Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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Trucking industry green-driven

(May 30, 2018)

Co-authored with Terry Shaw, Executive Director of the Manitoba Trucking Association

The Pallister government might not expect to see environmental groups like the Green Action Centre working together with the Manitoba Trucking Association to advance a similar agenda, but it is not surprising.

We are concerned about creating a sustainable future and frustrated with the lack of government action toward that goal.

We have not seen the leadership we were promised, on Premier Brian Pallister’s vision to make Manitoba into “Canada’s cleanest, greenest, and most climate resilient province,” a vision that lay behind the Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan.

Given the Green Projects, Business Competitiveness, and Clean Technologies initiative and the rhetoric that accompanied the various surveys and public (and private) consultations, we expected more, better and sooner from this government.

Specifically, we expected more from the long-promised carbon tax plan, especially in terms of how the money is going to be allocated. At the first province-sponsored consultation in October 2016, both our organizations — like others present — asked for the revenue to be spent on mitigating the impacts of the carbon tax on Manitoba’s most vulnerable citizens, and for the rest to be spent on programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

This would involve initiatives such as increasing and improving public transportation, enabling the use of electric vehicles by subsidizing their purchase and providing the necessary charging infrastructure, and subsidizing other efficiencies to encourage reduction in GHG emissions in the transportation sector.

We also impressed upon the members of government we have met over the past two years that this is an urgent problem, something that needs to be addressed in part by reducing the amount of “green tape” that gets between us and the solutions we could offer.

Truck drivers, like farmers and the rest of Manitobans, want to do their part to contribute to solutions, rather than just continuing to be seen as part of the problem.

Obviously, truck drivers provide a service that feeds, clothes and employs Manitobans, and delivers the goods and services that allow us to enjoy the standard of living we have.

We all want to find ways to make transportation more efficient, which is why the MTA jointly established the GrEEEn Trucking fuel efficiency initiative to provide incentives for truck drivers to do just this.

Failing to use the carbon tax revenues collected to support much-needed initiatives such as this one risks having the Manitoba headquarters of our trucking industry move to other provinces where such subsidies are already government policy.

After all, why should the Manitoba trucking industry pay a carbon tax, and at the same time (as good corporate citizens) spend more of their money to improve the efficiency of their operations for the benefit of all Manitobans, if this is not valued or appreciated by the government?

Some things are therefore clear to both our groups:

Without taking serious steps to do things differently, our greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, fuelling global warming. As Canadians, we have made commitments under the Paris accord to reduce emissions. Whether or not this will be enough to stop global warming remains to be seen, but doing nothing is not an option.

The carbon tax by itself will simply not be high enough to change consumer behaviour by punishing us into a greener lifestyle. Instead of $25 a tonne, we would need closer to $300 a tonne to do that.

The money raised, however — every nickel — should go to protecting the most vulnerable Manitobans first, and then to creating options for Manitobans to make lifestyle and work choices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While we are pleased to see the one-time gift to the Winnipeg Foundation for a conservation trust fund, the revenues from such a fund are woefully inadequate for new climate-change initiatives, especially since existing programs (such as the subsidies to public transit) have already been cancelled as cost-saving measures by the provincial government.

Some parts of the solution are obvious. We have an abundance of electricity, which is more valuable to us kept at home than exported abroad. What we lack is the infrastructure to develop and support electric vehicles, as one part of a sustainable transportation strategy, something that carbon tax revenues could be used to promote.

We need the best answers all of us together can provide, because a sustainable future is important for all Manitobans — especially the next generation.

We are prepared to work as allies, and across sectors, to ensure the province advances its carbon reduction strategies by reducing emissions with funds from carbon taxes.

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Canada can kick carbon addiction

(May 25, 2018)

We need to use plain language to explain why the federal government approves, supports and (apparently) is prepared to help fund oil pipelines, such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain, for which they appear to have money to blow.

Intending the drug reference, we should instead say, bluntly, they are just doing more lines of pipe.

The government’s willingness to spend money on pipe instead of on clean water for First Nations communities, food and shelter for homeless people, proper supports for injured veterans and a long list of other national necessities seems like an addiction.

Add the irrational frenzy reflected in their defence of the Trans Mountain project — vilifying opponents, desperate to do whatever it takes to get their pipe (military options against protesters have still not been taken off the table) — and it’s clear they need some professional help to kick the habit.

We continue to be told, in increasingly frantic tones, that Canada must get its oil to the world markets. (This conveniently ignores last year’s pipeline frenzy around Keystone XL and the fact, at the moment, we are apparently getting oil to market in other ways.)

Forget the logic the Afromax tankers that can navigate the British Columbia waterways into the proposed pipeline terminus are one-quarter the size of the supertankers that can fill up, in much less time, in Texas. Forget the price of oil is lower now than it needs to be (by at least $30 a barrel) to make working the oil sands profitable.

Forget the global shift toward alternative energy, which means (even with real growth) there will be less global demand for oil in the future, not more. Forget the equally obvious point that oil sands product is lower quality than other supplies available, requiring extra refining (and higher costs) to make it usable and therefore less desirable to anyone who has an option. Forget that the country most likely in our sights as a future customer — China — is also becoming the global leader in producing alternative energy, such as solar.

All this is set aside because we need more pipe. Another line, as soon as possible — and there will be trouble if you try to get in the way of me doing my next line.

Granted, you could say as a country we are all addicted to oil, so the Liberal government is no worse than the rest of us. But that only means we all could use some professional help.

Bizarre as this might sound, perhaps Premier Brian Pallister can lead the way to a pipe-free, alternative energy, decarbonized future for all of Canada.

All he needs to do, the next time he visits his cottage in Costa Rica, is to check out what the locals are doing to kick the habit and bring back some of their ideas for rehab in his luggage, along with the usual packages of Costa Rican coffee.

Newly elected President Carlos Alvarado Quesada announced at his inauguration this month that Costa Rica is going to lead the world in decarbonizing its society. Last year, deriving most of its electricity from hydro power, Costa Rica went 300 consecutive days using a mix of renewable energy sources to power the country, breaking its record from a year earlier.

Of course, that leaves transportation — but the new president intends to tackle that head-on, too, campaigning on a platform to eliminate fossil-fuel transportation in the near future with electric vehicles and better public transportation (he arrived at the inauguration in a hydrogen-powered bus).

Using what are called “foresight scenarios” to plan toward a future everyone wants, not the one that just arrives uninvited, the agricultural sector in Costa Rica is working co-operatively toward decarbonizing everything from livestock to crop production, as soon as it can.

Manitoba could be a carbon-negative province. We could generate all our power from renewables, heat our homes and businesses the same way and slash emissions from agriculture and transportation by promoting the technology and infrastructure that already exist to do it. We could use foresight scenarios to make the province resilient in the face of climate change, instead of sitting, paralyzed, in the middle of the road, waiting to get run over.

As for the naysaying internet trolls and pipe-addicted politicians who will sneer at these ideas, I received an email recently from Manitoba’s airship visionary, Barry Prentice, that closed with a Chinese proverb I had forgotten:

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

Next time you turn on your lights at your vacation home in Costa Rica, Premier Pallister, consider what it might mean for Manitoba if you followed that country’s lead.

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