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Western responses to terrorism are based on an outdated understanding of the world and a deluded sense of self-righteousness.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.

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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

Jeff_Background1

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The Challenge of Participatory Democracy

Last Friday was the final lecture in our six-part lecture series, and everyone who came was brilliant. I’m going to post my lecture here, but I want to highlight a few things first.

I wrote this lecture to try to convince people to vote, partly because the topic of Participatory Democracy is a big one and I needed to cut it down, and partly because I wanted to combat voter apathy. I wasn’t giving them nearly enough credit. Not only were the people there excited to vote, but many of them already had, and they weren’t satisfied with leaving it there. Without any prompting from me, they started asking questions: “How do we influence our MP?” and “How can we build momentum for a Green movement after the election is over?” I felt a bit embarrassed, even – these people were calling for change, and were ready to commit to making a difference, and I was asking for the bare minimum!

And that’s just it: voting is the bare minimum. It appears that voter turnout is going to be the highest it’s been for a very long time, and that’s wonderful, but the real work starts tomorrow. They say that it takes only 3% of a population to actively change a nation, and even to non-violently take down a government(!), but the key word there is active: it takes 3% of the population working as if their lives depended on it. Voting once in four years is an important thing, but our responsibility as citizens is to remain engaged with the system, and if we want to see real change we’ll need to do even more than that. It means reaching out to your friends and neighbours, discussing ideas and issues, writing letters and petitions, planning and hosting events, and more. In the last by-election we received 3.6% of the vote – that’s enough to change our little corner of the world!

If that sounds good to you, I have good news: the Green Party Provencher Riding Association is happy to have you! We’ll be continuing to work to promote good ideas, important issues, and solutions to our collective problems. I’ll be sending out a mass email to call the Riding Association together sometime soon to discuss what we want to do over the next four years. Do you want another lecture series? A book club? Practical service projects? Fundraising dinners? We can do it together, but we can’t do it alone. If you’re in, let us know!

Now, here’s the lecture:

The Challenge of Participatory Democracy

Hello, and welcome to the final lecture in our six-part series. The lectures in this series were based on the six principle values of the Global Greens movement, an international movement of which every Green Party in the world is a part. We first heard from Karen Ridd about Nonviolence; then Wendy Peterson spoke about Embracing Diversity; Bruce Friesen-Pankratz was scheduled to speak about Sustainability, but was unable to make it, so we had a discussion about it anyway; Mona and Josiah Neufeld presented us with uncomfortable truths and stories about Social Justice; and last week Gary Martens presented on Ecological Wisdom. Each of these lecturers spoke from experience and theory about their topic, and our discussions expanded on them to include policies and economics, social psychology and philosophy. Tonight I will finish the series by discussing the value of Participatory Democracy. If you have any questions or comments throughout, feel free to ask, but we’ll also have discussion at the end.

Democracy is something we take for granted in Canada. I agree with this statement, but not in the way you might think. We’ve all heard it said that Canadians take democracy for granted, and that that’s why only 60% of us usually vote, and there may be some truth in that, but I think it’s actually much more complicated. Some people choose not to vote, or to spoil their ballot, because they take democracy quite seriously and feel that there are no options presented that are worthy of their vote; others fail to take democracy seriously when they do cast their ballot, voting for candidates they know nothing about, voting based on a party leader rather than their local candidate, or voting based on a single policy or issue without considering the overall best interests of themselves, their region, or their country as a whole. Either way, both voters and non-voters often take our democracy for granted, and this puts our democracy in danger: in both cases, politicians are not held accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. So let’s look at our political system, including its logic, the role of the representative, our method of choosing representatives, the role of political parties, and the nonsensical nature of the political spectrum, before looking at what we can do to preserve and reform our democracy.

The Logic of Democracy

The logic of democracy is fairly clear: it is government by the people. But let’s break that down.

Government is what we call it when we all work together in a formal way to combine resources and set rules that benefit us all, and to thereby accomplish things that we would be otherwise unable to accomplish. Government is us, but we more often hear people referring to government as “them”. This is a sign that our democracy is breaking down, but we’ll get to that; the important point right now is that any time we work together and pool resources, we are acting politically and participating in government. This is true whether we do so voluntarily or involuntarily, and by whatever means a particular government may use to bring such a situation about.

Democracy is when we participate in government voluntarily, and in relative detail by choosing representatives to make decisions on our behalf. Historically most people voluntarily submitted to the king or queen in a monarchical government; but they did not decide who their monarch would be, nor did they have any say in what decisions the monarch would make. A king acts for the good of the people, but not on their behalf; they are his subjects, and he looks after them not unlike the way he looks after his horses – they are his to command, and his to kill if he deems it necessary. In a democracy, our rulers do not own us, but rather represent us and are accountable to us. It is through our representatives that we are able to participate in decisions about how to govern our own society.

Let’s give an example. Most of you are from Steinbach: how many of you think it’s a good idea to build a performing arts centre? How many of you think it’s a bad idea? By raising your hands just now, you’ve done something political. But note the trade-off that comes with democracy: we are all bound by the will of the majority, which means that even if many of us think it’s a terrible idea to build a performing arts centre, we will still contribute to that project financially (through our taxes) if the majority approves it. This is why we tend to get upset when we feel that the government does not represent us, but we’ll get to that. We all have a stake in virtually every decision the government makes on our behalf, which is why communication between elected representatives and their constituents is so crucial. If constituents are not aware of the issues being decided upon, they cannot communicate their interests to their representative; and if the representative does not act in the best interests of his or her constituents, but they never hear about it, there is no possibility for accountability.

The Representative

The role of a representative is to represent their constituents – that much seems obvious. But what does that mean? The Reform Party, which no longer exists, championed “direct democracy” – that is, they wanted a referendum on just about everything, so that we could all vote on nearly every issue that ever came up. That would certainly be democratic, but it would also be difficult to manage: referendums are costly and time consuming, and the purpose of having a representative is so that we don’t need to invest that time and money and mental energy to make such decisions for ourselves. The mental energy is key: political decisions are often complex, and the time and energy and education it would take for all of us to make sound decisions on every issue is beyond the capacity of our society to maintain. In a direct-democracy system we’d either all be philosophers who live in caves because we have no time for anything but debating the issues, or we’d have a government that functions with a mob mentality based on the quick decisions of busy people. Neither is a good alternative.

The point of having representatives is that their full-time job becomes researching the issues, presenting them to their constituents for feedback, and employing wisdom to come to a solution that represents the best interests of their constituents and, if possible, also meets with their approval. It is important to note that these are not always the same thing: sometimes the decision we most need is not the one we want. This is the tragedy of democracy: while it can channel our best tendencies, it can also reflect our worst. More than one good politician’s career has ended because they made the right call even when it was unpopular, and more than one lousy representative’s career has been made by appealing to what is popular. Which brings us to the question of how we choose our representatives.

Choosing a Representative

Anyone who wants to become a Member of Parliament can do so, provided they are a Canadian citizen and can manage to collect 100 signatures to submit to Elections Canada. Choosing a good candidate is arguably much more difficult: with so many issues, and so many ways of approaching those issues, it can be difficult to find a candidate who has the same views that you do. Most of the time we make compromises, finding a candidate whose views are generally similar and living with the differences; this is where political parties come in handy, and we’ll talk about them in a moment. But we also need to consider the candidate’s ability to do the job: are they a good communicator? Do they understand the issues well? Are they wise? Are they successful in their previous or current profession, and does that profession and its required skills and knowledge relate at all to the work an MP performs? Given that an MP is supposed to represent the interests of their constituents, their personal suitability for the job is arguably much more important than their own personal views.

The suitability of the candidate is so central and important that it was traditionally considered long before any party affiliations. Political parties are a way of organizing MPs who are united in basic views, which is very useful for helping voters choose someone with similar views as them but not at all helpful in deciding who is the best qualified candidate. Political parties are not an official aspect of Canadian democracy, do not appear in the Canadian constitution, and until the 1960’s they did not even appear on the ballot after the candidate’s name. It was assumed, back then, that we were paying close enough attention that we would know who the candidates were, including knowing which party they may be affiliated with. The ridings were smaller back then too, so people had a better chance of knowing their candidates personally, but the point is that primary importance was placed on the candidate themselves, not on the party with which they affiliate.

