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From Orange Wave to Third Way: Speech delivered at Marxism 2013 in Toronto

3 Jun

As a populist party that has seemingly abandoned its base in the drive for Liberal and even Conservative supporters, it’s hard to imagine the NDP fulfilling the roles that most activists or progressives believe it should fulfill.

I was never an activist for the NDP but I learned a lot working from the outside of the party through the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, where we hoped our policies would be adopted to become policies of the provincial party. Because, as the left-wing party that is meant to amplify the demands of social movements, we believed that that was the role that they held: in addition to their own policy-making structures, the NDP should be taking its lead from the activists on the ground and in those social movements. These groups have the research. We had the expertise.

But, of course, this rarely happens. Instead, social movements, including the labour movement, have to operate more like lobby organizations, even if the majority of the leadership from these movements are members of the party. It is in these interactions that it’s clear that the NDP has broken the drug dealers’ cardinal rule: it has gotten high on its own supply.

Yes, the NDP, both federally and provincially, has forgotten that it is not actually the Liberal or the Conservative parties and must fight its brand of politics out on a different terrain. This omission will prove to be the party’s most critical error. Like a game of chess played against a master, where you move every one of your pieces to mirror your opponent, you’ll do well enough until you eventually lose.

When I moved to Québec City, possibly the only city in Canada where I had zero political contacts, we literally stumbled across the office for QS at the start of the Québec election. The language barrier had made me more shy than I had been my entire life. Luckily, I was half drunk and I walked into that office (my partner walking into a window) and became involved immediately.

QS is new. As I wasn’t around for the glory days of the CCF, it’s hard to compare the two parties as they’re at different stages of their existences. But my involvement in QS has made a few things extremely obvious. First, that for a party to be able to call itself progressive and not get laughed at, it needs to be rooted in social movements. This remains a struggle for QS and much of our political organizing starts with the question of who are the groups leading the charge and how can we help them? Second, keeping any party firmly on the left takes a core group of people who will unwaveringly challenge the party and its members to reject electoralism, even when a motion comes forward with the laudable goal of increasing our number of seats to 5. Third, and on the left this is sometimes ignored or not held up as being important, the leadership of QS, that is the spokespeople, are charismatic, intelligent and popular. Both the former leaders and now the new one have histories in community organizing that helped to produce impressive faces for our party: so impressive that one of our spokespeople was voted the most popular politician in 2011 and the other was voted most popular in 2012.

I could talk more about QS. I could also go on with identifying all the problems that I can see with the NDP and its provincial wings. But I only have 15 minutes and I think what’s important here is to have a discussion on what’s possible, what’s desirable and what is to be done with the NDP?

To start, socialists need to ask ourselves is the NDP even capable of shifting far enough to the left to be able to undertake the changes that we believe are necessary to manage (not even stop) the ravaging effects of capitalism?

If the answer to this question is yes, then activists must look toward working through the party apparatus to try and force change from the inside. I have no doubt that the current strategic decisions, the drift to the right and the abandonment of the party’s core issues to offer Geico-stolen promises off car insurance are the result of the collective organizing capacity of folks in the party. Change the people, it’s undoubtedly possible to change some of the policies.

And, if we agree that the current democratic model is itself the problem, then we might be satisfied with making such minor changes, while we push for more radical changes outside of the party. Indeed, I have many, many friends who have chosen this route.

However, I cannot ignore the conservatizing influence that this has on activists. While what I have just stated is true, that moderate change is likely possible with a regime change of the players, it is also more true that in the relationship between who changes, the party will undoubtedly change less than the person being involved. To pretend this isn’t the case is total naïveté. While I know that some people are comfortable with this trade off, it’s important to be honest that it is a trade off and, in my opinion, just isn’t worth the time and effort that has to be put in.

This leaves us with the only other answer to my question: no, it’s not possible for the NDP to shift enough to the left to undertake the changes that we believe are necessary to manage the ravaging effects of capitalism.

Unfortunately, in a government role, the NDP has proven that this answer is most likely to be the correct one.  The NDP has never delivered what it claims to be able to deliver. Instead, NDP governments have broadly inflicted neo liberal policies while offering some modest social reforms, in some cases.

This reality means that the option that will likely have the greatest impact for socialists is to abandon the NDP all together and coordinate a process of broad and fundamental regroupment. If we believe that socialists should be fighting it out in mainstream electoral politics, then regroupment is our only hope. Whether this takes the form of a new political party or just a provincial or federal network that’s main job is to force change on the NDP from the outside is determined by several realities that we must face.

First, regroupment cannot be reorganization. It must include groups who have not normally worked together, organize on new terms and around the core of what the NDP should be fighting for.

