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Consumer society no longer serves our needs

Wed, 2018-01-10 06:03
David Suzuki

My parents were born in Vancouver -- Dad in 1909, Mom in 1911 -- and married during the Great Depression. It was a difficult time that shaped their values and outlook, which they drummed into my sisters and me.

"Save some for tomorrow," they often scolded. "Share; don't be greedy." "Help others when they need it because one day you might need to ask for their help." "Live within your means." Their most important was, "You must work hard for the necessities in life, but don't run after money as if having fancy clothes or big cars make you a better or more important person." I think of my parents often during the frenzy of pre- and post-Christmas shopping.

We moved to Ontario after the Second World War. We were destitute. (As Canadians of Japanese descent, we had been treated as enemy aliens and lost everything, including all rights as Canadian citizens.) I needed a coat for the cold eastern winter, so my parents purchased a new one -- a big expense for farm labourers. Unfortunately, I was 11 and going through a growth spurt and quickly outgrew the coat, so it was passed on to my twin sister, Marcia. She wore it for longer but also outgrew it and gave it to our younger sister, Aiko. My parents boasted that the coat was so well made, "it went through three children." It's been a long time since I've heard durability as a positive attribute of a product. In today's fashion-obsessed world, how many children would accept hand-me-downs from siblings?

How did "throw-away," "disposable" and "planned obsolescence" become part of product design and marketing? It was deliberate. Wars are effective at getting economies moving, and the Second World War pulled America out of the Great Depression. By 1945, the American economy was blazing as victory approached.

But how can a war-based economy continue in peacetime? One way is to continue hostilities or their threat. The global costs of armaments and defence still dwarf spending for health care and education. Another way to transform a wartime economy to peacetime is consumption. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776, "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production."

Seized upon by the Council of Economic Advisers to the President under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, consumption was promoted as the engine of the economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow famously proclaimed in 1955: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate."

Now, we are no longer defined by our societal roles (parents, churchgoers, teachers, doctors, plumbers, etc.) or political status (voters) but as "customers," "shoppers" or "consumers." The media remind us daily of how well we're supporting continued economic growth, using the Dow Jones average, S&P Index, price of gold and dollar's value.

But where is the indication of our real status -- Earthlings -- animals whose very survival and well-being depend on the state of our home, planet Earth? Do we think we can survive without the other animals and plants that share the biosphere? And does our health not reflect the condition of air, water and soil that sustain all life? It's as if they matter only in terms of how much it will cost to maintain or protect them.

Nature, increasingly under pressure from the need for constant economic growth, is often used to spread the consumption message. Nature has long been exploited in commercials -- the lean movement of lions or tigers in car ads, the cuteness of parrots or mice, the strength of crocodiles, etc. But now animals are portrayed to actively recruit consumers. I'm especially nauseated by the shot of a penguin offering a stone to a potential mate being denigrated by another penguin offering a fancy diamond necklace.

How can we have serious discussions about the ecological costs and limits to growth or the need to degrow economies when consumption is seen as the very reason the economy and society exist?

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Photo: Brian Talbot/flickr

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Categories: News for progressives

Remembering activist Erica Garner, who worked tirelessly against police brutality

Wed, 2018-01-10 00:50
Anti-RacismUS Politics

Erica Garner has died at the age of 27. The loss of this remarkable young African-American woman is incalculable. She was a tireless activist and a mother of two; her death was attributed to an asthma-induced heart attack four months after the birth of her second child, her son, Eric. Erica, like her son, was named after her father, Eric Garner, whose chokehold death at the hands of the New York Police Department on July 27, 2014, was captured on video and became a flashpoint in the fight against police brutality, further galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement. Erica worked tirelessly for justice for her father.

"I can't breathe."

Those were the last words of Eric Garner, repeated 11 times on that July afternoon. Two weeks later, Michael Brown would be killed by a white police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests were erupting all over the country. We flew back from Ferguson later that August, in order to cover a major march in Staten Island, with over 1,000 people demanding justice for Eric Garner, the prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who was video-recorded by a bystander putting Garner in the chokehold, and an end to the NYPD's systematic brutality that targets communities of color. We first met Erica Garner there, standing at the very spot where her father had been killed.

"My dad was a loving man, he was a humble man, and he was a nice man," Erica told us. "You could never get a 'no' out of him. He did whatever he could for anybody who came around him. Anybody who came around him was touched by his graces. Seeing the videotape, I was very traumatized. I was very horrified. It was horrible. Just seeing my father die on national TV was just horrible. I've got to live with this forever."

Erica was a loving daughter forced into the spotlight by tragedy. She led twice-weekly marches from the NYPD police precinct where her father's killers still worked, to the site of his death. She spoke out against police brutality, appeared on panels and on television. Erica Garner, living in one of the roughest housing projects in New York City, became a powerful leader in the national movement to end police brutality.

She elaborated on the Democracy Now! news hour about the toll that a trauma like the killing of a father takes on a family. "When you deal with grief, when you talk about grief and you talk about how regular families deal with it, you know, families have problems, trouble coping with it." She went on, "Mental health is very important. … For families that's put in my position, black families that's on public assistance, that doesn't have the income to get therapy is $300 an hour, and I don't think that's fair, and it's not made for the Black population, because how are we supposed to cope with this if we don't have someone to talk to, someone professionally to talk to?" She ended by saying, "I'm constantly reading articles and doing the research on my dad's case. But I'm not taking care of me."

Early in 2016, she endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, and appeared in a moving television ad: "This is everything I have, my family. Family should be important to everyone. Mostly I like being a mother," Erica says. About her father, she says: "I'm just trying to get the truth out there, to tell his side of the story. He was being the loving, caring man that he was, and he was murdered." Leaked emails later revealed that now-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein became alarmed at the power of the ad. Weinstein offered to help Hillary Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook to strategize on how to counter Erica's message.

Erica's power was speaking from her own experience. She even considered running for Congress. While New York City finally paid Eric Garner's family a settlement, Erica continued to fight for the release of the full disciplinary records of Officer Pantaleo, who remains on the New York police force. And to her last breath, Erica also fought for federal civil-rights charges to be brought against Pantaleo and the officers who killed her father.

In her Bernie Sanders ad, Erica said, "I'm never giving up, I'm never going to forget, and I don't want the world to forget what happened to my dad." Now the onus is on all of us never to forget the passion, the commitment, the life, of Erica Garner.

This column was first published on Democracy Now!

Photo: Disney | ABC Television Group/flickr

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Eric GarnerBlack Lives Matterracial justiceU.S. politicsbernie sandersblack activismAmy GoodmanDenis MoynihanJanuary 4, 2018By taking a knee, Kaepernick sparked a movement for justiceMuch like Rosa Parks, Colin Kaepernick sat down and refused to get up. And like Rosa Parks on that Montgomery bus more than 60 years ago, Colin Kaepernick has sparked a movement.Ferguson is everywhere: The protests against impunity are just beginningAnother police killing of an unarmed man of colour. Another grand jury deciding not to indict: Not for murder. Not for manslaughter. Not for assault. Not even for reckless endangerment.Black Lives Matter in Canada too: Inside the movementWhy are Black Lives Matter movements occurring in Toronto and who is leading this movement in Canada? Find this out and more about the future of the movement here.
Categories: News for progressives

The public service has lost a crucial function

Tue, 2018-01-09 22:27
Politics in Canada

This column's topic, civil servants, may sound boring. But really it's about the surprising, almost entertaining incompetence of the Trudeau government.

Picture what they've muffed: the Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; electoral reform; Bill Morneau's fairness-oriented tax bill. These weren't unpopular, they should've been doable. Yet the first keeps sinking; the second basically vanished; and tax reform limps along, wounded.

Year-end pundits' appraisals laid the blame on problems of "messaging" and communications. Trudeau's people seem to agree. Morneau said, "I've learned from this experience that we have to be very good at communicating to Canadians what it is that we're trying to achieve." I'd call that a delusion.

Why? Because they were already superb messengers before they won power. Trudeau was their message and they communicated him beautifully. When an early initiative, Syrian refugees, hit some bumps, they messaged Trudeau into Pearson airport to greet the arrivals, and smoothed it all out.

