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De-constructing leadership

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 08:53

There is no shortage of books, articles, theories, ideas, and frameworks on the concept of leadership. There are consultants, trainers, coaches and academic institutions specializing in it, present company included. I completed my graduate work in organizational leadership.

According to leadership training is a $357 billion dollar a year industry. So what’s the reason for all of the focus on leadership? The cynic in me believes it’s because the world of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonization has convinced us to believe that leadership is the key to organizational success. Since completing my graduate studies in 2016, living through the pandemic, and witnessing the increased (and much needed) attention to diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplaces, I believe the key to organizational success is not in inundating employees with all things leadership, but in making space for employees to show up as their true selves on their own terms and in their own way.

Stop focusing on what is means to lead

The leadership industry has come up with a plethora of workshops and leadership competencies, skills, or ‘ways of being’ required to be a leader. Simon Senik offers a Leaders Eat Last workshops, Brene Brown has the Dare to Lead Hub, which offers a range of opportunities including becoming a ‘Dare to Lead’ facilitator. Ivy Business School has created a Leader Character Framework which describes character traits of leaders and Drew Dudley has a guide to leadership which highlights leadership values and behaviours. All of these resources may be helpful for those looking to be in typical leadership positions within their organization, like managers, supervisors, and executives. But what about the rest of us? Where should we look to acquire competencies or knowledge that will help us to simply just be the best versions of ourselves?

I find even some of the definitions of leader or leadership troubling, not because they aren’t decent enough definitions, but because if you remove the word leader or leadership I think they could nicely apply to how folks might want to be at work regardless of the position they hold. For example, “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential” or  “No matter where you are personally or professionally, if you reference your values whenever you make a decision, you’re a leader,” or “leadership is a responsibility. It’s not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that individuals considered experts in the leadership space are helping folks. Where I struggle is that it feels like everything gets wrapped in the concept of leadership versus just looking at it perhaps more simply. What if we removed the label leadership and looked at it more broadly? What if we look at how each human wants to be and the impact they want to have on themselves and their ecosystem without labeling it as anything?

Case in point, I have friends that are teachers, social workers, and parents. I’m not sure they would define themselves as leaders. I do know that each of them in their own way shows courage, reflect on their values when making decisions, and care deeply for their students, patients and children. I’d like to suggest an alternative view elevating people at work. Rather than having everything connected to leadership, perhaps a deconstructed one that can help guide us in seeing how we want to be at work and beyond.

Let’s focus on what it means to just be you

There are three areas I would like to highlight in what I’m calling deconstructing leadership: a decolonized approach to leadership, how each person chooses to identify, and the competencies to consider and cultivate regardless of your role in an organization.

In their literature review on decolonizing approaches to educational leadership, Khalifa, Khalil, Marsh & Halloran (2019), reveal five themes:

(1) the prioritization of self-knowledge and self-reflection,

(2) the empowerment of community through self-determination,

(3) the centering of community voices and values,

(4) service based in altruism and spirituality, and

(5) approaching collectivism through inclusive communication practices.

In conducting research for this article, I wanted to truly go back to basics when it comes to looking at leadership and I believe looking towards the First Nations is a place to start. The themes identified above touch on the ‘modern-day’ approaches to leadership but in my view take a more system-thinking and holistic view. These themes show an interconnectedness between self, others, and the communities to which we belong  – it’s a ‘360’ focus that I believe is asking us to consider not just what we want to be or how we want to be but considering these along with purpose beyond ourselves.

Toni Morrison, the first Black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was a novelist whose characters struggled to find their cultural identity in an unjust society. Although these were fictional characters, their stories were based on the lived experiences of enslaved humans knowing and fighting for their right to show up as they are on their own terms and in their own way. Members of the global and LGBTQIA2+ communities have been fighting to not just find their identifies but to have them shine, respected, and  honoured in workplace settings. This is something that I believe comes first in terms of what it means to be. While many of us continue to be on this journey of identity and inclusion, if we chose to add a leader to our identity great – but remember it’s our choice.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou.

This quote by Maya Angelou, the memorist, poet, and civil rights activist is one that floors me every time I read it. In one beautifully articulated sentence she encapsulates the behaviours that matter when your impact on others matters to you. Of all of the competencies, skills, and knowledge that we chose to develop, the ones that I believe bring nourishment to our souls helping us to create symbiotic impact are: self-awareness, integrity, humility, respect, and emotional literacy. I have seen individuals who have cultivated these to the extent that they feel good about themselves because they recognize and care about their impact on others.

Concluding with symbiotic impact

What do I mean by symbiotic impact? Simply put, I believe we are all looking for self-fulfillment and part of the way to obtain it is their self-discovery. As we figure out what, who, and even why we are, there are internal connections being made – we are being impacted by what we take in and choose to make part of our way of being. My hope is that while we do this we look at and care about the impact we are having on others. My hope is that we are looking to have a meaningful and positive impact.

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Categories: F. Left News

No fungi? No forests, no food, no future!

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 08:19

If you’re celebrating the festive season with cheese, bread and a glass of wine, beer or kombucha followed by chocolate, it might be a good time to think about fungi. It’s what makes all those tasty items possible!

In fact, almost all food production relies on fungi. Most plants need it to obtain nutrients and water. Trees and other plants in a forest connect through intricate fungal, or mycorrhizal, networks of tiny mycelium threads that transfer nutrients, water and information between them, and that facilitate decomposition, without which life couldn’t go on.

All fermented foods — including beer, wine, chocolate, cheese, bread, soy sauce and tofu — require yeasts, a single-celled fungus. Fungi have also been indispensable in preserving foods. And cows and other ruminants need gut fungi to break down grass.

“They are also to be thanked for many of the important medical breakthroughs in human history that treat both physical and mental ailments, for naturally sequestering and slowly releasing carbon, for optimizing industrial processes, and so much more,” a Guardian article reports.

Fungi fascination is spreading — from the popularity of gut-healthy fermented foods to fungi’s potential to help solve a range of environmental problems to research into mental health treatments using psychoactive mushrooms. But many people don’t go much deeper than momentary wonder at a brilliant red and white-spotted Amanita muscaria while walking in the forest, or repulsion at mould on bread.

For something so critical to all life, it’s surprising how much we have yet to learn about fungi and how much of our scientific knowledge is relatively recent — although many Indigenous Peoples have long known much of what Western scientists are now discovering about fungi and mycorrhizal networks and their roles in ecosystems.

Until 1969, Western botanists classified fungi as plants. Now we know they’re more closely related to animals but are in their own class. Unlike plants, which produce their own food through photosynthesis, fungi secrete enzymes that dissolve surrounding nutrients, which they then absorb.

We’ve gone from two to three Fs, for the most part, in classifying life: “fauna, flora and funga.” The latter includes yeasts, rusts, smuts, mildews, moulds and mushrooms. Scientists also recognize two other classes, monera (which includes bacteria) and protista (which includes protozoa, algae and slime moulds), and some divide those further.

Of an estimated 3.8 million types of fungi, only about 10 per cent have been identified and studied. What we’re learning is fascinating and critically important, and illustrates the interconnectedness of all life.

“They’re really weird organisms with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet when you understand their role in the Earth’s ecosystem, you realise that they underpin life on Earth,” said Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which leads “State of the World’s Plants and Fungi” assessments.

Despite fungi’s many benefits, some can be dangerous or deadly to plants and humans and other animals. But understanding the crucial role they play in the web of life is critical if we’re to resolve the many environmental crises we face.

To start, they offer many solutions — from breaking down plastics to decontaminating industrial sites to sequestering atmospheric carbon. Even the use of psilocybin mushrooms in mental health treatment could help with societal resilience during increasingly anxious times. But fungi also connect and support so much of life.

Although knowledge about fungi and their importance is growing, “they represent a meagre 0.2 per cent of our global conservation priorities,” the organization Flora Fauna Funga reports. More than 1,300 scientists, researchers, activists and citizens from 77 countries have joined FFF’s call “for fungi to be recognised within legal conservation frameworks and protected on an equal footing with animals and plants.”

We often ignore what we can’t see. Yet there’s an astounding, intricate mycorrhizal web beneath our feet, holding soil together, distributing nutrients and water and enabling communication between plants. Fungi are part of everything we eat, provide us with medicines, offer environmental solutions and are key to the constant cycle of birth, death, decay and rebirth.

We must do all we can to protect wild spaces, agricultural soils and urban green spaces and the fungi that inhabit them. Mushrooms can live without us, but we can’t live without them. Ponder that over your festive meal!

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at

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Categories: F. Left News

Feds engaging in double-talk on Canadians detained in Syria

Tue, 12/13/2022 - 07:53

Last week, a two-day court hearing took place at the federal court in Ottawa to bring back Canadians detained in Northeast Syria. A group of families representing some of those detainees filed a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge for the inaction of the Canadian government to repatriate their loved ones home.

I watched some of these hearings online and I was terribly disappointed if not shocked by the attitude and the arguments presented by the Canadian government lawyers.

Before going any further, I feel that this matter is merely a political case and shouldn’t have been brought in front of a judge. The legal arguments for repatriation are pretty obvious and compared to them the counter arguments advanced by the government looked so out of place if not ludicrous.

However, if it wasn’t for the unwillingness of the government to act, perhaps wishing the matter to magically disappear on its own, the legal challenge wouldn’t have existed. But the matter didn’t go away, and it is coming to haunt Canada, and it will continue to do so, as long as these Canadians citizens are not repatriated back.

Watching some excerpts of this legal challenge brought me back 20 years ago to my own family ordeal when my husband, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was kept in Syria in a dungeon tortured by his Syrians interrogators. Many times, during his imprisonment, I repeatedly pleaded with the Canadian officials working  at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring my husband home. They kept telling me that once in Syria, his Syrian nationality prevailed and that Canada couldn’t do much. That argument, despite its weakness, would assume of course that my husband had arrived in Syria of his own will, which is wiping out the fact that he was rendered to Syria by the American authorities (even worse, later we would learn about the complicity of Canadian officials). Even when the Canadian government didn’t tell me explicitly that they didn’t want to repatriate my husband, behind the scenes some part of the government acted in a way to prevent his repatriation. This double-talk by the Canadian government made my husband stay in horrible conditions for over a year, until the political decision by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, came and delivered him from his torturers and his subsequent return in October 2003.

