Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tonga: at the tipping point?

A strike by public employees in the tiny South Pacific island of Tonga, a feudal kingdom in a post-modern world, is now in its sixth week. If anything demonstrates with utter clarity the profound reach and pace and intent of corporate globalization, it is to be found in off-the-track places like this, barely noticed in North America, but where astonishingly familiar stories unfold.

The immediate issue is a new public service salary scheme which has granted huge increases to senior officials in the kingdom, even by Canadian standards (the equivalent of $60K), while ordinary public employees are so poorly paid that some can't even afford to buy shoes. 400 or so of the country's 4500 public employees were offered no increase at all. Indeed, public service employees have had no raise for nearly twenty years, during which time high inflation has raged. The Public Service Association (PSA) leading the strike is demanding increases for its members of 60-80%, meaning, in reality, that some of its members earning annual salaries in the order of $1,100 might be able to provide a tiny bit better for their families. The government has countered with an offer of 30%.

The strike has gained considerable public sympathy. Dr. Ana Akavola, for example, who runs the radiology department at Vaiola Hospital, got a 28% increase, but she walked out after seeing people in her department get increases no higher than 8%, with some getting nothing. Students rioted when their college principal was fired for supporting the strike. Religious leaders are climbing on board: Reverend Simote Vea, general secretary of the Tonga Council of Churches, says that ministers "are more openly talking about political issues than before. It used to be a kind of taboo." The Queen herself was recently subject to a mild rebuke from the pulpit in her own church.

A support march in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga located on the island of Tongatapu, attracted 10,000 anti-government demonstrators, a huge number considering that only 67,000 people live on the island. The expatriate community has rallied round the strikers, with a large group in Auckland conducting a vigorous demonstration outside a luxury home belonging to the King. (The royal family owns $8.2 worth of property in Auckland. Just turned 87, the King is presently in Auckland getting medical treatment.) New Zealand, Fijjian and Australian unions have pitched in with aid as well.

The PSA has flatly rejected resolution efforts by a seasoned New Zealand labour mediator, former Employee Court Chief Judge Thomas Goddard, who has since returned home. Besides a series of demands ranging from pay increases to a return to the old salary structure, the PSA is now demanding political reform:it wants the King-appointed cabinet to be elected. Otherwise, said strike committee chair Finau Tutone, there can be no guarantee that an agreement with his union would be adhered to. Pesi Fonua, the editor of the Matangi Tonga on-line news outlet, observes that the current strike is now effectively calling for "regime change."

The strike is unprecedented in Tonga. This is a country where the royal family and hereditary nobility (like "Tonga" itself, largely a construction of Wesleyan missionaries in the early 19th century) are firmly, if not absolutely, in charge. They own most of the land, and the royals have vast business holdings as well. The King, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, and his immediate family, are rolling in vast wealth. Privatization meant handing the state electricity company over to the personal ownership of the Crown Prince,
Tupouto'a Tuku'aho, while the King’s daughter, Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuku'aho, made a huge personal fortune grabbing up geosynchronous satellite slots connecting Asia with the US West Coast.

The King is noted for spending fortunes in public revenue on frankly squirrelly schemes such as a process to turn seawater into fuel, and another to burn used tires for profit (Greenpeace put a stop to that one). He once proposed leasing the population's DNA to an Australian genetics firm, and he started a program of selling passports at high prices to Asians. The latter actually turned a tidy profit of $30 million, but that completely disappeared, having been left in the hands of an American magnet salesman who earlier on had petitioned successfully to be appointed as the King's Court Jester. I didn't make this up. The locals have a name for that sort of thing: fakatonga, the "Tongan Way."

It should come as no surprise that the demands of the strikers are beginning to include fundamental democratic reforms. The current Parliament (Fale Alea) consists of thirty seats: twelve Cabinet members appointed by the King, nine seats allocated to the nobility, and nine provided for the commoners. Recently the Cabinet was expanded to include two noble MPs and two commoner MPs. But the people are restless: a pro-democracy movement has been gently agitating for more than a decade. In terms of reform, it has been fairly cautious. In 2002, for example, the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement demanded a restructuring of government, with an elected lower house of twenty-one members, and an upper house of nine nobles (the approval of both Houses would have been required to approve legislation), with the King still free to appoint the Prime Minister and the cabinet.

The King is no fan of strong criticism, and he got the constitution changed in October 2003 to permit the banning of newspapers. That galvanized thousands of Tongans to demonstrate in Nuku’alofa in the largest public protests ever seen up to that time. The King was particularly galled by the cheeky Taimi o Tonga, published in New Zealand, which he had failed in earlier attempts to keep out of the country. What appears to be a genuinely independent judiciary would simply not back his efforts. And this continued: the Supreme Court ruled last October, with due apologies to His Majesty, his cabinet and Parliament, that the constitutional change was in conflict with other parts of the constitution, and once more the ban was thrown out.

The attempt to muzzle press criticism was not a move favoured by all of the royals. The Crown Prince was cautiously opposed; a royal nephew, before the constitutional change took place, said that such a move would turn Tonga into a "police state." The Minister of Police at the time, however, one Clive Edwards (his father was British, hence his distinctively unPolynesian name), publicly supported the ban and the constitutional amendment, claimed that pro-democracy forces numbered only about fifty vocal people, and proclaimed that democracy, in any case, was "too expensive" for Tonga.

But perhaps he was just doing his job at the time. Edwards was later sacked from Cabinet, and re-emerged this past May as a born-again democrat, running for a commoner's seat in Parliament in a by-election and winning. He’s now front and centre in the protest, urging the strikers to take anti-scab measures and demanding democratic reform. (For his part, the Prime Minister, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, found it "unusual" for a former Minister of Police to be doing this, and accused Edwards of incitement to riot.)

