A dangerous virus spreading across the land known as Canada is generating fear amongst corporate executives and government representatives. Contrary to expectation, however, the threat keeping them up at night is not coronavirus.
Rather, it is a growing contagion for which the ruling elites and their parliamentary stooges have always had nothing but contempt: it’s known as democracy.
The virus is not the “vote once every four years for those who will rule over you” kind of democracy. Rather, it’s a grassroots, community-based, decentralized democracy based on people self-organizing, making decisions about their lives and their futures because the system was never designed to represent our voices. No matter who you vote for, government has always acted as a colonial power that engages in perpetual violence against Indigenous nations on behalf of extractive industries and others who make a living off exploitation.
The ongoing puncturing of Canada’s mythology as benevolent and progressive has been a most welcome sight, and the explosion of participatory democracy leading to creative solidarity actions is a phenomenon that cannot be swept back under the rug. Indeed, the federal Liberal regime, its provincial NDP counterpart in B.C. and their state security agencies have been shaken to the core by the occupations, blockades, endless marches and, perhaps most powerful of all, a loving solidarity in which people across the land are prepared to take risks in support of those whose sovereign Indigenous territories were violently invaded, and which remain illegally occupied.
To the horror of those who think they run the show, it has not taken millions marching in the streets to #ShutCanadaDown. Rather, widely scattered, modest-sized groups acting in solidarity have demonstrated how fragile the Canadian state actually is, a lesson that, once learned, cannot be unlearned. As even Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has frankly acknowledged, there just aren’t enough police in this land to watch every inch of railway track.
Hence, when Justin Trudeau says “the blockades must come down,” what he is really saying is that those engaged in such acts need to be inoculated against the virus that was once labeled an “excess of democracy.”
An excess of democracy
It was the very outbreak of participatory politics in the 1960s and 1970s that led the planet’s leading power brokers (including members of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet) to form the Trilateral Commission. Their 1975 report, The Crisis of Democracy, shivered with the conclusion that the social movements forcing real changes in those tumultuous times resulted from an “excess of democracy” that had to be reined in through economic and political austerity (a lowering of expectations) and the elites’ viewpoint that “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups.”
The Trilateral Commission — whose early members also included key Canadian labour leaders no doubt concerned about outbreaks of democracy in their own ranks through actions such as wildcat strikes — was tasked with investigating how to take back power from the social movements (civil rights, women’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation, ecology, anti-war and anti-nuke, Indigenous resistance, poor people’s organizations, etc.). Their conclusion was that the dangers to “democracy” as they defined it — ensuring the smooth functioning of things so that Wall Street and Bay Street were satisfied with returns on investment — come “not primarily from external threats … but rather from the internal dynamics of democracy itself in a highly educated, mobilized and participant society … There are also potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.”
Scholar Holly Sklar succinctly summed up the Trilateral agenda in her book Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management:
“trilateralists are saying: (1) the people, governments and economies of all nations must serve the needs of multinational banks and corporations; (2) control over economic resources spells power in modern politics (of course, good citizens are supposed to believe as they are taught; namely, that political equality exists in Western democracies whatever the degree of economic inequality; and (3) the leaders of capitalist democracies – systems where economic control and profit, and thus political power, rest with the few – must resist movement toward a truly popular democracy.”
While the Trilateral philosophy presupposes “a minimum of social justice and reform will be necessary for stability in the long run” (note the emphasis on “minimum”!), they also admit in their 1975 report that “meeting basic human needs is not necessarily the same as fostering economic development.” A key figure in this group, Zbigniew Brzezinski (later a Carter administration state security advisor), wrote in 1975 that “the new aspirations of the Third and Fourth Worlds united together seems to me to pose a very major threat to the nature of the international system and ultimately to our own societies. That threat is the denial of cooperation.”
When outbreaks of democracy continue to spread, they require a reining in, which is why one of the report’s key authors, Samuel Huntington (an architect of genocide in Vietnam and author of Clash of Civilizations), reminded his readers about the importance of “the legitimacy of hierarchy, coercion, discipline, secrecy and deception — all of which are, in some measure, inescapable attributes of the process of government.”
The great novelist and social critic Aldous Huxley understood these dynamics well, writing in his preface to Brave New World that “a really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and school teachers.”
