July 2013 Archives


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Well, thanks for asking.

The latest news from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency might offer a clue. More than a year ago, having made no progress at the table, we applied for a Public Interest Commission (PIC) to be set up to try to bring the two sides together.

PICs take up a fair bit of time. This one began its deliberations in May 2012, and finished them only this past May—a year later. But a consensus for making their non-binding recommendations for settlement had been reached.

Then the employer representative decided to change his mind.

In the PIC report, issued on July 25, the PIC Chair scolded the employer side:

“It does not assist the process when one party backtracks from earlier agreements,” Lorne Slotnick, a respected mediator and arbitrator, wrote as the three-member panel released its recommendations, including a dissent from Andrew Tremayne, the member representing the CFIA.


It’s already been nineteen months since the last contract expired. The next step would be to get back to the bargaining table, with a weak and divided report, and try to move ahead for the members.

But even that may not be a certainty. Consider what happened to the FB group, our border security members. In that case, the PIC was relatively speedy: it met in December of last year, and issued its report on June 5.

But the next day the government announced, as it had been threatening to do well before the PIC report was issued, that it would seek a forced vote by the FB members on what was pretty much its original offer. Treasury Board flatly refused our request to return to the bargaining table to discuss the contents of the report. Six months went right down the spout.

This was a direct attack on the entire collective bargaining process, so we’ve had to go to court to fight it. The case is being heard today: in the unlikely event that we are unsuccessful, the imposed vote would begin on the 15th of August.

Meanwhile, the Correctional Officers, after a staggering 38 months of negotiations, have signed a tentative agreement with Treasury Board—but its terms are to be kept secret until 5:00pm August 16th, two working days after the FB vote commences. That agreement contains, we are told, “significant improvements to [CX] working conditions despite a difficult political and economic environment.” Could it be that it contains better provisions than what TB is hoping to impose upon our FB group with its forced vote?

Then there’s our Technical Services (TC) group. Their PIC report was released in January. It, too, contained a minority report from the employer side, after a consensus had supposedly been reached earlier. Treasury Board announced that it wasn’t ready to return to the bargaining table. Then, at long last, they agreed to meet—this week.

Finally, check out what’s happening with our sister union, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO). After no movement from the employer for many months, PAFSO suggested binding arbitration.

OK, said Tony Clement, President of Treasury Board—but we have six preconditions.

PAFSO accepted two of the six, but the others included a provision that the union would not be allowed to put its key issue before the arbitrator, wage parity with those doing similar work on the public service.

The president of PAFSO, Tim Edwards, rightly pointed out: “It’s like being invited to a poker game, and your host says, ‘Oh, but I get to start with three aces in my hand.’”

So PAFSO balked, and then Clement rejected binding arbitration.

Still wondering why it’s taking so long to put a contract in your hands?

Now: there’s another point to make, and it’s going to sound like preaching, but here goes.

Collective bargaining isn’t based upon who has the better arguments at the negotiation table. Nor does its outcome have anything to do with whose negotiator has more impressive rhetorical abilities. To be blunt, it’s about power. Without the demonstrated support of the membership, a bargaining team has little or no power, and neither does a negotiator, no matter how skilled.

So when I hear folks complaining that “the union” hasn’t delivered them a good contract, I get more than a little frustrated. The union is, first and foremost, our members. Organized demonstrations of solidarity from the grassroots transfer power to the team, and that, in turn, has its positive effects at the table.

You pay your dues for a host of services and a pile of expertise, but you can’t buy a decent contract with them—that takes a show of collective strength. Want a reasonable, timely collective agreement? Then get involved! Because if the other side doesn’t hear from you, they’ll be that much less interested in hearing from your representatives at the table.

As you’ve just been seeing for yourself.

That’s a tough truth, but, given what we’re up against with the Harper government’s flat-out assault on the collective bargaining process and indeed on unions themselves, it needs to be bluntly stated. Go have a chat with your Local steward, or a member of your Local Executive, and find out how you can help and what you can do. Or call your Component or your PSAC regional office. Because the big contracts are coming due next year, just before the 2015 federal election—and believe me, a hard rain’s going to fall.

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Le fait que les autorités canadiennes se sont servi d'enfants des Premières Nations comme cobayes dans les années 1940 et 1950 est une histoire d'horreur, que rendent encore plus effroyable les parallèles inquiétants entre cette époque et la nôtre.

L'étude signée par Ian Mosby, un spécialiste de l'histoire de l'alimentation, donne la chair de poule. D'abord, parce qu'elle décrit les régimes expérimentaux imposés à des enfants autochtones, dont certains ont été maintenus dans un état de malnutrition chronique leur causant des problèmes de santé comme la carie dentaire et l'anémie. Ensuite, parce qu'elle met en lumière la mentalité et les attitudes qui ont ouvert la porte à cette aberration.

Il est facile pour les puissants d'oublier que les personnes qu'ils ont colonisées, racialisées et appauvries ou celles dont les handicaps les rendent plus vulnérables aux sévices sont des êtres humains à part entière. Elles deviennent des commodités à leur service : main-d'œuvre bon marché, voire esclaves... ou cobayes. Les exemples déchirants pullulent; ils sont loin de se limiter aux épouvantables expériences médicales des Nazis et des Japonais, mieux connues que les autres.

Si vous pensez que ces actes de barbarie ont disparu après la Seconde Guerre mondiale, détrompez-vous. Comme l'indique Ian Mosby, le nombre d'expériences menées sur des sujets humains sans leur consentement a augmenté après la guerre. À titre d'exemple, l'équipe de chercheurs américains de la Tuskagee Experiment a suivi des hommes noirs indigents atteints de syphilis pendant des décennies, sans se préoccuper de la détérioration de leur santé, même si des antibiotiques efficaces auraient pu les guérir dans les années 1940. Il a fallu attendre 1972  pour qu'on mette un terme à l'étude. En 1971, une clinique américaine de planning des naissances a mené une étude honteuse auprès de clientes pauvres d'origine mexicaine ayant besoin de contraceptifs. La clinique leur a fourni un placebo, ce qui a entraîné de nombreuses grossesses indésirées.

Force est donc de constater que les expériences canadiennes n'ont malheureusement rien de bien original. Ce qui ne les rend pas moins effrayantes, comme le montre ce qui suit.

C'est un fait : au début, les autorités gouvernementales, médicales et scientifiques du pays se préoccupaient de la faim et de la malnutrition qui sévissaient chez les Autocthones. Mais, comme l'explique Ian Mosby, ils ont vite succombé à la tentation de faire des Autochtones des sujets expérimentaux et de leurs communautés et pensionnats, des laboratoires. Bref, c'était une occasion rêvée de promouvoir des intérêts politiques et professionnels parfois contraires au bien-être des personnes concernées.

Ces expériences ont rendu encore plus infernale la vie dans les pensionnats autochtones au Canada.

