Friday, April 24, 2015

Oh Canada, do we stand on guard?


Eighty percent of Canadians live in cities. Major media sources are situated in our southern cities.  Our new digital media devices put us a virtual world far removed from the natural spaces of Canada. Human ecology or the interaction of people and the environment is strongly affected by the democratic, legal and institutional framework in a country.  Our democracy represents the people, but is it a tyranny of a southern urban majority against the land?
An opinion editorial in the city newspaper complains about a billion dollar expenditure on a big project up north. Instead, the money should be spent on a more worthy cause of new transportation to relieve congestion in the big city.  A segment on the evening television news advocates giving czar like powers to mayors of major cities. A mayor acting as the chairperson of the municipal council does not have power commensurate with the great populations and economic muscle of these places. Do our urban perspectives distort our understanding of Canada, and affect the sustainable development and protection of our natural spaces?
Our notions of the great Canadian hinterland do not start up in the far north or Arctic. The hinterland is anywhere north of the urbanized south. (Yes, Alberta we do know that your capital is a bit further north, but you also whack your hinterland in pursuit of tarry dollars.)  A major feature of Canada's democracy is our Federal system with Provincial Governments. The powers devolved to Provinces are considerable. These visionary  arrangements were intended to make government of differing Canadian regions practical and effective. Even with the division of Canada into Provinces, there remains considerable variety of geographic and environmental conditions within the larger Provinces and Territories.  About sixty percent of Canada's First Nations languages are found in British Columbia because it has the greatest variety of terrain, climate and environment.
Much of Canada's economy is already dependent on renewable resources such as forestry, agriculture, and water, supplemented by gas, oil and mineral resources situated in a mid belt across the country. This swath of the country already has a history of multiple ghost towns, and male dominated work camps.  Permanence, social stability and sustainability are not evident, and towns often lack sidewalks and other amenities expected in southern cities.  There is a southern city bias in our democracy.
Ownership of extensive Crown or public lands makes Provincial Governments trustees of huge swaths of the Canadian landscape. The benefits of democracy and sustainability were intended to be extended to lands and forests through the enduring trusteeship of governments.  Provincial politicians have used the wealth of these places to hold power and attract our votes.  Politicians have greater regard for the instruments of power than for the care of land. Moving the trusteeship of public lands from capital city centers closer to resource dependent communities would represent progress in democracy and sustainability.
Binging on abundant natural resources was a feature of the early development of North America by Europeans. The Passenger Pigeon, once the most numerous bird on the planet, was quickly reduced from a population of three billion to extinction.  Their habitat was reduced by exploitation of forests in eastern North America. When there were just a few Passenger Pigeons left in captivity in the early years of the Twentieth Century, British Columbia decided to retain its forests in public ownership and manage them by a independent professional forest service. The intent was to protect forests from privateers and develop a sustainable forest products industry and stable forest dependent communities. A century later, the virgin forest assets have been somewhat depleted and the forest industry and dependent communities are facing sustainability difficulties.
A century of BC Government administrations failed to ensure sustainability of public forests because binging on the hinterland to feed the center or cities was and remains, the accepted norm in Canada. Forest management was shared with corporate timber interests that gained private timber harvesting rights in public forests. The right to harvest crops from land is hardly the best stewardship arrangement to ensure sustainability. This type of lease, known as a usufruct, was first developed by the Roman Empire to facilitate the flow of wealth from the hinterlands to Rome.  First Nations people understand the colonial attitude of central Provincial or Federal Governments.  Resource dependent communities are starting to realize that they are in the same boat.
Canada is a country with a peaceful and almost boring history with few social conflicts.  In recent years, environmental issues out in the hinterland have been friction points. Forest harvesting, mines or pipeline construction have sparked polarized disputes and civil disobedience. The polarity in these disputes is often hatched in cities. The movers and shakers conceive them high in a city skyscrapers with intentions of making much money as fast as possible. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a city based environmental organization will want to stop any development or save an area by giving it a protected area or park designation.  Local communities near the proposed development are forced to takes sides. The polarized proposals may not offer the best long term stability for these communities. 
Short term economic forces often win resource development disputes. Usually, the developments involve rapid resource exploitation. The forces of global capitalism, large sometimes international corporations, governments and state institutions advance these developments.  Billions of dollars in gold were taken out of the Giant Gold Mine at Yellowknife and the public were left with the expense of dealing with arsenic waste.  The rest of us, help the effort along by voting for the politician with the usual tune: "It's about the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs."  Does our economy need to be dependent on moving to the next natural resource binge when the last one is depleted. The latest form of promotional political gas in British Columbia is liquefied natural gas.  What kind of sovereign nation orchestrates the exploitation of its rural environments from distant city centers at the behest of international corporate forces?  If this is the kind of sovereignty Prime Minister Harper intends for the Arctic, he should wave the Canadian flag elsewhere.
