Author Archives: Rob Wipond

How will we re-democratize government?

Greater Victoria candidates in the BC provincial election speak out on how to correct growing democratic deficits.

 

For years we at Focus have been observing an erosion of democratic processes and participatory public engagement at all levels of government. In our opinion, this is worsening government decision-making with respect to many of the challenges we’re facing as a society. And we know we’re not alone.

On the streets, mass movements like Occupy and Idle No More have placed visions for participatory governance high on their agendas, while in our houses of government our elected politicians have been struggling with their own disempowerment: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heavy-handed omnibus-bill antics have raised the ire of elected representatives of the majority of Canadians to little avail; and hardly a month has gone by this year where a disgruntled, departing BC Liberal hasn’t (finally) complained publicly about Gordon Campbell’s years of centralized, iron rule. Many of us have ideas for what needs to change that could fill a book, but with an election coming it seemed like a good time to ask candidates what they think.

So we decided to ask provincial election candidates in five Greater Victoria ridings to respond to these two questions: First, which erosions of democratic or participatory principles and processes have you observed that you think are the worst, and what negative impacts have you seen? Second, what do you propose to do, or feel should be done, to help re-invigorate our democracy with respect to the issues you raise in your first answer?

We encouraged them to reply personally, rather than with pre-packaged party platform statements. Some candidates commented on many issues and overlapped with each other, while others chose to focus on just one or two key issues. Space constraints limit us to publishing only selected excerpts from their written replies to highlight some of the key themes that emerged. We suggest contacting your area candidate directly for more details on his or her thoughts on these topics. As of press time, several candidates had not responded; some parties had not yet nominated a candidate in the ridings included in our survey.

 

Strengthen MLA responsibilities to constituents

Susan Low: Public engagement has become one of many hoops for officials to jump through before legislation is passed, instead of being the way most legislation is started and shaped. The process of civic engagement is being relegated to a mere formality…The negative impact is that people can feel cynicism, and public participation in democracy is evaporating as a result…I propose to increase the public’s access to their elected representatives by having bi-monthly townhall meetings in provincial ridings, and regular times when MLAs commit to being in their office to meet with anyone who comes in… MLAs should report on how they have listened to their constituents, and how that has influenced their voting or actions in government.

Lana Popham: I think one of the main jobs of an MLA is to be an active listener—to constantly gather feedback and input from people about what matters to them and what they want done about it…My community office has organized over two dozen public events, including several large public meetings where hundreds of residents came together to engage with ideas such as sustainability and the benefits of buying local…I organized a community event to discuss solutions [to the high accident rate at Pat Bay Highway & Sayward Road], inviting the public and key staff from the Ministry of Transportation. A proposal for safety improvements was developed and I held another public meeting to share those ideas and gather feedback…The improvements have already started…

Jane Sterk: I plan to have citizens’ advisory groups—seniors, students, business, ethnic and faith-based, transition towns. I want to convene citizens’ assemblies to discuss issues of public policy—amalgamation, budgeting, police, etc. I plan to host annual or semi-annual days where we get large numbers of people together to discuss local issues that need provincial support.

 

Hold sittings of the legislature

Rob Fleming: For me, the hallmark of democratic erosion during the BC Liberal decade is how moribund the legislature has become. The current government started off with some good ideas—two regular fall and spring scheduled sittings, fixed election dates, Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform—but for most of their mandate, the legislature has barely met. They’ve made a mockery of their own reform. We’ve had fall sessions cancelled entirely more often than not. This eliminates the daily accountability of question period, and jams debate on the budget and legislation into an impossibly compressed time-frame. To enforce this, the BC Liberals now use “closure”—ending debate by decree—on a routine basis. It’s an arrogant way to run government. And it diminishes the role of an MLA as a legislator by giving too much power to the premier and cabinet. We’re seeing in BC and federally a creeping “presidentialism,” where the legislature is increasingly sidelined while the premier’s and prime minister’s office run things unchecked…I’m confident we can make the legislature work a lot better. First, we need to have the Assembly meet regularly. That’s an easy but important fix for accountability and scrutiny of government.

 

Allow free votes in the legislature

Andrew Weaver: In a parliamentary democracy, such as the one we have in British Columbia, MLAs are elected to represent their constituents in government. As such, one would expect them to be allowed to vote freely on many issues, including private members’ bills brought in by independents and opposition parties. But the party whip system of the NDP and Liberals in BC has meant that this has not occurred. Instead, most individual MLAs are told how to vote and hence end up ensuring that party interests are put ahead of the interests of the MLA’s constituents. I support the democratic reform agenda put forward by Independent MLAs Bob Simpson, Vicki Huntington, and John van Dongen. One of the items on their agenda was to seek ways to “Relax party discipline so that MLAs can cast free votes in the legislature on non-confidence matters, without fear of repercussions.” In fact, this is fundamentally why I chose to run with the Green Party of BC, as free voting on non-confidence matters is already central to party policy.

 

Resuscitate the legislature’s committees

Parliamentary committees have been so underutilized in recent years, many British Columbians probably don’t even remember what they are. The BC government’s website explains that committees are made up of small, representative groups of MLAs who can travel around the province soliciting input and holding hearings on issues, which they can then summarize into reports and recommendations to the whole legislature.

