After almost a decade of rule, Harper is finally gone thanks to a decidedly more informed and engaged electorate than Canada has seen in years.
The horrors committed over the past decade by an ultra-right-wing government on a neoliberal rampage to sacrifice, destroy and profit from the things we hold dearest—our civil liberties, for example—are finally over. Though how quickly, effectively and determinedly the country’s new Liberal majority government works, if at all, to repair the damage done to our environment, economy, democratic institutions, and Canada’s international reputation and identity, remains to be seen.
The Trudeau era is here, one way or another. It has begun. The newly minted Canadian prime minister now has the task of getting to work on his party’s platform, which is full of deficiencies on some of the most important and pressing issues of our time—like climate change and free trade and the economy—while outright contradicting the party’s longstanding track record on other issues, like Indigenous rights and democratic reform.
The federal Liberals have a history of “running on the left and governing from the right,” Canadian activist and rabble.ca founder Judy Rebick said during an interview on Tuesday’s Democracy Now broadcast.
If the majority of Canadians who worked together to vote Harper out of office are serious about continuing to rebuild democracy in Canada and ensuring the incoming prime minister follows up on his long list of promises, we must now turn the page and continue writing our new chapter together. If we put the book down, the co-authors we just elected will determine the direction and fate of our collective narrative — and there’s too much at stake to let that happen.
Here are just a few of the challenges ahead.
In early December Canada will join countries from around the world in Paris for the annual global climate talks, where Trudeau—who has vowed to attend with Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders—will not only have to repair our reputation as a massive underachiever and antagonist on global climate cooperation, but as the head of a developed western democracy sitting atop some of the world’s largest fossil fuel reserves he must also be the leader Canadians and the world expect and need him to be.
It will be up to Trudeau, whose promises on climate change are thus far inadequate and incomplete, to help turn what is increasingly looking like a funeral procession into a project of unprecedented cooperation in working with the international community to avert catastrophic climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to meet science-backed targets that will reverse the train wreck we’re currently headed for.
Ask people like David Suzuki—or any Indigenous elder on Turtle Island—about the environment and you’ll hear words of wisdom about how we humans are the environment; we’re not separate from nature, as our actions so often indicate. So protecting Mother Earth, the source of life here in our tiny, fragile part of the universe, ought to be our number one priority.
Efforts are underway to effect positive and progressive change directly in our own communities — ones that, if we are successful in developing and sustaining them, often become movements for greater social and political change.
Thanks to what Joyce Nelson has called the Harper Government’s “evangelical capitalism”, we have watched as our federal government cut science funding, muzzled scientists, and gutted environmental protections by eliminating or rewriting various laws. Consequentially, Harper and company effectively drove Canada into last spot among 27 wealthy countries on environmental protection.
“To sum up the impact of all of Harper’s major policies,” Nelson wrote in her essay Religious Fundamentalism Vs. The Environment for Ed Finn’s anthology Canada After Harper, “it is no exaggeration to describe them as environmentally, socially, and economically destructive, with democracy itself part of the ‘collateral damage.’”
Harper’s weakening of environmental protections leaves Canada’s natural resources open and vulnerable to irreparable exploitation and ruin by the hungry mining, oil and gas predators of the extractive industries. If we are to save the rivers, lakes, mountains and forests that provide for us and help maintain a sustainable level of biodiversity in our natural environment, countless scientists and thinkers have said, we will have to reverse the damage done over the past decade.
Incoming Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberals have made many promises to change course on the environment, and it will be interesting to see how well they fare against the powerful industrial lobby in restoring environmental protections to at least the standard they were before they met Harper.
Free trade and the economy
Encouragingly, Trudeau acknowledged during the election campaign that in at least some way the economy and environment go hand in hand. During the Sept. 17 leaders’ debate he criticized Harper for regarding the two “as polar opposites,” going on to say that “[e]verybody in Canada knows you have to work on both at the same time.”
Given its history of neoliberal economic policies in the 1980s and ‘90s, the Liberal Party isn’t likely to suddenly begin engaging in long-term thinking and regard the economy as wholly dependent on a healthy environment, though — evidenced by Trudeau’s support for pipelines to transport unprocessed bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands, and his weak language on climate change.
But perhaps more importantly, the Liberals’ support for neoliberal free trade agreements puts the environment, and therefore the economy, at greater risk for current and future generations.
