many at the grassroots, including many people in the labour movement, in health care and many young people are fighting for such priorities as well. We must work together to make this vision a reality.

I believe we must also have a plan that ensures that we have the revenue necessary. That's why I'm proud of the platform we have put forward on tax fairness that would lead to raising $40 billion dollars in revenue. Revenue that could be spent on implementing key priorities including expanding our vision of healthcare.

alan smithee: Are you in favour of a national affordable/social housing act? 

Yes! Absolutely. I believe that housing is a right and it ought to be enshrined in an Act. I also believe that we can and must invest in housing in such a way that we are also tackling climate change.

That's why our campaign proposed to build affordable housing that is comfortable, safe and green, by targeting new investments in cooperative, social and co-housing to communities in core housing need, especially northern, Indigenous and dense urban communities. By building and retrofitting green homes in communities across the country, we can tackle our housing crisis, create jobs and cut emissions at the same time. An NDP government under my leadership would invest $10 billion annually to build 40,000 units of green public housing across the country, creating more than 150,000 homes in its first mandate.

R.E. Wood: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Niki. Many Albertans (particularly in southern Alberta) continue to suffer serious economic hardship due to the collapse of the oil industry. Much more needs to be done on a federal level in order to stimulate the growth of other industries -- green energy, technology, arts and entertainment industries, etc... The Notley NDP government has done some work in this area, but is hampered by huge budgetary problems, and has not received much help from the federal Liberal government. Do you consider Alberta's needs to be of significant concern for your vision of the NDP? Would you target investment to help grow and diversify the Alberta economy in new directions? 

As someone who has family and friends in Alberta and who has spent a fair bit of time working with political activists and New Democrats over the years, I have a sense of how difficult things have become and how critical federal leadership is. I want to acknowledge the immense work of the Notley government throughout such a difficult time. As you point out what's needed is federal leadership and action.

As leader and as prime minister I would target investment to help grow and diversify the Alberta economy in new directions. 

It is clear that a key area of diversification is through investments in renewable energy and the green economy. Our vision is to create a Crown corporation called Green Canada and a public investment bank that will work together to implement the transition away from fossil fuels and towards a diversified green economy. The bank will fund projects, while Green Canada will bring many to life. We must invest in green technology, in housing, in retooling the manufacturing sector, in public transit and more.

I also believe that this work must be guided by people on the ground and across the country through Green Canada Advisory Boards (GCAB). These boards will bring workers, Indigenous leaders, industry and climate change experts to the table together, much like labour groups like the AFL have proposed regarding other energy transitions -- like coal-fired power plants. 

These boards will bring workers, Indigenous leaders, industry and climate change experts to the table together. These advisory boards will be managed by the Green Canada corporation, with economic development investments funded through the public investment bank. By having all stakeholders working with the federal government and in partnership with provinces, territories, First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities we can implement good, just policy that supports workers and communities during industry transitions. It is key that Albertans play a guiding role in deciding the way forward when it comes to diversifying the economy.

Michael Moriarty: In his book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" the economist Thomas Piketty concludes that economic inequality cannot be reversed without a progressive wealth tax. Would you consider creating a federal wealth tax? 

Yes! I am proud of our platform for tax fairness. It's been called the most progressive in a generation. It's clear to me that working-class and middle-class Canadians are paying their fair share but it's millionaires and billionaires who are avoiding paying their fair share legally or otherwise. This needs to change. Our full platform can be found here.

Among various points we have proposed a tax on wealth as well as closing other loopholes that benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Our platform includes: 

Introduce a progressive wealth tax on millionaires and billionaires. This measure would put a tax of 1 per cent on assets of those with a net worth of $1 million, progressively rising to 1.5 per cent for those with a net worth of $10 million or more. The value of principal residences will be exempt to protect the working and middle class. This kind of tax has proven successful in France, Spain and Norway. Revenue generated: $3 billion.

Introduce an estate tax. Inheritances over $4 million will be taxed at 45 per cent. When multi-millionaires can pass on their entire fortunes, inequality becomes entrenched. Canada is the only country in the G7 that does not have an estate tax. Revenue generated: $2 billion.

Cap TFSA and RRSP contributions. TFSA contributions will be capped at $2,500 annually (down from $5,000) and $50,000 over lifetime (those who exceed it when implemented will be allowed to keep the higher amount). RRSP contributions will be capped at $20,000 annually. These Harper-era tax breaks were portrayed as an incentive to save, but the reality is that these tax breaks only benefit who can afford maximum contributions. Revenue generated: $1 billion.

Introducing a "Robin Hood Tax" on Bay Street. Financial transactions are currently exempt from sales tax. It's time to introduce a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) of 0.5 per cent on purchases of stocks. This will reduce speculation, increase stability in financial markets and incentivize productive investment. Revenue generated: $3.5 billion.

pietro_bcc: In your campaign launch speech you stated "You privatize it? We nationalize it." Which specific industries or infrastructure do you plan to nationalize if elected prime minister (apart from the port of Churchill, Manitoba which you've advocated for)? Would the establishment of a publicly owned telecommunications provider for phone and internet service be under consideration?

I believe that if we're going to challenge the neoliberal status quo we must not only oppose privatization but also propose public ownership. 

Our campaign has proposed public ownership in three key sectors. 

The banking sector through the creation of a postal bank. 

The health sector through the creation of a Crown corporation, a Canadian Drug Agency to get a better deal on life-saving medication from Big Pharma companies. This agency would be responsible for bulk buying and negotiating better prices for Canadians. 

The energy sector through the creation of a crown corporation that would direct federal funding in terms of the green transition. Our vision is to create a Crown corporation called Green Canada and a public investment bank that will work together to implement the transition away from fossil fuels and towards a diversified green economy. The bank will fund projects, while Green Canada will bring many to life. We must invest in green technology, in housing, in retooling the manufacturing sector, in public transit and more.

I have also made it clear that what Trudeau privatizes in his tenure, we must renationalize. Throughout the campaign I have talked about the infrastructure bank and how if Trudeau moves forward in privatizing our transportation assets we must take them back.

In terms of a publicly owned telecommunications provider for phone and internet service I know how valuable such a service was in our province. And I'm proud to have joined many in our province in the fight to keep our telephone provider public. I believe we ought to look at public ownership in this area once again. Internet service is now key in terms of communication and Canada is woefully inadequate in its provision of the service. While our campaign has not made a commitment on this front I believe it is an area we ought to look into as we move forward.

Photo: davehuehn/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Ontario's cannabis legislation is too strict to sensibly protect youth

27 September 2017 - 7:52am
Stephanie Lake

On September 8, 2017, Ontario made headlines as the first Canadian provincial government to announce plans for cannabis retail and distribution. Not falling far from the Ontario government's current monopoly on alcohol sales, cannabis will be sold through 150 government-run small storefront retail outlets (independent from current 600-plus "LCBO" liquor outlets) and a government-run centralized online order system.