Carole James: There are currently standing committees of the legislature in a range of topic areas, such as education, First Nations, and health. These committees have members from both government and opposition…They rarely meet. I believe these committees could be better used, taking topic areas out to the public for real public engagement.

Rob Fleming: As the NDP’s environment critic, I’m always pointing out that the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Environment hasn’t met since 1996! At a time when BC needs a well-informed public to understand the climate change and energy challenges and policy choices we face, this just makes no sense. We need a robust committee system that addresses the big issues out there. And this will give MLAs more opportunities to work across party lines while providing a key avenue for the public to influence government.

Andrew Weaver: The Legislative Committee structure needs to be reinvigorated. The last time the Standing Committee on Education met was in 2006 when they developed a report outlining a strategy for adult literacy…As far as I can tell, the Select Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs has not met since 2001. Policy needs to be debated openly and needs to be informed through input from diverse stakeholders, such as those who would present to standing committees.

 

Empower independent offices

Jessica Van der Veen: The Liberal government has weakened our environmental assessment process…and undermined key government watchdogs such as the Auditor General and the BC Utilities Commission. Two specific negative outcomes are: the giveaway of forest lands at Jordan River, despite the findings of the Auditor General; and the privatizing of rivers and streams for private power projects, despite the finding of the BC Utilities Commission that these projects are “not in the public interest.” We need to strengthen environmental assessments and fully include the public…[and we] need to give government watchdogs the power they need to do their jobs.

 

Reform campaign financing

Rob Fleming: The BC Liberals get more than 75 percent of their funds from corporate donations and a very small percent from actual people who can vote…I’m all for getting big money out of politics by putting in place limits on donations from corporations and unions like we see federally and in Manitoba. This will put the average voter at the centre of politics again. Campaign finance reform would reduce cynicism about politicians being in someone’s pocket and increase voter participation.

Jane Sterk: [The Green Party would] eliminate corporate and union donations to restrict donations to British Columbian [citizens], and limit the size of donations. We would also lower the amount of money that could be spent on campaigns.

Branko Mustafovic: How can we expect that a politician will be unbiased, when they literally owe those who made substantial contributions to their campaign to have their needs heard loud and clear? There’s only one way to be 100 percent sure no elected politicians will ever dangle from the strings pulled by special-interest groups who helped put them there. The ultimate solution is for government to provide an identical amount to each eligible candidate to spend on their campaign, with that amount being the maximum they may spend. That’s truly democratic.

 

Engage disenfranchised and cynical voters

According to Elections BC, about 75 percent of eligible BC voters are registered, while in 21 districts that number falls to fewer than half of eligible voters.

Jane Sterk: The fixed election date is in the spring, which disenfranchises students…We no longer enumerate house to house. “Registered” voters are now identified by driver’s licence and filed tax returns. This disenfranchises people who don’t drive and those who don’t pay taxes.

Rob Fleming: Reversing the decline in voter participation won’t be accomplished overnight. But we have to make voting opportunities easier so that low-participation groups, like young people, get on the voters list…I like Adrian Dix’s idea to begin voter registration earlier, at age 16, in order to be enumerated by their 18th birthday…We also have to change the tone of how politics is conducted. BC has a reputation for “politics as a blood sport” and this is reflected in statements by politicians and the media. It seems to me that this may be the biggest contributor to disenfranchising voters and turning them off what government and public service in elected office ought to be about.

Carole James: We have seen the government using public money for partisan advertising, creating cynicism in politics and the political system, which leads to lower voter turnout and involvement…The NDP has introduced legislation that would result in the Auditor General reviewing all government advertising to build back trust in the process of the use of public dollars.

 

Implement electoral reform

Jane Sterk: Should I be elected premier…[I would] instruct Elections BC to prepare a plan to implement a system of proportional representation for the 2017 election. To avoid debate about which system to adopt, I would mandate use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and accepted in 2005 by 58 percent of BC voters. To prepare for use of this system, I would include a requirement that Elections BC find a structure for STV that would address the concerns from the large and rural ridings. I would also require that Elections BC conduct a process of [educating the public about STV].

Ombudsperson Pans Incapability Assessments

Even when you already know them, sometimes it’s shocking to hear facts confirmed. In February, BC Ombudsperson Kim Carter released her 186-page investigation into BC’s processes for determining people to be “incapable” of controlling their own legal or financial affairs, “No Longer Your Decision.” Focus has reported extensively on the arbitrary, draconian, often self-serving ways by which citizens are being stripped of these basic rights by long-term care providers, health authorities, and the public guardian. Carter concluded the process has indeed been “failing to meet the requirements of a fair and reasonable procedure.”

Indeed, on nearly every key issue, the Ombudsperson’s findings disturbingly reflected many people’s worst experiences and reinforced the worst fears of the rest of us. For starters, there’s no definition of “incapability,” even though authorities are using the concept daily to take away people’s rights to make their own decisions. BC law, Carter clarified, “does not define what it means for an adult to be incapable or establish any criteria or test for this determination. Neither the Public Guardian and Trustee nor the health authorities have defined what incapable means.”

As for the assessment process through which authorities can declare you to be incapable, that’s a free-for-all, too. BC law “does not set out a process to be followed…does not require that an assessment or opinion from a physician be obtained…does [not] establish any standards for such an assessment…does not require that the [assessor] knows the adult and has examined the adult recently…” And to top it off, most health authority staff admitted to Carter that they had no special training in conducting incapability assessments, and the health authorities admitted they provide no such training.

