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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Skills, strategy, bumf and bargle

(February 23, 2021)

Observing the first efforts of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Minister Wayne Ewasko, I am in awe of the Pallister government’s ability to make a bad situation worse, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Of course, Ewasko is no more responsible for this latest debacle than he is for the Winnipeg Jets’ decision to trade Patrik Laine. Given the newly created (no website) department and the newly minted minister, it’s no stretch to realize someone else was behind the tortuous language of “Manitoba’s Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy.”

Premier Brian Pallister seems to have a compulsion to turn allies into antagonists, coupled with very poor political memory.

In the 2017 budget, Pallister’s government phased out the tuition fee rebate for graduating students who remained in Manitoba, supposedly saving $52 million a year and giving graduates yet another reason to move elsewhere to pursue their careers. These are the same young people Ewasko now wants to stay and enable both our pandemic recovery and a sustainable future for Manitoba.

Forget the awkward homilies about useful education, Mr. Premier — restore the tuition tax credit, or watch them continue to leave and put down roots elsewhere.

Then, in 2018, the government made international students ineligible for provincial health care, supposedly saving $3.1 million a year. That same year, by our tone-deaf government’s own numbers, international students from 100 countries contributed $400 million and supported 4,250 jobs in Manitoba. Bizarrely, that same government then went on to proclaim 2019 as the Year of International Education in Manitoba.

FYI: removing the probate fees in 2020 (the tax on dead rich people) cost the government at least the $9.2 million collected in 2018-19 – or roughly three times more money than it saved by cancelling the international students’ health care.

When Pallister has a bee in his bonnet, there is always money to spare. When it comes to post-secondary education, however, his attitude oscillates between ordering us to “Do More with Less” and then claiming “Less is More.”

In real dollars, post-secondary funding has dropped every year under Pallister’s watch. To make things worse, the government lurked and threatened outside labour negotiations in 2016 with faculty at the University of Manitoba, if it did not actively interfere. As the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association renegotiates contracts that expired in 2020, how Ewasko implements this new post-secondary strategy is therefore critical.

After all, there is a difference between education and training: education develops the whole person, while training provides or increases a practical skill set. As someone who taught for 11 years at Red River College (until early retirement), and continues to teach at both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, I have often discussed this difference with colleagues.

Good post-secondary education for Manitobans requires both education and training – but not necessarily at the same time, or in the same place.

At RRC, the focus on training comes at a personal cost to students, as “harder” skills development can overwhelm the “softer” and perhaps more important aspects of their education. They may get a job at graduation, but keeping it long-term is another story.

We often heard that the normal “shelf-life” of a diploma was three to five years past graduation, after which students required retraining, perhaps in an entirely new field. In a crowded curriculum, therefore, how could we also include “soft” courses that encouraged the lifelong learning skills and abilities our graduates would soon require?

I participated in the attempted shift to a polytechnic model, in which RRC tried to deliver both kinds of courses — but, thanks to reductions in funding and unimaginative new leadership, that initiative morphed into building new facilities instead of investing in new staff and dynamic programming.

For more than two decades, I have witnessed inspired, dedicated teaching and service from many colleagues in all three institutions. But I have also seen administrative decisions about faculty hiring and program curriculum that were driven by incompetence, insecurity and privilege, without much concern for students or their futures in Manitoba or anywhere else.

All post-secondary institutions in Manitoba could do better: communications skills, critical thinking skills and ethical reasoning are important for the employability and well-being of all future citizens, but they need to be taught to everybody — not just expected to appear.

We also need an intentional focus on sustainability in all post-secondary educational settings — grounded in principles of ecological, racial and social justice — because our graduates will live in the future we are choosing together every day.

Whatever bumf and bargle has been foisted on him by his predecessor (and by Pallister), Wayne Ewasko — as a former teacher and guidance counsellor — should know by now what good education and effective training both require.

He did not write that befuddled homily — he just delivered it — but Ewasko will certainly wear the consequences of its implementation.

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Loudest voices don’t say smartest things

(January 26, 2021)

If you follow the news cycle, it is impossible to escape the fact we live in a time of strong opinions.

Every time I pick up my pen to reflect on the events of the day, words like “incompetence,” “arrogance,” “negligence” — even “stupidity” — immediately spill onto the page. Whether it is about politics, pandemics or pipelines, I feel angrier and more frustrated every day.

But I also feel like I’m at a wedding social (remember those?) when the party really gets going. As the volume grows, communication is reduced to yelling a few words right into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Everyone is competing to be heard, but no one is getting through. (I always wished there was some giant gong that could be struck when the decibel level got too high, some sign that would make everyone stop and reset their volume to a normal level.)

After all, in life and at wedding socials, it’s not the loudest voices that make the wisest observations. And if words matter as much as I believe, we also need to be careful which ones we choose to use ourselves.

When it comes to the pandemic, the quietest voice in the room is saying “follow the science” — instead of being blown about by the winds of political expediency or battered into accepting the demands of special-interest groups. Simply put, dead people don’t shop — and sick people don’t work — and right now, we have too many of both.

Every single time restrictions have been relaxed, anywhere, there has been a further wave of disease that makes things worse than before. As for the mental-health impact of lockdowns, it is worse to keep saying things might get better, soon, instead of being honest about the longer term. Whatever the public-health guidelines are going to be, put them in place for at least six months at a time, or people will lose trust in the judgment of those now making these decisions every couple of weeks.

For example, I have believed from the start that there won’t be a return to “normal” face-to-face classes at universities until the fall of 2022 — if we are lucky. If everyone adjusted to that more realistic timeline, instead of planning four months (or less) at a time, it would help us all make better decisions about how to live and what to do until then.

As for politics, if we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, the past four years have demonstrated that many current politicians were not paying attention to their lessons. Maturity and politics are words not often used together these days; instead, petulance, immaturity and tantrums are commonplace on both sides of the border. Of course, no one gets things right all the time, but mature leadership (however old you are) recognizes its mistakes and corrects them.

Looking at Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has been hard of hearing throughout his entire political career, so it is no surprise to find it getting worse with age. Unfortunately, the ideological voice in his head has always been the loudest one in the room for him, especially when others start to yell. Admitting mistakes is never easy for any politician, but not admitting them can lead to a Trumpian nightmare that hurts a lot of innocent people, as we have seen.

For example, Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), introduced without details on Nov. 2 ­— is effectively an authoritarian smackdown of people who protest against the immorality of government actions. The PCIA is guaranteed to inflame and antagonize, and probably will be found to be against the charter rights of Manitobans, too.

It is more in line with Trump’s version of America than with a progressive Canadian province, in which we need to live and work together toward a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of politics.

So, in light of how well that kind of divisive approach has worked in the United States, Bill 57 should be withdrawn, offering the reasonable explanation that there is already ample protection for the welfare and safety of Manitobans within existing legal frameworks. Coupled with an apology, this would go a long way toward setting the stage for the thoughtful public conversations we will need to have about managing the growing climate crisis, with all of its social and economic implications, as the pandemic eventually recedes.

Finally, in terms of ending our political addiction to doing more lines of pipe, the incoming Biden administration has thankfully already demonstrated more wisdom and maturity than our own government. The fossil-fuel industry is only an investment option for those with money to burn (such as banks and pension plans). Everyone else is already investing in green energy and sustainable development, instead, and so should we.

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