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Tories in review: Environment

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Examining Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s dismal environmental track record, full of broken promises and missed opportunities for a greener Canada

WHEN IT COMES TO THE ENVIRONMENT, Stephen Harper doesn’t have a hidden agenda—he’s always been upfront about his healthy-industry-over-healthy-Earth policies. In 2006, for instance, in his first speech outside Canada after he was elected as prime minister, he called Canada an “emerging energy superpower,” suggesting his intention to expand oil sands production. “And that has been his environment policy,” says Keith Stewart, PhD, who teaches energy policy at the University of Toronto and campaigns with Greenpeace Canada.

Since that first speech, Canada’s international environmental reputation has shifted quickly under the Harper Conservatives. We were once considered an influential environmental leader, but now are what famed environmentalist Bill McKibben calls, “an obstacle to international climate concerns.” That’s thanks to several major changes, the breadth of which we’ll review here.

After signing the Kyoto Protocol on carbon pollution in 1997, Canada withdrew 14 years later in late 2011. It’s the only country to have done so. Then in 2013, the government pulled out of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification—and again has done so solo. Established in 1994, the convention is a key legally-binding international agreement addressing environment, development, and sustainability. Listen: you can hear Canada’s diplomatic credibility crumbling.

In 1992, the Government of Canada enacted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, created to evaluate and mitigate negative environmental effects possibly caused by industrial projects. In 2012 the entire act was repealed and replaced with “CEAA 2012.” The new version applies to a much smaller scope of projects, expands ministerial discretion, and narrows the scope of assessments. The Canadian Environmental Law Association called this “an unjustified and ill-conceived rollback of federal environmental law.”

After the change, nearly 3,000 environmental project assessments were cancelled. As a result, environmentally- harmful projects will face less red tape in gaining approval. “It’s streamlining the review process for our pipelines,” quips Peter Louwe, communications officer for Greenpeace Vancouver.

Besides weakening The Fisheries Act to the point where it doesn’t protect most fish, the Cons have also rewritten The Navigable Waters Protection Act so that it no longer protects most lakes and rivers. “There is no environmental protection for our waters unless there’s a commercial aspect to it,” says Louwe. Since Canada contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water as well as the world’s longest coastline, changes to these acts are of worldwide concern.

After Environment Canada senior research scientist David Tarasick published on one of the biggest ozone holes ever found over the Arctic in 2011, he was forbidden to speak with media for nearly three weeks. Once given permission, his calls were supervised by Environment Canada officials. In speaking of the incident, he wrote to a reporter, “My apologies for the strange behaviour of EC [Environment Canada],” adding if it were up to him, he’d grant the interview.

All federal scientists now face regulations from Ottawa deciding if they can talk, how, and when. Approved interviews are taped, and often approval is not forthcoming until after deadlines have passed. When this happens, journalists receive government-approved written answers. Between 2008-2014, the federal government cut the jobs of more than 2,000 scientists. In 2014, it announced plans to close seven of its 11 Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries.

Environment Canada, the government department charged with protecting the environment, is quickly having its capacity drained. Between 2010- 2012, the federal government cut 20 percent of its budget (made official right after the Cons became a majority), and from 2014– 2017 another 28 percent will be cut. This translates to hundreds of job losses and lost programs.

Environment Canada’s ozone-monitoring program, host to the world’s archive of ozone data and relied upon by scientists worldwide, had several monitoring stations closed due to lack of funding, and the lone person running the archives was laid off.

The list goes on: the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which has provided research on sustainable development since 1988, and was established by a previous Conservative government, is no more. Also included in the cuts: Monitoring for heavy metals and toxic contaminants, the Climate Action Network, Sierra Club of B.C., The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, and many other organizations.

Meanwhile the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is auditing charities. In 2012 the government tightened rules and created a special budget so the CRA could check on charities’ political activities., founded by Harper’s aide Alykhan Velshi, made a series of complaints to the CRA about environmental groups. The David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, Equiterre, and Environmental Defence, three of those targeted in its complaints, were audited—though the government denies any link with CRA’s activities.