Carter further found that there are no requirements for health care providers or the public guardian to even notify you or your family that your incapability is being assessed, let alone to explain their reasons for concluding you’re incapable or give you any opportunity to respond.

Carter recommended that the Ministry of Justice at least create steps allowing you to legally challenge a health authority’s or public guardian’s conclusion that you are incapable. The BC Justice Ministry promised only to “review” this final recommendation; however, most of the Ombudsperson’s recommendations on the other issues were accepted by government and will supposedly be in force by July 1, 2014. Carter wrote that she was “cautiously optimistic.”

RCMP agrees to stop tracking innocent drivers

Victoria Police Department (VicPD) media rep Cst. Mike Russell dismissed critics of the automatic licence plate recognition (ALPR) program on CFAX in January. Russell said, “There’s conspiracy theorists out there saying we’re creating a massive surveillance database on people…”

“You mean you’re not?” said fill-in host Rosa Harris-Adler, as both she and Russell chuckled.

“Funny enough we’re not doing that,” said Russell. He described it as merely a “technicality” that VicPD had been recording and passing data about all drivers to the RCMP “for deletion.”

We’re not sure who those wacky conspiracy theorists are, but we understand how they became, er, “confused.” There are already millions of records in the police’s ALPR database. And while Russell may have meant to simply suggest that the database doesn’t include records of the movements of most innocent drivers, well, the BC government and RCMP admitted the ALPR program was indeed collecting such records from 2006-2009 until the federal privacy commissioner complained to parliament. And since then, both RCMP reps and Russell’s boss, VicPD Chief Jamie Graham, have gone on the record numerous times saying their hope was to start building exactly such a mass surveillance database of the movements of all vehicles again, as soon as they’d gathered publicly-persuasive arguments for the policing value of keeping such records.

Nevertheless, Russell’s misleading mocking may be moot. VicPD, with the help of the RCMP who administer BC’s ALPR program, has finally agreed to implement our provincial Privacy Commissioner’s recommendations and stop performing that illegal “technicality.” However, as Focus noted in a January 2013 report, there’s been a concerning silence amongst BC’s federal RCMP detachments and RCMP-managed Integrated Road Safety Units as to whether they would voluntarily comply with provincial privacy law. In a recent email to Focus, RCMP Spt. Denis Boucher cleared up the matter. We asked if the RCMP intended to stop all ALPR cruisers around BC from collecting data on most innocent drivers. Boucher replied, “The intent is to implement the solution across the board.”

If we can trust our police, this battle to protect BC from moving a step closer to becoming a surveillance state has been won. Take a conspiracy theorist to dinner?

 

Affordable Housing for Everyone

There’s growing local interest in land trusts as a way to tackle housing costs and reshape our communities.

 

“It’s not a housing strategy, it’s about land reform,” said Michael Lewis. The declaration felt rousing, as if we were in an impoverished part of Latin America rather than a comfortable University of Victoria meeting room. Lewis was leading a discussion with representatives from Vancity, Victoria and Esquimalt municipal governments, the Capital Regional District, the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, and local non-profits and other groups searching for solutions to this region’s housing affordability crisis. And though no decisions were reached, there was general agreement that Lewis’ research report (funded by Vancity) and innovative proposal to build a regional Community Land Trust (CLT) to support multi-owner homes merited further discussions.

There are good reasons to pay attention to the perspectives of Vancouver’s Michael Lewis. Since the 80s, Lewis has been one of the most prominent researchers, consultants, and activists in Canada in Community Economic Development (CED)—economic development which also aims for environmental sustainability and social justice benefits. He’s consulted for credit unions and governments, and helped the Nisga’a form a tribal development corporation and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth forge a forestry strategy. A prolific author, he’s launching his latest book, The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, at a talk on March 11 hosted by UVic’s Centre for Co-operative and Community Based Economy. It’s a theoretical and practical guide for re-localizing and re-democratizing our economies and reshaping every aspect of our communities to survive climate change, resource depletion, and global financial volatility. (Not coincidentally Lewis’ organization, the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, has been instrumental in nurturing Canada’s Transition Town movement.)

That partly explains why Lewis’ perspectives were garnering interest. Additionally, of course, many local leaders are just generally keen to consider any new ideas for taking action on housing. With both our federal and provincial governments steadily cutting support for non-market housing even as aging buildings, economic woes, and other government cutbacks are increasing the needs, we know the problems are only worsening. The squeeze is being felt hardest at the local levels, so that’s where the desire for solutions is strongest—but where will the money come from?

For example, the municipality of Esquimalt owns two acres near downtown Esquimalt, and municipal Director of Development Services Bill Brown would like a healthy dose of non-market housing there. “We’d like to see the site developed with mixed-use, commercial and residential buildings, using state-of-the-art green technology,” says Brown. However, the municipality can’t afford to do it, so that’s why Brown was at the meeting about CLTs. “We’re looking for a partnership where we provide the land and location and the partner provides financing and development wherewithal. Part of my job is to go out and find options.”

Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt, also at the meeting, is all-too-familiar with such challenges—Isitt recently joined the Capital Region Housing Corporation board and has long been involved with the late-Paul Phillips’ legacy, the three-house Spring Ridge-Fernwood Community Housing Land Trust.

