Canada’s anti-Palestinian voting record should disqualify it from a seat on the UN Security Council. Hopefully when member states pick amongst Ireland, Norway and Canada for the two Western Europe and Others positions on the Security Council they consider the international body’s responsibility to Palestinians. If they do it will be a rebuke to Canada’s embarrassing history of institutional racism against the Palestinian people.
Compared to Canada, Ireland and Norway have far better records on upholding Palestinian rights at the UN. According to research compiled by Karen Rodman of Just Peace Advocates, since 2000 Canada has voted against 166 General Assembly resolutions critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Ireland and Norway haven’t voted against any of these resolutions. Additionally, Ireland and Norway have voted yes 251 and 249 times respectively on resolutions related to Palestinian rights during this period. Canada has managed 87 yes votes, but only two since 2010.
In maybe the most egregious example of Ottawa being offside with world opinion, Canada sided with the US, Israel and some tiny Pacific island states in opposing a UN resolution supporting Palestinian statehood that was backed by 176 nations in December 2017.
The only time since the end of the colonial period Canada has somewhat aligned with international opinion regarding Palestinian rights was in the 1990s and early 2000s under Jean Chretien. In the early 1990s Norman Finkelstein labeled Canada “probably Israel’s staunchest ally after the United States at the United Nations” while a 1983 Globe and Mail article referred to “Canada’s position as Israel’s No. 2 friend at the UN.” In the early 1980s Ottawa sided with Israel on a spate of UN resolutions despite near unanimity of international opposition. In July 1980 Canada voted with the US and Israel (nine European countries abstained) against a resolution calling on Israel to withdraw completely and unconditionally from all Palestinian and Arab territories occupied since 1967. On December 11, 1982 the Globe and Mail reported that the “United Nations General Assembly called yesterday for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and for Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967. Israel, Canada, the United States and Costa Rica cast the only negative votes as the assembly passed the appeal by 113 votes to 4, with 23 abstentions.”
Canada’s voting record on Palestinian rights at the UN is an abomination. It’s made worse by the fact that Canada contributed significantly to the international body’s role in dispossessing Palestinians. Canadian officials were important players in the UN negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian land. Lester Pearson promoted the Zionist cause in two different committees dealing with the British Mandate of Palestine. After moving assiduously for a US and Soviet accord on the anti-Palestinian partition plan he was dubbed “Lord Balfour of Canada” by Zionist groups. Canada’s representative on the UN Special Committee on Palestine, Supreme Court justice Ivan C. Rand, is considered the lead architect of the partition plan.
Despite owning less than seven percent of the land and making up a third of the population, the UN partition plan gave the Zionist movement 55% of Palestine. A huge boost to the Zionists’ desire for an ethnically based state, it contributed to the displacement of at least 700,000 Palestinians. Scholar Walid Khalidi complained that UN (partition) Resolution 181 was “a hasty act of granting half of Palestine to an ideological movement that declared openly already in the 1930s its wish to de-Arabise Palestine.” Palestinians statelessness seven decades later remains a stain on the UN.
Over the past year the Canadian government has devoted significant energy and resources to winning a seat on the Security Council. In recent days, Canada’s foreign affairs minister has taken to calling individual UN ambassadors in the hopes of convincing them to vote for Canada.
To combat this pressure, a small group of Palestine solidarity activists have organized an open letter drawing attention to Canada’s anti-Palestinian voting record. Signed by dozens of organizations, the letter will be delivered to all UN ambassadors in the hope that some of them will cast their ballots with an eye to the UN’s responsibility to Palestinians.
Published today in the Toronto Star, this article is supported by more than a hundred artists, activists and academics including David Suzuki, Roger Waters, Noam Chomsky, Ellen Gabriel, Pam Palmater, Monia Mazigh and Roméo Saganash. To view the full list of signatories or to add your name, visit: https://www.foreignpolicy.ca/petition
Despite its peaceful reputation, Canada is not acting as a benevolent player on the international stage.
Rather, Canada ranks among the twelve largest arms exporters and its weapons have fueled conflicts across the globe, including the devastating war in Yemen.
In a disappointing move, Canada refused to join 122 countries represented at the 2017 UN Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards their Total Elimination.
Ottawa has also been an aggressive proponent of the nuclear-armed NATO alliance, and currently leads coalition missions in Latvia and Iraq.
Echoing Trump’s foreign policy, Canada has backed reactionary forces in the Americas. The Trudeau government has led efforts to unseat Venezuela’s UN-recognized government, while propping up repressive, corrupt and illegitimate governments in Haiti and Honduras. Canada also lent its support to the economic elites and Christian extremists who recently overthrew the democratically elected indigenous president of Bolivia.
In the Middle East, Canada has sided with Israel on almost every issue of importance. Since coming to power the Trudeau government has voted against more than fifty UN resolutions upholding Palestinian rights backed by the overwhelming majority of member states. The Canadian government has refused to abide by 2016 UN Security Council Resolution 2334, calling on member states to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied in 1967.” On the contrary, Ottawa extends economic and trade assistance to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. Should it win a seat on the UNSC, Ottawa has stated that it will act as an “asset for Israel” on the Council.
Canadian mining companies are responsible for countless ecological and human rights abuses around the globe. Still, Ottawa defends the most controversial mining firms and refuses to restrict public support for companies responsible for abuses. The chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights criticized the Trudeau government for refusing to rein in mining abuses while the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes has decried the “double standard” applied to Canadian mining practices domestically versus internationally.
