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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Harper’

The Long Dark Shadow of the Tar Sands

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

March, 15, 2009

The Alberta tar sands, says Andrew Nikiforuk, represent “a nation-changing event” which has made the rest of Canada into “a suburb of Fort McMurray.” A distinguished Calgary-based journalist,  Nikiforuk was in Nova Scotia in early March to discuss his new book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Greystone, $20).

The tar sands, boasts Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have made Canada “an emerging energy superpower.” Because of them, Canada now produces more oil than Kuwait, derives 9% of its GDP from oil exports, and has overtaken Mexico and Saudi Arabia to become the number one foreign supplier of oil to the United States.

Out of sight in the northern wilderness, the tar sands projects are tearing up a chunk of Alberta’s  boreal forest roughly the size of Florida — but, says Nikiforuk, the sands have their black, gooey handprints on every part of the country, whether we recognize it or not.

Our dollar, for instance, is now a petro-currency, driven by the fluctuating value of oil. When oil hit $147 a barrel, our dollar was worth more than the US greenback. When oil fell to $40, our dollar sank in tandem. That volatility hammers all our other industries, from coast to coast. How can you cultivate world markets for lumber, airplanes, software or newsprint when your dollar may, in a few weeks, gain or lose 40%?

The expansion of the tar sands is also driving the “deep integration” between Canada and the US envisaged by the iniquitous Security and Prosperity Partnership. International corporations own the tar sands projects, and their pipelines run south to Texas and Oklahoma — but not east to Quebec and the Maritimes. Atlantic Canada remains dependent on European and Middle Eastern oil, and on jobs in Alberta.  The oil and the profits get exported. The mess stays in Canada.

And it’s a colossal mess. The tar sands represent the world’s largest energy project, largest capital project and largest construction project. They also represent, says University of Alberta water ecologist Dr. David Schindler, “the Guinness World Record for environmental disaster.”

Bitumen is gouged out of the earth in strip-mines the size of cities, totally destroying forests and wetlands that once absorbed vast quantities of carbon. Then the tar is separated from the sand using immense amounts of steam and hot water. Extraction thus creates three barrels of liquid waste for every barrel of bitumen  — 400 million gallons every day, enough to fill 720 Olympic swimming pools.

This gunk contains salt, phenols, benzene, cyanide, arsenic and the like.  Because it can’t be dumped into the Athabasca River,  it’s stored in “ponds” on the riverbanks behind earth walls 80 meters high.  Nikiforuk calls them “raised toxic lakes.” They cover 60 square kilometers. Some are  20 km in length. They’re so big they’re visible from space.

Do they leak? Sure. Are they growing? Yes. Can we be sure those walls won’t rupture? Absolutely not — and if they did, says Dr. Schindler, “the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.” The ponds already contain pollutants equivalent to many thousands of such supertankers — a standing threat to the whole Mackenzie River basin, the world’s third-largest.

Extraction also burns enormous amounts of relatively clean natural gas in order to produce a low-grade hydrocarbon — like “using caviar as a fertilizer to grow turnips,” as one observer remarks. Along with the trucks, draglines, upgraders and so forth, all that combustion means that the tar sands emit almost as much greenhouse gas as the entire nation of Denmark, and are projected to produce more GHGs than all the world’s volcanoes by 2020.

But the sands produce tons of jobs and billions of dollars in corporate and personal taxes. And that’s addictive.

These are the reasons that the government of Stephen Harper — an oilman’s son, based in Canada’s oil capital –  is so cavalier about environmental matters. This is why Canada lacks an energy policy, a water policy,  an environmental policy, or a national debate about these issues — even as the tar sands transform Canada’s environmental record into one of the worst in the industrial world.

– 30 –

Stop, Thief! That’s My Country!

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

January 4, 2009

What I want to know is, by what authority are these monkeys doing this stuff?

The monkeys are the governments of Canada, the USA and Mexico – and what they are doing is, basically, stealing our countries, welding them together, and giving them to global corporations. Their instrument is the Security and Prosperity Partnership – which, astonishingly, continues to fly below the public radar screen, though its nature and purpose are perfectly well-known.

The SPP began in 2005, in – appropriately – Waco, Texas, where George W. Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. (Remember him?) The three agreed to “fast-track” the economic integration of the continent. In 2006, meeting in Cancun, the trio – Martin now replaced by Harper – created a North American Competitiveness Council, made up of 10 big-business CEOs from each country, who undertook to meet annually with senior government officials to discuss the corporate sector’s erotic fantasies about the new continental economy.

