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In the Face of Right-Wing Strongmen and an Economy Rife With Insecurity, We Must Reject the Politics of Despair

Maude Barlow delivers keynote speech to Tommy Douglas Institute

Sign reads: A better world is possible.

"Profound change can happen," says Maude Barlow. (Photo: teigan/flickr/cc)

Maude Barlow, Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, delivered the following remarks Thursday at the Seventh Annual Tommy Douglas Institute at George Brown College in Toronto. Her keynote speech explores the interconnections between poverty and populism and its implications for the environment. 

It is a great pleasure and honour to be here with you today and to speak in the name of one of my all-time heroes. In reading your on-line description of the moment we are in, I became a bit overwhelmed at our collective task and, frankly, my ability to address it.

You described the “unprecedented display of wealth inequality” both globally and here in Canada; the historic numbers of people fleeing the ravages of war, extreme poverty and human rights violations; the rise of “strong men” bully-boy leaders (my term, not yours); the post-truth reality of fake news; the poisonous use of the internet by hate-filled trolls; and the rise of right-wing populism and its evil older sibling, white supremacy.

All this, you said, “against the backdrop of a planet whose ability to sustain life is daily sacrificed to an unforgiving economic ideology that promotes the cancerous mission of growth for growth’s sake, while sacrificing the health and dignity of everything around it. Our industriousness,” you note, “has ushered in the anthropocene and the sixth age of mass extinction.” Disturbingly and beautifully said.

All this got me thinking about Tommy and what he might have to say to us today. After all, we are not the first people to face huge challenges. Tommy Douglas led his party to power in Saskatchewan just as the Second World War was ending and everywhere there was social and economic collapse.

Only half of Canadians had any kind of health insurance and only the rich could afford true coverage. There are terrible stories of ill people, old people and pregnant women leaving hospitals untreated because they had no money. A farm woman diagnosed with cancer knew her only hope to receive treatment was to sell the family farm, something she refused to do. So she locked herself in the farmhouse every day while her husband tilled the fields and closed all the windows so her neighbours could not hear her screams of pain and died, saving her family from destitution.

Tommy came in on the promise of health care for all regardless of income, ethnicity or state of health and was he up against it! Vigorously opposed were the Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons who went on strike, the Dental Association, the Chambers of Commerce, the Canadian Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the powerful drug lobby and the major newspapers. The strike was so brutal, two women doctors who came over from Great Britain to help had to be escorted to and from their clinic as they had daily death threats.

Undeterred, Tommy introduced a public health insurance plan that became the blueprint for nation-wide medicare. The Vancouver Sun called Tommy “a good deed in a naughty world, a breath of clean prairie air in a stifling climate of payola and chicanery and double talk and pretence, global and local.” My favourite cartoon when Tommy died showed him at the Pearly Gate reluctant to accept a harp from St. Peter unless he was sure that everyone got one.

The Second World War profoundly changed Canada. Returning soldiers were aware that the same governments that couldn’t feed, clothe, house or employ people before the war suddenly had all the money they needed to fight a war and they were not going back to work camps. The demand for change was everywhere.

Tommy would have been proud of the post-war consensus that saw the creation of a strong universal social security net, a war on poverty that greatly closed the income inequality gap, growing protections for workers and the rise of the trade union movement. But before he died in 1986, he saw that the post-war social consensus of a “just society” for which he had given his life had started to unravel and the social compromise that had allowed the creation of the welfare state was coming to an end.

In the 1970s and 80s, increasingly aligned with American business interests, Canadian business and industry leaders created corporate lobbies and think tanks to promote their neoliberal message and challenge the very heart of the just society.

Capital was going global and Canadian companies could see how much more money they could make in countries without our minimum wage and social programs.

Deeply influenced by the rise of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, consecutive Canadian federal governments granted tax breaks to corporations and cut unemployment insurance to their workers.

The first thing Brian Mulroney did when he came to power in 1984 was to fly to New York to announce to a blue chip group of American business leaders that Canada was “open for business” and promised to tear down the rules on foreign investment and remove the barriers to our energy, timber and mineral resources. Canada became a leader in promoting economic globalization and promised that its core tenets of deregulation, privatization and free trade would bring prosperity for all.