Falling short of its responsibilities as a global citizen, Canada continues to oppose the Basel Ban Amendment on the export of waste from rich to poor countries, which became binding in late 2019 after ratification by 97 countries. Ottawa also failed to ratify the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Ottawa has refused to ratify more than 50 International Labour Organization conventions. In November 2019, Canada once again refused to back a widely supported UN resolution on “Combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
Violating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Trudeau government sent militarized police into unceded Wet’suwet’en Nation territory to push through a pipeline. The UN Human Rights Committee recently documented various ways Canada is failing to live up to its obligations towards indigenous people under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Ignoring front-line victims, Ottawa refuses to keep Canada’s dirty oil in the ground. Canada is on pace to emit significantly more greenhouse gases than it agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement and previous climate accords. Already among the world’s highest per capita emitters, the Canadian government is subsidizing further growth of heavy emitting tar sands, at the expense of impoverished nations who’ve contributed little to the climate crisis but bear the brunt of its impacts.
The international community should not reward bad behaviour. Please vote against Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.
David Suzuki, Award winning geneticist/broadcaster
Roger Waters, co-founder Pink Floyd
Noam Chomsky, linguist, author & social critic
Ellen Gabriel, artist and activist
Roméo Saganash, former MP Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou
Sid Ryan, former president of Ontario Federation of Labour and CUPE Ontario
Rawi Hage, novelist
Amir Khadir, former Quebec National Assembly member
Pam Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance, Ryerson
Judy Rebick, activist and author
Jord Samolesky, Propagandhi
Steve Ashton, long-serving member of the Manitoba legislature and cabinet minister
George Elliott Clarke, poet and professor
Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize co-winner (1976)
Trevor Herriot, author and activist
John Clark, activist
Charles Demers, comedian & author
Alain Deneault, essayist and philosophy professor
Martin Duckworth, laureate of the 2015 Albert-Tessier Prix du Quebec for cinema
Cy Gonick, former Manitoba NDP MLA and founding editor of Canadian Dimension
John Greyson, film-maker & professor
Syed Hussan, Migrant Workers Alliance
El Jones, activist, educator, journalist and poet
Gordon Laxer, author/founding Director Parkland Institute
Monia Mazigh, PhD, author and activist
Jim Manly, Member of Parliament 1980-88
Kanahus Manuel, activist
Tim McCaskell, educator & activist
Sheelah Mclean, co-founder Idle No More organizer
Serge Mongeau, author & editor
Mike Palecek, former National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers
Dimitri Roussopoulos, author, and long-time peace movement activist
A week ago a former Canadian soldier instigated a harebrained bid to kidnap or kill Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Launched from Colombia, the plot failed spectacularly with most of the men captured or killed.
Still, the leader of the invasion Jordan Goudreau, a veteran of the Canadian military and US special forces, has been remarkably forthright about the involvement of opposition figure Juan Guaidó. A leaked contract between Guaidó’s representative in Florida and Goudreau’s Silvercorp USA describes plans for a multi month occupation force, which after ousting Maduro would “convert to a National Asset Unit that will act under the direction of the [Guaidó] Administration to counter threats to government stability, terror threats and work closely” with other armed forces. Apparently, Goudreau was hoping for a big payday from Venezuela’s opposition. He also had his eyes on the $15 million bounty Washington put up in March for Maduro’s capture as well as tens of millions dollars for other members of the government.
As the plot has unraveled, Ottawa has refused to directly criticize the invasion launched from Colombia. The military has also refused to release information regarding Goudreau’s time in the Canadian forces. What’s more, since the plot began Canada’s foreign affairs minister has reached out to regional opponents of Maduro and reasserted Ottawa’s backing for Guaidó. The PM also discussed Venezuela with his Colombian counterpart.
The Trudeau government’s reaction to recent events suggest the global pandemic has not deterred them from brazenly seeking to overthrow Venezuela’s government. In a bid to elicit “regime change”, over the past couple years Ottawa has worked to isolate Caracas, imposed illegal sanctions, took that government to the International Criminal Court, financed an often-unsavoury opposition and decided a marginal opposition politician was the legitimate president.
The day after the first phase of the invasion was foiled foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke to his Colombian, Peruvian and Brazilian counterparts concerning the “Venezuela crisis and the humanitarian needs of Venezuelans.” Four days later Champagne tweeted, “great call with Venezuela Interim President Juan Guaidó. Canada will always stand with the people of Venezuela in their desire to restore democracy and human rights in their country.”
On Monday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Colombian President Iván Duque Márque. According to the official release, they “discussed the crisis in Venezuela and its humanitarian impact in the region which is heightened by the pandemic. They underscored the need for continued close collaboration and a concerted international effort to address this challenging situation.” Over the past 18 months Trudeau has repeatedly discussed Venezuela with a Colombian president who has offered up his country to armed opponents of Maduro.
The Trudeau government has been chummy with Duque more generally. After he won a close election marred by fraud allegations then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland “congratulated” Duque and said, “Canada and Colombia share a commitment to democracy and human rights.” In August 2018 Trudeau tweeted, “today, Colombia’s new President, Ivan Duque, took office and joins Swedish PM, Norway PM, Emmanuel Macron, Pedro Sánchez, and others with a gender-equal cabinet. Iván, I look forward to working with you and your entire team.” A month later he added, “thanks to President Ivan Duque for a great first meeting at UNGA this afternoon, focused on growing our economies, addressing the crisis in Venezuela, and strengthening the friendship between Canada & Colombia.”
But, Duque is from the extreme right — “le champion du retour de la droite dure en Colombie”, according to a Le Soleil headline. The Colombian president has undercut the peace accord the previous (right, but not far right) government signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end Colombia’s 50-year civil war, which left some 220,000 dead. Duque’s policies have increased violence towards the ex-rebels and social activists. Seventy-seven former FARC members were killed in 2019. Even more human rights defenders were murdered. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that at least 107 Colombian, mostly Indigenous, rights defenders were killed in 2019.
