Archive | March, 2013

Drawing blood from stones: the relentless tuition fee hike

28 Mar

ABasQPsmallOntario announced a new tuition fee framework today. It’s the first time that the Liberal government has changed it in seven years

In 2006, Dalton McGuinty punched students in the face with a five per cent, on average, fee increase. It was supposed to last four years, but was extended, painfully, until 2012.

During the 2011 Ontario election, the Liberals introduced a grant to help offset the burden of these fees for some students. To those of us who spent days analyzing the Liberal proposal and strategy, it was clear that they had hoped to divert some of the negative attention on their tuition policy by offering a confusing, runner-up prize.

In the same vein, the kinder, gentler Liberal party, now lead by a grandmother rather than a seemingly ageless dad, is trying to help students out.

Today, they announced that the fee increases: 5% for most programs, 8% for the programs where university administrators want to screw students the hardest, has been replaced with 3% and 5% respectively.

McGuinty’s (and now Wynne’s) fee increases were historic: they pushed Ontario’s fees to be the most expensive and they allowed for different fees to be charged to different programs. Today’s increase puts tuition on track to double under the Liberal reign alone.

Now, students sitting in a second-year elective are paying a combination of a bunch of different fees for the same class. I say “a bunch” because I stopped counting at 10 different combinations, depending on the year they started, the actual year of the class, their program of study or their citizenship. Yes, added bureaucracy is necessary to keep track of these divisions. Yes, students will pay more and receive the same instruction as other students.

This was a clever idea: charge incoming students the most (because high school students don’t protest), charge engineering students the most (because they’re way too busy to protest), charge graduate students the most (because they’re too busy rocking back and forth under their desks to protest) and charge international students the most (because Jason Kenney will deport them if they protest).

For some, it has meant an increase of more than 71%.

High tuition fees are the best example of the insanity of austerity. Despite the fact that people who are better educated will earn more and pay more taxes (thereby paying for the cost of their education), Kathleen Wynne and her Neoliberal crew don’t care about the facts. They care about privatization. They care about eliminating the public system by stealth so that they don’t have to pay for it.

Indeed, Liberal, Tory… you know the rest.

Some “student groups” call it a step in the right direction. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a smaller step in the same direction. And, when walking towards a cliff, any steps in the direction of the cliff will lead to the same result. Wynne has smaller legs than McGuinty, this is just a difference in stride.

Actual students know that any tuition fee increase is simply going to exacerbate an already crisis situation. The Liberals hope that the pressures that are created by high tuition fees will be enough to continue to keep Ontario students quiet. And, it may. The crushing combination of high fees, high rents, youth unemployment and needing to, you know, live, depoliticizes and disenfranchises.

But, there is a breaking point. The question will just be how it manifests among Ontarians.

Today’s announcement does not come in a vacuum. The sustained political pressure that students have placed on the Liberals has helped to “win” this policy. The highly unpopular 30% off grant exposed a floundering, rudderless Liberal party that realized that they were losing the war over the message. Ontario students should take some comfort in that.

But the other political context, the waves made by the student protests last year in Québec must also be considered. The impact their protests had on Ontarians, to teach that another system is possible, cannot be understated. The Maple Spring created spaces in Ontario where student activists could actually talk about free tuition fees and be taken seriously by their peers.

That’s the power of a peoples’ movement: raising consciousness and building capacity. Ontario was lucky to benefit from some side effects. Québec students will be reaping the harvest of their work for years to come, and the story isn’t anywhere near finished yet.

But the 3% fee increase is a necessary reminder: Wynne, bowing to pressure and trying to distance herself publicly from McGuinty settled on a tuition fee increase lower than the past seven years. In Québec, Pauline Marois picked the same percentage to increase students’ fees, despite the fact that she rolled in on a wave that was absolutely opposing a hike. What’s the lesson here?

The line between demands made by social movements and minor policy changes is sometimes direct, sometimes crooked and most times non-existent. Marois tricked Québecers into voting PQ and turned around and went all Charest on them. Wynne was elected as the moderately progressive alternative and has turned around and gone all McGuinty on Ontarians.

Meanwhile, students in both provinces will be paying 3% more next fall.

Political ideology is the domain of the Conservatives. Today, the remaining Neoliberal parties are populist, gauging where public interest is and governing accordingly. Under these conditions neither Ontarians nor Québecers have any chance of witnessing fundamental change. Austerity and populism has too great a control over the brains of our politicians. Instead, we’ll have to force it.

What the student movement in Québec does is reminds us that these battles, if fought and won in the streets, will be won by the people. The campaign will last longer than a semester. It’s origins will be theorizable but it’s effects can only be told in retrospect. Its existence gives hope and a path to follow.

