Justin Trudeau, from the heart outwards: his Conservative critics howl

Justin Trudeau, from the heart outwards, photo Liberal.ca
Justin Trudeau, from the heart outwards, photo Liberal.ca

The Harperites and their fellow travellers in the Conservative universe have been scathing in their criticism of Justin Trudeau for saying recently that he wants to grow the economy “from the heart outwards.” After the Liberal leader made his comments during a stop at a Regina farmers’ market, the Conservative war room rushed out a news release to reinforce the party’s television attack about Trudeau not being ready. “Justin is an inexperienced politician who isn’t capable of managing Canada’s $1.9 trillion dollar economy,” the release said. This is rich coming from a gang that has run eight consecutive deficits and presided over the hollowing out of Canada’s manufacturing and energy sectors, as well as the replacement of full time jobs with precarious work. Continue reading Justin Trudeau, from the heart outwards: his Conservative critics howl

Paltry returns: Public spending on sports palaces is bad economics

Amphithéâtre de Québec, June 2014, Creative Commons photo
Amphithéâtre de Québec, June 2014, Creative Commons photo

The National Hockey League’s Ottawa Senators want to abandon the club’s 20-year-old arena in the suburb of Kanata and rebuild near the city’s downtown. Although the team says that fans don’t want to travel to the edge of town to watch their team, the arena actually draws an average of 96 percent of its capacity for home games. Continue reading Paltry returns: Public spending on sports palaces is bad economics

No anti-poverty measures in 2015 budget

Joe Oliver & PM in Australia at G-20, PMO photo
Joe Oliver & PM in Australia at G-20, PMO photo

Finance Minister Joe Oliver delivered a 37-minute budget speech on April 21 without once mentioning the word “poverty” as it applies to Canada.  Shortly after many MPs, their staff members, journalists and Ottawa’s ubiquitous lobbyists headed off for the evening to Hy’s Steakhouse, an upscale spot near Parliament Hill. There are three food banks in Ottawa-Gatineau, one of them just a few kilometres from Hy’s but for those folks the budget offered only meagre crumbs from the table.

Food Banks Canada says that 841,000 Canadians turn to food banks each month and nearly half are families with children. Why have food banks become a permanent fixture? For one thing, provincial social assistance rates provide, at best, an income about 40 per cent below the poverty line. Another problem is precarious work and low wages. About 20 per cent of food bank users are people who are working or who have worked recently enough to be receiving Employment Insurance.

Our dirty little secret is that almost five million Canadians live in poverty but some good people want to change that. Food Banks Canada has a five point plan which includes having Ottawa invest in affordable housing (a field vacated under the Chretien Liberals), and replacing ineffective provincial social assistance bureaucracies with a basic income administered through the tax system.

If this sounds revolutionary, it isn’t. When I was a cub newspaper reporter in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1970, I covered a hearing of the Senate Committee on Poverty led by Senator David Kroll. His committee’s report called for a guaranteed annual income. In 2009, there was another Senate report on poverty which was inspired and driven by Senator Hugh Segal among others. Segal, now retired from the Senate, says that a guaranteed annual income is as worthy a Canadian project as Medicare.

A coalition called Dignity for All is leading a campaign for a national anti-poverty plan. Their recommendations include a national housing strategy; a national pharmacare program because Medicare covers only 70 per cent of health costs and prices for pharmaceuticals are rising rapidly; a publicly-funded early childhood education and care program; and a national minimum wage set above the poverty line.

In return for their good work both of Dignity for All’s partner organizations have been targeted for audits by the Canada Revenue Agency on the grounds that they are being too political.  Citizens for Public Justice survived its audit several years ago and Canada Without Poverty is currently under the CRA’s microscope. These audits, which threaten the loss of charitable status, are both mean-spirited and politically motivated.

The government’s 2015 budget continued with the politicized practice of providing boutique tax cuts to core constituencies but once again action to deal with on poverty has been ignored. In fact, the word wasn’t even mentioned. Perhaps we can all pitch in to help groups such as Food Banks Canada and Dignity for All make eradicating poverty an issue in upcoming federal election.

This piece appeared as a United Church Observer blog on April 22, 2015.

Pope Francis’ second anniversary

Pope Francis, Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2013
Pope Francis, Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013

Fascination with Pope Francis continues as he approaches on March 13 the second anniversary of his election. The New York Review of Books carried a cover story on him recently and he also featured prominently in an article in Harper’s magazine. Time magazine named Francis as its Person of the Year in 2013 and early in 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published a lengthy cover story titled Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

The white smoke had hardly cleared after his election when Francis appeared on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, not to lay down the law as his two immediate predecessors were fond of doing, but rather to ask the people assembled to pray for him. Soon after, he returned in person to the hotel where he had been staying during the conclave to pay his bill. He has eschewed the papal Mercedes limousine for a Ford Focus to ferry him around in Rome and he lives in a guest house for clergy adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica rather than occupying the papal apartments. He even uses his land line to make cold calls to people, including some of his critics.