There are no political prisoners in Tonga, no secret police, no torture: that's not the way Polynesians do things. There are many things I like about the place, actually. This is a country that expropriated a golf course to make way for a sacred burial ground, a kind of Oka in reverse. One Catholic church has a thriving fish and chips restaurant in the basement. Homosexuality is not illegal, despite the power of the churches, and transgendered people are, as in Samoa, an important component of the social fabric. The capital city, Nuku'alofa, boasts Internet cafes and pretty decent cappuccino, a good beer called Ikale (Eagle), the brewery part-owned, unsurprisingly, by the royal family, and the people do know how to celebrate. Huge crowds came out for the opening of Parliament in 2003 when I was there, and the mood was not that of a people living in fear.
But the differences between rich and poor, between nobles and commoners, are enormous. Shanty-dwellers on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa have been ordered by the King to move, but they have no place to go. Unemployment is high, and people are leaving the island at the rate of 2,500 a year, which has a not-insignificant effect on the local economy. Indeed, almost as many Tongans now live offshore as in Tonga, and their remittances, making up most of the country's income, are essential in keeping the place afloat.

The impetus for the current popular reform demands arose from structural adjustments begun in 2002. The government undertook a modernization of the public service, something that should have a familiar ring for Canadian federal public employees. Restructuring began at the top: senior officials were rewarded with salaries even higher than those of cabinet ministers. Privatization has been good to the Crown Prince, as noted, giving him a formerly state-run electric power company; in addition, he runs a telecommunications company that competes with the publicly-owned Tonga Telecommunications Corporation.

Earlier this year, thousands of people took to the streets in a protest against increases in electricity rates, demanding that the Crown Prince-owned electricity monopoly, Shoreline, be returned to the state. It was a not-so-thinly disguised pro-democracy march, shadowing forth the current upheaval.

If you think you might have detected a sour whiff of the IMF in all of this "restructuring," you'd be correct. Earlier last year, in July, the IMF Executive Directors held a "consultation" with Tonga, expressing "concern" at the slow pace of "structural reforms." In their own words:

Directors considered that concerted efforts to limit the wage bill--which remains high by regional standards--and to contain transfers to public enterprises and the rest of the economy will be key elements in consolidating the fiscal deficit. In this regard, Directors expressed concern about the direction of the public service reforms underway, which could undermine much needed wage restraint and impede a genuine restructuring of the civil service. They reiterated the importance of public enterprise reform to improve the efficiency of these enterprises and significantly reduce any transfers to them.

Directors agreed that improvements in the country's medium-term growth prospects will require the authorities to expedite the implementation of structural reforms in the public sector and take steps to promote private sector development.

It is not clear precisely what the nature of the concerns about "direction" are, but Tongan officials jumped to. "Structural adjustment" is a priority, said the Governor of the Bank of Tonga, Siosiua T.T. 'Utoikamanu, at the IMF's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. a few months later. In a prepared statement, he noted that "the two Bretton Woods institutions [the IMF and the World Bank] continue to be valued partners," and assured them that the Tongan government is continuing to take the necessary steps to "pursue its reform objectives," including "structural changes to the public service to achieve higher levels of efficiency."

The Asian Development Bank is also involved:

In 2003, the Government focused on implementing the Economic Public Sector Reform Program (EPSRP), which has the primary aims of maintaining a stable macroeconomic environment and achieving sustainable economic growth led by private sector development.

The EPSRP, recognizing the likely uneven impact of any rightsizing actions on women and youth, has established a unit in the Prime Minister’s department to monitor such impact, and has earmarked funding for mitigation measures.

The editor of Matangi Tonga, Pesi Fonua, notes that the structural reform initiative was supposed to ensure that jobs would be created to absorb public employees displaced when the public service was eventually downsized. There is no doubt, of course, that public service reform in Tonga is necessary: it's part, after all, of a creaky governance structure that people are now in the streets demonstrating against.

But privatization has not improved the lot of ordinary Tongans. Things just haven't gone according to plan, as the earlier demonstrations against electricity increases indicated: privatization has meant high executive salaries, the waiving of electricity bills for cronies, and a rate increase for everybody else. Free trade, Fonua points out, is presently "more of a threat…than an advantage," and an Open Skies policy hasn't made any difference whatsoever in international air travel to Tonga.

In fact, if there was ever living proof that the "one size fits all" privatization nostrum prescribed by the IMF is unworkable and destructive, lass' Sie nach Tonga kommen, to paraphrase JFK. The IMF demands have, in classic dialectical fashion, unleashed forces in Tonga that seem poised to make fundamental positive changes. Imposing a cold, ideologically-bound economic formula on Tonga has succeeded in causing enormous dislocations--but it has also brought the people together with an increasing confidence in their collective strength.

The status quo is clearly untenable, as frail as the King himself. There are just too many modern ideas flowing into the Kingdom of Tonga, too many stresses and strains between old and new. But the privatization reforms imposed by the IMF are yielding a double effect, no doubt doubly unwelcome to the powers that be: they are putting an exploitative hierarchical system in serious jeopardy, and they are increasing the resolve of ordinary Tongans to reach for something better than the further enrichment of the already rich through "structural reform". It's a perilous journey, and I wish them well.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Ecuador gets a friend in need

An interesting story has been developing in the tiny nation of Ecuador for several days. Protesters have managed virtually to shut down the national oil industry, whose exports account for a quarter of the country's GDP, with a fierce campaign of demonstrations, occupations and sabotage. The country was in danger of defaulting on its export commitments. But Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez came to the rescue late this past week, and is sending a "loan" (actually a gift) of Venezuelan oil to cover off those exports. That was where I got interested.

