Can We Change Our World? Atautsikut/ Leave None Behind, Says YES

I am often bemused by people who respond to my critiques of capitalism and promotion of co-operatives by gently, and sometimes not so gently, saying, “But you know that is not possibly going to happen.”  Or they say, “There is no alternative to capitalism.”   Imagine an indigenous group for whom the government’s objective was to have them disappear.  A group faced with the power of a mega corporation that dominated their communities.  Imagine them saying not just ‘we can do better and change this reality but we can do so in a way that leaves no one behind’

If you believe we cannot change our world, watch this film by John Houston![1] Aliva Tulugak, past president of the Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec used these words to describe the film.

 “I believe what you have filmed will be important for our grandchildren and our children.  Back when there was nothing in all of Nunavik… those who came before us, those who founded the co-operatives and the Federation… they started out with nothing but their determination.”  His words are important words for people around the globe to hear. 

The free world premiere of the film will take place Sat. July 4 at 11:00 AM Atlantic Time and is available to all the world in English at https://youtu.be/gh3abENu-S8 .  The message of this film is important to my grandchildren and grandchildren around the world.  To believe we cannot stop organizing human life and the entire natural world to serve capital is to proclaim capital is ‘god’.  It is to say we accept that run away climate change must happen.  It is to voice the belief that a billion people must go hungry even as we waste enough food to feed them each day.  It is to say it is acceptable that the super-rich, the top 1%, get richer and richer while the rest of humanity falls farther and farther behind.  It is to claim that it is impossible for healthcare, education, decent housing and food to be available for every child in the world.  It is to be in favour of the CEO of a large corporation being paid $2,284,044,884 (yes more than two billion dollars) in annual compensation, but many essential workers who keep us safe cannot be paid more than a minimum wage or be hired full time so they could receive benefits. 

“A marginalized people rose up from humble beginnings, with nothing but their talent, their guiding principles, and their determination to leave none behind. The public has heard so many sad stories, but “Atautsikut/Leaving None Behind” reveals another aspect of the true North. In their own words, raw and unfiltered, the Nunavik Inuit and Cree recount their struggle and how their co-ops came shining through—a message of hope.”

We owe our grandchildren more than the deep pessimism that says, ‘we have no alternative’.  We owe them more than the foolish optimism that says, ‘Things will get better,’ even while we watch climate change gathering strength and the wealth of billionaires sky rocket during the pandemic.  We owe it to them to act with the courage of the Inuit and Cree who survived government attempts to eliminate them, and the exploitation of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  We owe it to them to be ‘hopefulists’ and activists!


[1] For other films by John Houston see: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQO9G6cdq96ByCJwQ_DKo_g/

Black Lives are Sacred – Change the Culture – Part 2

In Part One I reflected on the links and roots of racism in the capitalism that benefits from it.  But, why are our governments seemingly unable to deal with racism and the inequality that is linked to it?   They are faced with 1% of the world’s people owning more than 50% of the world’s wealth.  Governments function under the pressure of capitalism.  Why do our governments turn a blind eye to racism and inequality?  Most ‘democratic’ governments have become ‘quasi democracies’ where the real power lies with the powerful bullying wealthiest 10%.  If we do not serve them they will hurt us.  They will destroy jobs and disrupt lives and communities.  .  For the richest 10% it will be a minor inconvenience, one they can endure and recover from.   Between March and the end of May, while millions lost their sources of income, billionaires in the US increased their wealth by 19.2%

1.1% of US billionaires are black.  In Canada there are no black billionaires but we do have a billionaire descended from indigenous people.   The US has 585 billionaires, Canada 45.  Ending racism is not a high priority for the almost entirely white 10%.  Surely we will look at the bullying power and the luxurious life of the few beside the poverty, suffering and powerlessness of the many and ask ‘can we allow this modern form of slavery to continue?’  Why are black, brown and indigenous people, women, healthcare workers, janitors and so many essential workers so poorly paid?   Why are so few of them in the bodies where decisions are made?  

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist.  Optimists tend to believe all will be well no matter what.  Pessimists see a desperate future.  I am a ‘hopefulist’.  One who hopes we will begin to recognize the madness and self-destruction of capitalism and the racism, inequality and climate catastrophe it is brewing.  I hope we can have the courage to rein in the greed that fuels it and build a different economy.  It is possible to imagine another reality.  Three of my wonderful children are black as are eight of my grandchildren.   They drive my hope.

Can we imagine another reality?  Is capitalist culture an expression of the dominant trait of human beings or is it a reality humanity has been duped into?  Is it the inevitable expression of human progress or is it something we have been seduced to accept as capitalism slowly normalized evil.  What happens when societies face catastrophes?   They pull together.  Beautiful acts of kindness emerge by the millions as we take care of each other.  Sure, a few mean actions emerge, but the vast majority pitch in to help each other and then go out on their balconies to sing, play music and bang pots and pans for joy to celebrate the kindness.  That is how all but a tiny minority of humanity spontaneously responds to catastrophes and pandemics.

How did people react when George Floyd was tortured and murdered?  Around the world millions of people took to the streets in, almost without exception, peaceful anger.  Black people and white people and brown people, indigenous people, people of all faiths.  Young people and old people.  This is the heart beat of humanity that self-centered capitalism has put its knee on.   Imagine a culture which celebrated the needs of people and communities being met rather than celebrating the greed of billionaires.  Imagine a culture that rejoiced more over acts of caring and compassion rather than hoarding and exploiting.  Imagine a culture in which the inborn inclinations of the 99% dominated the self centered desire of the 1%.

Imagine a society organized around people rather than money and the understanding that we are part of nature and that to be fully human we must love and respect nature and each other.  Imagine a society organized to work together to meet its needs.  Imagine a society where altruism and caring for each other, as most people do in times of crisis, were seen as far more important than wealth, competition and self centered action.  Imagine if we really learned from Darwin that co-operation among cells and species and within species was a more effective winning strategy than competition.  Imagine a world where humans saw co-operative winning as a better outcome than competitive efforts that produce few winners and many losers.  Imagine a society where our children and grandchildren would be judged as Martin Luther King so eloquently hoped, by the beauty of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

There is an alternative economy and culture possible.  Worker co-operatives, consumer co-operatives, producer, community and small business co-operatives all draw on the best of human nature.  Voting control is based on one person one vote rather than one dollar one vote.  Their purpose is to meet member and community need rather than maximizing return to the wealthy shareholders.

Are co-operatives perfect?  No they are human.  A worker co-operative may exploit consumers.  A consumer co-operative can exploit workers.  Farm co-operatives can exploit both.  They exploit less often but it does happen.  A solidarity co-operative, where the key people involved are all members and involved in decision making, makes exploitation even less of a problem.  An elder care co-operative, for example, would have residents, workers and family members engaged in membership meetings and electing the board with representatives of each group.  There are hundreds of these co-operatives in Europe and a growing number in Canada.

With capitalism, the 1% are at the table leaving the 99% to do their best to gather what scraps fall or are thrown to them.  We need a society where not only white people but black, brown, indigenous, people with accents and those of all beliefs are working together in structures that gather them at the table, involved in decision making and sharing the benefits of their work rather than scrapping for crumbs.

Co-operation requires a cultural shift.  Immersed in and forced to interact with a capitalist culture that is mindlessly individualistic and just ‘focused on me’ hinders, warps and limits co-operation.  We need to grow and nurture the spirit of ‘let us work together on this’ that has always been strong in human society.  We need public policy that rewards co-operation and inhibits and discourages the cult of the selfish individual.  Co-operation’s strength flows from the reality we are truly both individual and social.   They are two sides of each of us.  We cannot separate our individuality from our social nature.  Co-operation not only allows both, it celebrates both, and gathers all around the table not based on their wealth but on their shared humanity.