Government control over sales has been painted as the only way to ensure minors are not accessing cannabis. In a time when Ontarians' support for the LCBO is declining and alcohol sales are slowly being decentralized, this distribution model certainly isn't the only way to "protect young people." For example, we have seen through peer-reviewed studies, that Colorado's dispensary system can successfully ID and deny sales to minors. A mixed-model approach -- one which allows for both government distribution and a limited number of regulated, licensed retail stores -- could actually do more to curb the illicit market, and it's likely what most Ontarians want to see.

Further, the continued strong emphasis on enforcement and closing down current retail cannabis stores is alarming. Most of those getting arrested are young people who serve as frontline workers in many of these shops all across Canada. Being paid a minimum wage, they're likely going to be some of the last soldiers wounded in this war. Enforcement has been generally ineffective, with shops reopening in days, and yet raids continue weekly. Some U.S. jurisdictions have found innovative ways to work with those previously engaged in the unregulated industry (e.g., sellers) in a way that honours the principles of social justice and recognizes the years of activism that contributed to this rich culture of social movement. For example, California has included a provision to allow certain cannabis-related convictions to be retroactively expunged for those who were previously affected by prohibition, and Oakland, California has created a system to prioritize these individuals as participants in the legal cannabis business. This approach is beneficial for all parties, as it also contributes to the overall effectiveness of legalization policy in curbing the illegal market.

The Ontario government did get a few things right. Setting the age of access to 19, and harmonizing it with alcohol, makes sense. In all U.S. jurisdictions, the age of access is harmonized with alcohol sales. Not only is this practical, but an age limit which is too high could effectively criminalize our young adults, the largest segment of cannabis users. Protecting youth should also include giving young adults access to a regulated and tested supply, purchased at a legal storefront, and access to harm reduction and education.

There was also a glimmer of hope when it comes to licensed consumption spaces (e.g., vapour lounges), which the government has promised it to "look at in the future." Under its current plan, Ontario will combine some of the harshest pieces of both alcohol and tobacco policy, where the result is no consumption permitted anywhere except private residences. On face value, this may make sense, but what does this mean for people who live in shared accommodation, co-operatives, apartments, condos and those who have no fixed address  -- will it serve to criminalize the most vulnerable? There is especially concern that homeless or marginally housed youth, who already face a constellation of health and social harms, will be further marginalized and criminalized by this legislation simply because they won't have a safe and legal space to use cannabis.

It was promising to see that the government intends to keep the sale of alcohol and cannabis separate -- a recommendation for which public health experts advocated tirelessly, given concerns about encouraging risky co-use of these substances. Interestingly, there is evidence that young people may substitute alcohol for cannabis. In light of the alarming rates of binge drinking among youth and young adults, and given that alcohol is responsible for thousands of deaths among Canadians each year, cannabis is safer by every measure. However, substituting high-risk alcohol consumption for cannabis is unlikely to reach its full potential among young Canadians unless the social spaces (e.g., vapour lounges) are created for that to happen.

Finally, the Ontario government has also promised a public education campaign that is sure to include a major focus on protecting youth from the harms of cannabis. Historically, the educational messages aimed at youth  around cannabis rarely go beyond "just say no." We must acknowledge that youth are currently using cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world under a prohibitive system. Instead of focusing on the unrealistic goal of "protecting" youth by eliminating their cannabis use altogether, we need to ensure that the Ontario government is held accountable for the development of educational tools grounded in the best available evidence about cannabis and the inclusion of strategies to mitigate the potential harms for those who choose to use it.

Ontario's announcement represents the beginning of a long process of legalizing the production and sale of cannabis across Canada. In its current form, the legislation doesn't address the complexities of what it means to actually protect all young people and prioritize their rights to make decisions around their health. Legalization is not a catchall, and it won't solve all our problems, but a "sensible" approach is not always the strictest approach.

Stephanie Lake is a 2017 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholar in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia and a member of the board of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). She is studying the ways in which cannabis is used among people with long-term experience using other illicit drugs, and how cannabis legalization might affect the health of this population.

Photo: Interiorrain/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

Problems with Phoenix pay system continue to grow

26 September 2017 - 9:26am
September 26, 2017More problems with Phoenix pay system revealedThe Phoenix pay system has been in place for more than 18 months, and problems with it only continue to grow. Workers across the country have consistently been overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

Newfoundland and Labrador government needs to act now to end 10-month lockout: Unions

26 September 2017 - 7:51am
Meagan Gillmore

Union leaders in Newfoundland and Labrador are hoping the ongoing strike at D-J Composites in Gander motivates the provincial government to tighten the Labour Relations Act.

Workers at D-J Composites, an aircraft manufacturing company, have been locked out since December 19, 2016 when the company couldn't reach an agreement with Unifor Local 597, the union representing workers. The company wanted to slash workers' wages and reduce seniority. The lockout began with 34 members. Two have left for other jobs since it started.

The bitter dispute has included the province's Labour Relations Board ruling the company engaged in bad-faith bargaining and the union complaining to the federal government about the company bringing in workers from Kansas to work at the Gander facility. There have also been allegations of locked-out workers harassing plant employees.

Earlier this month, union representatives met with Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Al Hawkins to update him on the situation and ask the government to intervene.

Right now, provincial labour laws allow for the minister to appoint an arbitrator if both parties agree to it. The law needs to change so when a company or union has been found to be acting in bad faith and no deal can be reached, an arbitrator can be appointed without both parties agreeing to it, said Lana Payne, Unifor's Atlantic regional director. Without this, there's no pressure to settle the dispute.

"Sometimes the threat of the tool being used is as powerful as the tool being used," she said, noting if a mechanism like this were in place, she thinks a deal would have been reached by now.

"It is extremely rare for us to be in a situation like this with an employer," she said. Not all companies like the union, said Payne, but Unifor still negotiates hundreds of contracts each year.

The company has given no indication of wanting to settle the dispute, union leaders say.

D-J Composites did not respond to rabble.ca's requests for interviews, either by phone or email.

The Kansas-based company, which purchased the plant from Canadian company Heli-One Composites in 2012, wanted to slash workers' wages and reduce their seniority rights. The last contract expired in 2015. Both parties agreed to delay bargaining until 2016.

"Right now, there's no light at the end of the tunnel," Ignatious Oram, plant chairperson said. Workers are increasingly frustrated. Oram has worked at the plant for more than 15 years. He said the lockout wasn't totally surprising. The company had promoted two senior union staff to non-union positions shortly before it began. But he never thought it would be this long.

The company has been recruiting to replace the picketers. Some ads went out shortly before Labour Day, an act Payne called "especially egregious and a slap in the face to our members."

Scab workers cross the picket line each day, said Oram. That doesn't help morale.

"That's tough when you know somebody's going in there and doing your job. All around, it's not a nice environment to be around every day," he said of the mood on the picket line.

The company "should swallow their pride and accept the terms and conditions that (they're) in another country," said Oram. "It's a unionized shop, and if you want to continue doing business here, you have to take the terms and conditions of the employment."

Oram, who attended the meetings with the government, said he also wants the government to do more for the workers.

The union movement has been supportive. Unior has organized rallies in solidarity. Also this month, Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, sent a letter to the minister asking him to intervene on behalf of the workers.