Through the first part of this year the pace at which social leaders and demobilized FARC members have been killed has increased. According to the UN observer mission in Colombia, 24 demobilized guerrillas have already been assassinated and a recent Patriotic March report on the “The other pandemic lived in Colombia” details 95 social leaders, human rights defenders and former guerrillas killed in the first four months of 2020.
Trudeau’s dalliance with Duque is difficult to align with his stated concern for human rights in Venezuela.
The same can be said for Ottawa’s failure to condemn the recent invasion attempt. The Trudeau government should be questioned on whether it was involved or had foreknowledge of the recent plot to invade Venezuela.
The backlash may be more revealing than the film itself, but both inform us where we are at in the fight against climate change and ecological collapse. The environmental establishment’s frenzied attacks against Planet of the Humans says a lot about their commitment to big-money and technological solutions.
A number of prominent individuals tried to ban the film by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore. Others berated the filmmakers for being white, male and overweight. Many thought leaders have declared they won’t watch it.
Despite the hullabaloo, the central points in the film aren’t particularly controversial. Corporate-industrial society is driving human civilization/humanity towards the ecological abyss and environmental groups have largely made peace with capitalism. As such, they tout (profitable) techno fixes that are sometimes more ecologically damaging than fossil fuels (such as biomass or ethanol) or require incredible amounts of resources/space if pursued on a mass scale (such as solar and wind). It also notes the number of human beings on the planet has grown more than sevenfold over the past 200 years.
It should not be controversial to note that the corporate consumption juggernaut is destroying our ability to survive on this planet. From agroindustry razing animal habitat to plastic manufacturers’ waste killing sea life to the auto industrial complex’s greenhouse gases, the examples of corporations wreaking ecological havoc are manifold. Every year since 1969 humanity’s resource consumption has exceeded earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources by an ever-greater volume.
It is a statement of fact that environmental groups have deep ties to the corporate set. Almost all the major environmental groups receive significant cash from the mega-rich or their foundations. Many of them partner directly with large corporations. Additionally, their outreach strategies often rely on corporate media and other business mediated spheres. It beggar’s belief that these dependencies don’t shape their policy positions.
A number of the film’s points on ‘renewable’ energy are also entirely uncontroversial. It’s insane to label ripping down forests for energy as “green”. Or turning cropland into fuel for private automobiles. The film’s depiction of the minerals/resource/space required for solar and wind power deserves a far better response than “the data is out of date”.
The green establishment’s hyperventilating over the film suggests an unhealthy fixation/link to specific ‘renewable’ industries. But there are downsides to almost everything.
Extremely low GHG emitting electricity is not particularly complicated. In Québec, where I live, electricity is largely carbon free (and run by a publicly owned enterprise with an overwhelmingly unionized workforce, to boot). But, Hydro-Québec’s dams destroy ecosystems and require taking vast land from politically marginalized (indigenous) people. Likewise, nuclear power (also publicly owned and unionized) provides most of France’s electricity. But, that form of energy also has significant downsides.
In the US in 2019 63% of electricity came from fossil fuels, 20% from nuclear and 17% from ‘renewables’. But, even if one could flip the proportion of fossil fuels to ‘renewables’ around overnight there’s another statistic that is equally important. Since 1950 US electricity consumption has grown 13-fold and it continues to increase. That’s before putting barely any of the country’s 285 million registered private automobiles onto the grid. Electricity consumption is growing at a fast clip in China, India and elsewhere.
Oil is another source of energy that is growing rapidly. Up from 60 million barrels a day in 1980 and 86 million in 2010, 100 million barrels of oil were consumed daily in 2019. That number is projected to reach 140 million by 2040.
On one point I agree entirely with critics of the film. It’s unfair to (even indirectly) equate Bill McKibben with Al Gore. Representing the progressive end of the environmental establishment, McKibben has engaged in and stoked climate activism. Gore was Vice President when the US led the destruction of the former Yugoslavia, bombed Sudan and sanctioned Iraq.
Still, it’s ridiculous for McKibben and others to dismiss the film’s criticism of his decade-long promotion of biomass and refusal to come clean on 350.org’s donors as divisive. “I truly hope that Michael Moore does not succeed at dividing the climate movement. Too many have fought too long to build it”, he tweeted with a link to his response in Rolling Stone titled “‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal.” Echoing this theme, Naomi Klein came to her 350.org comrade’s defence tweeting, “it is truly demoralising how much damage this film has done at a moment when many are ready for deep change.” Democracy Now, Common Dreams, the Guardian and other media picked up her remark.
If it is divisive to criticize McKibben’s positions, then the same must be said of his own criticisms aimed at those demanding the Pentagon be highlighted in decarbonization efforts. In a June New York Review of Books column titled “The Pentagon’s Outsized Part in the Climate Fight” McKibben pours cold water on those who have asked him about the importance of “shrinking the size of the US military” (the world’s largest single institutional emitter of fossil fuels) in the fight for a sustainable planet. In fact, his piece suggests the Pentagon is well-positioned to combat the climate crisis since right wingers are more likely to listen to their climate warnings and the institution has massive research capacities to develop green technologies. McKibben seems to be saying the green movement should (could) co-opt the greatest purveyor of violence and destruction in the history of humanity! (In the Wrong Kind of Green blog Luke Orsborne offers a cogent breakdown of McKibben’s militarism.)
McKibben’s repeated advocacy of the private electric car could also be considered divisive. In Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? McKibben calls for “millions and millions of electric cars and buses” (alongside “building a hell of lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields.”) Does anyone believe the planet can sustain a transportation/urban planning system with most of the world’s 7.8 billion people owning 3,000-pound vehicles?
When an electric car is powered from a grid that is 63% fossil fuels the GHG it contributes per kilometer of travel is generally slightly less than an internal combustion engine. But the production and destruction phases for electric vehicles tend to be more energy intensive and they still require the extraction and development of significant amounts of resources. Additionally, the private car underpins a land, energy and resource intensive big box retail/suburban economy. (For details see my co-authored Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay.)