Political Parties

Don’t get me wrong: political parties are useful for providing focus for our ideals and promoting greater cooperation in decision making. But they only remain useful if they are actually doing those things, and we’ve run into a few pitfalls with them. Political parties simplify the process of choosing a candidate because they give us a sense of the views and ideals of the candidate; but if we identify a candidate primarily by their party affiliation, the qualifications of individual candidates matter less and less, and eventually candidates from the same party become interchangeable. This situation is reinforced by the fact that political parties have taken on more and more power by creating internal rules and structures that govern which of their members are allowed to speak, what they’re allowed to say, and how they will vote on the issues. This renders candidates from a particular party completely interchangeable because they are unable to exercise wisdom or discernment in their decision making (as they’re told how to vote) or their communication skills to keep the electorate informed (as they’re required to only voice the official position of the party). This is the state of party politics in Canada today, and the Green Party is the only major party that refuses to put party politics ahead of the best interests of constituents. This is a major reason why I chose the Green Party.

Another serious issue with party politics is that the way in which a party simplifies the voting process by consolidating views and values into one group has a dumbing-down effect. Imagine choosing between several candidates without any party affiliations: you would look at their individual qualities and views, and treat it much like you were about to hire someone (which is effectively what we’re collectively doing). The process is much easier if you can simplify all of a person’s characteristics down to a few categories or issues, which is what party affiliation does. But there are still many different ways of viewing the world, and a political party that wants to reach a majority of voters will try to appeal to as many of them as possible. In order to do so, it must make its categories or issues as broad and vague as possible, to give the most possible people the sense that their views fit best with this party. As parties reach across the political spectrum and become more generic, they inevitably either become interchangeable with each other (yet still competitive with each other), or completely polarized in their views. Or sometimes, oddly enough, both at the same time.
Canada has a number of political parties, but we’ve historically only been ruled by two of them: the Conservatives, or Tories, who have had many different names and incarnations throughout our history; and the Liberals, or Grits, who are the longest-running party in Canadian politics and the party that has ruled the most. They are named after the two sides of the political spectrum: liberal and conservative.

The Political Spectrum

The political spectrum, or vote compass, is another way of simplifying the voting process. In general, liberals value freedom, equality, and fairness while conservatives value authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Of course, both sides value all of those things in different amounts, but the terms liberal and conservative are generally applied to the two ends of the spectrum and used to emphasize differences in views. But what does it mean to be a liberal? Up until the 20th century, it primarily referred to trade: liberals were people who believed in a free market to increase investment, while conservatives preferred systems of tariffs that protected their industries and promoted savings. But around the start of the 20th century, the term “liberal” began to refer to social liberalism, or the belief that the government shouldn’t control people’s private choices. By the end of the 20th century, “liberalism” usually referred exclusively to social liberalism and was associated with socialism, which prefers tariffs to protect industry – a traditionally conservative strategy. Meanwhile, conservative parties have completely embraced the free market, and subscribe to “neo-liberal” economics. So liberals are socially liberal and economically conservative, while conservatives are socially conservative and economically liberal. But the Liberal Party of Canada is socially and economically centrist, and the Conservative Party of Canada is economically liberal and refuses to discuss social issues at all (except crime, I suppose). So what does it mean to be liberal or conservative? Not much.

One of the reasons that I joined the Green Party is that we get out of this tangled mess of terminology. We are often characterized as being a far-left party, which is to say very liberal; but our actual policies fall all across the spectrum. We are fiscally conservative: we want to pay down debt and implement sustainable resource and spending strategies. Socially, we fall all across the spectrum: many of our ideas are quite progressive, but often by applying progressive means to reach traditionally conservative ends (such as trying to make progress on the issue of abortion by dealing with poverty and health issues that often lead to abortions, rather than insisting on controlling women’s behaviour). It seems to me that the other parties have founded their identities on being left-wing or right-wing or centrist, but we’ve founded our identity on fundamental values – the six values that this lecture series is based on. This gives us the freedom to get out of the political spectrum altogether and focus our attention on the issues that Canada faces and the best ways to address them, regardless of which end of the spectrum those ideas may come from.

A Team Sport

So, back to democracy. We’ve seen that the use of political parties and positions on the political spectrum can help us to simplify the task of deciding how to vote. Unfortunately, they can also reduce politics to a team sport: we all choose our colour, sometimes with very little reasoning, and we tend to stick with that colour regardless of the merits of the candidates or the platforms of the parties. Then we can root for our team, and hate on the other teams, without having to make sound judgments about the issues.

If you think that this is a strange analogy, I should point out that it’s not mine: politicians have used the analogy to justify voting against the best interests and will of their constituents for the sake of promoting party politics. And as long as we see it that way, we’ll continue to root for our team even when they’re not winning for us; too often, we become the Leafs fans of politics. But this isn’t a game, it’s our life. And as long as we continue to cheer for our team rather than engaging with the process, our politicians can get away with an awful lot.

This same kind of tribalism also often causes us to hate the other teams with as little thought or analysis as we used to decide which team to cheer for. It also causes us to treat a government led by the other team as a “them” rather than an “us”, and this often leads to a conflicted relationship with our government. We begin to see the government as someone who wants to take our money, rather than as the embodiment of our collective participation and best interests to which we would voluntarily contribute. The only way we can hold the government to account at that point is to tell them how angry we are – but as long as we’re caught up in the team-sport tribalism mentality, they can keep our anger directed at the other teams, and it doesn’t actually affect the actions they take with our money. We can never hold the government to proper account so long as it is a “them”; accountability must be something that we collectively do.

Corruption

When we fail to hold our representatives to account, they no longer need to serve our best interests. When that happens, our system has collapsed. What do you call a representative who isn’t representing anyone? Of course, they continue to represent the best interests of someone, even if it isn’t their constituents: unaccountable representatives usually represent themselves, but also usually other powerful interests, like corporations and the wealthiest Canadians, who are always actively lobbying in their own self interests. Our representatives are supposed to lobby Parliament on our behalf, but they are also subject to lobbying, and if they’re not lobbying for us they end up lobbying for someone else.

We’re seeing the beginning of corruption in Canada right now. The Conservative government and its members have been convicted of corruption-related crimes several times: election fraud, contempt of parliament, breach of trust, and more. The fact that they were convicted says that we still have a judicial system that is able to do its job, to a limited extent; but some of these crimes occurred almost a decade ago, and we voted them in again. Twice. The second time with a majority. The courts are limited in what they can do: Dean Del Mastro went to jail, but there’s no jail sentence for Stephen Harper for his contempt of parliament, and the sentences for Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau have yet to be decided. But an unengaged electorate decided that they didn’t care enough about corruption to change the way they voted, or to show up to vote at all. What this shows politicians is that they don’t need to be moral leaders in order to rule our country.

The Fix

So how can we fix this? There are a few ways.

First, vote. Period. Whatever the result of the election is, if we had a 100% voter turnout it would tell the government that people are paying attention. When the people are watching, politicians will behave differently.

Second, make an informed choice. Weigh the track records of the parties, and stop rewarding corruption. Weigh the qualities of your local representatives, and choose someone who can do the job well. This is not the time for a team-sport tribalism mentality. If good candidates from small parties get a big chunk of the vote, it will send a message to the parties that they need to choose good candidates, and having more good candidates will lead to more MPs who speak for themselves. Weigh the platforms of the parties, and choose a party with vision rather than voting for the party that looks like they can win. If people voted for the best platform rather than the front-runner, we’d see a very different result and parties would know that they need smart policies to win rather than just divisive rhetoric.

Third, continue to be active after the election. This election has more hype and promise than any election in a long time, but I’m concerned that a lot of people who were eager to vote last weekend (3.6 million of us!) will be very disappointed on Tuesday, and will check out of the process again. Political engagement doesn’t stop when a representative is chosen, it’s just getting started! Talk to your MP, whether you voted for them or not, and let them know that you’re paying attention and want to keep their ear about issues that are important to you. When constituents do that, it helps MPs to do their job.

Fourth, ask your MP to vote in favour of Proportional Representation. This is a voting system that would replace our current first-past-the-post system. In our current system, the person with the most overall votes gets elected, regardless of the actual total percentage they receive – so it’s common for someone with only around 30% of the vote to get elected, leaving 70% of the population disappointed. In proportional representation, parties would get a share of the seats that is proportionate to their share of the votes. By current polls, the Green Party is estimated to win one seat in this election even though we’d get around 5% of the total national vote; in PR, we’d get 15 seats. But more than that, with PR people would change the way that they vote: as it stands, people want to vote for someone who has a chance of winning, but PR would more or less take that out of the equation, empowering people to vote their heart or their conscience. Polls show that the Green Party is the most commonly listed 2nd choice, which makes me wonder: if they thought we had a shot at winning, would we be their first choice?

Finally, join a political party that inspires you. A major indicator of the strength of a party is the number of members that they have – people who are willing to spend ten bucks and identify themselves with a party. It’s a relatively small step, but it helps the party to identify their supporters and engage them to make a difference in the next campaign. It also sends a signal to the other parties that maybe this party has a lot of good ideas that are worth stealing!

