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City Hall

This morning, a few hundred teachers and allies rallied downtown. Gathering in front of City Hall, the crowd heard speeches then marched along Main, down Hughson (pausing for more speeches outside Andrea Horwath’s office) concluding at Gore Park for hot cocoa. The speakers, always a labour rally staple, were some of the best I’ve heard in years, including not just teachers but a wide range of others, from School Board trustees to anti-poverty activists and representatives of Six Nations. Along with the warm weather, frequent honks and amazing short-notice turnout, it all combined to provide an amazingly high-spirited rally.

Across Ontario right now, schools are gripped by strikes and walkouts in opposition to the Provincial government’s Bill 115 (text). The bill, which freezes wages, cuts benefits and bans strikes, has infuriated teachers over the past months. In response, both elementary and secondary teachers have been staging short rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns in boards across the region, joined by a growing number of student walkouts, including hundreds Hamilton’s Sir John A MacDonald and Delta students this past Monday, and our Elementary teachers are slated to hold a one-day strike Monday.

Outside Andrea Horwath's Office on Hughson

Outside Andrea’s Office

What McGuinty accomplished with Bill 115, one of the last passed before he prorogued Parliament, was effectively pre-emptive back-to-work legislation. It interfered with contract talks before bargaining had even begun, and in the process seriously offended teachers. Given the history of teachers’ unions, this wasn’t likely to go down without a fight, and it’s quickly escalating as the strike deadline approaches.

Unlike previous labour strife, like the battle over Bill 160 in the Harris years, opponents have been much less successful at isolating and demonizing teachers. With students walking out and boards passing resolutions against the bill, the province is finding itself with a lot less friends this time around. It’s hard to have sympathy, I suppose, when these legislators haven’t shown up at their own workplace in months.

Also favouring teachers is the recent history of education-related activism. Similar battles with BC teachers didn’t help with the falling popularity of the province’s Liberal government. Teachers strikes in Chicago, similarly, quickly turned into a much broader movement and successfully challenged the city’s government. Then there’s the student strike in Quebec this past spring and summer, which turned into a resounding defeat for former Liberal Premier Jean Charest. And of course, there’s what happened in Oxaca, Mexico in 2006, where protests by their teachers’ union escalated into a (deadly) battle between the state and popular forces for control of Oxaca City. Simply put, teachers’ unions have become the ‘natural predator’ of provincial governments across the continent.

Gore Park

Gore Park

As with most battles like it, Bill 115 represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Austerity policies are being implemented at the federal and provincial levels, tossing thousands out of work and cutting many more off benefits such as EI. Most of those affected by these cuts don’t have anywhere near the level of union representation or influence that teachers do, making this fight and others like it a pivotal battle. It also illustrates why it’s so important that teachers are connecting with other affected groups – workers, First Nations, the unemployed etc (many of whom showed a presence today). Solidarity is the only way to combat agendas on this scale, and I’m heartened to see that it’s happening.

I passed the age, long ago, where more of my friends teach high school than attend it. Having very close friends and even house-mates who teach, I’ve seen how brutal a career it can be. I may have an incredibly (physically) taxing job, but the exhaustion I’ve seen in friend’s eyes after a long day in front of classes or grading papers is just as real. Perhaps the saddest of all, I’ve known too many teachers who’ve literally begged their kids not to follow in their footsteps. These aren’t “spoiled” or “entitled” workers, they’re people we depend on to help raise our kids.

Though I’ll always have my suspicions about state-sponsored education, it won’t be improved through cuts and neglect, or broad, sweeping policy changes from the province (standardized tests and curricula, etc). Like any organization, schools need input from those most affected, and that means the people who spend time their daily – teachers, students and support staff along with parents and community members. This isn’t just about budgets and salaries, it’s a question of who controls schools and education itself.

Environmental activists in Southern Ontario are experiencing something rare and unexpected today: a victory. Word came this morning that one of the province’s most controversial proposals, the mega-quarry in Melancthon (near Orangeville), has been withdrawn.

