Northern Lights
News and Views from SA Canada

by Barry Weisleder


Nationalize Big Oil, say NDP Socialists

The headline put it starkly: “Ottawa fears petro-rage” (Toronto Star, September 14). Prime Minister of Canada Paul Martin and the federal Liberals are scrambling to calm popular outrage over the current gasoline and home heating fuel price surge, which a Toronto Star editorial of September 1 bluntly described as a result of “company profits or…price gouging.” While the Canadian oil and gas industry operates far from the hurricane ravaged Gulf of Mexico, the energy moguls didn’t forgo an opportunity to mug consumers at the pump. Gasoline prices initially leaped 25%, and now fluctuate wildly between C$1.03 and C$2.40 a litre, while the cost of oil and natural gas for home heating has doubled since last winter.

Some folks will soon have to choose between heating and eating.

Resentment against the oil giants, with their multi-million dollar CEOs and their multi-billion dollar profit margins, is palpable. Truck drivers blocked highways in New Brunswick for three days to protest galloping gas prices. Talk shows are ablaze with angry words. The Liberal minority government, which faces an election within six months, is vulnerable, and understandably nervous.

Yet it seems the most that politicians in Ottawa are willing to call for is “price regulation” and the lowering of federal taxes on gas sales. Unfortunately, this crowd includes Jack Layton, leader of the federal New Democratic Party. Layton proposes a federal price monitoring agency with some regulatory power, a tax rebate on heating fuel, and some measures to promote greater energy efficiency. Conservative leader Stephen Harper wants Ottawa to reduce the Goods and Services Tax on gas.

But the essential short and long-term answer is public ownership of the oil industry. According to a Leger Marketing poll in early September, 43% of Canadians want the industry giants taken over — and 49% want, at minimum, that the natural resource be nationalized.

Public ownership would be effective long-term, as well as immediately, because of the need for emergency planning and management. The world's oil supply is being rapidly depleted — a situation that must be responsibly addressed sooner rather than later. Energy resources must be carefully drawn, processed and utilized — in the public interest. Profits should go into the replacement of fossil fuels by environmentally friendly, alternative energy sources and systems as soon as possible. Commitments to the Kyoto Treaty demand it. But under private ownership it is not going to happen.

Prices for gasoline and home heating fuels are artificially inflated now and should be rolled back to help workers and farmers cope. If consumer prices must rise in future to fund those commitments and energy alternatives, the money should go into the public purse, for use in the public interest — not into private pockets.

The NDP Socialist Caucus took the initiative by launching a campaign to make oil a democratically controlled public asset. Its cross-country petition to Jack Layton demands “that the New Democratic Party of Canada immediately initiate a major campaign to win: 1. a twenty-five per cent reduction in the retail and wholesale prices of gasoline and home heating fuels, then to be capped at those prices, and 2. public ownership of the oil industry in Canada, from oil well to gasoline pump, under democratic workers' and community control. Compensation of the current industry owners ought to be in the form of long term, low-interest-bearing government bonds.”

While petitioners gather support (you can add your signature at the web site: www.ndpsocialists.ca), the Socialist Caucus is taking the campaign to the streets with protest actions aimed at the federal government and the major oil companies, including at Imperial Oil headquarters in Toronto.

Only public ownership of energy resources, total transparency and accountability, and genuine democratic management by energy sector workers and communities can advance the public interest. Nothing less will satisfy the pressing need to grapple responsibly with our share of one the world's gravest crises. Mere regulation of the oil barons just won't cut it.

McGuinty’s retreat on Sharia law is a victory for Muslim women

A campaign successfully led by Muslim women, labour, civil liberties and feminist organizations forced Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty to back down on a pledge to make rulings of strict Islamic Sharia courts enforceable by the capitalist state.

Instead, McGuinty announced in mid-September that Christian and Jewish religious arbitration bodies would no longer be state sanctioned, and that the civil authority would no longer enforce any religious codes or rulings. The decision, culminating a period of intense social debate, petitioning and protests, constitutes a blow against privatization of the legal system. And it is a victory for the rights of women and children, who are usually the victims of discrimination at the hands of patriarchal religious authorities of every stripe.

