The True Power of a President (and the real reason to fear a Trump presidency)

From the start of the American presidential primaries last year there has been considerable talk of “establishment” candidates vs “outsiders” or “anti-establishment” candidates, talk that increased with every “establishment” Republican that dropped out of the race leaving Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. On the Democrat side, the “establishment” candidate Hillary Clinton won out over self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, though Bernie shattered all expectations for his campaign and put up a very good fight. Now the presidential race is still largely about “establishment” vs “anti-establishment”, but the polarizing primaries have put things into a different light.

Now people are talking about the fact that neither Hillary, who is described as being “shrill” and “bitchy” (as most women in politics tend to be described, sadly), or Donald, who actually is shrill and bitchy, are likeable. We like to think that the personal likeability of a candidate isn’t all that important to their qualifications to lead a nation, but whatever we think of Obama’s approach to drone warfare, we melt into adoration for his unruffled demeanour, sense of humour, and open displays of fatherly tenderness toward his family. Nobody is looking forward to a White House Press Gala jokes from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – they’re just not likeable personas. Nor are their policies likeable: Donald Trump’s policies are largely morally reprehensible, tapping into deep-seated racism and surging xenophobia to scapegoat virtually everyone, while Hillary Clinton is dogged by investigations into her criminally careless approach to sensitive information as Secretary of State and her voting record on morally questionable policies of the past. There is a general sense that both of these candidates were chosen out of political strategy rather than out of any sense of their real qualifications: Trump’s populist juggernaut wasn’t stopping, so Republican leaders who had mocked him only weeks prior began to endorse him; and Hillary was largely seen as the Democrat who could beat Trump.

Faced with two unlikeable, and potentially even scary, candidates for president, the movement toward a third candidate is gaining steam. There have always been many candidates for President in the US, but never any that garnered enough votes to challenge the supremacy of the two parties and their official candidates. The Green Party in the US is apparently now offering Bernie Sanders their nomination, with presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein saying she’ll run on his ticket as his potential Vice President. Having a nominee who has such a massive profile would undoubtedly be a coup for any third party in the US, and Bernie’s politics are generally very Green-friendly anyway, but it is likely that the fear of splitting the progressive vote and handing Trump the presidency will keep him from accepting.

So we’re still stuck with a very uncomfortable question of which of two cringeworthy candidates will lead the United States, and that has a lot of people questioning what the future might look like. As with every election (including the recent Brexit referendum in the UK), Google reports that the phrase “how do I move to Canada?” is spiking; but others who are less prone to flee across the border are asking out loud how much power the President of the United States really has.

We’re all asking “do we really want Donald Trump with his finger on the button” (of the US nuclear arsenal)? But does even the Commander-In-Chief of the largest military force on the planet have the power to really mess things up? Not really. To remind us of that fact, Freakonomics recently re-broadcast an old episode from 2011 called How Much Does The President Really Matter? The answer is, not nearly as much as we think. The President is only one branch of US government, and needs the approval of the other two branches in order to act on most matters. So not even Yosemite Sam (or Donald Trump) could pick fights on behalf of his nation, screw up the national or global economy, or otherwise damage the US beyond repair. If there’s one thing the US political structure does well, it is limiting the power of any individual.

The real value of the President, as the podcast points out, is not in deciding or implementing policy, but in setting the national agenda and representing the nation abroad. The President’s high status gives so much weight to whatever he (or hopefully someday soon, she) says that the rest of the government, and the people, have to respond. The President’s role is therefore to steer the national conversation in such a way as to address the important issues and inspire the best in their citizens and legislators. This is the real reason why the possibility of a Trump presidency is so scary, and the possibility of a Clinton presidency is so underwhelming and dull.

Hillary, for all of her excellent credentials and experience, has a limited ability to inspire people. This is certainly at least partially because of deep-seated sexism: we are generally prone to not take women seriously as leaders, even today, though I am pleased to see Hillary making big gains in that regard (and kudos to Jill Stein and Elizabeth Warren for their leadership and groundbreaking work too!).

Donald Trump, on the other hand, inspires virtually everyone. This is his only real credential: the ability to capture our attention and dominate our conversations. In that respect, he’s already about as powerful as the President. The problem is the quality of the conversations he inspires. Donald Trump inspires hatred: hatred of him, for those who do not identify with him; and hatred of others (women, and racial and religious minorities and outsiders) for those who do. While Obama ran on a platform of Hope with a capital “H”, Donald Trump’s vision for “Making America Great Again” is based on scapegoating almost every identifiable minority group for all of America’s problems. As much as we’ve never been without racism and xenophobia and division, the wave of white nationalism that is rising across Europe and North America right now almost makes the LA race riots and other incidents of the 1990’s look like a series of blips in an otherwise progressive and tranquil time (I say this with the detached hindsight of someone who wasn’t actually there). The realities right now are frightening, with a massive upswing of racial violence: Britain saw a 50% increase in racist violence since they voted to leave the EU; over 100 unarmed Black men have been shot to death by police in the US in the past year, and yesterday a Black man retaliated, killing five police officers and wounding six or seven more; and even in Canada there is increasing violence and protest targeting Muslims and Black people, often even with reference to “President Trump.”

Violent and hateful rhetoric inspires violence and hate. That’s why we have hate speech laws in Canada – because we recognize that words have consequences, and even free speech carries responsibility. America has no such law, and Donald Trump’s ability to inspire people to greater and greater fear and hatred of others is far scarier than the notion that he might have limited access to “the button.” Because if he is given the biggest platform in the world, he might create conditions in which he’ll have the social license he needs to actually push that button. Even short of starting wars, his ability to create division around the world, between people groups within nations, has the capacity for chaos.

So don’t fear the damage that Trump could directly do as President; there are checks and balances that will prevent him from doing any real harm. But fear the power of the platform he may be given, and guard against the polarizing rhetoric such a platform will send around the world.

Innovation in an Information Economy: An Open Letter to Navdeep Bains

To the Honourable Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development,

Thank you for your commitment to serve Canadians by helping our economy to grow and develop.

In accordance with your ministerial mandate, I’d like to offer you some feedback about a much needed area of innovation and development: the pay sources of cultural and informational labour.

Canadians have been hearing for years that we are transitioning away from a manufacturing and resource economy and toward an information economy. Mr Trudeau famously appealed to the world to look at the value between our ears and not just under our feet. This is an excellent desire, and there are tens of thousands of highly trained Canadian university graduates who share it. Unfortunately, many of those graduates are trained in fields that will pay them poorly, or may not provide them with more than precarious work.

Cultural labour has always been undervalued by most societies. The “starving artist” cliche is rooted in the reality that subjective cultural artifacts and experiences do not command a strong market value. Canadian governments have a history of supporting the arts through cultural grants, and Canada has maintained a strong arts scene because of it, but it is no longer just artists that need support. Numerous other fields in the humanities and social sciences have little to no job prospects, and SSHRCC grants can only go so far to supporting the continued development of society.

There are many factors involved, but I would suggest that the incredible openness of the internet has reshaped society’s expectations of the cost of information and culture, and therefore of the value of information and culture. Information is a right, but it is not free: people need to make a living in order to continue producing and communicating information. But the reality is that I make more money working as a casual labourer at a cheese packing plant, literally just putting cheese into boxes, than I would as an on-air radio broadcaster in some of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in Canada. The field of journalism in general is an excellent case study for the information economy, not only because it is explicitly and directly about communicating information, but also because it is very visibly struggling. Newspapers across the country have shut down, radio stations pay little better than minimum wage, and larger media companies gobble up smaller ones as journalists compete with bloggers who offer their views on current events for free.

The information economy has adapted to the openness and freedom of the internet by shifting revenue streams to rely almost exclusively on advertising, and this also has become a problem. We are inundated with ads, which are worth just pennies per click and are easily blocked by software, which means that they do not actually deliver sufficient economic benefit to allow for decent wages in information and cultural fields. It seems that the only people who are making decent money in this information economy we’re shifting to are Facebook and Google, who control a shocking amount of advertising revenue by mining our metadata to deliver targeted advertising. The true cost of information these days is privacy, not money, and consumers of information have no real metric for the value of the privacy they are exchanging. Advertising revenue, in various ways, is highly exploitative.

