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The reversal of privatization and an urban coming of age

23 June 2017 - 2:13pm
David A. McDonald

A gentle revolution is underway in Barcelona, Spain. Until recently, prevailing wisdom has been that efficient, quality and cheap services are best provided by handing everything over to the private sector. These days are gone. From energy supply to kindergartens to funeral services, the municipality is providing more and more of the basic needs of its citizens at affordable and transparent prices. Following a city council motion in December 2016, Barcelona is now aiming to municipalize its water service. Since the progressive coalition Barcelona en Comú gained power in the Catalan capital, the city has introduced a wide-ranging policy of remunicipalizing outsourced public services and creating new ones.

Barcelona is not unique in this respect. Thousands of public officials, workers, unions and social movements are working to create effective public services that address the basic needs of people and respond to social, environmental and climate challenges. They do this most often at the local level. Reclaiming Public Services, a new report, found that there have been at least 835 examples of (re)municipalization of public services worldwide in recent years, involving more than 1,600 cities in 45 countries.

Cities and towns around the world are following different models of public ownership, with citizens and workers involved in a variety of ways. People are moving away from private options and developing new, public ways to deliver services. Far from being an anomaly, bringing services like transport, health care and energy back under public control is a worldwide trend -- and one that makes sense.

Privatization has been given ample chance to succeed and has come up short. The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive, inefficient and outdated, and that we, as citizens and users, should resign ourselves to paying ever higher tariffs for ever lower standards has not yet abated. Nor has the idea that service workers have no choice but to accept ever more degraded conditions. Because everything is seen to have a price, many politicians have lost sight of the common good, while "taxpayers" are sometimes only interested in their own individual pursuits.

The remunicipalization movement tells a very different story. While it is still in its infancy in Canada, the remunicipalization movement in Europe can be seen as a response to austerity policies and is being carried forward by an increasingly diverse array of politicians. Successful (re)municipalization experiences inspire and empower other local authorities to follow suit. We see it in the way municipalities and citizens have joined forces in Germany to push for energy democracy. In France and Catalonia, networks of public water operators pool resources and expertise, working together to deal with the challenges of remunicipalization.

There are many examples from outside Europe too. In India, the city of Delhi began the process of delivering affordable primary public health care in 2015 by setting up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics in 2015. Since then more than 2.6 million of its poorest residents have received free quality services.

These locally rooted changes are providing improved services as well as savings for local authorities and the public. The Nottingham City Council in the U.K., for example, decided to set up a new energy supply company in 2015 after finding that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their gas and electricity bills. Robin Hood Energy offers a cheaper service than private providers because it neither extracts profits nor confuses customers with complicated pricing schemes. The company, which offers the lowest energy prices in the country, has the motto: "No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing." They have also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership. Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalization is rarely just about the change of ownership structure from private to public. It is fundamentally about creating better public services that work for all. This includes restoring a public ethos, a culture of universal access at affordable prices, and ensuring transparency and accountability towards elected officials and citizens as opposed to focusing only on the most lucrative parts of the service.

Remunicipalized public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for "zero waste" with their remunicipalized waste service, or providing 100 per cent local, organic food in their remunicipalized school restaurants.

Public services are not good just because they are public. Public services must also continuously improve and renew their commitments to society. The push for remunicipalization in Catalonia also relies on a movement of citizen platforms that not only want to achieve a return to public management as an end in itself, but see it as a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on continued civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

David McDonald is a Professor of Global Development Studies at Queen's University, and Director of the Municipal Services Project.

Photo: "Marea Blanca" protest against health-care privatization in Spain. Credit: Adolfo Lujan/flickr

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The Trudeau government's record at the mid point in its mandate

23 June 2017 - 9:32am
June 23, 2017The year that was for the Trudeau government, as it approaches middle ageIs the Trudeau government merely Harper-lite or is it a beacon of democratic, humanistic internationalism? Based on its record this past year, and at the mid point in its mandate, it is neither.

The year that was for the Trudeau government, as it approaches middle age

23 June 2017 - 9:20am
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!

Is the Trudeau government merely Harper-lite, as some on the left insist -- happy to talk, say, about climate change, while approving major pipeline projects that were dear to its predecessor?

Or is it a beacon of democratic, humanistic internationalism, in a time when too much of the world seems smitten with authoritarian, populist nationalism?

Based on its record this past year, and at the mid point in its mandate, it is neither.

Justin Trudeau leads a classically pragmatic, centrist, moderate government, although he is much more given to puffed-up hortatory pronouncements than most moderates. He also has a penchant for grandiloquent symbolic gestures, such as removing an offending name, Langevin, from a government building, or rebranding Aboriginal Day as Indigenous Day.

The government started the political season, last fall, with the ominous U.S. election loudly rumbling in the background. One of its first notable moves was to support an opposition initiative, NDP MP Randall Garrison's bill that bans discrimination on the basis of transgender status.

South of the border, some state and local governments were passing discriminatory, so-called bathroom laws, that would oblige people to use facilities reserved for the gender to which were born. The Trudeau government's willingness to allow an opposition MP to take the lead in making a clear, public statement to the contrary was at least a modest good sign.

Freer trade, private sector money for public infrastructure and a pipeline approved

The current Trudeau government has made a big point of being pro-globalization, and, thus, in favour of reducing trade barriers. It carried on the Harper government's efforts to negotiate a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union enthusiastically, and thought it had achieved a final deal, when, last October, the Belgian region of Wallonia dropped a spanner in the works by threatening to withhold approval.

In the end, tweaks to CETA's investor-state relations provisions calmed the Wallonian socialist government, and the agreement was signed in the New Year.

In late October of 2016 the finance minister delivered his Fiscal Update, a kind of mini-budget, and formally introduced the idea of an infrastructure bank. It is a notion that has given the Liberals some grief, although they seem to have succeeded in getting it approved without too much debate, by slipping it into the 2017 budget bill, a tactic they learned from Stephen Harper.

Also in the fall, Trudeau gave his stamp of approval to the Trans Mountain project, a pipeline proposed by the Texas-based Kinder Morgan corporation, designed to carry Alberta tar sands bitumen to the Pacific coast and thence to markets in Asia.

Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley hailed the decision as a chance to get out of Alberta's "landlock" and sell Alberta's resource to customers outside the U.S. Others in the NDP, and in other parties such as the Greens, were less enthusiastic. They pointed out that the Liberals had promised a more rigorous assessment and approval process.

Liberals used to say a strengthened environmental and social assessment process was necessary to give projects such as Kinder Morgan's social license from affected communities, especially First Nations communities. In the end, Trudeau decided to approve Trans Mountain based on the Harper government's assessment, which Liberals once said was the product of a truncated and inadequate process.

A while ago, this writer asked one prominent NDP federal MP whether the party really hoped to gain votes in B.C. by opposing Trans Mountain, while hanging on to power in Alberta by supporting it. The answer was a careful and very tentative "yes." However, the truth is that the split in the NDP on Trans Mountain is very deep. A parade of federal leadership candidates have declared their firm opposition to the pipeline and each time that has happened it probably had Notely gritting her teeth in frustration.

But this pipeline project could bite the Liberals in the backside too. At the time of the decision, Trudeau was open about the fact that a number of his B.C. lower mainland MPs were not happy. B.C. federal Liberals may pay a big price for this choice in the next election. In the recent provincial election, opposition to Kinder Morgan's project helped B.C. NDP leader John Horgan score big in B.C.'s urban ridings.

Healthier food, an asbestos ban and an enhanced pension plan

It was also still fall when the Liberal Health Minister Jane Philpott introduced a revised Canada Food Guide, designed to help reduce Canadians' dangerously high consumption of fat, sugar and salt. Subsequent talk of new labelling requirements and other regulations have the powerful food industry up in arms. We'll see soon how willing a government that likes to be friendly with corporate Canada will be to take on Big Food.