[...] la faim qui les tenaillait et la nourriture souvent indigeste qu'ils étaient forcés d'avaler ont laissé une marque indélébile dans la mémoire de bien des survivants des pensionnats. Il est fort probable que ces conditions soient la cause du taux de mortalité effarant chez les enfants durant leur internement et à leur sortie. Dans certains cas, plus de la moitié des pensionnaires ont perdu la vie. [notre traduction]

Le grand chef blanc ne s'est pas arrêté là, faisant aussi des victimes parmi les Autochtones qui tentaient de survivre dans leurs collectivités. En pleine Dépression, les fonctionnaires des Affaires indiennes ont réduit considérablement les prestations de chômage versées aux Autochtones. Les hommes aptes au travail n'y avaient plus droit, et les malades ne recevaient plus qu'une partie de leurs rations de secours. Les dépenses engagées par le gouvernement pour venir en aide aux Autochtones représentaient entre le tiers et la moitié seulement de celles engagées pour le reste de la population.

Lorsqu'il s'agissait de mener des expériences sur les Autochtones, le ministère des Affaires indiennes n'était pas en reste. Les fonctionnaires interdisaient à certains ménages de se servir de leur allocation familiale pour acheter de la farine, un aliment de première nécessité. Cette mesure devait, selon eux, favoriser la consommation de « nourriture de campagne » et, par la même occasion, empêcher les Autochtones de déranger les bonnes gens de la Compagnie de la Baie d'Hudson.

Les conséquences de cette mesure étaient parfois catastrophiques :

À Grande rivière de la Baleine, à la fin de 1949 et au début de 1950, plusieurs familles inuites n'ont pas eu suffisamment de farine pour la saison de chasse hivernale. En quelques mois, la faim en a contraint certaines à manger leurs chiens de traîneau et de la peau de phoque bouillie. [notre traduction]

Pendant ce temps, les enfants internés dans les pensionnats souffraient le martyre. Voici les propos condescendants que tenait l'un des responsables des expériences :

[...] On ignore encore trop de choses sur ce qui motive les Indiens, sur ce qui les inciterait à agir. L'Indien est très différent de nous. On doit trouver comment l'encourager, comment diversifier son travail et sa façon de faire pour qu'il devienne autonome, pour qu'il puisse trouver la nourriture dont il a besoin. [notre traduction]

Les dirigeants des pensionnats - ces ghettos de la faim - étaient contrariés par les rares inspections gouvernementales des services d'alimentation, même s'ils en étaient toujours prévenus. Les extraits suivants en témoignent :

Un des inspecteurs s'est fait dire par une fonctionnaire des Affaires indiennes que les inspections « compromettent le travail des directeurs, des mères supérieures et des cuisinières parce que les pensionnaires ont compris que les inspecteurs sont là pour améliorer la nourriture ». Elle a ajouté que les Premières Nations « exigent une nourriture de meilleure qualité et ça rend le travail du directeur très difficile. » (Nous soulignons.) [notre traduction]

[...] Selon le directeur du pensionnat indien de Port Alberni, A. E. Caldwell, [...] l'expérience était conforme aux objectifs des pensionnats. « Un enseignement constructif dans les pensionnats aidera les Indiens à se sortir de leur indolence, une caractéristique qu'ils doivent à la facilité avec laquelle ils peuvent assurer leur subsistance en chassant et en pêchant. Nous leur apprendrons à être industrieux, une qualité essentielle au succès à l'ère industrielle. De plus, nous chasserons l'idée d'un antagonisme « blanc » de l'esprit des Indiens, une idée si répandue qu'elle rend les relations avec eux particulièrement difficiles. (Nous soulignons.) [notre traduction]

Au nom de la science, les chercheurs ont délibérément sous-alimenté les enfants du pensionnat St. Paul afin de créer un groupe témoin. Ils ont aussi privé les enfants de soins dentaires adéquats, sous prétexte que ces soins auraient compromis les expériences. Quant aux examens médicaux de routine, ils étaient, selon Ian Mosby : « déstabilisants, douloureux et potentiellement traumatisants. »

Oui, mais, toutes ces recherches n'étaient-elle pas au service du bien commun? En dernière analyse, non. Comme l'observe Ian Mosby :

Ces études ont eu des effets négligeables sur les causes profondes de la malnutrition et de la faim. Au final, elles en ont fait beaucoup plus pour la carrière des chercheurs que pour la santé des sujets souffrant de malnutrition.

À la lumière de telles observations, qui ne serait pas tenté de croire que ces expériences n'étaient qu'un volet d'un vaste programme d'extermination des peuples autochtones? Un programme qualifié de « solution finale au problème autochtone » par Duncan Campbell Scott qui, en 1910, dirigeait des pensionnats où la tuberculose faisait des ravages sans que personne n'intervienne.

Un air de déjà vu.

Le gouvernement Harper, appuyé par ses vassaux médiatiques, a vite fait de se laver les mains des conclusions de l'étude d'Ian Mosby... en blâmant les libéraux, évidemment! Un article dans le National Post illustre les niaiseries qui se disent sur le sujet. Résumons : « Mais voyons, bande d'ingrats, M. Harper s'est déjà excusé. Qu'est-ce que vous nous voulez, au juste? » Le ministre actuel d'Affaires autochtones et Développement du Nord Canada, Bernard Valcourt, est du même avis.

L'argument aurait peut-être un certain poids si ce n'était du fait que les « excuses » de Stephen Harper n'étaient que du vent. En ce moment, le gouvernement consacre des millions de dollars à défendre son « droit » d'offrir beaucoup moins d'aide aux enfants autochtones qu'aux autres enfants canadiens. Dans cette odieuse lutte contre l'égalité des enfants des Premières Nations, le gouvernement a consacré des ressources importantes à la surveillance systématique de Cindy Blackstock, la championne des droits des enfants autochtones au Canada. C'est elle qui a déposé une plainte auprès de la Commission canadienne des droits de la personne en leur nom il y a cinq ans.

Ce ne sont pas d'autres excuses vides de sens qui aideront ces enfants. On peut toujours espérer une décision favorable des tribunaux. En attendant, les jeunes Autochtones continuent à faire l'objet de discrimination. Les années 1940 et 1950 ont beau être derrière nous, les temps ont-ils vraiment changé?


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The revelation that Canadian officials experimented on First Nations children in the 1940s and 1950s is horrifying, all the more so because solid lines can be drawn so directly from that time to our own.

Food historian Ian Mosby’s study, which may be read in its entirety here, makes appalling reading. It chronicles not only nutritional experiments on kids, in which some were deliberately permitted to remain chronically malnourished and suffer a variety of ills from dental decay to anemia, but the attitudes that made such a thing possible in the first place.