Journalism is just one example of a field that needs a new revenue stream. The arts, cultural studies, theology, philosophy, ethics, history, social sciences – all of these fields help us to understand ourselves as human beings, as Canadians, as global citizens. Study in these fields also prepares us for a wide variety of jobs, delivering in spades the “soft skills” employers value so highly, but with little recognition. Jobs that utilize information and project management skills often have hundreds of Arts graduates competing for them, and still I’m currently making more money packing cheese than I used to as the Registrar of a small university. The students I work with now, at the cheese plant, are lukewarm about their areas of study; I expect that several of them will give up their studies if they can turn their summer job into a permanent placement, because a decent wage in a unionized environment with no educational requirements actually makes more sense than paying to attend school for several years in order to be qualified for very few jobs that are likely dependent on grant funding and will therefore be temporary and pay little. We’re approaching a situation in which some of the most highly educated people in the country are among the most precarious workers, which does not bode well for our participation in an information economy.

So I ask you, as Minister of Innovation, that significant effort and attention be given to the problem of addressing the value of information. Otherwise, any attempts to further transition to an information economy will either fall flat or will promote only the STEM fields, impoverishing the social, cultural, and education sectors. One way that I believe we can address this issue is through the implementation of a Guaranteed Livable Income, or “Mincome.” Allow me to explain.

Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in history, funded and developed by volunteers and operating on donations. It serves as an example of the reality that people want to be productive even when there is no revenue stream attached to it. Some of the greatest inventions have come from people tinkering in garages, and in the information age this often means posting content online. Many people who are highly productive in the information and cultural fields are hampered in this productivity by the fact that they can’t afford to do their work full-time, because it simply doesn’t pay well or paying jobs in their field aren’t available. They compete for low-wage low-skill jobs in order to pay bills, while their education and skills languish. Often their passion produces more income for advertising companies than it does for them, but they’re not in it for the money. They are creating value, and that value is generating wealth (for someone), but they do it for its intrinsic rewards.

A Mincome would help thousands of highly trained, creative, innovative, and passionate Canadians pursue their passions and create more value in the information economy by reducing the necessity of day jobs. With this freedom, more Canadians could develop their hobby work into potential revenue streams of their own, or not; either way, they would continue to generate valuable content that enriches the lives of Canadians and people around the world, and increase innovation and advancement in the information and cultural sectors.

As traditional jobs that produce concrete goods are becoming increasingly automated, human labour is coming to be defined by what we can do that machines cannot. This is why the information economy is so important, and it is also how we can afford to provide the leisure – the self-determined productivity – that we need to flourish. Research into our ability to pay for a Mincome is already well-documented, and there are numerous studies and pilot projects underway from a variety of jurisdictions. Please devote significant resources and attention to this solution so that we can free up thousands of under-employed but highly trained Canadians to increase their contribution to society and the information economy.

Sincerely yours,

Jeff Wheeldon
Brighton, Ontario

 

Update: Just hours after posting this, CBC’s radio show Spark interviewed a tech writer about a Mincome-style pilot project being run in Oakland by Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup incubator. They’re interested in it for the same reasons I’ve outlined above: with so much labour being outsourced to machines and so much potential for people to improve their education and start innovative new companies if only they had the income to sustain them, a guaranteed income seems almost necessary moving forward. Let’s not let private tech firms beat us to the punch.

Brexit and the Resurrection of Nationalism

Yesterday marks the end of an era.

In World War II the world came together, but in brutal opposition and violence. Since then, or for the last 70 or so years, we’ve been very deliberately coming together in peace and trade. The League of Nations became the United Nations, and provided a new forum for international relations and potentially the foundation for world government. NATO, while still being a military alliance, has operated (at least ostensibly) on the premise of promoting and safeguarding peace and democracy in the world. The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have overseen the globalization of trade, weaving the economic activities of nations around the world together to not only increase prosperity (again, ostensibly for the whole world) but also stability. The European Union marked an even greater integration, effectively dissolving borders between nation states (in most respects) and pooling the political and economic futures of member nations into a single body. For the past 70 years we’ve been on a global path away from nationalistic division and toward a global community.

Until yesterday, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

To be clear, this is not the first sign that the trend toward fewer barriers between nations was coming to an end. It’s just the first big, official step by one of the most powerful nations in the world. and the first time that a privileged/colonizing nation has claimed “independence” from a body of the less powerful. While the world in general, led by powerful nations, has been moving toward more unity, at the exact same time small nations or people groups have been seeking a national identity and international recognition, and I want to draw a sharp distinction between that and what happened yesterday.

The 20th century included the creation of dozens of “new” nations, and several unsuccessful attempts. The new nations arose from Western colonies, largely in Africa, as those people reclaimed and reforged their national identities after being suppressed by typically racist colonial regimes. Even in Western nations, there have been attempts at independence: Ireland won freedom from Britain, but lost Northern Ireland in the process; and Quebec has tried and failed a few times to gain independence from Canada. As recently as 2014, Scotland held a referendum on the question of leaving the United Kingdom, a bid that lost with a vote of just 55% in favour of staying. In all of these situations, oppressed or historically conquered people were seeking to re-establish their identity as a people, distinct from their conquerors and colonizers. That is not what Britain has just done.

Britain has always been the conqueror, the colonizer. They’ve always only had one foot in the EU as it is, wanting to maintain their own currency and border controls, and they command enough international respect and economic and military power that they can decide for themselves just how committed they will be to an international body. Even in the EU they are a privileged nation, somewhat distinct from the rest in ways that many other member nations are not. Their national identity as a people is strong, even globally dominant (behind the US), as more of the world speaks English than any other language.

There are many issues involved in the Brexit, and I don’t want to be reductive, but I do want to draw attention to a pattern or trend that I’ve been seeing over the past few years related to the rise of nationalism: racism and xenophobia.

It’s only been about a week since British MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street as she met with constituents. She was known for her passionate work serving her constituents, many of whom are immigrants, and for her championing of immigrant and refugee rights. The man who killed her, when brought to court, refused to give his real name, saying his name was “Death to traitors, and freedom for Britain.” His real name isn’t worth reprinting, in my opinion, and his sentiments echo a shockingly large movement in Europe that see welcoming immigrants as a form of treason. The logic behind this movement is that people believe that immigrants are “taking over” their nation, and fear being pushed out culturally and politically. All of this is patently false, as Doug Saunders makes very clear in his excellent Myth of the Muslim Tide, but it taps into very real fears for uninformed and xenophobic people. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian so-called Christian, killed over 70 people, mostly children at a liberal-political themed summer camp, because he viewed them as the children of traitors (as the liberal government of his country had allowed immigration at levels he believed to be treasonous). If this sounds like the work of a few madmen, consider that one of the biggest political parties in the UK right now is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader spews this kind of xenophobic rhetoric on a regular basis and spearheaded the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum; and the second biggest party in the Netherlands is an anti-immigrant party led by Geert Wilders, who is known for his heavily racist and xenophobic comments, particularly against Muslims. Then also consider that the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States of America is Donald Trump, who is known for his policies of banning all Muslims from entering the US, building a wall to keep Mexican migrants out (whom he characterizes as rapists) and making Mexico pay for it, and accepting the endorsement of the KKK. It seems that the rise in nationalism in western democracies is largely in direct response to the influx of immigrants and refugees from poorer nations with very different (and mostly Muslim) cultures.

I want to make clear that there are very good reasons for a measure of nationalism. Establishing and maintaining a national identity as a people group is important; but most of these nations have been cosmopolitan for so long that any cultural narrative tied to race is either long gone or long since integrated.  (A British woman commented last year (in a sermon in church, no less!) that Britain used to be about fish and chips, and now it’s about curry (like that’s a bad thing!), completely missing the fact that fish and chips was brought to Britain by eastern European immigrants just a hundred years ago while curry as we know it (as a specific dish rather than as a spice more generally) was adopted and adapted by Brits in colonial India.) Economic concerns about the European Union are very logical in a time when Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, but the UK kept its own currency, and has such close trade relations with the EU that it would be affected by a Greek default anyway. Concerns about sovereignty are certainly understandable, but as I said above, Britain is a strong player in the EU and does not bow to anyone. While I am not British, or an expert on European political economy, the reasons for Britain reasserting nationalism in today’s world all seem pretty weak in comparison to the deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept the West as fast as the refugees have marched across Europe. I sincerely hope that I’m just missing some reasons for nationalist sentiments, or that there are better arguments that strengthen those other reasons I’ve mentioned.

But we’ll see. The implications of the UK leaving the European Union are enormous: scads of policy will have to be re-written on both sides of this divorce, and with David Cameron stepping down there will also be new leadership. What emerges in the coming year will confirm the real motivation for this renewed nationalist movement. So, UK leadership: impress us. Show the world, with your innovative policies and new take on diplomacy, that this wasn’t about anti-immigrant xenophobia. Set a new standard for engaging with your neighbours in this new world that, with this Brexit, you’ve created – a world where globalization, individualism, and inclusivity as the standards of foreign relations are being replaced with nationalism yet again. Make sure this is a new direction for global relations, because we’ve been down the road of hyper-nationalism before, too many times, and we know that we don’t like where it leads.