Canada needs some new institutional and constitutional arrangements.  The recent Canada Supreme Court decision on aboriginal title specifies a devolved trusteeship. Aboriginal title does not supply individual ownership, but the right of an aboriginal group to sustain the values of an area of land for present and future generations. It is an advanced concept that should be applied to all resource dependent communities. Devolution of trusteeship of public lands and forests from Provincial capitals to local areas or regions is a promising solution.  A responsible institutional arrangement would be a local trust with and elected board and professional resource managers to ensure sustainability. Media articles on aboriginal title have focused on the impact on existing privateers on public lands. Revenue sharing is seen as the solution. Provincial governments have long experience of resource development revenue sharing. It is not foundation for sustainability, but an incentive for over-exploitation. It is the mechanism used by governments to transfer wealth from the hinterland to the city.  It has been the primary motivator for the failure of provincial governments to exercise adequate trusteeship of public lands and the environment.
At the national or federal level, we need to think about constitutional  arrangements that will move the focus from our overgrown southern cities to more stable communities and economic development within the middle belt across Canada. An economy that refines, processes and adds value to raw resources will give more employment and long term stability. We need not add to Canada's long list of ghost towns and male dominated work camps. Male dominated work camps are not a feature of the city, except perhaps the House of Commons.
Canada's Parliament and constitutional democracy embeds southern city bias and perspectives because our elected House of Commons represents population. The present 41st Parliament will go down in history as the time of the Senate scandal. We should hardly be surprised that there are a few pigs at the trough in this unelected remnant of the feudal House of Lords. Rather than just report the titillating details of the scandal, the media should view the problem as an indicator that Canada needs to make some improvements to its democracy and constitution.  The first option is to abolish the Senate. The media aired this idea for a few days until it was determined that a constitutional reform effort involving the provinces would be needed.  Too difficult and lengthy to attempt, it seems.  Progressive reform of the Senate got little media attention for the same reason. Canada was not built by backing away from difficulties or challenges. The terrain, climate and biology of Canada are challenging.  We need to remember where we live, and we need vision for this land.
The media interviewer, like most Canadians, is a little too polite, with a tendency to swallow any answer, and a reluctance to press hard questions. Politicians have wallowed in the Senate scandal and tried to score points by throwing mud. None of the political parties has offered real solutions for reform. Constitutional reform involving the Provinces is possible and can be accomplished. This should not be accepted as an excuse for failure to make democratic progress through Senate reform. The real reluctance is centered around the fact a democratically elected Senate would mean a reversal of the trend toward concentration of power in the Prime Minister's office. An elected Senate that represents areas, cultures and places could supply needed balance in Canada's democracy. Such a Senate would not give us the problems of US democracy.
An elected Senate is not just an abstract political concept. It will bring real economic and social benefits to Canada.  First Nations, Inuit and French cultures will feel more at home in Canada. Area based representation will move Canada's focus from the southern developed strip. Southern cities are already experiencing the effects of over population.
Senate reform needs to involve the Provinces. However, some simple formula for a fixed number of senators from each province, as is the case in USA, will not suit Canada's geography. Major cities are places that could elect a senator. Representation of regions, rural areas or geographic regions within Provinces and Territories would be the central component of Senate seat constituencies. French, Inuit and First Nations cultures also need to be represented. Obviously, there will be considerable debate owing to the varied nature of our geography and history. Prince Edward Island will want at least one Senate seat although it has approximately eighteen percent of the area and population of Vancouver Island. The problems are not completely intractable and some flexibility will be required.

Canada heads towards another federal election and the media needs to keep solutions to the defunct Senate on the agenda. At elections, the average Joe realizes that he is just being tweaked by favorable noises in an agenda set by politicians. The main aim is for a few politicians to gain power for a few years.  Considerable apathy at elections is to be expected. The media can play an important role in expanding the agenda and election debates.  An elected and effective Senate would widen the distribution of power in Parliament and protect democracy.  Senate reform is an opportunity for a new vision for the country, to move to a more mature and stable economy through greater processing and better use of our natural resources. It will mean a better quality of environment and greater stability of communities in Canada's mid belt. A Senate that represents land area and cultures will balance the representation of population. It will bring better stewardship to the environment and extend democracy to the land.