So Ontarians, how will you play your hand?

Unions and media: Will journalists save themselves?

22 Mar

Unions get a rough ride from corporate news sources.

From the loudest and most angry leading the charge (the Sun) down to the soft opponents at (barely) progressive papers, like the Toronto Star, the industry as a whole is not “pro-labour.”

Part of this phenomenon is driven by the growth of and emphasis on business reporting. Rather than balancing coverage with the perspective of workers, the news about “business” is dominated by stories about what the masters, bosses and owners are or aren’t doing.

This is despite the fact that many of the unions who protect journalists are strong, vocal advocates for their members. However, when your members’ job is to report and analyze the news, media unions and guilds do not have the same influence on broad, public debate as does the sum of their individual members.

Across all platforms in the mainstream press, there’s an obsession with reporting corporate profits, losses and detailing the lavish or subdued personnas of those who fill the ranks of CEOs. Journalism is supposed to challenge power but instead tends to justify and normalize power’s abuses. The powerful are mostly exalted and those who challenge power are mostly treated suspiciously and critically.

This coverage is so extreme to one side that it’s fantasy to imagine the Globe and Mail dedicating a daily section to news about working people, labour issues and unions.

Instead, we have the Lang and O’Leary Exchange, for example, promoting neoliberal policies that effectively call for the destruction of the CBC. As if a television show advocating for the wholesale elimination of the jobs of the people who create the show isn’t totally insane.

This is cognitive dissonance at its finest and it’s pervasive. Uncritical, PR company-spun, regurgitated talking points are the standard and it has resulted in a crisis of logic in the mainstream press.

For example, when Rogers only made $466 million during its third quarter last year, the Globe and Mail referred to this profit as having fallen, sounding as if the company were in trouble. This narrative was then posited in such a way that made its sound as if laying off hundreds of workers was justified.

While it might make sense for a CFO to refer to profits that are lower than the year before in negative terms, profit is profit. It damages the credibility of news when journalists parrot the talking points of corporate executives.

If collective bargaining were reported like this, pay increases that were lower than last years’ pay increases would be reported as a pay cut.

If public services were reported like this, tuition fee increases would be reported as compound losses for students’ personal assets rather than an investment in a phantom future.

Journalists report through this narrow and lop-sided lens, influencing how Canadians think about corporations, profits and CEOs, as if they aren’t under attack from the very same forces. The craziest part of this cognitive dissonance is that “the media” is peddling a narrative that makes possible the self-destruction of “the media.”

It’s a machine that is hell-bent on its own suicide. The snake has finally gotten a hold of its tail and, starved, it’s eating the hell out of it.

It’s not self-destruction for everyone in the sector. The corporate executives or board members who own and profit from media holdings will be fine. It’s self-destruction for the journalist, the camera operators, the office cleaners and everyone else who relies on the industry’s survival for a pay cheque. But, unlike at Bestbuy where laid-off workers get laid off without warning, media workers themselves are the ones creating the terrain that will lead to them delivering their own bad news. Their consistent anti-union, pro-business rhetoric is at the core of the demolition of their field.

While watching the steady decline, the layoffs, the outrage, then anger and frustration that comes from journalists when they discover that they’re not immune from these forces, that despite their attempts at remaining ‘unbiased,’ ‘clean’ or ‘pure’ that they’re still caught in neoliberalism’s cross-hairs, I find myself deeply confused.

The only way to protect journalists as workers is the only way to protect anyone who is a worker: develop strong unions who can fight against the destruction of the craft, broaden union membership and raise members’ consciousness about the role they play in perpetuating the system.

Unions are critical to saving the asses of many people who work in telecommunications and this includes journalists. Unions are key to the survival of the profession. Either unions will protect the existence of secure, well-enough paying jobs with benefits, or journalism will be outsourced to an automatic news generator powered by a team of people in a basement somewhere.

Unions, though, are nothing without the power of their individual members behind them. Without workers using their labour to create the conditions that improve their industry, the union’s role will be relegated to trying to save some of the jobs announced in a round of layoffs.

The hollow, uncritical babble that’s held up as journalism today threatens the functioning of Canada’s democracy, but it also threatens to undermine and diminish the very industry that peddles it out.

If the quality and endurance of journalism jobs depends on the union, then journalists also depend on the public to have a generally favourable opinion of unions and the roles they play.

And we find ourselves again watching the snake gnawing at its tail.