I felt a certain sense of betrayal at first. Chavez is my kind of leader. He's a genuinely popular man of the people, who stands up to the US not just in word but in deed. He has, to Washington's foot-stamping annoyance, won a free election in 1998 with ease, handily survived an incompetent two-day Keystone Koup and an internationally-supervised recall vote, and, now more popular than ever, he's liable to see his support spike still higher in the wake of Pat Robertson’s recent call for his assassination.

Far from being a "strong-arm dictator," (Robertson's words), Chavez respected the astonishing ruling of his country's top court, which found the coup plotters not guilty of anything. They walk free today. Imagine that happening in Canada, or the US.

The wealthy elites and the Bush administration hate him with a passion, and their sludgy stream of lies finds ready acceptance in the mainstream media. In fact, the administration is so fanatical on the subject that they have even been asked to tone it down by staunch Republican Arlen Spector.

Chavez is busy these days: as reported by a right-wing Venezuelan, spluttering with indignation, he

Has bought half a billion dollars of Argentinean debt;

• Is bailing out the Uruguayan National Airline, cost unknown;

• Is injecting $50 million into PetroCaribe, a regional organization to provide the Caribbean countries with subsidized oil;

• Has donated $50 million to the Andean Community for unspecified social programs;

• Is promoting the creation of PetroSur, an oil organization similar to PetroCaribe for the Southern Cone;

• Has increased the supply of strongly subsidized oil to Cuba from 53,000 barrels per day to 90,000 barrels per day;

• Has sunk $10 million into a Venezuelan-controlled regional TV channel, Telesur;

• Is planning to buy 42 oil tankers from Brazil for some $2 billion;

• Has bought about $2 billion worth of helicopters, tanks, guns and other assorted weapons from Russia.

He's also teamed up with Fidel Castro to send doctors to impoverished parts of Latin America. More than 60% of Venezuelans now have free medical assistance. Food for poor families and prescription drugs are subsidized. Chavez has built housing, schools and clinics, increased literacy through more education spending, and abolished fees for public school attendance. Venezuela has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in Latin America. The vast majority of his people love him to bits.

So what's Hugo Chavez doing supporting a pro-American, free-market President, and undercutting popular protests?

First impressions, as it turns out, can be completely off the mark, and this proved to be one of those occasions where a little digging reveals a different story. Here's some background.

Ecuador is the fifth-largest oil producer in Latin America. Most of its exports go to the US. In the past, huge multinationals like Texaco and Occidental have invested heavily in Ecuador and made a lot of money, but the going hasn't been easy for them. Texaco, as noted below, is currently embroiled in a huge lawsuit brought by indigenous peoples in Ecuador. Occidental is being sued by the government for breach of contract.

Ecuador is a desperately poor country, despite its estimated 4.4 billion barrels of oil reserves. Oligarchs who once ruled Ecuador stripped it of its assets, and now sit in Miami as bondholders for this heavily-mortgaged nation. The country’s former president, Lucio Gutierrez, had to kowtow to the IMF and the World Bank just to get loans to survive.

Presidents of Ecuador have been between the proverbial rock and a hard place for some time. Popular unrest led to the deposing of Jamil Mahuad in January 2000, with Vice-President (and banana billionaire) Gustavo Noboa assuming power and presiding over the dollarization of the economy. Lucio Gutierrez, a left populist, governed from January 2003 until this past Spring, when he was driven from office.

Guttierez' story is in some respects remarkably similar to that of Hugo Chavez. He had risen to prominence when ordered by President Mahuad to break up indigenous peoples' demonstrations in Quito in 2000: instead, he set up soup kitchens for them. He engaged with others in an attempted coup, spent time in jail, and then ran for office against Noboa and won.

But he was deposed this past April when his compliance with "structural reform" had become too much for his people to bear, and his attempt to replace the Supreme Court had offended the Ecuadorian Congress. A well-circulated picture of him shaking hands with George W. Bush, and his increase in the price of cooking fuel and other supposedly voluntary "austerity measures," helped to send "Sucio Lucio" (Dirty Lucio) running to the Brazilian Embassy to seek political asylum.

The "voluntary measures," it turns out, were nothing of the kind. The Nation obtained a copy of the World Bank's 2003 Structural Adjustment Program Loan. It dictates that 70% of the windfall increase in oil revenues in the past few years be paid immediately to the bondholders, and another 20% be set aside for future payments. Only 10% was permitted to be used for social spending, in a country of grinding poverty where only a lucky few make the official minimum wage of $153US a month. Electricity prices were to rise to twice what the average American pays, to enrich Ecuadorian electricity suppliers such as American companies Noble Energy and Duke Power.

The new President of Ecuador, Alfredo Palacio, was Gutierrez' Vice-President. He happens to be a conservative, pro-market, pro-American former cardiologist, but the US is already unhappy with him, which is probably good news for poor Ecuadorians.

Says The Nation's Greg Palast:

I showed President Palacio the World Bank documents. He knew their terms well. "If we pay that amount of debt," he told me, "we're dead. We have to survive." Given the oil windfall, Palacio sees no need to follow Gutierrez's path to economic asphyxiation. "It is impossible that they condemn us not to have health, not to have education," he told me. He made it clear that handing over 90 percent of his nation's new oil wealth would not stand.


Palacio got the full "Chávez" treatment from the New York Times, which ran the headline "Ecuador's New Chief Picks Cabinet; Leftist in Economic Post" after Palacio's new finance minister announced Ecuador would put social-services programs first ahead of payments to bondholders. The Times said Palacio's views "ruffled some feathers" (whose, we don't know) and that foreign powers questioned the "legitimacy" of his right to office. Palacio smiled, "They don't say which ones."

Palacio might be a conservative, but he’s a doctor, and he's a realist: "Sick people are not going to produce anything," he said.