Vote No to a Referendum on Democratic Reform

Update: CBC’s The Current interviewed some experts on the subject of referendums in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. They cover all of the same territory. You can hear the episode here.

There’s a certain logic to the idea that the issue of electoral reform should be settled by a referendum. After all, if we’re deciding how to best empower the people as they choose a government, why not empower them to choose the method of doing so? It seems un-democratic to change a democratic system without asking the people.

But all of that is wrong, and a referendum is possibly the worst way to decide the issue of electoral reform. Here’s why.

1.The Nature of a Referendum

A referendum is an excellent tool in the right circumstances, but outside of those circumstances it’s a terrible tool. This is because it can only really work with a very simple question on a matter of deep conviction that only has two possible answers: yes or no. If you had a referendum with three or more possible answers, the likelihood of getting a clear decision is slim. This is actually one of the reasons electoral reform makes sense in a multi-party system like ours: most of the time in our elections, large numbers of people vote for one of three major parties, with many others voting for other smaller parties, and true majority governments are very rare. Since we only use a referendum when we need a clear decision, it has to be boiled down to two options. That’s difficult to do in this case, because there are many possible options for how our electoral system could work, and then there’s always the option of not changing it at all. The options cannot easily be reduced to a yes/no question unless someone else already does all of the work of choosing which type is best for us and then gives us the ability to approve a change or not – but then we’re left with the same question, namely, how can it be democratic if someone else has chosen it for us? Which brings us to the next point:

  1. The Nature of the Electorate

The electorate (you and I) are busy people, and most of us do not hold degrees in political science, so the idea that we can make an informed decision about something as complex as electoral reform is a bit daunting. People in general tend to be resistant to change, first of all, so we have an automatic bias in favour of the status quo even when there are better options. Further, most of us will not find the time to attend informational meetings or do extensive research on the issue in the lead-up to a referendum, and even if we do, we’re going to find a lot of conflicting information and opinions that will be difficult to navigate. That’s because of the nature of a campaign.

  1. The Nature of a Campaign

Elections and referendums both have campaigns. A campaign is supposed to be a chance for the different sides of the issues to present their case and win over as much of the electorate as possible. Unfortunately, most campaigns end up utilizing a lot of social psychology to manipulate people rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves. Referendums are usually the worst for this, as politicians play on the fear of change and attempt to demonize the other side. This is the kind of thing that has made our political system so toxic, and a big reason why I believe that electoral reform is only one step toward a healthier system; we also need campaign reform in a big way.

  1. The Nature of Canadian Democratic Representation

Thankfully, we’ve already had an election: we elected a new Liberal government last year, and one of the big planks in their platform was democratic reform. It was also a big plank in the platforms of the Green Party and the NDP, so we should have a general sense that this is an issue that most of the electorate can get behind. But the reason that we even had an election last year was to choose people who can do the legwork for us, who have access to the best experts and can make decisions on our behalf. The role of an MP is to keep their constituents informed, ask their opinions, and then choose on their behalf. Resorting to a referendum cuts out the MPs and all of their resources, putting the important decision on the shoulders of average folks who have little time to consider these options and cut through the political rhetoric.

  1. The Nature of the Electoral System

A big point about electoral reform is that it is not actually a matter of opinion. The goal of electoral reform is to create a system that actually serves the values and aims of our democratic society – that is, we need a system that accurately reflects the votes of the people in the makeup of Parliament. We’re not deciding on whether or not to be a democracy; that would be a good question for a referendum, because it’s asking what we want. But we already know that we want to live in a democracy; what’s at stake here is whether or not the current system is doing a good job of serving that democracy. It’s not a matter of opinion: First Past the Post is a voting system that does not result in a Parliament that accurately represents the votes that were cast. Choosing between the options to replace FPTP is also not a matter of opinion; every other system represents the choices of the people better than the current system, but they vary in the way that they do so, and it will take a panel of experts to determine which will result in the makeup of Parliament most accurately reflecting the votes cast. This is a matter of political science, not one of the will of the people.

Consider the example of energy and climate: scientists know that the oil industry is directly contributing to anthropogenic climate change which results in natural disasters of enormous scale, ongoing mass extinctions, and the destabilization of global climate which will ultimately result in the destabilization of the global economy; and yet we continually make it a political issue, and in politics short-term concerns almost always outweigh facts and projections. If it were up to the people who actually know what is happening to the climate we would leave the oil in the ground and transition as quickly as possible to renewable energy, even at great economic cost, knowing that doing so would save lives and jobs in the long run. Instead it is an issue that has divided the country, and we’ve seen no action from politicians for fear of the political and economic backlash. Like climate change, electoral reform is not an issue that should be left solely up to the people OR solely up to politicians – which is why it is important that there is a transparent committee process.

  1. The Nature of Committees

Maryam Monsef, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, has proposed that this issue be decided by a non-partisan committee that includes members from all five parties that currently have members in Parliament. Representation on the committee is roughly analogous to the makeup of the House of Commons, with most of the committee being Liberal MPs, then Conservatives, then NDP, and with token representatives for the Bloc and Green Party (who are unable to vote, presumably because they have so few members in the House; I’m thankful they’re included at all). This committee is tasked with weighing the options and deciding which is best. Let’s be clear: they are not just going to chat about it over coffee. The process must include extensive consultation, both with the public (so we get a chance to have our say) and with experts on the issue. While the committee will make the final call on it, they must take the word of experts into account. If the process is transparent, then we will all know if they have ignored the testimony of experts.

A quick note on the way that committees worked under the last government. There were numerous situations in which the Harper government sent issues to committees who engaged in the consultation process and then ignored the facts and ideas presented by the experts in order to institute what the government wanted in the first place. This is how we got our new anti-terrorism laws, for example. The government has the power to ignore the consultation process, but they don’t have the power to hide that they’ve done so. If the process isn’t transparent, call your MP. If the advice of experts is ignored, call your MP. The consultation and committee process is not perfect, but it is the best and most accountable system we can get for making a solid decision on this issue, especially if we take steps to hold our MPs to account.

  1. We’ve been here before.

BC and Ontario have both had referendums on democratic reform. I was living in BC when they had their referendum, but I wasn’t even aware that it was going on. I know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t participate, or even know that it was going on: 50% of Ontario residents polled just a few months before the referendum didn’t even know it was happening. Just days before the 2005 BC referendum, “two-thirds of British Columbians admitted to knowing ‘nothing/very little’ about the proposed STV system.”  We know that people in both places were largely confused about the voting system, but “they were strongly inclined towards proportionality, choice among multiple parties, and even coalition governments,” all things that are made more difficult or even impossible in a First Past the Post system. Yet they voted down any changes to the electoral system in both provinces, twice in BC with a second referendum in 2009 resulting in a 60% No vote.

Recent history shows that even though we want a democratic system that represents us proportionately and encourages cooperation in a multi-party Parliament, we will still vote against reforms that would make that system better when they are presented to us in a referendum. The very system of a referendum makes it very difficult to enact any change, whether because of our status-quo bias, political fear campaigns, confusion because complex issues have been reduced to a too-simple question, voter apathy, etc. With all of those influences stacked in the “No” column, it’s difficult to tell if people are voting “No” to change because they actually think our current system is serving them well. And no matter which way a referendum goes, that kind of uncertainty will allow politicians from both sides of the issue to continue to make hay about it well beyond the next election. Which is why referendums tend to come around more than once.

For all of those reasons, a referendum is exactly the wrong mechanism to decide on democratic reform. The important decision of whether or not to be a democracy has already been decided; let’s leave the mechanism that best serves that system up to the experts, and keep tabs on our MPs to make sure they do too.

Talking About Climate Change in the Wake of Disaster

Canada is on fire. Fort McMurray is not the only place, but certainly the highest profile. The Manitoba-Ontario border is also burning, and there are hundreds of smaller fires across the country. My heart goes out to those who have been displaced by this; I can only imagine how difficult it must be, and I’m so glad that so far nobody has been killed (that I know of). For those who have lost everything, or who are living in a state of suspense and uncertainty, hang in there; help is coming from across the country, and while it can’t replace everything you’ve lost, I hope it will help you get through the day to day until you’re in a place where you can find a path forward. Right now your safety and basic needs are your highest priority, and deeper conversations can wait.

For the rest of us, we’ve already waited too long to have frank discussions about the way that anthropogenic climate change contributes to disasters like this. Drought and temperature fluctuations and wildfires are all natural, but these are unlike anything we’ve seen – except in the climate change literature, which suggests that we should have been expecting this sort of thing. Why didn’t we?