“It was very exciting,” says Isitt of the UVic meeting. Isitt feels we need a variety of different housing solutions in play, but he’s intrigued by Lewis’ proposed regional CLT, especially by possibilities of potentially using such a CLT to leverage the collective housing equity of smaller local non-profits, trusts and co-ops, and to inject capital into renovations of publicly-owned buildings. Isitt suggests the municipality might play a “facilitating role” in bringing stakeholders together to help continue discussions. “It’s an idea that’s still incubating, so I think this support that Michael [Lewis] and the others are providing is really useful,” says Isitt.

A CLT is a community-based non-profit, usually with a multi-stakeholder board representing local financial, public, development, and tenant-owner sectors, that acquires and holds land for non-market housing. While this region already has various types of subsidized housing and trusts operating, most provide only rental units. The relatively new model that Lewis was promoting aims to help get low and middle-income earners into home ownership. The land is owned by the CLT, while the building or buildings are sold to a homeowner or tenant co-operative. Tenants pay in no more than 35 percent of their income and, when they move out, they must sell the house, or the share of the building(s) they’ve paid for, back to the CLT at an agreed price. So tenants can build some equity to finance renovations or expansions, or to eventually enter the private home market, but the CLT’s land stays out of the market and its buildings remain at below-market prices.

According to Lewis’ research, CLTs have been succeeding in the US for 25 years, and survived the real estate collapse in stellar fashion: 15-30 percent of subprime or prime housing loans in the US are in delinquency or foreclosure right now, but less than one percent of loans to CLTs are. And over time, the CLT homes are becoming more affordable to more people, not vice versa.

Victoria sustainability consultant James Pratt welcomes the “groundswell of interest” in such land trusts locally. He was also at the UVic meeting, and feels an urgency to forge ahead quickly with broader goals than just lowering costs. “I think we’re all driving towards a brick wall at 120 kilometres an hour, and we have to find a way of living on the planet sustainably,” says Pratt. “So [our group is] exploring the possibility of a land trust for the capital region that would have a green, sustainable-living focus.”

Pratt, a widely respected, long-time local activist-facilitator, has in recent months been connecting people, relevant experts, and organizations interested in helping create a green land trust, as well as those interested in living in housing supported by such a trust. Another motivation for these efforts, says Pratt, is to create opportunities to break down class, age, nuclear family and other silos to create more diverse, supportive, communal mini-villages. “I want to see the possibility for my children and grandchildren to live in my community, the community they grew up in, and be able to afford to live here, and ideally to have a community setting where they’ll have an easier go of it than I did.”

Pratt’s group is organizing a series of educational talks on these topics (james@prattconsulting.ca for more info) and can provide charitable receipts through its partner organizations. “If people have land, a home, or significant financial donations towards this vision, they could contact me,” Pratt says. Another group with a similar land trust vision is trying to raise money to purchase 153 acres near Sooke by April 1 (see www.villagefarmblog.wordpress.com).

In an interview after the UVic meeting, it’s clear that Lewis’ interest in CLTs is also based in an urgent desire for society-wide transition towards resilience—and he sees transforming land ownership as key.

Lewis points out that lower housing costs here would reduce worker commuting, create more diverse neighbourhoods, and help small, local employers keep workers. And while developers typically say that making houses more affordable requires building more houses in the private market, Lewis argues that’s misguided. The real reason house prices are climbing beyond the reach of ordinary people, he explains, is because houses are treated by governments, investors, banks, and even homeowners as speculative investments from which they all demand profits at each resale, rather than as simply places to live.

“We’ve got to deal with how the inequity in the housing market is created over time,” comments Lewis. “It’s almost guaranteed that if you do not have a means by which you can protect the land tenure from being speculated upon or taken over for private gain…you’re going to lose affordability over time. Which is precisely the dynamic that we’ve seen in high-amenity communities like Saltspring, Victoria and Vancouver.” Alongside this process, notes Lewis, the costs of making this expensive housing affordable keep increasing for our governments.

Lewis provides compelling illustrations of how speculating on homes also constantly siphons off public, collective wealth and centralizes it in fewer, private hands, further increasing social inequities and reducing housing affordability. If he buys a house and ten years later it’s worth 30 percent more, then who or what created that extra wealth and properly “owns” it? “Is it me who’s created this other value?” asks Lewis. “What’s the role of the public sector? What’s the role of other businesses? What’s the role of just the population itself, who lives there? That’s all part of creating this ambience; the public sector has created the framework, the infrastructure, roads and so on.” He describes London, England’s municipal government investing 3.5 billion pounds into a subway extension in the 1990s. Land values within a kilometre of the subway nearly quadrupled, increasing by over 10 billion pounds (about $15 billion). Yet most of those profitable increases in value went to private landowners, many of them offshore investment firms, who’d done little more than wait for this gigantic public subsidy to roll in. “So think about that,” comments Lewis. “Why should an individual or a corporation be able to scoop the uplift in market value, when it’s the community and the taxpayer that creates the benefit?”