And what of these promises that unchecked capitalism would raise all boats, big and small? Turns out it was a lie from beginning to end.The key message adopted in rich countries and imposed on poor countries by the World Bank, was that the way to global prosperity was for governments to get out of the way and let the market decide on all things commercial and financial. More than anything else, free trade is about curbing the ability of governments to establish regulations and set standards to protect health, social security, workers rights and the environment.

Not only was global capital free to roam the globe in search of easy profits, corporations were free to eat each other up and become economic superpowers. Of the 100 leading economies in the world today, 69 are corporations and only 31 are countries.

Apple’s annual revenues exceed the GDP of two-thirds of the world’s nation states. Walmart’s annual revenues exceed the GDP of 157countries.

Corporations were given the right to sue governments through enforceable investment treaties. There are now more that 3,500 investor-state dispute settlement treaties between countries and private companies have used these evil deals almost 1,000 times to challenge rules they don’t like. The great majority are decided in favour of the corporation; the bigger the company, the bigger the settlement. Some settlements are in the billions and can bankrupt any poor country that dares to stand up to them.

And what of these promises that unchecked capitalism would raise all boats, big and small? Turns out it was a lie from beginning to end. The United Nations now says that three-quarters of the working age population of the world form the Precariat, working in low wage, insecure jobs with no benefits, while last year, the world’s 2,000 billionaires pocketed almost $9 trillion.

And I don’t have to tell you about the environmental crisis; hardly a day goes by without another alarming report about the state of our planet. We have seen nature as a resource for our pleasure and profit and are now paying a terrible price.

The failure of this economic model has provoked a terrible backlash. It was Donald Trump, not Hilary Clinton, who noted the post-NAFTA devastation in the American rust belt and courted workers the Democrats took for granted. He and his counterparts in Europe say their populism seeks justice for the forgotten people and they have hit a cord.

I feel sure that people turn to right-wing strong men leaders when the promises of liberal politicians fail to address the root causes of unemployment, economic inequality and racism. While Barrack Obama is an inherently decent man, he did not name or confront the true crisis. In fact, like Justin Trudeau in this country, Obama added his charisma and popularity to the very politics of economic globalization that got us here in the first place.

Trump and his contemporaries in Europe, Brazil and many other countries have enabled the rise of right-wing populists, whose solution not only scapegoat “others” – often in a violent way – but aims to destroy the very social state and social programs that are the best equalizers for marginalized people, the poor and workers.

Hence Trump’s attacks on workers and unions, his lowering tax for the rich and for corporations, the rollback of Obamacare and his war on the environment, all in the name of making America great again. The very people who elected him are the ones who will pay the price for the institutions he is destroying.

While we in this country do not have a Trump-like leader, we have many of the same problems. The decade post-NAFTA saw the highest rise in child poverty in our history. We also saw a massive loss of manufacturing jobs; in the 1980s, manufacturing accounted for 26% of our GDP. Today it is under 11%, with the result that Canada’s economic prosperity depends more than ever on resource extraction.

An economy rife with insecurity, low wages, competition and fear is a breeding ground for those who promote hate, intolerance and the scapegoating of vulnerable “others.”We are pock-marking our land with massive mining operations, still building pipelines to carry the dirtiest energy on earth across our waterways, fracking pristine wilderness and drilling for oil offshore ecologically sensitive coastlines. Canada leads the world in the degradation of untouched forests.

And yes here too, alongside the rise of the precarious workforce, we see the rise of right-wing populism, xenophobia, racism and white nationalism. In my view, these twin realities are deeply connected. There has been a steady rise in precarious work in Canada over the last three decades. In fact, over half the workers in Toronto and Hamilton are now temporary. An economy rife with insecurity, low wages, competition and fear is a breeding ground for those who promote hate, intolerance and the scapegoating of vulnerable “others.”

