Canada in the world

Yesterday I saw Jeffrey Sachs on CPAC, and was most impressed. He is Special Advisor to Kofi Annan on the subject of the Millennium Goals, and is with the Earth Institute of Columbia University. He expressed most eloquently some thoughts similar to those that I have already come across in church circles, and have read in The United Church Observer and The Christian Century – both of them award-winning church periodicals. (Sachs has recently written a book entitled The End of Poverty. If he writes as well as he speaks, it is worth a read. He made much sense.)

Sachs told how the International Monetary Fund made large sums of money available to some African countries for bed nets to be used in the campaign against malaria, but on condition that the program be privatized and the nets be sold to the individual recipients, and not donated. But nearly all the people who needed them were living in deep poverty, and could not afford the $5.00 price (it would have meant not eating for a week or more). So the effort failed, the mosquitoes prospered, thousands of people died, and a scourge which could have been eradicated rages on.

I understand that the same mentality rules in the case of loans or grants given by the IMF and World Bank for the purpose of securing potable water for the people of Africa and other places. The money is available, but only on condition that the program is privatized and the individual recipient or family pays for the water. The great majority simply do not have the money, so have to return to the polluted stream. Again, disaster results.

As long as the decisions in such matters are made by people in plush corporate offices, who have never known want, either in their own lives or in the lives of their friends and relatives, I suppose such results are inevitable. The decision-makers must learn to listen to people who have had experience with poverty.

There was a little rich girl who was given an assignment by her teacher: she was to write an essay about a poor family. She started out: “This family was very poor. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor. The chauffeur was poor, the cook was poor, the governess was poor . . . .”

Of course the decision makers are afraid that corrupt dictatorships in the Third World will misuse the assistance given. But there are other ways of ensuring fairness. And under privatization there is always the likelihood that some Black or Guite or Skilling will take advantage of the situation and exploit the poor. This is just as likely as a Somoza or a Duvalier depositing the profits in Swiss bank accounts. Corruption takes place in democracies as well as in dictatorships.

I am much disturbed by the tendency of our present government to follow the lead of the Republican government in the US. About a hundred years ago some Canadian leader (I can’t remember who) emphasized our membership in the Empire; if Britain went to war, he said, our Canadian response should be “Ready, aye, ready”. By 1930 we had won our independence. Now we seem to be falling, without thinking things through, into the same sort of allegiance to the US: an automatic “Ready, aye, ready”. Surely a greater independence, and perhaps a closer relationship to our European roots would be preferable. At least, we must think for ourselves.

It has been said of the Americans that the Democrats would give away the farm to the undeserving poor, and the Republicans would give it away to the undeserving rich. We Canadians seem determined to follow the Republicans – or to give our farm away to Walmart. Economic imperialism (by American business interests) rules much of the world, and governments have less and less power. No wonder, then, that there is bitterness and unrest in many places. If “free enterprise” means the freedom of the rich to plunder the poor, we do need to think for ourselves and not just follow the Republicans blindly.

American foreign policy seems to have been captured by three groups: the oil barons, the Zionists who believe that only they have a right to the Holy Land, and those Christian fundamentalists who believe that Armageddon must be fought before Christ comes back to establish his kingdom so the sooner the third world war takes place the better. The teachings of the Old Testament prophets that conquered people should be treated with respect and kindness, and that being God’s chosen people involves a high degree of moral and ethical responsibility are easily forgotten – by Jews and by Christians.

The Holy Land was occupied by Israelites for about 1500 years, from the conquest under Joshua until about 135 A.D., when they were scattered; then by Palestinians until the Zionist movement and the Balfour Declaration (1917). Since 1948 the Israelis (supported by the Americans) have shoved the Palestinians into smaller and smaller impoverished enclaves – much as we Europeans have done with the First Nations of North America. If we admit that the Israelis have oppressed the Palestinians, we must also admit that we have oppressed the Natives in Canada – a difficult admission to make.

On the basis of history then, both Palestinians and Jews have rights to the land, perhaps approximately equal rights. In an ideal situation, it should be possible for the moderates in both camps to work together to control the extremists. But the world is far from ideal.

