Stephen Harper’s latest deals have caused a stirring across Canada from grassroots organizations and citizens opposed to the outsourcing of Canada’s resources and the government’s insistent catering to multinational corporations. In particular, the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) threatens to give multinational corporations unprecedented control over the Canadian government through investor-state arbitration. Harper’s eagerness to appease oil-hungry China and allow foreign buy-outs of homegrown resources not only destabilizes Canada’s own resource growth, but could also crucially damage the lives of First Nations indigenous communities and the prosperity of Canada’s environment and coast. The discontent against these rulings is mounting as human rights groups, environmental groups, indigenous peoples, students, labour unions, and civil society organizations respond to Harper’s neoliberal policies. Organizations are mobilizing and binding together under a proposed horizontal method of debate and discussion, currently conceptualized as a ‘grassroots approach to a Canada-Quebec-Indigenous Peoples’ Social Forum’.
Expansion Commissions have formed in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto to mobilize and propose a General Assembly that would bring together various groups and organizations across Canada. Meetings have also been planned in Vancouver and the Atlantic region. The People’s Social Forum want to represent a pluralistic, non-party and decentralized body that would work to ensure that the Canadian government is representing, and held accountable to, the Canadian people.
Brent Patterson, the Political Director at the Council of Canadians, has been involved in the preliminary meetings with Alternatives and various organizations that have been exploring and negotiating the creation of this social forum. The Council of Canadians is Canada’s largest citizens’ organization, and works to promote progressive policies that best protect the social and economic wellbeing of Canadians.
Patterson defined the process of establishing the forum as “an opportunity to define a vision but also recognize the immediate threats ahead of us.” The social movement has the opportunity to bridge the divide between various voices of dissidence that have been mobilizing around the same root causes.
“The social movement across this country has been relatively fragmented, divided into different areas and consequently hasn’t been as strong is it could be if it were more united. It seems that this forum is an opportunity for us as a social movement to talk with each other across geographic, linguist, cultural and other divides.”
Reasons to Mobilize:
The Canada-China FIPA Investment Deal:
The Canada-China FIPA investment deal is one of the most contentious and dangerous treaties tabled in parliament – and could pass without a single vote or debate. The treaty was tabled in late September 2012, and could be adopted by Cabinet at any point, following the 2008 process that allows the government to instate treaties twenty-one days after tabling a text. The treaty would give multinational corporations trade protection in Canada, but at the cost of our environment and natural resources. The treaty allows foreign governments to sue Canadian governments for anything that ‘limits’ these companies’ economic investments and interests– where the ‘limiting’ of these powers could be something as necessary as improving Canada’s environmental standards or slowing down the export of our unprocessed resources. Not only does this restrict the democratic process of making decisions in Canada that seek to better the lives of Canadians, but it also enables foreign governments to sue any level of Canadian government outside of Canadian courts through investor-state arbitrator. Under the deal, these tribunals could take place without the public’s knowledge and allow Chinese investors to award damages to any state entity in Canada. Moreover, the power to sue isn’t mutual - the Canadian government cannot similarly challenge or sue Chinese investors for breaking any laws. And while the Chinese companies could sue any level of Canadian government, only the Canadian federal government would be allowed to participate in the arbitrations. The special tribunals would undermine a principle of openness and public accountability that has (in theory) characterized Canadian politics in favour of strengthening export trade relations.
What is worse is Canada’s unimpressive history of investor-state arbitrations since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) entered into force in 1994. Canada has lost about half of its cases against U.S. Companies, and has had to pay about one hundred sixty million dollars in compensation. In light of this, it is reasonable to question if FIPA would give Chinese investors the power to pressure governments in Canada and take even greater advantage of our resources.
On October 16, at a press conference for ‘Women, Oil and Climate Change’, a delegation organized by Judy Williams to discuss environmental issues surrounding the Enbridge pipeline, touched on the gravity of the FIPA deal. Williams, a 1997 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the International Campaign to Ban Land mines, expressed her dismay at the inherent exploitation of these agreements:
“If people don’t stand up and fight, there will be a secret agreement between the government of Canada and China allowing China rights to exploit the tar sands. They are not even allowing discussion in parliament about this.”
The Nexen Deal:
The Tories’ ties with the Chinese government serve to threaten our economic prosperity while undermining the importance of preserving our natural resources. The Nexen Deal is an example of the government’s new leniency towards the foreign buyouts of Canada’s resources. Nexen Inc, a Calgary-based Canadian oil and gas company, is being sold to the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), one of China’s state-owned corporations. The fifteen billion dollar Nexen takeover has been labeled a “dangerous precedent” that could shape further policy and allow foreign powers to obtain a large stake in Canada’s critical resources.
On the Nexen Deal, and the significance of foreign policy, Patterson would “argue for the importance of […] public and democratic control over natural resources” and the government’s ability to prioritize for “its indigenous rights or environment or climate or water over profit and exploitation.” He notes that these trade agreements give companies rights that can undermine and challenge legislation protecting public interest. He also notes the “significant threat” faced by “a new infusion of a large amount of cash [that can] spur further tar-sand development.”
