One of the big risks of electoral systems like ours is that a minority of the population will vote in a government who undertakes a radical transformation of traditional institutions. Harper, who recieved votes from less than 1/5 people in this country, is a prime example of these fears. During his time in office he’s transformed Canada along lines we used to associate with places like Texas, much to the dismay of most Canadians. These changes, senseless as they might seem, follow an ideological agenda reflecting both the desires of his ‘sponsors’ and a strongly-held personal belief that capitalism can solve all problems.

In the latest Federal budget, two glaring examples stand out and have gotten a fair bit of attention. The first is the demise of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which had formerly been responsible for international aid. The second is to tie aid to young First Nations people on reserves to “job training” and similar initiatives. Both are obviously odious for plenty of reasons, but what I find most galling is the willingness to use the plight most vulnerable as an easy venue for this agenda, and to tie it in so deeply with questions of basic survival.

Capitalism, both in theory and practice, has always relied on the most destitute. On paper, they provide a constant demand for more growth and progress. In practice, they supply a cheap, flexible and massive workforce without which the system couldn’t function. While in past times this meant local slums, today entire countries and regions have been transformed into Dickensian landscapes. The spectre of Third World poverty has been used many times by the likes of Monsanto and the World Bank to promote their products and policies, though not to much (positive) effect. Instead, through “trade-based” policies, these areas have become the site of 21st century plantations and sweatshops. Canada’s role in this process is well-acknowledged, we’re the mining powerhouse so often cited for questionable mining claims and human rights abuses.

The demise of CIDA and incorporation of aid programs into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) will accelerate the process I warned about last December when Harper started cutting the agency and talking of using aid to promote foreign investment. The Canadian press has taken a remarkably friendly view of this move (Star, Globe, Macleans), but the UK’s Guardian takes a much harsher tone,

Cida has pulled back from Africa and increased its programmes in Latin America, where Canada’s mining industry is especially active. As China is synonymous with global industry, so Canada is synonymous with global mining – although its activities in the sector embrace more than 100 countries. About 75% of the world’s exploration and mining companies are headquartered in Canada, partly because the country acts as a major banker for the extractive industry, but partly also due to weak corporate governance and enforcement.

Moves like this set a frightening precedent. Turning aid workers into the official missionaries of foreign investment poses a very serious challenge to their perceived neutrality. Conflicts over Canadian mining operations often get violent, and we don’t need to give foreign rebel groups any more reason to shoot at aid workers.

For the “Fourth World”, Canada’s internal colonies, Harper is pursuing a very similar policy. He’s making available $241 million in job training to reserves, but only on the condition that welfare support for young people on those reserves is tied to participation in those programs. The training in question will prepare native youth for the booming “resource development” industry in the North. First Nations youth are of course the country’s fastest-growing demographic and suffer horrible rates of poverty. This policy aims to use that desperation.

For those familiar with on-reserve politics, there’s other clear motives at work in this scheme, as well as a sick, assimilationist logic.. Many bands are bitterly divided over questions of resource development – deeply opposed but also dependent on projects for jobs and payments. These mirror deeper questions about the future of traditional ways of life, local autonomy and governance, as well as how to recover from centuries of colonization. Harper, obviously, would love to see one side of these arguments prevail, as the other has been one of the largest national thorns in his side. Those willing to oppose pipelines and logging with direct action, such as the Unist’ot’en blockade in BC, have threatened billions in infrastructure and investment, and given the national successes of Idle No More actions, stand to pose a much larger threat in the months to come.

There will, of course, be many, both here and overseas, who cannot manage the rigours of working resource extraction. There will also be many communities who just aren’t conveniently located near oil or precious metals. They’ll simply be left out. Others will see first-hand what these kinds of projects do to communities and ecology. The benefits, of course, will flow back toward Toronto and Vancouver, as that’s the point of investment. After all, this isn’t (really) charity.

The problem with any charity, especially of the welfare-state variety, is that it rarely does much to resolve the underlying problems. It relies on, maintains, and all-too-often exploits the inequalities and power relations it claims to help, usually in the name of religion, donations or social control. This kind of lifeline provides power over the recipients, and the temptation to abuse it can be overwhelming. As they say, charity is no substitute for justice denied – if we truly want to help, then we shouldn’t be setting terms.

As for Harper’s sick take on Reaganomics, I really doubt it’ll ‘raise all boats’ any more than his other many tide-raising policies. “Primary” (extractive) industries are notorious for not providing the kind of poverty alleviation they promise – the most successful economies have always been those who focus, as well, on processing those materials (“secondary” and “tertiary” industries). Exporting raw ore, bitumen or logs does little, even by capitalist standards, without the associated milling and refining jobs. Instead they engender an atmosphere of corruption and petty despotism among local officials, and often leave regions in ruin once the ‘mines run dry’. This shift in policy is dangerous, as is the self-serving ideology behind it. No matter what people tell you, subsidizing large, rich coporations rarely, if ever, does much for the poor.

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