The dangers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, aren’t much of a concern for Trudeau, as the leader stated his unequivocal support for the TPP and free trade more broadly in an Oct. 5 press release, saying the Liberal Party “strongly supports free trade, as this is how we open markets to Canadian goods and services, grow Canadian businesses, create good-paying jobs, and provide choice and lower prices to Canadian consumers.”
The news release, and the language typically used by Trudeau and Liberals, omits the dangers of free trade deals, which force federal, provincial and even municipal governments to make enormous concessions—often amounting to relinquishing degrees of economic and political sovereignty—for the benefit of easier export and cheaper import of goods and services.
If you think it’s wrong for massive corporations to sue us for impeding their profits when our governments try to pass laws to protect local jobs or the environment, then you join many other Canadians and millions of people worldwide who have a big problem with how free trade agreements transfer power from governments to corporations which have one purpose only: to earn profits. This is why there are so many protests when leaders of the richest countries gather for G8 or G20 summits.
So when the Liberals state they care both about free trade and the environment, they are not telling the whole truth. It will be interesting to see how Trudeau navigates the contradictory values and premises inherent in such pronouncements.
We’ve all heard the saying that a nation is only as good as it treats its most vulnerable. The thing is, the federal government represents only one of hundreds of nations currently situated on the land we call “Canada”.
The reason why this idea seems so radical is because for hundreds of years Canada has continued to occupy Indigenous lands and oppress Indigenous Peoples, so much so that entire groups that lived here before European colonization have been wiped out. The rest continue to endure the legacy of “cultural genocide”, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released earlier this year laid bare.
The oppression, control and land theft of Indigenous Peoples continues to this day. In Newfoundland and Labrador, not only do we have a dark history of genocide that our provincial government refuses to openly discuss and reconcile, but governments continue to dangerously develop on or around Indigenous lands without Indigenous people’s consent. Take Muskrat Falls, for example. Two of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador have not consented to the project in its current form, and the provincial and federal governments have shut them both down in court, ignoring their legitimate concerns over environmental destruction and risks to human health.
Although settler governments no longer offer rewards for the scalps of Natives, laws outlined in the Indian Act and other racist pieces of legislation contribute to, perpetuate and entrench the ongoing systemic violence against Indigenous Peoples on their own, occupied lands.
Governments continually promise to respect Indigenous rights and work toward Indigenous sovereignty, but we have yet to witness a government genuinely and fully engage in “nation to nation” dialogue and consultations, as Trudeau has pledged.
Mi’kmaq lawyer and academic Pam Palmater noted on Democracy Now Tuesday that with Trudeau comes “the possibility for change”.
While Palmater, a key figure in the Idle No More movement, said Trudeau “has an opportunity to be a leader in First Nations issues, environmental issues and democratic rights and freedoms,” he comes from “a very problematic legacy” where his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “was the one who introduced the 1969 White Paper, which would have essentially annihilated Indians and reserves and treaty rights…which brought about massive national protests by First Nation leaders.”
On the other hand, Justin Trudeau has distanced himself from the Liberals’ dark past on Indigenous rights, vowing to enact the TRC report’s 94 recommendations, which includes launching a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and implementing the U.N. Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.
Time and again, Indigenous leaders, scholars and elders have asserted that true progress cannot happen in Canada until Indigenous Peoples are freed from the shackles of colonialism and afforded the rights and sovereignty they have fought more than 500 years for.
“Today…our own battle remains the decolonization of the lands that were given our people by the Creator and taken from us by the white-supremacist BNA Act of 1867,” Arthur Manuel writes in his essay Indigenous Rights and Anti-Colonial Struggle in Canada After Harper.
“Our goal is to remake Canada into a land where Indigenous peoples can once again thrive on their own lands. For that we will no longer importune Ottawa, but instead we will petition the nations of the world that passed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peopls. And you will not find us at those government extinguishment negotiations, but on the ground asserting our sovereignty over the lands that were given to us to hold and protect for all future generations.
“We are willing to share,” he concludes, “but not to surrender.”
In addition to just being the right thing to do, decolonizing Canada and liberating Indigenous Peoples is a necessary step toward finding an adequate response to the climate, ecological, social and democratic crises.