After months of campaigning and advocacy by activists, some by politicians and human rights organizations, the Canadian government ordered, reluctantly, a commission of inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials in relation to Maher Arar. That was in March 2002. In 2007, a fact finding report was released by Justice Dennis O’Connor, head of the commission, as well as a list of recommendations for the government so the ordeal wouldn’t happen again.

Few weeks ago, I was invited to testify at the Senatorial committee on human rights regarding Islamophobia in Canada and I was asked by Senator Ratna Omidvar if anything had changed since the repatriation of my husband and the reports submitted by Justice O’Connor. A part of me wanted to simply reply “No” but I quickly changed my mind and gave a more nuanced and elaborate answer pointing to some minor changes that occurred since.

Nevertheless, watching these two days of hearings, I am more and more convinced that a more accurate answer to the senator would have been “nothing really changed”.

The picture is bleak and frozen in time: a number of Canadians, mostly children, arbitrarily detained in awful conditions documented by Human Rights Watch. Their families are being kept in the dark, not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or not, and their government is fighting in front of a judge and stubbornly arguing that these Canadians can’t claim their Charter Rights so thus do not need to be “fetched” by their own government.

Almost exactly the same cold attitude, the same circular arguments and the same stubborn inaction that I was facing two decades ago and that is still making Canada look so bad internationally and even at home.

At the hearing, the government lawyer kept bringing legal cases that have nothing in common with the current cases, except perhaps that they are happening to other Canadian citizens. The same government lawyer tried by all means to argue that these 23 children, 19 women and eight men have basically no Charter Rights and Canada has no responsibility in repatriating them. Worse, the lawyer argued that Canada was not responsible in detaining them and did not request their detention. According to her, they were detained by Kurdish forces – “we are not part of the causal chain” and should not be compelled to intervene to repatriate.

No wonder why it is the same government who had to apologize to Maher Arar when they implicitly applied the same faulty reasoning to his case and told me that his Syrian citizenship superseded his Canadian citizenship while in detention in Syria and thus Canadian laws couldn’t “reach” him. This sort of legal gymnastics didn’t convince Justice O’Connor when he wrote his report criticizing the in-action of the Canadian government and its complicity in keeping one of its own in detention.

When the legal counsel Barbara Jackman, representing Jack Letts one of these Canadian men detained in Syria, opened her statement in front of judge Russel Brown, she rightly reminded him and the audience about her participation not only in the Arar Commission but also in the Iacobucci judicial inquiry that was ordered to determine what happened to four other Canadians who were also arrested and tortured in Syria and Egypt and as expected the Canadian government refused to bring them back to Canada until years later. By invoking that history, Barbara Jackman implicitly reminded the government lawyers of the flaws in their previous legal judgements and their ongoing mistakes in assessing the current situation.

Why is Canada is becoming serially stubborn and complicit in the torture and the neglect of its citizens, specially Muslim citizens?

What is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau afraid of by ordering the repatriation of all the Canadians detained in Northeastern Syria?

As a flagrant evidence of the incompetence of the government is, and its dismissal of basic human rights of its own citizens became the policy Global Affairs Canada (GAC), adopted in November 2021. In this policy, shared with the families of the detainees and their lawyers, the government cited a list of six conditions that the detainees should meet so they can become eligible for repatriation. They were called “threshold criteria.” Needleless to mention that none of the detainees met these criteria except Kimberley Polman, a woman from British Columbia who was since successfully repatriated and is under a peace bond. All the other detainees didn’t meet these criteria.

In November of 2022, GAC would contradict its own written policy by informing some of the detainees (some women and some children) that they are eligible for repatriation. What looks like good news, is clear evidence of the weakness and arbitrariness of this policy.

First writing it to prevent their return and suddenly overturning it a few weeks before the court hearing in an attempt, in my opinion, to prove to the judge that they are working behind the scenes. This looked so amateurish, and I don’t believe that the judge would be impressed by these last-minute moves.

At the end of the two days in federal court, Justice Brown stated that the hearings would need to continue at a date to be determined. It was a big disappointment for all the families who were hoping for some quick decisions that would deliver their loved ones from their ordeals and unfortunately more delays means for the prisoners the continuation of their limbo; they will not be able to leave any time soon. However, one ray of hope appeared in this ocean of darkness and abject manoeuvres to “deny” some citizens their basic rights to security, education, and justice.

According to a tweet by CBC journalist Ashley Burke, Justice Brown stated “he was disappointed because Canadians are at risk of dying every day the matter is adjourned.”  This simple statement restores my faith in humanity and in the justice system, after being so disappointed and shocked by what Canada has been doing upfront to deny some of its citizens their fundamental rights.

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Categories: F. Left News

I’m stopping. I’ve had enough.

Tue, 12/13/2022 - 07:15

On the same day Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the province has “not seen a mass exodus of nurses” leaving the profession – a remark some nurses say was “dismissive” and “painful” to hear, I stopped my active nursing license.

I say stopped, not resigned. It’s a more active description of my decision.

Like countless nurses, I’ve had enough.

Grant you, I am not an emergency room or intensive care unit nurse. I am not seeing paediatric COVID patients. I work in the nebulous area of community health, public policy, and advocacy, informed by decades of frontline work as a street nurse in the social welfare disaster called homelessness.

Yet, I feel equally dismissed as my hospital nursing colleagues.

During the pandemic I collaborated with frontline workers to fight for the most basic public health measures: portable toilets, free masks for unhoused people and two metre spacing of cots and beds in shelters. I say fight because none of it was easy. For the struggle to obtain the two metre physical distancing of sleeping spaces, we had to take the City of Toronto to court (and won). These stories are expanded upon by people who fought the good fight in Displacement City. Fighting for Health and Homes in a Pandemic.

I watched the unlearned lessons from SARS repeat themselves.

Community health nurses in the early days of the pandemic worked without adequate PPE and without extra funding despite an additional workload. I helplessly watched as 43 nurses, who were providing homeless health care in the pandemic, were terminated when the Ontario government ended funding, as if the pandemic let alone homelessness was over.

Like my hospital colleagues I have listened and watched as nurses who are working in what can only be described as a war zone become ill or get COVID or burnout – or all three. It is highly likely their mental health may be permanently damaged.

Decades of government neglect to the health care system is now patently apparent. It’s safe to say nurses are now politicized, and they are angry.

It’s not unlike the government’s decades-long neglect to housing.

I am reminded that the term street nurse is in fact a political statement. It says that homelessness has gotten so bad in our very rich country that a nursing specialty called street nursing developed.

When I worked at Street Health, the first nursing-led organization in the country that provided homeless health care, we were directed to engage in politics and to speak out. Always. ‘I See and am Silent’, the motto of the old Mack School of Nursing did not apply to us.

Nurses are not encouraged to advocate by speaking out.

Working at a community health centre my manager told me I could not speak about the tuberculosis outbreak that had hit the homeless population and had killed several men. I was also told I could not do outreach at Tent City because they were outside of our ‘catchment area’. Sadly, the nurses I worked with did not support my fight for whistleblower protection in our contract.

I was dangerously close to being penalized for my advocacy when the Atkinson Charitable Foundation awarded me their Economic Justice Fellowship. I was freed to work as a street nurse locally and nationally without constraints for six years. That freedom spoiled me and to this day I am reminded that for the most part nurses do not have that freedom.

Admittedly, leaving nursing has been on my radar despite friends and colleagues discouraging me from making that decision.

I am stopping.

I have been a nurse for 50 years. I was too tired to even go to my 50-year reunion this summer. 50 years of nursing is too long for anyone.

Nursing can be rewarding but it is hard work with few benefits. For most of my career, I’ve been in non-unionized positions with weak benefits and certainly no pension plan.

Street nursing? I will leave that to your imagination. Back in the days of Street Health I naively thought street nurses would eventually not be needed. Surely our governments would smarten up and re-institute a national housing program. There were about 3,000 homeless people in Toronto back then, today the numbers have more than tripled.

Our governments do not respect that everyone has a right to a home, and I would add the same disrespect applies to those of us working in the field. We are usually dismissively labelled as ‘advocates’, as if that is an insult.

In my memoir A Knapsack Full of Dreams. Memoirs of a Street Nurse I recount examples of being thwarted by inherently anti-nursing sentiment in the workplace. Suffice it to say these experiences were both a result of nursing’s historically undervalued role and a harbinger of what was to come.

Which brings me back to today. Today’s nurses are on the receiving end of governments’ contempt. That same disdain is displayed towards the vulnerable public, especially the elderly and children. It’s intentional neglect.

While there were early signs of appreciation and support for nurses (electric hearts in windows, people banging pots and pan outside windows at the dinner hour, roti, and pizza deliveries to emergency room staff), that quickly faded.

The Ontario government attempted wage suppression legislation in Bill 124.

Hospitals began to ask nurses to do double shifts, give up vacation days, work in specialty areas they were unfamiliar with and stay silent.

Meanwhile hospital CEOs tour health ministers and premiers for photo ops and funding announcements (but not for nursing) and refuse to publicly criticize the same governments that are making irresponsible policy decisions causing death and injury within their walls.

The same CEOs have also refused to call for emergency medical aid from the Red Cross or the military. An exception last week was the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) that called for Red Cross aid.

Private for-profit nursing agencies continue to rake it in. Most of the media coverage focuses on their higher hourly nursing rates and ignore the company profits, let alone this component of healthcare privatization.

Shoppers Drug Mart and other pharmacies are doing equally well. Vaccinations at drugstores and COVID testing is now normalized. Ontario is now piloting Paxlovid prescribing by pharmacists. Across the country pharmacists are entering into treatment of urinary tract infections, herpes and more. All examples of privatization instead of enhancing public health and primary care.

Today as we end year three of the pandemic this is the norm: rotating emergency room closures, 200 per cent occupancy in paediatric ICUs, 10-hr waits in emergency departments, heated trailer waiting rooms outside emergency rooms, cancelling of surgeries and diagnostics, nurses helping patients say goodbye to loved ones on an iPad.

Think about what these nurses have seen.

