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Canada’s Energy Juggernaut Hits a Native Roadblock January 15, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Energy, Environment, First Nations, Idle No More.
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Published on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 by The Star

by Linda McQuaig

Those who believe we can freely trash the environment in our quest to make ourselves richer suffer from a serious delusion — a delusion that doesn’t appear to afflict aboriginal people.

A Vancouver protester highlights the environment on Jan. 11. (Photograph: Ben Nelms / Reuters)

Aboriginals tend to live in harmony with Mother Earth. Their approach has long baffled and irritated Canada’s white establishment, which regards it as a needless impediment to unbridled economic growth.

Nowhere is this irritation more palpable than inside Stephen Harper’s government, with its fierce determination to turn Canada into an “energy superpower,” regardless of the environmental consequences.

So it’s hardly surprising that the Harper government has ended up in a confrontation with Canada’s First Nations.

Certainly the prime minister has shown a ruthlessness in pursuing his goal of energy superpowerdom.

He has gutted long-standing Canadian laws protecting the environment, ramming changes through Parliament last December as part of his controversial omnibus bill. He has thumbed his nose at global efforts to tackle climate change, revoking Canada’s commitment to Kyoto.

And he’s launched a series of witch-hunt audits of environmental groups that dared to challenge the rampant development of Alberta’s oilsands — one of the world’s biggest sources of climate-changing emissions — as well as plans for pipelines through environmentally sensitive areas.

But, while there’s been some resistance from provincial governments, opposition parties, and environmentalists, Ottawa’s energy juggernaut has continued to surge ahead.

At least until now. With the First Nations, Harper may have met his Waterloo.

Among other things, Harper’s attack on Canada’s environmental laws included rewriting parts of the Indian Act, thereby removing safeguards for native land and waters that are protected in the Constitution.

Of course, even with the Constitution on the side of aboriginals, it’s hard to imagine a group consisting of some of the poorest people on the continent taking on the federal government, backed up by corporate Canada, and winning.

After all, the First Nations are divided, and the government has deftly exploited these divisions. Furthermore, many influential media commentators side with the government, helping it portray aboriginals as impractical dreamers unable to understand the dictates of the global economy.

And restless natives have been a permanent political backdrop in Canada, unable to even ensure clean drinking water for themselves, let alone shape the government’s agenda.

But what’s new and potentially game-changing is Idle No More, the youth-based native initiative that, suddenly and unpredictably, has grown into a feisty grassroots movement — one that has shown the potential to attract activists from Occupy Wall Street, the Quebec student movement and even middle-class Canadians starting to wonder if barbecuing weather in mid-January suggests we’re playing too fast and loose with the environment.

Idle No More grew directly out of the resistance to Harper’s energy juggernaut. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq and spokesperson for Idle No More, notes that changes in the omnibus bill make it easier to overcome native resistance to energy projects. For instance, the changes would enable a handful of natives, without support from the band majority, to surrender reserve land to Enbridge, enabling it to build a pipeline.

The Harper government will undoubtedly mobilize resources and cunning against Idle No More.

Whatever happens, it’s hard not to be inspired by this gutsy, earthy band that has asserted itself in the tradition pioneered by native-influenced governments in Ecuador and Bolivia, both of which have passed laws giving Mother Earth legal protections.

Canadians have reason to be ashamed of our treatment of aboriginals — from residential schools to the continuing failure to provide basic necessities like water, housing and education to people whose ancestors were here long before ours arrived.

Ironically, their insistence on their constitutional rights, as Palmater notes, may be the last best hope of Canadians to reverse our own culture’s reckless disregard for the dictates of Mother Earth, who ultimately is more demanding and unforgiving even than the global economy. Rising GDP levels won’t mean much if we’re swamped by rising sea levels.

The very least we can do is to get behind this ragtag group that has, in a few short weeks, shown more wisdom than our “advanced” society has mustered in decades.

