Northern Lights

by Barry Weisleder


The January 2007 edition of Northern Lights, a regular column from Canada by Barry Weisleder, appears in the San Francisco–based monthly newspaper Socialist Action. To subscribe to the newspaper, get the details at the SA web site.

Stephane Dion, the Chamæleon with a Past

The come-from-behind win of Stephane Dion at the federal Liberal leadership convention in early December rattled the party’s establishment and boosted Liberals in opinion polls. To capture the crown Dion, the 51-year-old former Université de Montréal political science professor turned-politician, wrapped himself in the green flag. He tried to sound like an innovator in his appeal to the 4,600 delegates, knowing that the scandal-plagued party was desperate for a radical make over. And he worked hard to downplay his notorious hostility to Québec national rights.

But sooner than later the record of this chamæleon will catch up with him. Behind the shy grin and bookish awkwardness is a hard-line political pro who made his bed with corporate Canada long ago. (Thus there are no worries on Bay Street, despite their first preferences, Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff and former Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae, coming in second and third respectively).

Dion was recruited to the government team by former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien after the near-victory by sovereignists in the 1995 Québec referendum. As Minister of Inter-Governmental Affairs, 1996–2003, Dion was the eager architect of the anti-democratic Clarity Act. The law enables Parliament to veto a majority vote by the Québécois people for self-government. For that, he remains vilified in his home province, and not surprisingly came third in Liberal delegate strength in Québec, behind Ignatieff and Rae. Liberal insiders maintain that in general elections Québecers usually favour one of their own, and there is some truth to that claim — but such support will more likely come at the expense of the Conservatives rather than via a growth of the pro-federalist vote there.

“We need to add environmental sustainability at the core of who we are as Liberals,” Dion said at his maiden news conference as leader. But it appears this will take some doing.

In 1993 the Liberals promised to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% by 2005. Instead they allowed them to increase by over 30%.

Last fall, a UN report concluded that Canada’s pollution has increased more than any other signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. The federal Environment Commissioner said “Even if the measures contained in the [Liberal] government’s 2005 plan had been fully implemented, it is difficult to say whether the projected emission reductions would have been enough to meet our Kyoto obligations…[the plan was] not up to the task of meeting the Kyoto obligations.” — Report of the Environment Commissioner, Overview, page 9, 28 September 2006.

As federal Environment Minister, 2004–2006, Dion had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the real extent of his commitment to dealing with climate change — and perhaps he did. (That is, apart from naming his snow white Husky dog “Kyoto”). At the U.N. climate conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Canada placed 51st out of 56 countries that were assessed for their performance and policies on climate change.

“The Liberal Party have no credibility on cleaning our environment. It’s incredible to see them use one of their greatest failures as a rallying point,” said the environment critic for the labour-based New Democratic Party, Nathan Cullen. “The Liberals can change their leader but they can’t change their record.”

What about ethics? NDP MP Pat Martin pointed out that Stephane Dion was silent on the Québec sponsorship scandal and on the question of accountability. And his competition was no better, including Gerard Kennedy, the former Ontario Education Minister whose support at the Liberal convention catapulted Dion into first place on the third ballot. Kennedy’s 10,000 word platform did not mention the word “ethics.” Neither did Michael Ignatieff’s 42 page policy document. Bob Rae made no speech on ethics or accountability whatsoever.

“We read today of almost a million dollars in loans to Bob Rae from Power Corp’s John Rae,” said the NDP’s Pat Martin. “The candidates have failed to address big money’s influence in this leadership race. Whether it’s [Joe] Volpe’s addiction to Apotex (the pharmaceutical giant) or Rae’s addiction to Power Corp, we see the Liberal Party’s continued addiction to corporate money.”

Though Dion was not the first choice of the bosses of the political party that has governed Canada two-thirds of the time since the country was founded in 1867, the economic “powers that be” still run the show, and now he is their man — a man on whom they can rely.

Dion sat at the Cabinet table when Liberals betrayed their promise to create 150,000 new child care spaces. After 12 years and three majority governments, and 8 years of back-to-back surpluses equalling over $63 billion, the kids of working women and men are still waiting.