There really should be an inquiry to examine how Medical Officers of Health were allowed to ignore the science and the recommendations of hundreds of infectious disease experts. Their refusal to touch mask mandates with a ten-foot pole and to adequately fund the needs of the health care system are criminal.

As author and social activist Seth Klein has written in his book The Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency “It will always fall to social movements to push political leaders to make needed changes.”

That’s certainly been my experience. I’ve had an exceptional career in part because I took part as a nurse in social movements. This included anti-apartheid work, fighting the return of the death penalty, declaring homelessness a national disaster, exposing the health risks of shelter conditions such as tuberculosis, fighting for and winning housing in the Tent City campaign.

I’ve received seven honorary degrees, an international human rights award and became a member of the Order of Canada. I have loved nursing.

But today, I’m stopping but I’ll still be in the social movements fighting for housing and healthcare.

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Categories: F. Left News

Smith lays down a red line Ottawa must not cross: mushy paper straws! 

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 13:25

On Saturday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith laid down a red line that Ottawa must not cross. You’d better be paying attention, Justin Trudeau! I give you … paper straws! 

Smith was bloviating in her characteristic gab salad for the benefit of her audience on Your Province, Your Premier, the forty-some minutes of what amounts to free political advertising CORUS Radio provides to Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) premiers. 

Alberta’s restaurateur-premier was trying to explain why we need her Sovereignty Act, legally and rather deceptively known as the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, when a truly epic example of federal overreach sprang to her habitually overactive mind. 

Having just claimed to Wayne Nelson, the show’s jovially enabling host, “the federal government is using environmental legislation to violate our provincial rights,” Smith proceeded to an example that any good Albertan can understand, and that is obviously front of her mind as the owner of The Dining Car at High River Station, a restaurant that is not surprisingly located in a dining car at High River station. 

If only we’d had the Sovereignty Act, she exclaimed …

PREMIER SMITH: “So how many people love the fact that they are now having to use paper straws? I can tell you ’cause I have a restaurant, and when you’re tryin’ to give a kid a root beer float, you have to plan to give them four paper straws because they get so destroyed.” …

HOST: “Yup.”

PREMIER SMITH: “Wouldn’t it have been better for us, in advance, to say, ‘Hold on a second.’ We can recycle plastics our own way, a different way, without, without identifying things that just don’t make sense, and get people talking about it in advance, and then be able to develop a policy about, around recycling that makes sense. Instead, we sat back, we waited for the federal government to pass policy. They identified six single uses of plastic and it, uh, and it, and some of them are idiotic, and now we’re fighting it in court to get those, uh, to be able to get that power back. Wouldn’t it have been better if we hadn’t allowed them to take the power away from us in the first place? That. I think it would have. And those are the things that we’re looking for.”

HOST (perhaps sensing this was not going in a direction that would be helpful to the premier): “Yeah, being pro-active. Awright! Back to the phones …”

So there you have it, a situation that clearly would have benefited all Albertans if only we’d had on hand an unconstitutional law that handed the job of our impartial and independent courts to our partisan Legislature, which is packed with deep thinkers like Smith! 

I admit I am not entirely clear on how this would have prevented Parliament from passing the law in the first place.

Regardless, I think we can all agree that, with this, Smith has pretty well sewn up the demographic of 10-year-olds who love root-beer floats and hate mushy straws, not to mention southern-Alberta restaurant owners who are seeing their budget for straws, already hammered by inflation (and we know who to blame for that) going through the roof of the rail car. 

Maybe some of the kids’ parents will support her too if it’ll stop the little whiners from crying in their (root) beer about the way the cheap straws at the Dining Car keep collapsing.

That said, I can’t help thinking that maybe the Car’s manager, whoever that might be, might solve the problem by using a better class of paper straw

Full disclosure, in his misspent youth, before discovering the pleasures of that other kind of beer, the one made from hops and barley instead of sassafras bark, your blogger consumed many milkshakes at the bowling alley in his home town through paper straws without ever suffering a straw collapse! 

Is it possible that paper straws are something else that just ain’t what they used to be? Or could the problem that could be solved with Canadian-made artisanal paper straws? 

I mean, seriously, people, is this worth breaking up the country over? After all, even though Smith insists her Sovereignty Act is not only constitutional but will actually strengthen Confederation, one of the architects of the scheme apparently thinks otherwise. 

Leastwise, University of Calgary professor, climate change denier and advocate of Alberta separation Barry Cooper has said in writing that “the whole point of the Sovereignty Act” is that it’s unconstitutional. 

Well, in fairness, Cooper said that before the act had been passed in its present form by the Legislature. What he said afterward, though, was this: “I want the Constitution to be changed, or we’ll have another referendum.”

Translation: I want the Constitution to be changed to suit my cranky and unpopular notions of an independent Alberta, or we’ll have another referendum just like the ones they had in Quebec.”

I wonder what he thinks about the Clarity Act? Just something to fix with the Sovereignty Act, probably. 

You’d almost think from the way he phrased his comment that Cooper imagines he’s the de facto premier of Alberta. Or is he? 

It’s all very entertaining to have little fun with idiotic policy discussions about straws, and I don’t necessarily refer to the environmental policies of the federal government, some of Premier Smith’s friends have very dangerous ideas. No less so because they lack popular support. 

Indeed, over the holiday season, it might be a good idea to keep a very close watch on what Smith’s increasingly extremist government gets up to when everyone else is thinking about presents, festive decorations, family dinners, peace on earth and goodwill to all.

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Categories: F. Left News

Economist debunks supermarkets’ claim they’re not profiting from food inflation

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 08:31

Last week, spokespeople for the giant Canadian grocery retailers told a House of Commons committee looking into food inflation their record corporate profits are not responsible for the current spike in food prices.

More industry executives will bring the same message to the committee this week. 

The industry folks present what appear to be credible arguments. They focus on issues out of their control, such as supply chain disruptions and large jumps in energy costs.

READ MORE: Giant grocery chains refuse blame for high food prices

A number of economists disagree, however. They say food retailers are being disingenuous and careless with their facts and figures.

Jim Stanford, Director of the Centre for Future Work, is among those economists.

In a piece published by the Progressive Economics Forum Stanford shows that grocery store profit margins on food products have “increased notably since the pandemic.”

He notes that the grocery spokespeople use careful language when they assert their profit margins haven’t changed much over the last year

That statement is technically true, but it hides more than it reveals.

Stanford explains that the big bump in grocery retailers’ profit margins happened not this past year but earlier in the pandemic, “amidst the panic, toilet paper hoarding, and other unique circumstances of the lockdowns.”

“Margins jumped,” Stanford says, “and have stayed high relative to historical norms — even after economic re-opening and ‘normalization’.”

RELATED: Canadian workers are not to blame for inflation

The average grocery store profit margin since the lockdowns began more than two years ago is now three quarters higher than in the period from 2018 to the first three months of 2020. 

And when you look at actual profit numbers, not percentages, you see that total profits in food retail have more than doubled since before COVID – from $2.4 billion in 2019 to a whopping $5.2 billion over the last twelve months.

Now, it is true that increases in sales volumes almost inevitably drive increases in corporate revenues. If such were the case for food sales in Canada, it might be a plausible explanation for the food retail corporations’ huge increases in profits. 

However, Stanford points out, the opposite is the actual case. The volume of grocery sales has not increased; it has declined of late.

“There was an enormous temporary spike in sales during the lockdowns (panic buying), mostly reversed by mid-2020. Then, more recently, the quantity of sales has steadily shrunk.”

The fact that Canadians can once again eat out in restaurants is one reason for the decline. Food price inflation, which has caused consumers to reduce their purchases, is another.

Stanford explains what is going on this way:

“The volume of sales in supermarkets is now lower than it was before the pandemic hit – which is unusual given population growth since then. So, the margin of profits, and the mass of profits, and the rate of profits have all increased – but all generated from a smaller volume of actual physical business.”

Those facts and figures, argues Stanford, are “definitely proof that the industry is profiting unusually from the current conjuncture of supply chain disruptions, inflation, and consumer desperation.”

If what industry representatives told the House committee were true – namely that price increases are entirely the result of a spike in transport, fertilizer and other upstream costs – “there should have been a reduction in profits” for the retail giants.

Profits have gone up, way up, not down, however. The question is: Why?

Domination of food retail by a tiny handful of firms

Canada’s food retail industry is dominated by a tiny number of firms, which constitutes what economists call an oligopoly. 

When a single firm controls the entirety of an industry, we have a monopoly. In Canada a number of provinces used to have monopolies for telephone service. Many provinces still have publicly owned monopolies for the supply of electricity. 

Oligopolies are similar to monopolies, except in the case of oligopolies a handful rather than a single firm dominates an industry. 

Both monopolies and oligopolies have the effect of eliminating or limiting competition. And both put the consumer in a relatively weak bargaining position vis-à-vis the sellers of products or services. 

The powerful oligopoly that controls Canada’s food retail industry is one reason retailers’ profits have gone up, despite their declining sales volumes.

Stanford identifies another root cause for these unusual increased profits: Greed.

“The combination of greed (more politely termed ‘profit maximization’), along with supply chain disruptions and consumer desperation during and after the pandemic, along with oligopolistic pricing power, clearly explains much of the pattern of recent inflation in Canada,” Stanford explained.

The economist does add, charitably, that the food retail industry is not the most flagrant Canadian case of profiteering on inflation. That distinction belongs, he says, to the energy sector.

Still, Stanford tells us:

 “Supermarkets have clearly profited from the post-pandemic inflation, and richly deserve the critical attention they are receiving. The hard numbers clearly contradict the 

claim that supermarket profit margins are stable and no extra profits have been earned.”

The MPs on the House of Commons committee currently looking into food inflation owe it to themselves and to Canadians to take a good hard look at what Jim Stanford has laid out so cogently.

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Categories: F. Left News

Limiting debate, UCP rams through ‘Sovereignty Act

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 08:08

Danielle Smith’s obedient United Conservative Party (UCP) caucus rammed through the premier’s so-called Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act in the wee hours of last Thursday morning.

The government’s use of time limits on debate was no surprise. The Sovereignty Act – no matter what it ended up saying – is a key part of the Smith Government’s re-election strategy. 