When people are colonized, or racialized, or impoverished, or have various disabilities that make them vulnerable to abuse, it seems easy for those with power to start seeing them as less than fully human. At that point they become fair game to be treated as objects for use—as cheap labour, even slaves, or as medical guinea pigs. History is full of heart-rending examples, and they aren’t restricted by any means to the ghastly accounts of Nazi and Japanese medical experiments with which we are familiar.

Think all that sort of thing went out of fashion after World War II? Guess again. As Mosby notes, experiments on non-consenting human subjects actually expanded after the war. The Tuskagee Experiment, for example, tracked poor Black American men infected with syphilis over decades, allowing their bodies and minds to deteriorate even after common antibiotics could have cured them in the 1940s. This experiment only ended in 1972. In 1971, poor Mexican-American women, seeking contraceptive help at a birth control clinic, were given dummy pills in a grossly unethical experiment, and many became pregnant as a result.

So, unfortunately, there is little that is surprising in this latest discovery. But that makes it no less dreadful. The following should give the flavour.

It is true that Ottawa officials, doctors and scientists recognized that widespread hunger and malnutrition were a problem. But, as Mosby indicates, they quickly came to see the bodies of indigenous people as “experimental materials,” and their communities and the residential schools as laboratories. This was a golden opportunity for them to pursue political and professional agendas at some remove from the welfare of the people concerned.

These experiments added more misery to the living hell that was Indian residential schools in Canada:

…[H]unger and the frequently inedible food that children were forced to eat often dominates the memories of survivors of residential schools. These conditions in all likelihood contributed to the appalling death rates of children either during their residency or immediately upon discharge from these institutions, which in some cases exceeded 50 per cent of pupils.

And indigenous people trying to survive in their communities were also victimized by the Great White Father. Indian Affairs actually cut back unemployment relief substantially at the height of the Depression. Able-bodied men were struck off the rolls, and sick relief rations were reduced. Per capita expenditures of relief were cut from half to one third what non-Aboriginal Canadians received.

Indian Affairs was only too happy to conduct its own experiments as well, preventing some households from buying flour, a basic staple, with their Family Allowances. This would supposedly encourage the consumption of “country food” and hence keep them from bothering the good folks at the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The consequences of that could be catastrophic:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Meanwhile, the children incarcerated in residential schools were suffering unspeakably. One of the researchers who experimented on the children offered these patronizing comments:

…We do not know as much as we should as to what motivates the Indian. We have to find out what incentive we can place in front of him. The Indian is very different from us. We have to find out how the Indian can be encouraged, how his work can be diversified, his efforts diversified, so he can make himself self-supporting, so he can obtain the food he needs.

In the schools, where severe hunger was the norm, principals found it downright annoying to have to cope with sporadic federal inspections of the food services, despite the fact that they always gave notice of their arrival:

One inspector was told by an Indian Affairs official that the work was “making it more difficult for the principals, sister superiors and cooks to operate the schools because the Indian children realize that we are there to try to improve the food services.” She added that First Nations had “been agitating for betterment in the food served, and this makes it very hard for the principal.”

…Alberni school principal A. E. Caldwell…felt that the goal of the experiment was consistent with what he viewed as the goals of residential schooling. “Constructive teaching in the residential school,” he wrote, “will lead the Indian people away from indolent habits inherent in the race because of their hitherto easy means of sustenance by hunting anf [sic] fishing, teaching them habits of consistent industry necesxary [sic] to compete inan [sic] industrial age, and will furthermore dispel the almost universal Indian opinion of “white” antagonism that makes the Indian people so difficult to negotiate with. [emphases added]

In the interests of science, the children at St. Paul’s residential school were deliberately kept undernourished to provide a control sample. Children were also denied proper dental care, because it would interfere with the experiments. As for the regular physical examinations the test subjects got, they were, in Mosby’s words, “confusing, painful, and potentially traumatic.”

But wasn’t it all for the greater good? Well, no, as it turns out. As Mosby observes:

In the end, these studies did little to alter the structural conditions that led to malnutrition and hunger in the first place and, as a result, did more to bolster the career ambitions of the researchers than to improve the health of those identified as being malnourished.

It is difficult not to conclude, with these commentators, that the experiments were merely a part of a larger long-term program to wipe out the indigenous peoples—or, in the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, who ran the residential schools in 1910 when tuberculosis was allowed to run rampant, to move towards the “Final Solution of our Indian Problem.”

Sound familiar?

Needless to say, the Harper government and its loyal media columnists lost no time deflecting blame when the Mosby study came out. It was the Liberals! Here’s one such piece of tripe from the National Post. To summarize it: “Hey, come on, you ungrateful Aboriginals, Harper’s already apologized. What do you want from us?” And the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, is of the same opinion.

Well, that might be just fine if it weren’t so obvious that the so-called “apology” by Stephen Harper was a hollow one from the get-go. The government is currently spending millions of dollars to defend its “right” to provide significantly less support for indigenous children than other Canadian children receive. So vicious has been their fight against equal treatment for these kids that they have squandered considerable resources stalking Cindy Blackstock, the chief advocate for indigenous children in Canada today who brought a human rights complaint five years ago on their behalf.

Another empty apology from Harper will solve absolutely nothing. The court case may help. But in the meantime, indigenous children continue to be discriminated against. The 1940s and 1950s were bad enough—but in 2013, the kids are still not all right.




One might have thought that coffee shops would be the last place a union organizing drive would be successful. They’re part of a low-wage service sector that has historically been resistant to unionization: small workplaces with often-transient staff.

But the times they are a-changing. Could Halifax be the epicentre of a new union earthquake in the industry?

Back in the Spring I wrote about an attempt to unionize the Just Us! Café on Spring Garden Road. There was an almost classic situation there: “hey, we’re all on the same side here” paternalism quickly shifting to crude intimidation tactics by management, which did nothing to stem the dedicated organizing activity on the ground. Then success—after some negotiations and a lot of pressure, Just Us! agreed to voluntarily recognize its baristas as members of Local 2 of the Service International Employees Union (SEIU).

Now mobilizing has shifted to two Second Cup outlets, where the staff have also voted on unionization, and are now confidently awaiting the results from the Nova Scotia Labour Board. But the going hasn’t been easy. When the Second Cup staff at the Quinpool Road outlet started to show interest in unionizing, they faced retaliation as well—on-the-job intimidation and firings by franchise owner Kathy Attis.

Owners are facing a different workforce these days. “I’m not a transient worker,” says Shelby Kennedy, 21, who has been in the industry for 7 years. There is a youth job crisis in Nova Scotia, and employees in the service industry have more of a stake in the jobs they are able to land. That in turn gives them the incentive to improve their working conditions, and a union is the tried and true way of doing just that.

A ripple effect is already being felt. Jason Edwards, the baristas’ union rep from Local 2, says SEIU has been getting interested inquiries from “the entire gamut of cafes” in Halifax.