Linda McQuaig’s column appears monthly. lmcquaig@sympatico.ca

© 2013 The Star
Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig is a columnist for the Toronto Star. She first came to national prominence in 1989 for uncovering the Patti Starr Affair, where a community leader was found to have used charitable funds for the purpose of making illegal donations to lobby the government. McQuaig was awarded the National Newspaper Award for her work on this story. The National Post has called her “Canada’s Michael Moore”. Linda is the author (with Neil Brooks) of Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality, published by Beacon Press.

Recalling Reagan, Canada’s Harper and His Team Have Good ‘Austerity’ Laugh April 11, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Economic Crisis.
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Published on Tuesday, April 10, 2012 by The Toronto Star

by  Linda McQuaig

There’s a striking photo of Ronald Reagan and members of his inner circle, cocktails in hand, practically doubled over with laughter.

A clever wag attached a caption to the bottom of the photo: “We told them the wealth would trickle down!”

With that caption, the photo has gone viral on the Internet. One can imagine the photo capturing a 1980s scene inside the White House, as someone pulled back the curtain and caught the Reagan team in flagrante, celebrating how successfully they’d fooled the public about their “trickle down” theory.

With the revelations presented last week by Canada’s Auditor General Michael Ferguson, it’s easy to imagine a similar scene here: members of the Harper cabinet buckled over with laughter, celebrating how they successfully hid from the public $10 billion in costs connected to the purchase of dozens of fighter jets, even as they sold gullible Canadians on the need for “austerity.”

Ha ha ha!

As the auditor general made clear, Stephen Harper’s government failed to be honest with Canadians about the true costs of buying 65 of the pricey, U.S.-made jets, which were always much more popular with Canada’s military brass, the Harper cabinet and the aerospace industry than with the general public.

Indeed, even before Ferguson’s damning report, the public had good reason to be wary of plans to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 jets, without a tendering process open to competitors.

Costs of military contracts are notorious for escalating wildly, on average by triple the announced price, notes Peter Langille, a defence analyst formerly employed by Canada’s defence department, who now teaches peace studies at McMaster University.

Langille says that the F-35 program, if it proceeds, will draw scarce government resources into preparing for war-fighting abroad, and away from public programs like health care and education — a development Canadians would likely resist if they thought much about it.

Anxious to prevent the public from thinking much about it, the Harper team deliberately lowballed the costs, suggesting Canada could acquire the planes for $15 billion.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, right, and then industry minister Tony Clement in front of an F-35 fighter during a news conference in Ottawa July 16, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

As the auditor general has revealed, Harper cabinet ministers continued to insist that $15 billion would be the cost, even after our defence department provided them with confidential information in June 2010 showing that the true costs would be $25 billion.

But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page smelled a rat, and produced his own estimate in March 2011 showing that the planes would cost $29 billion.

The Conservatives quickly dissed this annoying parliamentary watchdog as well as opposition critics, and insisted ever more vigorously that the price tag would not exceed $15 billion.

Still, some unpatriotic types remained skeptical. The government’s refusal to provide a fuller accounting was, in part, what led to the non-confidence motion that prompted last spring’s election.

Throughout that campaign, Harper and his ministers stuck adamantly to the $15 billion estimate — while knowing it wasn’t true — and won a majority government.

Ha ha ha! What a knee slapper! And did you hear the one about the two Canadians who walked into a polling station, only to discover it was the wrong one!

But, while a $10 billion cost overrun is apparently no big deal to the Harperites (who, oddly, present themselves as sound fiscal managers), they quickly shifted into “austerity” mode after the election, lecturing Canadians on the dire need to reign in government spending.

Just last week, citing “challenging fiscal times,” the Harper team ended a program that provides Internet access at libraries and community centres, giving low-income Canadians — about half of whom lack Internet access — a lifeline to the world, as well as a way to apply for jobs.

The nationwide program, which costs only $15 million, operates with the help of volunteers.

This example of generous Canadians volunteering to help Canada’s most vulnerable citizens is enough to restore one’s belief in the goodness of this country. But, suddenly, with the stroke of a pen, it was wiped out by the Harper cabinet, in the name of austerity.

Ha ha ha! High fives, boys!