Premier Smith will be anxious to start using it to pick fights with Ottawa and paint the NDP Opposition as anti-Alberta for voting against what is bound to be a long string of fatuous anti-Canadian Sovereignty Act resolutions proposed by UCP MLAs.

The government will hope the resulting brouhaha, in turn, diverts attention from its embarrassing failures, for example its mishandling of the ongoing crisis in health care, a file widely viewed by voters as an NDP strength.

The health care crisis, unfortunately for the UCP, is unlikely to be fixed by the health minister signing a contract with a sketchy Turkish company to manufacture emergency supplies of children’s painkiller.

Much was made in the morning-after spot-news coverage of Wednesday night’s debate about the fact Bill 1 as passed had been amended to delete Smith’s unconstitutional effort to allow her cabinet to bypass elected MLAs and change laws without a vote in the Legislature.

This was an improvement. But the fact remains the law is still virtually certain to be found unconstitutional as it allows the Alberta Legislature, now apparently dominated by recently converted Alberta separatists, to usurp the power of Canada’s courts to adjudicate jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments. 

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley immediately called on the government to refer the act to the Court of Appeal of Alberta. “The act still attempts to give Smith and her Cabinet the power to decide what the constitution says,” she said. “This function has always been reserved for the courts.”

Of course, as a lawyer, Notley is reasonably familiar with Canada’s constitution. 

By contrast, Smith’s remarks during debate Wednesday night included statements that suggested a shakier understanding of the constitution. 

“It’s not like Ottawa is a national government,” the premier said at one point during the debate. “The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions,” she went on, apparently confusing Canada with the European Union.

Regardless, there is no way the UCP wants to let the courts have a go at the act just now, when it still has a performative role to play in the next Alberta election and the federal Conservative campaign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in Ottawa. 

Meanwhile in the national capital, Trudeau, whose father once earned a brown belt in Judo, used the Alberta Government’s success passing the legislation to deflect Smith’s desire to pick an immediate fight. 

“We are not going to get into arguing about something that obviously is the Alberta government trying to push back at the federal government,” Trudeau said. “We are going to continue to work as constructively as possible.”

There was the unspoken caveat, of course, that it is going to be almost impossible for Ottawa to work constructively with Alberta as long as Smith is premier. 

In the Legislature Wednesday night, Notley also observed that the UCP government failed to consult First Nation treaty chiefs before introducing the bill, arguing that will “absolutely torch the critically important nation-to-nation relationship that should exist between this premier and the leaders of the treaties.”

The UCP’s Indigenous relations minister, Rick Wilson, stepped outside the bounds of the traditional doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility to publicly criticize the actions of the government on this aspect of the passage of the act. 

“I’ve been on the phone, of course, with First Nations leaders across the province and a lot of the concerns are around just calling it the Sovereignty Act,” he told reporters. “There’s not a lot of clarification around what that means. Should we have done more consultation? Absolutely.”

Perhaps tellingly, none of the four members of Premier Smith’s cabinet who assailed the Sovereignty Act as a dangerous “fairy tale” when they were candidates in the UCP leadership race showed up in the House for the voting on Wednesday night and yesterday morning. 

There was no sign of Finance Minister Travis Toews, Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz, Jobs and Northern Development Minister Brian Jean, or Trade Minister Rajan Sawhney, who once said Smith must “hold off on passing the Sovereignty Act until she gets a mandate from the people of Alberta in a general election.”

Likewise, Environment Minister Sonya Savage, another harsh critic of the Sovereignty Act back in the day was missing in action when she had the chance to vote against it. 

Portrait of Notley unveiled at Legislature 

There was no sign of Premier Smith at the unveiling of Notley’s official portrait in the Rotunda of the Legislature. The premier pleaded an important meeting and sent one of her deputy premiers, Nathan Neudorf, to represent the government at the gathering. 

I guess she didn’t want to be seen in the same place as Notley like a pair of prizefighters sizing each other up at a pre-match weigh-in!

READ MORE: Notley’s portrait unveiled in the Legislature – there are policy issues

Notwithstanding the fact most premiers make showing off their portrait their final act in provincial politics, Notley told the crowd of about 100 family, friends, supporters and media that “I remain very focused on my future” before the cover was whipped off the portrait. 

She suggested to laughter that her audience use the hashtag #RunningAgain on any social media posts about the event.

“So I guess what I’m saying,” the Opposition leader who was Alberta’s premier from 2015 to 2019 told Speaker Nathan Cooper, who acted as master of ceremonies, “I’d like to begin my 30-minute address laying out my case for a second portrait.” 

It was not a 30-minute address, of course, and Mr. Cooper obligingly chortled, “Order! Order!”

The canvas is the work of David Goatley, who also painted the late Jim Prentice’s official portrait.

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Categories: F. Left News

From contract negotiation to political protest: reflecting on Ontario’s education workers’ fight for jobs, rights and dignity

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 04:00

In this episode of the Courage My Friends podcast we welcome Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario Schools Boards Council of Unions. Just days after CUPE education workers voted to ratify a new four-year contract that includes a hard fought for $1 flat-rate hourly wage increase and two days repayment for a fraught political protest,  we reflect on the momentous and contentious labor action taken on by Ontario’s education workers.

Reflecting on how essential these education workers are to our schools, Walton says: “From the minute that a child or a member of the public steps into a school; you are stepping into a space that is impacted by the work performed by CUPE members … the cleanliness of the school, the safety of the school. Being buzzed in the door in our elementary schools. The supports that students need in order to be successful and to thrive are all performed by education workers.”

Walton describes Bill 28 and its use of the notwithstanding clause: “Bill 28 was actually a two-headed beast … Not only did it impose a contract which would’ve provided poverty wages, attacked our sick-leave- …. It also put in place the notwithstanding clause. But also taking the notwithstanding clause one step further: we wouldn’t be able to take them to court, but they also put in pieces where we wouldn’t be able to take them to the human rights tribunal. We wouldn’t be able to arbitrate it. Really removing any sort of legal avenue that a worker may have and really interfering with the charter rights of workers.”

Of the unprecedented coming together of public and private sector, Walton says: “I have been a worker for my entire adult life. Started working at 13. And I’ve been a union activist for 20 years and you know, I remember reading about union activism. I remember reading about labor history … And I always kind of pictured ‘what did that feel like?’ … How did you know you were in that moment, when you were in that moment. ..Those became very real. And one of the comments that I made that day is, ‘Workers are like a family. We may not always agree, but when you attack one of us, you attack all of us.’ And I really hope that it becomes a catalyst for solidarity moving forward.” 

About today’s guest

Laura Walton is an educational assistant from Belleville, Ontario. First elected to the role in 2019, she is the president of CUPE’s 55,000-worker strong Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU).

Transcript of this episode can be accessed at or here

Image: Laura Walton  / Used with Permission

Music: Ang Kahora. Lynne, Bjorn. Rights Purchased

Intro Voices: Ashley Booth (Podcast Announcer); Bob Luker (voice of Tommy Douglas); Kenneth Okoro, Liz Campos Rico, Tsz Wing Chau (Street Voices) 

Courage My Friends Podcast Organizing Committee: Chandra Budhu, Ashley Booth, Resh Budhu. 

Produced by: Resh Budhu, Tommy Douglas Institute and Breanne Doyle,

Host: Resh Budhu

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Categories: F. Left News

Innocent blood, misleading journalism

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 13:13

Like many Canadians, I was deeply saddened at the tragic death of young Canadian-Israeli Aryeh Shechopek in Jerusalem. The arbitrariness and senselessness of this child’s death should send shivers down the spine of any parent – Israeli, Canadian, or Palestinian. But I am deeply concerned that Canadian media coverage failed to contextualize the incident properly, at a time when the Canadian public so desperately needs a better understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Two prominent articles, one in the Globe and Mail and one from the CBC, failed to provide critical background information that would have enabled readers to understand why terrorism often occurs in Israel-Palestine, and how a young Canadian could fall victim. While terrorism – generally understood as violence inflicted against civilians to advance political aims – is never to be condoned, its causes must nevertheless be understood.  

The most troubling problem with both articles is that neither provides any reason why Palestinians might be motivated to carry out an act of terrorism. The Globe article tries to situate the reader by stating, “Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have been surging for months amid nightly Israeli raids in the occupied West Bank prompted by a spate of deadly attacks against Israelis that killed 19 people in the spring.”  Here, the conflict is presented as an endless tit for tat dynamic, where one side needlessly provokes and the other responds.  And usually, Western media coverage – like the Globe in this case – suggests that Palestinians are the initiator or the aggressor, and Israel is simply defending itself.  

As for the CBC article, at no point does it try to explain why there are tensions in Israel-Palestine.  Instead, at the end of the lengthy article, there are three brief paragraphs that provide unrelated numbers of Palestinians and Israelis killed, over different time periods. The reader is given no clear sense of which group – Israelis or Palestinians – has suffered the greater casualties, nor is the reader given any information as to the balance of power between the two sides.   

If major Canadian news outlets persist in depicting the violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict in such a myopic way, the public will inevitably remain misinformed. Why, for example, did neither article see fit to explain that 2,200 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli security forces during the last two decades, compared to 139 Israeli children killed by Palestinians?

Sadly, the number of Palestinian children being killed by Israel keeps climbing, including 16-year-old Palestinian Ahmad Shehadeh who was shot to death by Israeli occupation forces last month, and four other Palestinian children killed by Israeli soldiers in November alone. As such, the Globe and CBC certainly know that Mr. Shechopek’s death did not happen in a vacuum, or that these “tensions” did not sprout out of thin air. 

Beyond the simple statistics of deaths of children, a more thorough journalistic approach would explain that the so-called “tensions” between the parties are not a few months old, nor even a few years old, but stem from decades of cruel Israeli oppression and military occupation over Palestinians. Palestinians’ rights, movements and livelihoods are highly controlled by Israel and its legal and security institutions.  Israel’s dominance over the lives of Palestinians is so complete that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even Israeli human rights organizations have described it as an apartheid system, comparable to what blacks faced under South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Neither article mentioned Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories, the apartheid label applied by human rights organizations, nor the dozens of UN resolutions calling for Israel to respect the human rights of Palestinians.  

