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Alternatives Summer Camp: Civil Society Response to a Harper Majority

On Sunday morning at the Alternatives conference, I had the honour of representing the Council of Canadians at a panel titled Social Movements vs. the New Tory Majority in the Parliament.

I was joined by Louis Roy (President of the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux), Alexandre Boulerice (Member of Parliament for Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie), Francois Saillant (Coordinator of FRAPRU and Member of Quebec Solidaire), Gaetan Menard (Secretary-Treasurer of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada), Brigette DePape (Senate page expelled for brandishing a Stop Harper sign), and Delice Mugabo (member of the Board, Quebec Federation of Women).

Here are the notes for the presentation I prepared in consultation Council staff, for this panel:

Thank you for inviting me to join this panel on behalf of the Council of Canadians.

I remember very clearly sitting at home with some friends, watching the results come in on May 2nd.

I felt mixed emotions, perhaps like some of you. I was moved by witnessing a clear shift in the Canadian political arena but dismayed at the prospect of a Harper majority.

As Maude Barlow, Chairsperson, wrote shortly after the election, despite not having the support of a majority of Canadians, the most socially and economically right-wing government perhaps in Canadian history won a substantial majority in the House and – along with their control of the Senate – can implement its agenda even if every member of every other party votes against it.

It was clear to me then that Canadian civil society has a monumental task over the next 4 years.

This majority will give Harper the leeway to pursue the full force of an agenda that promotes markets, cuts corporate taxes, rolls back vital public services and weakens important regulations.

Canadians do not share the values of this agenda. We know this from years of mobilizing together, years of public opinion polling, years of organizing and winning campaigns.

Shortly after the election there was a flurry of reactions affirming the need for civil society to come together, to protect and promote the values that the majority of Canadians hold dear.

Since then, things have been a little quiet. We can chalk it up to the summer, multiple meetings and clear questions such us how civil society engages with the opposition parties for a progressive agenda?

Perhaps most likely, there is a sense of waiting for a catalyst, an action on the part of the Harper government that leaves no option but to come together. A coalescing moment.

Meanwhile, the Harper agenda is beginning to unfold. I can’t help but feel that the devastating cuts to the public sector, despite being shrouded in confusing numbers and statistics, are but the tip of an iceberg, the depths of which we’ll better understand as Parliament resumes.

Certainly venues like these are an important step. We need common spaces that bring civil society together are crucial to find ways to connect; share work-plans and get a sense of how to move forward.

The Council of Canadians campaigns in a number of areas; I’m the energy and climate justice campaigner. We feel there are a number of points that can act as catalyst for broader civil society organizing against the Harper agenda. Two examples that we are working on are Harper’s free trade agenda and failure to address the crisis of climate change.


Last week Harper was in Colombia, celebrating the Canada-Colombia free trade deal coming into effect. This deal passed the House of Commons with the support of Conservatives and 14 Liberals despite widespread public demands to put human rights before corporate interests in Colombia.

Harper even had the gall to criticize critics of the deal, arguing they are protectionist while freeing trade will protect human rights.

Free trade is a fundamental plank of the Harper agenda. It is one that unites us in the defence of human rights, worker rights and environmental protections.

While the fight against the Canada-Colombia free trade deal was lost, the battle against putting profits before people and the environment via free trade deals is far from over.

The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement currently under negotiation is by far the largest free-trade deal this country has ever undertaken.

If it goes through, CETA will open up the rules, standards and public spending priorities of provinces and municipalities to direct competition and challenge from European corporations.  This means that buy local policies, important instruments for promoting environmental sustainability and supporting local economic resilience, are under threat.

We know that a NAFTA-type investor-state enforcement mechanism has been raised in negotiations. This means that European corporations will have the same right that U.S. companies now enjoy to sue the Canadian government if it introduces new rules to protect the environment or workers.

A study by the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association warns that the patent changes being sought by the EU through CETA could potentially add more than two billion dollars to Canadian medication costs annually.

CETA will also open the door for European water utilities to privatize Canadian public water services and raise rates. To challenge local water conservation and source protection rules, as well as bottled water bans, as unfair barriers to trade.

The Council of Canadians has and continues to mobilize across the country to challenge this free trade deal that has yet to be debated in the House of Commons.

Maude Barlow and CUPE President Paul Moist were recently touring the East Coast of Canada, highlighting the dangers of CETA and to say that Canadian communities are not for sale. This tour will continue in the fall. There is plenty of information and resources on our website www.canadians.org and from the Trade Justice Network.

This trade deal can be stopped. We have fought battles against both majority and minority governments before and won, including against unfair trade deals like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the Security and Prosperity Partnership.

SYSTEM CHANGE: www.systemchange.ca

The urgency we face in addressing the climate crisis and the dismal failure, and this is an understatement, of the Harper government to act, is another coalescing point for social movements.

Scientists agree that climate change is a human-induced reality that requires significant changes to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on current pledges to the UN, the world is on track nearly 4 degrees Celsius rise in temperature. This means consequences such as:

  • Droughts that will imperil Prairie farmers and our food supplies.
  • Billions of people will suffer water shortages due to melting glaciers.
  • Melting polar ice caps will cause sea levels to rise several metres displacing over 100 million people

These impacts and more will have serious economic ramifications.

Already 2010 was the warmest year on record in Canada and the world.

For the sake of ourselves, our children our grandchildren, we must act. And we should not despair, there are solutions – public and community owned renewable energy, reducing our energy use and using it more wisely, sustainable agriculture, simply buying less and buying local.

The reality though, is that we have our work cut out for us, with the Harper government.

Canada was ranked 57th out of 60 countries surveyed on actions addressing climate change in the 2011 Climate Change Index. We were trailed only by Australia, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.

Under the Harper government we have seen:

  • Funding cuts to climate science and renewable energy programmes
  • Failing to meaningfully regulate the fastest growing source of emissions in Canada – the tar sands in Alberta – while actively lobbying against climate policies in the U.S. and Europe that would penalize the tar sands as a high carbon fuel
  • Walking away from our Kyoto Protocol commitments while setting an emission reduction target, with little plans to achieve it, that is so insufficient in the face of climate science and the demands of the Global South, that I’m ashamed to discuss it

Through our Climate Justice for People and the Planet Campaign, the Council of Canadians is launching an exciting new multi-media tool this September called  the System Change not Climate Change project, launching this September.

While we predict little action coming out of the UN climate talks this December in Durban South Africa or from the Harper government, it is our sincere hope that this tool can help build a base of support in Canada to demand more on the part of Harper government.

But not only this, to demand real change and real solutions – system change – that will help address the climate crisis and create the kind of communities we all want to live in.

The project is based on the popular slogan: “system change not climate change” which is central to a growing and vibrant global movement for climate justice.  It features over 25 videos from a range of speakers including academics, workers and activists, discussing this slogan, why we need system change, and giving examples of new ways forward.

Speakers range from Maude Barlow on the rights of nature to Bill McKibben on the crisis we face and Peter Victor on No Growth Economics.

It is a free, public, interactive website – it is our hope that the speakers’ messages will be shared broadly.

The project not only aims to build awareness but to also inspire actions for climate justice in Canada and around the world, including through the organizing of community-based teach-ins on climate justice. We are encouraging our chapters to host teach-ins using the website videos and resources in the lead up to the Durban UN climate talks this December, and beyond.

Here again, we see possibilities for forging links between social movements in the hosting of teach –ins and mobilizing around local climate justice actions that stand in stark opposition to the Harper agenda.

On behalf of the Council of Canadians, thank you again for the opportunity to join this distinguished panel, I look forward to hearing from you and future discussions.