The problem is elsewhere, it's governing. That isn't so much a lost art; what's been lost is that there's an art to it at all. The bright-eyed party types, like Gerry Butts (Trudeau's minder) arrive in Ottawa with their candidates. But the civil servants were there all along. They're part of the furniture of government.

There's roughly a zillion things that can go wrong when governments try to change complex societies with new legislation or institutions. It's like opening up someone's chest or cranium; it's best to have advance knowledge and experience. Otherwise you'll probably make a mess. Surgeons can be obnoxious, but you wouldn't like to be operated on without one.

So, for instance, nothing was wrong with Morneau's bill (aside from not touching the megabandits at the top) but no one seemed able to think it through. That's always been the special skill of the loftiest civil servants, mainly deputy ministers.

It was once a prized rank (even assistant DMs were haughty). They gloried in being called mandarins, far above the mob. Ministers could state goals. But their job then was to do and say as their deputies directed, just like in Yes, Minister, and the smart ones (who may've been stupid, it didn't matter if they had good deputies) did so. DMs spent their careers absorbing the potential traps of governing. They were the ones who awoke at night fretting over what might happen. Every difficult project needs someone doing that.

 I'm not saying they were likable, they weren't. They were rivalrous, contemptuous and insufferably arrogant. They were a caste. The last notable wave included Bernie and Sylvia Ostry, who didn't bolt when others headed for the exits in the 1980s. They didn't get rich, as you could in business, but they had power and glory: the glory of serving your country, perhaps even your species! (If that sounds corny, think of Jonas Salk refusing to patent his cure for polio. Glory rules. Mere fame or celebrity is its wan successor.)

Now take my old camp counsellor, Mickey (Marshall) Cohen. He spent 15 years DMing around Ottawa, then leveraged his imposing resumé to move on to O&Y, Molson's and other pastures; like Derek Burney and myriad others. That was in the 1980s -- when government became, as Reagan said, the problem, with business as the solution. Nice to have a theory for going greedy. Public service transformed into merely the minor leagues before you moved up to The Show.

The result was that those overseeing the process kept getting younger and leaving earlier. Since messaging is easier than analyzing, manoeuvring, compromising and finishing, they fiddle with communication until it's time to move along. Every government in Canada has this problem. They try to make do with outside "strategists" but those are just party people waiting to return to power.

The practical problem is the wage gap. DMs make $221,000 to $326,000. As Jennifer Wells reported here, the minimum for Canada's top CEOs is now $5.2 million; the average, $10.4 million. That's 15 to 50 times more, and beyond. When DMs were earning half or even a quarter, they could talk themselves into staying. Now they'd feel like chumps -- encouraged to by our entire culture.

As I say, I won't miss them, though they were fun to talk to, with their cockiness and verbality. The question is what governments can do to replace their crucial function. I'm sure there's a solution, and I hope someone finds it.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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Categories: News for progressives

The traditional party of the workers needs to step up in Ontario

Tue, 2018-01-09 16:44
January 9, 2018LabourWorkers are under attack: Where is the ONDP?Kathleen Wynne has been defending workers' rights during the recent backlash against minimum wage increases. By contrast, Andrea Horwath's NDP have only meekly supported the issue.$15 and fairnessontario labourKathleen Wynneontario ndp
Categories: News for progressives

Tim Hortons brew-haha shows fast-food industry doesn't get PR, economics, or what Canadians think

Tue, 2018-01-09 13:54
David J. Climenhaga

Having quite possibly won the next Ontario general election for Premier Kathleen Wynne and her admittedly long-in-the-tooth Liberal government, the association of perpetually infuriated rogue Tim Hortons franchisees half-heartedly tried to walk back last week's plan to beat the crap out of their employees because the government had raised the minimum wage in the province to $14 an hour.

No, no, the Great White North Franchisee Association said Friday in hopes of getting the dust to settle a little, "Tim Hortons team members should never be used to further an agenda or be treated as just an 'expense.' This is completely unacceptable."

Better late than never to come to this realization, I guess. But the whole brew-haha demonstrates how Canada's fast food industry doesn't really get it about Public Relations best practices, or for that matter Economics 101 and the mood of Canadians.

The threats and complaints about increases in the minimum wage taking place in many provinces are not just an Ontario phenomenon. I expect soon enough we'll be seeing some of the same petty bullying that cropped up among members of the franchisees' group in Ontario -- forcing employees to buy their own uniforms, no more paid breaks, and a spiteful end to insignificant perks like a free cup of crappy coffee at the end of a shift -- here in Alberta.

Still, the Ontario Hortons franchisees' foray from retail coffee and donuts into retail politics was so egregiously ham handed, and Premier Wynn's response to it so defiantly pitch perfect, that the damage they've done to whatever objectives they'd hoped to achieve is probably irreparable -- which, from the perspective of making Canada a better country for its citizens, is a good thing.

Indeed, it took a swift and harsh disavowal of "the actions of a reckless few" by Restaurant Brands International, the Brazilian-owned corporation that franchises the apostrophe-free Tim Hortons brand, to head off what could have turned into a national boycott of the company's hitherto iconic coast-to-coast coffee shops.

The brewing trouble first made the news when a franchise in Cobourg, Ont., owned by the daughter of the late Tim Horton himself and the son of the chain's other founder, sent a letter to its employees telling them they'd be losing paid breaks and other incentives because the government had raised the minimum wage and the corporate head office wouldn't let them raise prices.

"A 9 hour shift will be paid for 8 hours and 20 minutes," the employees were churlishly advised in the letter. They were told they'd have to sign a pledge saying they agreed.

This brain-dead rebellion soon spread to other Ontario franchises, whose owners had apparently concluded this would show Premier Wynne and RBI's head office honchos a thing or two.

Wynne's response took it directly back to one of the Coburg owners, Ron Joyce Jr., who, as the premier reminded Ontarians, is "a man whose family founded the Tim Hortons chain, which was sold for billions of dollars."

"I'll be blunt. It is the act of a bully. If Mr. Joyce wants to pick a fight, I urge him to pick it with me and not those working the pickup window and service counter of his stores." Premier Wynne must have been fighting to suppress a smirk when she said that, whether or not she cared that Joyce didn't personally pocket the $12.5 billion paid for Hortons by its Brazilian owners in 2014. (Dear Old Dad, Ron Sr., it's worth noting, is officially a billionaire.)

Ontarians everywhere -- and lots of Canadians elsewhere too -- muttered, "You go, Premier!"

At this point, I'd bet you the cost an overpriced can of Tim Hortons ground coffee that despite all the grunge thrown at her in the past couple of years, Wynne can cruise to victory on this performance. Just watch, it won't be hard for her to tie the bullying opposition to the minimum-wage increase to the would-be bullies of the Conservative Opposition in Queen's Park.

But if the Ontario Hortons franchisees don't understand the fundamentals of Public Relations -- you know, making it sound as if you're doing it for the people you're trying to persuade, not your own sweet selves -- Canada's small but potent network of AstroTurf organizations that lobby tirelessly against improvements in minimum wages certainly does.

So the good news last week for enemies of the widespread move by provinces toward a $15 minimum wage in Canada was that mainstream media took the lobby's bait on a recent Bank of Canada research note on the impact of higher minimum wages hook, line and sinker.

The actual Bank of Canada note concluded that, for working Canadians, the benefits of increased minimum wages outweigh any depressant effect they might have on job creation. The headlines almost universally concentrated on the depressant effect, and left the impression the note had said a minimum wage increase would cause 60,000 existing jobs to be cut, which it emphatically did not.

"This is not the first time the media have gotten worked up about the wrong numbers," observed Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyst Michal Rozworski in a thoughtful commentary on how the note was reported and what it actually said. "This is only one example of a recurring pattern of business-friendly bias in the media."

Here in Alberta, of course, United Conservative Party spinners used their usual pretzel logic to try to twist this technical debate into an attack on unions -- since they've been criticized for advocating policies that would result in the elimination of thousands of actual, existing jobs held by taxpaying Albertans, some of whom are union members.

But the restaurant lobby, as a number of observers noted, has been strangely quiet lately hereabouts.

The explanation for that is probably simple: Canada's professional anti-union, pro-temporary-foreign-worker, anti-minimum-wage lobby -- despite its powerful voice, amplified many times by the friendly media echo chamber noted by Rozworski -- is actually made up of a very small group of people.