The same thing has happened near Vancouver’s Skytrain, Lewis points out, and could happen if an LRT is built here. “We’re having a hard time funding public transit expansion, and yet we’re privatizing all the benefits.” If those land value increases were instead effectively “owned” or heavily taxed by the community, some of those profits could finance land purchases for CLTs; alternatively, if all the land had been in a CLT to begin with, we’d all get the public transit benefits without the corresponding negative impacts on land costs and housing affordability.

Unfortunately, Lewis adds, the political, legal and psychological processes that brought us to where we’re at now are deeply entrenched. “Going back 500 years, the process of enclosure, that is, the claiming of the commons by private interests and the aristocracy, is a historical fact. There’s been many aspects to it, and land is a key one.”

Today, most urban areas like ours have very little public land left for housing. And when we “connect the dots” at broader scales, says Lewis, we see that whether we’re discussing housing, food security, renewable energy or many other aspects of our society which have to be transitioned to lower-impact, lower-carbon processes, the underlying challenge is the same: “They all take land.”

Yet the ideology that “private everything” somehow will lead to collective good is still embedded in our psyches and culture, says Lewis, even as we witness economic disparities and environmental exploitation worsening daily. “In a nutshell we’re at a real, real significant conjuncture in human history,” says Lewis. “The biosphere itself and everything that depends on it is being compromised so severely in the name of an ideology that’s out of touch with reality.”

If we hope to make our communities more resilient, Lewis concludes, we need to forge innovative ways to reclaim the commons for the public good. Community Land Trusts are one place to start. “How [else] are we going to navigate transition, if we’re only seeing the world through this very, very narrow prism, this framework that’s dominated by the ideology of private property and the Holy Trinity of free trade, free markets, and free capital?” asks Lewis.

 

Michael Lewis’ book launch and talk will be in UVic’s Cadboro Commons building on March 11 at 4 pm. For more info go to www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cccbe or call 250-472-4539.

Canadian Mining Races to the Bottom

A new book provides a shocking analysis of environmental destruction and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies abroad—and how we help them do it. (Originally published in Focus Magazine, February 2013.)

Chandu Claver was born in the small town of Tabuk in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines, near a large copper mine at various times partially owned by Canadian interests. This is where he became a surgeon, got married, and wanted to raise his family.

He never planned on being a refugee in Victoria.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Claver was running a one-man surgical hospital in Tabuk, while every two months he’d spend a couple of weeks voluntarily bringing health care to remote indigenous villages of the area. Claver himself is indigenous, of the Igorot tribes of the Cordillera. But he was also the son of a loyal mining company doctor, so it was during these sojourns, he says, that his “consciousness” first began developing into that of an activist for human rights.

“I started to see the effects of mining,” says Claver, whose calm, warm demeanour belies the intensity of his feelings. “When you’re working in situations like that, you get to see the poverty, you get to see the oppression, you get to see the state militarization, you get to see the effect on the people. You start to see that people are getting sick because of that, because of the poverty that they are forced to undergo because their lands are being denied them.”

To those familiar with British Columbia aboriginal rights issues, Claver’s explanation of the fundamentally conflicting views in the Philippines is recognizable. “They see that everything around them is connected,” says Claver, who shifts between using “we” or “they” in relation to indigenous peoples. “So the land, the sea, the water, the skies, the minerals, the trees, animals, fauna, all these are connected and comprehensively linked to support life, including people. So they cannot understand how you can actually compartmentalize things, like mine out the minerals without affecting the rest…And when you start saying that this land is for a mining company and nobody else, that’s not something we can grasp. And that’s where it all starts; that’s where the violations of rights start.”

As Tabuk grew and surgeon specialists began arriving, Claver turned to general medical practice. He also increased his volunteering as a leader with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (cpaphils.org), a multi-sectoral organization of 150 grassroots groups that advocate for indigenous people’s rights. The organization “became very influential and strong,” says Claver.

But in the late 90s, new, even more permissive mining and land expropriation laws were passed. There was also a push towards “free trade” and “globalization,” and, after 9/11, a tightening relationship between the Filipino and US governments. All these factors led to dramatically worsening conditions and tensions around the country. The Philippine military, says Claver, even set up a specialized “Investment Defense Force” to help protect mining companies from the growing protest movements. Worse, “extrajudicial” assassinations became rampant: Since 2001, over 1,500 activists and members of social justice organizations have been killed or “disappeared,” says Claver. None of the attackers have ever been convicted, but, according to Claver, a damning secret document obtained by Philippine media revealed that military intelligence seemed to have begun regarding many legitimate political and non-profit organizations as merely branches of known terrorist and armed rebel groups.

One day, without warning, Dr Chandu Claver became a target for assassination.

It was July 31, 2006. “It was a Monday, early morning,” says Claver. “I’d just dropped off my youngest daughter at her school.” He manoeuvred away from the busy curb in the heart of Tabuk and began to head towards the school of his other girls, aged 7 and 11.

“As I was making a turn, a van cut me off,” says Claver. Next, two people stepped out of the van, raised automatic rifles and unloaded 38 rounds into the Claver family car. One daughter was never hit. Claver’s other daughter took a bullet to the head but, miraculously, it only scraped her scalp. Claver himself took three bullets in the shoulder and one in his abdomen. Claver’s wife of 15 years, Alice, took seven bullets near her heart, and would die on the operating table.