The Highland Companies, the corporation responsible for plans, stated this morning that, “the application does not have sufficient support from the community and government to justify proceeding with the approval process”, and that their president, John Lowndes, has resigned and is leaving the company. Lands they’ve purchased over the past few years are now slated to remain agricultural.

Reactions from the environmental community, so far, have been euphoric. This quarry, which was to be the province’s largest (second in North America) and would affect the water supply of around a million people, became the target of activists across Ontario last year.

The trouble started when area residents noticed new “irrigation” wells and dissappearing homes. When they looked into “The Highlands Company”, it was soon revealed to be a front for investors such as Boston-based hedge fund Baupost Group who seemed mainly interested in gravel. It had been quietly buying land in the area for years, claiming it planned to grow potatoes (and becoming the area’s largest spud-grower in the process. The area affected includes very high quality farmland, but thanks to the poor state of rural economies Highlands was able to amass thousands of hectares, bulldozing at least 30 farmhouses in the process, some over a century old. When the quarry proposal was made official in April of last year, opposition exploded.

Before long it seemed everybody from anarchist land defenders to the Council of Canadians and David Suzuki Foundation and even the National Farmers Union were making the issue a priority. Festivals like Soupstock and Foodstock were held, bringing together local food and musicians in protest. For environmental activists across the province, “the mega-quarry” became the next big thing, and for bureaucrats, that’s one of the worst things which can happen to a project.

Today’s victory shows that it is possible to “win”. Despite support from the (now former) premier and an enormous flow of foreign capital, they couldn’t fight the coordinated efforts of ordinary Ontarians. For opponents of projects like Aerotropolis, the Mid-Peninsula Highway and new plans to reverse Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline (the next, next big thing?), this is very encouraging news. Rural communities and cities can connect across large regions to oppose common threats, and together, they can succeed.

Perhaps there is a little hope left for our battered planet after all.

It’s been a week now since the surprise resignation of Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty. There is still no word on why he chose to leave power, or when our province might return to an ordinarily functioning government, which he prorogued upon leaving. Some suspect the upcoming inquiry into his government’s costly cancellation of power plants as a motive, others that it was an attempt to buy time to broker a deal with nearly half a million public employees, facing a bill he introduced to freeze their wages and curb union rights. I’d also be inclined to bet toward possible corruption charges coming from Quebec, or the ongoing internal chaos rocking the Liberal party as a whole. Whatever prompted this decision, it’s left our province without a government, and it’ll be interesting to see how long that can continue.

Dalton McGuinty (artist’s conception)

Last year Belgium broke records (held by countries like Iraq and Cambodia) for the longest time spent without a democratic “government”. When no clear majority emerged in the June 2010 elections, it took until December of the next year to work out a coalition. In spite of this, life went on in Belgium with remarkably few interruptions and the country actually fared better in terms of GDP and unemployment than the EU average. Unlike Belgium, though, we’re not just bickering over a coalition – our Parliament has been prorogued and we have no “caretaker government”. We’ve simply had a level of government go dark.

Why prorogue? Harris didn’t need to shut down parliament to leave office in disgrace, neither did Mulroney or Cretien. Did Dalton prorogue so that he could step down, or did he step down so that he could prorogue? What were they afraid of? What did they hope to accomplish? Most importantly, why do we allow minority governments the ability to simply shut down parliament at their convenience?

McGuinty already has a poor record when it comes to calling early elections for strategic reasons. Proroguing until his party can hold a convention and find a suitable replacement shows a total disregard for parliamentary democracy. Manipulating the process in this way hasn’t been popular so far, and this latest move will likely only stoke the fires of further resentment. Whatever the perceived benefits of this move, it’s hard to see it as anything but a disaster for the party.