“I think C-51 should just be repealed because of the way it targets First Nations and environmentalists,” says U of T’s Stewart. This piece of legislation, adopted in June, adds power to security agencies collecting information on anything that “undermines the security of Canada,” including interfering with economic stability or “critical infrastructure.” It also gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service power to react to these perceived threats. Many environmentalists and activists believe this means them. An RCMP document obtained by Greenpeace labels the “anti-petroleum movement” as a growing and violent threat.“There’s not much more damage that one person would be able to do to the environment of a country,” says Vancouver’s Louwe, referring to Harper.

And yet, the Harper government hasn’t managed to build any pipelines. In the face of such blatant injustice, Canadian people have risen up, building a stronger environmental movement that is not only more resolved, but broader, including people from a wider range of backgrounds and interests than before. And Stewart points out that although this government has done a lot for industry, the more obvious it becomes to the public that its government is acting as a cheerleader for big oil, the less social licence industry has in people’s minds. And this means that whatever the legacy of the Harper government leaves us, it also leaves a more politicized, involved, and activated country of people who will do what it takes to protect what matters.


First published in Sept/Oct 2015 issues of This Magazine


Written by larkinschmiedl

March 13, 2016 at 7:28 pm

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Making connections: Bridging racial divisions in the LGBTQ2S* community

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LGBTQ2S* rights have come a long way, and we know there’s still a long way to go. Yet some things are continually overlooked, like the glaring gap in conversation and action around race.

“It’s a major problem,” says Uzoma, a Winnipeg woman who identifies as black, and prefers to go by first name only for safety reasons.

She’s the initiating force behind a new queer people of colour (QPOC) group that held its first dance party for QPOC and allies during Pride this year. Although Winnipeg has many strong LGBTQ2S* groups, most are white-dominated. “There’s a danger with the queer community just because the experience of being queer in itself is an experience of existing on the margins,” says a local queer woman of colour who is using the pseudonym Jill for fear of backlash.

“There can be a tendency to think that because we exist in this space, we don’t have to deal with the issues like racism, or we’ve figured that stuff out. We haven’t.”

Ray Hogg’s experience as a local black gay man and artistic director of Rainbow Stage, is one of finding himself in a homogenous Winnipeg culture, where the environments he works in every day are mainly made up of white people. He attributes this partly to Winnipeg being a small city. “I haven’t directly been on the receiving end of any overt racism in the queer community or any other community in Winnipeg. But I am on the receiving end constantly of systemic racism…. Those who have straight privilege or white privilege or cis privilege… naturally and without thinking, discriminate against me and fail to recognize that they’re doing that.”

Uzoma says the QPOC group is necessary because, “(It) triggers a conversation that people (who are not directly facing the issues) have not been having.”

Hogg would like to see people take the responsibility of actively empathizing. “As a community, the queer community is an oppressed community; it’s a misunderstood community and it’s being discriminated against. And so it behooves us as gay people, or whatever you want to call us all, to think about other marginalized members, and care for them.”

Albert McLeod has seen some of the ways marginalization plays out on the front lines with the most vulnerable, in his work with two-spirit youth.

“For aboriginal youth coming into the (queer) scene, a lot of places they get exploited,” he says.

In his work as a co-director with Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, and the AIDS movement, McLeod has seen a lot. “There’s been a history of many aboriginal youth—they come to the city, they’re HIV-positive within a couple of years, then get discarded and then they move away to other cities, and that’s where they die. It’s life on the very fringes of society.”

Winnipeg is home to the largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, and Manitoba as a whole encompasses the territory of at least 63 First Nations.

Part of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba’s advocacy work is bridge- building between the aboriginal community and broader LGBTQ* community. The organization also offers workshops to schools and does research on two-spirit people’s experiences.