She called the company's behaviour "shameful" and "unacceptable." The letter describes the company's activities, including allegedly trying to negotiate individually with workers, as "union-busting." This violates workers' rights, the letter says.

"It is time, I believe, for the government to send a clear message to this employer," she wrote.

The stress is impacting workers' families too, as they make ends meet.

"This company is really attacking families right now for what they're continuing to do," Oram said. His son recently began university, and it's tough paying for education solely from his wife's two jobs.

This strike has an added personal component. D-J Composites is a U.S. company. Gander residents housed Americans who were displaced after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Oram was working in Ontario at the time, so he didn't take anyone in who was stranded. But some of his colleagues did. They did it to help people who were in a hard time, without expecting anything in return. But after the community showed so much generosity, the company's behaviour is like a "kick in the face," he said.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Klaus Radermacher/flickr

Like this article? Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Let's do this together

24 September 2017 - 11:39am
September 24, 2017Media MattersLet's do this together Meet rabble.ca's workers - the people who bring rabble to you every day. As the saying goes, “many hands make light work,” and rabble.ca needs many small donations to make a big impact.rabble.camediacrowdsourcingfundraising

Let's do this together

23 September 2017 - 5:03pm
rabble staff

Dear rabble readers:

We are the people who work at rabble.ca and we need your support to keep this amazing online publication going and growing.  

rabble.ca amplifies progressive voices and actions. That takes work! We fact-check and edit the many stories and views that are submitted to us every week. We produce and publish podcasts and manage a lively network of podcasters. We write stories about ideas that matter, and moderate our lively discussion forum, babble.

We find and publish information about tools and events which may be useful to other activists. We are also present in the community, sponsoring events and building partnerships. And, of course, we keep the rabble.ca website, social media and other online platforms up and running. We are a tiny team, and we work hard because believe in rabble.ca.

We are not a wealthy organization, and we do not want to be beholden to corporate advertisers or a handful of funders. Instead, we rely on our readers and like-minded organizations for support.

If you believe what we do is important, we need you to chip in and donate.

Too many media organizations continue to play a role in perpetuating stereotypes and bigotry. In some cases, “news” organizations literally make up stories and “alternative facts” and some are paid very well to do it. At rabble.ca we work to promote the stories of social movements. We pride ourselves on our earnestness. Although we sometimes envy the traffic sensationalist headlines get, supporting movements takes more than clickbait.

These are challenging times, but these are also times of hope, as people resisting injustice organize to make change and spread messages of solidarity. We need allies to amplify the work being done to change the world. We are part of the alternative -- strengthening the movement to build progressive change. We are writing to ask you to support rabble.ca by contributing what you can at rabble.ca/donate.

A real independent media must be crowdsourced. As the saying goes, “many hands make light work,” and rabble.ca needs many small donations to make a big impact. Let’s do this together.

Please make an individual donation here. If your organization would like to partner with rabble, please contact business@rabble.ca.  Here are some guidelines if you want to submit stories to rabble.

Thank you!

From: the rabble.ca team

Tania Ehret, Maya Bhullar, Michelle Gregus, Christina Turner, Shirley Marquez, Victoria Fenner, Meg Borthwick, Samaah Jaffer, and Kim Elliott.

More problems with Phoenix pay system revealed

22 September 2017 - 3:43pm
Meagan Gillmore

Thousands of federal government employees, from summer students to managers, have been underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all since the government began using the Phoenix pay system in 2016. Justin Trudeau's Liberals implemented the payroll system introduced by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, despite warnings about potential problems.

Past and current federal employees rabble has spoken to in recent weeks all express deep conviction for their work. They feel betrayed by an employer who does not pay them properly or, in their view, admit responsibility for the problem. Some expressed frustration with the unions that represent them and wonder what more could be done to solve the situation.

In this series, rabble.ca takes a broader look at Phoenix: the background of the problem; the people affected by it; the responses from unions, and what solutions may be possible.


The Phoenix pay system has been in place for more than 18 months, and problems with it only continue to grow. Workers across the country and throughout departments have consistently been overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

The government started paying employees with Phoenix in February 2016, and different departments moved to the system at different times. The Trudeau Liberals implemented the system introduced by the Harper Conservatives, even after being warned about potential problems.

On September 21, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada tabled its annual report. The report includes details about an investigation into privacy concerns related to Phoenix. The commissioner reported there have been at least 11 privacy breaches related to Phoenix involving employees' names, salary information and Personal Record Identifier (PRI) numbers. The investigation concluded that vulnerabilities were government-wide, and resulted from coding errors, inadequate training, and insufficient monitors and controls of the system.

The investigation did not find that any of the personal information was disclosed to people outside of the government. But the commission did find instances where employees looked at the personal information of other government employees in the system.

The report also says the government knew about the potential for privacy concerns as early as January 18, 2016 -- before Phoenix was launched.

The commissioner recommended six ways the government could address these problems. They include developing and implementing controls to monitor and document access to personal information in Phoenix; improving system testing; assessing potential risks with Phoenix regularly and informing affected individuals of the breaches. 

The government said it agreed to the recommendations. But, in the commission's view, it has not done enough to implement all of the recommendations.

Also on September 21, CBC reported on the contract between IBM Canada and the government to create Phoenix. According to the report, IBM was the only company to bid on the project to create one system that would be used for more than 100 government departments and dozens of collective bargaining agreements. IBM landed the deal in 2011 and the job of maintaining and implementing Phoenix is to continue until at least 2019.

The contract has been amended 39 times, bringing the value of the contract to $185 million. It began at $5.7 million. The government claims that the cost of the implementation of Phoenix, $307 million, was two million under budget, according to CBC News.

The government has been slow to release information about the scope of the problems related to the pay system.

On a webpage devoted to the Phoenix situation, the government says it is "working tirelessly to resolve all pay issues as quickly as possible." Yet numbers on the website indicate any resolution is coming at a slow pace. As of August 23, 49 per cent of transactions were being processed within service standards, which vary between 20 and 45 days depending on the type of transaction. While this shows some improvement -- as of July 26 only 35 per cent of transactions were processed within service standards -- it falls vastly short of the government's stated goal of 95 per cent of transactions processed within service standards.

The government has been looking for ways to address the problem. Earlier in September, it sent letters to former compensation officers, asking them to consider returning to help with the problem.

But Public Services and Procurement Canada, the ministry tasked with Phoenix, has been responding to its own challenges. In late August, Judy Foote resigned as minister. Foote had stepped aside from her duties in April, citing family concerns. Carla Qualtrough, formerly the minister of sport and persons with disabilities, has been named to the role.

The government has also been inconsistent in explaining reasons for the continued problems.

It has both praised unions for helping workers negatively impacted by Phoenix, and blamed the backlog of cases on recently signed collective agreements. On August 30, while in Moncton, New Brunswick, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised public service unions for helping workers affected by Phoenix's problems. He was in the province, in part, to visit the Phoenix call centre in Miramichi. This came days after the government blamed delays on the need to change pay rates as a result of new contracts.

The problems with Phoenix have impacted workers across departments, from summer students to managers. rabble.ca has spoken with several union representatives and current and former federal employees throughout the past few weeks. They said some workers have left the public service because of the pay concerns, and reported difficulties with recruiting new workers. Yet they also said many employees continue to go to work because they know their jobs are too important.