Late in 2016, the Trudeau government had a gift for environmentalists and other activists, when it decided to institute an outright and comprehensive ban on asbestos. For many years, Canada had been a holdout in worldwide efforts, concentrated in developing countries, to ban the sale, use and trade of a product that has been proven to significantly harm human health. The fact that Quebec was once a world leader in asbestos production, and nurtured aspirations of seeing a revival of the dormant industry, had a big impact on Canada's recalcitrance. Finally, a government that was willing to seriously consider science, and which had a minister for science, Kirsty Duncan, who actually studied evidence, decided it could ignore the facts no longer. The ban will take effect in 2018.

Early in 2017, Finance Minister Bill Morneau reached an agreement with his provincial counterparts to enhance and expand the Canada Pension Plan (and its twin, the Quebec Pension Plan). The agreement increases the contribution rate, boosts the maximum pensionable earnings from a bit more than $50,000 to more than $80,000, and adds more than $4,000 per year to the maximum payout.

Labour applauded the expansion, since it will help fill the gap left by the decline in workplace pension plans.

But, what the government gives with one hand it takes with the other. The Trudeau government has legislation pending that will transform many of the predictable, inflation-indexed, defined benefit plans, in the public and para-public sectors, to less generous and less predictable defined contribution plans. The latter are, in essence, glorified registered retirement savings plans. They may be cheaper for employers, but they offer a lot less retirement security to workers.

The government has also still not rejected the suggestion of the finance minister's blue ribbon economic advisory council that it raise the minimum age of eligibility for the universal Old Age Security pension (OAS). For the working poor, and those who spend their lives in low-paid precarious employment, the OAS and the means-tested supplement, the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), have provided something like a guaranteed income once they hit old age.

End first-past-the-post? Did I promise that?

It was early in 2017 when Trudeau finally and irrevocably broke what had been, in many ways, his signature promise, that the 2015 election would be the last under first-past-the-post. He emphatically repeated that promise hundreds of times before and, especially, after the election. When the prime minister finally, nonchalantly and almost flippantly, said he was dropping the whole idea, the Liberals tried putting out the story that the new regime in the U.S. created new and tough challenges for the government, and it could not afford to expend the energy or political capital necessary on reforming the voting system.

During the height of the Depression in the 1930s, with unemployment in double digits, the government of the day managed to create the CBC.

During the Second World War, when the fate of humanity hung in the balance in more ways than one, the federal government managed to amend the Constitution in order to introduce an unemployment insurance scheme.

During the height of the Cold War, while the bloody and protracted conflict in Vietnam was churning, the federal government, with provincial cooperation, created the Canada pension plan and the universal health insurance system we know today. A subsequent government, headed by Justin Trudeau's father, managed to create a new ministry of the environment, a new agency for international development, and institute a massive program of official bilingualism -- all while our neighbour to the south was enduring the destabilizing nightmare of the Nixon presidency.

External contingencies are a weak excuse for a government to abandon its key commitments. The Canadian government is not a corner store. It is, in fact, quite big, employing well more than 300,000 people. It should be capable of pursuing more than one priority at a time.

Of course, Justin Trudeau did not abandon every promise while he figured out what to do about President Trump. In the spring of 2017, for instance, his government announced that it would fulfill its longstanding pledge to legalize marijuana. Making this particular drug legal was the Liberal promise that attracted more attention than any other, especially among those not usually interested in politics. The Liberals almost certainly reasoned that if changing world conditions obliged them to dump some legislative ballast, they could more easily get away with jettisoning electoral reform than marijuana legalization.

New foreign policy, more money for the military

In June, as the current session came to an end, we saw some furious efforts on the part of the government to act busy and focused.

The still-new foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, appointed we were told in response to the new challenges from Washington, made an important speech in which she affirmed that if the U.S. no longer seemed to believe in working multilaterally on global challenges, Canada still did.

The speech was well received here, and, perhaps mercifully, little noticed in the great republic to the south. It was not the first time a Canadian leader had made an effort to rhetorically carve out a position on world affairs independent of the U.S.

Laurier, more than a century ago, pointedly told the Americans that Canadians were different from them, and even threatened military action over the Alaska border dispute. In the 1960s, Pearson aroused Lyndon Johnson's ire to the point of near physical violence when he politely questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam adventure. And Chrétien refused to join George W. Bush's coalition of the willing and send troops to Iraq.

The current Trudeau government carefully and strategically matched the foreign minister's liberal, internationalist rhetoric on foreign policy with a commitment to increased military spending. Trump did not comment on Freeland's speech, but he did take to Twitter to claim that Canada's pledge to boost its military was a victory for his own strong-arm tactics.

Two new pieces of legislation: breaking one promise and fulfilling another

In the very dying days of this session, the government introduced two major pieces of legislation.

One was a reform of the access to information rules, which notably fails to live up to the Liberal campaign promise to make ministers' offices and the prime minister's office open to access requests. It seemed hard for government people to find a convincing excuse for this particular broken promise. To Liberal apologists who went on the airwaves to raise all kinds of dubious concerns, one was tempted to say: You must have known all this when you made the promise before the last election? Why promise changes you knew you could not, or are not willing to, deliver?

The other big initiative is Bill C-59, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's package of changes to the Harper government's anti-terror law, C-51. The proposed changes come after some fairly protracted consultations, and do not fully satisfy many who have been gravely concerned about C-51.

Amnesty International, for one, welcomes many of the changes. Among Amnesty's favourites are: "the move towards an integrated, expert review body for Canada's national security agencies"; the new measures dealing with concerns about the criminal offence of promoting the commission of terrorism offences in general; and changes to other C-51 provisions, such as the "no-fly list." But the human rights organization still has concerns.

It is disappointed, for instance, that Bill C-59 does not abolish certain practices that offend human rights and which pre-date C-51, such as provisions that allow "individuals to be deported to a risk of torture in exceptional circumstances."

Amnesty "had also hoped that the government would act to address longstanding concerns about the failure to fully reject torture in Canada's intelligence-sharing arrangements with other countries."

Still, overall, Amnesty gives Goodale's changes a fairly positive grade. That, in itself, is something of an achievement, given how confused and disingenuous the Liberals looked when they agreed to vote for Harper's bill, while promising to change it later.

As others read the new bill carefully, we will no doubt hear other concerns and criticisms. All who have an interest will have at least three months to formulate their concerns. The public only gets a chance to comment on C-59 in the fall of 2017, when Parliament returns. It is summertime now, which, for politicians means barbecues and picnics, not committees.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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!

Environmental law review recommends changes to Fisheries Act, National Energy Board

22 June 2017 - 12:47pm
Penney Kome

In June 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau announced an important review and update of four of Canada’s major environmental laws: The Fisheries Act, the Navigation Protection Act, the Canada Environmental Protection Act’s Environmental Assessment provision, and the National Energy Board.

By this June, 2017, the government had announced all the reviews' recommendations.

Some of the Acts haven't been revised in 20 years. Others, like the Navigation Protection Act, lost most of their authority in 2012, when Stephen Harper’s government drastically reduced their jurisdiction. In Harper’s version, the NWA protects only about 100 out of millions of Canadian waterways.

If you've never heard of the environmental law review, maybe that's because the government undertook several massive reviews simultaneously. Only the environmental-and-law groups seem to have made any attempt to publicize it. I can’t find any mention on general environmental groups' site, such as the Sierra Club website, or on Greenpeace’s either.

Says the West Coast Environmental Law website, "the government [has] announced a sweeping review of federal environmental laws...  This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help shape Canada’s environmental laws and to contribute to decisions that affect land, air, water and the climate."