The pope’s behaviour has been deeply disturbing to some traditionalists among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics who fear that he will undermine the power and prestige of his office. On the other hand, many liberal Catholics dare to hope that change and reform may be in the air but wonder if the pope’s gestures are perhaps a triumph of style over substance. That argument misses the point, according to Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and long-time observer of the papacy. “In the Catholic church, style is substance,” Reese told Rolling Stone. “We are a church of symbols.”

Francis, beneath his folksy exterior, is a highly focused individual who is attempting to do many things in the years remaining to him — he is 78 years old and lost one lung to an infection as a young man in his native Argentina. Several of his priorities stand out. He wants to move the institutional church and its clergy, including bishops, away from a mindset of privilege to one of service to the world, and particularly to the poor. It is for this reason that the symbolism embedded in his simple lifestyle is so potent.

Secondly, he wants to shift away from the monarchical papacy, where all wisdom and authority are vested in the bishop of Rome. Francis is scrupulous in avoiding any criticism of his predecessors but the message in his contrasting style is clear. He wants to share in decision making with the church’s 5,000 bishops. That is what the world’s bishops called for during Vatican II in the 1960s but Francis agrees that has not happened.

Francis is also especially concerned about the plight of the poor and marginalized in society. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was known for his solitary pastoral visits to people in the slums. To get there, he rode by subway to the end of the line and then trudged in his orthopaedic shoes along muddy and garbage strewn roads. He asked people there to pray for him too.

In November 2013, Francis devoted much of his first major written teaching (called an exhortation) to an unflinching criticism of unfettered market capitalism, describing it as “an economy of exclusion and inequality” based on the “idolatry of money.” Francis is also preparing an encyclical on climate change for release in 2015. In late 2014, he convened a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements. He told them: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”

The pope’s economic and environmental critique has predictably annoyed economic conservatives. Peter Foster, a National Post columnist, dismisses Francis as an “economically challenged” progressive. “Obedience to the pope on contraception remains a controversial moral issue,” Foster writes. “Obedience on the climate agenda would be outright immoral.”

If economic conservatives are surprised by what Francis is saying about the economy, they should not be. Popes have been criticizing capitalism’s excesses since the time of Leo XIII in 1891 and both John Paul II and even Pope Benedict made similar exhortations.

Despite being kind, pastoral and economically progressive, however, Francis remains doctrinally conservative. There will, for example, be no ordination of women on his watch. “The church has spoken and said no . . . that door is closed,” he said in a news scrum in 2013.

In an otherwise exemplary address to the European Parliament in late 2014, the pope described Europe as becoming “a grandmother no longer fertile and vibrant.” That was a tone deaf remark from the leader of a church whose most fervent supporters are often older women.

Unfortunately, the  pope appears to remain obstinately out of touch when it comes to his understanding of women beyond the role of nurturer and mother. He fails to see that the equality of women, too, is an issue of fundamental justice and inextricably linked to questions such as poverty, inequality and violence.

A somewhat shorter version of this piece appeared on my blog for the United Church Observer on February 26, 2015.

2014 Peoples’ Social Forum comes to Ottawa

2014 Peoples' Social Forum, Ottawa
2014 Peoples’ Social Forum, Ottawa

A Peoples’ Social Forum (PSF) which has been several years in the planning will occur at the University of Ottawa on August 21-24 and organizers are expecting thousands of people to attend. There will be more than 500 workshops and presentations, as well as assemblies and cultural activities. In a statement of purpose, which introduces the four-day program, organizers say this: “We will weave our collective movements together to face the crises of our times head-on, and counter the government’s attacks on our rights, our jobs, our environment, our services, and our future. We will honour the unceded Algonquin territory on which we will stand, and honour each other’s struggles for dignity and justice.”

The forum is incredibly diverse and as such its planned activities are difficult to summarize and describe. I talked to Gustavo Frederico, one of the Ottawa-based volunteers, to better understand why the PSF is occurring, what it will involve and what it hopes to accomplish.

Where did the PSF come from, can you provide some context?

The first World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 and there have been a number of others since, the last one in Tunis in 2013. These events present a citizens and grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos, Switzerland. Unlike the WSF, Davos promotes a neo-liberal agenda, including privatization, free trade, open markets, deregulation, and government cutbacks in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.

Most national social forums adhere to the charter of principles drawn up initially by the WSF. The goal is to allow for a large number of people to engage in an open forum atmosphere. The WSF has led to the organizing of other regional social forums in the U.S., Europe Asia, Southern Africa and elsewhere.