Whether the federal government is as dedicated to fixing the problem as its employees are to working during the problem remains to be seen.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Like this article? Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Wayne Easter: Defender of tax avoiders

22 September 2017 - 8:54am
September 22, 2017Finance committee chair Wayne Easter defends the privileged, undermines modest tax reformsLiberal finance committee chair Wayne Easter is defending wealthy individuals and big companies who are getting away with blatant tax avoidance -- or advising others how to do so.

Finance committee chair Wayne Easter defends the privileged, undermines modest tax reforms

22 September 2017 - 7:16am
EconomyPolitics in Canada

What is it about progressive politicians going to Ottawa only to end up as arrogant and nasty conservatives? My old friend Pam Wallin was one of the kindest people I knew in Regina in the 1970s when she was a member of the Waffle group in the NDP. She turned into one of the nastiest Conservative senators.

And the last encounter I had with Wayne Easter, Liberal finance committee chair, was in 1991 when he (as head of the National Farmers' Union) and I joined other social activists to demonstrate in front of the Reform Party's policy convention in Saskatoon.

Now it seems Mr. Easter is mostly in the news when defending wealthy individuals and big companies who are getting away with blatant tax avoidance -- or advising others how to do so. He is currently doing his best to undermine his own government's modest tax reforms by calling for it to "step back" from the reforms.

As head of the finance committee Easter has a lot of clout, which was demonstrated in June 2016 when he suddenly and with the flimsiest of excuses, banned the testimony of critical tax experts called to testify in hearings into KPMG's role in a major tax avoidance scheme.

Almost everyone is familiar with the KPMG case. The huge accounting firm created shell companies in the Isle of Man for wealthy clients to help them avoid (and possibly evade) taxes. It went on for 10 years before it was finally discovered by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in 2012.

And while the CRA officially concluded that KPMG "intended to deceive" it, the agency then offered secret amnesties to those caught using the scheme. The sleazy scheme was also promoted as a way for clients to avoid expensive divorce settlements.

But when the several expert witnesses on the scheme showed up to testify at committee hearings -- as they were invited to do -- Easter summarily implemented a gag order. Caving in to threats from KPMG's lawyers, he warned the witnesses that if they mentioned the Isle of Man scheme and KPMG they could be in contempt of Parliament. The witnesses were furious but Easter was unmoved, stating the matter was before the court and could not be discussed -- a position contradicted by numerous Canadian precedents. Later in a TV interview he oozed arrogance and self-importance. He didn't need to explain it. He was the chair. He could do what he wanted.

Fast forward to today and we find Easter once again stepping up for the privileged amongst us and undermining what are actually very modest tax reforms affecting a small number of Canadians eager to manipulate the system for private gain. Instead of passionately defending these long overdue reforms as just the beginning of fair tax reform, Easter chickened out: "Maybe do a couple of the simpler things that were proposed, like ensuring that there isn't sprinkling of income to take undue advantage of the tax system." The rest he would send to an "expert committee" -- for a private execution.

Instead of busting the myths surrounding these proposals, Easter promotes them. He knows that only those earning over $150,000 (the wealthiest seven per cent of Canadians) will be affected. He also knows that two-thirds of genuine small businesses earn under $74,000. Small businesses pay only half the lowest personal income rate (about 12-13 per cent) already -- a $3.6 billion subsidy from the rest of us. And they have access to 550 different grants, contributions, financial assistance, loans and cash advances, loan guarantees, tax refunds and credits, and wage subsidies. Canada's small business tax is the lowest in the G7. In fact, it is the gap between this low tax and individual income tax rates that has helped drive people to set up private corporations.

And as for the impact on farmers, there is none: they retain their $1 million capital gains exemption (another huge public subsidy) so they can transfer their farms to their children.

The reforms claw back a mere $1 billion from the tens of billions given away through tax cuts by finance ministers Paul Martin and Jim Flaherty. Those cuts, the vast bulk to the wealthy and large corporations, vaporized $50 billion in government revenue. It is this deliberate starving of government that has smothered child care, pharmacare and other programs in their cribs. If these programs were available, high-income earners would not be so motivated to revert to tax avoidance schemes. What will Mr. Easter do if and when his government introduces substantive reforms like bringing back a sane level of corporate taxes?

It is notable that the same week that Easter was bad-mouthing the mild reforms of Bill Morneau, people were mourning the death of Allan MacEachen. MacEachen was finance minister in 1981 when he brought in some of the most progressive tax reforms ever presented in the Commons. They were met by ferocious opposition from developers, insurance companies and others who were determined to hang on to their lucrative loopholes. Pierre Trudeau caved and demoted MacEachen -- one of the most decent and progressive MPs ever to set foot in the Commons.

What a contrast of Maritimers: one a smug defender of the wealthy and the other a man dedicated to equality and fairness. The question does arise: what will Trudeau junior do with Wayne Easter? Will he remove him as finance chair or promote him to cabinet?

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column.

Photo: David Faltenhine/Leadnow Canada/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

tax reformprogressive taxationKPMGtax shelterstax evasionwayne easterTrudeau governmenttax fairnessMurray DobbinSeptember 22, 2017The Liberals need to address progressive tax reformNow that we have a government that says it believes in governing, the question of comprehensive progressive tax reform needs to be front and centre.Doctors' capitalist ethos and the fight for a fairer tax codeWhile nurses defend public health care, doctors have long promoted a capitalist model of medicine that maximizes their wealth and power. Despite tough talk, Trudeau shies away from tackling Bay Street's chronic tax avoidanceRecent scandals with KPMG and the Panama Papers leaks reveal Canada Revenue's standard kid-glove treatment for the wealthy and powerful.

Luxembourg 'farm noir' separates the wheat from the chaff at TIFF

21 September 2017 - 4:04pm
Humberto DaSilva

If you liked TIFF People's Choice award winner Three Billboards in Ebbing Missouri, and runner up Call Me By My Name, and still haven't had enough filmic countryside, have a look at Govinda Van Maele's Gutland. Admittedly it's the first film from Luxembourg I can recall seeing, but this little genre-defying film bodes well for the nascent cinema of the world's last Grand Duchy.

In lesser hands, Gutland could have devolved into an unfortunate Children of the Corn clone. But Gutland is a cinematic mind game set squarely in its chosen rural European context. The film can be best described as a "farm noir." The backdrop to this psychological thriller is the lushly shot (on 35mm film stock) agricultural landscapes of Schengen Europe. In contrast, its subject is the mental transmogrification of an outsider who stumbles, to his fortune or misfortune, into the intimate life of a rural community in a slightly sinister, slightly foreign land.

Jens Fauser (Frederick Lau) is a German criminal on the lam from an armed robbery, and from his two associates who want their share of the take. His decision to lie low in rural Luxembourg proves fateful. While seeking agricultural work, he hooks up with local woman Lucy (Vicky Krieps) at a beer hall harvest festival. This encounter sets in motion the machinations by which he is enveloped by the community's hospitality in a disturbing and perhaps redeeming way.