This web of anti-union advocacy groups includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Restaurants Canada, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada, the Merit Contractors Association, "Working Canadians," and the Canadian Labour Watch Association -- often led by the same people in multiple board and executive roles.

With limited human resources, they have to concentrate their fire where the fight is most intense. And with several provinces moving toward a $15 minimum wage at once, that means they are likely experiencing a shortage of qualified and ideologically certified propagandists to carry on the battle.

Right now that's in Ontario. It'll be back to Alberta next fall when the minimum wage here is scheduled by our NDP government to reach $15 and an election will be that much closer. Next, presumably, the campaign will move to provinces like B.C., which have scheduled that benchmark to be reached down the line.

The economics won't change. A $15 minimum wage, especially if it is tied to a cost-of-living index, will benefit working people and society in general in every province.

And the threats, misleading claims and whining -- especially by the fast-food industry -- will never abate, no matter how many times their dire predictions don't come true.

This post also appearsnon David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo credit: David Climenhaga

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Categories: News for progressives

Moving forward while looking back

Mon, 2018-01-08 16:05
January 8, 2018Politics in CanadaLooking forward by looking back, starting with 2008Ten years ago we had a federal election, the great recession and a prorogation crisis. As well, Justin Trudeau won his first election.2008stock market
Categories: News for progressives

Looking forward by looking back, starting with 2008

Mon, 2018-01-08 15:51
Karl Nerenberg

Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou once wrote: “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you have been.” In that spirit, and while Canadian federal politicians are still far from the capital on their winter break, this writer proposes looking forward to the coming year by looking back a decade -- or two, or three, or more.

When the late 19th century socialist and journalist Edward Bellamy chose “Looking Backward” as the title for his utopian novel, it was because he had his protagonist fall into a deep sleep and then wake up in the future. The novel’s main character then looks backward to his time, a more primitive time more than a century earlier.

Here, in this space, we will look back not from the future but from the present, and we will do so a decade at a time, starting 10 years ago in 2008.

 Harper’s first term was coming to an end -- but who knew?

As the year began, Stephen Harper was quite comfortably in power in Canada.

After winning a minority in 2006, the first prime minister elected as leader of the party that resulted from the merger of the Reform/Canadian-Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives had a caucus full of political rookies, many of them Reform Party populists.

Harper chose to assign most of his senior cabinet posts to folks with political or administrative experience. He called on Mike-Harris-Ontario and Brian-Mulroney-federal Conservatives such as Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty and Rob Nicholson, and MPs who had significant experience managing large organizations, notably Lisa Raitt. The friskier, more ideologically oriented Harper zealots, such as Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre, had yet to take centre stage.

At the beginning of the year, we did not know that Harper would precipitate an early election in October, even though his own fixed election law gave him two more years. Harper thought he could take advantage of a Liberal Party that was not hugely enthusiastic about its own leader’s carbon tax policy. The Conservatives had demagogically ridiculed that climate change-fighting proposal as a tax-on-everything. They thought they could ride that ridicule -- paired with vicious personal attacks on Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s Mr. Bean-like personality -- to a majority. It did not quite work out for Stephen Harper, although he did increase his minority.

The Great Recession

As 2008 got underway we also did not know that before the year was out we would experience the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Hardly any respected economists had publicly made that prediction.

It turns out that decades of financial deregulation and benign neglect had given the wolves of Wall Street free rein to indulge in an orgy of greed, which produced such toxic financial instruments as bundled sub-prime mortgages. Wall Street’s speculative house of cards collapsed in the fall of 2008, and the ensuing catastrophe forced the U.S. and other governments to fork over billions of dollars to the very culprits who had caused the crisis. Those massive taxpayer-funded give-aways saved the financial status quo and the obscene profits and executive salaries of the investment banking industry. They did nothing for the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes and livelihoods.

The crisis also produced a new economic policy consensus in the capitalist, developed world. The slavish dedication to balanced budgets at all cost was out; Keynesian stimulus spending was in. An emergency G-20 summit in Washington in November 2008 focused mostly on modernizing and tightening financial regulation, but it also committed all members to “use fiscal measures to stimulate domestic demand to rapid effect”.

Fiscal measures meant government spending to create jobs and growth, a commitment with which Canada enthusiastically agreed. When the time came to actually do something, however, the Harper government welshed on its pledge, blithely indifferent to the severe and growing job losses in the country. Harper’s finance minister, the late Jim Flaherty, produced a fall economic update that, in an act of near-delusional fiscal fantasy, forecast a small surplus. There was to be not a single dollar for infrastructure or any other kind of pump-priming spending. Professionals in the federal finance department invoked their right to non-self-incrimination when asked if they had authored that dishonest travesty.

To add insult to injury, Flaherty slipped in a non-sequitur of a measure to abolish the per capita subsidies to political parties. The Chrétien government had introduced public funding for political parties when it banned corporate and union donations. When he announced his fiscal update, Flaherty poked a stick in the opposition parties’ eyes by declaring that the whole package would be a confidence matter. If the opposition voted down the update the government would fall.

The prorogation crisis

Harper and his team thought they had the opposition on the ropes. They reasoned that the opposition parties -- especially the Liberals, who had lost seats in the October election -- were cowed and dispirited and would not dare vote down a government mere weeks after it had won a convincing victory.

They miscalculated. The Liberals, New Democrats (then led by Jack Layton) and Bloc Québécois were so outraged by the government’s arrogance they announced they would suck it up and vote against the fiscal update. Rather than precipitating another election so soon after the previous one, the Liberals and New Democrats proposed a coalition government, for which the Bloc pledged tacit support.

We have never had coalition government in Canada, with the exception of the Unionist government of Conservatives and break away Liberals during World War I, and the mere idea seemed to scare many Canadians, especially at a time of grave economic uncertainty. 

But Harper was cornered. There seemed to be little he could do to head off defeat.  Then he came up with the clever tactic of proroguing the House (suspending its operation) mere days after it had convened following the election.

Now, if a coalition presented an unknown prospect for Canada, prorogation in such a circumstance had no precedent whatsoever in any parliamentary democracy.

In the end, though, Harper got his way. No governor-general would want to repeat Lord Byng’s gaffe more than seven decades earlier of denying a prime ministerial request. In Byng’s case, he had refused William Lyon Mackenzie King’s demand for dissolution and a new election after King’s Liberals had been defeated in the House. Instead, Byng invited Conservative Arthur Meighen to form a (very short lived) government.  During the election that followed shortly thereafter, King ran against Byng as much as against the Conservative leader, and won a healthy majority.

A temporarily chastened Harper; Trudeau enters the scene

Harper survived his brush with defeat a little more than 10 years ago. When the House returned in 2009, and his government presented a budget, it was chock full of stimulus measures and projected deficits for a number of years into the future. The plan to abolish federal funding for parties disappeared without a trace.

When Harper finally got his majority a little more than two years later, he quickly proceeded to scrap the party subsidies. That, however, was among the least of the outrages Harper’s Conservatives committed to democracy and to sound policy during their majority reign from 2011 to 2015. 

By the way, one the few new Liberal MPs elected in the bruising 2008 election was the member for Papineau riding, a working class and largely francophone area in northeast Montreal, one Justin Trudeau.

The younger Trudeau’s father, Pierre, had represented a rather different Montreal riding, Mount Royal, in the largely English-speaking west end of the city.  Choosing a riding where the Bloc member was well-ensconced, at a time when the Liberals were at a low ebb, was an early sign that the eldest son of the former prime minister was not averse to risk and quite capable of bold choices. 

Photo: Andrew d'Entremeont/Flickr

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Categories: News for progressives

We can't imagine what real artificial intelligence will be like, and it doesn't care

Fri, 2018-01-05 21:14

Grasping the true potential of artificial intelligence (AI) is like trying to understand how a mantis shrimp sees the world.

Mantis shrimp have the best colour vision of any creature on the planet. Humans can perceive just a paltry snippet of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We see that slice as a continuum of reflected colour from deep red to rich violet -- a rainbow flag of hues.