The PSF in Ottawa is the first pan-Canadian forum and it comes with the same motivation as those in Porto Alegre and elsewhere – to propose and envision an alternative social and political agenda. It is diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan, aimed at stimulating debate and exchange, proposing alternatives to the existing economic order and building alliances to effect change.

Who is organizing this and how?

There are a number of streams or organizing bodies. One of them is labour and the list of acknowledged PSF supporters and sponsors includes a good representation from unions, from Quebec and the rest of Canada. Another key group arises from Indigenous organizations from the grassroots to the national level. A third grouping which appears well organized is social movements from Quebec, particularly the student movement.

What will be talked about?

The three main organizing groups and their concerns are foundational but the Ottawa event will be diverse. There are more than 500 workshops on a wide variety of themes: the environment and related issues about resource extraction and Indigenous rights are important, as are issues related to labour and the government’s austerity agenda. Others deal with youth, solidarity and LGBT issues and much more. Many of the workshops are related in one way or another to media and communications and there is a strong cultural component including the presentation of films and documentaries.

Will there be much of a presence from religious groups?

There are a number of religiously-based groups involved although they aren’t there to talk about religion per se. Ecumenical groups such as Citizens for Public Justice and Kairos are involved with the PSF but mainly through their work on issues related to the environment, poverty or human rights. Some of the workshops could be described as primarily spiritual in their orientation and there is one workshop on Christ as a revolutionary. However, there is not much apparent involvement from local Ottawa churches or from large religious denominations. Unfortunately, the outreach to religious organizations has not generated much response.

Is there a concern about infiltration and possibly provocation by the state security apparatus?

Organizers are aware that there is always the possibility of infiltration by state security actors but there has been no discussion about this at the level of volunteers. The PSF has adopted a non-violent approach within its charter. It is diverse, offers much cultural content and is also child friendly.

The primary concern is that people within the forum act in a respectful way toward one another because among those who will attend there are conflicting points of view. There is also the possibility that individuals from the community who are contrary to what the PSF is doing will attend and cause problems at the assemblies and workshops. Organizers of the PSF have had discussions with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) about how to maintain a peaceful assembly. CPT is involved in promoting non-violence in many of the world’s trouble spots and has valuable advice to offer in this area.

Will all of this go anywhere or is it just meant to equip those attending with more information?

On the last days (Saturday and Sunday) there will be a number of movement assemblies where key facilitators will assist people in a process of how they might best address the issues raised. The record of the federal government is a concern. The Conservatives’ policies don’t resonate with many people so this is a chance to talk in strategic terms about what to do together. The focus will be partly about how to change the current government but it is wider and deeper than this. It is meant to energize and build community among the movements involved.

Canadian CEOs make 171 times the average

Peter Drucker, "limit executive pay," Photo courtesy Creative Commons
Peter Drucker, “limit executive pay,” Photo courtesy Creative Commons

In November 2013, people in Switzerland voted in a referendum on something called the 1:12 Initiative for Fair Pay. Under that proposal no one in a Swiss company would earn more in a single month than someone else in that company earns in an entire year. Corporate spokespersons in Switzerland and some in government warned of dire negative economic consequences if such a proposal were accepted. Although it was defeated by a significant margin, it is significant that the issue was being discussed at all.

It is a debate that we should have in Canada. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that in 2012 Canada’s top 100 CEOs pocketed an average of $7.96 million. That was an income equal to 171 times that of the average Canadian worker, and 194 times that of the average female worker. Continue reading Canadian CEOs make 171 times the average

Lac Mégantic rail disaster

Lac-Mégantic in flames. Sûreté du Québec photo
Lac-Mégantic, Que. in flames. Sûreté du Québec photo

There is an important public policy backdrop to the disaster that befell the good people in Lac Mégantic, Quebec in July, when a freight train — with five locomotives and 72 tanker cars — jumped the tracks. The crude oil leaked and then exploded, killing at least 47 people, destroying much of the town, and contaminating the soil and a nearby lake.

The core responsibility of government is to protect its citizens from harm when at all possible. The question here is whether Ottawa has met its responsibility to safely regulate railway transportation. I was surprised to learn, for example, that there was but one engineer for the train. That driver had reached the limit of how many hours he could drive on that day and he left the train, unattended, on the tracks uphill from Lac Megantic while he went to a hotel to rest. In his absence, there was no one else attending the train.

Transport Canada allowed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc. to operate in this way. The company, preposterously, has defended the one-engineer practice, saying that it is safer to have only one driver because that creates fewer distractions. I must say that I have always felt safer in a jetliner with a co-pilot aboard than I would if there were but one pilot. Continue reading Lac Mégantic rail disaster