© 2012 The Toronto Star

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Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig is a columnist for the Toronto Star. She first came to national prominence in 1989 for uncovering the Patti Starr Affair, where a community leader was found to have used charitable funds for the purpose of making illegal donations to lobby the government. McQuaig was awarded the National Newspaper Award for her work on this story. The National Post has called her “Canada’s Michael Moore”.

Canada Mines African Discontent June 7, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Canada, Tanzania.
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Published on Tuesday, June 7, 2011 by The Toronto Star

While Canadians may think of ourselves as best known for owning the Olympic podium, among Africans we may actually be better known — and not particularly liked — for owning their natural resources.

Once beloved on the continent, Canada is no longer so fondly regarded in Africa.

The new, less enthusiastic view of Canada was vividly illustrated last month when more than 1,500 desperately poor Tanzanian villagers picked up machetes, rocks and hammers and stormed the mining compound of Canadian-owned African Barrick Gold.

The uprising — leading to the shooting deaths of seven of the villagers by police and security forces at the mine — is a startling reminder that theories widely held in the West about the benefits of foreign investment for the developing world are not always shared by people on the receiving end.

In theory, Barrick’s arrival in the 1990s has been a boon to the Tanzanian economy, pushing it toward development.

In reality, Tanzania has collected only a pittance in taxes and royalties from Barrick and other foreign multinationals through contracts that are shrouded in secrecy. So, although it sits on massive gold reserves worth more than $40 billion, Tanzania remains one of world’s 10 poorest countries.

A 2008 investigation funded by Norwegian church groups concluded that Tanzania collected an average of only $21.7 million (U.S.) a year in royalty and taxes on more than $2.5 billion worth of gold exported over the previous five years. The investigation also estimated some 400,000 Tanzanians, who formerly mined for gold with nothing but their own picks, shovels and ropes, have been left unemployed by the giant mining operations.

Two months after that report, a government-appointed commission headed by retired Tanzanian judge Mark Bomani strongly urged imposing higher royalties and taxes on the foreign mining companies.

With growing popular pressure for tougher legislation, the Canadian government intervened on the side of the multinationals, pressuring the Tanzanian government and parliament to oppose Bomani’s proposed reforms.

Officials from the Canadian High Commission launched an “intense” lobbying mission with Tanzanian legislators aimed at blocking the reforms, according to reports in the Tanzanian newspaper ThisDay.

Ottawa also sought to head off potentially tougher rules governing Canadian mining companies by pressing for stronger investor protections in trade talks with Tanzania, aimed at securing what Canada calls a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA).

“Canada’s objective in entering these negotiations is to secure a comprehensive, high-quality agreement to protect investors through the establishment of a framework of legally binding rights and obligations,” says a posting on the website of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

The FIPA is “purely an instrument aimed at protecting the interests of Canadian companies in Tanzania,” according to Zitto Kabwe, a Tanzanian parliamentarian.

All this seems to be a departure from the way Canada used to operate in Africa.

Back in the 1970s, Canada actually gave African countries help, teaching them how to negotiate better deals with foreign multinationals, says Linda Freeman, a political scientist at Carleton University who specializes in African political economy.

Today, Freeman notes, Canada is solidly on the side of the multinationals, pressuring vulnerable African nations to accept deals favourable to multinationals, with negative implications for their own populations.

Do Canadians care about any of this? Apparently not, according to Canadian parliamentarians, who last fall narrowly voted to defeat a private member’s bill aimed at holding Canadian companies operating abroad more accountable here in Canada.

The bill would have made a significant difference in how last month’s violence in Tanzania will be investigated, according to Jamie Kneen, with the Ottawa-based watchdog group Mining Watch.

The killings — and additional allegations of rape — are being investigated by Tanzanian police and by Barrick.

But the private member’s bill would have entitled villagers to a Canadian government investigation, with potential repercussions for Canadian companies found to have behaved improperly.

The tragic defeat of that bill — and the Harper government’s intense focus on championing rights for Canadian corporations — has left Canada flexing its muscle against some of the world’s most impoverished people.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2011

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Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig is a columnist for the Toronto Star.