Notice that there’s no parallel Council of Citizens or Small Businesses. The governments are taking advice only from the CEOs of Ford, Lockheed, Merck Pharmaceuticals, Chevron, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Bell Canada, Scotiabank and the like.

They’re movin’ right along. An Alberta professor named Dr. Janine Brodie recently presented a paper on “Executive Power and the Privatization of Authority.” Now there’s a phrase. Brodie quotes Paul Cellucci, the former US Ambassador who berated Canada for not going to war in Iraq, as saying that “10 years from now, maybe 15 years from now we’re gonna look back and we are going to have a union in everything but name.”

Did you vote for that? No? Then by what authority are these monkeys doing this stuff?

Last fall, my friend Wendy Holm, an agrologist and writer in BC, reviewed the report of a Competition Policy Review Panel appointed by the Harper government to identify the changes that Canada needs to make in preparation for full scale North American economic integration.

For starters, the Panel thought Canada should smile upon mergers of large Canadian financial institutions. We were being needlessly cautious, since “appropriate regulatory safeguards already exist to protect prudential soundness, competition and the public interest.”

Ah. Right. Those would be the safeguards which worked so well for Bear Stearns, Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch, etc., and so efficiently protected the public interest that the US taxpayer is now on the hook for something like a trillion dollars. The Panel also recommended that, when considering big mergers, the “net benefit to Canada” test be dropped.

Breathtaking. Canadian householders and taxpayers are already paying for innumerable corporate bungles – and the government of Canada is not even supposed to ask whether such financial engineering is in the public interest?

The Panel goes on to suggest that Canada should neuter its Competition Act, welcome increased foreign competition generally, reduce corporate taxes, and open up Canada’s airline, uranium and telecommunications sectors to increased foreign investment. These worthies also thought that Canada should harmonize product and professional standards and legal requirements with the US. In other words, if we have tougher health and safety standards than the US, ours should be weakened.

Did you vote for that? I thought not. So by what authority are these monkeys doing this stuff?

As an award-winning agrologist, Wendy Holm focuses on food and agriculture. She sees the SPP as a direct threat to Canadian farmers (who would lose the protection of supply-management regimes) and to Canadian consumers.

“Canadians have not put a priority on farm and food policy because as a nation we have never gone without,” Holm writes. “Embarrassingly, Canada remains one of the few nations in the world that does NOT have a national food policy. But things are quickly changing, and community discussions around peak oil, peak food, food security, food safety, food miles, food sovereignty and food democracy are moving that change forward.”

Under the SPP, such discussions will be pointless. Canada will have lost the right to create or enforce national policies in areas like food, energy, and investment. Removing that right is precisely the objective of the SPP.

Did we elect these monkeys to give away the country? No? Then by what authority are they doing this stuff?


The Vanishing Prime Minister

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

December 7, 2008

I fear it’s all my fault. Six weeks ago, on October 18, just two days before the federal election, I made some innocent observations about the probable results.

“Consider the results of recent polls,” I wrote, “which show the Harper crowd at about 35%, the Liberals near 25%, the NDP around 20%, the Greens at 12% or so, and the Bloc somewhere under 10%. Do the math. If those percentages were reflected in seats, then any two of the first three would have enough support to challenge the Conservatives, and to ask the Governor-General for an opportunity to form a government…. And the centre-left parties don’t have to merge in order to rule. They only need to learn the tricks of coalitions and voting alliances, like politicians in other multi-party legislatures like those of Germany, Ireland, Italy, France and Israel.”

I didn’t know that the opposition leaders read this column so carefully. And now look what I’ve done – pulled the rug from under the government, turned up the heat on the Governor-General, and detonated a constitutional crisis.


What I didn’t predict, of course, was that the Prime Minister would precipitate the new era by popping his own head into the mouth of a lion and daring it to chew – an action rooted in his own cold cleverness and his appalling lack of judgment. (If he had had his way, remember, our soldiers would be fighting in Iraq and Maher Arar would still be in a black hole in Damascus.) This self-inflicted crisis could be a career-terminating move. His main appeal to his party was that he could win. Without that aura, he’s gone.

The government has gained a few weeks of life by persuading the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament – the first-ever use of prorogation as a survival technique. The Prime Minister presumably hopes that the opposition coalition will implode between now and late January – aided, no doubt, by late-night offers of Cabinet posts and Senate seats to any wavering Liberals. Shades of Stronach.

Meanwhile, the Harperites will try to whip up the Canadian public to smite Stephane Dion for trying to do exactly what Harper tried to do in 2004, and Stockwell Day in 2000 – join with the dreaded socialists and the separatists to take power without an election. And if his government is nevertheless defeated in January, Harper might even try to persuade the Governor-General to call another election.

