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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4.5 billion reasons not to vote Liberal

(June 6, 2018)

Despite their perpetual bleating that “there is no more money,” governments always seem to find the money they need to buy whatever they want.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered spectacular evidence of this, finding $4.5 billion in his sock drawer to purchase the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, present and future.

Jim Carr is now not just Minister of Pipelines, but owner, operator and CEO, as well.

The addiction continues. Canada will not only deserve Fossil of the Year awards at future climate conferences, but risk being kicked off the guest list entirely for its national hypocrisy.

So much for “sunny ways,” optimism and visionary environmental leadership. Trudeau has just provided 4.5 billion reasons for you not to vote Liberal in the next federal election, if you have any thought for your children and grandchildren’s future.

To be clear, the Conservatives are no better. While Andrew Scheer is laughing all the way to the pollster’s office today, the Kinder Morgan scene was set by the Harper government, which repeatedly made the worst environmental management decisions in Canadian history, across all sectors. Scheer’s leadership offers a smiley version of the same serial disasters.

As for the New Democratic Party, they are still straddling the picket fence — a painful position, with British Columbia Premier John Horgan on the one side and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the other. National NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been conspicuously absent all along, making it hard to evaluate his leadership when none has been apparent.

Only the Green party’s Elizabeth May has demonstrated concern for something beyond the needs of the fossil-fuel industry. After receiving a hefty fine for her public support of the protest, she spoke to following higher moral principles than those expressed in the law — an unusual position for a politician to take.

So, that $4.5 billion — plus another $7 billion for construction, it seems — will be another bad investment in a future no thinking person wants to happen. There will be jobs, but the main employment opportunities will be cleaning up the inevitable spills. Given the fact those spills will happen in B.C., there won’t be many extra jobs for Albertans, despite Notley’s flailing efforts to engineer her re-election with a variety of pipe dreams.

Her threats against B.C. are as desperate and absurd as they sound, moreover. Land-locked provinces should not threaten trade wars against the provinces with ports, rail lines and highways — and Horgan has shown restraint by not escalating the situation, despite holding the stronger hand.

Given their apparent desperation, since re-election trumps common sense among Alberta’s NDP (or concern for the planet’s future), they might take a lesson from other developing economies in the global South equally dependent upon natural resources.

Some countries are paid not to cut down their rainforests, paid to preserve wetlands, paid to preserve habitat, wildlife and so on.

Perhaps Alberta should ask the rest of the world for money not to dig up the tar sands, which alone are big enough to push the planet over any survivable carbon limit if the rest are developed.

I remember in the 1970s when prairie farmers in Saskatchewan were paid not to grow wheat. Perhaps it is time to pay Albertans not to produce bitumen.

Still, I wish I had the prime minister’s sock drawer. Perhaps there might be more money in it for the host of infrastructure, health care, education and development needs that have been sidelined until now.

But I expect the drawer is empty again, just like the promises that were made about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, environmental protection and whatever else sounded good during election season.

This decision satisfies no one except Kinder Morgan shareholders.

The protests and blockades will continue, as will the legal challenges. The economics of this pipeline will never make sense — and the environmental devastation of its construction and use will be forever.

The Trudeau government, however, bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for the same price it would otherwise have had to pay Kinder Morgan for damages had the project been cancelled (under the same NAFTA rules that just awarded Bilcon millions of dollars in damages for having its Digby Neck quarry in Nova Scotia denied as an ecological menace).

Perhaps it now can snatch disaster from the jaws of catastrophe and just shut the whole thing down — and put the other $7 billion needed for constructing the Pipeline-to-Nowhere back into Trudeau’s sock drawer for something else.

On top of the wish lists that other people have made for the federal government, that same money could subsidize a carbon-free future for future generations of Canada, instead of buying more obsolete technologies of mass destruction.

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What defines our ‘national interest”?

(April 12, 2018)

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr again took the microphone this past week as “Minister of Pipelines,” promoting Kinder Morgan on behalf of his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

We were told, emphatically, that against all common sense, ecological wisdom, economic prudence and foresight, the Trans Mountain pipeline “is in the national interest.”

Given that the protests in British Columbia against the pipeline will only become louder and more sustained after such an inflammatory statement — and that Carr has said all options remain open to the federal government — we now have to wonder whether the Canadian military might even be deployed against Canadian citizens on behalf of a foreign multinational corporation to ensure “the pipeline will be built.”

After all, the prime minister has tweeted it:

“Canada is a country of the rule of law, and the federal government will act in the national interest. Access to world markets for Canadian resources is a core national interest. The Trans Mountain expansion will be built.”

There was grim irony in the timing of Carr’s announcement. His news conference took place 101 years to the hour that Canadian troops were preparing in the darkness for their assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917. They did not choose that hill to die on — the government of the day decided that it was in the national interest to attack a stronghold no one else had been able to capture — but we would like to think they died believing they were fighting for freedom.

Afterward, we created the mythology that their sacrifice helped define our nation and have since proudly proclaimed, “The world needs more Canada.”

Not this kind of Canada, it doesn’t. “The true North strong and free” should not be for sale to oil companies, whatever their apparent influence on our politicians. The credibility of the federal government is on the line, but for entirely other reasons than Carr, Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley might claim.

When such dubious claims about the national interest are able to trump ecological concerns, the land rights of First Nations people, negotiated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the safety of local communities — all while threatening environmental defenders — Canada hardly looks like a country others should emulate.

If, as Manitoba’s senior minister, Carr wants to do something useful, there are a few things closer to home he should consider: the port of Churchill continues to languish, rail lines unrepaired; meanwhile, Russia seeks to take control of an undefended and inaccessible North even as China buys into the Arctic Council because it sees cross-Arctic shipping as part of its global “belt and road” initiative.

Canada needs a fully functional deep-water port in Churchill, connected to a continent-wide rail system, but Carr and the federal government have done nothing about that for two years.

Similarly, moving last year’s bumper crop of Canadian grain to market would also be in the national interest, but the Canadian rail system continues to deteriorate and decline and (again) nothing has been done about it.

We hear excuse after excuse about the lack of funds, in order to justify not doing these and many other things that are in the national interest, but when it comes to jamming a pipeline through to the B.C. coast for Kinder Morgan, there is money and energy and commitment, well, to burn.

And burning is the issue. The Alberta oilsands are a made-in-Canada carbon time bomb. We can effectively render futile the rest of the planet’s efforts to avoid catastrophic temperature rise if we dig up that dirty Alberta crude and ship it out.

What is more, the government refuses to admit that we do not need this pipeline for the transportation to market of current fossil-fuel supplies. The whole project is predicated on an expanded future global demand for oil, at high prices, with markets willing to take this low-quality crude and spend the extra money required to refine it into something usable.

This Liberal pipeline policy is dangerously delusional at every level. We need to consume fewer fossil fuels, not more, if we want to have a chance to limit global warming. Smart money for years now has been aimed at alternative energy development instead.

If the pipeline is built regardless of opposition, as the prime minister has threatened to do, the Liberals will lose every seat in British Columbia, forever — and so they should.

When the ocean levels rise, it won’t be Alberta that floods.

Besides, will today’s Canadian Armed Forces, related by profession and self-sacrifice to those who went over the top at Vimy Ridge, follow orders to do to their fellow citizens whatever it takes to get that pipeline built?

Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t believe that’s their idea of Canada, either.

Peter Denton is a Winnipeg-based writer, environmental activist and scholar.

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