Nationally speaking, the Liberal Party has been imploding over the past couple of years. After the last election which saw them virtually switch places with the NDP and left Harper in charge, this has only accelerated. Provinces have also seen this breakdown, most notably in Quebec with the resounding defeat and disgrace handed to Charest, and now seems poised to happen next spring in BC. Stepping out of what seemed like endless incumbent governments at both levels, the party is virtually collapsing. This has been coming for some time, as the party became institutionalized, almost indistinguishable from the rest of government bureaucracy. They became legendarily ineffective and corrupt, and seemingly abandoned all principles in favour of an opportunistic mix of conservative policies and semi-socialist slogans.

Behind the scenes, the party also saw a viscous power struggle in the wake of Cretien’s departure between fiscal conservatives (led by Paul Martin) and more traditional liberals (led by Hamilton’s former deputy PM Sheila Copps). This battle was won by Martin’s side, who became Prime Minister, but only accelerated the party’s decline. Many are now hoping that the entry of Justin Trudeau (and possibly McGuinty) into federal Liberal politics could reverse this trend, but at this point things look pretty grim for the Grits.

Given this state of affairs, McGuinty’s move is likely political suicide for his party. Whoever takes power in wake of these big-name departures, they almost never win the next election. McGuinty should know this, his initial victory came against Ernie Eves, after Harris resigned. And so we find ourselves asking again; why? If McGuinty gets his way, we might never know.

The really interesting question now, though, isn’t just about the fate of the Liberal party. Unless Parliament can be revived, we face the possibility of a prolonged period without an entire level of government. What then, if we face a situation like Belgium, where life simply goes on without them? Were I an MPP right now, it’s not the creeping irrelevance of the Liberal Party I’d be worried about so much as Queens Park itself. As governments go, provinces are essentially middle-management. After two decades of cuts and downloading, municipalities have been forced to take on many provincial responsibilities, while still sending large amounts of tax revenues “upward”. In too many ways, politics in Canada have devolved into a mutual bickering match where each level of government seeks to balance it’s budget at the cost of the other two. Perhaps instead of amalgamating cities (a financial and political failure), we should have been taking a harder look at certain redundant levels of government? I ask only half-jokingly…

When “representatives” have this level of control over the process, they generally cease being representative in any meaningful way. With the ability to call early elections, prorogue, set their own pay and skip work whenever they feel, it’s hard to pretend that they “work for us” in any meaningful way. McGuinty’s latest (and hopefully last) move shows a view of Ontario’s government which can be described only as “mine”. Now that he’s finished, he’s effectively willing his position to a successor as if it were a piece of property. What does that say about parliament? More importantly, where does that leave us?

Last night around 300 of us marched through the streets of Toronto, from George Brown over to Ryerson banging pots and pans. About 40 of us made the trip from Hamilton in a chartered bus, something that’s becoming quite a trend of late. Both Hamilton and Toronto are holding further “Casseroles” tonight. See ya tonight, 8pm in Gore Park, for my new favourite kind of ‘pot march’.

These marches started out as a statement of solidarity with striking students in Quebec and against the draconian anti-protest legislation they’re now facing. As the mobilization starts taking hold, it’s starting to become to become about much more than that. Ontario students pay some of the highest tuition fees in Canada, where 5% yearly increases are becoming the norm. Far too many are leaving school with few job prospects and enormous debts, much like young people who’ve been taking to the streets around the world. Student organizers with the Canadian Federation of Students and others are starting to return from Quebec where they’ve seen first-hand what’s possible. Plans are afoot for a serious organizing drive next fall, with a possible strike vote coming as early as next winter. Whether that’s possible in the dramatically different political culture of Aglophone Canada remains to be seen, but the fact that people are attempting it shows how quickly an action like the Quebec strike can spread to neighbours. Resistance is contagious, and that’s always one of the best reasons to take to the streets.

No April showers, no May flowers...