Repressive new legislation and tactics
During the outbreaks of democracy represented by the anti-nuclear and anti-cruise missile resistance of the early 1980s, the RCMP was incredulous that spontaneous protests were popping up across the land, and their search for a Soviet cell coordinating the whole movement was as fruitless as it was ridiculous. Fast forward to the uprisings of 2020 and we have the likes of Jason Kenney, Justin Trudeau and John Horgan parroting the same notion that the Indigenous rights movement has been “hijacked” by outsiders with evil intent.
To deal with their fears, Kenney introduced a draconian piece of legislation this week design to tamp down outbreaks of democracy in Alberta. Modeled after the notorious Chrétien-era Anti-Terrorism Act and the equally sinister C-51 of the Harper era (supported by the Trudeau Liberals), the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act is a piece of carte blanche legislation for the extractive industries, criminalizing anyone who might interfere with the so-called “economic security” of the country by interfering with “essential infrastructure,” which is defined in the bill as, among other things: “a controlled area, installation, manufacturing plant, marketing plant, pipeline, processing plant, refinery, road or road allowance as defined in the Pipeline Act; (ii) a heavy oil site, mine, oil production site, oil sands site, pit, private utility, privately owned development, quarry, storm drainage system, telecommunication line, transmission line, waste management facility, wastewater system, watercourse or waterworks system as defined in the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.” Other pieces of “essential” infrastructure include highways, railways, urban transit systems, hydro developments, agricultural operations, coal processing plants, oil sands processing plants, and dams.
Hence, pretty much everything that is destructive for the planet and our future is defined in the proposed legislation as essential to our future, and anyone who enters onto or into any of these pieces of infrastructure (say, to hold up a banner) will be subject, upon conviction, to fines of up to $10,000 and six months in jail for a first offence, and a fine of up to $25,000 and another six months in jail for a second conviction. According to the bill, one is not allowed to “obstruct, interrupt, or interfere with the construction, maintenance, use or operation of any essential infrastructure in a manner that renders the essential infrastructure dangerous, useless, inoperative or ineffective.”
Those caught in this legislation are not only direct participants in peaceful acts of resistance and solidarity. It also criminalizes advocacy and support for such actions, as “No person shall aid, counsel or direct another person to commit an offence under subsection (1), (2) or (3), whether or not the other person actually commits the offence.”
Hence, a Facebook posting suggesting a banner drop at a tarsands facility — even if that banner drop does not occur — is captured here as criminal conduct.
In an attempt to go after incorporated environmental and Indigenous rights groups, the legislation also suggests fines of up to $200,000, declaring: “Where a corporation commits an offence under subsection (1), any officer, director or agent of the corporation who directed, authorized, assented to, acquiesced in or participated in the commission of the offence is guilty of that offence and liable to the penalty provided for the offence, whether or not the corporation has been prosecuted for or convicted of that offence.” Notably, each day that a contravention of the legislation occurs “constitutes a separate offence.”
Solidarity stronger than fear
While civil liberties groups no doubt look forward to challenging this over-the-top legislation, its intended effect for now is to scare off those who were thinking of refusing the vaccine that prevents an “excess of democracy.” In the same way that the original anti-terrorism act was designed as a lever to allow CSIS and the RCMP to spread fear and compliance in targeted communities, Kenney’s new legislation is designed to do similar damage long before it even makes it to the committee room.
In the meantime, Kenney and his ilk are quite right in declaring, with a certain sense of horror, that all of these solidarity actions are just a dress rehearsal for a future in which governments try to ram through the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, Line 3, Site C, Gull Island (the sequel to Muskrat Falls), Coastal GasLink, LNG Canada, Keeyask dam and other similarly destructive projects that have not received free, prior and informed consent of all Indigenous peoples affected. Indeed, the Canadian state’s ultimate fragility in the face of outbreaks of democracy has been well and truly exposed, and it will be impossible for corporations and their government representatives to undo the liberation that has been unleashed.
Ultimately, many folks holding down space on railway lines, highways, government offices and elsewhere, whether for the first time or the tenth, are no doubt feeling something that Susan Sontag remarked upon during the 1960s: “Anyone who has ever experienced a reprieve, however brief, from the inhibitions on love and trust that society imposes on us is never quite the same.”
Doing the work of real democracy builds love and trust, and those who experience this are, as Sontag points out, never quite the same. And that’s a power greater than all of the resources behind the Mounties, CSIS, Trudeau, Horgan, Kenney, their illegal court injunctions and their armoured vehicles, their threats of charges and jail time, and their stern lectures about the rule of law.
Here’s to the “excess of democracy” virus. May we all catch it and spread it widely.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.