And this isn’t a case of a union actively chasing down new members. SEIU has been working with an unofficial grassroots campaign in Halifax, BRU (Baristas Rise Up). “A lot of times we’ll go after an industry,” says Edwards. “But this is really more worker-driven. It’s basically us responding to calls that we’re getting and not us cold calling.”

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Interest is not confined to the city of Halifax by any means. “I’ve been taking calls from colleagues and co-workers across the country who’ve been following this trend in Halifax very closely and looking at it as a model for talking to young workers in other cities,” says Atlantic CLC rep Tony Tracy.

Could we be witnessing the start of a national trend? Clearly the young Halifax workers have struck a nerve: the National Post has already launched an attack on them, bizarrely claiming that a low-wage industry is no place for unions. And cups of coffee in unionized Halifax cafés will rise to $8.95 a cup, the NaPo journalist fatuously predicts.

If the baristas have already attracted the wrath of an anti-union national newspaper, they must be doing something right. Wear it with pride, sisters and brothers, and keep on keeping on.

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Photo and video: Lesley Thompson


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Sylvie Therrien is my idea of a hero.

She’s a front-line worker for Human Resources Canada whose job has been to disqualify EI claimants, and her conscience rebelled. Given a quota of nearly half a million dollars to seize from unemployed workers, she said, “It just was against my values, harassing claimants… trying to penalize them in order to save money for the government.”

The last straw was when she heard the Minister of Human Resources, Diane Finley, state in the House of Commons that no quotas were in place. So she leaked some documents to the media to prove the contrary.

The embarrassed government, caught in a lie, tried to bluster its way out by saying these weren’t quotas, but “targets.” It then set out on an internal witchhunt to find out who the whistleblower was.

Having now done so, Sister Therrien has been suspended without pay, and is facing the possibility of dismissal.

I have written about EI changes in the past, and the government’s strategic habit of victim-blaming. There are two distinct sets of victims here: innocent EI claimants, and the “integrity officers” who are sent out to hassle them on a regular basis.

Let’s dispense with this “target” nonsense first off. That’s a feeble semantic game. No front-line workers would see any practical difference: whatever name you want to call the money involved, they are expected to recover it.

But how are the actual numbers arrived at? What are they based on? There is no indication that they have anything at all to do with the reality of unemployed people needing insurance benefits to tide them over—benefits that they have helped to finance themselves with regular EI contributions while on the job.

So, make no mistake, quotas will claim innocent victims. The basic assumption built into this wretched system is that EI claimants are guilty until proven innocent. The stress of job loss, for many people quite traumatic enough, has now been compounded by new rules and inspections that make things far worse. And our members, caught in the middle, are expected to confront these workers on a regular basis on the assumption that they are defrauding the system, and squeeze money out of them to meet a pre-assigned “target.”

This obviously makes things miserable for the unemployed, which is, I guess, the whole point. But it has the same effect on our members. It certainly did for Sylvie Therrien, whose conscience finally got the better of her.

Anyone remember this Conservative ad leading up to the 2006 election?

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And here is what they were going to do about it:

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In a perfect world, Therrien would have been able to approach the Public Service Integrity Officer with her information—and that office, which currently has very little authority, would have the power to call the government to account. But this is the real world: one in which the previous Officer found not a single case of wrongdoing in five years, and whose successor, who has managed to find six, is reticent to make recommendations even when the breaches are flagrant. Facing that sort of brick wall, a conscientious public worker has little recourse but to make the wrongdoing public by other means.

Of special interest in the Conservatives’ 2006 plan is the last bullet: compensation for public workers who expose government wrongdoing. Lying to Parliament and to the people of Canada surely counts as wrongdoing—as well, of course, as the imposition of a brute-force benefits recovery system that targets the innocent and the guilty alike.

Therrien did the right thing, and in fact set a standard for genuine service to the public. She is being punished, however, not rewarded for her efforts. It’s the very opposite of what should have happened. With other observers, I need to ask: where is Sister Therrien’s cheque? It’s overdue.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Enemies

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What kind of a government labels law-abiding citizens as “enemies?”

Political parties and their partisans may have enemies, but no democratic government should. Governments are supposed to govern for all of the people, not merely their own supporters (in Stephen Harper’s case, less than a third of Canadian voters at present).

But this government is different. The lines between it and the Conservative party itself have become blurred. Recently a leak to newspapers of allegations against Liberal leader Justin Trudeau proved to have been directed right out of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Instructions were given that the source should not be named, but one small-town newspaper refused to play along. Not, as the kids say, cool.

Now Harper’s new Cabinet has received a briefing that includes lists of alleged “enemies,” in the media, the bureaucracy and elsewhere. There is ample precedent for this, of course: one thinks of US President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” of 1971, and (perhaps less well-remembered) a similar, if somewhat half-hearted, McCarthyist flashback from a minister in the Trudeau government that same year.

The common denominator here is a fundamental lack of trust in other people, approaching paranoia, combined with a mean authoritarian streak that defines anyone who thinks differently, not as a fellow-citizen, but as an enemy to be eliminated. Such people, once in power, display a cynical shrewdness and a fetish for secrecy. They instinctively prefer the dark to the light. And theirs is an iron rule, or at least as iron a rule as they are permitted to get away with.

Those of us who are fundamentally opposed to the values and philosophy of the current government, or even question them, are not “enemies.” We believe in the democratic process: spirited debate, the exercise of our Charter rights to dissent, strong and organized political opposition. A government that defines us as enemies is itself an enemy of democracy.

And democracy in Canada is fragile enough as it is. The Prime Minister is granted powers that a US President would envy—the unilateral right to appoint members of the Senate, judges, and members of various boards and commissions, for example. Or to shut down Parliament when it gets inconvenient. With the increasing concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the consequent lack of democratic accountability to the electorate becomes more and more a fact of Canadian political life. And when it reaches the point that the PMO becomes more or less an arm of a specific political party, running dirty tricks against opposition leaders, a line has been crossed, and it will not be easy to walk that one back.

The Harper government has the whole thing backwards. It exists to serve Canadian citizens and to work on our behalf, not the other way around. But as it continues to drop in the polls in the wake of scandal after scandal, it still prefers to lash out rather than to take responsibility.

Writing of riots in East Germany against their Communist government in 1954, the playwright Bertold Brecht wrote these sarcastic lines:

Some party hack decreed that the people
Had lost the government’s confidence
And could only regain it with redoubled effort.
If that is the case, would it not be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?


But this is Canada, of course. The Prime Minister would likely prefer to appoint one.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Reflections on Trayvon Martin

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Out of the corner of my eye, I had been aware of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida ever since the young man was shot on February 26, 2012. The acquittal of his killer this past Saturday, however, got my full attention.