“[The gunmen] got back into the van and escaped,” he says. Though police were on the scene almost immediately from the nearby police station, adds Claver, “the [gunmen’s] van actually passed through three military and police checkpoints and never got stopped.”

For the next six months, Claver only visited his children surreptitiously and continued to speak out for indigenous rights and for justice for his wife and other victims of extrajudicial killings. But when a medical colleague relayed to Claver a warning about another planned attack on Claver and his children, from a patient who was a sympathetic soldier, Claver decided he couldn’t stay. He and his three daughters landed in Canada in 2007.

Claver felt Canada was a safer place to continue to speak out, although the US would have recognized his medical credentials. “My objectives were twofold: to raise my kids and to continue working for justice,” explains Claver. “Nowhere in those goals said that I have to be a doctor.”

So he’s found a small, affordable rental home and employment as a caregiver and support worker at a Victoria shelter. And he’s begun liaising with church and non-profit groups on behalf of the Victoria Philippine Support Group and Cordillera Peoples Alliance as he tries to raise public awareness about the impacts of mining.

Claver has also been learning about his new homeland—how destructive a role Canadian mining companies and the Canadian government have been playing in BC, in the Philippines, and around the world, and how few Canadians realize the extent of it. So educating Canadians, says Claver, has become an important part of the process towards getting justice for his wife.

A powerful new book may help his efforts.

 

Daring to ask why

According to the Canadian federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. It’s an astonishing statistic that obviously raises the question, “Why?”

Two Quebec-based academic researchers, Alain Deneault and William Sacher, set out to answer that question in a searing and disturbing new book: Imperial Canada Inc.–Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries. Along the way, the authors examine a parallel troubling question, “Why do so few Canadians know?”

Tellingly, two major Canadian mining corporations have been trying to prevent Canadians from ever seeing this book.

In early 2010, tiny Vancouver publisher Talonbooks announced on its website that Imperial Canada Inc. was being developed with Deneault and other collaborators. Within days, lawyers for the world’s biggest gold mining company, Canadian transnational Barrick, faxed Talonbooks a “demand” for copies of any parts of the manuscript-in-progress that made “direct or indirect reference to Barrick, Sutton Resources Ltd, or to any of their past or present subsidiaries, affiliates, directors or officers.” Barrick also sent the letter to all the authors, collaborators and translators, and threatened to sue everyone if they didn’t like what they saw.

Many promptly quit the project. Talonbooks announced Imperial Canada Inc. was “cancelled.”

“We were scared and we were intimidated,” explains Talonbooks President Kevin Williams. “We were also somewhat outraged by the fact, ‘We haven’t even published the book!’ It felt like an infringement of our civil liberties and our ability to have free speech.”

It wasn’t a complete surprise, though. Barrick had similarly threatened lawsuits in 2008 ahead of publication of Deneault and Sacher’s previous book about Canadian companies in Africa, Noir Canada. Small Quebec publisher Écosociété pushed ahead and, even though less than a couple hundred copies of the French academic book were ever sold, Barrick sued for $6 million and another Canadian mining giant, Banro, sued for $5 million.

From 2008 through 2010, public concern about these threats and developing legal cases spread. Montreal independent daily Le Devoir reported the story. Academics and lawyers posted a petition at freespeechatrisk.ca, where Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein expressed support. Some alternative media covered the story, including The Tyee, Watershed Sentinel, The Walrus and CBC radio.

Most observers criticized the legal actions as “SLAPPs”—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPPs are typically libel lawsuits that corporations use to shut down public criticism by dragging shoestring-budget watchdog groups or small publishers through expensive, time-consuming court processes. Many US states and European countries have crafted anti-SLAPP laws to allow judges to more quickly dismiss cases where libel laws are obviously being abused in this way. Canadian governments, however, have been reluctant to pass anti-SLAPP laws.

Though the Banro lawsuit continues, an out-of-court settlement was reached with Barrick that Noir Canada would be withdrawn from print. “It was a way for Écosociété and for ourselves to continue the fight in another forum than the legal one,” says Deneault on the phone from Montreal, explaining that he’d rather see the evidence he’s gathered debated freely in public than at mammoth expense in a small courtroom between lawyers. He says the years he’s spent battling has taught him how much the Canadian court system is corrupted by money: “Do you have the money to continue? No? Well, then you have to settle with the conditions of the party that has money to continue.” Continuing, Deneault says, “It’s totally undemocratic. Taxpayers are subsidizing a structure that’s only accessible to wealthy people. It’s not a question of rights, it’s a question of means.”

Talonbooks never did show Barrick Imperial Canada Inc. However, Williams says the book’s content was refocused more on structural, overarching problems than on specific cases and companies.

“The book was extremely carefully written,” says Williams. “But aside from the fact that it took us two years longer than we would have liked, and we had to pay for the cost of a legal review, in the end we got a very good book…It’s allowing people to have a look at this issue and consider perhaps what we need to do.”

And though mainstream media have so far ignored it, Imperial Canada Inc. is provocative. It’s essentially a 189-page argument, buttressed comprehensively with reference footnotes, that provides an overview of reams of damning research about Canada’s pre-eminent role in mining’s devastating global impacts on both the environment and human rights.

