The forgotten democratic vote for sustainable transit

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"If we do not define citizenship, others will do it for us."
- Participant at the Do It Yourself Citizenship Conference
University of Toronto, Nov. 13, 2010

Citizenship is defined as "a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it." Hilarious. I do need protection from my government, but I am not sure that I owe any allegiance to it in its current unconstitutional manifestation.

My preferred definition of citizenship is "working towards the betterment of the community one lives in through participation, volunteer work and efforts to improve life for all," but what do you do when the process of public consultation and rising tide of conservatism works to confuse, weaken and defeat you? Federally, provincially, municipally, this has been one bad week.

I presented my personal air monitoring station, designed to expose the false baseline data underlying projected air quality exceedances in Toronto's transit board Metrolinx's environmental assessment of the Georgetown South Service Expansion and Air Rail Link, at the Do It Yourself Citizenship Conference at the University of Toronto from Nov. 11th to 14th. 

Sponsored by the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto, it was an jam-packed, erudite conference, organized by professors Matt Ratto and Megan Boler which pulled together some of the finest new media scholars to discuss how citizens have created their own forms of self-expression through e-government, remix culture, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and participatory media campaigns, such as the Rally to Restore Sanity, as a tactical compendium for an ingenious critique of our, American and Canadian, increasingly rightwing regimes. Canada gets P.M. Stephen Harper, and Toronto, Mayor-elect Rob Ford, and the U.S. gets Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party -- a tragicomedy about to played out on both sides of the border.

I asked myself what happens when the government is deliberately so disconnected from the political will of its voters that is no longer representative of their best interest, thus morally culpable, and I did not have to look very far.

As Canada moves from a manufacturing economy to an extraction economy, and the Internet perfects surveillance of personal data through clickprints, "dataveillance," it enables the shrewd and rapacious culling and selling of our data by third party collection companies to government agencies. Similarly, Geographical Information Systems enable detailed mapping for extraction locations for our natural resources.

Our online identity, through social media and email, is monitored through the clickstream of our Internet searches, as well as our natural resources. Intellectual property, social identity, air, water and land are being mapped, mined, and readied for monetization and corporate profit. Neither the privacy commissioner nor the federal court have policies which are able to keep pace with this invasion of privacy, and assumption of privilege, by the data mining companies, as well as the rapid itemization of assets by extraction companies -- mining, water, oil and natural gas -- of our commons at civil society's expense.

During the DIY Citizenship Conference, Sara Wylie, co-founder of ExtrAct, developed at the MIT Centre for Future Civic Media, presented a textured GIS map of icons marking the location of natural gas wells throughout the U.S., and discussed their satellite connectivity, which streamlines rapid extraction through data flow. This map of gas well locations is so dense, it crashes Google.

As part of this project, the LandMan Report Card aggregates user-generated intelligence through civic engagement, in which landowners recount the sales pitch by itinerant landmen, who try to convince them to open their land to natural gas mining using hydraulic fracturing, which forces poisonous chemicals into the shale to fracture it, and release gas from its pockets. These tactical information systems, the LandMan Report Card, social networking, and the gas well map, enable landowners to communicate, document and warn others. A superb, and very important, documentary about this is Gasland, directed by Josh Fox, which forewarns us about government policy allowing "fracking" on the Canadian east coast for shale reserves.

Since Bruce Mau's exhibition Massive Change, I have foreseen that every square centimetre of our commons will be monetized, as if an invisible grid has been placed over the world, assigning value, partitioning assets and superseding our natural rights to a clean, healthy environment, and our private right to research and connect. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms no longer protects any of these commons as our natural right, and federal policies controlling corporate extraction and environmental practices lag far behind the imposition of this intrusive data mining and surveying technology. Our commons, intellectual, cultural and physical -- all is on the auctioneer's block, and Ron Diebert of the Citizen Lab is fighting to maintain net neutrality to ward off this impending fragmentation of the Net and the monitoring of grassroots democracy.

Corporations are rapidly taking advantage of this slippage between policy and technology, and our ability to fight back is being undercut by the prime minister. On Nov. 16th, the Climate Accountability Act, Bill C-311, was defeated by the senate by a snap vote of 43 to 32, held when opposing members were absent. This unelected senate, padded by Harper with his Conservative allies during his second prorogation, is a further indignity to democratic process. David Suzuki has launched a letter-writing campaign protesting this unfair senate vote -- see here, and is trying to reach 15,000 letters to MPs.