In their first four years in office, the Liberals cut over $25 billion from health care and education, scrapped the Canada Assistance Plan, scrapped the federal role in building affordable housing, and reduced eligibility for women to get Employment Insurance. Today Dion ranks “social equality” as one of his top three policy planks. But what was he doing about those savage anti-social cuts during his ten years in office?

We do know what he was saying during the escalation of Ottawa’s imperialist military adventures. Ten months ago, as his party’s foreign affairs critic, Dion was a staunch backer of the decision to send Canadian troops into combat in Kandahar.

“It’s a very important mission and we want to be there,” he told a Canadian Press reporter in early March. “We will succeed in Afghanistan if we show a lot of determination,” he said on CTV a few days later. “We need to be resolute and to succeed.” (Is it possible that Donald Rumsfeld was his voice coach?)

In September, when NDP leader Jack Layton called on the government to withdraw its troops by early 2007, Dion was caustic. “No one wants us to get out now, like Mr. Layton, in dishonour,” he said on September 17.

But today, in the wake of ongoing street protests and opinion polls that show a majority in opposition to the war (especially in Québec), Dion states that trying to “kill the Taliban in every corner of the mountains doesn’t work”, and that he is not committed to keeping Canadian troops in Kandahar until 2009. Mind you, that should not be mistaken for a principled “troops out now” position. It merely shows the political chamæleon adapting to his environment.

One thing that the leadership race succeeded in doing for the Liberals is putting the squeeze on the NDP — which was precisely what the soft-left Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy campaigns were calculated to do.

According to a Toronto Star-EKOS Research poll released on December 9, the Liberals would be close to winning a majority government with the support of 40.1 per cent of decided voters, compared to 33.5 per cent for the current minority government Conservatives led by Stephen Harper. The NDP is down to 10.2 per cent across the country, well below the 17.5 per cent of the vote it received in the January 2006 federal election. Now the Green Party is within striking distance at 7.6 per cent. The Bloc Québécois, which runs candidates only in Québec, leads in that province with 34.7 per cent support.

Once the pro-Liberal media adulation dies down, and the gloss is off Stephane Dion, the NDP vote will rebound. But the NDP’s eternal weakness remains Québec. The latest NDP policies, including more powers for Québec (asymmetrical federalism) and a pledge to respect a future vote on sovereignty, may help. Noticeable, however, was the party’s silence on Dion’s record on the Québec question, despite stinging NDP criticism directed at him on many other legitimate issues.

A final footnote: the mercurial David Orchard, Saskatchewan organic farmer and arch-Canadian nationalist who twice came close to winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, arrived at the Liberal leadership convention commanding a platoon of 175 delegates totally loyal to his choice for leader. According to The Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom, Orchard joined the Liberal Party last January and with his supporters set about capturing a solid bloc of riding associations in the west where the party is weak.

And who was Orchard backing all the way? None other than Stephane Dion, the strongest opponent of Québec’s national rights in the field, next to Gerard Kennedy, and Kennedy’s most celebrated supporter, Justin Trudeau (son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau). Both are bitterly opposed to recognition of the concept of a Québec nation, and both rallied to Dion after the second ballot.

Canadian Imperialism Doing Just Fine, Thanks

Corporate giants headquartered in Canada are significantly larger and more numerous than they were 20 years ago, according to the University of Toronto’s Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (don’t ya just love the name?).

In 1985, thirty-three Canadian companies ranked among the top five in the world in their particular business. Now, the Canadian corporate elite has more than doubled its global impact, with 72 companies that lead the world.

In a study to be released early in 2007, the business school also found that average annual revenue for Canada’s leading companies is $3.7 billion, up from $2 billion in 1985, after adjusting for inflation.

Canadians concerned about the foreign takeover of household names such as Hiram Walker, Hudson’s Bay Co., and more recently, Inco and Falconbridge, need not worry. James Milway, the institute’s director, argued that those folks frequently don’t notice the ascendance of global players such as auto parts maker Linamar and health sciences giant MDS Inc. “There’s a lot of renewal and churn going on in Corporate Canada,” he said. “We ought not to get fixated on the big announcements.”