One academic project published from the research, titled Aboriginal Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Migration, Mobility and Health, draws a parallel: “Colonization is sometimes presented in public policy discourse as a thing of the past.” The result, according to the report, is that indigenous people are rendered invisible and current colonization is ignored and enabled. “Similarly, some people may underestimate the effects of homophobia given the advances that have been made in Canada regarding same-sex rights. Yet the results from this study clearly show the continuing impact of colonization, racism and homophobia on many people’s lives,” reads an excerpt from the study.

“The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be,” says McLeod, quoting a friend.

Denying that racism is a problem in Winnipeg’s queer community can only perpetuate it, says Uzoma, but being willing to feel uncomfortable means being willing to grow.

The QPOC group in Winnipeg will be working hard to bring more events to the community as the year moves ahead. Dance parties, Sunday pickup basketball, open-mic nights and more are in the works.

Uzoma says from there, “We’d like to formally put together a presentation for other LGBTQ organizations… on the unique issues of queer people of colour.”

recognizing racism

Racism isn’t always obvious, but it is always wrong. Here are seven tips to recognizing racism and battling it.

Recognize the difference between centering people of colour and indigenous people’s concerns versus tagging them on. Being truly inclusive means opening up and being willing to transform. It also means taking leadership from queer people of colour and indigenous people.

Show solidarity—don’t date/sleep with people who write things like “no Asians” on their Grindr/ online dating profiles. That’s not a preference, it’s racism.

Recognize that experiences of homophobia and racism compound to make life harder and more limited for the people who experience them. Know that being queer does not make you immune to experiencing white privilege. It is easy for LGBTQ* people to see homophobia and transphobia, how social systems favour heterosexuals and cis people, and the suffering that causes. Understand how whiteness gives or denies privileges as well.

Do not make statements to the effect that gays are the last oppressed minority. That’s not true. Don’t pit racial and cultural struggles against struggles for LGBTQ* liberation. The movements are intersected and can make each other stronger.

Recognize that people of colour and indigenous people are not responsible for educating white people about the suffering they experience due to racism. Do your own research and reading and don’t ask invasive questions.

Start conversations about race with your white friends with a focus on creating a supportive space where you can ask questions and make mistakes.

If someone tells you you’ve been racist, don’t take it personally or get defensive. Instead apologize and commit to doing better next time. Take the time to reflect following the incident and learn why it was racist.

fighting racism

Our interview subjects offered the following advice to being more inclusive:

Think about where your organization is located and whether people of colour and indigenous people live there, too. Are you inaccessible, or white-dominated, because of your location?

Know that people of colour and indigenous people are the experts on their own experience. Listen.

Recognize that two-spirit is not necessarily the same as being lesbian, gay or queer. It’s a culturally-specific term from another context. Also, some indigenous people identify primarily as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, etc. Just because someone is aboriginal doesn’t mean they identify as two-spirit.

Know that most racism is subtle and systemic. Overt discrimination does not need to occur for something to be racist.

Expose yourself to diversity.

Ask people of colour and aboriginal people what their needs are and how you can meet those. Take their answers to heart and take action to reflect that.

Hire aboriginal outreach workers in your service organizations, and make sure they are not tokenized. Reflect on what makes or does not make your organization a place people of colour and aboriginal people want to work.

Work on incorporating Elders and elders (seniors) into the LGBTQ* movement.

Do your homework on language: terms like berdache are colonial terms used by Europeans (and subsequently academics) to refer to gay men and two-spirit people at the time of contact. The term two-spirit is a word used to reframe colonial history, since two-spirit people predate settler society.

Be willing to be nervous and uncomfortable. Crossing the social lines that divide communities and uphold racism takes courage, commitment and time. Forge genuine relationships with people of colour and indigenous people.

Published in Winnipeg’s OutWords Magazine, Sept. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a writer of German, Scottish and English descent who is committed to social justice and believes privilege at the expense of others hurts everyone.

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