 

Canada the haven

Deneault says he first became interested in the mining industry while studying offshore tax havens. “A haven is a country that allows a wealthy individual, corporation or a bank somewhere in the world to circumvent some kind of constraints,” says Deneault. “There are about 80 or 90 havens in the world. And why is it so? They all have their specific vocation.” Havens like the Cayman Islands, Jamaica or Liechtenstein each offer specialized legal bypasses, he explains, such as 100 percent tax-free revenues, non-existent minimum-wage laws, or ship registration without safety standards.

And Canada, Deneault discovered, has become the top haven for transnational mining companies. Deneault points to the company running the infamous Katanga mine. “It’s a Belgian corporation in the province of Katanga in the Congo. [The senior officers] are all Belgian,” says Deneault. “They registered their company in Toronto. Why? Why did a Belgian company register itself in Toronto to operate in Southern Congo?”

Indeed, the significant, dubious involvement of Canadian-based mining companies and the Canadian government in the war-ravaged Congo will be one of the more disconcerting revelations in the book for most Canadians. Deneault writes about an “avalanche of public documents,” including UN reports, that explicitly criticize Canadian citizens and companies for their roles in the Congo war.

But for Deneault, that was only the beginning. “We started to discover all sorts of cases, in a lot of countries, involving a lot of corporations,” he says. “And [they were] cases about very important issues. Not about anthropological civilities, but corruption, bribery, arms dealing, collusion with warlords or rebels, partnerships with dictatorships or kleptocrats, and so on.” And these came from many different sources, he says, including UN reports, parliamentary commissions, independent documentaries, academic studies, and organizations such as Mining Watch Canada, Amnesty International and Global Witness.

Another UN report points to abuses of indigenous peoples around the world and implores the Canadian government to “explore ways to hold transnational corporations registered in Canada accountable for these acts.” Yet instead, as Imperial Canada Inc. lays out in detail, our governments have been actively assisting these corporations with enormous tax breaks and subsidies, lax stock market regulations, diplomatic support, and immunity from prosecution for environmental destruction and human rights abuses overseas.

 

Canadian government support

Imperial Canada Inc. provides evidence showing how our governments help the mining industry with diplomatic support and funding, particularly exploring how Export Development Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency regularly pump millions into mining operations in notoriously troubled areas where mining wealth, civilian poverty and resulting armed conflict are virtually synonymous—like Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia and the Congo.

“The money [our government] will put into a project is related to the interests Canadian corporations have in that specific project,” says Deneault. He points to two dams on the Senegal River which Canadian International Development Agency aid helped build in the 1980s. “It was a catastrophe,” says Deneault, describing soaked arable lands, collapsed fisheries, new diseases blooming in the stagnant water, and violence erupting amidst diminishing food supplies.

“And why,” Deneault asks, “were those dams built?” First, he explains, Canadian companies made money building them, and then the dams provided electricity for a Canadian company’s nearby open-pit gold mine, which itself spread streams of deadly arsenic and turned into an environmental and health disaster for local populations. “And they called that a successful project on the web site of the Department of External Affairs,” says Deneault. “It’s a pure contradiction, what [Canada] claims to be and what they do abroad.”

Canada also has a legal framework that makes it impossible to hold these corporations to account in court, says Deneault. Imperial Canada Inc. reviews how over 23,000 Guyanese citizens filed suit against Canadian mining company Cambior after a catastrophic tailings pond accident, but in 1998 Quebec courts simply threw the case out. Just last November, Canada’s Supreme Court summarily dismissed attempts by a coalition of organizations and families of victims to sue Canada’s Anvil Mining for its involvement in a massacre in the Congo.

One supposes that at least these companies must be golden-milk cows for our own government coffers. But a study by Quebec’s auditor general, for example, found that 14 mining companies with $4.2 billion in revenues from 2002-2008 paid no tax at all, while other mining companies paid a tax rate of about 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, Quebec tax breaks and credits cost taxpayers from 1.5 to 7 times more than mining royalties brought in.

Investors are also being handsomely compensated, with tax credits of up to 150 percent for investing in companies doing mining exploration. Such figures almost stretch credulity but, commendably, the ImperialCanada.ca website has links for many of the book’s references. That footnote clicks through to a Quebec government tax advisory for mining investors: “…which gives a total possible deduction of 150 percent of the amount invested.”

So why are our governments so supportive of mining companies?

Deneault shows that our mining industry magnates and political leaders are in many cases the same people, including Brian Mulroney, Paul Desmarais Sr, Jean Chretien, Joe Clark and Brian Tobin. However, the book also presents a more variegated history to how Canada became so mining-friendly.

 

Corrupt stock exchanges and uninformed investors

“Canada is a former colony,” says Deneault. “The public institutions that we created in Canada historically were dedicated to monopolies exploiting natural resources…Canada is fashioned a little like Leopold the Second fashioned the Congo.”

Further, both the Toronto and Montreal stock exchanges developed during Canada’s late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century goldrush eras, establishing their niche as speculative mining markets. Imperial Canada Inc. examines how the two exchanges then competitively raced each other to the bottom to attract companies, including making most regulatory compliance obligations “voluntary.” Today, many of those lax practices remain in place at Vancouver (home to nearly half of Canadian mining companies), Toronto and Montreal’s stock exchanges. For example, unlike in most other countries, Canadian publicly-registered companies are allowed to mislead ordinary investors by blurring the lines between “reserves,” which are precisely calculated estimates of a mine’s geology, and “resources,” which are speculative assertions about how much ore might be there. It’s a practice that became infamous during the $6 billion stock market collapse of Calgary’s Bre-X in 1997.