So, not surprisingly, now we are seeing a “blue wave” across the country. At least four provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario – have “hard right” governments implementing draconian austerity programs. And Quebec’s CAQ is promoting a bill that would discriminate against religious minorities and is already driving up racist incidences in that province.

Here in Ontario, Ford has gone after the most vulnerable with his savage cuts: immigrants, Indigenous peoples, poor people needing legal aid, victims of violence, special needs kids, youth who need help with post secondary education, and so many more. What paved the way for this travesty? Kathleen Wynne’s embrace of a business plan to privatize Hydro One. Once again, a leader ran as a progressive, but ruled for private interests. The backlash gave us Doug Ford.

I fear we will see a similar scenario played out again on the federal level this fall. Justin Trudeau, like Obama, is a decent man who was raised to care for human rights. But he never saw a free trade agreement he didn’t like and his embrace of the Kinder Morgan pipeline sent totally pro-market signals to the corporate allies who are always ready for a dance with the Liberal Party.

And let’s be clear: Andrew Scheer is no Red Tory. This is a man who regularly gave interviews on Ezra Levant’s Rebel site and stood on Parliament Hill to address a pro-pipeline crowd that included members of the racist Yellow Vest movement alongside notorious white supremacist Faith Goldy. We may be facing a Canada-wide blue wave sooner than we understand.

So what would Tommy tell us to do? Well first, I believe he would tell us to have hope because hope is a moral imperative. He would tell us that we humans got ourselves into this situation and can change it. He would tell us that it is never too late to make meaningful change and always too soon to give up.

I deeply fear something worse than apathy and that is a feeling that it is all too late and there is nothing to be done. Some call it “disaster fatigue.” I can tell you sometimes I see a headline about the oceans or bee decline, or some new study on how much faster the planet is warming than we thought and I don’t read the text. It’s too much. We are buying a million plastic bottles of water a minute around the world.

But turning away is not the answer. We must reject the politics of despair. A 99 year-old friend asked me just before she died last year if I had a “quiet mind” and I said I sure was trying to find one but that it was really hard for me. She said I will have a quiet mind when I realize that I cannot control everything and must have trust that what I do matters but is only a piece of a whole.

The answer is in having faith that you are not alone and if you do your part, there are others – many others, more than you can ever know – doing theirs, and that together, profound change can happen. Someone asked scientist activist Vandana Shiva how she stays hopeful. She said that she believes you have to do your part without always thinking of the bigness of what you are standing against or you will get overwhelmed.

She detaches herself from the results of what she does because they are not in her hands. The combination of deep passion and commitment to the task but then detachment from the outcome allows her to move on without being crippled by a sense of doom.

Here I quote Vandana,” I function like a free being. Getting that freedom is a social duty because we owe it to each other not to burden each other with prescriptions and demands. What we owe each other is a celebration of life and to replace fear and hopelessness with fearlessness and joy.”

Second, I bet Tommy would remind us that Canada built “good bones” in terms of withstanding the harsh winds of economic globalization and that we have to fight like crazy to keep them. Toronto labour activist David Bush has written an excellent analysis comparing Canada to the U.S. to try to understand the surge of socialism in the U.S. right now. He says there is urgency for Americans still not felt here because the economic context in the U.S. is more dire for workers than here and the rate of inequality is substantially worse.

Public services and labour protections have been gutted in the U.S., and the continued lack of health coverage for almost 30 million Americans makes workers and families way more vulnerable than here. Student debt levels, while substantial here, are astronomical south of the border and trust in government, in the media and in all institutions in the U.S. are at an all time low.

Bush reminds us that the liberal-labour coalition that once made up the Democratic Party was superseded by the pro-corporate wing of the party. While the same tensions exist in the Liberal party here in Canada, the existence of a social democratic party and a strong labour movement here has acted as a counterbalance.

A stronger working class has also sheltered Canada from some of the worst political upheavals now seen in the U.S. and Great Britain, whose inequality index is second now only to the U.S. among industrialized nations. The Canadian level of unionization is three times that of the U.S.