Public comments were welcomed from November 2016 until as late as May 2017, and reports came out promptly. Which is to say that all of these committees and task forces have been remarkably quick to launch, implement their inquiries, mediate, and make recommendations -- sometimes stunningly earth-friendly recommendations.   For starters, every report recommends including and involving Indigenous people and Indigenous perspectives on land use.   

Another example: The House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, following its mandatory 10-year review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, issued 84 strong recommendations, including that the Act’s preamble be "amended:

The Canadian Environmental Law Association hailed this "breakthrough moment for Canada’s growing environmental rights movement."  Ecojustice lawyer Kaitlyn Mitchell said, "Environmental rights are human rights, and we applaud the committee for taking a clear, principled stance on the issue. This is a concept that transcends political lines and is fundamental to the advancement of a more just and equitable society."

CELA (Ecojustice) noted that "Ecojustice and the David Suzuki Foundation are partners in the Blue Dot Movement, a national campaign to advance the legal recognition of every Canadian’s right to a healthy environment. 

"Since 2014.... 153 municipalities across Canada -- representing more than 40 per cent of Canada’s population -- have passed declarations in support of the right to a healthy environment."

Similarly, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced a return to policies of protecting fish habitat, reversing the Harper government's 2012 legislation. CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) said, "The Government of Canada’s commitment to renewing the Fisheries Act is an unprecedented opportunity to put in place a legal and policy framework that will protect, restore and sustain Canada's fisheries -- and the rivers, lakes and oceans that support them -- for generations to come."

There were two parts to reviewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Environmental defence celebrated proposed changes to the CEPA’s list of restricted toxins and pollutants

"The committee also proposes to improve protections from chemicals of high concern... by requiring industry to prove safety before use," said the Environmental defence news release. This could be the edge of Europe’s "Precautionary Principle,"  which requires manufacturers to prove ingredients are harmless before releasing them into the public.

Also, the Expert Panel on [CEPA] Environmental Assessments, struck in order to restore public trust in the assessment process, reported back to the Minister in April. They recommended changing the terminology to "Impact Assessment" and widening the inquiry to include a more holistic approach about how change affects all living beings nearby, human as well as wildlife.

"Canadians demand big changes to environmental assessment law," WCEL celebrated. "The Panel’s report lays out a number of clear recommendations to guide assessments for proposed projects such as mines, pipelines and dams."

Over at the National Energy Board, the Expert Panel recommended splitting the NEB into two separate organizations -- the Canadian Energy Transmission Commission (CETC), and the Canadian Energy Information Agency (CEIA). The point of this would presumably be to restore public trust lost when the previous Prime Minister packed the NEB with his own appointees.  

Furthermore, according to one law firm's analysis, recommendations require that "At a preliminary stage, all major projects would be subject to a year-long deliberation by the Governor in Council (GIC), to determine whether a project aligns with the 'national interest.' On approval, the project would move to a detailed review and environmental assessment, followed by a licensing decision..."

On the other hand, Council of Canadians is furious about what Trudeau's government did not do with the Navigation Protection Act. Stephen Harper's government eliminated the Navigable Waters Protection Act and stripped federal environmental protection from practically all Canada’s lakes, rivers and streams.

Unfortunately, says the Council of Canadians, Transport Canada's report does not restore that protection. "Only 1 per cent of the 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers in Canada will be protected under the Navigation Protection Act," says Emma Lui, water campaigner for the Council of Canadians. "The federal government is abandoning its responsibility and its promise to protect people's right to navigation and safeguard freshwater in Canada."

All of the federal departments involved will now look over the recommendations they have received, and respond by proposing new legislation or regulations. Although most of the recommendations seem earth-friendly, there is no guarantee they will ever be adopted, much less adopted as proposed.

Look for new legislation to come forward in the fall. And if you're interested, you will really have to search. If the past is any indicator, the only public information available is likely to be from enviromental law websites like WCEL, Ecojustice, Environmental Defence, or maybe Council of Canadians.

Media silence on this seems odd. With climate change threatening us all, debates over environmental legislative reform deserve to be headline news.   

Image: Christina Turner

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RBC to axe 450 jobs while its shareholders are rolling in profits

22 June 2017 - 12:04pm
Nora Loreto

Is there a rule somewhere that says that journalists writing about bank profits or bank workers cannot mention the two together?

Quarter after quarter, and year after year, the same paint-by-numbers articles are written about Canada's largest banks. The story goes like this: the writer starts detailing record profits, moves to an explanation of how there is "turbulence," "strong headwinds" or "bumpy roads" ahead, a comment or two is thrown in from industry analysts to support the official line of the bank, and voilà! The tidy piece of propaganda has been published.

Rarely, do workers figure into the equation. It's as if $36 billion in net profits have nothing at all to do with workers.

This trend was bucked earlier in 2017, when the banks' first quarter results were released at about the same time as a CBC Go Public report about how poorly the Big Banks' staff are treated. It reminded some journalists that they are allowed to cross the wall between working conditions and corporate profits.

Yesterday, the Royal Bank of Canada announced that it would be cutting 450 jobs, mostly in the Toronto-area. "Canadian banks have been shaving costs in recent years as they strive to grow their earnings amid slowing loan growth at home," is how the Canadian Press justified the cuts.

What they didn't mention though, is that in Q2 2017, the Royal Bank netted $2.8 billion. This is up 9 per cent from Q2 results in 2016.

Two-point-eight-goddamned-billion dollars in profit and they are severing the lifelines of 450 families.

The amount of money that 450 full-time staff, working 30 hours per week and 52 weeks per year represents is nothing compared to these record-breaking profits. If we imagine these workers made an average of $15/hour, that's about $10.5 million dollars gross (payroll taxes not included). Aside: RBC CEO David McKay made $11.52 million in 2016.

These 450 workers are paid about 0.00375 per cent of those net profits. Rather than giving people work, the money will be removed from their personal budgets (what currently goes towards their housing costs, food and maybe a night out from time to time) and go into the pockets of shareholders; shareholders who may spend it, or quite likely, will horde it or hide it, far away from the prying redistributive policies of the Canada Revenue Agency.

RBC has promised to help find these laid-off workers new jobs, but that will be hard, considering that the five major banks operate in lock step with one another. They're all making record profits while at the same time, all finding way to rid themselves of human dead weight.

In March, CIBC (Q1 2017 profits of $1.4 billion) announced that it was eliminating 130 jobs in Toronto and replacing those workers with workers in India where costs are cheaper. When asked by the CBC if RBC would do the same thing, they insisted they wouldn't, not since they received backlash for eliminating 45 positions in Canada and outsourcing them to India.

In May 2016, BMO eliminated 1,850 positions. Their 2016 profits were $4.63 billion, a five per cent increase from 2015.

The banks represent the worst of how capitalism operates: incredible profits combined with incredible suffering among current and former workers. As bank workers aren't unionized, and governments encourage the grotesque pursuit of profits, there is no fair way to force the greediest Canadians to share some of the profits they take and take and take. And the employees are SOL.

It's here where we see in sharp focus that the unabated pursuit of profits harms Canadians: profits do not create jobs; in fact jobs are eliminated to amass even greater profits. And, as decisions are made at the Altar of Profit, the impact that these cuts have on individuals, their families or their local economies is of no consequence. They simply do not matter.

We are witnessing a massive reorganization of the Canadian state, where extreme greed is venerated and held up as being good, while families and communities struggle to scrape by on meagre salaries, and in housing markets that they are priced out of.

At the very least, Canadians need business journalists to track these trends, to add a modicum of criticism to their coverage and challenge the talking points of bankers and bank analysts.

Because otherwise, how are we to know who to blame for our suffering?

Photo: Henrickson/Wikimedia Commons

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Unions need to promote equality for Indigenous people inside and outside of the workforce

22 June 2017 - 9:35am
June 22, 2017Justice for Indigenous workers both in the workplace and in the unionUnions need to promote equality for Indigenous people inside and outside of the workforce, but they can't force employers to change how they think and what they do.