The conclusions are the result of an extensive examination of all the ups and downs of Canada’s leading companies over the past 20 years. Roger Martin, dean of the U of T’s Rotman School of Management and head of the institute, argues that rather than dwelling on companies that have been taken over by foreign investors, business and political leaders should focus on fostering new world-class entities to take their place in specific, albeit narrower, market niches.

Twenty years ago, Canadian firms led in basic fields such as spirits and wines, nickel, asbestos, solid waste management and real estate. Today, according to the study, Canadian companies lead in environmental compliance technology, postage stamps, gastrointestinal products and wollastonite, a mineral fibre used in ceramics, auto parts and concrete.

That trend will likely persist into the future, Mr. Martin said. As globalization speeds up, big countries with big markets produce global companies that gobble their smaller competitors — unless the smaller competitors develop dominance in their own market niche, he said.

To survive, the idea is to “specialize,” and then acquire others in your field — what ever may be the cost to workers and consumers. A case in point is Chemtrade Logistics Income Fund. Since the Toronto-based company became an income trust in 2001, it has bought interests in Switzerland and the United States. It is now a global leader in sulphuric acid, liquid sulphur dioxide, and sodium hydrosulphite.

“What’s happening is an industrial revolution-like transformation…a global rearrangement of industries,” Mr. Martin said. “Some of each nation’s companies are going out and buying companies and going global, and some are getting bought up. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Indeed it is. And that brings us to our next item.

Canadian Corporate Cannibals Eat More

“Canadian companies continued to be more acquisitive of foreign companies than vice versa, with Canadian firms buying 363 foreign companies in the first nine months of the year, compared with 138 foreign acquisitions of Canadian companies.”

Canadian mergers and acquisitions totaled $90.3-billion in the third quarter, shattering a quarterly record dating back to the peak of the technology boom, Crosbie & Co. Inc. stated on November 22.

In its quarterly report on Canadian mergers and acquisitions, the Toronto-based investment bank said the third-quarter total eclipsed the previous record of $79.1 billion set in the second quarter of 2000. It surpassed the $68.9 billion of deals in the second quarter this year and was almost double the $53.7 billion in the year-earlier third quarter.

The third-quarter numbers got a big boost from the $19.9 billion takeover of Inco Ltd. by Brazil’s Companhia Vale do Rio Doce. But that wasn’t the only big deal in the quarter: Crosbie said there were 18 transactions valued at more than $1 billion, accounting for $69.8 billion in value, up from 10 such mega-deals worth $45.2 billion in the second quarter, and 12 mega-deals worth $36.4 billion a year earlier.

In total, there were 420 M&A transactions in the Canadian market in the third quarter, compared with 517 in the second quarter and 398 in the year-earlier period. The energy sector was the busiest for M&A activity in the quarter, with 91 transactions. The sector ranked second by value, at $17 billion. The base-metals sector had the highest value, $23.8 billion on 55 deals, led by the Inco takeover. The gold group had 14 transactions valued at $15.1 billion.

In the technology sector, “M&A activity was more brisk this quarter than it has been for some time,” Crosbie noted. The sector had 26 deals totalling $7.6 billion, “a level not seen since the tech boom era in 2001.”

Who Owns the World?

The rich, right? The extent to which that is true is now more painfully apparent.

In a first-ever exhaustive study of global wealth, it’s clear just how inequitably the wealth of the world is distributed.

The richest 2 per cent of adults own more than half of global household wealth, and almost all of the affluent live in North America, Europe and the richest Asia-Pacific countries.

While previous global surveys studied income, this is the first wide-ranging analysis of the international distribution of wealth, defined as the value of physical and financial assets minus liabilities.

“We find there’s a lot of inequality, which is what we expected and is not that surprising,” said University of Western Ontario economist James Davies, who was a co-author of the study, conducted by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations. “But it turns out, the world distribution of wealth [assets minus debts] is more unequal than the world distribution of income.”

The United States is the richest country, with a mean wealth in the year 2000 of $144,000 (U.S.) per person. Canada has a mean wealth of $89,000 per person. Needless to say, mean averages tend to conceal the concentration of ownership in the class of business owners.

