EKOS poll: Canada should support Israeli sanctions, not demonize them

 

Foreign policy is one of those areas of democratic governance that doesn’t often get on the public’s radar. But when it does it provides citizens with a kind of unsullied opportunity to apply their values. That is, unsullied by considerations of self-interest, we get to ask: what is the right thing to do?

Governments, of course, aren’t quite as free to make such decisions given that they have so-called “national interests” to consider. But Canadians should be able to expect from their federal government that its foreign policy conforms closely to their values.

When it comes to Canada’s policy towards Israel the Trudeau government, aping its predecessor, is several country miles from reflecting Canadian values. That is the irrefutable conclusion of an EKOS poll whose partial results were released February 16. A second batch of survey results released yesterday (all survey results can be found here) focussed on the issue of whether or not Canadians think it is appropriate to use sanctions and/or boycotts to pressure Israel to obey international law.

The results demolish conventional wisdom on this question. Respondents were asked — in the context of the UN Security Council denunciation of settlement building in the West Bank: “[d]o you believe that some sort of Canadian government sanctions on Israel would be reasonable?” Overall, 66 per cent expressing an opinion answered “yes.” But that number is heavily skewed by Conservative supporters, 70 per cent of whom reject sanctions on Israel.  Openness to sanctions on Israel by supporters of other federal political parties ranged from 75 per cent for Liberals to 94 per cent for Bloc Quebecois supporters. Eighty-four per cent of NDP supporters believed sanctions on Israel would be reasonable.

Levels of acceptance for the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel was even higher with fully 78 per cent of those with an opinion stating they believe the Palestinians’ call for a boycott is “reasonable.” Again, Conservative supporters expressed radically different views from respondents supporting other parties: 51 per cent rejected a boycott. Supporters of other parties who were receptive to the Palestinian call for a boycott ranged from 88 per cent for Liberal supporters to 94 per cent for the Bloc Quebecois.

Flashback to February 2016, when Parliament adopted a Conservative motion (by a vote of 229-51) condemning Canadian individuals and organizations who promote the Palestinian call for a boycott.  That shameful assault on freedom of expression was supported by the Trudeau government. Only the NDP and Bloc opposed it.

When asked if they supported the passing of this resolution a majority of respondents expressing an opinion — 53 per cent — said “no” while half that that number, 26 per cent, said “yes.” Only 20  per cent of Liberal supporters supported the resolution while 55 per cent disagreed with it.

Most Canadians still have little idea of just how sycophantic the Trudeau Liberals are when it comes to support the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly when it comes to UN votes on Palestinian rights and Israel’s violations of international law.

The Trudeau government has cemented Canada’s reputation as an embarrassing outlier when it comes to UN votes on Israel. Since October, 2015 when it came to power, the Liberal government has voted against United Nations resolutions that were critical of Israel on over 25 occasions. In fact, it has never voted in favour of a UN resolution that is critical of Israel. Which illustrious democracies does Canada find itself allied with in these votes? Besides Israel and the U.S., its loyal benefactor, our fellow travellers are normally Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Most of these resolutions pass by a vote of 156 or 158 to six or eight (with our EU allies voting for or abstaining).

Some of the resolutions Canada actively opposed should shock Canadians. The Trudeau government opposed a UN resolution that reaffirmed “[t]he importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT].” Another resolution, supporting “The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” was opposed by the Liberals as was a resolution that almost precisely reiterates the government’s official policy — that “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” are an obstacle to peace.

Last December the UN Security Council voted unanimously (with the U.S. abstaining) to declare that Israeli settlements on territory intended for a Palestinian state were a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of … peace” between Israel and Palestine. Canada remained absolutely silent as it was (effectively) when Israel passed its “land grab” law which retroactively legalizes settler homes on private Palestinian land.

What could possibly justify Trudeau’s immoral and frankly irrational stance when it comes to promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians? In determining its policy towards Israel the Trudeau government has three apparent motivations at play: defending Israel’s right to exist, tending to Canada’s specific national interests and reflecting Canadian values.