Dry farms near West Lincoln, Ontario

Took a long drive south-east of the city today, and what I saw was shocking. At first, all I could think was “am I back in Arizona?”. Any farm field which wasn’t hadn’t obviously been irrigated or fallowed for some time had become virtual deserts. Some had a few scraggly shrubs, others were literal sandboxes. One farmer tilling with his tractor set off a cloud of dust which trailing off into the wind for hundreds of metres. A little digging online confirmed my worst fears. According to the Hamilton Conservation Authority, we’ve seen about half of the average rainfall this spring, following an abnormally warm winter with very little snow. They’ve advised people to start conserving water. Provincially, we’re seeing evidence of a very early drought emerging, threatening further damage to the area’s farming communities (Ontario Drought Map – Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada).

Not only was 2007 the worst drought in 50 years, but Hamilton has also been beset with torrential down-pours other years, leading to a huge increase in flooding. This year, the area’s farmers have already been dealt a serious blow when an early spring and a late frost wiped out much of the area’s tender-fruit harvest as the trees were in bloom.

The weather just ain’t what it used to be.

Tim Hudak is under fire for his promise to kill the McGuinty goverment’s Green Energy bill, this time for the possible loss of 200 jobs in London at a Samsung solar panel plant. “We just can’t afford it”, he claims, and plans to kill the proposed subsidy for Samsung. McGuinty, touring another Solar plant, was not impressed and wasted no time attacking him over it.

Putting aside, for a second, the issue of subsidizing foreign multinationals for opening up shops in Ontario, this seems a pretty awful approach to getting cheaper power for Ontario. Solar panels produce electricity, and solar panel factories produce them – so the net effect on our province’s generating capacity is going to be very negative. How is Hudak going to deal with our growing demand for electricity in these days of skyrocketing energy prices? He’ll cut taxes on gas and electricity bills. This way, he can use public money to cushion the blows without actually addressing the questions of energy production behind it.

The allegation that “we can’t afford it”, also, seems strange given his many expensive promises, such as tax cuts and the $35 billion infrastructure budget he’s prepared for building projects like the Mid-Peninsula Highway. Hudak boasts about the state-sponsored job creation which will happen around Hamilton if this highway is created. We may not need it, and it may cost us dearly in land, but this enormous trench filled with money will spur “economic growth”, so why not, eh?

The “jobs” argument can be made for any colossally expensive development boondoggle. Any money the government spends will enter the economy and do something. Frankly, I’m surprised these people don’t just build valleys full of pyramids. Highway development is additionally “useful” because they open up land for development into new suburbs, power-centres and business parks. Given Hudak’s avoidance of spelling out exactly what he plans to do about the Greenbelt legislation he dislikes so much, as well as what happened to suburban expansion during the Harris years, it’s likely that such sprawl is poised to grow even faster.

What does sprawl have to do with solar panels? Other than being a vast energy sink filled with distant, poorly-performing buildings, it’s a dramatic example of just how far some in government are willing to go in subsidizing certain technologies and industries. Solar won’t catch on without subsidies – not because it’s an inferior technology, but because the nastier alternatives (like oil, coal and internal combustion engines) are already heavily subsidized. What’s different about solar is that it encourages local “Energy Autonomy” as described by Hermann Scheer. Though efficient, sustainable and very liberating, this kind of vision isn’t compatible with the kind of profits which today come from fossil fuels, and drive the kinds of industry and development Hudak wishes to see.

Our energy woes stem from the fact that modern-day Canadians have some of the highest rates of per-person energy use on Earth or in history. This is in no small part a result of decisions by governments to invest in models of development and economic growth which require massive amounts of coal, oil and electricity. While I generally detest electoral politics and have no great love for McGuinty, Hudak’s ambitions scare me a lot. Ontario definitely does not need another Common Sense Revolution – but perhaps a bit of common sense would do.

As the world watches in horror, at Japan’s current nuclear wars, we’re all being forced to ask ourselves: could it happen here? In a word, yes. Or perhaps something very much like it.

Today alone, we’ve seen an earthquake in the Ottawa area and leak at the Pickering Reactor (35km from Toronto) which released 72 000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario. That’s just today.