Using their work to save journalism may not be an easy concept for an industry full of people who both chase after the carrot: fame, honour and being on TV, and who fear the stick: unemployment, joblessness and blogging. I know this war wages inside the stomachs of most young journalists.

But something must be done. It’s time to stop this slow, mass suicide. It’s time for an intervention.

Le réseau écosocialiste: toward new ways of organizing

13 Mar

ConvergenceEcoSocialistes4sQSThere seems to be a growing consensus on the left that the environment is ground zero for our work. The capacity for capitalism to destroy the earth through mining, fracking, consumption, waste, destruction of watersheds and other natural elements seems to know no reasonable limits.

While activists have long targeted environmental degradation, placing eco-justice at the centre of organizing that isn’t soley focused on the environment has taken some time. With analyses that have emerged that frame environmental destruction in terms of environmental racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, activists are making more appropriate and fundamental links between how ecological destruction is at the core of the oppression we fight locally and globally.

This focus on eco-justice is especially pertinent right now as Idle No More protests have broadened the awareness of the most pressing environmental issues in Québec and Canada. The relentless campaign has helped to tie eco-justice to other progressive struggles and re-frame discussions about sovereignty, self-determination and settlers’ responsibility to be in solidarity with Indigenous activists.

In Québec, many socialists and anti-capitalists see ecosocialism, the junction of socialism, Marxism and critical ecological justice, as a necessary framework under which to organize. Ecosocialism is an analysis that correctly identifies capitalism and the pursuit of profit as the driving force behind environmental destruction and climate chaos.

On March 9, more than 70 activists from regions across Québec gathered in Montreal in what many called an historic meeting. Together, unaffiliated anti-capitalists and members of the socialist collectives that exist within Québec solidaire: Gauche socialiste, Alternative socialiste, Mass critique and the International Socialists passed a statement of unity and statutes that form the basis of the new organization.

The meeting started with four presentations that outlined local and international political contexts. The rest of the day was spent debating and discussing a basis of unity and statutes that had been drafted and circulated in advance of the meeting.

The Réseau écosocialiste’s statutes establish a membership structure, open to members of Québec solidaire and people in solidarity with the party’s goals. The new steering committee was elected at the end of the meeting and is comprised of five women and three men, me included.

The Réseau’s coordinating committee will spend the next few months setting up regional and local networks, general assembly structures and implementing a plan to reach out to potential members of the group.

Bernard Rioux writing at Presse-Toi à Gauche, summarized the network’s tasks:

  • Become a centre to express ecosocialist perspectives to actively participate in the debates, policy and tactical development of Québec solidaire,
  • Propose campaigns against austerity, environmental destruction, patriarchy and class domination
  • Defend and deepen democracy at the heart of Québec solidaire
  • Build and consolidate the presence of Québec solidaire in social movements and create structures that facilitate this task
  • Host debates and workshops on ecosocialist perspectives
  • Create and maintain links with ecosocialist organizations around the world.

While I’m still new to progressive organizing in Québec, I’m no stranger to the struggles and challenges that exist in trying to unite activists on the left around a common vision and set of goals. The ease with which the group debated, modified and passed the basis of unity and the statues signaled a readiness of everyone present to work together under this new banner.

Québec solidaire is the only progressive, anti-neoliberal political party in Québec but is not free from the conservatizing forces that electoral pressures can place on any progressive structure, especially one with two members elected to the National Assembly. One of the tasks of the Réseau will be to engage Québec solidaire members and supporters to ensure the party maintains its progressive core.

If Québec solidaire is truly going to be a party at the ballot box and in the streets, a phrase used by many QS activists, the Réseau will be critical to more formally link the party with social movements. As was clear during the student protests last year, the power of people in the streets is much more significant than the power held at the National Assembly.

Québec solidaire is the only political party that can amplify the voices of activists among social movements, though the connection needs to be strengthened; no small task, but perhaps a task just as large as getting a room full of socialists to agree to unite under a common set of statutes and a basis of unity.

Jason Kenney’s censorship problem

5 Mar

Screen shot 2013-03-05 at 10.57.42 AMThere’s something about the free speech debate that makes everyone act as if they have one of those long white body worms in their brains, writhing to get out through the thinnest pore possible.

It makes people state things as fact that would normally only be appropriate in a George Orwell novel.

Take, for example, the statement made by Jason Kenney on Israeli Apartheid Week.

Kenney, a member of cabinet and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, issued a statement warning the public about university activists who were trying to censor supporters of Israel on campus during IAW events.

Did you catch the supreme, face-melting irony there?

