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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Human-rights museum should document climate justice

(April 16, 2019)

Visiting a museum is supposed to make you think. It provides new information, new things to see or hear or touch. Museum displays, done well, provide a context within which those experiences are interpreted.

Visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) obviously makes you think about human rights, who has them, and what happens to individuals and to societies when those rights are not respected.

While there are bits and pieces on this theme throughout, what is missing right now is a significant, ongoing CMHR display on climate justice.

In Canada, environmental defenders are humiliated, abused, arrested or sued by developers to shut them up. Elsewhere, in places where the rule of law is either an inconvenient option or is a sham orchestrated to the benefit of the elite, those same kinds of people are simply shot.

The year 2017 was lethal for environmental defenders — more than three were murdered every week — and 2018 looks to have been just as bad. What is often left out of that story (only briefly and reluctantly reported in mainstream media) is that most of those murdered environmental defenders were Indigenous people, women and local community activists. They were protesting and working against large multinational forces from elsewhere (such as mining companies registered for convenience in Canada) whose actions are ruining the livelihoods of ordinary people and the places that these defenders call home.

In a climate-changing world where we are attempting to fulfil global goals for sustainable development, this is unconscionable. Deliberately ignoring the human consequences of ecological destruction is just as genocidal as the other historical examples CMHR displays. What is worse, it is happening right now.

Humans don’t knowingly or willingly destroy the places where they live. Even U.S. President Donald Trump won’t spray Agent Orange on his Mar-a-Lago golf course or turn it into a toxic waste dump. In the modern world, however, it seems we have no problem destroying the places where other people live.

Ecocide leads to genocide. Human rights abuses are often the result of environmental abuse. Justice for all therefore includes ecological justice, just as human rights include ecological rights.

Looking at the forced migration of millions today, numbers that will only increase as the effects of climate change worsen, ecological justice not only means changing the way we live but also changing our attitudes toward climate refugees.

Our ethical response as Canadians needs to be more than “Sucks to be you!” as we pride ourselves on having won the lottery of birth and geography, especially here in Manitoba.

Why should we expect people to stay where they are and starve, die of thirst or drown?

We wouldn’t. Consider those of many of our ancestors who emigrated to Canada to escape conditions in which they could not live — they certainly didn’t.

Compare the devastating effects of cyclone Idai on Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the threat of a similar storm on the coast of Australia. The developing African countries were slammed, with many people losing their lives during the storm and millions more at risk afterward, whereas the Australians were airlifted to safety ahead of time. Money is available in Australia to rebuild, while the African countries wait, hope and pray for promised aid that (too often) is late or never arrives at all.

We seem afraid to do more.

Fear is one way to shift public opinion, but in this situation, that fear has been misdirected at the victims. Racist and elitist elements have hijacked the narrative, promoting a fear of the Other, a fear of difference, instead of a fear of the people and institutions responsible for climate change and the political instability that fuels forced migration.

What would you do for your children and grandchildren if their survival were threatened? Why should you expect people who live somewhere else to do less for their families? And why should their survival be somehow pitted against our own, making us both into victims of the forces that profit from the misery of others? Those who golf, because they can, while the world around them burns?

These are the kind of questions that a display on environmental defenders and ecological justice would provoke in CMHR visitors.

They are also the kinds of questions we should be asking of those people who want to become — or continue to be — our political leaders. We have two election campaigns almost upon us. Climate activist Greta Thunberg reminds us that no government these days can run on its good record when it comes to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

Some governments are bigger failures than others, just as their opposition parties may offer worse alternatives.

But without major shifts in policy and actions, they will all be complicit in the ecological genocide to come.

And so will we.

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