We’ve now had a week to reflect on the Harper Conservative government’s passage of the sprawling omnibus Bill C-38.
This mega bill, checking in at well over 400 pages in length, was ostensibly the budget implementation bill. In reality, it went way beyond budget matters.
Despite its bland, innocuous name – the “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act” – this Bill represents a grave threat on many levels, a manifestation of Stephen Harper’s ambitious, wide-ranging agenda.
The implications of this omnibus bill are ominous and enormous, especially when it comes to the myriad ways the bill slashes provisions designed to safeguard the environment. For instance, the bill guts the environmental review aprocess, which means less scrutiny and faster approval for industrial mega-projects. C-38 also makes significant and harmful changes to the Fisheries Act; UBC zoology professor Eric Taylor says, “It’s going to remove freshwater protection for most fishes in Canada.”
Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader who represents the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, put up a fierce fight within Parliament against this destructive bill. Ms. May presented a list of hundreds of amendments to the bill, forcing an around-the-clock ‘vote-a-thon’ last week, with Members of Parliament staying up through the night to be counted in standing votes on all of Bill C-38’s many provisions.
Within the House of Commons, then, the opposition was able to provide some mildly satisfying political theatre, highlighting both the tragedy and the farce that Bill C-38 represents.
When the marathon voting session ended, the NDP Official Opposition caucus broke out into chants of “2015! 2015! 2015!” – a reference to the likely date of a next general election. Their message: Harper can bully his bill and his agenda through now, but the people of Canada will eventually punish him at the ballot box.
Thoughts of ousting Harper in 2015 are well and good, but not nearly sufficient at this perilous moment for democracy and social justice in Canada. Given Bill C-38 and the events of the past few months – think about the “robocalls” scandal and the F-35 cost fiasco, for starters – nothing less than an unprecedented mass movement in the streets will suffice to push back and change the correlation of forces in political life in this country.
The rapid spread of protest actions – both with the Occupy encampments last fall, and the Casseroles in solidarity in Quebec these past weeks – illustrates, I think, a yearning for unity and mobilization amongst everyone opposed to Harper and the corporate agenda. It’s been incredibly inspiring to watch, for example, how quickly the idea of ‘Casseroles Night in Canada’ spread. These moments are signs that there is a hunger for real, substantive change.
The experiences of Occupy and the Casseroles, however, have also revealed the limits of our capacities at present. Mobilizations spread quickly, but participation is fickle and large protests fleeting – this is inevitable without the backing and active support of big organizations, and without widespread politicization in general.
The strength of Quebec’s student and social movements has been built up over years of base-building, and exist in the context of a much more developed progressive political culture than the rest of Canada. To admit this is not to give up, but rather to take a longer-term perspective to the task at hand – it’s a war of position, not an insurrection.
I can’t wait to hear 100,000 pots and pans clanging on Parliament Hill, but I know it’s not going to happen next week, or even next month. To begin to think about how to get there, we might do well to look more closely at the course being encouraged by CLASSE, the largest of the three major students unions leading the strike in Quebec.
CLASSE, cognisant of the fact that for all their determination students cannot win this fight with an intransigent government on their own, is calling on the labour movement and all of Quebec civil society to carry out a ‘social strike’ against the Charest government. Here’s how they describe the concept of a social strike, in an appeal first translated by rabble.ca:
“We are calling for a convergence of the Quebec people as a whole in opposition to the cutbacks and the commoditization of social services and our collective rights… We must build this social strike from the bottom up, by initiating a discussion in the workplaces on how to desert our day-to-day occupations. Let us call for general meetings in our local unions to discuss the possibility of instituting such a strike. Let us contact the community groups in our neighborhoods, to hold citizens’ assemblies on the social strike. These assemblies are the expression of our capacity to deliberate together and to build a movement that goes beyond the limits established by the elite…”
One of the key battlegrounds in the war of position against Harper’s agenda is the effort to stop the proposed pipelines across Indigenous land in British Columbia.
The Harper government has made no secret of the fact that a lot of the measures contained in Bill C-38 rolling back environmental protections were designed to ease the way for the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects.
I recently joined colleague David P. Ball to interview the President of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, on Vancouver Co-op Radio. He made it clear that among other things, Bill C-38 was also an attack against Indigenous peoples whose land these pipelines plan to cross:
“Considering the lack of benefits, and the tremendous risk attached to these projects with respect to oil spills, tanker spills along the coast, the Taseko mine [the proposed New Prosperity Mine near Williams Lake, in Tsilhqot’in territory] poisoning the river systems … many of these projects, if not all of them, jeopardize the wild salmon industry in British Columbia. British Columbians need to take a very hard look at what Bill C-38 represents, and to take a very public stand to continue expressing their vehement opposition to this type of legislative agenda.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip concluded:
“Now, more than ever, we need to rise up and come together to defend the legacy that we will leave our children and grandchildren. The challenge has been brought down by the Harper government, and we need to respond.”
The forces pushing the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines are strong and have endlessly deep pockets – and full control of the Canadian government at present. To defeat the Harper/Big Oil agenda pushing these pipelines will require something like the social strike called for by Quebec students. Assembling such a coalition requires a long-term, intelligent and creative approach.
We all have to rise up to meet this challenge. If we can get our act together, Harper’s Bill C-38 and his corporate agenda, in the long-run, will be no match for a united and powerful people’s movement.
The poet Shelley wrote, “O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
A Canadian Spring is long overdue, and it’s up to us to make the political seasons change.
An earlier version of this article was first published in The Source / La Source, a bilingual Vancouver newspaper.