Think all stimulus is good stimulus? Not so fast

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The Left in Canada has been quick to point out the shortcomings of the Conservative government's official response to the recession. Not surprisingly, the response doesn't mark a departure from their knee-jerk pro-capital and anti-worker reflexes.

Critics have rightly stressed the small size of the stimulus plan; that a significant chunk of the supposed stimulus (50 per cent) is actually tax breaks, and thus not really stimulus; that the Tories failed to revamp Employment Insurance rules beyond temporarily extending the length of time a person can receive benefits to a mere 50 weeks, even though less than 40 per cent of the unemployed actually qualify for benefits and the most a person can receive is a meagre 55 per cent of their wages (capped at $447/week); and that bailout spending, such as that in the auto sector, is being used to roll back working-class living standards and job security that had been built up over a half century of struggle.

These are indeed serious problems with the way in which the Conservatives, with the largely uncritical support of the Liberals, are addressing the economic crisis: putting the needs of capital ahead of the social needs of Canadians.

But we have to be very careful on the Left about how we advance our criticism of the government's strategy. As the recession deepens into the worst global downturn since the Great Depression people will quite rightly demand more from their government. Calls will be made for the government to spend more and create good jobs for people. And organizations of the Left will play a central role articulating those demands and mobilizing people for the inevitable struggle that will be necessary for the demands to become actual policy.

However, the government's response to the recession has a sharply colonial dynamic to it. And if we aren't cognizant of this dynamic we risk reproducing it in our efforts to build an alternative way of dealing with the crisis. The fight for a more socially just Canada will be an anti-colonial struggle in support of indigenous rights, or it won't be at all.

Exploiting fear

The Conservative government's goal in this recession is clear: exploit the scale of the crisis and the fear and uncertainty it's instilled in people to intensify an agenda it and business leaders would otherwise have to approach more modestly. The attack on auto workers is a good example of this; the expansion of capitalism into indigenous territories is as well.

Indigenous land and resources are central to Canadian capitalism, plain and simple. Reports written by Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Natural Resources Canada and various industry organizations make this point plain enough. Most of the mines being explored or dug, oil deposits being developed, pipelines being constructed and hydro-dams imposed on the landscape are on or adjacent to – and thus impact – indigenous territory. All these resources and other industrial developments besides, furthermore, require infrastructural investments, such as roadways or electricity grids, in order to be operationalized, putting even more pressure on First Nation lands.

The otherwise relentless growth of a capitalism steamrolling any obstacle in its path to making profits has been kept in check in Canada, to some degree, by the efforts of First Nations to defend their land. In some instances they've directly stopped developments, while their cumulative struggle over decades, along with environmental campaigning, has led to an oversight system, however very imperfect, of environmental assessments and consultations with indigenous communities, which has slowed the pace of development down somewhat.

These oversights, derided by industry organizations and the Harper Tories as nothing more than “red tape,” have long been viewed by these same critics as a barrier to corporate profitability. The economic crisis has given the Tories and business leaders new ammunition to mount a frontal assault on these policies, while stepping up and expediting infrastructure funding that clearly impacts First Nations.

Cutting “Red Tape”

Infrastructure spending is obviously an important component of the Conservative government's 2009 post-financial-meltdown budget. Canada had already committed $33-billion over several years toward infrastructure development in November 2007 with the Building Canada fund. With the additional money earmarked in the new budget, they're planning $18-billion of infrastructural spending in the next two years.

The government's goal is to fast track new projects and those already planned, arguing that this is necessary in order to keep the recession from worsening. According to Infrastructure Canada, the government “has an opportunity [i.e. peoples' well-grounded fear of recession] to modernize its federal reviews by cutting red tape and increasing federal-provincial cooperation” (emphasis added). Things need to move quickly, in other words, and efficiency (spending lots of money minus meaningful oversight) equals progress.

As part of the effort to expedite spending, the government plans on “overhauling” – in the words of Environment Minister, Jim Prentice – the Environmental Assessment Act. While full details of the government plans haven't been released, a leaked government document reveals a goal of cutting reviews by as much as 95 percent.

Infrastructure Canada says the government is planning a “dramatic reduction in the number of federal assessments and regulatory reviews,” adding, to assuage those who might question the wisdom of such a move, that the cuts will be done “without compromising environmental protection.”