Moreover, as Death by Car recently pointed out, “electric vehicles are haloware — a product that exists to distract attention from continuing SUV and pickup sales. If this thesis is correct, then it is a huge mistake for progressive forces to express enthusiasm” for electric vehicles. Of the 86 million new passenger and light commercial vehicles sold globally in 2018 about 1.2 million of them were powered by battery-only electric engines while 37 million were pickups and SUVs. In other words, for every new battery-electric car there were 30 new SUVs/pickups sold. Alongside growing buzz about electric vehicles, the number of SUVs increased from 35 million to 200 million between 2010 and 2018.
McKibben and associates’ ability to frame the film as divisive rests on the stark power imbalance between the ‘green’ capitalist and degrowth outlooks. While there are few profits in the consume-less worldview, McKibben is situated at the progressive end of a network of organizations, commentators and media outlets empowered by hundreds of billions of dollars of ‘green’ capitalism. This milieu has counterposed solar, wind and biomass to the hyper fossil fuel emitting coal, natural gas and oil industries. But, they aren’t keen on discussing the limitations of their preferred energies and the fundamentally unsustainable nature of limitless energy (or other) consumption. And they certainly don’t want any spotlight placed on environmental groups ties to the mega-rich and an unsustainable model.
But, in reality it’s not the criticism that bothers. Death by Car, Wrong Kind of Green, Counterpunch and various other small leftist websites and initiatives have long documented McKibben and associates’ concessions to the dominant order. Often more harshly than in the film. What is unique about Planet of the Humans is that these criticisms have been put forward by leftists with some power (Michael Moore’s name and the funds for a full-length documentary, most obviously.) In other words, the backlash is not a response to the facts or argument per se but the ‘mainstreaming’ of the critique.
The environmental establishment’s ability to generate hundreds of hit pieces against Planet of the Humans suggests the movement/outlook has amassed substantial power. But, it’s not always clear to what ends. Most indicators of sustainability are trending in the wrong direction at the same time as top environmental figures have risen to the summits of power. Québec’s most prominent environmentalist, Steven Guilbeault, recently became a cabinet minister in the Liberal government while the former head of World Wildlife Fund Canada, Gerald Butts, was Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff. These individuals happily participate in a government that oversaw a 15 million tonne increase in Canada’s GHG emissions in 2018 and then decided to purchase a massive tar sands pipeline.
The incredible popularity of Planet of the Humans — seven million views on YouTube — suggests many are worried about the ecological calamity humanity is facing. Many also sense that the solutions environmental groups are putting forward don’t add up.
The lesson to be learned from the film and the frenzied attacks against it is that questioning the system — be that capitalism or the mainstream environmental movement — won’t make you friends in high places.
While governments’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic proves significant resources can be marshalled quickly in a crisis, there is little evidence official Canada sees global warming as a comparable emergency.
Even though Justin Trudeau’s Liberals say they take climate change seriously, Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are actually increasing. According to the inventory report the government filed with the United Nations last week, Canada’s emissions grew to more than 729 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and its equivalents in 2018. This represents a 15 million tonne increase over 2017.
Incredibly, the editors at the Globe and Mail decided this information deserved a 75-word brief in the bottom corner of page 15. While Canada’s paper of record buried the story, it deserved front-page attention. The situation is dire. Temperatures are increasing steadily and so too the frequency/intensity of “natural” disasters. In 2019 there were 15 natural disasters linked to climate change that caused more than a billion dollars in damage. Seven of them destroyed more than $10 billion. Hundreds of thousands have already died as a result of anthropocentric climate disturbances and the numbers will grow exponentially.
At the 2015 Paris climate negotiation the Trudeau government committed Canada to reducing GHG emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (a major step backwards from Canada’s commitment under the Kyoto Protocol and 2009 Copenhagen Accord). But, this target is unlikely to be achieved. In December Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, said Canada was expected to emit 603 million tonnes of GHG in 2030, far above the 511 million tonnes agreed to in Paris (to meet the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Canada would need to reduce its GHG emissions to 381 million tonnes by 2030).
A November Nature Communications study seeking to reconcile the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5-to-2 C concluded that if the rest of the world flouted its commitments in a similar way to Canada temperatures would increase between 3 C and 4 C by the end of the century. A Climate Transparency report card release that month found that Canada’s plan to meet its GHG targets was among the worst (along with Australia and South Korea) in the G20. The November study found that the emissions intensity of Canada’s buildings, transportation and agriculture were all above the G20 average and that Canadians produced nearly three times more GHG per capita than the G20 average.
Expansion of the tar sands guarantees that Canada will flout its international commitments to reduce GHG emissions. According to the Parkland Institute, “bitumen production grew 376% from 2000 through 2018” and is projected to grow by another 1.41 million barrels per day by 2040. To expand extraction of heavy carbon emitting Alberta oil, the Liberals are spending $9 billion on the Trans Mountain pipeline and related infrastructure. Last week the government announced $1.7 billion to clean up orphan wells in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. While energy workers should be offered work cleaning up environmental devastation, the initiative is, in effect, a subsidy to a historically profitable industry that should be covering the costs.
This was not the first time the Liberals broke their pre-election promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. Ottawa continues to offer billions of dollars (as much as $46 billion, according to one IMF working paper) a year in assistance to oil, gas and other fossil fuel firms. While Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s 2015 mandate letter from the PM said he should “work with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to fulfil our G20 commitment and phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term”, there was no mention of this objective in either Morneau’s or Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s 2019 mandate letters.