In politics, six weeks is forever, and Harper could yet wriggle through. With a leadership contest underway, the Liberals are ill-positioned to govern, and the cracks in the glue that binds the coalition are easy enough to see.

Still, if the coalition parties can stay focussed on what they share, they may well be able to stick-handle their way to power, and they might make a respectable government. They have powerful incentives to make their partnership work, and substantial common interests in areas like the economy and the environment.

The arrangement is risky for the NDP, which will have to tolerate policies it fundamentally detests, like corporate tax cuts and the Afghanistan mission. But the NDP may be surrounded by what Pogo the peerless possum once called “insurmountable opportunities.”

The NDP’s political achievements – which include policies like pension reform, tax reform and medicare – have always come from controlling the oxygen supply of Liberal minority governments. The trap is that if the policies work, the Liberals get the credit and the NDP gets trampled in the subsequent stampede to majority government.

But a coalition could be different. The NDP would have its own ministers within the cabinet. If those ministers were deft and nimble, they could make a real difference – and also capture the credit for their achievements.

Not the least of their achievements would be ridding us of Stephen Harper.

“You know,” said a friend last week, “I’m beginning to loathe this guy almost as much as Mulroney.”

Hold on now, buddy. That’s a big claim. I admit that Harper has united both the right and the left, strained the fabric of the nation and single-handedly rendered the population bilious and apoplectic. But challenge Mulroney? Buddy, that’s a big, big claim.

– 30 –

Canada’s Political Kaleidoscope

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

October 12, 2008

It’s Saturday, and Election Day is Tuesday. The markets are making like ski jumpers, taking oil prices and the loonie down with stocks, and roiling the electorate as well. The election results are anyone’s guess.

But beneath today’s campaign, some long-term changes are afoot. For example, an insistent theme among the pundits has been the fragmentation of the left, and the advantage it gives to the united right led by Stephen Harper. The left, we’re told, will inevitably unite, as the right did, undergoing the political equivalent of a corporate merger aimed at regaining market share.

I’m not so sure.

Three of the four parties to the left of the Harperites are built around a strong set of principles. New Democrats are dedicated social democrats, the Greens are channelling the planet, and the Bloc Quebecois wants a sovereign Quebec. Furthermore, the NDP and the Greens have gained significantly in this campaign, and the Bloc’s support, though fluctuating, has remained substantial. Why would any of these parties throw in the towel?

That leaves the Liberals, innocent of principles, tacking to port or starboard in response to the shifting winds. In fairness, many Liberals would argue that a stable government for a country as large, fractious and varied as Canada must be a pragmatic coalition that eschews rigid principles. For the past century, that devout opportunism has been a winning strategy – but its day may be over.

The Liberals today find themselves led by an admirable Green-hearted man whose signature policy is a complicated tax measure that demands explication in a language still foreign to him, as the famous ATV interview clearly showed. Indeed, whenever he speaks, Dion infuriates the grumbling minority in English Canada who consider that the Quebec tail has been wagging the Canadian dog for decades. And the author of the Clarity Act is not even very popular in Quebec.

So, despite a brief blip of recent enthusiasm, the Liberals never gained much traction. The party has also been badly weakened by the Martin-Chretien wars, and by the out-migration of all its heavy hitters – Manley, Rock, Tobin, Copps, Graham, McKenna. Its surviving MPs are likely to be in a mutinous mood after the election. Without the discipline of power or the prospect of power, this is not a party with any great internal cohesion.

Now consider the results of recent polls, which show the Harper crowd at about 35%, the Liberals near 25%, the NDP around 20%, the Greens at 12% or so, and the Bloc somewhere under 10%. Do the math. If those percentages were reflected in seats, then any two of the first three would have enough support to challenge the Conservatives, and to ask the Governor-General for an opportunity to form a government. They could then do what Harper has done, namely to attract just enough support from a third party to survive the inevitable votes of confidence.

That won’t happen soon. But the numbers underline the point that Canada is a centre-left country which is now being steered by a right-wing minority. That’s an unstable situation. And the centre-left parties don’t have to merge in order to rule. They only need to learn the tricks of coalitions and voting alliances, like politicians in other multi-party legislatures like those of Germany, Ireland, Italy, France and Israel.

The party which seems at risk is the Liberal Party. Its only real raison d’etre was to put a roof over an improbable alliance of interest groups, and that alliance has fallen apart. Its once-solid base in Quebec has vanished, as has its once-reliable strength among women and immigrants. Its weakness could easily accelerate into collapse.

