“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” —Martin Luther King
Humanity is collectively facing a global crisis not seen on a scale this size since World War ll. With the pandemic threatening the health and well-being of untold millions and an economy in free fall, we at the Council of Canadians are asking how we can serve the greater good at this moment, what role we can play to relieve the pain that people are experiencing, and how we can help shape a better future when it passes?
The Council of Canadians was founded to protect the common good – the Commons – from the narrative and ideology of economic globalization. This narrative includes free trade, where governments hand off massive powers to the market; privatization of essential services such as social security and water; and the deregulation of rules to protect the health and safety of people, the rights of workers, the environment and natural resources.
This narrative has also led to the plundering of nature in the name of unlimited growth, the theft of land and water of Indigenous and rural communities here in Canada and in the global South, and austerity measures that have created deep class differences even within wealthy countries of the global North. It has allowed the corporate capture of many parts of our lives, our planet and our well-being.
The Council of Canadians has been on the front lines fighting these policies of economic globalization and corporate capture and, with many others, has helped to blunt the worst of them here in Canada. But our economic, social and democratic institutions have all been compromised over the last two decades of cuts, and we have our own homegrown and dangerous populist and authoritarian impulses to contend with.
As our economy takes a turn for the worse, there is no doubt that it will be the most vulnerable members of our society – the poor, homeless, gig economy and front line workers – who will take the brunt. This is one of the dangers of having allowed the growth of a precarious workforce here in Canada and around the world.
But there is also another dynamic to consider. Past generations have responded to massive upheavals such as the Great Depression and world wars by creating entire new programs to provide for the public good. A public-led reconstruction agenda after the COVID crisis could create a much more equal society, with sustainable jobs and quality public services paid for by fair taxation.
Globalization and Trade
Economic globalization as we have known it is likely gone forever. Economists and world leaders are already asking how the global economy can be reformed to permit greater room for national sovereignty, local production and self-determination in the wake of the failure of global supply chains. The whole world will be open to understanding how “free” trade deals have furthered inequality, weakened essential public services so needed now, and encouraged the plundering of nature. The time will be ripe to build on a positive form of globalization to come together to fight pandemics such as COVID-19, climate change and the global water crisis.
The time will also be ripe to challenge the power of transnational corporations, offshore production to take advantage of lower wages, and tax havens and tax evasion for the wealthy. It will also be time to talk about progressive tax reform here in Canada to fund investments in people and programs so desperately needed now.
Even as the pandemic crisis deepens, so too does the water crisis, but unseen and largely put on the back burner. In the global South, contaminated water kills a child every two minutes. Two billion people are forced to drink dirty water every day. The current pandemic heightens the need for water for all. On World Water Day 2020, the UN put out a statement saying that poor water infrastructure is a greater risk than COVID-19 and asked how the half of the global population lacking access to basic sanitation was to practice hand-washing and safe sanitation.
Here in Canada, we have our own serious water issues. First Nations still face boil water advisories and many of their communities do not have proper sanitation. We dump untold amounts of poisonous chemicals into our water systems and allow the plundering of our water by fracking, energy and bottled water companies. Our laws and regulations are nowhere near adequate to protect our declining water sources either. And we will have to be vigilant that, as local water budgets collapse, water services won’t be turned over to private water utilities.
The same goes for the climate crisis. We are dumping ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, changing the climate of our planet irrevocably. Mega energy and fossil fuel operations are destroying land, air and water around the world, including here in Canada. With the devastation wrought by extreme weather, it could be argued that the climate crisis is as dangerous to the world as the current COVID-19 crisis but we have not, as a human family, yet seen fit to meet the climate crisis in a concerted way.
Perhaps one positive aspect of this crisis is that we are meeting it collectively. We are learning in a very real way the meaning of interconnectedness.
Our priority at the Council of Canadians must be to support and give voice to the most vulnerable among us – precarious workers, the poor, disabled, students, low income elderly (especially if they are isolated), and First Nations communities.
We must also be ready to challenge a Shock Doctrine-type reaction to this crisis that could range from authoritarian regimes using the current crisis to permanently destroy civil liberties and human freedoms to calls for austerity measures in liberal democracies in Europe and North America. We must also fight the move by governments to bail out corporations that are at the heart of the climate crisis. Here in Canada, we shouldn’t be bailing out the energy sector. Workers in the sector yes, the companies, no.
Finally, we must be here to protect the natural world. Scientist and activist Vandana Shiva reminds us that our planet’s health and our own are inseparable, that we are one Earth Family on one planet, healthy in our diversity and interconnectedness.
If any good can come out of this, it is that the world suddenly got smaller. We really are one people connected more than we have ever realized. The Council of Canadians has fought for social and environmental justice for 35 years and must now rise to the challenges before us. As a grassroots movement, we stand in solidarity with front line caregivers, workers – employed or laid off – First Nations communities fighting for inherent rights, and all those impacted by the crisis before us. We are here to serve and to vision a better future.
So this then is our task: to reassert our collective responsibility to one another in a time of crisis and beyond; to recommit to the social contract between government and its people; and to uphold and defend our deep commitment to the Commons – something that other generations before us have sacrificed so much to define and protect.