Some leftist commentators see McGuinty’s retreat as a concession to post 9-11 anti-Muslim racism. While such undertones were detectable, one can also find racist sentiments expressed by some proponents of open immigration (who wish to exploit ‘cheap labour’ domestically) and sexist notions held by some supporters of contraception and free abortion on demand. But key is the fact that most of the Muslim community, and especially Muslim women, do not want Sharia law to touch their lives in any way, much less do they want state enforcement of it.

Organizations like the Muslim Canadian Congress, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and the United Muslim Association have been vigorous in their opposition to any introduction of sharia into the Canadian justice system, according to Tarek Fatah, host of the popular Toronto Rogers cable TV show, The Muslim Chronicle. “To suggest that all Muslims support Sharia, or even that most do, is utter nonsense. Perhaps the Mosque establishment and the leadership of the pro-Iranian, pro-Saudi Muslim organisations do, but that represents barely 5% of the Muslim community in Canada,” said Fatah.

McGuinty’s Liberals, for their part, saw private religious arbitration as a means to divert attention from government under-funding of the provincial courts, but the ruse boomeranged. Sadly, the Bob Rae–led NDP provincial government started the ball rolling in the direction of private sector religious arbitration in the early 1990s. As the controversy intensified this year, the Ontario NDP leadership waffled — and then finally came down on the side of Muslim women, feminists and labour organizations (like the Canadian Auto Workers and the Ontario Federation of Labour) prior to McGuinty’s turnaround. Federal NDP leader Jack Layton spoke at an anti-sharia law victory party.

It is essential to defend the needs and aspirations of minority groups, especially those vilified and persecuted by the establishment. But it is wrong to rely on the capitalist state and its courts to safeguard women and children from the depredations of religious courts that conduct family law arbitration. At the same time it is wrong to suggest that the retreat of the Ontario Liberal government from enshrining the enforcement of Sharia court rulings by the civil authority in any way inhibits believers in Islam, or other faiths, from continuing to seek the guidance or mediation services of their religious leaders.

Religion-based rules and practices simply have no place in the civil law. Their exclusion from law enforcement is a democratic gain which the Left should seek to deepen. Completely separate is the issue of cultural and linguistic support for minorities, of which Heritage Language studies in the public schools, is but one example. Minority cultural and linguistic rights should be vigorously advanced, in conjunction with ongoing efforts to combat racism, sexism and homophobia, in every community, inside the workers’ movement, and across society. Socialists strive for the broadest possible multi-ethnic, multi-racial, working class unity in action against war, militarism, discrimination and bigotry in all its forms — without seeking to curry favour with reactionary religious authorities or by complicity with their oppressive rule.

CBC Management feeling the heat

Strength on the picket lines and growing public anger over the lockout have resulted in the first major sign of a breakthrough in negotiations between the Canadian Media Guild and CBC management. On September 23 federal labour minister Joe Fontana sent a letter to the Guild and to CBC management asking both sides to meet with him on Sept. 26, which marks the start of the seventh week of the lockout.

“I am inviting you to meet with me...to review the status of the negotiations and to develop a plan to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion without further delay,” Fontana wrote.

The minister cited “the grave concerns expressed by many Canadians over the length of the work stoppage.” The letter was hand delivered to Arnold Amber, president of the Guild’s CBC branch, and to George Smith, the CBC’s vice‑president of human resources. It was addressed to Amber and to CBC president Robert Rabinovitch.

Fontana is under intense pressure, even from his own Liberal MPs, to end the lockout. A number of prominent people have called on the government to fire the entire CBC board of directors, and upper Management which forced 5,500 on-air, production, technical and administrative employees onto the streets because their union is resisting demands to convert more full-time positions into part-time, temporary and contract jobs.

Over 1500 people rallied to support public broadcasting and CBC’s locked out workers at a gala evening of live music, comedy and speeches held at Toronto’s Massey Hall on September 21.

Unions demand Rail Safety enquiry

“Obviously, we’ve had a bad month,” said Canadian National railway (CN) spokesman Graham Dallas.