We’ve moved beyond the debates of the last decade, about whether or not climate change is even real or whether or not humanity has contributed to it through burning fossil fuels. Sadly, once that debate died down it appears that our attention on that issue died down too. Despite the big deal of the Paris climate conference, climate change was almost entirely absent from the 2015 federal election campaign; without controversy, it apparently isn’t worth talking about. Rather than agreeing that it’s real and doing nothing about it, we should have seen party leaders comparing plans to address it, including plans for disaster relief. We did not, and now governments are scrambling.

Now the issue is thrust back under our noses, but talking about climate change during this time of crisis is deemed insensitive. When Elizabeth May brought it up in Parliament – the one place in the country that should absolutely be taking a systematic approach to the issue rather than merely offering platitudes and prayers for those affected – she was attacked for her insensitivity and lack of tact. CBC’s The 180 asked “How soon is too soon to talk about climate change?” The only way that talking about climate change in the middle of a disaster that clearly has climate as a contributing factor can be construed as insensitive, I would argue, is if we see it as a blame game – that is, Canada has a nasty energy politics that pits Alberta against the rest of the country, and it has distorted our ability to have necessary conversations.

Imagine if a fire in a garment factory that killed hundreds of sweatshop labourers didn’t come with a discussion about workers’ rights. Or if the explosion of a chemical factory in Bhopal that resulted in severe poisoning of the local population for generations didn’t make anyone ask questions about the safety of those chemicals. Or if we didn’t talk about the safety of deepwater drilling during the BP oil spill. Or if we didn’t talk about climate change in the aftermath of a tsunami or hurricane. That would seem crazy, wouldn’t it?

There are some key misunderstandings or perceptions that drive this crazy situation.

First, the idea that oil extraction – and those who make a living from it – in Alberta is somehow more responsible for climate change than the rest of us driving our cars and heating our homes. Yes, they have higher emissions than us because of the energy it takes to extract the oil, but we’re the ones buying it. We are all complicit in climate change, and we will all face its consequences at some point. Some people have expressed a sense of irony or even satisfaction at the idea that climate-change fuelled forest fires might wipe out Canada’s oil industry; that’s grossly inappropriate, and it fuels the false conflict between Alberta and the rest of the country because it makes Albertans defensive.

Second, the idea that Albertans have to defend themselves from the rest of the country. They do not: Canada stands together. This false conflict is fuelled from both sides, and it needs to stop. But what some Albertans have wrong is that they feel that defending themselves and defending their employment is the same thing. It is not. It is possible for all of us to be critical of an oil economy, even if we work within it and profit from it. Albertans may profit from it directly, but we all profit from it indirectly, even as we are the ones burning oil. We who are critical of the oil economy do not stand outside of it to throw stones; rather, we are trying to work within our system to make it more sustainable. We are not anti-jobs, we are working to promote solutions that offer more jobs and less environmental impact. We do not want you to lose your jobs, we want you to have long-term jobs that don’t depend on the global oil price set by other oil producing nations.

Third, the idea that the current wildfires are a single and personal disaster afflicting Alberta. They are not. Instead, they are another symptom of climate change, one part of an ongoing disaster. When we say that it is insensitive to talk about climate change as the cause of the fires because there are still people displaced by them, we neglect the fact that there are people displaced by climate-change fuelled disasters around the world. This is not at all an isolated incident. People around the world suffering from floods and droughts and hurricanes that are escalating in severity and frequency are not afraid to say that this is climate change in action, so why are we holding this particular instance apart? By doing so, we are being insensitive to all who suffer from climate change – that we are somehow separate from the world, and that we do not suffer with them. There is incredible strength in solidarity, and we’re missing out on it by keeping ourselves out of that conversation.

So while the people of Fort McMurray can focus on making sure their day-to-day needs are met, knowing that they have the support of their country, the rest of us should absolutely be having the conversation about climate change. Aside from how we can directly help the victims of current wildfires, we should be talking about how to prevent the next ones – which means taking a hard look at our own consumption, economy, and policies. A lot of Albertans will be starting over after this; let’s start over with them.

On Energy Investments

Pipelines are once again front-page news in Canada, with the pressure to approve Energy East and the Kinder Morgan expansion growing amid questions of how the new government will change regulation procedures. Is another investment in the fossil fuel industry really in the national interest of Canada?

What Is At Stake:

Jobs. This is the primary concern that keeps coming up over and over again, as unemployment in Alberta has recently risen to match the rest of the country for the first time in decades. Many people have been downright uncharitable toward people in Alberta who are actually going through very hard times, and I must admit that I too have scoffed at some of the stories of misfortune I’ve heard; the scale of wealth these people previously experienced makes it hard to understand how they could now be in a desperate situation. But I’ve also lived in Fort McMurray, if only for a summer, and even in that short time I realized just how out of balance the economy of Alberta really is: mobile homes there cost as much as mansions in southeast Manitoba, groceries are more expensive, and with the sudden and sharp rise in unemployment, many people are not even able to sell off some of their possessions to pay bills because the market is flooded. People have large mortgages on homes that have already lost over $100,000 in value, and there are no buyers. These people made major investments during a boom cycle, but now we’re shifting to a bust cycle, and they can’t escape.

That’s the danger of resource economies: they depend on global commodity prices, and that makes them very vulnerable to boom/bust cycles. But that raises the question: if we’re deeply concerned about creating jobs, shouldn’t we be looking to create jobs in industries that are less prone to this economic roller coaster?

Exports. Much economic growth in the global marketplace requires exporting goods: if Canada is buying more foreign goods than we are exporting goods, then more of our money is going outside the country than foreign money is coming in, and we can’t keep that up forever. A sustainable economy in a global marketplace needs a lot of exports, and having valuable exports also draws foreign investment, which is how industries get bigger and economic growth occurs. For the past decade, Canada has been looking to export oilsands bitumen to foreign markets, but to do so we need to get it from northern Alberta to a port, where it can be loaded onto tankers and carried to foreign markets.

The Northern Gateway pipeline was looking to take oil to the west coast, but to get there it had to go through many First Nations, and the waters of northern BC are dangerous enough that a tanker spill was inevitable. Thankfully, that pipeline seems to have fallen off the radar. The Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to take oil from Alberta to the US gulf coast, where it can be refined and shipped to foreign markets; President Obama vetoed approval of that pipeline, and with the US in a presidential election year it is unlikely to get approval from anyone anytime soon. That leaves us with Energy East, which would send oil to eastern Canada to be shipped to foreign markets, and the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline through Burnaby Mountain which would double tanker traffic into Vancouver.

There are two things to make very clear here: first, that these pipelines are not about the oil we use here in Canada. Contrary to popular myth, they are not going to be bringing oilsands oil to Canadian refineries for domestic use. This oil is entirely for export. Second, the oil market is currently flooded with OPEC oil. OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is able to control the price of oil on the global markets by increasing or decreasing their production, and considering they control 77% of the world’s oil reserves, they’ll be able to do so for quite some time. When they decreased production in the 1970’s there were fuel shortages in North America; when they increased production over the past few years, the price of oil plummeted, currently at around $33 per barrel. That’s a level that remains profitable for OPEC nations, but not for oil production in North America. They have enough reserves that they can afford to keep the price of oil low for as long as they need to in order to maintain dominance in the global market. So for the forseeable future, there are no good markets for Canadian oil.

Our environment. Shipping oil is risky, whether by pipeline or by train. If the oil spills it can contaminate waterways, which greatly extend the effects of the pollution. Water becomes toxic to drink, and plants and creatures that inhabit the waterways and depend on the water are affected – as well as the people that depend on those ecosystems. Because pipelines are usually kept far away from major centres, the people most affected by pipeline spills are almost always First Nations communities, but we all depend on our natural environment, and every aspect of our natural environment is deeply interconnected. If we pollute our nation it will cost us, one way or another and sooner or later.

So those are the stakes: jobs, economy, and ecology. The case for the environment is strong, but because we often won’t see the negative effects of what we do today for decades, it’s easy to push aside. Jobs seem to be the most pressing issue, but the jobs in the oil industry are unstable because of the boom/bust cycle. The case for the economy is the strongest case for pipelines, but given that we can’t control the global price of oil, it’s not a good investment yet. But once pipelines are installed, they’ll keep for a long time – and the price of oil won’t stay down forever, right? It could be said that even if it won’t pay off for a while, pipelines are still a good investment.

But that’s just the financial side. There’s another type of investment that we don’t often talk about: energy investment.

Energy Return On Energy Investment

No matter what source of energy we use, it takes some energy to generate energy. When people were first drilling for oil in the US, it only took about one barrel’s worth of energy to gather 100 barrels of oil – so the return on investment was 100x. But those days are long past, and even conventional crude oil pumped in the US today from existing wells only get about 14.5x the return on investment; the oil is deeper and harder to get to, so it takes more energy to pump it up.