Canada also only requires publicly-traded companies to report to shareholders on issues that a “reasonable investor” would care about—and that’s deemed to be only issues directly affecting market value, not affecting broader society, human rights or the environment. “When we’re reading the documentation related to the [legally required] disclosure of information,” comments Deneault, “it’s always about this ‘reasonable investor’ and what he should know…It’s like a sociological character, defined so. A reasonable investor in that fiction is an investor who only cares about what he has to know with respect to his own private interests.”

Even more unnerving: Most Canadian financial institutions, mutual funds, and major private, public and union pension funds, including the Canada Pension Plan, are heavily invested in this cloaked ethical miasma. “All Canadians are mining shareholders, but they don’t have any control of that, they don’t even choose to be shareholders or not,” says Deneault. Meanwhile most of us, he adds, don’t realize that mining companies and government officials often rationalize many exploitative and abusive acts overseas by claiming they’re protecting average Canadians’ investments and pensions.

 

Change needed here first

In many respects in the globalized economy, concludes Deneault, it’s Canada that’s the “lowest common denominator” dragging the rest of the world’s ethical and environmental mining standards down. That’s why it seems backhanded flattery that, in a 2008 survey, mining executives ranked 7 Canadian provinces amongst the top 10 jurisdictions on Earth for their pro-mining policies—BC ranked 24th, well below Botswana, but far above Ghana and Zambia. And it’s therefore perhaps even more unnerving that, this year, UBC and SFU received millions in Canadian International Development Agency money to host a new institute that will work with mining companies to promote Canadian mining “policy, regulations, educational programs and technologies” in developing countries.

Besides suing academics, our mining industry works in other ways to suppress open discussion in Canada about all of this. Deneault draws direct links between directors of mainstream media and the mining industry. But his book reveals other insidious efforts, like an industry group’s “Mining Matters” educational program for elementary schools, implemented by the Ontario government, which warns teachers against being critical of mining, and the University of Toronto agreement allowing Barrick to co-develop curriculum in exchange for donations, which got rewritten only after protests.

Deneault doesn’t claim every Canadian mining company is immoral, but he does believe his book is revealing “only the tip of the iceberg.”

“The mining sector in Canada is totally out of control,” he summarizes. “We don’t have any way to make sure that, on an ethical level, these mining corporations registered in Canada behave properly abroad.”

How can we rectify the situation?

Deneault proposes calling independent commissions to investigate. “There are too many allegations from too many sources on too many very controversial cases to believe that it’s all suppositions,” he says.

He also suggests taking ethical financial action. “Since there’s no way to verify what [mining companies] do, Canadians should try by any way or means to withdraw their money from that sector.”

Deneault believes we’d do well to improve mining practices here in Canada, too, which he feels often aren’t much better than elsewhere. He recently spoke in Kamloops, and heard from the protesters battling the planned open pit mine there. It reminded him “how weak the voice of the population is” even in Canada.

I describe to Deneault the ruckuses that have erupted since the BC Liberal government put up an online tool making it incredibly easy and cheap for mining companies or anyone else to stake previously publicly-reserved mining rights on public and private lands. Though most new claims have been happening in remote locations, so few of us know about them, two men recently staked claims across huge swaths of Pender Island, throwing property owners, law enforcement and local government into confusion about what happens next. The Tyee has reported on a quarrelsome Vernon man who staked claims on his neighbours’ lots and then with impunity began trespassing on their properties at all hours, putting up mining signs, and spray-painting their trees for removal. And of course, the intent of the tool is that real mining operations might ultimately begin in some cases.

“In any other kind of activity, in any other sector, it’s impossible to imagine you could obtain a property in five minutes on the internet,” comments Deneault. “It tells a lot about the jurisdiction that we’re in.”

That’s part of the reason that, here in Victoria, a new group called the Mining Justice Action Committee has begun trying to raise public awareness and build solidarity amongst people affected by the practices of Canadian mining companies in BC and around the world (see event below). Indigenous Filipino refugee Chandu Claver has been working alongside them.

“We identify very well with what First Nations are looking at here,” comments Claver on the BC situation, where he sees controversial oil pipeline proposals as just another example of the power of the “extractive” industries like mining. “The state looks at indigenous peoples’ areas as resource-based areas, meaning a source of raw materials. Period. That’s why the people there are not a priority for social services, they’re not a priority for anything. What’s important for the state are their raw materials.”

Like Deneault, Claver hopes BC activists could help set a better standard for human rights and environmental responsibility that would be exported as a model elsewhere. “If I’m able to work with First Nations in doing what needs to be done here, maybe it’s something that can actually accelerate change in the Philippines.”

Deneault optimistically points out that there have been several federal mining-related bills recently, one each from the Liberals, Bloc and NDP, that variously sought to create a mining ombudsperson with investigative and regulatory powers, require more forthright corporate reporting, and permit Canadian companies to be sued in Canada for human rights abuses. Although he saw flaws in each bill and watched each be defeated or scuttled, Deneault felt encouraged. “Technically, they can change [the laws],” he observes. “We’ve had bills, we can see that it’s possible, we’re not dreaming.”