Justice for Indigenous workers both in the workplace and in the union

21 June 2017 - 4:10pm
Meagan Gillmore

A union brought National Aboriginal Day celebrations to Estevan, Saskatchewan for the first time this year.

Members of CUPE 5999, which represents health-care workers across Sun Country in the south-eastern part of the province, hosted a free barbecue in the town's Centennial Park on Wednesday. The local's Aboriginal committee organized the event. Elders from nearby Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation brought a teepee, bannock and an art display. Métis dancers and dancers from Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation performed.

Jodi Gosselin, chair of the Aboriginal committee, told rabble.ca before the event that she hoped it would show Canadians that Indigenous cultures are important to celebrate. She hoped Indigenous community members would see Estevan as a welcoming place.

Gosselin knows that isn't always the case. She experienced verbal and physical racism growing up in the community because she's Métis -- and she still sees racism there today.

She's dedicated to educating people about the value of Indigenous culture. Gosselin's been involved in CUPE for more than a decade. She's taught mandatory education about Indigenous people and cultures to new employees, and because of that was asked to get more involved. She helped restart the local's Aboriginal committee about a year ago. She'd been involved with it previously, but the committee had disbanded because of low interest. Gosselin approached the executive about starting it up again when she saw increased interest.

Gosselin was right. Local president Wanda Edwards said that bylaws were changed so five people could be on the committee, instead of the regular three. Celebrating National Aboriginal Day was one of its priorities, as is collecting information about how many of the local's 1,200 to 1,500 members identify as Indigenous.

Gosselin, also a member of CUPE's National Aboriginal Council, said she's "pretty much addicted" to this work, and would continue working on the local's Aboriginal committee if it continues.

"Right from the beginning of our market economy, Indigenous people played a really important role," said Lynne Fernandez, who holds the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba. Fernandez, along with University of Winnipeg professor Jim Silver described the history of Indigenous people in labour in their paper "Indigenous People, Wage Labour and Trade Unions: the Historical Experience in Canada," released earlier this year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The paper details how Indigenous people were critical to establishing Canada's capitalist economy across the country. At one time, most of the paid workers in British Columbia were Indigenous, working in canneries, mines, mills and as domestic workers, often travelling long distances to urban centres for jobs. In 1887, the majority of employees in Manitoba's two largest fishing companies were Indigenous. (Though, as the article notes, some Indigenous people didn't support commercial fishing, concerned about how it would impact their way of life.)

Indigenous people were active unionists. Indigenous fishermen supported strikes along the Fraser River in 1893. In 1906, longshoremen played a key role in forming a local of the Industrial Workers of the World. By the 1950s, nearly half of Kahnawake Mohawk high steel workers in Quebec were union members.

Yet, Indigenous workers were often replaced by Chinese or Japanese workers. Fernandez and Silver's paper suggests this was partly because Indigenous workers also relied on sustenance work; they didn't always need paid labour. This made Chinese and Japanese workers easier to control, the paper suggests. In other regions of Canada, employers would hire white settlers instead.

The 150th anniversary of Confederation and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission give everyone in Canada a chance to reflect on what reconciliation with Indigenous people means, she said.

"It's up to us to figure out what to do about these injustices, because they've given us so much, but the legacy for them has not been just, has not been fair," said Fernandez. "Not only have we taken everything away from them, but we have not acknowledged the contribution that they've made to our modern society."

Unions haven't always helped, either. The paper describes how union activities sometimes restricted Indigenous people's employment, like fighting subcontractors, many of who hired Indigenous workers. But Indigenous people also oppose unions at times -- there's a reason Fernandez and Silver's paper describes the relationship between unions and Indigenous as "mixed." Some Indigenous leaders go to court to oppose unionization of workers at some businesses, like casinos, on reserves. And, the paper notes, some Indigenous people view unions as another form of colonialism.

Gosselin said she's heard Indigenous leaders describe their "fear" of unions. They're concerned unions are just another colonial agent, or they're worried they won't be able to pay chief and council on reservations if they become unionized.

Fernandez said that colonialism isn't the only reason Indigenous workers may not be involved with unions. Few workers are engaged with their unions, regardless of whether or not they're Indigenous, she said. She and Silver are preparing a report about experiences of Indigenous workers in CUPE 500, the local representing Winnipeg city workers. Only 15 Indigenous workers participated, she said. Racism was a theme, she said, but the workers said they were "broadly supportive" of unions and knew they had more protection in a unionized workplace than a non-unionized one.

Unions need to promote equality for Indigenous people inside and outside of the workforce, she said, but they can't force employers to change how they think and what they do. Unions can make recommendations, she said, but employers have to decide if they're going to act on them.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Image: Mathieu Côté/Wikimedia Commons

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babble book lounge invites readers to discuss 'Unsettling Canada'

21 June 2017 - 10:33am
June 21, 2017'Unsettling Canada': Must-read book is a national wake-up callAs Canada Day approaches, the babble book lounge invites you to dialogue about a book which takes a hard look at the relationship between settlers and Indigenous people throughout Canadian history.

WATCH: Injured workers and allies call for justice

21 June 2017 - 10:01am
YouTubeNadine MacKinnonLabourPolitical ActionJune 21, 2017Best-of-the-net

Workers, friends and allies call for justice on Injured Workers' Day with a rally and march.

injured workers' dayinjured workersLabour reformworker safety

Agriculture Census provides new look at farming in Canada

21 June 2017 - 9:25am
June 21, 2017Agriculture stats call for political will as family farms dwindle In 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.

Employees with disabilities need more than a government strategy, say advocates

20 June 2017 - 3:28pm
Meagan Gillmore

The Ontario government's recently announced strategy to increase employment of people with disabilities lacks concrete details about how to meet the complex problem, disability advocates say.

The strategy, called Access Talent, was released earlier this month. It challenges all Ontario employers with more than 20 employees to hire at least one more person with a disability, resulting in approximately 56,000 more jobs.

The strategy focuses on four main areas: better preparing youth with disabilities for employment; supporting employers to hire employees who have disabilities; integrating government-operated services and making the government a leader in accessibility.

"Access Talent is a starting point," the strategy says, noting ongoing consultations will refine the strategy. The government will consult with Indigenous and Francophone groups to ensure programs are culturally appropriate, the strategy says.

Advocates and service organizations welcomed the announcement, but the lack of details in the strategy tempered their enthusiasm.

Tobi Muntaz, adult services coordinator at Autism Ontario, said the strategy addresses "fantastic and necessary work." But she stressed the importance of people finding meaningful and sustainable jobs. "It's great that we've created jobs," she said, "but are they jobs that people are happy in?"

Muntaz called the strategy "high-level and lofty." It offers few specifics about the government's plans.

The strategy announced initiatives like an employers' partnership table and an online portal for employers to share experiences and resources, as well as providing more personalized services and supports in the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to help youth gain employment. The strategy also includes a new supported employment program through Employment Ontario that will provide high-quality services to people looking for work and support for employers.

In an email to rabble.ca, the government said it will increase annual funding to ODSP Employment Supports by $2 million in 2017-2018. Another $1 million is slated for public education.

There are few specifics about the strategy. The employers' partnership table has not been formed. The government has not determined how it will track which businesses are hiring employees with disabilities. The online portal will be available in the "near future," the government said. About the supported employment program, the government said it is beginning to "assess the willingness and readiness of service providers" in Cornwall, Timmins and Belleville, locations where the government hopes to implement the strategy by April 2018.

The lack of details frustrated some disability advocates.

In a release, David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance, a non-partisan group committed to accessibility in the province, criticized the government for continually moving slowly when addressing the unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities.