The pace of the film is deliberate as it layers on the suspense. The rural scene is set with care, control and cinematic vision. Although Luxembourg may seem like an exotic locale, the countryside and the country life will feel familiar. The flourishing landscape and the foreboding and persistent minimalistic musical score result in a feel not entirely unfamiliar to fans of rural gothic classics such as Deliverance. And much like in that film, music will come to play a disturbing role in a key scene. At times I imagined hearing a menacing twang in the spoken Luxembourgish. Although Gutland is a decidedly European film, as I watched it I couldn't help but wonder who would play Jens and Lucy in the American remake.

The farm workers and townspeople in the film, are by turns inscrutable and brutal. But part of the film's appeal is that the viewer often cannot separate their own suspicions from Jens' paranoia. When a friendly local alibis Jens with a casual lie, the viewer naturally assumes there is a nefarious motive. By the time the farmer that employs Jens inflicts casual brutalities on his own son to teach life lessons, it begins to seem normal.

The cast of Gutland is refreshingly naturalistic. The fact that the film is populated by characters that you might  encounter at a country pub goes a long way to making Gutland feel real. That the communal labour of farming is portrayed with a certain dignity also contributes to the film's verisimilitude. Agriculture continues to hold a protected place in most European societies, and the pastoral nature of country life has not yet been decimated by unchecked agribusiness. This allows for rural communities to continue to preserve the family farm and rural communities (with a little help from Schengen migrant labour). The film's minor characters are not caricatures, despite their strangeness. Gutland has an emotional integrity to it that benefits from the depth of even minor characters.

The film suffers somewhat from the lack of fully formed female characters. Lucy, whose character is central to the film, is a headstrong and independent-minded single mother at the beginning of the film. She initiates the first sexual encounter with Jens as an equal sexual partner and thereby sets in motion his erstwhile redemption. Yet in an integral scene to  Jens' unwitting transformation, she uncharacteristically becomes masochistic, goading Jens into a session of rough sex. This scene appears to have more to do with upping the sexual edge of the film for jaded audiences than with advancing the plot's otherwise  cogent surreality.

The psychological structure of the film is reminiscent of Polanski's The Tennant in that it studies how an individual can be subsumed, unwillingly, by an overbearing community. Jens Fauser begins as an opportunist trying to use a community to hide from a crime, but ends up as someone inadvertently acting in concert with this selfsame community.

If you like your thriller with a thresher, or need to know what's on the cutting edge of Luxembourg cinema, this one should factor quite high on your list.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

Trudeau should leverage reputation at UN to stop Myanmar's ethnic cleansing

21 September 2017 - 8:17am
Scott Fenwick

As the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar (also known as Burma) deepens, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to stand firmly and personally hold the country's military leadership responsible. Canada must amplify its voice as much as possible to rally the world in ending this crisis, widely viewed as an organized ethnic cleansing.

With hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, this quickly evolving crisis requires condemnation and involvement from the highest levels of the Canadian government. Although Trudeau has expressed "deep concerns" to Myanmar's State Consular, Aung San Suu Kyi, about the ongoing violence, he can and must go several steps further.

Trudeau needs to explicitly condemn the Myanmese military for organizing this ethnic cleansing. Since Myanmar's 2012 constitution makes the military, not San Suu Kyi, responsible for national security and gives them a veto over constitutional amendments, solely targeting San Suu Kyi lets Myanmar's military, who are the real perpetrators of this violence, off the hook.

Instead of a written statement merely expressing "concern," Trudeau should condemn Myanmar's military on camera, in both French and English, ensuring his message goes around the world. Since Trudeau is speaking at the United Nations General Assembly this Thursday, he has the perfect platform to do so. People around the world have heard and praised Trudeau's previous stances as a human rights and refugee advocate, giving him and Canada an overwhelmingly positive international reputation. Trudeau must leverage this newfound reputation to stop this crisis.

The scale and speed of the crisis in Myanmar requires Canada to dramatically escalate its response. The Rohingya are being systematically targeted, in what the United Nations human rights chief calls a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing"; survivor accounts point to Myanmar's military as the principal actors. Rohingya refugees have told stories of sexual assault, beatings, robberies and killings, blaming the military and their fellow citizens for the atrocities committed. The arson of Rohingya homes in Myanmar appears to be part of a systemic government campaign, as confirmed by satellite photos and survivors' stories. Since August 25, almost 400,000 Rohingya have been driven out of their country into neighbouring Bangladesh.

This is not the first time the Rohingya people have been targeted in Myanmar. They have been subjected to bigotry for decades as demonstrated by the government stripping them of their citizenship in 1983, which has rendered them stateless to this day. Furthermore, violence towards the Rohingya has precipitously risen since the sectarian riots in 2012, when local authorities either refused to protect Rohingya from the attacks or participated in violence against them. This triggered a "boat people" crisis in 2015 where massive numbers of Rohingya fled to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.

Today's claims of ethnic cleansing are compounded by reports stating the Myanmese military are laying landmines at the border and requesting people to provide "proof of nationality" to return to the country, which is clearly impossible for any Rohingya to produce.

Trudeau must use his voice to help accelerate the international response to the crisis in Myanmar, with the aim of ensuring the survival of the hundreds of thousands of people currently living in makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh. Trudeau's voice can rally other countries into contributing to the $18 million the United Nations has requested to provide relief to the Rohingya refugees. It can help pressure Myanmar into giving investigators access to the areas where the Rohingya have fled in order to find out what exactly happened. His voice is needed to pressure Myanmar into finally restoring citizenship to the Rohingya.

Although Trudeau's conversation with San Suu Kyi is a step in the right direction, it's still a weak response to the purported ethnic cleansing. When we look back at this, we must be able to say our government did everything it could to stop what's happening to the Rohingya. Previous Canadian governments were slow to act in other horrific cases of ethnic cleansing, as seen in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, but history doesn't need to repeat itself once more. It can be different this time for Myanmar.

Scott Fenwick is Executive Director of STAND Canada, a national youth-led organization advocating to make preventing and ending genocide a cornerstone of Canadian foreign and domestic policy.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

While Alberta awaits the Green Apocalypse, Norwegian version of Heritage Fund hits US$1-trillion

21 September 2017 - 1:50am
David J. Climenhaga

In case you missed it, Norway's sovereign wealth fund smashed through the $1-trillion barrier Tuesday. Alas, the financial sonic boom was barely audible out here in Alberta.

That's a trillion with a T, by the way. You know, a million million dollars. And those are U.S. dollars.

It's called a sovereign wealth fund because Norway, being a social democracy and everything, decided the vast wealth generated by its oil resources should be invested exclusively for the benefit of the country's approximately five million citizens.

After all, Norwegian officials reasoned when they set up the fund in 1996, their fellow citizens owned the stuff in common. All Norwegians should all reap the benefits together.

I mention this because Alberta's Heritage Savings Trust Fund -- established by the government of premier Peter Lougheed in 1976 with very similar goals in mind -- is reputed to have partly inspired Norway's approach to saving, not just for a rainy day, but also for a sunny petroleum-free future.