So who are the protesters at his door? The Financial Times calls them "community groups." Their leaders include mayors and regional governors from Orellana and Sucumbios provinces, in the Amazon region where much of the oil comes from. They want roads and jobs and more money spent on health, and they're demanding that the oil companies "reverse the environmental damage they have done," as one mayor in Sucumbios, Edmundo Espindola, put it.

Indeed, Sucumbios and Orellana provinces, with large indigenous populations, have suffered pollution ravages at the hands of Texaco on a catastrophic scale. This past May, after a US court ruled that a lawsuit launched in 1993 should be decided in Ecuador, a new suit was brought in that country. 30,000 indigenous people and campesinos affected by oil exploration and extraction are represented. In the current protests, then, we can see environmental, regional and indigenous factors at play, as well as the traditional demands of the poor. It's an explosive mix.

There's a shaky truce in effect at the moment: oil companies and the government promised road building and health spending, although it took only a couple of days for the deal to begin to unravel: protest leaders have angrily denounced apparent backpedaling. 16% of the income taxes paid by the companies were to be diverted towards health, environment and local development, but this, according to Espindola, has become "up to" 16%. Road construction, originally to be completed in three years, will now be done "when possible." The next few days should be interesting ones.

In the meantime, Palacio knows there have been seven Presidents of Ecuador in the past nine years. He faces a rebellious population on one hand, and George Bush, rich expatriate Ecuadorians, oil companies and the IMF/World Bank on the other. He has a hard row to hoe, as did his unfortunate predecessor. But he's found a wealthy supporter in Hugo Chavez, and the balance may have tipped in Ecuador's favour. As a former minister in his government, Rafael Correa, put it, "this time we will not negotiate with Wall Street but with friendly countries." How nice to have a choice.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Day-boy at Hogwarts

[Reference: "Help! Mom! There are politics in my children's books!"]

Taking the magic train twice a day is no picnic, and I never did get to meet Harry, so don't ask. I'm the kid in the second row, rooting for the Hufflepuff Quiddich team, for all the good it did: they never had a prayer, so the Pope says. The Slytherin folks magicked their way into the championships as usual, and won the last two with fixed brooms and obedient Golden Snitches. They're busy raiding another school or two at the moment, setting up new classes in adder-baiting and spell-binding. Their leader, Draco Malfoy, keeps waving his huge wand around. He could put out someone's eye with that thing. Good imported witch-hazel, every twig ensorcelled by a nasty charm called the countervail that gives even more gold to his rich friends.

Today is a typical day. (We don’t get any days off, by the way, because that could interfere with what muggles call "the learning process.") I hate Snape's class. He's always got us up to no good. Old Dumbledore just looks at us sadly when we show off our new powers. "Develop your own," he moans, and talks a lot about "cultural identity," whatever that is. All I know is the spells Snape taught me work even better since Draco’s friend Crabbe was given a special term assignment called the "CBC." They say he's going to fail, though, because he didn't hand it in. He says he lost it, but we think he buried it somewhere. And you know what? I bet he's going to get an A+ anyway.

Snape had a kid named Arar kicked out of Hufflepuff over to Slytherin, and another kid named Almalki who was visiting the place, just because he didn’t like their names. Said we might learn something, but they just got bullied for a few terms and we didn't learn anything at all. At least, I don't think so, but Snape keeps looking mysterious and invoking the National Security Spell of Silence.

A handful of Slytherin kids were living in nearly half of Ravenclaw, sort of grabbed it some time ago. A friend of Malfoy's, Gregory Goyle, got them moved out so the Ravenclaw kids could move back, but now they're over here in Hufflepuff, joining a bigger bunch who've been taking over our place for years, wing by wing . One thing even a day-boy notices: the drinking fountains only work in the Slytherin-occupied parts of the building. But everybody thinks Malfoy's friend did something good. I think somebody's slipped them one of Snape's potions.

Like I say, it's a pretty ordinary day. There's another Worm in the walls, called Zotob. Some of the Slytherin second-years are beating up on a new bug named Cindy from Gryffindor because they say she talks too much. A kid was caught down in Hogsmeade smoking magic weed. They're going to expel him to the Dark Lands, I hear. A greedy bunch in the Great Hall won't share their oil, as usual. Hermione's pet moonbat escaped, but she's not getting any help because nobody else here seems to like the things. McGonagall is teaching us all how to voip. And Dumbledore is telling everybody to watch out for Lord Voldemort.

What I can never figure out for sure is just who Lord Voldemort is. Everybody talks about him all the time: Hogwarts is always being threatened. I know that because Dumbledore flies different coloured flags every day to let us know when we're in danger, at risk, or just unsafe. Some call Voldemort a Mullah, or a Sheik, or even a Caliph named "Osama." But others say he's Draco Malfoy's father, Lucius. A few creepy-looking kids are whispering that Draco's friend Goyle is behind it all. Some think Lord V. is Draco himself.

There's still so much to learn. But I gotta go. No way I want to be in this place after dark.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Liberty and Safety

On the Globe & Mail's masthead appears this quotation from Junius: "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures." The newspaper's shameful defence of security certificates today departs from its own advice at near-lightspeed.

Adil Charkaoui had been imprisoned without charge or trial under a security certificate for nearly two years, until he was finally freed on bail on February 17. Four other detainees remain behind bars: Hassan Almrei, for close to four years; Mohammad Mahjoub, for more than five years; Mohamed Harkat, for nearly three years; and Mahmoud Jaballah, for four years this month. All face torture, and possibly execution, if deported to their countries of origin.

Charkaoui has been granted a review of his detention by the Supreme Court of Canada. This has prompted the Globe to publish possibly one of the most dishonest and disingenuous editorials in its recent history, although there are many to choose from. It’s worth dissecting in detail.