Turning away is not the answer. We must reject the politics of despair. None of this is to downplay the disgrace of our colonial treatment and abuse of First Nations or to deny racism in our past and present as well as the dispossession of the poor. Nor is it to ignore the signs that there is great pressure for Canada to follow in the footsteps of these countries that have gutted social security and workers’ rights so deeply.

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But it would be a disservice to Tommy and many others who have fought for these rights not to be grateful to have them and not to fight for them now.

I like to think Tommy would ask us to remember the victories we have had and take some pride in our accomplishments because they are sources of hope. Successive governments have tried to kill universal health care with a death by a thousand cuts. But they have met fierce resistance from nurses unions and other health care workers, the Canadian Health Coalition, and many thousands of activists across the country. Just try to take on Nathalie Mehra of the Ontario Health Coalition, I dare you!

Our fight for fair trade is ongoing and hard. Our movement has been incredibly active and effective given what we are up against and a lack of resources compared to the corporate lobbies on the other side.

We created a continental network and then an international one. We didn’t stop NAFTA, but we did stop it being extended to the rest of the Americas. We relentlessly followed and protested the World Trade Organization (WTO) gatherings, starting with the Battle in Seattle 20 years ago and basically brought that institution to its knees.

In the wake of our shutting down the WTO in Seattle, the Pentagon hired the Rand Corporation to find out who the hell we were. The Rand Corporation reported that, best they could tell, we were like a hoard of mosquitoes with no headquarters or leaders – we were everywhere and we really stung.

Canadians led an awesome international alliance to kill the Multilateral Agreement on Investment which would have given corporations hugely expanded rights to sue governments for loss of profit. The Financial Times compared the fear and bewilderment that seized the governments of the industrialized world to a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the politicians and diplomats looked behind them at the “horde of vigilantes whose motives and methods are only dimly understood in most capitals.“

More recently, we have ISDS on the run, removed from the new NAFTA and so unpopular in Europe, most governments have not yet adopted the investor-state provision of CETA.

We are winning the fight against water privatization. Since 2000, 267 municipalities, including Paris and Berlin, have brought their water services back under public control after having tried the private route. There are now 15 million people living in Blue Community cities here in Canada and in other countries that have pledged to protect water as a human right and public trust and phase out plastic bottled water. Montreal is the latest Canadian city to become a Blue Community and I would sure love it if Toronto could be next!

And since the UN declared water to be a human right in 2010, over four dozen countries have either amended their constitutions to recognize this right, or brought in a new law to do so.

There is a crucial new campaign that I like to think Tommy would have supported. A large, diverse, non-partisan coalition of youth, artists, trade unions, scientists, Indigenous leaders and many organizations has sent out the call for a Green New Deal for Canada and has launched a Canada-wide tour to promote it.

The core demands are to cut emissions in half by 2030, protect critical cultural and biological diversity, create a million jobs, and face the multiple crises we face through a holistic and far-reaching plan that respects the constitutionally enshrined and internationally recognized rights of Indigenous peoples.

What we need is a global Green New Deal movement and it is beginning to flower. CUPE Ontario’s Fred Hahn explains that a Green New Deal must be for everyone. “Facing the climate crisis means facing the many other crises – economic inequality, housing insecurity, precarious work, and rising racism – that threaten our communities and social fabric” he says. “We can build universal and far-reaching solutions that transform our economy, create dignified work, prioritize public ownership and make our communities healthier.”

What we need is a global Green New Deal movement and it is beginning to flower. We in Canada must also be part of the global campaign to plant a trillion trees, which would cancel out a decade of CO2 emissions. As part of our Green New Deal work here in Ontario, we must stop Ford’s plans to gut the tree planting program. Did he miss the fact that we had horrible floods this spring? Did no one ever tell him trees are crucial, not only as carbon sinks but to hold water?

I also think Tommy would tell us to never give up the fight for economic justice. Successive governments keep lowering corporate taxes, leaving us with an insufficient tax base for true social security. I have come to believe alas, that for the corporate elite, social insecurity is not just a by-product of a system that has given them such wealth, but a goal in and of itself.