Pinpricks Derail Action on Climate April 6, 2010

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Published on Tuesday, April 6, 2010 by The Toronto Starby Linda McQuaig

Of course, it’s possible that the incredibly warm, barbecues-in-March weather we’ve recently enjoyed is just a fluke and has nothing whatsoever to do with climate change.

It’s also possible that if your 2-year-old falls into a swimming pool, he might manage to thrash his way to the side without you having to jump in to save him. On the other hand, jumping in might seem like a sensible precaution.

While obvious with the child in the pool, sensible precaution oddly seems to elude us when it comes to climate change. The vast preponderance of scientific evidence – prepared over the past two decades by thousands of scientists around the world under the authority of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – points to potentially catastrophic global warming and the role of humans in contributing to it.

Yet we allow pinpricks in the side of this vast body of science to derail global action.

The latest pinprick was “climategate” – hacked emails allegedly showing that climate researchers at a British university manipulated climate data to bolster the global warming case. That prompted an international flurry of “gotcha” commentaries from high-profile media skeptics.

There was considerably less attention last week after a British parliamentary inquiry into climategate announced it found no evidence of manipulated data and no evidence to challenge the “scientific consensus” that global warming is induced by human activities.

Discredited or not, climategate accomplished what the anonymous hackers apparently intended – to create a fog of uncertainty around the science.

The fog even manages to obscure the role of the immensely powerful oil and gas lobby, which quietly keeps climate skepticism alive by funding a legion of climate-denial front groups.

According to a report last month by Greenpeace, the wealthy, ultra-conservative Koch family, owners of oil conglomerate Koch Industries, has funnelled nearly $50 million since 1997 to groups denying climate change.

The fog generated has, among other things, enabled Stephen Harper – a climate change denier until becoming Prime Minister – to get away with essentially doing nothing on the climate front.

Last month’s federal budget confirmed this trend. According to the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, the U.S. now spends 18 times more per capita on renewable energy than Canada does.

This inaction makes no sense if we simply consider the probabilities. The IPCC estimates that there’s perhaps a 10 per cent chance that temperatures will not rise enough to cause worry.

So that leaves a 90 per cent chance that we should worry. Even if the IPCC were off by a factor of five and the chances of a benign outcome increased from 10 to 50 per cent, does it make sense to do nothing?

We might face a serious conundrum if tackling the problem required us to do something really awful, like exterminating all the world’s bunnies or chopping down all the evergreens.

But reducing greenhouse gas emissions is something we should do anyway, in order to cut pollution and save limited energy resources. If it turns out to be unnecessary, we’ll still be better off.

It would be like jumping into the pool to save your child, discovering he knows how to swim, and then realizing you needed a dip anyway.

On the other hand, the skeptics seems to think you should stay in your deck chair – after all, there’s a 10 per cent chance your child is going to be just fine.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2010

Linda McQuaig is a Star columnist.

Restraint for Everything but Sports February 23, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Economic Crisis, Sports.
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Published on Tuesday, February 23, 2010 by The Toronto Starby Linda McQuaig

No cost has been spared in mounting a giant spectacle of spandex-clad athletes performing dazzling feats in massive public venues.

Certainly, nobody seems to be letting the $6 billion price tag for Vancouver’s Olympic extravaganza get in the way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against sports. I appreciate the nuances of a fine skeleton performance as much as the next person.

My point is simply to question why goals other than mounting gala sports events are routinely dismissed on the grounds that we can’t afford them.

Of course, sports extravaganzas often have side benefits. We’re told that with the 2015 Pan Am Games coming here, Toronto may finally get its public transit system upgraded.

How’s that? Are the Pan Am countries – an assortment of mostly poverty-stricken Latin American nations – going to chip in to improve Toronto’s subway system?

No. We’re going to pay. So why don’t we just decide to do it without the Games, given the need and the looming climate change disaster?

The conventional explanation is that the public won’t pay otherwise. But is the public the real obstacle here?

We’ve been exhorted to believe in the magic of sports, in the transformative power of the Olympic torch – that no dream is too big to dream, that guts and willpower will bring us glory.