None of these shine any real light on Canada’s continued blanket support for the Netanyahu government. It is being increasingly argued by Israel’s friends that the trajectory of that country today is in fact the biggest threat to Israel’s existence: a one-party state that can be Jewish or democratic, but not both. Canada on its own has no compelling “national interests” in the Middle East — except as a yes man for the U.S. empire.

And lastly, Trudeau’s inexplicable stance is overwhelmingly at odds with Canadian values. Not only do large majorities see Israel in a negative light, they reject by 91 per cent the notion that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic as implied in the Commons resolution. Flying in the face of Trudeau’s cowardly denunciation of BDS supporters are 75 per cent of his own party supporters who are open to sanctions and 88 per cent who say the same of boycotts.

Justin Trudeau has a lot of explaining to do.

 

Canadians at odds with their government on Israel

As the future of Israeli Jews and Palestinians spirals down into an inevitable and inexorable apartheid struggle, Canadians are being denied their fundamental right in a democracy. That is the right to an honest and frank debate about one of the most important issues faced by the international community — the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the brutal suppression of Palestinian human rights.

It’s not that Canadians don’t care or don’t try to inform themselves. It’s that both the media and federal governments are loath to even talk about it. With these two institutions maintaining a steadfast silence there can be no genuine debate. And so we betray both Israelis and Palestinians by condemning them to a future of violence.

For the past 40 years the governments in Ottawa have revealed an abject cowardice when it comes to any effective action to promote peace. While on the books Canada is committed to a “two-state” solution our total failure to act means that that this solution is now hanging by a thread. The most recent madness coming out of the Netanyahu government is the “land grab” law — its popular name in Israel. It empowers the state to legalize the illegal settler outposts retroactively and could be used to annex the West Bank. It will, if ever used, have catastrophic results.

At least that is the opinion of most commentators in Israel, across Europe and among EU governments — even Germany. In Canada the best we could do was a buried 152-word Global Affairs news release five days after the fact saying our government is “deeply concerned” and calling the law “unhelpful.” It is pathetic and irresponsible.

It is hardly new but we can now say with some certainty something we could not say until yesterday with the release of a new public opinion survey, conducted by EKOS and Associates, exploring Canadian attitudes towards Israel and Canadian government policy. The poll was commissioned by a coalition of organizations and individuals (including me).

The survey is critically important because the carte blanche, pro-Israeli government policy of federal governments (Conservative and Liberal) is built on a foundation of untested assumptions about Canadian attitudes. The conventional wisdom, conveniently promoted by the government, the Israeli lobby, and many in the media, is that Canadians are massively sympathetic to Israel.

That’s convenient but quite false. Rather than expressing an uncritically positive view of Israel, Canadians demonstrate the opposite. Of those expressing a view, 46 per cent expressed a negative view while 28 per cent expressed a positive view (26 per cent had neither). As with all the survey questions, when results were broken down by party preference, Conservative Party supporters were radical outliers in favour of Israel with a 58 per cent positive view. The average for supporters of the other four parties was 11 per cent positive and 63 per cent negative.

When asked whether or not they thought the government was biased towards Israel or Palestinians, 61 per cent said pro-Israel and 16 per cent said pro-Palestinian (23 per cent detected no bias). Again, remove the Conservative voter from the mix and 74 per cent of other-party supporters see a pro-Israel bias and 9 per cent pro-Palestinian.

With supporters of the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Green Party all obviously open to a shift in government policy towards justice for Palestinians, what are they afraid of? The answer is easy: Israel enjoys a plethora of well-funded and aggressive lobby groups in Canada ready to mount instant and personal campaigns against any criticism of Israel. B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the World Zionist Congress, Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and Jewish Federations across the country have huge influence over politicians, government officials, universities and media.