Every energy type has an Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) score, not just oil. Photovoltaic solar panels, for example, have an EROEI of 6.8 – over their lifetime they will produce almost 7x more energy than it took to create and install them. That’s not great, even in comparison to today’s crude oil (14.5) – but as solar panels get more efficient and cheaper to make, their EROEI will increase. Meanwhile, oil’s relatively high EROEI of 14.5 is for existing wells; the energy it takes to discover new oil drops it down to 8, and alternative forms of oil have even lower EROEI.

Shale oil, recovered through fracking, has an EROEI of 5 – significantly lower than solar panels. The BC provincial government is really pushing Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), which is a nice name for shale oil and fracking. Should they really be pushing an industry that is so inefficient? (Not to mention dangerous: earthquakes in BC have been directly linked to fracking.)

But we were talking about Canada’s investment in oilsands. As low as the return on investment is for fracking, oilsands is lower: they have an EROEI of 3, less than half that of solar panels, and one sixth that of wind turbines. Yes, wind turbines have an EROEI of 18, higher even than conventional crude from the US. Hydro’s EROEI is actually 100, because dams last so long and, once installed, take very little energy to maintain. In terms of energy investment, then, renewables blow oilsands oil out of the water.

Canada’s Energy in the Global Economy

One of the arguments I keep hearing in favour of the oilsands is that oil from other countries is morally compromised. But aside from the fact that all oil is ethically compromised (we know that burning oil causes climate change, and that a changing climate will potentially kill millions), trying to beat unethical oil with slightly less unethical oil is not only insufficient, it won’t work. OPEC nations have a double advantage over us because their oil is still conventional crude.

Because the OPEC nations have a lower standard of living than North American countries, they can pay their workers much less: the wages of an oil worker in Alberta is worth many workers in Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. But more than that, their conventional crude is much easier to access: while US conventional crude has an EROEI of 14.5, global conventional crude has an EROEI of 35, meaning that they can access the oil much easier and cheaper. This is why a global oil price of $33 per barrel works in OPEC’s favour: oil is still profitable for them at that price, while it is almost entirely unprofitable for us. To put it another way, our EROEI of 3 vs theirs of 35 means that oil is 10x more profitable for them than it is for us, so they can drive the price down to 1/3 of what it was a few years ago and still do well.

At the same time, renewables are a growing industry, and Canadian companies are already in the top 10 globally in solar. Solar and wind turbine manufacturing require complex skillsets that can pay decent wages, even in Canada, and there are many Canadians who used to work in manufacturing who are currently out of work. Canadian Solar, a company that has installed 19 gigawatts worth of solar plants worldwide, has a manufacturing plant in Guelph. An increased national investment in renewables on the level of the investment our government has made in oil for the past several decades would create manufacturing, installation, and maintenance jobs, employing many times more workers than it takes to extract oil in long-term stable jobs.

Further, renewables also allow us to export energy. But rather than loading dangerous fossil fuels onto tankers to be shipped around the world, we can export our energy directly to the US through our already shared energy grid. The US generates almost half of its energy from fossil fuels, and is willing to pay premium rates for imported clean energy to reduce their own dependence on coal and natural gas. It may not be as profitable as oil exports at their best, but peddling oilsands in a market flooded with cheaper, cleaner crude is hardly oil exports at their best.

Are pipelines in Canada’s best interest? Since most assessments make little of the environmental argument, which I would argue should easily outweigh arguments of short-term economic gain, the economic argument will have to stand: is there a good return on investment? When it comes to energy, absolutely not; and when it comes to money, certainly not right now and not likely to be in the future. The better return on investment is in renewables, whose ROI and EROEI will only increase over time.

The Myth of the Muslim Tide – A Review

Our world is changing, and we are afraid.

That in itself is not a bad thing: fear is an important part of living, good judgment, and rational planning – so long as the things that we are afraid of are real and properly understood.

For the last twenty years, it seems that most of the world’s conflicts have been centred in the Middle East, and branched out to the West from there in the form of interventionist wars and terrorist attacks. The people of the Middle East are predominantly Muslim, and the terrorist groups and militias seemingly all claim agendas of Islamization. It would seem that, for most Western nations, our enemies are all Muslims – or perhaps Islam itself.

For the past few decades there has been large-scale emigration from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, bringing large numbers of Muslims to the West. Right now we are in the midst of a massive migration of refugees from Syria to the West, with 10,700 refugees arriving in Canada over the past few months and another 15,000 to arrive in the next six weeks. Such large numbers have many of us concerned about security, and given our recent context and understanding of Muslims from that part of the world, this is understandable. But it’s not necessary.

In his bestseller The Myth of the Muslim Tide Doug Saunders peels back the rhetoric that feeds our fears and exposes the realities of Islam and immigration.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail, and a non-religious journalist with no stake in supporting Islam (indeed, he is explicitly pro-secular), and his major sources on the beliefs and attitudes of Muslims come primarily from Gallup and Pew Research polls and interviews. His claims are excellently documented and well-referenced, and his analysis of the numbers come from the survey authors, and often in direct quotes from Muslims themselves.

The impeccability of his references is critically important, because our beliefs and concerns on this issue are based primarily on what we don’t know rather than what we do. Concerns about the cultural integration of others usually betray a lack of understanding about those cultures, and misinformation runs rampant – not just about the other cultures or religions, but also about our own response to them. Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook claiming that refugees receive more government support than pensioners, and this erroneous claim was shared more than 37,000 times; such misinformation fuels political backlash, such as the action of MP Kelly Block to reduce refugee access to healthcare in 2012. If we want to respond appropriately to our fears, we need to ensure that we are acting on good information, lest we invade Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist.

Working hard for you – unless you’re new here.

This is the point of the first section of Saunders’ book: showing how the popular fiction about immigrants leads to undeserved and irrational backlash, in this case with reference to the 2011 terrorist acts of Anders Breivik in Norway. Breivik, who was heavily influenced by many popular writers who claim that Muslim immigrants are turning Europe into “Eurabia”, gunned down children and teenagers at a Norwegian liberal political camp. He claimed that they were the next generation of politicians who championed multiculturalism, and were therefore traitors who deserved execution. While Breivik is obviously an extreme case, the point is that his own 1500-page manifesto regularly referenced popular works that set the foundation of his rage and xenophobia. While I’m not familiar with most of the works referenced, the phrases quoted sound like they’d fit right in on Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media, a popular Canadian source of misinformation and fury.

Saunders goes on in part two to counter the claims of the “Eurabia” writers. We fear a demographic takeover, but while Muslim immigrants may have a higher birth rate initially, their  birth rates tend to drop to the local level within a generation, and Muslims still make up less than 5% of Europe and only about 1% in North America, while immigration rates are expected to decline; contrast that to popular claims that there will be a Muslim majority, or a large enough minority to dominate policy and culture. We fear that immigrant groups will not integrate culturally, but research polls show that most European Muslims identify more closely with their nationality than with their religion. We fear that they want to impose Sharia law, but most Muslims – in the West and even in their countries of origin, though less so – do not want to live in a state dominated by Sharia, or at least not with a literalist interpretation of Sharia. We fear that Muslims are inherently violent, but research indicates that while many terrorist groups are inherently religious, their aims and motivations are all political. This goes along with a Freakonomics podcast from last year (that I highly recommend) that notes that the number one cause of suicide bombings is not religion but occupation – i.e., they’re blowing themselves up to try to get our troops out of their country. This should be obvious to us: after all, the Parliament Hill shooter recorded a message before his rampage, stating that he was doing it because Canada was bombing people in the Middle East.

Saunders then enlightens us about our own past: that the current “Muslim Tide” arguments are almost exactly the same as the arguments used against Catholic and Jewish immigrants a century ago. Yet today we find that Catholic and Jewish citizens are well-integrated and largely liberal, though when they first arrived they were religiously conservative and seen as violent fundamentalists who refused to integrate and wanted to impose their own religious vision on the people around them. He doesn’t downplay the differences between Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, or in the current political situation, but the sociological factors involved are nearly identical and the anti-immigrant voices of today are eerie echoes from the past.

He ends his book with a number of good points about the difficulties that immigrants face when they arrive in a new country, the reasons for a Muslim identity replacing the former emphasis on national identities, and the failure of multiculturalism. “We ought to abandon the word multiculturalism, as well as the word assimilation: both terms imply the existence of a monolithic, predefined culture that one either embodies or rejects. In real life, as we experience it in our homes, streets, workplaces and schools, there is no fixed or immutable thing known as culture, but rather a varied and shifting set of practices built around a roughly agreed on common set of values and a collection of respected institutions” (162).