But next week, when Ottawa brings down its budget, all that big-thinking and sky-high believing is to be shelved. We’ll be advised to think small, think restraint, focus on the impossibility of things. Deficits will own the podium.

That’s not because the public only cares about sports. It’s because the corporate world only supports public investments when it comes to sports and war, from which it makes money. But it wants to hold the line on public investment in health care, education, child care, social supports, etc.

So it’s tried to convince us these things aren’t affordable, or that we don’t want to pay for them – as we did in the past.

From the end of World War II, federal spending was almost always above 15 per cent of GDP, until the massive Liberal spending cuts of the mid-1990s brought it way down to about 12 per cent, notes economist Armine Yalnizyan.

Those cuts – made to reduce deficits caused by recession and overly tight monetary policy – became permanent, even after balanced budgets were quickly restored in the late 1990s.

Despite a decade of huge federal surpluses since then, the Liberals and the Conservatives failed to restore spending levels that prevailed during the prosperous early postwar decades, cutting taxes in response to corporate pressure instead.

The Harper government has made clear that once the stimulus package expires, federal spending will return to the historically low levels of the past decade.

But this is disastrous policy. Given the severity of the ongoing recession, what is needed now is massive public investment to put the country back to work and rebuild our crumbling social and physical infrastructure.

For millions of young people, holding a job is a dream just as surely as competing before the hometown crowd.

But we’re supposed to believe that, beyond sports, we can’t afford to meet our needs, no matter how pressing.

Perhaps we could finally get some serious action on climate change if it were a curling bonspiel – rather than simply a crisis that threatens life as we know it on this planet.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2010

Linda McQuaig’s column appears in The Star every other week.

Afghan Affair More Than ‘Nitpicking’ December 15, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture.
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On Obama’s speechmaking: “… putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t give her inner beauty.”
Published on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 by The Toronto Starby Linda McQuaig

The irritation of members of the Harper government has been palpable in recent weeks as they tap their toes impatiently, wondering when they can return to the serious business of waging war without all these rude interruptions about torture.

Last Friday on CBC Radio’s The Current, Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, complained about all the “nitpicking” and insisted that the Afghan detainee issue is not one that concerns Canadians.

This dismissive attitude – which permeates the Harper government – is puzzling.

At stake is whether Ottawa knowingly allowed prisoners to be transferred to situations where they would likely be tortured.

If true, this could amount to a war crime. Given the gravity of what’s involved, how can any attempt to ferret out the truth be derided as mere “nitpicking?”

Recent U.S. history shows the danger of a too-casual approach to torture.

Former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney had admitted he approved “waterboarding” on at least three detainees, and the “enhanced interrogation” of 33 others. George W. Bush also acknowledged authorizing these practices, explaining that “we had legal opinions that enabled us to do it.”

The American Civil Liberties Union pronounced these admissions tantamount to confessions of war crimes.

Yet Cheney and Bush wander about freely; Cheney even still fancies himself a useful contributor to public debate.

This has some serious implications. This month, for the first time since Pew Research began polling on this question five years ago, a majority of Americans – 54 per cent – said torture could be justified against terrorist suspects, either sometimes or often.

This growing tolerance of torture may have something to do with the way the Obama administration – in its keenness to curry elusive Republican support – has declined to go after Bush and Cheney, even though the Convention Against Torture, signed by the U.S. in 1988, requires the prosecution or extradition of torturers.

Vowing to “look forward,” the Obama administration has inadvertently sent a message to Americans that torture isn’t really such a heinous crime.

If it was, surely the United States would go after its perpetrators – just like U.S. authorities (appropriately) are going after filmmaker Roman Polanski for a brutal rape he committed three decades ago. Truly serious crimes aren’t forgotten or papered over in the interests of all getting along. They require punishment, partly to send a message that society condemns them.

Despite condemnation of torture in his Nobel Peace Prize speech last week, an accommodating Barack Obama has signalled his willingness to turn a blind eye to torture authorized by the White House, thereby bestowing on disgraced Republican practices the mantle of bipartisanship.