Thanks for taking your time to engage with me tonight; please be sure to take the time to engage the process on Monday and cast a ballot.

Thanks everyone! It’s been brilliant getting to know you. Make sure you vote today, and vote your heart! Vote for vision. Vote Green.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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On Priorities

I’ve quickly discovered, running as a Green candidate, that the larger parties set the conversation topics around election time. So long as we’re talking about what they’re talking about, we’re part of the national conversation and get a decent amount of press coverage; but if the larger parties get distracted by side issues and partisan rhetoric and we try to steer the conversation toward more important matters, we get dropped form the news cycle because we’re no longer part of the story. The story is whatever the larger parties, and in particular the current ruling party, are doing. Even in my own riding, where I am pleased to be interviewed on a weekly basis, the interviews are often largely asking me to respond to the issues the other parties bring up (though not always – I’ve really appreciated the coverage that The Carillon has been giving to the election campaign).

The way we fit into the media cycle became quite clear to me the other night as I was on my way to meet a supporter and deliver some signs. It was pouring rain and pitch black out, but I took comfort from The Current Review, one of my favourite shows on current events. The host was talking to a panel about healthcare in Canada, and they were hitting on all of our Green policies: pharmacare, home care, palliative care. They could have been reading straight from our platform a lot of the time. But the panel members lamented that no political parties have a vision for this type of thing – nobody is talking about healthcare, they complained. Through the whole episode I was just waiting for someone to mention the Green platform by name, but that mention never came. But there was a flash of hope: the host mentioned that the next day there would be a panel of political candidates! We’d get to point out that we DO have a vision for these things! But alas, my hopes were dashed: “…we’ll have a panel of the three major political parties to talk about healthcare….” Three major parties? Finally the story was about something important, something we’ve said a lot about, and we were denied the chance to comment.

I’m not writing this to say “woe is me,” but in a system of politics that depends largely on simple public recognition, getting mentioned on a national radio show holds a lot of power. The Green Party has the most ambitious and concrete vision for Canada, but that doesn’t matter if nobody hears about it. But to get any mention in the media, we have to be commenting on whatever the larger parties’ leaders are talking about rather than our vision and ideas. We’re left with a choice between promoting important ideas in obscurity, or making headlines talking about sensational issues that have nothing to do with this election, like niqabs.

So knowing that the party leaders of the three largest parties are able to set the media agenda, and through that to decide what Canadians will be talking about and thinking about as they decide who will represent them in Parliament and, ultimately, who will govern the country, I can’t help but wonder: what are the priorities of the other parties?

The biggest expenses our government faces are always healthcare, education, military, and judicial (mostly prisons). At the same time, we’re facing several crises that are either currently exploding or soon will be: climate change, the aging baby boomers, and refugees. All of these expenditures and issues are crucial to the role of the federal government. But what have the three largest political parties been talking about?

  1. The Economy. Everyone is always talking about the economy. When they do, they talk a lot about the number of jobs that have been lost or created, the amount of imports and exports, whether or not the budget is actually balanced, and the Gross Domestic Product and whether or not we’re technically in a recession. All of that is fine and good, except that none of it is particularly important on an aggregate level on a week-to-week basis, or even a year-to-year basis. It doesn’t really matter if the budget is balanced this year, the problem is that it was in severe deficit for the previous eight; it doesn’t really matter how many jobs were created this month, the problem is that overall employment is still too low and the jobs that are being created are largely not as high-paying or meaningful as the ones that were lost; and the government doesn’t actually control these things anyway! The most the government can do to influence the Canadian economy is create incentives and disincentives through taxes or tax breaks, or by setting interest rates, and then wait and see what happens.

So the never-ending conversation about the economy amounts to throwing numbers around and trying to predict things that we can’t control. Meanwhile, the very structure of our economy is about to be challenged by the aging of the workforce and the oncoming retirement of the baby boomers. The viability of our economy is currently being challenged by climate change, and we know that it’s going to get a lot more challenging if we don’t act now. The shift from a carbon-based economy to a clean-energy economy is the biggest economic shift, and therefore the biggest economic opportunity, since the industrial revolution. And the refugee crisis, largely caused by climate change in the first place, also presents us with the economic challenge of settling tens of thousands (or more) people into our nation, and the economic opportunity that increase in population will bring us provided we can integrate them into our economy through recognition of their learning and credentials and ongoing education and professional development to adjust to their new context. But who’s talking about all of that when they talk about the economy? The Green Party is, but when we do so we’re off the narrative, and shut out of the media cycle.

  1. Niqabs. Seriously, this has been the biggest issue of the campaign so far, except maybe for the nebulous talk of the economy. There have been opinion polls that show that the Conservatives and the Bloq Quebecois have gained significant popularity since this issue came up – but it’s an issue that actually only affects two Canadians thus far. Yes, two women in Canada’s history have insisted on the right to wear garments they feel inspired to wear out of respect for their God while they swear a citizenship oath. It’s a baseless issue, but even the question of whether or not it’s an important issue is getting more attention than things that are absolutely important issues – like healthcare, education, climate change, and the necessity of a national seniors strategy.

  2. Whatever the other party is saying. I get that it’s necessary to differentiate yourself from your opponents during an election, and that means being critical of the platforms of the other parties. We all do it, and it serves a function if it’s done well. But the message that’s been most clearly sent in this election isn’t about any particular issue, or about any party’s particular plan; the central message of this election that most people have received (including some of the kids in the public schools I’ve spoken in this week, who can quote the ads verbatim) is that Justin Trudeau is “just not ready”, and that Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau all seem to hate each other. They do a better job of pulling each other down than they do of informing people of their actual platforms. Props to the Carillon for running a story this week asking high school students what they think about the election; their question was, why all the mud-slinging? Teenagers want to know what the parties stand for, not who they stand against.

And while we’re on the subject of promoting platforms, here’s an interesting fact: in spite of the excessive length of this election campaign (the longest in Canadian history), the Conservatives and NDP waited until yesterday, the first day of advanced polls, to actually release their platforms in full. We’ve had almost ten weeks of campaigning, and they waited until the last week of the campaign to show the nation their full strategy. The Liberals released their full platform a few weeks ago, and the Greens released our platform six weeks ago, fully costed and with an independently reviewed budget, because we believe that the point of an election campaign is to give voters the chance to actually hear what we’re proposing to do for the country and compare that to the strategies of the other parties in order to decide what they think is best. How can we have an informed electorate if the two biggest parties don’t release their plans until the last minute, and continue to lead the media cycle down rabbit trails instead of actually talking about their platforms?

Some of you may have already voted, as the advanced polls opened yesterday. I’ll be going to my advanced poll today. When you make your mark, consider what you know about the parties and their priorities. Are they spending their time informing you about real issues, or incensing you about cultural concerns that you’ll probably never actually have to deal with? Are they planning for the future, or fighting for prominence in the present? The spectacle of it all is like team sports, and many politicians (and voters) treat it that way, but this is not a game. This is our life, our nation, our world, and we need people who can lead us and keep us informed, people with a plan for the present and the future. “Without vision, the people will perish;” so what vision and priorities have the different parties presented you with?

You can see the Green Party platform here, and the full Vision Green policy document (available year round, not just the week before an election) here. Take another look, compare it to the other party platforms, and vote for the vision that inspires you to make your community, nation, and world better. And let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issues and platforms!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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TPP, Globalized Trade, and Resiliency

This morning the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was signed. This is the biggest trade agreement in the world, covering 40% of global trade and including 12 nations, including Canada, the US, Mexico, Japan, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam. Previously, the biggest trade agreement that Canada was a part of was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but since the TPP also includes the US and Mexico, it will supersede NAFTA.

There are a lot of people analyzing this deal today, saying whether it will be good or bad for Canada. Here are some highlights. There has also been much said about the nature of free trade in general, and even the Trans Pacific Partnership specifically. (I highly recommend you check out this link – it’s a comic about global trade, and specifically the TPP, and it is very informative).

The details of the deal are finally being made public (after it is signed, go figure), and it’s not looking good for our dairy and chicken markets – both of which are huge in Provencher – and our auto sector, which is the largest employer in Canada. But completely aside from the details of the deal, I see big problems with it. These problems have to do with the nature of globalization, trade agreements, transportation, and climate change, as well as with the way the Harper government has handled trade.