Here is its major premise: "Far from being a Draconian attack on non-citizens, the security-certificate law makes possible the country's generosity and openness." It goes on: "A country cannot embrace all the world's peoples, as Canada does, without reserving for itself the right to remove those newcomers it deems dangerous -- as long as due process is preserved."

Now, let's have a look at that "due process" the Globe is prating about. Charges under Canadian law? Nope. A trial? Nope. The right to examine evidence? Nope. The right to cross-examine witnesses? Nope again.

What these five men get is a deportation hearing. As the Globe says, the government has the right to detain and then deport them "if it persuades a judge that its belief is based upon reasonable grounds." In fact, the editorial lays out precisely what "due process" amounts to in these circumstances:

The government may ask a Federal Court judge to keep some of the evidence private, either to preserve national security or to protect the safety of individuals. But it is the judge, not the state, who decides what is private and what should be public….A hearing follows in open court, and the suspect and his lawyer are given a chance to call witnesses, and to rebut the state’s case. The secret parts are summarized by the judge. There is a frequent opportunity for review by independent judges.

Why am I not reassured? Because I try to put myself in the place of Adil Charkaoui. I have a lawyer, who doesn't know the charges against me, because there aren't any, nor can she review much of the evidence. She tries to cross-examine a CSIS witness: the witness declines to answer, on the grounds of "national security." The judge (a government appointee) summarizes evidence, but is obviously not subject to cross-examination. Numerous ex parte meetings take place between the judge and the government lawyers. I begin to wonder if I'm really in Canada after all. Then it's back to prison, unless I'm lucky enough, on my fourth attempt in 21 months (like Adil Charkaoui), to make bail, under such strict conditions that I need to go back to court to ask permission to find books in a library.

"The law is respectful of due process," the Globe editorial continues. I begin to wonder why it wasn’t written in Newspeak: Big Brother is doubleplusgood. Here's more:

Once here, anyone, whatever crimes they may be suspected of [emphasis mine], is entitled to make a refugee claim. …The protection of Canada’s Charter ensures an impartial hearing for refugee claimants. That process may take years. Consider, then, what might happen if there were no security-certificate law, and a suspected [emphasis mine] crime boss or terrorist entered Canada. He might live for years in freedom.

Horrors! Innocent until proven guilty! But how to prove guilt?

Should Canada send police abroad to conduct a criminal investigation every time someone who raises a red flag comes to this country? That is not a realistic option, or even a desirable one.

The question of precisely how that "red flag" gets raised, of course, is left out of the editorial. The system worked well for Maher Arar, didn’t it? And he was a citizen!

Then this piece of disingenuous claptrap:

Imagine…that a terrorist incident occurred, as it did in Britain last month with the loss of scores of lives. Canadians would discover that they were powerless to do anything about foreign terrorist suspects living in their midst.

The fact that the bombers were home-grown has escaped the writer. But, more seriously, the editorial plays a sleazy little game with language: are the "terrorist suspects" in the above example implicated in the "terrorist incident?" If so, Canada is anything but powerless: our police could round them up and charge them, our courts could try them, and, if found guilty, could imprison or deport them. That's due process, folks. No closed courts. No secret evidence. No years in prison without charge or trial.

The Globe concludes:

Mr. Charkaoui is asking the Supreme Court, in effect, to choose liberty over security. The choice is a false one. One is not possible without the other.

No, he is not, so let’s dispose of that straw-man. Mr. Charkaoui is challenging the grounds for his imprisonment without trial, and his threatened deportation to Morocco, where he faces the likelihood of torture and death. (Canada’s non-compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture, in fact, has recently drawn critical scrutiny from the UN’s Committee Against Torture.) He is asking for the very due process, in fact, that has been denied to him thus far.

Perhaps the editorialist, who reassures us that the police and the courts and the government must know what they’re doing, would walk us through the Maher Arar mess, just to show us that we have nothing to fear. Or explain why the Globe, presumably not privy to the secret evidence on that occasion either, so hotly attacked the use of a security certificate in the case of neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel.

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety," Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said, "deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Ben, meet Junius. And why don't the two of you have a nice sit-down with the Globe editorial board?

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Having spent far too much time reading fundamentalist right-wing blogs recently, I thought I might take a stab at looking at the world through a Christian lens today. Exercising the imagination is useful on occasion. Oddly enough, though, things look much the same as they always have, ranging from the bizarre to the extreme. The categories are fun to work with, however, so here are some updates on the Seven Deadly Sins. (If I get around to it, I'll post something on the Seven Heavenly Virtues sometime, but I find sin far more interesting. Don't you? Hands up all those who prefer Dante's Paradiso to his Inferno. Yeah, thought so.)

Pride: City employees in Buffalo enjoy good medical benefits, including elective cosmetic surgery. Police and firefighters head the list of those who are seeking corporeal retrofitting. Middle-aged Detective James Giardina opted for a $4000 hair transplant, while balding Officer Kevin Biggs went the other way: "It was more convenient to have the neck hair removed than to shave it on a daily basis," he said.

Not realizing the peril to his immortal soul, Detective Giardina said, "I'm not a real vain person, but I guess I do feel better."

Buffalo civic employees had 2,451 cosmetic procedures done last year, including 363 liposuctions, 181 face-lifts, 152 breast enlargements and 126 hair transplants.

Envy: This sin is defined as "the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation." A man in the US named Dennis Avner has had countless surgical procedures to make himself look like a tiger: his teeth have been replaced with "tiger-like" dentures, his upper lip has been split, his ears are now pointed, and eighteen piercings above his lip permit the attachment of whiskers.

Or is this pride? Why not, er, ask him yourself? I'm a dog person.