Writing the next chapter together
If you feel any bit as overwhelmed thinking about the complexity and immensity of these problems as I do, right on. Completely normal. But don’t let it smother your light.
In recent years I’ve come to learn that we are coming into an immense and unprecedented opportunity to turn things around.
While our political and democratic institutions are far from perfect, and even though the challenges—or ‘crises’ as I’ve so dramatically written, because I believe they are—may seem insurmountable, I believe the time is fast approaching when youth, parents, elders and communities alike turn away from the individualism that has defined the past number of decades, and back toward the collectivism that enabled the social, technological and cultural advancements that got us here.
My awakening, so to speak, came in the fall of 2011 during Occupy Wall Street, when I gathered with dozens of people many evenings at Harbourside Park in St. John’s, literally a stone’s throw away from where the British empire began. We talked about our concerns for society, the environment, human rights, climate change, and more. As winter came, we moved into the crypt of the Anglican Cathedral and continued our meetings there.
We must open our hearts and minds to new ideas and possibilities, and to the reality that whatever Justin Trudeau and the Liberals do over the next four years, it’s because we’ve written it into the book.
Together we escaped the societal confines of such discourse—which so often dismiss talk of ‘big picture’ ideas and visions as crazy, idealistic or impossible—and created our own space to share, learn, think and do together. I had recently returned from Darfur and Haiti, where problems rooted in colonialism and capitalism were so overwhelmingly devastating and insurmountable that I was plunged into depression. But the experiences and connections I made during the Occupy movement revealed to me the possibilities that exist when humans cooperate and share ideas, passion and ingenuity.
Then came the Arab Spring, Idle No More and other important movements and revolutions that appeared to be concomitant with the Occupy uprising, signalling pivotal moments in a global reawakening of the human spirit into the realization that, given everything we know and have achieved as a species, anything is possible — even a solution to the climate crisis.
The Trudeau Liberals’ election victory and the defeat of the Harper Conservatives mark an important moment in Canadian history. But we cannot forget that Trudeau and his team of politicians did not “win” because they did something spectacular. They “won” because we chose them. Albeit through an imperfect democratic system, Canadians decided to give Trudeau and his team a shot at representing us in Ottawa, where all Members of Parliament get together, propose and debate ideas and laws that (hopefully) reflect our values and collective vision for the kind of Canada we want for ourselves and future generations.
So if Trudeau and the Liberals fail to make the necessary strides toward that Canada, then it is because we let them, because we didn’t do enough after election day.
As magnificent as it was, the act of voting and electing a new government was only one page in the new chapter of this ongoing narrative. We, the protagonists, were roused from our collective slumber, and awakened to the challenges that comprise our tremendous but exciting journey ahead.
Now we turn the page and begin to collectively envision how we take meaningful action on climate change when Mr. Trudeau and our premiers attend the climate talks in Paris in just over a month. We also must think about how to reverse the damage the Harper Government did to our environmental protections, how to decolonize so that we may live as equals in this magnificent land, and how to work together to resolve whatever else might come our way, including the necessity of building a post-capitalist economy and society that is not dependent on fossil fuels, mass ecological destruction or human exploitation.
The post-Industrial world has given way to so many wonderful distractions that have diverted our attention away from the intentional development and evolution of a collective consciousness that doesn’t allow for tragedies like warfare and global warming. If we believe these things are products of “human nature”, then we fashion a self-fulfilling prophecy that enables inaction and the abandonment of achieving our greater potential. If you have any doubts, look at how we’ve evolved in our understanding of science, spirituality, human empathy and social justice.
Our story is far from complete, but unless we become the authors of our shared narrative it could end sooner than we would like, and in a way that does not reflect our true potential.
Governments today are deeply influenced by corporate interests, so they don’t liberate Indigenous Peoples or develop climate change policies that threaten ‘the bottom line’ on their own. We must open our hearts and minds to new ideas and possibilities, and to the reality that whatever Justin Trudeau and the Liberals do over the next four years, it’s because we’ve written it into the book.
If each election is an opportunity to begin a new chapter, then we’ve just turned a page. But if we forget about the changes we want to make, and if we lose sight of the bigger picture, then we effectively put down the pen and accept the current state of affairs — the one we so desperately need to change.
Instead of thinking of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals’ election win as an “over to you” from us, the electorate, let’s take our election of his party as a self-gratifying “over to us”.
We’ve so got this.