We have a choice to make, between going back to a normal capitalist economy, or setting in motion a fair green democratic economy.  What will we do?

Black Lives Are Sacred- Change the culture – Part 1

The image of a police officer torturing and executing a black man in Minneapolis was horrifying.  It was not the first, and regrettably will not likely be the last, in spite of the outrage it generated.  Most similar killings in Canada are not caught on video.  Life is sacred.  Black lives are sacred.  Why do our police forces act as if black and indigenous lives don’t matter as much?

As with many festering problems in our societies (and I include Canada which is different but similar) a big part of the heart of the problem is capitalist culture.  Racism could only endure for hundreds of years because it remains a deeply held part of our culture.

  The wealth of Canada and the US was born in slavery and the theft of indigenous lands.  Both slavery and seizing indigenous land required deep cultural beliefs that were racist.  Justifying evil actions can only take place by building cultural myths that excuse them, and a huge part of those cultural beliefs rest on the claim that enslaved and indigenous people are inferior.  Those beliefs are compounded by our capitalism built on the foundation of slavery, land theft and colonialism.

If you:

  • organize society and the use of nature around serving capital,
  • sanctify the growth of capital measured by GDP,
  • define freedom as the absolute right to accumulate capital, and finally,
  • combine that with the belief that people always act in their own self-interest, (with greed as a driver of ‘progress’),

………. Do not expect a good outcome.  

Capitalism is a system where the highest good is the growth of capital, not the wellbeing of people.  People are to be used, and where possible exploited, in the service of capital.  Racism and sexism simply makes the use of some people more profitable.  It is the only reasonable explanation for why racial minorities and women are paid less.  In a capitalist culture these ideas are accepted as the ‘realistic normal’ and ‘above question’.  Racism is part of the capitalist normal.  Part of the white population is also exploited in the pursuit of profit.  Racism helps channel the rage and despair of poor exploited whites toward black and racialized groups rather than against billionaires.  Think Trump.

The destructive outcome is deepened by the common capitalist belief that people are wealthy because they deserve it and the poor are poor by their own fault.  The job of the police in such a society is to protect the wealth, especially that of the wealthiest, from the needs of other 90%, especially those who are inferior and who claim a fair share they do not deserve. 

The culture of racism is amplified because a small percentage of those attracted to police work are wounded, insecure and angry bullies for whom walking around with a gun and a night stick is not a form of self-protection but a threat.  In some police forces, this threatening minority is seen as ‘the effective, tough officers, the leaders we need’.   Our society further compounds this by the almost universal exoneration of any police officer guilty of excessive force, brutality or murder.   We must not confuse our duty to protect those who sometimes risk their lives to protect us with a grant of freedom to do violence with automatic exoneration.    These exonerations do not protect police, they simply generate fear and distrust among the people they are commissioned to serve and put all police at greater risk. 

Millions of people on June 1 saw a woman kneeling in the street, with her hands in front of her face, getting kicked in the face by an approaching officer.  Will this brutal act be punished?  Not likely, but it is in the real interest of every ‘peace officer’ that it is indeed punished.

I was deeply moved by the account of one police leader who went to the demonstrators and told them he was there to be with them and joined the demonstration.  In another brief video clip a white officer spoke gently and put his arms around a black man overcome with grief to comfort him.  In yet another, a group of National Guard members went down on one knee in solidarity.  These were ‘peace officers’.  This is what we need rather than the hatred and violence spewing out of the White House which poisons the US, Canada and the world.  One can only hope that more and more peace officers and military officers and public servants will simply respond to orders to be racist, violent, cruel and do evil on behalf of the White House with the word “No”. 

The timidity of our government, cowering inside our houses of Parliament, lacking the courage to stand up to bullying and cruelty or call a lie a lie, is not anything to admire.  Canada and the US are neighbors and need to a nurture friendly relationship.  Alas, we are too afraid of what their government might do.  Our response to evil actions should not be strained silence or mimic the threatening bluster of the bully.  It needs to be a quiet, clear and respectful ‘no’, whenever possible coordinated with other like-minded nations.  Force, violence and intimidation are the tools of bullies.  Cowering empowers billionaire bullies and leaves their racism unchallenged.   We too must learn to say “no” to racism and all other evil.

Part 2 to follow

COVID 19: The Case for a New Eldercare Model

As we struggle through this pandemic buffeted by the additional tragedy in Nova Scotia, one fact becomes increasingly clear.  As of May 3rd 2020, 83% of the 37 deaths are seniors living in elder care facilities.  Across Canada almost 80% the more than 3,600 deaths are seniors living in elder care facilities, and that percentage is expected to rise.  

As a society we have not cared adequately for our elders.  We have drifted a long way from the idea that you can tell the level of civilization in a society by how we look after our most vulnerable people.  We have forgotten that, as fully functioning human beings, we are both social and individual, and that we are responsible not just for looking after ourselves but each other.  But science, from evolutionary biology to psychology, tells us that we are by nature co-operative and altruistic.  Caring for others is part of our nature.  It has allowed us to just not survive but to thrive.  How did we let our human nature become so warped?  We have become a society where nature and humanity are organized to serve the right of hyper individualized people to accumulate capital. 

This essay looks at the lessons we need to learn from the COVID 19 Pandemic, and then suggests two concrete proposals that will not eliminate risk but will put us in a much better position down the road to provide our elders with significantly improved care and a more resilient healthcare system.  It also is based on the understanding that we cannot understand the serious eldercare inadequacy without understanding the economic and social context that drove the failure.

Lessons

What did this pandemic teach us about our arrangements for elder care?  What problems did it uncover?  In answering these questions it is useful to remember that in our economic system, whenever the return to capital can be increased by reducing how well human needs are met, meeting human needs will suffer.  That includes ensuring the level of taxes on returns to capital are minimized and government revenues and services are reduced to those services designed to protect capital and promote greater returns to capital.  That said the pandemic:

  • Showed us how our severe shortage of nursing home beds can hobble our hospitals by having as many as 700 seniors in Nova Scotia waiting in hospital beds for a place in a nursing home.  That meant the ability for hospitals to accommodate COVID 19 sufferers was severely limited.  The COVID crisis was greatly worsened. 
  • Taught us that many of our nursing homes have two and three seniors to a room.  People who have lived their adult lives in the privacy of their homes are living their final years with little or no privacy.  They are also far more vulnerable to illnesses that inevitably enter the facilities.  It also reminded us that we made no caring response to the separation of couples who had shared a life time together.
  • Uncovered too many facilities that are poorly designed with limited capacity to isolate residents in the event of an outbreak. 
  • Brought to light that the front line workers in elder care are, almost without exception, poorly paid.  Many homes deliberately pay as low wages as they can get away with, and in addition hire as many part time workers as possible to both keep pay levels minimum and avoid paying any benefits like sick leave.  This means workers dreaded staying home if sick because they live in or close to poverty.  It also means that many workers worked in more than one care facility to make a bare living.  This means that the virus spread from home to home leading to hundreds more deaths. 
  • Showed some homes across the country had so few and over worked staff that there were immobile residents who were almost abandoned in their beds for many hours, and if a few cases apparently for days. 
  • Made it clear that low pay was a clear and deep injustice.  Workers who come to work day after day at great risk to themselves and their families clearly know that our economic system sees them as a commodity whose cost can be lowered to increase profit and/or cut government expenditures.  This is true of many essential workers besides direct care workers, including cleaners, janitors and those such as truck drivers who keep eldercare facilities supplied.   
  • Produced a reality in which care givers had little or no time to provide information to families, especially after Covid 19 affected staff or residents and urgent workloads escalated.  Many families lost loved ones without any chance to connect with them.  Our elder care demeaned and devalued family bonds.
  • Brought to light the inadequate equipment in nursing homes and/or hospitals, and the lack of ready plans to meet the crisis.  The lessons from the SARS epidemic and Ebola were lost in budget restraint.  It also underlined that we were dependent for supplies of equipment from sources that, in a global crisis, were very unreliable.  It became clear that our dependency relationship with the United States is very high risk and even hostile.  We scrambled to develop Canadian sources – will we protect our newly created sources of vital supplies?
  • Brought into question the role of private, for profit provision of health care.  Many of our facilities are for profit rather than for care.   There have been far too many instances, even before the crisis, of patients with acute bedsores or being administered levels of medication more consistent with minimizing staff needs than patient wellbeing.
  • Taught us once again that government funding for health care is not adequate.  This is an inevitable result of tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy and the unwillingness of governments to deal with tax havens. 
  • We learned once again that government regulation of elder care facilities has simply not been adequately carried out, especially for those facilities in which the profit motive competes with care.  ‘Self-regulation’ of these facilities is something they demand, but is granted only at great risk.