Problem #1: Secrecy and Manipulation

This trade agreement has been in negotiation in some form for almost a decade, but we’re only hearing details about it now, after it has been signed. There was no public consultation, and not even a motion in Parliament – though Harper is NOW saying that he’ll propose a motion to ratify it, after he’s signed it. If we had known the details, the question of how to approach it would have been an election issue; because we did not, the only election issue is take-it-or-leave-it. The NDP are saying leave it; the Conservatives are saying take it; and the Liberals are saying wait and see. This will define the rest of the election, with the Conservatives pushing the increased prosperity that they believe always comes with trade agreements, and claiming that the NDP will ruin us all by refusing to participate in it. It’s a false choice that we’re being pushed into, and it’s extremely clever of Mr. Harper to do so, but it’s incredibly manipulative. It’s presenting us with a choice between prosperity and poverty, at least on the surface, and most of us don’t know enough about economics to debunk the political rhetoric that’s already starting to come out about it. We’ll just have to choose which leader we believe, and vote for them; but it seems clear that Harper is the safer choice, given the situation, because the risk of not being involved in the world’s biggest trade deal is scarier than the status quo that Mulcair is offering. But this is a false choice, because…

Problem #2: Trade Deals Don’t Always Increase Trade

Since becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has signed Canada into dozens of trade agreements with 39 nations. Not all of them have benefited Canada. Just this morning on CBC’s The Current, an economist explained that since signing a trade agreement with South Korea, our imports from there have increased significantly while our exports there have stayed flat. Just because there are no trade barriers doesn’t mean that people there actually want our products. When they work, that’s great! When they don’t, it’s a risk for nothing.

Problem #3: Trade Deals Aren’t Always In Our Best Interests

Free trade agreements are never actually free. They are carefully negotiated agreements to reduce certain tariffs (taxes on imported goods) and other trade barriers. If it were truly “free trade” there would be nothing to negotiate: each nation would completely remove all tariffs and other protections for their own nation’s industries, period. But that never happens, and the negotiation sets the terms for the economic relationship that follows. Depending on how well the deal is negotiated, we might do very well – or we might do very poorly.

Take, for example, Mexico and NAFTA. Before NAFTA, many Mexicans survived on subsistence agriculture and the export of corn. Corn has long been a staple crop in Mexico, with thousands of varieties and a deep connection to Mexican culture. But in the negotiation of NAFTA, the US managed to maintain the ability to heavily subsidize their corn crops, while Mexico removed trade barriers for agricultural products, which led to a situation in which it was cheaper for Mexicans to buy American corn than to even plant their own corn. A way of life for thousands of Mexicans was routed, and the number of Mexicans trying to find a way into America skyrocketed. While there are surely hundreds of factors involved (not just corn), Mexico is now largely run by drug cartels and the US is talking about spending billions on building a wall all along the Mexican border, and I can’t help but think that the shift from a farming economy in northern Mexico to unemployment or factory work (as Canadian and US manufacturers set up in Mexico for lower labour costs) factors into this somehow. Of course that’s difficult to prove, but my point here is that the way a trade deal is negotiated can have effects that go far beyond any particular industry or product.

I have a book called Smart Globalization: The Canadian Business and Economic History Experience, which makes the case that Canada has historically only signed onto trade agreements when they were clearly beneficial to Canada. In the past nine years Stephen Harper has signed trade deals with 39 nations without the input of Parliament, which means that our system for ensuring that something is in Canada’s best interests (i.e., the system of regional representation called Parliament) was bypassed. Can we really be sure that all of these agreements are tilted in our favour?

Problem #4: Trade Deals Limit Sovereignty

The goal of a trade deal is to set clear boundaries that nations cannot cross in regard to how they regulate industry and trade, and to ensure that those boundaries are firm enough that investors can trust that they will not change. For example, the trade deal that Stephen Harper signed with China will take us decades to withdraw from even if we start immediately. We can’t simply back out, and we can’t change the terms unless China agrees. If we wanted to change the terms because it turned out to be bad for us, then that would mean that it was very, very good for China, so why would they agree to change it? In this sense, trade agreements are laws that govern the actions of nations, and therefore overrule national laws.

This is particularly dangerous because we live in a rapidly changing environment, especially due to climate change. If we decide to enact regulation on an industry that is affected by a trade deal for the sake of preserving our environment, for example, we are open to being sued by any industry from the other nation that is currently, or even could someday be, profiting from that industry. We’ve been sued numerous times under NAFTA, and BC was recently threatened with a lawsuit because it refused to export water to the US. Much of BC and the US west coast are in a drought; one would think that bottled water sales should take a back seat to conservation in a drought, but NAFTA has no such provisions. If Canadian municipalities, provinces, or our federal government were to legislate regulations on polluting industries, such as putting a price on carbon at the source, we could face serious economic consequences because of our trade agreements. There are enough economic arguments against taking action on climate change without adding the threat of getting sued in a secret international trade court that supersedes the power of our own government.

Problem #5: The Nature of International Trade

International trade functions on the economic system of “comparative advantage” (for a full rundown on how this works, see the Economix link at the beginning of this post). The gist is that some places are better at producing some products than other places. We all have our strengths, and it’s comparatively cheaper to produce palm oil in Costa Rica than it is to produce it in Canada, while it is cheaper to produce seal skins in Canada than in Costa Rica. Therefore, it is economically advantageous for both Canada and Costa Rica to trade with each other than to produce each others’ products. The argument makes sense economically, but there are a number of problems with it:

a. Comparative Advantage is calculated almost entirely in financial terms

It really comes down to “is it cheaper to make this here, or can we save money by getting it from China?” But what if it wasn’t just about what is cheaper? What if we were actually concerned about the environmental or human rights issues in these other countries? You can, of course, try to reduce social and environmental costs to financial terms by putting prices on them, but then you run into the problem of commodifying the commons: is it really a good idea to make clean air and water into something to be traded on an international market? Not really, even if it were possible; can we really put a dollar figure on the forests that were lost in Costa Rica to plant row upon row of oil palms? For the most part, we do the opposite: environmental and social costs are externalities, which is another way of saying that we don’t even count them – we have removed them from the equation, leaving them to be paid by the poor, or by our children or grandchildren.

b. Comparative Advantage on a global scale depends on cheap transportation

Transportation is shockingly cheap, when it’s scaled up to the level of global trade. There are apples that are grown in England, shipped to South Africa to be waxed, and then shipped back to England to be sold and eaten. Because they’re being shipped on a massive scale, and alongside other more profitable goods, the cost to transport them back and forth is almost negligible in terms of dollars and cents. But when it comes to the environmental cost of shipping a product around the world in order to shave a penny off of its per unit price, it’s astronomically wasteful and leads to some strange contradictions. For example, take a hybrid car: made with a hybrid electric engine to save on fuel consumption, the amount of fuel consumed in the process of collecting its various parts from their place of manufacture around the world actually eliminates most fuel savings and resulting lower carbon footprint the hybrid engine may have provided. And what happens when we run out of oil, or when oil becomes so expensive that shipping is no longer so financially viable? (We can make electric cars, but electric container ships? We have a lot of work to do to innovate ourselves out of this hole.) We’ll lose an awful lot of comparative advantage at that point – so what will happen to our trade deals then?

c. Comparative Advantage destroys resilience

The more we trade with outside nations under the logic of comparative advantage, the more we’ll focus on our strengths, which means we’ll invest more and more into a few profitable industries. We all know the primary product of Saudi Arabia is oil, but what else do they produce? Can their economy survive without oil? What will happen to them when they run out, or if there’s a war and their oil wells are set on fire, or if the rest of the world weans itself off of oil? The more we depend on a few products, the less resilient our economy is. Taken to its ultimate end, comparative advantage can lead to every nation in an interdependent state of vulnerability.

Take the Irish Potato Famine as an example. All of Ireland was producing the same kind of potato – one product that employed 2/5 of the population. It just so happened that a particular type of potato bug liked to eat that kind of potato. Had they been growing several varieties of potato, the bugs wouldn’t have spread so quickly or eaten so many potatoes (they only like the one kind); had they been growing crops other than just potatoes, it might not have been that bad at all. Instead, a million Irish people died and another million immigrated, dropping the population of Ireland by about 1/4. England’s potatoes all came from Ireland, so their potato market would have been decimated, but they ensured enough potatoes for England by taking all of the potatoes that survived the bugs, which is why so many people in Ireland starved.