For that matter, the Harper Conservatives remain an uneasy marriage of former Progressive Conservatives and Western true-believers held together largely by the unfamiliar experience of power. When the party loses power and Harper moves on – which will eventually happen – will the Conservative Party also unravel, as it did after Brian

In terms of seats, the next Parliament may well resemble the last one. Beneath the surface, though, strong currents are running. Politically, this election looks like a watershed – the true end of the last century, and the real beginning of the new one.

– 30 –

Kabul on the Rideau

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Not long ago, I received a warm and graceful fan letter from a Baptist minister in a small Nova Scotian town. He had just finished my most recent book, Sailing Away from Winter, and he had enjoyed it very much. He was puzzled, though, that I had included dismissive remarks “about evangelicals and their Bibles” without any explanation. Many evangelicals are very fine people, he noted, and he hoped I had not been soured by a chance encounter with a distasteful one.

Hmm. I did lob the occasional drollery at ardent and simplistic Christians, including a comment that I hadn’t found a wide diversity among cruisers. I expected — but didn’t find — “nature freaks camp-cruising in dinghies, young families poking south in dowdy old ketches, sleek stockbrokers in fast motor-yachts, drifting hobos in grotty ex-fishboats, students in cramped sloops, evangelists navigating by faith and laden with Bibles.”

Pretty innocuous. I assured the minister that I too know plenty of Christian fundamentalists who live generous and productive lives. But I also noted that evangelicals, by definition, evangelize, trying to convert others to their opinions. If that fails, they’re often quite willing to impose their values unilaterally.

And, I confess, I am intolerant about intolerance. I don’t care much for folks who believe they have The Truth and who don’t respect my right to disagree — and that applies equally whether the dogmatic proselytizer is a Marxist, a Catholic, a free-market fanatic, a tobacco totalitarian, a Wahabi Muslim, an environmental fanatic or a Holy Roller. I am not warm and fuzzy about people who want to dictate the way that my conscience and I will get along in this world.

Which brings us to the stunning example of Charles McVety, Stephen Harper, and Canadian film policy.

Canadian dramatic films generally require government funding, because films are ferociously expensive to make, and Canada’s small domestic market does not generate enough revenue to repay those costs. To have our own films, telling our own stories, we invest collectively in new film projects through public agencies like Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board, various provincial film offices and the CBC.

The process of financing a Canadian film is fiendishly complicated, involving broadcast licenses with TV networks, co-production arrangements with producers abroad, theatrical distribution deals, and much more. As a Halifax producer once told me, his job is “not about making the film. It’s about making the deal.”

The final ingredient in the deal – which comes in when all the other pieces are in place – is provincial and federal investment. Without that public support, we simply wouldn’t have a film industry of any importance, and we wouldn’t enjoy shows like DeGrassi, Bowling for Columbine, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Away from Her.

And that’s why the Canadian film industry is up in arms about proposed amendments to the Income Tax Act. The revisions provide for regulations allowing federal bureaucrats to withdraw funding for a film all by themselves, even after the funding has been committed by agencies like Telefilm. The funds may be withdrawn if the bureaucrats think that the project contains too-explicit sexual material, denigrates an identifiable group, portrays “excessive” violence without “an educational value” or is otherwise “contrary to public public policy.” Naturally, there’s no appeal.

And film producers won’t learn the mandarins’ opinions until they complete the film and file their tax return – and are denied the tax credit they were promised. At that point, the producers will presumably have to repay any government investment. Since few will be able to do that, many will face bankruptcy.

Sane producers will not put themselves in that position. Instead, they simply won’t make controversial, edgy films. Which – one darkly wonders – may be exactly what the Harperites have in mind. Paranoid? Enter Charles McVety, an evangelist, the head of the Canadian Family Action Coalition. McVety claims he’s largely responsible for convincing the Tory ministers, notably Stockwell Day, to implement this loopy idea.

“It’s fitting with conservative values, and I think that’s why Canadians voted for a Conservative government,” says McVety.

Well, no. Canadians voted to rid themselves of the Liberals, but, as the polls show, they remain wary of the Conservatives. And with good reason.

Today’s Conservative party is mainly yesterday’s Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, which were filled with zeal to re-make Canada on evangelical principles. Stephen Harper would never have been elected had he not managed to keep his nutbars in their wrappers. But now and again a Charles McVety gets loose, reminding us all that a nation which pleases the core Tory supporters will not really please anyone else.

As a Globe and Mail letter-writer observed, at least this episode tells us what to do about our troops in Afghanistan. We should bring them home. The Taliban are already here.

– 30 –