For that matter, much of Obama’s Nobel speech was disturbingly Bushian. His defence of decades of U.S. military interventions was certainly more elegant and artful than anything that ever came out of Bush’s mouth. But putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t give her inner beauty.

The bipartisan consensus in the U.S. has effectively silenced public debate about torture.

To their credit, Canadian opposition parties have refused to be silent about torture – surely one of the clearest markers dividing the civilized world from the barbaric.

With admirable tenacity, opposition parliamentarians have sent a message that no amount of lipstick will pretty up this pig.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2009

Linda McQuaig’s column appears every other week in The Star.

A hero stands up to cowboys December 1, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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By Linda McQuaig Columnist
Toronto Star, December 1, 2009

In an inaugural address to 2,000 soldiers in the Ottawa Congress Centre in February 2005, Gen. Rick Hillier declared: “When Canadian troops go overseas, they expect sex.” Within a split second, he corrected himself: “success.”

It was clearly a slip of the tongue. But, according to someone who was there, it also fit the mood of the room. After years of feeling like an emasculated army of peacekeepers, Canadian soldiers finally had a real fighting man at their helm. No more girlie-man peacekeeping, boys! We’re gonna make war!

The transformation of the Canadian military into a war-oriented force – a partner in George W. Bush’s freewheeling War on Terror – was the product of the influential Hillier, with the backing of the Harper government.

Hillier’s testimony last week before a parliamentary committee highlighted just how dangerous this transformation has been.

It’s now clear that Ottawa ignored unmistakable warnings (including from its own diplomat on the scene, Richard Colvin) that the Canadian military was transferring detainees to situations in which they would likely be tortured.

Far from refuting Colvin’s allegations that his warnings were ignored, Hillier essentially confirmed Colvin’s point about the indifference of Canadian officials to the fate of Afghan detainees. Testifying that he hadn’t read Colvin’s emails until recently, Hillier insisted that he wouldn’t have acted any differently if he had read them at the time, since nothing in them would have alerted him “to either the fact of torture or very high risk of torture.”

If Hillier was unaware of the risk of torture, it was only because he wilfully ignored compelling evidence – and not just from Colvin, who cited Red Cross officials in Afghanistan.

Even before Colvin sent his first warning, Louise Arbour, former justice of the Canadian Supreme Court and at the time UN high commissioner for human rights, wrote a March 2006 report on Afghanistan, noting “serious concerns” over reports of torture, which are “common.”

That same month, the U.S. state department reported that Afghan authorities “routinely” torture detainees, “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, sexual humiliation and sodomy.”

Afghanistan’s own government watchdog, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, reported in 2004: “Torture continues to take place as a routine part of police procedures.”

These damning reports were summarized in an article entitled “Canada’s role in torture,” written by University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, in the Ottawa Citizen in April 2006. When Colvin started sending his urgent warnings a month later, they should have simply confirmed what Hillier and other officials already knew from highly credible sources.

This suggests that the disregarding of Colvin’s warnings is part of a larger problem – the adoption of a Bush-like War on Terror mentality in the top ranks of our military and government. It seems that respect for international law was replaced with a lawless pursuit of bad guys – “evildoers” to Bush, “detestable murderers and scumbags” to Hillier.

This cowboy mentality is further demonstrated in the Harper government’s attempt to smear Colvin as a Taliban sympathizer.

Colvin has demonstrated a rare level of courage and integrity, risking his career to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people from torture and to bring Canada’s leaders back into line with international law. He’s the guy who reported the schoolyard bully.