When we invest heavily in a particular industry or product, we tie our national economy to that product. In Canada, our dollar has recently dropped in value significantly, and this is due primarily to a drop in the cost of oil. While the oil sands only actually make up about 2% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), investment in that industry makes up a more significant portion of our nation’s prospects – and the drop in oil prices hurt investor confidence, sending oil stocks plummeting as fast as the international cost of a barrel, all thanks to Saudi Arabia flooding the market with their cheaper oil. Thousands of Canadians are out of work, and Canadian corporations have lost millions or billions of dollars, and the ripple effects of this are wider in our economy in general because of the degree to which we have invested in oil. If we had a more diverse investment, say, in clean energy technologies and systems, we could better respond to a change in the marketplace. That’s resilience: the ability to survive the unexpected. Diversity is the key to resilience, but comparative advantage focuses us on specialization. Canada’s specialization, it appears, is exporting our natural resources as cheaply as possible, which is not only unresilient, it is economically foolish.

Problem #6: Climate Change will Disrupt International Trade

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but South Carolina is under water. They haven’t had this much rain in a thousand years.

The thing about climate change is that it’s not just that things are getting warmer, they’re getting weirder. A small change in temperatures can change entire weather patterns, leading to stronger and less predictable storms. Is this really the best time to be increasing trade across the ocean and shackling ourselves economically to nations that are more vulnerable to climate change?

We’ve already talked about how international trade agreements put us into a state of interdependent vulnerability, but how much more vulnerable will it get if there are environmental barriers to trade? We can’t simply pretend that business will carry on as usual as the world continues to warm and weather becomes more extreme.

Conclusion

That’s enough reasons for me to think that the Trans Pacific Partnership isn’t in our best interests – because it, and trade deals like it, do not account for our changing world. We need to shift from a carbon economy to a clean energy economy, and from a consumption economy to a conservation economy, if we want to be prepared for the changing climate and do our part to minimize the change that will occur.

When you add to it the fact that the TPP endangers supply management, expands copyright on medications to keep their prices higher for longer, and threatens an open internet, it’s not just a bad deal for Canada, it’s an affront to our values: the family farm is already threatened, and this could lead to a greater industrialization of agriculture; the cost of living for our seniors is already sky-high, largely due to medication costs, and this deal will make that worse; and the internet is the greatest cultural and innovation hub in world history, and this deal will put it under the kinds of controls that restrict access, increase costs, and stifle the flourishing collaboration and community that has characterized our engagement with the internet thus far.

The Green Party has opposed this deal from the beginning. It’s not that we’re against trade – by no means! But trade deals like this go so much further than simply trade, infringing on sovereignty and having massive environmental and cultural effects. A Green government would re-open Canada’s trade agreements, renegotiating where possible to ensure we have the freedom to act to conserve resources and address climate change and injustice. We would also seek new trade agreements that address a more thoroughly assessed comparative advantage that takes the sustainability of an industry and the resilience of a nation into account. Because our best interests are always our long-term best interests.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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Abortion, Refugees, and Making Room for Moral Action

My last post on marijuana and why legalizing it is not an endorsement of it has generated a lot of interest, and I’ve received a number of emails from people asking me about my stance on abortion in light of this discussion of the limits of law in relation to morality. I really appreciate that this conversation is happening, because abortion is a very important issue to me, and one that Canadians have been increasingly polarized on for so long that we’re not going to see any change from the status quo unless a third path can be found. I believe that it can.

First, a bit of history. I grew up being an anti-abortion advocate, even choosing to debate the topic in my high school English class in order to get more people talking about it. But in all of my research into how abortions are performed and how many occur, I had never heard (until quite recently!) about why the abortion laws in Canada and the US were struck down in the first place. In large part it was because there were unintended consequences to the outright prohibition of abortion: women continued to seek abortions, but they were either performing self-abortions or were receiving unsafe abortions from back-alley black market providers, and they were dying or being seriously injured in large numbers. It was so bad that there were actually groups of Christian clergy who were helping women get safe, but illegal, abortions. They felt that what they were doing was reducing harm, rather than killing children; if a woman was desperate enough to attempt a self-abortion, it was clear that they weren’t going to be able to save the child, so they did what they could to save the woman. In all of my years of anti-abortion activism, I had never heard of this, or understood why pro-choice people framed the issue as a women’s health issue.

I bring this up because I believe in harm reduction. The interesting thing about harm reduction is that it is often portrayed as a refusal to take a moral stance on an issue; I believe it is quite the opposite, and that’s because of what I believe about the way law and morality interact.

The Morality of Law

Law is not, and cannot be, moral. Actions can be moral or immoral, and restraint can be moral or immoral, but laws are just words. It takes a person, acting or refusing to act, to be moral. A law is just or unjust based on what it requires of people: does a law require us to do something that is moral, or something that is immoral? Does a law prevent someone from doing something that is moral or immoral? Does a law result in people doing something that is moral or immoral?  Note that these three questions are all different. Let’s walk through it in relation to abortion.

We have an intention for a law, and that intention is usually based on a moral stance. In this case, we want to stop abortions because we believe that killing a human being, no matter their stage of development, is wrong. So we write a law that requires people to act in a certain way, in this case to not get or provide abortions. If it actually does prevent people from doing something immoral (killing a human fetus), and there are no other consequences, then it would be a just law. But if it doesn’t stop people from doing so, it is a flawed law – it is not enforceable. Unenforceable laws are inevitably unjust because they undermine the validity of the law in general. Visit a nation that doesn’t enforce its laws, and you’ll find that morality is actually quite relative when it comes to obeying the law, even if people otherwise have a strong sense of morality; a government that does not enforce its laws gives up its own authority, including its moral authority.

But what if the law isn’t just ineffective – what if it also has unintended consequences? In this case, prohibition of abortion was not only not preventing abortions from happening, but it was resulting in thousands of women dying or maimed by unsafe abortions. I believe that we are just as responsible for the unintended consequences of our laws as we are for the intended consequences, and that makes a law that results in maimed and dead women unjust. But questions of responsibility aside, we have to deal with the outcome either way.

So a law itself is not moral or immoral, but it does relate to actions that are moral and immoral, and it does lead to results that similarly have moral status. A situation in which millions of human fetuses are dying is profoundly immoral; but a situation in which millions of human fetuses and grown women are dying is also profoundly immoral. We cannot legislate intentions or morality, but we can write laws that create space for moral behaviour, and this is where harm reduction comes in.

Harm Reduction

You’ve probably heard the term “harm reduction” in relation to safe injection sites or sex education and free condoms, and it’s always controversial. Opponents to harm reduction say that giving someone a clean needle with which to inject their heroin is the same thing as endorsing heroin use; or that giving kids condoms is encouraging them to have sex. If you read my last post you know that I don’t agree that having a frank discussion about our choices and their consequences, and then giving people the freedom to make those choices, is the same as endorsing something. This is particularly true when we don’t actually have the ability to stop people from doing these things: we weren’t successful in stopping abortions, we’ve never been successful in stopping teenagers from having sex, and we’re incredibly unsuccessful at stopping people from smoking marijuana. Remember, if we can’t enforce a law it becomes an unjust law – and too many unjust, unenforceable laws makes for an unjust society. So while the intention of those who oppose harm reduction is to take a firm moral stance, the result is often quite the opposite: attempting to enforce unjust laws, and removing the help that we might have offered to those who are dealing with the consequences of their actions (or all too often, the actions of a rapist).

Showing mercy and grace to people who are facing the consequences of their immoral actions (or of the immoral actions of others) is deeply and profoundly Christian, perhaps more than anything else we could do. We serve a God who, “while we were yet sinners,” died for us; who forgave his executioners as they nailed him to a tree. This unbounded love for those who are living immorally or unjustly is so profound that we wear crosses around our necks and place them at the front of our churches to remember it. It is what defines us as Christians. So as a Christian who also wants to be a Member of Parliament and write just legislation, I see laws that give room for grace and mercy as deeply and profoundly moral. So what does this look like in practice, and in relation to abortion?

Refugees, and Getting Out of the Way of Morality

There was a time in which every hospital was funded by the church. In the time leading up to the social reforms of the 1960’s (the “welfare state”, healthcare, etc.), churches were divided on such measures: some saw the social gospel as filtering through all of society, so that even the government became God’s tool for serving those who needed help; others saw the government as stepping into the church’s territory, and resented the idea of things like healthcare and welfare that removed the necessity of the church’s service of the needy. As time went on we became more and more individualized, our homes have become fortresses that outsiders rarely breach for a cup of coffee, and hospitality seems a thing of the past; it appears that the role of government in supplying for the needy got the church off the hook, and we tend to this day to focus on weekly programs for our members rather than the focused service initiatives and hospitality that used to characterize Christians. I’m not saying this to lambaste the church, but only to point out that our social role has changed drastically over the past fifty years, and that is in part because of the government taking on roles we once had a monopoly on.