Despite claiming to take the climate crisis seriously, the Trudeau government has failed to put the country on track to meet even dangerously insufficient targets for reducing GHG emissions. This is largely because of the oil industry’s power. The profits from oil and natural gas flow to their producers and distributers, as well as the banks that finance them, and other investors whose portfolios include these stocks. These are the people who, under the current economic system, mostly determine government policy.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is a bright cold day in April and clocks are striking thirteen. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
Gary and Yves Engler, father and son authors, discuss being funny, being serious, cancelled book tours, exploding sacred myths, pandemics, their latest books, and writing in the time of COVID-19.
(This conversation has been edited, because that’s what happens to writers.)
Y: It’s a pretty big financial hit, especially if we can’t make it up in the Fall. Tours are a big part of my income.
G: Other than that how is COVID-19 treating you?
Y: Weirdly it’s actually been pretty good. I’ve been making great progress with my new book because there’s nothing to do except research and write. Grandma care has rescued us from the daycare shutting down and I withdrew a dozen books about Haiti from the Bibliothèque Nationale the day before it closed to the public. How about you? How do you spend your days stuck alone in Saskatoon?
Y: That’s got to be the strangest title for a novel ever. Although it does pretty much describe the book. Anarchism, feminism and hockey, who would have thought you could combine all three in one story?
G: It took a long time to get it just right.
Y: Wasn’t I playing junior hockey when you started writing the book?
G: Thanks for rubbing it in. Actually I was still working in the Vancouver Sun sports department so you were probably in bantam (14-15 year-olds).
Y: You’ve been working on a book for 25 years? Boggles the mind!
G: I was doing other things — journalist, union rep, four other novels, two non-fiction books. Not everyone can pump out a book a year. Especially ones that require extensive research. The new one you’re working on, what will that be?
G: And an article every week. Your whole life, since the age of three when you liked something you did it, never tiring. You loved numbers and counting and you were wired on that before discovering hockey. That was the biggest thing in your life until 19. Then you just stopped. A few years later Canadian foreign policy piques your interest and you’ve been wired on that ever since. From hockey to writing and researching, no one saw that coming.
Y: The more you learn, the more you understand what you don’t know. School, you, Mom, everyone told me Canada was generally a force for good in the world but when I started looking, the details didn’t add up. You start questioning. Do you remember a coffee mug you had that said ‘Question Everything” on its side?
G: I do. Everyone at the Sun got one when the newsroom moved from Granville Street to the waterfront.
Y: Well I started questioning everything about what Canada was up to around the world. What I found was rather than being motivated by ‘doing good’ our foreign policy mostly supported the British then American empires and the interests of corporations and wealthy people. That’s the truth discovered when I question everything.
G: Strange. A quest for truth, that’s what motivated me to turn from journalism to fiction. What journalism uncovers is too shallow. Like fact checking what Donald Trump says. It’s necessary, but what about getting at the truth of why 45 per cent of Americans voters actually like and support their president.
Y: You’re saying fiction gets at that better than journalism?
G: Yes. My Fake News mysteries — American Spin, War on Drugs and Misogyny — get closer to describing reality in the Donald Trump era than you’ll find in newspapers. Fiction allows you to describe how people are feeling, what they’re thinking, self-doubts — pieces of human experience that seldom make their way into the news.
Y: Sorry, I’m calling you on that one. This interior truth is no way near as important as objective reality. Why has Canada been trying to undermine the Venezuelan government for at least a decade? To answer this question requires facts, not fiction.
G: My fiction aspires to much more than just ‘interior’ truth. I’m after Truth with a capital T. Like 1984 and Animal Farm about totalitarianism or Catch 22 about war. Joseph Heller was able to tell more truth in a novel about the experience of military life than all the reporting about the Second World War. Look, I agree good journalism is critically important, but so is fiction that entertains and helps us make sense of the world.
Y: Most people are finding that hard right now.
G: With lots of time at home maybe more people will begin to question everything.
Y: Or meekly accept everything their government is telling them.
G: That’s why I wanted to write a novel combining sports and politics. And the FAKE NEWS Mysteries. We need to reach people who enjoy escapist fiction and those who watch hockey in order to counter the pro-capitalist narrative that is everywhere. To get the truth out, to build economic democracy, to create an alternative vision of how we can organize society we must talk to as many people as possible, not just to those who already agree with us.
Y: In theory, in the long run, I agree with you, but my experience has been that the first step is to target as many of the existing dissidents as I can with my writing. Once ‘the left’ is onside with understanding the problems of imperialism, capitalism and nationalism, then we can more effectively go after a wider audience.
G: You don’t think ‘the left’ understands nationalism, capitalism and imperialism?
Y: No, unless you define ‘left’ very narrowly. Most people who consider themselves socialists or who dislike capitalism are fooled by appeals to support ‘their’ country, ‘their’ military, ‘their’ leaders. They are told over and over and over again that ‘we’ are the good guys and that countries ‘over there’ are the ‘bad guys’. The rich and powerful have been dividing and conquering us for an awfully long time. It won’t stop until we build a powerful enough international movement of people who understand how this bullshit oppresses us.
G: Do you think the current pandemic will be good or bad for international understanding and solidarity?
Y: Who knows? Both the broad left and the broad right are divided on the question of nationalism versus internationalism.
G: We can’t let the right own the idea that we must look after ourselves, because we should. Communities everywhere should be as locally self-sufficient as possible. The pandemic has illustrated that very clearly.
Y: Sure, but we can’t fall into the trap of only looking after ourselves. Of making the ‘other’ our enemy. We need to apply something as simple as a modified Golden Rule to the entire planet. ‘What we want for ourselves we must work towards for everybody.’
G: Surely COVID-19 makes the necessity of that much clearer. It really does prove we live in one world.
Y: So you are an optimist
G: Pessimism has never made sense to me.
Y: What are you working on now?
