Where have all the Tories gone?

My mother’s current garden, 20 years in the making

(March 29, 2021)

Pete Seeger’s song Where have all the flowers gone? epitomizes the circular futility of refusing to deal with what is really wrong in our world. We always return to where we started, and the cycle of heartbreaking loss begins again.

The song’s first verse blames the young girls for picking all the flowers, instead of just letting them grow, and everything else unravels from there.

One spring day, long ago, when I took the shortcut across what is now the Living Prairie Museum field on my way to Athlone School in St. James, the prairie crocuses were in full bloom. So I took a paper bag and half-filled it with crocuses as a gift for my mother. My nine-year-old brain thought this was a great idea — my mother admired those spring crocuses, especially because her garden then was mostly new subdivision gumbo.

I still remember the mixed emotions on her face as she looked into the paper bag that I offered to her — pleasure at the gift, but dismay at what I had done. No scolding could have been more effective, and to this day I remember that lesson.

So I am reluctant to cut down trees — even dead ones, which the woodpeckers love. Weeds have their place in the cycle of plant and insect life. The edges of our small oak bush randomly blossom with prairie roses, wild plums, highbush cranberries, and other surprises. The clover and dandelions feed the bees when there is not enough else in bloom, as our perennial garden slowly accumulates plants that will carry on for the rest of the summer.

It was a fundamental lesson in conservatism. Every good gardener and farmer is conservative. Nothing is changed just for the sake of change; nothing is uprooted or thrown away that could be used by someone else; the soil is tended, fed, watered and thoughtfully cultivated. There is a harvest at the end, but the process (and the life that is nurtured throughout) is just as important, because next spring will always follow winter.

I thought of this conservative philosophy as I watched the Pallister government finally reveal more of its mystery legislation, in what is best described as a systematic effort to uproot or dismantle the democratic freedoms all Manitobans currently enjoy. It has long been said that the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Pallister’s leadership are not progressive. It now also needs to be said they aren’t conservative, either.

That brings me back to Pete Seeger’s song, only rewritten to ask “Where have all the Tories gone?” Certainly, a new cycle has been started on Pallister’s watch, because like fellow Reform politician Stephen Harper, he has gifted the next government a winning legislative agenda: all they need to do, for the first six months, is to repeal his bad legislation and try to repair damage already done.

Bizarrely, Pallister’s legislative assault is aimed most at the people to whom conservatism is important — those farmers and others who live closer to the land, in rural Manitoba. Farmers have already lost their local agricultural support offices, told instead to go online or drive to the city. The “ag gag” laws don’t help their image, because everyone is now unfairly lumped together with factory farms that animal activists protest are inhumane — protected by the “Big Brother” of government against problems (and enemies) most farmers don’t have.

School trustees may be invisible or irrelevant in the city, but in rural areas, they are important elected officials, respected for caring about local children and giving the community a voice in how local schools are run and taxes are spent. (My mother later became a rural school trustee, by the way.) To be told all education will now forever be handled from Winnipeg, by a handful of government-appointed minions, is another blow against rural autonomy.

I suspect rural municipalities are next to be hit. They have already lost control over outside businesses plundering their land, because they can be overruled by the Municipal Board of government appointees (located in Winnipeg) if they refuse anyone.

Worst of all, the very people whose life philosophy these rural conservatives share — the environmental activists who work to conserve and protect the environment for our children and theirs — are now all potential criminals. Free speech, freedom of assembly, the right to protest bad laws, to preserve land rights, clean water and air — all dismissed by a government more concerned with corporate power than natural justice. Bill 57 (the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act) smacks of American Republican values, not conservative Canadian ones.

Where have all the Tories gone? Pallister isn’t one — never was — and that should worry any Progressive Conservatives still left in Manitoba. They need an alternative, soon.

Actually, we all do. Pallister is not just some kid plucking flowers this spring. He is deliberately ripping out perennial plants — just because he can.