People are moral actors, and the church makes a point of trying to train and encourage people to act morally. Government can prohibit or enforce actions, but sometimes government can get in the way of the moral actions of people. Let’s use the current refugee crisis as an example.

It is morally unacceptable to allow people to die when we have the means to save them. It is also morally unacceptable to exclude a foreigner from our community (check Deuteronomy 10:19 or Exodus 22:21 or Leviticus 19:34 or Ephesians 2:12 if you doubt it). In spite of the fact that we know there are around 60 MILLION refugees living in crisis around the world, our government has designed our refugee system in such a way that it only brings in 10,000 refugees per year, and it takes 4-5 years and tens of thousands of dollars to get in. By definition, a refugee is someone who needs help now, and probably has few resources. Most Canadians are willing to help refugees, but this is a great example of legislation that actually prevents moral action.

There are around 25,000 churches in Canada. If every one of them sponsored one refugee family, we could bring in around 150,000 people and settle them in caring communities across the country. As an MP, I would work to reform the refugee system so that the government can get out of the way of ordinary Canadians and churches who want to do something profoundly moral and Christlike; and I would work with churches to help them navigate the system in order to bring more people in as quickly as possible.

Abortion

So what is the Green Party stance on abortion, and how would I as a Christian MP uphold morality while still upholding the law?

The Green Party stance begins with the promise to always support access to a safe abortion. This sent my red-flags up when I first read it, but knowing what I do now about the history of prohibited abortion and harm reduction, I agree with it. But my agreement with that point didn’t come until I came to terms with the rest of our stance on abortion, which is to work to address the issues that lead to unwanted pregnancies in the first place – things like poverty, women’s inequality, safety, and social supports. I would add to that list that it’s about time we had a serious conversation about the over-sexualization of our culture. These other steps are something that no other party is talking about, and what made me appreciate the Green position.

Among all of the political party positions on abortion, the Green position is the only one I think has any chance to change the status quo. While Conservatives like Ted Falk are genuinely interested in introducing abortion laws, Stephen Harper has said unequivocally that he will not re-open the issue, and while they claim to have a free vote on “matters of conscience” Conservatives still voted down a Conservative back-bencher’s private member’s bill that would have made it illegal to coerce an abortion (and I probably would have supported that bill, had I been an MP). The Liberals and NDP are firmly pro-choice, and don’t appear to be interested in dealing with unwanted pregnancies in a more compassionate way. The debate is so polarized that nobody is looking for a third way, a way to save babies AND women, except for us Greens. I think that a compromise on “principle” that leads to saving more lives is far more moral than taking a moral stand on the issue and demanding all or nothing, but Jake Epp saw what happens to people who take a middle stance on this issue – it cost him his job as MP of this riding. I hope we’ve all noticed how few lives have been saved by insisting on taking a moral stand rather than seeking a compromise; a third way is necessary to see any movement on this issue at all.

As MP for Provencher, I would work within the current abortion laws: there are none, and I see no chance of that changing any time soon (neither does Ted Falk, as he admitted at the all-candidate forum on Thursday). I would continue to ensure that safe abortions are accessible, but remember that this is a harm reduction strategy designed to save women’s lives. At the same time, I would work to create space for moral action, whether by writing bills or by simply working with community groups and churches, to provide supports for pregnant women in order to address the concerns they face. We must remember that people don’t have abortions for fun, they have them because they have serious needs that we have not addressed. The Green Party wants to implement a Guaranteed Livable Income to ensure that nobody has to live in poverty, and we have a national housing strategy to ensure that everyone has access to a safe and affordable place to live; these are the types of things that governments can do to address basic needs. We would also run public health campaigns and educate people about fertility, and introduce strategies to hold men to account for their act in producing an unwanted pregnancy.

But I would also work with churches to connect them with clinics or charities to sponsor a pregnant woman. As with refugees, if every one of the 25,000+ churches in Canada sponsored a pregnant woman we would save a lot of lives. Providing a hospitable community is something that government has never been able to do, but somehow we in the church lost track of that part of our calling as the government took over our mandate to provide hospitals and colleges. Meals, clothes, transportation, child care – these are all things that churches can offer without great cost and with great personal care and connection; but if government tries to offer them, it can only do so in impersonal, money-intensive ways. Government can never replace the church’s ability to care for people, but it can do a number of things to create space for the church to fill with love and grace, and create more justice through the combination of our efforts than we could ever hope to create alone!

This is a complicated subject, and I’m happy to discuss it further. Please leave a comment or send me an email. Together, we can make a third way that stands a chance of making a difference – for children and women.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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Morality, Marijuana, and Legislation

A comment I made recently on Facebook about marijuana prohibition brought some very negative feedback, so I thought I would elaborate on the subject a bit. I’ll also reflect on the nature of morality in legislation and legislation in public life, because that’s foundational to my view.

I’ll start this off by pointing out that I’m a Christian theologian whose research focuses on ethics. I care about ethics and morality a great deal. It seems that when people see that I am in favour of legalizing marijuana, they immediately think that I am therefore immoral; that entails a whole lot of assumptions.

Morality in Legislation

The first major assumption is that morality and legality go hand in hand. That is not the case, and I’m not sure it ever has been outside of theocratic nations. I’m sure we get the idea that immoral things should be illegal by reading Leviticus, but we don’t live in a theocracy like ancient Israel did. Our law is often based on morals, but it is just as often based on social and political goals, needs (e.g., funding needs leads to taxes), and bad precedents (i.e., a lot of legislation is in place to clean up other legislation). Not everything that is against the law is necessarily immoral, and not everything that is immoral is illegal (e.g., adultery).

In order to have just legislation it must be both just and enforceable, and must not have unintended consequences or results that cause harm. A law that is itself unjust (e.g., discriminatory, exploitative, or immoral) should not exist. But a just law that cannot hope to be enforced is also wrong, as it undermines the value of the law in general and sets up mixed expectations regarding law enforcement. A law that is only enforced part of the time is usually unjust because it lets some people get away with it while punishing others; which is not to say that having speed limits is unjust, but if every other person who was pulled over for speeding wasn’t ticketed, we’d be concerned about fairness.  But even a just law that is equally enforced can be unjust when it has unintended consequences that cause harm; this was the case with the ban on abortions, which led to thousands of women being injured or killed by botched back-alley abortions, and that’s why the law was struck down.

So laws should be moral, but are not in place to enforce morality. Morality, by its very nature, cannot be enforced. To force someone to be good robs them of the choice to be good, which is the valuable part of being good. Even God does not enforce morality.

Legality Is Not an Endorsement

There are a number of immoral things that are not illegal, and a number of illegal things that are not immoral. At the same time, something being legal does not necessarily mean that it’s something you should do. Smoking cigarettes is legal for people over a certain age, in spite of the fact that we’ve long known that doing so is a great way to shorten your life span and cost the healthcare system an incredible amount of money in the process. Smoking cigarettes is legal because making cigarettes illegal would only lead to a greater illegal trade in cigarettes, because as we know, people have difficulty quitting. Tobacco is relatively easy to grow, cigarettes are easy to roll, and the product is relatively easy to smuggle; law enforcement is not able to control cigarettes sufficiently to make it worth our while to spend money attempting the task, when it is easier instead to make them legally available within certain parameters – such as being illegal to advertise, and illegal to buy under a certain age.

I do not smoke marijuana (although I did as a teenager), and unless you have a medicinal reason, I don’t suggest you start. That said, marijuana is easy to grow and smuggle, and the current laws haven’t stopped anyone from using it, so why are we spending so much trying to control something we can’t control?

The Unintended Effect of Prohibition

 

The current laws against drugs in Canada and the US haven’t stopped us from having some of the highest rates of drug use in the world, but they’ve cost us exorbitant amounts of money and thousands of lives. This is because the absence of a legal market for drugs means that all drugs go through the black market, enriching and empowering drug cartels and biker gangs, leading to gang wars and other crimes. We saw this with alcohol prohibition, which led to the rise of the mafia in the US, and the same things are happening with the prohibition of marijuana now.

The strange thing is that such a system actually makes it easier to get the very thing we’re trying to control. When drugs are not legally available, their value goes up; this gives people incentive to grow or deal drugs. As drug dealers get better at bringing drugs into the market, the cost of those drugs goes down, making them more accessible. To keep profits up, drug cartels need to make it up in volume, so they bring in even more drugs. This results in illegal drugs being both accessible and affordable, with no restrictions on who can buy them unless the buyer gets caught by the police. There is also no quality control in place, which often leads to joints being laced with harder, more addictive drugs (marijuana on its own is impossible to overdose on, and has a very low rate of addiction; but marijuana laced with other drugs can be very dangerous).