The tactics of Harper are clear -- if you cannot repeatedly defeat a bill with multiple readings, all of which have passed soundly, ensure the House is empty of its supporters during its final passing. Bill C-311 was Canada's only offering for the Cancun climate change summit, due to take place on Nov. 29th, and it is no longer on the table.

Under no circumstances does Canada want to stand in the way of the development of the tar sands, as Canadian oil sands giants, Suncor and Syncrude, are allowed to pay royalties based on a bitumen price that is half of what all other producers pay, while continuing to externalize the cost downstream to Chippewyan communities through high cancer rates. There is no corporate cost for destroying the Boreal forest and the Athabasca River, except for the superficial planting of wild plants on the defunct tailings ponds. This area in northern Alberta will be left as a bruise on the earth, visible by satellite, for generations to come.

Meanwhile, outside my window in Ward 18, Metrolinx has commissioned 18 Tier-4 diesel trains from Japan for the Air Rail Link, piggybacking on the Sumitomo bid in Sonoma, Marin, to provide a premium -- read exclusive -- service to Pearson. These trains will not resolve issues of noise, pollution or vibration, as Tier 4 emits four times the nitrous oxides and twice the greenhouse gases of equivalent automobiles, nor will they provide service to the communities they disturb. The noise and vibration of these necessitates the building of 10 km of 5.5-metre walls as noise barriers, which were not included under visual impacts in the report.

Provincially, the $4 million electrification study is being ignored by Metrolinx in favour of buying these diesel trains before the study is completed, or considered. To her credit, the newly-elected, Liberal-backed councilor, Ana Bailao, supports the Clean Train Coalition and the residents of our communities for electric trains, despite the position of Metrolinx and the provincial Liberals. And in these hard economic times, why are we buying diesel trains from Japan, when Quebec-based Bombardier makes topflight electric trains?

Our west-end communities, with Weston leading the way, have advocated for electric trains from the provincial Liberals for over five years, transit that the rest of the developed world takes as a matter of course, and yet Metrolinx is forcing through diesel trains, which will actually work against commercial and residential development by necessitating large buffer zones.

When I attended the charrette for the design of the Junction Triangle, Castlepoint, who is redeveloping and remediating the lands of the Tower Automotive site, is forced to use parking structures and commercial office space as physical noise, vibration and sound buffers to the Georgetown corridor. With electric trains, much more of this real estate would usable for habitation and work. Castlepoint has the ear of Metrolinx -- it seems to me that a fair trade off would be a tariff for developers going toward building electric trains in the Junction Triangle, an excellent suggestion for Premier Dalton McGuinty, thus releasing this land from dead zones, and the cul-de-sac view of concrete walls.

As Rob Fairley, a member of the Clean Train Coalition and a resident of Parkdale, said to Metrolinx's board of directors meeting on Nov. 16th, during which they voted in favour of the Tier 4 trains, "We want electric trains, not diesel trails. We're not here to disrupt the meeting, we just want to make sure you know where the community stands."

Politely, with only 12 seats available in the back row of the boardroom, advocates for electric trains stood at the back, cycling every two or three minutes to change our guard, so that we could all take turns to bear witness to the botchery of Metrolinx's public consultation and moot electrification study.

Do-it-yourself citizenship? Ward 18 has produced documentaries, "Bending the Rails" by Jeff Winch, site installations for Nuit Blanche, Rail of Light by Jeff Winch and Richard Mongiat, anthems, "Go Electric" by Rob and Soli Joy, and marches, the Clean Air for Little Lungs Stroller Parade, and the Human Train, and a white elephant performance piece showing the next $1.3 billion abuse of taxpayers' funds after the G20 -- but our consultation, peaceful protests, and our electrification study have been shoved aside by the self-imposed need to make the Pan Am Games deadline.

What do 300,000 citizens do next, when the process is stacked against do-it-yourself civic intervention, and their health is put at risk, to prioritize dirty, diesel trains for a two-week sporting extravaganza, touting itself as "green," when buses would be just fine for the athletes?

As Adlai E. Stevenson said, "As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end." Not in Canada, despite all our do-it-yourself citizenship supporting our commitment, through advocacy and research, to build an electric transit system in our west-end communities.

To the organizers of the DIY Citizenship Conference, thank you for an extraordinary experience. I suggest that the next conference be entitled ‘How to Build a Civil Society', as it is clear that Canada has forgotten to include us in its democratic vote for sustainable transit.

Co-curator and contributing blogger for The Real G8/G20, Elizabeth Littlejohn blogs at Railroaded by Metrolinx

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