Any politician or political party that dares raise any criticism of Israel can expect over-the-top denunciations that, no matter how ridiculous, force them to defend themselves — and inevitably leave some with doubts. One example was B’nai Brith’s attack on the Green Party’s former justice critic, Dimitri Lascaris (another sponsor of the EKOS poll), with this website headline: “Green Party Justice Critic Advocates on Behalf of Terrorists.” Lascaris was the main advocate for having the Green Party support the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign.

CIJA in particular has enormous resources — a staff of 50 spread across the country, and very deep pockets — with which it can monitor media, demonize critics, promote policies to politicians and their advisers, and offer free tours to Israel to opinion-leaders. These lobby organizations all create the same false narratives: that Israel is democratic, that the BDS campaign seeks to destroy Israel, and, perhaps most offensive and intimidating, that any effective criticism of Israel is part of the “new anti-Semitism.”

One of the most encouraging revelations in the new survey is the fact that the vast majority of Canadians reject this notion. When asked, “Is criticism of the Israeli Government necessarily anti-Semitic,” 91 per cent of respondents said no. Strip out the Conservative voters and the number is 98 per cent. Though the sample of Jewish respondents was small, a clear majority of religious (78 per cent) and ethnic Jews (93 per cent) rejected this idea.

CIJA’s credibility with politicians and the media is based on its completely unsupported claim that it speaks for Canadian Jews. This poll at least suggests just how shaky that claim is. It is not surprising that CIJA, with all its resources, has never conducted (or at least released) a poll on Canadian Jews’ attitudes towards the Israeli government or towards Canadian Middle-East policy. What are they afraid of? Our survey suggests the answer. Any poll would reveal a deep divide in the Jewish community regarding Israel and that would undermine CIJA’s influence.

In the meantime the Liberals and the NDP should overcome their unfounded fear of lobby groups and listen to their supporters. The Green Party just released the results of its poll of members on the issue: 90 per cent backed “Measures to pressure the government of Israel to preserve the two-state solution.” In other words, government sanctions. It’s a start. Now, will the NDP poll its members and change its policies?

 

Transformative change in 2017 starts with community

As has been pointed out by too many people, 2016 was a devastating year for progressives (a homely term for all those who are want equality, democracy and ecological sanity). There is no need to repeat the list of atrocities, failures and disappointments, as we all have them indelibly marked on our psyches. One result of the annus horribilis is that activists everywhere have pledged to try harder — at what is clearly not working. There is even a sense of optimism rooted in the old left-wing shibboleth that “the worse things get, the better” — meaning, of course that if things get really, really bad, people will rise up (and overthrow the 1%).

But the truth is much simpler if less optimistic: the worse things get, the worse they are. There is no measure of misery beyond which revolution pops up out the ground. And if there is any popping to be done it is clearly not guaranteed, nor even these days remotely likely that it will be socialist. The victory of Donald Trump and the rise of right-wing parties across Europe demonstrate how much easier it is to play to fear, insecurity, hatred and retribution than it is to attract people to competing visions of the good life, rooted in science and delivered by the state — a state that has been openly complicit in making things worse for two generations.

It’s not that there is no good news on the social change front. Jeremy ­­Corbyn’s and Bernie Sanders’ unexpected successes were exhilarating. But the context in which they shone — political “leadership” in traditional party politics in the U.S. and Britain — severely limits the potential for future growth of broad-based movements. Why? Because beyond making activists feel temporarily less powerless and marginalized, they are still examples of why dependence on leaders is a barrier to the possibility of transformational change.

And let’s be clear. Today anything less than transformational change is simply not good enough.

Peter Block in his insightful 2008 book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, dissects the preoccupation of citizens with leaders and leadership:

“It is this love of leaders that limits our capacity to create an alternative future. It proposes that the only real accountability in the world is at the top…The effect of buying into this is that it lets citizens off the hook and breeds citizen dependency and entitlement.”