According to the Alberta government's last report on the topic, the Heritage Fund is now worth a hair over $17 billion, which is only a couple of billion over where it was in the dull old 1980s. Norway's fund is almost 60 times larger.

That's because, as Canadian financial journalist Eric Reguly wrote back in 2013, after we Albertans got tired of Peter-Lougheed-style saving -- soooooo boring! -- we "decided that a drunken, blow-out dance party today was better than a string of candle-lit dinner parties down the road."

And, admit it, everyone … the drunken partying was fun!

We got to yell at other provinces about how they should become ultra-low-tax jurisdictions just like us. (Why not? If they were better managers, they would have moved somewhere with oil and gas just like we did, right?) Plus, Ralph Klein gave every single one of us enough money to buy an iPod and a six-pack of Molson's brewskis!

Was that great, or what? I think I still have the iPod, too, if I didn't give it to one of my kids. I'm afraid the six-pack is long gone, though.

Norway, according to Reguly, doesn't collect royalties on its North Sea oil production, which is now dwindling at the same time, it turns out, as international oil prices are doing the same thing. "It taxes the production profits at a 78 per cent marginal rate. And all the tax revenue collected is funnelled into the country's sovereign wealth fund that pays out 4 per cent a year to fund current spending on public services."

But even using the royalty model, the royalties we charged in Alberta were a fraction of what they should have been. Conservative premier Ed Stelmach and NDP Premier Rachel Notley both made half-hearted stabs at fixing this, and then gave up when the oil industry bucked.

Albertans may have missed this too, but, despite the country's more expensive financial structure, energy companies continue to invest in Norway's oil.

"The Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, the province's rainy-day umbrella," wrote the Globe and Mail's Brian Milner two years ago, "barely has enough capital to deal with a few scattered storms. Norway's equivalent, which was partly modelled on Alberta's when it was set up in the early 1990s, could handle a deluge of almost biblical proportions."

Lougheed, who died at 84 in 2012, observed in his final years that the fund would have been worth $100 billion or more if we'd stuck with his plan, and that "when a real revenue disaster strikes, Albertans will not have the fund as a shield."

Well, here we are. Six additional Conservative premiers after Lougheed, we already had the revenue disaster when Notley's NDP government was elected -- caused by the very same low oil prices Norway has no need to panic about. And we have … as a famous Alberta political ad once whispered … noooo plaaan.

Well, it's lucky for the Conservatives, in a way, that we have an NDP government they can kick around for the consequences of their decades-long irresponsibility.

No plan. Well, not much of one, anyway. Certainly not as good a one as biting the reality bullet and bringing in a sales tax. For a lot of Albertans, the plan is to bring Klein back from the dead in the form of Jason Kenney.

Other than their general physical shape and market fundamentalist irresponsibility, however, it would be hard to find two politicians less like one another. As is fairly widely understood, Klein didn't even particularly like Kenney.

Kenney claims they were pals, however, and had a beer together while they came up with a plan to give this province "the Alberta Advantage"!

I can do Kenney one better, I think. I had a beer with Klein twice. Mind you, both times were in the company of a large number of carousing journos, and as far as I can recall, there was no dancing.

Alas, Ralph and I didn't come up with a plan to create an "Alberta Advantage" like Kenney claims the two of them did. You may think "just as well," but who knows? Maybe if we'd worked on it together we'd have thought up with a brainstorm like, "Hey! How about we keep putting money into the Heritage Fund!"

No such luck.

But look at the bright side. If Kenney succeeds with his political master plan, maybe all four-plus million of us will get an iPhone this time, plus enough change left over for a whole case of watery Saskatchewan beer from the home province of the real leader of Western Canada, Kenney's real hero, Brad Wall.

Of course, it might cost us our health-care system, but … hey! It's party time again!

Meanwhile, as we await the Green Apocalypse here in Alberta, Yngve Slyngstad, CEO of the Norwegian sovereign fund, was justifiably patting himself on the back Tuesday.

"I don't think anyone expected the fund to ever reach $1 trillion when the first transfer of oil revenue was made in May 1996," Slyngstad said. "Reaching $1 trillion is a milestone, and the growth in the fund's market value has been stunning."


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

Photo: Norsk Teknisk Museum, Wikimedia Commons.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

What bothers Martine Ouellet is not what Jagmeet Singh advocates. It is the way he dresses.

20 September 2017 - 4:14pm
September 20, 2017Bloc leader attacks Jagmeet Singh, gives fuel to Quebec bashersBloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet claims that Jagmeet Singh's NDP leadership campaign signifies we must now confront not only the religious right, but also the new and scary religious left.

Bloc leader attacks Jagmeet Singh, gives fuel to Quebec bashers

20 September 2017 - 4:03pm
Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet claims that Jagmeet Singh's NDP leadership campaign signifies we must now confront not only the obscurantist, anti-science and anti-women's-rights religious right, but also the new and scary religious left.

Ouellet has not said what policies or values of this new political force she finds to be objectionable.

It is, however, impossible that the Bloc leader and former Parti Québécois cabinet minister does not know Jagmeet Singh is entirely in favour of the separation of church and state, ardently believes in a woman's right to choose, wants the Canadian government to heed the science and do a lot more about climate change, and does not, in any way, subscribe to the view that the sinful poor are the authors of their own misfortune.  

At heart, what bothers Ouellet is not what Singh believes or advocates. It is the way he dresses.

If the young NDP leadership candidate dressed in regular, western street clothes, but was a devout follower of some obscure cult, Ouellet would be okay with that. It is the public and external sartorial expression of Singh's faith and tradition that bothers Ouellet.

The crucifix that still hangs in Quebec's National Assembly is merely a cultural artifact, which does not alter Quebec's secular character. It certainly does not seem to upset Martine Ouellet, who was a member of that body for many years. Neither does the enormous cross atop Montreal's Mount Royal, which lights up the city's sky at night.

Those visible religious symbols are, apparently, mere vestiges of Quebec's Roman Catholic history and tradition, and do not mean Quebeckers who practice other religions, or none at all, should feel uncomfortable.

A weapon for Quebec bashers

Ouellet and others, including NDP MP Pierre Nantel, who are obsessing about Singh's outward appearance have launched a distressing, depressing and entirely redundant exercise. What is perhaps most distressing is the license this exercise gives to some smug non-Quebeckers to label all Quebeckers as intolerant, xenophobic and bigoted.  

Graeme Hamilton's piece in the National Post on Wednesday comes close to doing that.

This writer is a proud Quebecker, although he lives, for the time-being, in Ottawa. His experience with the people of Quebec is that they are, on the whole, curious, globally minded, friendly and welcoming. They are not xenophobes. They are not bigots.

Quebeckers do not, as a matter of course, distrust outward manifestations of difference. In fact, a good many of them consider themselves to be citizens of the world -- to a greater extent, one could argue, than do other Canadians. To cite just one example: proportionately, many more Quebeckers volunteer to do service overseas in the developing world than do other Canadians. 

In that light, it is more than sad that too many Quebec politicians believe they succeed best only when they appeal to voters' darker angels, to their inchoate, and, at base, irrational fears and suspicions, rather than to their reason and curiosity.