G: It’s called Love and Capitalism in the 21st Century, something I started over 20 years ago. It spans the time from the dot.com boom to today. This pandemic has given me the perfect ending.
Y: So you’re happy that COVID-19 has kept you home alone in your basement office typing away on your laptop creating the next great Canadian novel?
G: Happy? No. Being alone writing is great for about four or five hours a day. But then you miss human contact. Even writers need some of that.
With millions forced out of work and many more stuck at home, Canadians need to ask tough questions of organizations receiving billions of dollars to protect them from foreign threats. The country’s intelligence/security sector has done little to respond to the ongoing social and economic calamity. Even worse, their thinking and practices are an obstacle to what’s required to overcome a global pandemic.
A recent Canadian Press article highlights the failure of intelligence agencies to warn of the COVID-19 outbreak. They largely ignore health-related threats despite receiving huge sums of federal money.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) has more than 3,000 employees and a $500 million budget, which is nearly equal to that of the lead agency dealing with the pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) budget is $675 million and it has 2,200 employees. For its part, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) employs 2,500 and receives over $600 million annually. In 2011 Department of National Defence run CSE moved into a new $1.2 billion, 110,000 square metre, seven-building, complex connected to CSIS’ main compound.
CSE is but one component of DND’s intelligence juggernaut. Not counting CSE, the Canadian Forces has greater intelligence gathering capacities than any organization in the country. While their budget and size are not public information, the government’s 2017 Defence Policy review notes that “CFINTCOM [Canadian Forces Intelligence Command] is the only entity within the Government of Canada that employs the full spectrum of intelligence collection capabilities while providing multi-source analysis.” The Defence Policy Paper called for adding 300 military intelligence positions and expanding CFINTCOM’s scope.
CFINTCOM has a medical intelligence (MEDINT) cell to track how global health trends and contagions impact military operations. Apparently, they reported on the coronavirus outbreak in January but it’s unclear who received that information.
The $2 billion spent on CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM annually — let alone the more than $30 billion devoted to DND/Veterans Affairs — could have purchased a lot of personal protective equipment for health care workers. It could have paid for many ventilators and it could also have been used to raise the abysmally low wages of many who work in long-term care and nursing homes.
But, it’s not only that CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM resources could be better used. Their ideology and structures are an obstacle to avoiding/overcoming a global pandemic. Two weeks ago, CSE put out a statement warning Canadian coronavirus researchers to beware of malign international forces seeking to steal their research. A Canadian Centre for Cyber Security statement noted, “these actors may attempt to gain intelligence on COVID-19 response efforts and potential political responses to the crisis or to steal ongoing key research toward a vaccine or other medical remedies.” But, wouldn’t it, in fact, be great if our ‘enemies’ in Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else employed Canadian research to develop a cure or vaccine for COVID-19? Who, except extreme right-wing ideologues could believe a vaccine or cure should be patented and profited from?
It won’t be easy to shift their orientation to include pandemics. In a recent commentary, prominent intelligence agency insider Wesley Wark notes, “our security and intelligence agencies have never seen health emergency reporting as part of their core mandate, despite a plan laid down in the National Security Policy announced after SARS that unfortunately went nowhere.” For a time after the 2003 SARS outbreak the CSIS-based Integrated Threat Assessment Centre reported regularly on pandemic dangers, but the unit was soon collapsed into the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre. For the intelligence agencies “terrorism” is appealing because it justifies militarism and a ‘security’ state. Health emergencies, on the other hand, justify better work conditions for long-term care providers.
The CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM definition of ‘security’ is heavily shaped by corporate Canada, state power projection and ties to the US Empire. In criticizing Canadian intelligence agencies’ failure to warn/protect us from the pandemic, Wark highlights the dangerously narrow outlook of the intelligence community. He suggests CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM could have helped prevent the calamity by gathering better intelligence on China. But, if Beijing hid early information on COVID-19, it’s at least partly because China is locked in a destructive geopolitical competition with the US empire, which was instigated by Washington and its allies (from 1949 to 1970 Canada refused to recognize China and in 1950 sent 27,000 troops to Korea largely to check Chinese nationalism). In recent months CSIS/CSE/CFINTCOM have sought to identify China as a threat.
Wark’s thinking must be rejected. Avoiding and overcoming global pandemics requires a free exchange of health information. It also requires international solidarity.
After the COVID-19 crisis dies down, progressives should renew their push to devote intelligence agencies’ resources towards initiatives that protect ordinary Canadians’ security, rather than the interests of the rich and powerful.
As Canadians focus on the coronavirus pandemic the Trudeau government announced it was lifting its suspension of arms export permits to Saudi Arabia. It has also renegotiated the government’s $14 billion armoured vehicle deal with the belligerent, repressive, monarchy.
This is not surprising. The government set the stage for this decision when with its September review that found no evidence linking Canadian military exports to human rights violations committed by the Saudis. The Global Affairs review claimed there was no “credible” link between arms exports to the Saudis and human rights abuses even though the April 2016 memo to foreign minister Stéphane Dion originally approving the armoured vehicle export permits claimed they would assist Riyadh in “countering instability in Yemen.” The five year old Saudi led war against Yemen has left 100,000 dead. Throughout their time in office the Liberals have largely ignored Saudi violence in Yemen.
Despite a great deal of public attention devoted to a diplomatic spat, after Riyadh withdrew its ambassador over an innocuous tweet from the Canadian Embassy in August 2018, the Liberals have sought to mend relations and continue business as usual. In December 2018 HMCS Regina assumed command of a 33-nation Combined Maritime Forces naval coalition patrolling the region from Saudi Arabia. Last September foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “Saudi Arabia is an important partner for Canada and we continue to work with Saudi Arabia on a number of different issues at a number of different levels.” For its part, the Canadian Embassy’s website continues to claim, “the Saudi government plays an important role in promoting regional peace and stability.”