When citizens don’t feel accountable, they increasingly act as consumers. Beyond neoliberalism’s obvious imperatives such as free trade, privatization, tax breaks for the wealthy, etc., its most pernicious impact on society is the destruction of community. The greatest weapon the 1% has is our isolation from each other. And all efforts to defeat neoliberalism, no matter how valiant, inspired, smart or sustained, will fail unless they somehow ultimately contribute to the rebuilding of community. Unless and until that process begins in earnest, the systematic isolation of individuals and families from each other and from community will make garnering significant citizen power impossible.

Not difficult: impossible.

After 40 years of neoliberal social (and economic) engineering, we are at a stage where as consumers we have virtually endless choices — a mind-numbing variety of choices streamed at us at a speed and volume that leaves us stupefied — shell-shocked by choice, diverted from our possible lives by shopping. But our choices as citizens are now so constrained by the erosion and corruption of democracy and the endless promotion of small government that our citizenship has atrophied.

The dominant form of politics in fact reduces most people to passive consumers of politics just as they are consumers of goods. As consumers of politics rather than intentional citizens, we simultaneously abdicate responsibility and end up indulging in the culture of complaint. Says Block, “Consumers give up their power. They believe that their own needs can best be satisfied by the actions of others…” whether they be public service providers, elected officials or store managers.

For activists facing this entrenched political culture there is enormous temptation to sink into a nearly pathological attachment to failure — what Block calls “the joy of complaint, of being right.” The more powerless we feel, the more satisfaction we get from observing the next corporate or government outrage against the public good. It justifies our political stance and our critiques. How many dinner parties have lefties gone to where the whole evening is spent out-doing each other with stories that demonstrate things are actually worse than we thought they were.

It is hard to imagine how activists, who know people’s daily reality, can actually believe that scaring the bejesus out of people about the dozen tsunamis about to engulf them will actually motivate people to act. But we do. The new people the left wants to engage are apolitical for good reasons — they are bombarded by a media utterly complicit in designing their misery and their consciousness, they are cynical about the idea that government will ever provide for them, meetings about the latest crisis are depressing, and most people are working so hard as part of the precariate that asking them to come to a meeting is asking them to sacrifice the only two hours they would otherwise have with their families.

At a certain point, warning disengaged Canadians about the “fearful” consequences of doing nothing about climate change isn’t much different psychologically than the right telling them to fear crime and immigration. We can argue, of course, that our intentions are pure. But no one cares.

Block spends a lot of time repeating the core message of his book: that we have to radically shift the way we engage people and move away from presenting them with problems to talking about possibilities. Talking about possibilities is “strengthening interdependence and a sense of belonging.” It’s not about a vision of the future delivered whole cloth from above, but about transforming “self-interest, isolation and feelings of being an outsider to connectedness and caring for the whole.” It is not blind optimism but it is hopeful, emphasizing the assets, gifts and strengths of the community rather than the same old problems.

I confess I am a bit hesitant to recommend Block’s book given that it diverges so dramatically from my usual prescriptions. He eschews mega-analysis and even class analysis. He has nothing to say about neoliberalism. He mistakenly proclaims that government can’t be a force for good. But when it comes to shining a light on the critical issue of agency — of how transformative change will actually begin — his insights are invaluable.

‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people’: The takeover of economics by neoliberalism

All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

— Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

In these days of economic stagnation, misery and insecurity, housing bubbles and the growing precariate, it seems appropriate to speculate on what Shakespeare might have written today were he penning a modern rewrite of Henry VI. In declaring, “first let’s kill all the lawyers,” his character was voicing support for Jack Cade, whose revolutionary vision cast lawyers as paper-shuffling parasites ruining the lives of the common people. In the past 25 years that ignoble role has been usurped by economists. I liked them better when economics was called the dismal science — now the profession is simply a self-satisfied apologia for the plunder of society’s wealth by the greedy and ruthless 1% — the “masters of mankind.”

Priests of neoliberalism

Economics is no longer a science, if it ever was. It is a religion whose priests bend every effort to make the dogma of neoliberalism impervious to its disastrous outcomes. If it were a science the facts would long ago have prevailed and they would have denounced the ideology from the rooftops.