Could a level five nuclear incident happen in Ontario? It already has, in 1952 at Chalk River, 180km up the Ottawa river from our nation’s capitol. A cooling failure and hydrogen explosion led to a containment failure and release of 30kg of isotopes into the surrounding environment. Another incident happened six years later when it underwent a ‘fuel failure’ during core maintenance. And though the nuclear laboratories there sit in a seismically active area, neither was caused by an earthquake, but rather insufficient safeguards and operator error. Since then, both the Chalk River site and have been beset by problems. Shut down in 2007 over safety concerns, the current reactor at Chalk River, was restarted in December on order of Parliament after a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. Just shy of a year later, heavy water was found to be leaking from the reactor, and it was shut down again. But unable to find the source after it stopped on its own, they restarted it days later. By May of 2009, it had returned and was leaking much faster, leading to another shutdown which lasted over a year. As of last August, though, it is once again operational due to another shortage of medical isotopes, as most of the world’s other producing reactors were also currently offline at the time.

Continuing East from there, one finds Elliot Lake, former heartland of Canadian uranium mining, and home to roughly 200 million tons of un-remediated tailings from mining sites. As with more active mining sites elsewhere in Canada, we’ve also seen ruptures of tailings dams, like one in 1993 which released an estimated two million litres of radioactive liquids into surrounding environments.

Ontario also houses the Bruce Nuclear plant, the largest in North America, and others closer to us, like the Darlington or Pickering reactors. Hamilton houses our own reactor at McMaster University. At least two more proposed plants have been promoted recently for new development.

And of course, in any discussion of the Canadian nuclear industry, we need to mention the larger global role it played. Since the Manhattan project, we’ve been involved in weapons programs, and still are today. AECL has been a major exporter of nuclear technologies, and therefore a major enabler of foreign nuclear weapons programs. We’ve sold reactors to India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Romania (while a member of the Warsaw Pact) and Argentina. Canadian technologies were found to have played a large role in India’s nuclear weapons program, and we certainly haven’t hindered those of others. Our CANDU reactors and other heavy-water types lend themselves easily to producing weaponized materials. In an age where many are urging the sales of reactors to large numbers of new nations in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the consequences of these sales need to be considered. Not exporting these technologies in the first place is far easier than invading and occupying nations like Iraq or Iran in order to get them back under our control.

Japan isn’t unique and niether is Ontario. Regions all around the world are now asking themselves these questions, and rediscovering their own ugly histories of nuclear mismanagement. Californians, wary of their reactors like Diablo Canyon, built right atop a fault-line. Germans have already reacted, shutting down seven of it’s seventeen reactors and facing a serious chance of a nationwide moratorium. News like this is rolling in from around the world.

I suspect that from this point onward, it’ll virtually require a cold day in hell to sell a new reactor anywhere that now receives news-feeds. Not that they’ll stop trying, but Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island led to a virtual 30-year freeze on new reactor construction in America and elsewhere. Most of those which exist now are close to or beyond their intended decommissioning date. Another similar freeze, lasting even a decade or two, would see the industry implode over large regions of the globe. And once there’s no reactors to point to as bright, shining examples of the atom’s potential, it’ll be even harder to build new ones. I’m not saying this is the definitive end of nuclear power, but if the industry does crash and burn, this will be the week that historians point to.

No fate is sealed. Those who stand to make fantastic profits off nuclear technologies will continue to downplay the costs and demand new stations, singing songs of progress. But now that we’ve all had a close-up look at what a disaster could look like, we’ve all got a very good reason to question those claims. I’ve seen lots of “direct action” in my day, and it ain’t hard. Show up, sit down, refuse to leave. Lock yourself to something if necessary, climb out of reach, dig in and camp – whatever it takes. If they drag you off, come back. We may not even need to go that far – a believable public statement from a few thousand people that we’re willing to may be enough. The day news of Japan’s crisis hit, 50 000 people showed up to protest at a site in Germany. The collective hopes and fears of the earth’s people may not be able to stop the current crisis in Japan, but we can stop it from ever happening again.