Another possible lesson we should examine carefully is the increasing tendency to try and manage government like a business.  Yes, it should be managed efficiently, but increasing the downward pressure on care workers’ incomes is a standard business strategy, but it is unacceptable public policy.  Cutting corners on equipment can increase business profits but is not good public policy.   Cutting budgets for public health and elder care when the proportion of seniors is increasing may allow businesses to be taxed less, but it is appalling public policy.  It is in the national interest to nurture a strong commitment to public service in those who work for the government.  This is not being achieved with a revolving door between government and for profit corporations with business managers and public servants exchanging jobs.   We want efficient and effective government but we cannot afford government that is run like a business.

A Positive Future for Eldercare

There are two significant opportunities that are possible in this time when most people have developed a sense that the old normal is not about to return, and we need to be willing to make major changes to how our society and economy work.  The first opportunity is to ask ourselves what kinds of organizational structures would respond better to meeting human need and enhance our ability to engage people to build a better more caring society.  If we reflect on the lessons above, what type of organization would be most appropriate and likely to perform better?  The for profit business model is simply not appropriate for meeting our need for elder care.  The second opportunity is to ensure the ability of governments to act in the interest of citizens rather than for corporate interests.   

Over a 250 million people around the world work in co-operative businesses.  Their purpose is to meet member and community need.  They produce everything from production machinery, pottery, auto parts, robots and food.  They meet people’s needs for providing financial, marketing, legal, architectural, retail and consulting services.  As well they provide education, rehabilitation and health care.  They are owned by workers, consumers, farmers and small and medium sized businesses.  This is a very flexible business model! 

Are co-operatives perfect?  No, of course not, they are owned by people and perfect people simply do not exist anywhere.  But their purpose is to meet human need rather than returns for investors.  They have an internationally accepted set of values and principles.  They are governed on the basis of one person one vote rather than one dollar one vote.  They have community roots.  The pay gap between the highest paid manager and the lowest paid staff is usually less that 10:1 rather than 300 or 400:1, often found in capital based business.  Their record on environmental issues is not perfect but is better than capital based business.  They are also better at social responsibility.  They have to be financially healthy but they are committed to meeting need rather than maximizing returns to already rich investors.

Adopting a co-operative organizational structure brings with it acceptance of a shared purpose, meeting member and community need, and a set of values and principles shaped by more than 150 years of experience of people working together.  Those values, honesty, openness, social responsibility, caring for others, equality, equity, mutual self-help, self-responsibility, solidarity and democracy.  These are the kinds of values that the victims of this tragedy lacked. 

The co-operative principles include open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education and training, co-operation among co-operatives and concern for community.  These value and principles, once adopted, become the signposts of accountability for the organization.  Members, governments and the community can look to them as the basis of standards of accountability

So what co-operative structure might make a strong contribution to much better elder care?  In Quebec, and much more so in Northern Italy and the Basque Country of Spain, there are solidarity co-operatives.  They have different classes or types of members.   A retail co-operative might have consumer members and worker members.  A co-operative daycare would have parent members, worker members and perhaps a community member.  An educational co-operative membership can include students, parents and teachers.  The idea is to have membership open to people for whom the co-operative was important and for all the members to share common goals.  As in every co-operative, each member would have one vote.  Each class of members would elect a portion of the board of directors.  All those for whom the co-operative was important would have a say in governance.

For eldercare homes one class of members would be the elder residents themselves, healthcare worker members and family members where the family had a loved one who was a resident.    Each “class of member” would elect the members of the board of directors.  The eldercare workers might elect four board members, residents three, family members two.  Those nine might choose a director from the community or area served by the facility.  This structure would ensure that the policies and operations of the home were based on decisions made with input for whom the home was of major importance. 

The purposes of the co-operative would be: to provide an excellent level of care to elder residents; a rewarding place to work with fair pay and benefits as well as the opportunity for workers to be the best they could be; and to ensure open, clear communication to families that their loved one was well looked after and the assurance that they were well informed.   Let me suggest that this structure is much preferable to private for profit ownership.  If you review the lessons learned from the COVID 19 elder care disaster, this organizational structure has enormous promise.

  • It gives those elders involved a role of participation and respect and a voice in governance.  Their wisdom and the contribution they have made and can still give are given an outlet.  Their dignity as humans is respected by giving it voice. 
  • A solidarity co-operative structure demonstrates respect for the care givers and those workers who put their lives, and often the lives of their families, on the line during a crisis.  Behavioural economics tells us, that given a living income, a sense of workplace autonomy, the chance to be the best you can be and the opportunity to make the world a better place are all stronger motives than financial gain.  We put signs in our windows, stood on balconies and cheered and sung and banged pots and pans; now is the time to make changes to show we really do care and admire them.   
  • It responds to the pain of families whose hearts were broken as they learned their loved ones whom they had been unable to see, had died in a world that did not even allow normal grieving or a funeral.  It responds to the horror of those who learned those they loved had died filthy and of hunger or dehydration. 
  • It is an organizational structure that allows elders, their families and the elder care workers to regain trust in elder care facilities.
  • It makes the role of governments to regulate standards of care much more easily achievable.
  • It encourages working together with other eldercare co-operatives to communicate with government and the community about elder care needs and issues.  Clearly organized voices offer a great improvement over the past inability of the warnings of individual elder care advocates to be heard.  Not hearing or acting on those warnings allowed the eldercare disaster to evolve.

The Role of Government

It is clear to Canadians that our policies toward elder care and the elder care providers has been an appalling failure.  Last year Ontario and Quebec cut healthcare funding by over a half a billion dollars.   Atlantic Canadians have faced doctor shortages for over 25 years with an estimated 9-13% of Atlantic Canadians lacking a family doctor.  In Nova Scotia the closure of emergency rooms exploded from just over 20,000 hours in 2014-15 to just under 50,000 in 2018-19, and the waiting list for elder care is, sadly, large and long.  The Nova Scotia government priority has been a balanced budget. 