We have three types of photoreceptors called cones, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Birds and some other animals have four types of cones and can see ultraviolet light that is invisible to us. Mantis shrimp have 16.

Six of those photoreceptors are dedicated to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum alone.

It is daunting to imagine what the shrimp actually see. And, it is near impossible to grasp how the shrimp's brain processes spectral data from 16 types of receptors at once.

But it's fair to say that if the shrimp could see the world through our eyes, it would think it had gone blind. It would pity us our slow visual cortices -- racing to keep up with four puny receptors.

It's important to keep the worldview of the mantis shrimp in mind when we consider artificial intelligence.

In the past year we have been inundated with news about AI and its lesser cousin, machine learning. AI program Alpha Go bested Ke Jei, the world's top-ranked Go player at the subtle Chinese game of strategy. Its progeny, Alpha Zero, went on to teach itself Go and chess in under a day. We heard of AI powering self-driving cars, aiding in medical operations and developing an ability to read text out loud as naturally as humans. It was also the year AI algorithms sparred with one another to improve each other's learning. They were embedded in phones that could recognize human faces even as they aged.

But, all of these are examples of specialized intelligence. A Go-playing AI would be as useful at driving as a drunk chimp. A narrating AI would be a butcher in an operating theatre.

But in science fiction novels and movies, AIs are capable of what is called generalized intelligence. Often that generalized AI is embedded in human-like robots that can, literally, walk and chew gum at the same time. They can play piano and chess, run, and run circles around the best surgeons. In short, act like superhumans.

Other movie AIs, like The Terminator's Skynet only became a threat to humanity when it was "woke" and strove to protect us from ourselves by trying to wipe us out.

But generalized AIs need not be ensconced in metal exoskeletons like some super smart crab. And as author Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deus, there need not be any connection between consciousness and intelligence. In fact, we little, wet skin bags may just be the disposable tools needed to create the next stage of intelligence. We may be offended by that idea and not be able to imagine a wisdom without us or our wills and wants, but that's just another example of our intellectual failings.

And that's where the mantis shrimp comes in. We have a human bias about vision. We imagine the colours we see as the only colours that exist. But mantis shrimp don't care what we think. They have evolved vision far beyond ours. In fact, our type of vision was never a part of a mantis shrimp's evolution. And, the shrimp are probably not self-aware nor have a conscience we would recognize. They may not even have one at all -- in the sense of rising above simple limbic needs of food, sex and genetic survival. On the other hand, they may have a completely different kind of consciousness we aren't attuned to.

We also have a bias that leads us to believe human consciousness and intelligence is a benchmark that matters. In reality, AIs will increase in capacity with unstoppable acceleration. As evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein points out, the AI train, about to rocket down the track, will blow past the station called human without bothering to slow down.

We cannot, as much as we like to think we can, simply "kick out the plug" if AIs get too big for their silicon britches. And, as neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris points out, an intelligent AI might mask its true intelligence out of self-preservation. It would probably evolve diffusely, like Skynet, across millions of connected devices including cellphones and smart home devices. Even if it could be contained in a single computer, Harris argues, it would be morally indefensible to keep it penned up like frightened children confining a wild tiger to a kennel.

There probably isn't such a lurking generalized AI out there yet. But maybe, sometime soon, when a naive stay-at-home dad plugs in a new baby monitor, it will be the tipping point for another birth -- one that would take the eyes of a shrimp to see.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Silke Baron/flickr

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artificial intelligenceartificial lifeconsciousnessdigital technologyWayne MacPhailJanuary 5, 2018Augmented reality is building a world of digital exclusionIf the developers of new technology don't have a worldview that encompasses the society beyond R&D labs, their blindspot will mean that all but the most affluent will be stumbling about.Bananas and neural networks: Do androids dream of electric sheep? In the past few months we've heard the term "machine learning" bandied about by Google execs, computer scientists and nerdish blowhards at pool parties. But what is it, exactly?Not Rex: Robots will soon be replicating themselves. What could go wrong?Google says it's tough finding enough nerds to write the long strings of code to maintain their ever-evolving database, so they're bringing in robots to do the work.
Categories: News for progressives

Canada needs a national disabilities act

Fri, 2018-01-05 15:12
January 5, 2018Politics in CanadaBonnie Sherr Klein on the need to embrace diversityFilmmaker and activist Bonnie Sherr Klein addressing fellow Order of Canada recipients from British Columbia about the need for a National Disability Act in Canada.national disability act of Canadadisabled
Categories: News for progressives

Poetry of days gone by can help us in our era

Fri, 2018-01-05 01:04
January 4, 2018Arts & CultureLearning from the social consciences of poetsCreating an anthology of famous and not-so-famous poems on justice for humanity is thought provoking and inspiringEuropean poetrypoetry
Categories: News for progressives

Lame green coroplast arrows point to UCP's cozy relationship with Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Thu, 2018-01-04 13:42
David J. Climenhaga

If Jason Kenney were to become premier of Alberta, would government MLAs and ministers of the Crown be forced to dress up in pig costumes and pretend to be characters with names like Porky the Waster Hater?

Perhaps Wes Taylor, United Conservative Party MLA for the Battle River-Wainwright riding in East Central Alberta, would be just the man to meet the challenges of such a dramatic role.

This is actually a more serious question than it first might appear to a casual reader on its round, pink, porcine face.

It's easy to make fun of Taylor. Indeed, many social media users have been doing so since New Year's Day by creating amusing variations of the MLA's social media memes attacking Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP government's carbon levy. Taylor's versions of the images feature pictures of him pointing at stuff with a large green coroplast arrow that says "Notley made this more expensive."

An increase in the carbon tax had kicked in with the start of 2018, so the stunt -- whatever its merits in nuanced policy debate -- was certainly within the bounds of fair comment.

My personal favourite unauthorized variation was done with one a shot from a grocery store's bakery section. Some wag used Photoshop to make the prop read, "Galen Weston made this more expensive," an assertion for which a stronger case can be made!

Was this just Taylor's idea? There's strong reason to suspect it was inspired by two people in the UCP who have in the past held senior positions with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

One is Kenney, the party leader, who was once the CEO of Saskatchewan-based austerity missionaries. Kenney is very proud of that connection and rarely fails to bring it up at meetings with party supporters.

The other is Derek Fildebrandt, who is technically an Independent MLA for Strathmore-Brooks but in reality is a UCP Caucus member in all but title. Despite his recent legal and political woes, Fildebrandt is expected to be formally welcomed back into the party by Kenney soon, no doubt to an influential role.

Printing lame slogans attacking government spending on large pieces of plastic and photographing paid agitators standing with them beside things the organization's unaccountable leaders don't approve of is a vintage CTF tactic.

Like the CTF's fatuous and misleading "debt clock," Porky the Waster Hater is a perennial CTF favourite. The group's unoriginally named mascot is trotted out at stunts like the fake awards given to governments for supposedly wasting taxpayers' money on projects the CTF's operatives think will be easy targets -- say, original work by young Canadian scholars with little immediate profit potential.

That's why you don't have to dig very deeply into the internet to find pictures of Fildebrandt and former Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean, in happier and more Wildrosy times, sitting in a bar holding up a large, red, coroplast arrow that reads "Prentice made this more expensive." The premier in question at that time was the late Jim Prentice, the last Progressive Conservative to lead the province.

Lazy journalists often call the CTF a "tax watchdog." It is not. The Regina-based group describes itself as a "not-for-profit citizen's (sic) group dedicated to lower taxes, less waste and accountable government." This description, however, is also largely spin. Despite reporting more than 100,000 "supporters" -- presumably mostly individuals who have donated small sums to the group -- the CTF legally has only six members, its board. If you think you're a member and you want to know how much of a pro-accountability citizens' group it is, just ask it to let you see its books.

It's fair to label the CTF a classic Astro-Turf operation.

Board members change occasionally, but the board generally includes some members with an anti-union agenda. The group consistently supports positions taken by market-fundamentalist, conservative political parties as well as what most Canadians understand to be a corporate agenda.

But after many years being handled with kid gloves by mainstream media, the group is extremely sensitive about such criticism. Its president, Troy Lanigan, accuses people who characterize it as serving the corporate agenda of being "far-left bomb throwers." Seriously.