Did you know that Agent Orange, perhaps the most notorious herbicide in history, was once “widely used” in Ontario’s woodlands for decades? Best known for its use clearing jungles in the Vietnam War, the chemical defoliant basically melts plants on contact – especially broad-leafed weeds. In recent weeks, after a number of former workers came forward with health complaints, the Provincial Government has admitted that it was in use, setting up an investigation and hotline to study the issue. That hotline was immediately “swamped” with hundreds of calls. A spokesman for the Minister of Natural Resources is now warning that “this is a lot bigger than people realize”.

why would our own government and corporations use a highly-toxic, weapons-grade defoliant on our own forests? Because it’s far cheaper than clearing land the old-fashioned way (with people and saws). This meant that tree plantations for logging could be grown without any other forest life creeping in to steal their sunlight or soil, and it meant that train tracks could be easily kept clear of forest growth. Workers were not always told about the risks, and now many face serious cancers and other health problems as a result. Similar concerns also exploded a few years ago about spraying New Brunswick.

Agent Orange is a 1:1 mixture of two chemicals, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. While the latter, a highly toxic dioxin-laden chemical has been banned in Canada and the US for decades, 2,4-D is still the world’s most widely used herbicide (third in North America), for use on lawns, crops and tree farms under names like “Killex”. It’s also suspected to cause cancer, and known to cause blindness, reproductive anomalies and neurotoxicity. And citing the failures of genetically engineering crops to take larger amounts of Roundup (glysophate – another cancer-linked herbicide) which has simply led to more Roundup-resistant weeds, Dow Chemical is now seeking to produce GE crops which can tolerate larger doses of 2,4-D.

These chemicals are not “cheap”. They cause long-term health and environmental problems. Simply because a government ministry or logging company is not immediately paying this price does not mean that nobody is or will. The widespread use of any chemical like this is always a gamble – “proving” that something is wrong can only long after it’s too late. Finding a statistically significant number of cancers or other rare but terrifying diseases requires huge numbers of cases, and things that are harmless to lab rats aren’t always harmless to humans. New technologies which aren’t totally understood always show nearly unlimited potential to optimists – especially those with something to gain. What will our own grandchildren look back on as our greatest failure in this way? Genetic Engineering? Climate change (or attempts to “reverse” it)? Or will we learn from the mistakes of our fore-bearers before our grandchildren have to learn from ours?

Food prices have officially now hit their highest prices since the the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) started recording them. For eight straight months now they’ve climbed and are now above their former height from 2008, shortly before the world economy crashed. This is expected to have serious effects around the world, especially in poorer nations, but even here in wealthier ones we’re being told we can expect to see at least a 5-7% increase in prices.

To see prices like gold, food and oil surging exactly the same way they did before the ‘meltdown of 08’ is not comforting. Despite spending trillions of dollars “stabilizing” the economy with bailouts, we are clearly no closer to actual stability or sustainability than we were then. If this trend doesn’t slow or stop very soon, we can expect another crash, likely within a few months. With welfare rates, unemployment and personal debt levels still reeling from the last crash, it seems unlikely that the next will be anywhere near as comfortable as the last.

Making matters far worse, the fiscal cost of the bailout is spurning worldwide “Austerity” measures attempting to recoup the cost by slashing wages, social services and other “expenses”. Here in Ontario, the McGuinty Government is cracking down on welfare recipients who receive the Special Diet Supplement. The allowance was designed to provide extra money for recipients who have dietary needs like diabetes or allergies. It became the focus of OCAP action after years of inflation and Conservative rule left basic welfare payments earmarked for food unable to meet the basic nutritional needs of even those without these disorders. Encouraging everyone to apply as an act of protest, doctors and other professionals began signing the forms as an attempt to get people enough money to live on. Accusing them and their doctors of “fraud” for a publicized protest campaign which is now nearly a decade old, the Liberals are now forcing everyone to reapply or lose their benefits, with many changes. With the rising cost of food, this is likely to make things much worse for people who depend on social assistance, as well as many more who may soon need it.

It’s time to start thinking very seriously about alternatives. Soon many of us may need far more than our jobs, or jobless benefits can provide.

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