In reality, between 2008 and 2019, the share of the world’s wealth in the hands of the richest 1% has climbed from 42% to over 50%.  The claims of neoclassical economics that richly rewarding the already very rich would result in a ‘trickle down’ of wealth to the 99% has in reality fueled a ‘trickle up’, or more correctly a flood of wealth to the 1%.  The rich threaten that if we do not cut their personal and corporate taxes they will take their money to another country and leave us jobless.  But even with cut taxes, they pull their money out and hide it in tax havens.  We have clearly hung on far too long to the bizarre notion that an economy guided by greed and self-interest would not have terrible consequences.  

We are solidly in the midst of a new epoch in the history of our planet, ‘The Anthropocene’.  It is an era in which it is impossible to look at any location on our planet without finding it being reshaped by human activity.  It is a period in which humans may well choose to largely destroy the ability of the planet to support life as we know it, a process which has already begun.   We are, in terms of geologic time, speeding toward runaway climate change.  The sixth mass extinction of life on the planet is now happening.  We have made the air toxic.  We have made the oceans increasingly acidic, choking in plastic and subject to a reduction in life.  We are heading for a global fresh water shortage.  Worldwide epidemics have increased from 3 in the 1800’s, 5 in the 1900’s and 5 since 2000, in just 20 years.  Our investor based economy will do anything that produces a profit.  Capital has become the modern god for whom no sacrifice seems too great.  It is evident in our approach to eldercare.  Nature and society are organized in the service of capital and insatiable greed.

COVID 19 and climate change are urgent calls for us to shift to a human economy focused on meeting human need, one governed fully recognizing our interdependence with nature and each other.  Sadly, it is possible that the response to both will be to tax the 99% to bail out the 1% who do not need it.   That was the response to the 2008 economic collapse caused by financial industry greed.  It is the COVID 19 response of the Trump administration in the United States for whom we walk on egg shells to avoid offending.  It is possible our governments will pour billions of dollars more into the oil industry attempting to return to the 1950’s.  It may bail out companies with trillions of tax dollars without taking a strong ownership position or control on behalf of tax payers whose money they invested.   Or we can start the careful process of building a green democratic economy.  If we absolutely must bail some corporations out the government should own them and sell them to their workers to run co-operatively.

If we pick a long term green economic democracy approach, there is no better place to start than with elder care using strong measures to nurture, support and finance a co-operative, participatory, people based approach.  Post COVID 19 federal and provincial governments need to decide to raise revenues by dealing with getting the richest 10% of Canadians to pay their fair share.  This would strengthen provincial revenues and make possible federal transfers to provincial governments with a strong bias for solidarity elder care co-operatives.  Engage the co-operative sector and credit unions.  Let us build elder care with Canadians, engaging the best of who they are rather than having them ill served by facilities built for other purposes.

Responding to Colchester’s Traumatic Pain

We are reeling.  The unimaginable has happened.  We are learning the names and hearing the stories of people just like us gunned down in their home or on the street.  We are learning that wonderful people – family, friends, neighbors, care givers, people who were loved – have succumbed to a wave of evil acts by someone who was clearly deranged. The wave of evil washed over us.  Then a different wave began building.  Hearts are being posted on trees, candles in windows, e-mails have come from around the world, tears are running down cheeks of strangers.  A wave of what is best in humanity is washing over us.  This is not something we are responsible for but we feel responsible for responding somehow.  We also feel bereft that we cannot do more, especially when weighed down by the pandemic.

One of my ideals that I struggle with is the belief that, if we believe in God, we should judge actions and structures and not people.  That is a profound challenge.  Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, writes about people who seem to have given their lives over to evil.  They live among us, often appearing normal, and when they commit an evil act we are often caught by surprise.  This is not a reality we can control.  A wave of evil acts leaves us feeling out of control.   In time, we will want to know as much as we can about from where this explosion of evil came, but that is for a bit later.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl tells us we can always control what we choose to think about, and unlike Dr. Frankl, we are free to choose to act on what we choose to think about.  It is reassuring that the overwhelming choices of people are to respond with honesty, openness, caring for others, sharing, social responsibility, fairness.  These are people centered responses.   Evolution has gifted the human brain with altruism that inclines us to help others and work together.  When confronted with natural disasters, from storms to wild fires, to pandemics to floods, people work together in an explosion of altruism that seeks to dwarf the explosion of evil.

What is the most appropriated way to honor and remember and care for the victims of this tragedy and their families and friends?  As we think about the stories we have heard about the victims – nurses, a teacher, a police officer, a fire fighter, fathers, mothers – one guide as to how to respond is how they might like us to respond.  All were caregivers in one way or another.  Our response should be a caregiver’s response.  Our response should be focused on the best of human nature.  The pain they feel will not go away tomorrow.  Children of victims will grow up with the pain and the absence of support and love of a missing parent or parents.  Our response needs to be enduring. 

In a few weeks or months this terrible tragedy will be out of the headlines.  Most of will move ahead in our lives not knowing much more than the names of survivors or their struggle with the aftermath of these evil acts.   What can we put in place today that will respond to the needs of the victims of this tragedy in the weeks, months, and years to come.  One possible response would be a trust fund, one that is responsive to what families and friends want and need.  One that is guided by caregivers. 

An important question is how to structure it.  It should be people based rather than government based to be close to the people it serves.  A community based co-operative drawing on the ideas of solidarity co-operation offers many strengths.  Adopting a co-operative organizational structure brings with it acceptance of a shared purpose, meeting member and community need, and a set of values and principles shaped by more than 150 years of people working together.  Those values, honesty, openness, social responsibility, caring for others, equality, equity, mutual self-help, self-responsibility, solidarity and democracy are the kinds of values that the victims of this tragedy showed.  They are also, once adopted, become the signposts of accountability for the organization.

Membership should be open to the families and friends and people from the communities directly impacted.  It could be open to caregivers either as individuals or through their organizations.   Members should choose who will direct the organization.  Families and friends of victims should be assured strong participation in governance, as should caregivers.  Those they choose might appoint community and or government representatives to be part of the governance.

It might be tentatively called the Colchester Memorial Co-operative Trust.   It could be funded by individual donations from the thousands of people moved by compassion for the victims and their families.  It could be funded as well by governments as a memorial to those who lost their lives and the spontaneous community response. 

The Trust should have as its primary focus staying in touch with the families to ensure that they have the care and support that we all feel but cannot deliver.  The care and support needs will change over time.  Social and psychological support and just ensuring people do not feel alone would clearly be early priorities.  Education assistance and funding needs may grow over time.  It might also look at a suitable memorial or memorials so that we never forget those we lost, and that, while people are fundamentally good, frailty lives among us as does a capacity for evil.  It might also look at increasing our understanding of how this event happened and what if anything might lessen the chance of it happening again.  It might look with caring judgement at the decisions of emergency first responders caught up in the horror of events beyond any reasonable expectation.

Finally, let me cautiously express a final hope.  Let us judge the evil of the actions but leave to the Creator the judgement of him whom we will not name.  Let us also leave room in our hearts for the family and friends of him whom we will not name.  I do not know even who they are, but heaven alone knows what agonizing thoughts and guilt and rejection they are experiencing.  If they were in any way complicit they need to have deep courage to come forward.  If they were not complicit, they too are victims.  Let the Trust respond to them as appropriate as its most difficult task. 

Let us remember Lisa Mcully, Heidi Stevenson, Tom Bagley, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins, Jamie and Greg Blair, Emily and Aaron Tuck, Jolene Oliver, Kristen Beaton, Heather O’Brien, Corrie Ellison, Gina Goulet, Joey Webber, Dawn Madson, Frank Gulenchyn, Joy and Peter Bond, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, John Joseph Zahl, Lillian Hyslop and any further victims yet to be found, with love and caring.  Let us never forget that those left behind need to be surrounded by our love and caring, not just today, but for as long as they need us.