Regroupment also has to include labour. Despite the problems that exist within the Labour movement, unions are still comprised of people and offer Canadians the best vehicle to organize broadly. Labour activists must make links with social movement activists and find ways to advance their politics within their communities and externally. This means that labour bureaucracy, the ones who have decided that the NDP should be elected at all costs, has to be challenged. It is not good enough to simply want to keep Hudak out or to kick out Wall: people need to be organized around issues, not simple against people.

Finally, and obviously, regroupment needs to be focused on a core set of demands that will once again inspire people to be involved in politics.  Maybe this should start with demanding a corruption inquiry at the federal level, radical but entirely possible education and health reforms at the provincial levels and transportation and energy alternatives. If we cannot expect the NDP to lead on these issues, activists themselves must build networks centred on these values to the force the party into action.

Or, if action isn’t possible, to lay the groundwork to start a new political party.

QS is remarkable for many reasons, but it’s most important for activists outside of Québec because it shows what’s possible. With just two deputies, QS has been able to respond, almost daily, to the debates that are happening at the Ass Nat. And, not just respond but offer criticism and alternatives. They drew on the strength of the student movement and ensured that the discussion about free education wasn’t relegated to just student demands, but in fact, the desires of progressive Québecers who were both inspired and who stood in solidarity with the student strikers.

The only way to test the NDP is to provide strong, parallel movements than can challenge the austerity policies of the federal and provincial governments. If our movements are strong enough, broad-based and not limited to regions, we can actually put the NDP to a test: either the party will join our movements, take its lead from our demands and advance our demands, or they’ll pull a Party Québecois: get elected on a left-of-centre platform, made possible by the activist work undertaken in Québec, and then betray Québecers by backing down on nearly every promise.

It will be at that moment that the next steps become clear: either they’re with social movements or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, the organzing that had been done up until that point will form the perfect basis for a new party.

Who can save the Ontario political left?

6 May

Picture 22This past weekend, Québec Solidaire’s econmic platform, the Plan Vert was officially launched. The campaign is a response to Liberal (and now PQ) Plan Nord, premised on resource extraction and exploitation of Québec’s north. It focuses on investing in the following initiatives:

  • transitioning Québec toward green energies
  • the mass development of public transportation (especially outside of the large cities)
  • the mass transition toward energy efficiency and social housing
  • developing cooperatives and collectively-run businesses
  • taking back control over natural resources.

There is also a focus on food sovereignty and finding local food solutions for Québecers, especially in regions under-serviced by local food production.

The campaign was launched in the middle of Québec Solidaire’s national congress, a congress that was criticized by many members (including me) for having too much of a focus on electoral gains, absent of the necessary political analysis that anchors QS firmly on the left.

But when the Plan Vert was presented, my fears about an electoralist, populist shift to the right were somewhat calmed. Yes, while the campaign is set to start in the fall, work should commence immediately. Yes, the Plan Vert should have included the role that tax evasion and corruption play in slowing or stopping progressive environmental policies from being implemented (as one member mentioned to me).

And, most importantly, yes, activists within the party have to remain diligent in defending its progressive core, especially as the party grows and external pressures will force it towards the centre.

But regardless, the Plan Vert is a solid platform upon which activists can organize. It’s an example of what a political party with any ideology should do: present its own agenda based on the internal policy work undertaken by its members. For a party like QS, policy work isn’t confined to members alone, as the party takes its cues from the experts: social movements.

During the campaign launch, and as I have yet to shed all aspects of my Ontarioness, I couldn’t help but feel really, really sorry for my friends and family back home for whom there is no similar political party.

Instead, the Ontario NDP is, again, engaging the public in an online survey. On their website, they announce that they have a new toll-free number and website that will help them help Ontarians, “…have their say on:

  • How to make the budget more accountable to Ontarians and how to make government more transparent
  • Cost saving measures that will balance the budget without jeopardizing services
  • Fair and affordable ways to fund transportation and transit
  • Firm guarantees to deliver on government commitments
  • Reflecting the needs of every region across the province”

OK, ignoring the syntax problems that exist with the final two bullet points (have their say on reflecting? Really?) this is an example of what happens when a party with a progressive mission and core loses its political compass.

The slow, decades-long slide towards electoralism has left Ontarians with no realistic, progressive options at the ballot box. What’s worse is that the Plan Nord is modeled on Ontario’s Ring of Fire, a plan that will be equally or more destructive to Northern Ontario and the ONDP is nowhere on demanding the destructive elements of the Ring of Fire be stopped.

Short of a miracle dropping the scales from the collective eyes of the ONDP, social movements are the only hope that Ontarians have. Social movements will either have to take the ONDP (back) by force or start something new: the situation is too desperate to allow for the space on the left to be occupied by this.

The Plan Vert offers Québecers a real alternative: liberation from neo-liberal policies, as one delegate said this weekend. After the liberation from the Liberals landed more austerity in the form of PQ broken election policies, the direction that Québec must take if we are to free ourselves from the influences of profit and the destruction of resource extraction, should be more clear than ever before.