Greed: Closer to home, comfy Ontario is crying poor. Having to help out less fortunate provinces under the federal equalization scheme may reduce the province to "have-not" status within five years, according to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. This brings to mind a comment attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith about neo-con economics: it's based on the notion, he said, that the poor have too much money and the rich don't have enough.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, workers are fighting among themselves: a recent $14.5 million 6/49 jackpot was claimed by nine employees from an A&W, but the payment has been put on hold until the claim of two additional workers to have been part of the pool is investigated. If upheld, each employee will still receive around $1.3 million. Minus massive legal fees, of course. Four rootbeers for the lawyers at Table Three, please.

Gluttony: Investigators have discovered that the ingestion of sugar triggers the release of opiate-like compounds into the body in what has been described as something similar to addiction, or the switching on of an in-built craving. A professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, Ann Kelley, notes: "This is a very ancient motivation. Even bacteria will swim toward sugar."

This raises a delicate theological point. To what extent are we prisoners of our physiology? Do we have choice in the matter? Is there a gay gene? [Cancel that last one--ed.]

Or could this be, on the other hand, an argument against “intelligent design?” Not necessarily: perhaps, as one commentator put it, God should simply never have taken that day off. Maybe then our sinuses wouldn’t drain upwards, either, and males would have a safer place to store a couple of their reproductive organs.

Lust: The Mexican National Women's Institute is up in arms over a campaign by conservationists to save the turtle. Men have apparently been scarfing down turtle's eggs to reach the finish line--they're said to be a kind of natural Viagra. Wildcoast, a conservation group, has been employing Dorismar, a scantily-clad Argentinian model [You’re welcome--ed.] in public service announcements. "My man does not need turtle eggs because he knows they don’t make him more potent," she says, in various skimpy costumes.

The women's group, not unreasonably, sees this as a step backwards in their continuing struggle to overcome deeply-ingrained Mexican machismo. The Wildcoast folks aren't backing down, though: they maintain that they're trying to reach the very audience that needs reaching. The total numbers of seven species of sea turtles had dwindled to a few thousand by last year, thanks to widespread egg-poaching [No more of that--ed.]. Another chapter, it seems, in that on-going Velikovskian political epic, When Struggles Collide.

Sloth: Corinne Maier, an economist at Electricité de France (EDF), a state-owned utility, has written a best-selling book, Bonjour paresse (Hello, Laziness). She is a strong believer in the siesta ethic. In her words:

Businesses don't wish you well and don't respect the values they champion. This book will help you take advantage of your company, rather than the other way around. It will explain why it's in your interest to work as little as possible and how to screw the system from within without anyone noticing.

Anger: EDF started disciplinary action against Maier for "spreading gangrene through the system," and (strangely) for not acknowledging on her book’s back cover that she worked for them. They quietly dropped it after the book became a best-seller. Asked why she remains at her job, she said, "I stay only because it makes my boss very angry."

Only The Da Vinci Code outsold the book in France last year. That could tempt quite a few Christians to be angry, too.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

CBC workers launch new careers

Last night I attended a hastily thrown together and highly successful fundraiser at Ottawa's National Library for the locked-out CBC workers.

It was an odd feeling for an old trade unionist, seeing those who had interviewed us in the past mixing and mingling with us as just plain folks. When Rita Celli talked to me on LeBreton Flats a few years back (2001 PSAC strike), she was every inch a reporter doing her job, asking the tough questions; and I was on the public record, knowing it, and trying to be careful and succinct in my choice of words. Hardly an ideal human exchange. But there she was on-stage last evening, leading a rousing chorus to the tune of "When I’m Sixty-Four," with Bob Carty and a supportive young contract worker on guitars, and solid back-up vocals from other CBC folks:

When it gets colder
Snow in the air
Will you let me in?
Will you still be talking "flexibility"?
Losing ratings for CBC?

If I work part-time
Maybe for free
Would you love me more?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
Or show me out the door?

When I get older
Still working here
You'll never make me rich
Watching as you take my pension benefits
Thank you kindly, Rabinovitch

You lost the Olympics
Screwed local news
Curlers hate you, too
Do you start talking
Do we keep walking
Or flush it down the loo?

It was her genuine and very human outrage that really impressed me, though. She spoke of the lies currently being told on air by CBC management: calling this a "work stoppage," or a "labour dispute," when the workers have been locked out. Re-running Michael Enright and Shelagh Rogers, giving the impression that they're still on the job when they're actually outside on the picket line.

The evening featured a high-energy benefit by the magnificent Cultural Heritage Choir, who stayed on after the Ottawa Folk Festival to make common cause. It was a packed house, a pile of money was raised for the workers, and a good time was had by all.

But it may be a long road ahead, and as one of the Choir noted, "You'll get tired. You just have to keep going." Market share is diminishing, and with much more of this the CBC may never recover. Could that be the plan? After all, the CBC has been undergoing a slow throttling for years by successive Liberal governments. Is the coup de grâce coming--to cripple MotherCorp and sell it off in a firesale?

If you support our CBC, if you're tired of the funding squeeze, tired of the CBC drought, tired of seeing your money spent on expensive full-page ads from CBC managers flush with high salaries and bonuses, and tired of their attempts to replace a team of loyal, dedicated, long-term employees with a contingent workforce, stand up and do something. Show up on the picket lines. Write your MP, and write the CBC Board to let them know what you think of their frontal assault on a Canadian institution and its locked-out workers:

Let's not wait for the album to come out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Shocking police abuse

The Canadian Police Research Centre has OK'ed the use in the field of tasers, whoops, "conducted energy devices," by Canadian police officers, after finding no evidence that their use causes death. The CPRC is a partnership of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the RCMP and the National Research Council.

I shall try to refrain from easy analogies: the Sugar Institute finding that obesity is not related to sucrose intake, or the Tobacco Institute discovering that smoking is non-addictive. Instead, I want to tell the story of an Ottawa activist whom I'll call Peter Jones.