If we are really concerned about ensuring that immigrants integrate into our society, we can begin by removing the many stigmas and roadblocks they face by virtue of being seen as outsiders among us. By welcoming outsiders, we can break down the division between East and West that feeds the ongoing conflict with groups like ISIS. In order to remove any legitimate fears, we must first overcome the illegitimate fears.

Though this book was released in 2012, and therefore does not comment specifically on the Syrian refugee crisis, it remains timely and highly recommended. A+

Terrorism and the Inadequacy of Just War

The election is over, but the Green Party Provencher Riding Association isn’t going away. We’ll be hosting an event every other month or so for the next four years, on topics that are relevant to the riding but are also tied to the Green Party of Canada’s platform and policies. We’re doing this because these policies are relevant to our riding, and because sharing and discussing good ideas makes our community a better place. Along those lines we also hope to start a book club in the near future, with the first book of discussion being Elizabeth May’s latest, Who We Are.

Last night was our first event along these lines, and we had a fantastic turnout. For the first half of the event I lectured on nonviolent responses to terrorism; for the second half, a representative from MCC talked about refugees and resettlement. There was great discussion, and it was a lovely pairing of theory and practical action. Next up, sometime in late February, will be a practical workshop on nonviolent conflict resolution – watch our website and email list for more information.

Here’s the text of my lecture. – Jeff


The Nation State and Just War
Western responses to terrorism are based on an outdated understanding of the world and a deluded sense of self-righteousness. Which sounds harsh, so let’s unpack that.

The nation state is used to being the centre of the universe, and of being the sole arbiter of what is right and just. This makes some sense in a world in which the nation state is the supreme power that can control everything within its borders and writes the laws that govern everything that occurs within them. A few hundred years ago, that was the state of the world, and diplomacy arose as a way for nations to jockey for advantage over one another peacefully – or as the saying goes, All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means (Zhou Enlai, 1954). The nation state as an institution is charged with protecting its population, but it is always in the interests of the nation state to also maximize its internal economy; the nation state is responsible for and to its own citizens, physically and economically, and has little or no responsibility to outside nation states. Or at least, such was the world a few hundred years ago. Alliances were formed between nation states for mutual advantage, and over time some alliances grew so close that national borders began to break down between allies, part of a process that we now call globalization.

In a globalized world, the nation state is no longer the centre of the universe. National borders are porous, either because they are no longer guarded (as between member nations of the European Union), or because of the success of human trafficking, or because of the general ease with which people can move from one place to another to facilitate trade and international travel. In the internet age, borders and physical places do not mean as much as they used to, and regional cultures and ideas now spread at the speed of light across the web. Alliances and treaties have created institutions that function at a higher level than the nation state, such as the UN, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the G20, to name but a few, and corporations have gone international, grounding their headquarters in whatever country has the lowest taxes and planting their factories in whatever country has the cheapest labour. We live in a very different world than the one in which our understanding of just war was developed.

Just War

Christian theology has two traditions when it comes to conflict: Just war, and nonviolence or pacifism. The earliest Christians were pacifists, refusing military service or to work as a magistrate, or any other work that involved killing. The growth of Christianity, and its inclusion as an official religion in nation states, required some sort of reconciliation between the protective function of the state and the nonviolent requirements of Christianity. This happened relatively early on in Christian history, and Just War has been dominant in Western nations ever since, though there have always been nonviolent Christians. The Just War tradition insists that war is a last resort, and subjects all wars to a list of criteria, which includes criteria for starting wars and for conducting them. To start a war, a competent authority (usually a legitimate nation state) may wage war as a last resort to correct a suffered wrong, provided that there is a good chance of success and that the possible good outcome outweighs the damage or harm caused by the war. Once war has begun, the authorities conducting the war must distinguish between enemy combatants and non-combatants; must only conduct actions that are militarily necessary, and then only with as much force as is necessary to complete those military objectives; must not use methods of warfare that are considered evil, such as rape, weapons that cannot be properly controlled (nuclear or biological), or forcing enemies to fight against their own side; and must treat prisoners of war fairly.

There are two problems with Just War theory: first, at its very core it implies that nation states ordering thousands of citizens to kill each other is morally just so long as there are good reasons for it. When it comes to war, just war theory claims, the ends justify the means so long as the means do not exceed certain criteria. The second problem, and I hope this is obvious, is that the criteria are completely impossible to satisfy. War is hell, and the level of control that would be required in order to ensure that no soldiers rape or kill civilians is impossible. The level of intel and precision that would be required to ensure that no non-military targets are attacked is impossible. The greatest so-called intelligence agency in the world told us all that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which began a ten-year war in which no such weapons were used or even found. And the so-called precision of coalition air strikes in the current war in Syria included bombing a hospital, killing not only civilians but also allies from Doctors Without Borders. And the treatment of captives by a nation that pledges “freedom and justice for all” included the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and sensory deprivation and degrading humiliation. And in spite of all of this being common knowledge, much less known by the highest officials of nation states, the United States of America has been involved in 102 wars or military actions in its history, most of which were against indigenous populations within the US. I have read somewhere, though I cannot find where, that Just War criteria are weighed by a special council to the Commander-in-Chief before the US declares war; in Canada, Cabinet makes the decision to deploy troops, apparently without any such counsel. Clearly in both cases not all just war criteria are met, but the wars are deemed justified anyway, and that justified status reinforces the often questionable notion that we are always the good guys. In many wars, the US has been the aggressor and has had duplicitous intentions, or even bald ambitions. Canada has been involved in 15 wars in our history, though we’ve had token involvements in others, but those 15 include two against the Metis peoples of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in which Canada was the aggressor as part of racist colonial policies. In Afghanistan, which was ill-advised in the first place and shifted the purposes of its military action regularly, we knowingly handed prisoners of war over to other nations to be tortured – keeping our hands clean, but still getting blood on our souls. We are not always the good guys.

But what does all of this have to do with our response to terrorism?

Terrorism

Terrorism is a term referring to the implementation of psychological tactics in warfare. It is unclear whether psychological warfare is prohibited by just war criteria, but terrorism is also often used to describe guerrilla warfare and insurgency because of the tactics used – often in densely populated areas, using imprecise and unconventional weapons with high possibilities for civilian casualties, and often with civilians as targets. Terrorists are not considered to be authorized by a legitimate authority (i.e., the government of a nation state) either. So terrorism fails the just war criteria in many ways, which has an enormous effect on how we see and combat terrorists.

How are we currently fighting terrorism?

We do not negotiate with terrorists. Doing so would imply that they were a legitimate party, and we dare not give them any sense of legitimacy – after all, they fail so many of the criteria of just war with their military actions. The result of this, intended or not, is that we not only dismiss terrorists as legitimate organizations, but we also dismiss their grievances as being illegitimate. This is a problem, because terrorists often have very legitimate grievances, and very important goals. The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, after all, is which side you’re on; terrorists are often simply the most extreme and committed of a population that is being oppressed, economically or militarily or culturally, by another power. Whether or not we understand or agree with their grievances does not mean that they are unimportant or grounded in real harm and oppression, but when we disregard those grievances because of the way that terrorists attempt to address them, we only feed the oppression that they experience. When we fight them, we legitimize their use of violence and their claims of oppression, which only helps them recruit more frustrated and oppressed people to their cause.

Disregarding the cause of terrorists causes us to make stupid, unsustainable reductions about their motives. We say “they hate freedom,” as if that even makes sense. This general sense that terrorists and their struggles are illegitimate has led us to use the term “terrorist” as a blanket term for anyone we deem illegitimate, even our own people. We use the word, poorly defined, in legislation such as C-51 to refer to anyone who “interferes with critical infrastructure” such as oil pipelines. C-51 and other laws strip “terrorists” of basic legal and human rights, allowing them to be arrested and held without charge, surveilled without warrants, and even possibly tortured. Our attempts to control terrorists tends to stir up more dissent, both abroad and at home, and the broad net cast over “terrorism” keeps getting broader.

Why can’t we control terrorists? Because they do not conform to our nation-state-centric, just-war governed world. Terrorism is warfare for the globalized world, in which combatants are not representative of a nation state with a clearly defined border, but rather represent ideas and cultures that move freely around the world. The tactics of terrorism were developed in insurgencies, where the governing force has difficulty distinguishing between enemy combatants and civilians. Enemy combatants are no longer marching over a border from another nation state, they are springing up among us.