Interestingly, both articles gave great attention to the character of young Aryeh Shechopek. The Globe article devoted 10 paragraphs, and the CBC article took three paragraphs to describe how much Shechopek was loved by his friends and community.

But surely the same could be said for every Palestinian child who has been killed by the Israelis – those children whose names will never grace the pages of the Globe or the CBC. Surely they too had endearing qualities, and were likewise loved and appreciated by their friends and communities.  

Why couldn’t some of those paragraphs devoted to the character of Shechopek instead have been used to elucidate the reasons why someone else might’ve felt they had no choice but commit an act of terror at an Israeli bus stop. 

Journalists reporting on Palestinian acts of violence have a professional and ethical obligation to avoid treating attacks like the one that killed Shechopek as random crimes completely decoupled from Palestinians’ tortured existence under Israeli apartheid. News organizations such as the Globe and the CBC should provide the fullest possible context, using the appropriate terminology. 

Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, emphasizes that news coverage should not obfuscate Israeli human rights violations with sterilized language. Speaking to The New Arab about the media’s frequent referral to the “Israel-Palestine conflict” Albanese says, “we have to be more precise in our terminology. It is true that this situation is punctuated by hostilities and conflicts […] But we are dealing here with an occupation that has turned into an apartheid regime. Israel cannot claim to be defending itself.” 

Journalists have a professional duty to present the broadest possible picture when reporting on stories from conflict areas. Anything short of this amounts at best to poor journalism, and at worst to disinformation. Either way, the Canadian public deserves better.

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Categories: F. Left News

To end foreign interference here, Ottawa must stop interfering there

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 10:43

Recently there’s been significant attention devoted to purported foreign interference in Canadian politics. But there’s been little discussion of Ottawa’s far more significant interference abroad. 

The front page of Tuesday’s National Post noted: “Alarming escalation of espionage, foreign interference.” The story reported Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst Noura Hayek saying foreign interference is one of the “most serious” and “most complex” threats facing Canada. China was the main country cited. 

But it’s not just China that’s allegedly interfering in Canada. Christya Freeland previously said she was “very concerned that Russia is meddling” in Canada’s election and claimed there had “already been efforts by malign actors to disrupt our democracy.” 

Before the 2019 federal election the government established a special task force to monitor potential threats to Canada’s democracy that included representatives of CSIS, RCMP, Communications Security Establishment and Global Affairs’ intelligence branch. 

Recently, some have claimed that Iran, with a GDP per capita barely a 15th Canada’s, is interfering in Canadian democracy. Toronto MP Kevin Vuong recently called the federal government’s response to Iranian and Chinese interference “pathetic.” 

In an even more outlandish claim, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs recently suggested that a statement made by Green Party leader Elizabeth May about taking her lead from the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Canada reflected foreign interference. The apartheid lobby group noted, “Particularly at a time when Canadians are increasingly concerned about foreign interference in Canadian politics, no Canadian elected official should get their ‘marching orders’ from a foreign government & its official representatives.” 

While the evidence provided for most of the claims is thin, the issue should be taken seriously. Non-interference in other countries’ affairs is an important principle of international law. Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter states that “nothing should authorize intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Furthermore, the concept of self-determination is a core principle of the UN Charter and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

While no foreign government should meddle in another country’s political or electoral system, Ottawa has little standing to moralize on the subject. Ottawa has repeatedly intervened in other countries’ affairs, including by assisting in campaigns to oust elected governments. As Owen Schalk and I demonstrate in a forthcoming book, Canada has actively or passively backed two dozen coups. 

Compared to Ottawa’s documented actions, the alleged interference in Canada is trivial. In 2019 Ottawa funded and promoted an Organization of American States electoral mission to Bolivia that sought to discredit a poll in a successful bid to subvert the country’s first ever Indigenous president. In the early 1960s Canadian soldiers worked to undermine an elected Congolese prime minister and assisted Patrice Lumumba’s enemies in assassinating him. More recently in Venezuela Canadian diplomats rallied domestic and international forces in support of a plan to declare a marginal opposition politician that country’s legitimate president. 

While those screaming about foreign interference in Canada offer little more than vague claims about the impact of the claimed interventions, the consequences of Ottawa’s interference elsewhere have often been enormous. Libya remains at war 11 years after a Canadian general led the NATO bombing campaign to kill Muammar Gaddafi. A few thousand were killed in the two years after Canada aggressively subverted Haiti’s elected government in 2004, which led to a 13-year UN occupation that introduced cholera to the country. Canada’s four-year campaign to subvert an elected government in Ukraine enabled the 2014 ouster of Victor Yanukovych, sparking an eight-year civil war that contributed to Russia’s horrible invasion. 

Ongoing Canadian interference in Venezuela and Haiti dwarfs the most outlandish accusations made about foreign intervention here. Ottawa continues to recognize a marginal opposition politician as president of Venezuela while the post-coup US and Canada led Core Group effectively chose Haiti’s current leader. 

Canadians concerned about foreign interference should be pressing Ottawa to respect international law.

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Categories: F. Left News

Ford’s latest democratic farce; federal cognitive dissonance on foreign policy

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 07:27
Wait — we used to have democracy at city hall?

That mensch and former Toronto mayor, David Crombie, expressed outrage at Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s sly offer to let current mayor John Tory pass policies with just 30 per cent of votes on council — and Tory’s willingness to gobble it up: “If there’s one tenet that defines democracy … it’s called majority government,” Crombie steamed. Eliminating it is “bizarre.” Or, what’s bizarre is that he thinks we’ve had majority rule till now.

Anyone can win virtually any election in Canada with, say, 10 per cent of votes — if there are, say, 10 other candidates who get nine per cent each. That’s the norm with our first-past-the-post system. Majority rule is, practically speaking, a fiction. I believe citizens sense this, even if they can’t articulate it, which explains why they aren’t storming the barricades over the latest democratic farce. It’s also why they’re vulnerable to idiotic conspiracy theories about who’s really running things, since they’ve a sense that we already don’t live in a real democracy.

Tory’s response showed him at his wussiest. “Even with the provincial changes,” Tory said in a statement, he’s determined to “always try to reach a council consensus.” So he’ll try to get a majority to vote yes — and if they don’t, he’ll do it anyway.

Does the PM have foreign policy cognitive dissonance?

It’s true Canada has a new policy in Asia, the Indo-Pacific strategy, based on China being an “increasingly disruptive” force not just in Asia but worldwide. So we, as they lovingly say, pivoted — to India. There’s one potential flaw in this: India.

It is, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, effectively racist and fascist, with a long record of violence toward its large Muslim minority. Its citizenship act of 2019 excluded Muslim refugees and was called “fundamentally discriminatory” by a UN rights body. Modi’s record reaches back to 2002 in Gujarat, where he led the provincial government.

There was a year of massacres and attacks which were called pogroms, state terrorism and genocide, and in which he’s been plausibly implicated. The U.S. banned him for years over his role. Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy calls his current government a “criminal Hindu-fascist enterprise.”

The NDP recently joined calls for a “boycott of G20 activities in India,” due to its “horrific discriminatory laws.” Modi also declined to join western sanctions against Russia. That’s a credible position, IMO, based on India’s past colonial experience, but it hardly makes for a natural western ally.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly cheerily endorses the new strategy. She says we “had a frigate going through the Taiwan Strait this summer, along with the Americans, [and] we’re looking to have more frigates going through it.” That’s what I mean by cheery. On all this, she says, “we are going to lead,” which can only mean: be the first country in line to do whatever the U.S. dictates.

What I wonder is if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau feels a certain cognitive dissonance on policies like this. Due to his dad, Pierre, having been PM, he carries baggage and knowledge (same thing in his case) that no one else in his government does.

Pierre for instance, as a young man, visited the then-ostracized China and later co-wrote a plucky book called Two Innocents in Red China. As PM, he broke ranks and recognized China, possibly with U.S. concurrence. He befriended and sympathized with former Cuban president Fidel Castro over U.S. attempts to kill Cuba’s revolution. When he died, Fidel attended his funeral; when Fidel died, Justin apparently wanted to go but was more or less locked in his room by his staff and didn’t.

Foreign policy is mostly bullshit all around, but you still have to walk some fine lines. For a place like Canada, it may mean flitting between China and India, colouring them all “good” or all “bad,” while always placating the U.S. — and trying, if futilely, to slip in some independence and even momentary honesty. If you’re not into those contortions, you probably shouldn’t have applied for the job.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

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Categories: F. Left News

A tale of two campaigns: door-to-door organizing can make a difference!

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 04:13

This week on rabble radio, Libby Davies interviews Harley Augustino, organizer and trainer, to talk about his experience volunteering for two separate congressional districts in the most recent U.S. midterm elections. 

Oregon 5 and Washington 3 had two very different projected outcomes when Augustino volunteered to organize with them. Oregon 5 was considered a ‘class toss up,’ with about a 50/50 chance of going with a Republican or Democratic candidate. Washington 3, however –a Republican district– was projected to have only a 2% chance of becoming a Democratic district. 

In this interview, Augustino walks Davies through the results of these campaigns and explains why good, old fashioned door-to-door organizing shouldn’t be underestimated.  

Harley Augustino appeared on rabble radio earlier this year to talk about ‘Base Building for Power’ a collective he works with which trains future activists and organizers.

Photo by: Maximillian Conacher on Unsplash

Do you know a rabble rouser to watch?

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Review our rabble rousers of 2022 here!

Don’t miss our final Off the Hill event of 2022!

This December, our panel is taking a look back to look forward! We’re reflecting on 2022 and thinking ahead to 2023.

Our panel includes MP Leah Gazan, El Jones, Chuka Ejeckam and Karl Nerenberg. Co-hosted by Robin Browne and Libby Davies. Join us this December 14, 2022. 

Register for this free event here! 

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Categories: F. Left News

The labour movement and Twitter

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 04:04

What happens if Twitter shuts down? Or, becomes even more noxiously right-wing?

LabourStart – the labour movement’s news and campaigning service – has produced a programme exploring what unionists can do if Twitter closes or Elon Musk uses it to promote racist, misogynist, anti-LGBT+ and antisemitic views.