But, no, instead we get articles on a weekly basis about Canadians’ staggering debt load and the only attempt at explanation is so-called “human nature” — i.e. “Gee, people just don’t seem to be worrying — they’re ignoring the warnings.” Then there’s the ingenious concept of “recency bias” developed by someone in the field of  “behavioural finance” (who knew?). Recency bias means, according to the Globe’s Rob Carrick, “People are looking at recent events and projecting them into the future indefinitely.”

That’s it? That’s the best the economics profession can come up with to explain Canadians’ indebtedness catastrophe? It’s all about human behaviour, written in stone, so I guess we might as well just sit back and observe the meltdown in the comfort of our economist’s middle-class lifestyle.

But of course that’s the very thing they should be examining — people’s determination to live the middle-class life style that our entire culture is based on and which the sophisticated marketing machine tells us we must have — or we are losers. They need to explore this classic bait-and-switch: manipulate people to buy stuff and then suppress their incomes so they can’t.

Carrick’s article detailed just how serious the problem is — repeating numbers that have been quoted numerous times: over 700,000 people would be financially stressed if interest rates rose by even a quarter of one per cent. One million would face that circumstance if they rose by one per cent. The Canadian Payroll Association regularly tracks people’s financial stress and its recent survey revealed 48 per cent of people said “[i]t would be tough to meet their financial obligations if their paycheque was delayed even by a week. Almost one-quarter doubted they could come up with $2,000 for an emergency expense in the next month.”

I’m sorry, but that’s insane in a country that creates as much wealth as Canada does. But don’t expect “the profession” to shed any light on this situation. Why? Because economists suffer from SIB — Self-Interest Bias, a condition rooted in their elitist role in society. Actually it’s not unlike “recency bias” — they’ve been doing fine for the past 25 years rationalizing this madness, so they will just project that success “into the future indefinitely.”

Failed economic policies

Except that there really is still a problem: the economic policies they keep endorsing are a disaster for all but the few. The middle class can only sustain its standard of living through ever-increasing debt; the vast majority of the new wealth created every year (such as it is) goes to the top 5 per cent; the working class has been largely relegated to service jobs (we have lost 540,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000) with no security, lousy pay, no benefits and — increasingly — part-time work. There is not a single minimum wage in the country that comes anywhere near a living wage. The gap between rich and poor is now the same as it was in 1928. Young people’s university degrees are both outrageously expensive and often worthless.

And small and medium businesses are virtually all struggling because the government’s obsession with foreign trade leaves them (over 90 per cent of whom export nothing) on their own to cope with the stagnant incomes of their customers. And what do economists say about all this? Not much. They observe and then move on, waiting for the next batch of statistics proving, once again, that the brave new world of unfettered markets and unregulated corporate power cannot and will not deliver the goods. Of course, if they were honest they would acknowledge it was never intended to: these outcomes were predicted from the start by the handful of heretical economists who choose not to join the courtiers of masters of mankind.

To distract us from our grim present and grimmer future the priesthood talks endlessly about the Bank of Canada’s interest rate as if changing it could actually improve peoples’ lives. But the Bank of Canada can accomplish one of only two possible results: nothing (by keeping rates below 1 per cent) or disaster (by raising rates and popping the housing bubble).

The fact is, those trapped within the context of neoliberal policies don’t have a clue what to do.

But everyone knows it’s going to get worse. The quality of jobs in Canada continues to fall with low-paid jobs making up an increasing proportion of the total (we are already second in the OECD), with those earning less than the average wage falling furthest behind. This is a continuation of a 12-year trend. Sixty-one per cent of Canadian workers have seen their wage gap increase. These are the conclusions of a recent CIBC report which also concluded that only 15 per cent of people aged 15-24 can be defined as genuinely “employed.”