Having bought candy and iced tea, Martin was returning from the store to his home in a gated community when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighbourhood watchman, described as a “wannabe cop,” and a man with a history of violence. Zimmerman called the police, convinced that a Black teenager wearing a hoodie (it was raining that night) must be up to no good.

The police told Zimmerman to stay in his car, but he set off after Martin anyway, gun in hand. Being closely followed at night by an armed stranger unsurprisingly led to a confrontation. Martin reported to his girlfriend by cellphone that he was being followed by a creepy individual, and he began to run. But Zimmerman caught up to him. There was a fight, ending when Zimmerman shot Martin once through the heart.

On the night of the shooting, police recorded Zimmerman’s weight as 200 lbs. and his height as 5’8”. Martin, a gangly 17-year-old, was 5’11” and weighed 158 lbs. But Zimmerman stated that he had been attacked by Martin, who went for his gun, and that his killing of Martin was a matter of self-defence.

Zimmerman, known for calling 911 at the drop of a hat, claimed that he was following Martin to find out where he lived, an odd assertion on the face of it, since he had supposedly suspected Martin of being a burglar or drug dealer, not a resident of the tiny 260-unit gated community known as The Retreat.

It took a good deal of public pressure for the local police to arrest Zimmerman and charge him with second-degree murder, six weeks after the shooting. The trial began this past June, and Zimmerman was acquitted, despite his inconsistent testimony and at least one outright lie (he falsely claimed that he had never studied Stand Your Ground law, when he had actually done so.)

Stand Your Ground (SYG) is a legal defence in Florida and several other states: in effect, anyone who is frightened by someone else has the right to use deadly force without taking steps to remove himself from the scene. In fact, Zimmerman did not avail himself of this option, which could possibly have precluded a trial. Instead he chose to argue self-defence. But, as we now know, the SYG law was very much on the minds of his jury of six women, all but one of whom were white.

We will never know all of the facts about that fatal confrontation. There were no eyewitnesses at the time of Martin’s death, and earwitnesses were vague. We do know that screaming during the altercation stopped instantly when the gunshot was heard, strongly suggesting that it was the frightened teenager’s, not Zimmerman’s, as Zimmerman later claimed.

What we can state with more certainty, however, is that the system failed Trayvon Martin. Whether it was lax gun laws, prevailing racist stereotypes of young Black males, and the SYG climate that intensifies that racial bias, or Florida’s legal system, no one can seriously claim that justice was done. As numerous commentators observed, Martin ended up being convicted of his own murder.

For those who would argue that the jury verdict was inevitable, objective, unbiased in every way—that justice, in other words, is truly blind—perhaps we should look at another Florida case, that of Marissa Alexander.

Alexander was regularly beaten up by an abusive spouse. Finally she had enough, obtained a legal firearm, and fired a warning shot when he came after her. Stand Your Ground? Alexander is doing twenty years as I write this. She is Black. Apparently SYG is more of a whites-only defence in Florida.

The judge in the case claimed the sentence was out of his hands, because Florida has mandatory minimum sentencing. Sound familiar?

Two cases, Martin and Alexander. One is dead, the other is serving 20 years for firing a warning shot. Justice is hardly colour-blind in Florida.

But let’s not feel too smug here at home. First Nations people are disproportionately jailed in Canada—they comprise only 4% of the population, but 23% of the prison population. Hundreds of Aboriginal women disappeared on the so-called Highway of Tears and on the farm of a serial predator and killer, while police did nothing at all. And a volunteer organization who painstakingly compiled hundreds of cases of missing Aboriginal women had its funding pulled by the Harper government.

Both here and in the US, we need to look at how our institutions—political, economic, social and legal—work overall, and never stop asking why it is that certain populations keep falling into the cracks. Rather than blaming the victims or, on the other hand, always assuming malice on the part of individuals, we should be critical of whole systems that inevitably produce poor outcomes for those of a certain colour or ethnicity or gender.

If we can work together to understand and to change them, and we are prepared to hold our own attitudes up to the light as part of the solution, only then will we have fully learned the lesson that Trayvon Martin’s death can teach. Until then, all we can do is to mourn the passing of one more casualty. RIP.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Hard-shoe shuffle

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The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on. ~W.B.Yeats

This was the “major shakeup?” Of the 38 positions in Stephen Harper’s new Cabinet (excluding the Prime Minister himself), 12 ministers remain exactly where they were, two with some added responsibilities, while creationist Gary Goodyear lost one of his two portfolios, Science and Technology, but kept the other, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. The disgraced John Duncan, who made a hash of the Attwapiskat crisis and later resigned over an ethics violation, has been restored to Cabinet, and 16 who were already there got to play musical chairs. (Or is that Titanic deckchairs?)

Room was created to install eight new Ministers. Vic Toews (the unloved Minister of Public Safety) resigned a few days ago, but like Peter Kent (Environment), he may have been forewarned. Kent joins a mere two others (Stephen Fletcher and Gordon O’Connor) who were formally bounced.

Harper’s much-vaunted appointments of “strong women,” who comprise four of the new eight, were more optics than substance: only two, Shelly Glover and the high-flying Kellie Leitch (first elected in 2011) were given full Ministerial portfolios. The number of women in the new Cabinet jumped from 10 to, well, 12.

So, what do we have? A core of the same-old same-old, with a smattering of new Ministers, mostly on the periphery of government, equipped with predictably old ideas, unquestioning loyalty to Harper, and a facility for delivering PMO talking points.

The newbies will be assisted by ministerial staff who are presently generating helpful enemies lists.

Did you expect change, bold new policy directions, political pragmatism? The new Minister of the Environment (Leona Aglukkaq) can roll over and play dead with the best of them. The new Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women, Kellie Leitch, unquestioningly capable, will duck serious issues.

Kinder, gentler Conservatives? If anything, Harper appears to have shifted, not to the centre as many expected, but somewhat to the right. The new Minister of Health (Rona Ambrose) voted to re-open the abortion debate when she was Minister for the Status of Women. Candice Bergen, one of the new Ministers, did as well. The Minister for Democratic Reform—surely this is Harper’s version of a joke—is now shoot-from-the-lip Pierre Poilievre, whose idea of being an MP is to spew insults at any perceived opposition, and who wants to cripple federal public service unions.

And yes, we still have Tony Clement as the President of Treasury Board. Anyone see Groundhog Day?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Bordering on abuse

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That would be some surprisingly unprofessional journalism from the Ottawa Citizen, lambasting the border security officers who are working hard to keep Canada safe.

Since 2010—that’s more than three and a half years ago—more than 1.6 million passengers* have cleared Customs and Immigration at the Ottawa International Airport. In that time, all of 45 complaints from travellers have been received. That’s not, with the greatest respect to Citizen reporter Glen McGregor, a “pattern.” 0.0028% of the total traffic is not a “pattern.” 99.998%—the passengers who didn’t complain—now, that’s a “pattern.”