A couple of years ago, a demonstration took place outside the offices of Minister of Immigration Denis Coderre, in support of Algerian refugees fearing deportation who were at that time occupying his office. I belong to a community organization (Ottawa Witness Group) that monitors police activity at demonstrations, and three of our group were present that evening. Here is an excerpt of their report:

Two women, whom Witnesses observed to be standing on the street immediately outside the front doors to 365 Laurier, were suddenly arrested, handcuffed and led away (a mother and daughter). Force was used on the younger woman, who was pushed face down on the pavement, and her arms were immediately forced behind her back and her wrists handcuffed. At one point, her prone body was lifted off the ground by pulling up on her handcuffed wrists, obviously causing considerable pain. Photos of this arrest were taken.

The group of about 20 tactic squad officers on the street grabbed one of the demonstrators, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, twisted his head on the ground, put a fist to his Adam's apple and dragged him to a police car. Police tasered him a number of times after he had been subdued. As they were taking him down, the demonstrator said that there was no need to use violence as he was not resisting, and said "you are breaking my arms..." One of the Witnesses made note of the identification tags on the officers involved in this operation.

Another officer tasered a female demonstrator near two witnesses. She had been chanting slogans but was on the sidewalk across the street from the entrance to 365 Laurier. She reported the names of the officer involved to us. One witness noted that he saw the officer press a taser gun onto the woman's left breast and fire.

Jones, the man who had been subdued, made a formal complaint to police, although the complaints procedure is, to put it bluntly, a farce in which police investigate themselves. The testimony of our group was discounted: the accounts of police witnesses were upheld. Jones' non-violent resistance (going limp on the sidewalk after an arrest that proved to be ill-founded) was considered to be "active resistance" and the use of "pain compliance" (repeated tasering) was considered appropriate under the circumstances. Unfortunately for the Ottawa cops, a civilian was videotaping the whole thing, and police actions are now under investigation in a rare intervention by Ontario's Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCOPS). At a recent hearing, the police videotape of the incident, oddly enough, was found to be missing the few seconds when the tasering actually occurred.

At a meeting between the Ottawa Witness Group and police representatives from their Major Events Liaison Team, the police were asked what the official guidelines were for using tasers. They replied that they could not divulge that information. To this day, no one in Ottawa (other than the police) knows when the use of this weapon is authorized, or even if there are guidelines for its use.

Gretchen over at Green Lantern has done a fine job of compiling instances of police taser abuse throughout North America, and indeed they are legion. One victim of this device was an Aboriginal kid asleep in a car who was tasered repeatedly. The case had possible racial overtones: while a judge found the taser use to be an "abuse of use of force" and "cruel and unusual treatment," Crown prosecutors in Edmonton declined to prosecute the police officer involved--who just happened to be the son of a former police chief.

Other victims of the taser have included a six-year-old boy, a disabled teen, a pregnant woman, a Florida man strapped down on a hospital bed who wouldn’t provide a urine sample--even a man whose "crime" was overloading his salad plate at Chuck E. Cheese. What we have in the taser, in fact, is a hi-tech version of that good old Southern US police staple, the cattle prod.

Amnesty International has compiled a massive amount of documentation on the use of tasers, which in many cases "contravenes international standards prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as standards set out under the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials."

But back to Ottawa. The Ottawa police are now calling the taser an alternative to firearms. "In circumstances where they may have to access their firearm, to resolve the situation, it gives them another tool," Ottawa Police Chief Vince Bevan says.

Perhaps Peter Jones ought to count his blessings.

Your morning smile

It's not's of a lower lethality.
--Steve Palmer, executive director of the Canadian Police Research Centre, on the taser

Monday, August 22, 2005

Canada on drugs

People are facing ruin in Canada because they can't afford a medicine that costs less than ten cents a capsule to produce.

The drug is thalidomide, once used as a sleeping pill and to alleviate morning sickness for pregnant women, with the well-known terrible effects on their offspring. The disease is multiple myeloma, a bone-marrow cancer. Thalidomide has been found to be effective in treating this cancer, starving tumours of blood and stimulating the immune system.

In Canada, the drug is sold for as much as $37.50 per capsule. Over the past five years, the price of Thalomid, as it is now called, has increased in price ninefold. The US-based manufacturer, Celgene Corporation, has found itself a nice little dodge that keeps the generic version off the shelves.

Here's how it works. The patent on the drug expired in 1976. Ordinarily, this would open up the market for generic drug manufacturers to offer it at a much lower price. But the only access to thalidomide in Canada is through Health Canada's special-access program, by which unapproved drugs can be provided as an emergency measure on a per-patient basis when other treatments are contraindicated.

Because the drug has not been approved, generic drug manufacturers are not permitted to sell it in Canada. But Celgene Corporation is in no hurry to ask for such approval, given the profits it is raking in through the special-access program. A year's supply of the drug can cost a patient as much as $54,000.

In Brazil, where the drug is provided free to patients by the government, the drug costs less than a dime per capsule to produce. The system in Canada doesn't work that way. Big Pharma has always done well here: the process of "evergreening" continues, for example, by which generic drugs are kept off the market for years after a patent expires, through adroit litigation.

Even George W. Bush has recognized the measures to which Big Pharma has resorted to keep its profits high:

When a drug patent is about to expire, one method some companies use is to file a brand new patent based on a minor feature, such as the color of the pill bottle or a specific combination of ingredients unrelated to the drug's effectiveness. In this way, the brand name company buys time through repeated delays, called automatic stays, that freeze the status quo as the legal complexities are sorted out.

In Canada, a half-hearted review of evergreening is going on, after an outcry over Liberal connivance with Big Pharma during a session of the House Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in 2003. The Committee backpedaled quickly after that, agreeing to review the practice, but no changes are yet in place, and the ones proposed will not do the trick.