Back to the matter of drinking water. Air and water have traditionally been freely available to all. They should continue to be freely available. Having to pay for either one can only result in inequality, with some people able to live and others dying of poverty. Both clean air and potable water should be in the public domain, not under individual or corporate or foreign control and therefore subject to exploitation. Nor should they be used as political cudgels.

Tragedy has already struck, with regarding to drinking water. Studies have shown that more than a billion of the world’s people do not have clean drinking water, and that by 2025 A.D. more than two-thirds of the world’s population will experience severe shortages.

We used to take for granted that whenever we used the water in the well it would be automatically restored in all its purity. That day is gone. Some of us have memories long enough to have seen the water tables drop and innumerable wells and brooks and rivers go dry. I have seen it happen in Nova Scotia and in Saskatchewan, and I know the same thing has taken place elsewhere. Desalinization will soon be necessary, and should be planned for. There is lots of water, of course, but it is increasingly seawater, polluted or salty or both.

If we continue to use and misuse our non-renewal resources, the days of the human race will soon come to an end. And if the poverty gap continues to grow, the poor will die first. We will have only ourselves to blame. We have the brains, the ingenuity, the skill, to turn the trends around. A Norwegian patriotic song says, of that northern and mountainous country, “Here is summer sun enough, here is fertile land enough, if only – if only – we have love enough.” Political will is needed.

It has been said that captains of industry seldom plan more than five years ahead. The same is true of politicians wanting to be reelected. Statesmen plan for the more distant future.

Many years ago I learned two aphorisms which I have tried to keep in mind on my way through life. One is: “Of the successful leader it will be said, ‘We did it ourselves’ ”. The other is: “We are so busy doing things to people and doing things for people that we forget to do things with people.”

Some fifty years ago when I was in Saskatchewan the provincial government was concerned about rural life and the rural economy. A series of consultations was organized, with a dozen or more mass meetings throughout the province. I attended the one in Assiniboia, along with several hundred other rural dwellers. In the afternoon we were divided into groups of eight, and each group was asked to list the half dozen most serious problems affecting agriculture and rural life. Over supper the steering committee collated the findings. In the evening we again divided into small groups, and each group was given one of the nine problems most often raised and was asked to try to find answers. (As I remember it, the question most often named was given to fifteen groups, and the ninth question was assigned to six groups.)

I can’t comment on the outcome of the exercise. I merely mention it as a way of “doing things with people”. An alternative might have been to establish a royal commission, with some high priced lawyers and successful business people who had never wielded a pitchfork or operated a combine. And could be counted on not to upset any applecarts.

I have some knowledge of the history of my native country. In Denmark, through most of the18th century, most of the land was in huge estates held by the nobility. Nearly all the peasants were for the first forty-five years of life bound to the estate on which they had been born. But the landowners found that farming was not as profitable as they would have liked, and many wanted to get out of it. Some of them read the French philosophers, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc., calling for opportunities and equality for the common people. The press was gradually given its freedom. And in 1788 (on the eve of the revolution in France) the government issued an edict ending the bondage in which the peasants had been held so they would be able to move freely and take employment where they could find it. At the same time many of the landowners, assisted by government, began to divide the large estates, and to make it possible for the peasants to buy the land at reasonable cost and start farming on their own.

The former peasants now began to take a greater interest in farming, and organized themselves into study groups, cooperatives and agricultural societies. The new opportunities produced optimism and an awakening throughout the country, and people clamoured for further government action to support their hopes and dreams. By the Education Act of 1814 each parish was required to have a school, and every child was required to attend. The Folk School movement sprang up, agricultural colleges were established and trades training was formalized. Literature flourished, and patriotic songs.

People took new pride in their country. In 1849, after much debate the king granted the people a democratic constitution.

Of course there was opposition. King Frederick VII, who died in 1839, is reported to have said, “We alone understand” (using the royal “We”). Many of the nobility bemoaned the loss of their status and power. Belief in “the divine right of kings” had been common throughout Europe. But in northern Europe it was coming to an end.

When barriers were removed and the common people were given the power and encouragement they needed, they rose to the occasion, and the golden age of Danish agriculture and industry began. The people were enabled to act for themselves without having to depend on the leadership of the oligarchy.

Much the same sort of development took place in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. But then the Americans forced/bought a “regime change”.