According to an access to information request by PhD researcher Anthony Fenton, Freeland phoned new Saudi foreign minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf in January 2019. In briefing notes for the (unannounced) discussion Freeland was encouraged to tell her counterpart (under the headline “points to register” regarding Yemen): “Appreciate the hard work and heavy lifting by the Saudis and encourage ongoing efforts in this regard.”
After Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) thugs killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Trudeau treaded carefully regarding the murder. Ten days after the Canadian Press reported, “the prime minister said only that Canada has ‘serious issues’ with reports the Washington Post columnist was killed by Saudi Arabian operatives inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey.” Six weeks later the Liberals sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals over the issue but none of them were in positions of significant authority.
Foreign minister Freeland looked the other way when Saudi student Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi fled Canada last year — presumably with help from the embassy — to avoid sexual assault charges in Cape Breton. While Freeland told reporters that Global Affairs was investigating the matter, Halifax Chronicle Herald journalist Aaron Beswick’s Access to Information request suggested they didn’t even bother contacting the Saudi embassy concerning the matter.
In April 2019 the Saudis beheaded 37 mostly minority Shiites. Ottawa waited 48 hours — after many other countries criticized the mass execution — to release a “muted” statement. The Trudeau government stayed mum on the Saudi’s effort to derail pro-democracy demonstrations in Sudan and Algeria in 2018/19 as well as Riyadh’s funding for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s bid to seize Tripoli by force.
While they implemented a freeze on new export permit approvals, shipments of Canadian weaponry continued. The year 2018 set a record for Canadian rifle and armoured vehicle sales to the Saudis. Over $17 million in rifles were exported to the kingdom in 2018 and a similar amount in 2019. Canada exported $2 billion worth of “tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles” to the Saudis in 2019. In February Canada exported $155.5 million worth of “Tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles” to Saudi Arabia.
The Global Affairs review that claimed there was no “credible” link between Canadian weapons exports to the Saudis and human rights abuses noted there were 48 arms export permit applications awaiting government approval.
As Fenton has documented in detail, armoured vehicles made by Canadian company Streit Group in the UAE have repeatedly been videoed in Yemen. Equipment from three other Canadian armoured vehicle makers — Terradyne, IAG Guardian and General Dynamics — was found with Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. Fenton has shown many examples of the Saudi-led coalition using Canadian-made rifles as well.
The Trudeau government arming the monarchy’s military while saying little about its brutal war in Yemen should be understood for what it was: War profiteering and enabling of massive human rights abuses.
Despite the prime minister’s show of visiting a place where thousands of people were sold as commodities, the point of his trip was not to acknowledge the great wrong done to Africa during the slave trade but rather for Canadian companies to get their hands on Senegal’s resources.
During Justin Trudeau’s expedition to Senegal last month foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne “attended the issuance of operating licenses for Teranga and Barrick Gold alongside the minister of mines and geology, the minister of economy, planning & cooperation as well as the minister of environment of Senegal.”
Barrick Gold is Canada’s most controversial mining firm. Pick a continent and you will find a Barrick-run mine that has ravaged the environment and spurred social tension.
But, in Senegal Teranga Gold is the dominant player, operating the first industrial scale gold mine in the country. Taking its name from the Wolof word for “hospitality”, Teranga markets itself well. A search online generated a series of short videos and corporate social responsibility reports detailing the Toronto company’s purported good deeds and local support. But reality is more complicated. In 2010 a hundred soldiers were deployed to Teranga’s mine site to drive off long-standing artisanal miners whose digging helped the company determine where to prospect. One small-scale miner told Allo Dakar that “we prefer to die here rather than give the land to the company.” Despite the security presence, many continued to dig with the police periodically tear-gassing and arresting the artisanal miners.
According to Amnesty International’s “Mining and Human Rights in Senegal: Closing the Gaps in Protection”, a half-dozen families were displaced to make way for a Teranga waste disposal pond. They were given new homes a few kilometres away but felt their situation had significantly deteriorated. Amnesty documented another small community unhappy with Teranga and worried they would also be displaced as the mine expanded.
The mayor of a larger town, Sabadola, claimed the company misled the community. “At first we thought that we’d benefit from many things: electricity, housing and infrastructure,” said Mamadou Cissokho. “But we received none of that.” Instead, Cissokho decried the pulmonary infections caused by dust from the mine and the company’s encroachment on their land. “Even our fields, they took them. We do not know where to go. Certainly, they do this to suffocate us and to clear us off.”
In 2014 the director of Teranga’s Senegalese subsidiary, Macoumba Diop, was fired. His supporters told the press that Diop was let go because he protected Senegalese workers, largely confined to subordinate positions, from mistreatment by the foreign managers who were described as “colonialist”. In 2017 an employee died from an injury while working in the process plant of Teranga’s Sabodala mine.
Senegalese tax authorities accused Teranga of diverting funds to an offshore bank. In 2011 they claimed the Toronto-based company skipped out on $24 million in payments and then again failed to pay $2 million more in 2015.
Claiming the royalties mandated by Senegal were above the agreed upon rate, Teranga employed the services of former Québec Premier Jean Charest to navigate the issue with this active member of la Francophonie. “With his credibility and contacts, he was the right person to get the attention of the government and a fair deal for both sides,” Teranga CEO Richard Young told La Presse in 2013.
The controversy surrounding Teranga has failed to deter Canadian officials from backing the company. In early 2014 Canadian Ambassador Philippe Beaulne visited its mine with Senegalese president Macky Sall and Beaulne spoke during the public release of Teranga’s 2013 corporate social responsibility policy. In 2012 Prime Minister Stephen Harper met Teranga’s CEO and some other Canadian mining officials in Dakar. During the part of the meeting open to reporters the prime minister suggested, reported Canada.com, that Canadian companies’ “ethical practices gave them an edge over the competition.” Harper also told the press that Senegal “really has the opportunity to become the hub for Canadian investment in this entire region of Africa.” To prepare for an expansion in Canadian mining, Ottawa signed a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement (FIPA) with Senegal in 2014.