My View of Marijuana

The Green Party of Canada has looked at the data and saw that making marijuana legal would a) no longer enrich gangs and cartels, b) generate $3 billion or more per year in tax revenue that could be spent on healthcare and education about drugs and their negative effects, c) make marijuana less accessible for kids and safer for adults, and d) save us a lot of resources as we no longer attempt to fight battles that cannot be won. Also, the data on legalization suggests that we won’t actually see a significant rise in marijuana use if it is legalized, and that over time we’ll probably see those numbers fall.

I am not a recreational marijuana advocate, but I am an advocate of legalizing marijuana. The available data says that the best solution to most of our problems with marijuana is to legalize it, and the risks associated with doing so are small. Legalization will not stop the medical issues association with it, but it will raise money to help pay for those medical issues, and it will also take drug use out of the legal conversation and allow it to be a health conversation, which makes support to get people off of drugs much more accessible – because if you’re going to go to jail if you admit to using drugs, you’ll probably never seek help to get off of drugs.

Legislation and Ethical Living

Just as legalizing marijuana does not constitute an endorsement of using marijuana, so too does it not require anyone to use it or endorse it. I come from a religious background in which smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are (in some cases explicitly) forbidden and considered immoral, in spite of the fact that they are legal; the Catholic Church does not share that view, and I’ve met chain-smoking priests who thoroughly enjoy a good beer or wine. Gay marriage is legal in Canada, and some churches willingly perform gay marriages, but there is nothing in the law that forces any church to bless a gay marriage.

We Christians need to have a thorough conversation about what it means to live out our faith in public. I would argue that a Christian ethic necessarily involves exceeding the requirements of the law, being better than the law demands that we be; and that if we make the demands of Christian discipleship into law we not only end up pushing our religion on everyone else (something Jesus himself refused to do – he went out of his way to scare off people who were attempting to follow him but not counting the cost of doing so!), but also undermining the role of Christians in society as a people who exceed the demands of the law.

Put another way, I’ll paraphrase Jesus, Paul, and James all at once: “So you don’t partake of illegal drugs? Even the pagans do that.” Christians who are concerned that taking drugs is immoral should refuse to take even legal drugs, and enjoy the ability to take an actual ethical stance rather than simply doing the bare minimum of following the law. Paul’s point about the law and not being under the law anymore was that true Christian freedom is not coerced – not by God, and certainly not by the state – and Christian freedom is what theologians call “freedom for” (as opposed to “freedom from”); that is, we have the freedom to make good choices even when we are not compelled to do so. This is a powerful freedom that we’re missing out on so long as we insist that all things that are immoral should also be illegal.

Conclusion

I hope that my position on marijuana legalization is clear, but I’m happy to answer questions about it. I also hope my understanding of legislation and morality is useful to you. A majority of the residents of Provencher are Christians of a variety of stripes, but we all need to think carefully about how religious faith and ethics interact with laws and public life, particularly if that is going to influence the way we vote!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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True Diversity is Hard, but So Worthwhile

On Friday evening I hosted the second of our six lectures, this one titled “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” and presented by Wendy Peterson. Wendy described diversity by noting that there are hundreds of distinct First Nations in North America, but that we treat them all as a single entity under the Indian Act and in our culture. She recalled seeing a local newspaper article that referred to two women who were “aboriginal in appearance”, and asked us what we thought that should mean: did it mean that they looked like doctors, teachers, theologians? She showed us a series of photos of her own friends, mostly aboriginal, and while not many of them looked alike, they were all similarly (highly) educated and successful people. She noted that she herself is “pigmentally challenged” (she is Metis), but that her son is often assumed to be Filipino, even by other Filipinos. So what does it mean to be “aboriginal in appearance,” and how can we have a truly diverse society and welcome refugees when we still have difficulty acknowledging diversity within our first peoples?

Diversity is hard. One of the greatest strengths of the human brain is its ability to categorize things: there are so many things and creatures around us, if we saw every single one of them as unique we would not be able to process it all. Our brain simplifies the process by creating categories, which is why we can say “lawn” instead of seeing millions of individual blades of grass. This is handy for lawns and leaves, but less helpful when we’re dealing with people, because categorization requires simplifying something down to a particular characteristic. Human beings are too complex to be simplified like that and still maintain their dignity, and because of this, our ability to relate to them is diminished. We can’t relate to people who are reduced to a single characteristic, especially if that characteristic that we’ve reduced them to is the very way that they are different from us. But that’s precisely the way we categorize people: by the ways they are different from us, rather than the ways we are the same. This makes sense from the perspective of efficient systems of categorization, but it does nothing to help us empathize with people who are different from us. The name for this process is called “Othering”, turning a person who is actually very like us in most ways into an “other”, someone who is very much unlike us.

It’s nearly impossible to get through life without othering people. We all do it, by virtue of our brain functions if for no other reason; but we’re also often raised with certain notions of different people groups or “others.” We tend to gang up on public figures when they let their othering slip out in a debate or interview, but we’re all guilty of it any time we fail to treat someone as a human being with their own thoughts and volition. Is my height my dominant characteristic? I sincerely hope not – I would hope it would be my intellect, my integrity, my attitude, or some virtue – but I once walked down a busy street in Osaka, Japan, and I drew an awful lot of stares, and while I don’t begrudge people for noticing that I stand out, it gets frustrating explaining that I’m not a basketball player. I can’t imagine what it’s like to explain to people that I do indeed have a “real” PhD (one example that Wendy gave on Friday), or have people assume that I’m a terrorist simply because of my skin tone or last name. In our culture, we need to find a balance between recognizing differences and reducing people to those differences. That’s hard to do, but it’s so worthwhile!

In our government, though, we don’t have the limitations of our brains as an excuse for othering. We have carefully crafted policies and laws that should not succumb to any person’s cultural or racial blind spots. Even so, in Canada we have a long history of policies that thoroughly and deliberately “other” indigenous people, and we are currently doing the same to Muslims. A perfect example is the way that our government refuses to allow a woman in a niqab (a garment that some Muslim women wear as an act of religious obedience and devotion, to express modesty) to swear an oath of citizenship. Two courts have already upheld her right to swear the oath without removing her head covering, but the Harper government has appealed to the Supreme Court. Harper’s argument is that the niqab comes from a culture that is anti-women, and that may be; a niqab may be used by many as a way to suppress women. But the moment we assume that rather than listening to this woman’s own story, we have othered her in a way that strips her of her dignity even as she attempts to swear an oath to our nation. We absolutely should support women’s rights, but we cannot do so by removing their freedoms and pigeonholing them based on a single characteristic.

Muslims vote at about half of the national average rate – only about 30%. Indigenous people in Canada vote even less. I have a hard time blaming them, given our history and current policies. We need a government that is willing to replace policies that other entire people groups with policies that truly embrace diversity. This will be hard: it will cost us money, and security. The Green Party of Canada wants to begin dialogue with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis, rather than treating all First Nations as a single group, and honouring the treaties that we made with them. We want to collaborate with them to solve problems, rather than assuming a paternal stance and telling them how to run their affairs. We also want to support more refugees, and streamline the refugee process as much as possible so that we can adequately respond to the demand. These things will be difficult to do, but they’re so worthwhile! Join us. Vote Green.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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On the Possibility of a Nonviolent Nation

Last night Karen Ridd opened up our lecture series with “Swimming Upstream: Being Nonviolent in a Violent World.” Her presentation was by turns enchanting, engaging, challenging, and inspiring. One thing that came up several times, perhaps given that I was hosting the event, is how nonviolence relates to a national stance on ISIS and foreign policy in general. I’ve spent much of today thinking about this. It’s wonderful for individuals to practice nonviolence, but is it possible as a national policy?

Karen talked about the distinction between using nonviolent action and being nonviolent as a way of life (there are many people who would, say, go on strike, without actually committing to nonviolence in any other situation, much less as an ongoing approach to conflict), but in terms of actually executing a nonviolent approach I think it can happen in two ways. First, we can choose to make ourselves weak so that we cannot do any harm; and second, we can maintain our power while exercising restraint. Either can be done by an individual, and either can be done by a nation. Let’s take a look.

My favourite exemplar in regard to most important issues is Jesus, and this case is no different. Jesus made himself “weak” by taking on human flesh in all of its frailty: the God of the universe, eternal spirit, became vulnerable to the elements, hunger, abuse, and even death. He chose weakness in order to empathize and express solidarity with the weak. Vulnerability is a powerful aspect of nonviolent action; Karen’s stories about the effective use of nonviolent direct action were almost all about little old ladies. Nonviolent action tends to rely on exposing injustice, and there is little that is more obviously unjust than violent treatment of the vulnerable. In that way, choosing vulnerability can create a degree of safety while at the same time appealing to the best in our opponents, humanizing them even while we humanize ourselves by exposing our vulnerability.