If economists and politicians (NDP — please note) actually want to change this situation before it descends into full-on dystopia they must, as a UN report recently recommended, “jettison neoliberal ideology.” That would include a long list of policies but let’s just take one: “labour flexibility.” Inequality, flat incomes, work-life imbalance and unsustainable debt can all to a large extent be traced to this deliberate government policy. Just reversing it would start a recovery. That means returning EI to an actual insurance program, reinstating the federal Canada Assistance Plan which provided strings-attached (read: humane rates) money to the provinces for social welfare, increase the minimum wage to living-wage levels, enforce and enhance labour standards and their enforcement, and make it easier, not harder, for unions to organize.

But don’t expect economists to get on side.

 

Welcome to CETA and the Liberals’ faith-based reality

“Sweep away the community of honest brokers in America [and] we’ll be left with a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact.”

— U.S. journalist Ron Suskind, 2004

While you were going about your daily routines this week, the Trudeau Sunny Ways government was rushing Bill C-30 (the act to implement the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement — CETA) through the House. Thirty of its 140 pages are devoted to amending The Patent Act, amendments which will increase annual drug costs for Canadians by up to 13 per cent. We already pay more for drugs than any other country except the U.S. Unless the rewards of CETA are very impressive, this “free trade” zealotry qualifies as a special kind of madness.

Faith over fact

In observing the Trudeau government and its media cheerleaders regarding CETA, I am reminded of U.S. journalist Ronald Suskind’s revelations about how the George W. Bush administration justified their decisions. One of Bush’s senior aides chastised Suskind for being part of the “reality-based community” in contrast to Bush’s “faith-based community.” He told Suskind:

“[You] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. … when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality …we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”

If those contrasting realities ring a bell, they should, because we have lived for 10 years with such thinking under Stephen Harper and there has been an almost seamless transition to the Trudeau government’s dissembling on international treaties. When it comes to trade and investment deals, the facts mean nothing. Chrystia Freeland simply refuses to answer questions and calls the deal “the gold standard” of trade agreements — full stop.

As in the U.S., we have assertion rather than authenticity, claim rather than fact.

The federal government makes its own “reality” by crafting “facts” to fit its policy objectives — no matter how outrageous they are when put to the test. Three numbers stand out in the talking points of federal governments under both Harper and Trudeau: that CETA will increase GDP by $12 billion, that it will create 80,000 jobs and that the newly created wealth will boost income by $1,000 per family.

But economist Jim Stanford debunked these numbers long ago — pointing out in 2012 that the federal trade department simply took the $12-billion figure (itself a highly dubious figure) “[a]nd divided it by the number of families in Canada. That assumes that every additional dollar of GDP translates directly into family income. In fact, higher GDP never fully trickles down into income…” The money that does find its way into income goes mostly to the wealthy.

The $12-billion figure came from a study commissioned by Canada and carried out by three EU economists. Stanford pointed out that the model used made some outrageous assumptions:

“[c]onstant full employment (so no one can be unemployed due to imports), balanced trade (so a country’s total output cannot be undermined by a trade deficit), no international capital flows (so companies cannot shift investment abroad), and no impact from fluctuating exchange rates.”

Stanford called the study “outrageous.” He was being far too polite. It was outright fraud. Anyone paying even cursory attention to the Canadian economy knows that not one of these assumptions holds. We haven’t had full employment for decades, we have been experiencing trade deficits for years, NAFTA resulted in the shifting of billions of investment dollars to Mexico and China, and our exchange rate has been all over the map.