“Wealth in this sense represents the ownership of capital,” the study says. “While only one part of personal resources, capital is widely believed to have a disproportionate impact on household well-being and economic success, and more broadly on economic development and growth.”

The study estimates that the richest 1 per cent of adults alone owned 40 per cent of global assets in 2000, and that the richest 10 per cent of adults accounted for 85 per cent of the world total. By contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1 per cent of global wealth.

Toronto Activists Celebrate Venezuela Election Win

Over 120 people crowded the Concord Cafe in downtown Toronto on December 5 for an evening of music, drinks and speeches to celebrate the Dec. 3 election victory of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution (Chávez won 63% of the votes cast) in Venezuela. The event was broadly co-sponsored, including by the Venezuela We are with you Coalition, the Hands Off Venezuela campaign, the Latin American Solidarity Coalition, and the Manuelita Saenz and Louis Riel Bolivarian Circles. The gathering was addressed by representatives of the sponsoring groups, by official emissaries of the Venezuelan and Cuban consulates in Toronto, the president of the Canadian Arab Federation, and spokespersons for the Toronto Haiti Action Committee, a Chilean-Mapuche peoples’ solidarity group, and some political organizations.

The following is the statement I was privileged to make on behalf of Toronto Socialist Action: “Sisters and brothers, comrades and friends, what a fine gathering this is. Welcome to my neighbourhood bar. I’m so glad we have something great to celebrate and that we’ve held this event tonight to mark the occasion. Socialist Action is thrilled by the resounding election victory of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. The victory is a vindication of wealth redistribution in favour of the poor, in favour of health and literacy, in favour of jobs and power for growing numbers of working people. It is victory for an agenda that calls for 21st century socialism and thus an end to the plundering, violent and oppressive rule of global greed (discreetly known as world capitalism).

With good reason, Hugo Chávez is the most popular politician, not only in Latin America, but also in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East and possibly amongst the disempowered masses of North America as well. While Canadian governments are closing women’s centres, homeless shelters, and schools — while our rulers are feeding the military and the rich at the expense of working people, the poor and visible minorities — things are clearly moving in the opposite direction in Venezuela. And that’s something truly worth celebrating.

But let’s not get carried away. There’s still a lot of work to be done. We are just approaching the threshold of the final conflict.

First of all, we have a sacred duty to humanity to defend the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution. The vultures of reaction have been dealt a series of blows, but they grow hungry for revenge. I refer not just to Manuel Rosales and the stunted, self-centred, bourgeoisie he represents. I refer to Washington and its global partners in crime, including the junior imperialist government in Ottawa, which aim to turn back the clock.

History may be on our side, but time is not. Delay can be a fatal enemy of revolution if it allows reaction to regroup and strike again. It will be increasingly apparent to the workers and farmers of Venezuela that their precious gains cannot be fully extended, and can never be consolidated, unless they take power into their own hands. The future depends on replacing the capitalist state with the organized, independent power of the working class and oppressed social layers, who must become the new masters of a democratically planned, collectively owned economy.

What is our task here? It is to give them the maximum time and space to secure victory. That means we have a duty to educate and to mobilize public opinion, starting in the unions and the NDP, to demand that Ottawa break with Washington’s policy, that Ottawa foster fair bi-lateral trade, increase cultural and political relations with Caracas. We should demand that the federal government turn a new leaf in its relations with Latin America. Support ALBA. Demand freedom for the Cuba Five. Demand that the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles be extradited to Venezuela to face his accusers. Insist that the Chilean butcher Augusto Pinochet go to trial for his crimes against humanity. [Pinochet died after this article was written.—Editors.] Cancel the perfidious Third World debt. Get the Canadian cops and troops the hell out of Haiti, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf now! Money for healthcare, not for warfare!

It’s time to take our stand with the rising tide of revolt across Latin America. A victory for the Venezuelan workers is a victory for workers in this country and all around the world.

Long live the Bolivarian Revolution! ¡Viva Chávez! ¡Hasta la victoria siempre! ¡Venceremos!