Prentice also announced, at a Calgary business luncheon in mid-March, the Tories' plan to simply waive environmental reviews for favoured public projects for the next two years. The waivers will be made regardless of the size of the project.

How fewer reviews or weakened (or “modernized,” as they like to suggest) environmental policy won't compromise the environment and those indigenous communities that rely on it for cultural and material sustenance is a mystery. Tory wizardry, perhaps. After all, this is the government that can apparently turn water into wine: making a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia about improving human rights in the troubled Andean nation, helping the poor by cutting taxes, or supporting immigrants' rights by concentrating arbitrary power in the hands of the Minister of Immigration.

Ottawa claims that it can rely on provincial assessments, but the provinces have different criteria and standards than their federal counterpart. As critics point out, provincial standards in environmental reviews are themselves not necessarily that reliable.

In B.C., for instance, indigenous groups have long criticized the provincial government's assessment process as biased in favour of business interests. Moreover, the Ontario Liberal government announced in 2008 in its Open for Business: Guide to Reduce the Burden, that it's cutting regulations in every ministry by 25 percent. Like the federal Tories, the Ontario Liberals describe the rollback as “modernization.” At a time when the condition of our environment is rapidly deteriorating and indigenous land claims continue to grow, reviews should be strengthened not weakened.

Environment Canada's response to a scientific study it commissioned on protecting the endangered woodland-caribou – an important part of the livelihood of many indigenous communities – makes crystal clear the government's priorities. Released in early April of this year, the study, conducted by leading woodland-caribou scientists, recommends tightly controlling development in approximately half of Canada's northern boreal forest. But Environment Canada suggests the science in the study is inadequate, and doesn't offer sufficient information on how much development can be pursued without undermining the sustainability of caribou herds.

Instead of acting on the report, it says it will study the issue further until the end of 2010. Much of the woodland-caribou's habitat is sought after by logging, mining and oil and gas companies. Thus even when a serious scientific study is undertaken, Environment Canada simply ignores conclusions that don't fit with the agenda of the resource industry.

Infrastructure spending: More money, more colonialism

A cursory glance at some of the government's recent infrastructure spending plans – some made before the crisis but likely expedited as a result of it – offers us a clear picture of how stimulus spending will be implicated in the expansion of the domestic Canadian colonial project.

Infrastructure Canada and the B.C. government, for instance, are committing over $115-million to the expansion of a number of sections of Highway 97 in British Columbia. Both levels of government and the Northwest Corridor Corporation, which includes among its members municipal and provincial governments and private companies, tout the expansion as crucial to the economic development of the region.

The expansion is aimed at making the 97 a key part of the corridor linking up NAFTA trade flow through Manitoba with B.C.'s Pacific ports (which are also slated to receive federal funds). Making the 97 a major industrial transit way is also expected to spur further developments in the mining and oil and gas industries in the province, cited as key to the latter's economic future by both levels of government and the Northwest Corridor Corporation. Two major pipelines, the Northern Gateway and the Pacific Trails, are in fact being planned for B.C., both of which will cross unceded indigenous land.

A number of indigenous communities are located along or near the various Highway 97 expansion points and in areas resource corporations are hoping to develop with help from infrastructural enhancements. While some First Nations are supportive of oil and gas and mineral development, hoping for a piece of the pie, others are less enamoured by it. In a 2004 press release, the Treaty 8 First Nations, located in northern B.C., declared that “oil and gas development as currently practiced has an unacceptable adverse impact on wildlife, and on the exercise of traditional hunting and fishing rights through environmental degradation.” They also noted “the failure of the government to require cumulative impact assessments in advance of oil and gas development,” which “infringes on our Treaty and Aboriginal Rights.”

The Blueberry River First Nation, a Treaty 8 member, launched a lawsuit in 2003 against the B.C. government and Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., demanding redress for gas-related illnesses suffered by community members and a halt to all development activities within 10 kilometres of its reserve.

In another example of the colonial character of infrastructure spending, Infrastructure Canada and Quebec are committing funds to the expansion of Highway 30. But in order to undertake the project Quebec plans to appropriate mainly agricultural land on unceded Mohawk territory along Montreal's South Shore.

The plan evoked a strong response from the Kahnawake community, including a threat to blockade the Mercier Bridge, invoking memories of the Oka Revolt when Mohawk Warriors shut the bridge (which runs through Mohawk territory) down after the Suretée du Québec attacked a blockade in nearby Kanehsatake. In the face of potential unrest surrounding Highway 30, the province promised to work with the federal government to provide new crown land as compensation for the appropriation.