But while the Harper/Trudeau axis trots out its faith-based “reality” others are thankfully stuck in the “fact-based” one. The latest are researchers from Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute (GDEI) who in September produced the aptly named study “CETA Without Blinders.” The Tufts researchers used the Global Policy Model developed by the United Nations. That model, unlike the one commissioned by Ottawa, examined the likely impact of CETA on jobs, wages and inequality. It’s not a pretty picture:

  • “CETA will lead to a reduction of the labour income share. Competitive pressures exerted by CETA on firms and transferred onto workers will raise the share of national income accruing to capital and symmetrically reduce the share of national income accruing to labour.
  • By 2023, workers will have foregone average annual earnings increases of €1776 in Canada and between €316 and €1331 in the EU depending on the country.
  • CETA will lead to net losses of government revenue. Competitive pressures exerted by CETA on governments by international investors and shrinking policy space for supporting domestic … production and investment will reduce government revenue and expenditure.
  • CETA will lead to job losses. By 2023, about 230,000 jobs will be lost in CETA countries, 200,000 of them in the EU, and 80,000 more in the rest of the world [the study projects a loss of 23,000 Canadian jobs due to CETA in the first seven years].
  • CETA will lead to net losses in terms of GDP. [D]emand shortfalls nurtured by higher unemployment will also hurt productivity and cause cumulative losses amounting to 0.96 per cent of national income in Canada…”

As if to highlight the predictions of the Tufts University’s report, a recent Canadian study underlined just how grim things are already getting for Canadian workers and their families. Researchers at the University of Waterloo just released a national index of well-being which shows economic growth has not resulted in an improved quality of life since the 2008-2009 recession:

“The index shows the Canadian economy expanded 38 per cent between 1994 and 2014, while improvements in Canadians’ well-being grew just 9.9 per cent. …The biggest decline in that time is in leisure and culture — areas that can enrich lives, alleviate stress and build connections with others, such as socializing with others or taking a holiday.”

The start of this two-decade period coincides precisely with federal governments’ (starting with the Chretien/Martin regime) complete abandonment of enormously successful post-war industrial policies aimed at high wages and value-added manufacturing, and putting literally all their economic policy eggs in the external trade basket.

Why any reputable economist would expect a different result from signing CETA is inexplicable — unless you remember that it’s all about faith. Beginning with the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), its promoters saw it as a leap of faith. Peter Nicholson, a former Scotiabank vice-president and later a personal adviser to Paul Martin, was one of free trade’s gurus. He acknowledged that supporters of the free-trade agreement thought it would “cause Canadian firms to pull up their socks … and compete in the North American market.” Instead, bemoaned Mr. Nicholson years later, many companies adjusted to the FTA “by simply moving across the border… taking the path of least resistance.”

Welcome to CETA, back to the future.

 

There are lessons for Canada’s elites in the U.S. election

Putting patient food in the hands of corporations reveals the trouble with normal

It’s amazing what we gradually accept as normal — even admirable — in how we treat each other in Canada. Practices that were once seen as a repugnant surrender to government indifference, like food banks, are now virtually celebrated as a high point of citizen engagement and promoted as such by our public broadcaster once a year. And other practices, like hospitals and seniors’ care homes that once had their own kitchens and cooking staff, are seemingly a thing of the past, a “luxury” that we have no hope of ever getting back.

As Bruce Cockburn’s song suggests, the trouble with normal, is it always gets worse.

The latter example demands of us that we somehow accept the notion that the food we eat is unrelated to our health or our healing. And I don’t mean just the calculation of the technical nutritional value of the meals — but their taste, their presentation, the choice amongst menu items; in other words, the sense that you have some power to choose what you eat. Before you guffaw, remember this was the old normal, and still is in a few hospitals and care homes across the country.

But the “rethermalized” slop that passes for food prepared by giant multinationals like the French multinational Sedexo ($6 billion in yearly revenue, 10,000 Canadian employees) should be against the law. I experienced this unfood some years back when I was hospitalized in Powell River. I should point out that in every other aspect the care was exemplary but my partner diligently brought me real food at mealtimes. I decided, however, that I would try the hospital soup. Less than a minute after the first spoonful I vomited it up.