This puts us in an impossible situation, because we are fighting a 21st century war, with 21st century technology, on 19th century terms. We use invasion and occupation to attempt to control enemies whose tactics were designed specifically for such situations. We try to use conventional combat to fight insurgents and guerrilla fighters, not unlike the British and French lining up on fields to shoot at each other in a gentlemanly sort of way, while their Indigenous enemies laid ambushes and hamstrung their supply lines.

This is not to say that we haven’t innovated to deal with the situation. The US has used drone strikes incessantly over the past several years to hit priority targets without engaging in open combat. As Noam Chomsky points out, this is our own brand of terrorism:
“A drone strike is a terror weapon, we don’t talk about it that way. It is; just imagine you are walking down the street and you don’t know whether in 5 minutes there is going to be an explosion across the street from some place up in the sky that you can’t see. Somebody will be killed, and whoever is around will be killed, maybe you’ll be injured if you’re there. That is a terror weapon. It terrorizes villages, regions, huge areas. It’s the most massive terror campaign going on by a long shot.”
There have also been efforts to combat ideology, usually in the form of building schools and promoting educational programs, but more often it’s simply talk. How can we speak meaningfully of undermining extremist ideologies when we’re actively bombing a region? Other less violent solutions involve training locals to fight, and arming them to do so, but that runs into the danger of using local populations to wage a proxy war, as the US did against the USSR in Afghanistan, training and arming Osama bin Laden in the process.

Our conscience and economy demand action, but our outdated mindset on nation states and just war force us into violent conflict against an enemy that does not wage war by our rules and is often indistinguishable from our own peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Perhaps it’s finally time to give nonviolent conflict resolution a chance.

What is Nonviolence?

Nonviolence is a conflict style, an ethical choice, a way of life. For some, nonviolence extends to all aspects of life, leading some nonviolence practitioners (notably Dukhabors and some Buddhists) to veganism; for most, nonviolence is a commitment to refusing to perpetuate the cycle of violence – because violence always begets more violence. But nonviolence is not just a refusal to participate in violence, it is also the active opposition to evil without committing evil. It is not the avoidance of conflict, but rather an attempt to foster healthy conflict resolution that does not escalate to violence.

A prominent myth of pacifism or nonviolence is that it is passive, and that it is weak. It is neither: nonviolent direct action takes incredible courage and enormous amounts of work, just as fighting a war does. Most of us assume that nonviolence involves being vulnerable to the attacks of others, and this is true – but the opposite assumption, that having weapons or using violence provides safety, is not true; nonviolence recognizes that weapons and the threat of violence only increase the danger of any given situation, and works to de-escalate conflict.

An important point about nonviolence is that it sees the very notion of just war as hypocritical: there’s a big difference between violence being necessary to meet a goal and violence being justified. One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who, in spite of his commitment to pacifism, took part in a conspiracy that ended up attempting to kill Hitler on more than one occasion. While it is not clear whether Bonhoeffer himself was in favour of those assassination attempts, what is clear is that he accepted his guilt, not only before men but also before God. When we commit violence, its necessity does not get us off the hook. We must always consider our own guilt when we count the cost of violent action.

Another important point about nonviolence is that while it should logically precede just war – which is supposed to be a last resort – it rarely does. Nonviolent direct action includes an entire toolkit of tactics and strategies that are rarely used, but when they are used they are found to be at least as successful as more violent strategies. Going back to WWII for another example, the Scandinavian nations were able to save most of their Jewish citizens despite the fact that they did not offer much in the way of violent resistance to the Nazis. Instead, they used nonviolent strategies such as diplomacy, negotiation, and sabotage, making a full invasion too costly to be worthwhile.

Nonviolent direct action was instrumental in the liberation of India from centuries of British rule (thanks to Ghandi), the enfranchisement of Black Americans under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the fall of South African apartheid through leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the removal of several dictators in the recent Arab Spring, to name just a few. While violent revolutions tend to lead to counter-revolutions as other powers rush in to fill the power vacuum left by the deposed rulers, nonviolent direct action tends to build movements that result in lasting cultural change.

Can a Nation Act Nonviolently?

Nonviolence is easier to understand as a personal choice or way of life than as a national defence strategy. After all, a nation must defend its people, and there may be foreign threats to our safety that are not concerned about using violence against us. But this feeling, this fear of outside threats, is a reflection of our assumptions about nation states and the other – and as we’ve seen, some of those assumptions need updating. In the age of terrorism, a standing army is not a particularly effective safety measure. In spite of having the biggest and most expensive military in the world, more Americans die at the hands of neighbours with handguns than in war on the other side of the world. There are mass shootings every single day in the US, and a vast majority of those have nothing to do with terrorism at all; ideological terrorism is indistinguishable in result from racism, sexism, homophobia, deluded narcissism, drunken arguments, or road rage – all of which end in seemingly random killing. Our primary enemies are not other nations at all, but rather our very selves: whether because of ideologies found online that influence people toward extremism, or simple ignorance, hatred, and drunkenness, our greatest threat of violence is domestic.

Even so, let’s think about what kind of nonviolent practices Canada could employ. Here are a few:

First, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Armed conflict doesn’t come out of nowhere, and helping others to address their needs and crises goes a long way toward developing international goodwill and alliances. Until recently, Canada has always had a sterling reputation: we are global leaders who contribute disproportionately to international causes. We have the opportunity to use trade as a tool of economic development rather than strictly for enriching our own economy, and we should strive to exceed the UN target for aid contributions of 0.7% of GDP (we’re currently at 0.24%, well below the average). The world is better with Canada in it, and we should strive to be more valuable to others than our natural resources and empty land would be if we were destroyed. Our ability to share and to welcome outsiders is the greatest defence strategy we could ever have, and our current opportunity to welcome in refugees is an excellent place to start rebuilding our reputation.

We’ve already seen that terrorism is often home-grown, the result of ideas that spread across traditional boundaries such as borders and cultures and that are fed by legitimate grievances. One prominent grievance is cultural marginalization. Canada has a history of cultural marginalization, from the attempted cultural genocide perpetrated against our Indigenous peoples, to the cultural and language division between English and French, to common attitudes toward Muslims and visible minorities. If you don’t think that Canada is a racist place, you haven’t been on Facebook lately. Cultural marginalization breeds extremism, so a national conversation about our so-called mosaic of cultures is an important step toward not only a more friendly Canada, but also a safer, less extreme Canada. As we welcome Syrian refugee families over the next few years, we have an excellent opportunity to reach out and grow in our understanding of a different culture, and through that to reduce cultural marginalization in general in Canada.

And speaking of legitimate grievances, let’s stop bombing people. Violence begets violence, and the Parliament Hill shooter was very clear in his pre-rampage message when he said that he was doing this because we were bombing Muslims in other countries. He was right – we were. Now we’re pulling out of that mission, in spite of tremendous pressure from our citizens and our allies to continue. I applaud Mr. Trudeau’s courage in doing so. When we begin using nonviolent means by which to address or call attention to our own concerns, we will stop provoking violent opposition.

Second, the use of nonviolent protest, or even government campaigns, to raise awareness about important issues of the other can undermine support for terrorist organizations. People become violent or support violence when they feel like they have no other voice or options; providing or amplifying their voices by raising awareness for their issues can provide a nonviolent avenue for those frustrated by the lack of attention on their legitimate concerns. But this requires listening.

We’ve seen that the just war model cannot negotiate with terrorists for fear that doing so would legitimate an illegitimate government or institution. Nonviolence is not threatened by perceptions of legitimacy, because it is grounded in the value and sacredness of life. In the just war model, something else legitimizes a state, and therefore that state’s actions (divine right, perhaps?); in a nonviolence model, we actually have to be good and show genuine concern for our neighbours. Which means listening, negotiating, and generally treating them as if they were people. The lives of people on both sides are more valuable than nationhood or pride. That said, listening and even sharing concerns does not mean that we must agree: the aims of Daesh are simply wrong, and we should absolutely oppose them. But if we can address and draw attention to the concerns of the people of Iraq and Syria, perhaps Daesh will not be an attractive option, and they will wither from a lack of recruits and support.

Third, we can train Canadians, both civilian and military, in nonviolent conflict resolution. This means developing a pro-conflict attitude in our culture that promotes addressing conflicts in a healthy manner, without allowing them to fester or escalate. I would suggest that we begin with training our police forces in nonviolent conflict resolution, and devoting a considerable portion of our military to the same; from there we could begin national campaigns or support volunteer programs of unarmed civilian peacekeeping such as Peace Brigades International. Peace Brigades is an organization that physically “gets in the way”, providing protection to people in conflict zones by physically accompanying them; another such group is Christian Peacemakers. Another option for our military that is still potentially violent but not necessarily so, is to reinvest Canadian troops in the UN Peacekeeping forces; we used to be the number one contributor, but we haven’t been for a very long time. The Green Party also suggests that a considerable portion of our military forces be retrained as disaster relief forces; climate change will cause disasters to increase, and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable before conflict arises is a solid strategy.