Jason Kenney; nearly as high-ranking as the Prime Minister himself, the posterboy for playing nice with “ethnic groups” while imposing racist policies on Canada’s immigration and refugee systems; claims that a bunch of undergrads at a bunch of Canadian campuses are engaging in censorship.

Jason Kenney, the man who has been able to rip apart families, detain men and women in jails who are simply seeking to immigrate to Canada (or seek refugee status) is claiming that IAW somehow is the censoring agent.

Jason Kenney, the man who has dreamed up a situation where you can force kids into jail as if jail is an appropriate place for them to wait out their parents’ deportation order, is claiming that critics of Israel for their racist and apartheid policies against Palestinians are censoring people.

Kenney isn’t an idiot. He knows what he’s doing.

Kenney is using claims of anti-Semitism laced with freedom of speech drivel to dole out a double dose of right-wing-loving-double speak. He’s doing this to turn the lens on student activists who are rightfully condemning Israel’s actions toward Palestinians. This dribble is the same kind that Ezra Levant purchases from his conservative overlords and spews out on Sun TV.

And it’s the same brand of Freedom of Speech that the (very) few friends of Tom Flanagan are relying upon to protect his bizarre and perverted defense of people who like to look at child porn.

Tom Flanagan and Jason Kenney, as part of Canada’s elite, cannot have their freedom of speech censored by nearly anyone. None of us plebes have the money, resources, power, access to mainstream press, access to the courts or control of the police required to censor them.

Me calling them idiots, me calling Kenney’s attempt to interfere into campus politics absurd, me calling Tom Flanagan a pathetic old coot: none of this is censorship. None of this inhibits their freedom of speech. I just simply don’t have the power that they have.

So I find it rich (to use a euphemism for what I would rather use: a thousand swear words in a hundred languages) that Jason Kenney issues a communiqué from his official Citizenship and Immigration website (paid for by my taxes and yours) to announce to the world that he supports freedom of speech and, in a single sentence, immediately qualifies it: except when people criticize Israel. In that case, he condemns freedom of speech.

But he has the power to do more than condemn it, and this is where the question of power becomes pretty muddy. What does it mean for a federal minister to “condemn” the totally legitimate political activity of students? What does it mean when a federal minister paints an entire campaign as being anti-Semitic, despite his racist ad-campaign that has placed billboards across the Czech Republic telling persecuted Roma to not bother applying for refugee status in Canada because he’ll make sure its denied?

What does it mean when a zealous Catholic announces that the activities undertaken by thousands of activists, including many who are Jewish, are anti-Semitic?

Those of us who aren’t members of cabinet can’t censor anyone. Those of us who don’t have platforms on national news stations can’t censor anyone. Those of us who gather to talk about how fucked up it is that Israel is introducing a segregated bus system, to ensure that Israelis don’t have to take public transportation with Palestinians, can’t censor anyone.

We can’t censor anyone because it is only the powerful who can. And in a boxing match between me and Jason Kenney, where our strength is measured by our power, he’d come to my house to kick my ass before I even got dressed for the fight, we’re so unbalanced.

Kenney’s decree is an attempt at censorship regardless of what some of the words say on the page and luckily, IAW events will happen regardless of what that man decrees from his office in Ottawa.

Of course, Kenney’s communiqué is particularly ironic considering the legacy that his own party has in doing exactly what Israel is criticized for doing, though over a longer period of time: Residential Schools, forced sterilization, race-based legislation, reserves, government-defined status, murdered and missing Indigenous women, the Sixties Scoop, Child and Family Services and, today, Idle No More. Our own story is one of genocide, apartheid and resistance.

And Kenney is on the wrong side.

So too is Tom Flanagan, who was masterfully taken down by a young Indigenous activist this past week.

Both men are implicated in the continued internal colonization and apartheid of Canada. Maybe this creates a weird anxiety that forces them both to act out in ways that the average person can’t explain.

MUHC, ORNGE and the banality of corruption

1 Mar
Porter

Arthur Porter and Stephen Harper celebrate Montreal’s newest hospital. This is a photo of a photo that appeared in the Globe and Mail, late 2012.

Whenever the snow starts to melt, I notice smells re-emerge that I had forgotten about, like of the wood of my hallways or of the White Birch paper plant.

Normally, the stench of corruption isn’t hidden by the whims of catastrophic climate chaos. But in the case of the SNC Lavalin saga, have been relatively quiet throughout winter’s freeze. Until the snow started to melt.

Based in Montreal, SNC Lavalin is an engineering firm that has projects around the world. When Wikileaks released its diplomatic cables, one of the few Canadian mentions in the documents was SNC Lavalin’s contract to build prisons in Libya. But, good news: they also build stadiums and hospitals in Canada.