I was reminded of my disgusting experience when I read a front-page story in our local paper, the Powell River Peak, headlined “Powell River seniors take stand on meals.” It was a grim account of what the elderly put up with in two seniors’ residences operating under the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) with food services also provided by Sodexo. Of course the appalling quality of the food was not really news. According to Elaine Steiger, secretary of the residents’ council at the Evergreen home: “For the last couple of years, most of our meetings have been taken up with the topic of food. Usually it’s the quality, but lately it’s been shortages.”

Steiger told the Peak that for the past few months there had been many instances of actual shortages, bad enough that she felt the food shortages “[b]order on elder abuse. … One day six residents went without a dinner and were given Boost…”

According to the Peak, the situation at the Willingdon Creek seniors’ facility was scarcely better.

Complaints about “food shortages, meals of poor quality, meals not served on time and small portion sizes” are commonplace: “Joy and Richard Hibberd … said the food is barely edible at times and not enough fresh food is served. ‘We haven’t been getting fresh fruit. We see a third of a banana maybe once in three weeks.'” Fruit juice is actually watered down flavour crystals.

And how did the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority respond to this gross corporate irresponsibility? Gavin Wilson, the VCHA’s public affairs director, acknowledged the Boost incident. But it turns out he knew about food shortages last June when complaints first arose: “In the following weeks we expressed our concerns [to Sodexo] based on feedback we were receiving that there were shortages of first-choice menu items.” That’s it? He expressed “concerns”? And he blithely accepted Sedexo’s “assurances” it was taking steps to improve food quality and quantity. He did not say what residents probably wanted to hear: “This is totally unacceptable and if it happens again we will cancel Sodexo’s contract!”

But Sodexo took care of such severe public criticism when it signed the contract back in 2004. According to Colleen Kimmett in a three-part Tyee series written in 2012, the contract “[s]tipulates that VCHA and Sodexo would coordinate their messaging around patient food services and agree on ‘standardized and uniform responses to questions from the media…'” So Mr. Wilson and the VCHA become contracted PR flaks for a giant French multinational.

But the VCHA’s protection of Sedexo goes beyond mealy-mouthed responses to the corporation’s outrageous behaviour. It is virtually impossible to find out what is in the food they prepare, where it comes from or to compare it — and its actual cost — to real food that is a prepared on site in other facilities. According to Kimmett’s investigative piece: “Both parties cited contractual confidentiality for what they couldn’t share about what’s being provided to the sick, injured and elderly in Vancouver’s hospitals.” It’s proprietary information, (Sodexo’s verbal claim that 21.6 per cent of the food came from B.C. suppliers is unverifiable.)

Wilson indicated that its contract with Sodexo did not even require that the company provide purchasing information. In other words, the VCHA, appointed by the provincial Liberal government, voluntarily ties its own hands when it comes to enforcing any real accountability by its corporate partner. This kind of secrecy is hardly new but its voluntary enforcement by a government board in an area as critical as health care is particularly offensive. A body appointed to ensure the best possible health outcomes of citizens chooses loyalty to a foreign corporation over caring for citizens.

How is it possible that we have arrived at this appalling situation? Of course the simple answer is that right-wing governments take care of their friends through privatization. But the rationale is found in the ideology of neoliberalism — in this case, in the words of political scientist Janice Gross Stein, the culprit is the “cult of efficiency.” The role of ideology is to give meaning to power — in other words to provide a persuasive rationale for doing something that is prima facie just profoundly wrong.

Stein writes in her book of the same name: “In our avowedly secular age, the paramount sin is now inefficiency. Dishonesty, unfairness, and injustice — the sins of times past — pale in comparison with the cardinal transgression of inefficiency.” She goes on to argue that “Efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, has become an end itself…” It is a “value” lifted from the private sector’s profit imperative and applied to the provision of virtually all public services, precisely where it should play a secondary role.

There are signs that this pernicious neoliberal edifice — tax cuts for the rich, privatization, cuts to services, deregulation, “free trade,” and austerity — is being challenged worldwide and even by its traditional defenders. But it won’t die on its own. What better iconic struggle to kill it off than demanding real food for seniors and hospital patients.