In picking on Jagmeet Singh's appearance Martine Ouellet is trying the same tactic that some in her party may believe helped them win 10 seats in 2015 compared to a mere four in 2011.

In fact, in popular vote terms, the Bloc lost support last time, dropping from six per cent to below five per cent. But the party's campaign based on fear of women who choose to wear the niqab -- epitomized by an odious television commercial in which a black, toxic oil spill transforms into an animated version of a women in black face-covering -- probably helped the Bloc win a handful of seats.  

It worked once, Ouellet might reason, so it might work again.

Awkward timing for the NDP

Quebec's Liberal premier Philippe Couillard has muddied the waters by introducing legislation, Bill 62, which would ban people who wear face coverings from either dispensing or receiving government services.

When it comes to working in a front-line role one might understand the notion that people are not accustomed to being served by someone with a covered face. However, for those receiving services, the legislation seems like more than overkill. Even if one accepted that, at times, it is necessary to see a person's face in order to verify her identity, there could be administrative ways to achieve that. Why grandstand with legislation?

Bill 62, like Parti Québécois' ill-fated secular values charter, is nothing so much as a solution in search of a problem. There is never a good time to deal with such an initiative, but for an NDP which is in the process of selecting a new leader, this debate comes at a particularly awkward time.   

NDP candidates, including Singh, might want to try to reason with Ouellet and others who share her view. They could start by asking: what would your reaction be to a political candidate who dressed in traditional Indigenous clothing?

Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

If we called Trump's bluff on NAFTA we could save farmers and workers from a bad deal

20 September 2017 - 9:35am
September 20, 2017For farmers and working people, cancelling NAFTA might be the best way forwardAs U.S. President Donald Trump rambles and rumbles about cancelling NAFTA, what if we called the bully's bluff? The result would no doubt be much better than any of his suggestions for change.

For farmers and working people, cancelling NAFTA might be the best way forward

20 September 2017 - 9:31am
Food & HealthLabourPolitics in Canada

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you called the bully's bluff? As Liberal members of Parliament return to their seats in the House of Commons, they need to consider the sometimes-veiled opportunities that political bullying provides. Are you listening, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland?

More than 20 years ago, I was someone who campaigned and organized against the passage of both the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). I was devastated, like many others, when both passed, first the FTA and then later NAFTA, enabled by the Liberals, and supported over the years by various shades of Conservatives.

The results of almost 30 years of free trade have not borne fruit for workers, the environment or family farmers.

Over the years the U.S. has placed one barrier in front of another, and Canada has spent incredible energy trying to defend some of the public systems that have created a bit of equality in this country. Whether it be health care, supply management, or the now defunct Canadian Wheat Board, among others, various U.S. administrations have been quick to call Canada's regulations unfair trade practice, protectionist, or simply and blatantly, unfair competition. Go figure -- the powerful U.S. couldn't handle the public component of Canada's governance. Probably because it helped alleviate some of the pain of living in a profit-driven system.

As U.S. President Donald Trump rambles and rumbles about cancelling NAFTA, I keep thinking -- what if we called the bully's bluff? The result would no doubt be much better than succumbing to any of his suggestions for change. In the process, food producers and working people could rid themselves of an all-around bad deal.

A troubled process

In August, as renegotiations of NAFTA began, farm groups from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico issued statements about the process and denounced the directions of the talks. Farmers in Mexico called for transparency. And American farm groups have noted that trashing Canada's supply management system will not benefit U.S. farmers, any more than increasing exports will ensure fairness for farmers and the price of their products.

"This whole process should begin with a thorough, independent evaluation of NAFTA's economic, social, environmental and governance impacts," notes Victor Suarez, Executive Director of the Mexican National Association of Rural Producers (ANEC). "The goal should be to restore national sovereignty over food and farm policy, and to support local farming communities."

Suarez and other progressive farm people know that NAFTA has always been about much more than trade. The tri-country treaty has set rules on investment, but also farm exports, food safety, access to seeds and access to markets. It has also been about the consolidation and merging of agri-business corporations, and the loss of family farms and their communities. Basically it has been about following a profiteering model of food production and consumption as detailed in, among others, Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation or Raj Patel's dazzling analytical tome, Stuffed and Starved, published in 2007.

Representatives of small family farmers from across the continent also have lots to say about the negative impact of NAFTA.

"Under NAFTA and its forerunner, the Canada-U.S. FTA, farm input costs have gone up and inflation-adjusted commodity prices have dropped, yet the farmer's share of the grocery dollar is smaller," says National Farmers Union President Jan Slomp. "We export more, but imports have increased faster, which means our share of our own domestic market is actually shrinking. NAFTA and the FTA have not helped farmers. Since 1988 we have seen one in every five of our farms disappear and we've lost over 70 per cent of our young farmers, even though Canada's population has increased."

NAFTA has not benefitted working people in Canada, or the U.S., let alone the working people of Mexico. NAFTA, like many agreements since, was really the first multi-country agreement to consolidate corporate control and investment. It was never designed to protect workers, human rights, communities, or family farms. It was meant to increase the profits of large corporations through trade.

The Donald appears to be particularly vexed by the dispute resolution clause in NAFTA and by Canada's system of supply management. The dispute clause, known as Chapter 11, is the only provision that has allowed some semblance of fairness on some issues such as softwood lumber. Canada's supply management system was born way before NAFTA and so far has managed to survive despite the constant challenges by U.S. administrations.

The best way forward

As Parliament heads back after the summer recess, the Liberal government and Minister Chrystia Freeland need to take a tough stand on these two items and not budge an inch. Either that, or as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives's Bruce Campbell has noted, prepare an exit strategy and encourage cancellation of the so-called trade agreement. If Trump insists on his concessions, this may be the best way forward.

For farmers and working people of the three countries, cancelling the deal might just be a super idea. It would astonish most of us to actually think that -- for different reasons, obviously -- we could agree with The Donald. But, as they say, politics makes for strange bedfellows!

In an article for the CCPA Monitor, former CCPA executive director Bruce Campbell raised a number of points worthy of reflection. It's important to keep in mind that NAFTA was never designed as a treaty that would enforce labour, environmental or human rights; rather, it was designed as an investment treaty. For that reason, Mexican workers, who have a very low rate of unionization, were the most affected by NAFTA and have seen their living standards and wages drop substantially, Campbell notes.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has tracked the impact of NAFTA over the decades and has released a primer called NAFTA Renegotation: What's at stake for food, farmers and the land? as well as collecting 25 years' worth of research on the trade deal.

The IATP's Director of International Strategies, Karen Hansen-Kuhn, concludes:

"NAFTA has woven our economies together in ways that hurt family farmers, workers and our environments. We need a new approach to trade that promotes local and regional food systems, including providing for mechanisms in all three countries to shelter food crops from volatile markets and dumping. Simplistic calls to expand exports won't get us to the fair and sustainable food and farm system we need."