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The perils of speaking truth to power

(March 11, 2021)

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, received the US$1-million Dan David Prize last month, it was not only for his lifelong work in public health. He was also honoured for “speaking truth to power.”

Speaking truth to power is not only a thankless task; it is a dangerous one. Power rarely appreciates the conversation – something Fauci knows only too well.

It’s why 50 journalists worldwide were killed in 2020. And being an environmental defender is even more dangerous: in 2019, 212 were killed.

Thankfully, in Canada, the risks are not so high for either journalists or environmental defenders. But power — though constrained by the rule of law — still reshapes those laws to make it harder for truth to be spoken, and punishes people who speak it anyway.

Unfortunately, under Premier Brian Pallister, Manitoba has become a riskier place for environmentalists and journalists to advocate for a sustainable future. For some reason, it seems there is no more sensitive nerve for Pallister than the one connected to the environment and sustainable development. Even when he is given the opportunity to receive federal money, whether it is from a carbon tax or sustainable infrastructure funds for municipalities, or public transportation subsidies, he balks or refuses to co-operate.

Further, any criticism of Pallister’s government or its policies — however reasonable and well-deserved that criticism might be — is immediately considered to be both a personal affront and a politically motivated attack. I also suspect anything less than enthusiasm from his MLAs is viewed as disloyalty — perhaps even enough to get cabinet ministers sacked and their departments reconfigured.

As for environmental affairs, no other sector of the Progressive Conservative government has had its cabinet responsibilities rearranged (read: mangled) three times in five years, each time then given to a new, rookie minister. It appears that just when the green minister starts to get a handle on her hastily rearranged portfolio and makes progress in co-operating with local environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), she is replaced.

Even when Pallister’s heart is in the right place, his head is somewhere else. For example, after months of consultations, hype and dramatic build-up, the 2017 release of the Climate and Green Plan, in all its many-pillared splendour, left ENGOs and everyone else bewildered by what Pallister thought was the way to make Manitoba into Canada’s greenest province.

Pallister was clearly hurt by this general lack of applause. So, after eliminating Green Manitoba and removing energy conservation (PowerSmart) from Manitoba Hydro, Pallister’s government (supposedly as a cost-saving measure) then decided to defund the main ENGOs in Manitoba.

These actions were clearly driven by ideology more than frugality — the amount of money saved by defunding the ENGOs, for example, is laughably small in comparison to other spending decisions that the Pallister government routinely makes on a whim (new vaccine, anyone?).

Our provincial ENGOs are not on the side of any government; nor should they be. They are on the side of Manitobans, present and future. Increasingly grim climate numbers demonstrate that no government, anywhere, is doing enough, quickly enough, to make the kind of difference a sustainable future requires. So giving Pallister’s environmental paralysis a thumbs-down doesn’t automatically mean giving a thumbs-up to the NDP, the Liberals or even the Green Party.

But despite the (literal) price Manitoban ENGOs have paid for criticizing the Pallister government’s decisions — where criticism seems to mean anything less than rapturous applause — they continue to do what they can, for all of us.

This is why three main ENGOs in Manitoba — Green Action Centre, Climate Change Connection and Wilderness Committee — applied for and received funding (with other partners) from the Winnipeg Foundation to draw up a blueprint for what Manitobans could do together, working in practical ways toward the achievable goal of a sustainable future.

(Launched on Feb. 18, you can find The Road to Resilience at the group’s website, climateactionmb.ca).

Speaking truth to power doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict — but if power can’t handle that truth, then those who choose to speak it anyway will likely be in trouble. In Pallister’s Manitoba, it seems to mean limits on both freedom of speech and action, according to the currently phantom Bill 57 (the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act), the contents of which we still await.

It also can mean losing government funding, the elimination of valuable programs, and just fighting to stay afloat, rather than being supported in educating Manitobans about sustainability and resilience.

But in a free and democratic society, that truth needs to be spoken, both to keep freedom and democracy alive and to keep tyranny in check. We should respect and honour those who have courage to do this, whatever the price — and perhaps listen to what they have to say.

For a change.

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