Canada has funded various mining projects in Senegal. Millions of dollars in Canadian aid has gone to a Senegalese school for geomatics (combining geography and information technology to map natural resources). In 2014 the federal government announced the launch of branch offices of a professional society, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, in Senegal and Burkina Faso. A press release stated: “The opening of a second office [in West Africa] allows Canada to further share best practices with the region and will make the knowledge and experience of Canadian miners, geologists and managers more available to their African counterparts.” Supported by the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum created the Institut Minier Ouest Africain. A series of other aid projects such as the 2016 “West Africa Governance and Economic Sustainability in Extractive Areas” supported mining initiatives in Senegal.
As with other countries in Africa, Ottawa is helping Canadian companies exploit Senegal’s minerals.
The PM’s trip to House of Slaves was a sideshow, what they want is the gold.
Not satisfied with Canada’s largest public relations machine, the Canadian Forces also employ various “arm’s-length” institutions to push their influence over the discussion of military and international affairs.
For example, the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) Institute recently published a half-page ad in the Globe and Mail to announce its Conference on Security and Defence. The March 3 and 4 meeting at the venerable Château Laurier was sponsored by the Department of National Defence (DND) and Global Affairs as well as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other arms companies. As in previous years, CDA’s confab in Ottawa drew leading military and political officials, including the Chief of the Defence Staff, who heard speakers hype security threats and push for increased military spending.
The headlines the conference generated included: “Russia poses most immediate military threat to Canada, top general says” (Globe and Mail), “Canada and the West are at war with Russia whether they want it or not: military experts” (Global) and “Top Canadian general calls out Russia and China for ‘antagonistic actions’” (CTV).
None of these stories explained what the CDA Institute actually is. The group describes itself as a “non-partisan, independent, non-profit organization [that] expresses its ideas and opinions with a view to influencing government security and defence policy.” Established in 1932, then Minister of Defence Donald Matheson Sutherland backed CDA’s creation. Since its inception CDA has been directly or indirectly financed by DND. Initially, member associations paid a small part of the funds they received from DND to CDA. But, three decades later the role was reversed. CDA received a block grant from DND and parcelled out the money to its various member associations.
Since its creation, defence ministers and governor generals (as commander in chief) have regularly appeared at CDA’s annual conference. The governor general, prime minister, defence minister and chief of the defence staff are honorary patrons or vice patrons of the organization.
At the height of Canada’s war in Afghanistan CDA received a highly politicized five-year $500,000 contract from DND. University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran wrote, “that money comes not with strings, but with an entire leash.” To receive the money CDA committed to producing 15 opinion pieces or letters to the editor in major Canadian newspapers, generating 29 media references to the organization and eliciting 100 requests for radio/television interviews. The media work was part of a requirement to “support activities that give evidence of contributing to Canada’s national policies.” CDA didn’t initially disclose its 2007–12 DND sponsorship agreement, which was reviewed by cabinet.
CDA represents over 50 military associations ranging from the Naval Association of Canada to the Canadian Infantry Association, Royal Canadian Legion to the Military Intelligence Association. It is run by high-ranking former officers.
CDA publishes Security and Defence Briefings, Vimy Papers and Presentations and Position Papers. The organization’s quarterly journal ON TRACK “promotes informed public debate on security and defence issues and the vital role played by the Canadian Armed forces in society.” CDA has also published influential books such as Queens professor Douglas Bland’s A Nation at Risk: The Decline of the Canadian Forces.
To encourage militarist research, CDA awards a number of prizes. It puts on an annual graduate student symposium where $3,000 goes to the winning paper, $2,000 to second place and $1,000 to third place. CDA co-sponsors the Ross Munro Media Award to a “journalist who has made a significant contribution to understanding defence and security issues” and gives the Vimy Award to a “Canadian who has made a significant and outstanding contribution to the defence and security of Canada and the preservation of (its) democratic values.”
CDA advocates militarism. Its first official resolution noted “the urgent need for an increased appropriation for national defence.” At almost every CDA convention between 1946 and 1959 a resolution passed in favour of compulsory military training. A 1968 resolution called for universal military training, expressing concern that a generation of Canadians had become “unused to the idea of military service.”
In the 1980s CDA developed the idea of the “Total Defence of Canada”. In 1985 Colonel H. A. J. Hutchinson told a CDA meeting: “I would say that the Total Defence of Canada requires much more than just the support of the Canadian Armed Forces, it involves the organization of our total economy, our industrial base, towards a single objective — the defence of this country.” Hinting at the need to talk up US President Ronald Reagan’s revival of Cold War rhetoric, Hutchison said this “can only be made [possible] if the Canadian people perceive that it is necessary and that, in fact, it is the only course of action open to them.”
A 2000 CDA report funded by the Business Council on National Issues, the Molson Foundation and DND advocated increased military spending to defend free trade. It claimed “the defence establishment, including the Canadian Forces, plays a key role in an international policy which provides the insurance and the means which allow the national interest to flourish. It contributes to stability at home and abroad, thus supporting the development of an environment congenial to trade.”
In November Richard Fadden told CDA’s Vimy Dinner Canada had to be “clear-eyed” about Russia and China, which are prepared to “use virtually any means to attain their goals.” Fadden claimed, “the risks posed by these two countries are certainly different, but they are generally based on advancing all their interests to the detriment of the West.”
For the military and the industries that profit from militarism, it is important to have “arms-length” organizations that create the illusion of a diversity of voices. But honest writers should be blunt about the CDA. It is a war machine front group, created and controlled by the military.