Worse, we have only the complaints, and not the other side. One can never assume there isn’t one. It is impossible to tell at this point whether any or all of these complaints are legitimate. We simply don’t know. But the complaints are taken as established and true in all of their particulars. In a word, that’s unfair.

The Citizen then follows up with an oddly schizophrenic editorial. First they chase the phantom bully:

The problem with some people is that once they get a little bit of authority, they suddenly develop a power complex, feeling the need to lord it over people. We don’t need such people as front-line border officers.

Then they attempt to find their balance:

Obviously some perspective is needed here. Each year, on average, around half a million travellers from the U.S. and other international destinations arrive at the Ottawa airport. …Not all travellers are pillars of honesty and integrity…. We are talking about only 45 complaints out of the hundreds of thousands who come here. This suggests that the vast majority of CBSA officers go about their job diligently and conscientiously….

And this is how the editorial concludes:

Ottawa is the capital of the country, and the last thing we want is a reputation — perhaps even notoriety — as the city where your first impression on landing, is of the nasty border guard who digs into your private life, or makes you want to cry.

So, whether the complaints are justified or not, the Citizen feels it must wag its finger. You can never be too careful, after all. Certainly the last thing I want in Ottawa is a local newspaper that deliberately spreads nasty stories and innuendo about our front-line workers. But there you go.

In any case, what we have here at the very most is anecdotes, with no supporting information. Some support for the officers is also emerging in anecdote form. But anecdote, as they say, is not a fancy word for “data.” To build a case against CBSA on a handful of undocumented accounts is irresponsible, reckless journalism.

Regardless, dedicated CBSA officers will go on defending our country, keeping out drugs, child pornography and firearms. They deserve far better than this.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government is in the process of cutting 1,351 CBSA jobs. And, for the officers still on duty who must shoulder all that extra work, the Harper government has essentially abandoned the collective bargaining process after more than two years of pointless delays.

All that should really improve working conditions and morale. International travellers, welcome to Canada. You can look forward to being treated with professional courtesy by our CBSA officers. But if they aren’t whistling while they work, it most likely has nothing to do with you.

_
* Source

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Women and current events

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A comprehensive study indicates that women appear to be less interested than men in current events. Perhaps the above photo (G8 leaders, Germany’s Angela Merkel third from left, can you spot her?) provides an explanatory clue.

A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Let me offer considerably fewer.

Men and women live in a complex, ever-changing society. A hundred years ago in Canada, women didn’t have the right to vote. Until 84 years ago, we weren’t even considered persons under the law. Only 25 years ago did we win reproductive freedom—and that battle may not be over.

This is an historical blink of an eye. We may have come a long way, but there’s a lot of road left. Assumptions, values, roles and stereotypes still affect everyone’s thinking. There remain, after all of this time, spheres where men predominate, and one of those spheres happens to be politics. Probably most of what we call current events is political in nature. Certainly the questions in the study ran that way.

Anyone who thinks machismo is dead should spend a little time watching Question Period in the House of Commons. To put it politely, as I must, it’s generally a point-scoring contest, complete with bluster, extravagant gestures, loud heckling and raised shoulders.

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Take me out to that ball game? Only if it’s a job requirement, which it obviously is in my case.

Don’t get me wrong. Compared to only a few decades ago, women are doing better in politics these days, and shining in that parallel activity, sports. But this is too often what they must put up with. In 2013.

Politics is still a relatively hostile environment, in other words. So much of it is macho sound and fury, often signifying nothing. And then there are the media:

News coverage is heavily weighted toward male sources even in countries such as the UK and Australia where gender equality ratings are relatively high. Overall, women are only interviewed or cited in 30 percent of TV news stories in the ten nations.

In all ten countries [covered by the study], female sources tend only to appear in longer news items or articles and are preferred for soft news topics such as family, lifestyle and culture.


Small wonder so many women simply tune out. Besides, they probably have work to do.

[Photos: Matt Dunham, AP; Chris Wattie, Reuters]

Larry Rousseau

La dérèglementation, dites-vous?

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La dérèglementation, synonyme corporatif de l'autoréglementation, de la privatisation, du marché laissez-faire et la maximisation de la rentabilisation.

Ouf! Il y a de la matière...grise et grisante...à réflexion, à réfection...et à correction! Cette rengaine qu'on nous chante depuis belle lurette...que les services publics sont inefficaces et coûteux, livrés par des fonctionnaires trop grassement payés et incapables de suffir à la tâche! Cette rengaine qui depuis une bonne vingtaine ou même trentaine d'années nous a mené sur un chemin qui a vu les profits des grandes compagnies et des personnes les plus riches de notre société augmenter de façon faramineuse, et les salaires et la rémunération des travailleuses et travailleurs de la classe moyenne diminuer inversement ou du moins rester fixes lorsqu'on tient compte de l'inflation.

Depuis quelques semaines, à peine quelques mois, nous sommes témoins d'accidents ferroviaires importants. Depuis un certain temps, la sécurité publique mange une bonne claque et la population n'est pas apaisée par les propos supposément rassurants des officiels et représentants du gouvernement fédéral. La sécurité des transports, ferroviaires et aériens, la sécurité de l'environnement, la sécurité des aliments et de la santé publique, et j'en passe. La sécurité. Depuis une bonne douzaine d'années on veut nous convaincre que les dépenses et investissements en infrastructure de sécurité en valent la peine...

Mais chaque fois qu'un incident comme celui du déraillement à Calgary, et maintenant du Lac Mégantic, vient nous frapper, on vit une frousse, et surtout si on y demeure de près, une terreur, très effrayante, très épeurante.

Tant que la diminution des coûts d'exploitation des grandes compagnies demeure l'objectif sacré d'une société qui défend de plus en plus l'intérêt corporatif au dépend de l'intérêt public, la croissance des profits ne connaîtra pas de limites. Moins de réglementation, moins de responsabilisation publique, moins d'inspecteurs gouvernementaux, moins de taxes à payer, plus de profits privés... nous sommes témoins aujourd'hui des résultats désastreux de cette course à la rentabilisation corporative.

On surveille moins. On inspecte moins. On embauche moins. On dépense moins. On investit moins. On se soucie moins. Dans ces cas d'accidents qui nous terrorisent, on récolte ce qu'on a semé, pour l'enrichissement d'une très petite minorité, et l'appauvrissement de la très grande majorité.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Lac-Mégantic

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Treize décès sont confirmés et 40 personnes manquent toujours à l'appel. Des commerces, un bar plein à craquer, la bibliothéque, les archives locales, tout le centre-ville est disparu!

Il est trop tôt pour tirer des conclusions sur cette horrible tragédie ferroviaire de Lac-Mégantic. Des freins défectueux? De la négligence? Des wagons-citernes mal conçus? Des lacunes dans les inspections de sécurité et la surveillance de Transport Canada? Une combinaison de ces facteurs et d'autres encore? Nous en saurons davantage une fois l'enquête terminée.