“Musk, himself, is not neutral. He doesn’t pretend to be neutral. Lots of these tech billionaires act like ‘we just provide a service; we have no views.’ Musk is not like that. Musk is very clear about his views. His views are far-right.” – Eric Lee, founder editor of LabourStart

RadioLabour is the international labour movement’s radio service. It reports on labour union events around the world with a focus on unions in the developing world. It partners with rabble to provide coverage of news of interest to Canadian workers.

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Categories: F. Left News

People power beats voter suppression in Georgia’s Senate runoff

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 13:59

“It is my honour to utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy: The people have spoken,” U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock said on Tuesday night before a cheering crowd, after winning the runoff election for the U.S. Senate in Georgia.

Warnock ran against Republican Herschel Walker, a retired football star. Walker, recruited to run by former president Donald Trump, proved to be a deeply flawed candidate. Nevertheless, the Warnock campaign had to overcome a complex array of voter suppression laws and tactics deployed by Georgia Republicans.

“There are those who would look at the outcome of this race and say that there’s no voter suppression in Georgia,” Warnock continued.

“Let me be clear, just because people endured long lines that wrapped around buildings, some blocks long, just because they endured the rain and the cold and all kinds of tricks in order to vote, doesn’t mean that voter suppression does not exist. It simply means that you, the people, have decided that your voices will not be silenced.”

After Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 and the unprecedented election two months later of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the first African-American and Jewish senators elected in Georgia, control of the Senate went to the Democrats.

The Republican-controlled Georgia legislature responded, quickly passing SB202, the “Election Integrity Act of 2021.” It restricted the time between a general election and a runoff, made it harder to get an absentee ballot, and even made it a crime to hand water to someone waiting hours in line to vote.

The turnout for this year’s December 6 runoff election was historic. Republicans attempted to restrict early, in-person voting as much as possible, including on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The justification used to eliminate that vital weekend day was that it followed “Observance of State Holiday 1,” the new term for what was, until 2015, Georgia’s holiday celebrating the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The Warnock campaign sued, and the State Supreme Court overturned Georgia’s new rules. “That weekend wound up being one of the largest voting turnout weekends in history,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said this week on the Democracy Now! news hour.

That the courts have a say in how Georgia runs its elections seems perfectly reasonable. But the ability of courts or state governors to weigh in on election laws passed by state legislatures is at risk. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Moore v. Harper, a case in which the Republican-controlled North Carolina state legislature is arguing that neither state courts nor the governor can question any election legislation, including redistricting maps, passed by the legislature. The case was brought after the North Carolina Republicans’ post-2020, heavily gerrymandered congressional map was overturned by the state’s Supreme Court.

If this so-called “Independent State Legislature Theory” is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, it would mark a radical shift in U.S. election law and one of the most fundamental threats to democracy in modern history.

Efforts to suppress the vote are rampant nationally. The Brennan Center for Justice is tracking at least 405 restrictive voter suppression bills and 151 election interference bills, all introduced at the state level in 2022. If the Supreme Court decides in favour of the Independent State Legislature Theory, these laws couldn’t be vetoed by governors nor reviewed by state courts.

Speaking on Democracy Now!, Georgia-based Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, said of the case, “This could be the final nail in the concept of democracy in this country, if these state legislatures are able to run rogue without having any kind of accountability.”

These voter suppression laws are just the latest front in the war on democracy. For so long, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, white supremacist violence and terrorism, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws like poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise voters of colour.

Raphael Warnock’s win is the first time an African-American Democrat has been elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate from the former Confederacy.

“I am a proud son of Savannah, Georgia, a coastal city known for its verdant town squares and its cobblestone streets, tall majestic oak trees dripping with Spanish moss,” Warnock said in his victory speech on Tuesday. “My roots, like the roots of those oak trees, go deep down into the soil of Savannah…I am an example and an iteration of its history, of its pain, and its promise, of the brutality and the possibility.”

The task before any American who supports the principle of democracy is to engage in grassroots action to expand the possibility of which Senator Warnock speaks, and to eliminate the brutality.

This column originally appeared in Democracy Now!

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Categories: F. Left News

Notley’s portrait unveiled in the Legislature – there are policy issues

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 13:06

Let’s take a break from the Sovereignty Act today and talk about something really important: Alberta premiers’ portraits. 

In Alberta there’s a long tradition that former premiers get to have rather large portraits hung in the rotunda of the Legislature Building in Edmonton, something that probably seemed like a good idea back in 1910 when Alexander Rutherford had just left office.

Also by tradition, taxpayers get to pick up the tab for these canvasses, which lately have been running in the range of $10,000 to $15,000. 

We’re now on Premier No. 19 and may well soon be contemplating No. 20, and we’re running out of wall space in the building, but for the moment at least it would seem the tradition remains alive.

On Thursday morning, by merit of her status as a former premier, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley’s portrait was unveiled on the third floor of the building. Journalists were able to cover the installation, as long as they maintain “a respectful distance.” 

Do not touch the canvass! 

I was mildly surprised Notley, No. 17, chose to have her portrait painted at this time. She is, if I heard her correctly, running for the job again and for some reason I have always associated the official portrait as a last official act, taken just before brushing the place’s dust off of your shoes and resolving never to darken its doorway again. 

She may have her reasons. Perhaps word got around that Jason Kenney had already engaged a portraitist and there was only room for one more on the wall of the Rotunda’s third floor. 

Regardless, the rules are the rules, and Notley is entitled. And, surely readers will admit that it would be a sweet thing to walk by your own portrait every day on your way to your office!

Whether or not the timing is ideal, one does hope our once and potentially future premier chose wisely when she picked an artist. 

The quality of Alberta premier’s portraits, it seems to me, has been trending downward these past few years. One or two, the subjects of which shall remain nameless to protect their chosen illustrators, have been positively cartoonish. 

Admittedly, my own tastes in portraiture are those of the 19th Century. But if a premier seeks a more contemporary look, they would do better to emulate Kehinde Wiley’s stunning portrait of Obama or even Warhol’s portrait of Gretzky (pretty somethin’ sexy) than the pages of a Marvel Comic, don’t you think?

Be that as it may, as I have argued in this space before, it may soon be time to emulate B.C. and ditch the giant portraits in favour of small and dignified photographs, suitably framed. 

This is not to say Notley is not deserving of a full portrait. After all – unlike the last four or five Conservative premiers – she served a full term. 

Indeed, perhaps having completed a full term should become the criterion to qualify for a painted portrait – and future versions of No. 15 Dave Hancock (175 days) or No. 16 Jim Prentice (241 days) would have to make do with a passport photo. 

Then again, maybe the qualifier should be the same as what’s required for a Parliamentary pension – to wit, re-election to another term. That being the case, Jason Kenney could comfort himself with the fact he got the pension, even if he didn’t get a portrait – which, under the present rules he will. 

Regardless, as I have argued in this space before, since we Albertans have been footing the bill, we should at least have some say about who paints the pictures. 

Tradition says premiers get to choose, and I do not think they should lose that privilege entirely. One’s portrait, after all, should reflect one’s artistic taste, such as it may be, to an appropriate degree. 

But we wouldn’t, for example, let a politician pick the engineer to design a new bridge across the North Saskatchewan, the architect to design a new hospital, or the contractor to build a pipeline should the chance ever again arise to build one of those things. 

Nor should we allow premiers – great leaders and accomplished politicians though they may be – to pick any old (or young) artist to paint their official portraits.

I have suggested we strike a committee of critics, artists and students of the arts – in other words, people capable of making appropriate judgments – to vet the work of Alberta artists who would like to be considered for official commissions of this nature. Then let the former premiers (and former speakers of the House as well, it must be noted) pick their artist from that list.

Recognizing the contribution the arts make to our provincial economy, chosen artists should be paid appropriately for their work, which might well be considerably higher than the current going rate. This ought not to be a problem for people who don’t blink at giving away $1 billion on the chance a pipeline might get built. 

Alternatively, if we are unwilling to support the best art our province can produce, we should do as they’ve been doing in B.C. since the silver-nitrate era, and hang small photographic portraits in a hallway of the Legislature Building.

Either way, history should not remember our leaders as cartoon figures.

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Categories: F. Left News

CUPE agreement ratified, but fight for schools continues

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 11:52

Results of a recent ratification vote from members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) may have been surprising for people who had been following bargaining news. The results were announced on Monday, December 5, and the agreement passed by 73 per cent. Despite some disappointment with the newly ratified collective agreement, CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) made a commitment to continue to fight for workers and students in Ontario’s public schools. 

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), had said in a press conference that she did not like the deal she was taking to members. When announcing the vote results, she said that, while she did vote in favour of the deal, she expected the agreement to pass by a smaller margin. 

More than 75 per cent of OSBCU members participated in the online ratification vote. The engagement in this vote was four times higher than a similar vote in 2019, according to CUPE Ontario.

While it seems that the vote shows a strong percentage of membership in favour of this deal, disappointment online was palpable. 

On Twitter, many of the responses to OSBCU’s post announcing the vote results expressed disappointment. 

On Facebook, user Rose Allain, whose profile says she is a member of CUPE local 3396, said in a Facebook post that she will be wearing black on “Education Worker Wednesday” to express her disappointment with the deal. 

“Yes, we accepted a contract but by doing so, we have lost so much,” Allain wrote in her post. 

“I respect democracy but don’t have to be happy with the results, especially when I know that many members voted ‘yes’ to the offer out of fear rather than support,” the post continued. 

Allain did not reply to rabble’s request for an interview. 

Michelle Campbell, who addressed reporters on Monday with Walton and OSBCU vice-president Christine Couture, said she understood why some may not see this deal as sufficient.

“While I voted to accept this agreement, I totally understand how some of my coworkers didn’t,” Campbell said. “Working as an EA [educational assistant], I have never seen anything as bad as what schools are like right now. There simply isn’t enough staff to do the work to support our students.” 

Walton said on Monday that the wage increase secured in the new deal is double what education workers would have received under the deal that the Ford government tried to impose using Bill 28. 

READ MORE: Bill 28, an act so unconstitutional it comes with the notwithstanding clause

“‘It is my greatest hope that this deal begins to alleviate the need and shows workers after years of being overlooked and underappreciated that our work is valuable,” Walton said. 