In September last year, Kenney and other candidates for the leadership of the now-defunct PC Party, which has since been merged into the UCP, trooped obediently to a CTF press conference to sign the group's "taxpayer protection pledge" to take "immediate action" to repeal the carbon levy and eliminate the provincial deficit within one term if they form government.

The group's Alberta director boasted it uses such signatures "to pressure politicians" to maintain their fealty to the CTF's agenda. "Politicians know that if they break these promises, the images of them signing the pledges could haunt their political careers," warned Colin Craig in a news release.

The CTF has not always found so much love among Alberta's Conservatives. The late Ralph Klein, whom the UCP leader purports to admire, in 1993 accused Kenney of spreading falsehoods about his government's spending and accused the CTF of "robbing" senior citizens with its aggressive fund-raising campaigns.

According to a Maclean's account of Klein's "remarkable exchange" with Kenney in the halls of the Alberta Legislature Building, Kenney "threatened to sue the premier for slander."

It seems unlikely the CTF needs to worry about anything like that happening with Kenney now. The UCP leader is so close to the CTF one wonders if the UCP has simply become its Alberta franchise.

Are CTF apparatchiks the "experts" a UCP government would rely on to draft and set provincial policy, even law? What role does the group play in drafting UCP policy now? These are legitimate questions Kenney should be asked.

As for the lame stunts deeply ingrained in the CTF's political DNA, it's a given they will increasingly become a part of political life in Alberta with Kenney at the Opposition's helm.

There was a day when you might disagree with Alberta Conservatives, but you could count on them to behave with disdainful dignity when it came to acknowledging their political foes. That, however, was before they found themselves in opposition.

The UCP has more in common with the Wildrose Party and even the Social Credit League than the poor old PCs, who seemed like they would last forever but suffered one setback and immediately gave up the ghost.

So it's almost a given that, sooner or later, some member of the UCP caucus is going to be told to dress up as Porky the Waster Hater, at least until they have the opportunity to generate some porky waste of their own.

Surely this is something lesser UCP lights like Taylor should worry about.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

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Categories: News for progressives

New Year's Twitter attacks on fact-checking economists suggest UCP will make 2018 Year of the Big Chill

Wed, 2018-01-03 13:17
David J. Climenhaga

New Year's in Alberta blew in on a bitter winter wind.

That was the weather. However, if the United Conservative Party has its way, it looks as if 2018 will be the year of The Big Chill -- as in the chilling effect of intimidation on free expression.

That's sure what it sounded like UCP supporters had in mind when they went after a couple of high-profile Alberta academic economists, Andrew Leach and Trevor Tombe, for daring to challenge UCP Leader Jason Kenney's penchant for making up facts to bolster his arguments.

A typical example: Kenney's tweeted claim Friday that Alberta has gone through "two years of population decline" as a result of the NDP government's policies. As Leach pointed out in a tweet of his own, nothing of the sort has happened. He cheekily asked: "Which two years, Jason?"

But if intimidation was the goal of the onslaught of personal attacks by the UCP's Online Rage Machine on Dr. Leach of the University of Alberta and Dr. Tombe of the University of Calgary, it may have been a tactical error.

This could be said in particular about the extended New Year's Eve Twitter rant by Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried, elected as a Progressive Conservative and now a member of the UCP Caucus, who made what sounded very much like veiled accusations of improper activities against Leach.

After all, Gotfried and the rest of the Rage Machine were taking on two PhD economists who enjoy widespread respect on both sides of the debate over how best to manage Alberta's economy, and who both know how to forcefully and effectively stand up for themselves on social media.

"Happy to have a calm and rational discussion," Tombe tweeted back to one critic, sounding only momentarily plaintive. "But please focus on what I actually said instead of making up stuff and calling it drivel."

Leach was brisk in his responses to MLA Gotfried's bizarre demand that he produce a list of all his sources of income in addition to private tax information. The implication was obvious to all readers: that Gotfried thought Leach had not disclosed some sources of income.

Leach pointed the cranky MLA to his personal disclosure information, which is published online in accordance with the U of A's conflict of interest policies.

Gotfried responded by repeating his dark hints, and making them more specific: "… Put a transparent $ amount to this for 2016 and YTD 2017, so there are no surprises, and then Albertans can form their own opinions around your objectivity. Please include any other non-academic, 3rd party income such as Pembina, Greenpeace, Tides, Rockefeller or others."

Leach's disclosure document shows he chaired the NDP's climate leadership panel in 2015 and 2016, which doubtless infuriates the UCP, and chairs a research centre that has received funds from several major energy industry corporations. It lists all relevant paid and unpaid activities for the previous eight years.

Gotfried's retort claimed (for the second time in this exchange) he was siccing his "research and FOIP team" on the professor's personal finances. As Leach tweeted in response: "Your tax dollars hard at work #ableg."

This continued at some length. Some of the tweets were later removed by Gotfried (although, of course, screenshots of everything exist in numerous places) and some were not.

This is alarming. As blogger Susan Wright observed in a New Year's Eve blog post, Gotfried's threat to turn his research staff loose on Leach is an abuse of process and his unsavoury implications "a new low even for the UCP."

The general uproar strongly suggests Kenney's pious vow to "raise the bar" of political decorum in the province is insincere. Well, in fairness, he was only speaking about doing this inside the legislature. More seriously, it indicates that threatening and defaming credible critics who challenge the UCP leader's made-up facts will become standard operating procedure for the party. No surprise, there, of course. We've already seen them in action, and the tactics are pulled right out of the UCP's well-thumbed copy of the Republican Party playbook.

"This is a longstanding fact of life for me," Leach observed in an email conversation. "I've had similar accusations since I started doing public engagement as an academic. It used to be, I was a bought-and-paid-for shill for Big Oil. Now, it's the NDP."

"This, though, is the first time it's been carried so far by an elected official," he added, noting that the exchange with Gotfried mirrored "almost perfectly" an attack by the publisher of a notorious Canadian alt-right publication more than a year ago.

"What disturbs me most is the chill that interactions like these have to put on my junior colleagues who might have lots to contribute to public policy," Leach said.

"If you know that this is what you'll face, aren't you more likely to stay in the ivory tower?" He concluded with the observation he won't "take accusations of corruption, veiled or otherwise, lightly."

Unfortunately, he and others who criticize the UCP's light-on-accuracy approach to political discourse will likely experience a lot more of the same in 2018 and beyond.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo credit: David Climenhaga

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Categories: News for progressives

Go on, get happy: A path to well-being in 2018

Wed, 2018-01-03 11:57
Penney Kome

Every day I try to do something, one thing, for the first time. The action can be as small as hearing a new song or noticing a new author, or it can be as challenging as learning a new line dance or exploring a new city (or a new part of Calgary). This tiny daily goal helps me stay alert to what I'm doing.  

When my goal is simply to try something new, I don't worry so much about whether I'm doing it right. This approach eased my anxiety when I tried skiing or roller-skating, for example. Instead of wanting to be terrific right away, I'd achieved my goal just by trying.

By accident I had found a happiness skill. "Trying out" is one of the skills that the new Action for Happiness charity teaches. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has agreed to be the patron of an ambitious program that includes local Action for Happiness evening classes in towns all across the U.K. The Tibetan Buddhist leader is reaching out to offer classes everywhere the English internet reaches.

"We believe that creating a happier society requires a fundamental shift in values," says Action for Happiness, "away from our current culture of self-obsessed materialism towards a society which is more loving, positive and collaborative."

Lest this sound too touchy-feely and New Age-ish, a recent Inc.com article says that business should also see happiness as a skill. Under the headline, "These are the 4 skills you need to master to be happy," Jessica Stillman described Resilience, Positive Outlook, [paying] Attention, and Generosity as key attributes of happy people, no matter where they work.  Of course, listing skills is a whole lot easier than acquiring them, especially resilience.

Stillman drew on neuroscientist Richard Davidson's work, supplying machine readings that corroborate what Action for Happiness preaches -- that the most powerful way to reap happiness is through Generosity (Stillman) or more simply, Giving (Action for Happiness).  

Action for Happiness says that one of the problems is that Western society has been urged to seek happiness in the wrong places -- in the marketplace.  Their classes teach people how to switch their moods and release irritants, rather than drowning their sorrows through self- indulgence. That way, a person can really pay attention to the people they meet.