Neither Taliban nor girlie man, Richard Colvin is a person with real guts – indeed, in my books, something of a national hero.

lmcquaig@sympatico.ca

McQuaig: Financial elite back in the saddle November 17, 2009

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Linda McQuaig

Toronto Star, November 17, 2009

The good news is that there are still some tickets left for the Fraser Institute’s 35th anniversary gala dinner next Monday night in Vancouver. The bad news is that the tickets – including tables for 10 at $7,000 – will probably all eventually be sold. And that means yet more money flowing into the amply filled coffers of an organization that for 3 1/2 decades has worked tirelessly to cut taxes for the rich, undermine public health care, destroy confidence in public education and prevent Canada from joining the global climate change battle. Amazingly, the rich executives attending the Vancouver gala will all get tax receipts for their tickets, allowing them to further reduce their taxes below the already low levels the Fraser Institute has been instrumental in winning for them. (The effective tax rate on the richest .01 per cent of Canadians – a group that will be out in force at the gala – has fallen by 26 per cent in the past decade and a half, according to Statistics Canada data.) The Fraser crowd will be revelling in the growing power of business in Canada – a significant change from the more egalitarian 1970s, when the institute started up with help from U.S. conservatives like billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and the John M. Olin Foundation, notes Donald Gutstein in his new book Not a Conspiracy Theory. The crowd next Monday will no doubt be especially thrilled to have dodged a bullet. This time last year, in the wake of the Wall Street collapse, financial elites everywhere seemed under siege. In Canada, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government almost fell after it signalled it wasn’t planning any economic stimulus – only to be saved when Harper talked the Governor General into allowing his minority to survive, even though it had lost the support of Parliament. A year later, financial elites are safely back in the saddle, enjoying a virtual stranglehold over key public policies. Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, argued in The Atlantic last May that in recent decades the U.S. financial elite has essentially captured control of the U.S. government, in much the same way financial oligarchies capture control of Third World “banana republics.” The muscle of Canada’s own elite is evident in the way it has blocked meaningful action on climate change – even though a massive injection of government funds could convert Canada to a green economy while restoring the 400,000 jobs lost in the past year. But that’s not on the Fraser Institute’s agenda. Fronting for Big Oil, it’s been pumping out climate change misinformation for years, generating enough public confusion to allow the Harper government to get away with doing nothing. At a conference in Barcelona earlier this month, some 400 environmental organizations declared Canada the world’s most obstructionist country in global efforts on climate change. The Fraser Institute describes itself as an “independent non-profit research and educational organization.” Sounds like any struggling charity, except that the tax receipts go to ensure that the glittering gala crowd continues to keep the country on a tight leash. Five years ago, then opposition leader Stephen Harper lavished praise on the institute in a video clip shown at its 30th anniversary gala in Calgary. This time, with Harper carefully cultivating a more moderate image, he may not be on the jumbotron. But members of Canada’s financial elite won’t be worried; they’ll know their man’s on the job.

Linda McQuaig’s column appears every other week.

lmcquaig@sympatico.ca

Rich Cause the Crisis, Workers Get the Blame July 14, 2009

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Published on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 by The Toronto Star by Linda McQuaig

For a while, the Wall Street meltdown gave the rich a bad name.

Even they seemed embarrassed by their own excess. There were reports of designer shops packaging purchases in plain paper bags.

But as going downscale lost its novelty, the rich have grown weary of their own embarrassment. Gratuitous extravagance is making a comeback. I noticed a Tiffany’s ad in a Toronto newspaper last week for a “diamond solitaire on a platinum band of channel-set diamonds. From $3,550 to $1,000,000.”

Clearly the rich are feeling good in their own skin again. Public wrath, having briefly nipped at the heels of the well-to-do, has moved on to the heels of the less well-heeled – who also carry plain paper bags, but ones you can eat lunch out of.

And so, as the Wall Street-generated economic storm has squeezed public finances, Toronto’s city workers find themselves in the crosshairs.

The striking workers are demonized for wanting to hold onto their benefits, including the right to bank sick days, even though they won this fair and square at the bargaining table. It’s just one of dozens of concessions the city is now demanding from them.

Although the strike is a terrible drag for all of us, the city workers are in some ways doing us a service – holding the line against employers taking advantage of the recession to demand concessions (if unions simply give in, emboldened employers will go for more), and taking a stand against further erosion of public services.

Of course, in the media narrative, the workers are the villains. The role of the financial elite in triggering the economic storm is omitted, as is the elite’s relentless campaign over the past three decades for tax cuts, which set the stage for today’s financial shortfalls.