This deal is the first in a decade to be freely bargained without legislation that interferes with the process, according to a CUPE Ontario release. Walton said on Monday that in her career bargaining has always been influenced in some way, whether by Bill 124 or Bill 28. 

While this is a step forward for free collective bargaining in the public sector, there is still more to be done. This agreement did not include commitments to improving services for students, as Walton said in a previous press conference. 

Walton stressed that this deal is not the end of the fight for education workers and the public school system. 

“Change is not only won at the bargaining table and in collective agreements,” Walton said on Monday. “We are going to keep mobilizing and I will keep fighting with you. We pried every improvement from this government that we could this time. Tomorrow we start to harness the momentum and start organizing for the next fight because we have far more fight left in us and more left to accomplish.”

Campbell reiterated this sentiment, saying she was personally prepared to hold the government accountable for everything they do in the coming years. 

“To education workers, I hope the fortitude we all found stays with you,” Campbell said. “Hold our head up high, be proud of what we did and know that ratifying this agreement is not the end, not by a long shot. We are just getting started.”

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Categories: F. Left News

Labour on Alberta Sovereignty Act: ‘Battle lines have now been drawn’

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 10:34

Since the announcement of Alberta’s Sovereignty Act during last Tuesday’s Throne Speech, the bill has amassed widespread criticism among the public. Now, labour organizations such as Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and Unifor are speaking up against the controversial bill, deeming it undemocratic.

Bill 1, Alberta Sovereignty Within United Canada Act was introduced as a means to “stand up for Alberta interests.” According to Premier Danielle Smith, the proposed legislation would permit the Alberta government to prevent federal overreach by pushing back on federal laws or policies that they deem negatively impact the province.

“In reality, it’s a case of unprecedented and undemocratic overreach by the provincial government itself,” said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president, in a video statement released on Wednesday. “They want to give themselves the power to rule federal legislation unconstitutional, which is a power that is supposed to be reserved for the courts. They want to give themselves the power to amend legislation without debate in the legislature which flies in the face of our democratic parliamentary traditions.”

The Alberta Sovereignty Act is unconstitutional — a criticism that is echoed by journalists, political science and economic academics, political pundits, and politicians throughout Alberta. Even Smith’s own United Conservative Party (UCP) cabinet members have criticized the proposal.

READ MORE: The Sovereignty Act – is turning into a disaster for Danielle Smith and UCP

If Bill 1 is passed, this means that the provincial cabinet can bypass the legislature and unilaterally make laws under the guise of protecting from federal government overreach. It would create an imbalance, granting the provincial cabinet unprecedented power. Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, likened the bill to the “Emergencies Act on steroids.”

“Forgive me for quoting Jason Kenney here, but he’s right, Danielle Smith’s sovereignty legislation is ‘catastrophically stupid,’” said Lana Payne, Unifor National President. “Bill 1 is undemocratic, far-reaching and a permanent power grab.”

Unifor added that the uproar surrounding the Alberta Sovereignty Act diverts attention away from the actual economic issues that Albertan families are facing. McGowan reiterated this point, adding that Premiere Smith has no solid economic plan for Albertans.

“Alberta workers and Alberta citizens deserve better than this. We deserve health care. We deserve a real plan to maintain our standards of living in the context of the current inflation crisis. We deserve a government that respects and protects our democracy,” said McGowan.

For McGowan, the proposal of Alberta’s Sovereignty Act made one thing clear — “battle lines have been drawn.”

“It’s either chaos or stability. It’s either authoritarianism or democracy. The UCP has picked their side. It’s time for the rest of us to pick ours,” McGowan said.

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Categories: F. Left News

From lies to gaslighting

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 08:37

Arctic Indigenous people have many words to describe snow and its various colours. Aleut speaking peoples reportedly have 50 words for snow. Since snow is a significant part of their daily life, the richness of the relevant vocabulary comes as no surprise. Perhaps for the same reason the list of words for lie in modern English is equally impressive and keeps extending. One of them, gaslighting, has recently become Merriam-Webster’s word of the year 2022 because of its growing popularity.

Merriam-Webster’s includes more than 10 words to the list of synonyms for lie: falsehood, untruth, fraud, deceitfulness, prevarication, dissemble, disinformation, manipulation, fake news, and deepfake. Gaslighting is just the latest. Google Trends show that internet users in English-speaking countries started to look up definitions for gaslighting since the second half of the 2010s. British and American English seems to be particularly affected, although similar trends are observed in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia (see the chart).

Graph from Google Trends,

While Google Books allows comparing English-language books published in the US and the UK only, this databank has the advantage of covering a longer period. About five per cent of all books published since 1800 are indexed. Until the start of the 20th century the term ‘gaslighting’ was mostly used literally, in relation to gaslight, a lamp which operates by burning piped illuminating gas. A figurative meaning has been attached to this term relatively recently. A surge in its relative frequency on pages books published in the US and the UK observed since the second half of the 2010s is likely attributable to gaslighting defined figuratively (see the chart, the red curve depicts relative frequencies of gaslighting on pages of books published in the UK, the red – in the US).

Graph from Google Books.

In its figurative sense, gaslighting means manipulation by using particularly sophisticated means of deception. A person subject to gaslighting loses touch with reality, starting to question everywhere the boundary between true and false. It may happen within the family with an abusive partner or within an organization, where gaslighting becomes a dimension of bullying; or in politics, because of the unavailability of valid information and the spread of misinformation.

A closer look at publications in the newspapers of record from the five English-speaking countries suggests that few, if any, institutions and processes remain immune to gaslighting.

A publication in The Times describes the experience of a psychologically abused wife: “I now realise I’ve lived with gaslighting and emotional abuse for a long time. I’ve been blamed for everything. I took responsibility for trying to fix things and I didn’t have a hope. My husband has left. How can I help my family cope?” (February 28, 2022).

The Globe and Mail reports on the use of gaslighting in academia quoting the president of the faculty association of a Canadian public university that recently went bankrupt because of mismanagement, who said “People are devastated. They’re angry. Rightfully so, because in the process, the administration spent a lot of effort scapegoating, ignoring and gaslighting faculty” (November 24, 2022).

The term ‘gaslighting’ is used in an article in The Australian to describe the mishandling of COVID-19 and the provision of incomplete and/or misleading data as its element: “Even by the standards of public health authorities across the world gaslighting the people to nudge them into docile – and often performative – compliance with official edicts, this level of internal contradiction of narrative with data is breathtaking” (August 20, 2022).

The New Zealand Herald offers the other example of how gaslighting may penetrate politics and undermine the declared democratic principles: “‘Employment matters’ are being worked through with a Labour backbencher MP who yesterday made explosive claims about ‘rampant’ bullying and gaslighting involving party whips and the Parliamentary Service, it has been revealed” (August 12, 2022).

Even the court, the other cornerstone of democracy, does not avoid being associated with gaslighting. In an interview conducted for The New York Times, we read: “And yet the court, which to the extent people trust it, and should be able to trust it, is trying to tell us – I mean, as you put it, gaslight us into saying, well look, unfortunately, the founders had an unbelievably expansive vision of gun ownership, and we are bound to follow the simple truth whether we like it or not of what the historical record tells us” (July 1, 2022).

It is difficult to keep sanity when gaslighting becomes so widespread. An increased risk of mental disorders seems to go hand in hand with the growing popularity of gaslighting. According to the data collected by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in the US, Australia has the highest prevalence of mental disorders in the world. In 2019, 19.4 per cent of the adult population in this country had issues with mental health. Australia is closely followed by New Zealand (19.04 per cent). The US, the UK and Canada follow their lead (see the chart). Between 1990 and 2019, the relative (not to be confused with the absolute) change in the share of population with any mental health problems varies from more than one per cent in the UK to more than nine per cent in the US.

At the end of the day, the unexpected rise in popularity of gaslighting may be indicative of serious underlying problems at the institutional level. If they are not properly addressed being covered by clouds of gas of lies, then further increases in the demand for mental health facilities and services be expected.

Lies are circumstantial. Gaslighting is systemic, it seems. It is more and more a codeword for issues that are real, but whose existence is denied or belittled.

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Categories: F. Left News

Why the west wants to see China fail the COVID test

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 08:03

The protests in China over that country’s “zero-COVID” policy have led to a torrent of schadenfreude in the Western media. There is barely contained glee present in Western -especially American- media coverage and the underlying hope that these protests signal a larger collapse of China’s system. It is too early to say what will happen, but the fact that so many in the West are so eager to see China “fail” says more about the West than the target of its hostility.

Led by the US, the West believes it is in an ideological war with China. If China, with its different values and political/economic systems “succeeds” then the West’s right to control the world based on its inherent superiority is diminished. COVID policy has become the measure of this imaginary conflict. On that score, the Western world –especially the US -has failed spectacularly.

According to the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, over the past 28 days (from December 6, 2022), 1,232,801 people were infected with COVID in the U.S. 8,638 died. By contrast, about 918,014 people were infected with COVID in China, 360 died. In the entire pandemic, 16,083 Chinese have died from COVID. By contrast, the COVID death toll in the US is 1,082,195. The US is “living with COVID” by normalizing mass COVID death, much as it has normalized mass shootings, except it has stopped talking about COVID.

We have no reason to doubt these figures. Throughout the pandemic, China has conducted its internal affairs exactly as if the figures it has been providing are accurate. When it indicated it had minimal cases, its citizens functioned without restrictions. When cases of COVID appeared, China locked down tight. The disease has become impossible to control, however, as more communicable variants have spread.

To date, 48,297 Canadians have died from COVID. In the past 28 days, 64,495 Canadians have been infected; 1,325 died. This death rate significantly exceeds that of the US. In the same time, Malaysia, with 71,936 infections, lost 221 people. Singapore, with 48,168 infections, lost 16 people. Faced with these terrible numbers, Canadian politicians and health officials seem unwilling to protect public health, apparently due to their fear of a vocal and aggressive minority. The death toll in Canada continues to escalate.

