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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Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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“Recovering” Albertan feels the need to apologize

(March 11, 2020)

SINCE Jason Kenney became premier of Alberta, I have had this urge to apologize for being born there.

Claiming the bully pulpit of “speaking for all Albertans,” especially when ranting about pipelines, Kenney’s first legislation this year, Bill 1, would make any blocking or interference with “essential infrastructure,” into a major crime, subject to thousands of dollars in fines and jail time.

What’s more, anyone (like me) or any corporation (like this newspaper) that “aids, counsels or directs,” another person to take part in such interference — whether or not anyone listens — would also be liable to arrest and prosecution. Fines for corporations go as high as $200,000 — and the directors of corporations are individually liable for prosecution, too. Any environmental organization and the Winnipeg Free Press (actually, any free press) could be prosecuted under this blanket legislation.

Just to be sure everyone gets Kenney’s petulant rage at pipeline protests, every single day any “essential infrastructure,” is blocked constitutes a separate offence.

What is “essential infrastructure,” you ask? Essentially anything that has ever been made or built. If someone blocks or interferes with something not on Kenney’s list (such as a play structure in a park), the Lieutenant Governor in Council has the right to designate it as “essential infrastructure,” too.

Take that, you dastardly defenders!

I suspect that Bill 1 violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as running utterly afoul of common law, but that legal reality won’t make a dent in his fossil-fuelled rhetoric.

Kenney seems bent on recreating Alberta as a fascist petro-state, and so — taking a page from North Korea’s playbook — he is trying to convince Albertans that they need to hunker in the bunker against all the evil forces of the outside world. Whether or not the first charge laid under this law is tossed out on its ear, Kenney’s apparent intention is to threaten, exclude and otherwise punish anyone who does not fit into his vision of Fortress Alberta.

Like the rants of politicians elsewhere, Kenney’s outbursts would be asinine if they were not so dangerous. This is why I feel the urge to apologize for being born in Alberta, because it’s not the province I remember, nor does Kenney represent the Albertans I knew.

I grew up with a good dose of Western energy alienation, the heritage of the “fuddle-duddle” language and finger gestures of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father. If I’d been old enough to drive a car, I would have happily bumper-stickered it with “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark” the way others did.

But these things were irritants of a long history of being out West, a minor part of the identity that took people — often by economic necessity — from the familiar roil of urban life or the smell of the sea and dropped them into the foothills to create a new life.

No one survived for long as a rancher or a dry-land farmer in Alberta, however, if they were not utterly pragmatic and able to dream, too. Big sky, big dreams, and a lot of hard work every day. That’s the Alberta I remember.

We left there just as the oil boom hit Turner Valley. People from elsewhere poured in, looking for get-rich-quick opportunities in the oil industry and its hangers-on — people, in fact, like Jason Kenney, who arrived in his 20s, after the economic bust of the 1980s.

He might claim to speak for all Albertans now, but he was born in Oakville, Ont., in sight of the large car and truck assembly plants. With the smell of petrochemicals in his nostrils and its toxins in his blood, like everyone else who lived there, it’s no wonder Kenney was drawn to the Alberta oil patch and its co-dependant urban sprawl: it reminded him of his childhood home.

It takes more than a Stetson and a photo op flipping flapjacks at the Calgary Stampede to make you a local, however. Alberta needs to find another, better path — one that respects its roots in the land, under the big sky, honouring the Indigenous peoples there as well as those people from away who helped to create the province with every crop they planted and every herd they tended.

The pragmatist knows that the days of oil must soon be over — and that means in Alberta, too. Their children and grandchildren will inherit the same future as everyone else.

But the dreamer wants to find hope in the midst of that struggle for a just transition from oil to whatever comes next. Kenney’s rants — and Bill 1 — are a cruel denial of creativity and optimism, replacing them with bitterness and rancor instead.

So without further apology, after 50 years of provincial oil addiction, call me a recovering Albertan. Put away the petulance, Premier Kenney, and do your job properly — for all real Albertans.

Activist and author Peter Denton is Albertan by birth and Manitoban by choice.