Even Sinclair Stevens, the industry-minister in the mid-1980s who once participated in a major rewrite of foreign buy-outs of Canadian companies, recognizes the threat this poses to Canadian control and ownership of Canadian resources. Sinclair spoke wearily about the Nexen deal, expressing the fear that the deal will “open the floodgates” for further foreign buy-outs. “It would be a breakthrough for them. How would you say ‘No’ to the next fellow?” he asked, as reported by the Globe and Mail. Even current advocates for Canadian trade expansion are wary of the implications of relinquishing power over Canadian soil. Murray Edwards, CEO of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, spoke to the importance of protecting Canadian ownership of oil sand firms: “We want to make sure we have access to capital but, as a country, we want to ensure a strong Canadian presence in the oil sands” he notes.
Enbridge and the Threat to B.C.’s Coast:
Already, Chinese corporations have an unsettling amount of power over the environmental future of Canada. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, a proposed project that would transport crude oil from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., is a prime example of the mounting conflict between the government’s export trade interests and the health and safety of Canadian communities. The pipeline would run through First Nations territory, disregarding the Native communities and permanently disrupting their home, culture and land. Furthermore, an oil spill could inflict an irreparable amount of damage upon the coast. British Columbians have been particularly vocal in their dismay at the proposed pipeline, however, Cinopec, a Chinese-owned oil company, may be able to sue the country for damages if the province attempts to block or regulate the construction.
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a professor of Indigenous Governments at the University of Victoria, was one of around 3,500 demonstrators to gather in Victoria on October 22 to protest the pipelines. The protest united under the name Defend Our Coast and urged Stephen Harper and Premier Christy Clark to not allow the transport of crude oil at the cost of indigenous communities and the destruction of our coast.
Alfred succinctly voiced the governments’ disregard for these damages: “This project assumes that First Nation lands are for sale and access to Native communities is a right. It disregards any notions that First Nations have any control over their own territory.”
Young Canadians have played a major role in protesting against the pipeline, through the use of social-media and networking to mobilize a collective voice. Resistance has taken place in the form of casseroles, as well as in attempts to unite under symbols of solidarity. Rachel Tetrault, a British Columbian who recently graduated from Concordia University, approached this desire to unify Canadians through a badge of a felt blue droplet, inspired by the red-square sported by many protestors during the student movement in Quebec.
Tetrault notes that in BC there’s “a feeling of mounting opposition towards the building and expanding of pipelines.”
“As the momentum continues to build, I hope that the blue drop becomes a wave that reaches all the way to Ottawa, and we can begin to change the conversation from ‘How do we get crude oil to foreign markets?’ to ‘How can we create sustainable energy projects in Canada, that create long-term jobs, protect workers, and respect the sovereignty of First Nations people?’”
The Benefits of a United and Democratic Public Forum:
While students, coalition groups and First Nations have presented a strong, united force in B.C. and across Canada to rally for the safety of Canadian land and citizens, the battle is still ongoing. Grassroots pressure has been particularly effective at stalling Harper from implementing any detrimental treaties, but FIPA could still pass at any moment. Hearings across Canada to discuss Enbridge and other environmental concerns are set to occur early in the new year. Open letters from the BC Union of Indian Chiefsand Chiefs of Ontario have condemned the Canada-China FIPA actions and call out the government for rejecting its fiduciary duty to consult First Nations on their constitutionally recognized Aboriginal Title, Rights and Treaty Rights. Other sites of resistance include LeadNow, an independent advocacy agency intent on mobilizing citizens and rallying a united voice of opposition against the neoliberal policies of the government. All these fragmented factions contribute to the growing concern and awareness across Canada for the policies that will affect the country and its citizens for years to come.
Students and youth have also played a major role in organizing and mobilizing against these legislations. In the spirit of the student strikes in Quebec last spring, Canadian youth seem to be been newly awakened to their political voice and collective power.
“Youth engagement and participation in the social forum [will be] critical and I think even more than that, it was youth leadership setting the example in Quebec,” reflects Patterson. He adds that the forum not only seeks to incorporate youth participation but that the broader movement has learned from the youth organizations and their “creative ways of critical organization.” Patterson stresses to young Canadians that their democratic participation is respected and something we can all learn from as a larger movement.
The Canada-Quebec-Indigenous-People’s Social Forum would seek to unite these coalitions and provide a democratic and open-space through which to debate, discuss and propose alternatives to the government’s questionable actions. Numerous unions across Canada have already expressed interest in joining the discussions. The forum would meet on an annual basis, and serve as a platform through which Canadians could mobilize collective action against the capitalist motions that threaten Canadian democracy, culture, and land. While the movement is currently fragmented and in the early stages, once brought to fruition it would serve as a space for voices of dissent to stimulate debate and discussion and join progressive institutions to cohesively transform and resist the Conservative government’s damaging agenda.
For more information on the People’s Social Forum, please contact Roger Bashi at firstname.lastname@example.org or for Council of Canadians campaign blogs related to the organizing of this forum, please click here.