Lessons from COVID 19: How did we get here?

COVID 19 will be a disastrous milestone.  The pandemic leapt out of a hole mostly dug over five decades by the richest people and corporations in the world.  Ironically they are the least likely to be hurt by it.  Like the world wars and the great depression and great recession, it will leave a changed world in ways we can imagine and ways we cannot yet foresee.  In a world of huge wealth and enormous scientific progress, how did this happen and take us so much by surprise? 

A huge part of the answer lies in the nature of capitalism.  What many, especially the wealthy few have claimed, is that capitalism is the source of our prosperity.  It has turned out they were wrong.  It has really been a growing source of destruction of our health, our climate, our sense of fairness and our democracy.  With COVID 19 capitalism has fueled a new disease into a wildfire of illness and death.  We need to learn what we can from this terrible time so we can begin to shape a better world.

As Chris Winters, the senior editor at Yes Magazine pointed out, “It turns out that a deregulated capitalist economy with no real leadership isn’t the best model to fight a global pandemic.”  The captains of industry and finance did not leap forward with a plan to fight the pandemic.  Faced with a sharp economic downturn they leapt forward to demand that governments protect them.  The same governments they derided, smeared and lied about for decades.  The same governments they have strangled with their demands for tax cuts and threats to move elsewhere if they didn’t get them.  The same governments they starved for revenues by often illegally hiding their obscene wealth in tax havens.  Examples of corporations and the wealthy 1% without tax havens are as rare as unicorns. 

We dug a hole over five decades driven by the incessant demands of the super-rich for ever larger slices of the pie.  One huge slice of that pie they devoured was the piece that should have fed health care.  So what was the result of not having the funds to spend on healthcare and how did it impact the COVID 19 crisis?    I am going to ignore the low hanging fruit like the Harris and Ford governments in Ontario or Canada’s ‘government shrinkers’ Paul Martin and Stephen Harper and of course the appalling Trump administration  in the United States with their enthusiasm to cut public healthcare spending.  Let me focus closer to home in Nova Scotia, Canada.

We have a government dedicated to a public policy of austerity that has worked nowhere in the world.  For decades we have had a shortage of nursing home beds and many of the available beds are in ‘for profit’ private sector nursing homes.   The argument is that if the private sector owns the homes government debt will be lower.  Government still controls the number of beds by limiting the number of beds it will approve but the long run costs are higher.  The result is far fewer beds than we, especially in Nova Scotia need.

The pressure in ‘for profit’ homes is always to keep profits as high as possible.  Far too often that means too few staff and poorly paid staff.  It often means hiring part time staff to keep wages and benefits minimal.  It means hours and wages so low staff often need to work in more than one nursing home, a practice which has become a death dealing disaster.  It too often means as many seniors as possible in each room.  It means inadequate equipment and often no pandemic plan.  This is where many of the most pandemic vulnerable in our society live.  It is where the death toll is highest across the country.

But the shortage of nursing home beds had another devastating impact.  There are long waiting lines to get a nursing home bed.  The result is the usual flow of patients through the system is blocked.  Emergency rooms cannot shift patients to speciality wards like cardiology, or surgery because those wards are unable to send patients to general wards or regional hospitals because the general wards or regional hospitals cannot send patients to nursing homes.  And into this inefficient mess healthcare workers wait for a surge of COVID 19 victims

The cost of a bed in emergency is much greater than one in a specialized ward.   The cost of a general or regional hospital bed is less than in a specialized ward in a major hospital.  The cost of a nursing home bed is the least expensive of all.  The lack of beds that cost a few hundred dollars a day is filling up beds that cost thousands of dollars a day with patients who need much less care.  The cost of this inefficiency would have been better spent on planning for a pandemic in line with the recommendations made after the SARS epidemic.  Some of the tax cut and tax haven money should have been used to build publicly owned or not-for-profit nursing homes.

We are a province where doctors, nurses, para medics and home care workers have all been denigrated by provincial leaders over the past five years.  As a recent provincial Minister of health put it, “Why are we paying home care workers $18.00 an hour to wash dishes?”   If the minister of health does not even understand what homecare workers do it is no surprise they are greatly undervalued.

COVID 19 arrived in Nova Scotia after years of growing emergency room closures across the province and a severe doctor shortage.  It is compounded by a shortage of nurses.  That in turn was compounded by an equipment shortage including ventilators, hospital quality masks and personal protective equipment. The majority of our healthcare workers are women, many paid less than male colleagues or in low paying work.   The doctors, nurses, support workers, home care workers and janitors who willingly put their lives at risk, live in unnecessary, often desperate, fear. 

But what about the super-rich who benefited from the tax cuts and tax havens?  Well they always have the option of private hospitals they can fly to.  For them, they can work from home in spacious quarters and their wealth, while perhaps a bit diminished, remains, and no doubt many are scheming how to gain back their losses and more.  No losing jobs or homes or ability to buy food for them.

But that is not the end of how capitalism fuels COVID19.  It has produced enormous and growing inequalities of wealth.  The poor are more vulnerable to the pandemic because they are paid less, experience more difficulty affording good food and housing, transportation or affording their medications.  They are less able to self-isolate.  For indigenous people, their health care is especially weak since much less is spent on it per capita than non-indigenous care.  Blacks and people of color and religious minorities too often face discrimination in housing, education and healthcare.  Transportation makes accessing health care harder for the poor.  

Capitalism also has its favoured occupations and races.  It does not result in good incomes for retail workers, janitors, homecare workers, etc.  Corporations often finds devious ways, like contracting out and/or the threat or reality of offshore sourcing, to pay even less.  COVID 19 hits low income people much harder than any group except seniors.  Incomes for racial and religious minorities and especially our indigenous people are among the lowest in the country.  Having said that, let us remember that the vast wealth of North America was built on the foundations of slavery and the theft of indigenous lands. 

Many people in low paying jobs are the people who likely to have to stay at work during a pandemic either because their work is essential and/or they have little or no savings.  They are also the least likely to have their employers provide them with personal protective equipment or safe work settings during a pandemic.   Again, profit drives far too many decisions.   In worker owned work places decisions are not made this way.

Some will argue that many businesses did good things to respond to the pandemic and that of course is true.  Businesses are not all the same.  Small, medium and family businesses are much less likely to behave with a singular fixation on maximum return to shareholders.  That is why some restaurants, after they closed, raised money to prepare takeout meals for truck drivers for free.  Why another small business began manufacturing plexiglass protective barriers for other small businesses for free.  There are many more examples.

Even in big corporations, not all senior managers are solely profit driven.  Most want to do what is ethical and most would like to help build a better world for their families and communities.  But in capitalist business structure, operated in the interests of investors, when push comes to shove, a single bottom line is where the rubber meets the road.  Next quarter’s results and the Milton Friedman, billionaire capitalist culture define winners by their dedication to profit.  The result is to blunt altruism and caring.  When profit decides your next promotion, or perhaps even your job, making decisions for the good of humanity becomes painful.  Even good people rationalize corporate bad behaviour.

Yet another characteristic of global capitalism has been an important driver of COVID 19.   Corporate globalization drives corporate growth.  To operate on the global stage, it is much better to be big – very big.  The bigger you are:  The more easily you can swallow smaller competitors and achieve market control;  The more easily you can drive supplier prices down;  The more easily you can move an operation to an area with even lower wages, weaker pollution laws or easily corruptible governments.  Even more important, your lobbyists can pressure governments and your lawyers can play a role in writing the “free” trade deals designed to serve the rich and powerful.   