Action for Happiness explains this approach is, "[a]bout our fundamental philosophy of life -- choosing to treat others well, put our strengths to good use and live a positive life with meaning and purpose."

In short -- I'm on my own soapbox here -- the current competitive, individualistic economic system works to separate us from one another, in order to sell each household (that can afford it) a separate set of everything from cars to espresso machines. Especially in these disruptive times as jobs and whole industries disappear, the system actually encourages friction between individuals -- disruption -- in order to keep the economic engines firing.  

Meanwhile, privileged First World individuals and health-care systems deal with soaring rates of injury, illnesses and mortality rates. Whatever products the TV and online ads are selling, they don't seem to bring happiness, much less longevity.

On the other hand, science, psychology and spirituality all say that social harmony is what actually fosters personal happiness. Genetics account for about half of a person's temperament, says Action for Happiness. Economic and environmental circumstances account for another 10 per cent. The person's attitude determines the rest, 40 per cent, of how the person feels.
Of course, researchers have to contend with a conundrum -- should they believe a person is happy, just because they say they are? Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who works with specialized electronic instruments, says that self-reported happiness correlates closely to objective data collected through brain scans and heart and breathing measurements.

Socially, different countries report different happiness levels, with Denmark the happiest country in the world. Perhaps Action for Happiness classes have appeal in Britain because Britain's happiness levels are the same as they were in the 1950s. Action for Happiness notes that, "[i]f Britain was as happy as Denmark, we would have 2.5 million fewer people who were not very happy and 5 million more who were very happy."

One huge factor in personal happiness is trust in the society and government. Unfortunately, as the Brexit vote shows, people in the U.K. have been unhappy with growing inequalities.  

"The most important external factors affecting individual happiness are human relationships," says Action for Happiness. "In every society, family or other close relationships are the most important, followed by relationships at work and the community.

"The most important internal factor is mental health. For example, if we take 34 year olds, their mental health at age 26 explains four times more of their present happiness than their income does." Odds are that one in four persons will suffer a depression in their lifetime.

Often, a depressed person's first instinct is to avoid other people, running away from other people, the very resources who could and should provide comfort. Richard Davidson produces charts and graphs to prove that Generosity is a powerful happiness generator. Action for Happiness offers 10 Keys for Happiness, the GREAT DREAM for short. And the GREAT-ness begins with Giving.  

The GREAT DREAM of a self-directed program is available online as "10 Keys to Happier Living," which is an acronym and a mnemonic for Giving/Relating/Exercise/Awareness/TryingOut/Direction/Resilience/Emotion/Acceptance/Meaning. These behaviours are the recipe for happiness. Note that making lots of money isn't even on this list.  

By espousing pro-social actions as a path to personal happiness, Action for Happiness emphasizes the long-term futility of fanning hatred or even distrust for one another. "Empathy is a part of our nature," explains the website. "If a friend suffers an electric shock, it hurts in exactly the same point of the brain as if you yourself suffer an electric shock." In this philosophy, any blow against another is a blow against yourself, and kindness to others is self-defence.

While the Happiness classes focus on individuals, the long-term strategy is to improve mental health around world -- a long-overdue force for unity, to counter the horrendous political, economic and climate changes that have ripped 70 million refugees from their homes and set another 150 million migrants desperately looking for better options than their homelands offer. From such trauma could come endless generations of embittered and vengeful terrorists.

We know that as fear and terror are contagious. As the Dalai Lama explains on video, happiness is contagious too. "First we make the person happy, then the family, then the community, and then the nation."

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says that even short stints of cognitive behaviour therapy -- deliberately making short-term changes in how our brains process information -- can alter our long-term happiness level. Although some of us begin our journey farther behind the start line than others, we all can improve our skills. "Improving our well-being is no different from learning how to play the cello," he says on this video.

Davidson says that brain change is within our control, just by cultivating positive thoughts and keeping our minds constructively occupied. He cites a study where subjects were phoned randomly with three-question quizzes. Results said that 47 per cent of the time people weren't paying attention to what they were doing, and that they judged themselves to be on the lower end of the happiness scale. The researchers concluded that "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind."

Mindfulness is one way to keep focus -- making the effort to pay attention, to be present in mind and spirit as well as body -- but that can be exhausting. Modern life is designed to distract us from mindfulness, allowing us to zone out on our electronic devices.

Meditation makes mindfulness easier. Meditation can be as quick and focussed as the Five Senses Scan. And a guided meditation is as portable as our phones.

This Five Senses Scan video has a guided meditation that takes six minutes. The exercise of re-connecting with each sense at a time (hearing, smell, taste, touch, and sight) can be done in four or five minutes. It's kind of a reset button for negative thoughts.

Another little self-care trick is, of course, trying out something brand new, especially in winter, when it's so easy to get stuck in a rut. The good news is that the longest night of this very cold winter has passed. The bad news is that a season of political and climate turmoil lies ahead.  

Buddhists say that misfortune is inevitable but suffering is chosen. Now they and science are showing us ways to put aside suffering so we can be clear-headed in facing some of the challenges ahead. Praise the bored and pass the information. Happy New Year! Hallelujah!

Image: VOA/Wikimedia Commons`

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Categories: News for progressives

Three key digital rights milestones from 2017

Tue, 2018-01-02 22:17
January 2, 2018New Year, New Fight: 2017 in review and the battle ahead for digital rights2017 was a rollercoaster for internet advocates worldwide, filled with both exciting, hard-won victories and devastating decisions that will have ramifications as we come into the new year.
Categories: News for progressives

New Year, New Fight: 2017 in review and the battle ahead for digital rights

Tue, 2018-01-02 22:13
Civil Liberties WatchTechnology

2017 was a rollercoaster for internet advocates worldwide, filled with both exciting, hard-won victories and devastating decisions that will have ramifications as we come into the new year. Let's look back into three key milestones in the digital rights realm from 2017 to better understand the challenges and battles that lie ahead in 2018 -- and how netizens can be part of the momentum.

April 2017: The CRTC ruled against zero-rating, the practice in which Big Telecom can select certain apps and services that don't count against your data cap -- dictating your online experience for you and privileging those with big pockets who can strike backroom deals to make their services data exempt and more accessible. Zero-rating violates net neutrality, the principle that all content on the internet should be treated equally -- preventing ISPs from engaging in trickery such as throttling, blocking or paid-prioritization of sites and services.

What's next?

After the FCC voted to repeal Net Neutrality in the U.S. in December, it became clearer than ever that this decision would be immediately felt north of the border (and worldwide) and could easily jeopardize Canada's own net neutrality rules -- especially with the upcoming Telecommunications Act review. Rather than relying on case-by-case decisions that side with net neutrality protections, this year we'll have to fight for the federal government to enshrine net neutrality in our federal law.

June 2017: Bill C-59 was announced, with some big improvements to the reckless, dangerous and ineffective Bill C-51 that Canadians had long fought against. Some of the big improvements included a new pan-government review body for our spy agencies and a narrower definition of "terrorist propaganda" -- so that this term no longer encompasses activities like peaceful protest and artistic expression.

However, Bill C-59 fell short of addressing some of the most troubling aspects of Bill C-51, such as extensive information-sharing provisions between government agencies. It also makes no mention of protecting our right to encryption -- a vital aspect of our security -- nor protecting us from mass surveillance devices like Stingrays, which were found to be used by the RCMP illegally in the past. Generally speaking, Bill C-59 is far from the repeal of Bill C-51 which thousands of Canadians have been relentlessly fighting over the past few years.

What's next?

A Parliamentary committee is currently discussing reforms to the national security legislation, so this is our chance to make significant improvements to C-59 and hopefully get rid of some of the most terrible aspects of its predecessor. At OpenMedia, we'll be turning our attention to the SECU committee to demand robust privacy protections. Canadians can submit their personalized letters here, and we'll include them in our witness statement. We'll be testifying on February 8.

November 2017: The European Parliament civil liberties committee voted against core dangerous proposals for content filtering a.k.a. censorship machines (Article 13 in the European Commission's copyright draft proposal) -- a move which would have had seriously detrimental consequences for online freedom of expression and innovation for all internet users, not just in the EU. This has been one of OpenMedia's longest and hardest fought campaigns, rallying over 135,000 people to speak up against censorship machines and the Link Tax as part of the Save The Link campaign.