Ex-CEO of SNC Lavalin Pierre Duhaime has been twice charged for corruption, most recently this week. The charges apparently stem from SNC Lavalin having been awarded a contract for the construction of a hospital in Montreal in 2010. SNC Lavalin’s former head of construction, Riadh Ben Aissa, is also facing charges and is in custody in Switzerland.

At issue is $56 million in missing funds. After an internal investigation found this, Duhaime resigned from the CEO position in early 2012.

The recent charges against Duhaime were also brought against others involved in the hospital’s construction. Arthur Porter, former CEO of the McGill University Health Centre, was charged for actions that related to the construction of the new hospital in Montreal. Yanai Elbaz, the MUHC’s director of redevelopment, was charged too. The charges include accepting bribes, conspiracy and committing fraud against the government.

Porter is a friend of Stephen Harper’s and was recruited by the MUHC board to move the project along.

He was twice-appointed to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, including as its head, an organization that Tom Mulcair called yesterday “…what is essentially Canada’s CIA.” Now wanted for fraud, he used to chair the committee that oversees CSIS.

Porter is currently in the Bahamas and, apparently, is too sick to travel to face these charges.

With Québec’s Charbonneau Commission taking most of corruption-related headlines, these new charges are a helpful reminder that corruption in our system is rampant. Taken together, these examples are evidence that corruption touches all levels of government, including the leaders’ offices of the City of Montreal, the Province of Québec and the Government of Canada.

Makes you feel really great about doing your best to be honest when handling money, doesn’t it?

The most important part of these stories of corruption, and the McGill University Health Centre in particular, is that its wrapped up in two of the Ministries where the largest sums of money are doled out: education and health care.

Somehow, these folks found a way to skim off tens of millions of dollars for themselves in the construction of a university hospital: a place where babies are born and children and adults die. A place fundamental to the health, well-being or end of all of our lives. A place where students will learn how to care for others, find ways to extend humans’ lives and practice the art of medicine.

Indeed, nothing is sacred.

Québec isn’t the only province with corruption problems.

When you consider that E-Health cost $1 billion in Ontario yet produced nothing, and that the Air Ambulance (ORNGE) scandal also bled millions from Ontarians’ health ministry, corruption starts to look like part of the system rather than an anomaly.

Throughout the ORNGE developments, Chris Mazza has been the fall guy. Mazza has been painted as the scheming mastermind behind the scandal; an isolated incident that implicated a single, greedy man.

Surely, Mazza didn’t act alone but the scandal hasn’t taken down too many outside of the ORNGE inner circle until this week. ORNGE’s latest victim is actually Mount Sinai hospital’s top doctor. On Feb. 28, the Star reported that Tom Stewart, the physician-in-chief and the director of the medical/surgical intensive care unit at Mount Sinai resigned after the completion of a damming report.

The hospital’s report showed that Stewart and Mazza were friends and helped each other out. ORNGE paid Stewart $436,000 to advise Mazza and Mount Sinai paid Mazza $256,000 without evidence that he completed the work required for such a sum.  This is on top of their salaries, which the Star reports were $1.9 million at ORNGE for Mazza and $607,000 for Stewart in 2011.

But don’t worry. Stewart’s resignation does not mean he loses his job as a doctor at the hospital. He gets to keep that.

Writing this has made me both sick and totally angry. Corruption will occur if people aren’t paying attention and Canadians suffer from wide-spread disenfranchisement. But what do you do when the politicians who are elected to pay attention either aid or ignore corruption when it surfaces?

Aside from having anti-corruption task forces in every government ministry and creating a standing committee on corruption to catch corruption after the fact, I’m not sure there’s much the system can do to stop it. That’s partly because I’m convinced corruption is possible not because someone isn’t paying enough attention to it, but because our political and economic system depend on it.

When money disappears, the argument that “we can’t afford” something becomes true: missing money is money that cannot be spent elsewhere. Corruption not only aides austerity, but it makes austerity necessary, just like low corporate taxes and an increase in paying for private contracts to administer public services.

Fortunately, corruption is still a bad word to most Canadians. If the NDP or the Ontario NDP were looking for a quick way to boost their support, they should promise to immediately instate anti-corruption taskforces. After all, federally, they have 146 of years of government to examine and their hands will stay clean.

But to truly stop this kind of corruption, we need to connect the dots between who is scratching who’s back and realize that citizens all small players in a larger scheme that makes corruption not only possible, but normal. It’s just how capitalism goes.

If the system is rotten from the inside out, painting its exterior is not going to fix anything.

 

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