The existence of these global supply chains has had a major impact on how fast this new virus spread.  It has also posed major difficulties for a rich country like ours to obtain personal protective and other equipment needed to protect our people.  Imagine what the result has and will be for people in poorer countries or refugee camps who have little clout in the global bidding war.  It has also touched off a price escalation as governments try to protect their citizens by bidding up the cost of equipment from companies beyond their borders.  Good for corporate profits but not for our healthcare system.

The government of Canada, in response to the supply chain problem, has approached a series of industries and many have stepped forward quickly to provide personal protective and hospital equipment.  It would have been much better and saved many lives if this had been the situation for the past decade.  Will Canadian suppliers be more expensive?  Will they pay living wages?  Did foreign supply chains pay living wages?  What will the profit margins be?  Will we return to “free” trade after the crisis has passed and put ourselves back in the same position again?

What about US suppliers?  Surely if we agree to global supply chains we should not have to accept their irresponsible disruption by an administration covering up its massive failures by putting lives in other countries at risk. 

The same enormous power that has driven down taxes and protected tax havens and promoted self-regulation has driven global supply chains.  The result is why 20% of the Trump administration’s initial COVID response plan benefited the top 20% of income earners.  It is why a huge portion of Canada’s COVID response plan will go to the oil industry with the result of accelerating climate change.   If the goal is to get those unemployed by the pandemic back to work, World Bank studies show: it takes an investment of more than $190,000 to create one oil industry job; between $75-80,000 to create a job in solar or wind; $60,000 per job for retrofits; and under $40,000 per job in mass transit.  Will the COVID disaster become an excuse for throwing away more money on tar sands production? 

Is fear of the pandemic going to be used by the owners of capital to fuel a great leap backward?  Will our governments continue to be hijacked and stripped of their power to protect us?

The COVID 19 pandemic gives us so much to think about and raises many questions.  Can democracy improve the response in a time of crisis?  If this is not the last “new” virus or bacteria humanity will experience, what are some of the things we need to change to make it better the next time.  If organizing our world around capitalism does not work well what are the alternatives? 

I hope to grapple with these and other questions over the next few weeks.

Lessons from COVID 19 – Co-operating makes a Better World

What are the most important things to remember as this earth-shaking pandemic rolls through our communities?  The first is that every life is a sacred trust to be protected.  That the dignity of every person is to be respected.  These are not lofty and abstract ideas but ones that face us every day.  Especially during the pandemic.  These ideas are why I must protect the people you love.  They are why you need to protect the people I love.  They are why you and I should not be looking for the momentary pleasure by ducking our responsibility for physical distancing.   

It is tempting to say, “But surely just getting together with a couple of friends can’t really do any harm?”  But what if one of us has caught COVID 19 and does not yet have symptoms and we all walk away from our pleasant get together carrying the virus?  What if over the next week the three of us continue to be careless but only infect a couple of people a day.  One case has become 3 and 3 becomes 6 and 6 becomes 12.  Then  12 becomes 24; 24 becomes 48; 48 becomes 96; an by the end of the week 96 becomes 192.  All that in only one short week.   But with a death toll of 3% that is between five and six dead people that someone loved.  Perhaps someone we loved. 

But we might say, “But I don’t have symptoms.  No sore throat, no temperature, no cough.  It is safe for me to be with a couple friends with no symptoms.”  Alas, we have learned that once a person catches the COVID virus they can be symptom free, or have very mild symptoms for days, and some people never get very sick.  But they can pass on the virus.  So minimize any contact with people.  When we need food or medicine or something we can go out.  But helping others means never get closer to others than 2 metres.  If we have a non-medical quality face mask wear it, not to protect us but, to protect others.  When we touch things like door handles or shopping carts with our hands we need to wash them or sanitize them as soon as possible to protect ourselves.  Remember, keeping ourselves safe is a gift to others as well.      

We live in a society where winning and looking after number one is what we are told works best.  At the same time we know the disappointment of coming second or third or worse. Many know the depression of seldom or never winning. But we all know how good it makes us feel when we do something thoughtful for someone and see them smile.  We live in a world where most of the joy and well being we experience comes from helping each other.  We live in a world where helping each other gets things done better and faster.  Co-operation is the most important thing we do.  COVID 19 thrives with selfish individualism and is defeated by co-operation, by the desire to help each other.  Co-operation and doing things to help others is ‘socially close’ and can be done while ‘physically distant’.

196 new infections is just the start of the harm.  There are many people who are working in essential services.  They are the people we are most likely to infect outside of the people with whom we live.  They are risking their lives to insure we have food, many things we really need, and health care for the almost 200 people the little ‘get together’ infected.   Will a healthcare worker pay with her or his life for our get together?  A grocery store clerk? A janitor?

But we might ask, if physical distancing works why is the number of the COVID 19 cases still growing? Victory is not no new cases tomorrow. Victory is new cases at a rate that our wounded health care system can handle. Victory is being able to take care of people with COVID 19 and mothers giving birth and someone with a broken leg or a heart attack. The slower we can have this illness spread the more we will all be winners.

There are co-operative values we can live by to create a better world.  Co-operatives emerged in response to the excesses of the industrial revolution.  They grew out of brutal exploitation and a society rife with horrendous abuses. People sought a better alternative.  Today we face a pandemic made especially lethal by social and income inequality, hyper individualism, self-interest and greed.  Let us choose instead to live by a set of life affirming co-operative values:  Equity; equality; mutual self-help; self-responsibility; democracy; solidarity; honesty; openness; social responsibility; and caring for others.  These are the values of a healthy society.

If we can, we should find a small or large group and pitch in to help as much as possible.  If we have enough money we should look to find a local group like a food kitchen delivering meals to people and donate.  We should pick up the phone and call our friends and neighbors or seniors or people who are self-isolating to protect us, just so they know someone is thinking of them.  We can also tell health care workers or grocery store clerks or janitors or truck drivers how much we admire them for taking risks to help us survive this dangerous time.  Let’s co-operate.

Alberta and Canada: When Democracy Gets Sacrificed

We live in a quasi-democracy.  And it is eroding.  The October 21st unreformed election was simply not fair for at least half of those who voted.  The reality:  One Liberal MP for every 37,681 votes for the party; One Conservative MP for every 50,873 votes; One NDP MP for every 118,717 votes; One Green one MP for every 387,453 votes.    And that ignores the distortion caused by those who, because of the Trudeau government’s broken electoral reform promise, felt compelled to vote for a party they did not want to be the government.  Why did they do that?  Choose from the following list of how the First Past the Post (FPP) system of voting distorts the real voting intentions of millions of Canadians:

  • How many voted Conservative just to dump Trudeau as a result of his tarnished performance?
  • How many voted Liberal to ensure Sheer did not win and give us a return to a Harper like extreme right government?
  • How many wanted to but did not vote NDP to ensure Sheer did not win?
  • How many wanted to but did not vote Green to ensure Sheer did not win?

This raises serious questions about what the election results would have been if Canadians were free to vote the way they wanted.  How much less would the Liberal and Conservative votes have been?  10%?  15%?  After the so-called free democratic election where many people did not feel free to vote for who they really supported, we have no idea what Canadians really wanted.