But Canadians, especially people involved in the NDP and its provincial branches, can take from the strategies presented within the Plan Vert too. We cannot defeat austerity if we don’t offer alternatives. We cannot build confidence among citizens if we refuse to show them that there exist alternatives.

And we certainly cannot ignore these alternatives while hiding behind a toll-free number or tweeting a website. If the ONDP hasn’t found the answers to the questions they posed, how do they expect the average Ontarian to be able to solve transit funding on their own, for example? This isn’t democracy, it a democratic mirage that actually undermines the confidence people might have in the ONDP. It’s deeply disenfranchising and it’s an insult to everyone who suffers as a result of austere policies.

Am I being too harsh? Maybe. But once you see what Québec Solidaire has made possible, especially in spite of our deeply broken political system and with just two representatives elected, it’s hard to look at the strategies of the ONDP in any other way.

The NDP stumbles over the “S” word: Strategy

14 Apr
Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 10.54.08 AM

The CCF withstood attacks from the Liberals who tried to like Socialism to the Nazis. Why change the language today, then?

This weekend the NDP is meeting in Montréal. The party’s intentions are clear: they want to show Canadians that they’re ready to govern. This, despite the fact that most Canadians have lived under a social democratic government at some point and know that the NDP can govern.

Unfortunately, they failed the first test: offering proof that they are interested in debating issues of governance. Instead, the big controversy of the convention has been a carryover issue from the last convention, two years ago: to or to not remove the word “socialism” from the NDP’s constitution.

While this question was probably not at the front of most delegates’ minds, it’s clearly on the minds of most journalists at the convention. The party brass had to know that it would be (it was last time) so why has the proposal been brought back?

Rather than attacking the Conservatives to demonstrate their political might, the NDP has chosen to attack Socialists. They’ve framed this discussion by arguing that the current language is outdated, as if socialism is a relic of the past best suited for TV docudramas of Tommy Douglas and history classes. To do this, socialism has been posited in such a way that reinforces the lie that it isn’t democratic unless the adjective “democratic” modifies it.

I’d be shocked if the average Canadian cares about what the NDP constitution says. It’s not as if the presence of the word “socialism” is the thing that stands between the NDP forming government. Surely, the party’s inner circle doesn’t believe this either.

As such, I can’t make sense of this strategy. With the Liberals poised to elect a leader who is easy to attack on substance, it seems like they’re ignoring the lowest hanging fruit to settle a score from a previous convention.

For some reason, rather than embracing the term or ignoring the preamble of the constitution, the NDP has offered socialism up as a sacrificial lamb to the more than 200 journalists covering the convention. I wonder how that strategic decision went: hey guys, rather than debating capitalism, let’s go after socialism to prove we’re ready to govern. Great show of solidarity.

For the only progressive political party in every province but Québec, this approach is terrible. Not only is socialism not a relic of the past, it’s the only way to meaningfully confront the destructiveness of capitalism.

The NDP will not benefit from this strategy. Instead, it makes the party look as if it’s a populist horde doing whatever it takes to get elected. Somewhere, someone forgot that it’s this thinking that has lead to the demise of the Liberals.

Surely, the NDP knows that they’ll never be as good at being Liberals than actual Liberals are.

I sympathize with New Democrats who consider themselves to be socialists, which I’m sure a sizable chunk still do. Unfortunately, the pull toward party discipline is a necessary but sometimes destructive aspect of party membership. While many MPs told CPAC that really, the name change doesn’t matter as it won’t change the true orientation of the party, I’m left wondering what then is the point of this debate?

Instead of taking a page from the Liberal playbook, New Democrats should be taking a page from the Conservative playbook: unite the left on the terms of the left. Organize the base and convince them that the party’s socialist roots offer the only solution to improving our collective lives.

Harper didn’t ride in by uniting the right around the mushy, nebulous centre. He used the more moderate parts of the party to shield his ascension to power but has maintained his party along the lines of a strict, right wing ideology. It would work for the Left too.

There’s nothing that people hate more than something that’s been watered down: it’s true for fruit punch, it’s true for wine and it’s certainly true for politics.

If there’s been any time since the founding of the NDP where referencing socialism is critical, it’s now. With the undeniable lack of democracy in Canada, a new political system that places power into the hands of Canadians is more relevant now than ever before.

And, while I respect and adore many people who are active within the NDP, I can’t help but feel a hopeless sense that not only is this strategy bad because it attacks the left, but it is also going to lead to failure.

If the Left could be successful and progressive as a populist, ideologically vacant political party, it would have formed government already. The NDP needs to remember that people actually believe in the progressive vision it espouses.