The strategy "too often re-announces things government had said it was already doing," Lepofsky said in the statement, noting more consultations could result in months of delays. "After years of waiting, what we need instead is a plan to hit the ground running now, with immediate, practical action that will quickly help get jobs for far too many unemployed and under-employed Ontarians with disabilities," he said.

The alliance asked the government to consult with them, Lepofsky told rabble.ca in an email. He called the government's failure to do so "really inexcusable."

Donald Prong, executive director of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, said the strategy has the government "singing the same tune over and over again."

"There's nothing new there," he said, calling new initiatives "regurgitated information to help (the government) win the next election."

Prong emphasized the government needs to "walk the talk" and hire more Deaf people. Most Deaf provincial government employees work at Deaf schools run by the province, not in mainstream departments people with disabilities use, like the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS) that administers ODSP. Frontline workers' lack of knowledge about the struggles Deaf people face every day is "scary," he said.

Employing people with disabilities isn't always simple

The government's Access Talent strategy repeatedly stresses the need to show employers that people with disabilities are good workers, and that making workplaces where they can demonstrate their skills is simple.

Getting government supports for adults with developmental disabilities can be difficult. Services in the education system end at age 21. Adults may wait years to access programs from Developmental Services Ontario (DSO). Not all people who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) qualify for DSO, said Tobi Muntaz. Eligibility is partly based on IQ scores. If someone has ASD and a high IQ, they may not qualify for DSO services. They may still need funding for support in learning skills like personal hygiene or social interactions, critical when accessing jobs.

"There's just a lot of ways that you can become ineligible (for DSO services), and only one way that you can become eligible," said Muntaz.

People with ASD can struggle learning "the hidden curriculum" of skills like communicating with authority figures, she said.

Each person may need different things to excel at work. These could include completing job interviews online, or changing the workplace environment to eliminate distractions. Employers could let people work from home if that's an environment where workers can be most productive, Muntaz said. But this requires employers to be flexible, and for employees with ASD to know what they need and how to ask for it.

When that happens, employees can succeed. David Moloney has worked at CIBC in Toronto since 2007. He recently began training for a back office job after years as a branch ambassador interacting with customers. He enjoyed his previous position, but likes how his new role gives him more routine and could allow for job advancement.

Moloney, who was diagnosed with Asperger's as a young adult, said he used to be extremely shy. He's gotten better at being in large groups, and "revels" in public speaking, he said. But difficulty understanding social cues "is something that's always with me." He credits his success to a job coach he accessed through ODSP Employment Supports, and supportive managers.

Not everyone has these resources.

Donald Prong said Deaf employees face particular barriers, partly because of limited education opportunities. They're also sometimes excluded from broader groups of people who have disabilities. This is because Deaf people are a linguistic, cultural minority group, he said.

More employers are used to accommodating people who use wheelchairs or installing assistive technology for people with visual impairments. (The Access Talent strategy repeatedly mentions helping employers get adaptive technology or assistive devices.) But the language barrier to communicate with a Deaf person can intimidate employers. Prong has heard about Deaf employers who were reprimanded for not following new health and safety procedures. But the policies were presented at staff meetings where there was no sign language interpretation.

Deaf employees will likely need a sign language interpreter to succeed at work -- an added cost for employers. Unlike wheelchairs that only need replacement every few years, sign language interpretation is an ongoing need. Prong worked in human resources at a large non-profit before coming to the Ontario Association for the Deaf. He says he succeeded at that job because he had a sign language interpreter at work.

The Ontario Association of the Deaf participated in a community forum about the government's strategy. It recommended employers receive tax breaks for hiring interpreters.

Moloney said he's not concerned the government's challenge for employers to hire more people with disabilities will lead to tokenism.

"I personally believe that however we can do it, we should get as many people with disabilities (jobs)," he said. "It's on us, and various employers, to employ people with disabilities not because they need the work, but because it makes sense."

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

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Agriculture stats call for political will as family farms dwindle

20 June 2017 - 10:29am
Food & HealthLabourPolitics in Canada

In mid-May the federal government began a multi-stage release of the long-awaited results of the 2016 Agriculture Census. Frustratingly, the last of the data releases will happen in late 2018. Still, while lots of the detail of this census has yet to be revealed, there is enough information to see if anything much has changed in the big picture.

The last major census was in 2011, and since then most of us have had to guess at exactly what has been happening to farms in Canada. This new release of ag info only serves to confirm that the loss of family farmers continues.

Since 2011, Canada has lost another six per cent of its farms and close to eight per cent of farm operators. The 2016 Agricultural Census also shows that there is a three per cent increase in the number of farmers under the age of 35, with the majority being between 25 and 29. This is the first time there has been an increase in this age category since 1991, attesting to the rise of young agrarians. More than half of these farmers are renting land. Since the price of land and buildings has increased by 39 per cent since 2011, access to land is a huge issue.

When you look at the overall picture -- and what has been happening to family farms in Canada over the last 45 years -- the trend is disheartening.

In 1971 there were 366,110 agricultural operations in Canada. In 2016 that number had dropped by more than 47 per cent to 193,492. During that same period, farm size had increased by 44 per cent.

With more than 50 per cent of farmers now over the age of 55, we can expect the loss of more farmers in the future unless fundamental changes are made to agricultural policy. Essentially, in order to ensure food security in Canada, policies need to encourage a new generation of farmers. That would include policies that ensure retiring farmers have adequate pensions so that they can transfer land to the next generation without having to sell their land to the highest bidder just to survive retirement.

Innovative policies, such as support for land trusts, cooperatives, and other forms of land tenure, should be adopted. And, importantly, young farmers starting out need access to credit at reasonable rates so that they can operate. There are a number of creative models that we can apply. Taking a look at some of the alternatives initiated by the Quebec government would be a good start. But there are also others. Many are outlined here.

As well, policy-makers need to recognize the reality of farm incomes in this country. Farmers have long known they are asset-rich and cash-poor, but to encourage family farmers, net incomes need to increase. In urban areas it is called a living wage. This chart and blog entry, prepared by researcher and blogger Darrin Qualman and called "Agribusiness takes all: 90 years of Canadian net farm income," tells the tale.

Despite the results of the latest agricultural census, I am happy to see that some information is finally being released. Without gathering these types of statistics over the long term, there would be no way of knowing exactly what is going on regarding food security in Canada.

Armed with the facts we are in a good position to take action. What's required alongside those statistics is creativity and political will.

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: Jim Fischer/flickr

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2016 agriculture censusCanadian agricultureagricultural policyCanadian FarmersAt the farm gatefood securityLois RossJune 20, 2017Ho-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.Hungering for commitments on a new Canadian food policy Harvest season may be over in Canada, but for activist farmers the work is never done. As winter approaches, food activists are advocating for long-term policy changes that are increasingly urgent.Need for national food policy intensifies as costs soar and food insecurity remainsThere should be no one suffering from food insecurity in a country as rich as Canada, yet this is a big issue. Here is why we need a national food policy that focuses on sustainability.

A roundup of political developments as Parliament prepares for summer recess

20 June 2017 - 9:45am
June 20, 2017Missteps, confusions and honours: The year so far in Canadian politicsWith Parliament looking to summer recess, it is a good time to reflect on what went wrong, and what to like.

Missteps, confusions and honours: The year so far in Canadian politics

20 June 2017 - 9:37am
Indigenous RightsLabourPolitics in Canada

With Parliament looking to summer recess, it is a good time to reflect on what went wrong, and what to like.

Maxime Bernier would be leader of the Conservatives today if he had not promised to dismantle the supply management system that provides income security for farm communities. It was a  surprising misstep since he had always supported supply management in Quebec where he gets elected easily in his home region, the Beauce.