This brings up the post-election use of the word ‘mandate’.  With the support of 33% or 34% of those who voted, the claims of both Andrew Sheer and Justin Trudeau to have a ‘mandate’ were preposterous and stunning power grabs.  Neither seemed to understand that the broken electoral reform promise likely meant that their real support was less than 30%.  Perhaps as low as 25%.  Both showed a wishful understanding of democracy.  In a parliamentary system the government needs to have the support of the majority of members in the House of Commons.  Neither Mr. Sheer nor Mr. Trudeau were close to a majority of votes, nor did either have a majority of seats.   They clearly had no mandate for the ideas and proposals they campaigned on.  65% of Canadians voted against both of them.

During the election Mr. Trudeau explained that he did not proceed with electoral reform because in his view it would be bad for Canada.  It would he suggested create a multiparty Parliament and unstable governments.  The reality is that the FPP electoral system is really only good for the Liberals and Conservatives.  Both Harper and Trudeau have reaped the benefits of FPP which allowed them to ignore the 60+% of the people who did not support them.  A Proportional Representation (PR) voting system would force the government it produced to listen to the diverse views of Canadians.   FPP is clearly a winner for the Liberals and Conservatives.  This time, as in 2015, the beneficiaries of the lack of electoral reform clearly was the Trudeau Liberals.  Of course, electoral reform did not happen. 

The other winners with FPP are the very wealthy and the corporations they own, like SNC Lavalin, big oil, big pharma, and other huge corporations with their powerful political funding ability and massive legal and lobbying resources.  Majority governments are what allows debate of scandals like SNC Lavalin to be avoided.  The last thing they want is to see minority governments that will be more difficult for them to control.  They do not want to have strong environmental or social policies.  They want to keep the lower taxes, higher profits, undisturbed tax havens, weak regulation.  They will continue to back the FPP and campaign against electoral reform.    

But the most serious result of the Trudeau government’s decision to stick to FPP was the national unity impact.  If the national FPP election results were grotesque, these results in Alberta were ominous.  Of 34 seats the Conservatives got 33 and the NDP 1.  69% of Albertans voted Conservative giving them 97% of the seats!   632,000 Albertans were rendered non-existent or marginally-existent by the choice of the Trudeau government to stick with FPP.  What would the make-up of Alberta’s caucus in the House of Commons look like if a reformed PR voting system had closely reflected the real wishes of Albertans?  23 Conservatives; 5 Liberals; 4 NDP and possibly 1 Green. 

Alberta Voted     
 PCLiberalNDPGreenPCP
Vote by Party1,416,313288,283241,91657,11245,052
% of Vote69.1%15.0%11.8%2.8%2.2%
# of Seats330100
Votes/seat42,918N/A241,916N/AN/A
PR Result23.5541?0

Using the FPP system, the votes of 632,633 Albertans were largely ignored resulting in only one seat in Parliament rather than the 9 or 10 their numbers reflected.  30.9% of the voters had their votes count for almost nothing.  Instead we are left with the result that we now have an extreme right government in Alberta whose leader claims, in his own words, to be a “Canadian Patriot” while he fans hatred for the rest of the country in his province and the west, cuts taxes and government programs and engages in a witch hunt with environmental groups. 

Saskatchewan’s Results

 LibPCNDPGreen7 Other PartiesPPCTotal
Votes66,031366,611111,37914,4171,85610,211570,505
% of vote11.6%64.3%19.5%2.5%0.3%1.8%100%
Seats by PR2930014
Seats by FPP01400014

The results of the election in Saskatchewan are similarly distorted.  If the vote was counted using a reformed PR electoral system, instead of 14 seats the Conservatives would have won 9 seats with 2 Liberal colleagues and 3 New Democrats.  The votes of 202,038 Saskatchewan voters were rendered useless and ignored.  The failure of the Trudeau government to implement electoral reform has fueled the fires of national disunity. 

FPP Violates the Constitution?

The failure to reform the voting system effectively marginalized or rendered ineffective the votes of 834,671 people in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and more than 3,000,000 voters across the country.  But Section 3 of the Constitution says:

  • Sec 3:  Right to vote and meaningful participation:  “3.  Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

Does this include the right to have your vote count?  Does FPP constitute a violation of the constitution? 

Section 15 Deals with the right to equal treatment under the law:   

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

Is the privileged position of Liberal and Conservative voters under FPP a form of discrimination?  It is not that long ago that discrimination against black people, indigenous people and women were accepted as ‘normal’ and acceptable by the great majority of Canadians.  These forms of discrimination are still major problems with which we struggle in our society. 

Several organizations including the Springtide Collective of Nova Scotia and Fair Voting BC believe so, and are planning to challenge the issue in the courts.  They have raised funds to initiate the challenge from over 800 donors from every province across Canada.  Clearly, the Parliamentary committee hearings on electoral reform, which heard from many expert witnesses, raised the issue of ignoring millions of voters and rendering their votes useless.  The decision to stick with FPP for the benefit of two parties was made in spite of the weight of testimony backing change. 

Will the government do what is in the best interests of voters and all the people in Canada?  It was recommended by the majority of expert witnesses heard by the Parliamentary Committee.  Or will it protect its privileged position in the hopes of once again turning a minority of votes into a majority of seats and the ability to run roughshod over parliament?

Alberta and Canada: A Public Policy Failure in Process?

Canada faces huge, long term, destabilizing challenges. 

  • Inequality of wealth is soaring.  The richest 87 Canadian families own as much as 12 million average Canadian income earners while Alberta gives tax breaks to the rich and cuts services to the poor.
  • While much of the world surges ahead developing renewable energy and post fossil fuel economies, the government of Alberta insists that no matter what the climate change cost they will not change direction.   

At a time in the history of our country that calls for strong federal leadership, we have a disabled federal government.  It disabled itself with the failure to implement election reform.  That failure has left the country with a federal government paralysed by the election results in Alberta and Saskatchewan.  The last election in Alberta, under proportional representation, could have delivered 24 Conservatives, 5 Liberals, 4 NDP and 1 Green MP.  Instead, gambling on the first past the post electoral system to give them another majority government, the federal Liberals have managed to ensure Alberta is represented in Parliament only by 34 Conservatives.  They ensured 632,633 Albertans who voted for other parties would have no voice in the federal government.  Now we have the spectacle of a federal government desperate to meet irresponsible demands from the government of Alberta and the oil industry, regardless of the impact on the rest of Canada and the world.

So what does the Alberta Premier want?  He demands a large increase in federal transfer payments at a time when his government has reduced the overall corporate tax rate from 12% to 8%, or about $1.6 billion, and cut services to people by $1.3 Billion.   The windfall for Husky oil alone is reported to be $233 million.   He demands that the whole country help him take from the poor and give to the super wealthy oil barons.

He demands and is getting Trans Mountain pipe line with an initial outlay of $4.5 Billion to be followed by another $9.3 Billion, and perhaps more, to twin the existing leaky line.  To put that in perspective, $13.8 billion could pay 276,000 Albertans $50,000 each to kick start green energy and industry.

He demands the massive TECK tar sands mine be approved. The impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions of the $20.6 billion project will be enormous.  One Barrel of tar sands oil will produce 700kg CO2 emissions   The plan is to produce 260,000 barrels of oil a day, resulting in about 6 Megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year, for more than 40 years – 240 new additional Megatonnes tons!  But Canada has pledged to cut its emissions of greenhouse gasses from 730 Megatonnes to 511 Megatonnes by 2030.  The Teck Frontier Mine would make a joke of Canada’s greenhouse gas emission targets and promises. 

Alberta will likely also demand we pay a significant share of the $40-70 Billion it will cost to clean up abandoned and orphan oil wells.  These are wells where Alberta has allowed the owners, who made great profits, to walk away from the wells with no clean up.  The track record of Alberta in dealing with the challenges and of oil and gas development is not inspiring. 