Nous savons cependant que :

le transport du pétrole brut représente 5 % du trafic ferroviaire au Canada et qu'environ 20 % du pétrole canadien est exporté par train;

le nombre de déraillements diminue, mais on en compte encore beaucoup trop - 588 en 2011 seulement. La société Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway est propriétaire du train impliqué dans la catastrophe de Lac-Mégantic. Le CN a aussi connu sa part de problèmes et compte malgré tout doubler son trafic de pétrole brut cette année;

Depuis le mois mars, il y a eu six déraillements importants du Canadien Pacifique :

27 mars : déversement de 114 000 litres de pétrole près de Parkers Prairie (Minnesota), à la suite du déraillement de 14 wagons.

3 avril : déraillement de 22 wagons à l'ouest de White River (Ontario), entraînant le déversement de 110 000 litres de pétrole brut léger et de 22 500 litres d'huile de canola. On a découvert une roue et des rails brisés sur le site.

28 avril : déraillement de 17 wagons chargés de potasse près de Provost (Alberta).

21 mai : déversement de 91 000 litres de pétrole à la suite du déraillement d'un train de marchandises près de Jansen (Saskatchewan).

2 juin : un wagon déraille près de Wanup (Ontario), brise un pont ferroviaire et plonge dans la rivière.

27 juin : un pont enjambant la rivière Bow à Calgary s'effondre après une inondation majeure, laissant six wagons suspendus au-dessus de la rivière.

Le transport de pétrole par train connaît une forte augmentation. Au cours des huit derniers mois, la quantité de pétrole brut expédiée s'élève à 150 000 barils par jour, soit une augmentation de 150 % par rapport à la même période l'année précédente.

Les wagons-citernes DOT-111, les wagons les plus utilisés pour le transport, sont sujets aux fuites.

Les sociétés ferroviaires ont la responsabilité de mener les inspections de sécurité. Or, dans ce cas-ci, les compressions y sont peut-être pour quelque chose, alors que les entreprises cherchent à faire des profits :

Tom Murphy, président de la section locale 101 des TCA représentant 1 900 manoeuvres du CP, estime qu'il y a un lien direct entre les déraillements et la réduction des effectifs chez CP, y compris des centaines de ses membres chargés de l'inspection des trains.

« Aujourd'hui, nos membres doivent composer avec des trains plus longs, moins de personnel pour les vérifier et beaucoup de réparations », déclare le superviseur. « On n'a pas le temps de réparer cela maintenant, laissons faire », disait-il en entrevue mardi.

Entre-temps, les représentants de la compagnie ne savent quoi penser :

« Nous sommes stupéfiés. Qu'est-ce qui a bien pu se passer? » se demande Joseph R. McGonigle, un cadre de la compagnie Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. « Il y a de nombreux mécanismes de protection. On ne s'explique pas ce qui est arrivé. »

Personne ne se l'explique. Cette réponse n'est pas suffisante. Pas pour les personnes blessées, ni pour les familles des personnes décédées ou disparues, ni pour nous.

[Photo: Yves Tremblay, Photohelico.com]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Lac-Mégantic

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Thirteen people confirmed dead. Forty people missing, some of whom might have been literally vapourized. Shops, a crowded drinking spot, the library, the local archives—the downtown core was ripped away, erased.

It’s obviously too soon to say precisely what caused the horrific rail tragedy still unfolding in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. A defective brake? Negligence? Poorly designed oil shipment cars? Lax safety inspections and Transport Canada oversight? A combination of these and other factors? We’ll be able to speak with more confidence after the inevitable inquiry.

But here is what we do know.

5% of all rail traffic in Canada is crude oil shipments. Approximately 20% of Canada’s oil is exported on rail.

Derailments may be falling in frequency, but there are still far too many of them—588 in 2011 alone. The train involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster was owned by the Montreal Maine & Atlantic rail company. CN has had its share of problems as well, but is expected to double its crude oil traffic this year.

Since this past March, there have been six serious Canadian Pacific derailments:

March 27: About 114,000 litres of oil spilled near Parkers Prairie, Minn., when 14 cars derailed.

April 3: A derailment of 22 cars west of White River, Ont., caused the spill of 110,000 litres of light crude oil and 22,500 litres of canola oil. A broken train wheel and broken track were recovered from the scene.

April 28: Seventeen cars carrying potash derailed near Provost, Alta.

May 21: A freight train jumped the tracks near Jansen, Sask., and spilled 91,000 litres of oil.

June 2: A car derailed near Wanup, Ont., struck a rail trestle and collapsed bridge into a stream.

June 27: A bridge over Bow River in Calgary failed after a serious flood in the city leaving six cars teetering over the water.


Overall, rail shipments of crude oil have sharply increased. In the past eight months, shipments of Western crude have jumped 150% from the previous year, to 150,000 barrels per day.

The DOT-111 tanker cars most commonly used for transport are prone to leak their contents.

Railway companies themselves are responsible for carrying out safety inspections. But here, cutbacks may well be having their effects as the companies pursue the bottom line:

Tom Murphy, president of the CAW Local 101, which represents roughly 1,900 CP skilled trade workers, said he believes there is a direct correlation between the derailments and the reduction in CP’s headcount, including hundreds of his members who are tasked with conducting the safety inspections on the trains.

“The difference now is they have longer trains, less people to check them out, and a lot of the repairs, the supervisor says, ‘We don’t need to fix that now. Let it go,’” Mr. Murphy said in an interview Tuesday.


Meanwhile, rail officials are wringing their hands:

“That’s what confuses us. How did this happen?” said Joseph R. McGonigle, an executive at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. “There are many fail-safe modes. How this happened is just beyond us.”


Beyond everyone at this point, it seems. Not good enough. Not for the injured, not for the families of the dead and missing, and not for us.

[Photo: Yves Tremblay, Photohelico.com]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Making history

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Let’s hope that this website isn’t scrubbed as the Museum of Civilization morphs into the Museum of Canadian History. Perhaps, as meagre as it is, this survey of labour history will not fit with today’s official “narratives,” full of sound and fury as they are: War of 1812 chest-beating, heroic figures, leaders, and a chronology of “major themes and seminal events and people of our national experience.”

Authentic and artifact-rich, the Canadian Museum of History will bring individuals into direct contact with the touchstones of our history: Champlain’s Astrolabe, the Last Spike, historical portraits, artifacts of our nation’s founders, ‘relics’ of our national sports and athletic accomplishments.


No wonder voices of suspicion are being raised about this makeover of the Museum of Civilization, due to be completed in 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary. “Whose history will it tell?” is indeed the question.