Rona Ambrose helped people forget the worst about the Harper Conservative government, renewed her party, and distinguished herself as interim leader of the Conservatives. She was their obvious choice for leader. Somehow a confused party managed to exclude their best bet to lead it into the 2019 election from being in the leadership race. Instead they chose family-values candidate -- "Stephen Harper with a smile" -- Andrew Scheer. Ouch.

Conservative MP Michael Chong, Liberal MP Scott Simms, and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart want parliamentary committee positions to be filled by secret ballot. The three have done a book together proposing various democratic reforms to curb the powers the prime minister and party leaders wield over elected members of Parliament. Their work honours the place and the people who elected them.

The first task of a government is to put the right people in the right place. The Liberals have been so slow to appoint judges that the "justice delayed is justice denied" rule of the Supreme Court is being increasingly invoked to overturn criminal judgements because short-staffed courts took too long to convict. 

Before naming a Commissioner of Official Languages, the government is required by legislation establishing the post to consult with leaders of recognized opposition parties. Apparently nobody in the government read the legislation. The Liberals named a candidate who was forced to withdraw her name when it became apparent the government had bungled the nomination process. 

The list of unfilled offices is huge. The Liberals plan to make a batch of appointments all at once, when Parliament is no longer sitting. This contrasts with pledges to provide open and transparent government.

Democracy Watch is petitioning the Liberal government to "Stop Political Lap Dog Appointments." Instead of having cabinet ministers manage appointments, Democracy Watch wants an independent process, with appointments based on merit, starting with judges and the nine officers of Parliament.

In clear conflict of interest, the Trudeau government is under investigation by the ethics commissioner it plans to replace.

The concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) creates a general confusion in Ottawa.

The government names a new minister for democratic reform, and then closes down the democratic reform process.

The prime minister pledges to make decision-making more open and to make Indigenous peoples part of the process.

Except the Kinder Morgan pipeline is approved, forcing First Nations to go to court to have Supreme Court decisions giving them approval over resource projects on Aboriginal lands respected.

Closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy does not get done. The Cook Islands get to be a new tax haven for Canadian companies.

Asked about why tax injustices were not addressed in spring budget, the PMO confides it is concerned about what changes Trump is going to make to the U.S. tax code.

The Liberals planned to work with Hillary Clinton, and the election of Trump has pulled them severely off course. A form of panic has set in.

Bringing in Brian Mulroney -- the most disrespected prime minister in recent Canadian history -- to advise the government is a novel strategy.

If the idea is to build public support for measures that need to be taken to protect Canadians from a rogue regime in Washington, why consult someone who convinced himself this would never happen?

So many Liberal missteps in government suggest the main PMO operators are inept.

After serving 25 years as a Supreme Court judge, 18 of them as Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin announced she will be stepping down in December. Her achievements stand up to close examination.

In 2008 the McLachlin-led court overturned years of Supreme Court anti-labour decisions when it recognized the right to free collective bargaining as a democratic right under freedom of association. In 2015 the Supreme Court recognized the right to strike.

Under her leadership, the Supreme Court turned back Harper Conservative legislation on a number of issues, such as prostitution, the right to die with dignity, and minimum jail sentences for convicted felons.

When Harper took a public shot at her, she handled him with ease.

The McLachlin court broadened standards for recognizing Aboriginal rights: it is a requirement for approval of natural resource projects to get band consent if the land has been used traditionally by Aboriginals.

As Chief Justice, McLachlin spoke out on discrimination against women in law circles, and pointed to needed reforms.

At last count Beverley McLachlin had received 31 honorary university degrees. She has been a Chief Justice capable of shepherding, and writing heroic decisions. What more could be asked of her eventual successor?

Duncan Cameron is former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: BC Gov Photos/flickr

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Canadian parliamentTrudeau government2017 Conservative leadership racetransparencyCanadian Supreme CourtBeverley McLachlinDuncan CameronJune 20, 2017Canada's new foreign policy is the same as its old foreign policyReading the Trudeau government's new foreign policy announcements, it is difficult to see what the Liberals have to offer the world.When it comes to respect for Parliament, Trudeau is uncomfortably like HarperA year ago, the Trudeau Liberals were still new to power, and yet they seemed to be slipping into the arrogant habits for which they had fervently criticized their Conservative predecessors.Trudeau's do-nothing approach to electoral reform risks Canada's futureThe PM's warning that an extremist party could gain some seats in parliament under a proportional system ignores the fact that the extreme right can win a majority under the current system.

Opposition focuses fury on Tzeporah Berman, ignores oil sands advisory group consensus recommendations … why?

20 June 2017 - 1:50am
David J. Climenhaga

Do the leaders of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties and the participants in the media echo chamber that typically supports them have a substantive criticism of the recommendations of the Alberta NDP government's Oil Sands Advisory Group, or do they just like attacking Tzeporah Berman?

This is a serious question. It should be an important question for Albertans and other Canadians, regardless of their views of the merits of oil sands development, because the OSAG committee was made up of people with a range of opinions, some from industry, some from the environmental groups and some from municipalities and First Nations communities.

So someone really ought to ask Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney and the other right-wing figures who have pilloried Berman if they think the work of, for example, industry co-chair Dave Collyer, a former president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, should be treated with the same disdain as Berman's contribution has been.

The report the OSAG issued last Friday is the same work, after all. And by constantly vilifying one prominent environmentalist, these critics undermine the work of all members of the advisory group.

Collyer -- along with representatives of Cenovus Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resource Ltd., MEG Energy Corp., Statoil Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. -- agreed to the recommendations of the OSAG as much as Berman did. They produced a consensus document.

The only substance of the opposition criticism appears to be that the recommendations of the OSAG are worthless simply because of the presence of a few environmentalists, Berman in particular, on the committee.

Perhaps that is why no one from mainstream media picked up the phone and asked Collyer or the other industry experts on the committee about their thoughts on Berman's work. Their answers, after all, might not jibe with the Opposition narrative.

"I haven't even heard any criticism of the policies we all agreed on," Berman told me yesterday. "I find it deplorable that those who are vying for (political) leadership are attacking the government for trying to overcome differences and thereby create durable policy."

The opposition's approach, she said, was that "we have to agree on everything, or you're a traitor. It's sad."

The OSAG approach, by contrast, while tense at first, was after several meetings successfully collaborative. "I worked hard to build a respectful dialogue with industry. They had good people. ... I have hopes that this can be a useful example that it's possible to do this."

Industry, community and environmental representatives worked together with integrity, she said in a Facebook post on June 16, the day the government announced the end to the first two phases of the OSAG's work, and her departure from the advisory role. Some other members, including Collyer, remain.

There has been very little mainstream media reporting about the actual policies the OSAG recommended to the government.

Media emphasis has focused on Berman, who had the misfortune of becoming a lightning rod for the Alberta right wing's fury at the thought someone who does not completely share their worldview had a role in developing policy. For this, she was excoriated as an enemy of Alberta, and worse.

The closest thing to policy criticism was a June 16 piece in the Financial Post -- not available online as the Post renovates its website -- that said in passing the "punishing carbon diet proposed" by the recommendations would send operators scurrying to other jurisdictions, a contentious claim for which there is little evidence.

Being on the receiving end of the often-hysterical Opposition attacks was not pleasant for Berman. "It was vile, it was violent," she recalled from Vancouver yesterday.

After news releases published by the Wildrose and PC parties, and particularly after broadsides from the alt-right Rebel Media website, "I would get a slew of death threats, sexual threats," on social media. Comments were sometimes anti-Semitic, she added.

On one occasion, Berman said, she was physically assaulted in Edmonton Airport by a man who grabbed her, shook her, and spat in her face. She escaped into a women's washroom, then ran for the safety of the gate and her flight. "I travel in groups now in Edmonton."

So another question for Alberta's Opposition leaders might be if they consider this kind of attack on a woman travelling alone as an acceptable form of political discourse.