In Canada today there are many people in bondage – to poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness, poor health, limitations of many kinds. Hundreds of thousands of people who desperately want to be contributing members of society are caught in the poverty trap. 2000 years ago Seneca said that what people needed more than anything else was a hand let down to lift them up. In his time the Roman government was providing the poor with “bread and circuses”. Today we have food banks, which provide food for the body but impoverishment for the spirit.

The poverty gap is growing. One provincial finance minister is reported to have said, some years ago, “What Canada needs is more millionaires”. Well, Canada is getting them, and in the meantime more and more people are living in poverty. We espouse trickle-down economics, but more and more is trickling up. The poor are being squeezed, and if we squeeze a water hose not much water will flow through it. But if we raise the minimum wage and provide true freedom, the poor will take hope and contribute their enthusiasm and their support to society.

Government aid for literacy, I understand, has been cut. How are people to reach their full potential, how can they pull their weight in society, if they cannot learn to read? Many who are illiterate have learning disabilities and need special help. Give them a chance.

There is talk of scrapping the Canadian Wheat Board, despite its support by the great majority of western farmers. Like cooperatives and credit unions, it represents a movement of ordinary people, and a refusal to be dictated to by an oligarchy. Let us not “do things to people”, if we can “do things with people”. Listen to the grass roots.

Reinstate support for the Status of Women. Women do not yet have equality. Some years ago a study showed that taking into consideration time out for child rearing responsibilities, it was reasonable that women should, on the average, earn about 85% of men’s earnings. But in Canada the latest figures I have seen indicate that women working fulltime make less than 70% of men’s earnings. We still have a way to go.

Government efforts to support solar and wind power have been discontinued. We need to support such initiatives, for the sake of clean air and for the development of people. Don’t pay so much attention to the “captains of industry”. They have tunnel vision.

We need a practicable, workable environment policy, one that comes down hard on industry and forces the wealthy to pay their share. Not window dressing. Not cosmetics. Not a vague promise of “pie in the sky” fifty years hence, but results that will be evident in a year or two. Our government needs to recognize the reality of global warming. We are playing with our children’s health and with our grandchildren’s very lives. Of course big industry will object; the positions and wealth of the CEOs and board members depend on the profits they provide the shareholders.

I understand that there is still no avenue of appeal from decisions of Refugee Panels. Those panels are thus the only courts in Canada that have the power to condemn people to death without appeal – by sending them back to their country of origin.

There are tens of thousands of homeless people in our cities and in the rural areas. Many of them have mental or drug problems, or are simply so discouraged that they cannot raise themselves out of their condition. They need shelters, counselling and often medical help.

Strengthen public health care. Economies of scale make it reasonable that care can be given more cheaply under a public system than under a private one. And it is the only way of guaranteeing that everyone has equal access. If we open the door to private health care, we will have a triage system that will cost more and will benefit the oligarchy at the expense of the general public. Negotiate with the provinces to establish a common standard of entitlements across the country. Do what is necessary to make generic drugs available. We Canadians have been shown (in UN surveys) to be far more content with our country than Americans are with theirs. And a major part of the reason is that we are a more caring country and treat the disadvantaged among us better.

It seems to me that in the matter of the environment (and in other areas) the Harper Government has tended to throw out plans made by the Liberals just because they were Liberal plans. I think this is what happened to the Kelowna Accord.

Also, too much attention has been given to the oligarchy. I am far less interested in increasing Canada’s GNP than in securing the highest possible measure of equality for everyone. Is there any reason why any person should need a personal annual income in the millions while other families have less than twenty thousand? Ours is, as Harry

Bruce has said, a “culture of greed”. It is built on the assumption that if we put the sum total of human selfishness in one pot, add water and stir, we will have a gruel that will be maximally nourishing for everyone.

Another danger in listening too much to the millionaires is that they tend to have no appreciation of the reality of the poverty trap, and therefore blame the poor for their poverty. They are out of touch with reality.

I don’t mean to be totally negative. We had to do something about Liberal corruption, and electing a Conservative government seemed to be the only feasible alternative. At long last something is being done to compensate the Chinese Canadians for the headtax. And we are moving to protect our sovereignty in the Arctic. Good and necessary moves.

But we cannot expect the market economy to produce equality of opportunity or to look after the effects of global warming. Human selfishness will trump these goals every time unless government protects the vulnerable.

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