Attacking socialism to demonstrate how “reasonable” a party it is will not only not help the NDP, it will further alienate many of the party’s most important and valuable allies and members.

For their sake, I hope they realize this before its too late.

GTFO of your car

10 Apr
manif contre les coups

Saturday’s rally before it reached rue Charest

Last Saturday, I was at a rally against planned cuts to social services announced by Agnès Maltais (my MNA) and the PQ government.

The rally walked down rue Charest and up to rue Saint-Joseph, but stopped in a street linking the two. The crowd was large enough to block two of three (or four) exits for a parking lot where a Metro and a Chez Ashton is located.

We stayed there for long enough that the people in cars trying to leave the parking lot started to drive around to the other side to leave, or laid on their horns in an attempt to get us to move. As there were speeches being made, no one paid much attention to the annoying, car-alarm-ish honking.

I leaned over to my partner and predicted what would happen next. “See that car there? He wants to leave this parking lot. What he should do is get out of his car, talk with the folks standing around the exit and ask if they can move to the side so he can get his car out of the lot.”

We agreed.

We also agreed that that wasn’t likely going to happen. As militant cyclists, we’re deeply aware of the power trip that normally accompanies frustrated people are behind a wheel.

Sure enough, the car deliberately rolled forward into a crowd of protesters. There were at least 20 people in front of his car, and another 40 blocking his access to the street. He was either 1. demonstrating that he’s a dick, 2. serious about either injuring or killing people just to get out of the lot, 3. hoping to scare the hell out of people who would then get out of his way and beg for forgiveness, 4. all of the above.

The group crowded around the car and, rightfully, started yelling at the driver. The police (and journalists) ran to the scene. I didn’t see anything happen after, no one arrested, no cop asking the driver to come with him to learn about why driving your car into a crowd of people is a bad idea.

What is with people in cars?

The experience of being in a car is a strange combination of being in your living room, controlling a really fast robot and operating a weapon. It’s so mundane that we never think of what it does to our sense of ourselves or our environment. We sit in traffic, we hurry about our day driving from one soul-sucking box mall to another. We listen to the radio.

And, when we have to communicate with others, we let the robot do our work for us: we honk, we yell things as if the car will react to our demands, we operate a series of levers that sometimes put the lives of others in danger.

With a society that is as car-obsessed as ours, it’s no surprise that we seem to have had a collective surgery that has removed our sense of community. It’s broken our relationships with each other, especially the relationships we’re supposed to have with people we have never met.

We don’t normally act like this in real life.

When we’re walking on the street, if we take much notice of the people around us, you might find yourself actually smiling at someone. Ever spend time with strangers in a stuck elevator? People talk to each other. Even after a several-hours delay on a tarmac in a cramped and fart-filled airplane, people, through frustrated, tend to remain friendly. At the very least, I’ve never witnessed anyone run up and down the aisles as fast as they can giving the finger to everyone when the airplane’s door finally opens. This stands in total contrast to how people react in traffic, you know, the person who aggressively accelerates towards an off ramp during rush hour across the 401 over top of Toronto.

Next time you’re in a grocery store, imagine operating your car the way you’re operating your cart: oops, someone accidentally took your cart? No matter, ask for it back. Did you bump into someone? Apologize. Is someone blocking you way? Either wait patiently or ask them to move. Mostly, our grocery store etiquette is humane and kind.

Cars should not give people a free pass to be an asshole. We can do all of these things in our cars too; we can be nice, we can talk to each other. We can, as we all heard in Grade 1 use our words. Sometimes, this means that we just have to exit our cars.

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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Canada and Israel: our shared apartheid histories

22 Feb

One of the most effective graphic representations of Palestine is the map that demonstrates the changing of its borders as Israel has expanded itself over many decades. You know the one. It’s a reminder that most often, a slow, decades-long war of attrition can be the most destructive to a people than a war in the sense that many of us would imagine first.

When rendered in this way, Canada’s map looks strikingly similar to the link above. Through its own genocidal policies, war of attrition and slow-paced though violent land grab, Canada stands as a map for what Israel is doing currently. It’s hard to imagine how their construction of illegal settlements is any different than the settlement policies of Canada during the 1800s to fill Turtle Island with Ango-Saxons. That’s how my family came to Canada.

Unfortunately, Canada’s too big for the image to be as easy for me to render (especially since my design skills aren’t so good). But I offer the image below as a starting point for others to use and change.

The past week, the Canadian Press reported that 3000 kids can be confirmed as having died at Residential School. Considering the fact that many schools’ designs included cemeteries in their plans, I’m sure we should assume that number to be much higher. But regardless, when I think back to my elementary school, and how not only did we not have a cemetery on our grounds, but that none of the kids in my school died while I was there, one kid’s death is too many.

3000 confirmed by the state; some of the manifestation of genocide.

Apartheid