Starting in 1990, Norway was able to build a $1 Trillion Oil Fund from the profits of its oil industry with production since 2000 of about 2.5 million barrels a day.  In the same period Alberta’s production levels were about 3 million barrels a day.  The Alberta Heritage fund was established in 1976.   Since then Alberta has managed to create a paltry $18 Billion Heritage Fund even with higher daily production.   The government of Alberta has become the servant of the oil industry – rather than its own people.

The threat of the Kenny government is that unless its demands are met Alberta will start working on leaving confederation.  Canada, claims the Kenny government, is the source of all Alberta’s problems.  Alberta’s government is determined to double the production from the tar sands and tie Albertans to rely on an industry which 99% of the world’s scientists tell us we must phase out.  The position the Kenny government takes is that they have a God given right to oil industry jobs no matter how many people around the globe are devastated by droughts, floods, wild fires, rising ocean levels or super storms.   Albertans need to decide if they want to let the Kenny government whip them into a frenzy of hatred for Canada.

Alberta’s energy economy has long been in a cycle of booms and busts.  The unemployment rates have gone from under 4% in 2005 – 2008, to 7.3% in August 2009, 4.3% in August 2012, 7.4% in January 2016, and 7% in December 2019. That means more than 170,000 Albertans looking for work were unable to find a job and are suffering from the current bust.  The national unemployment rate was 5.6% in December 2019, unchanged from the same period in 2018.  Alberta’s government and Premier are determined to deepen reliance on an unstable fossil fuel economy and stir up anti Canada anger and hatred if they do not get their way. 

In a province like Nova Scotia, our chronic unemployment rate, average family income and out migration make Alberta, in spite of its difficulties, look rich.  Should we support help for Alberta? How should we respond when 99% of the world’s scientists tell us we, and the rest of the world, need to leave the oil in the ground or our children and grandchildren will face the prospect of runaway climate change?  Can we look at catastrophic floods, wild fires, droughts, killer storms and heat waves and decide Alberta’s oil must go to market no matter what?  Should we invest tens of billions in ramping up tar sands oil for export to make the problem worse?  Do Albertan’s have a right to those jobs today no matter what the result, even if climate change costs left to future generations are in the many trillions of dollars?

The Trudeau government has done very little to come to the support of Albertans suffering from the boom and bust oil economy.  Twinning the Kinder Morgan pipeline will cost at least $9.3 Billion.  What would have been the impact of a $9.3 billion investment in renewable energy in Alberta?  $9.3 billion is $54,705 for every one of the 170,000 unemployed workers.  Invested in solar electricity it would produce 3,029 Megawatts, enough to power about 400,000 homes.  More important, investments in renewable energy produce more jobs than investments in oil and, the jobs are well paying and most do not require a university education.

So how should we respond to Alberta?  It is easy to understand why hundreds of thousands of Albertans are afraid for their future.  It is easy to understand why the short sighted, irresponsible ramping up of oil proposed by the oil industry and their government looks attractive.  If we truly believe in building a better Canada, we must help.  But helping by investing tens or hundreds of billions in increasing the impacts of runaway climate change is the worst possible way to tell Albertans we care.  What Albertans want is economic security and so far the federal government is offering security only to the oil industry and Jason Kenny.

We need to invest billions in a robust energy transition plan to get off oil by 2050 and a very big chunk of that federal investment should be in Alberta.  Can we afford it?  It is a bargain compared to what climate change will cost us, our children and grandchildren.  The sane choice, what is really in the national interest, is to invest in the transition off oil and forward to renewable energy.  As a Nova Scotian who cares about Albertans I could vote for that.

Corporate Imposed Taxes and How they Reduce Our Quality of Life

The word ‘markups’ does not arouse the same emotions as taxes and profits.  But markups are an important and little understood form of ‘taxation’.  When a business sells something, it takes the cost of either making it or buying it and adds a markup.  The markup can be low for high volume goods and services, or very high, even as high as 1000% or more.  The portion of the markup depends on what the market will bear.  For a life and death drug, the market will bear a lot.  The markup produces the company’s profit.

Taxes are almost always portrayed as evil.  Some say, ‘Government takes your hard earned money and wastes it.’  Others, myself included, see taxes as the source of many important goods and services in society – education, health care, roads, clean water supplies, regulations to protect us from the unscrupulous, to name just a few.  It may not be always perfectly spent but then again neither is my annual income.

Profits get a more mixed review.  Some see them as the just reward for wise investment decisions, hard work and a reward for superior intelligence and innovativeness.  They are portrayed as what drives progress.  Only when they are seen as excessive are they associated with greed.  Let us suspend the usual usage of the word tax, and think about markups and the profits they produce, as ‘taxes’ – corporation imposed taxes.  Let’s call them CITs.

When big corporations impose CITs on what we buy they use that tax for many purposes.  We are paying for the advertisements that manipulate us to buy more.  The ads are seldom informative and often deceptive and manipulative.  So we are paying a tax to be misled.  Perhaps, more starkly, we are taxed on what we buy so we can be lied to about what we bought.

Businesses also use their profits to lobby government.  For example oil industry profits go into massive lobbying campaigns that environmental groups could never afford.  They want tax breaks for finding more oil that we dare not use if we love our grandchildren.  They use CITs to pressure government to build more pipelines and get tax relief to do so.  Profits are used to hire tax lawyers and high powered accountants to design tax havens and other ways to avoid paying taxes.  More lawyers are used to defend tax cheats and corporations who have broken the law to defend themselves from prosecution.  Often governments simply back off prosecution or give a minor slap on the wrist, because they cannot afford the legal power to enforce the law.  SNC Lavalin was a clear example.

Profits go for big companies to buy up small companies.  In the US most of the recent huge tax cuts by their ‘billionaire in chief’ went to pay for buyouts, senior management bonuses, and to purchase company shares to drive up share values for wealthy shareholders.  Very little went into new investment that would result in more jobs or higher incomes for workers. 

Finally, most profits go to what are often referred to as the 1%.  That is the tiny group who globally own more than 50% of all the world’s wealth.  Their take from Canada’s and the world’s economy has steadily grown since 2008.  The share of the 99% has remained virtually unchanged.  CITs are powerful!

There is another way to compare government imposed taxes and CITs.  Governments face parliaments and legislatures, houses of representatives and ‘upper chambers’ elected by the people.  They can ask questions and demand answers.  Many countries have freedom of information laws and are served by enquiring journalists.  These may not be perfect, although the accountability of governments to their citizens in our ‘quasi democratic’ countries as to how tax dollars are spent is fairly high. 

How do corporations and the richest people account for how they use the CIT money they take from you?  They don’t.  When have we seen corporations report to citizens on how much they spend influencing elections, lobbying officials and politicians?  How often do they report on their expenditures creating tax havens, paying lawyers to intimidate people and governments?  How much was spent in the case of the oil industry, hiding vitally crucial information about climate change?  They seldom report any of that information, even to shareholders.  How often have citizens been told, “That is commercially sensitive information and cannot be made public”?

A final reflection.  Most people, including me, are hesitant about ‘excessively big’ governments.  What is even scarier is big corporations.  Yet we live in an age when corporations are growing very quickly.  Google bought almost 200 companies since 2008.  Microsoft acquired 100.  A handful control the internet and social media, the global food supply, broadcasting and news media, energy, etc.  When fewer and fewer control more and more, is it surprising that more and more people have less and less?  What kind of world will our grandchildren be left with?  Is this sustainable?