Responding to this campaign, Ottawa kept cutting taxes (more than $160 billion since 2003), rather than using its massive surpluses for public reinvestment. That meant cuts in transfers to provincial and municipal governments, even as extra responsibilities were downloaded onto them.

By August 2007, crash-strapped Toronto announced an array of cuts that threatened to diminish life in the city: less snow removal, shorter library hours, delayed openings for skating rinks, etc. Further down the food chain, struggling school boards were closing swimming pools.

In fact, the crunch could have easily been alleviated – if the Harper government had been willing to transfer the revenue from a planned one percentage point reduction in the GST, as municipal leaders across the country pleaded. His October 2007 budget gave the answer: no.

Business groups never mention that tax cuts necessitate cuts in public services. For the rich, it’s often a good trade-off; they can buy their own high-end services. But it’s rarely good for the rest of us.

As economists Hugh Mackenzie and Richard Shillington showed in a study last April, Canadian families typically get about $41,000 in public services for their taxes, which amounts to “the best bargain they’ll ever get.”

Meanwhile, provincial Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, sensing the frustrated public might be ready for a Mike Harris revival, has gone after the strikers, suggesting they should “get a grip.”

Hudak wants to direct your anger at the people who pick up garbage, rescue animals, run daycare centres – not at those who’ve spent years pushing for tax cuts that have left our public services underfunded and who now chase the recession blues with million-dollar shopping sprees at Tiffany’s.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2009

Linda McQuaig’s column appears every other week in The Star.

Financial elite have no shame February 7, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Economic Crisis.
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Let’s imagine, for a moment, how different the public debate would be today if it had been unions that had caused the current economic turmoil.

In other words, try to imagine a scenario in which union leaders – not financial managers – were the ones whose reckless behaviour had driven a number of Wall Street firms into bankruptcy and in the process triggered a worldwide recession.

Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine a labour leader being appointed to oversee a bailout of unions the way former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson was put in charge of supervising the $700 billion bailout of his former Wall Street colleagues.

My point is simply to note how odd it is that the financial community has emerged so unscathed, despite its central role in the collapse that has brought havoc to the world economy.

Of course, not all members of the financial community were involved in Wall Street’s wildly irresponsible practices of bundling mortgages into securities and trading credit default swaps. But the financial community as a whole, on both sides of the border, certainly pushed hard to put in place an agenda of small government, in which financial markets largely regulated themselves and citizens (particularly high-income investors) would be spared the burden of paying much tax.

The agenda advanced much further in the U.S., but had an impact in Canada, particularly on the tax front.

One would think that those who pushed this agenda so enthusiastically would, at the very least, be a tad embarrassed today.

But so influential are those in the financial elite – and their hangers-on in think-tanks and economics departments – that they continue to appear on our TV screens, confidently providing us with economic advice, as if they’d played no role whatsoever in shaping our economic system for the past quarter century.

Of course, we’re told there’s been a major change in their thinking, in that many of them are now willing to accept large deficits in today’s federal budget, in the name of stimulating the economy.

While this does seem like a sharp departure from the deficit hysteria of the 1990s, a closer look reveals the change may not be that significant.

In fact, financial types have always accepted deficits – when they liked the cause. Hence their lack of protest over George W. Bush’s enormous deficits, which were caused by his large tax cuts for the rich and his extravagant foreign wars.

What they don’t like is governments going into deficit to help ordinary citizens – either by creating jobs or providing much unemployment relief.

So the Canadian financial community has been urging that the stimulus package consist mostly of income tax cuts – even though direct government spending would provide much more stimulus and do more to help the neediest.

If the Harper government follows the financial community’s advice, we will simply move further along with the small government revolution launched by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

Of course, tax cuts are not the same as financial deregulation. But they are twin prongs of a bundled package aimed at reducing the power of government to operate in the public interest.

Surely it’s time to rethink this resistance to government acting as an agent of the common good.

And maybe it’s time for a little humility on the part of a financial elite that long has enjoyed such deference while turning out to be so spectacularly inept.
 

Linda McQuaig’s column appears every other week. lmcquaig@sympatico.ca

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