What many of these voices seem to be emphasizing is clear: a bad deal is not a deal that can be repaired.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

At the farm gateNAFTADonald Trumptrump administrationCanadian Farmerscorporate rights dealsfarm workersLois RossSeptember 20, 2017Agriculture stats call for political will as family farms dwindleIn mid-May the federal government began to release the long-awaited results of the 2016 Agriculture Census. While lots of the detail has yet to be revealed, there is enough to see the big picture.Thanks to Twitter diplomacy, Trump reminds us that dairy supply management worksBy turning the focus on Canadian dairy farming, U.S. President Donald Trump has unwittingly helped to remind us why supply management is key to treating farmers fairly.Ho-hum budget delivers little vision or action on agricultureThe Liberals tabled another "stay-tuned" budget, with little commitment and definitely little vision for how the agricultural economy of this country might be best developed in the public interest.

Rural communities in B.C. will be hurt by Greyhound's route cuts

19 September 2017 - 2:53pm
Amanda West

The quality of life of rural-dwelling British Columbians is being thrown under the bus. If we are not careful, it will be done without a plan for the future. We can only hope that our provincial and federal politicians are finally paying attention.

We, as a collective, have been asking for a national transit strategy that includes inter-city bus transportation for many years now, but this plea has continued to fall on deaf ears. Inter-city bus transportation is the transit of the rural community. Without it, rural citizens have limited access to out-of-town services. Years of provincial cuts mean that many have no choice but to travel for medical appointments and other vital services. The government, both provincially and federally, has a duty to ensure affordable and reliable ways to carry out this essential travel.

Canada, as a whole, does not provide for an alternative to bus travel -- either by air or by rail -- that most people can afford on a regular basis. Many small communities such as Lytton, Dawson Creek or Princeton are due to be adversely affected by Greyhound's service withdrawal. The inter-city bus industry has been all but deregulated -- thanks in part to the federal government downloading responsibility for regulation to the provinces. The provinces are no longer willing to face the challenge and expense of providing safe, clean and reliable transportation to their own rural constituents. At worst, this constitutes serious neglect of rural needs.

Greyhound readily admits in its most recent application to the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board that the proposed route reductions and eliminations will deprive remote communities of vital service. While bemoaning their lack of revenue, Greyhound has failed to mention that their own changes of the past few years (i.e. running scheduled coaches at times inconvenient to the travelling public, eliminating route stops/agencies in smaller communities) have caused some, if not most, of the results we see today. Any funding provided to a private company such as Greyhound must come with some form of reciprocation to the province and the citizens of British Columbia, such as dedicated fleet, daily runs and mandatory service to smaller communities. If Greyhound's application is approved in its current form, by spring, communities and local small businesses unable to offer a promise of big profits for certified curbside providers and private bus lines will bear the brunt of the impacts.

Further isolation also makes a bad situation worse when it comes to rural health care. We are all aware that the presence of health-care providers is the lowest per capita when communities become more isolated from urban centres. Federal census data shows that those in isolated communities have about half the health-care providers available to them compared to urban patients. Combined, these two facts alone leave little doubt that a lack of inter-city bus service is more than a trivial issue.

Added to this, the lack of inter-city bus service puts an unfair financial burden on ordinary people. This leaves rural British Columbians in an increasingly precarious position that cannot be ignored. Factor in safety and the situation becomes more alarming, especially given what has transpired along the Highway of Tears. We are now in danger of replicating this travesty along the Fraser Canyon, before the situation in the north of B.C. has been adequately resolved. Safe and regularly scheduled transportation is a necessity in the small communities dotting British Columbia and every other province in Canada. It is essential for the safety and well-being of all our residents.

It should also be the government's concern to ensure that the most dangerous roads in this province are not left to private operators motivated solely by profit in a piecemeal system. The guarantee of regulated provincial bus service upholds the government's obligation to provide vital and essential links to all British Columbians. These links allow for fair and affordable access to services which have already been wiped out locally, services which urban British Columbians may take for granted. Rural families should not have to expect less from their own government because they do not live in a big city.

Amanda West is a former Coach Operator from British Columbia. She is the current Financial Secretary Treasurer of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1374.

Photo: Stephen Rees/flickr

Like this article? Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Autoworkers take strike action at GM CAMI in Ingersoll, Ont.

19 September 2017 - 2:16pm
Meagan Gillmore

Work has stopped at the GM CAMI automotive plant in Ingersoll, Ontario.

Almost 2,800 workers walked off the job on Sunday night after contract negotiations with the company broke down. It's the first strike at the plant in 25 years.

Workers want job security, said Dan Borthwick, president of Unifor Local 88, which represents the workers.

Their chief concern is having the plant in southwestern Ontario designated the lead producer for GM's Equinox. Two plants in Mexico also produce the crossover vehicle.

Being designated as lead producer for the Equinox would mean any layoffs would happen at the Mexico plants first, Borthwick said.

Earlier this year, 400 workers were laid off when the company stopped producing the Terrain in Ingersoll. That vehicle is also produced in Mexico, a Unifor press release says.

At the time, 600 layoff notices were issued, but some workers retired or took buyouts.

Now, the plant only produces the Equinox. Production of the vehicle began at the plant in January.

Workers are willing to do whatever they need to do for the plant to be the lead producer of the Equinox, said Borthwick. This would include continuing to work six days a week, something he said is common throughout the industry. They've been working six-day weeks since 2009, to help keep up with the demand for vehicles.

The plant is the largest employer in Ingersoll, he said. Manufacturing is the largest employment sector in the southwestern Ontario town of approximately 12,000 people.

Borthwick said on Tuesday morning that the company has not brought in any workers to replace the striking employees. He described the mood on the picket line, where workers are blocking the four gates to the plant, as "positive."

"Workers have been waiting for this day. We didn't want to have a strike, but we're tired of being taken advantage of," he said. The company has not been "employee-friendly" for years, he said.

Workers voted 99.8 per cent on August 27 to give the union a strike mandate. Their current contract expired on Sunday.

Workers are also looking for increases in wages, benefits and pensions.

In a statement issued on Sunday, GM Canada said it is "disappointed" a new agreement could not be secured and encouraged the company to continue negotiations.

Last year, GM ratified contracts with workers at plants in Oshawa and St. Catharines as well as a parts distributor in Woodstock. It also announced it would be adding 700 software and engineering jobs in Markham, Oshawa and Toronto.

The nearly 2,800 workers at the Ingersoll plant represent more than a third of the 8,072 GM employees in Canada.

In an email to rabble.ca, Curtis Tighe, the town's chief economic officer, said a labour disruption between Ingersoll's largest employer and the many community members who work there caused "the deepest concern." He said the town hopes the union and employer resolve the issues as soon as possible. 

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Nox360/Wikimedia Commons

Like this article? Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

New documents reveal cozy relationship between fossil fuel industry and last B.C. government

19 September 2017 - 8:37am
September 19, 2017B.C. climate leadership team recommendations were revised, re-written in a Big Oil boardroomDocuments indicate that while the Paris talks were underway, the B.C. government launched a closed-door three month-long process with the oil and gas industry to revise and re-write the climate plan.

Caregivers in Canada deserve to live with their families

17 September 2017 - 1:26pm
September 17, 2017Caregivers hold rally seeking family reunification nowCaregivers who have been waiting years to have Canadian permanent residency applications processed held a rally in front of Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada offices in Toronto this week.