Here in Ontario, the fight for economic justice is central to all our struggles. The Fight for $15 and Fairness is a powerful network and platform for us all to come behind with its demand for fair wages, paid leave, rules that protect everyone, protections for migrant workers, job security and respect at work, and the right to organize and unionize. Here is a clear vision of economic justice.

But this must be accompanied by a renewed commitment to organize workers. A shocking 86% of private sector workers in this province are not unionized and are far more vulnerable as a result. We need a new form of union organizing that includes precarious workers in a variety of sectors. This is going to be far harder than organizing a factory or a single workplace, but crucial in the fight for class justice.

The fight against the Ford agenda has just begun and it will belong and fierce. We had to organize years ago against Mike Harris and of course at the national level against the Harper government; but when motivated and organized, we are a powerful force. We must build a coalition across sectors and have each others’ backs. Don’t get discouraged – we will prevail. The polls are already showing that Ford is deeply unpopular.

One major caution however: we are becoming complacent on trade in our movements and many younger activists don’t have free trade on their political radar screens at all. This is a real problem and bound to come back to haunt us in ways we don’t know.

During the 1980s and 90s, everyone had an opinion on free trade – we were a trade literate movement. We knew that trade and investment treaties are the only international agreements that have enforcement mechanisms. We knew they were written by transnational corporations for transnational corporations.

But now I find people saying, oh you and the Council of Canadians and the CCPA and maybe a few people at some unions are watching this so thanks! Keep us informed! I spent a good part of two years fighting CETA in Europe, where there is powerful and deeply knowledgeable movement on trade. And then I would come home to Canada and no one would know what I was on about.

With every new agreement they change the goal posts. CETA, the TPP and NAFTA 2 all have new language on regulatory cooperation, a process that officially includes private corporations and lobbies to harmonize rules, regulations and standards on everything from health and safety, what chemicals and pesticides to allow, how we grow food and treat animals, GMOs, environmental standards, privatization of services and on and on, across all the signatory countries.

Believe me, they are not seeking the highest common standards. All this gets done quietly behind the scenes by bureaucrats and technicians working for the big drug, chemical, industrial agriculture, energy and mining companies and others. While we are fighting fires here on the ground, they are setting them in boardroom tables in Washington and Brussels.

We have to speak to a vision that calls the young.Pollster Frank Graves says that the upcoming federal election will be what he calls a “vision war.” What kind of country do you want to hand off to your children? How do you want us to be seen by the broader world? What values should define our future?

If this is true, then we are in a struggle for the hearts and minds of people, especially young people, who are feeling frightened for their future. We have to speak to a vision that calls the young.

Ed Broadbent tells us to remember that populism does not just belong to the right; that populism has a democratic and pluralist provenance and history in this country that speaks to the concerns of those threatened by inequality, democratic decline and the perceived indifference of political leadership.

Where right-wing populists pursue the vilification of vulnerable groups, fostering political identity founded on exclusion, progressives challenge powerful systems by championing the social and material interests of ordinary people. ”They attempt to bring all people together into the fight against inequality, racism and climate change. Far from being the left-wing equivalent of the authoritarian right, the populist left is its democratic antitheses – and its worst nightmare.”

I have been doing this work for a long time and I have seen change, both good and bad. I believe with all my heart that we can do this task that is set before us. For the planet, we need deeply to change our relationship to nature, and stop assuming it exists to serve us. It does not. For one another, respect, compassion, humility. We have so much to learn from one another.

Finally, I am sure Tommy would remind us that it is not the single issue we are fighting, but the journey for justice itself. Take joy in your activism and be kind. Plant that tree even though you may never live to sit in its shade.

The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote a poem called “What is Utopia for?”

She is on the horizon.

I approach two steps and she walks two steps away.

I walk the steps and the horizon moves ten steps away.

No matter how much I walk, I will never reach her.

Then, what is utopia for?

For that purpose, to walk.

I leave you with these words from the Talmud.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly now.

Your are not obligated to complete the work

But neither are you free to abandon it.

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, chairperson of Food and Water Watch in the U.S., and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which is instrumental in the international community in working for the right to water for all people.

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