He was referring to the fact that on August 3, a 44-car train derailed along the north shore of Lake Wabamun, west of Edmonton, Alberta. Twelve of the cars ruptured and spilled about 730,000 litres of bunker C fuel oil and a hazardous wood preservative along the shore and into the lake.

Two days later, a CN freight train headed for Prince George, British Columbia, derailed over the Cheakamus Canyon near Squamish, spilling more than 40,000 litres of highly corrosive sodium hydroxide into the river, killing thousands of fish and other wildlife. Two weeks later, a mudslide in the Fraser Canyon pushed three cars off the railway line 50 kilometres east of Boston Bar, B.C. On August 19, four cars from a 23-car CN train jumped the track south of Prince George, one of which leaked a small amount of sodium chlorate, a chemical used in the pulp and paper industry.

CN has experienced 72 derailments on their main tracks so far this year compared with 49 in the same period last year, and almost as many as its year-end total of 75 in 2004. The average over the past five years is 64 per year.

“One of the concerns that our membership raises is that there is the deferred maintenance. The question is that there’s been downsizing over the years,” said Ken Neumann, national director for the United Steelworkers, which represents 3,500 CN track maintenance workers.

“We want the minister (of transport) to explore the possibility the derailments are related to decreased maintenance, inspection and repair,” said Bruce Willows of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents about 900 CN locomotive engineers.

CN, Canada’s largest railway, was privatized in 1995, and acquired publicly owned BC Rail Ltd. for $1 billion in cash in 2003.

Fight mould with walkout, OPSEU says

Ontario public service workers may have to walk off the job to get the government to repair unsafe, aged buildings, said Leah Casselman, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union.

Speaking to a news conference in Toronto in late August, Casselman described the decrepit state of many of the 6,000 provincially owned buildings which presents a health and safety threat. The result is that government workers endure serious fluctuating environmental conditions, substandard electrical wiring, unsafe elevators, and most of all mould. It took worker walk outs at courthouses in west end Toronto (Etobicoke) and Newmarket (north of Toronto) to force closure of substandard buildings.

Casselman said one of the worst buildings is the Ontario Archives, where she said mould not only threatens employees but the history of the province. The state of Ontario’s jails is deplorable, reported Daryl Pitfield, an OPSEU health and safety rep. The biggest complaint from correctional workers is air quality.

An earlier Toronto Star story revealed that Ontario government buildings need at least $500 million in repairs because of decades of neglect and lack of funding. Some governments will do anything, other than tax the rich, to appear to balance a budget.

Measuring Poverty

It’s all about how you slice the, uh, crumbs.

The World Bank says the number of people living on less than $1 a day fell to 1.1 billion in 2001 from 1.5 billion in 1981.

But it also revealed that the number living on less than $2 a day increased to 2.7 billion from 2.4 billion in 1981.

More to the point, the United Nations Development Program said another 1.7 billion people could be living on $2 a day by 2015 if current trends continue. (For the expression “current trends,” just substitute the words “global capitalism.”)

Israel: “a bulwark against barbarism” in Asia?

The state renown (or infamous) for defying United Nations’ resolutions on withdrawal from occupied territories, and for its apartheid-like separation wall in the West Bank, is now seeking a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Consider it a step in line with United States’ renovation plans for the world body, or call it sheer chutzpah, Israel has for the first time applied for a seat on the council that votes on war and peace.

By U.N. definition, Israel falls within Asia, where it does not get much regional backing. In fact, it is customary for Israel to be on the losing end of lopsided votes in the U.N. General Assembly. But diplomats of the Zionist state are working on a plan.

In May of 2000, Israel accepted a geo-political move to the “West European and others” category, to which Canada and the United States belong. In 2004, Israel’s temporary membership there was indefinitely extended.

And if possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction count for anything, its prospects for promotion could be on the rise.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, wrote early in the twentieth century, “For Europe, we would constitute a bulwark against Asia down there, we would be the advance post of civilization against barbarism.”

Obviously, the next step is simply to formalize it, at the U.N.