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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Pallister’s ‘bucket list’ of irritations

(May 20, 2020)

I wrote the first words of this column as the sun rose over the Red River on Manitoba’s 150th birthday.

After bemoaning the fact the Snowbirds did not swing north of the city during the local leg of their now-interrupted inspiration tour, it was then back to life in the midst of a pandemic.

At heart, like all activists, I am an optimist. You have to be, because there are always lots of reasons to quit, as you listen to the voices of those who tell you it is hopeless, or pointless or futile.

So, last week, I hoped we would see some sign of Pallister’s plan to mark the province’s sesquicentennial, some blueprint for Manitoba’s future that showed the collective wisdom of our political leaders in a time of crisis.

Instead of a plan, however, it seems Premier Brian Pallister has an agenda — a personal agenda, his own “bucket list” of irritations before he hands off to a new leader just in time for the Progressive Conservative Party to face Manitobans at the polls in 2023 (or sooner).

Bloated civil service, propped up by nasty unions? Check. Post-secondary institutions, where people do very little except belly-ache for more money? Check. Environmental organizations that keep telling me the government is not doing enough for the planet or the future? Check. Manitoba Hydro, which just won’t roll over and die? Check.

All of this, of course, is ostensibly to provide more money for health care — but then, in the same breath, Pallister gifted seniors $200 each ($45 million) and dropped another $500 million worth of promises into construction. That $360,000 cut from the budgets of Green Action Centre, Manitoba-Eco-Network and Climate Change Connection — which were told “the fact of the matter is, all of us are in this together, and that includes advocacy groups” — is a long way from even being nickels in that scenario.

Calling them “advocacy groups” also misrepresents most of the work they do, from ecological education in schools and working on sustainable transportation to establishing the composting service the city (and province) continues to dodge. But silencing them eliminates awkward questions, asked on behalf of average citizens left out in the cold, that this premier would also prefer to dodge. Check.

For younger Manitobans, facing unemployment this summer and yet wanting to return to school in the fall, there is the promise of a wage subsidy — as long as there are employers with jobs for students, and who have the cash to float that $5,000 advance until the government pays up in the fall. Publicity that will cost little or nothing? Check.

Then $10 million for summer Green Team funding for students — with the irony that many sponsoring organizations (such as churches or community groups) are now closed or reliant on those environmental “advocacy” groups for organization, resources and support. Vaguely green gesture, that again will cost little? Check.

So, here we are. Hard to be an optimist for Manitoba’s 151st year, isn’t it?

I have confessed this before, but the only political party to which I have ever belonged was the Progressive Conservative Party. Granted, it was a long time ago, back when — in Manitoba, especially — you could be both progressive and conservative without being a walking oxymoron.

As a young person, I was proud of what the Progressive Conservatives were doing — at least, until the Reform wind blew from the west and Alberta’s Social Credit ideology took over. Like many other young people I knew at the time, I left, and have never really found a place since I could call home.

I think that progressive element is still out there in rural areas, among the people who vote for the PC Party in Manitoba, but whose personal lives, in their communities and in the wider world, reflect values that support their neighbour and help others in need, ahead of ideology and budget cuts.

I propose, to those readers who regularly get financial requests from the party, that they reconsider where their donations should go at the moment. As the premier says, “We are all in this together” — and right now, the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba does not need a war chest. It needs a wound chest, or it will not deserve re-election.

So politely refuse the opportunity to give more money to the PC Party — and tell them instead it will be going to the food banks, the theatre and music groups, the social services in your community, the environmental groups — all of which are suffering and have not made it onto the premier’s agenda, except as targets.

For the seniors who can afford it, top things up with the $200 you didn’t expect.

Premier Pallister makes it clear he won’t be forced to do the right thing — so it’s time for the progressive members of the PC Party to do some damage control of their own.

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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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