Labour history isn’t about “great men” (and a handful of carefully selected “great women”). It’s stories, as all histories are, about working people, most of them now nameless, “lost” in those official accounts. The inquisitive worker in Bertolt Brecht’s poem wonders aloud:

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

The most authentic labour history is made and recorded by workers themselves. Much of it is passed down as oral history, as anecdotes and songs and legends, within families and communities. Here in Ottawa we have the full-meal deal—the Workers History Museum, a project in its third year that seeks to record in various ways the history of the community from a labour point of view. It’s staffed and run by volunteers from the local labour scene. And as you can see from the link, there are many, many stories to be told.

I wish every city and town in Canada had one of these going. But, more than that, I wish we in the organized labour movement were better at capturing our own union histories. Our members could readily recognize themselves in that wider context, one built by former members now retired or passed on.

Every day working people are busy in their various ways making history, shaping it, adding energy and skill and thought and imagination to the mix. We won’t get plaques and monuments and “so-and-so slept here” and niches in an official history museum. But we do have the satisfaction of knowing that “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” Isn’t that worth telling stories about?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Human rights in reverse gear

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By all means, let’s celebrate the 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court last week to strike down the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) (full text of the decision, with summary, here). It was a nasty, discriminatory piece of federal legislation, signed into law by President Bill Clinton back in 1996, that denied same-sex couples federal benefits available to opposite-sex ones.

But we should pay attention to the reasoning used by the majority. While couched in the language of equality, it’s really all about states’ rights. It’s actually a conservative decision: whom the states join together, let no federal government put asunder.

Only 12 states recognize same-sex marriage. Nothing in this judgement makes it legal in the other 38.

Why is this important? Because the Supreme Court issued another opinion just before this one that turns on the same point. The abolished a key measure in the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required certain heavily discriminatory states to clear with the federal Department of Justice any changes to voting procedures that those states might wish to put into effect.

It took literally a matter of hours for some of those states to start moving. Texas led the pack, (although it could be in for a surprise). North Carolina is in hot pursuit, with a raft of measures to disenfranchise voters. In effect, the bad old days are back.

Here in Canada, Bill C-304, which I blogged about two weeks ago, hurtled through the Senate. It repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which had outlawed the use of telecommunications to transmit hatred against minority groups. There was no sober second thought—the Senators, fresh out of principle after gutting the anti-union C-377, whisked it along, with little debate.

As Liberal Senator James Cowan, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, put it:

Honourable senators, we are here today to debate third reading of Bill C-304. This bill has been presented to us as a defence of the right of freedom of speech. But let us not deceive ourselves. This is not a bill in defence of free speech. This is a bill in defence of hate speech. This is a freedom of hate speech bill.


Precisely. And the only other protections that minorities in Canada have against this sort of thing are in the Criminal Code—which, as I noted in my earlier post, aren’t being enforced even in slam-dunk cases.

We sometimes get a little complacent, it seems to me. We believe in something called progress, where past evils like racism are discarded, and things keep on improving. But, as we have just seen on both sides of the border, a reversal can happen at any time.

Most readers will be familiar with the old refrain, “Well, unions were necessary once, but…” The fact is that history can turn on a dime. We’re watching a concentrated legislative assault on federal public sector unions by a truly hostile government, and even some trial balloons about abolishing the Rand formula.

No need for unions today? The very opposite is true. What we have gained through decades of hard work and struggle is at serious risk of disappearing, just as the rights of minorities to vote in the US, or be free of publicly disseminated hatred here at home, have just disappeared down the rabbit-hole.

“Progress” is just an abstraction. It takes the strong, collective actions of real people to win rights and safeguard them. And the labour movement, defending its members—all of its members, including women and minorities—has always been in the forefront of that never-ending struggle, as it will continue to be. Surely we’ve had enough cold water thrown in our faces recently to wake up and smell what’s brewing—and it ain’t coffee, folks. Let’s rise and shine.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The silence of the media

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It was telling. News headlines blared: “Premier Wynne and Justin Trudeau attend Pride church services ahead of parade.” Where on earth was Tom Mulcair, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition? Skipping out on Pride Day? No, in fact, there he was, in the congregation, along with the Ontario Premier and the leader of the third party in the House of Commons. You can find a photo (see above, with Olivia Chow), but somehow he wasn’t worthy of inclusion in the headline.

And later that same day…

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We are raised to believe that the media reflect the world and transmit that world to us. But Big Media actually reflect certain interests and points of view, and those are what get transmitted. Recall that all but one newspaper in Canada endorsed Stephen Harper in the 2011 election. That’s not a coincidence.

Most often, it’s not that our stories—those of working people and their representatives demanding fair treatment and social justice—are retold with an anti-labour bias. It’s that they aren’t being told at all.

How many of us are aware, for example, that many Canadian workers didn’t get to enjoy Canada Day with their families, but trudged in to work as usual? Amid all of the fireworks and the revelling and the calls to national pride, they don’t get noticed.

And when the PSAC won pay equity at Canada Post—a thirty-year battle for fundamental rights—where was it reported, other than in the Toronto Star (the only major newspaper that didn’t endorse Harper in 2011)? And in the Brampton Guardian, to be fair.

The large newspapers in Canada used to have a “labour beat,” and some fine writers covered the labour news. But that was then, and this is now. Recently CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, in all innocence, tweeted about losing his luggage on Porter Airlines. He hadn’t even been aware that there was a strike going on. He was graceful enough when it was pointed out to him, but that’s not the issue. He didn’t know, and he’s a top media figure. For that matter, Justin Trudeau didn’t know either—and he’s surrounded by advisors.

We live in these silences—working, caring for our families, and scoring our small successes. The Just Us! Cafe in Halifax is now unionized. The bitter Porter Airlines strike is over after several months. Sparse reporting on happy endings, however, doesn’t nearly make up for media indifference while workers were slogging it out at considerable personal cost to win these victories. Thanks mostly to our own communications networks, however, these on-going struggles and other stories get out and make the rounds.

The main message here is—be critical. Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear in the mass media, which are, by nature, anti-union, pro-corporations and pro-Harper. Anti-labour assumptions can be found even in the occasional mildly sympathetic attention we do manage to get. And, more importantly, don’t imagine for one moment that they are reporting all of the news. The name of Kim Kardashian’s new baby is guaranteed to get more coverage than a so-called “labour dispute” and a successful end to a tough strike.

For those members (yes, I do check out the comments at our Facebook site) who are witheringly critical of everything our union leadership says and does, don’t stop. That’s part of what holding leaders to account is all about. But I would simply ask this. Be at least as questioning of what you read in the papers, hear on “talk radio” and see on TV. And be curious about what isn’t mentioned. There are loads of stories out there—and I bet you could tell quite a few yourselves.

[First photo, above: Michelle Siu/Canadian Press. Second photo: Adelle McGregor. Tom Mulcair with Sharon DeSousa, REVP-Ontario, and Jason McMichael, First National Vice-President of CIU]

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