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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“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?

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