Fourth, we can stop selling weapons internationally. Before losing the 2015 election a few months ago, the Conservative government worked to broker a $15 BILLION dollar purchase of Canadian military hardware by Saudi Arabia, a nation known for harbouring extremism and with a terrible record of human rights abuses. Canadian production of weapons has increased by about 5x in the past few years, we are the 12th largest exporter of weapons in the world, and we have refused to sign on to the international arms trade treaty that would prohibit the transfer of conventional weapons that promote acts of genocide or war crimes, violate arms embargoes, or be used against civilians. Those 15 billion dollars might come in handy economically, but they’re not worth as much as peace. Weapons we don’t produce can never be used against us.

These are a handful of options. There are more, and I want to encourage you all to be creative in your conflict resolution and share your ideas with your MP. But the general gist of nonviolence, as an individual or as a nation, can be summed up pretty well by Jesus: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. There is no reason why we cannot do all of those things before resorting to violent military actions; I believe that if we actually did, we would never need military actions at all.

The Aftermath

What an experience! The election is over, and I’m filled with pride, gratitude, and hope.

Pride because I’m part of something bigger than myself, something incredible: Canada, and also the Green Party of Canada; and because the people of the Green Party Provencher have bigger hopes and vision than I could have dreamed, and are already pressing me to take things further. I’m so proud of them, and proud to be their candidate.

Gratitude, because there are so many people that contributed to our campaign. Our donors and volunteers, the Executive Committee of the Green Party Provencher Riding Association, the people who came out to our events and shared their ideas with us, the people who left us encouraging emails and Facebook messages (and notified us when our signs disappeared), the other candidates (congratulations Ted, and a huge thank-you to Terry and Les for running a positive and friendly campaign!), the local media (the local papers and radio stations were great at giving us equal coverage – something the national media stopped doing with a month left in the campaign), and of course the voters who had the courage to vote Green even in a heavily Conservative riding with enormous pressure to vote strategically. I applaud those Green voters, who voted for the candidate and party they thought had the best plans and ideas when it seemed that so many others had other motivations for voting, because they understand the principles of our system and stand by them even when they’re unpopular.

And I’m filled with hope because our future looks a little bit brighter today than it did at this time last year, not necessarily because I’m excited about a majority Liberal government (though I think it’s a marked improvement on the one it will replace), but because I’ve seen so many people throughout this campaign thinking deeply and speaking articulately about the nation they live in and the issues we face. I’ve had so many people tell me that they’ve never been so informed, and that they’re hungry for more. You all have more hope than you’ve had in a long while, and that inspires hope in others, including me.

The Results

So what does the future look like for Canada? I’m sure there is no end of articles speculating about what it will be like. I do have a few thoughts on the election results though, and what that will look like both locally and nationally.

Nationally, this looks like a huge change. This is the first time in Canadian history that a third-place party has jumped to first place – and a majority government, at that! This is also the first time in Canadian history that the son of a Prime Minister has become Prime Minister. This change in party fortunes is unprecedented, even in comparison to the Orange Wave that swept Quebec in the 2011 election.

But I say it looks like a huge change because, in some ways, it isn’t. Yes, blue to red is a big change in the votes, but we’re still going from one false majority government to another. We complained for four years that the Harper Conservatives formed a majority government with only 39% of the national vote, but that’s precisely the amount that the Liberals won with last night. And a majority government behaves like…a majority government. While the Harper Conservatives behaved rather poorly much of the time, rushing omnibus bills through without proper debate and ignoring the warnings of experts in committee, and while I sincerely hope (and even believe) that the Liberals will not follow suit, the point is that a majority government doesn’t have the same accountability that a minority government does. I don’t think the Liberals will behave the same way the Conservatives did, but they could – which is why we must be vocal with our MPs, always letting them know that we’re paying attention and that we won’t tolerate bad behaviour and broken promises. Remember, the Liberals voted for C-51 and promised to fix it later, and also promised that this would be the last election with First Past the Post; hold them to it!

If the Liberals follow through on their promise to bring in electoral reform, everything about our political system will change. People will no longer be afraid to vote their heart, or feel pressured to vote “strategically” or vote against someone, and that will change the way that they vote. Greens stand to gain under proportional representation, not only because last night we would have won 10-12 seats instead of 1, but also because more people would feel empowered to vote Green. We know we’re most people’s favourite second choice; without fear of vote splitting, we’ll be a lot more people’s first choice. Parliament will no longer be polarized between two parties, as it traditionally has been, and elections will be less prone to sweeping waves of protest votes. Quality candidates and smart policies will matter more.

The Liberals are also poised to enact some Senate reform, which is hugely important. We need a sober chamber of sober second thought, and one of Trudeau’s best moves as Liberal leader (in my opinion) was to eject all Liberal senators from his caucus; there’s no room for partisanship when it comes to scrutinizing potentially partisan bills.

And finally, the Liberals have a much, much better approach to the environment than the Conservatives do. Elizabeth May will still be an outspoken critic of the government, but you can bet that her comments on environmental issues will be taken more seriously than they have been over the past four years. Stephane Dion is a brilliant environmentalist who will make a fantastic environment minister, and we’ll finally be able to make progress at an international climate change conference when we go to Paris (and it has been suggested that Elizabeth May will lead or co-lead the delegation, in a throwback to when delegations to such events were non-partisan and collaborative).

So all in all, this is very good news tempered by the possibility of seeing little real change. Time will tell, but I’m happy to give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt and say that they will show integrity and accountability in how they govern Canada. And I’m going to keep my eye on them and support my MP in valid critique of them in case they don’t. That’s how democracy works.

Locally, it looks like there was little change at all: Ted Falk received 55% of the vote instead of 58%, and the Green Party candidate received 3.9% instead of 3.6%. The Liberal and NDP vote share stayed more or less the same too, within a few percentage points. It almost makes you wonder why we bothered…except that there was very significant change in a number of ways!

First, the voter turnout jumped dramatically. In 2011, 61% of Provencher electors voted; in the 2013 by-election, only 33% did. This year 69.8% of electors voted. That means that more people are engaged and potentially holding their MP accountable. Politicians need the feedback of their constituents in order to do their job, and knowing that more people are paying attention is an important and powerful motivator. Ted Falk, take notice – because we are.

Second, Ted may have been re-elected, but he is no longer a back-bencher in a majority government, he is now a member in opposition to an even larger majority government. His role may change dramatically, and I think and hope that this means that he’ll be more able to speak on behalf of his constituents and collaborate with other parties and citizens’ groups within the riding. While our chances of getting handouts and goodies from the government has decreased (because governments tend to favour the ridings held by their own MPs), our chances of having a stronger voice in government has increased (because Harper is stepping down as leader and Ted will have to raise his voice more often in order to have much of an effect). I don’t know if Ted sees last night’s results as good news for his party, but it IS good news for Provencher, and particularly for the residents of Provencher who want their voice taken to Ottawa. We can work with Ted in a greater capacity now, and I hope he’ll be happy to have our support.

Third, and most powerfully, we are seeing the start of a Green movement in the riding. This is something you can’t see in the numbers, but if you come out to any of our events you’ll see it in the eyes of our supporters. When I started the Green Party Provencher Riding Association two years ago, just in time for the by-election, it was with the goal of creating an infrastructure to organize the Greens of Provencher and help the movement to grow, and we spent the last two years building that infrastructure. Without it we had no way of knowing who our voters were, why they voted Green, or how we could get them together. While we’re still a long way from the database and structures of the Conservatives, we’re growing in organization and making connections with more Greens all the time. And we’re growing: the small increase in percentage of the vote masks the actual numbers: we’ve jumped from over 1,100 votes to over 1,800 votes, and some of our new supporters are experiencing a personal awakening to politics, and to values that they’ve long held but had never heard a political party articulate. They want to grow in that, and they’re talking to their friends about committing to a movement, rather than just voting in an election. That’s incredibly powerful, and I’m excited to see where it will go!

If you’ve been following my blog, thank you. If you voted for me, thank you! If you’ve seen something here that inspires you to a better vision of Canada, send us an email and we’ll add you to our list. In a week or two we’ll have a meeting to decide how we can best keep this momentum going, to plan events and meetings that continue to inspire us and bring out the best in Provencher!

Thank you.

This has been an amazing experience, and I’m so blessed to get to know so many of you! Thank you for your support: you’ve taught me so much, and I’m honoured to have been your candidate!

Your friend,

Jeff Wheeldon

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