Many in the environmental community believe the emissions cap recommended by the OSAG is far too high, Berman added, "so I was subject to vilification from my side too."

"The sad thing is,” she said, the most vociferous right-wing groups "are playing on people's legitimate fears."

As the world transitions to a lower-carbon economy, "we need to be working together to figure out what that looks like, because we're going that way regardless.

"I have never said in 15 years on working on oil sands that it should be shut down overnight. I believe we are seeing soft oil demand globally and the highest-cost producers will be prices out of the market first.

"My goal was to help us create conversations that will help us create pathways from here to there," she said. "For families, communities, workers, we have a responsibility to develop public policies for all scenarios.”

And if we avoid the hard conversations, Berman warned, "we're not planning at all."

That may suit Alberta's Opposition of course. As history shows, it's the way Alberta conservatives operate.

Actions recommended in the OSAG report include:

  • Requiring all new facilities and expansions to use the best technology economically achievable
  • Publishing an annual forecast of greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands
  • Imposing more stringent restrictions if emissions get too close to the government's 100-megatonne annual limit
  • Penalizing companies that exceed their emissions limits

The OSAG report is not binding. Recommendations will have to be approved by the provincial government.

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

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Liberals show same contempt for parliamentary democracy as Harper government

19 June 2017 - 11:54am
June 19, 2017When it comes to respect for Parliament, Trudeau is uncomfortably like HarperA year ago, the Trudeau Liberals were still new to power, and yet they seemed to be slipping into the arrogant habits for which they had fervently criticized their Conservative predecessors.

When it comes to respect for Parliament, Trudeau is uncomfortably like Harper

19 June 2017 - 11:48am
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!

A year ago, the Trudeau Liberals were still new to power, and yet they seemed to be slipping into the arrogant habits for which they had fervently criticized their Conservative predecessors.

In Opposition, the Liberals had castigated the Harper government for its contempt for parliamentary democracy. Liberals pointed to the Conservatives' use of voluminous omnibus bills, which bundled all kinds of disparate and often unrelated new laws together, and frequent resort to closure to cut off debate. Then, less than a year into their own majority mandate, they were resorting to similar tactics.

Late last spring, Justin Trudeau's government introduced a draconian measure to force-feed its legislative program through Parliament, with scant chance for Opposition input. Liberals argued that, unlike Conservative tactics, their measure wasn't really so bad, because it was only temporary.

Even on such a sensitive matter as a proposed new law on assisted dying -- which would be subject to a non-partisan, free vote -- the Liberals seemed to lack the patience to allow Parliament to do its job. They wanted to rush the assisted dying legislation to a quick passage, indifferent to numerous MPs' pleas for a chance to put on the record their and their constituents' views on what is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.  

Elbowgate gave the Liberals pause -- for a while

The Conservatives did not have much ground to complain about any of this, given their own record. But New Democrats were livid, even if the country, at large, appeared to take little notice of what many evidently consider to be the arcane workings of Parliament.

Matters came to a head when, in a fit of pique at a minor NDP stalling tactic, the prime minister stormed across the floor of the House to play schoolteacher and sheriff all at once. In the process, he elbowed a New Democratic colleague in the chest.

The incident became, briefly, a cause celebre. Trudeau apologized for his behaviour, profusely and often. In the U.S., where apology is for losers, late night comedians had a field day with the incident and the multiple apologies. And the majority of Canadians, blithely indifferent to how Parliament should function, actually cheered the popular, young prime minister for having the gumption to teach a handful of parliamentary miscreants a much-needed lesson.

Trudeau's own caucus colleagues, however, were less forgiving. They know something about how Parliament should work. And so, despite public indifference or even applause, elbowgate had a chastening effect on the government and its leader. They pulled back their guillotine measure, and allowed more fulsome debate on assisted dying.

It is now a year later, and when it comes to respect for parliamentary democracy the Liberals look a lot more like the Harper Conservatives than the party of openness and transparency they once claimed to be.

To start with, the Liberal government persists in its efforts to change the rules of Parliament in such a way as to give MPs, especially on the Opposition benches, less say and less power. So far they have not succeeded, but there is still time.

Anyone who has not been living under a rock will know about Trudeau's brazen and flagrant broken promise on electoral reform. Less well known are the still unrealized promises to make parliamentary committees more independent. During the last election campaign the Liberals promised:

We will strengthen parliamentary committees so that they can better scrutinize legislation. We will ensure that parliamentary committees are properly resourced to bring in expert witnesses, and are sufficiently staffed to continue to provide reliable, non-partisan research. To increase accountability, we will strengthen the role of parliamentary committee chairs, including elections by secret ballot. We will also change the rules so that ministers and parliamentary secretaries no longer have a vote on committees.

Some committees, in this new era, have done solid, and even groundbreaking work.

Just days ago, one committee recommended a series of measures to address the malaise in Canada's media landscape. One of its many recommendations was to change the definition of a registered charity to include not-for-profit media.

That same committee also suggested that foreign news aggregators that publish Canadian news, and sell advertising directed to Canadians, be subject to the same tax obligations as their Canadian competitors. In addition, it recommended what has been called the "Netflix" tax. It proposed that the existing five per cent levy to support Canadian production, which all traditional broadcasters must pay, be extended to online broadcasters, such as Netflix.

The prime minister quickly rejected the "Netflix tax." We do not want to raise taxes on the middle class, he said, ignoring the fact that the tax would be imposed on highly profitable, foreign corporations. As for the many other recommendations of this committee, the government has made no comment, as yet. Nor has it expressed any view on what to do about the fact that a significant number of Canada's newspapers might be on the verge of disappearing. That matter, it seems, is under consideration.

Committee reports that languish in obscurity

Other committees that did salutary work include the special committee on electoral reform. The government not only rejected that committee's recommendations, its initial reaction was to mock them. A number of House committees laboured mightily, but far from the limelight. One of those is the human resources committee, which, in May, produced a long list of policy suggestions aimed at reducing poverty.

The committee made 53 recommendations, which deal with housing, Indigenous Canadians, new immigrants, youth, precarious work, training, income support and taxes, and many other policy areas. They include:

  • A recommendation that the government review coverage, eligibility and duration of employment insurance benefits to address the reality of Canadians who are in precarious, part-time and temporary work situations.
  • An increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income Canadians.
  • A review of social assistance rates for First Nations peoples on reserve in light of higher costs of living and limited employment opportunities.
  • A new system of food security programs to complement or enhance Nutrition North to address the extremely high cost of nutritious foods in remote, northern and Indigenous communities.
  • Enabling skilled immigrants to continue to access income support programs at the same time as grants and lending programs for training to acquire Canadian credentials.
  • Reviewing the changing nature of work, including the "gig economy," precarious employment, and taking action to ensure employment standards, and in particular employment insurance and related benefits, are modernized.
  • A new requirement that "community benefit/social benefit clauses" be included within federal public tender agreements, where possible, with the objective of encouraging the engagement of social enterprises.
  • A long-term (10-year) housing construction and repair program, with a focus on social housing.

If you have never heard about this committee's work it's not your fault. It has received almost no media coverage. Nor has the government publicly indicated whether it has noted any of the recommendations.

Corporate committee has more influence than any elected MPs

The 18th-century philosopher and historian David Hume said of his book A Treatise of Human Nature that "it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots …" Such seems to be the fate of a good many parliamentary committee reports -- despite the solemn Liberal promise to strengthen and properly resource committees. And, by the way, parliamentary secretaries -- ministers' understudies -- continue to sit on committees, as they have in the past, and continue to orchestrate the proceedings on orders from the Prime Minister's Office, as they have for decades.

One committee has garnered its fair share of media, and the attentive ear of the government, but it is not composed of MPs; it is made up, for the most part, of senior business executives. This is Finance Minister Bill Morneau's Advisory Council on Economic Growth, headed by the minister's good friend Dominic Barton, global managing partner of the massive worldwide consulting firm McKinsey.

