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.

Read More

“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.

Pipelines bad business, plain and simple

(February 24, 2020)

There is no doubt building a pipeline in Canada is a “wicked problem.” A “wicked problem” is one that is difficult or impossible to solve, because of its interwoven social, cultural, economic and political factors.

I have opposed the construction of pipelines in these pages before (cue the chorus of internet trolls), so it will be no surprise to hear that I think the federal and British Columbia governments are making a hash of things once again. Deployment of the RCMP tactical squads certainly did not help. If someone aims a weapon at me, my first thought is not that they’re just looking at me through the rifle scope because it is such a hassle to get their binoculars out instead.

That there have been no casualties — yet — is a tribute both to the protesters and to the self-control of the police officers on site, despite the increasing stress on both sides. For the federal government to claim it has no influence on the situation is disingenuous, but the bugle charge that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tried to sound last week is downright dangerous and irresponsible.

Politicians playing their games makes wicked problems even worse. Using the “We’re tough on these bad guys” attitude to shill for money for Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Party, while the embers at the blockade west of Headingley were still warm, was both seedy and disrespectful. If further actions don’t end so quickly or peacefully in our province, Premier Brian Pallister can take some of the responsibility for such an escalation.

Once again, I oppose what is being done, but for reasons other than you might at first expect. Yes, we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground, because if we don’t, the planet will warm to a point that life will be difficult — or impossible — for billions of people, including our children and grandchildren. Yes, reconciliation means taking a path other than the destructive, colonial exercise of power that has in the past been used against First Nations and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Yet both these serious and vitally important concerns are being swamped by economic arguments about jobs and the national interest. New pipelines, however, especially the ones causing trouble today, are actually bad business for almost everyone concerned.

I usually get trolled with sneers like: “You use oil, don’t you? Drive a car? Heat your house?” — as though environmentalists can only be credible if they are running around naked in the bush, eating berries.

It is an ignorant (though expected) ad hominem attack — attack the person, not the argument.

Of course, I live in a fossil-fuel culture — I’m as much a part of it as you are. But that culture, unchecked, will take my children and grandchildren — all the children of Earth — off an ecological cliff. For climate catastrophe to happen, we just have to keep doing little or nothing different than right now. The systems are in place, and accelerating, to turn hell on Earth into a daily reality — and easily within my lifetime.

I was pleased, therefore, to see Tom Rand’s recent book, The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis. We need to find some middle course between the fingers-in-the-ears, heads-in-the-sand, business-as-usual attitude that guarantees catastrophe, and its opposite, the overturn-the-world-economic-order logic that he associates with the radical left.

Rand makes some excellent points about the need for pragmatism in business and politics. Ideology, left or right, will mean the end of everything we value about our global civilization. While we clearly can’t continue as to do business as before, we still need to do business, or the remedy could be as catastrophic as the disease.

So, why are pipelines bad business?

First, none of these pipelines reduces Eastern Canada’s dependency on oil and gas from elsewhere. Most of what the pipelines would carry will never be used by Canadians. They also don’t reduce the current rail traffic through our cities or across the country.

Second, expecting an increased global market “somewhere” is delusional. The growth in renewables, and the increasing antipathy to fossil fuels, brand fossil fuels as yesterday’s (bad) answer. Oilsands products are also dirtier and lower-quality, and therefore always a last option for offshore purchase.

Third, these pipelines have already been a colossal waste of money. Canada will never recoup its investment in the Trans-Mountain pipeline, paying too much for it and then being on the hook for billions of dollars of inevitable delays. Money spent on pipelines is unavailable for the alternative energy development we really need.

Finally, a project in the national interest must mean for all Canadians, present and future, not just a few. These pipelines — all of them — aren’t.

Someone certainly benefits in the short term, however.

I wonder who?

Read More