At the same time, while Jesus became vulnerable he remained incredibly powerful. When he was arrested by an entire detachment of soldiers, Peter pulled out a sword to try to defend him; Jesus not only told Peter to stand down (and healed the soldier Peter had injured), but reminded Peter that he could have called on a legion of angels at any moment. During his arrest, his trial, and even his execution, Jesus retained the power to destroy his enemies, and yet chose to forgive them instead. His concern for the well-being of even his enemies led him to exercise restraint on that power. That’s what made Jesus’ refusal to use violence so powerful: weakness in itself is no virtue, but exercising restraint most certainly is.

So it’s possible for an individual to choose nonviolence either by choosing to be vulnerable or weak, or by exercising careful restraint of the power he or she has. But what about a nation? Is it possible to be nonviolent in either way? Not only is it possible, but there are clear examples of both.

Costa Rica has not had a standing army since 1948. They have a small armed guard probably more similar to the RCMP than to an army, and they contribute to international peacekeeping, but that’s it. As a nation, they have chosen not to have a military. They have made themselves vulnerable. Since then they have not had any war, even civil war, in spite of the revolutions that occurred throughout the region in the 1980s. Some people may write this off as a benefit of being allies with nations like the US and Canada whose military capabilities make up for Costa Rica’s lack, but perhaps that’s part of the point: a nation without a significant armed force must use other foreign policy tools, and making allies with other nations is an important one. If Canada were to reduce our military capabilities we would be less quick to enter into wars and would rely much more on diplomacy and trade to settle our disputes. By making ourselves vulnerable in one way, we could build on other strengths (and frankly, we’ve always been better at diplomacy than at warfare).

The other example is Switzerland. As gun advocates love to point out, nearly everyone in Switzerland has a gun and knows how to use it. This is because military service is mandatory in Switzerland (for males starting at 19). The amazing thing is, even though every single (male) Swiss citizen is (at least in theory) ready to go to war (their military force per capita is the second largest in the world, after the Israeli Defence Forces), they haven’t violently participated in a war in almost 150 years. Even during the World Wars, their participation took the form of economic and nonviolent tactics. They have an international reputation for neutrality, and therefore as a place to meet for discussion rather than battle; and they contribute to peacekeeping efforts around the world. They pose no threat to anyone in spite of their great power, and they present the world with opportunities for nonviolent conflict resolution.

The Green Party’s plan is somewhere between these two models. We would reduce Canada’s military to a functional defensive force, redirecting funding and personnel toward new forces that focus on disaster relief, and restoring our place as one of the main contributors to the UN Peacekeeping forces. As climate change gets worse, environmental issues will spark conflict. Clean water reserves are depleting worldwide as glaciers recede and sea levels rise, for example. Canada’s ability to respond quickly with humanitarian aid and disaster relief will help prevent conflicts from arising in such situations; and our Peacekeepers will help provide security and space for diplomacy to work in situations where conflict does arise. At the same time, our lack of a significant standing army will give credibility to our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, and nobody will suspect ulterior motives or fear a humanitarian mission may turn into an invasion force.

Our ability to do good in the world and humanize others is our greatest defence. Promoting peace is more powerful than the ability to win wars. Through a combination of deliberate vulnerability and restraint, and a refocusing on meeting the needs of others, Canadian foreign policy can be nonviolent in very significant ways without leaving Canada defenceless. Then we can restore the reputation that I grew up with, our former international renown for promoting peace.

Join us next Friday for our second lecture in the series: “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” with Wendy Peterson!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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On Representing You

I haven’t responded to Ted Falk’s column in a while; the election call has led to more canned messages than ever appearing there. Even so, I went to www.tedfalk.ca today to see what he’s been up to, and was redirected to tedfalk.conservative.ca – his campaign page. The first thing that struck me about this page is that it is dominated by a huge picture of Stephen Harper. You have to scroll down to find a picture of Ted.

What does it say when a local candidate’s website is dominated by his party leader? It says a lot, and none of it is very good for Ted. Harper dominates Ted’s website because Harper dominates Ted. Putting Harper first, with Ted nowhere to be seen without scrolling down, says that Harper is more important (despite the fact that people in Provencher do not get to vote for him), that Ted is interchangeable with any other Conservative candidate, and that Ted is only an extension of Harper. Unfortunately, at least as far as his role as a Conservative MP goes, that last part is actually true.

Much has been said about Stephen Harper’s unprecedented control over his caucus and the government in general. Scientists, MPs, and staffers are muzzled, requiring approval for any press release or statements. Conservative candidates across the country are avoiding debates and all-candidates forums – at the direction of their party. (Note: Ted Falk has agreed to one debate, and I look forward to him honouring that.) There have been a few Conservatives outraged at this state of affairs, notably Brent Rathgeber who quit the Conservative party to sit as an Independent, but for the most part the Conservative MPs are happy to submit to this level of control. Former Conservative and now Wildrose leader Brian Jean recently responded to a question about Harper’s level of control this way:

I do not believe it is a tightly controlled caucus. I believe it is a tightly self-disciplined caucus, and I think you should quote me on that because it’s a misperception of who Stephen Harper is. He has soldiers that are disciplined and admire him greatly and will follow him into the battlefield because they believe in what he does. They are not whipped. Take my word for it.

So what’s worse: MPs whose leader tightly controls what they say and their ability to speak to and for their constituents, or MPs who see themselves as soldiers and have willingly given up their ability to do their job and represent their constituents for the sake of a leader they believe in? I can appreciate the loyalty they show, but they’re supposed to be loyal to their constituents, and they’ve abdicated that loyalty and duty in favour of their admiration for one person. Ted Falk is a nice guy, and I don’t doubt that he’s working hard, but he openly admits that he believes his role is to support Stephen Harper. He’s wrong.

The role of an MP is to advocate on behalf of their constituents to ensure that legislation and government programs meet their needs as much as possible; to communicate the concerns, ideas, and ideals of their constituents to Parliament; and to communicate to the constituents regarding the actions being taken and issues being discussed in Parliament. Conservative MPs are very good at communicating what the government is doing – they have staffers who write canned messages branded with party logos to announce every newly funded project, and they tour their ridings handing out big cheques to distribute government funding (especially in the lead-up to an election). Even their speeches are choreographed to ensure that none of them go off message when telling us about all of the great things they’ve done for us. But when it comes to speaking up for their constituents in Parliament, they are nearly silent.

Since January 2014, Ted Falk has spoken 42 times in the House of Commons. That might sound like a lot, until you consider that Elizabeth May spoke 315 times over the same period. Elizabeth May gets no special privilege for being a party leader; as far as the House is concerned, she is an independent MP because the Greens only had 2 (now 3) MPs. She speaks as often as any MP is entitled to. While not all speeches are equal, that’s still a significant difference. If Ted Falk could have spoken 315 times, or even just 115 times, on behalf of Provencher, he should have (and probably would have); raising your riding’s profile in Parliament is crucial to advocating for your constituents. But even though the Conservative party gets extra speaking opportunities because they are the governing party, they limit their MPs ability to speak on behalf of their constituents and tend to focus MP speeches toward partisan matters.

Added to this is the ridiculous truth that the large parties tell their MPs how to vote on issues. They actually give their MPs info cards with the House’s agenda for the day, with notations on how their party will vote on each item. MPs who vote against their party on important issues have been stripped of any ability to speak in the House, and usually end up going Independent so that they can continue to represent their constituencies. The Conservatives definitely do this, but they are not alone: the Liberals and NDP have even tighter party discipline, at least recently. So I’m not just picking on Ted here; Terry Hayward is also a great guy who would make a good MP, if his party would let him, but I’m not confident that they would.

This is one of the reasons I chose to run with the Green Party. I take representing my constituents very seriously, and want to spend my time as an MP in the House making sure that your interests are being served. My loyalty is to my constituents, then to Canada as a whole, and then to my party. I will certainly bring a Green perspective to my work, but Elizabeth May will not be able to overrule my constituents when it comes to how I vote (not that she would – this is a central Green value), and I will work to follow her example as someone who speaks on behalf of my constituents at every available opportunity.

Ted Falk is not the problem, but he’s also not the solution; his party prevents him from giving you his full attention. The Conservative Party of Canada is all about Stephen Harper, and individual MPs are interchangeable mouthpieces for him. The Liberals and NDP may allow their members to speak, but they still control how they vote. If you want an MP who can actually represent you in Parliament, there’s only one choice.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1

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