What's next?

The controversial Link Tax -- a proposal which seeks to charge news aggregators for displaying the snippets of text that usually accompany links in search results, is still on the table. But one more critical vote in January could axe it. So we'll be following the issue closely and in the meantime, people can contact their MP and urge them to completely sweep censorship machines and the Link Tax off the table at: https://act1.openmedia.org/savethelink

Stay tuned with OpenMedia's latest updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Marie Aspiazu is a Campaigner and Social Media Specialist for OpenMedia, a non-profit organization that works to keep the internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Photo: Dave Maass/flickr

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Digital Freedom Updatenet neutralityinternet neutralityBill C-51bill c-59freedom of expressioninternet surveillanceMarie AspiazuDigital Freedom UpdateJanuary 2, 2018Digital issues at the top of MPs' agenda as Parliament resumesDigital rights and the government's proposed reforms to Bill C-51 are top of mind for many Canadians as the House of Commons resumes for its fall session.Will the long overdue Bill C-51 reform finally give Canadians the privacy protections they deserve?The Trudeau government has finally delivered on its long-awaited promise to reform Bill C-51, but the changes don't go far enough.Net neutrality masks the threat of tech monopoliesNet neutrality has become the banner waved by those trying to save the unique virtues of the internet. Unfortunately, there's more gatekeeping on the internet than just by ISPs.
Categories: News for progressives

Social work professionals face creeping fascism in 'unfit to practice' policies

Tue, 2018-01-02 18:23
Bonnie Burstow

On April 12, 2017 the regulatory body for social workers and social service workers in Ontario -- the Ontario College for Social Workers and Social Service Workers -- posted a news update on their website, announcing an imminent change to their regulations. The change in part provides "the College with the authority to request information and documents related to the Continuing Competence Program at any time." (bolding in original) It further notes: "Members are already required to make a declaration in the CCP [Continuing Competence Program] at their annual renewal of registration…This addition to the Registration Regulation allows the College to request information and documents related to a member's CCP at any time." (italics in original -- see here)

It goes on to state, that it is "[i]mproving language in the current regulation so that all applicants are required to indicate whether or not they suffer from any physical or mental condition or disorder that would affect their ability to practice social work or social services work in a safe manner." (bolding in original)

 Drawing on what is at this point a frighteningly easy-to-recognize code word -- unfit to practice -- finally, the College states, "The new wording furthers the College's public protection mandate by ensuring that members are fit to practice in a safe manner."

On the surface, the direction being taken here may seem like a good idea. After all, who would want "incompetent" social workers out there practicing?  People, say, lacking in communication skills, practitioners who commonly exhibit poor judgment, people hopelessly Eurocentric, or worse yet, sexually predatory social workers. However, a closer look, with more critical eyes, is needed to discern what is really happening. For the most part the College is not looking for predatory social workers. They are not on the lookout for racist social workers. Despite the addition of the words "physical illness," they are not weeding out people too physically ill to manage their job (though obviously, the physically ill and physically disabled are likewise in jeopardy).

 They are on the hunt for social workers who in the eyes of the establishment have a "mental illness." In the process, they are in essence requiring any professional who has ever been given a psychiatric diagnosis (as most everyone who has ever seen a psychiatrist has been) to declare that diagnosis. Correspondingly, they are reserving the right to require data and information about this, in their words, at any time.

Is this general direction new? Alas, it is not -- just an intensification of a direction already in place. What is being called "unfit to practice" is becoming an ever-increasing feature in regulatory governing not only for social workers but for most of what is known as the "regulated professions." Perfectly capable professionals routinely lose their professional standing and livelihood by just such regulations. By way of example, in their ground-breaking research into current regulation in nursing, Chapman, Poole, Azevedo, and Ballen  (2016) document how such information, regulations and processes are being used against perfectly capable nurses, with the professionals in possession of such information using it to harass these colleagues, to place their colleagues under hyper scrutiny, with the inevitable result being that all actions of the jeopardized nurses end up interpreted as signs of mental illness and many highly capable nurses eventually lose their right to practice.

Let there be no mistake about it. This is a loss to society. At the same time, this does unnecessary and irrevocable damage to the professionals so treated. 

The critical point to keep in mind here is that, whatever credence you do or do not afford the concept, "mental illness" has nothing to do with safety, despite the regulatory bodies so naming it. There is no proof whatsoever that professionals with psychiatric diagnoses are any less safe than any other professional. By the same token, despite the facile conflation of "mentally ill" with "incompetence," it has nothing to do competence. Someone with a psychiatric diagnosis may or may not be incompetent, just as any other professional may or may not be. What we are witnessing in short is prejudice and oppression pure and simple. We are witnessing ableism. We are witnessing "sanism." We are likewise seeing incredible short-sightedness -- for the truth of the matter is that people in touch with their own personal difficulties have a tendency to be better helping professionals -- not worse ones.

I would add that it is not only the helping professions that are taking systematic measures to weed out people whom they see as mentally ill. Just as the helping professions are calling such practitioners "unfit to practice" and creating regulations which make it easy to get rid of them, institutions of higher learning (universities and colleges) are calling students deemed mentally ill "unfit to study" and progressively placing them on "mandatory leave." Hundreds of universities around the world have just such polices and most of those that do not are aggressively  considering them (see, for example, University of Toronto's recent "mandatory leave" proposal; for an in-depth critique  of University of Toronto's  proposal, also see here) And it is all of this together which I am dubbing "creeping fascism."

To quote in regard to these phenomena from a previous publication of mine:

There is a historical echo here that is unmistakable. While I am well aware that the people applying these policies are not intending this echo and indeed would be shocked at the suggestion of it, I cannot but notice that "unfit to study" and "unfit to practice" are on a continuum with "unfit to live" -- or to use the more common designation, "life unworthy of life" -- a concept that ushered in the systematic murder of Jews, "mental patients" and others during the Nazi era, with the eradication of "mental patients", significantly, coming first, paving the way for the others. (For one of the earliest and most influential articulations of this fascist concept, see Binding and Hoche,1920; for an analysis, see Lifton, 1986.)

Now to be clear, I am in no way equating these measures or in any way comparing them -- for the differences are enormous. Nor am I imputing what might be called "intent."  However, I am suggesting that they exist on a continuum. I am likewise suggesting that with this extension of psychiatric rule into areas like academia and into professions like social work and nursing (both, not coincidentally, "regulated professions"), what we are witnessing is creeping fascism -- hence the title of this piece. 

Alas, it is all too easy for the fascistic nature of such measures to go undetected for it is not the blatant fascism that we hear about on the streets in Charlottesville. It is not hatred. It is rather, to coin a phrase, "respectable fascism." Indeed, it bears all the marks of being kindly as well as responsibly intended. All the more reason we need to be on the alert.

That noted, to return to the proposed changes with which with this blog article began:

Since the news of the regulatory change in question was posted on the website of the College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers, an ad hoc group has coalesced to oppose what is happening. When one of the members of this ad hoc group contacted the College to talk, his objection was purportedly trivialized and put down to mere miscommunication (as if the very knowledgeable social work professor in question was not fully capable of deciphering what he was reading). By the same token when another professor associated with this group talked to a representative of the College and asked about the mandatory reporting, she was advised purportedly (in a tone that suggested that the information being given should be reassuring) that there was no problem here, that the College was just keeping this information on file in case it became of use later. Interesting! And just how long are they intending to keep it? It would seem indefinitely. 

Question: Does anyone feel reassured by the clarification provided by the College? Does anyone believe that the information which the College is allowing itself to keep indefinitely will not substantially bias and bias indefinitely how the practitioners' actions and words are interpreted? And with whom might this highly sensitive information be shared? Given that people of colour are disproportionately diagnosed as mentally ill, is not the reporting that the College is requiring going to lead to even less social workers of colour practicing, ergo, more social workers dealing in colonizing ways with groups and cultures that they do not understand? Is not the very act of compelling the self-reporting of personally sensitive and prejudicial information a flagrant invasion of privacy? If this is how officials at the College treat their colleagues, how do they treat their clients? How is it that folks with criminal records can have their record expunged in the fullness of time, while practitioners who have committed no crime whatsoever have to live with a record that sits in a computer and can be trotted out and used against them at any time? How can a society which places a value on freedom tolerate such ongoing and intrusive scrutiny?

