Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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Carbon tax isn’t perfect, but it’s something

(August 15, 2018)

We are in the midst of a global heat wave that makes predictions of a warmer planet by 2050 seem painfully absurd.

If you still have a climate change denier in your house, invite them to lie down outside and catch some rays — and then fry an egg on their forehead.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSA woman cools off in the fountain on Memorial Boulevard on Sunday, when the temperature hit 37C in Winnipeg.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSA woman cools off in the fountain on Memorial Boulevard on Sunday, when the temperature hit 37C in Winnipeg.
Unfortunately, things will get worse before they have a chance of getting better. We need to prepare for living in a world where extreme heat events are the norm, not just the latest headline — and not down the road in 2050, when most forecasts predict, but perhaps as early as next summer.

What this unusual weather reveals is our inability to predict just how fast the extreme weather events of a climate-changing world could crash the ecological systems on which we depend.

With summer heat waves and forest fires from the Arctic all the way down to the equator, the past four months have been a nightmare in many places. And when we mercifully shift into winter, the southern hemisphere can expect to experience its own dry, fiery nightmare.

That’s not just the climate that future generations will have to manage. It is our future, too, coming at us faster and faster, just around the bend ahead on the highway to ecological disaster.

Yet to the politicians driving the bus, this is alarmist nonsense. Can’t be true, so it isn’t true. Don’t want it to happen, so it won’t. Turn up the A/C and have another cold one.

Worst of all, because they can’t figure out how to solve the problem, they do nothing at all. It is easier to get re-elected if you promise a chicken in every cooking pot, even though you know doing nothing means there will be no chicken and no pot — just a lot of fire, and more people getting cooked instead.

As you roast this summer, think of how your federal government uses your tax dollars to invest in pipelines and further subsidize the fossil fuel industry — literally turning up the heat, instead of investing in solar energy. Diesel oil may be in short supply, thanks to global politics and our reliance on a single refinery in Alberta, but there is lots of sun for everyone, if we would only use it.

As for that minimal federal carbon tax, forget the prime ministerial rhetoric that introduced it. Concerns about ensuring Canadian companies remain competitive in a global market seems to mean it will be watered down even further, to the delight of rogue elements among the provincial premiers.

Pessimists can be forgiven for questioning whether it is worth the effort to have a carbon tax at all. Given other options, I still think a carbon tax is a good way to free up money toward mitigating the blistering effects of the climate changes that are almost here.

The $25-per-tonne carbon tax is peanuts, however — a nickel a litre, when gas prices go up and down by a dime every weekend. The argument has been made many times that unless that carbon tax is increased to $300 per tonne, consumer behaviour is unlikely to be changed by it.

What the carbon tax money would do, instead, is to fund alternatives for individual citizens, so they can choose on their own to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It is hard to take a bus if there isn’t one, or take light rail if it hasn’t been built. Want to drive an electric vehicle, powered by Manitoba’s hydro? Buy it on your own time. Switch to electric heat? If you can pay for it yourself, go ahead. Solar panels? If you want.

And so on. As the temperature rises, the Pallister government continues to be breathtakingly ineffectual on the greenhouse gas file. They have managed to exempt from their carbon tax most of the emissions from the largest point sources. They have ignored flurries of consultations and advice from many Manitobans and intend to return the tax collected on fuel to emitters in ways that avoid funding any alternative choices. The “made in Manitoba” climate plan has produced little more than press conference emissions.

Unfortunately, it is the same elsewhere.

As the political games continue, global temperatures go up.

The Chinese proverb that “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” needs to be rewritten for a climate-changing world:

Whether you think it will make a difference or not, it is better to blow out one candle than to curse the fire.

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NAFTA arbitration can hurt communities

Local residents on Digby Neck used simple messaging to tell the story. Photo by Ruth Denton

(May 11, 2018)

It is a costly and unnecessary lesson, but the federal government’s unsuccessful challenge of a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration ruling could not have come at a better time.

As we renegotiate — or just scrap — NAFTA, perhaps the government will accept what environmentalists have said all along: the current language allows Canada to be sued by companies for protecting our environment and preserving the communities where we live.

Bilcon, a Delaware company, may be awarded up to $500 million for failing, in the end, to explode a significant part of Nova Scotia and crush it into gravel, providing cheap roadbed material for New Jersey highways. The gravel would have been shipped across the right whale breeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, also destroying lucrative lobster and herring fisheries in the process and effectively rendering Digby Neck uninhabitable.

However the company tried to spin things, this was the project. Local politicians were “persuaded” this was a good idea; local people had visits from folks genially offering to buy land — and only after the fact did people realized these were actually agents for Bilcon, which (by the way) still owns much of the land in question.

You might wonder why Bilcon would bother to seek environmental approval for such a destructive project. I did, when I first heard about it — how could it ever be approved? — but this one strikes close to home. The quarry marine terminal would have been built on land my grandfather once owned and the communities slated for devastation included those where the descendants of my European ancestors have lived since the 1780s — and where relatives still do.

So, without support from either federal or provincial representatives, the local people protested when the implications of the project sank in. They had to fight hard to get a hearing, or to have their concerns heard. Some, such as my aunt — who was one of the leaders — were either threatened with lawsuits or were sued by Bilcon for amounts guaranteed to scare people into silence.

It didn’t work. Finally, with the support of large environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club and with public exposure from an article by Noah Richler in The Walrus, the rest of Canada realized that what was going to happen to Digby Neck could just as easily happen to them and to their own communities.

I fumed from a distance, watching events unfold — I still think a great slogan would have been “It’s Your Neck, Too,” superimposed on a picture of Digby Neck.

The locals were more prosaic, as signs reading “Stop the Quarry” proliferated from Digby to Briar Island.

Belatedly, and despite a feeble environmental-assessment process, the two levels of government (arguably after one election and faced with another) realized that continued support for the project would admit Canada’s resources — and its leaders — were for sale to the highest bidder.

Officially, the reason given was that an environmental review panel concluded the project was “not in keeping with community values.”

So, what were these “community values” that surprised everyone later in the process? What “community values” are now potentially going to cost all Canadians as much as $500 million?

Simply, to have a community at all. To preserve the country we have on loan from our children, the resources of land, water and air that are our heritage, resources that we have a responsibility to protect if we want to preserve a decent quality of life for ourselves and others into an environmentally-uncertain future.

This project should have been dismissed out of hand, right from the start. The fact it went far enough to result in a NAFTA arbitration hearing shows our environmental-assessment rules were (and still are) laughably weak.

When Canadians are confronted with the kind of corporate greed that allows others elsewhere to profit from the misery of the people who live where the damage is done, we need to demonstrate that while this might work in other places, it does not work here.

Or, at least, not at the moment. I am concerned that the blatant disregard for similar “community values” reflected in pipeline decisions shows the federal government still has moral lessons to learn.

I worry that it will trade away Digby Neck, after all, to dodge the NAFTA ruling.

But those communities whose values were finally respected were originally created by people who knew that loyalty and respect come at a price. They were United Empire Loyalists, who lost everything because of the American revolution.

Faced with the same thing happening 200 years later, their descendants were not going to let it happen again. Nor should we.

Peter Denton is a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who settled in the communities of Little River, White Cove and Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.

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