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Reaping the whirlwind: Canadian ruling class author of its own misfortune

John Bell

March 5, 2020

A debate is raging in our media: is Canada “broken”. Spoiler alert, it was never not broken.

The Canadian ruling class is in an existential crisis. The Indigenous land claims protests and all the associated solidarity actions are not the cause of the crisis, but they are exposing it for all to see.

The story of how it came to be requires stepping back and looking at some broad historic trends. So step into the Wayback Machine, Sherman, and set the dial to 1994. 

That was the year the Mulroney Conservative government ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement. Although the subject of heated debates at the time, NAFTA, and the ideas of globalized capitalist production and trade that it embodied, were endorsed by the Jean Chretien/Paul Martin Liberals and even the “third way” section of the NDP’s leadership.

(Although Canadian voters threw the Mulroney government out in the greatest political defeat of Canadian history, the Liberal government that replaced it delivered the most brutal austerity budget ever, gutting public services and safety nets in ways that still haunt us.) 

The economic ideology of “neo-liberalism” had been around for a while. Broadly speaking, it was about restoring the rate of profit by driving down wages and working conditions in the highly developed economies of Europe and North America while shifting production to Asia, and sections of Africa and South America.

This ideology for a time wrestled with what was known as Keynesianism­–the idea that the state could direct development of a more balanced economy within a country.

By the mid-90s the state capitalist regimes of Eastern Europe had crumbled and, with the ascension of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, western Keynesians raised the white flag and the ideology of “globalization” was triumphant in corporate corner offices and palaces the world over. Socialism was dead, free market capitalism reigned. It was, you might remember, the “End of History”. 

With NAFTA, the Canadian corporate and political elite signed on to the new ideology with the zeal of true believers. Ruling powers gathered around board tables and re-divided the world into spheres of corporate power backed by increasingly privatized military power: the new Conquistadors.

For Canada, that meant relinquishing protection of manufacturing and the good, union jobs it provided. The rise of NAFTA was also the death of the Auto Pact

In return, investment soared in Canadian resource extraction industries–mining for minerals, oil and gas. Corporations like Barrick Gold, Agrium Inc. (formerly Cominco), Syncrude, Kinross Gold, Teck Resources, Suncor, and many others spread around the world. This country earned a new, international reputation as the “Ugly Canadian”, surpassing its American cousin. 

(This is a topic that merits more attention. Suffice it to say, while corporate Canada is howling about the “rule of law” at home, BC-based mining giant Nevsun Resources stands accused of using slave labour in its Eritrea mine.) 

The energy “superpower” fantasy

In 2006 Stephen Harper made his first international speech as Prime Minister. Addressing the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce in London, Harper declared Canada a “global energy powerhouse”: “We believe in the free exchange of energy products based on competitive market principles, not self-serving monopolistic political strategies.” 

In 2009, Harper told the assembled at the G20 meetings: "We are one of the most stable regimes in history. ... We are unique in that regard.We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.” 

Both these statements are outrageous lies, but they are inextricably connected. These are the lies that are coming home to roost today.

First, despite its rhetorical devotion to “competitive market principles” governments both Liberal and Conservative have poured about $3.3 billion per year into oil and gas production. That adds up to $66 billion in direct subsidies since NAFTA was ratified. The real price-tag for public support of fossil fuels is much higher, factoring in things like tax breaks and clean-up of industrial waste after corporations move on. 

The second whopper, that Canada has no history of colonialism, is so ludicrous it is not worth debunking. 

Even as Pinocchio Harper was achieving peak beak at the G20, his closest advisor and mentor, Tom Flanagan, was publishing a paper for the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, outlining the Canadian ruling class's worst nightmare: an alliance between Indigenous people defending their land & environmentalists. 

The paper was called “Resource Industries and Security Issues in Northern Alberta”. In it Flanagan identified 5 types of opponents: “individual saboteurs, eco-terrorists, mainstream environmentalists, First Nations, and the Métis people...”

“All except the Métis have at various times used some combination of litigation, blockades, occupations, boycotts, sabotage, and violence against economic development projects which they saw as a threat to environmental values or aboriginal rights.”

Flanagan emphasized the vulnerability due to the inconvenient facts that a) most resources exist on lands claimed by Indigenous people; and b) supply lines to and from those resources are long, exposed and likewise exist on lands claimed by Indigenous people.

While recognizing the threat, Flanagan made some predictions that have not aged well. He wrote: “[E]xtra-legal obstruction is unlikely to become large-scale and widespread unless these various groups make common cause and cooperate with each other. Such cooperation has not happened in the past and seems unlikely in the future because the groups have different social characteristics and conflicting political interests.”

The key for Flanagan was to make financial deals with select sections of the Indigenous community and play one side off against the other. Divide and conquer: colonialism’s oldest weapon. 

Colonialism derailed

So what went wrong for the Canadian ruling class? In a nutshell, not only did history not end, it is taking its revenge.

First of all, they made their huge economic bet on fossil fuels just as climate change became too big a problem to deny any longer. Coal, oil and gas are 19thcentury energy sources that created a 21stcentury monster. 

Investment is fleeing the tar sands. The biggest and most recent example is the cancelation of the giant Teck Resources bitumen mine. Chest-thumper like Jason Kenney blame the cancelation on Justin Trudeau’s failure to clear the rail blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land claims; but the real reasons are in a remarkable open letter from Teck. The bottom line: such projects are no longer economically viable, if ever they were. The falling price of oil and the rising price of climate change mitigation are to blame.

And at every step the solidarity for Wet’suwet’en land claims grew louder and better organized. When the police moved to break the high profile rail blockade at Tyendinaga, dozens more sprang up across the country. Those most in thrall to the fossil fuel superpower myth–those like Jason Kenney and Peter Mackay–demanded stronger colonial laws and paramilitary action. But Trudeau and his Liberals aren’t that stupid. They made their bet all in on a weak hand; their bluff was called; they lost.

Canada is not “broken”. It never really existed. The myths of Canada: that it is a united nation, that its economy can be built on ceaseless exploitation of resources that are destructive in both their production and use, that it has no history of colonial violence and injustice–all these have been dealt a mortal wound. A new generation will grow up knowing that struggle and solidarity work.

Whether the current Wet’suwet’en struggle is resolved remains to be seen. But for the first time the colonial state has been forced to negotiate with an Indigenous nation as a sovereign power. This sets a huge precedent. 

History is not dead. History is on the side of the Wet’suwet’an and other Indigenous people fighting for their rights. History is on the side of the millions allying with Indigenous people to demand real action on climate change. History is on the side of everyone struggling against the exploitation and oppression bred by capitalism.

Human history is alive, the self-serving myths of capitalism are dying before us, and we owe a huge debt to the Indigenous people who derailed colonialism and showed us a path forward.

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