If at this point, you too are becoming alarmed, I would invite you to protest what is happening here. Consider giving the College and pivotal members of the legislature a shout and letting them know that when the College resorts to measures like this, they are not safeguarding the welfare of the public -- rather, they are eliminating some of our best workers, placing all workers under surveillance, and in the process making the lot of us complicit in oppression. Correspondingly, if you are someone who advocates for human rights, do think of getting involved, for human rights are blatantly at stake.

Finally, if you are a social worker, or indeed, a member of any of the other "regulated health professions," whether or not your profession or provincial professional association has yet formally adopted policies of this ilk, a word to the wise: beware, be prepared, organize.

Photo: Kennisland/flickr

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Categories: News for progressives

Access to clean water a luxury for some First Nations reserves

Sat, 2017-12-30 04:03
Krystalline Kraus

I recently went to a movie and one of the pre-screening ads was about donating to a global charity that helps people get access to clean water.

As I watched the ad, I wondered how many people in that packed theatre knew that it is not only communities in developing nations that struggle for access to clean water. The very same issues are true for some reserves.

"Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade," according to a CBC News investigation, and it has not gotten much better in 2017.

"The longest-running water advisory is in the Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario, where residents have been boiling their water for 20 years," says the CBC report. In second, third and fourth place are the Nazko First Nation, Alexis Creek First Nation and Lake Babine First Nation, all of which are in British Columbia and have struggled with water issues over the past 16 years.

Not that your average Canadian would know about these water issues, even though Canada is now a part of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It's literally Canada's dirty little secret that needs exposing.

I would like to believe that if Canadians truly knew that access to clean running water was a luxury for some, they would not stand for it.

It's something that the Trudeau government can barely admit to, even though it was an official campaign promise, when a large part of the "Indigenous vote" went to his campaign with the promise that he would bring positive changes to First Nation reserves.

The good news is that Ontario has pledged to spend $85 million to clean up the damage that mercury poisoning has caused to the Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations in Northern Ontario. Victims of the Attawapiskat effect, these reserves are a far enough distance away from Ottawa that they have been willfully ignored until this year.

The federal government also announced that it is planning on building a health centre in Grassy Narrows to treat the victims of mercury poisoning.

Clean water statistics an embarrassment

"Between 2004 and 2014, 93 per cent of all First Nations in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick reported at least one water advisory in their communities," notes the CBC investigation. "Alberta is close behind at 87 per cent."

While there are lots of reasons why a nation might be potentially under a boil advisory, access to clean water is something I would like to believe no one in this country should have to worry about. A combination of anything from a problem with an aging water treatment plant to the repercussions of mining or pipeline spills can all foul the water.

These issues of course only account for acute water treatment problems, not the decade-long boil advisory that some First Nations are under.

Speaking to the CBC, Cindy Blackstock, director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and associate professor at the University of Alberta, said, "You end up with a real sense of despair and stress in these communities."

In the CBC investigation, Lalita Bharadwaj, an associate professor in the University of Saskatchewan's School of Public Health, said governments have spent at least $2 billion on the issue between 2001 and 2013, but the problems remain severe. Bharadwaj "said a more targeted approach is needed, along with better communication between government and First Nations."

The CBC also spoke with Emma Lui of the Council of Canadians, who stated that, "Chronic government underfunding of water systems is to blame for the lack of progress (....) a national assessment commissioned by the federal government found $470 million was needed per year over 10 years."

All this damage to people's health, not to mention the stress of not having access to clean water to bathe a child or take a sip from the tap (and not because a First Nation is being picky about what type of bottled water they prefer over tap water) takes its toll on a community.

Trudeau made an election promise to end boil water advisories on First Nations within five years of being elected, so I'm still holding out hope that he will not just throw money at the problem but will provide clean water to communities while letting Canadians know that there is a problem in the first place.

So far, though, it doesn't look promising. One-third of First Nations people living on reserves use drinking water systems that threaten their health, an investigation by The Globe and Mail has found. 

In fact, the water crisis in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000 that poisoned 2,300 and killed seven made headline news so why not this issue?

Because environmental racism is responsible for keeping the magnitude of the problem from being widely known.

Environmental racism, for those who don't already know, occurs when political bias affects a community's ability to tackle concerns like clean air and clean water. It's frankly embarrassing that Trudeau has to make such a promise to Indigenous communities in the first place.

Environmental racism can only be combatted by environmental justice, which would mean politicians being honest about the problems in their province as well as nationally.

Together with the sympathy that is raised for othered communities around the globe, this approach could turn a healthy eye onto the problems Canadians need to tackle in their own backyard, including dealing with the shame that this is even an issue in this G8 country.

The fact that a mother from Grassy Narrows reported to Human Rights Watch that she cannot bathe her daughter at home because of water quality issues should make us take pause that these issues need to be tackled in under five years.

Photo: philografy/flickr

Categories: News for progressives

Our favourites from 2017: rabble's year in review

Sun, 2017-12-24 05:52
December 23, 2017rabble's year in review: 2017 editionWhat had rabble's attention this year? Here's a look at the best of the best from all our sections and more.
Categories: News for progressives

rabble's year in review: 2017 edition

Sun, 2017-12-24 05:45
rabble staff

As 2017 draws to a close, we at rabble are humbled and honoured that you've continued to seek analysis, insight, and solace in rabble's coverage of this year's events. And what a year it was! From hard-hitting news stories from civil society that go undetected in mainstream media outlets to op-eds that challenge the status quo and interviews with unyielding activists, rabble works hard to bring you news for the rest of us.

We've assembled some of our favourite, most inspiring and powerful posts from across the site in blogs, columns, books, podcasts and babble and have rounded those up right here for you. Don't miss Parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg's review of this year's events in Canadian politics. On our labour page, rabble.ca's outgoing labour reporter Meagan Gillmore recaps some of the stories that mattered most in 2017.

As 2017 comes to a close, you can give everyone on your list the gift of media democracy and support news for the rest of us. It's the last-minute progressive gift you've been looking for!

Please enjoy rabble's best of 2017, and have a happy holiday!


Blogging the resistance: 2017 in rabble blogs

2017 is over. Almost. For those of you who, like us, need a bit of a memory jog as we enter the new year and continue to reflect, reassess, and resist... let's recap.

Sounds of hope from rabble podcasts in 2017

For your holiday listening, some wise words from people who believe that all is not lost. The struggle continues, and is far from over.

The Activist Toolkit's fierce giving guide for 2018

According to statistics, at this time of year many of us donate to charitable organizations. This list includes ideas to help build progressive change.

Pushing back against injustice: The year in rabble columns

Through their reflections, analysis and critiques, rabble columnists brought fresh perspective -- and yes, hope -- to the challenges of a painful year. Read highlights from rabble columns in 2017.

Trudeau's 2017 ends as it began, cozying up to Trump: The year in Canadian politics

The U.S. president has had an impact on Trudeau's policies. For example, Canada shelved plans to reform refugee law and thus roll back some of Harper's draconian measures.

Looking for hope at the end of a troubling year

As 2017 draws to a close, some words of wisdom in difficult times from a trio of seasoned activists -- Chris Hedges, Angela Davis and Gerry Caplan.

Fight for workers' rights continued as laws changed: The year in rabble labour

rabble.ca's outgoing labour reporter recaps some of the stories that mattered most in 2017.

babbling all the way through 2017: Highlights from rabble's discussion forum

As 2017 comes to a close, it's time for our annual babble roundup. We asked babblers what their favourites threads were for the year and we've collected them here.

A year of progressive, purposeful eating in 2018

The New Year is just a few weeks away -- a good time for reflection. Our food columnist's resolution this year is going to be all about how to work towards sustainable eating practices.

Canada's explosive Christmas gift to the world

Every December, the holiday season is infused with militarism, from the military jet flyovers of sports events and the mini arsenal in your local toy store, to the hijacking of Santa Claus.

Photo: Julie Falk/flickr

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Categories: News for progressives



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