Northern Lights, June 2006

by Barry Weisleder

What the vote to extend Canada’s Afghanistan intervention reveals

The narrow non-binding House of Commons vote of 149 to 145 to extend until 2009 Canada’s war mission in Afghanistan was rushed for good reason.

The vote on May 17 occurred in the wake of the death of Captain Nichola Goddard, the sixteenth Canadian soldier and the first Canadian female to die in Afghanistan since Ottawa joined the imperialist occupation of that country in 2002.

Public opinion continues to run in opposition to the 2,200 strong troop intervention, with 54 per cent of those polled across the country against it, and 70 per cent opposed in Québec.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows the military and political circumstances will get worse before they get any better. More soldiers returning home in body bags and more “collateral” civilian casualties will likely increase hostility to the mission in which Canadian forces are upholding a regime of drug lords and war lords in Kabul. (On June 22, at least sixteen Afghani civilians were killed in an air strike called in to sustain Canadian military operations in Kandahar province.)

The hasty vote in Parliament also enabled Harper to expose the division in Liberal ranks, while sharing the responsibility for an intervention that is sure to go sour. Twenty-four Liberal MPs voted in favour of the Conservative motion and 66 against it.

The most salutary political effect of this exercise was to expose MP Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leadership candidate favoured by key elements of the Canadian corporate elite who bank-roll the party and dominate the economy. Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor who spent much of the past thirty years outside Canada, was already on the defensive over his support for the United States invasion of Iraq, and for supporting ‘humane’ torture interrogation methods.

Thus, two things are revealed. His protestations aside, Ignatieff is exposed as a hard core imperialist. Secondly, the difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives is shown to be tactical at best, and minimal in practice. Let’s not forget that it was Paul Martin’s Liberal government that began Canada’s Afghanistan adventure, sent warships to patrol the Persian Gulf in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and helped arrange the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and joined the foreign occupation which continues in Haiti today.

The good news is that the bourgeois nationalist Bloc Québécois and the English Canada labour-based New Democratic Party voted solidly against the two year war extension. Unfortunately, at least in the case of the NDP parliamentary caucus, opposition to the Tory motion was expressed for many of the wrong reasons.

As NDP federal leader Jack Layton put it, “This is the wrong military mission for Canada.” After quibbling for weeks over how often the flag should be lowered at government buildings to honour dead soldiers, NDP MPs criticized the chain of command (is it U.S. or NATO-led?), the lack of any definition of mission “success”, and the lack of an “exit strategy”. Most telling was the argument that the large commitment in Afghanistan would preclude deployments to places like Darfur (in Sudan) or Haiti.

The major flaw in this line of reasoning is that it ignores what these interventions, past, present and future, have in common. They are all about corporate control of Third World energy resources, future pipelines, pools of cheap labour and militarism for profit. Increasingly, they also pose deep integration into U.S. military strategy and operations worldwide.

The NDP vote against the war extension is a good step. But to be “Canada’s antiwar party” the NDP must oppose the current military build up, oppose the deployment of troops abroad, and propose to send doctors, teachers and engineers in place of tanks, gunners and bombers where humanitarian aid is needed.

Socialists to Take Antiwar Fight to NDP Convention, Québec City, Sept. 8–10

Over thirty activists, based in fifteen different NDP constituency associations spread across southern Ontario, gathered in Toronto on May 20 — their goal: to take the fight for anti-war, anti-imperialist policies, and for greater democracy and socialism, to the New Democratic Party federal convention in Québec City, September 8–10, 2006.

The NDP Socialist Caucus Conference adopted a package of thirty-three bold policies, designating sixteen of them as priority resolutions. The latter feature calls for: removal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan and Haiti, solidarity with Palestine, social ownership and economic democracy, abrogation of the global corporate trade deals (FTA, NAFTA, etc.), elimination of university tuition fees, repeal of the federal Clarity Act, a massive increase in social housing construction, along with measures to enforce leadership accountability and to strengthen democracy in the NDP. (See the full package below. The deadline for submission of resolutions to Federal NDP office in Ottawa is July 10.)

In a separate discussion on plans by NDP officials to change the party's federal constitution, SC conference participants approved a structural proposal that would increase local riding and union representation on the NDP Federal Council, the highest party body between conventions which meets twice a year.

Decisions on policies and perspectives were influenced by two informative panel discussions held during the day. The first was titled “Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan and Haiti: Where does the NDP stand?” with speakers Ali Mallah, a CUPE Toronto district V.P. and human rights activist; Mazen Jaafar, Alternate V.P. - Workers of Colour, Canadian Labour Congress; and Kabir Joshi-Vijayan, a young member of the Toronto Haiti Action Committee. The second panel addressed “The Future of the NDP”, and included Jean Smith, long time NDP and anti-war activist; Simon Black, past NDP candidate in Mississauga-Erindale; and Willie Lambert, President of the Oakville Labour Council and currently a candidate for president of the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union.The conference set in motion plans to publish the SC newspaper "Turn Left", to convene SC meetings at the site of the federal convention in Québec City, to field SC candidates for NDP federal executive, and to staff a literature display table and a caucus room at the major party gathering.

The following persons were elected to serve on the Ontario component of the Socialist Caucus steering committee charged with implementing the decisions of the conference and working in conjunction with other sections of the SC across the country: Peter Cassidy and Jeff Dickhout (Hamilton Stoney Creek), Betty-Jane Antanavicius (Guelph), Raychyl Whyte, Tony Crawford and Sean Cain (Oakville), Ross Ashley (Toronto St. Paul's), Judy Koch (Toronto Danforth), Elizabeth Byce and Barry Weisleder (Toronto Trinity-Spadina).