China’s zero COVID policy has come with high economic and social costs. It has sometimes been brutal and clumsy. But it has avoided the mass death that Americans are ignoring. China has definitely made mistakes. Only 69 per cent of those over 60 have received a second booster shot and only 40 per cent of those over 80. The elderly distrust vaccines and have avoided getting vaccinated because of COVID’s relative rarity

China should make vaccines for the elderly mandatory. It can bring in the higher quality mRNA vaccines to increase protection though, based on the death rate, Chinese vaccines seem to be working well. Nonetheless, vaccines do not prevent infection. As China eases up on its COVID restrictions, many vulnerable, vaccinated people will lose their lives. If the wave of infections is large enough -and in a country of 1.4 billion, any wave can be enormous – China’s fragile healthcare system may collapse. This is the long-term catastrophic outcome China’s COVID policies have tried to avoid. 

Canada is a cautionary tale. Canadian healthcare is on the verge of collapse in part because unvaccinated people swamped the hospitals in disproportionate numbers throughout the pandemic. Exhausted medical professionals have retired in droves, leaving hospitals short-staffed. Death and illness from delayed medical care and the effects of long COVID on Canada’s healthcare system remain to be seen. 

In the West, the resentment of China’s COVID success is partly driven by a refusal to admit the truth of the many profound weaknesses that COVID has revealed in Western societies -especially the harsh reality that “individualism” has nurtured sociopathic tendencies in large parts of the population. 

If China fails at containing COVID, Westerners can persist in the delusion that “our system” is “the best” rather than having to critically engage with Western failure. They can push aside the need to truthfully examine the violent and exploitative foundations underpinning Western society, opting for mindless platitudes about “freedom” and “democracy” instead.

The Western need to tear China down reflects the nagging fear that Western states may not really have the answers to difficult political and economic questions. This fear is justified. Western values are not universal. Western political and economic ideologies exaggerate the relevance of Western experience, whitewash Western history, and reflect an ignorance of the rest of the world. The sooner we recognize our numerous failures and limitations, the better we will be. The people protesting China’s zero COVID policy are sympathetic figures. Their resentment of harsh COVID restrictions is understandable. But they may regret their actions if COVID is unleashed and the vulnerable start dying in the millions. China’s success in keeping its population alive, until now, is a remarkable achievement. China needs to fully vaccinate the elderly. Hopefully, that will be enough for it to avoid catastrophe and keep it from following the same dismal path as so many states in the West.

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Categories: F. Left News

Giant grocery chains refuse blame for high food prices

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 07:45

The House of Commons committee looking into food price inflation held its first meeting on Monday, December 5, and the score so far is 1-0 for the food retail giants.

The MPs on the agriculture committee did not lay a glove on the industry spokespeople, who were well-prepared. The representatives of industry gave slick presentations and credible-sounding answers.

All of the MPs on the House agriculture committee, from all parties, seem to believe the current big profits of major retail chains, such as Loblaws and Sobeys, are at least partly responsible for the spike in food prices.

But industry executives and lobbyists deftly pushed back. 

The real culprits for rising prices, the industry folks said, are increased upstream costs for transport and energy, as well as supply chain disruptions wrought by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

As well, they added, Canada has been experiencing labour shortages. Some said those could be at least partly solved by bringing in more temporary foreign workers.

MPs have a lot to learn

The politicians were no match for the well-armed business representatives. 

The MPs marshalled few facts and figures to counter the industry arguments, and, for the most part, their questions were not designed to elicit hard information.

Most members of parliament have failed to learn the rule experienced interviewers observe, namely that clear, simple, to-the-point and open-ended questions elicit the most revealing responses.

Parliamentary committee members’ essential role is not to make speeches or grandstand. It is to get candid and useful information from witnesses.

Instead of systematically seeking facts and figures, some MPs on the agriculture committee used up much of their limited time indulging in long-winded bouts of rhetoric. When they did pose actual questions, more often than not those questions were of the sort their interlocuters could easily deflect.

A case in point: One MP asked the spokesperson for Loblaws, their senior vice president of finance Jodat Hussain, if he believed the industry had a lot more work to do to “earn the trust of Canadians.”

As you might expect, Hussain had some comforting, if vacuous, platitudes at the ready.

“We earn the trust of Canadians through what we do at the checkout counter,” he said, “and that will be 100 per cent of what we continue to do.”

The lesson for this MP is: If you ask a vague and general question don’t expect anything other than an equally vague and fact-free answer.

It should have been a tough day for the Loblaws man, who had the unenviable task of explaining his corporation’s record level profits. As one MP pointed out, before the pandemic Loblaws’ profit was $266 million. Now it is $387 million.

But Hussain calmly provided a simple explanation. 

Loblaws is a multi-faceted business, he pointed out. It does not just sell food. It also operates a bank and sells pharmaceutical and beauty products. It is those non-food lines that are making all the extra money, according to Hussain. Loblaws’ profit margin on food, he insisted, has not gone up.

Lobbyist Karl Littler, senior vice president for public affairs for the Retail Council of Canada, supported Loblaws. 

Littler decried “those who have deliberately sought to link inflation to grocers’ earnings,” and, like Hussain, talked about increased costs for everything from fertilizer to fuel. He also mentioned drought in the west and the cost of shipping.

The retailers’ lobbyist backed the argument that big increases in earnings for companies such as Loblaws come from non-food sources – from pharmaceuticals, health and beauty products – not food.

Littler added a not-too-subtle, ideological dig, aimed, no doubt, at New Democrats, who initiated this inquiry, and at Liberals on the left flank of their party

“There are some folks,” Littler told the committee, “for whom any level of profit is unacceptable, and I will not persuade them.”

The rest of us who are not profit averse, including pensioners whose funds are invested in the stock markets, should not begrudge food retailers a “modest profit of 2 to 4 per cent.” Those percentages, Littler added, are lower than the profit margin of many other Canadian industries.

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull picked up on the fact that Loblaws, for one, has been raking it in on its non-food business, and asked if the company might consider helping consumers by using its massive, non-food profits to offset rising food prices.

Loblaws’ Hussain didn’t exactly say no dice, we’re not interested in that radical idea. Instead, he pointed to the fact his company recently froze prices on all of its no-name brands. 

No-name brands consist mostly of packaged and processed goods, many of them of low nutritional value. More importantly, the no-name family excludes most fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, fish or most dairy products. (Loblaws has frozen prices on what it labels “naturally imperfect” fruit and vegetables and it sells some no-name labelled frozen fruit.)

A highly concentrated industry

Loblaws’ vice-president Hussain and other industry spokespeople repeatedly asserted that theirs is a competitive industry, which, they claimed, helps keep prices down.

The only expert to appear before the committee on its first day, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, forcefully disputed that claim.

Charlebois told the committee there is in fact little competition in the Canadian food retail sector. It is a highly concentrated industry, dominated by three huge companies – Loblaws, Metro, and Empire (which owns Sobeys).

The Dalhousie expert told the Committee how U.S. regulators are far tougher on mergers and acquisitions than their Canadian federal counterpart, the Competition Bureau. 

The Dalhousie professor excoriated the Competition Bureau for its slow pace and lax attitude to takeovers and to potential price-fixing in the food industry.

In the U.S., the grocery giant Kroger is currently seeking to acquire another chain, Albertsons. There is a lot of concern about this merger and its possible impact on food prices. Members of the U.S. Congress from both parties have spoken out. If it approves the deal, it is likely the U.S. regulatory agency will impose stern conditions.

Professor Charlebois explained that U.S. regulators are expected to force Kroger to “let go of 400 of its stores in order to create a rival to the new mega-grocer.”

Nothing of that sort would ever happen in Canada, Charlebois said.

When Loblaws took over Provigo, Metro acquired A&P, and Sobeys bought Safeway “barely anyone raised an eyebrow during the Competition Bureau’s proceedings.”

“The Competition Bureau constantly fails,” Charlebois said, “when it simply endorses acquisitions, and when it oversees investigations with little or no vigour.”

Over the years, the Halifax-based expert explained, Canada has seen many independent grocers disappear as a result of Competition Bureau inaction. Now, “Canadian consumers feel unprotected.”

Code of conduct and lagging workers’ pay

Charlebois raised the prospect of a code of conduct for the grocery sector, such as exists in the U.K. and Australia. 

“Canadians do not realize that food suppliers must pay grocery chains to get their products on the shelves,” Charlebois told the Committee. 

There might be some justification for this practice, as a means, for instance, of compensating the grocers for marketing and promoting products.

But Charlebois worries about abuses, which could cause increases in prices for consumers, and harm food suppliers. He wants to see a mandatory code of conduct for the industry, and, for the Committee’s benefit, he listed some of the benefits of such a code. 

For starters, a code would provide a counter balance to the huge power of the retail giants. 

In addition, it would help stabilize prices, accentuate innovation, help assure the security of our food supply, and encourage investment in Canada’s agri-food sector.

We need this code, Charlebois argues, to fix a “broken economic model” in the food industry. 

Committee member Liane Rood, a Conservative MP who represents a rural Ontario riding, strongly supported such a code, as did another of Monday’s witnesses, Rebecca Lee, Executive Director of Fruit and Vegetable Growers of Canada.  

Lee expressed concern that the retail prices of cabbage, lettuce, green beans, broccoli, strawberries, apples, carrots, onions and potatoes is so out of line with what her members, the farmers who grow the crops, receive. She would like to know why, and has yet to receive an answer. 

As for the workers in the food retail industry, they only came up once during the meeting. 

New Democrat Alistair McGregor pointed out that while prices have gone up by 10 per cent in one year, wages have only increased by 5.4 per cent.

The British Columbia MP wanted to know why Loblaws does not compensate its own workers enough to keep up with the prices of products it sells. 

Hussain was not flummoxed. He pointed out that most Loblaws operations are unionized and the compensation is determined by collective agreement. 

“Our employees are the lifeblood of Loblaws,” he added.

This one meeting is just the beginning of a long process. The MPs on the committee, and their staffs, will want to do a lot of digging through numbers and details that are not always readily accessible as they pursue their work.

As Sylvain Charlebois quite accurately pointed out, food is not just another commodity like lipstick or t-shirts (both of which retail giants such as Loblaw sell). 

We cannot live without food, and so there is an essential ethical component to food production, marketing and sales which politicians and industry people alike must never forget.

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Categories: F. Left News


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