The Advisory Committee has issued two reports so far, and they are definitely not gathering dust. The government is proceeding enthusiastically with its signature recommendation, to create an Infrastructure Bank. Morneau and Trudeau even chose to follow the Harper government lead by inserting the legislation creating the bank into a budget bill.

New Democrats consider the whole idea to be a kind of stealth privatization scheme; and even the Conservatives worry that the bank could be subject to political influence. The Senate, now stacked with Trudeau's non-party affiliated independents, is giving the Infrastructure Bank a rough ride. Senators are particularly affronted by the fact the government did not seek to create this new and costly institution through a distinct piece of legislation. In the end, the government might be forced to go back to the drawing board, but is not likely to abandon the pet project of its chief corporate adviser.

The Trudeau government seems far less seized with the advice it receives from elected members of Parliament.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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!

Not Rex: Support the Parkdale rent strike

19 June 2017 - 9:24am
June 19, 2017Not Rex: Parkdale tenants strike for housing rights The strike weapon is too important to be used exclusively by unions. Communities need to organize -- and strike everywhere.

Not Rex: Parkdale tenants strike for housing rights

19 June 2017 - 9:20am
YouTubeHumberto DaSilvaJune 19, 2017Not Rex

The rent strikers in Parkdale, like occupiers of vacant buildings in Montreal and eviction protesters in Vancouver, are coalescing into a nationwide housing rights resistance movement. The strike weapon is too important to be used exclusively by unions. Communities need to organize -- and strike everywhere.

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tenant organizingtenants' rightstenants' strikeaffordable housingResidential Tenancies ActLandlord and Tenant Board

The full-court press is now under way to get Canadians to ship their tax dollars to right-wing 'legacy' media

19 June 2017 - 12:35am
David J. Climenhaga

Right-wing newspaper owners want your tax money to subsidize their obsolete, mismanaged, and highly biased publications -- and it's starting to look as if they're going to get it.

As predicted in this space nine months ago when the Trudeau-government-commissioned report of the so-called Public Policy Forum urging corporate welfare for foundering mainstream media first appeared, the full court press is now being vigorously applied to get your tax dollars to bail out Canada's newspaper industry.

Don't assume that just because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has loudly ruled out a tax on Internet providers to finance this boondoggle that his federal Liberals don't view the boondoggle itself with favour.

On Friday, a newspaper publishers' lobby group called "News Media Canada” put on a push for the federal government fork over $350 million to create a fund to bail out the print industry and its spectacularly unsuccessful online advertising business, from which no one wants to buy ads.

This was clearly timed to coincide with the release the day before of the report of Parliament's Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, "Disruption: Change and Churning in Canada's Media Landscape." That report, intoned The Globe and Mail, a potential beneficiary of a newspaper industry bailout, "represents the federal government's attempt to find a sustainable model for funding Canadian journalism."

The newspaper publishers want you to pay up to 35 per cent of the salary of every journalist working for a mainstream media publisher, to be capped (for now) at $85,000 a year. Not all of them, of course, will actually be "journalists." Many will be managers or writers of advertising copy disguised as journalism.

Paul Godfrey, CEO of Postmedia, which likely stands to be the largest beneficiary of such a scheme, praised the Parliamentary report. "They were smart enough to notice that if they did nothing there will be no media in Canada," he said. (Emphasis added.) This statement, of course, is obvious baloney. Godfrey also asked: "You think we like cutting people because we just don't need them?" That quote may have been garbled, or it may be unintentionally telling.

Either way, count on it, industry bosses also expect to be able to continue mismanaging their newspapers as they have for generations, including their near total exclusion of progressive voices and their union busting and other appalling human resources practices.

Notwithstanding the latest details, what the Parliamentary committee and the publishers have in mind is pretty much the same thing proposed by last year's report of the so-called Public Policy Forum. The PPF is led by Edward Greenspon, a former senior Globe and Mail manager. The proposals in the PPF's "Shattered Mirror" clearly originated in the corporate boardrooms of the media industry long before the likes of you and I heard anything about them.

Arguments in favour of the planned bailout -- which the industry, of course, insists is not a bailout -- can be summarized as follows:

1.    It's not our fault; the Internet did it
2.    Real and responsible news is worth saving
3.    There will be a catastrophe if you don't bail us out
4.    Canadian democracy will suffer

There are four things wrong with this argument:

1.    It is their fault, at least it's not just the Internet
2.    Real and responsible news hasn't been provided by Canadian mainstream media for 20 years
3.    Not bailing them out won't be a catastrophe, or even much of a problem
4.    Giving them money and letting them carry on as they do now likely will harm Canadian democracy

Consider: As I wrote nine months ago, nobody had more warning of the extent and nature of the coming digital revolution than the Canadian newspaper industry, and it has turned the wrong direction at every step along the way to its current disastrous destination.

Or, as Andrew Coyne put it in a surprisingly on-point commentary in the National Post Friday, "this is not a case of market failure, but industry failure. Nothing whatever prevents readers from buying what we are selling. There is only our own proven incompetence at providing them with a product worth paying for. As an industry we have made every mistake it is possible to make, sometimes twice. Now we're going to make you pay for them." (You'd almost think Coyne reads this blog!)

Consider: The anti-social role played here in Alberta by spectacularly mismanaged Postmedia, whose shares are now worth about two-thirds of a penny each, but whose executives are paid millions in salary and bonuses. As English Canada's largest newspaper publisher, Postmedia will likely be the principal beneficiary of this scheme, even though its biased news coverage, hysterical denunciations of Rachel Notley and her government's polices, and daily support of the far-right Opposition parties have now gone completely over the top.

Newspaper owners will no doubt promise to use their free money deliver just a little bit more than their current formula of crime, crime, more crime and anti-NDP propaganda provided free by the shills at the Fraser Institute, but don't count on that ever actually happening.

Meanwhile, in another of the many articles softening us up for this idea, former CBC and Globe and Mail journalist Paul Adams, now a Carleton University journalism teacher, wrote in iPolitics that "in the steady coverage of their beats, newspaper reporters don't only act as 'watchdogs' -- calling out problems when they intrude. They also function as 'scarecrows' -- deterring trouble at city halls and legislatures by their mere presence."

The trouble with this is that most Canadian newspapers -- and in particular Postmedia's -- all but eliminated the beat system the better part of 20 years ago. There are no watchdogs, and damn few scarecrows. There is no shortage of corporate cheerleaders and right-wing shills, however.

And what about those of us who have already successfully invested in digital platforms -- especially small independents? Naturally, there will be nothing for us. This scheme is meant to favour the big players, and so it will.

Coyne frets needlessly that the government handouts his industry is demanding will inexorably lead to newspapers "much less interested in free markets, limited government, and … much more congenial to arguments for state intervention."

If only it were so! Alas, I'm afraid what we'll get instead is the same old stream of market-fundamentalist drivel and front-page editorials penned in Toronto demanding that we ignorant provincials in "the regions" vote for Stephen Harper 2.0 when next we have the chance to exercise our franchise.

Progressive voices will remain tightly shut out and a great cry of "freedom of the press" will go up if anyone dares to suggest that he who pays the piper should get to call the tune.

We have come a long way from 1970 and 1981, when a Senate Committee and a Royal Commission on the newspaper industry recommended solid measures that would have gone a long way to prevent the decline of news and make newspapers sustainable. The industry fought hard to protect its right to corporate concentration, plus the stream of unmarketable right-wing drivel it promoted as a result.

Now they are demanding a handout to float the pro-market claptrap and right-wing propaganda no one will voluntarily pay for. This is ironic, to say the least.

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

Photo: Kat Northern Lights Man/flickr

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