While the province's offer appeased the Kahnawake Band Council (Band Councils are the colonially-imposed leaderships officially recognized by the federal and provincial governments), which quickly called off protests, not all community members are happy with it. The Mohawk Traditional Council has opposed the appropriation, asserting that the province has no right to take their land, which is used by the community for hunting and planting. Local farmers, who also face displacement because of the project, have opposed the expansion as well.

Mackenzie pipeline plans

This past January Ottawa also offered financial assistance to the controversial Mackenzie Valley pipeline project. The offer was announced by none other than Jim Prentice (apparently funding pipelines is a matter for the minister responsible for protecting the environment) during a meeting with oil company executives. The amount of the offer hasn't been disclosed, but one industry observer estimated it could potentially be as high as $2-billion.

The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline is the largest infrastructural project in Canadian history, with a cost estimated at $16.2-billion and rising. Some indigenous communities have come on board in the desperate hope that it will provide First Nations with meaningful financial benefits without long-term destruction of the surrounding environment. But it continues to face opposition from indigenous activists and communities not sold on the benefits of a pipeline to their cultures and traditional territories.

A dream of government and the oil and gas industries going back decades, the pipeline is expected to spur significant growth in oil and gas and mineral exploration along its route, all of which will inevitably impact First Nation lands in and beyond the Mackenzie Valley delta. As Prentice observed when he announced funding for the pipeline, “it opens up a whole region of the country.”

The comment is both racist and telling of the goals of government and industry. It suggests the Mackenzie Valley and the lands adjacent to it are some sort of frontier that have been closed off to people, when in fact indigenous communities have been living there, and interacting with the surrounding environment, for thousands of years. It's only “opening up” the region to large-scale resource development by corporations.

The project has been slowed down by an environmental review and indigenous opposition. But with the recession worsening and the government throwing potentially billions of dollars into the pipeline, the push is on to cut the indigenous “red tape” and get the project going. True to form, Prentice followed up the funding announcement two months later with an attack on the project's review panel in a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

And to be absolutely clear, spending commitments for First Nations made in the budget don't make up for the government's continued colonial assault. At $1.4-billion, the Tory spending promise (and just a promise at this point) is just over one-fifth of what was promised by the Liberal government in the 2005 Kelowna Accord, which itself was not a firm commitment on the spending and still wouldn't have gone far enough to improve living conditions in indigenous communities let alone repay these communities for all the wealth that has been made off of them over the last 150 years through the stealing of resources, the forced labour of children in residential schools or the corrupt practices of Indian Affairs.

The Tories quickly scrapped the Kelowna Accord after their election in 2006, and now three years later they present a spending plan that doesn't come remotely close to dealing with the poverty, housing shortage and health needs in First Nation communities.

Which side are we on?

The Left needs to respond to the economic crisis and the Tory recession plan carefully and responsibly. Simply calling for more stimulus spending and job creation, without consideration of the impact this may have on indigenous communities, isn't good enough.

Indigenous demands for self-determination and protection of their cultures and lands must be central to how the Left organizes in this crisis and to what it envisions for a more socially just Canada. We have to be prepared to take leadership from indigenous activists not in the pocket of government and corporations, while making the arguments with non-indigenous people desiring change that the development of a meaningful anti-recession strategy can't come at the expense of First Nations.

In times of economic crisis racism and xenophobia tend to rise, and governments and business leaders are certainly not above playing these things up and exploiting them to advance their agendas. We've already seen large-scale immigration raids at workplaces in the Greater Toronto Area this April.

Anti-indigenous racism is quite strong in Canada in the best of economic times, and as economic instability grows it could intensify. The Left has to be strident in its anti-racism, and must make its fight against the government's and business's reactionary response to the recession an anti-colonial one. Only then will we be on the right path to a more socially just future.


Todd Gordon is the author of Cops, Crime and Capitalism: The Law-and-Order Agenda in Canada. He's currently writing a book on Canadian imperialism. His articles have appeared on rabble, Znet, The Bullet and in New Socialist magazine. He is an assistant professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, and can be reached at ts.gordon[at]utoronto[dot]ca. This article is reprinted with permission from The Bullet.

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