The system as a whole is in need of radical change if generic companies can be so easily kept from putting low-cost pharmaceuticals into the hands of needy Canadians. In the meantime, citizens like 75-year-old Dorothy Ingraham will pay until they are bankrupt for a drug that costs pennies to make, and worry what might happen to them when the money runs out.

Your morning smile

I hate to say it, but my sympathy for Cindy Sheehan is dropping fast.
--Angry in the Great White North, August 14, 2005 08:28 a.m.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Timing is everything

The Times of London is reporting that a potentially deadly Al-Qaeda attack on the House of Commons has been thwarted. According to "an internal police document obtained by the Sunday Times," this was to have included the use of Sarin nerve gas, and chemicals, and a dirty bomb (oh my!) but this latter-day Guy Fawkes plot was discovered in encrypted emails decoded by an Al-Qaeda "supergrass." "Several more plots" were uncovered as well.

This, right in the midst of shocking revelations about the police execution of Jean Charles de Menezes (for such it almost certainly was, based upon a "Gold Command" order), knowing silence and misstatements from Scotland Yard, a bungled hush-money ploy, and a growing feud between police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which, despite attempted police obstruction, is trying to get to the smelly bottom of it all.

Sir Ian Blair, the metropolitan London police commissioner, is now playing the "wuzn’t me" card when reminded of faulty descriptions of de Menenzes' clothing and demeanour just before he was gunned down. Scotland Yard simply went along with excited and false eyewitness reports. Blair claimed at the time that de Menezes had not responded to police orders to stop: "As I understand it, the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions." Scotland Yard, later the same day, stated that de Menezes' "clothing and behaviour at the station" had led to the shooting. Now it seems that Blair was winging it: he only learned that an innocent man had been killed twenty-four hours later. At least, that's the story now.

(As a fascinating aside, Ian Blair once wanted to become an actor, but "realised he lacked the talent to turn professional. He opted to join the police as soon as he graduated.")

Now, back to the new shock and awe: when exactly was the headline-grabbing "everything but the kitchen sink" attack on Parliament discovered? Er, several months ago. In fact, it led to "increase[d] security around parliament this summer." The plot had allegedly been hatched last year. Old news, arriving in the nick of time to re-focus public anxiety about de Menezes' death onto what the embattled Ian Blair calls "the bigger picture."

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, British authorities have downgraded their terror alert. Go figure. I think I've already done so.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Police state follies

9/11 and more recent events have provided police ever more opportunities to put into effect what they've always wanted: arbitrary powers of detention (C-36 gave them that), new and wonderful crowd-control weapons, and now a considerably enhanced snoop capability. Times are hard, these days, for the civil libertarian crowd.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, a former civil rights advocate, is proposing sweeping powers to monitor cellphone conversations and Internet traffic. The measures would force Internet service providers to hand over detailed information on demand, regarding the surfing habits of individuals and their on-line pseudonyms. Personal emails, text messages, even secure websites used for financial transactions would be open to police scrutiny. Not to worry, says Cotler: this is just a technological update to put police "on the same level playing field as criminals and terrorists."

Similar soothing words come from Alex Swan, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan, the Minister whose original C-36 draft would have defined an illegal strike as a terrorist act. Judicial oversight, he says, will prevent police from abusing the new measures to go after people for minor offences like illegal music downloads, and the cost involved will serve as a further check.

But Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, for one, is unimpressed. Ominously, she notes that the proposed law would give police access to GPS data from cellphones and detailed electronic banking information that "could allow the government to track an individual's every move." And Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says, bluntly, that the new law goes "well, well beyond" technological updating, warning that "it fundamentally reshapes the Internet in Canada, creating significant new surveillance powers." Indeed, the measures would allow police to do this without court authority of any kind.

One report suggests that the NDP is supportive. "Generally, members of the committee from all parties are concerned about the limitations police are operating under," justice critic Joe Comartin is quoted as saying. "Our police forces always seem to be lagging behind." Comartin made his comments in the context of child pornography, and he has actually supported a tighter rein on Canada's security services, but perhaps his disgust with child porn has blinded him to the dangers of the new proposals.

Once again, we are given an object lesson in ends, means, and justification.

Many--perhaps most--Canadians will yawn, ask Geist and Stoddart what their problem is, and don't they know that police need the wherewithal to fight terrorism and child pornography? But never mind the ostensible reasons and the ostensible targets. The state is building a tool here that can be used--easily used--for ill as well as for good, by anyone's definition. We have to look at the apparatus, sometimes, and not what it makes. If someone constructs a nuclear can-opener, it's reasonable to ask what else it might be used for.

I am not reassured about the cost argument: most of those expenses will be borne by ISPs who will be forced to keep detailed and intrusive records to which the police will have ready access. But, more important, what is outlined is an all-encompassing snoop capacity that, frankly stated, must be every police agency's wet dream. Remember that the state once determined Communism, then separatism, and now the even more ill-defined terrorism as the enemy, and unleashed its enforcement arm, the police, to take care of things. What was the result?

I lived through the Cold War, when blundering Mounties investigated a 15-year-old kid in Winnipeg for joking that Santa Claus was a Communist. Then there were the days of dirty tricks, with fake mail and barn-burning, followed by Sergeant Hugh Stewart gleefully hosing down non-violent demonstrators and reporters with pepper-spray, and then the rash and brutal RCMP actions at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The Mounties have never been accountable to the public: the Chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, Ms. Shirley Heafey, has encountered a continuing lack of cooperation from the RCMP in her efforts to probe complaints.

So let me simply pose the question in the bluntest of terms. Do Canadians really want these unsophisticated, unaccountable, often impulsive cops pawing through their email and listening in on their cell-phone calls and checking into their finances at will--in the name of security? Over to you.