The Ontario committee will meet on June 25 in Toronto to firm up federal convention travel, accommodation, publishing and campaigning plans. The participation of all friends and supporters of the Socialist Caucus in the work ahead is welcome. For more information, please contact Sean at (905) 849-8585 or Barry at (416) 535-8779.

Poverty in Canada — “a National Emergency”

Welfare benefits in most Canadian provinces have shrunk in value over the past decade and often fail to cover half of basic living costs, says the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “Minimum wages in all provinces are insufficient to enable workers and their families to enjoy a decent standard of living.” About 51 per cent of people using food banks, it also said, are receiving inadequate social benefits.

Concerning employment insurance, the U.N. body reported “In 2001, only 39 per cent of unemployed Canadians were eligible for benefits.”

In a separate report, the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a coalition of business, labour and community groups, stated that employment insurance eligibility in Toronto stands at 22 per cent. That means 78 per cent don’t even qualify.

In the same vein, the Toronto task force said hundreds of thousands of Ontario workers are living in poverty and it would take $4.6 billion a year to overhaul government programmes to lift them out of it.

The U.N. body also scored the Canadian state’s discrimination against aboriginal women, and the fact that poverty rates remain disproportionately high among aboriginal peoples, African-Canadians, immigrants, persons with disabilities, youth, low income women and single mothers. The same gap exists when it comes to access to water, health, housing and education.

In London, England on May 22, Amnesty International reported that the focus on ‘counter-terrorism’ and public security in developed countries is draining attention from crises afflicting the poor and underprivileged.

Not to mention draining funds.

Infant Survival Low in U.S.

The world’s superpower ranks near the bottom among developed countries for its survival rate for newborn babies, better only than Latvia.

Among 33 industrialized countries, the United States is tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia with a death rate of nearly 5 per 1,000 babies, according to Mary Beth Powers, a reproductive health adviser for the U.S.-based Save the Children.

The U.S. ranking is a direct result of racial and income health-care disparities. Among U.S. blacks, there are 9 deaths per 1,000 live births, closer to the rates in under-developed lands than to those in the so-called First World.

Canada’s newborn death rate, 4 per 1,000, puts it in the middle range, tied with Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and Britain.

Corporate Tax Debt Climbing

Individual tax dodgers can’t hold a candle to corporate tax bums. According to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), unpaid federal taxes have nearly doubled to $18 billion since 1997, and over half of the tax debt owed to the government is from deadbeat corporations.

Taxes or late-payment penalties are due on 3.3 million accounts, about 10 per cent of the total. Of the $18 billion outstanding, the CRA considers $4.7 billion uncollectible. Which leads one to wonder, how much of that is corporate tax debt?

For the past twenty years private enterprises have been the beneficiaries of generous tax cuts and concessions – the major reason for the humongous government debt. And Ottawa’s debt, serviced by the banks at exorbitant interest rates, has served as a handy rationale for cutting social expenditures and for privatizing public services.

Well, now we know (once again), that while the rich corporate elite are a tiny sliver of the Canadian population, they are responsible for the lion’s share of withheld taxes. Why doesn’t government do unto them as they do to unto tenants who are deep in rent arrears? Now there’s a practical lesson in the charms of exercising state power.

Women at Bell Tel Win $104 Million Equity Fight

It took 14 years, but almost 5,000 mostly female telephone operators at Bell Canada won a pay equity settlement worth $104 million. The deal is almost double the $60 million offered by Bell nearly seven years ago, which the workers rejected. Officials with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union of Canada report that former and current workers, who are now between the ages of 35 and 70, will receive between $25,000 and $30,000 each.

The battle started back in 1992, when the union filed its pay equity claim with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. A joint union-management study showed that operators had consistently been earning up to $4 an hour less than workers in male-dominated jobs assessed the same value. The union won its case at a labour relations tribunal, but the claim has been the subject of extensive legal challenges funded by Bell’s deep pockets, including one challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The mostly women workers’ victory is bitter sweet, not only due to the lengthy ordeal, but the fact that the work force has changed dramatically. Today there are only 300 operators in Québec and Ontario, as Bell cut the jobs of most operators in 2001. But imagine getting this settlement without a union, and without the vision and stamina needed to dare to struggle and win.

Canada, U.S. Lag Far Behind Europe in Time Off Work

The average Canadian worked 1,751 hours in 2004. That’s about 300 hours — or 43 seven-hour days — more than the Dutch, Germans, French or Danes. European societies are at one end of the spectrum of work time, while Canada, the United States, Australia and Japan are at the other.

And if you think higher productivity is the result of longer hours, you’d be dead wrong. Canada’s gross domestic product is similar to that of many European countries, and below some. The Irish, for example, work 6 per cent fewer hours, on average, yet their economic output per person is 14 per cent higher than Canada’s.

Most Canadian provinces require employers to provide only two weeks of vacation per year. Over the past 25 years, European countries added, on average, six vacation days or statutory holidays, totalling 36 per year. Meanwhile, Canada actually dropped a day, to 24, while U.S. workers lost two days to fall to 20 days off.

Long working hours not only fail to promote efficiency, but may also increase the likelihood of people making mistakes, said Ron Burke, professor of organizational behaviour at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

The last big cut in working hours came 50 years ago, when Canada cut the work week to five days from six. Michael Huberman, an economics professor at the University of Montreal concludes that Canadians’ willingness to work longer hours than Europeans is ingrained in our culture. Another explanation, according to Ron Burke, is that powerful unions deserve much of the credit for bringing down average working hours in Europe, whereas the union movement in Canada and the United States is waning.

In other words, to get a better work culture, you’ve got to fight for it, just like the workers’ movement did in Europe. That’s a critical lesson for the average North American who today must work at two or more insecure jobs to make the living that one good job used to provide thirty years ago.